backstreet boys

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Show You the Shape of my What?

written for the bittybang challenge
a big thank-you to Withdiamonds for the beta and information on Pittsburgh, PA
and another big thank-you to Bubbleforest, who made this utterly awesome trailer for the fic
This story is heavily based on The Full Monty, both the film and, in particular, the Broadway musical.
Aficionados will recognise that the best bits are not mine at all, but borrowed or even directly quoted.

"This sucks," said Nick.

"It really does," said Brian. Nick sneaked a quick look sideways at him, because it sounded like there might be something particular behind that. He decided not to ask. Best let Brian tell him in his own time. He would, when he was ready. They'd have to get through the usual griping about ordinary stuff first. It was just how Brian was.

Nick took another pull at his can of Iron City, and stared morosely out over the broad expanse of water below where the Monongahela river rolled indifferently past. This was the highlight of his week. Down to the union to sit through another stupid talk about how to find work before he could pick up his unemployment money, then sharing a six-pack with Brian before he trudged back home to his loving family. Okay, yes, Brian and the six-pack was pretty much a highlight, but... He sighed.

"Didn't see Kenny there this week. Did he find something?"

"Don't know," said Brian. "Don't think there's anything to find."

"Not even McDonalds," Nick agreed. He'd tried there, once, because maybe even flipping burgers and living in clouds of grease would be better than home, but the place was staffed with kids. Even the manager had been younger than him. Over the hill at twenty-six. Life sucked.

"Yeah." Brian drained his beer and turned away from the water, sat down and leaned his back against the stone wall. "I heard a couple of the guys got themselves some hours at Giant Eagle. Pushing carts around the parking lot. That's not a job. Not a job a man can do if he wants to keep his self-respect."

"Nah. And there's no money in it." Nick had seen the listing on the board, when he was doing the grocery shopping. "It's not seriously a job, it's for kids. Like, I used to have a paper route when I was twelve. It's like that."

"I mean, have you seen those guys? They're always looking at the ground. No pride left. It's not a man's job," Brian repeated. "Nobody wants men these days. Did you know, they're working on making women get pregnant without men?"

"Artificial insertion," Nick agreed glumly. He'd heard of that.

"No, I mean, without, you know." Brian coughed, delicately. "Sperm. Just needles. You wait and see, a hundred years from now there won't be men at all. They don't need us any more."

Nick thought he probably wouldn't be around to see it, if it'd take a hundred years. He wasn't that worried about women, anyway. He had plenty to worry about here and now. He finished his beer, scrunched it one-handedly and reached for the second of his cans.

"I mean," Brian went on, "what are we supposed to do all day? What are we supposed to do with our lives? I tell you, when my kid was born I had a job, a real job, and now I got nothing. Less than nothing, I'm in debt up to here, I could use some serious dental work but no chance, and I sit around all day and j—just watch the free channels. What kind of a life is that? What are we? Scrap, that's what we are. Less than scrap, 'cause they use the scrap, but nobody even wants us to feed back into the machine. I keep looking for work, but there's nothing out there. It's all right for Doug and all his talk about keeping our spirits up and not letting it get to us. He's still working."

"Not much of a job, though, is it," Nick interpolated. "I mean. I know it's the union, but he has to give the same old shit about how times are hard for everyone but if we hang in there we'll find ourselves back on our feet in no time. Every week it's the same, and we can't go get our envelopes unless we listen."

"Oh, like you listen!" Brian grinned at him. "You were asleep with your eyes open. Wait, though, next week I'm bringing in a deck of cards. We can play poker. Um. For pennies, or matches, or something. I'm sure I have a deck somewhere. Or maybe you could bring the cards."

"Doug won't like it."

"No, but do we care? He's not telling us anything we don't know. Anyway, I've been there, done that. I got myself all gussied up for that sales job, and where did that get me? Deeper in the hole than I was before, that's where."

Nick resettled himself. The stone wall was cold against his back. "I never really got why you didn't stick with that job," he said, tentatively. "I mean, I thought you'd be really good at sales." With a smile like Brian's, he could charm his way into anything. Nick had honestly expected Brian to come out of it rich. Instead, he'd somehow ended up with debts even bigger than before. If he hadn't owned that clunker, he'd have had nowhere to live.

"It was crap," Brian explained briefly. "I mean, I tried, I really did, but—" He shook his head. "There I'd be, trying to sell useless crap to some silly girl who didn't know any better, and I could have persuaded her she needed it if she wanted to be a real housewife, easiest thing in the world, but I just couldn't do it. Not and look myself in the eye next day. I just couldn't."

They drank their beer in silence for a while.

"My sisters all have jobs." It rankled, it really did. The girls all went out and earned their own money, and spent it just as they liked, and Nick went home every week and turned over most of his allowance to his mom, and it wasn't like she thanked him for it, it was all, how fucking useless are you, a real man would have a real paycheck coming in, get the vacuum out, this place is a fucking mess. "Angel said there was a vacancy in the store next to hers, but they were all, you know." He'd gone into the mall all hopeful, because if his kid sister could work retail then maybe he could do it, too, but the place was all skinny guys with slicked back hair and sharp suits with fancy ties, and he saw the way the one at the register looked at him when he asked about the job and didn't even bother filling out the form. "Even Aaron has a job." Mom was so pleased with Aaron. Nick loved the kid, he really did, but always being told he was a useless lump and look how good Aaron was doing was really... "They're going out somewhere tonight, there's some show. Well, Leslie's working, but she gets to see the show, and Bobbie Jean's going. Some women only thing at Margaritaville. Angel can't go, she's too young, she was really pissed."

"See, I told you. Women don't need us." Brian reached for the last beers and handed one to Nick. "Leighanne doesn't, anyway. Well, she's got her rich husband now, executive car, credit card. Bastard."

Nick was surprised at that. Brian didn't let his resentment show, most of the time he just swallowed it and said Leighanne's new husband, what was his name, Ken, no, no, that wasn't his name, that was what Brian mostly called him, he was... Henry, that was it. "What happened?"

Brian breathed carefully. "I just. It's just."

"Hey. Brian." Nick swung himself round, away from the wall, and put a hand on Brian's shoulder. "What's up?"

"She wants me to give up my kid."

"Wait. What? I mean... what?"

"They want him—Henry—to adopt Baylee. I got a letter."

"But—how can he adopt Baylee? You're his father!"

"I know, and I can't, I can't let them, but they could do it, Nick, they could do it without me, it said in the letter. Look." Brian scrabbled at his ancient leather jacket and drew a crumpled white envelope from the inner pocket. "Listen, this is the bit, may terminate the rights of one or both parents for a variety of reasons including abandonment, failure to support the child or finding of parental unfitness due to abuse or neglect. That right there. Failure to support. Maybe even abuse or neglect."

"She'd never say you abused Baylee!" Nick was shocked, beyond shocked. Brian adored that kid. "Leighanne wouldn't say that—would she?"

"I don't know, I don't know. I mean, she gets pissed at some of the things I, that we do, I mean, it's not like I had any choice, but it's not exactly, I mean, my apartment is a hole, and she lives in that fancy house out in Dormont now, and my boy has to sleep on a ratty old couch when he's with me, and maybe it isn't abuse, but they could call it neglect, couldn't they, and, like, feeding him burgers, I know it's not what she likes but I don't know how to cook that fancy sh—stuff she gives him."

"There's nothing wrong with burgers," Nick said.

"Nick," said Brian, and Nick had never heard him sound like that before. "They could take my kid away from me. He's all I got, Nick. He's everything."

"They can't take him away," Nick said, wishing he sounded more certain. "You're his daddy. He'll always be your boy."

"Yeah, but. It's. Failure to support, Nick. I haven't been paying child support in... I dunno. A long time. I don't have any money, how can I? And there's no way I can afford a fancy lawyer, so how can I fight this? What the hell do I do?"

"You don't need a lawyer," Nick said, firmly. "If you get some money, you don't need to pay no lawyer. You give it to Leighanne, for Baylee. That's what you do."

"And where am I going to get money from? Hell, I guess I could take a job pushing carts around a parking lot at Giant Eagle , but what good is that? It'd never bring in enough. I need something big." He pulled a tattered piece of paper out of another pocket. "See? I buy my lottery ticket every week, but zilch. What am I supposed to do, Nick? They're going to take away my son."

"No," said Nick. "We won't let them. You're not going to let her do this. You're gonna—you're gonna get the money from somewhere. You tell her. If you pay, like, I dunno, whatever, you got to pay something but if you do, they can't take him away, can they? So, you tell Leighanne you're going to get her the money for Baylee, and they can't take him away if you do that, right?"

"Right. Uh. I think so," said Brian, puzzling over his letter again.

"So. Come on." Nick got up, and hauled Brian to his feet. They dumped the empties in the nearest trash can and headed for the bus stop. "Tell her right now. I'll come with you. I got money for the fare." Mom would probably give him hell for spending even that, but this was Brian, this was his best friend, and Nick wasn't going to send him off to the dragon's lair all on his own. This was important.

It took the best part of two hours to get there; catch one bus, transfer, then walk the rest of the way, but they were still full of determination (and maybe the after-effects of the beer) when they walked around the final corner and up to the front door of the brick-built house where Leighanne and Henry, and Baylee, now lived. Brian hammered on the door. It seemed like the sight of the neatly trimmed front lawn had made him angry.

Ken—Henry—opened the door. He did look like a Ken doll, Nick thought. Square jaw, perfectly shaved. Tidy dark hair, little bit grey around the ears, in a perfect, distinguished way that made Nick want to kick him in the nuts. Smart khakis and a blue polo shirt. Asshole.

"Oh," said Henry, without enthusiasm. "What do you want?"

"Is she here?"

"No. And you can't see Baylee right now. It's nearly his bedtime."

"Look, it's not a big—I just want to speak with Leighanne."

"She's not here." Henry stepped back, and the door began to shut, but Brian stuck his foot out just in time. And yelped as the door swung into it. But Henry opened it wide again and looked at them like a pissed schoolteacher. Nick knew that look well.

"If she ain't here, where is she?" Brian asked, making an obvious effort to be polite.

"She's out. There's a show on in town. At some nightclub—Margaritaville. She went with her girlfriends." This time, Henry really did shut the door, but it didn't matter because that was all the information they needed.

"Shit," said Nick. "All that time getting out here, and she's back there right where we came from."

"That's the club where your sister works, am I right?" said Brian. "She can get us in."

"Sure," Nick said, though he wasn't, not at all. Leslie liked her job, she said the tips were good, and Nick had a feeling that sisterly love wasn't going to be much of an incentive to break the rules if Leslie didn't think she could get away with it. But Brian needed the moral support right now. And if it didn't work out with Leslie, maybe they could sneak in round back.

In the distance, they could see there was a bus at the stop, and though they broke into a run, and Brian kept running long after Nick had given up, the bus shifted indifferently back into the traffic and left them cursing on the sidewalk. Brian was way too jumpy to settle down and wait for the next one, so they started walking.

By the time they got to Margaritaville, Nick's feet were burning. And it was dark.

They limped into the foyer. There was nobody there—even the cashiers' booths were empty—and there were posters everywhere with guys on them, guys in chaps and cowboy hats, or camouflage pants and helmets, or police uni—

"Nick!" Brian was staring, outraged, at a poster of a glistening man wearing only stars-and-stripes Speedos and grinning toothily over his shoulder at them. There was a large "SOLD OUT" sticker across his torso. "This is—this is—strippers!"

That figured. BJ had been excited—wait, BJ was in there, watching male strippers? And Leslie was waitressing in there with—"I gotta find Leslie," he muttered, and pushed through the double doors, only to be pushed right back out again by a huge black guy with an ID hung around his neck who followed him into the foyer and loomed there, very effectively blocking the entranceway.

"You got a ticket?"

"Uh, no, no, I don't wanna see the show, my sister works here, she's one of the bar staff," Nick explained hastily.

"Then she's busy."

"I just need a moment—"

"Real busy." The security guy loosened up a bit. "It's a madhouse in there. Place is full of crazy women. Trust me, your sister's making more tips than she's seen in her life, she won't wanna come out. And you don't want to go in there, believe me. Anyway, I ain't gonna let you, not without a ticket, and they're sold out."

"But—" Nick looked at Brian, who was still glaring at the posters. Brian had to speak to Leighanne, and he had to do it tonight, because if he left it till tomorrow he'd have to go all the way out to the house again, and there were hardly any buses on Saturdays, and besides, he might be too depressed tomorrow to even think of standing up to Ken-doll. Or, worse, he might be feeling belligerent—and that was a really, really bad idea, Brian would be in an even worse position if he... "Look, could you just ask—"

"Hey, Nick, never mind, it's okay." Suddenly, Brian was wearing his innocent-as-a-cherub face, which meant he had a plan. "Sorry to trouble you," Brian waved sketchily at the big guy. "Come on, Nick. You can speak to Leslie tomorrow. It can wait." He grabbed Nick's arm and urged him back out into the street.

"Man," Nick began as soon as they were outside, "you can't give up now. You have to speak to Leighanne. It's important."

"I know. Come on." They turned left, and Brian darted down the little alleyway beside the club. It was quite dark, but the moon was bright above. The air throbbed with bass rhythms from inside the club. "Remember when we used to come here after work sometimes? Remember the fight?"

"And we climbed out through the bathroom window! Yes!"

"What comes out must go in," said Brian. "Boost me up, wouldja?"

Yes, there was a window open, high up but not, Nick thought, beyond reach, and it must be about the right spot. He cupped his hands, and Brian stepped up, levered himself onto the ledge, and got a leg inside. "All clear! Come on, jump!"

Nick wasn't at all sure about this. He'd been pretty drunk at the time, but he did have a vague memory of clambering up onto the urinals to get out, and that it had been easy to drop down from the window... it didn't look nearly as easy to get up. He looked around, and spotted a shopping cart upside down in the alleyway. With some difficulty, he wedged it in place and managed—with the help of Brian, who nearly took Nick's ears off hauling him up—to get himself onto the windowsill, at which point he lost his balance and fell the rest of the way inside, landing rather painfully on the bathroom floor. Ick. Brian jumped down, but slipped on something Nick didn't want to identify and fell back onto Nick's stomach.

The two of them froze. Had anyone heard them? Amazingly, the urinals were still attached to the wall, but their entrance had made a lot more noise than they'd intended. But nobody came charging in to see what was happening.

The thumping music was much louder in here, and there were high-pitched sounds.

"You stay here. Should be safe enough, if it's women only," suggested Brian, but Nick wasn't going to leave his best friend alone to face the dragon, the ex-dragon, whatever. So they peered cautiously around the door and tiptoed along towards the sound.

The noise grew suddenly louder, and when they crept along the corridor it became obvious why: someone had opened a set of doors from the main floor of the club. Presumably it was getting hot in there. Anyway, so long as they didn't meet whoever it was who'd opened the doors, this was perfect. Furtively, the two of them stationed themselves either side of the entrance and peeked inside.

Holy shit, Nick thought, he'd never seen so many women in his life! He wouldn't have thought there were that many women in the South Side, let alone that many who'd want to see men taking their clothes off. And who'd have thought they would shriek like that! He could see a few figures moving around between the closely-packed tables, harried waiters and waitresses with trays of lurid drinks with straws and umbrellas, but he couldn't even see the bar, and there was no chance of attracting Leslie's attention anyway, not with this incredible noise.

There was someone on the stage, with a microphone, and Nick thought he caught the words "put your hands together" and "executive class" and "Lance", but there was a drum roll and the screaming redoubled and the curtains opened. He stared. It was a guy—an innocent-looking guy with slicked-down blondish hair, horn-rimmed glasses, business suit, briefcase. Wiggling his butt, dancing around, waving at the ladies.

Nick stared in disbelief as the jacket, the vest, the tie, the glasses, the shirt, all came off. The stripper was definitely buff, not huge and muscled but sorta... shiny... Then, and he didn't quite see how it could have happened, the guy somehow whisked off his trousers without taking them off—bzuh?

He was up there in a pair of pinstriped satin boxers now, shimmying his way along the catwalk that jutted out a little way into the audience, and brandishing that briefcase for no reason Nick could understand, until he realized that all those hands reaching out were clutching bills, which the stripper guy accepted with a smile and a blown kiss, and tucked quickly into the outside pocket of the case.

He reached the end of the catwalk, and stood still, an exaggerated expression of astonishment on his face. He held a finger to his lips. The crowd, miraculously, quieted, holding its collective breath, and there was the sound of a telephone. The guy looked around with wide eyes, then opened up his briefcase, shook his head, put it down again. Mussed his hair in an "I'm thinking" gesture with both hands. Then—and this filled Nick with indignation—reached into his boxers and drew out a cellphone! The screams redoubled as he 'answered' it and tossed it into the open briefcase, bent over with his back to the audience—nice view—and shimmied out of his boxers. When he turned back around, he was wearing the tiniest little—little, pouch thing, and he'd shaved... The guy strutted back to the stage, shimmied and waggled his hips until the curtains began to close, grabbed his briefcase and was hidden from view.

Then, to their horror, women began to rise from their seats, and some of them were moving to the door where Brian and Nick were standing.

They fled at top speed back down the corridor they'd paced up so warily, reached the sanctuary of the men's bathroom, and shut the door with relief.

A moment later there came a sound that chilled the blood in their veins.

"Look at that line!" said a shrill female voice. "Come on, girls, we're gonna use this one."

Brian and Nick looked at one another in a panic. Then, as the door began to open, they hurtled towards the pair of stalls. Brian shot into the open one, and Nick rattled at the other door. There was an 'Out of Order' sign on it, maybe it had been locked—whatever, no time to think, Nick shoved his way into Brian's stall and pulled it shut just in time. He jammed the lock shut with shaky fingers, and the two of them did a frantic, silent dance of gestures, until Brian ended up squatting on the seat with his jeans round his ankles, with Nick crouched behind him, bracing himself against both sides of the cubicle and crouching so that his hair wouldn't be visible over the top. If anyone looked under the door and saw two sets of feet, and one of them in Nick's decidedly unfeminine sneakers, they were done for, but Brian's smaller shoes and jeans might pass muster.

At least, Nick thought, the girls wouldn't stay for long. Not with both stalls occupied.

"Ew," said a voice. "This is gross."

"Do they even clean in here?"

"The Ladies isn't much better." Wait. That voice sounded familiar. Brian's neck and shoulders stiffened. Nick was right, then. It was his ex.

"You going to be long?"

Nick realized—when Brian's elbow jabbed him sharply in the leg—that the question was directed at him—them—the occupant of the presumably working stall. "Uh, sorry," he squeaked. "Not feeling too good."

"Crap. Hey, I betcha we could use these."

"Bet you can't!"

"How much!"

"Next drink?"


There were sounds, sounds Nick had never thought to hear, and horrified, delighted shrieks.

"I'll have a Pina Colada," said a triumphant voice.

"Oh my God, I can't believe you did that."

"Hey, I'm gonna try!"

And more... sounds.

And Nick had thought the sight of a man stripping down to his g-string for a horde of screaming women was scary.

Then there was running water, and obvious washing of hands, and several of the voices were lifted in praise of what they had seen so far this evening. This was also terrifying. The women sounded, well, they sounded like men discussing women. Size, and flexibility, and what they wanted to do to them, in far, far too much detail. He let out a small moan, and froze.

"You take care in there, honey!"

"Get it all out, you don't want to miss the rest of the show!"

And mercifully, the women seemed to have left. Nick was just about to shove Brian off the seat so that he could relax his arms, when someone spoke.

"You were right. It is cheering me up."


"Told you it would."

"Yeah, yeah, you're right. It's just one night, and it's so much fun. I didn't know where to look when that GI Joe waggled his butt right in front of Sofia's face, oh, my God, I thought I was going to die laughing!"

"Does you good to laugh. You've been so down, lately. Are you going to try the..?"

"No, it's okay. I didn't have that much to drink."

"You want to tell me what's wrong?"

Leighanne sighed. "It's Brian, of course."

"You know, you're supposed to stop worrying about them after the divorce. What did he do this time?"

"It's not that, exactly, and I can't help worrying about him. He's just, he's so down, you know, and it's not like him at all. He was never like this. I guess that was why we got together, he was fun to be around... and now, he just..."

"But you're happy now, with Henry, right?"

"Oh, sure, of course. Henry's—he's an adult, you know? I need someone who knows how to be an adult. For Baylee's sake."

"That kid of yours is so cute, I swear, I'm gonna kidnap him and run away to China."

"He's wonderful. I can't believe how fast he's growing up. But that's the thing—he needs so much, he needs—it's not just things, you know? He needs a proper role model, and Brian just isn't! He still hasn't got a job—"

"It's not easy, out there."

"I know, but he could try! You and me, we managed to find work. All my girlfriends are out there earning a living, but Brian? He's going nowhere. And when Baylee stays with him, he has to sleep in that horrible room, and Brian's always feeding him on junk food, and they—I don't know, Sara, it's like he's given up. What kind of a role model is that for our kid? And he hasn't paid child support in I don't know how long."

"I guess if he ain't working..."

"I want Baylee to have something better than that." She sounded really determined. "I want Henry to adopt him. We don't want any more kids, but I think it's important for the two of them to have a real connection. And Henry's such a good father, you know? He understands about things like having regular bedtime, and chores to do, and a regular allowance, and not spending it all on junk. Brian just doesn't get that stuff. He always wanted to play, all the time, and you can't do that."

"Some men never really grow up, do they? Here, you need a kleenex?"

"It's part of his charm," Leighanne sounded a bit muffled. "And, you know, it was okay before we had Baylee, but you just can't be like that when you have a child."

"I know. I know. You're right, you're absolutely right. Here, come on, fix your makeup, let's get back in there and forget all our troubles, yeah?"

"Yeah. More hot studly naked guys! Let's get back. Maybe we can get to the bar before the second half starts."

A few moments more, and the door clunked shut. Nick levered himself upward and peered cautiously over the top of the stall door. "All clear."

Brian was very pale. He had that tight look around his eyes, and when they emerged from the stall, he went straight to the washbasins and splashed his face with cold water.

"She never lets the kid alone," he said. "She's always ordering him around, organizing every minute of his life. Pick up your toys, Baylee, walk beside Mommy like a gentleman, no, you already had your candy today, all sorts of crap. I tried to—he's just a little kid, he needs to play. He needs to play."

"Yeah," said Nick, helpless. He didn't know anything about kids, but he'd always thought Brian was a great father.

"Anyhow, I'm not going to let her take him away from me." Brian's jaw was set, his cheeks shadowed in the harsh light. "He doesn't know how to play. Baylee's my kid, and I'm going to make sure he stays that way." He nodded, once, and wiped his face dry on his T-shirt.

"So," said Nick, "I guess there's no point staying here any longer. I mean, we'll never find her in all that mob."

"No!" Brian shuddered, theatrically. "Anyway, don't think I want to go back there. All those women!"

"Scary," said Nick. "And that, when they, with the urinals, I didn't know they could do that!"

"I didn't want to know," said Brian. "Told you, they're making us obsolete. They even piss like men now!"

"You know, though," a thought had occurred to Nick, "it don't look like those women out there want to do without men."

Brian stared at him, then grinned. "You got that right! I dunno, though, I thought they were going to tear that guy to pieces."

"Feels like it, sometimes."

... okay, who said that?

They looked at one another, then at the two stalls, side by side. As they gaped, the toilet behind the 'Out of Order' sign flushed, the door opened, and out strolled the "executive class" stripper, thankfully wearing a bathrobe, and with a large carryall under his arm. He beamed at them unselfconsciously, took down the sign, and stuffed it into the bag's side-pocket. "You just have to leave them wanting that itty bit more."

Nick's mind flashed him an image of that tiny, tiny pouch. Although, he thought, it maybe wasn't that tiny. And he wondered, and then he thought, maybe the women out there were wondering the exact same thing, and he felt the blood rising in his cheeks.

"You guys should get changed," the stripper said. "Second half's about to start." He crouched over his carryall and poked around in the end pocket, then straightened, took off the bathrobe, folded it neatly and placed it next to the washbasin, and started to fill the sink with water. Nick tried, nobly, not to stare, but the guy had the most perfect ass, and it gleamed, and when he bent over to splash water onto his face and soap his armpits, wow.

"We're, um. Not really here," said Brian, who was determinedly staring at the wall.

"That right? Hey, my delusions are getting better all the time." The stripper smirked at them in the mirror.

"We just came to find someone," Brian insisted.

"Well, you're a braver man than I am." The stripper bent over his carryall again—Jesus!—and started smearing himself with some kind of gel stuff. Nick thought there might be glitter in it. No wonder his ass gleamed. "I wouldn't trust myself down in that crowd. I bet you every waiter out there has bruises on his butt."

"Bruises?" said Nick, without thinking.

"From the pinching," the stripper explained, as he began to sort through his stuff. Nick abandoned the effort not to drool, and watched with fascination as the guy donned a familiar pair of Stars and Bars speedos, and jeans, and a checked shirt, and a leather vest, and fringed chaps. "But they'll come out with great tips. Not quite as good as mine, but hey, you gotta show some skin to get the real appreciation."

"Did you get, I mean, they were putting the money in your..."

"Uh huh." The stripper grinned, a cheerful, wholesome grin that definitely belonged on a poster, Nick thought. "Good crowd tonight."

"So do you do this... a lot?" said Brian. Nick could tell he was making a determined effort not to show how boggled he was. It wasn't totally working, but it was a good try.

"Sure! Two, three nights a week sometimes, shows like this are real popular these days. I used to work with a group, five of us, we did the whole show between us, singles and pairs, then the final number as a group, it was a riot. But it's easier doing the circuit as an individual act, I get to go on vacation whenever I want, and I don't have to put up with the same four people bitching at me all the time. 'Sides, I meet more cute guys this way."

"Oh!" Brian blushed. "You mean, you're—"

"Gay? Uh huh."

"I thought, I mean, you taking your clothes off in front of all those women..."

"Hey, man, that's showbiz!" The stripper plucked a bedazzled cowboy hat and a whip out of his carryall and shoved the bathrobe and toiletries inside. "Trouble is, there's two of my exes up there in the changing room, and when they start comparing notes I'm in big trouble. 's why I'm hiding out in here." He cast a very unimpressed look around the room, which was, it had to be said, just as sordid as men's public bathrooms usually were. "They don't need me for the finale, so after this, I'm gone." He snapped the whip, and Brian leapt nervously. One last look in the mirror, a quick and dirty swivel of the hips to settle the gun belt, then the stripper picked up his carryall and sauntered out.

The two of them wasted no time getting out the way they'd come in.

"I kinda don't need to talk to Leighanne anyway," Brian said suddenly, as they walked along the quiet street. "I mean, now I know why she's doing it. I just have to get the money."

"You should probably tell her you're going to get the money," Nick suggested. He hoped Brian wasn't going to want to talk about what Leighanne had said. He felt for Brian, he really did, but he had no clue what to say.

"Yeah. Well. I have to figure out how to get it, first."

They walked in silence for a while. Nick's feet hurt.

"You know, she never said any of that to me. Well, she did, sorta, but not like that."

"I guess women are different when there's no men around," Nick said. "Sometimes I hear my sisters talking when they don't know I'm there." He didn't like it much. "It's kinda scary. You know, like seeing all those women tonight, and hearing the way they talked about the guys."

"That was something else. I never heard anything like it—I mean, just the noise, the screaming! There must have been, what do you think, a couple thousand women in there? Two thousand—" Brian stopped abruptly.

"Yeah," said Nick. "And did you hear what that one said about wanting to bite that guy's ass, the one with the military jock? I never even knew women talked like that. Come on, Frick, I got to get home some time tonight."

"Nick, wait! Two thousand women—or maybe three, no, let's stick with two for now, how much did they pay for tickets, did you see?"

"What? No."

"I don't recall what it said on the posters. Let's say... ten dollars apiece. That's—hell, that's a lot of money!"

"Well, sure, but..."

"That's it, Nick. That's it!" Brian turned to him, and in the dull sodium glare of the streetlight Nick could see his expression, and it was the old Brian, the one who'd worked alongside him at the mill and played practical jokes on the other guys during breaks, the one who'd climbed out the restroom window, the one who'd always been able to pull Nick out of a bad mood by making him laugh. He was grinning like a lunatic, and almost jumping with excitement. "That's how I get enough money! Couldn't be easier! All we have to do is get some shiny costumes together and strut around on stage taking them off, and they'll pay—oh, and the tips, too, that's extra."

Nick stared. Brian had actually lost his mind. He said so.

"No, no, see, it's that easy. I'm not saying we have to do it for a living, but just one show, that's a lot of money, Nick. That guy said there were five of them, so we'll have to recruit, but... four grand each, that sounds good, don't it? Think what you could do with four grand, Nick."

"Yeah, but—"

"No, no buts. No negativity. This is it. This is going to be our big break. You and me, Nick, we're going to make it."

"I'm not taking my clothes off for all those women! I mean, I—I can't!"

Brian looked up at him reproachfully. "Course you can. It's easy. Costume, maybe a couple props, you could be, like, a linebacker, hold a football in front of your—or maybe a fireman's helmet, we could rent one of those, for sure."

"But I don't want to—"

"It's not just for me," Brian said, suddenly serious. "I mean, I have to do this, for Baylee. But I'm not asking you to do this for me, I'm saying, it's perfect for both of us. I mean, you could use the cash too." His eyes were full of sympathy, and Nick would have liked to be able to say that he didn't need the money, but he thought of going home with four thousand dollars in his pocket, he thought how his mother would have to admit that he wasn't a useless lump, how his sisters and his kid brother wouldn't be able to lord it over him. He could... he could maybe get a car, or a motorbike. It'd be nice not to have to walk everywhere.

"I... I guess..." he began, and Brian beamed.

"It's gonna be great!" he said. "It's gonna be just perfect. It's gonna work."

* * *

Nick hated jogging. He got hot and sweaty and out of breath, and he didn't see how it would really help anyway. Nobody on planet Earth was going to want to see him take off his clothes on stage.

It wouldn't come to that, of course. This was just one of Brian's crazy ideas, in a couple of days from now, Brian'd realize that it was stupid, and they could drop it. But, for now, Brian was all enthusiastic. So they were jogging.

"We got to find some more guys," Brian was saying, puffing a bit as they headed through River Front Park. "That stripper, what was his name?"

"Lance," Nick gasped.

"I thought that was. Stage name. You know, Lance. Like being called Rod. Or Dirk. Something like that. Probably his real name's. Wilbur. Anyway. Him. He said five. Five's enough for a show. So we need three more."

Nick didn't even attempt to say anything. He concentrated on breathing. Anyway, he didn't know anyone who'd want to strip off in public, not even for money. Except maybe that guy with the curly hair and bright blue eyes who—never mind. That guy had left town months ago, gone to make himself rich somewhere that wasn't Pittsburgh.

"I gotta, wait, wait," he panted, and clung to the railing. Below, the river flowed indifferently past. There was a lone guy standing in the middle of the Hot Metal Bridge, but Nick had no energy to spare for strangers. He gasped for breath, and sweat stung his eyelids, and his feet hurt, and this was no way to spend a morning.

"We'll need to set up someplace, hold some auditions." How did Brian manage to look so chirpy? He was no fitter than Nick, surely he wasn't, but there he was, bouncing from one foot to the other, full of plans. "You can bring your ghettoblaster for us to practise with. And there's costumes. Have to think about that."

Nick's breath was coming easier. He looked away, hoping to earn a little more rest time before Brian forced him onward. That guy along there looked like he was trying to climb up the bridge. Well, that was a crazy thing to do. He looked—much more of that and he'd fall! He was up on the rail now, clinging to one of the struts. "Come on!" Nick ran, sore feet for the moment forgotten, pounded onto the bridge, and grabbed the guy by the ankle.

"Ow! Hey!"

"That's dangerous, man, you could fall. Come down here."


"Come on, man, don't be scaring us like this!" Brian had come up alongside.

"Leave me alone! I'm fine!"

"If you fall, it's, like, hundreds of feet," Nick said. He had no idea how far down it was, but it was way higher than the diving board at the Dormont pool. "You'll kill yourself."

"Go away! I'm not—I—whoa—"

Fortunately, Nick managed to grab the back of the guy's coat, and Brian got his pants, and they hauled him back down to the sidewalk. He was only a little guy, with big brown eyes, and long hair fluffed into a mad tangle by the wind up here on the bridge. They frogmarched him back to the park, found a bench, and sat him firmly down between them.

"So," said Brian. "Were you actually trying to kill yourself, or just practising?"

"I didn't—I wanted—look, what did I ever do to you guys? Why couldn't you just leave me alone?"

"Life gets shitty," Nick remarked, "but I dunno, I think it's better than the alternative."

"Not if," said the little guy, and stopped.

Brian patted him on the shoulder. "You wanna talk about it?"

They got the story out of him eventually. How he lived with his sister, how she was sick, and his insurance sucked and he had the crappiest job in the world—night security on an empty warehouse—but he couldn't find anything else, and she wasn't getting any better, and he couldn't see any future where she got better, she needed so many prescriptions and they just couldn't pay for them, and he thought if he was dead then there'd be a decent payoff from the life insurance and maybe it would be enough.

"Only I hate taking pills," he confessed. "Besides, it isn't supposed to look like, like suicide. For the insurance. So I thought if I fell off the bridge, only, I'm not good with heights, so I was trying to let go, and then you came along and stopped me."

Brian rubbed his nose. He was going to point out all the things in life that were worth living for, Nick thought, and he'd convince this poor idiot because Brian was good at that, good at finding the sunny side—although he hadn't been doing much sunny side finding, not lately.

"You know, I could get a rock," said Brian. "A cinder block, maybe. Something big and heavy. You lie down, I'll drop it on your head. Wouldn't that be a better way to go? Nice and quick."

The little guy—Howie, his name was—stared.

"Or maybe a rope?" Brian continued. "I think I got some rope at my place. Hanging's one of the classics, right, Nick? And we could, you know, pull on your legs after you kick the chair away, so's you don't flop around for ages. Break your neck for you, right off. Only it would kinda look like suicide that way, so maybe not. You want something that looks like an accident, right?"

"He could fall off a roof," said Nick. "Or the incline."

"Nah, won't work, he doesn't like heights. You know, I once asked a guy working on a construction site to pick up his nail gun, drill me one right in the eye."

"That," said Nick, impressed, "is a man's way to go. What did he say?"

"I'm low on nails."

"Prick. You know, Harry—"

"Uh, it's Howie," said the little guy.

"Yeah, Howie, right, if you got a car, I bet I could run right over you with it, no problem."

"Why would you do that? I mean, you don't even know me."

"Hey," said Brian, putting an arm around Howie's shoulders, "didn't we just save your life? I'd say that means we're your friends."


Nick felt they were getting off the subject. "We could tie a plastic bag over his head," he offered.

"Nah, man, that's a wimp suicide. I like the cinder block better. I mean, think about it, Howie, there you are, all ready to go, and the last thing you see is me and Nick smiling down at you, and then, it all goes dark. Isn't that great? You go out knowing you got friends."

Howie smiled shyly. "Friends? Really?"

"Sure!" said Brian. "We'll kill you, nice and easy, no problem."

"That's real nice of you."

"It's our pleasure," said Nick.

"It's what friends are for," said Brian. "Come on, gimme a hug." He pulled Howie to his feet and wound himself tightly around the bewildered little guy, who hugged back gamely. Nick rolled his eyes, and flung his arms around the both of them.

"Uh, Brian?" Howie sounded a bit muffled, there. "You can let go now. Please. Brian? Brian, let—let go now?"

Grinning, Nick hauled Brian off, though not in time to stop him planting a big wet one on Howie's cheek.

"You know," said Brian, thoughtfully, "there might be another way of getting some money for your sister. Can you... dance?"

"Uh. I guess. I mean, I used to be, I don't really have time for—"

"That's great! You're in. Nick and me, we're going to do this thing, I have to get some money so they don't take my kid away from me, we've been looking for someone like you."

Nick looked at him skeptically, but nodded his head in response to Brian's glare. "Yeah. You'll be great, I can tell." Was that going a bit far? But Howie's eyes lit up, and he was kinda cute after all, so maybe Brian was right. Anyway, it'd give him something to think about besides jumping off a bridge.

"You really want me along?"

"Yep," said Brian. It looked like they were done with running for today, Nick realized, and grinned at Howie in sudden gratitude. "You are officially," Brian said, "a member of the club. Come on, we'll tell you about it on the way back."

"Oooh!" said Nick. "Let's get a club! Seriously, one good swing—"

"Moving on now, Nick! Moving on."


"How'd I look?" Brian asked.

"Uh," said Nick.

Brian bent over and shut off the ghettoblaster. Just as well, the batteries were starting to run down. And it echoed weirdly in the vast emptiness of Howie's warehouse.

"You know, it's a lot harder than it looks," Brian admitted, pulling his T-shirt back over his head. "I think we're maybe going to need some help here."

"A, what's it called, a calligrapher?" Nick frowned. That wasn't right.

"Choreographer, yeah," said Brian. "Someone who knows actual dance steps. Especially if we're all going to do it together. It's got to co-ordinate."

"You know anyone who can do that?"

"Hmm," said Brian.

"You think he knows anyone?" Nick jerked his head towards Howie, who was sitting in his tiny office, carefully not watching them. Howie was extremely nervous about hosting a rehearsal in his warehouse, but Brian could be awfully persuasive. "I mean, he's Latino, right, isn't that where those dances come from?"

Brian looked at him. "I don't think it means he has instinctive knowledge of how to tango," he said, mildly. "Wait a second, though... Hey, Howie! You got the newspaper in there?" He hurried over. Nick followed. "Let's see, the classifieds, look, here we go, dance classes."

"I don't think I can afford—" Nick began, but Brian shushed him.

"No, we're not going to take classes. Anyway, those things are for couples, aren't they, and we're not going to have women dancing with us. But there might be someone taking a class who—look! Perfect. There's a class at the South Side community center, other side of the park. Beginners at seven, intermediates, advanced class, nine till ten. Let's get over there, right now, we'll catch them coming out, any likely looking guys, we ask if they want to make a bit of spare cash, bring them in to choreo—teach us how to dance."

"That's actually brilliant," said Nick. Because it was.

So they told Howie they'd see him tomorrow, and high-tailed it to the South Side community center.

"There's not many men in there," Nick whispered. He was on tiptoe, peering in the high window. Brian, impatient, hopped beside him. "Loads of women, some of them are dancing with each other. But there's—oh, wait a minute!" He sank down away from the window. "There's someone I know! Kevin Richardson."

"Kevin Richardson, who was our foreman? You're kidding me."

"Pretty sure it's him," said Nick, rising up again and frowning through the smeared glass. "Looks like he's got some moves, too."

"Okay," said Brian. "He's our man."

They lurked at the exit until the class was over and a stream of women carrying sequinned shoes began to emerge. And a handful of men.

"Hey, Kevin!" said Brian, cheerily.

Kevin Richardson turned, and started. Nick gave his best innocent grin, not quite as good as Brian's. Kevin Richardson didn't seem to be very happy to see them, because his smile was downright sickly. Probably, Nick thought, he didn't like being caught coming out of a ballroom dancing class. It was kinda funny, though.

There was a tall, pretty blonde with Richardson. She smiled at them, and held onto his arm—good thing, 'cause it looked like he was trying to get away. "Who are your friends, sweetie?"

Nick's grin grew.

"Uh. This, this is, uh, Brian, and this is Nick. From work. Uh. My wife, Kristin."

They shook hands, most politely.

"We just wanted a word," said Brian.

"This isn't really conven—"

"I'll go wait in the car," Kristin said. "Let you boys have a few minutes to talk. Nice meeting you."

"Look," said Kevin, "I really don't know what you—"

"From 'work', did you say?" said Brian.

Kevin's face stiffened, and he looked around carefully, and urged them away from the doors. A moment later, someone came through, locked the door carefully, said goodnight—Kevin waved—and trotted towards the parking lot.

"She doesn't know," Kevin hissed.

"What, she doesn't know you lost your job?" Nick was too surprised to keep his voice down.

"Sshhh! No, and I'd like to keep it that way. So whatever it is you want, the answer's no."

"Interesting," said Brian, and smiled angelically. "You say you don't want her to know? I think that means you need to listen to our proposition."

"What? No! Just leave me alone!"

"Well, we could escort you back to your car. It'd be polite to say good night to your lovely lady, now, wouldn't it?"

"That lady is my wife," Kevin said. "And—"

"And if we just happened to mention that it's been, oh, how long is it now since we were all gainfully employed together, she might be interested, don't you think?"

"You wouldn't."

Brian smiled.

Kevin glared. It was quite intimidating, because his eyebrows made him look like a deranged serial killer, and Nick was glad Brian was there. Of course, if Brian hadn't been there, he wouldn't be there either, because this was all Brian's idea, and Nick was thinking Brian should get over it real soon now, but for tonight, Brian's enthusiasm was still pushing them along like a runaway train.

"See, we're putting together a group, and we want you to join us. A dance group. We need someone who knows about dancing, and that's you."

"You what?" Kevin looked at Brian, and at Nick, and back at Brian, and started to laugh. "You? You two?"

"Yeah. We got a place to rehearse, and everything. There's another guy, but he's back at—at headquarters. So you'll be the fourth. One more guy, and we're all set."

"In what universe—oh, never mind. What possible reason could I have for joining your... dance group?"

Brian rubbed his nose, thoughtfully. "Well, 'cause if you don't, I'll tell your wife you don't work at MRS any more. Besides, you must be getting short of cash. Fancy shoes don't come cheap." Kevin was carrying an exceptionally shiny pair of black shoes.

"Oh, God, tell me about it. Fucking shoes! What is it with women and shoes? She must have about a thousand pairs, and the credit card bills..."

"It's tough, isn't it." Brian laid a sympathetic hand on Kevin's arm.

It was all over for Kevin now, Nick knew. It might take a while, but he was done for. Nick tuned out. The music from earlier, the music from Brian's practice striptease, was bouncing around inside his head. He thought back to the guy at the club. Lance. With his smooth, all-over tan and his shiny ass and his shaved—anyway. No way Nick was ever going to look like that. But... it was beginning to feel as though Brian wasn't going to give up on this idea. So, Nick thought, morosely, he'd better go on a diet.

* * *

"Are you sure you put the time on the posters? And the address?"

"Yes, Kevin, I'm sure. I'm not a total idiot," Brian said, irritated.

"And you put them where people would actually see them?"


"So why isn't there anyone here?" said Kevin.

"I don't know! I—maybe—maybe there's nobody around who thinks they can dance, I don't know."

"We still have a half hour," said Howie. "Somebody might show up." Howie was being determinedly optimistic, probably because they were at his house. Brian's place was too small, Kevin was paranoid about his wife coming home during the day and finding him there instead of out at work, and Nick's home was obviously impossible. Howie's sister—she looked nice, Nick thought—had smiled at them and retreated to her bedroom to make way for the applicants. Howie said she thought their group was a wonderful idea. Nick wondered what Howie had told her.

Except they didn't actually have a group. "If nobody shows," said Nick, "what do we do?" He was more than okay with nobody showing up, because Brian seemed to have fixated on the idea of there being five of them, and if they couldn't find dancer number five maybe he'd give up, and Nick could start eating chips again. He hated being on diets. It always seemed like the moment he started trying to eat less, everyone wanted to order pizza every night. The girls seemed to go on diets every other week, but for some reason not one of them was doing it now. Nick didn't exactly know how diets were suppose to work, except there seemed to be a lot of salad involved, and not eating ice cream or anything good, and he cringed at the thought of asking one of his sisters. Ask one, and the rest would know within seconds, and then Mom would know, and—he just didn't want to deal with that.

So maybe nobody would show up and they could forget about being strippers.

Then, the doorbell chimed.

"Hello? Anybody there?" There was a rasping cough, and a silhouette in the doorway.

Oh, fuck it, Nick thought.

Howie scuttled across to greet the new arrival and usher him inside, all smiles. The rest of them took their places behind the dining table and tried to look businesslike. The new arrival was skinny, all in black (including his fingernails), and his carefully-shaved beard was practically an art form. He had dark, dark eyes, and incredible eyelashes, Nick couldn't help noticing, and hastily switched his gaze to the guy's tattooed arms.

"Uh, sorry," said Howie, "but you can't smoke in here."

"Oh, sure. Sorry." The newcomer, whose name was AJ, looked around, and stubbed his cigarette out in the nearest potted plant. Howie winced.

"So," said Kevin, briskly. "Do you have any dance experience?"


"I mean, have you ever done any dancing of any kind? Tap, or jazz, or ballroom, or—"


"—or ballet?"

Everyone stared at Kevin.

"No," said AJ again. "I used to dance a bit in clubs, I guess."

"You want to show us what you can do?" said Brian, eagerly. "I'll put some music on." He stabbed a finger at the ghettoblaster, and a Janet Jackson track started up. And AJ began to move.

Nick stared. AJ didn't seem to have hips like normal human beings. He had some kind of swivel action that men shouldn't even be able to do. AJ's hips went round and round, and backwards and forwards, and Nick was hypnotized. When AJ's hand stroked up AJ's stomach, lifting his black T-shirt to reveal a flat little belly and a hint of more ink, Nick whimpered, ever so quietly.

"Okay!" Kevin sounded pleased. "I think we can work with that. Uh. So, you know what kind of dancing we do, right?"

"Stripping, yeah? I'm up for that," said AJ. Nick liked his voice. It was a little bit rough, maybe from the smoking. Sounded really... good. "I could use the extra cash. I went a bit crazy a while back, and I got some debts to pay off."

"We're just going to, uh, confer for a moment," Brian said, grandly. AJ nodded in an amiable way and Howie offered to let him through into the tiny back yard. AJ wandered outside, groping in his pocket for cigarettes.

"Okay, guys, so, he's in, right?" Brian was all smiles.

"He can move," said Kevin. "Better than any of you guys."

"Probably better than you," Nick muttered. Kevin frowned, but didn't actually argue, so Nick figured he'd won that one.

"I don't know," said Howie. "I mean, isn't he a bit... he looks a bit..."

"I think that's good," Brian said. "We need different types. He can be our Bad Boy."

"Uh. But do you think we can trust him? To show up on time, and stuff."

"He'll be fine," Brian said, breezily.

AJ begged to be allowed to finish this cigarette before he came back in the house, so they all trooped into the yard to tell him the good news. Everyone swapped phone numbers and addresses—which took a while—and eventually Brian announced that they'd have their first rehearsal on the following evening. "You'll be able to figure something out, won't you, Kevin?"

"What? Wait, wait, wait, no!"

"Why not?"

"It isn't that easy! I don't even know what music we're going to use."

He had a point, really.

"Oh," said Brian, sounding a bit put out. "Uh. What if everybody brings along some music tomorrow? Tapes or CDs. We can try dancing a bit, and pick which songs we want to use. Make it something familiar, something people know. If we all bring our favorites, we'll get a good range."

"I have some great salsa music," said Howie, pleased. "Very sensual."

"Yes, well, that's good," said Kevin. "But I need to know what the music is before I can, you know, work out the moves. And besides, what kind of acts are we going to have?"

"Strip acts?" AJ suggested.

"Like, do we dress up as police officers or, um, baseball players, you mean?" said Nick.

"Yes, exactly." Kevin looked relieved. "I don't even know where to start with this stuff, but it'd really help to have, like, a concept."

Brian scratched the back of his neck, thoughtfully. "Maybe we should go see what we can get. No sense deciding we want to be something and then finding we can't get the right costumes."

Nick had no idea where a person went to find costumes for strippers, and said so.

"Ah!" Brian looked triumphant. "You remember Nicole? Used to work in that dress shop downtown? She has her own place now, rents out Halloween costumes and stuff. And formal suits for weddings. We could do a number in tuxedos, that'd work, I bet."

"I was thinking, maybe something with hats? Like, fedoras? Something cool," said Howie. "And we could use them to hide our, you know, to tease the audience. Oh, and there's some folding chairs in back, at the warehouse, they're a bit dusty but I thought maybe they could be useful."

"Props are good," said Kevin. "Variety."

So they decided to get along East Carson Street next morning to visit Nicole's shop and see what they could get.

* * *

"Sorry, sorry," Nick panted as he arrived, nearly three quarters of an hour late and dripping with sweat. He'd run most of the way, it felt like. "Had to get some stuff done." Nothing exciting. Just the supermarket, and walk the dogs, and wash the dishes, and he could have still been there quicker if Mom hadn't been such a—if she hadn't kept on at him.

Kevin coughed. "Never mind. You're here now."

"This is Nicole," said Brian, presenting a tall, sharp-featured brunette in jeans and a sloppy sweater. "Nicole, this is Nick. He'll need the tux and the outfit with the hat and the jacket, and the police officer."

Nicole smiled tightly and said she would take Nick's measurements, but she didn't look very pleased about it. She mellowed, though, in the face of Brian's puppy-like enthusiasm as he ushered Nick through in between the rails and rails full of costumes, and showed him the ones the other guys had picked out already.

"Maybe a fireman?" Nicole suggested. "I have them in a large."

Thanks, Nick thought, but kept quiet. Actually, a fireman wasn't a bad idea. And a Steelers uniform. Maybe the football fans in the audience would like that. Unless they decided to lynch him instead. Nicole measured him, chest, belly—he sucked in, of course, but it didn't help much—hips, leg, arm, and declared she could find a tux for him, and the other costumes would be no problem.

"So, you're going to give us a great deal, right?" said Brian, innocently. "Seeing as how we're renting all these costumes."

"You want to put me out of business? I got to make a living, same as you."

"Yeah, but... you said yourself, it's a slow time of year. Tell you what, I'll sweeten it—what do you say to free tickets, you and a friend? You won't want to miss the show, trust me."

Nicole looked dubious. "I don't know... why would we want to come see you guys? We had the real thing here just last week. You know, professionals."

"Yeah, but—but. We're better. Right, guys?"

It was difficult, Nick thought, to be fully committed to agreeing with that when you hadn't even had a rehearsal. From the half-hearted mumblings he heard from the others, they felt the same, and Nicole definitely wasn't convinced.

"What makes you think you're better?" she asked pointedly.

"Well," said Brian. "We—we go all the way."

"What?" said Nicole.

"What?" said Howie.

What? thought Nick.

"We show it all. You know. Everything. You don't get that from the professionals."

Nicole smirked. "Really?"

"Oh, yeah." That was AJ, sidling closer to Nicole and giving her a wicked smile.

"Well," Nicole said, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Maybe that would be worth seeing. I'll tell my girlfriends."

"Great!" said Brian.

"You let me have a poster, I'll put it up in the store here." Nicole sounded quite a lot more interested now. "And I'll be sure to tell people that, you know."

"You," said Brian, kissing her on the cheek, "are a star."

She snickered. "I'll have to charge you for the alterations, don't forget. There's quite a lot of work there. You can put an ad in the program for my shop, too. For free, I mean."

"Ooh, yeah, the program! Thanks, Nicole, you got it. I'll call with the date as soon as I confirm with the venue," Brian said grandly. "Come on, guys, let's leave this nice lady in peace."

Nicole was already dialing as they left the store.

Immediately outside, Kevin and Howie rounded on Brian in high indignation, and demanded to know what the hell he thought he was doing, saying they were going to strip all the way.

"We got to get people in," Brian said, reasonably. "And she's right, they did have the professionals there. Now, I think that's in our favor. There'll be women who didn't get to go to that show, who've heard about it from their girlfriends. And there'll be women who enjoyed it so much they'll want to go again. And, instead of having to—"

"You want me to show my—my—" Kevin's glare might have melted steel. "No way!"

"It's our big selling point!" Brian protested.

"Tough," said Kevin.

"Come on, Kevin, everyone else is okay with it! You'll do it, won't you, AJ?"

"Sure," said AJ. "That's what I signed up for."

"But we didn't—you didn't say—all the way!" Nick would never have thought that Howie, sweet little Howie, could be so furious he could hardly get a sentence out.

"What do you say, Nick?" said Brian. His eyes were pleading, and damn it...

"I guess... I mean, I don't really mind," Nick admitted. He didn't. It wasn't his dick that was going to embarrass him, it was the rest of him. "I think Brian's right. We need a, we need something that nobody else does. To make sure people buy tickets."

"Nick and me, we went to Margaritaville, we saw a part of the show. And we heard some of the women talking, and they were all, like, I'd pay a hundred bucks to see what's inside that jockstrap." Brian paused to let that sink in. "Come on, guys, you don't want to perform to an empty room, do you? We got to get the audience in, we need that money, all of us."

Howie looked like he wanted to argue, but Brian had a point. Kevin wasn't done yet, though. "Is it even legal?" he demanded. "I mean, we go around the city putting up posters that say, we're going to strip naked on stage, is somebody gonna come and arrest us?"

"I, uh. I don't know," said Brian.

"We shouldn't put it on the posters," said AJ. "Word of mouth. Nicole will tell her girlfriends, and they'll tell theirs. Nothing official, just so they all know to buy tickets. We can all tell people." He thought for a moment. "I'll tell my mom. She has lots of friends living on the South Side."

"Your mom?" Nick gaped.


Kevin was muttering to himself, but Nick was pretty sure he was going to go along with it. Brian's reminder about the money had been very effective. Kevin needed the cash, if he was going to keep it a secret from his wife that he didn't have a job. And Howie needed the money, too. In fact, the only one who didn't absolutely need the money was Nick. But it would be sweet to be able to prove he wasn't worthless, so he wanted it. If showing his dick to a crowd of screaming women was what it took, hell, that wasn't so bad.

* * *

The first rehearsal was a disaster.

It didn't help that Howie was incredibly nervous and kept scurrying away to do a quick inspection of the premises. He was petrified someone would find them there. Brian had done his best to reassure Howie, and Brian was right, nobody was going to be wandering around here randomly at this time of night, there was nothing here for anyone except maybe stupid kids out to break stuff, and the sound of people in the warehouse was more likely to put them off than anything. Really, the place was extra secure with them all there. But Howie didn't see it that way.

"He needs to relax," Brian said as they watched Howie trot outside again. "You know what, maybe I'll bring my hoop down here. Must be somewhere we can set it up. We can play some one on one while we wait for everyone to get here." AJ had been rather late.

"Come on, guys, let's make a start," Kevin said loudly. "What do we have for music?"

They spent a while arguing over tracks and mocking one another's tastes, but there was some useful stuff there. Kevin suggested that they could each play their favorite and show off what they could do. "I need to get an idea of how you move."

Nick shoved Brian forward, and smiled blandly at the glare he got in return. Brian should go first. It was his idea. And he'd be good, anyway, Nick was sure.

Nick was wrong. Brian seemed to have forgotten how to move his arms and legs at the same time. Howie was too busy fretting about the warehouse to make any serious attempt to look sexy. Kevin would do a few moves that looked smooth, and then mutter no, no, that was all wrong, and stop and start over. And Nick felt so incredibly self-conscious in front of four skinny guys that he could hardly dance at all—he'd thought that rocking out to something loud and lively would help him loosen up, but nothing helped, nothing at all. Kevin very kindly said he could work with that, but Nick knew better.

This was never going to work.

And then AJ started, dancing to some crazy song about being too sexy for his hat, wriggling his tiny ass and sliding his leather jacket slowly down his arms, and sliding his hand up under his black T-shirt, strutting along (on the catwalk) like he owned the world, and finally—finally—lifting the shirt up and over his head and throwing it down, and teasing open the buttons of his fly, it was like he was born for this. Okay, it was unfortunate that he couldn't get the boots off, so everything pretty much came to a dead stop, but maybe it was just as well, Nick thought, because AJ was hot. So very, very hot.

"You should get someone to Velcro those pants," Howie suggested. "So you can take them off and keep the boots on."

"Not these pants!" AJ looked horrified. "I like these pants. Besides, you ever tried sewing leather?"

"Well, find some others, then," said Brian. "Something you don't mind having weird seams in."

"It'll look good if you don't take off the boots," said Nick, hoping his voice was under control. "The boots are cool." AJ considered this, and nodded.

"So, Kevin, you think you can figure something out for the five of us?" Brian's enthusiasm really was impossible to dent.

Kevin scowled—or possibly he always looked like that—but admitted he had come up with a few ideas, and they spent half an hour banging the folding chairs around. They finally managed to snap the chairs open, set them down and sit on them at the same time, and there was a yell of triumph from everyone. Then Howie made them put the chairs back, saying they made too much noise.

"It's getting late, anyhow," Kevin said. "I got to get home. Can't we do this any earlier? During the day?"

"Nah, we can't get in here unless it's Howie's shift," Brian reminded him.

"I could ask about changing my shift," said Howie. "Except Caroline likes company while she's awake, we have breakfast together and my family have a rota for the mornings, and it's all organized. Um. Or I could have a word with Big Marc. He's on during the day. If he's okay with it I guess I could get someone to come to the house, afternoons..."

"Cool," said Brian. "Listen, can we make it same time tomorrow night? So's we all know when to meet up? I got to get the venue arranged anyway, and check out some printers. Nick, you can draw, so you'll do the poster, right?"

"Uh. Sure."

"A guy with nice pecs, or something. Tasteful. But not too tasteful, you know what I mean?"

"I'll pose for you, if you like," said AJ.

"Hey, cool!" Brian flung an arm over AJ's shoulder. "See, we all pull together, we're a team, we're gonna be great! I just want a word with Howie about that hoop." He bounded off.

"You'll be great," Nick muttered. "Not so sure about me."

"Hey," said AJ. "Don't sell yourself short. You got some moves there."

"For you guys, maybe. But me, naked, on stage? I don't think those women would want to see that."

AJ's hand came across and stroked Nick's belly, very lightly. "Don't sell yourself short, kiddo. Lot of women like their men with a bit of substance. Lot of men do, too." He winked. "I gotta split. See you tomorrow." He ambled out, picking up his motorcycle helmet as he left, and leaving Nick wondering, what the hell? Did he know? Did he know? Because it sounded like he knew. Did Brian tell him?

Kevin gave them a ride as far as West Street, then turned south, leaving Nick and Brian to walk the rest of the way. As soon as his car was out of sight, Nick rounded on Brian.

"Did you tell AJ? About me being gay, did you tell him?"

"What? No, of course not. Why would you—"

"Because I think he knows. Brian, seriously, you can't tell anyone, you just can't. If my mom finds out, I'll be, it'll be, it'll be bad. You can't tell anyone."

"Hey. Nick. I didn't. I wouldn't. I promise you, I won't tell anyone." The orange light from the streetlamp turned the blue of Brian's eyes to black, but there was no mistaking the sincerity in them.

"Sorry," said Nick, suddenly ashamed. "I know. I know you wouldn't."

They walked on a bit. "Maybe AJ just has good, what's it called, good gaydar. Or maybe he didn't mean what you thought he meant."

"I guess."

"Or," Brian elbowed Nick meaningfully, "maybe he likes you!"

"Oh, come on! After the way he was flirting with Nicole, you think he likes guys?"

Brian looked crestfallen. "I forgot about that. But hey, he sure can dance! The ladies are going to love him. That's what we all need to do, just like AJ, but in our own way. It'll be great! I'm telling you, this is going to work. Leighanne won't be able to take my boy away from me when I give her all the child support I owe. It'll be like a fresh start for me. I could maybe even put some away, save a little for when he starts needing more stuff, I mean, kids are expensive, right? You guys are great. It's—it's so great."

No way could Nick say, maybe you'd be better off without me lumbering around on that stage like a big fat zeppelin, not with Brian grinning like that and looking so trusting and happy. He was just going to have to try harder with his diet. "See you tomorrow," he said, forcing a smile onto his own face.

* * *

"I got good news," Howie announced as soon as AJ strolled through the door. "I talked to Big Marc, he says he's okay if we want to rehearse afternoons in here. He said it'll give him something to do, watching us practice, better than sitting around on his butt all day reading the papers."

"That's cool," said Kevin. "I know how he feels."

"Is that what you do all day?" AJ said, curiously. "Sit and read the paper?"

"I tried going to interviews. But there's not much out there, and fifty guys like me for every job. Don't get me wrong, I think we're all crazy for doing this—thing—we're doing, but it's better'n doing nothing at all."

"What do you do all day?" Nick was curious.

"Masturbate, mostly," said AJ.

Kevin rolled his eyes so hard he could probably see his brain. Nick snickered.

"So when are we doing the show?" Howie asked, turning to Brian.

Brian didn't look so happy today. "Uh. Bit of a problem. I talked with the manager at Margaritaville, and he likes the idea, he said the bar takings were phenomenal at the last one, but when I told him we were, um, a new group, he said he wants a deposit. To guarantee we sell enough tickets. Won't book us without a deposit. Johnny says if we pull in enough customers we get the deposit back and he'll make the profit on the bar and ten percent, we get most of the ticket income—because most nights they only charge a dollar admission and we can charge twenty-five—"

"Twenty-five?" said Nick, astonished. "I thought you said maybe ten!"

"That show we saw? Forty dollars admission," said Brian. There were sounds of amazement, and disbelief. Who had forty dollars to spare for a night out? "And the place was packed. Since we're beginners, I figured twenty-five was fair. But he wants the deposit."

"So we don't have a venue," said Kevin, after a moment.

"I'll get the money," said Brian, with a determined set to his jaw that Nick knew meant he would do anything to make this happen. "I'll ask my—Leighanne. She'll get it back, and more. I'll tell her it's an investment."

"But what if—"

"I'll get the money," said Brian.

"Okay," said Nick. "So we need to, um. Dance."

So they lined up and Kevin showed them some steps he called basics, and they worked on those for a bit. It was easier than Nick had expected, at least at first, and more fun, too. He thought maybe he was getting it. Turned out, though, that they could all do the steps when they were standing next to each other, but when Kevin wanted them to move around a bit or use opposite feet, everything went completely to pieces. He kept shouting at them to go forward, or drop back, or go sideways, and nobody knew where they were supposed to be, and after Nick went the wrong way for the third time and ended up stepping on AJ's foot, and AJ cursed up a blue streak, it turned out Kevin had quite a temper.

"Maybe something simpler?" Howie suggested, meekly.

Kevin didn't see how it could be much simpler, and said so in very plain words which Nick resented. It wasn't his fault if Kevin couldn't explain stuff. AJ looked pretty pissed, too, so it was probably just as well that Brian stepped in, suggested they take a break, and handed out sodas. He drew Kevin aside and was obviously doing his best to calm things down while Nick, AJ and Howie grumbled together. Then Howie brightened, and pointed out that Brian had brought the promised basketball hoop along, why didn't they find somewhere to fix it and play ball for a while, give Kevin a chance to figure out his stupid choreography. Nick was surprised; last night, Howie had been so uptight about them just being there, and now he wasn't bothered about putting up a hoop. Looked like the talk with Big Marc had been very helpful.

So they found a likely strut and got the hoop set up. After a few minutes of casual play, Brian blasted his way into the game and things got a little more exciting.

"Do that again!" It was Kevin. Wasn't he supposed to be figuring out dance moves?

"What again?"

"That step, spin, step, pivot, jump thing you just did."

Brian shrugged, and did it again. Nick marked him, out of habit, but the ball dropped cleanly through the hoop, as it generally did when Brian was playing.

"Can you all do that?"

They took turns, and yes, they all could, although they didn't score as reliably as Brian did.

"Can you do it without the ball?"

It was a little weird, but, yes. Kevin got all excited and had them doing the moves together, and then two of them marking the other two and pretending to catch the ball then swapping over, like they were on an invisible court. Then they made a circle and threw the ball at one another, and swapped places, and got in one another's faces, until they were all laughing and the irritation from earlier was gone.

Kevin stood in the middle of the circle and smiled, actually smiled. "That's how we do it," he said. "Just like playing basketball."

* * *

Rehearsals definitely got better after that. Kevin kept smiling, well, once or twice, in between shouting at them and stamping around in a rage. The routine with the chairs got quite good, and the one with the hats which was going to be their big finish—they were only dropping one hat per dance, now—and they paired up to start working on the solo numbers, with Kevin watching them all in turn. When they all danced together, Big Marc would sometimes amble out of his office to watch. Big Marc, it turned out, worked at Margaritaville a couple nights a week for a bit of extra cash. He was enormously amused to see Nick and Brian again, and thought the whole enterprise was a riot.

But they still didn't have anywhere to perform. Nick had asked Brian that first time, when he knew Brian had had Baylee for the weekend, and Brian's tight-lipped shake of the head had been all too informative. Leighanne wasn't going to lend him the money for some unknown 'investment', and if Brian told her what they were doing, she still wasn't going to lend him the money. She'd been at that show, but she was not going to approve of Brian being a stripper, and besides, she'd never believed Brian could make a success of anything. Not for years. And there didn't seem to be anyone else who could be tapped for the money—if any of them had had any, they wouldn't be here.

In any case, he wasn't that worried about whether the five of them got to put on a show or not. It was fun, meeting every afternoon at the warehouse, working on the routines, having a few laughs. Better than hanging around by the river, just to be out of the house. In fact, Nick was perfectly content not to think about doing this stuff as a real performance.

The others, though, were getting itchy. Kevin looked indefinably more anxious every day. AJ kept muttering about his debts. Howie fretted openly. And Brian was losing his sparkle again, and that was something Nick hated to see, hated it so much that he seriously considered asking his own family for the deposit money. For about two minutes, then he realized it'd be completely pointless, because nobody in his family had any money either. They spent it all on clothes and makeup and shoes and music and going out. For another thing, if Aaron or any of his sisters discovered what Nick was doing, then Mom would find out, and then—Nick just didn't want to deal with that. He tried not to think about it.

So they practiced, and they got better, and everyone started contributing to the moves and improving the routines, and gradually, the idea of taking their clothes off began to seem... normal. Until the day when Brian bounced in through the warehouse door, with Howie grinning behind him, and announced that they had a date and a venue and they were all going to be rich!

"It's all thanks to Howie," he added, beaming.

"What, did you win the lottery, or something?" AJ asked.

"It was, um, my sister. I tell her every day what we've been doing, 'cause of not being around in the afternoons, and she said she thought it was a great idea and if she could help, she wanted to. She can't sew, because she, because of her illness, but she gave me her bank book and said she was going to invest in us."

"So," said Brian, "we went to Margaritaville and put our money down on a date. Two weeks from Thursday."

"Two weeks?" Nick squeaked.

"Thursday?" said AJ, sounding affronted.

"Yeah, well, they have some band or something booked for the weekend," said Brian. "So,we should start rehearsing with costumes. Howie and me, we'll go see Nicole again and pick up the costumes. If she wants a deposit, Howie's sister said she's okay to cover it. Kevin can drive, we'll never be able to carry all those clothes back here. Which leaves you guys to go buy the other stuff." He looked merrily at AJ and Nick.

"Other stuff?"

Brian's hands framed his crotch for an alarming moment.

"Oh, yeah," said AJ. "Right."

"What?" said Nick.

"Fancy underwear. Like, um, leather jockstraps or those thong things, with sequins, maybe." AJ paused, noticing that Kevin and Nick were staring at him in horror. "We can't go on stage in our everyday underwear," he said, reasonably.

Nick supposed not, and remembered Lance's gilded, glorious ass in that thong. Holy shit, was he going to have to wear a thong? "Aren't we the guys who strip right down to nothing?"

"Sure we are, but we don't give them everything at once," Brian said, brisk and businesslike. "I was thinking, we do it like this, we save the, you know, the total exposure bit for the very end of the show. Our big finish. So we need stuff we can dance around in for the other numbers. Howie, you got a pen and paper in there?"

Nick sat down on his practice chair while Brian and AJ consulted enthusiastically over the details of what they would need, and made a note of everyone's underwear size. Kevin caught his eye, and shrugged. There was no stopping Brian in this mood.

"Isn't it cool?" said Howie. "We have a date! How are those posters coming, Nick? We should get them printed, we have to make sure we sell tickets."

"Uh. Well. The thing is, we don't have a name, so—"

"Oh, man, you're right! Hey, Brian!" Howie called. "We don't have a name!"

This was agreed to be a big problem. They tossed around a few ideas—The Steel City Strippers, Carson Street Boys, The Grinders—but couldn't agree on one. Eventually Brian decided that the name problem would have to wait until tomorrow, they had to go see Nicole and get the costumes sorted, and if anyone had any inspiration they must be sure and write it down.

So he and Howie and Kevin went off in Kevin's car, and AJ presented Nick with a spare helmet, and Nick slid gingerly onto the back of AJ's ancient motorbike and sat awkwardly with his hands resting on AJ's leather-jacketed waist until the bike started to move, and then clung nervously until they drew up outside a seedy-looking store a couple of streets from Margaritaville.

Nick had never actually been inside a sex shop before. There were so many... things on display. A cashier behind the counter was filing her nails. Two men with their backs to the rest of the store lingered by the racks of videos. By the far wall, a middle-aged woman was examining an array of dildos, her face pursed in an assessing way that made Nick feel strangely nervous. Although he would have liked to look at the dildos too, since he was here, in a sex shop. Except he couldn't afford one. Probably.

"Ah, that looks like the place to start." AJ pulled Nick over to the underwear display. It was a bit scary, although the most horrifying items seemed to be for women to wear. "Do you think Howie would like leopard-print?" AJ said, holding up a blotchy little scrap. "Ooh, wait, actual fur!"

Nick really couldn't summon a lot of enthusiasm for picking out thongs for the other guys. It was too weird. In self-defense, though, he decided it would be prudent to select his own, and grabbed hastily for something in scarlet satin and another in black and gold. They needed several pairs, apparently, to go with the different outfits. You'd think Brian and AJ were the gay ones, the way they'd been going on about co-ordinating. Nick was about to go find a basket when he spotted something truly horrific in gold lamé—which, he decided at once, would be just perfect for Brian. He showed it to AJ, who agreed.

"Or, wait, what about this one?" AJ held up a rainbow-sequinned object.

"Nah, Brian's not really a rainbow kind of guy. Let's go with the gold."

"I can't quite figure Brian out," AJ said, casually, as he checked through the leopard print thongs for Howie's size. "I thought maybe you and he were an item."

"Me and Brian? Brian's not gay," said Nick, startled.

"Really? He's always, like, hugging us all, and complimenting everybody's moves."

"Yeah, but, that's. That's because he's Brian, not because he's gay."

"Oh. Okay. Ah-hah! That looks like one for me!" Humming happily, AJ picked out a slick black PVC G-string for himself. Nick, intimidated, left him to it.

The cashier and the middle-aged woman were discussing vibrators so Nick grabbed a basket and fled back to AJ. Really, there was nowhere in here that was safe! He tried hard to keep his gaze fixed on the grubby walls between the shelves while AJ piled things—thongs—into the basket and crossed them off his list. After hours, it felt like, AJ sauntered up to the counter and boldly asked for a discount. Nick stayed well clear, pretending to be looking at magazines, but the bits of conversation that floated over to him made it clear that AJ was telling the cashier all about their show, and telling her where she could buy a ticket. The two of them looked over at Nick, and grinned together in a most unsettling way. Nick felt the blood rushing into his cheeks and picked up a magazine to hide behind. Opening it was a mistake, though.

"Are we done now?" he said, as AJ hauled his purchases to the exit and stuffed the bags into the top-box on his bike.

"There's another store across the river," AJ said. "They have some better stuff, classy. Leather. But this place is cheaper. Jo-Ann says she'll put up a poster for us, so maybe they'll do the same at the other place. C'mon, mount up."

So they went to another sex shop, and Nick had to stand around again waiting for AJ to pick out a suitable set of matching jocks. And, as it turned out, a strappy harness thing for himself, to wear with the leather outfit. Nick tried very hard indeed not to imagine AJ's lithe body wriggling around in leather straps and a shiny G-string, and had to pinch himself viciously to get the picture out of his head.

The dildos were shockingly expensive, too. He'd have to save up for weeks and weeks.

AJ set off in the wrong direction, and took them back across the river via the Birmingham Bridge instead of going down to Glenwood, which'd be much handier for getting home. As they crossed, Nick glanced upstream. That was the bridge where they'd met Howie, and—and a notion of great brilliance filled his brain, and he tapped AJ's shoulder and signaled to him to pull over because really, this had to be shared, right now.

"Hot Metal!" he blurted, as soon as AJ had dragged his helmet off. "Hot Metal!"

AJ looked at the bike, and back at Nick.

"No, no," said Nick, impatiently. "Us! The group! Hot Metal! Like the bridge. Because we all used to work in steel, and we're from Pittsburgh, and we're, we're supposed to be hot. So."

"You know," said AJ, "that's good. That's really good."

"I can do the poster now," said Nick. He could see it, quite clearly, exactly how it should look.

"Want me to model? Hey, I can wear my new—"

"You should probably, um, I mean, maybe not the thong, you know?"

"Just the leather pants, then?"

"Uh. Okay." And the harness thing, too, and if they went into the park right here, AJ could pose with the bridge in the background, and wow, that'd bring the customers in, Nick was sure.

So they went to Nick's house, and he sneaked in to fetch his drawing stuff, and sneaked out again before anyone noticed, and they went back to River Front Park to do the picture. It turned out really, really good.

* * *

Everybody thought so, next day, when they met at the warehouse. The new name was agreed to be exactly what they'd been looking for, and the illustration, Brian stated confidently, was going to bring the ladies flocking to the show. Kevin examined the poster very carefully for accuracy, and claimed it to take to the printer. He knew someone who'd started up a printing business and thought he could get a good deal.

So now they were really in business.

The next few days were a blur of activity. Rehearsals got a whole lot more serious, with the show date looming. The posters came back from the printer, and the four of them—Howie couldn't spare any more time away from home, apparently his sister wasn't very well—took them everywhere they could think of.

It was fun, except for the heavy feeling in the pit of Nick's stomach. It was fun rehearsing the dances, they really were getting better, down to one hat dropped per routine, and Kevin wasn't yelling at them about the stupid stuff any more. It was fun, of a kind, talking people into displaying the posters and taking flyers. It was fun, always, hanging out with the guys, it felt like being with family even though the only one he'd known for ever was Brian. But underneath all the fun was that feeling of dread, because this was all coming to an end soon. And it ended up with him taking his clothes off in front of people, and being laughed at.

Nick tried to forget it. He kept so busy even Mom noticed, and he had to endure a long bitchfest about how he was always hanging around with Brian, and people would talk. She knew perfectly well that Brian was straight—he had a kid, for fuck's sake—she only did it to wind Nick up. And yes, he knew he was too worthless to be able to get a girlfriend (even if he'd wanted one) because he didn't have a job and he was just a lazy slob who was never going anywhere. He really didn't need to be told. So it was a relief to get back to the warehouse and joke around with people who appreciated that he was doing his best to get the dancing right. Except that it would end up with him taking his clothes off in front of people, and they'd boo and call him names.

He honestly didn't know how he could do it.

But he couldn't let them down, not after all the work they'd put in. Brian was practically manic these days, he'd go up to random women in the street or in the supermarket and flirt with them, and give them posters. Kevin seemed to have cheered up so much from the surly guy they'd blackmailed into joining them, now that he had a way to pay off his debts—and something to do every day. Nick had a feeling that was helping, too. It certainly seemed to be working for AJ, who smiled all the time now and didn't look at all sinister despite the tattoos and the leather. Not that the tattoos, or the leather, were exactly—they definitely worked. Definitely. And AJ got this expression in his incredible eyes, it was so intense, it was, like, pure sex. Nick usually found something else to do when AJ was running through his routines, because popping a boner which wouldn't quit would be a totally bad idea.

Nick's dreams were getting very interesting these days. He never knew if he was going to wake up sweating from a nightmare or covered in come with a vivid memory of AJ and leather straps (and once, most alarmingly, Brian). Either way the laundry was getting out of hand.

"Okay, guys," said Brian, panting slightly as they came to the end of their chair routine. "Time for a break. I got some news."

They clustered. Nick opened his chair and sat on it, and after a moment, the others did the same.

"What we need," said Brian, "is a trial run. We need to do this in front of an audience, to make sure we're doing it right. Also, Big Marc wants to practice his spiel." Big Marc was going to introduce them, and fill in between spots. He said he spent hours in that club listening to crappy comedians. He could do better. "Like, a dress rehearsal."

"An undress rehearsal," said AJ.

"Yeah! Exactly. So, Howie's sister wants to see the show, but she's not, she isn't—"

"She can't deal with going out to the club," Howie interrupted matter-of-factly. "It'd be noisy and crowded and, well, she can't do it. But she can come here."

"Yeah," said Brian, before anyone could figure out what to say to Howie. "So I thought, let's do it tomorrow."

"I haven't—my costume isn't—" Nick interrupted. He had, with considerable difficulty, attached half the velcro to his Fireman trousers, but it was really hard to sew and he wasn't finished yet.

"I figure, we do the group dances, and maybe a couple of solos, not the whole gig. And, um. We ought to do the, you know. The whole deal. Practice our last dance."

Kevin coughed. "Is your sister okay with that, Howie?"

"She's looking forward to it," Howie said, looking faintly uneasy. "She promised she wouldn't look at me," he added, hopefully.

"Anyway," Brian said, "since she's our investor, and all, I think we should do this. So. Tomorrow. Then we have a week to change things if we have to."

* * *

Nick peered around the door of the tiny office they were using as a changing room. "Shit!" he hissed.

"How many are there now?" AJ sounded nervous.

"I dunno, maybe twenty." On second thoughts, it looked closer to thirty.

"Shit," said AJ.

They sneaked another look. At the far end of the warehouse, the little crowd of middle-aged and elderly women were making themselves comfortable on the folding chairs, chattering happily, sharing candy. One of them had brought her knitting.

There was a shadow at the entrance, and Brian entered. He stopped, rigid, at the sight of their audience, but Nick saw him brace himself and smile as he went over to talk to them, and free up one of the chairs in the front row. Howie and Kevin came in next, with Howie's sister walking very carefully between them, holding on to their arms. She had a purple headscarf, and when Howie settled her tenderly into her seat, he spread out a vibrant red-and-purple quilt across her lap.

"Brian!" Nick whispered fiercely.

"Hey guys! Looking good." Nick and AJ were already in their tuxedos, ready for the first number. It had taken Nick twenty minutes to tie his bowtie, but Kevin had insisted that they have the kind they could unravel. Women liked that, he'd said.

Anyway, Brian wasn't getting away with this by complimenting them. "I thought it was just Howie's sister," Nick whispered fiercely. "Who are all those women?"

"Mostly Howie's family. His sisters and his cousins and his aunts. And I think his mom brought her sewing circle along."

"His mom? He brought his mom?" Nick was going to get naked in front of somebody's mom?

"No, see, this is great. This is a sales opportunity," Brian insisted. "They know everybody in the Hispanic community, I'm telling you, if they like what they see they'll tell all their friends and we'll sell hundreds more tickets. Anyhow, we wanted to practice with an audience. So now we got one."

Howie and Kevin joined them, and changed hurriedly. Brian signaled to Big Marc that they were almost ready, and he strolled forward to greet the ladies.

Nick couldn't believe he was about to do this. But the music started up, a Color Me Badd song from last year, and the five of them spread out into formation and began to dance.

The lady in the front put down her knitting.

They danced. They did a good job. Nick was out of formation once, and Brian tripped as he slipped out of his shoes and nearly brought Kevin down, but apart from that it went quite smoothly. The ladies seemed to enjoy it. There was a lot of giggling, and polite applause, and a storm of chatter when they trooped back to the office to change.

Brian was the first one to realize that the 'stage' was now covered with discarded tuxedos, shiny vests, shirts and shoes. He hurried back to collect everything, and was greeted with enthusiasm, particularly when he bent to pick up the stuff. His face was the color of a tomato when he got back to the office. "We have to get that sorted," he gasped, pulling on his cowboy outfit with trembling fingers. "Someone to clear the stage between numbers."

Kevin, very pale, was settling his hard hat on his head. They'd drawn straws for who'd get to do solos tonight. "It is a far, far better thing," he muttered, and waved to Big Marc to change the music.

"I'll clear, after Kevin and you," said AJ. He was already in the police uniform they were using for the dance with the chairs which would end their first half. "But we need to get somebody to do it for the show."

The sewing circle were really getting into it, there was a bit of shrieking going on, and when Kevin came back he was blushing a bit but obviously pleased—or relieved, at any rate. He and Nick manhandled Brian out through the door—this was all Brian's fault, it served him right—and they all watched in amusement as, a few minutes later, Brian was strutting along the front row inviting the ladies to undo the buttons on his jeans. Nick became aware of quiet, monotonous chanting behind him. It was Howie, either swearing or praying, in Spanish. Nick hoped it wasn't an oath of vengeance. Howie's sister had just undone a button.

"Brian's going for the tips," AJ commented.

"I think he's going to be a rich man," said Kevin. "Or possibly torn limb from limb."

Brian trotted back to them in his gold lamé thong, breathless and grinning and looking very pleased with himself, so AJ went out to collect the abandoned costume while Brian changed and Big Marc told some more jokes.

And then, the big number with the chairs. This time there was more applause as they formed up on the stage. This was the hardest routine, getting the chairs to slam shut in unison, opening them crisply, sitting and spinning and standing on the chairs without wobbling or drifting out of time. Nick had to concentrate so hard that he almost forgot he was taking his clothes off—it was just part of the routine, sit, loosen tie, lean sideways, up and spin, tie comes off... They got through it without any serious fuck-ups, and stood in line to take a bow before carting the chairs back. Howie and Brian pulled shirts on this time before collecting the costumes. AJ was going to do one of his solos next, the leather one. Nick hoped none of the ladies had a weak heart.

AJ was discarding his leather vest when Howie said, in a puzzled voice, "I thought we didn't have any special effects. Why are there blue flashing lights?"

The four of them froze, horrified, and seconds later, two police officers appeared in the doorway.

Nick hid. He and Howie stayed in the office, furtively changing into their street clothes at high speed. Naturally, Brian (mostly dressed in the finale costume) had gone straight out to greet the unexpected arrivals, and Kevin had followed, though pulling on the pants and shirt he had just discarded might not have been the best choice, in the circumstances. They, and AJ, and Big Marc, and most of the ladies from the sewing circle, were engaged in an animated discussion with the two very bewildered police officers. Nick figured he and Howie should stay out of it, but to his surprise, Howie scuttled out of the office just as soon as he was decent, and went right over to that crowd of people. Nick sighed and followed.

"So let me get this straight," the large cop was saying. "You are one of the custodians employed to look after this place, and you gave these people permission to do, what, a rehearsal?"

Big Marc nodded stoutly. "With a, uh, invited audience," he confirmed.

"Well, I don't know," said the cop. "We got a disturbance called in. I guess this was it."

"From the description it sounded more like kids having a rave," said his female partner. "Or dog-fighting, maybe."

"That was probably when we dropped our pants," said AJ, innocently. The two cops stared, the female one with interest, the male with horror.

"What kind of a rehearsal is this?" said the male officer.

Brian presented him with a poster. The female officer looked at it, and grinned. "Hey, I missed the last one. Heard it was a blast. I'll have to check my schedule, maybe I can go see this." She took the poster from her partner's nerveless hands, folded it and stuck it in her pocket. "So, you guys are strippers?"

"That's right," said Brian. "Hot Metal. Special exclusive performance, one night only."

"They're very good!" called one of Howie's sisters or cousins or aunts, and there were hoots of approval from all the others. The male cop gaped at the collection of excitable middle-aged and elderly ladies, and at Brian and AJ (who was still, mercifully, wearing his leather pants—also his strappy harness thing), and obviously decided he was out of his league.

Kevin stepped smoothly up to the plate. "We'll be happy to wrap things up now, officers. We didn't realize we were causing a disturbance. We're very sorry to have troubled you." He looked suitably contrite, and the female cop looked him up and down with distinct interest.

Her partner's relief was palpable. "That would be a good idea. It is kinda late. Noise carries, this time of night. You just get yourselves back to your homes and we'll say no more about this." Nick was pretty relieved himself. For a moment he'd thought they were all going to be arrested. Instead, the cops were leaving, and one of them might even be buying a ticket for the show.

The ladies were quite put out, and really, who wouldn't be, since AJ still had his pants on and they'd been deprived of the grand finale. But though there was a bit of grumbling, they picked up their knitting and purses and got themselves out of the warehouse in a remarkably short time. Several of them patted Howie on the arm, or pinched his cheek and told him he was lovely, on the way out.

As soon as the place had cleared, Howie and Kevin helped Howie's sister outside. She was looking very weary, Nick thought. He wondered what was wrong with her. Howie hadn't said, and Nick didn't like to ask. He'd noticed Howie looking more and more careworn when he arrived at rehearsals, and how the worry lines smoothed out while he was dancing and then creased right up again when it came time to leave. He worried about Howie. But he didn't know what to say.

"Well," said Brian, briskly, as the three of them started putting the chairs away (Big Marc was dismantling the music system, and grumbling about giving him heart failure). "That was good timing!"

"What?" said Nick.

"Ten minutes earlier, we were all wearing police uniform."

"Yeah, and ten minutes later, we'd probably all have been stark naked," said AJ.

When you put it like that, Nick supposed, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

* * *

The only real problem was that now, they couldn't rehearse in the warehouse any more. Nobody wanted Howie or Big Marc to lose their jobs. So while Brian spent the weekend with his kid, and Howie spent the weekend with his sister, and Nick spent the weekend practicing his solo numbers in his room and trying desperately to convince himself that he was going to look okay, Kevin managed to contact the person who ran the bookings for the South Side Community Center. Nobody knew what AJ did on the weekend. Nick suspected he had lots of sex, but maybe AJ always looked like he'd had lots of sex.

Monday morning's rehearsal went surprisingly well. Having an audience, and actual applause, had lifted everybody's spirits, even Howie's. Brian was completely incapable of keeping still.

Nick had finished the dishes and decided to listen to music in his room rather than watch TV with Mom and BJ. He was just getting settled on his bed when his middle sister grinned at him from his bedroom doorway.

"Hey, big brother."

"Hey, Leslie. Not working tonight?"

"Nah. Place is dead, Mondays. But there's this thing on Thursday, should be a real busy night."

Nick sat up.

"I saw the posters today, 'cause usually I don't go in the lobby, staff go in the side door, but you know what, I thought it kinda reminded me of those drawings you used to do of me and Angel and Aaron."

"Oh?" he said, warily. Why hadn't he thought of this? He should have told Leslie weeks ago, when they got the date at Margaritaville, he should have told her not to mention this at home, not to anyone—

"So I just kinda wondered," she said, and sat down next to Nick on the bed. "If it was you."

"You can't tell Mom," he said, and got up to shut the door. "Promise, swear to me, you won't tell Mom. If she finds out I'm doing this strip show—"

"Oh, my God! You're in the show? Oh my God, Nick! Oh. My. God."

"Yeah, I am," he said, feeling the heat rush into his cheeks. "Promise me, Leslie. Promise."

"Okay, okay, I promise. Oh my God. You know I'm gonna be watching, right?"

"Yeah, well, lots of people are gonna be watching."

"No kidding, they sold, like, a thousand tickets."

"More'n that," said Nick. The manager gave Brian daily updates.

"Wow. Aren't you," she looked at him doubtfully, "I mean, aren't you a bit—are you really going to get up on stage and take off your clothes? You're not, like, the announcer or something?"

"No. I'm part of the group."

"Oh, my God."

"Leslie, I swear, if you tell anyone about this I'll kill you."

"No, no, it's fine. I'm not going to tell Mom. She might not want me to work that night, and I wouldn't miss this for anything! Oh, my God. I can tell the guys at work, though, right?"

"I... guess. But, please—"

"Don't tell Mom. I get it."

After she left, Nick lay back down on the bed, and felt sick. He really was crazy, getting up on that stage in front of people and taking his clothes off. Leslie thought it was a joke, he could tell. He was going to get up there and everyone in the club was going to laugh.

But they needed him. He was part of the group. Brian needed the money for Baylee, and Howie needed it for his sister, and Kevin needed it for his wife and AJ needed it for his debts. They needed him. He had to do it.

Nick pulled up his T-shirt and stared at his belly. A pale, smooth pillow, not a trace of definition anywhere.

Who'd want to see that naked?

* * *

Tuesday, there was some kind of fitness class in the morning and a toddler group in the afternoon, but Kevin had booked the four hours in between, and collected Brian and Nick from Homestead in time to get them there for eleven.

It was when they got out of the car that disaster struck.


The three of them turned.

"Kevin? What are you doing here?" It was the pretty blonde. Kristin. Kevin's wife. "Why aren't you working?"

"I—I—didn't expect to see you here," Kevin said, weakly. Nick cringed. Even he could tell that was the wrong thing to say.

"It's my free morning, I had my hair cut, I told you—but you never told me you had time off, you went to work this morning like you do every day. So what are you doing here?"

"We'll, um, get along inside," Brian said, and grabbed Nick. They fled, but from the shelter of the Community Center witnessed what looked like the beginning of an epic row. Neither of them was surprised when Kevin, his face the color of paste, stuck his head around the door for a moment to say he had to go home and... explain.

AJ showed up five minutes later, and winced when they told him what had happened.

Howie didn't show.

By eleven thirty, the three of them were fed up with their solo routines, and beginning to get seriously worried. There was a pay phone in the lobby, so they trooped out and Brian called Howie's home.

"Hey, Howie, it's Brian. Is, uh, is everything okay?"

His face changed.

"Oh, man. Man. I'm so sorry. No, of course you can't, we understand, totally. I'm so sorry. You take care of yourself now, okay?"

He hung up.

"Is it his sister?" Nick asked, though he could see that it must be.

Brian had tears in his eyes. "She died."

Nick and Brian started the long walk home in a state of shock. Howie's sister, such a sweet lady, and—gone? Just like that?

"i never realized it was, that she was so ill," Brian said. "She always smiled."

"She had a real sweet smile," Nick agreed. "Like Howie's."

"Poor Howie."

They trudged on.

"Frick, what do you do when a person dies?"

"I guess... funeral arrangements, and you have to tell people..."

"No, I mean, what do we do? Should we go visit? Should we send flowers, or something?"

"I'm not sure. I think flowers go to the funeral home, but I didn't ask about that, I didn't think to, I don't know if they even have—I guess there hasn't been time for all the arrangements yet. Howie said it happened in the night. She just didn't wake up this morning." He paused. "Maybe the best thing we can do is make sure he knows we're there for him."

"Yeah," said Nick. "I mean, we're not going to do the show now, are we, not without Howie and Kevin, but I—I kinda liked being around the guys."

"Me, too."

They walked in silence for several minutes.

"Johnny Wright is going to kill me," Brian said. "He'll have to return all the money for those tickets. Shit, it was Howie's sister paid the deposit—did he tell you, it was out of her funeral fund? I'm gonna have to pay him back for that. And there's the costumes, and the printing, and I did it again, didn't I? I got into this stupid scheme to make money and just ended up even deeper in debt."

"You couldn't have known—"

"Leighanne was right about me. I just can't—I don't deserve to be Baylee's father. He's such a great kid, Nick, what does he need a loser like me for? It was a stupid idea from the start, and I should have known better but I never do, I do this every time, every fucking time."

Nick was horrified. He'd never heard Brian like this. "Don't give up! Not—don't give up on your kid, Brian. You can't. He's your son, you're his daddy, you're not a failure."

"I can't do this right now, Nick. I can't. Look. We'll meet up tomorrow. Crap, it was supposed to be our dress rehearsal at the club. Call AJ, would you, say we'll meet there, we have to explain to Johnny anyway. And I'll—I'll call Howie. We can work out, you know. Flowers, or something."

This was Brian's street. Nick pulled him into a hug, the best hug he could give.

"I really thought this was going to work out." Muffled, into Nick's sweater. Nick hugged harder, until at last Brian pulled away. "See you tomorrow, Frack. I'm okay, I'll be fine. It's just, it's been. Yeah."

Yeah, Nick thought.

The most shameful thing, the thing he couldn't admit to any of them because they'd all needed this so much, was the almost painful sense of relief.

* * *

To Nick's surprise, AJ's motorbike roared up just as he arrived at Margaritaville, so he waited while AJ parked and they went round to the side door together. The manager let them in with a welcoming smile. That'd soon change, Nick thought.

There was someone on the stage, gyrating his way through a few moves and looking very fine.

"Nice hips," AJ murmured appreciatively. "Geez, it's Kevin! Wasn't expecting him to show."

Kevin saw them and waved. He jumped down from the stage and went over to them, grinning, just as the sound of the doors behind them signaled Brian had also arrived. Nick didn't remember ever seeing Kevin smile so blithely. He looked like a different man.

"I put the costumes in the changing room upstairs," Kevin said. "Been here a while so I hung everything up, but you should all check to make sure there's nothing missing. Big Marc's talking to the sound guy, and I spoke to the lighting crew already. We're all set. Oh, and I brought the programs, they look good."

"We didn't think you'd be here," AJ said.

"Wouldn't miss it. Kirstin called all her girlfriends last night and told them they have to come see the show. She wants everyone to know exactly how fine her husband is." He smirked. "That woman is amazing. I thought she'd be all broken up about me not being employed, but she just said, well, she was pissed because I never told her, she said what kind of person did I think she was, but she was real excited that we're doing this and she said if I'd told her sooner she could have helped. But she has a lot of girlfriends, so. What's up?"

"The show's off," said Brian.

"What? No—off? You're kidding me. You're not kidding? Why?"

"It's Howie. His sister died."

"Oh, shit." Kevin ran a hand through his floppy dark hair. "When? What happened?"

"Yesterday. She just didn't wake up."

"Shit. Poor Howie."

"Yeah. Obviously he's not going to be able to do this, so."

"I suppose," AJ said, cautiously, "we could still do it with the four of us. I mean, yesterday we thought Kevin was out, too, but he's here now."

"It'll really fuck up the choreography on the group numbers," said Kevin, "but I guess we could try."

"I don't know," said Brian. "Isn't it kinda... disrespectful?"

"We could give him his share of the money," said AJ. "I mean, I'm not saying—it's too late to help his sister, but, uh, funerals are expensive too."

"I guess if we just drop his first half solo, I could do that duo on my own, to open the second half." Brian sounded dubious but hopeful. Nick began to get a sinking feeling in his stomach. "Do you think we can make it work, with four?"

"Or, we could stick to the plan and do it with five," Kevin said, quietly. He was looking past Nick, towards the entrance.

Howie came down the ramp towards them. "Hey," he said.

"Howie, man, I just heard," said Kevin, stepping forward to shake Howie's hand. "I'm so sorry." The rest of them murmured how sorry they were, too, and Howie nodded and thanked them.

"Is there anything we can do?" Brian offered.

"Yes. Put on a great show," said Howie, holding his chin determinedly high.

"Really? I mean, you think—it's okay?" Nick blurted.

"We both knew this could happen. I just didn't think it would happen now, but... Caroline wanted me to do this. She loved that I was working with you guys, that I had friends, a place to go, she said it made her feel better about everything. She always hated that I didn't go out more, she blamed herself. I told her not to, but she did. She told me yesterday—no. Monday, it must have been. She said I was going to be magic and she wished she could have seen the whole show. That's why I want to do it, and make her proud. I know she'll be watching."

There was a lump in Nick's throat. He looked at Brian, who was smiling very faintly as he watched Howie. Any second now, Nick thought, Brian's going to give him a hug. But Brian didn't. Instead he said, "Of course she'll be watching. Come on, everybody. We need to get into our costumes. Got to make sure we get it perfect." From Howie's expression, Nick knew Brian had done the right thing. Brian had great instincts.

The rehearsal went surprisingly well. Maybe it was being on a real stage, with the music booming through giant speakers and bright lights highlighting them, or maybe it was Kevin's new-found lightness of heart, and Howie's determination. Whatever the reason, there seemed to be extra bounce in the routines. If only, Nick thought, if only he wasn't going to let them all down, this would be fun.

They really did have to get someone to pick up after them, though. Big Marc was not the man for the job—besides, he'd be talking to the audience, telling them jokes, introducing the next act.

After they were done, they gathered in the 'dressing room'—a gents' bathroom, though not the one where all this had started, this one was a bit bigger and marginally cleaner—and practiced that final move, the one where they whipped off the very last item of clothing, the fancy leather jockstraps, hiding the move behind their hats and then throwing caution and everything else to the winds. Call it common sense, call it superstition, but they hadn't done that as part of the routine itself. Just in case anyone tried to stop them.

Nick carefully did not look at AJ until both of them were dressed. He spent enough time fantasizing as it was.

"So," said Brian. "We meet here at eight tomorrow night. Show starts at nine. And, Howie? We love you, man." He pulled Howie into a tight embrace. Seconds later they were all squashed together in a five-way hug.

Kevin actually dropped Nick off outside his own house this time. Now that Kristin knew and approved what he was doing, he wasn't paranoid about getting home at the usual time. It was kinda sweet, Nick thought, how she was proud of Kevin for, really, for being a stripper. He'd like to see his family calling all their friends and telling them to buy tickets.

To be fair, it wasn't going to be embarrassing watching Kevin naked on stage. Nick sighed and pushed the front door open.

"I suppose that was one of your stripper friends," said his mother.

* * *

"I did not tell her!"

"You fucking did. You promised me, Leslie, you promised me." Nick wanted to say a whole lot more, to rage and shout, but the words clotted in his throat and wouldn't come out.

"I didn't tell her anything. I told BJ. She already bought tickets, I thought she should know! Think how she'd feel going out to a show with all her girlfriends and seeing her own brother up there on the stage taking his clothes off!" Leslie shouted. "So fuck you!"

Then Angel and Aaron and BJ were all in the doorway telling him not to yell at Leslie and what the hell was he thinking and was he out of his mind anyway and it was just the grossest thing ever and how could he be so stupid and Nick couldn't stand it, he couldn't stand it a second longer. He shoved past the lot of them and ran out of the house, kept on running, trying to get the noise out of his head. Why would anyone want to see you on stage? Fat and lazy. Too stupid to know better. Such a failure.

He ran, and wanted to break something, to smash and wreck, glass, blood, bones, get it out from under his skin, and wouldn't you know, nobody out looking for a fight tonight. Nobody to break. Nobody to take the rage and the defeat and the words out of his head. He couldn't do it, he couldn't do it, he'd been so fucking stupid ever to think he could do it, they'd have to do it without him. Better like that anyway. They could do it with four.

He wished he could run for ever, just not stop, not have to think about anything else, just run, but he couldn't. Panting, he stopped at a crossroads, not sure for a moment exactly where he was, until he saw the pale lights of the gas station down on the right. He walked towards it. There'd be a pay phone. Found a few coins jangling in his pocket—because he couldn't run away from home with anything useful, like cash, oh no—and dialed the number he knew by heart.

"Brian? I can't, I can't, I'm not doing it. You can do it with four. You'll be better without me anyway. I'm sorry." He hung up before Brian could get any further than his name. Nick stared at the pay phone and wanted to rip it off the wall.

On, down the road, walking now, nowhere to go except away.

A dumpster, outside a boarded-up store. Shelves and cheap cabinets and a couple of old windows. Nick was up there in a moment, stamping and kicking, swinging planks hard against the dumpster sides, cracks and shatters and rage, a shower of glass, break it all, fuck everything, fuck all of it. Feel the boards give way under his feet, stamp them into splinters, crunch his heels on shards, punch his way through the tacky, useless heap of crap until there wasn't a piece left bigger than his hand.

Exhausted, Nick bent over the edge of the dumpster. His hands were beginning to sting.

"We should clean you up."

He stared. It was AJ, sitting calmly on his motorbike. How long had he been there? Nick didn't seem to have the energy to say anything. He just tried to breathe.

"Brian called us all. Said he couldn't reach you at home but you were... upset."

"I'm not doing the show," Nick said.

There was a pause. "Okay," said AJ.

"I can't."

"Okay. Look, is there a phone around here? I should call Kevin's place. You want to hop on? Here's the helmet. We're supposed to check in with Kristin every half hour so they'll know I found you soon enough. You ready? Which way's the gas station?"

Nick pointed wearily and slumped on the seat behind AJ. He stayed there while AJ made his call, and didn't protest when AJ started up the bike again and headed for the Waterfront. Nobody here, this time of night.

"Okay, give," said AJ, when they'd found a bench. "Why are you pulling out? What happened?"

"Why? Why? I can't—" Nick shook his head helplessly. "Don't you see? I can't go up there, I just. Can't."

AJ looked at him. "I get that, Nick. What I don't get is why. You've been fine until now. Is it—showing everything? Because we don't have to, we can talk to Brian—"

"No! Fuck, if that was that—it's not that. It's me. It." AJ was still looking at him as if he didn't see the problem. What was wrong with these guys? Why had they not seen, why had they not said? Why had they pretended there was no problem, when they must have known? He didn't even need this show like they did, they should have kicked him out a long time back. "Look at me, AJ. Just look at me."

"Okay," said AJ, after a moment. "And?"

Nick said, "Fuck it," and pulled up his T-shirt and hoodie. "Who wants to see this dance? Who wants to see this naked?"

AJ's eyes went wide. "Me," he said. "I do."


"Hell, yeah. Who wouldn't?"

Nick laughed. "Anyone wouldn't! I mean, fuck, AJ, just. Look at me."

"I do look at you. I look at you all the time. Nick, if I made you uncomfortable..."

Nick glared at him resentfully. "Then why didn't you say, before? I could have just—I could be the guy who comes out to pick up the costumes, that'd be okay. I don't have to be up there with all you guys."

"Are you out of your mind? You're one of us, Nick, we don't need you to pick up the costumes, we need you on stage shaking that booty. Hell, somebody up there has to make up for me not even having an ass. What's this really about?"

"It's about—it's about four good looking guys in great shape and one fat, white slug looking like a joke up there."

AJ stood up, and hauled Nick to his feet. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. Listen to me. You're a big, strong, solid boy with thighs that make me salivate and an ass that I just wanna bite. I told you, I know I told you, there's a lot of women out there who don't want to see a skinny little runt like me shaking his tush, they want to see someone like you. You're gorgeous."

"That's not, that's not, I'm not—"

"Gorgeous, Nick."

Nick stared at him. AJ could not possibly be serious. He said so.

"Come back to my place tonight and I'll show you exactly how serious I am."

Nick thought maybe his heart had stopped.

"Shit, shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—I can take you back to Kevin's, if you don't wanna go home, Kristin said they have a spare room."

"Huh," said Nick. Of course it was too good to be true. "It's okay, I didn't think you meant it."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," said AJ. He reached a hand up behind Nick's head. "I'd better be right about this," he said, and pulled Nick down for a kiss, a full-on, dirty-mouthed kiss with tongue and teeth and sliding up against him and a hand grabbing his ass like it was hidden treasure. AJ tasted of Coke and smoke, and he kissed like he was starving.

He pulled back, and stared straight up into Nick's face. "Come back to my place," he repeated, "and I'll show you how serious I am."

* * *

AJ's place in Munhall was a tiny third storey apartment, sparsely furnished and unexpectedly tidy. AJ led Nick to the miniscule kitchen area and cleaned his bloodied hands carefully with water and antiseptic lotion. The knuckles were grazed but they weren't as bad as they'd looked with blood and dust everywhere.

"I guess you don't have anything to drink?" Nick asked.

"Uh. Coke?"

"Never mind."

"Do you really need a drink?" AJ was still holding Nick's left hand, stroking his thumb down Nick's pinky finger. Nick didn't know why that was making him feel breathless. He shook his head. AJ looked at him intently, and drew Nick's hand up to his mouth. Sucked in one finger, then two, slid them across the fine silky edge of his teeth, and never let his gaze drop.

Somehow, AJ pulled him backwards, into the main room, over to the bed.

"You know what the best thing about stripping is?" AJ said. "Teaches you what order to take your clothes off. Shoes first, right?" AJ grinned at him, and suddenly Nick felt less nervous. He bent and undid his sneakers, stuffed his socks into them and stood up.

"Seriously, Nick, you—c'mere." Another kiss, deeper and dirtier than the first one, AJ's tongue licking at Nick's lips and around his mouth and AJ's hands roaming up underneath Nick's T-shirt. Nick's belly tensed but AJ's hands didn't seem to care, AJ's hands were sliding all over him, hot against his skin. He'd been wearing gloves on the bike. Nick's hands were still cold from the ride, and AJ winced when Nick's fingers found their way between leather and denim and onto AJ's skinny torso, but AJ's hands kept going, flat palms up his chest, then fingers tracing up his spine, AJ's hands all over him, AJ's hands tugged the clothes up and over his head so that Nick stood there in just his jeans, and didn't have time for more than a moment of self-consciousness before AJ was licking at his nipples.

Nick wasn't sure his legs were going to hold him up much longer, so he let himself down onto the bed. AJ grunted, pushed Nick backwards, and climbed on top of him, all without letting his mouth stop what it was, oh, so miraculously doing. AJ's hips were working some miracles too, writhing and grinding down against Nick's groin, how could he bend like that? Nick's feet were still on the floor, so he heaved and shoved and swung them, and AJ, properly onto the bed.

AJ looked like a predator on the scent as he started to undo Nick's jeans. He inched them down, the teasing bastard. Nick lifted his hips to help. "God, yes," AJ muttered as the denim got to Nick's knees. He hauled them the rest of the way off and spread a hand possessively over each of Nick's thighs. It was hard to believe, seeing AJ licking his lips, that he wasn't serious. And Nick wanted so very much to be convinced, it scared him.

"Hey, man, you need a fork?" he asked. Better to make a joke of it now, than...

AJ stared up at him. He looked almost hypnotized.

"You just, uh, look like you wanna eat me."

A wicked, wicked smile. "Oh, yeah."

AJ's hands slid up Nick's thighs, over his boxers, and bracketed his hard, aching cock, tiny little movements dragging the worn cotton over his shaft.


"Patience, babe. I'm saying grace." But he peeled the undershorts down and over Nick's thighs until Nick could kick free (a move he'd had some practice with lately) and spread his legs and hope that AJ really meant—Oh, God yes. A long, slow lick up his cock, AJ's fingers wrapped around the shaft, and his hot silk-wet mouth. Better than a thousand late-night fantasies. Better than anything. Until, oh, a finger strayed down behind his balls and teased him there, Nick spread his legs wider and moaned, and AJ's fingertip pressed inside, further inside, pushing and retreating. Nick rocked helplessly and gave himself up to AJ's mouth and hands. He cried out as he came, almost a sob, and AJ gentled and soothed, licked him dry, stroked him until he stopped shuddering.

AJ wriggled up the bed. "Seriously," he whispered, "you're gorgeous." His hard cock pressed into Nick's hip, and the hand he wasn't leaning on drifted restlessly across Nick's chest and belly, as if AJ couldn't help but touch him. Nick reached down towards AJ's groin, then stilled as he had a much better idea.

"Fuck me," he said. "I want—will you? Please?" That look in AJ's eyes, he couldn't be faking it, could he, could anyone look that hungry and not mean it? Nick rolled over and onto his knees, as AJ scrabbled in the drawer next to the bed.

"Jesus, Nick!" Hands on his ass, then, and kisses down his spine, and fingers, cold and sticky, stretching him open, getting him ready for the slow, steady pressure of AJ's cock inside him. He'd needed this for so long, needed to be fucked, filled, wanted. AJ wanted him, hands and cock and sounds, hoarse whispered words and incoherent noises, all proved it. Nick pushed back, hard, loving the sharp burn and the dizzying rasp across his prostate, loving AJ's gasps and groans and those hands gripping his hips hard enough to leave bruises. AJ's rhythm sped up, and stuttered and faltered as he lost control, and when AJ collapsed sweatily over Nick's back, Nick was grinning into the pillow.

Later that night they had their first argument. AJ maintained that he had no ass at all; Nick insisted that he had a cute one that fit just right under Nick's palms. Somehow, the discussion ended with AJ gleefully riding Nick's cock, and proving that, ass or no ass, he had hips and knew exactly how to use them.

* * *

AJ's hand groped for the phone, and his morning voice sounded like he gargled with iron filings. "Hey, Kevin," he said. "What time is it? Is there a problem?" He listened for a moment. "Nick's here. He's—ah, ahaha—he's fine. Really." Nick grinned and tightened his grip. "Okay, lemme ask him—Nick, are we okay for tonight?"

Nick considered. "I might need some more convincing," he said, earnestly.

"I'm wor—ah! ah!—working on it," said AJ. "Gotta go." He dropped the phone back onto its cradle. "You know what, though. I don't think we should fuck any more."

"Oh." Nick wasn't sure what to do with his hands, now.

"I mean, until after the show. Don't want to be dancing like ducks, do we." AJ put Nick's hands right back where they'd been. "But we can do everything else."

"Good," said Nick. "Then you do, I mean, after the show, you still want..?"

"After the show," said AJ, "I'm going to be so horny we may not even make it back here. You in that linebacker outfit, hoo boy, I am going to be right behind you watching every move."

Nick grinned, a bit uncertainly, because he wasn't exactly used to the idea that he was something to see. Knowing that AJ was watching, though, that'd help. A lot. He thought, he was almost sure, he could put a bit more bump and grind into the routine if he knew AJ was back in the wings watching his ass. "I guess I'm gonna do it," he said.

"Hey, man! Don't say that. I wasn't done convincing you yet."

AJ really, really liked Nick's ass. And his tongue was very, very convincing.

* * *

Mid-afternoon, fortified by pizza and blowjobs, Nick snuck round to the back door of the house. There shouldn't be anyone home at this time of day, but he was careful to be quiet anyway. He stuffed some clean clothes, toothbrush, washcloth and a few other necessities into his duffel and was about to sneak out again when someone came out of the next bedroom and nearly gave him heart failure. It was Angel.

"Hey, Nick," she said, uncomfortably.

"I just came for some stuff."

"Are, uh, are you okay?"

"Sure," he said stonily. "Why wouldn't I be?" Not like it hadn't happened before.

"Look, Nick, about this show," she blurted. "They won't let me get a ticket, but I want to see it too, can you get me in?"

Nick stared at her in astonishment.

"Come on, Nick, please! Everyone else gets to go! BJ and Leslie get to see it and everyone from the store is going. I don't see why they won't let me in there just because I'm not twenty-one yet. Pleeeease?"

"Sorry. I don't even know how. It's not like we own the club, we're just there for this one night."

"Please, Nick. Couldn't I be, like, your assistant or something?"

"I don't think—uh. Huh. Wait a second." He went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Brian was greatly excited to hear from him.

"Okay," Nick said to the kid sister hovering in the kitchen doorway. "I can get you in, but you have to work."

"Ohmygod, yes!" she shrieked, and leapt to give him a throttling hug. "Nick, that is so great, that is fantastic."

"Yeah, well. Be there at eight. And you have to wear pants," he added, remembering what she usually wore to go out at night.

"Yeah, sure, whatever you say, boss! And I promise I'll only watch the other guys, at least, when you get naked, because that would be gross, I don't need to see my own brother with no clothes on. Are you guys really going to go all the way? That's what the girls at work said."

"If they bought tickets they'll find out tonight," Nick said, and walked back out to where AJ and the bike were waiting for him. They had nearly four hours before they needed to be at the club. He felt sure they could find something at AJ's place to fill the time.

* * *

Angel was waiting out front when they got to Margaritaville. There was a slow-moving line of chattering women half-way down the street, but Big Marc's friend James recognized Nick and AJ from yesterday and waved them on through. The three of them hurried to the side door and up the stairs. Nick told Angel to wait outside, and he and AJ went on into the dressing room, where Howie was calmly eating a banana and reading the newspaper, Kevin was doing some warm-up stretches, and Brian was pacing. He was the first to notice them, and bounded over for some serious hugging, then reached up to give Nick's head a smack.

"You nearly gave me a heart attack! Are you okay? You're sure?"

"Yeah," said Nick. Truth to tell, his stomach was feeling a bit queasy, but he could deal. He wasn't going to let the guys down.

Kevin gave Nick's shoulders a squeeze, and smirked at him in a very knowing way before heading back to his corner. Howie whispered, "It's about time," into his ear, and Nick blinked. Did he have no secrets at all?

He explained about Angel, and brought her in to introduce her to the guys. Kevin, Howie and AJ occupied themselves making a fuss over her and showing her the costumes, but Brian tugged Nick over to one side.

"You did great, getting someone, don't think I don't appreciate it, the rest of us all forgot, but, uh, isn't it going to be a bit awkward, having a girl come in while we're getting dressed?"

Nick just looked at him. "Frick, we're stripping off in front of hundreds of women. What difference does it make if Angel walks in when we're putting our pants on?"

Brian's face contorted. "Hundreds of women." He took a deep breath. "I can do this. I can do this." He looked over at Angel, who was now applying makeup to a docile Howie. AJ, brandishing something that must have been eyeliner, was having trouble convincing Kevin to keep still and stop blinking. "I really need to use the bathroom," Brian said, pathetically.

"Let's find another one," said Nick, trying not to laugh. Brian was getting stage fright?

They paused on the stairs to let a gaggle of girls go by, and ducked quickly into the men's room. "Hey, " said Nick. "This is where it all started!"

Someone was in there—someone male, so that was all right—using the facilities. He turned, and it was the stripper from before—Lance, that was his name.

"I thought it must be you guys!" Lance said, beaming at them, and went to wash his hands.

"Uh," said Brian. "Hi. How are you?"

"I'm good, I'm good. Looking forward to the show."

"You're here to watch us?"

"I sure am! Not often I get the chance, most of the time I am the show, and anyway, I've seen all the usual suspects. From quite close up, most of them. You guys are new!"

"You got any tips for us beginners?" Nick asked.

"Don't let them get more than two fingers on you," said Lance, and nodded emphatically. "Anybody gets a firm grip, you're in real trouble."

"I suppose you don't, uh, that glittery stuff you put on your ass," said Nick, hoping he wasn't blushing too hard, "could I borrow that?"

Lance's face fell. "Sorry, I don't have my kit with me. Pity. That ass deserves to shine!" He winked. "Anyhow, I just wanted to say, you know, good luck, or break a leg, whatever you're supposed to say." He waved cheerily and breezed out.

"Glittery stuff?" said Brian. "On his ass?"

"I looked, okay?" said Nick, grinning. Apparently AJ wasn't the only person around who thought that he, Nick, had an ass worth looking at. "But I forgot about buying some. Maybe Angel will have something."

"Look, Nick, I just wanted to—are you really sure you're okay with doing this? I mean, I never even gave you a choice, I just pushed you into it."

"Truthfully? I'm glad you did. The five of us, in this together, it's been good. Way, way better than hanging around the park with nothing to do. I'm going to miss those guys. I mean, I'll be seeing AJ, I'm pretty sure, but the others."

Light dawned on Brian's face. "You—and AJ? Way to go, Nick!"

Nick tried not to grin too widely as they high-fived. "We should get together again, all five of us, we should set something up."

"There's the funeral, next week."

"Got to be there for that, yeah," Nick agreed. "But, after. We should all stay friends."

"Yeah, we should," said Brian, seriously. "Only I'm thinking, Nick, I haven't been as good a friend as I thought I was. I never even noticed you weren't okay. I'm sorry. I should have done better."

"Hey. It wasn't your fault. And I'm okay now." It was true. Knowing that AJ (and maybe Lance) thought he was sexy, it made all the difference. He could believe the crowd... wouldn't actually laugh, anyway. That'd do.

"Really okay? Because we don't have to do the finale thing, we don't have to do that, not really—"

"Yeah, we do! Otherwise the audience will tear us apart! Or at least ask for their money back. Hell, even my little sister knows."

Brian winced.

"Besides, I don't think it's such a big deal anyway. Seriously."

"Oh," said Brian. "Huh. I was kinda..."

"It was your idea, Frick."

"Yeah, but you know I'm crazy, what did you guys want to go along with me for, anyway?"

"It'll be fine."

"You really think so?"

"Yeah," said Nick. "I do."

Howie, bless him, had brought two huge bottles of suntan lotion. When Nick and Brian got back to the dressing room, the other guys were standing there in the ridiculous thongs with the little red bow ties. Howie was diligently applying lotion to AJ's back, and Angel, looking like Christmas had come early this year, was anointing Kevin. There was a powerful smell of coconut.

"This stuff is going to make the costumes disgusting," Kevin observed.

"Looks good, though," said AJ, examining his gleaming torso with approval.

When all five of them had been smeared with lotion, and had checked each other's outfits, and Kevin had adjusted Nick's bow tie, they sent Angel, with the costume hamper, to find herself a good spot beside the stage. Big Marc stuck his head around the door to ask if everyone was ready, because the joint was heaving and the manager said to get the show started.

They huddled, and Brian said a quick prayer, and they were ready.

Big Marc announced them with a flourish, and there was applause, real applause. And as they strolled forward into the light, there was a wild whoop. That was Kristin, right at the front, whistling and yelling. Then there were more shouts from all around the club, and that felt good, that felt incredible, all those people here to watch them, all those people ready—eager—to see their show. Nick could feel the difference as they started on the tuxedo dance, and when they undid their bow ties, and the audience anticipation went up a notch, he started to grin.

There was a whole lot of clapping and yelling as they scampered offstage in their thongs, and as Nick glanced around, the other four were all looking pretty much the way he felt—excited, gratified and enormously relieved. Brian scurried ahead, as he had the first solo.

"Ow!" Nick jumped, and looked around. AJ smiled innocently, if AJ could do anything innocently. Nick rubbed his ass and scowled, but if AJ couldn't resist his butt, he actually didn't mind one bit.

Sitting in the dressing room in his Steelers uniform while Kevin and then Howie went on for their solos, Nick began to wish he'd been first. At least he wouldn't have to sit and wait and think about it. AJ and Brian helped him check his costume, and then it was his turn, oh, fuck, it was his turn, but AJ whispered, "What are you?" as Big Marc was winding up, and Nick took a deep breath and clutched his football with grim determination.

"I'm gorgeous," he said. Hell, it was only four minutes. He could do this.

AJ's watching me, he thought, and posed for the spotlight. And... there were screams, and there were whistles, and Nick had to believe it now, because he was the only one on the stage, they were yelling for him. He started on the hip thrusts, and the noise got louder. He spun, pressed the ball onto the stage, and stuck his ass out, and wow! Every time he leaned down into three-point stance and waggled his butt he got cheered, and when he punted the ball into the crowd, people actually fought to catch it.

Four exhilarating minutes later, Nick sauntered offstage wearing a shiny black and gold thong and an enormous grin, and carrying a helmet full of dollars. Angel, wide-eyed, scooted past him with the hamper. From the opposite side of the wings, AJ gave him a double thumbs up, then braced himself for his own solo.

The club's manager brought them complimentary beers during the interval, said he was real pleased with the event, and asked them if they would consider doing another show in a few months' time. Their checks, he told them, would be ready for them to pick up tomorrow.

After Johnny had gone back downstairs, the five of them looked at one another.

"I... don't think I could do this again," Kevin said eventually.

The rush of relief was palpable. Everyone agreed.

"I am so glad you guys said that," said Brian. "Don't get me wrong, it's been great, and I am so grateful, I don't have the words. I needed this so much. I couldn't lose my kid, I was just desperate, and now, I got myself a fresh start and I don't mean to waste it. I'm, um, thinking of investing in the future, you know, retraining. Healthcare. Do you think I'd make a good nurse?"

"Brian, that's amazing! You'll be great," Nick said instantly, and everyone converged on Brian.

"It's worked out for me, too," said Kevin.

"And me," said AJ, giving Nick a sly wink.

"And me," said Howie. "Not like... not like I meant it to, but, she worried about me, and I think it made things better for her, and I know she was proud of me. I—I'm glad we got to do this."

"Yeah, but we aren't done yet," Brian pointed out. "We still have to..."

"Give the audience a real thrill," said AJ.

"We're definitely going to, then?"

"Yeah, we are," said Nick. "They paid to see us, they're out there cheering for us, we can't cheat them out of the big finish."

Brian grinned. "Okay then. Let's get out there and be awesome."

And they were.


Back to Popslash Index
Back to Alternative Popslash Index