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I'd been working there about a week and a half and was still getting used to being ogled every time I went out into the club to get more dirty glasses. I had kept pretty much to myself all week and was getting the hang of everything pretty well. Except, of course, for the time I dropped an entire tray of glasses as I was attempting to carry a few too many at one time. Due to that little fiasco, I currently owed more than I was going to make for the week. I was really glad that I'd paid for the hotel in advance, but now I was going to be scraping by to get enough food until my next paycheck. So, I was at first really receptive to the idea when Billy-Joe called me to his office and asked me how I'd like to make a little more money.

I sat forward in the chair, perking up a bit. More money would be a very good thing. Food is good. Money buys food. Natural. Besides, the more money I made, the faster I could buy a car and get the heck out of Dodge…or Oxnard, or whatever. I could get out. And I'd never have to spend any more time on the inside of a ladies' strip club. That would be a big bonus. Besides, being a bartender would probably be a lot more fun than washing dishes. "Sounds great, when do I start?"

Billy-Joe smiled. "Terrific. I'm really in a bind here. Wasn't sure where I was going to find another dancer on such short notice. Then Betty-Jean suggested that I ask you and--"

Tunnel vision. Lots of little black dots. Everything hazy. Must. Remember. To. Breathe. "Um…dancer?" I manage to get out.

Billy-Joe's smile fades slightly. "Gregory called and said that he'd come down with mono, and we really need someone to fill in for him. You think you could do that?"

I blinked. No. I really didn't think I could do that. I opened my mouth to respond, but before I could, Billy-Joe continued speaking.

"Betty-Jean thought you looked just right for the job. It's an opportunity to make a whole lot more than washing dishes. Most of the guys average several hundred in tips each night…"

Several hundred in tips? Every night? A whole heck of a lot better than minimum wage. I'd be out of here a whole lot faster. But…nudity? I started shaking my head.

"…you could fill in until Gregory gets back and then you should have more than enough to buy yourself a new car and be on your way. Still have some time to travel before you go home at the end of the summer."

He had a point there. I could do this for a few weeks then go out and finish the trip I had planned, then I wouldn't have to admit to anyone that I spent my summer vacation holed up in Oxnard at a strip club. Besides, how bad could dancing really be? It's not like after this I'll ever have to see any of these people again. I could do this. And suddenly I realize that my head is nodding and I'm speaking. "Okay, I guess I'll give it a try." Did I really say that?

"Terrific! I'll have one of the guys help you pick out a costume and kind of show you the ropes…"

Costume. Good God, what have I gotten myself into?

Half an hour later I found myself muttering that mantra over and over again as I listened to the crowd on the other side of the curtain. What was I thinking?! I couldn't do it. No way was I going out on that stage. Huh-uh, no way. Not in the ridiculous getup I was wearing. And definitely not *without** the ridiculous getup I was wearing. What on earth was I thinking when I said I'd do this? Nope, mask or no mask, Zorro was not going to be making an onstage appearance tonight.

"You okay kid?" Marcus, the guy who'd given me the run down on the costume and how to…remove it…asked, looking at me with slight amusement on his face. "You look like you're about to lose your lunch."

If I'd eaten any, that would have been a distinct possibility. "I can't do this."

Marcus grinned. "Don't worry, we all went through that the first time."

I shook my head. He wasn't understanding. "No, I mean I really can't do it. What was I thinking? I'm like the worst dancer that ever existed!"

"C'mon, kid, anyone can dance. The 'ladies' here don't even care how well you dance as long as you look good." He still wasn't following me. Then again, he'd never seen me in action at The Bronze. I started to shake my head again, but he only smiled. "It's like this, kid. Just go out there; schmooze with the ladies. Get right up close. Make each one feel like you're there, dancing just for her. You'll get so you can tell which ones to milk for money. When you spot those, just take off one of the tossable pieces of the costume and toss it her direction. If you do your job right, the money will just come flowing to you."

Okay. I can do this.

"First you get the women. Then you get the money," he summarized.

*First you get the women. Then you get the money. First you get the women…then you get the money…I think I can remember that one.*

"Okay. Now, remember what I told you about the costume. You can use the sword as a prop for a while, then set it down some place. Don't drop it, it makes a really loud noise. Then, the gloves off first. That makes it easier to find the catches on the rest of the stuff. Then take off the belt. Drop that, don't throw it. It's cheap, but could hurt someone if it hits them. Then the shirt. Make sure you unhook the cuffs before you release the clasp of that one, it'll make it a lot easier. Then the pants, there are clasps on both sides and then just pull the velcro. Don't throw those either, they're expensive to replace if they don't throw them back. Hat next, throw that. If it doesn't come back, it's only a couple bucks. And last, the cape. It's up to you if you want to take off the mask or not. The ladies love it if you do that last thing. Or you can just leave it on. Remember all that?"

First you get the women. Then you get the money. Yep, I remember that.

"Good luck, kid, you're up."

I took a deep breath and started through the curtain.

Interlude III

"Can this be the part I don't hear about?" Buffy cuts me off.

I grin. "You don't want to hear about Xander the masked stripper?"

Buffy gives me a look that is full of distaste. More distaste than I would have appreciated, but hey.

"Okay. Fast forward…So Billy-Joe gave me a check from the insurance money-"

"Whoa. Rewind that after all."

I knew I wasn't going to get off that easily. "I thought you didn't want to hear this part," I return innocently.

"Just how did insurance become involved?"

I sigh. "Fine. Okay, I took a deep breath and started through the curtain…and there were like a hundred women staring at me. I just about died."

Buffy laughs. "I can just imagine."

I shake my head. "I so don't think so."

"Hey, I've been surrounded by vampires before, and they weren't waiting to give me money."

"Yeah, but they weren't expecting you to take off your clothes, either."

"Good point. So what happened? Did you pass out or something?"

"I wish. But, no. So, they've got the cheesy music going and I know that I can't just stand there, so I figure that either I have to just go for it or I have to get the hell off the stage and get out of there, never to show my face again."

"Hey, you were wearing a mask anyway." I glare at her, but she just grins. "The Mask of Xander. You could have spent the summer as Xander, the masked busboy…"

"Okay, I get the point. But as it so happened, I decided to just go for it."

Buffy's grin widens.

"So, I started dancing. Of course, you know I never claim to be a good dancer. And normally I wouldn't be terribly concerned about that, except that this time I'm in front of a hundred women, who are all staring at me."

Buffy seems to be trying really hard not to laugh at the imagery that I'm presenting.

"Thank you very much," I try to sound indignant, but know that I can't blame her. "So, anyway, I kind of stalled for time for a while, using the sword thing until one of the women kind of started bellowing something about taking it off…"

Now Buffy does laugh.

"And so, I set the sword down and started with the rest of the act…"

"Oh, God…"

"Oooooooh, yeeeeeeeeeeaaaah. So, there I was trying to remember what Marcus had told me about the costume. All I could remember was 'First you get the women…'"

End Interlude

Then you get the money. Of course to get the money, you have to remove clothing. They weren't going to pay me for dancing like a spazz. Otherwise I'd have already been a rich man from all those nights at The
Bronze. Okay. Removing costume, step one. Gloves.

That I could do. I peeled off the first glove and tossed it into the crowd, trying really hard to ignore the catcalls. The second glove was sort of sticking to me, but I managed to get it off without anyone really noticing.

The belt was next. I let it drop to the ground and cringed as the sound of the buckle hitting the stage floor echoed. Oops. Guess that was kind of like the sword. Live and learn.

What came next? Gloves. Then belt. Then shirt. Okay, easy enough.

I looked down and noticed that several of the women were waving bills at me. I had the women. Time to get the money. I moved closer to them as my hands searched for the clasp that would release the shirt. I couldn't seem to find it. Of course I got ten times more nervous as I felt bills being stuffed into my waistband. I considered pulling the shirt off over my head but then realized that I was still wearing the hat. That wouldn't work. Well…there was no law that said that the hat had to be last. Right? So I pulled off the hat and sent it soaring into the audience.

And back to the shirt. I still couldn't find the clasp. Okay, skip that. After the shirt was supposed to be the pants. Which meant, the boots had to come off. Wait. Marcus hadn't mentioned anything about the boots. How was I supposed to get the boots off? Duh. Okay, I can take off boots. I've done it before. Granted not while dancing, and not while in front of a hundred people. But it couldn't be that hard…

I nearly toppled over on my first attempt to remove one of the boots. I was kind of hopping on one leg while trying to pull the boot off, and my balance wasn't exactly stable. This was going to be harder than I thought.

Attempt two and I did topple over. I quickly bounded back to my feet and hoped that nobody realized that wasn't supposed to happen. I could feel blood rushing to my face as I realized that I could hear a few snickers from the ladies near the front. So much for no one figuring it out. How the hell was I supposed to get the stupid boots off without killing myself?

Skip the boots. Back to the shirt. Where the hell was the clasp?! I really should have practiced before going onstage. Why hadn't I practiced? Because it sounded simple enough. Release the clasps, clothing comes right off. Yeah right.

Wait. Release the clasps and the clothing comes right off. The pants didn't have to go off over the boots. I could get those off without much trouble. I found the clasps for each side, pulled and sure enough with the sound of velcro tearing, away went the pants. Great, one more thing done…Of course then I was standing on stage without pants on. Okay, maybe that wasn't such a great thing. Not like I was totally bared or anything, but…pants are generally good. Then again, the ladies didn't seem to have a problem with me not wearing them. Eeks.

There had to be a clasp for the shirt somewhere. I couldn't just stand there like an idiot with no pants on. Oh help. There had to be a way to get out of this gracefully. Yeah, right. It was a bit late for that. Nothing to do now but finish the act. Okay, off with the shirt. I start to drag it up over my head…

And in theory, that should have worked. Of course I forgot about one major thing.

The cape.

The first point I realized I was in trouble was when I found that I couldn't seem to pull my hands through the cuffs. I could suddenly hear Marcus mentioning something about the cuffs. Oops. Well, how bad could it be? I'd just get my head out of the shirt and then I'd be able to see what I was doing and…I couldn't seem to get my head out of the shirt. I tried pulling it back down the other way, but the shirt seemed to be caught on something. The cape. Damn, it was caught on the cape.

I tried futilely to free at least one of my arms, but I only seemed to succeed in getting myself further tangled. Not to mention that something was pulling tight across my neck. Damn cape. Okay, must calm down. Don't strangle yourself, just calm down and…and just imagine how all the ladies must be laughing at you as you stand there in *extremely* brief briefs, and boots with a shirt pulled up over your head and strangling yourself with your cape. Oooh yeah. I couldn't really hear them, but then again, I really couldn't hear anything any more except for my heavy breathing, and the pounding of my heart.

I've imagined myself dying before, but somehow this version of death had just never occurred to me. Forget the Naked Man Wrecks Bathroom, Starves to Death headline, this one would be far more humiliating. Inexperienced Stripper Chokes Self on Cape.

I began to struggle harder. Going to get out of this. Going to…oh jeez, my feet were caught on something. The discarded pants. Okay, just kick those away and…suddenly I felt like I was losing my balance. I tried to steady myself, but found that in my struggles, I must have gotten even closer to the edge of the stage because my left foot was not finding solid ground beneath it. I was going over. Oh, Hell no. That's not going to happen. I can still save face.

I thrashed my body, trying to topple myself back the other direction, but it was too late. I was going over. I couldn't breathe as I flailed my arms, attempting to lessen the blow when I hit the ground. It didn't soften it nearly enough. Pain roared through my body as I landed on the arm I'd broken last year and I knew instantly that I had just rebroken the same damn bone. Okay, of all my fears of 'dancing' at the club, breaking my arm had never been one of them.

Black dots began to cloud my vision and I suddenly realized that I wasn't really breathing. I tried to suck in some air and discovered that the cape was pulled too tight and was cutting off my air supply. I suddenly imagined my family and friends back home learning of my death. Please, please tell them I died heroically…I thought inanely as I passed out.