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Chinatown Fiction
by Fushigi Kismet

For Tin

The forgotten smoke of old incense curls like a dragon in the corner. He blows on it, it rears up, fangs and claws and scales, then settles, blinks lazily at him, and vanishes.

Watanuki coughs.

He has long ago given up keeping an inventory. The backroom is not so much a room as it is a trove. Objects appear and vanish on and from the shelves and the bins and the baskets depending on the season, the day, the hour, Yuuko's mood. Even his mood perhaps. After all, he can always find a spare duster when he looks, though once the feathers were too long and square and gold to be from chickens. Yuuko said sadly, "Griffin," and he didn't dare ask any further.

The backroom and he are old enemies. He has emptied it out four times now, carefully laying artifacts, plastic toys, and a general and varied assortment of things which feel rather magical and he mentally labels EXTREMELY DANGEROUS as merely a precautionary measure, you understand, out on sheets on the grass. When he places them back on the shelves they are polished and gleaming. When he opens the door the next day, a thin film of dust has draped itself over everything. He is sure, somewhere out there, there exists another room that is gradually filling up with shiny objects which will someday be rotated back. He knows this because occasionally he will stumble across something he remembers running a cloth over in a pile of junk and spiders, and only it is clean.

Peacock feathers, he notes, turning from a pail of them and moving further into the depths of the room. Three wooden swords, a rack of prayer beads, a lucky cat, a bucket of moveable plastic snakes, a filigreed box that he is afraid to open, four hand drums, a chestnut-colored mandolin, writing paper, old, a lonely jade dragon-horse, a packet of wooden pencils, a blender shaped like Hello Kitty's head, a tray of worry stones, an empty silver cricket cage lying on its side. This, he straightens, shutting the door. Immediately an invisible cricket chirps and he ignores it, moving away. Four different packs of tarot cards. A monkey carved from a peach pit. A spoon.

The air is different in the back, more cloistered. He thinks it is possible to asphyxiate, not from lack of air but from lack of space.

He wonders what it is Yuuko has sent him to retrieve.

His fingers brush against silk on a small mahogany table and rest on a telescope. He picks it up, puts it to his eye, finds that it is a kaleidoscope full of bits of broken colored glass. The world spins, opening and closing like a red and yellow flower.

Time has stopped. The lines of the room blur and he moves towards a full length mirror and does not wonder when he put down the kaleidoscope. The mirror is filthy. He is gripped with a mania to clean it. Grabbing a nearby polka-dotted handkerchief he runs it in circles across the glass until his face emerges and his breath leaves vapor on the surface.

"Hello," a voice says and he turns, one hand still diligently scrubbing at the glass, to see a small girl, maybe nine or ten, in a crimson chinese dress with her hair gathered in two dark braids. Perfectly ordinary.

"Hello," he says. It is only polite. "Don't mind me. I'm just cleaning up."

"Yes." She perches on a nearby footstool, her chin perched on her hands. "So I see."

He is at a loss as to whether to turn back to the mirror or continue talking. He feels that it would be terribly rude to ignore her, but the state of the mirror is atrocious.

"May I get you something?" she asks pleasantly, and he thinks, How well behaved. "Jasmine tea? Mooncake?" There is a tiny teapot in her hand and a cup and saucer laid out on a small mahogany table to one side of her. Three mooncakes are arranged artfully on a blue and white plate.

"Water and polish." The words tumble out. "For the mirror."

"Of course," she says, setting down the steaming teapot. She leans over and reaches for something in the corner of his vision. He finds that he cannot turn his head in that direction. She places a small bucket of water at his feet. The tiny silver canister she offers to him is the size of a mooncake and nearly as delicious to his eyes. Her eyes are almond-colored.

"Thank you," he says, pocketing the polish and dipping the clean end of the handkerchief into the bucket.

"I wish you wouldn't," she says suddenly. There is an edge of agitation to her words.

"I'm sorry." Why should it bother her so? Perhaps he is being rude after all?

"Isn't it clean enough?"

"No," he says simply, then turns his full attention back to it, rubbing at the dirt and grime until it is shining.

"There," he says, satisfied.

She snaps her fingers and he slumps over into her waiting arms. She drapes him across a nearby chair then turns.

She looks into the mirror.

A tall woman is looking back at her.

"Ah," the girl hisses.

"Yo," Yuuko says mildly. "I came to pick up my servant."

She pouts, arms crossed. "I won't give him back! I want him!"

"Many," Yuuko pauses, continues carefully, "people do."

"He can see me!"

"I can see you."

"I don't want you."

"No." Her gaze is sharp. "You wouldn't."

The girl cringes back, cowed. "You don't want me either."

"No, not particularly."

The girl is silent.

"Come now," Yuuko says, "you've had your fun and you've been paid for your trouble. So let us conclude this exchange."

"I offered him food," she hedges.

"And he most likely ate polish if anything. He's a freak when it comes to housework. My, this mirror is clean."

"Fine," the girl says, and presses Watanuki's fingers to the glass.

Watanuki's eyelids are weighted down like heavy curtains. Yuuko presses the tip of one finger to the center of his forehead. "Wake up."

Her face swims into view. She is biting happily into a mooncake. Her hair is pulled into two braids twined through with red silk ribbon. A crimson chinese dress clings to her body like water.

"Bwuh," he says blearily.

"Here," she says, and shoves a mooncake into his open mouth. "For your trouble. Good, isn't it?"

He bites and it crumbles in half, the other half falling into his left hand. His right hand is clasping a filthy handkerchief that might have once born a polka-dot print.

"There's tea on the table," she says, snatching up the last mooncake. "When you're done with your snack, I want dinner. Chinese. It's mid-Autumn Moon Festival."

"Did I find it?" he mumbles, swallowing a decadent mouthful of delicious mooncake.

She pulls her braids back to swing behind her shoulders. "A memory of it, perhaps. Maybe the truth. Maybe a lie."

"I can't remember. What did you see?"

"Old ghosts," she says shortly, finishing her mooncake and delicately licking the tips of her fingers. "Hurry up, I'm starving."

His eyes follow the smooth movement of her red heels across the floor as she heads for the doorway. He can almost see the dust gathering behind her. He needs to mop again after making dinner.

There is something hard in his pocket. He reaches a hand in and pulls out a small silver canister of mirror polish.