“So, Ali,” Yusuke said as he released her hand. “You’re not an easy person to find.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t really want to be found.” She looked from one boy to the other. “Speaking of, how did you find me? And why were you looking?”
The boys exchanged curious looks. Yusuke gestured to Kurama to allow him to explain. “We understand you’ve been on the run for a while,” he said. “Our… boss,” he said the word slowly, as if not sure it was the right word to use, “has resources at his disposal which he would very much like to offer to you as protection from those who pursue you.”
Ali arched an eyebrow. Were they mafia? “Resources that can track me even when I don’t want to be found?” If he had found her so easily, could others?
Kurama scratched at his cheek thoughtfully. “To some extent, yes. It wasn’t easy, mind you. It was more by chance he found you at all.” He extended his hand to her. “Come back with us, let him tell you for himself, and then you can decide whether you wish to take his offer or return here.”
She hesitated in grabbing his hand. Would they really let her leave if she didn’t like what they had to offer? Kurama seemed genuine enough, and Yusuke, for all his brashness, also seemed so. Neither had the feel of being a mob gangster—surely, they were too young—but Ali couldn’t ignore the immense power she felt from both boys. Could she really refuse them?
“Alright,” she said, gripping Kurama’s hand in as firm a handshake as she had given Yusuke. “It can’t hurt to hear him out, anyway.”
Something like relief washed over him and he clasped her hand with both of his. “I will personally escort you back if you decline his assistance.” His smile reassured her. It was familiar. She hadn’t seen such a warm smile directed at her since her father died.
“It would be nice not to be on the run for a while,” she admitted, returning his smile.
“I hate running,” Yusuke piped up. “Let’s get going before it gets dark. With any luck I won’t be late.”
Kurama chuckled, leaving Ali to wonder what the dark-haired boy would be late for. They took the lead and headed south. She was content to observe them from behind, poised to run if they gave any indication of betraying her. It quickly became apparent that that concern was misplaced.
They frequently looked back at her to make sure she was okay. At one point Kurama inquired if she had any belongings she wanted to bring along. She didn’t want to expose her caches, and there was nothing in them she couldn’t live without. They walked for the better part of an hour in relative silence, which gave her plenty of time to think. They were taking her to a person who had incredible resources, including the employ of two teenagers who were just as strong as she knew she could be. She was intrigued by their strength and hoped she might learn more about the power within herself if she stuck around them long enough.
“Are we sure she’s the one Koenma is looking for?” Yusuke asked Kurama in a voice low enough Ali knew she wasn’t meant to overhear. Whatever else this Koenma had told them about her, they didn’t know how sharp her hearing was. She pretended to be very interested in the trees along the trail.
“How many teenage girls do you think live alone in the mountains?” Kurama replied after a pause, just as softly. “He didn’t exactly give us a description, but she did defend herself when she thought we were attacking her.”
Yusuke made a soft tsk. “So would you if strangers suddenly started chasing you in the place you believed was safe.” From her periphery, Ali saw him glance back at her. She met his eyes and gave him an innocent smile. He nodded and turned back to Kurama. “I don’t get it though. She’s just an ordinary human girl. I don’t sense any overwhelming energy from her.”
“She could be masking her energy,” Kurama posited. “Koenma doesn’t meddle in the affairs of ordinary humans without compelling reasons. I doubt he would send us after a lost girl.”
“You’re probably right. More importantly,” he added in a normal speaking voice, “are you sure we aren’t going in circles? This tree looks familiar.”
Kurama stopped and looked at his surroundings. Ali refrained from giggling aloud. She had wondered how long it would take them to realize they had doubled back. Twenty minutes was the answer. From Kurama’s bemused expression, he was not used to losing his heading. “Perhaps I am not as recovered from our Dark Tournament battles as I thought. Though it shames me to admit it, I think we might be lost.”
Yusuke groaned. “Keiko is definitely going to kill me. I promised her we would go out tonight.” Oh. Ali finally had context for his earlier haste.
“I am sorry, Yusuke,” Kurama said. “I will apologize to Keiko on your behalf.”
“I’d rather fight Toguro again than face her after standing her up again. There’s no way I would make you go through that either.”
This Keiko sounded frightening. Ali cleared her throat. “If I may,” she said, “I can lead you out of here in time for your date.”
He bristled as if she had taunted him. “And how are you going to do that?”
Kurama shook his head in exasperation. Ali grinned. “Of the three of us, who has lived in these woods for the last fifteen years?”
Yusuke ran a hand through his hair. “Well why didn’t you say so sooner?”
She shrugged. “You didn’t ask.” Kurama grinned to match Ali. Yusuke took offense to the red-head’s smile, flipping him off before sulkily gesturing Ali to take the lead.
She got them back on the right trail shortly after. It turned out they had covered almost thirty miles in their pursuit of her over the afternoon. Had she not witnessed their speed firsthand, she would have called them crazy. It also explained how they might have gotten lost despite being nearly as good at tracking as she was. They wouldn’t have had time to pay close attention to their path if they were running desperate.
“We’re almost out,” she announced. They didn’t ask how she was sure, just as they didn’t ask where the overgrown trail she ignored went. She wondered if they even noticed it. “So, what should I expect from this Koenma person?” she asked to distract herself from thinking about the charred ruins at the end of that trail.
Yusuke smirked as Kurama breathed a sigh that could have been exasperation or it could have been embarrassment. “Ali, have you ever wondered if this world is the only one? If there are parallel worlds that exist in harmony with this one?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “My father once told me there were other worlds. That what we call “heaven” or “hell” are actual places the soul goes when we die.”
Kurama nodded. “The Spirit World. It is a crossroads between worlds made up of infinite realms of eternity. It is rare for humans to be granted access while still in a living body, but the nature of our job gives us that privilege. We work for the prince of that world.”
Ali swallowed hard. She thought she could deal with them if they were mafia. But an otherworldly prince? She was leagues out of her element there.
“Don’t worry about Koenma,” Yusuke laughed, clapping her on the back. “He’s the least scary person in any world.”
“Well,” Kurama hedged, “he can be scary when he needs to be. He is King Enma’s son.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “But yes, for the most part, he’s not very intimidating.”
Ali glanced to the sky involuntarily, wondering if lightning would strike them down for being so blasé about their heavenly boss. She tried to picture a man who was both unimposing and potentially frightening. She decided he must be relatively small—people always underestimated small folk, especially small men—with a serious countenance that was both handsome and boyish. Somehow that didn’t ease her nerves at all.
She shook her head to clear it. There was another question she had to ask. “So, how do we get there?”
Yusuke blinked in surprise. “That’s a good question.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a compact mirror. “I probably could have just done this from the start,” he muttered as he opened it. “Hey, Koenma! Can you hear me? Earth to Koenma! It’s Yusuke!”
Ali looked on in wonder as a static crackling came from the little handheld device. “Yusuke! How goes it down there? Did you find the girl?” The compact must have been distorting his voice. He sounded almost child-like.
“We’ve got her,” Yusuke said. “We got a little lost in the woods though. Any chance you can beam us up?”
“I can’t just open a portal on a whim! There are procedures for this sort of thing. Of course, given the circumstances, I’m sure I can find some exception…” There was a short pause on the other end as Koenma rustled through papers. “Stay where you are and give me ten minutes.”
Yusuke shut the compact with a muttered curse as Koenma hung up on him. “He had no trouble getting one opened earlier,” he grumbled.
Kurama chuckled. “He’d had time to submit the proper paperwork for that one, I’d wager.”
“Well we were gonna have to come back sooner or later,” Yusuke complained. “How else did he expect us to bring her to him?”
A sly grin adorned the red-head’s face and his emerald eyes flashed mischievously. “I suspect he just needed some time to prepare to meet his guest.”
Yusuke’s scowl deepened in confusion. He looked from Kurama to Ali and recognition dawned on his face. He burst into laughter. “Right, preparations.” He grinned at her. “Well Ali, I hope you’re ready to meet the prince of the Spirit World.”
She nodded, but she was definitely not ready. What in the worlds had she gotten herself into?