"This would be so much easier if I actually understood what they were saying half the time." I skimmed my Japanese to English dictionary, trying to at least catch the roots of some of the verbs I was hearing. Wasn't there some software out there that guaranteed you learning any language in a few weeks? Why not make it for Linux boxes instead of the stupid Windows crap? Or at least, why did Dad have to switch my perfectly working PC into a Linux box JUST when I'd saved up enough to buy the damn software myself? Maybe it was God giving me the finger or something.

Normally, I would have been talking to myself. I dunno – guess I felt a little self-conscious with all the other people around me. I kept peeking up at these guys who were now my coworkers. The only two out of them I really knew were Tensora-san and Akitaro.

Didn't make for a really good dynamic for getting to know everyone else, given that Tensora-san scared the crap out of me and Akitaro was just a straight up jerk. I had a feeling I was going to be sitting by myself and figuring things out on my own for a while to come.

The moment I looked up at them, the guy who spoke with a twangy, Osakan accent looked away and made some loud comment that I couldn't make heads or tails of.

Somehow... I got the feeling they were laughing at me, personally. Only served to make me feel REALLY stupid. I had to wonder, though, was it some kind of tradition when you come to work for a new company in Japan, because you're the new kid? Seemed kind of stupid, especially since I had no clue what I was really getting into or how to do the job... or, really, what I was supposed to do beyond dress up like a girl and act like one, once I got on the clock.

There was a chuckle from beside me, which made me jump out of my seat on the couch. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw one of the other guys – the one who had looked like a tomboy girl in his wig and kimono – with a hand over his mouth and blushing as he looked away. I pouted for a moment – I didn't mean to, honest! – before I sighed.

"Konban wa. Boku no namae James Lock desu. Yoroshiku." I muttered, talking more to my book than to this guy who technically wasn't staring, but obviously had been.

"Eh? Aa-ah... Eto... eto..." He stuttered for a moment, making me feel like an ass for speaking so bluntly and coldly. It was gone in a few seconds though, before he motioned towards my dictionary.

"...Lu... lu-end?" He stammered. I had to stare for a few moments, before the pieces fell together.

"Lend? You need to borrow this?" I asked, holding the dictionary out. The man blinked, but smiled and bowed as he took it and down.


'Probably didn't think I'd understand him or something. Well, whatever...' I thought, examining the guy a little closer – Japanese all had the same hair and eye color, which only made it harder for me to tell them all apart. This guy, though... his hair was a bit lighter than the normal shade, like he'd bleached it to this dark-brownish shade. His jaw was almost like a pentagon in geometry, but ended in a narrow chin and his nose was big and triangular. I guess it didn't really occur to me that a Japanese man could have those features, not until I really took a close look.

"Ano..." The man shut the dictionary and turned to me with a smile, "Aa-llow mi tsu make... ano..." There was a pause as he flipped through the dictionary again, mulled over a word, then continued, "Gu-ree-ching-su?" I blinked for a moment, before my brain helpfully supplied the answer,

"Oh! You mean Introductions." I said. The man went red again before he started laughing again. It was actually kind of nice to hear – I could tell that this guy was really laughing at himself, not at me.

Huh, maybe there were some decent people in the place, after all.

"Aah... sou da... eto..." The man scratched the back of his head with embarrassment, "Y-yes... intu-lo-duck-shions..."

And I had been feeling sorry for myself. Man, did I feel stupid. Never thought I'd feel sorry for a guy who couldn't speak English, even when we were both in a non-English speaking country.

"...Zu... zu-at man..." I came back to reality as the other man started talking. He was pointing to the tall, skinny guy who was currently knitting something from pink yarn, "...issu Tamango Taka-san."

Tamango Taka... He's called 'Egg Hawk'? Or... since we'd call him 'Taka Tamango' in America... Hawk Egg? What kind of fricking weird name is THAT? Though it was an appropriate name – before, Taka had been wearing round glasses that hid how narrow and sharp his eyes were, and his long nose and chin were pointed like a hawk's beak. You'd think a guy looking like that would never pass as a woman but... well, given that he'd had me fooled, I guess I couldn't talk.

"An-du he..." The pointing finger moved to the cute, childish guy sitting next to Taka and squeezing a juicebox, "...issu Nagano Kyotoryu-san."

Kyoto and Nagano... Aren't those cities in Japan? Who names their kid after cities? You never see any American kids named 'Chicago' or 'Springfield' or 'Kaskaskia'. In complete contrast to Taka, Kyotoryu's face was round and rosy with a button-like nose. If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought Kyotoryu was just a kid.

"Neck-tsu him, Betsunohoko Shinshi-san." The pointing moved to a man with a small nose, box-like face, and crew cut.

'...A 'Gentleman of a Different road?' Well, he sure is different from all the other guys here... seriously, it's like the only real man with all these girly men around...' I wondered if my bewilderment was starting to show on my face.

"Zen... Kawai Tsuneo-kun." The other tomboy-looking guy who kept scowling when someone talked to him.

Tsuneo... From the kanji for 'Common man'. And Kawai... Just a letter short of 'Cute'. I'm starting to see a lot of similarity in all these guys' names.

"An-du zen... you al-leady know Akitaro-kun... zat leave-su... Mendo Kakeru-kun." Standing next to Akitaro and speaking with the loud Osakan accent was a short, wiry man with a pointy nose.

Mendo Kakeru... Isn't 'Mendo o kakeru' the phrase that means 'To give a person trouble'? And why were all these guys names really elaborate puns or something weird like city names or...

"Ah, wait..." I suddenly butted in, snatching my dictionary back and waving as though to attract attention from a taxi, "Tensora-san. What's Tensora-san's full name?"

The man went a little green as I asked.

Suddenly, I didn't wanna know anymore.

"Tensora... Akumaru-san..." Was the slow, hesitant, quiet answer.

So, with 'Tensora' using the kanji for 'Heavenly Sky' and 'Akumaru' being 'Akuma' with 'Maru' on the end... 'Demon Man from the Heavenly Sky'? In my imagination, I could see the figure of Tensora-san looming over us with a handful of menacing paperwork. His name... seemed to fit, somehow...

The two of us sat in silence on the couch for a long, long time. Eventually, however, I awoke from my stupor and turned to the other man with the dictionary extended again.

"You... I'm sorry – what's your name?" After all, this guy had told me everyone's names and attempted to use English, despite the fact that he obviously didn't have the slightest clue how to speak it. It did seem kind of rude for me to not ask.

Besides, I was really hoping for a friend.

The man blinked in surprise, then smiled.

"Boku? Yamada Taro desu."

And all the wheels in my head squealed to a stop, almost leaving tire tracks and skid marks.

"Yamada Taro?" I asked, blankly.

"Hai. Yamada Taro." Taro repeated.


Taro chuckled, cheeks going pink with embarrassment. Embarrassed about what, though, I couldn't understand – I was fairly certain that Taro hadn't understood a word of what I had just said.

"O~ora, Rock-baka-chan!" I stopped shouting, like Akitaro's voice was sand dumping into the gears of my brain, "Stop shouting and making everyone's break miserable."

"Why don't YOU stop calling me 'Rock-baka-chan' and making ME miserable?" I demanded, standing up and pointing at Akitaro, even as Taro held up his hands, pacifyingly.

"M-maa maa... Akitaro-kun... O-oshizuke kudasai..." Was all that I understood before the words and even the sounds blurred together.

Once again, this would be a lot easier to deal with if I could understand these damn people. This time, I knew full well that my disgust was apparent on my face. As though he could hear my thoughts, Taro turned around and extended a hand, as though to shake.

"Ano... Lock-kun..." I blinked at Taro for a moment, then at his hand, "...I... tsu tee-chu?"

I kept blinking, but this time, I'd understood without thinking.

"Are you... offering to teach me Japanese?" I asked, slowly. Taro's smile grew wider, even as he pointed to the dictionary I was still holding.

"Oi, Yamada-senpai..." Akitaro butted in, "Kono gaijin o warukenasai kude." From the brass in his voice that sounded inherently bossy, I knew that Akitaro was saying SOMETHING that would've pissed me off, but since I didn't understand it, I had no clue WHAT it was. Which, of course, made me WANT to know even more.

"J-Jigau wa yo. B-boku wa... boku wa Lock-kun no senpai desu, d-dakara..." My eyes shifted between Akitaro and Taro. I'd caught 'I am Lock-kun's senpai' but didn't see what that had to do with anything.

Must be some culture thing I didn't know about. I'd had no choice, but resign myself to my fate and watching them argue.

Sleeping in a room with three other people who spoke a completely different language would have been a lot less disturbing if my only English translator wasn't hellbent on making me miserable.

"Dono beddo gya yoroshii de ka?" Kakeru asked, even as I had to fight to reclaim my backpack from the man. As I hadn't understood the question, I didn't answer except to stare like a cat being asked to bark. Kakeru let out a sigh, then bent sideways and backwards to whine at Akitaro.

That could not possibly be comfortable.

"A-ki-i!" Akitaro remained in his place on one of the three beds in the room, a magazine open on his face. So, either he was asleep, or pretending to be because he wanted to ignore us. And, by 'us' I mean 'me'.

"Rock-baka-chan." My eyes slid over to Akitaro. I was slowly starting to get used to the name, "He said that you smell like rotten seaweed."

"HE DID NOT! EVEN I KNOW THAT HE WAS ASKING A QUESTION- THAT'S WHAT THE 'KA' ON THE END OF SENTENCES MEANS!" I shouted. Akitaro didn't even jump at the change in my volume. It pissed me off.

"If you know so much about the language, why do you still need me to tell you what everything is?" Akitaro's voice came out muffled, but completely undisturbed.

"I DON'T- you just make things EASIER and save me a lot of dictionary-diving." I snapped back. I really couldn't wait for the Japanese lessons to begin, and it had only been an hour or so since Taro had offered.

...This was probably not a good sign...

"Maybe I should stop making things so easy for you- do your own work, stupid American."

I had never seen as much red before in my life.

"WHO'S THE STUPID AMERICAN AROUND HERE? I WAS ON THE HONOR ROLL FOR THREE YEARS IN HIGH SCHOOL!" It was one thing my dad ever praised him for- Good enough to get into a school in Japan, even if nowhere near good enough for Harvard or Stanford.

"Just because you're a brat who can study well doesn't make you intelligent."

A brat who can study well... And here I thought studying well was the definition of intelligence for the Japanese.

"Excuse me for not being Einstein." I muttered, sourly.

"He was even worse- he couldn't even study."

This response had me so utterly appalled that I couldn't even dignify it with a response.

'Maybe the problem is with YOU, not me.' The two-percent of my brain that wasn't being devoted to arguing with Akitaro idly wondered how long Kakeru and Tsuneo had been watching the argument. In any case, I could see that they were sharing a bowl of popcorn as they watched. I had to ignore it in favor of a clever retort.

"Y'know, I read a bumper sticker once- it said 'There are two kinds of people who call me an idiot- the people who are smarter than me, and the people who are dumber than me.'" Well, not really, but it would BE a good bumper sticker, and it was funny and true enough. Akitaro didn't even look up from his stupid magazine.

Why, I couldn't understand. Say I'm judging a book by it's cover, if you want, but there was absolutely nothing on the front of the magazine. No name, no publication, not even a date. It made me wonder what was on the inside.

"Aw, but I was COMPLIMENTING you- I just told you you're smarter than Einstein." Akitaro's voice sounded almost like he was whining, but in a more mature fashion than one normally considered it.

"Well... okay, that's true..." I muttered, feeling me face heat up, "BUT! But the way YOU said it, there's no real honor in holding the title. I mean, it wouldn't a compliment if you told me I was smarter than George W. Bush!"

"Well DUH- everyone knows THAT guy was an idiot."

I'll admit, my inner Democrat almost snorted with laughter, except the argumentative side of my brain took offense to the insult.

"So, what? Just because SOME people think I'm smart that makes me smarter than Einstein or... wait... what?"

While Akitaro laughed at my confusion, I huffed and ignored him and watched the other two muttering to each other in Japanese.

"Ikura bet-to nya?" Kakeru was asking Tsuneo as the other played with his popcorn.

"Futasushuka? Otagi-ni o satsumasho mata wa kekkon suru." There was the word 'kekkon' again- so either these two were talking about a wedding, or I was going deaf. Akitaro cleared my confusion up, quite nicely, by throwing his magazine at the two of them. It landed at just the right angle to hit them both in the face.

"Fu-ta-ri-to-mo..." He growled, cracking his knuckles.

So... those guys must have been saying something about 'When do you REALLY think the wedding'll be?' or something like that. Who just ASSUMES this kind of thing? I mean, I've heard of 'Fighting like a married couple', but don't most couples who fight like THIS end up in court for battery and abuse or with divorce papers? Or was there some culture joke I didn't get here? Oh well, at least Akitaro was getting mad about it. Maybe he'd kick their asses for me, and I wouldn't need to listen to any of this anymore.

"Oi, oi Aki... nantemonai, nantemonai..." Kakeru was grinning and holding his hands up as he grinned. I really did wonder what, exactly, they were saying.

Isn't 'Nandemonai' something like 'Nothing at all'? Why would he be saying that? Is this another part of the Japanese language, like how all the kanji have a literal meaning, and then the word that they stand for, like how the kanji for 'poet' is 'poem' and 'person' combined? Why can't Japanese be like English, where a word like 'like' has one meaning instead of, like, thirteen?

The rest of their argument faded out as I pulled out my phrase book and studied the questions a little more. All the question pronouns stared with 'do', from 'doko' as 'where', to 'donna' as 'what kind', so... if I could get down the question pronouns, making out questions when someone was talking to me would at least be easier.

Wait... 'dono' means 'which'? And 'yoroshii'... the book I was using had 'Nan-no shirushi ga yoroshii desu ka' translated as 'What brand do you like?' so... earlier, Kakeru was asking me 'Which something something would be good?' which means...

My frown deepened as I looked for the word 'beddo' in the dictionary. As soon as I found it, I pulled up my trunk and backpack, dragged them over to the bed Akitaro had abandoned in favor of clobbering the other two, and flopped down on it with a huff.

The other three men in the room stopped fighting long enough to stare at me. I could feel them staring at me, silently, expecting me to say something. I was determined to not react, but after a moment, I sat up and glared at them.

"'Dono beddo gya yoroshii de ka?'" I spat out, deliberately mocking the accent Kakeru had spoken with, "Kore."

Their reactions were well worth the effort: Tsuneo's eyebrows went up and the corners of his mouth went down, Kakeru's upper lip turned up and his cheeks puffed out, and Akitaro's mouth dropped wide open, enough that a whole squid could have crawled inside and fallen asleep.

Whatever. I just wanted to sleep. I pivoted and flopped back down.

"Oyasumi." I muttered, voice muffled by my elbow.

A second later, I heard the boisterous laugh of Kakeru punctuated with the stifled snickers from Tsuneo.

"Ne~e Aki, omae gya aitsu o-bukkomash-AH!" I lifted his head up enough to see Kakeru trying to straighten his nose. Akitaro was wiping blood off of his knuckles. It didn't take a Harvard degree to figure out what had happened.

Jesus Christ. The first lesson in 'How to speak Japanese 101' by Professor Taro couldn't come soon enough.

"O-kay... so the basic syntax is the subject, followed by 'ga', the object, followed by 'o', and then the verb in the proper form. That makes a bit more sense now." Great, so that meant I now had a million and a half new verbs to learn.

...I'm NEVER gonna learn this language. That's what I thought as I glared at the book Taro had open on the table as though IT was at fault.

"A-Ano... L-Lock-kun..." Taro began, but stuttered to a halt as I turned to look at him, "A-ano... e-eto... et-eto..."

Taro, I had learned was not very easy to talk to. Or, at any rate, he was easier to talk AT than he was to have a conversation with. Every other word that came out of his mouth was stuttered or stammered and he never seemed able to decide if he wanted to say something or not. Even the other native Japanese speakers didn't seem to interact with him, much – he'd been in the corner when I'd first come in, and any of the other times I saw him, the only person who deigned to speak to him was Tensora-san.

...Actually, I think that might have had something to do with it... hmm...

I stared for a moment longer, before I took off my glasses to clean them. My eyes ached, like they were retreating into my skull, kicking and screaming and fighting to get away from the light.

"Yamada, could you just spit it out?" I asked, massaging his eyelids and temples as I yawned. Everything was tired. It wasn't just my eyes that ached – my very eyelids felt like they'd been lifting weights all day, and my face muscles felt like the very fibers that held them together were being pulled apart. The skin around my forehead felt like paper must feel when you fold it into paper fans, and the muscles on my jaw were so stiff, I was amazed that I could move them to speak and eat. How I was gonna smile, I had no clue.

"A-aah... A-ano, L-Lock-kun... y-y-you..." Taro lifted one shaking hand and pointed at me, eyes batting like a hamster during hay fever season, "Y-you... tsu tea-chu..." He pointed down to the book. I kept blinking at Taro as he refused to look up, but slowly pointed towards himself, "...M-m-mi...?"

I could feel the gears in my head struggling to turn as I blinked.

"You want to learn English?" I repeated, slowly. Taro still wouldn't look up, but his face was bright red. His bangs fell to cover his eyes. It looked too much like something out of a manga, right down to when he started to do that thing when you press your index fingers together and bounce your knuckles off each other that way – enough to make me kind of roll my eyes.


"Why didn't you just say so in the first place when you offered to teach me Japanese?" I muttered under my breath, half wishing that Taro understood me enough to know that little sentence and half kinda glad that he still couldn't. But, nope – Taro kept staring at the table, blushing and playing with his fingers.

After a long moment of grumbling to myself and trying to think, I finally put my glasses back on.

"Okay – I will teach you." I said, slowly. The smile on Taro's face stopped shaking. It was the first time I'd seen him stop being so nervous since meeting him.

Oh well. Least it was on day two, not week or month or year two.

"Aah... d-domo..." His voice, on the other hand, was still about as sturdy as an ant with five broken legs. I stared for a moment, before deciding to go about this the only way I knew how.

"Thank you." And that mostly involved the 'Correct every time he doesn't say something in English and nag' technique, handed down in the Lock dojo for however many centuries my dad had been doing it to me. Taro blinked for a moment, before he smiled.

"A-aah... S-sankyuu..."

I let my head thud onto the table. I just didn't have enough energy to nag Taro about pronunciation. We could get to that later.

"This isn't gonna be a good day, is it?" I mumbled, not expecting Taro to answer.

"Aah, s-sou d-... ah..." Taro started. I turned my head to the side enough to stare at Taro – and to press my head against the cool tabletop – before correcting him.

"That's right, you mean." I said. Taro hung his head, enough that I could see his ears turning pink, but continued talking.

"...Ano... Ah-tu naght..." Taro stammered, "...Yuu... tsu j-jo-in..."

I didn't move from his spot – my neck was too tired and this uncomfortable position beat the headache and dizziness that would come if I sat up. Yeah... either I was really tired or just lazy. I didn't care.

"At night... do you mean tonight?" I asked, eyes slipping shut. Taro looked away for a moment, but then nodded, slowly, "I am to join..." And that made my eyes pop right back open, "WAIT! SO, TONIGHT IS MY FIRST NIGHT ON THE JOB?"

I hadn't expected Taro to jump or scoot backwards the way he did, but guess I'd be lying if I said I was terribly surprised. The way this guy stammered and blushed at the slightest bit of attention was enough that I had a pretty good idea Taro was easily startled. Poor guy. Probably had some kind of heart condition... Not that I cared at quite that moment, given that I was actively making him panic.

"A-a-aah... F-fuh-fuhst naght..." Taro confirmed, "...Tsu show... tsu wo-lk..." I kept staring, not bothering to think about the lesson. And, for that matter, trying to make sense of exactly what Taro was saying.

"That's okay and everything, but what time does it start? When do I need to start getting ready? Is someone gonna help me with all the kimono bows and stuff? Do I need to help with other stuff before the club opens? Or..." I stopped shouting as Taro looked away, nervously.

"What's that look for?" I asked, this more to myself as panic started to rise.

"Ano... you... tsu ple-pa-lu... at... at..." Taro started to mumble before he blurted out, "Yoji-han."

At this point, I had to sigh and resigned myself to pulling out the dictionary. I flipped through the pages while correcting Taro with 'You prepare yourself'.

"Lessee... yoji-han... that's a time... four... four and a half, so, thir– FOUR-THIRTY? I have to start getting ready THEN! That only gives us a half hour!" I shouted, completely uncaring that Taro didn't understand me. In any case, Taro was still smiling that nervous smile and holding his hands up, as though in surrender.

Nope, DEFINITELY not looking good.

The only person even remotely close to my size in terms of clothes was, much to everyone's dismay, Akitaro. This meant, among other things, that I had to ask him for something to borrow, and then sit there while he went through several outfits, each time giving me a look over and saying things – all in perfect English, so I'm convinced he was deliberately trying to aggravate me – like how my skin tone wasn't right for any of his clothes, and my eyes clashed with this shirt and my face shape was all wrong for some collar and my legs wouldn't go with a certain cut of a skirt, for sure. Yeah, all bullshit, I was sure.

It was also apparently some kind of theme night. All of the other guys were pulling out normal women's clothes instead of the elaborate kimonos they'd worn last night – some even seemed like they could have been ordinary men's pants and shirts, if it weren't for all the lace, ruffles, and pink.

The outfit that Akitaro oh-so-helpfully chose for me was a knee-length, flowery skirt and white, short-sleeved sweater blouse. Just staring at it made me remember all the pretty girls in middle and high school who never talked to me.

It didn't help that, after putting it on, I almost FELT like one of those girls... well, minus the boobs and the butt. If it hadn't been me in the mirror, I would have thought it was pretty cute... and just thinking that was enough to make me feel like some kind of very bizarre pervert. Or maybe a borderline narcissist. I dunno – what would you call that, anyway?

"Oi, Rock-baka-chan! You forgot something." I stopped pouting at the mirror long enough to see that Akitaro was waving something at me. When I didn't move quickly enough to go and get it, Akitaro threw it at me.

The strange object, apparently, was a bra with boobs built into it. It also had a little, pink, silk ribbon right in the middle where the cups met and sheer pink lace all over the arm straps and the back. I almost dropped it, like it was some giant spider from one of those nature specials on National Geographic.

"No. Way. In. HELL!" I said, holding the brasserie at arms-length, as though it were contaminated. I mean, I guess I'd expected something like this, and I GUESS, maybe, if you twisted my arm a little, I MIGHT be okay with having to wear it... but seriously? Did it HAVE to be like something out of a Victoria's Secrets from Hell kind of bra?

"Quit whining – all the other nights, we wear kimonos with really tight obis. These things are the LEAST embarrassing of what we go through." Indeed, Akitaro already had another one of those fake-boob bras on – though his was a great deal less frilly – and was pulling a sleeveless turtleneck over it.

"Then, why can't I have one that DOESN'T have any ribbons or bows or frilly, girly stuff on it?" I demanded, shaking the bra I'd been tossed. Akitaro ignored me, pulling a silk shirt over the turtleneck and tying the ends together instead of doing the buttons... and, again, I'd be lying if I said it didn't look convincing. After a moment, I gave up and pulled off the blouse to put on the stupid chest jockstrap, only to find I couldn't get the back to fasten – yeah, I know that I should have been able to get it snapped but I just couldn't figure out how... shut up!

It also didn't help that, as I was wrestling with the abomination in the mirror, Kakeru reached over and snapped one of the straps. I almost punched him, but Kakeru got out of the way too quickly.

After a moment, Tsuneo came over and gave me a hand with fastening the back – apparently, he was used to having trouble with this sort of thing, since he then asked me to do up his hooks. And, I guess, I felt a bit more comfortable with another guy in the room who ALSO thought these bras were bullshit.

"Okay – all done. Let's get out to the floor." I said, cracking my knuckles and heading towards the door. And... yeah, after that epic battle just to get dressed, I was feeling pretty pumped – I'd gotten something down in a few minutes, I was gonna be the first one on the floor, and it was my first night. Let's start it out right, with a good attitude! I was too busy grinning to myself that I didn't notice until Akitaro hooked me by the back of the collar.

"Where are YOU going, newbie?" He asked, dragging me back over to the make-up table, "You've still got hair and make-up to do. And then, there's the shoes, and since you're new, you probably haven't waxed your legs or arms yet."

I looked around and saw, indeed, that all the other guys were already going through some pretty elaborate make-up, and that was the whole reason I'd been headed out the door, first. I felt my eyebrow twitching.

"...You have GOT to be kidding me..." I said. Akitaro showed just how much he was kidding by pulling out a comb and starting with his own, shoulder-length hair, "Why WAXING? Isn't that where you rip the hair out of your skin or something?" Akitaro didn't look away from the mirror, starting to heat up what looked like a pair of cooking tongs, except with big plates of metal on them.

"Well, if you'd rather shave, go ahead and strip down from all of that, get into the showers, hope you find one open, get yourself lathered up, shave, rinse, then come back out, dry off, hunt for the band aids for all the cuts you would have inevitably gotten, then get dressed ALL OVER AGAIN... be my guest." Akitaro replied, acidly.

"Where's the wax?" I asked, feeling more than ever like there was a target painted right on the back of my head.

Getting the wax on wasn't too bad – I'd gone in thinking it'd be like getting an acid bath or something, but it was more like that one time I'd spilled the wax from a melting candle on my hand, except it wasn't quite that hot. Pulling it OFF, however, was another story. I only kept going because Kakeru kept saying stuff in Japanese that I didn't understand, but still felt pretty sure he was mocking me. Tsuneo kept giving me sympathetic looks, and, even if it was nicer than the other guys, it still made me feel like a wuss. Akitaro kept mocking me for never having done it before, and damned if I was gonna prove them right.

And, let me be clear: Waxing doesn't rip the hair out of your skin – it rips a whole LAYER of your skin off, including the hair part, so nobody notices that you're as pink and rosy as cupid from those stupid old Italian paintings. When you're done, every muscle in your arms or legs or whatever will shiver, and you will feel like you've gotten burrs and splinters and bee stingers pulled out of every pore on your skin. It SUCKED! How the other hosts did this...

"Mendo! Aitsu no kami ga suru kude." Akitaro interrupted my musing by giving me a shove towards Kakeru, who latched onto my arm all too gleefully.

"Byo-kai!" Kakeru put in with a salute, dragging his seat over next to me and happily starting to attack my head with a hairbrush. Oh god. If Akitaro was snide and nasty, Kakeru proved to be that to the nth degree, but with this level of cheerful obliviousness over it all that made him straight up unbearable.

This... was... HELL! I had to sit, staring at the mirror in horror as Kakeru cackled and yanked at my hair. That opinion only changed as Kakeru hit a snag, and good lord... it had to be equal to being forced to watch a recording of yourself as you were tortured.

By the time Kakeru was done, I felt like half the hair on my head had been pulled out, just like the hair on my arms and legs. It didn't help that Kakeru passed me a spritz bottle of hairspray and gave an order in Japanese that quite obviously meant 'Get to it'.

Still, Dad was always complaining that I never got my hair cut – maybe this wasn't too bad. It turned out to be a small blessing, since, by the end of the session, all of my hair was laying flat on my head, sweeping around my ears and into a point down the back of my neck. Kakeru had even goaded me into putting in a hair clip. But this would STILL have been a lot cuter if it was a girl, not ME staring back at me.

"What's next? Make-up, wasn't it?" I finally asked as I turned to Akitaro and, sure enough, dude was already rubbing a foam brush over his lips. By this point, I'd kind of figured to try and get to the torture of choice before anyone could force me into it. And, of all of them, makeup seemed to be the least torturous.

"Aah. Just go with some lip gloss and mascara – the really heavy stuff can ruin you if you don't know how to do it right, and we don't have time to teach you before punch-in time." Akitaro said, passing me the tube he'd been using of something pink and fruity. I didn't argue and did as instructed. It was, by far, the easiest and least painful and humiliating thing I'd done all day – the brush felt smooth against my lips and they felt clean and moist after I'd passed it over them. Well, and it coulda been worse – it wasn't like the stuff they give you at the dentist's or whatever. And I guess my eighth grade science teacher was right about your sense of taste depending on your sense of smell. I got this whiff of raspberry and vanilla from somewhere just under my nose which, for some reason, filled my mouth with the flavor, but whenever I stuck my tongue out to lick my lips, it was a taste like vegetable oil.

And then, the mascara... The mascara brush looked like some kind of torture device – this, I knew well enough how it was SUPPOSED to work, but the fact of the matter was that it still LOOKED like something the Spanish Inquisition would have stuffed into an unsuspecting victim's orifices, then twisted to pull out their brains or guts or whatever. And my eyelashes felt like someone had poured glue on them, then pulled it out after it had dried, leaving the flakes behind. Either way, it was gross.

Okay, I had this chest wrangler on, I was wearing the girly clothes, I'd poured hot wax on my arms and legs and ripped it off to get rid of the hair not on my head, I'd played with the hair ON my head, and now, I had greasy goo on my face. What next? My eyes strayed to the side as Kakeru pulled a brush covered in red paint out of a bottle and started running it over his fingernails.

"Dude, we don't ALL have to do our nails, do we?" I asked Akitaro, whom was still dabbing at his cheeks with a powder brush.

"Nah – Mendo just does it because it's part of his whole schtick as an 'Osakan gal'." He answered, still not looking at me. Well, that was a relief. Didn't stop Akitaro from taking one of my hands, though, "You should probably clean them up, though – no dirt under the nails, make sure they don't look like you ate them for breakfast this morning, stuff like that. And a little powder and perfume wouldn't hurt either – yours are all smelly and you're getting sweat everywhere." With that, Akitaro tossed me a nail file.

We had to do all this BEFORE punch-in time. This job had better be worth it.

It was a somewhat surreal experience to see all the other Geisha in their getup as everyone walked down the hall to the punch-in clock. Even though I knew they were all guys under the make-up and dresses and, in some cases, wigs, I still couldn't help but think that they all looked really cute as girls. In contrast, I didn't see any woman when I looked in the mirror – just plain old me.

"Aah! Lock-chan sugo kawaii!" The little shrimp known as Nagano Kyotoryu piped up. Out of all the hosts, Kyotoryu was the only one NOT dressed as woman, much closer to a ten-year-old girl – he was in a pink corduroy jumper that flared around his knees and had a white turtleneck with ripples on the sleeves and collar to match the ripples on his bobby socks. Two hair attachments hung on the side of his head and were clipped into place with baubles the same pink as his jumper. For this reason, I was fairly certain that Kyotoryu was the only one in the crowd not wearing a built-in boob bra. Given that the waist of his jumper was just under his armpits, it was impossible for anything to fit under it, "Ne, ne~e, Taka-chan – Lock-chan wa kawaii, omou ne?"

Cute. I was being called cute by a guy in a pink skirt with purple flowers on it. My thought was cut short as I found myself face-to-face with Tamango Taka, standing head and shoulders over us all. In complete contrast to the Kyotoryu tugging on his arm, Taka looked like a beanpole of a woman in a navy, cable-knit turtleneck that draped over a green and black plaid skirt – a secretary, a librarian, a teacher, or something along those lines, which was completed as Taka stared at me over the top of his glasses before he looked away.


That was all he has to say? So, did that mean I WASN'T cute, or did it mean he just didn't wanna talk to me? I actually had to wonder which one bothered me more, and then why I had to THINK about that instead of automatically knowing.

Thank God – and this was the last time I EVER made the mistake of thinking that – for Tensora-san appearing. I didn't have to think about it for long when he appeared through the door, almost giving me a heart attack – Tensora-san, you see, was also dressed up as a woman. His long hair was undone and hanging down his shoulders, a glimmer of dark red lipstick and navy eyeshadow making his face seem pale in comparison. All of that, combined with the purely black dress, shoes, and even nail polish made Tensora-san look like a perversely beautiful version of Cruella DeVil.

Wait... so Tensora-san is a Geisha here, TOO? I thought he was just the budget manager!

Tensora-san started talking over everyone's heads in Japanese, a majority of which I didn't understand except 'tokubetsu' and 'o-kyakko-san'. Either it was a special occasion, like half-off for drinks, or there was a very specific customer expected that night, but I wasn't sure which. Whatever – I'd get the details later.

In the meantime, I couldn't stop my eyes from straying, like I was in the middle of the girls' changing room on prom night. Everyone had their own style, from Akitaro in the three-piece set, to Kakeru with the metallic, neon red nail polish that matched his flapper dress, from Tsuneo in the casual dress pants and blouse, to Shinshi in the turtleneck and khaki. It was almost enough to make me wonder if there was a specific reason I had been hired – a certain kind of appeal I had that the other hosts didn't that the customers would find unique from all the others. From what I'd seen, so far, this place was pretty much like a harem manga with the different 'types' of guys everyone was, and the different 'types' of girls they all were looking like.

"Saa! Oshigoto ganbate!" Tensora-san clapped his hands together, before he opened the door and everyone started through, adjusting their skirts, blouses, wigs, whatever needed last-minute preparation as we walked in a group towards the bar.

"Um... Akitaro?" I started. Akitaro didn't look at me. I frowned, but figured Akitaro might not have heard, so I tugged on his sleeve, "Oi – Akitaro."


I blinked.


"Akitaro-sama." It really was more like an order than anything else.

"...Are you SERIOUS?"

"Do you really need to speak to me?"

God, this guy was infuriating.

"...Akitaro-sama...?" I finally relented as the line to behind the bar started moving.

"Hai~i, Rock-baka-chan?" Akitaro asked, smiling sweetly and sarcastically. I would have punched him if Tensora-san hadn't been right there.

"What was Tensora-san saying just now? I didn't understand any of it." I spoke normally, trying to pretend I hadn't wanted to deck this jerk-off a moment ago. In fact, I was ready for anything Akitaro threw at me – mockery, insults, or scathing lies that I would just have to read between the lines to figure out.

What I hadn't expected was for Akitaro to look away entirely.

"WHAT? WHAT DID HE SAY?" I demanded, my brain immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusions – had they been talking about me, or saying that there was a 'special occasion' and therefore, the 'customers' would be expecting different service and was it some weird code like they used in brothels and I'd actually gotten suckered into being a prostitute, after all, or worse, was this all a big joke and as soon as they had a good laugh at me, I'd get kicked to the curb and told to go find a job somewhere else?

"Maa... you'll understand when we all get out onto the floor, anyway. No need to waste my breath." Akitaro finally concluded, stepping forward in line to behind the bar – I could see a computer set up as Akitaro clicked away on the keyboard, then hit enter before he walked away, leaving me alone behind the bar.

I allowed myself to fume for a moment before it occurred to me that this was supposed to be the punch-in machine. I leaned over the screen and frowned at the kanji I saw next to the two boxes on the screen.

"Couldn't someone HELP me with this?" I muttered, as though God would send down the angel Gabriel to aid me in this time of need. And, no, I did not consider leaning around the bar and asking Akitaro or Tensora-san for help – especially not given that Akitaro's harassment wouldn't be a worthy price and I was very sure that asking Tensora-san for help would be like turning my back on a waiting tiger.

"A-ano... L-Lock-kun?" Well, while he was no angel, Taro was indeed the helping hand that I needed.

"Daskutte, Yamada!" I moaned. Taro laughed again, as though I had asked him what color his bra was – hell, for all I know, maybe I really had – before he made his way over to the computer and pointed to the first box.

"Namae." Okay, I knew 'name'. That was easy enough, especially since the keyboard had both katakana and English letters on it. I typed in my name, then waited for Taro to speak as the cursor moved down to the next box.

"Z-Zat is..." Taro stammered, starting to blink rapidly as his ears turned pink again, "...Fol you..." I kept staring, waiting for more instructions. Taro imitated typing, "...You tsu... k-keep?" Taro kept mimicking typing gestures. I kept staring.

"What?" I finally asked. Taro's face started to go red as his eyelids fluttered, as though his tear ducts had ceased to function. I had to remind myself not to lose my patience – Taro looked just as frustrated as me with not being able to communicate.

"...Ano..." Taro's fingers moved as though typing one more time, then he lifted his hands, forming one into a ball and extending the finger of the other, "...F-fol you... L-lock? K-kei?" He stuck his extended finger into the circle of his other hand, then twisted it.

...That... looked really dirty.

I blinked before a light went on over my head.

"Lock and key? You mean, a password?"

Taro just stared, blinking, but I had mostly figured it out.

"Okay – so, what IS my password?" I asked, eagerly. Taro continued to blink, but his ears were getting pink again.

"A-ah... what?" He asked. I sighed, but tried again.

"Um... example? Mine is... what?" I guessed, hoping that Taro would understand enough to get the gist of it. Taro's eyelids were batting again.

"A-ano... c-color-su? P-pe-tsu? B-book-su?" Taro's ears were so red and hot that I was fairly sure he'd go deaf with all the blood circulating in his eardrums. It didn't help that I still had no clue what he was talking about, nor how it answered my question.

"Colors? Pets? Books? ...Are you saying I make one up?" I asked. Taro's eyes kept blinking as rapidly as windshield wipers in a typhoon and I received no answer, butchered or otherwise, this time.

This really would be SO much easier if I could understand these guys.

The main room of Okama-Geisha was a large, bamboo room separated from the bar by sliding paper doors with elaborate paintings of mountains, forests, villages, and lakes on them. Box-shaped lanterns hung from the crossbeams and several tables were set up in a semi-circle stretching across the room with at least four chairs at each table. I saw all the other hosts arranging the chairs and menus – the one I had under my elbow had a lot of pictures of various drinks and appetizers, so I could only figure it was a coffeeshop or tea house theme – before the lights flickered and all the other hosts returned to their seats.

I had left the chairs in their positions around my table on the end and simply propped up the menu, half-open. It was half-assed, I knew, but in my own defense, I had no clue what I was doing. All things considered, I had done a pretty good job of it... I thought. Besides, all the customers were going to be men – what kind of guy noticed the furniture arrangements when there was a cute girl to pay attention to? He'd have to be gay or something.

Wait... didn't Tensora-san say that half the fun of a Geisha entertainer was the illusion of that which is never to be? So, did our customers KNOW we're all guys in drag here? Didn't that kinda put them in the closet right off the bat? I cast a quick glance at all the other hosts at their tables. The door slid open and I saw Taro escorting a party of four inside.

"Minna-san, atarashii onna desu!" Taro was announcing, a wide, cheerful smile on his face, "Kanojou wa Jamie-chan- minna, shinsetsu na mire kudasai."

I tried not to stare. Really, I did. Was this really the same guy who had been nervously stuttering and tripping over every other word just a few minutes ago at the punch-in clock? Taro spoke so confidently and cheerfully in his host clothes.

And why was Yamada smiling while he wore that? Wouldn't most grown men be even MORE humiliated, being caught in a pleated skirt and blouse? And, seriously, how was he standing in those heels – these suckers were, like, fifty inches high. I kept waiting for him to either break an ankle or tear his Achilles. Of course, I couldn't complain, since my footwear was not only just as bad, but the wrong size, to boot. Besides, if I was going to do this job, I had to know what it meant to be a Geisha; observing Taro seemed like the best approach. When he was in Geisha mode, Taro was smiling cheerfully and moving gracefully. He seemed almost like one of those shop girls or a cute waitress who greeted customers just as they came in... well, except he was a guy, but the customers had to be able to tell that, right? Even if the fake boob bra looked perfectly natural under the shirt and the wig in place blended in with Taro's natural hair, and the skirt and heels and pantyhose all fit him to a T... but he was still a man. Anybody would notice, right? It had to be obvious, right?

"Hanako-chan, sashiburi ya aikaratsu uttsukushii." Hanako-chan. One of the guests had just called Yamada Taro 'Hanako-chan'. HANAKO! That wasn't even remotely close to 'Taro'. And, on top of that, they were smiling and laughing and I could have sworn one of the guests had just called Taro 'Beautiful'. And didn't 'sashiburi' mean 'It's been so long'? Were these guys regulars? That meant they had to know, and yet... here they were, playing along... like it was NORMAL?

I shook his head as violently as I could without attracting too much attention. And without ruining the hair-do. I could just imagine Akitaro and Kakeru trying to murder me if I screwed up their work.

Snap out of it, James Lock! This was a job – a job! Suck it up, suck it up, suck it up, suck it up...

"Uwa! Kay-kee! Kaki, kaki, kaki, kaki!" I glanced over to the table Kyotoryu and Taka were seated at – maybe they were just at the same table for tonight so I could have a table to wait on – down at the other end of the room. Already, one of the guests had ordered a cake and Kyotoryu was cheering like a little girl as Taka cut it up with all the finesse of a French patissier. The customer made a comment about something that I could neither hear nor understand, but whatever it was, Kyotoryu just smiled and giggled.

Dear Lord, I shouldn't've been thinking this 'bout another guy, but GOD, was he cute. I could feel my cheeks getting warm – just watching the show, I started to wonder what it would have been like to have a little sister.

"Kyotoryu." Even from across the room, I could hear Taka's voice, loud and clear like a crystal bell. That, and I also jumped about a foot in the air from just hearing him actually SAY something. He actually had a vocabulary. Will wonders ever cease? I leaned more out to the side to watch. Taka pulled Kyotoryu closer to his side with one arm, and with the other, picked up a delicate forkful of cake.

"Hanate 'Aan'." And Kyotoryu opened his mouth with an audible 'A-aan' before his teeth closed around the forkful of cake. I barely noticed the stupid, mesmerized grin on the customer's face – pretty sure I had a similar look on my face.

So, those two were playing up the roles of the cool big sister who looks out for and takes care of you and the cute little sister who's fun to take care of and spoil. That's why they were sitting together. And there was no way in Hell I could pull that one off.

Kakeru's loud, distinctive laugh made my head snap around to see him a few tables behind me, openly laughing at something his customer had said and replying with something that was apparently just as amusing, because his customer started to heartily laugh, as well. I could see Kakeru leaning on one of his hands as his elbow was propped up on the table, while he used the other hand to bat at the air with every other word he used.

He looked so very camp as he did it – seriously, if the gay lisp stereotype had a face, that would be it. Whether Kakeru was enjoying himself or not didn't factor, not if he looked like such a fruit. At least it wasn't me doing that. My gaze wandered to Shinshi at the next table.

Even though he was in a turtleneck and pants, Shinshi was playing up the role of a woman incredibly well – again, I couldn't hear or understand a word they were saying, but from how Shinshi had both his hands resting delicately on the customer's forearm and the way he was tilting his head to smile up at the man, I had a feeling the conversation was something along the lines of 'I've never seen such a strong, handsome, strapping young figure like you' or some other garbage.

Ah, the sexy, mature older woman type. Again, way outta my league. My eyes slid to the next one – the table closest to the wall, where Tsueno was sitting with a customer.

Unlike the other Geisha, Tsuneo was sitting with his arms and legs folded and pouting as he looked anywhere but his customer. Whenever his customer asked him something, Tsuneo answered with either a yes or a no. He couldn't have looked sourer if he'd tried.

Playing hard-to-get – at least, I assumed, since the other option was that he wasn't even trying to do his job, and I didn't see Tensora-san letting him get away with that. Economical, easy, and effective. I stopped myself from laughing as the customer said something that was an obvious pass at Tsuneo and he went red. It totally suited him. At least I had enough pride to actually do my job than look like someone had to drag me here over their shoulder.

"Oi, ojou-sama! Nippon e wa hajimete desu ka?" I looked up in surprise at the man who had spoken to me – it was a round-faced, but tall and smiling business man in a rumpled suit. Where the hell did he come from? I hadn't heard Taro invite anyone else in. Had he snuck in when I was looking around at the other tables? I blinked for a moment, before the business man invited himself to sit, still smiling.

"Um..." I started, entirely unsure what I was supposed to say, before my guest seemed to realize what it was.

"Oh... do you on-ly speak Ing-lish?" He asked, slowly. I kept blinking, but was relaxed at hearing someone I could understand. And, after Akitaro and Tensora-san as my only English-speaking company, what a breath of fresh air this guy was.

"Sorry – I don't know much Japanese except the basics and the numbers." I apologized, grateful that this guy wasn't picking on me just for being new.

"Za basics? What's zat?" The customer leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on the table. I shrugged and slouched a little in my seat, eyes lifting to the ceiling – it was just plain awkward to meet his gaze.

"Y'know – Hello, my name is, please, thank you... That sort of thing." Man, did these stockings itch. I crossed one leg so I could scratch my knee under the table, "It's always the first thing they teach you in classes, but I do know some other, random phrases." The customer was starting to stare at me, "Stuff I picked up watching imported movies and stuff."

"Ah, you watched movies tsu learn?" He asked. I shrugged and kept scratching, looking in the other direction. Seriously, I was going to get a rash – I just knew it.

"Eh... a little, I guess. But a lot of the classics get remade into really bad, Americanized versions, and by that point, you don't wanna watch anything ever again. Kind of sucks, really, because I hear a lot of the really good movies were based on books, but I never found English copies to read." The customer was still staring, but I didn't really mind – I figured it was because I was in drag, or maybe this guy had never met someone with my particular accent.

"I am sorry – what did you say?" Or it could be because I had run off at the mouth again. With a sigh, I forced himself to speak slower.

"I just said that I never saw any good classics – just bad remakes. Sorry, I do kinda talk fast."

"It is al-right." The customer said, then fell silent.

So, THIS was why those long, awkward silences are called 'awkward'... What was I supposed to say? Was this the part where I suggested he buy some drinks or snacks or something? Or was I supposed to be charming and witty and make him feel like this was a date or...


Did I just think 'date'? I had never before wished the floor would turn to quicksand and swallow me up quite the way I did at that moment. Was I just being a really dopey, overly emotional sissy boy about this, or was this a GOOD thing? Like, I know this was the job, but at the same time, I was still a MAN on the inside – I still had some PRIDE left that hadn't been bullied, beaten, harassed, or snarked out of me. Then again... how'd Christopher Lee put it in the last Star Wars movie...? 'Greater the pride, harder the fall' or something? Or is that 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall'? But either way, did I want to keep my job, do well here, and have a place to stay, food to eat, and money to spend on education, or did I wanna be as manly as possible while out starving on the cold streets...?'

I'm fairly certain that, if my customer could have heard this, he wouldn't have been nearly as bored as he looked.

That... kinda did seem like a no-brainer, didn't it? Without even saying it, I knew I was being stupid for even considering the option of starving.

Okay, so, let's go with the 'Suck it up and be a woman' option – just try on the 'I'm-a-woman' glasses for a moment and get this done and at the end of the night, just take them off. Come on, James, you can do this. Go, go, go, GO!

"So... how did you get into speaking English?" I finally came up with. I could have sworn I saw this customer jump – not too surprising, since I hadn't said a damn thing for about fifteen minutes, but at least the dude hadn't left after ten.

Still, I never did give girls enough credit – this whole 'talking to other guys' thing is a lot harder than it looks.

"That could have gone so many different types of ways better..." I muttered to myself as my customer left. As far as customers went, I had no clue what I'd just done, but the guy had ordered a coffee and biscotti – apparently, when he'd been in America for a business trip, his boss had introduced him to Alterra and gotten him hooked on the stuff, so I guess that was a lucky break – and left a few coins in the glass bowl at the end of the bar.

"And, at the same time, so many more different types of ways worse." Akitaro helpfully supplied as his own customer left the table. And, by helpfully, I mean 'With a heavy dose of scathing sarcasm'. I shot him a dirty look.

"Yeah, and where were you, telling me what I was supposed to do? And I don't mean coaching, but just telling me what my JOB is, what's okay, what's against the rules, and stuff like that?"

"You're not doing anything wrong – after all is said and done, your job is to get customers to buy drinks and leave tips and it's an anything-goes-make-it-up-as-it-comes-at-you game." Akitaro replied, pulling out a book from his clutch purse and scribbling something in it. ...What the hell was he doing with a clutch purse? "Though you might want to watch what you do as you're talking to your customer – watching you scratch your legs like that was really gross."

I swear, I face-faulted. ...Maybe I really do watch too much anime...

"And you were planning to wait... HOW long, before you told me this?" I muttered, lower eyelid twitching. Akitaro paused to suck on the end of his pen.

"You should know that without being told. Think about it – if you were out on a date with a girl and she kept scratching herself, you'd think it was pretty gross, right?" Akitaro said. How he managed to not be overheard by any of the customers at the other tables, I wasn't sure, but I was fairly certain it wasn't something they'd want to hear when they were on their 'dates'.

"It's not like I'm doing it on purpose – the stockings itch, so of course I'm going to scratch." I hissed, making a conscious effort not to scratch as I spoke. Akitaro sighed and put his book away, finally looking towards me for the first time since shift began. Once again, I saw the cute girl I'd met last night, same scowl and everything.

"Think of it as training – sure, they may itch, but I'll bet your mother or any sisters you have got to put up with it every day. You're supposed to be a woman for our customers, so you've gotta think like one." He pointed out. I blinked, rather owlishly, before the idea started to sink in. It did make sense – since I was quite literally sitting in the girl's shoes now, I understood exactly why so many girls in high school had snapped so readily when any of us guys had come up to hit on them. Walking around in heels all day until your feet were sore, not being allowed to scratch when your socks, or worse, underwear were itchy, having to redo your makeup when it started to run, having to leave the hairpins in, even when they pulled on your hair and dug into your scalp...

"But, just to give you some tips – don't scratch, don't slouch, don't speak too softly, don't speak too loudly, don't sit with your legs spread..." Mentally, I made a list in his mind. Jesus Christ, was I allowed to move at all? Akitaro paused to stare. I frowned, then looked away, not wanting to meet the his eyes, "And, for God's sake... make eye-contact. It's boring to sit with another guy waiting for him to complain about his job or sports or something as he stares at the table, right? Give him a pleasant voice to just listen to without needing to respond, and he's here BECAUSE he thinks you're beautiful. Let him have his money's worth."

I sighed a little, but sat up a little straighter, crossed my ankles, and held my head up. Akitaro looked like he was about to say something, but another member of the party came over and started up a conversation. He turned his full attention onto the guy – guess I should be grateful, given that it would have been in character for him to give me a smug look.

"Irashaimase, o-kyakku-dono. " I heard Taro piping up from the door. A new guest had entered the room, taller and heavier than any of the guests currently at the tables with the other Geisha. He wore a suit just like them, but his tie was knotted instead of neatly folded and the end almost reached down to his crotch as it rested on the heavy curve of his chest and stomach as his pants sagged low on his hips and his jacket slid backwards off of his shoulders. Just the way he stood seemed to boast that he'd had a long, particularly hard day for one reason or another and was coming here in search of some solace and comfort. I could definitely relate, but that didn't mean I wanted to be the one to take care of the guy – especially since I could practically see the stink rolling off of him, that and the fact that Taro was tactfully leaning backwards.

Unfortunately, as all the other Geisha's tables were occupied, I was the only option left. And, Christ, did I feel like I had big target painted right on me.

The customer pushed his way past Taro without a glance and barreled his way straight to my table.

Okay, smile, be pretty, give him his money's worth. You can do that, James. Even if my knees WERE knocking together under the table. I smiled brightly and raised a hand to wave as the customer thundered across the floor. So what if this guy was in a bad mood? I could deal with this.

"Welcome to Okama-Geisha. Sorry, but I'm a little new and don't know much Japa-"


I jumped and started backwards, remembering just in time not to get to my feet because of the stupid shoes. I'd watched enough anime to know that a man shouting like this was obviously a pissed man, a swearing, angry, belligerent man. There had to be a reason for him to be mad, and when a customer was mad, the job was to smile, apologize, and see if there wasn't something you could do to soothe their feelings. I could do that.

"...Um... Gomen nasai... Nihongo wa wakarenaimas-" I started, smiling as best I could strain a smile, before a giant hand seized me by the front of the shirt. Automatically, my hands went up to try and pry the fingers loose. None of the other customers or Geisha were working anymore, but neither were they springing to call a manager or a bouncer or anyone. The customer was shouting something – the one word I understood was 'Okama', so I could only assume this guy was angry that it was all dudes in this place. Still, wasn't the name 'Okama-Geisha' kind of a tip-off? It wasn't my fault; so why was this asshole getting all up in my face about it? And seriously, where was the security? Didn't this place HAVE a bouncer? Weren't bars all supposed to have them?

"WHAT? CAN'T SAY JAPANESE, FAG?" I dropped the smile, immediately. No dick-headed customer was gonna call ME a 'fag'! No sir! I balled a hand into a fist, looking for the best spot to punch – this guy had to be at least twice my weight, so an ordinary sock to the nose wasn't going to help matters. I'd have to really smash it up into this guy's sinuses and make his eyes snap, and that still wasn't going to be any reassurance that I wouldn't get clobbered for it. And, of course, there was the fact that this stupid ass was starting to lift me off the ground by my collar. I wasn't going to get a shot at any vulnerable spots too easily.

And WHY wasn't someone stepping in? If nothing else, the other Geisha should have been able to see that this was a customer that needed throwing out. And what about the other guests, why didn't they...

Hang on. The purpose of this job is so our customers can show off what real men they are. We're the girls for them to be hot and manly for. So... if they get a chance to rescue a girl from mortal peril and get to be all macho...

It took all of my strength to clasp my hands under my chin and draw a breath to scream. I kid you not.


In a second, every customer in the house had leapt to the defense. I cringed away, pretending to cower as the other men happily held the angry customer and took their turns with punches. I peeked out at the melee from between my fingers – bruised knuckles, a bloody nose, split lips, and blackening eyes. And I was missing out on all of it.

I know I shoulda been grateful that I wasn't the one getting the not-so-plastic surgery done on MY face... but, seriously, could I GET any more emasculated?

The other Geisha were having a good time, themselves – from the other tables, I could hear them cheering the customer's on, all in the same fashions they'd been entertaining in the first place. Kyotoru was hopping up and down and shouting, while Taka was calling out advice that I could only guess was something along the lines of 'Don't hurt yourself'. Kakeru was hollering and punching at the air, like he wanted to join in; Shinshi was clapping with his hands over his head; Tsuneo was bellowing for all he was worth, more than enough to make up for the half-hearted clapping. James could even see Akitaro cheering like a cheerleader during the final touchdown at homecoming.

The fun was over in a minute; the other customers dragged the complaint, bodily, from the floor and tossed him out, past Taro, and shut the door, laughing loudly and patting each other on the back.

It almost made me want to go over and join in on the joke, except...

Well, right. First rule of Fight Club: Don't talk about Fight Club. I remembered before I could make a move. Still, I could see the first customer I'd waited on that night coming back over, all full of swagger and pomp like the school class president who had both scored a winning touchdown and punched out the lights of some greaser making a move on his girl. It was the same air of any man who was a hero among his peers. I could remember wishing I could be that guy in high school – in sports, in running for student council, in anything – and have just one girl swoon over me for it.

The customer was standing in front of me, arms folded behind his back as he stood straight and tall. It would have been much more impressive if he hadn't been only a centimeter or two taller than me. His face was drawn tight and firm, but glowed pink with all the macho attitude of stoicism that was just a mask for any internal squealing.

"A-are... AHEM... Are you alright, Miss?" He finally asked. I had to swallow the urge to call the guy out for the idiot he was making of himself, not to mention how embarrassed I was that someone was acting like this towards me. I had to be the damsel-formerly-in-distress. Had to be the girl, here.

I hesitantly raised my hands to my face and looked away, only glancing up, shyly, through the corners of my eyes. I caight the customer open one eye a tiny crack, then shut it again, cheeks twice as red as before.

"I'm fine... Thank you very much." Maybe I should add something about how SCARED I was, or how GRATEFUL I am, or some kind of crap like that. On the other hand... do I really need any ham to go with this cheese? I kinda doubted it. Still, it kind of felt like I was missing something.

Wait, all the other guys here have their own styles – they'd all do something DISTINCT. What can I do – come on, James! Think! You're no Average Joe! You're a James! Something special, something different, something... something...

What could I do that would be different? What kind of gimmick could I throw in to make me stand out? There had to be something that the other guys hadn't done.

Well... what would any of them do in this case? I tried to think as fast as he could, before I lost the atmosphere. It wasn't too hard – my brain helpfully presented images of what the other hosts would do in their roles; The sisterly types: 'Waah! I was so scared! Onii-chan, that bad man won't come back, will he?' and 'I was so worried about you – please, promise me you won't get into anymore fights; I don't want you getting hurt!'; The fun-loving type: 'Ha! You sure showed them, didn'cha, Aniki? I bet they won't be coming back for no more!'; The mature lady type: 'Goodness, I can't imagine what I'd do if you hadn't been there! For a moment, I was so scared I couldn't even move!'; The hard-to-get type: 'It's not like I LIKE you or anything... but... if I'd been on my own... I probably wouldn't still be around, so... Don't take this the wrong way, but... thank you...'; then... what other types are there? Think... think...

"Miss?" Crap, gotta do something! NOW! The customer was leaning in a bit closer, the apparent high over and changing to something a bit more like concern. I put on my best embarrassed face – not too hard, since I was seriously contemplating my dignity as a man – and fumbled for words.

"...It's been so long since someone stuck up for me." I finally managed, trying to at least sound like I was honored that this stranger had condescended to help me, "I've had to look out for myself for almost my whole life... I'm not sure what to say to being... rescued..." My voice kept dropping. At least the lines came easily – it was true enough. I'd mostly had to stick up for myself against the mean kids in school, very rarely having any friends to step in and help, even for moral support. The trick seemed to be in the hesitation, the blushing and the shyness.

It was worth it – the customer stopped looking quite so concerned and suddenly sympathetic and protective. I knew I'd hit the proverbial 'Soft spot on a rock hard heart'.

"Nobody's ever even tried to help you before, Miss?" He asked, and I could smell the scent of a man wanting to be somebody's hero. I shrugged in the girliest way I could think of.

"I don't mind... I'm just not very good with telling other people how I feel..." Of course I wasn't – no guy was. It was, like, a requirement of guyhood – to never talk about your feelings, unless you were a survivor of genocide in group therapy. I could see my customer melting with empathy, and that's when inspiration struck me: Why play up a type of woman? I could just take all the things I knew about guys – being one, myself – and play them up from a woman's body.

"It's really weird, but I feel comfortable talking to you about this... it's like you GET me!" And there was the kill! I saw the blush returning to my customer's face, a glow of beaming pride coming with it, "...If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to see you again."

I didn't expect for the customer to outright faint. It took me completely by surprise, to the point I was almost dragged down to the floor with the customer's weight.

The first night ended with me sporting the biggest headache of my life and the absolute certainty I was not going to be here for much longer.

Seriously, how much worse can you screw up on a first night? I flopped on my first customer and after a fight with a completely different guy, the first guy faints on me. If anything, I was s'posed to be the one doing all the swooning and shit. And after THAT, the dude has to go and get drunk on me. No way this could get any worse. My internal monologue of 'What's wrong with you, you ass?' went on without any interruption as I wiped down the table and picked up the cups from it. The other geisha weren't really paying any attention to me, but I could take my cues from them, easily enough.

"Lock-kun." I felt my hair – bobby pin and all – jump clear off my head as Tensora-san's voice appeared out of nowhere, behind me. Seriously, where did this guy come from? It was like he could teleport, or turn invisible, or something.

"T-Tensora-san?" I almost dropped the tray of empty glasses, but caught myself just in time. Tensora-san was still in the black, Goth chick get-up, the six-inch heels and dark red lipstick making him even more terrifying to behold as he towered.

Tensora-san smiled. I wasn't sure if it was meant to be kind, business-like, or if he was laughing at me almost dropping the tray.

"If I could speak with you in the back room, please?"

Dun dun dun.

Oh, THIS couldn't be good... I had to stop myself from saying it. If I knew myself well enough, my eyes going as wide as they were probably said it all, anyway, and I shakily put down the tray. Every centimeter of my body shook, from my head to the ankles that were already tottering on these impossible heels. Tensora-san ignored it as he turned his back and stalked around the bar, towards the rooms in the back. I wasn't sure if it was my imagination or if they'd been that way from the beginning, but I could have sworn that the hallway was purely black, no lights at all. It almost gave off a menacing aura.

They HAVE to do that on PURPOSE. There had to be some sort of light switch that managers can flip that makes the lights go dim and the walls change color.

Only a minute after walking, I found myself in the same room as my interview had been in.

Sitting on the couch were the first four gentleman from that evening... and the customer they'd beaten up. All of them were easily laughing and talking over a pot of tea, as though they'd known each other their entire lives.

"AH!" I forgot himself for a moment, blatantly pointing at the customer. The man looked up from his tea and gave me a wide-ass grin, as though he didn't have a black eye and several Band-Aids over his chin, cheek, and forehead. "YOU!"

"Konban wa, Jamie-chan!" He called, cheerfully.

"Huh?" I stuttered. The whole group didn't seem perturbed in the least. I jumped as the door behind me shut with a click – I'd forgotten that Tensora-san had been there.

"Takahashi-san, Sato-san, Suzuki-san, Ichihara-san, and Nanjou-san." Tensora-san gestured to each man in turn, "They're all frequent customers at this club, so, whenever we have a new hire, they're usually willing to do a few favors for us to test that individual's mettle."

A few... favors?

"So... tonight was all... a SETUP?" It was all that my voice would react to saying.

Whether the customers understood my English or not was anyone's guess – all of them were still smiling and cheerfully waiting for... whatever was supposed to come next.

Tensora-san elegantly slid out from behind me and into the exact same chair he'd occupied during the interview. Now, with the dark dress, nail polish, and vampire-like makeup, I had to admit that it looked more like Tensora-san was splayed on a throne than just occupying a measly chair.

"Lock-kun, don't hover by the door – nobody's going to eat you in here." ...Not what I had been thinking about, and having it mentioned didn't make it any easier to relax. At the same time, I couldn't see where I was supposed to stand – all of the seats were taken, already. I gave the couch an uneasy glance, which must have said plainly that I was NOT comfortable.

"Jamie-chan, you can have my seat if you want!" My head snapped around to see the big, burly man that the others had beaten up for picking on me had stood and was gesturing towards his spot on the couch like he would offer his seat to an old lady on the bus.

"And mine!"

"Mine, too!"

"Over here!"

"Feel free!"

And the other four gentlemen immediately followed suit, clearing the sofa and standing behind it with welcoming gestures. It would have been funny if I didn't feel so insulted. And if I couldn't hear Tensora-san snickering like the manipulative jerk that he was.

"First, since you seem particularly uncomfortable with our present company, I suppose I should start by explaining their role in the process, tonight." I had taken the seat – more because I didn't know how to say 'no' than because I wanted to save the customers some face.

"Process?" I asked, feeling too much like someone had painted a target on the back of my head.

"Aah." Tensora-san went on, "This was all part of the process to complete a new hire." I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Without even looking, I had the distinct impression that all five of the customers were creeping in closer, like a kid's game of 'Mister Bear'.

"Whenever a new Geisha joins our ranks, it wouldn't do for us to simply assume he would be capable of treating customers well. If we hired every pretty face that came in off the streets, there would be no chance of running a successful business." Tensora-san went on with elaborate hand gestures, "A Geisha must also have a suitable personality, an ability to react to various situations without discomfort or causing disruption, a natural flow that makes others want to be by their side."

...Then, why didn't they conduct INTERVIEWS?

I would have understood the limitations of that criteria a lot better if I wasn't currently looking right at TENSORA-SAN all dolled up as a Geisha... and HE the exact opposite. It could have been my imagination, but I could have sworn I heard someone sniffing at the hairs on the base of my neck.

"So... you always have a night like THIS to give them a test run?"

"In a word, yes." Tensora-san was smiling that creepy smile, again, "And, while we're at it, we usually give our prospect a few interesting scenarios. The situation that arose with Takahashi-san is one of our rarer problems, but it is usually prudent to know how to react when a customer is foolish enough to expect REAL women."

"It wa-zu an honor." Takahashi agreed, bowing slightly before I peered at him out of my peripherals. Takahashi was blushing and grinning and looked, for all appearances, like he couldn't have been happier, "Tsu be beaten fo a lov-vue-ly maiden's honor... I will cherish zis night wiz pu-ride-o!"

Even though he knew I wasn't a 'lovely maiden'? Or, for that manner, that I don't have any honor? I had to wonder, but it certainly explained why Takahashi hadn't even tried to fight his attackers off, back in the main room.

"Last tsime, I wa-zu one who was beaten. And Takahashi wa-zu hero." Sato noted, putting a hand wistfully to his chin and beaming up towards the ceiling.

"Aki-chan was so cute... za way she smiled as she sanked us all..." Agreed Nanjou. He, too, was blushing and had both hands over his cheeks, positively writhing with happiness.

Aki-chan? So, these guys were the ones who gave Akitaro his test run, then? And what do they mean 'cute'? They know we're all guys here, and Akitaro has GOT to be the least cute out of all of us. ...Was what I thought, willfully forgetting that I, too, had thought Aki-chan had been a very, very cute young woman.

"So... that means I didn't screw up TOO much, then... right?" I finally asked, hesitantly. Tensora-san was still smiling in that way that could have meant either very good things or very bad things for my immediate future.

"In terms of willingness and ability to serve customers, I couldn't be more pleased." Oh, great. That meant there were other 'terms' that I had fallen short in, "We'll simply need to train you with techniques, as well as proper attire, behavior, fashion, and routine. And, of course, on your next night, you'll need to know a few of the traditional arts – enough that you'll be able to perform as a Geisha." Tensora-san hadn't dropped his smile during the entire time.

But... It could have been worse. At least I didn't PUNCH some douchebag in the face because he pissed me off.

"I'll have to make sure Betsunohoko-kun can help you tomorrow with the Geisha arts. And Yamada-kun can cover your general duties and responsibilities while you're here. Everything else, I believe Akitaro-kun would be the best choice." Tensora-san leaned back in his chair, one of those long-nailed fingers going up to tap against his cheek. It almost looked like a woman's version of a guy stroking his beard in contemplation.

Well, Akitaro was gonna train me, then. No way THAT could go wrong, I was SURE. I also didn't like the look Tensora-san was giving me.

"Ano... Jamie-chan?" I wanted to cringe at the name, but was distracted when I saw Takahashi scoot into my line of vision from the sidelines. Funny, but up close like this, he didn't really seem all that bad. Definitely friendly, and almost likable.

"Uh... Hai? Takahashi-san?" After the discussion in English with Tensora-san, it took concerted effort to speak with this man in Japanese. Takahashi's cheeks were still pink and rosy, like he was standing, awe-struck, before an idol.

"Cood... cood I haff...?" He started, stumbling over his words. I blinked, trying not to look like I was staring when he obviously was – he wasn't sure if Takahashi was having trouble with his emotions or with his English.

"Cood I haff..." Takahashi finally blurted out, "A kissu?"

I had to fight to not look as horrified as I felt at the suggestion. Desperate, I glanced towards Tensora-san, whom seemed, for all appearances, like he hadn't heard a syllable of what Takahashi had said.

"Tensora-san?" I finally prompted. Tensora-san opened one eye, as though waking up from a long nap, "Are we allowed to touch customers?"

The smile that curled across Tensora-san's lips was not encouraging.

"By all means. So long as there is no damage done, contact is perfectly acceptable." So much for that idea – it had been my sole hope that physical contact like that would be against the company policy or something. Tensora-san was still smiling, eerily, "However... if you offer your services to ONE customer, it wouldn't be fair to leave the others out..."

Meaning that I have to do the same thing for everyone. Great, I don't even wanna kiss a guy to START with... My brain fumbled for something to do. Takahashi was still leaning over the couch, expectantly. Something, something... had to come up with something...


"If I did that, it might wash off before we meet again!" I responded, putting a coy finger up to my lips and glancing out of the corners of my eyes. Takahashi lost his balance on the couch's back, almost falling forward over it.

"So-sonna..." Takahashi mumbled when he regained his balance. I smiled the sweetest smile I could muster and held out a hand.

"But your business card... I'm sure it would last much longer."

I had never seen a man search all of his pockets as quickly as I saw Takahashi. In a matter of seconds, I was presented with a plain, black and white card with undecipherable kanji written all over it. I couldn't even tell what was supposed to be the name and what was supposed to be the company, if any of it was. With a second of contemplation, I turned the card over and firmly planted my lips on the back. When I pulled back, there was a line of shimmering, faintly scented grease on the back of the card.

"Aah! Ore mou!"

"Ore mou!"

"Ore mou, da!"

"Koko, koko!"

And, as Tensora-san had predicted, I found myself with a pile of more business cards. With each one, the smear of lip gloss grew fainter, but it was apparently enough for the customers – all of them accepted their cards back with blushing faces and expressions that could only have been the thralls of ecstasy.

"ARIGATOU, JAMIE-CHAN!" They all chorused. I wondered if I had an enormous sweatdrop hanging on the back of my head, the way they always did in anime – I sure felt like it as I smiled and gave each man the Miss America wave as they walked out.

"Very interesting, Lock-kun." Tensora-san muttered. When I looked back at him, Tensora-san was scribbling away at his notepad, glasses gleaming to hide his eyes from view.

"...What's interesting?" I asked, not entirely sure if I wanted to hear this.

"Your approach and technique... according to the gentlemen's responses..." Tensora-san looked up from his notes, but his glasses were still gleaming.

How were they doing that? There wasn't nearly enough light for glare in this room.

"They're very much like the approach Akitaro-kun takes with his customers."

This whole time, I had been worried that I was going to get fired. With those few words, I realized that 'fired' was not necessarily the worst option of the whole barrel.

"Are you saying I'm a copy-cat?" I asked, slowly. Tensora-san just chuckled.

"I said 'similar', not the same." Which, if it was possible, was an even less reassuring answer than the one he'd just given about my style. It also made me wonder if that was a good thing or bad, but at the same time, I didn't really want to ask.

"So... can I go now?" I finally put my hand up, both as though I were raising my hand in class and as in a surrender, because, honestly, that's what I felt like. Tensora-san was still scritch-scratching away at his notepad and carelessly waved at me. While it wasn't encouraging, I wasn't about to miss an excuse to get away.

"Lock-kun!" I looked back over my shoulder to see the two bartenders putting away their final glasses and wiping down the counter. Nobody was sitting at the bar, tonight. The older bartender in the yukata was grinning a gap-toothed smile. The younger of the two wasn't even looking in my direction.


"Hey! Long night?" I raised a hand in tired salute. The old bartender continued to absentmindedly wipe the counter, too immersed in talking with me.

"Every-sing work?" He asked, picking up already clean glasses and wiping them again. I was torn between just walking away out of sheer weariness and irritably shouting at the old guy that he was cleaning already clean glasses.

"I guess." Was what I finally said, resigning myself to my fate. It always surfaced when I was the most tired – this inability to deal with people, just because they did some of the stupidest things that I just could not understand. Of course, it was always when I was at my crankiest that I stopped myself the most – another annoying habit I'd picked up from years of being pushed around.

Just grin and bear it. Except, you know, without the grin part.

"Ve-wy guud." The bartender smiled, agreeably, "We'll need you."

Eyes feeling like the skin around them was retreating into my skull and sagging off my face in heavy wrinkles, I blinked, numbly.

Need? What do they need me for? Is he just talking about the fact that they could use my help? Or is this more because the old dude's having trouble with his English? Maybe he means something else. Whatever. I'm tired. I just wanna go to bed. I couldn't think of anything else as I trudged off, completely dead to the world on my feet.