Characters are the brainchildren of Takahashi Rumiko, it's the situations that are mine. No disrespect is intended to her works.

"Hey, sugar, how are you tonight?"

I've never understood the psychology behind it myself.

"Ken, a drink for Sayoko-chan!"

It wasn't what I imagined of my life, when I was young and starry-eyed and far too foolish. I was going to be the best okonomiyaki chef in the world, with the best husband there beside me. A childish fantasy, a naive hope, a stupid goal, the silly dreams of a silly girl.

"You're my one, special love Asuka-chan."

My psychiatrist (I go see him when I'm feeling especially over-cashed) tells me that I'm trying to overcompensate for my teenage years by working in this job. He says that I'm channelling my early need to be loved into an 'unhealthy state by culturing and then devaluing the love of others.

"You're my one, special love Michi-chan."

What would he know? He makes it sound like I jumped into the job to get my jollies, getting revenge on phantoms that I laid to rest a long time ago.

"You're my one, special love."

Kuonji Ukyou didn't one day stop and say, hey I should do this. I didn't set out to become an onnabe. It just sort of happened.

Onnabe. You might not have heard the word before. It's used to describe women in the service industry who act like men - the transvestites, the transsexuals, the crossdressers who work places like Shinjuku, giving comfort to lonely housewives who need a little fake love in their lives. For a price, of course. It isn't always about sex. Some of the women did come to us just for that, of course. But usually it was more about having a fun night drinking with a handsome 'guy' that could never get you pregnant. The sex was meaningless anyway; they didn't make love to us, we just had sex with them. No matter how we pretended, it had all the warmth and intimacy of machinery.

If they wanted love, they'd get more from a cold pole on an icy morning. No, as I said most women came to us for comfort. The joys of having a good time with a guy, of having a handsome man hanging on your shoulder and on your every word, without that guilty feeling or that worry of things getting out of hand that you'd get with a real guy. The best of both worlds - the strength of the man, the understanding of the woman. Or that's the reason my clients give me.

If I was to say where I started on this path, I'd have to be honest and say it started when I was six. That was when I first started practicing my boy mode. I was good - I mean, I even attended an all-boys school with none (okay, Tsubaba made one) the wiser. But it was when I was seventeen that things truly started to get rolling. My fiance, Saotome Ranma decided to show how much he cared by getting married. Problem was, it was to another woman, and he didn't tell me until after the honeymoon. Never mind that I'd made it pretty clear at their first wedding attempt that I wasn't going to wave banners of joy at their nuptials. The bastard didn't even think to mention it until I asked him why he was wearing a ring. The idiot actually thought I'd be happy for him!

Naturally I took it out on him and anyone else I thought was involved. I don't know who hired Nabiki - Ranma, Akane, or their fathers. All I know was that I became too embarrassing for them to have around, and so she fixed it. At the time, I ran a small okonomiyaki shop. It was in a poor area of town, with bad rates and worse profit margins. I was good mind you, damn good, but it was a constant struggle to keep my business alive. So it didn't take much for Nabiki to topple it over. A couple of loosed rats at just the wrong times, a couple of people payed to complain and act sick, all so handily when the health inspectors were visiting, and it was all gone. As simple as that. No-one was seriously going to eat again at a place that was shut down for serving contaminated food.

If I was angry before, I was nothing short of furious now. So I demanded the Saotome clan repay me for my yatai dowry. They counterclaimed with their destroyed ancestral home, which I'd had a hand in wrecking a while back. I left, humiliated and broke. But that was okay - I was the greatest okonomiyaki chef in Japan, I could get a job anywhere!

Sure I could.

The problem was, every time I cooked an okonomiyaki, it reminded me of HIM. My mind would flash back to when we were children, and Ranma would beat me for one. Or when we were teens, and I offered him some for lunch in the vain hope that it meant more to him than a fill for his gullet. Or even when I was in a cooking contest with all his other love interests, and he told me afterwards he liked mine the best. All those thoughts twisted in me; every time I made an okonomiyaki, I got a little angrier. The customer I beat up was fairly innocent, if a little pushy. He even laughed about it while the doctors were applying the arm casts. My boss wasn't so understanding.

I could have found another place, but I knew in my heart that it'd just happen again, until I ran out of places to go. I couldn't even make a living with okonomiyaki anymore. I was broke, with no family to go to, and now no skills to rely on either.

Except for one skill. Of course I'd heard about the crossdresser clubs - my own clothing tastes had meant it was inevitable that some regulars and some people who were that way had told me about it, when they ate at my place. I thought long and hard about it. And then I went and did it anyway, when I realised I hadn't eaten in two days. I figured that if I could use it to get solvent, then I'd have enough time to get over my problems with okonomiyaki, and then I could buy a yatai or something.

The interview was easy. Besides having to cut my hair to a more boyish style, there wasn't much required. I already knew as much about acting like a guy as the regular staff did, and I knew enough about the service industry(my side of the service industry, anyway), to get the job.

They started me slow, working as a waiter and an assistant barkeep. They weren't exactly expecting me to bed the clients on the first day or anything. I probably would never have stayed if they'd tried to get me to do that. But for the first couple of months, all I did was serve drinks and learn how to make them. Sure, I was dressed as a boy, but that wasn't anything I hadn't done before.

Things went on from there. I was getting good tips, and the boss noticed, so he (we all usually refer to each other as males, even the ones who still consider themselves female) notched me up to reception - greeting and saying goodbye to the guests, remembering the regulars and their 'tastes', and so on. There was one last step from there: hosting. It probably would have terrified me, but for one thing; I got close to one of the other workers for a short while. My first sexual encounter was with him. A transsexual. At the time I was shocked with myself, but now I can't help but wonder what I thought the fuss was about. We split apart after only doing it a couple of times. After that, well, it didn't seem so hard.

"I'm really not sure I should be here."

I turn to the entrance, my eyes narrowing slightly as I try to match the person to the voice. She sounded sort of familiar; perhaps it was one of the clients who hadn't been around in a while. The woman was maybe in her early thirties, with thick black hair falling to about her shoulder blades. There wasn't much fat on her, the way she was standing had the sort of readiness that spoke of regular martial arts training. Not that that meant much; martial arts was turning trendy again, and all sorts of office girls had embraced it with as much sterotypicality as their previous generation had embraced shopping and overseas trips.

She did look familiar, in a vague sort of way, but I saw too many girls to remember all their faces except for my regulars. I probably saw her at the grocery store, or the library or something. I don't know; just couldn't place her. After spending thirteen years in this job, I could spot a first-timer a mile away. She looked like she fit the bill to a tee, except for one thing. Usually they came with a friend who'd been before, or in a group who'd decided to 'live on the edge' or 'be rebellious' or something. When they came solo though, you had to really coax them in; that's why we had one of our best on door duty.

He was having a little trouble with this one though. It looked like she was starting to reconsider. None of my regulars were in tonight, so I took pity and went to help out my workmate, smoothing back my bleached hair(all the rage for guys at the moment) as I went. Most of the workers took on different things to differentiate them from the others. Hoji was the gruff one, the 'man's-man' - he was one of the transsexuals, and I swear if he hadn't shared a unit with me for two years, and if I hadn't accidentally walked in on him in the shower, I would never have guessed he wasn't originally a man. Ken was the joker, the big and cuddly kidder - a crossdresser like me. Baito was the singer, the romantic, always ready with a quick compliment for any girl he worked.

As for me, well, I was the friendly one. The best friend of each and any person who walked through that club door with money to spend. What a joke.

"Hey, Yoshio." My voice was gruff but gentle, a pure act that's the envy of many of my workmates - even some of the ones on hormones. I slapped my workmate on the shoulder; he was used to the act and smiled. "Hello there, Ma'am. I was about to have a drink to celebrate the five minute break my slave-driving boss finally conceded to me; would you like one as well?"

It's not so much what you say, it's how you say it. I kept an easy smile on my face, a slight but not too pushy entreaty in my eyes, as I pointed out the bar that took up a fifth of the small club's area. She still hesitated. Damn. There's two really bad bits about this job: dealing with the skittish first-timers, and dealing with the obsessives who just don't get that we don't really love them. I gripped her hand in the current style of semi-handshake, my smile widening as I slowly drew her towards the bar. "Don't worry about it, we're here for you, not the other way around. I'm Akira."

Yes, I changed my name. Ranma decided that he was still my friend whether I liked it or not, and so for the first year or so after he got married, he kept dropping into wherever I was when he was on so-called training trips. Like I really wanted his pity; so one time I moved, and my name didn't move with me.

Before the woman really knew better, she was sitting next to me at the bar, a Green Screamer sitting in front of her. The Screamer was one of my concoctions: Midori, Vodka, a little cordial, and a couple of secret ingredients. Hey, a person needs their secrets! I've spent more time in the last few years mixing drinks then cooking food; I like to be good at what I do...

The woman warily sipped her drink. She gasped, then coughed. After a few seconds, she took another sip, a bigger one this time.

...And I am good. At drink recipes, anyway. I guess when it comes to sauces of any kind, I'm a deft hand. The ice broken, I start the usual act. It's all fairly simple stuff - I was an expert at being best friends with my customers long before I started this career. The biggest difference between being a best friend to an okonomiyaki customer and an onnabe client was the level of intimacy. Many of these women came here more for companionship than out of any true sexual preference. Either way, it starts out the same - a simple hand on theirs, perhaps an arm around their shoulders if you're in one of the booths and you're doing something like watching the karaoke.

It doesn't take much to get her started on talking. She's obviously still nervous about being here - probably thought we'd all be gyrating around with strap-on-dildoes or something. But she's obviously a woman who loves to vent, yet doesn't have the avenue at home. And she obviously didn't trust me yet - she was using euphemisms to describe herself and her husband. Not a real name in sight.

Anyway, apparently it's all his fault. The husband's, that is. It's another bit where there are two types. Its either all 'her' fault, or all 'his' fault. It's never both their faults. No, of course it's never both their faults. Still, this guy sounded like a class-A-grade jerk. Her husband was never at home(huh, not exactly a new story). The twist was, he was supposed to work at home - he taught at their family dojo.

It turns out the guy's one of those ones who eats, breathes and, well, defecates martial arts. Sure, I used to be one of those too, but I left it behind a long time ago. So anyway, instead of building up the home dojo, he goes off on training trips - year long ones apparently. He's even roped their son into the latest one; the woman was obviously kicking herself over letting it happen. It was more of a strain than usual to pretend I cared.

I offered all those little sub-vocal grunts, tiny hand gestures, and simple "Go on"s that keep the conversation going. All the little fakeries to indicate I cared, that I really cared. The client was beginning to look like a bit of a lost cause. Financially, by the sounds of it, they were doing okay but not incredibly. That upsurge in the popularity of martial arts meant more business, but apparently her husband thought it was beneath him to teach the new students, so most of the work fell on her. He was home so rarely that his appearances in the dojo were just that - appearances, and not true training sessions. She ran the finances, she managed the maintenance, she did everything. And her husband put her down for it. It was obvious she was only a few steps away from a nervous breakdown.

But I didn't know how much I could milk from her for 'gifts' and such. She wasn't some cash-bored office girl, or money-rich businesswoman; she was the manager of a small business. I knew from long-ago personal experience just how penny-pinching they could be. Perhaps I should just do my little service for the community, try and apply what patches I could to her vision of her marriage, and then give it up as a bad joke. Maybe one of my regulars would still make it in tonight.

"I don't want to sound like I'm judging here, but you must have loved something about him. What were the reasons you married him in the first place?"

"He had his good points, once. But the marriage was arranged by our parents."

A chill went through me. Oh no. No, it couldn't be.

"Sounds a bit rough. Reminds me why I never married," I keep the laugh light, so she could know that I'm only doing a bit of friendly joking. She smiles back at me, so I take the plunge.

"You know, here we've been, talking for an hour, and you haven't even told me your name," I say, keeping that friendly smile that so often roped them in as I put on a faux hurt expression. "Saoto..." the woman hesitates, and then tries to hide her hesitation with a nervous smile. "Akane, just Akane"

I don't believe it, I just don't believe it. Well, okay, I do, but still... Only the fact that I work in a job that continually relies on showing false emotions stops the shock from showing in my eyes.

"Well then, Akane-chan," I smile, my teeth glinting as I laugh hysterically on the inside, "please don't tell me you don't have time for one more drink? You have to at least listen to Baito sing karaoke, he's got such a voice, you'd regret it if you missed it. I know I'd regret it if you left."

She hesitated again, looking around, eyeing the exit for a moment, before she turned back to me. And smiled. A slight smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Well, maybe one more."

She was hooked; I'd worked this job long enough to tell. She was so lonely, so needing of some no-strings relationship that I wouldn't have to even work that hard to get her. How sad that the woman was so used to being married to a dual-sex husband, that she came to crossdressers when she decided to initiate a little 'on-the-side.

Oh well. One drink turned into two, three to four. Baito was in fine form that night, he sung like his soul depended on it. He'd really been practicing. My workmates and my boss were surprised I was spending all my time with just one client - especially a new one - but I'd been in this game now for longer than any but the boss. They trusted my judgement, and left me to my job.

I nodded and smiled, saying all the right things; I'd spent a lot of time thinking about Akane, analysing her after I 'lost', trying to understand how she won when I didn't. My psychiatrist weighed in when I started seeing him too. He claimed that all the little fantasies I had about my marriage - Ranma weakened by Happosai's pressure point, Ranma thrown out of the dojo and coming to me - all of them had me in the dominant position. I was the head cook. I was the breadwinner. I was the so-called alpha male. And, my psychiatrist claimed, that was why he never picked me. No man wants to be the woman in a marriage.

I think I need to take a closer look at that diploma my shrink has, I'm getting a little suspicious of him. I didn't lose to Akane because of that. I lost because he already had my dowry, and he didn't need anything more from me. My Knight in Shining Armour was just like his father. And his father would have coveted a dojo above a yatai any day. Akane was no better than me. She just had the right bait to entice the prey.

The club closed at 3am. A couple of the others waved me off in the sign language you develop when you're around customers, indicating that they'd clean up.

"I'm sure you're a fine cook, Akane-chan. Your husband's probably just unwilling to admit you're better at him in something." I reach down and gently lift her from the barstool she's been glued to for the past five hours. "What you should do the next time he's home is cook him a gigantic welcome home dinner. Show him the full range of your culinary skills."

"You," her finger wavered a bit as it pointed at me, "are a good. good friend, ya know that Akira-kun?"

"Only when the company's as good as yours, Akane-chan." I was a lot steadier than her. It was easy to appear to be drinking as much as your client when you weren't, and years of constant alcohol intake does give you some resistance to its effects. "I'll always be here to be your friend, Akane-chan. But now I'm afraid it's time for you to go home."

She hesitated at the doorway, her eyes focussing somewhat. Maybe she wasn't that drunk after all. She looked out onto the garish neon streets of the Shinjuku strip, before looking back at me. "Home... it used to be home once. But a home, it shouldn't be a lonely thing, Akira-kun. I... I-"

My hand rested comfortingly on her shoulder. Of course home was a lonely thing. You wouldn't be here if it wasn't. "You don't have to go home, Akane-chan. Not tonight."

"You're a good man, Akira-kun. A good man."

"Shh. Come on, Akane-chan. Let's go to my place."

I cook for all my clients after their first night over at my place - I had gotten over that flashback thing eventually. I had never quite regained the passion I once had for cooking, but for a client's first time, it payed to let them feel special. And this was one time I think I'll truly enjoy serving a sizzling okonomiyaki wakeup call. After all, even though it's not my trade any more, there's still no-one who makes an okonomiyaki like me, especially thanks to my very own, very special sauce. Why, I bet even Akane would remember the taste after all this time.
Of course, I'd wait until after she payed me for my services before I served it to her.

Author's Note: Fic was originally posted around 1999 to RAAC. I did some minor changes to the grammar from that original version, but it's mostly unchanged.