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Carlos turned fifteen just a few days before the ranch his parents worked on was sold. The new owners were some yanks coming to the area looking to get involved in ranching in a big way. They brought a lot of changes with them when they bought the place. The first change Carlos noticed was that a lot of small repairs that had been postponed to stay under budget were now being completed. The stables, fences, and outbuildings were looking better than ever.

The second change he noticed was that people were leaving. At first it was just a few seasonal workers, nothing to worry about even if it was not the right time for them to be leaving. Then the Sullivans left, and Carlos was confused. The Sullivans had worked on Old Man McFee’s ranch nearly as long as the Alvarezes, two generations already with a third growing up and learning to do the same.

Carlos started paying more attention after that and found more and more familiar faces missing with each month and week that passed. The furrow between his father’s brows grew deeper, and he laughed less. The horses grew more skittish as an influx of unskilled new hires arrived at the ranch, following the senior ranch hands as they tried to learn everything involved in the process of running such a large ranch. Carlos’ sisters, too young to really understand why everyone was so tense, still picked up on the tension and began snapping at each other, arguing over the smallest of things.

In the end, his parents were able to hold on to their jobs for a little over nine months before they were both let go and asked to move their family off the property by the end of the week. It was a small mercy that school had already ended, so they were free to move without having to worry about falling behind. Carlos and his sisters went through everything they owned, choosing what they would keep and what would get left behind, sold, or donated. They told their friends, and Carlos’ girlfriend, that they were moving and would not be there for the next school year. By the time his parents had found family willing to take them all in, Carlos’ life had been pared down until it fit in one duffel bag and his school bag. They left the only place Carlos had ever known as home and boarded a flight to New York City.

 


 

An aunt Carlos had never met picked them up from the airport. Conchita Ortiz leased a small apartment in Red Hook and had a spare room as well as a futon and a pull out couch. Exhausted from the move, it took Carlos entirely too long to realize there was no place for him. His parents took the bed in the spare room, and Anna and Maria were both young enough and small enough at 8 years old that they could share the sofa bed easily. But Carmen was 13 and built thick, like their father. There would only be room for her on the futon. Left with little else in the way of choice, and wanting the small measure of privacy afforded by a door, Carlos used the discarded couch cushions to pad the bathtub and made his bed there.

While Conchita was able to provide a roof over their heads, keeping all of them fed would be much more difficult. In an effort to make his family’s lives easier, as well as giving him an excuse to leave the apartment for hours at a time, Carlos went hunting for his first job. Very few places were interested in hiring a 15 year old, but after four days of filling out applications Carlos was hired by a factory near the docks to sweep floors and haul crates.

His life fell in to a pattern after that. He woke early, either to his alarm or an argument his sisters were having. He washed and dressed as quickly as he could before leaving for work. After eight hours of back breaking work he went back to the apartment, listened to his sisters argue and pretended he was not so sore that he never wanted to move again. He went to bed as early as he could, making sure to shut the shower curtain so he could at least pretend he was not sleeping in the bathroom of an apartment that housed seven people with small bladders.

The closer it got to the start of the school year, the more Carlos worried that he would have to drop out because he was still the only one other than Conchita who had a job. Finally, about eight days before school was set to begin, his mother was hired as a vet for a large practice that worked with several race tracks. Carlos was able to speak to his boss after that and switch to part time evening shifts, sweeping floors and cleaning up the day’s messes.

 


 

The school year passed in a blur of too much work and not enough sleep. Carlos did not bother trying to make any friends; he focused on keeping his head down and doing as much of his homework at school as he could. He went to work after school for three hours, and then went to the apartment to eat a late dinner, finish his homework, and occasionally tutor one of his sisters in something if they were having trouble.

By the time his end of year finals came around, Carlos was certain that he was either going to fail or die. He drank enough coffee to give himself heart palpitations and lived on three hours of sleep per night for two weeks until it was over. In celebration of his exams being done, Carlos went to work and pulled a double shift, working through the night. He fell asleep standing up in the locker room after his shift was over and was found by a coworker who had arrived early for the morning shift.

After Dave, an older man Carlos had worked with the previous summer, had gotten him to sit in a chair and drink some water, Carlos began to panic. The bosses could be strict over the smallest things; would falling asleep in the locker room get him fired?

“Carlos?” Dave asked, concerned. “You doin’ okay, kid?”

.” Carlos said, trying to reassure his coworker in the hopes that the other man would not report him. “Just tired. Finals finished yesterday. Just need some sleep.”

“You’re looking pretty ragged, there.” Dave said, sounding unsure. “It might be a good idea to take a few days off, recoup a bit.”

“No! No. Not necessary. I am fine!” Carlos insisted, praying Dave would drop it. Dave sat there, staring hard at Carlos while Carlos resisted the urge to twitch. After a few long minutes he sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked at Carlos with sympathy and asked, “You really need this shitty job, don’t you?”

Carlos’ eyes darted desperately around the room, searching for eavesdroppers, before he nodded.

“Look, I’m not gonna report you or anything. But I don’t feel right just letting you work yourself to death for minimum wage when you should be focusing on school. So I’m going to make a recommendation.” Dave said, taking out his wallet and removing a pale yellow card. “Go here. It’s owned by a friend of a friend. It’s technically legal as long as you don’t mind lying a lot, and the pay is a hell of a lot better than this dump.”

Carlos took the proffered card, examining the pink and green martini glass on one side. Flipping the card over, Carlos saw ‘The Honeypot’ printed on the other side with a number and address on the bottom. He toyed with the card for a moment before looking at Dave.

“If this place would be so much better, why do you not work there?” he asked.

“Because I’m not pretty enough.” Dave said, expression deadpan. When Carlos stared at him stupidly, he elaborated. “The Honeypot is a strip club. They hire a lot of college students, sometimes high school students if they can pass for older, but they’re not gonna hire me since I’m almost sixty. You’re young, a good looking kid, and they can show you a bunch of tricks to make yourself look over eighteen. And I know you can dance, I caught you doing it a few times with your earbuds in as you were sweeping up.”

Carlos flushed; he had not realized anyone else was there when he had tried to copy the moves he had seen in music videos.

“The Honeypot does its best to keep everything aboveboard. They have a lot of rules, but as long as you’re not a drunk, drug addicted nymphomaniac with mob or gang ties then they should be easy enough to follow.” Dave said.

“¿Qué?” Carlos said, bewildered. “Can one person even be all of that?”

“Not sure,” Dave admitted, “but in New York I wouldn’t be surprised. Go to The Honeypot. They’ll treat you a lot better than this place. When I started working here it was 1949. This was a good job with good benefits, and the owners looked after the workers. But the way it’s run now? This job’ll kill you, then drag you out of your own funeral to cover someone else’s shift.”

“Why do you stay?” Carlos asked, pocketing the card.

“Because I hate the current owners enough that I want to make sure I get my nice, fat pension from them.” Dave said with a shit eating grin.

Carlos huffed a laugh and nodded before he carefully stood up, making sure he was steady on his feet.

“You get yourself home, now. Rest up.” Dave said, standing and clapping a hand on Carlos’ shoulder.

Carlos returned to the apartment to find his family preparing to go out for a few hours. He begged off of joining them, pointing out that he desperately needed to sleep. With all of them gone, and the apartment quiet, Carlos took the rare opportunity to sleep on an actual mattress, crawling in to his parents’ bed and drifting off to sleep quickly.

 

The next afternoon he found himself standing in front of a brick building with a sign that read ‘The Honeypot’ in yellow letters. Underneath it, in neon pink, it said ‘Male Dancers after 7’. Carlos took a steadying breath, hiked his bag a little higher, and went in.

The club was dark, lights turned low and the stage lights off. There was a white girl at the register, organizing receipts from the look of it. She glanced up when the open door let more light in.

“We’re closed right now, sorry. Bar and grill opens at two, but the show doesn’t start till seven.” she said, looking Carlos up and down.

“Is there someone I can talk to about working here?” he asked.

The girl froze for a second before smiling patronizingly. “I don’t think you meet the age requirements, sweetie.”

“I was told I could find work here.” Carlos insisted, feeling vaguely nauseous with nerves.

“Well, I’ll call the boss and ask if there’s something, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.” she said, grabbing the phone.

Carlos waited patiently while she had a hushed conversation with her boss, examining the interior of the club while he waited. There were 5 stages that he could see, 4 along the side walls with chairs around them and small curtains at the back. The 5th stage was nearly three times the size and located in the middle of the room. It had multiple poles on it, and one of them went in to a hole in the ceiling like a firehouse pole. Carlos honestly had no idea what the poles were for. Movies and TV had so far led him to believe that they were for walking around while wearing sparkling underwear and high heels.

“Mr. Goldberg will see you.” the girl said, startling Carlos. “Go up the stairs at the end of the bar and follow the cigar smoke.”

Carlos nodded at her in response and made his way over to the door that was propped open with a flower pot full of cigarette butts. On the next floor up there was a short hallway with three doors. Carlos could smell cigar smoke coming from the first room from nearly three feet away. He knocked on the door lightly and was immediately answered.

“Get in here already.” said a man’s voice.

Carlos opened the door, wincing at the smoke that hung thick in the air. The room itself was a small office, most of the space inside it occupied by cabinets, a desk, and a short, fat man sitting in an office chair.

“Alright, kid. In here, and close the door. I’m Mr. Goldberg. Who’re you?” he asked, words shaped by a thick New York accent.

“Carlos.” he answered.

“You got a last name, Carlos?” Mr. Goldberg asked, gesturing to a rickety wooden chair with his thick, ring laden hand.

“Alvarez. Carlos Alvarez.” he answered, taking a seat.

“You got a resume, Alvarez?” Mr. Goldberg asked, taking a cigarette as thick as his fingers from an ashtray on his desk.

“S- Yes.” Carlos said, reaching in to his school bag for the paper he had printed at the library that morning.

“Gonna need to see some ID, too.” Mr. Goldberg said around his cigar. “Something with your picture on it.”

Carlos handed over his resume and state ID and sat in the small chair while Mr. Goldberg read everything over.

“You’re too young to work here, kid.” Mr. Goldberg said after a few minutes.

“Someone at work told me that I could find a better job here.” Carlos said, his heart sinking.

“You’re sixteen. You should be out with your friends and planning for college. Not trying to get a job in a strip club.” Mr. Goldberg said, staring Carlos down.

“I do not have friends.” Carlos said, dropping his eyes to his lap as his face burned. “I do not have time for friends.”

“Kid-” Goldberg began.

“School and work take seventy to eighty hours of my week. When I am done with my school work I tutor my three sisters. I cannot cut back on my hours because my father has not found a job since we were forced to move here last year. I am trying to get a job with you because someone I work with said you make exceptions sometimes.” Carlos said, his voice edging in to pleading.

“Who?” Goldberg asked. “Who told you that we hire underage strippers. It’s a very serious accusation.”

“Dave.” Carlos said after a tense moment. “He gave me a card.” he said, taking the yellow card from his wallet.

Goldberg’s eyebrows rose when he saw the card. He leaned across the desk and took it from Carlos. After inspecting it for a moment he pressed a button on his phone and said, “Jensen! Get in here!”

A minute later the office door opened and a blond boy about Carlos’ height, wearing glasses and a t-shirt that read ‘Rogues do it from behind’ burst in, impossibly vibrant in the stale, smoky office.

“Your dulcet tones have summoned me, Mervin.” the boy said, grinning.

“Run these.” Goldberg said, shoving Carlos’ resume, ID, and the card at Jake.

“Oooooh! Fun times!” the boy said, grabbing the items and tossing an outrageous wink at Carlos as he left.

“Just a precaution.” Goldberg said before clapping his hands together. “So! You’re overworked, underpaid, and taking on way too much responsibility at your age. You should still have at least one friend. What’s going on that keeps you from that?”

“Friends need time. Time to hang out, talk, play games, watch movies. Study together. My job takes that time. It might be easier if I was able to invite people over to hang out, but we do not have room for that. We are seven people in a two bedroom apartment. My sisters sleep on couches and futons in the living room. I sleep in a bathtub. Any friend I brought over would not stay long.” Carlos said, feeling exhausted as he summarized his living conditions.

“Your parents make you sleep in the bathtub?” Goldberg asked, leaning forward and looking concerned.

“They do not make me do anything. It was a choice between a room with a door, or the floor. I prefer not to be stepped on. My parents try to keep our family going as best they can, but they need help. I help as much as I can, as the eldest it is my responsibility to do so. I buy groceries with my own money so that we can all eat every day. I buy everyone’s school books and supplies. My sisters do not fully understand why we can no longer afford our own home, why we do not have allowances anymore. My parents do what they can to keep the peace. I do everything else.” Carlos explained, shrugging as if he could dismiss the accumulating stress and worry that had been keeping him awake for over a year.

“Oy vey.” Goldberg groaned, scrubbing one hand over his face. He sighed deeply before looking Carlos over again, this time taking in the worn, fraying edges of Carlos’ clothes, and the gaps at the wrists and ankles that showed that Carlos was outgrowing his shirt and pants.

A knock at the door was the only warning they had before the vibrant boy from earlier walked in, his eyes rounded and face more subdued than earlier.

“He checks out, bossman.” the boy said, leaning against the door.

“Thank fucking Christ. Take him with you, now. You’ve got a lot of work to do.” Goldberg said, looking relieved. “Go get him set up, do your computer stuff. And I’m putting you in charge of his training, capisce?”

“Got it, Mervin.” the blond said, tossing a sloppy salute at Goldberg and getting a middle finger in return. “Alrighty, then! If you could please grab your stuff and follow me?”

Carlos grabbed his bag and stood, following the boy in to the hallway.

“So,” the boy began, “I’m Jake, sometimes known as JJ or Jensen. I’ve been working for Mervin since I was fifteen, about a year and a half now. I’m gonna show you the ropes, whips, props, routines, and edible body glitter, okay? You got a nickname, or is calling you Carlos alright for now?” Jake asked, leading Carlos to another room.

“Carlos is fine.” he said, entering the room. He was surprised to find himself inside a clean, brightly lit room with polished wood floors and a wall of mirrors on one side. He had not been expecting to find what looked like a proper dance studio in the same building as a strip club.

“I’ll walk you through the paperwork real fast and explain the rules. Do you have anywhere you need to be for the next few hours?” Jake asked, heading for a cluster of bean bag chairs tucked in one corner of the room.

“No.” Carlos answered. “It is my day off.”

“Good, good.” Jake said. “Okay, this is a standard employment contract for a minimum wage job washing dishes and sweeping floors. Here’s a clipboard and pen. You need to fill this out so we have a plausible reason for you to be on the books here so you can qualify for worker’s comp and health insurance and whatnot. You won’t actually be a dishwasher, you just need a better reason to be here than ‘underage stripper’, okay?

“Now, we’re going to need to schedule things so you can see how the place runs and also learn to dance. What does your work schedule look like right now?” Jake asked.

“Full time during the week.” Carlos said, carefully filling out the forms Jake had given him.

“Do you have any vacation time saved up?” Jake asked, grabbing a laptop and flopping down on to the bean bag next to Carlos.

“Maybe?” Carlos answered, unsure. He had not planned on taking any vacation time unless forced to do so.

“Honestly the ideal setup would be for you to quit at the factory and come here right away so you could learn as fast as possible. I know that’s not exactly a safe option, though. Not with your parents’ financials looking like this.” Jake said, rubbing one hand over his moth as he stared at his screen.

“¿Qué? How do you know what my parents’ financials look like?” Carlos asked, confused. Even he did not know what his parents’ financials looked like.

“When Mervin gave me your stuff it was so I could look in to you and make sure you’re not an undercover cop or anything. Looking in to you means looking in to your family. Here, this is what I’ve found so far.” Jake said, turning the laptop around so Carlos could see the screen. “Your mother’s credit is decent. She’s a bit behind, but she’s been catching up over the past six months or so and is doing okay. Your dad is not doing so hot. He’s building debt so fast he’d need to take up stripping to pay it off in one year.”

“He has not been able to find work in New York. He has been a ranch hand and horse trainer and handler for over twenty years. It is all he knows. My mother, as a vet, could at least adapt to domestic pets if she had not found work with horses.” Carlos said, feeling his heart sink at the debt piling on to his father.

“What time do you finish work most days? And are you available on weekends?” Jake asked.

“I finish at five, and would have weekends off as long as I do not get called in to cover someone else’s shift.” Carlos replied.

“Okay, okay. We can work with that.” Jake murmured, turning the laptop around again. “We’ll have you come in for six. You’ll grab dinner in the kitchens with me and I’ll show you how things backstage need to be set up. You’ll watch how I handle things when I’m dancing, and I’ll answer any questions you have in between sets. On the weekends you’ll need to come in as early as you can so you can learn to strip. You’ll be paid a dishwasher’s salary as you learn, and once you start dancing you’ll start pulling in actual money. Once you’ve started getting a good intake, then it should be safe to leave that nasty factory job.”

“Sounds good.” Carlos said, signing the employment forms and handing them over.

“So. Rules.” Jake said, setting the laptop and forms aside. “No lap dances or private parties until you’re eighteen. No dancing on that stage in the middle of the room downstairs until you’re eighteen, it’s the only stage where customers are allowed to touch the dancers if they get close to the edges. No drugs. Absolute zero tolerance policy on those, you will be fired if you test positive for anything other than weed. No drinking until you’re eighteen, and no working while drunk. There’s a three shot maximum per night. Any questions?”

“Why the allowance for weed?” Carlos asked.

“Sometimes customers smoke it, so any tests run on us would show it in our systems. It’s also not nearly as bad as a lot of other drugs out there.” Jake said. “Alright. You said we had a couple of hours before you have to be anywhere, right?” At Carlos’ nod, Jake grinned. “Awesome. I’m gonna get you to change in to some spare clothes so we can start right away.”

“Start what?” Carlos asked.

“Dancing, my good man.” Jake said, smiling in a way that made Carlos nervous.

By the time Carlos made it back to the apartment that evening, his limbs were so shaky that he was giving serious thought to filling the tub with ice and sleeping in it like that to ward off the sore muscles he knew were coming.

 


 

When he woke the next day, Carlos was nearly unable to get out of the tub with how sore he was. Through sheer willpower alone he was able to get to the aspirin bottle on the toilet tank. The bus ride to the club was full of jarring bumps and sudden stops, ensuring that Carlos was feeling quite miserable by the time he got there. The back door of the club that Jake had shown him was propped open, so Carlos gingerly made his way up the stairs to the practice studio.

“Gooood morning!” Jake sang when Carlos walked in. He was wearing a lurid shirt and another pair of sweatpants, though this time he had on what looked like satin house slippers.

Carlos groaned vaguely in response, earning a laugh.

“Sounds like you’re ready for some good news!” Jake said, picking up a large bucket. “This morning we’re going to start by covering you in ice so your poor muscles can recover.”

Carlos gently lowered himself in to one of the bean bag chairs and sighed gratefully as Jake applied ice packs from the bucket to his body.

“Alright. You chill out here, I’m gonna get some of my warm-ups done. When you’re done with the ice I’ll walk you through the warm-ups you’ll be using and then get you dancing again.” Jake said, turning and walking over to a sound system in the corner of the room.

Carlos relaxed, letting the ice packs soothe his sore body. He was finding it a struggle to keep his eyes open when he heard piano music coming from the other side of the room. He looked over to see what Jake was doing and saw that he was standing, posed, with his arms held in a loose circle in front of him. Jake started bending at the knee while keeping his heels close together and after a few minutes Carlos realized what he was seeing.

“Is that ballet?” he asked.

“Yep!” Jake said, moving through what had to be warm-up moves. “Since everyone asks: I have a Julliard scholarship, but it doesn’t cover the rent my fake brother charges me. So I strip, tell him I’m a dishwasher, and let him think he’s winning.”

“Fake brother?” Carlos asked, confused.

“I was adopted when I was six.” Jake said, beginning to move around the room with precise, graceful steps. “My adoptive parents already had a kid of their own, but they liked pretending that they’re the pious, giving sort.” he said, rolling his eyes sarcastically. “My fake brother hated having to share their attention, so he’s an asshole to me at every opportunity. Including charging me rent. I made up a whole income spreadsheet so he thinks he knows what I make every week and charges me based on that.”

“Your parents allow him to do this?” Carlos asked, shocked that anyone could be so callous to family.

“My fake parents never recovered from me telling them I wanted to keep my own last name instead of ‘upgrading’ to theirs.” Jake said, snorting derisively. “Like it was inconceivable to them that I might still love my dad even though social services took me away from him. They don’t deal well with anything that challenges their worldview. I had to fight just to take ballet lessons in the first place.”

“If you got in to Julliard I am guessing you won that fight.” Carlos said.

“They said I could take lessons as long as I kept my grades up. So I graduated valedictorian at twelve.” Jake said, smirking as he stretched in to a pose that balanced him on one leg.

“Twelve?!” Carlos asked, incredulous. He was barely holding a decent GPA!

“Yeah. Thought I had them trapped with that, but then they said I could only keep taking classes as long as I went to college. I got a degree in programming and communications technology before managing to wrangle my scholarship at Julliard.” Jake said, still dancing as he spoke. “What I’ve come to learn is that they really hate when I make them keep their word.”

Carlos watched Jake as he danced around the room following what seemed to be a set series of exercises. Jake often checked his reflection in the mirror as he moved and would adjust his movement or positioning based on what he saw. A few times Jake’s arms or legs would tremble slightly as he danced. When that happened Jake would stop, stretch out his muscles, and try again until the movement was fluid.

After an hour or so of practice, Jake stopped to rehydrate and switch the tape.

“Okay. Up you get.” he said to Carlos. “Time to get you some mad pole dancing skills.”

Carlos snorted and got up, dropping the melted ice packs back in the bucket. Jake led Carlos through a series of warm-ups that involved everything from yoga to jogging to pushups and pull-ups. When Carlos questioned why all of this was necessary for stripping, Jake pointed out that better pole tricks often meant better tips.

After warm-ups they moved on to actual dancing. Jake played music that the club often used, letting Carlos get a feel for the rhythms he would be working with. Jake was more careful to not over tax Carlos the way he had the previous day, making sure to stop and let Carlos recover in between exercises, as well as making sure they both kept hydrated. It felt a bit odd for Carlos, being so used to being the one who made sure others were taken care of.

They ate packed lunches in the practice studio, but when dinner came around they went down to the kitchen and were served by the kitchen staff in the break room. The break room was full of people, some clearly preparing for a night on the stage. Carlos felt nervous looking at them, and how little they were wearing.

“Come on.” Jake said when their plates were empty. “I’m gonna show you the basic sorts of stage makeup and costuming you’ll be going through.”

Carlos followed Jake to a backstage area that was crammed full of vanities, makeup, costumes, and strippers. Jake led him to an empty vanity and had him sit on the bench while Jake took the cluttered vanity to the left.

“That,” Jake said, pointing to the vanity Carlos was sitting in front of, “is going to be your station. Learn it, load it with goodies, love it. Your whole career as a stripper is going to grace its surface. We’ll get you started on learning the makeup part of things in a week or two. For now just watch what I’m doing.”

Carlos sat astride his bench and leaned closer to watch as Jake applied stage makeup. Jake started by putting in contact lenses, then took a darkish color of some product and dabbed it under his cheekbones. He then used a makeup sponge to spread the color around, blending it so it looked like his face was more chiseled and defined, older. Next he used a spray bottle to wet a different sort of sponge, one with a rougher texture. He dipped this sponge in to a small tray full of stuff in different shades of brown, orange, and yellow.

“Alcohol activated body and face paints.” Jake said, dabbing the sponge over his chin and jawline. “I use that to make it look like I’ve got heavy beard growth that was just shaved off. The other product was cream contouring stuff. Because the trick to not getting the cops called in on your underaged ass is to look like a college student who is trying to look barely legal. To do that you need to make yourself look older, then put makeup on top of that to make yourself look younger. Following me?”

“Not really.” Carlos admitted.

“Watch and learn, buddy.” Jake said, taking a bottle of foundation out of the drawer next.

Carlos was not entirely sure how, but over the next thirty minutes Jake managed to make himself look like a college student posing as a high schooler. When it was done, Jake took out a small spray bottle and misted the contents all over his face. He looked pained as he set the bottle down and started using his hands to fan his face.

“The worst part: setting spray. I use this professional grade stuff that drag queens use. The makeup will not move once it sets, but it stings until it’s dry. One of the bartenders, Janet, she hooks me up with the stuff. Uses it when she’s performing drag.” he explained. “Obviously you don’t have to use what I use, you can experiment with stuff on your own time.”

Carlos had a sudden flash of himself, sitting on his bedding in the tub, trying on makeup while one of his family members was on the other side on the shower curtain, peeing.

“I will trust your judgment.” Carlos choked out.

“I’m touched by your faith in me.” Jake said, rubbing a deep red lipstick on the tip of his ring finger. He used that finger to dab the color on his lips, keeping most of the pigment concentrated towards the center of his lips. It made his mouth look plush and plump, like he had been kissing someone only moments ago. “Perfect, perfect! Now for the fun part.” He said, standing up and dropping his pants.

Carlos squeezed his eyes shut and wondered if he really knew what he was getting in to when he signed on to become a stripper.

“So, there’s gonna be a little storage thing under your vanity. You’ll get to fill it with outfits you claim. Some will be stuff you come up with yourself. Some of it will be really campy outfits some friend of Mervin’s decides to donate. If you can work it in to an act, go for it. First come, first serve. Don’t let anyone try and act like a diva about who gets to pick what. If you wear something then you’re responsible for washing it. And trust me, you’re gonna want to wash stuff often. Nobody tips a stripper who smells so bad the customers can’t get near them.” Jake said. It sounded like he was shuffling around, putting on clothes. “You should really take the opportunity to acclimatize yourself to being surrounded by half naked people. You’re going to encounter quite a lot of them with this job.”

Carlos felt himself flush at Jake’s prodding, and hesitantly opened one eye. Most of the other strippers were layering clothes on top of tight shorts, or strutting around in campy outfits. In the reflection of the vanity mirror Carlos could see someone dressed as a robber rubbing oil on their legs with the help of someone dressed as a cop.

“Charlie and Lin are the only double act this place has.” Jake confides. “They do wonders with any kind of ‘opposites attract’ or ‘forbidden love’ type of stuff.”

Carlos turned to ask Jake how a double act would work and found he was eye level with Jake’s purple sequined booty shorts.

“Yeah, I know.” Jake said as Carlos clapped a hand over his eyes. “But part of the agreement we’ve both signed is that we can’t wear thongs until we’re legal age. So we make do with the booty shorts.” and then Carlos heard him slap his own ass.

 


 

The evening progressed in much the same way, with Carlos slowly learning what went on behind the scenes. It was an oddly organized chaos, with people scrambling to get changed, or put on makeup. Some people chose to cover up tattoos or birthmarks, while others added fake freckles if they thought it would help whatever costume they were working with.

The dancers in actual costumes seemed to fall in to two groups: role-players and pinch hitters. The role-players often had specific songs or entire routines to go through on stage. The pinch hitters were there to fill in gaps, whether it was because someone was running late or was off giving a lap dance. The pinch hitters stepped in to keep the entertainment flowing smoothly.  

The dancers who were not in costumes seemed to focus more on dancing and gymnastics. Their routines seemed to be more physically demanding, and all of them tended to rehydrate as soon as they got off the stage, even if it was just a sip of water. Jake explained that they were a mix of athletes, dancers, and people who included stripping in their physiotherapy for various injuries. One of them was a retired soldier who kept rotating and stretching one arm as though it was stiff or uncomfortable, icing it halfway through the night.

At the end of the night everyone tidied up after themselves, took showers, changed in to street clothes, and left. Some of them walked off in groups, while a few others carpooled. Goldberg offered a lift to Carlos, Jake, and Janet, who proved to be a tall black person capable of doubling as both bartender and bouncer. According to Janet, Goldberg always offered a lift to those who were likely to be traveling alone, as he wanted to make sure all of his staff members were safe.

After that night, Carlos resumed the same work schedule at the factory that he had during the previous summer. The only difference was that when his shift ended he would go to the club and grab an hour or so of dancing lessons with Jake. He would have dinner with everyone, slowly getting to know the other strippers, and then spent the rest of the evening helping others backstage or peering through the curtains to watch and learn.

On the weekends Carlos dropped by the club and learned more from Jake. During the day they practiced dancing and pole dancing, with Jake insisting they do so in their underwear after realizing Carlos felt uncomfortable with the sheer amount of nudity he was coming in to contact with. Jake and Janet taught Carlos how to do his own makeup, and again insisted he wear it during the hours he spent backstage to familiarize himself with it.

 


 

After learning enough dancing and strengthening his body enough to reliably pull off most pole dancing moves, Jake and Carlos settled down to choreograph a few routines. In the middle of one of these sessions Goldberg walked in and asked an important question.

“So what stage name are you using, kid?”

Carlos stared blankly at Goldberg, hanging upside down from a pole.

“Oh, good question.” Jake said, frowning. “He can’t exactly go up there as ‘Totally Not An Underaged Stripper’, now can he?”

“Well pick something, or I will.” Goldberg said, screwing his cigar back in to its usual spot in the corner of his mouth.

“Oh, god no! You’re the asshole that decided my stage name should be Sunny because I’m blond. Your naming privileges are revoked!” Jake protested, shooing Goldberg from the room.

“Did I hear something about Mervin naming strippers again?” Janet asked, poking her head through the open doorway.

“My name ain’t even Mervin!” Goldberg groused as he walked back to his office.

“I told you! If I’m stuck with Sunny, then you’re stuck with Mervin!” Jake yelled after him.

“What is his real name?” Carlos asked, righting himself and climbing down off the pole.

“Keith.” Janet said, walking over to him, her stilettos clicking lightly on the polished floor. “So, we gotta make sure you get yourself a good name, honey. Mervin sucks balls at naming stuff.”

“Does it have to be very...” Carlos hesitated as he searched for the right word.

“Campy? Innuendo laden? Cutesy?” Jake offered.

.” Carlos admitted.

“I think actually that you would benefit from a more regal name. I don’t mean like an actual royal title or anything, just something more refined.” Janet mused.

“Well we already know Princess Doublepump is taken, anyways.” Jake said, grinning at Janet’s groan. At Carlos’ raised eyebrow, he explained, “As you have no doubt noticed, Janet performs in drag as the lovely Janet Jacksoff. When she is not in drag, he has a lovely boyfriend to go home to. Said boyfriend got rip roaring drunk about four months before you got here and insisted on having his own drag transformation. When it was all said and done, he named himself Princess Doublepump, took two steps, and broke the heel off his shoe.”

Carlos tried not to laugh, but the look of exasperated affection on Janet’s face and the glee in Jake’s eyes had him doubling over until he was out of breath.

“So now that we know what not to name you,” Janet said, dabbing under her eyes to preserve her makeup, “got any ideas what we could use?”

“Something that shares a similarity to his real name might help?” Jake suggested. “Or at least it’ll make it easier for him to learn to respond to it. Only reason I responded to Sunny at the beginning is because my fake dad would say ‘whoa there, sonny’ when I was tearing around the house as a kid. Made the first two months of stripping here unnecessarily creepy.” he said, shuddering dramatically.

“How good a prowl do you have?” Janet asked.

Carlos straightened his posture and prowled forward between Janet and Jake. After he got a few feet past them he sank to all fours and prowled back to them that way.

“You should get something primal. Something sultry and animalistic.” Janet said.

“Oh, yeah! Something sexy and slinky!” Jake enthused.

“What about ‘El Lobo’?” Janet suggested.

“What does that mean?” Jake asked, tilting his head like a confused dog.

“The Wolf.” Carlos translated.

“Oh. Wow, I was way off.” Jake said.

“What did you think it was?” Carlos asked, knowing it would be amusing.

“Picture this,” Jake started, leaning back and stretching his arms in front with his fingers forming a loose rectangular frame, “a pair of ear lobes in Seth’s red glitter halter top.”

“JJ, you dork.” Janet said, snorting inelegantly.

“What about ‘Cougar’?” Carlos asked. When Janet and Jake turned to him, he counted his arguments off on his fingers. “Graceful. Animal. Primal. Found in Texas.”

“This is how you’ve decided to come clean about being a were-cougar this whole time, isn’t it?” Jake joked. “Name sounds good to me. Can you spot anything wrong with it, Janet?”

“Not off the top of my head.” she said. “You good with that as your name?”

Carlos nodded decisively.

“Cougar it is, then.” Jake said, grinning.

“You boys keep practicing. I’ll let Mervin know.” Janet said, tossing a wave over her shoulder as she left.

 

Deciding on a stage name seemed to make things start moving faster. Carlos began having to practice his routines in front of the other strippers, receiving constructive criticism and suggestions on how to improve. Carlos had to try on a lot of costumes to see if they would work for him, with the costumes being pinched and tugged to see if they would need to be altered to fit him better if they were chosen.

Carlos and Jake started holding their early morning practices down in the club itself to help Carlos familiarize himself with the different stages and exits, as well as the usual locations of the bouncers. Jake also offered some valuable advice with regards to personal grooming, pointing out that all the other dancers shaved or waxed their body hair. Janet took Carlos to a friend who was studying hairdressing, and they got his messy curls trimmed short and styled enough that he looked just a bit older.

 


 

Carlos’ first night on stage came during the last week of August. It was specifically scheduled for a Thursday, busier than other week days but not as busy as the weekend. The other strippers at The Honeypot had done their best to prepare him for everything from grabby customers to a dead audience, and he appreciated the support they had given him throughout the summer. In the end, when the music cue told him to get out on stage, Carlos let go of his nerves and trusted the training he had done. When the night was over, and Carlos had been congratulated by the others on a successful first night, Goldberg and Jake took him aside to show him how the money would be divided.

 “So, the way it usually works is that dancers rent stages in clubs. With you, though,” Goldberg said, puffing a little proudly on his cigar, “you get paid a wage as a ‘dishwasher’, see? So there’s a special arrangement in place for stuff like this. Show ‘im, Jensen.”

“Okay. Here’s your wages as a dishwasher. It tracks hours spent here and all that jazz, and we have the wages you’ve already been paid while you were just learning.” Jake said, still in his last costume as he showed Carlos the spreadsheets on his computer. “Going forward, we’ll work out a solid schedule for you to be ‘dishwashing’, and the wages you earn during that time will be taken out of your dancing money so that everyone breaks even. So you’re still going to earn this dishwasher paycheck, but anything you make while dancing that surpasses your wages is yours to keep. Following me?”

“I get money for a job I don’t do, I pay that money back. Anything left over is mine to keep.” Carlos said.

“Excellent! Jake said.

“Calculations and everything have been done for tonight. This is your share for tonight’s work.” Goldberg said, handing Carlos a small yellow envelope.

Carlos took the envelope and opened it, finding a wad of cash and a receipt showing a list of calculations. Even after the deductions, Carlos was left with nearly two hundred dollars for one night’s work. He stood there, blinking stupidly at the envelope that could feed his entire family for a week.

“That look never gets old.” Goldberg said, sounding satisfied.

“Once you’re eighteen, maybe a month or two after to be safe, the agreement will change again and you’ll have a better profit margin if you also do lap dances and private parties and such.” Jake said, fiddling with a pen as he looked up at Carlos. “Oh, jeez. He’s sniffling. Shit. Um. There, there? I suck at comforting people.”

“Right. I’m out of here. I don’t do emotions. Be ready in fifteen if you want a ride home.” Goldberg said, all but fleeing as he waddled out of the room.

“Gracias!” Carlos called after him before turning back to Jake. “Dios mio, this is better than I had dared to hope.”

“Hey. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.” Jake said softly, pulling Carlos in to a loose hug. “I don’t fully know what you’ve been going through, but I can tell you right now that it’s going to get better.”

Carlos buried his face in Jake’s shoulder, needing a moment to compose himself. He shivered when Jake pulled him in closer, strong arms wrapping around him, making him feel safer.

“Give it a week to get used to things, then quit at the factory.” Jake blurted out.

“¿Qué?” Carlos asked, sniffling.

“You’re overworked and school starts again soon. You go and try to study like this and you’ll just burn out.” Jake said, rubbing Carlos’ back.

“Buena idea.” Carlos agreed. He clung to Jake a moment longer and prayed to God in thanks. For Dave and his suggestion, for Goldberg and his understanding, for the strippers and their support, and for Jake. “Why did Goldberg take a chance on me?” he whispered after a moment.

“Well he may look like Danny DeVito had a baby with a Jewish Italian mobster, but he grew up pretty poor. He’s got some shady friends that drop by every so often, so I’m pretty sure he had to do a lot of less than legal and less than nice stuff to get where he is today. So he figures that if you’re desperate enough to try this, then if he turns you down you’ll just try some place worse in a club that’s more interested in taking advantage of you than in helping you.” Jake said. “Also, you had the right card.”

“Card?” Carlos asked, pulling out of the hug.

“The regular business cards this place gives out are pink. You had a yellow one. Those only come from one place: the locked drawer here in Mervin’s desk. They all have a hand written number in invisible ink, too. Mervin keeps track of who he gives the cards to, so if someone comes in with one we can just reference the card number and call the person the card was given to. There’s only been, I think, twenty-three instances of those cards being used, and this place has been open almost thirty years.” Jake explained.

“That is...” Carlos trailed off.

“Yeah.” Jake agreed. “Mervin’s smart, and just a bit paranoid. It’s how he’s made it this long. Always instills this weird mix of admiration and concern. Then again, if there was a chance I’d face serious jail time if I got caught doing something then I’d probably be just as bad.”

Carlos could only not in agreement.

“So, much as I love what these booty shorts do for us both, what do you say we get some real clothes on and get out of here?” Jake said, grinning brightly.

“Por favor!” Carlos agree, remembering that he was only wearing a pair of vinyl shorts and some body glitter.

“Awesome! And then tomorrow we get to do this all over again!” Jake said cheerfully as he led the way to the changing rooms.

The next day went even better, with a larger crowd that was eager to part with cash in exchange for some attention from partially clothed men. Carlos was getting better at responding to his stage name, Cougar, and grew more comfortable out on the stage with every night. There were even a few customers who asked the bar staff if it was possible to get a lap dance from him, though they were turned down as per Carlos’ agreement with Goldberg.

 


 

After the one week adjustment period, Carlos quit his job at the factory by the docks. A few people were sad to see him go, though several of the older employees made a point to speak to him during his last day to commend his decision to leave and ‘focus on his education’, as that was what he had cited as his reason for leaving. He took the various well wishes in stride and made sure to find the time to present Dave with a yellow thank you card. Dave smiled, clapped him on the shoulder, and wished Carlos the best.

Not having to work two jobs allowed Carlos to start relaxing for the first time since he had started working at the factory. He was making good money, he had free time and was not too exhausted to do anything, and he even had friends. Carlos started hanging out with Jake outside of work, going over to the apartment Jake shared with his fake brother to play video games and watch movies. Jake would often be working at something on his computer if they were just watching stuff, though he tended to get up for random dance breaks if he felt he had been sitting too long.

A few weeks after school started, Carlos worked through his seventeenth birthday and was taken out for three am waffles when the other strippers found out. Carlos ended up crawling through the window of his bathroom to keep from waking anyone by unlocking the front door. It was one thing for his parents to accept him coming home late because of work, it was another for him to stagger in at five in the morning on a school day, covered in glitter and confetti, and so full of waffles and ice cream that he almost felt ill.

To keep his parents from wondering why he was making so much money when he only worked three to four nights a week, Carlos took to spending his spare time either in the dance studio at the club or at Jake’s place. Jake proved to be a great person to study with, quizzing Carlos on his schoolwork until he could recite the answers in his sleep. By Thanksgiving, Carlos’ grades had risen high enough that he was one of the top students in his grade.

 


 

Shortly before Christmas, Carlos was out shopping for gifts with his father. They stopped at a race track simply to be able to look at the horses, something they had both been missing since moving to New York. They were there for maybe twenty minutes when a vaguely familiar voice called out to them.

“Alvarez?” said a man walking towards them.

While Carlos only barely recognized having met the man before, his father visibly brightened on seeing him and met the man for a quick hug.

“Never thought I’d see you in New York.” the man said. “What brings you this far north?”

“Old Man McFee finally got too old and sold his ranch. New owners were yanks.” Carlos’ father said.

“Shit. Tell me they didn’t go and replace everyone.” the man said.

“‘Fraid so. We got family here that took us in, so we’re luckier than some of the others.” his father said. “You remember my boy, Carlos?”

“That’s little Carlos?” the man asked, surprised. “God damn! He’s growing like a weed! He’s gotta be, what? Two feet taller than he was the last time I saw him?”

“He was about thirteen when McFee had us head up to Kentucky to work with you, so probably. Carlos, you remember Ted, right?” his father asked.

Carlos thought back to that trip. McFee had asked his father to go to Kentucky for three weeks during the summer, something about training new horses or a partnership. Carlos had gone with his father as a bonding experience and had spent most of the trip either in the stables working or watching bad action movies with his father. He had met a lot of people, though only one stood out in his memory as being important for his father’s job.

“Mr. Sanders.” Carlos ventured, offering a hand to shake.

“Good to see you again, kid.” Sanders said, shaking Carlos’ hand enthusiastically. “Not to pry, but are you working at this track, Caleb?”

“No, no."  Carlos’ father said, shaking his head. “Gabriela got a job as a vet tech, but there is not so much work available for lifelong ranch hands in this city.”

“Well if you’re still looking then I’d be glad to hire you!” Sanders said. “I’d have offered you a job years ago but I didn’t think you’d uproot yourselves since McFee was doing good by you! Hell, someone with your talent for calming high strung horses? You’re worth your weight in gold to someone with as many race horses as me. Have you got time to hash this out with me?”

Carlos’ father looked dumbstruck, so Carlos stepped up to the plate. “Si. He has time. I was about to go see a friend for group study anyways.”

“Oh, excellent! Come over this way, Caleb. We’ve got a section in the barns over here. You’re gonna love the setup we have!”

Carlos left before his father could do anything but nod. He was actually done with his exams for the year, though he had told his parents there was another day’s worth so he could attend The Honeypot’s Christmas part. It was also a convenient excuse to get him out of the apartment when his sisters started fighting again.

Carlos went to Jake’s place, skipping the front door and using the fire escape to get to Jake’s window. Carlos had met Jake’s fake brother, Anthony, a few times and the man was incredibly condescending and argumentative. Every conversation had felt like the man was trying to win, somehow. Jake started leaving his bedroom window unlocked after Anthony had expounded on his opinion that a flat tax would be better for the country and tried to insist it would not favor the wealthy. Carlos had never been closer to punching someone in his life.

When Carlos got to the window, he found it already open and could hear music playing. It was quite warm for a late December day, but not enough to have a window open that wide, which meant that Jake was likely practicing ballet and got too hot again. Carlos stepped over to the window, ready to call out a greeting, but stopped short at what he found inside.

Jake was dancing, but there was a girl with him. Long red hair, a color his mother would call strawberry blonde, and a lithe body were all he could make out from outside. She twirled gracefully on her toes, hair fanning out behind her as she spun. Jake moved in to a new position, movements slow and deliberate in a way that Carlos had learned meant he was working with new choreography. Carlos settled in to watch them navigate the small room, bumping in to each other every so often as they figured out how to move in each others’ space. Carlos leaned on the window sill and rested his chin in his hands, waiting to be noticed.

After a minute or so the girl spun in to Jake’s arms, her back to his chest and her eyes focused on the floor as she clearly counted beats. They swayed there for a second before the girl looked up and shrieked. Jake startled and grabbed her, looking around wildly for what caused her to scream. When he spotted Carlos he immediately relaxed before screwing up his face in mock outrage.

“That was magical.” Carlos said, grinning.

“You jerk!” Jake said, laughing.

He let go of the girl and darted over to Carlos, pulling him through the window and on to the bed. Carlos laughed and pushed at Jake, getting smacked with a pillow in return. They wrestled for a moment before Carlos succeeded in pushing Jake off the bed.

“So I’m going to guess you know him, Iacob.” the girl said, sitting on the edge of Jake’s desk, looking amused.

“Ivana, this is my best friend. Carlos, this is my new friend and occasional dance partner.” Jake explained from his spot on the floor. “Carlos, buddy. Take your slush covered boots off my blanket or I swear I’ll turn on your shower while you’re sleeping.”

Carlos snorted and kicked off his boots before making himself comfortable on Jake’s bed.

“It is nice to meet you, Carlos.” Ivana said, smiling politely. Carlos was beginning to notice an accent as she spoke, something European from what he could tell. “Iacob has mentioned you before.”

“Yakob?” Carlos asked, looking at Jake.

“Ivana here moved to New York from Moldova. ‘Jake’ was a little hard for her to pronounce when we first started dancing together, so I said she could call me whatever the Moldovan equivalent of Jacob is if she could also teach me some of her mother tongue.” Jake explained.

“What do they speak in Moldova?” Carlos asked, curious.

“Romanian.” Ivana said. “Moldova used to be part of Romania, but became its own country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

“They skipped that in history class.” Carlos admitted.

“Americans skip a lot of history unless it’s about them.” Ivana said ruefully. “I feel lucky that I got Iacob as a partner since he is at least willing to learn.”

“He likes learning. Perhaps too much, sometimes.” Carlos said, smirking.

“I got all the spaghetti squash off the ceiling eventually, okay?” Jake protested, getting off the floor and sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I am not going to ask.” Ivana said.

“That may be for the best.” Jake agreed pleasantly.

Carlos reached out with one foot and nudged Jake’s side. “Mi papa might have found a job.”

“That’s great!” Jake said, beaming.

“We went to the tracks to look at the horses and he ran in to an old business friend. Got offered a job on the spot.” Carlos said.

“Oh, man. That’ll be awesome. He can get back to doing what he loves.” Jake said.

“He works with horses?” Ivana asked. Carlos looked at her, wondering for a second if she was like some of the kids in his school who looked for things to make fun of him for, but Ivana’s face showed only curiosity.

“Mi papa grew up leaning to be a ranch hand and horse trainer. He has worked with race tracks and rodeos before. The ranch we were on in Texas was sold last year. The new owners got rid of everyone, so we moved here to stay with family. Mama found work as a vet easily, but no one was looking for a ‘half-literate wetback’, as one person put it.” Carlos explained.

“What is ‘wetback’?” Ivana asked, looking to Jake.

Jake thought for a few seconds before speaking rapidly in a different language, Carlos guessed is was Romanian. Whatever he said made Ivana grimace and shake her head.

“I am sorry that someone had so much disrespect for your father and your ancestry.” she said.

“Moldova is the poorest European country. And Romania doesn’t have the best reputation, either. They may all be white, but European countries and the people in them still manage to discriminate against each other. To explain what the slur used against your dad meant, I did my best to translate it in to something Ivana would have seen as a Moldovan.” Jake explained.

“Gracias.” Carlos said, poking Jake with his toe.

“Languages and communication are nice.” Jake said, pursing his lips in recognition of how awkward he sounded.

“So your father has found a job, then?” Ivana asked.

“He was offered one and has no reason to say no.” Carlos said. Truthfully he was unsure if his father would take the job. His father’s inability to find employment had been a sore subject for nearly a year. Privately, Carlos suspected is father was becoming depressed, though he hoped that the job offer from Sanders would help.

“If all goes well are you going to keep working?” Jake asked, picking at the bedspread.

.” Carlos answered immediately. When Jake looked at him hopefully, he explained, “I have a good job. One that fits my schedule. I like the place and the people.” There was no need for Carlos to mention that he had learned not to take his parents’ employment for granted. If his parents both had jobs, then he could save what he earned until there was an emergency.

“Smart thinking.” Ivana said. “It will also look good on college applications.”

“Not sure if I want to go to college.” Carlos admitted. “I do not know what I would study. I do not have anything I am passionate enough about that I would want to go in to debt to learn more about it.”

“The American education system is so messed up if it requires debt for higher education.” Ivana said, frowning. “Iacob has a full ride, but he still needs a job to make ends meet.”

“Yeah, well. Julliard wasn’t expecting my share of the rent to be so high.” Jake said, scratching his reddening neck. “Also: you could always do part time schooling while you work, Carlos. You might end up finding something you really love that way.”

“I am mostly wondering if I should test out of school.” Carlos admitted. “Now that I have time and energy to study properly I could pick up my GED early if I keep doing well.”

“If you need a study buddy…” Jake said, gesturing at himself.

Carlos smiled at his friend and nodded.

When Carlos got home that evening, there was a celebration going on. His parents and Conchita were ecstatic about the new job, and his sisters were going along with it in the hopes of there being extra dessert involved in the celebration. Carlos helped Conchita throw something together in the small kitchen, and was able to sit down to a meal where his whole family was happy for the first time since they had moved.

 


 

With the new job came a better influx of money to their household. Still not much, but better than it had been. When spring came around Carlos called in a favor from Janet and had her long time boyfriend help his parents figure out their taxes. It turned out that the boyfriend, a quiet and polite man by the name of Daniel, had known Jake when he was a TA for a class Jake took during his first semester at MIT. Daniel had, in fact, been the one to recommend Jake to The Honeypot when Jake’s brother had begun trying to screw him over.

After finding out that his friend had graduated from MIT at fifteen years old, Carlos’ family became very interested in meeting Jake. Carlos, who had watched too many times as Jake made his animal crackers fight to the death before he ate them, was determined that they would not meet until Carlos was legally an adult and could no longer be told who he could and could not be friends with.

Shortly after his end of year finals, Carlos arranged to get his GED so he could skip his last year of high school. He had the diploma mailed to a P.O. box Jake had set up for the both of them. Carlos began working full time at The Honeypot, deciding to do part time studies at a small local college in the fall. He did not tell his parents any of this, knowing that would object to his choices. As far as Carlos was concerned, as long as he was paying his own tuition and supplies that made it his choice and no one else’s.

Throughout the summer, Carlos and Jake worked together on different routines. When they were not working on pole dancing routines, Jake would sometimes ask Carlos to help him practice choreography he was trying to learn. Carlos got to know Ivana better, as well, as she was usually there if Carlos hung out at Jake’s apartment. She was a smart, polite girl with a hidden sardonic streak and a spine of steel. Carlos could see why Jake had a crush on her, and pushed through his mild discomfort around her until he felt more at ease. He even took to inviting Ivana over if his parents asked him to babysit his sisters. Maria was clear in her hero worship of Ivana, asking their parents about the possibility of ballet classes. Anna was inspired in a different way, announcing boldly at dinner one night that she wanted to one day lead a motorcycle gang made of vigilante ballerinas.

When Carlos turned eighteen in the fall, he arrived at work on his birthday and found a package waiting for him on his vanity. Inside was a white thong and a beauty pageant ribbon sash that read ‘Birthday Boy’. Sighing a little, Carlos altered his routine to make the outfit work. It was apparently a crowd pleaser, and the stage ended up covered in so much money that he almost slipped on it all. During his last routine of the night, Janet came on stage in full drag with a bottle of champagne. She shook the bottle so it rained champagne on Carlos as he gyrated on the stage. When it was over for the night, Janet handed him the bottle as a keepsake, winking when Carlos pointed out there was still alcohol in it. Carlos split the champagne with Jake, who would not be getting his own birthday thong until late October.

When Jake’s birthday came to pass, his celebratory costume involved a pink thong and rhinestone studded nipple covers shaped like hearts. Whenever Carlos looked back at his memories of that day he always wondered how the hell Jake had made the look work.

Things continued steadily throughout the winter. After reworking his agreement with Mervin so that he was listed as a stripper instead of a dishwasher, Carlos learned how to give lap dances and what the etiquette for doing private parties was. At some point during the winter he turned around and realized that Jake had grown taller than him. He also started taking self defense courses at a nearby YMCA from the retired soldier who stripped at The Honeypot. Jake joined the classes after a few weeks, and also started doing some weight training. The dances he was learning were getting more complicated, and it was happening more often that Jake was chosen for parts that required him to lift and carry other dancers.

Their motivation for taking the classes stemmed in part from an increase in gang related activity in their neighborhoods, but also because one of the other dancers was having issues with a stalker. The police were doing nothing about it, so everyone at The Honeypot took it upon themselves to look after each other. After one particular night where the stalker kept trying to sneak in to the club and would not leave, Jake took a laptop out of his book bag that Carlos had only seen him use a few times before. He typed away at the keyboard for several hours, skipping his booked stage times. Three days later, the stalker was arrested for tax evasion and making threats against the mayor in an online forum. Jake looked quietly please when their coworker announced the arrest.

 


 

In early May, Carlos and Jake were approached by Janet’s boyfriend, Daniel. He was planning a birthday bash and wanted to hire them both since they were Janet’s favorite coworkers. They agreed and worked out a fee to work the party. One of the rules Daniel had set down was that they should strip out of dresses or skirts. In the process of planning their routine, Carlos and Jake somehow ended up goading each other in to agreeing to strip in high heels. They ended up asking Ivana to take them shopping for heels that would fit. Ivana still did not know they were strippers, and Carlos was not sure he wanted to know what Jake had told her to get her to agree to take them out.

The night of the party, Carlos and Jake met up at the YMCA as it was the closest place near Janet and Daniels’ apartment where they could change their clothes. Carlos put on a, according to the lady who sold it to him, ruched micro mini tube dress in a pale powder blue that made his skin glow, as well as a white shrug to cover his arms and shoulders. He paired it with three inch gold heels that matched his thong. Jake’s outfit was a white camisole that made his well developed pecs look like actual tits, and a blue tartan kilt that barely hit mid-thigh. The thong he had chosen was a metallic blue one that matched the six inch heels he had bought after realizing that his years of practicing stripping in pointe shoes for fun meant that high heels would not provide much challenge.

They walked to Janet and Daniel’s place, letting the walk help them get used to the shoes and reminding themselves how to move in them. They carried their clothes in bags that looked like purses, and wore light jackets that covered them from neck to knee in case Janet or one of her friends spied them on the street. Daniel let them in through the back door of their duplex, escorting them to the spare bathroom so they could finish getting ready. They kept the makeup simple, doing basic contouring and highlighting, but adding eyeliner and soft contouring with shadows to their eyes. Jake applied a bold berry lipstick and mascara, while Carlos used a soft pink gloss and added a rhinestone beauty spot high on his right cheek. There was not much either of them could do with their hair, as short as they kept it.

They could hear the party going on in the living room, and waited for their cue from Daniel. When they heard him switch the disk in the sound system, they crept out of the bathroom and waited behind the curtain that had been strung across the doorway. Daniel explained that he wanted to perform a little something for Janet for her birthday, and the opening notes of the song played as he began to sing along.

“Now I’ve had the time of my life

“No, I’ve never felt like this before

“Yes I swear, it’s the truth

“And I owe it all to you.”

Carlos could hear Janet and the other queens cooing at the display Daniel had to be making.

“‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life

“And I owe it all to you.”

When the beat of the song dropped, Jake flung the curtain aside and they danced in to the room. The drag queens screamed in excitement, and Janet’s jaw dropped. Daniel moved off to the side to let them work the room, and Carlos and Jake started the choreography they had worked on for weeks. They merged the dance from the film with extra moves designed to let them strip smoothly, or opportunities to shake their asses and earn wolf whistles and cheers.

The queens were very vocal in their appreciation, and Carlos found himself hoping that no one would call in a noise complaint as he tossed his shrug to one of the queens. She screamed a little as she caught it, clutching the piece to her chest. Carlos grinned as he heard her call out “Oh, yes! Work it, baby!”

Towards the end of the song, when it came time to do the famous lift, it was Carlos who ran in to Jake’s arms. They had practiced it both ways, but Jake’s months and years of experience at lifting others smoothly won out in the end. When Jake lifted him in front of the queens there was a collective gasp. When Jake gently lowered Carlos back down, he could see that Janet was trying not to cry. And when Jake grabbed the hem of Carlos’ dress and pulled it up and over his head as Carlos sank down, the queens all screamed again. Carlos reached over and whipped off Jake’s kilt while he was kneeling down, receiving cheers for doing so. They finished dancing to the song, and were mobbed by drag queens when it ended.

Janet hugged the both of them to her so hard they almost overbalanced. She was definitely crying at that point, sobbing about what wonderful and ‘fucking fabulous babies’ they were. The only way they got her to let go was by waving Daniel over so Janet could lavish him with attention too.

Once everyone had calmed down, and they had been given a chance to put their clothes back on, Carlos and Jake sat with Janet and the other queens. Between the queens visiting Janet at The Honeypot and Jake and Carlos attending Janet’s performances they had all met each other at various points over the years, so it was a matter of catching up on how they were all doing. The conversation jumped from one subject to the next until it came to rest on an offer for Jake and Carlos to go clubbing with them. They agreed, though Janet insisted on giving both of them drag makeovers. Janet redid their makeup, giving Jake neutral eyes with dramatic false lashes and bold pink lipstick. Carlos’ look focused more on making his face have a soft, healthy glow that helped tone down the black smoky eyes and burgundy glitter lining his lower lids. When it was done, Janet put the rhinestone beauty spot back where Carlos had placed it, insisting it was perfect.

They stayed out until the early hours of the morning when the clubs began closing. They sat down to breakfast together at the same waffle shop Carlos had been taken to for his seventeenth birthday. After they had all eaten, they wished Janet a happy birthday again and started leaving in twos and threes. Jake walked with Carlos back to his family’s apartment, following him up the fire escape so they could see if it was safe for Carlos to sneak in or if he would have to crash at Jake’s place.

Carlos could hear his parents talking in the kitchen, discussing finding an apartment for their family to move in to. Jake tapped his wrist where a watch would be and held up three fingers, silently asking if they were waiting thirty minutes to see if his family would clear out before going someplace else. Carlos nodded in agreement and sat down on the fire escape to wait.

They passed the time listening to his parents debate the pros and cons of each listing. Some did not have enough bedrooms, others were two expensive. A few times Carlos’ father insisted on marking a place on a ‘maybe’ list while Jake and Carlos sat outside shaking their heads, knowing already that the family could not afford it. Just as they were about to leave and go to Jake’s place, they heard steps approaching the kitchen and Carlos’ mother spoke.

“Oh, you look nice!”

Gracias, Mamá.” Carmen said.

“I don’t care how ‘nice’ it is, you’re not going outside looking like that.” Carlos’ father said.

“Caleb.” his mother warned.

“I am not letting my daughter go outside looking like a puta!” he snapped.

“Caleb, enough! It’s a little bit of makeup. I wore more than that at her age.” she said.

“Your parents let you do that. My sisters were forbidden makeup until they were old enough to marry. Carmen, go was that crap off your face.” Carlos’ father said.

Carlos had heard enough. He climbed down the fire escape as quietly as he could, Jake scrambling after him. Carlos went around to the front and quickly climbed the stairs to his floor, unlocking the door to the apartment before he even had a plan. All he knew was that he could not let his father take shots at Carmen’s self esteem; she got enough crap from white kids at school as it was.

When he opened the door, only Carmen was in his line of sight. He let it close behind him and saw his father peer around the corner.

“Carlos is home.” he announced, sounding triumphant. “You’ll see, Gabriela. He is a good boy, a hard worker. He’ll agree with me.”

Carlos had a second to realize that the front hall was too dark for his father to see the makeup he was wearing. A plan forming, he stepped over to the coat hooks and unfastened the belt of his coat.

“I came to grab a change of clothes before going to Jake’s. What is going on?”

“Your sister thinks it is acceptable to go outside looking like that.” his father said.

Carlos hung up his coat and stepped in to the kitchen entryway. He heard a soft gasp from his mother, but ignored it in favor of walking casually up to Carmen. She looked stunned to see him, her eyes flickering from his face to his dress to his heels and back. He leaned down a little and examined her makeup application.

“The blending could be better, but it’s not a bad look for her.” Carlos said. “Jake! Bring my bag!” he called, turning to the door and trusting that Jake was waiting right behind it.

Sure enough, the knob turned and Jake opened the door, carrying himself so confidently only Carlos could tell that he was faking it.

“Got it right here! Don’t tell me you smudged yourself already.” Jake said cheerfully.

“Not for me.” Carlos said, turning back to Carmen. “Carmen, Jake. Jake, Carmen.”

Hola.” Carmen said, sounding faint.

“Hi there!" Jake said brightly, extending one hand for her to shake. His coat was draped over the arm that was carrying their bags, so Carlos’ family could easily see the lacy camisole and short kilt that made Jake’s legs look obscenely long. “Oh! Beautiful eyes!”

“Good skin, too.” Carlos agreed. “You have more practice with makeup than I do, suggestions?”

“Something light, fast; school and church appropriate.” Jake mused. “Something young and fresh! ‘Cause let’s be honest, trying to look older than you are is for underage strippers.”

Carlos snorted and pointed Jake in the direction of the bathroom. Jake took Carmen by the hand, chattering lightly about color palettes as he led her down the hall. Carlos headed in to the kitchen, aiming for the coffee pot. He poured himself a cup and added sugar and cream, watching his parents as he stirred.

“I have never seen someone that tall walk so well in six inch heels.” his mother said faintly.

“You should see what he does in pointe shoes.” Carlos said, sipping his coffee.

“Pointe shoes?” his father asked.

“Jake got a full ride to Julliard.” Carlos said. At his father’s blank expression he added, “One of the top ten music and dance schools in the world. He’s in the top of his class.”

“I thought he was the one who went to MIT.” his father said, sounding confused.

“He went there at twelve and graduated at fifteen. Programming and communications technology major. But he had been trying to get in to Julliard for years. He dreams of being a ballerino, no matter what his fake parents think about it.”

“Fake parents?” his mother asked, turning to Carlos and frowning.

“They adopted him because they thought it would look good, but they kept trying to control him. They fought him every time he showed the least bit of independence. They treated their kids like they were supposed to be fashionable miniature clones. His fake brother is a complete asshole because he is almost exactly like them.” Carlos explained.

“What happened to his real parents?” his father asked.

“Mother was a stripper who dropped him at his dad’s doorstep and vanished. His dad did okay for a few years, but he was an ex-soldier with a mental illness, or something. Got hooked on meth at one point and when he was arrested for possession they did a drug test and took Jake away. Did not bother looking for friends or family, the guy was an immigrant so they just stuck him in a boy’s home for a few months.” Carlos said, trying not to get angry. The social workers involved never bothered to check and see if Jake had been happy and well cared for, they just determined that it looked bad on paper and put him some place they assumed would be better, then never stopped to check if Jake was happy or loved.

The sound of running feet preceded Anna and Maria barreling in to the kitchen with their book bags, ready for school. They stopped in their tracks when they spotted him, gaping. Typically, Anna recovered first.

“You look pretty!” she said, lighting up.

Gracias.” Carlos said, smiling at her.

“Why are you wearing a dress?” Maria asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Who cares? He looks pretty!” Anna insisted.

“Jake and I took a job as wait staff for a drag queen’s birthday party. There was a dress code.” Carlos said, grinning when Maria heaved a put upon sigh at the pun.

“That’s so cool!” Anna said.

“Why did you take a job on a school night?” Maria asked, ever the analytical one.

“I am far enough ahead in my school work that I can miss a day of class and not be penalized for it.” Carlos said. It was true, technically. High school teachers cannot penalize people who have already graduated.

“It is still not a good idea to miss class.” he mother said, crossing her arms.

“I only do so for work, and not often. My GPA will not suffer.” Carlos said.

From the direction of the bathroom he heard Jake’s heels clicking on the floor. Carlos turned and saw that he had an arm around Carmen’s shoulders and was smiling as he made her laugh. Carmen, of course, looked beautiful. Her makeup was blended better, making it suit both her age and natural beauty. More than that, she shone with happiness, reassuring Carlos that he had made the right call. He would be willing to bet every last penny he had that Jake had spent the entire time giving her small compliments, doing everything he could to bolster her confidence after what they had heard.

Carlos’ mother moved forward, examining the work Jake had done. Carmen appeared nervous, but her smile grew when their mother began praising the way Carmen looked. Carlos risked a glance at his father, and found the man sitting at the kitchen table, looking vaguely confused. Carlos would have felt guilty, but he knew that his father needed to learn that his children were growing up, and that stepping on their attempts to figure themselves out would not help anyone.

In the aftermath of that morning, Carlos found more reasons to be present when his sisters were at the apartment, often bringing Jake with him. They would work on Carlos’ homework, with Jake double checking things or asking for explanations so that Carlos could make sure he knew his arguments well enough to debate them. His sisters all loved Jake, even when he made his animal crackers fight, and Anna kept asking how his muscles got so big.

 


 

In June Carlos was cleaning the bathroom when he knocked over the trash and found a used pregnancy test inside. It was positive. He spent the entire afternoon waiting for his mother to get home, and the second she was in the door he showed it to her and asked,

“Please tell me this belongs to you, or Conchita.”

She sighed and nodded, coming to sit next to him at the kitchen table.

“Are you keeping it?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t know.” she admitted. “I want to, but we do not have the room for another child.”

“Let me make a few calls.” Carlos said.

Between the strippers, the drag queens, and the bartenders and kitchen staff, Carlos had a long list of people he could call for help. It took less than a week to find six apartments in good condition that would let everyone have a bedroom, with Anna and Maria sharing. He presented the list to his mother, and she frowned.

“There is a missing bedroom. I hope you do not plan to sleep in the tub again, Carlito.”

“I will be moving in with Jake. We have found a place of our own and will be moving in next week.” he said.

“No, Carlos. Not until you have at least finished high school!” his mother protested.

“... About that.” Carlos said, trying not to squirm in his seat.

 

What followed was a lot of yelling, some crying, and an attempt to ground him, but in the end his mother understood that it was Carlos’ choice, and it was long out of her hands.

 

Mijo. My boy. My only son.” she whispered as she held Carlos tight. “Lo siento. You should not have to take such burdens on yourself.”

Mamá.” Carlos grumbled, struggling slightly in the tight hold she had on him. “It was no trouble. Besides, now I will not have to put up with Papá looking at me like I grew antlers.”

She snorted a laugh. “I don’t know what confused him more, the dress or how well you wore it!”

“I will make sure to wear it when I visit.” Carlos joked, earning a watery laugh.

“I did not get to see you graduate.” she lamented.

“You would not have seen me anyways, I was six inches shorter than half my class.”

Mijo.” she said, her voice slipping in to fond, exasperated tones.

Carlos extricated himself from the hug and looked her in the eye. “I will be fine. So will you. Things will get better, ?”

Carlos’ mother nodded, and hugged him again.

 


 

The days leading up to the move were both incredibly busy and incredibly dull. The studio apartment Carlos and Jake were moving in to was just big enough for both of them to have double beds, as well as a futon and a coffee table. They bought a cheap partition screen to put between the beds for privacy, and had Carlos’ father and one of the strippers studying carpentry help build them wooden platforms with drawers for their beds to sit on.

Having been living out of a duffle bag since he was fifteen, it took Carlos less than an hour to pack all of his belongings. Then he took his duffle bag and backpack over to Jake’s place and helped him quietly load boxes and bags in to the truck while Anthony was still sleeping and could not find a way to hinder them. Anthony had been exceedingly disruptive while Jake had been packing over the week. If they had been closer as brothers Carlos would have thought that Anthony did not want Jake to move out, possibly because he was worried about Jake making it on his own. In reality, Carlos suspected that Anthony was only interested in continuing to charge Jake rent.

Their furniture had been delivered the previous day, new from the store, so it was only Janet, Daniel, and Carlos’ family helping them bring stuff up to their apartment. It was more than a bit amusing for Carlos to watch his father try and act normal around Janet, who was only wearing tinted moisturizer, lip stain, and waterproof mascara in deference to the physical labor typically expected during a move. Carlos’ mother was mostly fine one she got over the initial surprise, and after the move was done she asked Janet how she kept her makeup from smudging.

Their first night in their apartment was not unlike the first sleepover Carlos had gone to when he was seven. They watched movies, ate junk food, and stayed up until dawn laughing at stupid jokes. When they woke at noon the next day, they unpacked anything they had not gotten to the previous night, and sat down on the futon to eat dinner and discuss house rules.

“There should be some basic stuff. Like if you use a dish then you’re responsible for rinsing it and putting it in the washer.” Jake said around a mouthful of enchilada that Carlos’ mother had given them as a housewarming gift.

“Laundry can be mixed aside from socks and underwear.” Carlos said.

“I’ll wash my dance gear myself, since it needs special settings and can get pretty rank some days. Also we need to both obey our respective budgets. Wouldn’t be fair to leave each other in the lurch because one of us dropped the ball.” Jake said.

“Let each other know if we invite company over.” Carlos said.

“Yeah. Oh! We need to come up with some kind of system so we know no to barge in and, uh, interrupt anything.” Jake said.

“Interrupt?” Carlos asked.

“Carlos, you are my very best friend. But that doesn’t mean I want to see you fucking anyone.” Jake said.

“Oh.” Carlos said, feeling vaguely put out for reasons he refused to acknowledge.

“Unless you don’t want that kind of thing?” Jake said, backpedalling. “I know some people just don’t want. And waiting till marriage is a thing? I think? I’m sure I heard that Christians do that. Sometimes.”

“Jake.” Carlos said, cutting off the panic. “I may not have had sex, but I know that I want it. Before we moved I had been seeing a girl. We did not get very far, just hands over clothes, but it was enough for me to know that I do want sex. Now that I have an actual bed to sleep in I hope I will get to have it.”

“Oh, hey. Didn’t think of that. The whole not having a bed to do stuff in, I mean. Then again about half the sex I’ve had has been anywhere other than a bed.” Jake babbled.

“Did not want Anthony walking in?” Carlos asked, amused.

“Don’t raise that eyebrow at me, young man.” Jake said, grinning. “Tell you what. If you have someone over and it looks like it’s going in that direction, text me and put the chain across the door. It’ll keep me from getting in if I don’t see the text, and no one’s gonna steal it off the knob because they have a rubber band ball they’re working on and don’t realize it was the only thing keeping someone from walking in on you and another ballerino screwing on a piano.”

Carlos face palmed at the mental image.

“Yeah, that’s a first impression I’ll never get back.” Jake admitted.

They settled in to their apartment relatively fast. For the first month Carlos was very careful about getting on the right trains and buses to get to his new home. Jake got lost fourteen times and ended up befriending half the neighborhood by wandering around looking for their building.

 


 

When school started again for both of them they saw each other less. Carlos continued working at night and studying part time, though he did make an actual effort to start dating and became the first of them to use their agreed upon code to request privacy. Jake had been on the verge of asking Ivana out, only for her to announce that she was dating Anthony. Apparently he was not an asshole to her, or in front of her, so she only had good things to say about him. Jake poured his frustration and disappointment in to his ballet training, going so far as to change his diet and push himself to gain muscle mass, insisting it was necessary. Carlos was not quite sure he understood why it was necessary until he went to a recital and saw Jake walking gracefully across the stage, one arm held out in front of him while Ivana balanced on one foot on the ball of his shoulder.

As the months passed, Carlos and Jake grew closer and learned each others’ habits as well as two people could. Jake was invited to Alvarez family dinners, and in turn invited Carlos’ family over to their home on a regular basis. When Carlos’ newest sister was born, Jake stayed in the waiting room with Anna and Maria, as they were not allowed in the delivery room at their age. He learned to diaper, burp, feed, and rock little Estrella to sleep with cheerful aplomb and endless patience. When Jake was working in a production, he did his best to reserve enough opening night passes for the whole Alvarez family. If he was not able to, then he would split the nights so that Carlos, Carmen, Anna, and Maria would come on one night, and Carlos’ parents would get the next night as a date night. Ivana still looked after Carlos’ sisters from time to time, but he enforced a rule that Anthony was not allowed near them. This made things rather strained when Ivana and Anthony got married the following year.

After graduating from Julliard, Jake got better paying jobs for ballet productions, and began making a name for himself on the stage. Carlos finally decided to focus his studies on architecture, and got approval for a few small scholarships that let him cut back on his work hours and pick up a few more classes each semester. When Carlos turned twenty-one, Janet threw him a birthday bash that resulted in not only his first threesome, but the worst hangover he had ever had. He woke up with the outline of a sacred heart tattooed on his chest, and a new found appreciation for moderation. When Jake turned twenty-one he ended up river dancing on the bar in pointe shoes before he had even had a drink. Carlos lost time somewhere along the way, only really remembering running in to three drunk soldiers on leave, one of whom insisted on being referred to as Pooch. Somehow this led to the entire group of strippers, drag queens, and soldiers ending up in Boston the next morning. Not just the city, half of them were sleeping in inner tubes in the harbor, covered in molasses.

After Thanksgiving of that year, Ivana separated from Anthony. Carlos was not entirely sure what the cause was, but he knew that shortly after that Ivana asked Jake out. Jake accepted, but asked to go slow because he did not want to mess things up. A month later, Carlos started getting the privacy code sent to him regularly. Most nights he simply crashed in Janet and Daniel’s spare room, as they only lived four blocks away. In March of the next year, Ivana went back to Anthony on the condition that they both attend marriage counseling. Carlos helped Jake get drunk, and spent the night listening to him plot out how to defeat Anthony’s mecha-douche form using gerbil powered death rays.

 


 

Carlos had hoped that would be the end of it, but in early June he got a text while he was at his current booty call’s place that read,

‘Just so you know, if I ever have to flee the state I’m taking you with me.’

Carlos hurried home after reading it and found Jake sitting on the futon with their bottle of Breakup Bourbon.

“Did I ever tell you that, when my fake parents first adopted me, they had to wait a few weeks before they could bring me to their house?” Jake asked.

Carlos shook his head and sat next to his friend.

“They had to wait because Anthony was getting over a case of the mumps. His second time having it, actually. And it’s interesting because getting the mumps twice actually does something to people with testicles. It can render them borderline sterile.” Jake said, taking a sip of bourbon straight from the bottle.

It took a few seconds for Carlos to catch Jake’s train of thought, and once he did, he swore.

“Ivana’s pregnant, isn’t she?”

Jake nodded, picking at the label. “I have to quit ballet.”

“¿Qué?” Carlos asked, shocked.

“Anthony said that I need to stay away from Ivana if I ever want to be allowed near the kid peacefully. I could fight him on the legality, but he looks better on paper than I do. Anthony has the resources to really drag a fight like this out. Ivana would never forgive me for starting this. I don’t always believe that Anthony loves her, but she loves him enough to want to be with him. I can’t be the one causing problems for them.” Jake said, voice low and hoarse.

“Can you dance with another company?” Carlos asked.

“Impregnating an up and coming ballerina, then ditching the company we both work for does not look good, Carlos. It’s a small community, everyone’s gonna know. My best bet for bowing out gracefully at this point is to fake an injury and see about getting some medical records forged that say I can’t dance anymore.” Jake explained, looking sad and hollow at the thought.

“What will you do instead?” Carlos asked, concerned. The only thing Carlos had seen Jake approach with the same enthusiasm he gave ballet was the hacking they both pretended he did not do.

“Well,” Jake said, smiling bitterly, “we already know I’m a pretty good stripper.”

“Jake...” Carlos said, worried. Jake had spent so many years devoting himself to his art, there had to be a better use for his training than just stripping.

“Look.” Jake said, standing up and taking the bottle with him. “I’m not exactly sober, but the only things I can come up with right now are ‘Why don’t I strip?’ and ‘Why don’t we be thieves?’, so I think it’s best to just let me drink myself to sleep and start picking up the shambles of my life in the morning. Okay? Okay!” he stumbled off towards his bed, flopping down on it with none of his usual vigor.

Carlos did not like leaving things this way, but he knew he would not be able to talk to Jake just then. He tried to go to bed early, but could not stop going over what Jake said. As Carlos tossed and turned, his mind went through what Jake had said and kept coming back to the same point. Frustrated, Carlos got out of bed and, knowing he was making a stupid decision, went over to Jake’s bed and shook him awake.

“Wha-huh?” Jake grunted, snorting awake.

“Why don’t we be thieves?” Carlos asked.

“Man, you cannot hold me responsible for what I say when I’m drunk! It’s cheating!” Jake protested, trying to pull the blankets back over his head.

“Jake, no. Listen to me.” Carlos insisted, refusing to let Jake pull the blankets back up. “Why don’t we be thieves?”

Jake blinked at Carlos for a few minutes, opening and closing his mouth several times and making aborted hand gestures. Eventually he sighed deeply, muttered a heartfelt ‘goddamnit’, and threw back the blankets so he could get out of bed. Carlos went back to his own bed to get dressed, and then they were out the door, headed for The Honeypot.

They bypassed all their usual stops and headed right for Mervin’s office. They walked in after a courtesy knock, and Jake started searching the room while Mervin wrapped up a phone call he was making. Carlos took a seat in the same rickety chair he had sat in five years before and waited, watching Jake look under the desk and fiddle with the phone and lamp.

“The fuck are you doing, kid?” Mervin asked after hanging up.

“Checking for eavesdroppers.” Jake said, putting his hands on his pockets and smiling brightly.

“Why?” Mervin asked, grabbing his cigar from the ashtray.

“Because we want to know everything you know about getting in touch with thieves.” Carlos said, smiling serenely.

“Son of a bitch.” Mervin breathed.

“Daniel and I have been doing your books long enough to know you’re laundering for someone. What we need is someone who is in the market for a couple of apprentices.” Jake explained.

“Oh, Christ. This is what I get for not going to temple, isn’t it?” Mervin groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Maybe it is because you do not keep kosher.” Carlos joked.

“You motherfucks.” Mervin spat. “I hate you both. I know just the guy, too. He’s old school, the best. Needs help learning some new school stuff sometimes. He asked me to keep my eyes peeled a few months back. Why couldn’t you both just become doctors or something?”

“Wouldn’t drive up your blood pressure enough.” Jake said, smiling.

“Get outta here.” Mervin said, shooing them. “I need time to set up a meet. Fucking Christ. Fucking kids.”

“Thanks, Merv!” Jake said as they left his office.

Their business concluded, they went down to the backstage area to catch up with friends and get to know new hires better. Carlos remembered his first few months at the club, so he did his best to reassure the new people and offer advice that had helped him in the past. They took their leave after catching up with Janet on her break and went home, both of them falling asleep easily.

 


 

Jake waited until Carlos’ finals were over for the semester before he injured himself during a rehearsal. They had Janet’s doctor make a diagnosis that Jake had partially torn several ligaments in his knee, and the MRI scans Jake was sent for were slightly altered to show it. The doctor signed off on paperwork that said Jake was expected to recover without surgery, but he would have twelve percent permanent damage to his knee, making a career in ballet impossible. Jake, genuinely mourning the death of his career, was subdued while his knee healed and his friends from Julliard kept stopping in to wish him a speedy recovery while also being quietly horrified at how abruptly his future ended.

 


 

Mervin got back to them in mid-July about meeting someone looking for apprentice thieves. Carlos was honestly relieved when he got the call, hoping it would give Jake something to focus on. They met with a man named Fergus a few days later in a diner. Fergus spent most of the meeting explaining that the training they would have to go through would be intensive, and if they did badly then Fergus would not bother taking them on any actual jobs.

Carlos got the distinct impression that Fergus thought they were simply strippers looking for more profitable work, and that Fergus probably had no idea how much skill actually went in to pole dancing. This impression was reinforced when Fergus had them meet him in a rented warehouse filled with a basic obstacle course. The look on Fergus’ face when they practically danced through it was priceless.

After that, Fergus took the time to actually get to know them, and they got to know him. Fergus had been a thief since he was twelve, nearly fifty years at that point. Old age was slowing him down, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He would walk them through problems verbally, and they would try and plan out ways to get around the security he had detailed. He had them practicing everything from walking tightropes to using rappelling gear, to navigating a field of lasers he set up using cheap automatic doorbells. Towards the end of their training, Carlos and Jake back flipped through a laser grid just to make Fergus spill his tea.

The best part of training for Carlos was the life it brought back in to Jake. He was brighter, more animated when he had a problem he could solve using his mind or body. The biggest sign that they had made the right decision was when Fergus gave them a field of crosshatched wires to get through in order to crack a practice safe on the other side. If they touched the wires the alarms went off and they lost. The only way to do it would be to step through the wires, but they were spaced three, maybe four inches apart at most. Jake spent a few minutes looking at the problem, then turned around and went out to their car. He came back in with something he had not worn in months: pointe shoes. He put them on, did his warm-ups, and then navigated the field in one go, balancing on one foot in a classic pose as he cracked the safe.

After that, Fergus decided they were smartasses who should be taken out on actual jobs. The first job they did was grabbing a small painting from the private collection of a wealthy CEO. The painting was not very well protected, its owner trusting too much in the security of the luxury building he lived in. The job took two weeks to plan, and three hours to execute. As first runs went, it was not bad.

The jobs grew steadily in both complexity and profit, slowly taking them farther and farther away from New York. Eventually they had enough steady work that they both quit stripping at The Honeypot, enjoying one last party with Janet and the others and promising to visit as often as they could. Carlos started letting his hair grow out seeing as he was no longer working in a field that required a very high level of personal grooming. Adding a goatee to the look had an unexpected benefit in that, depending on clothes and how he styled his hair, he could look either mysterious and menacing, or suave and cultured. He also learned to mitigate his accent, as well as imitate other accents so that he could blend in better with whatever cover stories they made up. Which one he went with depended on what clients they were meeting and where the meeting was.

 


 

In December they found themselves working what could become a launching point in their careers. A wealthy collector had reached out to them, looking to acquire the Hall Sapphire and Diamond Necklace from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Jake was a bundle of nerves, not only because of the job, but because Ivana was due to give birth soon. He had kept in touch with her via phone and email, getting updates on the pregnancy and copies of sonograms and ultrasounds.

They spent nearly the whole month planning the heist. Jake hacked the security system to get them access codes and guard rotations, while Carlos pretended to be a tourist from Spain and went inside to get a feel for the rooms and halls they would be dealing with. Jake obtained copies of the building blueprints and plans while Carlos memorized guard faces and tried to judge their work ethic. Between Carlos eavesdropping on conversations and Jake getting his hands on their credit information, they knew the guards’ favorite spots to hang out. Fergus then went to a local clinic and found people with colds, offering them prepaid cards for meals at bars and diners that they had been able to match guards to. Between people taking the holidays off and people falling ill, the guards were short staffed the night of the heist.

Jake had control of the cameras. He had been controlling them on and off for weeks at that point, practicing and fine tuning things to keep them running smoothly. Carlos was the one to scale the building, entering it through an unlocked office window and quietly creeping through the halls until he got to the correct display. Jake walked Carlos through deactivating the security around the necklace using the same procedures the museum staff would use to take the necklace away for cleaning.

Carlos was surprised at the weight of the necklace, the heft of the large gems making it drape a certain way even as he picked it up. He took special care as he wrapped it up, neither wanting to damage it nor wanting it to move inside the cloth and make noise if he had to hide. He put everything in the display back exactly as he had found it and left. Total time for the heist was an hour and eight minutes, but Carlos had only needed twenty-three to get the necklace out of the display and clean up after himself.

 

They met up in the hotel to lay low and keep an ear out for when the theft hit the news. They took the necklace out of the cloth Carlos had wrapped it in, wearing gloves to that they did not leave finger prints or skin cells on it. Jake was moving to wrap the necklace in a padded velvet cloth, but stopped to examine it, turning the jewels over in his hands.

“Probably one of the best pieces I’ve ever helped steal.” Fergus admitted. “The pay day from this is going to be good, and the story is going to be told in all kinds of circles for a long time.”

Jake’s phone rang, startling all three of them. Jake put the necklace down and picked up his earpiece.

“Yo.” he answered. His eyes widened as whoever was calling started speaking. “Holy shit. Are you okay? Are you- are things okay?” he asked. Catching Carlos’ eye he mouthed the name ‘Ivana’.

Carlos tensed further, wondering in something had happened to her because of the heist.

“You got to the hospital fine?” Jake asked, jiggling his leg up and down. “Okay, good. That’s good, right? Okay... Baby was delivered fine?... A girl?... Oh, she sounds so cute!”

Carlos let out a breath and sagged in his seat. Fergus huffed a small laugh and excused himself to give them privacy for what he referred to as ‘personal crap’. Jake continued getting details from Ivana about the baby’s size and weight.

“Has she got a name yet?” he asked, rubbing one hand over his mouth and fidgeting in his chair. “You’re waiting to name her because Anthony’s not there? Why isn’t he there?... A business trip... When you were due in two weeks? ... Well when is he gonna be back? ... Jesus... Wait, what?... You want me to name her? But- ........ Oh. My eyes, huh?” Jake said, falling silent and looking so full of longing that Carlos had the irrational urge to steal a baby.

Jake cast his eyes around the room, looking lost, until his gaze landed on the necklace. “Blue eyes, huh? Name her Sapphire... Yeah!... Well at least there won’t be seven other kids with the same name in her grade... Yeah, that’s why nicknames happen!... I’m glad you’re both okay... yeah... Hope you recover quick... Yeah, Carlos is fine. He’s here with me. Did you want to- oh yeah. You’re probably exhausted right now. Go get some rest. And Ivana? Thanks. Kay. Bye.” Jake hung up the phone and slumped in his chair.

“Congratulations.” Carlos said quietly.

“Thanks.” Jake said, voice thick. He sniffed a few times and coughed, blinking watery eyes. “Right. Time to put the loot in the bag.”

He picked up the necklace and carefully folded it in to the cloth. The cloth went in to a padded jewelry box, which they packed in to another, larger box that they wrapped with holiday themed paper. They had several decoy presents in the room with them, and had a cover story that Jake and Carlos were taking Jake’s elderly father, Fergus, to visit family in the city for the holidays. Fergus was supposed to confirm the drop-off date once they had the necklace in their possession.

 


 

They waited three days before meeting their client, a wealthy man who had gotten his start in life as a criminal, but eventually went straight. He was known publicly as a respectable businessman, and in criminal circles he was known for having an eye for talent. He had a reputation for ‘renting’ top dollar pieces, meaning he would hire thieves to steal something flashy for him, keep it in a private collection for a few years, occasionally let forgers have a look at it, and then return it to the institution it was taken from. Why someone would spend so much money on something they had no intention of keeping or being reimbursed for, Carlos did not know. Then again, Carlos was not so obscenely wealthy that he could devote millions to a hobby.

The exchange went smoothly. Their client showed up with a bodyguard and a jeweler who could verify that the necklace was authentic. Fergus surprised Carlos by thoroughly praising the work they had done.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve rarely seen two people with so much raw talent!” he said, sipping the scotch their client had offered from a sealed bottle. “These two could dance circles in a laser grid around the last four groups I’ve worked with, and then probably steal the lasers out of the grid, too. Jensen over there, he does stuff with a computer that every hacker I’ve worked with previously said was impossible. And Alvarez moves so damned quietly he wouldn’t trip a floor pressure sensor. We tested that!”

“Well, there’s a reason he got called Cougar in the old neighborhood.” Jake said, admiring the sapphire necklace where it was displayed on the table next to them.

“Cougar, huh?” the client mused. “It suits you. And you boys have done a great job; I’m very satisfied with your work.”

They stayed for nearly two hours, enjoying good food as Fergus and their client traded rumors. It reminded Carlos of Janet and a few of the other queens trading gossip, though it seemed to involve more professionalism and less blowjob jokes. When they were getting ready to leave, the client asked Jake an odd question.

“Most people, when faces with a piece with such large gems, would focus on the largest stone. You, Mr. Jensen, have been staring at one of the smallest. Why?”

Jake fidgeted for a few seconds, probably trying to find a way to translate what was going on in his brain so that others could understand. “The part of the human body that changes the least in size from the time you’re born to the time you’re fully grown is the eye. The stone that is dangling from the clasp at the back is about the size of an iris.”

The client stared at Jake for a moment, blinking.

“A friend of ours had a baby. Blue eyed girl. Missed the birth running this job.” Carlos explained.

“Yeah, that’s. My brain doesn’t always translate well.” Jake said, frowning.

“It makes perfect sense to you, but not necessarily to someone else.” the client said, nodding. “I’ve worked with a few people like that. Great minds, all of them. You’ll go far.”

“Thanks.” Jake said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck.

Their client simply smiled and turned back to Fergus, thanking him for his work again. They collected their things and left, their payment tucked inside fake presents after they had checked that it was all accounted for. They returned to the hotel, packed up, and left the city that night just to be safe.

 


 

They managed to visit Ivana and Sapphire for a few days before the new job offers for Jensen and Cougar started rolling in. They suddenly found themselves in high demand, and ended up making a lot of friends in the thief community simply by recommending other teams for jobs when they were fully booked. Some of the offers they got were distinctly shadier than others, and with time they learned to recognize those jobs and were able to pass them on to less scrupulous people without having to get involved themselves.

After a particularly lucrative job, Fergus retired and left them with an address book of contacts. Jensen reached out and contacted about half of them, letting them know that Fergus was out of the game but had passed his information on to them. The other half of the book was full of people who preferred to stay off the grid. If a job took Jensen and Cougar close to one of those contacts then they would touch base with the person and exchange information with them, much the same way Fergus had done with their first big client.

They began traveling the world, picking up languages and contacts as they went. Jensen had a knack for Nordic languages, while Cougar could practically reverse engineer most romance languages based on his fluency in Spanish. They learned to imitate regional accents and mannerisms, blending in or sticking out depending on what suited the job best. They learned to assess security systems on a single pass, and picked up enough self defense from other, rougher teams to be able to get away from guards on the off chance that they got caught. Truthfully, the fighting skills were more used in bar brawls than anywhere else.

Every so often they would go back to New York, stop in and see Cougar’s family. They regularly sent mail, usually including small gifts for all of Carlos’ sisters. They would also send gift cards, for everything from food to clothing to toys and school supplies. Even halfway across the world, Carlos could not rid himself of the need to help and provide for his family in any way possible. He had learned that outright buying something and giving it to them would result in a fuss, but they always accepted gift cards.

They would pay Ivana a visit when they were in town, but only when they knew Anthony was not going to be there. Sapphire was a bright, happy baby whose eyes continued to be a true, sparkling blue as she grew up. Despite being raised to believe that Anthony was her father, she always showed a definite preference for Jake, crawling towards him eagerly until she was old enough to run and barrel right in to his legs. ‘Jake’ was her favorite word for the first few months after she started speaking, and Carlos firmly believed that this pissed Anthony off enough that he uprooted his family and moved them to a small town in New Hampshire. It did nothing to deter them from visiting, seeing as Anthony was traveling more often on engineering contracts. If he was not home then they would make an effort to visit, it was as simple as that.

As much as they tried they would still sometimes not be able to visit for months at a time. Their friends and family were understanding about it, since they wrote and called often. Only Janet, Daniel, and Mervin knew exactly what Jensen and Cougar did for a living now. They missed a few birthdays over the years, but made sure not to book anything around the time Carmen was set to graduate from college. They spent an entire month helping Janet and Daniel plan their wedding when Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage.

The more work they did, the better jobs they got, which would typically have been a good thing. A few times people attempted to coerce Jensen and Cougar in to working for them, but they would stand fast and strike back hard. The thief community itself began helping, filled as it was with friends, colleagues, and people who owed them favors. Larger, more regional crime organizations learned that if they ever wanted to deal with professional thieves then they would have to play nice.

 


 

After one particular job, a man in a suit approached Cougar in a bar and tried to talk to him about ‘working for his country’. Cougar was not in the least bit interested in working for any government in any way, and would have said as much if the man had not stopped talking to gape at Jensen when he joined them.

“God. You look so much like the bastard.” the man said, staring.

“Which bastard? World’s kind of full of them.” Jake said.

“This crazy fucking Swedish Viking of a merc I used to handle.” the man said.

“Six foot, five? Blond, blue eyes, scar like someone stabbed his face with a shot glass?” Jake asked, frowning.

“Yeah.” the man said.

“So he became a merc. Gives me a better starting point, then.” Jake muttered. “Oh! No, we won’t work with you.”

“Why not?” the man asked, sounding petulant.

“We don’t do government work. Besides, do you really want to work with the estranged son of Gunnar Jensen?” Jake said, looking unimpressed.

The man blanched and excused himself. Cougar raised on eyebrow, but Jake shook his head. The conversation would have to wait until they were in private. They spent a few more hours at the bar, keeping an eye out for anyone watching them. When they get back to the place they were crashing in, Jake started explaining after they had swept the place for listening equipment.

“So my dad was born in Sweden, right? He moved to the US to study chemical engineering at MIT. Only he dropped out to follow a stripper around, and then ended up with a baby. To make ends meet he took up some dangerous work, apparently he’s a mercenary. I never heard much about it, this is all stuff I remember overhearing from custody hearings when I was six. Dad got his PTSD from being a merc. He got hooked on meth trying to cope while also raising a kid.

“I’ve been-” Jake broke off, looking frustrated and embarrassed. “I know it’s stupid, but I’ve been trying to track him down. I remember him being such a good dad. Loving, supportive, didn’t tell me not to play with dolls or that I couldn’t do ballet. If he’s gotten better, if he’s kicked the meth? Then I think I’d like to get to know him.”

Cougar reeled Jake in for a hug and simply said, “Tell me how I can help.”

Jake sighed and relaxed against Cougar. “Oh, man. Thank you so much. You’re the best, Cougs.”

“This is what friends do for each other.” Cougar said, squeezing Jake a bit.

“With the new information our suited friend gave me I have a better place to look.” Jake said, squeezing Cougar back.

“Is there a mercenary directory?” Cougar joked.

“Pretty sure our CIA buddy has access to one.” Jake said, producing the wallet of the agent who had tried to recruit them.

“Excellent place to start.” Cougar said, grinning smugly.

 


 

It took a few months for Jake to find a way in to the CIA databases undetected. They had some of the most secure encryption in the world, so it was a challenge even for Jake. He spent weeks coding and programming things Cougar did not understand, eventually succeeding in reproducing top level security access . He did something to embed his access deep in the code of everything that was protecting the CIA’s information to ensure he could return if he needed to at a later date.

Once that was done, he searched through until he found files marked JENSEN, GUNNAR and JENSEN, JACOB. He deleted half of what was in his own file, making sure to also search out Cougar’s file and clean it up so their family would be protected. That done, Jake opened his father’s file and started reading.

Gunnar had struggled on and off with his addiction, but seemed to be doing well according to the last report. After making sure that Gunnar’s team was not on a mission, Jake and Cougar set off to find Gunnar in New Orleans. They arrived a few days later, and Cougar waited in the car while Jake went up and rang the doorbell.

The door opened, revealing a very large man who looked very mean right up until he saw Jake. Then his face slackened with shock and he grabbed Jake, wrapping him in a fierce hug. Jake clung back, and Cougar did not have to be near them to know they were both crying and babbling.

Eventually they separated. Eventually Jake turned and pointed to the car where Carlos was waiting. Eventually they all went inside and got to know each other as they were now, as adults with a lifetime of experience.

Gunnar was a loud, crude man who wore his heart on his sleeve for all to see. It was like looking at an older, unrefined version of Jake in some moments. Gunnar began muttering threats to Anthony’s wellbeing before he even found out that the man charged Jake rent. A few minutes later he was crying over Jake’s loss at having to end his promising career as a ballerino. He applauded the leaps and bounds that both Jake and Cougar had made in their careers, and spent almost forty minutes cooing over pictures of Sapphire and Estrella.

They spent a few days with Gunnar, at his insistence, and met his best friend, a man named Yin who was as blunt in his own way as Gunnar. Yin openly despaired their lack of ability with martial arts, badgering both Jake and Cougar in to letting him teach them a few basics. They both ended up covered in bruises, but Cougar figured it was worth it for the smile on Jake’s face.

It was because of that smile that Cougar left by himself a few days later. He got a call from a contact who sent jobs their way from time to time. There was a team that needed another set of hands for a job, and half of them were people Cougar and Jake had worked with before. For the offer to have actually made it to Cougar it had to have passed through plenty of people who would vet the trustworthiness of the job, so Cougar decided to give Jake more time with his father and took the job himself.

Jake had not been happy about it, but he relented when Cougar urged him to spend more time with Gunnar. Cougar joked about promising not to cheat on Jake with another hacker, and found his stomach flip flopping when Jake’s cheeks turned pink. Jake practically shoved him out the door after that, but followed him a moment later, insisting on driving Cougar to the airport. Jake pestered Cougar the entire drive there, asking if he had packed everything from underwear to a parka to a harpoon gun, just in case. Cougar laughed and pulled Jake in for a hug before boarding his plane, turning back at the last moment to see Jake waving at him like an idiot.

Twenty-three days later, after the job had gone wrong and Cougar was left behind, captured, and left hanging in a cell, he looked back on that memory to keep himself warm.

 


 

The job had started out fine, though less organized than it would have been with Jake there. They started casing the place, a fortified compound run by a warlord who liked collecting black market artifacts. It was not the first time Cougar had done such a dangerous job, though he did grow more nervous with each day that the group’s leader kept changing the plan.

The part where things started going to shit was when one of the people Cougar had not worked with before knocked over a vase while waiting for Cougar to finish taking apart the security around the item they were actually after. The crash set off alarms, and the guards started shooting at anything they saw. Two of the team were gunned down trying to reach the getaway vehicle. Cougar had gone out the window and was hiding in a tree when they let the dogs out. Surrounded by yapping dogs and guns, Cougar surrendered and went peacefully with the guards.

The warlord wanted Cougar to be made an example of, so instead of outright killing him they chained him up in a cell with a leaky pipe dripping on him. On the first day they beat him, bruising his ribs and breaking his nose, making it hard for him to breathe. They left him chained up for a day before coming back in and breaking his feet with a hammer.

They left him alone for two days after that. Two days in which Cougar started to accept that he had been left to die. Two days in which he began to mourn for his family and the pain they were about to go through because of him. Two days in which he kept thinking about Jake’s smile, and the way it made his eyes crinkle. The way Jake’s happiness had become so important to Cougar, important enough that he had supported every one of Jake’s attempts at a relationship over the years even though it made his chest feel heavy and his stomach turn.

Cougar spent two days slowly accepting the fact that he was in love with his best friend, and that he would die before he could do anything about it.

On his sixth day of captivity, a man came in to his cell in the evening with a belt full of knives.

“Today is the day you lose your fingers, little thief.” he said, smiling cruelly.

Cougar struggled with his bonds a bit, but he managed to get enough moisture together to hock a proper New York loogie in the man’s face.

The man stopped smiling and wiped his face off with one hand saying, “Well now I am really going to take my time with you.”

An explosion rocked the compound they were in, setting off alarms and shouts from guards. Hope filled Cougar for the first time in days as his would-be torturer hurried back to the door. The guards on the other side were gone, searching the hallways for intruders. The chaos outside continued, with more explosions, gunfire, and people screaming.

Cougar was not sure how much time had passed between the first explosion and the gunshots going off in the hallways, but something about the shots coming so close helped him start to snap out of his shock. It also helped that after the shots were fired he heard a very familiar voice demand “Where is he?”

“Fuck you!” one of the guards spat. There was a whistling sound as something swung through the air, and a crack as it landed. The guard screamed.

“WHERE IS HE?” Jake bellowed.

Cougar pulled himself up on his chains enough to call out hoarsely. He was not able to form any kind of words, but the sound would be enough to get Jake’s attention. The torturer in the cell froze and started at Cougar, alarmed.

“Cougar?!” Jake called out. There was another swing and a grunt, then footsteps walked over to the cell. Jake peered through the barred window in the door, catching sight of Cougar. “Oh, god. Just hang on, buddy. We’re here to get you out.”

Jake opened the door and stepped inside, bringing a bat up at the last moment to block an attack from the torturer. Jake pushed the other man away, hard, and stood in the doorway with the light from the hallway pouring in behind him, making him glow. He looked like an avenging angel, all gold light and terrible fury written in the lines of his body, a bloody baseball bat taking the place of a flaming sword, and a bulletproof vest instead of shining armor.

Jake attacked the torturer, mercilessly swinging the bat over and over until the other man stopped moving. Jake snapped the man’s neck for good measure before refocusing on Cougar. He walked closer, one hand outstretched like he was approaching a skittish animal.

“Hey. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. I’m here, now. I found you.” Jake said.

Cougar realized he was crying. Weakly and quietly, but crying nonetheless. He took a few deeper breaths to try and calm down enough to speak.

“My feet.” he whispered. “They broke my feet.”

Jake’s jaw dropped and he stared down at Cougar’s feet in horror for a moment before moving. He leaned his bat against a wall and patted Cougar’s ribs down, clumsily searching for damage before checking Cougar’s legs. When he was finished doing that he gently moved between Cougar’s legs and crouched a little, getting his hands on the backs of Cougar’s thighs and lifting him up. He kept Cougar’s back against the wall for support and only lifted him high enough to make it easier for him to breathe. Once Cougar was propped up in a safer and more comfortable position, Jake fumbled for something on his vest. He pressed some small button and started speaking.

“Dad? Dad, I found him. Yeah I got him, he’s alive! Yeah, I-” Jake’s voice started to break. “I’ve got him, but we need medical. They broke his feet and he looks dehydrated. Yeah. We’re in- I have no fucking clue where we are. I don’t know. Follow the trail of bodies that have bat marks on them. Okay.”

“I’m really hoping you mean Gunnar, and you did not bring your fake parents to raid a warlord’s compound.” Cougar whispered, cracking a weak smile.

“Oh my fucking god, I missed you so much.” Jake whispered, leaning in until he was fully pressed against Cougar.

Cougar hummed, enjoying the warmth. At some point he started crying again, but he could not care less after what he had been through. He had no energy to think about appearances or the opinions of others, he only had enough energy to rest his head on Jake’s shoulder while trying not to shake too much.

Gunnar found them after a while, doing his best to not startle them as he and Yin entered the room. They assessed Cougar’s condition and told him they were going to give him a small dose of pain meds before moving him. The meds kicked in fast, and Cougar was drifting off in before they even got him to their extraction vehicle.

 

Cougar woke in a medevac chopper, surrounded by medical personnel. He had IVs and bandages and was being stitched closed in several places. It seemed like a good enough place to pass out again, so he did.

 

He was not sure how they managed to smuggle his injured self back to the US, but the next time Cougar woke, he was in a hospital and the skyline outside his window was New York’s. Jake was sitting in the chair next to his best, half asleep and holding Cougar’s hand. He woke up when Cougar wiggled his fingers, blinking a bit until his gaze focused on Cougar.

“Hey.” he whispered. “You stickin’ around this time?”

“Think so.” Cougar whispered.

Jake offered him some ice chips, and fiddled with Cougar’s blankets, looking worn, worried, and relieved at the same time. Cougar eventually rolled his eyes and shuffled himself slightly to one side of his bed.

“Cougs, no. You should rest. Be gentle with yourself. Oh god, I don’t wanna get kicked out of the hospital.”

“Get in.”

“What?”

“Get in.”

Jake slowly and carefully crawled in to the bed with Cougar, listening carefully if Cougar directed him at all. When he was lying down, Cougar brought his head to rest on Cougar’s chest, right over his heart.

“You hear that?” he asked Jake, carding his fingers through Jake’s hair.

“Yeah.” Jake said, voice quiet and awed.

“What do you hear?” Cougar asked, feeling Jake let his head weigh more on Cougar’s chest.

“Your heart.” Jake said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Stay here. Keep listening to my heart. When it stops beating, then you can worry.”

Jake shivered and snuggled closer, sniffling slightly. Cougar kept running his fingers through Jake’s short blond hair, feeling his friend slowly relax under his hands. It did not take long for Jake to fall asleep, his head resting over Cougar’s heart. What surprised Cougar was how easily he fell asleep with Jake draped half on top of him.

He woke several times during the night, startling awake from half remembered dreams that were turning in to nightmares. Every time he did, Jake was there. He was either awake and able to reassure Cougar, or still asleep with his head resting on Cougar’s chest.

 


 

Cougar spent several months in and out of the hospital for reconstructive surgery on his feet. Jake was endlessly patient with his short temper, bad moods, and sudden mood swings brought on by trauma. He never once balked at helping Cougar cope on the nights when Cougar would wake up sweating and choking back screams. He suggested therapy as something they should look in to once Cougar had healed enough physically to feel comfortable being vulnerable around someone else. Jake took care of as much as Cougar would let him, understanding that Cougar would need to feel in control by doing things himself just then.

When the last surgery to realign the bones in his feet was done, and Cougar had woken up fully from the anesthetic, the doctor talked to them about physiotherapy. It would be important, of course, to go through physio and build strength back up in his feet, legs, and ankles. The doctor recommended that, once he was able to, Carlos should pick up a hobby that would use his legs and feet, to help keep them in shape and strong.

“There’s a lot of options out there. Some people pick things like soccer or jogging. Bicycling is a very good choice, too.” the doctor said during the post-op checkup.

“Would ballet work?” Cougar asked, feeling Jake stiffen beside him.

“Uh. Well, yes. Ballet is actually a very good choice, though a slightly unusual one.” the doctor said, fumbling his response.

“Good. I know a very good ballet dancer. He can teach me.” Cougar said, settling the matter.

When the doctor had left, Jake turned to him.

“Cougs, uh. Are you sure you want to… I mean… Oh, Christ, I don’t even know what I mean.”

“Do you not want to teach me?” Cougar asked.

“No! I mean… wait, how do I conjugate that one? I would love to teach you, I’ve just never seen you express an interest in ballet for yourself.” Jake said, somehow managing to frown at himself.

“At the time I had no need for it. It was simply something you did to make yourself happy. Now, I have the opportunity to approach it from a unique perspective.” Cougar explained. “Now go find us a ballet studio to rent."

Jake laughed, and Cougar basked in the sound.

 


 

Several weeks later, Cougar lay on the polished wood floor of a dancing studio, staring up at the ceiling. He was soaking in the sun shining through the windows. His wheelchair, a temporary necessity while he worked on literally getting his feet back under him, lay empty several feet away.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Jake asked from the doorway. “Or was it an accident and you’re just pretending you’re too cool for accidents like that to happen to you?”

Cougar smiled up at the ceiling, and stretched languorously in the sunlight.

Jake chuckled and walked in to the room, his long strides eating up the distance until he was standing over Cougar, tall and golden as always. Cougar blinked up at him lazily and wondered why he was afraid to make a move.

“Mervin said we can borrow this dance studio until you’re better. We might have to share with some of the newer dancers who still need to practice, but I figure proper scheduling can take care of that if you’re not up for company.” Jake said, kneeling down next to Cougar, making sure not to block the sunlight.

Thinking about it, Cougar realized that Jake had followed him around the globe as the result of a foolish decision in the middle of the night just as much as Cougar had followed Jake.

“Janet was making noises about a welcome back party, but I asked her if she would enjoy attending a party when she could afford all the Louboutins she wanted, but couldn’t actually wear them. So she’ll wait on your word for a welcome back bash.”

Jake had come for him when he thought he had been left for dead.  Jake had killed for him, to protect him, and brought him home to safety.

“And your parents are still really worried. We need to hash out our cover story for your feet soon. They’re gonna want to see that you’re okay for themselves.”

Jake had held Cougar through nightmares and brushed sweat soaked hair from Cougar’s forehead. Jake had crawled in to Cougar’s bed in the middle of the night to hold him until he stopped shaking, rested his head on Cougar’s chest every night for weeks to reassure himself that Cougar was still there.

 “Also Estrella and Sapphire were very polite and told me they were not asking about getting dibs to draw on your casts. I think they were hinting about being rewarded for this behavior.”

Carlos reached up and grabbed the collar of Jake’s shirt, pulling him down so that Carlos could kiss him. Jake froze for a moment, fighting to balance himself without crushing Carlos. Once settled, he cautiously started kissing back until they needed to surface for air.

“Wow.” Jake said, blinking a bit and smiling goofily. “Not gonna complain about that.”

“I should have done that a long time ago.” Cougar murmured, enjoying the bright smile on Jake’s face.

“We could always try to make up for lost time.” Jake said, looking hopeful.

Cougar knew there was a long road of recovery ahead of him. He knew their lives were complicated and occasionally dangerous. He knew he would have to deal with the things that had him screaming in terror in the middle of the night. Most of all, he knew he could deal with all of it, as long as he had Jake by his side.

Carlos pulled Jake back down, and lay on the floor of a sunlit dance studio, kissing the man he’d been falling in love with for a decade.