The train goes by every day, but it only goes one way. Lin had never considered it, not until the girl called Sen went down the tracks and returned on a dragon's back. How can a train only go one way? Where does it end up? Now, lying on her mat in the morning's silence, she considers a place where trains go to die. Then she smiles, discards the notion, and glides into sleep as quietly as daylight.
A long stretch of time has passed since the girl called Sen, whose name was really Chihiro, left the bathhouse and went back to her own world. Lin isn't sure, but she thinks Chihiro might be grown up now. Time isn't the same in the bathhouse. It pulls, it drifts. But the train comes by every day.
Lin wakes up in late afternoon. She has been allowed to sleep as late as she wants today, almost like a day off. The night had been long and hectic, full of scurrying around: the Shi Tenno had come for baths and some cards, and they always partied hard. They only came once or twice a year -- evil didn't take enough breaks to let them come more -- and when they did, they liked raucous dancing and lots of sake. They were devilish charming and lots of fun, but they wore a girl out. Lin smiles, remembering a loud stomping dance with her arm clamped around Komoku's waist, trying to keep up.
She stands and makes her way around the other girls to the balcony. The sun slides toward the watercovered plain, creating a trail that, Lin thinks sleepily, she could just walk on like the bathhouse's bridge, just walk on out the other side of this world to wherever was next. Far beneath her, with a swish and a screech, the train breaks the sun's path and slides toward the bathhouse stop.
It brings back a memory -- Chihiro, sitting next to her, watching the sun, and Lin saying to her carelessly, "Someday, I'm gonna get out of here. Just ride the train out." But it had never happened. Lin cannot remember how she got to the bathhouse, and she certainly has no idea how to leave it. Chihiro had left, but she had Haku's help, and Haku has barely spoken at all since then, coming downstairs simply to spit orders and then stomping back up like staying would mess up his pretty hair.
Lin rolls her eyes. She can't imagine herself petitioning Haku for anything, even something as important as leaving. And often enough, it doesn't seem that important -- like last night, dancing with a soldier god. How often did you get to do that, if you didn't work at a bathhouse of the spirits? Nights like that, even Yubaba didn't seem that tyrannical.
Back in the bedroom, the girls begin to stir, chattering to one another about whatever strikes them. Bedrolls get folded up and jewelry clinks as it's taken out of its box. The door to the balcony slips open and Reiko comes out, yawning and brushing her black hair until it snaps around her head.
"What's going on, Lin? Have a good sleep?" Reiko is a bathhouse "girl," but she is older than Lin, and had been working a very long time before Lin's own arrival. Lin has asked -- tentatively -- whether Reiko remembers that event, but Reiko claims a memory loss. Lin isn't sure whether she is lying or genuinely has no idea. But it isn't wise to push.
"Sure did. All that dancing wore me out. Slept like a little baby bird."
"Mmm." Lin considers. "Wash the walls, re-paper the doors that the Shi Tenno busted, and finish the pomegranate border in the Summer room."
Reiko, who has no eye for pomegranates but is a deft hand at gluing, shrugs. "I'll get a team together." She ties her hair back in a deft braid and stretches, arms over head, white skin catching the red rays of sunshine.
"Look," she says suddenly, pointing outward and to the south. "Yubaba's coming back." A black dot by the horizon is growing larger, flanked by a smaller black dot and a long, blue, sinuous line. "With Haku."
"Uh huh," answers Lin. Once in awhile she wonders what would happen if Yubaba didn't come back from her journeyings across the plain. Would Haku take over? Or would the whole bathhouse simply cease to exist, taking all the inhabitants with it? Would there be a blink and a snap, and then no memory of Lin or Reiko or Bou or Kamaji? Nothing but a blank patch of grass by some decaying food stands?
It doesn't make her shiver, precisely -- she isn't one for deep thoughts -- but it gives her pause at funny moments, like when she's washing the floor, or standing on a balcony, looking over a sea which may or may not exist.
The black dot gets bigger, and Lin watches it for a moment until Reiko tugs her arm.
"Best to be back at work before she arrives, hm?"
"Yeah, sure," says Lin, turning away, going back into the room, sliding the doors shut. Making sure her own hair is in order. Trailing Reiko down the stairs, half-listening to Aogaeru's little motivational speeches, washing the walls and supervising the pomegranate painting.
"For the honor of the customers!" declaims Aogaeru, his little mustache twitching away below his buggy eyes. "We must be as clean as possible! A clean room is a happy room!"
Lin tunes him out, thoughts straying to Chihiro. Perhaps now she has finished school. Learned to dance. Had a few kisses. Driven a car the length of Japan. Perhaps she thinks, sometimes, of Lin and a place that cannot be gotten back to: the bathhouse, or childhood, or both.
She swipes a last wall down and empties the bucket out, then gets in line to gulp down some rice before the rush starts. Outside, the neon signs fizz on and the long strings of red lights stare down the darkness.
"Come on," says Reiko from behind her. "A bunch of mountain spirits just crashed the Serenity Room and they're demanding mackerel heads and rice wine. Luckily, they've got silver like you wouldn't believe."
Lin swallows the last of her rice and stops thinking about anything but silver. "All right!" As she scampers up the stairs, the stomp and smash of the mountain spirits gets louder and louder.
Without warning, on the thirty-fourth floor landing, she smacks straight into Haku. The force of the collision knocks him back a few steps, and he scowls at her forcefully.
"Watch where you're going, Lin." Her name sounds like a curse when he says it, and she scowls right back at him.
"Don't get in my way and I won't get in yours, all right?"
He flips his hair back and stalks off past her. She sticks her tongue out at his back.
He doesn't turn around. "Know-it-all."
He turns a corner and so she gets the last word, but it doesn't satisfy. She knows that he's unhappy and it bothers her a little, but she's not one for deep thoughts. A couple of girls come flying by her, breathless and giggling, heading, no doubt, for a room that is less than serene. Lin follows, already in motion, already forgetting to remember.
Notes: From pantheon.org: "The Shi Tenno guard Japan against attacks by evil spirits. They are Jikoku (east), Komoku (south), Tamon (north), and Zocho (west). They are depicted as fierce-looking, fully armed and armored, loyal soldiers."
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