Mike was so surprised to see Stardust there in front of him, that he sat unmoving with his mouth open for several moments. It took an ear-splitting whistle of appreciation from the table next to him to jar him out of his shocked freeze. He managed to close his mouth, but he couldn't take his eyes away from the stage - away from the man on stage. Mike had thought the other man was beautiful during their first meeting but seeing him now with his creamy skin dusted with gold glitter and sultry dark makeup enhancing his golden eyes, he was in awe.
Stardust's, or Glimmer's, lithe body moved in sensuous waves, hips rolling, spine arching as if in the throes of a climax. His long-legged stride carried him to the front edge of the stage, where he ripped open his shirt. Glimmer spun around in a slow circle as he shrugged out of the mock Air Force uniform top and tossed it to the side, leaving him in nothing but his boots and those little shorts. But a heartbeat later they came off too, Glimmer's hands sliding over his hips and ass before he unzipped and shimmied out of the shorts, revealing a pair of skimpy dark-blue square cut briefs. The underwear decorated with sparkling rhinestones over his groin somehow managed to be even smaller than the miniscule shorts he'd discarded, the sheer material giving the club patrons a tantalizing peek at the bare skin beneath.
With that sheet of black hair swinging against his back, Stardust returned to the pole. He made it appear effortless to climb and spin and hold himself suspended, but the lean muscles revealed the strength required to clasp the pole and hold his entire body up with nothing but his thighs and core strength. Mike watched the raven-haired man's every move, completely enthralled with his glowing, seductive presence.
As Aiden reached the middle of his performance, he gracefully dismounted from the pole for more floor work. Now was the time to really get the club patrons riled up, teasing and flirting until the cash in their pockets ended up at his feet. Looking out over the cheering and whistling crowd, he noticed a pair of broad shoulders a few rows back. Something about the build was familiar, but that section of the club was in shadow, preventing him from seeing the person's face. He was about to mentally shrug and move on, when the strobe lights flashed over that area, giving Aiden a quick glimpse of a hard, clean-shaven jaw, skin tanned by the sun, and a sharp haircut. It was enough for recognition to hit.
Aiden let his lips curl in a grin. The set of shoulders belonged to the beefcake from the firehouse. The poor guy looked uncomfortable, sitting with his neck stiff and back ramrod straight. But despite his apparent discomfort, his eyes were locked on the stage, following Aiden's every step. Aiden kept dancing but instead of casting suggestive glances over the patrons as he usually did during a performance, he watched Zielinski. Aiden knew the exact moment the other man realized Aiden was staring at him, because he immediately averted his gaze. Aiden chuckled to himself and looked away too, whipping around to strut back over to the pole.
He rolled his hips and dollar bills flew onto the stage before he even laid hands on the pole. He grasped the cool metal with one hand and walked around it, lifting up into a fireman's spin before transitioning into attitude. Still spinning, he brought his knees together, legs bent and toes pointed, sitting back into chair before landing lightly, feet spread wide so he could bend over and twerk. The audience roared with approval. Aiden grinned, flipping his hair back as he straightened. Gliding away from the pole to the right side of the stage, he paused for patrons to slip money in the waistband and leg holes of his sheer briefs. Each patron who slipped him singles was rewarded by Aiden standing right in front of them so they could watch him make it clap up close and personal.
When there was about a minute left of the song, Aiden gracefully ran back to the pole for one last combination of spins and flips. He grabbed onto the pole, pulling himself up near the top before flipping upside down into an inverted split. The crowd was still cheering when he rolled it to a Superman, one arm stretched forward, both legs extended in a straight line behind him. He slowly spun with the pose until he was just above the floor and then flipped over, landing in a split. Aiden eased to his back and rolled around, sweeping his hands through the money scattered across the stage and gathering it up to rub it over his near naked body. Building to the end, he threw a handful of money up in the air, letting it flutter down around him, which of course inspired the people near the stage to throw their own cash, adding to the rainfall of dollar bills.
Aiden rose up onto his knees, and crawled to the center of the stage. Lips parted in a sultry smile, he popped up into a squat, bounced it twice with his knees coyly pressed together, then flashed his legs open wide. He stayed in that pose, snapping his right hand up for a sharp salute when the final beat of the music hit. The Flirtatious Fox exploded with applause. Aiden winked at the crowd, unabashedly reveling in the cheers and loving the admiring whistles. But like the song said, what he truly loved was the money that continued to rain down around him. It was still falling when he got up, bowed, and sauntered backstage.
"Nice job," the director said.
Aiden grabbed the bottle of water he'd left there and sucked back a huge gulp. It was hot under the stage lights. "Thanks." He waited in the wings as his money and the parts of his costume he'd discarded were collected by a member of the staff. When they brought it back and handed everything over, Aiden thanked them and gave them a tip.
In the dressing room, he tucked his cash into his boots. He made a quick stop in the bathroom to freshen up, then returned to the mirrored vanity in the dressing room to reapply his deodorant, gulp down more water, and change into another outfit. This one was a sleeveless black leotard, with red military piping, gold decorative buttons and a deep V to show off his chest. Black gloves and an officer's hat finished the look, giving it a Dom vibe, which suited him just fine.
"Gonna hit the floor and see what the crowd is like tonight," he said to the house mom.
She handed him a snack bag of mini-pretzels, which he gratefully accepted.
"It's wild out there. Have fun."
Aiden nodded. He took a few minutes to eat before he left the dressing room. The second he strolled out into the club, several regulars called out to him. Aiden waved and blew flirtatious kisses to everyone. But he didn't want to get sidetracked before he reached his goal, so he didn't stop to chat with any of his fans as he headed to the section three rows back from center stage. When he reached the group Zielinski sat with, they all perked up, looking excited and eager that he was among them. A guy in the first seat spoke up, his eyes bright and face flushed from alcohol.
"Hello, darlin'. I love your work."
"Thank you," Aiden said. He smiled at them all. "And thank you everyone for coming out tonight. How many of you were members of our armed forces?" Nearly the entire group raised their hands. Aiden cocked his hip and gave them a saucy salute. "Thank you for your service."
He strolled down the line of patrons, giving each of them a moment of his attention, asking if they were having a good time, signaling the server to come over and freshen their drinks. A woman with short, dark hair and warm brown skin stared up at him with heart eyes, so he paused and flirted with her for a moment before moving on. Finally, he made it to where Zielinski sat, looking as if he were in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose and desperately hoping he wouldn't be picked to be the goose. Aiden stopped and smiled down at him.
"And who is this? I don't think I've seen you in here before."
The happy drunk from the first table spoke up again.
"That's Mike. He's new in town. We had to drag him out tonight but I bet he's glad he came now," he said loudly, ending with a boisterous laugh.
Aiden put a hand on his bare chest, smiling as if he was delighted. "Ah, a newbie! Welcome to St. Louis. I should welcome you properly." He cast an expectant glance at the patrons closest to him and they reacted predictably.
"Get him a lap dance!"
Cash immediately appeared, waving from several hands, all passed down to contribute to Mike's lap dance. Aiden took the bills and slipped them into his boot. When he looked back up, a ruddy flush had appeared on Zielinski's cheeks.
"You up for a dance, soldier?"
Bright green eyes focused on his for a long moment before Zielinski gave a tight nod.
"Good," Aiden put both palms on his thighs, slowly caressing his own skin. "Just one rule. No touching."
Zielinski gave him another one of those tight nods to show he understood.
The next song started and Aiden began to dance, rubbing his palms over his body in sensuous sweeps as he swayed his hips from side to side. He moved in close, teasingly trailing his fingers up Zielinski's thighs, feeling the firm muscle beneath the slacks. Aiden straddled the big man's lap, lowering himself until he felt the heat of those muscular thighs against his bare skin. He had a reason for instigating this lap dance and he got to it as soon as he and Zielinski were face to face, close enough that they could speak low without the others hearing them.
"I didn't think I'd see you again so soon," he said as he lightly touched a hand to the perfectly broad chest in front of him.
"They're my co-workers," Zielinski said with a slight head tilt toward the people seated next to him. "They wanted me to come out."
Aiden kept dancing, moving on autopilot while he spoke. "But you didn't want to come." He said it as a statement not a question. Zielinski answered anyway.
"Strip club isn't your scene?"
"I don't have a scene. I usually stay in."
Aiden continued with his questions, and their eyes stayed locked through what had become part lap dance - part interrogation. Zielinski's voice remained even with each response, but the flush still on his face gave him away. And when Aiden braced his hands on those broad shoulders, using them as leverage so that he could tease with body rolls, he brushed against more proof that Zielinski was affected - a thick, hard length hidden by those crisp business slacks. Aiden raised a brow, and let the tiniest hint of a grin curl his lips. "Impressive." He shaped the word with his lips but didn't speak it aloud. Still, that flush deepened on Zielinski's cheeks and Aiden felt his shoulders tense beneath his palms. Aiden backed off and returned to his questions, learning what he could about this man that he might be working with soon.
"And you're looking to change that with our mutual friend?"
"Maybe. I haven't decided yet."
"What made you want to become a superhero?"
For the first time Zielinski didn't respond.
"Too much to explain during a three-minute lap dance?"
"Something like that."
"Strong wants you. He doesn't reach out to anyone unless he really wants to partner with them."
"That's good to know."
"Hmmm... But what do you want?"
Zielinski swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing. But the song ended before he could answer.
Aiden leaned in close to whisper in the other man's ear. "Hope I see you again, soldier. Here or at the firehouse." He pulled back, speaking louder for the benefit of his friends. "Welcome to St. Louis. I'm sure you'll love it here." He swung his leg over Zielinski's lap to stand up straight, then strolled off, leaving longing glances and piercing wolf whistles in his wake.
* * *
After leaving Zielinski and his friends behind, Aiden roamed the club floor for another hour, giving two more lap dances, sitting with groups to add to their party vibe - which led to a bigger bar tab, and chatting with people who just wanted someone to talk to. At the end of his shift, he made his way back to the dressing room.
Here the music was muted, thanks to the soundproof blankets hanging on the walls. The carpet was old but free of tears or holes, and a ceiling fan whirred overhead to keep the scent of dozens of body sprays and perfumes from becoming too cloying. A stand of metal lockers, its tan factory paint covered with doodles and rude messages written in Sharpie, stickers, and pictures of patrons who were shitty tippers stood in the far corner. Mike went over and unlocked his locker to grab his backpack.
He peeled off the black body suit and boots, then stood there in his briefs to let his skin breathe for a few moments before he changed into a pair of black joggers and a crop top t-shirt. He sighed with relief when he slid his feet into the cushioned comfort of his tennis shoes. After nearly twenty years of dancing, his feet were a mess of almost constant soreness, and the boots and pleasers he wore on a near nightly basis didn't help.
Once he was dressed, he sat down at his assigned spot on the long vanity table to remove his makeup and tie his hair back. He'd just wiped the last of the glitter from his eyelids when the dressing room door opened. A moment later someone called his name.
"Hey, Glimmer, you've got company at the front door."
Aiden turned to look over his shoulder at the club staff member. "Who is it?"
"It's Steve. And he's got The Look."
At that answer, a chorus of sympathetic groans from the other dancers rolled through the room. The Look was one they all knew. It was the tell-tale expression of a man who was ready to push for the dancer they were dating to quit the stage. Aiden shook his head, disappointed but not surprised. "Right on schedule," he muttered to himself. "Thanks. I'll be right out."
He quickly braided his hair, snapping an elastic band around the end of the braid. Then, he shrugged into a light jacket and grabbed his bag. He said goodnight to his fellow dancers, kissing a few cheeks and smacking several sequined covered butts as he left the dressing room and walked down the narrow hallway that led to the front of the club. Near the entrance, a tall, broad shouldered red-head waited for him.
"Steve. How are you, sweetheart?"
"I'm good. Can we talk for a minute?"
"Sure. Let's go outside." Aiden led the way through the small lobby, giving the bouncer a nod on his way out. Management didn't like it when their dancers were involved in disputes inside the club. Romantic conflict was bad for the club's vibe, and it reminded the patrons that the dancers weren't actually as available to them as they pretended to be.
Once the club door closed behind them, Aiden walked a few steps away from the building, but still within shouting distance of the bouncer if things got out of hand. He turned to his probably soon to be ex-lover with his best smile. "What's up?"
Steve stepped closer and took hold of his hand, looking down into his eyes with a loving gaze. Aiden wanted to groan but managed to remain silent. They were really about to have what Steve clearly wanted to be a romantic conversation, outside of his place of work while a group of people across the street engaged in dueling chants of Show us your tits! Show us your dicks! with the tarts hanging out on the balcony above them.
"Aiden, baby. I'm ready for us to take the next step in our relationship."
"Oh yeah? And what step is that?"
"You and me together."
"Aren't we already together?"
"Yeah, but I don't want either of us seeing anyone else."
"So, you want to be exclusive." It wasn't a question. Aiden knew from experience what Steve wanted. He was just waiting for him to come out and say it.
"Yeah. And I want you to quit this job."
And there it was. "Oh, I see. What you actually mean is you don't want anybody seeing me. Or more precisely, seeing my body on stage."
Steve flashed a cajoling smile, one that Aiden was used to seeing. He usually gave in to the harmless requests that accompanied that smile. That wouldn't be happening tonight.
"I just want you to be mine, baby," Steve said with a light squeeze to Aiden's hand.
"And I want to keep dancing. You know that."
"No buts." Aiden kept his voice soft as he cut in. "I made it clear when we started seeing each other that I love my job and I'm not going to give it up for anyone or anything."
"Not even this?"
Steve dropped his hand to pull a square, black velvet box from his pocket. He opened the lid, revealing a ring with a wide platinum band and an impressive inset canary yellow diamond flanked by white diamond chips. The ring was gorgeous, sparkling brightly against its black velvet backdrop. But as far as Aiden was concerned, it might as well have been a pair of jeweled shackles.
"Steve," he started gently. "You're sweet. And I appreciate the gesture. But this isn't what I want."
"But-." Steve's forehead crinkled with a frown as he began to realize this wasn't going the way he'd obviously hoped for. "I love you."
"I don't feel the same way," Aiden said, turning him down with kind firmness.
Several increasingly uncomfortable moments of silence followed his statement. Steve's expression morphed from hopeful, to disappointed, and finally to anger. Aiden braced himself in case that anger exploded verbally or worse, physically.
"You might be gorgeous, and hot in bed, but the truth is you've got a heart as cold as ice."
The insult set off a spark of anger in his gut, burning away his determination to be gentle during this break up. "I'm not cold," he snapped. I just know what I want. And quitting my job because a man wants to take ownership of me isn't it."
"Fine," Steve bit out from between lips tight with anger. He snapped the ring box closed and shoved it back into his pocket. "I won't bother you again."
It was on the tip of Aiden's tongue to say something placating and soothe Steve's feelings. But he knew if he did, it would only give the man hope to try again, and they'd be right back in this uncomfortable situation in a few weeks’ time. He kept his mouth closed. Steve stared at him for a long moment before he whipped around and stormed off to the parking lot.
Aiden watched him go with only a little regret. They'd had fun together, but he wasn't surprised their relationship had ended this way. They always ended this way. The guys he dated always wanted him to quit dancing and they were never able to fully give him what he wanted. He needed to take a break. Or better yet, swear off dating the type of guy that for some reason he was always attracted to even though they could never match up with him on what he wanted in a relationship.
Aggravated with Steve and all the guys who'd come before him, Aiden made a snap decision. "I'm done with dating guys like Steve." Satisfied with his declaration, Aiden sighed and moved to lean back against the wall behind him. He was prepared to wait a few minutes to make sure Steve had actually left the premises before he went over to his bike. But at the soft scrape of shoes on asphalt he realized he wasn't alone. He whipped his head to the side to see who was out there with him. Zielinski stood a few feet away, half-hidden in the shadows.
"Eavesdrop much?" Aiden snapped as he straightened again.
"I wasn't," Zielinski said. "Or, I didn't mean to. I'm waiting for one of my co-workers since he had too much to drink and I agreed to give him a ride home."
"And you got a free breakup show for your trouble."
"I'm sorry your relationship ended."
Aiden shrugged. "No need to apologize. Breakups happen."
"You don't seem torn up about it."
"Because I'm not. I like to have a good time. When the times are no longer good, I end it."
Aiden felt the censure in that green gaze, the color somehow still clearly visible in the shadows where they stood. "Whatever. My life. My rules." He looked out to the parking lot. Steve's car was gone which meant he was free to go. "See you around, Beefcake."
He started walking down the street to the crosswalk, headed to where he'd parked his bike when a furious yell came from the alley he'd just passed.
"Stop! What are you-? No! Stop!"
Aiden didn't have his mask or his sai, but he didn't need either to fight if someone was being attacked. He turned back and ran around the corner just in time to see a tall, heavy-set man dressed in a plain brown sweatshirt and cargo pants, with his hair covered by a gray skullie, backhanding one of their club's cocktail servers across the face. The young man cried out in pain and fell to the ground.
"You're gonna regret that," Aiden snarled before he dropped his bag and charged forward. The guy spun around to face him, but Aiden was on him before he could get his guard up. He didn't go for the obvious punch, instead he swooped in close and jumped up to hit him with a headbutt. The guy yelled out with his own cry of pain, a sound that was immensely satisfying to Aiden. But the mugger didn't back down after the nose-crunching blow. He squared up, so Aiden got ready to fight.
* * *
Mike stood outside in the warm late summer night, his ears buzzing as they adjusted to the absence of bass-heavy music thumping against his eardrums. His co-worker had been pretty green around the gills when he'd rushed to the bathroom, so he expected to be there waiting for a while. Running into Stardust again when he'd exited the club was unexpected. He looked different from the first two occasions he'd seen him. Gone were the tight pants and weapons of his superhero outfit and the makeup and exotic costumes from his time as Glimmer. Instead, he appeared relaxed and casual in sweats and sneakers. But his mood had taken on a hard edge, no doubt attributed to the breakup he'd witnessed. His unintentional role in the scene as an eavesdropper probably hadn't helped. Realizing the situation must be awkward for the other man, Mike didn't try to prolong their conversation. Besides, lap dance aside, they hardly knew one another.
Stardust walked off but barely thirty seconds after his departure, there was a cry of pain, followed almost immediately by sounds of a scuffle. Mike instinctively jumped into action and ran toward the fight. He might not be a superhero yet, but he wasn't going to sit there and do nothing while someone was hurt.
He made his way around the side of the Flirtatious Fox to where the noises were coming from. A slim young man huddled on the dirty, uneven pavement; torn dollar bills scattered around his feet. He'd obviously been assaulted and mugged, but Stardust was there fighting off the assailant in the narrow space between two buildings. The dancer had the upper hand with swift punches and elbow strikes, until the attacker got in a punishing blow dead center on his chest and sent him stumbling back.
Without even thinking about it, Mike activated his power. Twin beams of bright green energy blasted from his eyes, knocking the assailant off his feet and throwing him back several paces before he could land another hit on Stardust. The beams also clipped the side of the building opposite, tearing loose a few bricks before Mike blinked and stopped the blast.
He rushed over to check on Stardust and the victim. "Are you guys okay?"
"I'm fine," Stardust said. He kneeled down to help the other guy sit up. "How about you?"
Mike stayed alert while Stardust checked on the victim, who he recognized as the camouflage wearing cocktail server, in case the guy came in for another attack. But he was nowhere to be seen. Apparently, he'd done the smart thing and taken off when he realized the odds had turned against him.
The young man gingerly touched his bright red cheek. "Going to have to go heavy on the makeup to cover the bruise I'll probably have, but I'm okay." He started trying to gather the money at his feet but it was torn into so many tiny pieces, there was no way to salvage it. "Damnit! That guy yelled that I shouldn't make money peddling sin and ripped up all my cash." He flopped back to the ground in frustration. "An entire night's tips. Gone."
Stardust opened his backpack and pulled out a thick stack of bills folded and held together with a rubber band. Without a moment's hesitation, he held the money out to the young man. "Here."
"What?" The server slowly sat back up; his eyes wide. "I can't take that. That's your money and it's way more than I made tonight."
"Yes, you can. I know you're new and you're working your way up the ladder in the club. I remember those days and how tough they can be. Take it. And don't worry about paying me back." He took hold of the server's hand and pressed the money to his palm.
After several seconds of prolonged silent shock, he finally let his fingers close over the money. "Thanks, Glimmer. This means a lot."
They exchanged a hug, the blond's face tucked into Stardust's chest. When they parted, the guy smiled up at Mike.
"Thank you for helping too. A round of drinks on me next time you're in the club."
"No thanks necessary," Mike said politely.
"We'll watch you walk to your car," Stardust said as he helped him to his feet.
The server grabbed his bag and brushed himself off, giving Stardust one more quick hug before he left.
Together, Mike and Stardust walked to the end of the alley, both of them watching the young man make his way across the street to a small, beat-up pick-up truck. The old Ford pulled out of the lot, the kid honking twice when he drove by. Before Mike could say anything, Stardust turned and looked up at him.
"I could have handled that by myself."
Mike sucked in a sharp breath, ready to tell Stardust off for his ungrateful attitude. Before he could say anything however, Stardust continued.
"But I appreciate you stepping in. Thanks."
It was obvious that the thanks was grudgingly given but Mike accepted it without complaint. "You're welcome."
Something caught Stardust's attention, as his gaze flicked to the side.
"I think that lost little duck is looking for you," he said with a nod at the club door.
Mike looked over at the front of the Fox. His co-worker stood there, one hand braced on the wall, peering across the street to the parking lot, clearly looking for his ride. Mike turned back to Stardust to say goodbye, but the other man had already taken off, strolling down the sidewalk without looking back. At the crosswalk, he jogged across the street to a motorcycle parked in the first row of the parking lot. As he watched, Stardust climbed on the back of a black and gold bike, bouncing once as he kickstarted it to life. He slowly drove off the lot, then went roaring past the Flirtatious Fox on his way out of the Playground. Mike stood there, watching the single red tail light until it disappeared around the corner.
What a strange night this had turned out to be. Seeing the superhero he'd met yesterday on stage tonight as an exotic dancer, getting a lap dance from him, then helping him fight off a mugger. Maybe the universe was telling him that he was indeed meant to work with the members of the ACG. Mike shook his head and went to collect his co-worker.
My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.