"Dames? Damien? Dames. Earth to Damien." Damien blinked, looking over to see a familiar pair of blue eyes staring back at him. The face of Shayne Topp came into view. "Are you alright man? You've been staring off into nowheresville polishing the same glass for like three minutes straight."
"Hm?" He squinted, blinking as he set the glass down in front of him on the counter. "Oh, yeah didn't get much sleep last night."
"Up with some chick?" Shayne's face contorted up into a devilish grin as wiggling his eyebrows at Damien. Damien snapped the towel he'd been using to clean the glass at Shayne, who leaned back, barely avoiding the towel and laughing loudly in response. His face flushed red, and even though he knew Shayne couldn't see him in the darkened light of the club, Damien changed the subject quickly.
"You working tonight?"
"No, I'm wearing this firefighter outfit for fun." Shayne laughed at his own joke, shifting how he sat on the barstool when Damien didn't respond. "God, I've got three sets to do tonight, and I don't know half of my routine for two of them."
"I thought you'd gone with Courtney to classes on that stuff this weekend."
"Nah, she had to bail last minute, I ended up just re-playing some games I'd forgotten about in my cabinet and ate food." There was a soft silence between them. Damien knew he should say something, but instead supplemented it with more filler, something to keep the conversation going before it inevitably lulled.
"You want a Salt and Rye?"
"Well I'm not gonna pass one up." Damien nodded, pouring Shayne the drink. He set it down in front of the man, leaning against the bar as Shayne knocked it back, looking away as Shayne shook his head in disgust. "Oof, that taste always bites me in the ass."
Damien's gaze had moved up to the balcony, catching Mari's eye for just a second. They both looked away, Mari looking back at Joven, who had swung his arm over the banister, and Damien turning to look at Shayne. Shayne gave him a soft smile, and Damien pretended not to notice.
Things had been tense between them for a while, and Damien hadn't wanted to face the truth of it all. Shayne couldn't know about him working for Joven, well, the truth about what he did for Joven.
Ever since they had met, Damien had only told Shayne the surface level of his past. Shayne knew that Damien's dad hadn't been a good guy. He knew that the scars on Damien's body weren't accidental, and that the hatred in his eyes wasn't born in a home with kindness.
He'd been reminiscing on the past more than usual, a fact he about himself he found funny. His dad had always scolded him about the dangers of nostalgia, how a man could end up dead if he kept looking back instead of keeping his eyes on the road.
Damien felt that he did it out of spite, rather than anything else, but in this instance, it was different. This was for comfort. They'd been so close, but now, there was a distance that hadn't been there before. He and Shayne been there for each other in everything, the ups, the down, the rock bottoms. And they'd been there to lift each other up.
In fact, It'd been Shayne that had originally gotten him the job at the club in the first place.
Damien didn't mind being a bartender at a strip club. It was better than what he'd been doing before, and he'd almost come to like standing behind the bar, serving drinks, and watching the shows. Doing the whole shebang.
Most people would normally think that it was weird that he liked working there, they'd think he had some weird kink or something, asking, 'why don't you work at a normal bar? One where there isn't a constant stream of people half-naked in your general vicinity? ' Damien would shrug, and tell them what they wanted to hear, that he hated it, that he was looking for a new job, that it was the only place that was hiring.
In reality, it was the people that kept him there, not the scandal and sex of it all. Under the low lights, people were themselves, they could be the slobbering dogs that they were, eating up every tease of flesh and skin. Damien liked watching how people worked, the skin they shed at the door and the true creatures they were underneath. He'd seen businessmen, with stuffy suits and ties and expressions that reminded him of the hungry ache in the eyes of a wolf, turned into puppies with a single touch. Damien had watched as the local gang members, guns stuffed down their pants, eyes rimmed with unearned confidence, melt into children under Courtney's gaze.
Sure, he hadn't planned on working here, but that didn't mean that he hated it. Joven was an alright boss, a nice guy that cared about the people around him, though Damien could recognize that it was all a facade. He came off as a good man, but underneath, there was a hunger for power. A thirst for recognition so strong that Damien knew that it would be the thing that would topple him in the end.
Damien had started working for Joven twice. Once for his cover job, and then again for his real one. Granted, both jobs were real, but one was a little more real than the other. He'd been closing up with Joven late one night when someone had come into the club with a loaded gun. Damien had been lucky that the intruder hadn't seen him when the man had pointed the gun at Joven's head.
It only took a few swift kicks and the attacker was down.
Damien had been glad that Joven wasn't just some random club owner, and that he understood that Damien had to teach the man a lesson. He had to take off a few fingers, it was only good form. And it was the one lesson that had stuck with Damien since childhood.
He'd grown up with a gang leader for a father and a string of his father's unfaithful girlfriends and Sesame Street for a mother. Damien had learned the hard way to fend for himself, dear old dad was keen on throwing him to the sharks.
"I don't wantcha ever gettin soft," his father had growled. "You're gonna prove yourself the right way, the way a man should."
Damien had proved himself to his father more times than he could count, but the man had never been satisfied. It was because of this that Damien had made certain that no one ever questioned the legitimacy of his position as his father's right hand man. The things he had done to make it that way - the blood on his hands - it was something that was better not to think about.
But his old man was dead, and the only regret Damien had ever had was that it wasn't him that had fired the bullet that shattered his father's final breath.
When his father's gang had been dissolved by the cops, Damien had gotten off on a technicality. He'd been lucky, he was just under 18, and hadn't been caught in any photos from the numerous stakeouts held by the detectives on the case. Most of his old contacts, people he'd considered more uneasy allies that friends, had been caught and sentenced, their time in prison stretching long past their life span. He'd been alone, but he'd also been free. In those first few days after it had all gone down, Damien had tried to get clean, wash his hands of all the damage he'd caused.
He did the thing that anyone starting over would do, and picked the dumb dream that he'd always kept in the back of his mind, and took the shot at it. Damien tried his hand at acting. He wasn't bad at it, spend years in a gang and you learn to lie your way out of things, but it was always the same:'you're not what we're looking for' or 'you're just not old enough for this role', and sometimes, those who had known his father, 'we just can't have you around, reputation, y'know?'.
So Damien was left in a shitty apartment that he couldn't afford, living off of cheap ramen and the last bit of money he'd gotten from his lawyer, trying desperately to find something, anything, that could help him support himself.
Then, finally, he'd managed to land a small role in a commercial, staving off his vampire of a landlord for another month.
It was only two lines, and now Damien couldn't even remember what they'd been, but they'd changed his life. He had been standing alone on set, eating something from the craft services table, maybe a bagel or a muffin, something familiar to ease his stomach. The crew was setting up, barking orders at one another, and some of the extras were milling around, chatting like good friends.
He'd been alone, his anxiety acting up as he looked around for something to do, to seem busy and not out of place in the grinding gears of the set. Then, a man had appeared from the crowd like magic. He had soft sand-colored hair, and bright blue eyes that looked almost technicolor in the early morning sunlight. He gave Damien a nod, pouring himself coffee in the biggest styrofoam cup they had, mixing in sugar and milk absentmindedly as he looked over the food provided.
"Those any good?" Damien realized that the man was talking to him.
"Hmm?" He took a second to register the question, looking down at his breakfast. "Oh, uh, this? Yeah it's actually pretty good."
"Yeah, it's the best kind."
"True dat." What kind of idiot says true dat? Damien couldn't help but suppress a laugh, hoping the man didn't hear him. "Sorry, that was lame. I'm just a little nervous."
"No, but my first one in a while." The man scratched the outside of his arm. "I've been between jobs as of late, and this was a lucky grab. You?"
"I guess that's just the curse of being an actor, huh?" He held out his hand to Damien. "I'm Shayne, Shayne Topp." Damien rearranged his things, shaking the man's free hand.
Even though the shoot was only a week long, he'd managed to become Shayne's friend by the end of it.
Life was rocky, but manageable. He was living paycheck to paycheck, putting in as many hours as possible in at the shitty pizza place he'd started working at, his free time spent auditioning and looking for parts. He tried his best to keep his mind off of it, the whole impending doom that was the inevitable existential crisis that would send him down a rabbit hole of doubt.
Then there was the other thought. The though of his past, the one he knew would eventually catch up to him and bite him in the ass in the end, weighing on him. He knew Shayne well enough by then to be able to call him at the wee hours in the morning. Shayne was almost always up, doing one thing or another, maybe coming home from work, or up late playing video games.
"What's up man?" Shayne always answered like this, no matter what time it was.
"Are you busy?"
"Not really, just got home from work."
"They really keep you out that late?"
"Hey, what can I say, the life of a stripper isn't all glory."
Shayne had been pretty up front about what he did for a living. He wasn't ashamed of it, but instead carried a sort of pride. Shayne saw his job as an art form, one that he could master, and that was enough motivation to let him see past the other parts of it. He was creating art, putting on an elaborate show that could spellbind an audience, if that was even the right term.
"I hate my job." Damien said, and air of finality to his voice. "I hate living a life like this. And I hate to say it, but I'm getting sick of pizza."
"Yeah." Damien scratched his head. "Maybe I'm just not cut out to be an actor...I should just go get some dumb corporate job, marry some blond bimbo from Starling Heights, have some rich annoying brats that squander my money."
"Ugh, I hate you just for saying that." He could hear Shayne's voice become muffled as he moved away from the phone across the line. "You've got more of that fresh faced determination than half the hot shots who I've worked with." Shayne's voice grew muffled on the other side of the phone. Damien knew that he was looking for something. "Most of the time, when people are just about to make it big, they've hit rock bottom, and then bam something comes up and it's into stardom baby!"
"I've been sitting at rock bottom for so long I can't even fathom getting back up to the top anymore." Damien rubbed his eyes, lying down on the couch, turning the phone on speaker as he curled up next to it. Shayne's contact photo, one that Damien had taken when they'd gone out clubbing a few weeks ago, glowed behind the greyed out interface of the phone app. "I mean, what do I do? I can't get a job anywhere without a college degree, and I can't exactly put 'former mob associate and gang leader' on my resume."
"No dude you totally should, to just like, see what kind of reaction you'd get back." Damien laughed wholeheartedly, his chest squeezing around the loneliness, making it disappear for just a second.
"Yeah, I'm sure that'd go over well." Damien contorted his voice, re-enacting a character he'd used to do for Shayne back on set during the long stretches of nothing. "Hi there, I'm Bapps Makenzie and I'd like your job please. Yes, I want your job. References? No, sorry they're all dead. Hadda get rid of the evidence!" Damien let out a maniacal cackle that made Shayne bellow with laugher in return.
He felt his body begin to ease, Shayne's breathing steady and low on the other end of the phone helping to calm him down. "I am getting sick of the pizza place though dude."
"Really, you don't like cardboard pizza that's 90% grease?"
"I'm serious man," Damien replied with a laugh. "I need to find a new place to work, my manager's driving me crazy. I swear to god, if he asks me to work late without pay again I'm going to rip out his hair plugs and feed them to him." Shayne laughed, and Damien could hear him change the phone from one ear to another.
"Actually, there's a job opening at the Jackrabbit, if you want to come work with me."
"No offense Shayne, but I don't think I'm really cut out for the whole stripper lifestyle."
"No, no, no, not stripping. There's a bartending job that just opened up. The old guy quit a few days ago, and Mr. Ovenshire's been looking for a replacement." He shifted the phone into the crook of his shoulder as he sat up from where he was lying on the couch. "You know how to bartend, right, your dad taught you?"
Damien scoffed, passing it off as clearing his throat. "Yeah, I know the basics, but I'm sure I could pass it off as professional."
"Damien if you came to work here, oh my god, all the crazy shit we could do, it'd be amazing."
"Yeah..." Damien's heart began to pound. Were things really working out? This never happened, especially not to him.
"Are you interested? I can call my boss right now and get you an interview for tomorrow."
"Yes. Yes! More than yes, definitely, one hundred percent."
"Dames this is going to be amazing."
Back then, Damien would've given anything to just stand next to Shayne like he was now. He would've dreamed about working here, living his life, Shayne by his side. Now the reality was different than he'd expected. Somehow the closeness had pushed them farther apart, and they were both grappling at strings to pull each other back together, but both were mis-stepping and their friendship was slipping through their fingers.
"Everyone! Attention!" From the corridor underneath the stairs, Boze appeared holding a clipboard. "We're opening in five minutes, I want everyone in place now." Shayne, knowing better than to cross Boze, was off the barstool and backstage before Damien could blink.
Damien began to stack and un-stack the glasses on the counter as Boze checked things off on her clipboard. The club began to hum to life as the lights dimmed. Damien prepared himself, watching as the curtain stirred, trying not to imagine everyone piling in backstage, preparing themselves with all manner of primping and preening.
As Boze moved like a bee around the club, Damien tried to keep his mind off of everything.
Things were shifting again. He could feel it in the air, in Joven's eyes, in Shayne's voice, in the way Boze moved her hands. So much had changed after Mari had gone crazy. Damien only felt safe saying that to himself. After she'd nearly killed Boze, Joven had made an unspoken rule that it was never to be talked about again. So far everyone had kept that rule unbroken.
But Mari was back, and for once, Damien didn't know what that meant for the club, and for the whole operation entirely. He had made mistakes in the past, ones that had spurred from not trusting his gut. Now he didn't know what to think. So much had changed all too quickly, and Damien would give anything to go back to how it had been before, back when there weren't glances behind your back and knives at your throat. When everything had felt like family.
More than anything, he wanted to go back to that night. The night he'd been too drunk, and stumbled to the only arms he wanted to hold him. The night he'd told his best friend he loved him. The morning that followed, waking up on the couch, lying to Shayne and himself about why he was there. Covering up lies with more lies, because hey, it was what he knew how to do best.
It's too late now. Damien thought to himself. Things have changed, and there's nothing we can do about it. Things are changing, and there's nothing we can do about it.
He sucked in a breath as the lights around him dimmed to a pale purple-pink hue. Damien braced himself against the bar without realizing it, squeezing his eyes shut until stars danced in front of his eyelids. The door to the club swung open, and the night began.