A/N: Dated September 2004. But I remember having loads of fun writing it.

Keeping Store

When Mira Cheng saw how Small Girl's companion, Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair, had barely a third of her body covered, she knew they had to be tourists.

No one walked around Ongpin in a skirt like that, not even in the hottest of summer days or the most humid of nights. If Small Girl had been a local (and she looked like she could pass for one, though her shorts-and-sneakers ensemble clearly gave her away as Japanese), she would have at least told her friend to put some clothes on. This was Chinatown, for heavens' sake, not exactly the most sophisticated spot in the Philippines. Someone could mistake you for something else, which wasn't always very nice.

The chimes tinkled and the two hurriedly entered the small teahouse and took a seat at a small table nearest the restrooms and farthest from the windows. Mira Cheng followed them behind the counter with her eyes. She thought she saw something metallic glint under Small Girl's jacket but Mira attributed that to the fact that it was already eleven in the night and her eyes were hurting. Everyone had gone and it was her turn tonight to empty the cashier and bookkeep the day's earnings with a calculator that had a charming habit of making her digits disappear.

Mira eyed Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair's pair of stiletto boots, which had the appearance of a potential murder weapon, as she deliberated whether or not she should ask them to leave. The teahouse had closed an hour ago. All the waiters and cooks had gone and the only thing she could cook was stir-fried vegetables, which was hilarious for a daughter of a family who owned a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Ongpin. On the other hand, Pa always told her that their lifeline were their customers and if anyone got wind that she had turned out foreigners with American dollars, she would never hear the end of it. Pa would be furious.

As Mira tried to remember how much oil she would need for stir-frying vegetables, Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair motioned at her and greeted pleasantly, "Hi!" She sounded like a character from an old European movie. "Do you understand English?"

"Um, yes, I ca- "

"Oh, great. Do you have a closet where we could hide?"

Mira stared at them. "Excuse me?"

"You know, just enough for my friend and I to fit in without looking like we could. The restrooms don't work too well nowadays; they even search those too."

"Who's 'they'?"

Small Girl was looking out the windows with an alertness that was making Mira uncomfortable and Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair gave a nervous chuckle. "Oh, some...friends. Bit of a crazy game, you see, like hide-and-seek."

Mira refrained from sounding too sarcastic. "This late?"

"Well, yes. It's very...complicated, really." Now even Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair was glancing furtively out the windows. "Do you think we can make a sort of barricade behind the door with your tables and chairs?"

"What?"

"No, I suppose that would be too unrealistic, not to mention rather tacky." Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair exchanged some words with Small Girl in tones too low for Mira to catch. Then Blondie looked up. "Do you have a back door we could use?"

"I'm sorry," said Mira frostily. "I think I have to ask to you leave now, in the same way you came in."

"We would, if we didn't think they saw us come in."

Bingo. The two must have ran into trouble with one of the local syndicates. These foreigners were always looking for bargains in the wrong places; someone should start telling them to bring mace with them more often.

"Les couteaux." Small Girl spoke up with a suddenness that made Mira jump and remember that there were three of them in the room. "Les couteaux dans la cuisine."

Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair brightened noticeably. "Of course. This place has a kitchen, non?"

Mira looked bewildered. "Yes, but-"

"With knives?"

Mira Cheng did not like where this conversation was going.

Small Girl stood up and Mira felt herself shift towards the cash register protectively as the diminutive girl made her way towards the corridor and disappeared into the kitchen. "Hey!" Mira raised her voice, releasing the cash box and making a move to follow her. "You can't go in there!"

Caucasian Girl With Yellow Hair had also stood up, blocking Mira's way. "I would advise you not to get involved in there; it's really not a place for amateurs." She looked a little sheepish. "We've ran out of...defences, you see. Seems like we'll have to borrow yours."

Something snapped inside Mira (which did not happen very often) and she sidestepped Blondie quickly and reached the entrance of the kitchen. A butcher knife flew out from the room and buried itself into the wall, missing Mira by inches.

Mira's heart jumped to her throat and blocked a scream just in time.

Small Girl came out, looking slightly pleased as she yanked the knife out. "I am very sorry for that; you should not have stood there," she said in English, bowing, "but you have an excellent set of knives in your possession. They will do most satisfactorily."

Caucasian Girl joined them, looking grim. "They're here."

Before Mira could defrost herself from the wall, Caucasian Girl had grabbed her arm and was leading her back behind the counter. "When they come, act casual and remember that you're the only person in the teahouse. Try to get them to go away if you can. When they start bringing their guns out," here Blondie pulled her down into a crouch and hid her from view, "...drop. That will be our cue, so keep calm."

Mira Cheng was lightyears away from calm. "Who the hell are you people!"

"That's what we're trying to find out," she said, smoothly jumping over the counter and going back for the kitchen, her boots clacking on the floor. "Keep it casual, all right? But not too casual unless they suspect something. You'll know what to do; adrenaline usually takes over."

Mira hoisted herself up with her trembling fingers clutching the edge of the bar, making a mental note to bring a rifle with her on her next shift.

Someone had thrust open the door, knocking the chimes down, and three men with blue eyes in matching black suits and ties stormed into the teahouse. Mira blinked a few times in what she hoped to be an attempt to look casual. They certainly weren't the usual cutthroats from Recto Street; hair and wardrobe made sure of that. Mira could even smell cologne. Tommy Hilfiger.

Men in black marched straight to the counter and Mira opened her mouth, shut it, discolored into four shades of grey, and finally stammered, "Take-out?"

Three matching guns appeared.

Before Mira could even pass out from fright, something hurtled from the back of the room and struck Man in Black 1 right on the forehead, going through deep as he collapsed. Mira screamed. Pa's ceramic knife. Pa's precious, 5.2-inch, four-thousand-peso Kyocera ceramic knife, stuck in a bloody noggin during her watch. She was going to be disowned.

A cleaver came out next, almost chopping Man in Black 2's head off his shoulders, followed by a steak knife that assailed Man in Black 3 right between the eyes. The bodies fell. Which was when Mira remembered to drop.

There was silence as Mira hid behind the counter, shaking like a leaf. Then she heard the door open again and a foot stepping over the fallen chimes. She crawled to the edge of the bar and peeked out.

Ah. There were the usual hoods from Recto, about fifteen of them. Sleeveless shirts, week's growth of facial hair, rubber slippers, with screwdrivers and nicked balisong knives in hand, dipped in horse manure for added lethality. Hired, no doubt. Mira could hear them angrily muttering in Tagalog about their three dead contractors and their remaining fifty percent cash.

More cutlery flew from the back of the teahouse and Mira scrambled back into hiding. Groans and curses rang out as bodies slumped over tables and chairs and glass shattered. Mira shut her eyes and pulled her hands over her ears. She had no idea that Pa had that many kitchen knives.

In ten seconds it was over and Mira could hear the street dogs howling outside again. She peeped over the counter. Corpses strewn all over the place like a crazy William Tell tableau gone bad.

Small Girl and Caucasian Girl emerged from the kitchen, sipping from small porcelain cups in their hands.

"Sorry," said Caucasian Girl apologetically when she saw Mira's disbelief. "There was a pot of tea by the wok and it still had a couple of leaves so we boiled some water. We have a flight to catch at the unholiest of hours and we need a little caffeine boost. Hope you don't mind."

Mira looked like she was midway through an apoplexy with very small chances of surviving. "What just happened h-?"

"Unwanted men chasing us." Blondie slid a yellow lock behind her ear. "Story of our lives."

"Clear," Small Girl reported, scanning the perimeter.

"Finally." Caucasian Girl gave a relieved sigh as she placed her cup of tea on the counter. "It's quite unfair, really. We take down one person and we get fifty more in return. Cruel world."

"These bodies..." Mira felt her brain slowly turning into mush.

Caucasian Girl waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, don't worry. The Soldats have a clean-up crew for their fallen comrades and hired hands. Forensic procedure and all that red tape."

"The who?"

"Never you mind. On the other hand..." Caucasian Girl surveyed the scene. "We're really not this messy all the time; it's just that we ran out of bullets and we couldn't find a place here that sold ones that didn't explode in our faces when we chambered them." She raised her eyebrows in decision. "Body count's eighteen. I guess we could drag the bodies outside at the very least. They'd be picked up there in an hour or so, and we'll be long gone by then."

"But the neighbors..."

"When my friend says clear, she means it."

Within minutes the bodies were transported quickly, if not a little haphazardly, onto the pockmarked sidewalk in piles. The teahouse was a complete and utter battle zone of chairs, tables, and broken windows.

Small Girl was pouring herself the last of her tea on the counter and Caucasian Girl was pawing something from the hem of her skirt. Then she looked up sympathetically at Mira. "This is some collateral damage, non?"

Mira looked gloomily at the knives still embedded in the corpses outside.

"Here." Blondie finally pulled something green and rectangular placed it at the far end of the bar where she was. "We're getting a lot in return for this one anyway."

Small Girl finished her cup and glided towards Blondie, whispering something into her ear.

"Oh. Dear me, yes. I hate this part so much I nearly forgot." Caucasian Girl gave Mira a faint look of embarrassment. "You see, we practice a certain no-witness policy-"

Mira felt her spine turn into an icicle.

"...and you're a witness." Caucasian Girl was visibly uncomfortable now. "I'm terribly sorry, what with our trashing your teahouse and drinking your tea and subjecting you to irrevocable trauma-"

Mira tried to remember in which drawer her father hid his pistol, though she had a feeling that it wasn't going to be much use now.

"We have all kinds you can choose from," Caucasian Girl was saying. "Immediate-knockout, quick-and-easy, slow-and-steady, long-and-torturous-"

"I'm blind!"

Caucasian Girl looked startled. Even Small Girl's unfathomable eyes had widened noticeably. And Mira was completely paralyzed from the neck down at the sound of her own voice which wasn't exactly sounding like hers right now because it was a few octaves higher, but she rattled on violently.

"I didn't see a thing. I heard everything because I have great hearing and I know my father is going to kill me for making a mess anyway, but I didn't see a thing!" Mira gestured wildly, feeling like she was about to go insane. "I'm clinically blind! Like a bat!"

Caucasian Girl was looking at her skeptically. "You saw absolutely nothing?"

"Nothing!"

"You don't know what we look like?"

"I don't even know you're blond!"

The two of them stared at her.

"If...if you're even blond or not," Mira faltered.

There was an awful pause.

Then Small Girl burst into a very demure but still very distinct fit of giggles and a smile was tugging Blondie's lips, who said, "I...suppose we can take your word for it." She turned to her friend. "What do you think?"

Small Girl vainly fought for composure.

"In that case, we won't have to go through with it." Caucasian Girl sounded relieved herself. "Anyway, in case you do make any trouble for us, you'll be an easy kill."

"Of...of course," said Mira faintly.

"Bien."Caucasian Girl tiptoed over the tables and chairs and placed the chimes back on the ceiling, herding her companion out.

Heart pounding, Mira turned to look at the two paper bills Caucasian Girl had left on the bar. One hundred and fifty dolyar. Which in today's exchange rates amounted to nearly nine thousand Philippine pesos.

Mira turned around again and nearly suffered cardiac arrest when she collided with a mass of purple hair. She stared at a green-cloaked girl who was sweating profusely inches away from her, obviously not having been well-informed of the sultry Philippine weather. "Who're you!"

The other gave a chuckle which sounded to Mira as if it had enough helium to lift the girl from the floor. "An observer." In an instant, she had grabbed the dollars on Mira's hand and examined them. "They have not gone very far."

Mira yanked her wrist away defensively and the other somersaulted out the door and into the night, cloak billowing. Mira sank against the counter and closed her eyes, breathing heavily.

Time to equilibrate. Two girls. One a young teenager, the other only a little older than Mira herself. They kill. They have terrific aim. They're used to it. They're loaded. They have a bone to pick with a group that sounds like something French. They're being stalked by a girl who had dyed her hair with a color that would clash with everything she would wear.

Mira exhaled.

Foreigners with issues. Typical.

She looked at the one-fifty clutched in her hand.

At least they brought money with them.

end