Buffy threw the last of her things into her duffle bag and took a parting glance at her reflection in the mirror. She looked a little pasty with her stage makeup on tonight, someone had stolen the base she normally used so she had to substitute with a lighter shade. It had felt greasier than normal so she had spent a little longer cleaning up after her night was over with.
"Hey, Cleo," Randy, the manager said as Buffy walked out of the private dressing area the girls used. No men were allowed there.
"Hey," she said cheerily as she pulled her hair back. She shook her head from side to side, letting the ponytail bounce. No one here knew her real name or anything about her. She preferred it that way.
"Here's your money," he said, handing her that night's take. She folded the bills in half and shoved them into her duffle bag pocket. She did all right considering she refused to do lap dances. That was part of her agreement in coming to work here.
"Thanks. Have a good night, Randy."
"Will you be all right getting home?"
She smiled with a shake of her head. He asked her this every night not that she could blame him. No one knew she was a slayer, so it was kind of him to offer. "I'm fine, Randy, really, thanks." There was one night she thought she had seen Clem, but it had turned out to be another demon that looked just like him. She had not realized there were two of him in the world.
"See you tomorrow then, Kid." Buffy hated when he called her that, especially when they were able to more than double the cover charge because of her. She got a cut of the increase since it was her drawing the crowd plus her tips. It was not a bad gig once she had gotten used to taking off her clothes in front of a room full of strangers, some being demons. It was easy to get caught up in how lucrative it could be.
"Good night, Randy, thanks," she said again and walked toward the exit door. Her duffle scraped against the side of the wall as she walked. She was tired. She was not as experienced as her resume made her out to be so she had to practice her routines to the point of exhaustion. Dancing at The Bronze was not the same, which she had learned very quickly.
Willow had laughed when Buffy asked her to go to a women's strip club. Willow was up for it since she and Kennedy had broken up. Buffy wanted to see if it was really something she could do. The idea had come to her when she realized her cash situation was even direr than it had been in Sunnydale. She needed cash there and then and waitressing just had not cut it for her. The other possibility of a cash bringing job was pizza delivery, which she refused to do even if she thought she could drive that much without killing someone.
She stopped just before the door and took the money out of her duffle bag. She had made over one thousand in tips. She guessed with her cut of the cover charge she had pulled in almost four thousand dollars for the night. She rolled the money up and slid a rubber band around it, placing it in one of the socks she kept in the bag. She did not like walking around with so much cash, so she hid it as best as she could.
Sooner or later she would no longer be their guest marquee dancer and she would have to figure out what to do. The resume Willow had made for her was a great one, but Buffy had no desire to leave Los Angeles again any time soon. She was done with her world touring, or whatever Giles wanted to call it. LA was home and home is where she belonged even if she was alone here.
In the meantime, bringing in three to four, sometimes five to six thousand dollars a night was not bad. Weekends were the most lucrative and she had not taken a weekend off since she started. She imagined once she got tired of The Neon House there were plenty more in Los Angeles that she could move onto and make a similar deal to the one she had here. Clubs were always looking for new talent; she had discovered that much while researching the possibilities.
She slid her duffle bag over her shoulder after zipping it up and began singing the words to the song "Brick House". She was always trying to come up with original dances and found the crowds tended to prefer music from the seventies and eighties. She was not sure why that was.
She pushed through the door, zipping her jacket to prepare for the walk home. She checked the front pocket to ensure there was a weapon in it. There were nights she encountered vamps and demons, which she dispensed with as her calling told her to do. She did not mind acting as the slayer now and again, it helped keep her prepared for when something big happened. Buffy had no doubt that something big would happen again. There would never be a shortage of big bads. No matter how much they tried to stomp it down, there would always be evil.
"Hello, Cleo." The voice stopped her in her tracks. He was behind her, she had no clue he was even there. There was a time she was so hyperaware of him she knew when he was within a block's radius of her. That was many years ago, many experiences ago. She could keep walking, pretend she did not hear him and walk out the door into the night. He would follow her, though. She did not need to see him to know he was angry.
"Hey," she said, hoping she was enthusiastic enough to fool him. She doubted it; he was not easy to fool. She turned to face him after a moment's pause, still giving thought to the idea of fleeing. She had not seen him since Sunnydale and liked to remember him that way. She did not want to replace those nice memories with ones of his being upset with her and them arguing once again.
"What are you doing here?"
"Um, working?" She was being sarcastic, but she did not know how else to handle the situation. She had never, ever expected to run into Angel in a strip club.
"Come on, Buffy."
"Cleo," she said, through clenched teeth. "It's Cleo."
"Excuse me, Cleo," he said with a graceful yet greatly exaggerated bow. She could picture him doing it, though, in his time for real, bowing out of courtesy to a girl of station.
"Stop it, no one knows who I am and I prefer it that way."
"Why wouldn't you want anyone to know who you are?"
"Listen, I'm tired and I want to go home. We'll do this another time when you can be reasonable."
"Oh, I'm being reasonable, Cleo." Her stage name was said as if it were venom.
The door leading to the dressing rooms opened and Randy poked his head out. "Everything all right out here, Doll?"
"Doll?" A rumbling could be heard loud and clear coming from Angel and Buffy cringed at the idea of her identity being revealed like this. One jealous boyfriend would mean her losing this job and probably getting blacklisted from every other club in LA.
"I'm fine, Randy."
"You sure," he asked openly assessing Angel.
"Yes, thanks. Good night," she said for the third time that night. "Will you stop with the He-man antics?" she asked when Randy was safely behind closed doors.
"You take your clothes off in front of hundreds of men night after night and you expect me to be rational?"
"Yes," she said simply. "Listen, we can't talk here. If you want to walk with me, that's fine. But the minute you start telling me why I shouldn't be doing this I'm gone."
"I'll do the best I can," he said. Buffy knew he would try, but she could tell he was not just furious but confused.
"Fine," she said and walked toward the door that would lead outside of The Neon House. She took a deep breath when she got outside, always appreciating the fresh air after being inside the club for hours. The parking lot did not offer a speck of privacy. The Neon House was appropriately named, the parking lot and a good amount of area surrounding the premises was bathed in neon signage.
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, wondering what he would say. He was probably full of questions, not that she could blame him. It was quite a change in occupation going from slayer to stripper, at least she had stayed in the S's. Being the slayer did not pay the bills and now that she no longer had the responsibility of being the slayer she could focus on surviving a bit more comfortably.
"How long have you been here?"
"About two months."
"You didn't call me."
"I didn't know where to find you."
"I suppose not and it's not like I could have left a message for you with Giles." She would be deaf to miss the bitterness in his tone and she glanced at him sharply, wondering what was behind it.
"What do you mean?"
"I lost men because Giles was unwilling to help us."
"What?" she asked, genuinely confused.
"Oh, don't pretend you don't know, Buffy."
"Know what? What are you talking about?"
"Willow was too busy astral projecting, you were busy in Rome working on becoming cookies with The Immortal, and all those new slayers were apparently unable to come to LA on such short notice."
"Angel, I assure you I know nothing about this or I would have been here."
"You would have taken time away from clubbing and whatever else you were doing in Rome?"
"Yes, of course I would have." She stopped walking, searching his face for some sign of whether he was telling her the truth. She could not see any evidence that he was lying. "How can you think that I wouldn't help you?"
"I don't know, Buffy, we've changed, we've grown apart."
"We have, but nothing would stop me from helping you."
Their eyes met and held, both searching for answers. The silence seemed to go on forever as they measured one another up. The last time they had seen one another had been during a crisis, there was nothing friendly or social about it beyond their being happy to see one another for the first time in over a year.
"I believe you."
"I should hope so. I've never done anything to make you think I'd lie to you."
"Do you want to tell me what you're doing working at that place?"
"A girl's got to make a living."
"You're not a girl, Buffy."
"Yes, Angel, I am. I'm a woman who needs to make money in order to keep a roof over my head and food on my table."
"And you have to take your clothes off to do that?"
"Where else am I going to get a job, Angel? Where else am I going to find a job that pays this much?" She shrugged her duffle bag from her shoulder and pulled out the sock that held that night's earnings. She tossed it at him almost violently; mad at herself for defending herself to him. The big brute! "Where, please tell me?"
He pulled the wad of money out of the sock and glanced at it without removing the rubber band. His eyes met hers, a question in his eyes. "You're walking around with this much cash on you. Are you nuts?"
"Who in the hell is going to mug me?"
"That's not the point. You shouldn't tempt fate, you of all people should know that."
"And what am I supposed to do? Leave the money at the club? Like Randy would hold it for me."
"Get a car."
"I don't make with the driving, remember? Me and cars?"
"Making this kind of money, you could take some lessons." He put the money back in the sock and handed it back to her. There was a look of amazement in his eyes. Did he not think she was worth this much money? She was not doing anything wrong and refused to let him think she was. She was not doing lap dances, she never went home with a customer, and she never talked to any of the dancers. The only person she talked to at the club was Randy and she had to talk to him or she would not get paid.
"I'm fine with the walking, it's gotten me this far. I have had more precious things to protect than money in the past and have done just fine without a car."
He grabbed a hold of her arm and jerked her violently so she faced him and they were just about nose to nose. It was such a surprise move on his part that Buffy had no time to defend herself. "Why are you doing this, Buffy?"
She exhaled a breath that indicated her boredom with going over a topic that they had already talked about. "I already told you, I need to make a living."
"And Giles approves of this?"
"I do not need Giles' approval to do anything. In fact, I don't need anyone's approval to do anything. I'm a free woman, I'm an adult, I can do whatever I want to."
"What about The Immortal?"
"What about him?" she asked confused. What did that jerk have to do with this?
"Is he the one that planted this crazy idea in your head?"
"The crazy idea that I could make money, you mean?"
"Buffy, you're selling yourself."
"I am not!"
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com