Selling the Fantasy
A Ranma, fic thingy.
By Sunshine Temple
Naturally, I do not Ranma So here's the disclaimer:
Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video
Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
Temporary Backup Site.
Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
C&C as always is wanted.
This story was inspired by Shareon's "Identity Search".
Though this fic takes the idea from the... opposite direction
But I recommend giving IS a read.
Chapter 1: Simulated Sincerity
Nabiki explored the antique shop looking for false hope she could sell. As she worked down the brightly-lit aisles, she was conflicted but not by any ethical concerns. Her point of contention was more aesthetic.
She picked up a small brass-topped bottle full of sand. Fingers tingling, she looked at the markings. With a sigh she put the bottle back down. Magic was too much trouble. She didn't even bother looking at the tag with the price on it.
A man in a grey suit slipped up to her side. Older, he had slicked back grey hair and stern steel-colored eyes. He looked down at the contents of the plastic basket Nabiki carried with a tiny frown of disapproval. "Monthly restocking, Miss Tendo?"
"Indeed, Mr. Tanaka."
"I do have more... exotic wares," Tanaka offered with a wave around his brightly-lit shop.
"Yes, you do." Nabiki went to the next polished, dust-free display case. "But I fear my clients may destroy such wares due to bickering and fighting."
"Before paying you," Tanaka noted with a little frown.
"It has happened before," Nabiki leaned over to inspect the little stone carvings that filled the case. "This way is safer."
"Safer yes, but consider the potential a more... potent product could offer. Maybe something you could auction off."
Nabiki laughed. "A proper auction for a Jysenkou cure? Yeah that'd be wonderful. Two problems. First, this gaggle of cursed martial artists is poor. Second, collecting them in one spot and auctioning off a cure would, inevitably, degenerate into fighting."
She shook her head. While she did not have experience with auctioning off a cure per say, Nabiki had sold off info on the ill-fated, and failed, wedding ceremony between her sister and Ranma.
Tanaka gave a warm smile. "I'm sure you can make it work. They sound like inventive, motivated folk. Doubtless, they could raise the needed funds."
Nabiki laughed. "Please, don't try to run this scam on me. I give them real hope? They won't band together. They'll fight. Then there would be desperate, violent people fighting. The cure would be destroyed. And worse... the person selling the cure, me, won't get paid. I have no problem offering false hope. It's far less dangerous than the real stuff. Besides, my customers know what they buy, almost certainly, won't cure them."
"But a more likely cure could be sold for more money," Tanaka offered gesturing to a display case.
Nabiki eyed the small lacquered puzzle box sitting alone in the display case. Skin prickling, she walked past without a second glance. "I sell something with the promise that it might work. I sell something expensive? Then I'm on the hook if it doesn't work."
Silently, Tanaka followed. "You sell the fantasy?" he asked after Nabiki resumed her browsing.
Nabik picked up a little wooden statue of a smiling monk. She read the tag on it, purporting the statue's healing properties. Nodding, she slipped the trinket into the plastic basket she carried.
"A real cure, even a likely cure, gives complications. But an, almost certainly, fake cure? I could sell those on the cheap. And if it didn't work, well it's not like they could blame me."
Tanaka smiled. "Yes, nobody should expect any real magic for under fifty thousand yen."
Nabiki nodded. "It's like a lottery. No one actually buys lottery tickets with the expectation to win; they buy them for the momentary fantasy of imagining what it would be like to win." She smiled, selling fantasies was something she turned out to be fairly skilled at. Something she made, if not an entire career, then at least another profitable side business out of.
"Of course the only way to really win a lottery is to run your own," Tanaka observed.
Nabiki shrugged as she went down the next spacious aisle. It had taken her a bit of time before she swallowed her pride and changed her product line. If selling real cure, at a handsome markup, proved impossible...
"I'm just amazed they keep coming back to you. This is your fourth month stocking up. Not that I mind your patronage," he added with an oily smile.
"People keep entering lotteries and raffles don't they? Gaming parlors are full of suckers that keep coming back. Besides, we're talking about stubborn, prideful people here." Nabiki picked up a small silvery ampule. The label said it was blessed oil. And the old characters on the bottom seemed to support that. "Dedicated martial artists. And best of all greedy and selfish martial artists."
"They'll snap at any cure. No matter how far-fetched. And if Ranma wouldn't spend a couple thousand yen on a trinket, well one of his rivals would," Nabiki gave a predatory grin. She had seen Ryoga and Moose express glee at the idea of being cured via something Ranma was too cheap to buy. They fantasized about rubbing Ranma's face in it.
The older man nodded.
"Besides, if I had to branch out I could start offering other magical trinkets. I know plenty of people who have tried love potions, strength enhancements and the like."
"Still, why not do it with more expensive products?"
"Because it's easy. My overhead is low, and I have a ready supply of desperate customers eager to buy the into the dream I'm offering. As long as it's something they can buy without much worry they won't care that it doesn't work. They'll come back for the next one, or if not them then one of the other cursed rubes."
"Ah, so for a brief moment you give them the illusion of being cured. Bravo." Tanaka clapped his hands, but the older man still looked thoughtful.
Nabiki eyed the old man. No, she didn't have any ethical qualms about what she was doing. However, aesthetically, she found the bright, clean shop to be all wrong. An antique store selling trinkets and baubles was supposed to be dark, dusty, and vaguely foreboding. Or at least it should give the sense of old wood, faint spices, and secrets. This place was like going through a pharmacy: sterile and white.
Tanaka looked at her, expectant.
"Well?" Nabiki tapped her foot. On the one hand this did make for an easier shopping experience. As the products were easier to inspect. On the other, as her other job had taught her, aesthetic impressions were very important.
"I was pondering. How satisfied are you at moving trinkets?"
"It's just a side business," Nabiki said primly. For the time she put into it, the false cures made a tidy profit. But that wasn't saying much given how little time was required. She had far more profitable ways to make money, but those were less... flexible.
Tanaka nodded. "Of course, of course."
Nabiki narrowed her eyes. "What are you trying to sell me?"
"Something that might give you complications," Tanaka said as he led her to the furthest aisle and then into the storeroom in back.
Nabiki frowned as Tanaka fished a key out of his vest and unlocked a metal case. It held two items, a little slim leather-bound book and an inscribed brass medallion embossed with a claw in the center.
Reaching out, Nabiki's fingers tingled. She withdrew her hand. Leaning in she inspected the medallion, the markings... she had seen them before in a reference book. "May I?" she asked pointing to the booklet.
She picked up the slim volume. It was little more than a pamphlet, really. Nabiki flipped through the pages. She had learned a bit of the dialect and it seemed... "Is this genuine?" she asked keeping her hand from shaking.
"Do you mean is that really a book of spells?" Tanaka asked, amused.
Nabiki scoffed. From what she'd seen it was less a spell-book and more an instruction manual. But that wasn't what she was asking. "No, I mean is this really from the Musk Empire?"
"Such a grandiose name for such a little tribe," Tanaka shook his head. "But yes, I believe there is providence for this piece." He pointed to the rather large tag that dangled from the little medallion's chain.
Nabiki read the information. It had been procured from an estate sale of a man that specialized in antiquities from that region. There was lots of information about where he had gotten it. But there was no price.
Tanaka clasped his hands behind him. "Now, Miss Tendo. You can fill your basket with trinkets and make a few yen easily, safely. Or... " he grinned. "You can figure out a way around those complications you mentioned and make some real money."
"Then why don't you sell it to them yourself?" Nabiki demanded.
"And let those lunatics into my shop?" Tanaka scoffed. "As you so eloquently put it, they get the scent of a real cure and they'll make the most unsightly mess."
"I also said they couldn't afford something like this."
Tanaka nodded. "Quite the complication, no?"
Nabiki eyed the medallion. There was potential here. But she would have to be careful. Worse, she didn't even know it if would work. Even if the book was correct, the medallion wasn't exactly a cure. "Just out of curiosity, how much do you want for it?"
Nabiki had been looking for Ranma. She found him in a park, sitting on a giant rock looking mournfully out into a pond.
"What do you want?" he asked, giving her a bare glance before returning to his sulk.
"Rough day?" Nabiki asked putting her bag down at her feet and leaning on the protruding stone.
The martial artist gave a bitter laugh. "No worse than normal."
"From what I heard it was pretty bad. Akane should have listened to you," she added after a moment.
"Should have but didn't," Ranma shrugged. It was an almost defeatist gesture. "You know how it goes. Shampoo comes to bring lunch. Then Ukyou gets it into her head that her meal is better."
Nabiki nodded. "And Akane, utterly unwilling to accept her limitations..."
Ranma eyed the Tendo girl. "Yeah well, maybe I shouldn't have accepted Shampoo's food, but… it was a small thing."
"Until Moose showed up?"
The martial artist snorted. "Oh, I could handle him."
"He did distract you though," Nabiki, softly said. "He held your attention, splashed you real good. You didn't notice that Akane had been drawn into Shampoo and Ukyou's fight."
Ranma sighed. "She still blamed me, as if it were my fault they're better than her. As if it's my fault the idiots fight like this. As if it's my fault I'm cursed." He looked back out at the water.
Ranma eventually spoke. "Its' not so much the lack of control that annoys me, it's that I can't get blamed for the lack of control." He tapped his foot on the rock and once more looked down at Nabiki.
"What da ya want anyway?" he demanded. "I don't need your dodgy, long-shot cures."
"I just saw you over here looking troubled and wanted to see if you needed to talk to someone," Nabiki said in a sympathetic voice.
Ranma snorted. "You're pretty good. If I didn't know you, I'd believe you."
"Thanks, I've been practicing," Nabiki enthusiastically said with a smile that seemed genuine. " But seriously, I think I have something that can help."
"Right. What'll it cost me?" he asked, his voice flat.
"Demonstration first, then we'll talk finances," Nabiki assured.
Ranma shook his head.
Nabiki looked around, this part of the park was relatively secluded. They were on the opposite side for the pond from most of the recreational amenities. "There's no need to be embarrassed; you chose a private enough spot."
"I didn't want to be bothered," Ranma pointedly said to her.
"I'm offering a free trial."
"Nothing's free with you.
Nabiki smiled as she opened her pack. "True, but this is different." She withdrew a sterile pin in a sealed plastic container, a canteen, and a small case. She left the vacuum thermos in place.
"And you think a song and dance will me to buy more cheap cures from you?"
"Oh, this is hardly a cheap cure," Nabiki tossed the pin up to Ranma. "I'll need a drop of blood."
The martial artist eyed the packet. "Really?"
"Yes, really. The magic needs to be linked to you to work."
Ranma put the packet down and stared at her.
Nabiki's expression hardened. "Look Saotome. I put in a lot of time and money figuring out how to make this work. I'm even willing to give you a free demonstration, but if you won't give me that much then I'll offer it to someone else."
Ranma looked down at the silvery pin in the plastic packet.
Nabiki held her aloof expression. Truth be told, she did have a backup client if Ranma said no. It was riskier, and gave her les control over things, but it had a similar long term profit potential.
He sighed and ripped open the packet. "Fine. But this better not be some instant curse powder or water-proof soap scam." The martial artist then pricked the back of his forearm. He knew most people would prick a finger, but fingers were more sensitive and harder to heal. Really they were one of the worst spots to draw blood from.
Holding the plastic case, Nabiki stretched up and took the offered pin a bead of blood glistened off the end.. The case snapped open and she withdrew the brass medallion.
Ranma eyed the artifact, recognition hit his eyes. "Is that-"
"Hush, I have to get the incantation right," Nabiki said as she let the blood drop onto the claw carved in the medallion's center. It fell, spread and filled glistening like a wet ruby. Nabiki closed her eyes and spoke the words.
Her tongue felt heavy. Much of the "time and money" she had put into this plan was translating the spell pamphlet and figuring out how it worked. Fortunately, the incantation was simple and she only needed one of the medallion's functions.
With the last word completed, the air fell silent. The blood on the medallion glistened; it also stayed in place as Nabiki slipped it over her neck.
"Oh-kay. Now what?"
Putting on a confident smirk, Nabiki opened the canteen and threw the contents at Ranma.
"Come on!" Ranma yelled. He then blinked. He was still dry; he was still a he. Water had splashed all around him on the rock but it had missed him. "Huh?"
Feeling hidden tension wane, Nabiki smiled. Until this moment she couldn't be certain that this would work, but the proof was before her. 'It's very simple," she explained as she refilled the canteen in the pond.
"Put out your arm," Nabiki requested as she lifted the canteen.
Curious, Ranma extended his arm.
"You're right; this is as Musk artifact. A minor one, thankfully. But convenient enough," Nabiki explained as she slowly poured the water over Ranma's hand.
The martial artist stared as the water fell and then split around his skin. It was like watching two magnets repel each other. For a brief moment a clear glove seemed to cascade around his fingers.
"I've still got the curse," Ranma noted.
Nabiki gave a sad nod, though really she hoped that this wouldn't actually cure Ranma. Her plans would be ruined if that had happened.
"I didn't say it was a cure. From what I've read, a Musk Lord had an heir who got cursed. Kinda like Herb, but instead of mucking around with the pail and ladle, said Lord found a different way to help his son," she explained, pointedly not mentioning the other function of the medallion. Not that she thought it was applicable. As far as she could see, there was no profit in it.
"Help?" Ranma took the canteen and poured nearly all that remained over his head. He blinked, watching the water repel from contacting his body and bend away as the droplets fell to the ground. "Ah, so if the curse can't activate..."
"Exactly, I said this could help. It could give you control."
"Until I die from dehydration," Ranma grumbled.
"Take a sip."
Not even caring that it was pond water, Ranma put the canteen to his lips. There was a slight tingle of resistance but the water poured into his mouth and he swallowed.
Ranma's mood brightened. "Okay, Nabiki that's pretty clever." He then eyed the pond with a manic grin.
"Uh," Nabiki tried to caution but it was too late. The martial artist had bounded off the rock and into the water.
There was a splash and a sputtering redhead bobbed up. "You tricked me!" the girl cried as she clambered up the beach.
Keeping her composure, Nabiki put on a sigh. "It repels water. What did you think would happen if you fully immersed yourself in it?" she asked, secretly delighted that the redhead was still... available. She refilled the canteen once more.
Ranma crossed her arms. "So, what good is it?"
Nabiki pulled out the thermos. "You mean giving you control over your curse for everything short of swimming? I'd say that's pretty impressive."
Ranma's ire died down. "Yeah but..."
Nabiki looked at the thermos. "But isn't the unpredictability the worst part? You don't know when you'll get accidently splashed? You'll be doing something and then someone spills water and boom, you're a girl. And now you have to either explain the curse, bull-through, or run? Wouldn't it be simpler if you could control it?"
"I'm still not convinced this is even legit." Ranma kept her arms crossed, but her expression was thoughtful. "And you haven't said what this will cost me," she said, clothes dripping. Oddly enough, she felt rather dry, and her clothes weren't sticking to her skin.
"Hence the free trial," Nabiki smiled. She opened the thermos and poured some of the hot water over Ranma.
The redhead didn't change. The water simply bent away. To Nabiki's surprise, Ranma simply raised an eyebrow.
"The medallion doesn't know what form you're in," Nabiki explained. At least for the first spell, she mentally added. "But I can turn it off," she pulled of the brass artifact and with a whispered word the blood stopped shimmering.
She then poured the remainder of the hot water over Ranma. The martial artist shifted back into his male form. Nabiki then gave another whispered word and tossed the contents of the canteen towards Ranma.
Ranma reflexively pulled back, for a change that didn't happen. He blinked. "It's no cure," he patted his shirt. It was almost dry. The water-repellant powers of the medallion seemed to dry out even his clothes.
Nabiki nodded. "But it's the best I've found."
"It's a better show than the normal crap you sell me." He leaned against the rock. "How much?
"Well, you'll have to pay it off."
Ranma snorted. "Why me?" he asked suspiciously.
Nabiki allowed her smile to become a bit predatory. "Because your curse means you can pay it off," she explained. This was the delicate part of the negotiations, but she could see Ranma was intrigued. And Nabiki felt that Ranma would be more... reasonable than Shampoo.
"What's this free trial?"
"Try it out for a week," Nabiki said as she started packing up. The pin went in a little plastic tube. "If you want to keep it, we'll work out the details of how you can pay me back."
Ranma tapped his fist against the rock. "What do I tell the others? They'll notice I'm cured. They'll sniff around. You know how they get when there's a rumor of a cure."
Nabiki smiled. Of course she knew; that's one of the ways she made money off of them. "Tell them that one of my cures might have worked," Nabiki reached into her backpack and pulled out a wooden carving of a monk.
Ranma caught the offered item. "They'll get jealous."
Nabiki smirked. "Then jump into a pool. They won't be keen on an 'imperfect' cure."
"They'll think I got ripped off..." Ranma nodded with a chuckle. "Instead of figuring out how I got cured they'll just laugh at me."
"Meanwhile, you've got the upper hand on 'em."
"And after a week?"
"You decide how valuable this is," Nabiki said as she slipped the medallion necklace under her shirt.
"You haven't even told me how you expect me to pay it off," Ranma warily said.
"If it's too much, say no. Things go back to the way they were," Nabiki shrugged, putting on an air of indifference. This was where things got dicey. What if she underestimated how desperate Ranma was for a cure?
"And when people ask why I'm no longer half cured?"
Nabiki laughed. "Tell them the cure wore out. You've had temporary cures before."
Ranma studied her. "How are you gonna make me pay for this?"
"We'll talk payment in a week," Nabiki assured.
"Really, no need to worry right now."
"No, I know you," Ranma said, suspicious. "You want me to grow dependent on this; so that after a week I'll be willing to do anything to keep my cure."
Nabiki allowed a tiny frown to appear. "I assure you, I intended-"
"You tell me now, or I walk," Ranma stated, but his eyes darted out to the pond.
Nodding, Nabiki squared her shoulders. This was the delicate part. "Fine. I wanted you to pay it off by getting a job at the Golden Oak Club."
Ranma's azure eyes bored into hers. "Doing what?"
Nabiki shrugged. "Nothing you haven't already been doing. You have plenty of experience getting guys to buy stuff for you."
"It's a hostess club?"
Ranma blinked then snorted. "Yeah, right."
Nabiki grinned. "Like I said, nothing you haven't done before."
"I'm a guy, I'm not interested in other guys."
The Tendo girl laughed. "So? You think any of the hostess are interested in the customers? It's a job Saotome. You sucker guys into buying you expensive stuff. You've done it before; you're pretty good at it already. This is the same, only now with a more expensive sucker."
"No way." Ranma shook his head. "Why are you even offering this? You know I'd say no."
"You have any idea how expensive this was for me?" Nabiki lifted the medallion.
Ranma rolled his eyes. "Before or after your markup."
"Before," Nabiki tersely said.
"You've gotta be kidding," Ranma leaned back on the stone and watched Nabiki. " How do you know this place is legit? How'd you even find out about it?"
Nabiki exhaled. "Because I work there."
"You?" Ranma laughed.
"I try to put in some time at least once a week. So, I know it's safe. You wouldn't be doing anything I wouldn't do, that I haven't done."
"That don't exactly reassure me." Ranma's amusement grew. "So the mercenary queen pretends to be a charming hostess for lonely guys. How do you not get recognized?
Nabiki kept her cool. Ranma being amused by the idea was a step up from him being horrified by it. "It's a big city, and I'm not as notorious as you."
Ranma gave her a skeptical look.
"And I wear a wig," Nabiki admitted.
Ranma laughed. "But why do it?"
Nabiki shrugged. " It's good money. Easy money. I can make 25 thousand yen a night, easy."
He gave her a critical look. "And what do you do to get that much?"
Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Not like that. Gold Oak is a no touching club. You talk, get them to buy drinks and food, maybe sing, and pretend to listen. As I said, easy money."
"Then why don't you work there more? Why do all these other scams."
"Because I'd get noticed if I spent all my time there. Because diversifying is smart business. Because I have other responsibilities. But if you're there..."
Ranma shook his head. Nabiki sounded reasonable; she sounded sincere. She had to be playing him. He paused. "Why me, why this job?"
Nabiki looked out on the water, suppressing a grin. Humor had shifted to hypotheticals. Another step. "Because I know how much I can earn."
"To be blunt Saotome, you could make a lot more than me. Twice as much no problem. More if you put your mind to it. I hate to admit it, but you make a much prettier girl than me."
Ranma scratched his neck. "Yeah, but you're actually a girl. Doesn't that give you a leg up on acting the part?"
"Do I strike you as someone naturally inclined to be sympathetic and comforting?"
"No, you strike me as cynical and manipulative," Ranma blurted.
Nabiki chuckled. "Right, I had to learn how to butter guys up, and I say this with all due respect Saotome, you're a natural at it."
Frowning, Ranma looked back out over the water. "That's a lot of money."
Nabiki gave a little laugh. "Only if you put in the hours and effort for it."
"How expensive was that medallion?"
Nabiki shrugged. "Do you really want to know?"
"If I'm gonna be buying it offa you, I'd better," Ranma glared.
"I propose a 50-50 split. I take half; you work off the medallion."
"Awfully generous of you," Ranma dryly noted. "And that didn't answer my question.
"If you work a couple nights a week, I'd say you could pay it off, oh, after a year." Nabiki mentally noted that one way to take her 50-50 split comment was that she'd take half off the bat, and then the remaining half would go towards paying for the medallion.
Ranma blinked. His fingers tapped against the stone as he did the math. The martial artist's eyes widened. "That's gotta be over two million yen! You're kidding me."
"If anything you're low balling it." Nabiki looked cross. "Remember, I said you could make more than twice as much as me."
"What, five million then?" Ranma guessed. He then whistled. "You could have gotten a car, Nabiki. You really spent that much? You know I'll have to see your receipt."
"I'll show you when we get home." Nabiki nodded, hiding her smile. The next step in getting someone to make a purchase was to get them to debate the price.
"It's that expensive?"
"It's a magical Musk artifact that controls Jusenkyo curses; worse the guy I bought it from knew it did that. "
"You weren't kidding when you said you sunk a lot into this project," Ranma looked back out at the water. "You seriously think I'll say yes?"
Nabiki exhaled. "Look Saotome, you many not believe it but I care about my sister, and if making your life easier helps things with her-"
"You'll get me a job at a hostess club," Ranma flatly stated.
"You have a better idea on how you can make enough money, under the radar?" Nabiki asked. "Believe it or not I've put thought into how to get you to pay me back."
"I have other skills," Ranma crossed his arms.
"I did look into underground fights, and well... while I'm sure you can handle the unsavory elements... you know how your fights can go."
"Yeah, people find out, dumb things happen, and plans get ruined." Ranma looked to the ground. "You know that'd just happen if I take your stupid job right?"
Nabiki exhaled. She could hear the slight fear in Ranma's voice. Fear of embarrassment, fear of being found out. "That is something we'll have to prevent..."
"Oh? And here I worried you'd sell me out to Kuno," Ranma groused.
Nabiki laughed. "And have him wreck the place? No. You'll get fired if you attract too much trouble. We'd get fired." She paced a bit. "No Saotome, we have to keep this secret from Nerima. We need time for you to make money, time free from their meddling. You want to be free of them? Free with your curse controlled, free with money?"
"Free? I'm listening." Ranma chewed a lip. "Not that I want this girly job," he added.
"Of course," Nabiki assured as she leaned on the stone next to him. "But If you did take it, we'll have to be careful."
"Red hair kinda stands out."
"I use a wig for a reason Saotome," Nabiki reminded. " And some girls wear colored contacts. Look, I'll help you with clothes and makeup and such. I mean you wouldn't be buying that stuff anyway."
Ranma exhaled. "I've had disguises fail on me before."
"Yeah, we'll need to be careful," Nabiki shrugged. "Most of the girls take on a persona at work."
"What's yours?" Ranma smirked.
"An understanding, intellectual girl that wants to listen," Nabiki smoothly replied with a toothy grin.
"So, what I should be more girly? Yeah, you're not making this job sound appealing."
"Nah, they've seen you act girly." Nabiki scoffed. "Wait... what about the opposite?"
"Opposite? You mean still act like a guy? Then I'd totally be found out. And I wouldn't make nearly as much of your precious money."
Nabiki noted Ranma's last sentence, he was already considering what the job would entail. "No... I mean instead of acting like a cute little girl... what if you acted smoother, more mature? What if instead of a girl you were a woman?"
Ranma snorted. "I'd never... Ohhh," he added with realization.
Nabiki patted him on the arm. "Don't make a decision now. Take a week to think it over. Worse case you'll get some time without the curse breathing down your neck."
Ranma looked at her.
Nabiki could tell he wanted to ask about what she'd do with all the money she'd lost on the deal. She patted his arm again. "Don't worry about it, Saotome."
"It's still a crazy idea, using my cursed form to pay off a cure for my curse."
Nabiki smiled. "Think of it as your curse earning its keep."
After they exited the train, Nabiki pulled out a silver and white phone. She wore a windbreaker and carried a backpack. She took a few steps and made a point of leaning on a wall in the corridor that linked the platform to the stairs.
A shorter young woman slipped up next to her. She wore a long, dark read pullover sweater over stretchy grey pants.. The bottom hem almost reached mid-thigh and looked sort of like a skirt. She had a black ball cap on and wore a pair of sunglasses that were almost out of place as sunset approached.
She quickly, efficiently, and discreetly scanned the people coming if the train, those already on the platform, and the people going up and down the stairs.
"Any tails?" Nabiki asked paging through messages on her work phone.
"I think we're clean," the shorter girl admitted. She bit her lip, as if she could will sinister trench coat-wearing pursuers into existence.
"Good," Nabiki closed the phone. "Come on, the van's waiting for us and Anya,"
The shorter girl followed her up the stairs and out the subway station "You know we could walk."
"But the shuttle's already here," Nabiki scanned the street, but her companion had already found the plain grey van with its subtly tinted windows.
A trim young man got out of the driver's seat. In his mid-twenties, he also wore dark sunglasses. However his seemed in place with this grey suit, short hair and sober expression.
"Ladies," he said opening a side door.
A young woman with short black hair was already sitting in the rearmost row of the van. She looked up from her phone, waved at the two girls and then went back down to the display.
Nabiki entered first, followed by her companion. The driver closed the door, went back to the front and put the van in gear.
The smaller woman gave an embarrassed, nervous smile. Taking the club's shuttle, being chauffeured, seemed wrong to her.
Nabiki patted her companion's hand. "You okay, Ranma?" she quietly asked
"Names." Ranma hissed pulling her hand away from Nabiki's. To pay off the debt, to get her cure, she would do the job, but she didn't have to like it, or Nabiki's false flattery and assurances.
Nabiki bowed her head. She had deliberately made the mistake, the better to gauge Ranma's reaction.
"But yeah I'm fine, I'm still just shocked at..." Ranma nodded to the man driving the shuttle.
But it wasn't just him. It was what the man in the suit represented. The trip didn't take long, and soon enough they were at the Golden Oak Club. The business had a subdued but enticing front entrance in glass and polished steel. The building itself had a slick concrete facade.
The driver took the van to the rear entrance, by the kitchen and the loading dock. The alley was clean, and brightly lit. There were also a couple more men in matching suits.
Ranma eyed the security guards. Sure she could easily take them, but that wasn't their point. They were fit, alert, and didn't leer at the hostesses. Ranma really appreciated that last bit.
Nabiki caught her glances and laughed. "Us girls are valuable. It wouldn't do to allow some creep to sneak up and abduct one of us."
"Is that really a risk?" Ranma asked.
"Not anymore," Anya said from the rear seat. "Really, the Mistress has them just in case a new client gets a bit... frisky. This isn't the club for any funny business."
"Oh," Ranma frowned as she got out of the van.
"And that hardly happens either," Nabiki reassured. "Their presence is enough, isn't that
right, Ken?" she asked the driver.
"As you say Ma'am," the driver nodded.
Ranma gave a slight smile. While she wasn't worried about being assaulted, she did
have fears of being discovered. Which was why she hadn't objected to using the shuttle service on some of their previous visits.
"It's her big day?" Anya asked as she got out after the two.
Nabiki smiled. "Well, she'll be helping me, but yes."
Ranma gave a slow nod, but her azure eyes were set.
"Glad to have some fresh blood," Anya said. "I'm sure you'll like it just fine. I know I'll look forward to working with you," she added with a smooth purr.
"Anya!" Nabiki admonished as they walked towards the door. "Don't use your wiles on her."
Ranma gave a nervous chuckle. She hoped she hadn't attracted another suitor, especially when she was a girl at the moment. It did help that Anya was cute but... Shaking her head, she looked at the heavy steel door. One of the guards nodded and pulled the handle.
Her pace slowed. This wasn't her first night at the club. She had been here before. But those were training days where she was tending bar, answering phones, and dong some light waitressing.
Tonight... tonight she's doing the "real thing".
Sensing her companion's apprehension, Nabiki slowed. She put a hand on the shorter girl's shoulder. "If it's too much, you don't have to do this," she said in a gentle, understanding voice "If you back out, I'd understand."
"Don't you start." Ranma bristled, her pride flaring. "I'll get out of that debt."
Nabiki suppressed a smile. "If you say so."
"No, no games." Ranma squared her shoulders and stepped through the door. The trio entered the low-lit corridor. The "back end" of the club wasn't as spotless as the customer areas, but it was still clean and done with an intimate almost trendy decor.
Anya quickly peeled off to the break room a few doors down.
"You gave me a free week. Then another week while I was 'training' and you know what happened that whole time?" Ranma quietly asked.
"What?" Nabiki stopped in front of the door to the dressing rooms.
"Nothing. Nothing happened."
Nabiki allowed an eyebrow to raise. She recalled at least two fights with Ryoga and a competition between Ukyou and Kodachi. "Are you sure?" she ventured.
Ranma waved that off. "Yeah, sure there was a mess, but I was still in control. Or at least I could get away."
"Akane did seem to be happier..." Nabiki allowed.
Ranma gave a smile. "She was. Until she pushed me into the pool." Giving a little sigh she opened the door to the dressing room.
The small room bustled as a handful of girls bathed, dressed, primped, brushed and did other bits of preparation. Unlike the rest of the club, the lighting was bright in this room. It was especially high near the bank of mirrors that served as vanities for doing hair and makeup.
"Get us a dressing station," Nabiki said as she unsoldered her pack and went to a locker to get supplies and to a rack to get clothing.
Ranma awkwardly waited for a station to open up, but a woman in a dark blue kimono with brown hair soon left.
"How about this?" Nabiki said as she held up a dark skirt and top.
"Uh... it looks fine." Ranma absently said.
Nabiki gave her a look. "And you can handle these heels?" She dropped a pair of shiny black pumps on the counter.
"I handled them fine when we bought them last weekend." Ranma rolled her eyes. "And I handled them fine wearing them last time we were here."
"Okay," Nabiki put the clothes on a hanger to one side of the mirror and started putting on her own outfit.
Despite previous experience, Ranma still blushed a bit as Nabiki summarily stripped in front of her. At least seeing Nabiki disrobe was somehow less... difficult than seeing strangers do the same. She pushed any concerns away as she took of her own hat and long sweater.
Soon she was in a shoulderless black top with lacy sleeves and matching pleather miniskirt. She had already put on her foundation garments, including smoky hose. As she slipped on the shiny black heels she looked over to see Nabiki adjusting a deep burgundy dress that covered slightly more leg and chest than Ranma's getup.
After popping on her own set of heels, Nabiki went back to the locker to get two wigs off their stands.. First she put a long glossy black one over her own head and adjusted it. Next she took out a brush and sat Ranma down before the mirror.
After punning up the pigtail she tucked the rest of the red tresses under a blonde pageboy wig. Then using the cosmetics she had pulled out, Nabiki went to work.
Ranma felt oddly passive, being ordered to close her eyes, look up, turn her head to one side then the other, purse her lips, bite on this paper, and so on. Nabiki then resumed brushing.
"Okay, get up so I can do me," Nabiki stated.
Ranma opened her eyes. A blonde with light azure blue eyes looked back at her. He lips glistened and her foundation made her skin a hair less pale. Nabiki had used a light touch but the result was still one that made her look slightly more mature and underscored the unique shade of her hair and eyes.
The blonde found her crimson lips forming a smile. She still had a very exotic look, while being very un-redhead. Plus, the male part of her found the blonde she saw in the mirror... appealing.
"Admire yourself later, Hun," Nabiki said as she hauled the girl out of the seat.
Ranma frowned but watched as Nabiki did her hair and makeup. She then glanced about the dressing room and realized that the two of them were... normal. They looked like another pair of pretty hostesses.
"Okay," Nabiki stood up. She gracefully turned on a heel. "You ready?" she asked with a beatific smile.
Ranma nodded. Her blonde pageboy swayed.
Nabiki led her out of the dressing room, down the hall and towards another unassuming door.
This one entered into a little room with a kitchenette, table with chairs, and a couch. There was an older woman smoking a cigarette as she flipped through a magazine.
"That the new girl?" she asked looking up at Ranma. She wore a white dress with gold trim and her hair was up in a loose bun. She looked vaguely like she was playing a Greek goddess.
"Yup, just seeing what we're on for tonight," Nabiki said as she went to a whiteboard hanging on one wall opposite a large TV.
The smoker blinked. "A ride along? A lovely girl like her needs your help?"
Ranma waved away some of the smoke in irritation before striding over to Nabiki.
The whiteboard was divided into a grid of names and times. Nabiki was looking under the row for "Naoko", the alias that she used for the club.
Ranma smirked at that. Given the Kanji used, that name rendered as "Honest Child." Her smirk went down a bit when she saw the name under Naoko. It was Raiko; which was written out to mean "Child of Truth."
The woman in the blonde wig sighed. No wonder Nabiki had picked that for Ranma's alias.
"Raiko's pretty shy," Nabiki explained.
The smoker eyed the way Ranma's figure filled her top and skirt. "If you say so."
Nabiki shrugged then turned to Ranma. "Good, we've still got a 7:30 with, Mrs. Akamatsu."
"Mrs.?" Ranma blinked.
The smoker chuckled before taking a drag on her cigarette. "My, she is new."
"I thought Akamatsu would help ease you in," Nabiki said as she pulled Ranma to the couch. "A regular of mine, she's a widower, and manages her late husband's wood store. She supplies exotic woods to all those artsy types."
Blinking, Ranma sat down, and after a sharp look from Nabiki, crossed her legs. "Huh?"
"We've got some time before we arrive, and I'm briefing you on her. Now she likes dry white wines, but if she's feeling stressed she'll order something stronger. Fortunately, she likes expensive whiskies. Expensive by our standards."
"Why are you telling me this? She's your regular. Ain't I just helping you?"
Nabiki sighed. "I'm there to make sure you don't screw up. If you freeze, I'll smooth things over, and help." She squeezed the faux blonde's hand. "And watch your words. It's a bad habit to slip into your street voice when you're on break."
"Yes," Ranma bowed her head then set about listening as Nabiki explained Akamatsu's history, hobbies, and taste in food, drinks, and music. She tried nodding along but Nabiki periodically quizzed her as she explained. Nabiki then shifted to asking questions about "Naoko" and "Raiko". Ranma had an easier time with those, as she'd gone over their aliases' back-stories before.
Glancing up at the clock, Nabiki stood up. "Okay, time to setup." She turned off the ringer to her phone and helped Ranma to her feet.
"Are you ready?" Nabiki softly asked.
Ranma looked up at the taller dark-haired girl. Long black hair framed a face that looked... softer. Nabiki has used her makeup to deemphasize the sharpness of her cheekbones and chin and to make her eyes look a bit bigger. The effect was subtle but when combined with Nabiki's tone made the young woman seem more open with an expression that dripped sympathy.
Ranma was about to snort but held herself back. "Yeah, I'm fine."
A soft smile touched Nabiki's pastel lips. She had seen Ranma catch herself. "Good, come then." The taller girl then escorted Ranma out of the break room and down a corridor.
At the end of the hall, Nabiki opened a set of double doors and they entered the club proper. Holding the door open, a suited security guard nodded to Ranma and Nabiki.
Following Nabiki's lead, Ranma offered him a small smile. She then turned and studied the club.
There was a gleaming bar on the far side of the room, a small cluster of tables in the middle and branching alcoves on either side. Near the double doors was another corridor that connected to a group of private rooms.
The club was decorated with a lot of glass, brushed steel, and lacquered wood. Low lights and soft music helped give the club an intimate feel.
Ranma could see several hostess chatting with customers. There was a cluster by the bar, a couple tables in use, and about half of the alcoves were occupied. It was still earl so the club was still mostly empty. Ranma felt a bit of awkwardness at seeing a group of well-dressed, attractive young women.
It was made worse when some of the hostesses returned Ranma's appraising gaze.
"Come on, you can chat with the girls later," Nabiki said taking Ranma's wrist. She pulled the ersatz blonde towards the alcoves.
Entering in one near the edge, Nabiki adjusted the lighting. The overhanging chandelier dimmed while the glass wall sconces brightened. "You have to keep in mind what the client likes," she explained as she inspected the booth and the table.
"You know what to order?" Nabiki asked.
Ranma nodded then at her partner's prodding recited the type of wine and candies that Akamatsu liked.
"Good," Nabiki smiled. "You get that ready, I'll wait for her arrival."
Ranma then went to the bar while Nabiki went the opposite direction to the club's lobby.
Meeting the woman tending bar, Ranma placed the order. She rolled her shoulders and pulled back the short blonde bob of hair at her shoulder.
"Nervous?" the woman asked as she added glasses to the platter she was filling up.
"It shows?" Ranma quietly asked. She was not sure if she could do the "mature" persona she and Nabiki had planned on.
"Not much, Dear," the bartender assured as she filled a glass bowl with candies. "You'll do great," she added taking out the wine bottle.
Ranma picked up the platter. "Yeah... I'm kinda worried about that." Holding it stable, she swayed back to the alcove and began setting up.
Working from a mental checklist Nabiki had drilled into her Ranma went over the refreshments, the condition of the alcove, and her own personal appearance. Finishing with taking out a compact to discretely check her hair and makeup. She felt a flush of embarrassment at doing such a girly thing. Worse, she got a similar flush of excitement from looking at the sensual azure-eyed blonde in the mirror.
The compact snapped closed and she had a couple minutes to focus before Nabiki returned.
The taller young woman escorted their client for the night. Mrs. Akamatsu was in her late 30's. The statuesque woman had dark, slightly curled hair, russet colored eyes and wore a forest green suit coat and skirt.
"Mrs. Akamatsu, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Naoko has told me so much about you." Ranma stood up and bowed.
The older woman looked to Nabiki and chuckled. "Yes, and she's told me so much about you Raiko-chan."
Ranma allowed herself to blush. "Please sit, is there anything we can do for you?" she asked taking the older woman's hand and guiding her into the booth.
From behind Akamatsu, Nabiki gave a tiny nod of approval.
Sitting down, Akamatsu glanced at the wine. She smiled.
Ranma held back, from what Nabiki had told her, Akamatsu preferred a bit of small talk before drinks. Which suited her fine. That bottle sold for about twenty thousand yen, which was actually reasonable by the standards of this club, even accounting for the insane markup, but if that's what the customer wanted.
"I do hope everything Naoko-chan said was good," Ranma said with a soft smile. She let her hands fidget a bit. It seemed natural for a "new girl" to the club.
"Oh, don't be worried," Akamatsu reached out, but her hand stopped short. She glanced over to Nabiki who had smoothly sat down on the opposite side of the business woman.
Pausing on removing the foil covering the top of the bottle, Nabiki gave an elegant nod.
The older woman resumed her outreach and patted Ranma on the hand.
The pseudo-blonde allowed herself to blush. It seemed that the club's "no touching" rule could be bent. "Pardon my nervousness," Ranma said trying to keep her voice smooth.
Akamatsu laughed. "Oh, she's a treat. Naoko, where did you find her?" she asked Nabiki.
The black-haired woman in burgundy bowed her head. "Looking wistfully at the waves, worried about her future," she coyly said.
"Naoko!" Ranma sputtered as she let her blush grow. She didn't have to like the back-story Nabiki came up for "Raiko" but she knew to play along.
"Your secret's safe with me," Nabiki smoothly assured. "Don't mind Raiko, she just needs some support right now. Her life's going through some... changes," Nabiki delicately said.
Ranma allowed a little sniff and a nod. She was starting to really dislike Nabiki's "sympathetic" voice with its smooth, dulcet tones. "Would you care for a drink Akamatsu-san?" she asked allowing confidence to flow back into her words as she straightened her shoulders.
A pleased smile crossed the older woman's lips as she looked down at the blonde. "Oh yes, very much."
Bowing her head, Ranma went to work on the cork. Once it was out she set the glasses and began to pour. "And how was your week, Akamatsu-san?" she asked not pausing in filling the three glasses. She was starting to understand why the new girls started out doing a few shifts behind the bar.
"It could have been better," the older woman admitted, taking the glass. Sipping, she leaned back and appraised the two younger women.
Nabiki was about to open her mouth when Ranma jumped in.
"Please tell me that order of trim for the Imperial Gardens' greenhouse wasn't delayed," Ranma said her innocent voice aghast.
"Naoko told you about that?" Akamatsu asked.
"Oh yes, gardens are so very lovely. Personally I find dahlias to be the most beautiful," Ranma happily prattled, recalling the info Nabiki had coached her on. She took a sip. "However, hearing that you were helping to renovate the greenhouses for the Imperial Gardens was just breathtaking."
Taking her glass Nabiki gave the blonde a tiny salute.
Akamatsu's smile grew, she took a long sip. "It is something. However the import hassles almost make it not worth the prestige." She took another drink.
"Do tell," Ranma said leaning forward to refill her glass.
An hour later, the pair had returned to the break room. Sitting on the couch, Ranma had pulled off one of her heels and was idly massaging a foot through her smoky hose.
Nabiki eyed her partner but as long as the ersatz blonde kept her legs crossed and didn't slouch she'd allow that indulgence. It did take a bit of time to get used to working in high heels.
The young woman in the long black hair went back to her phone. She was using its calculator to rough out some sums. "Not bad, not bad at all," she admitted.
Putting her shoe back on Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Well, given it's your first night and we're going to have to split this, you've done pretty good," Nabiki allowed. Internally she was gleeful. All her planning was about to pay off. As long as Ranma didn't quit, it was looking like Nabiki was going to be able to make a lot off of "Raiko".
Ranma grumbled and fidgeted with her wig
"And good work channeling your nervousness into a shy persona."
"I wasn't nervous," Ranma said, with a pout as she tugged on a golden bang.
Nabiki sighed. "Stop messing with that. You'll get it loose and it could come off."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Ranma grumbled.
"Still, it's easy work no?" Nabiki asked.
Leaning back the blonde crossed her legs. She gave a little sigh. "I guess. It's still a pain to be 'on' all the time," she held her head and winced a bit.
"You didn't drink too much did you?" Nabiki asked. She knew Ranma had a terrible tolerance for alcohol.
"No, I just one half-glasses of wine and a bare sip of another," the faux blonde said.
"Good." Nabiki nodded. How to nurse a drink was one of the first things a hostess had to be taught. Mixed drinks and drinks with ice were easy to order diluted. But if one were drinking from the same bottle as the client then options were a bit more limited Basically it came down to drinking slowly and getting a fresh glass before your current one was finished. Ordering a new beverage was also a handy, and enriching trick, for mixed drinks as well.
"And the whiskey?"
Ranma was about to roll her eyes and snort, but instead gave a girlish huff. "Mine was colored water with a splash of booze."
"Good, good." Nabiki was relieved that Ranma had contained herself. The blonde seemed a bit too nervous to pull of "polished and mature" but "shy" would do for a start.
The blonde adjusted her skirt. "Is this how it works? A constant act as we humiliate ourselves and scam some lonely older woman?"
"Mrs. Akamatsu can easily afford us," Nabiki noted. "Besides didn't you like earning a eight thousand yen?"
"Yeah, before you and the club take your cuts."
"That's after," Nabiki sweetly said.
The blonde straightened herself up a bit more. "Really? For a couple hours?"
"And you'd make twice that if you were working alone."
Ranma's eyes fluttered.
"Mrs. Akamatsu is a bit of a big fish, but yes."
The younger woman licked a lip. "You weren't kidding when you said you can make 25 thousand yen a night."
Nabiki leaned in. "And I wasn't kidding when I said you could make more than me. You saw how the other customers in the club were looking at you. You're... interesting to them. You can make yourself more interesting, if you want. You get in more practice, you start acting the way we discussed, less shy blossom more confident woman, you'll really bring it in."
Despite it, Ranma found herself blushing. Seeing them look at her... well it as humiliating, to be seen almost like a piece of meat, but she did wonder how easy they'd be as clients. Would they be easy to work? How much money could she extract from them?
Nabiki put a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Now, do you want me to tell the boss that you're ready to go back out?"
"It's looking like a busy night," Ranma admitted.
"And I'll be there every step of the way," Nabiki promised.
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: Milanda Anza, Mahou Sensou, J St C Patrick, DCG, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf
A bit of a caution. I decided to release some chapters of this story early.
So it has not gone through the full checking process and may be a bit rougher than normal.