The portal appeared in as little time as Koenma said it would. Ali didn’t know what she had expected, but she supposed the door-shaped shimmer in the air in front of one of the trees made as much sense as anything else. Kurama gestured for her to go ahead of him but she hesitated. If this was a trap, this was her last moment to flee. What if they had been lying and they were just turning her over to someone worse?
She shook that thought away. They weren’t lying. She knew they weren’t. “Yusuke, you go on ahead.” Kurama’s voice startled her. “We’ll follow right behind you.”
Yusuke nodded and took the lead. Ali watched him walk to the portal. Just when it looked like he was about to walk right into the tree, he stepped right through the shimmer and disappeared. She let out a small involuntary gasp. She had seen a lot of strange things in recent years, but people vanishing into thin air was a new one.
“I understand your reluctance,” Kurama said soothingly. “We can go through together, if you like.”
Ali sighed. “No, I’m ok. Just, bracing myself is all.”
He nodded. “I’ll be right behind you.”
There was nothing for it but to just do it. She took the same strong steps she had seen Yusuke take and approached the shimmer. The nearer she got to it, the closer she looked at it. It was really an incredible bit of magic. No, it wasn’t magic, it was energy. The energy of two different worlds, coalesced at a single point to allow passage between them. Somehow, she felt that there was an easier way to achieve it, but then she was through the portal and the thought fled her mind.
The stark contrast of the air from the place she had just left to the place she had arrived hit her like a bucket of cold water. She had to blink to adjust her eyes to the brightness of the large, tiled office. She didn’t need them to tell her this was an otherworldly place. Her own eyes and nose would have told her as much even if she hadn’t been forewarned.
She caught a faint scent of the crisp mountain air from behind her and turned to see Kurama enter from an actual doorway in the wall. His encouraging smile reminded her she was not alone.
“Mission accomplished,” Yusuke announced with a grand, sweeping gesture towards her.
Ali looked at the man who was hoping to be her protector. He was taller than she expected, handsome and regal in a velvet tunic. His dusty brown hair parted in the middle, framing intelligent eyes and revealing a “Jr” tattoo on his forehead. The pacifier in his mouth made it difficult to place an age to him, but she would have said he was a teenager like the rest of them.
A teenager who commanded respect that Yusuke did not deign to give. Only a slight narrowing of Koenma’s eyes at Yusuke suggested he was even remotely bothered by that. “Thank you both,” he said, leaning his head toward Kurama in acknowledgment. “Young lady, welcome to the Spirit World. I am Koenma.”
Ali had never met anyone of import before. As a kid, she had read plenty of books about kings and queens and scrappy heroes fighting for the honor of the prince or princess. Surely she remembered something about royal etiquette from those stories. She bowed as formally as she could think of. “Thank you for your hospitality.” She prayed she didn’t sound as rural as she felt.
A chuckle from Yusuke reddened her cheeks. “You don’t need to be formal with Koenma,” he said.
Kurama’s hand on her shoulder pulled her to stand straight. His eyes sparkled with amusement. “I apologize if we gave you the wrong impression of our benevolent benefactor. We only meant to give you an idea of what to expect, not urge you to stand on ceremony.”
Koenma sighed. “You could both learn a lot from her,” he muttered. “It’s refreshing to be recognized as my station deserves, but they are right. It is not necessary.”
“In any case, boys, you’ve completed your mission and I’m sure you are eager to be getting home. You may both be dismissed.”
Yusuke turned tail and waved. “You’re damn right. With any luck Keiko won’t be sending me back here tonight!” He raced off to meet his terrifying girlfriend.
Ali cast a nervous glance at Kurama. “Sir, if Ali decides she would rather return to her mountains, I will escort her.”
The prince raised an eyebrow. “Kurama, I have no intentions to hold her against her will.” He leveled his gaze at her. “You will be free to go if you do not like what I have to say, but I do ask that you give me one night.”
“Just one night?”
He nodded. “If the accommodations are not to your liking, you can return to your mountain in the morning. At the very least, you will have a warm bed and a roof over your head for one night. I will even send Kurama to see how you wish to proceed.”
A warm bed? Ali couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept on anything softer than moss. A chance to have a real bath would be nice too. And all she had to do was hear him out? “Ok,” she said. She gave Kurama a smile. “See you tomorrow?”
His return smile was warm, but his eyes were hard on Koenma. “Of course,” he said. He excused himself with a polite bow and spared one last curious look for Koenma before shutting the door behind him. Ali didn’t think he suspected foul play, but Koenma’s behavior had unsettled him. Was the prince acting differently because she was there? What was he normally like?
“Ali Shinamori.” He spoke her full name and she froze to the spot. “15 years old. Female. Blood type O. Human.” He leaned casually against the large mahogany desk as his eyes weighed her. “But you’re not just an ordinary girl, are you?”
She held her hands together tightly in front of her stomach. How much did he know? She took a deep breath to calm herself. When she could hear again over the beating of her own heart, she gave him an innocent grin. “You clearly don’t think so, or you wouldn’t have bothered bringing me out of my hermitage.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. He didn’t believe her ignorance. “I sent a team to retrieve you a couple years ago,” he said. “They disappeared, as did you. I had nearly given up hope of finding you alive but then you resurfaced a few months ago.” There was no anger in his voice, only relief.
Ali didn’t understand. There was a very good chance she had killed, either directly or indirectly, the people he had sent to find her back when the sleeping power within her had first surged, two years ago. He should be sending her to hell or something, not smiling with relief for her safety. “What is it you want from me?” she asked quietly, her voice barely quavering with her fear and anger.
“Your trust,” he said. “It must seem, lately, that everywhere you turn there’s a new threat. I assure you, I only had you brought here to offer you protection from those who would seek to harm you.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s that strange energy inside me, isn’t it? The one similar to those boys you sent to rescue me.”
He nodded. “A power as strong as yours draws others to it, like moths to a flame. Although in some cases, the moths are monsters.”
“I could feel them coming,” she said. “I could feel they weren’t ordinary humans. The others, too, when they came, I knew they weren’t what they appeared to be.” She frowned. “What do they want from me? What do they hope to gain?”
“The only thing powerful men, such as those who hunt you, want, is more power. They will come for you, and they will do everything in their power to bend you to their will.” His honesty made her hold her tongue. His eyes flashed dangerously and Ali could see the Prince behind them. “I am tired of watching them exploit good people to evil ends.”
Ali maintained a healthy level of skepticism as she met his fierce gaze. “Good people are exploited every day. Why do you intervene now?”
“Why you, you mean?” She nodded. Depending on his answer, she thought she might refuse even his offer of a single night under a roof. That thought was swept away immediately when he spoke. His words captivated her. “I admit your case is unique and my interest in it isn’t wholly altruistic. There is another matter I have been chasing on and off for fifteen years, a puzzle to which I believe you may hold the final piece or, in the very least, may lead me to it.”
Ali tilted her head to one side as she considered him. “A bargain, then,” she said. He grinned behind the pacifier. “You shelter me in exchange for any small help I can give you to solve a mystery older than myself? I think you are getting the short end of this deal.”
He extended a hand toward her. “Then you have nothing to lose.”
She eyed his hand warily, trying to determine if it was truly an olive branch or if it was a snake waiting to poison her. She shook her head at that foolish thought. Koenma was the ruler of the Spirit World. If he wanted to kill her, he wouldn’t need to resort to subterfuge. She clasped his hand and shook it. “What the hell, I am awfully tired of running.”
“Wonderful!” His relief as he released her hand was palpable. He practically bounced behind his desk and pressed a button on an intercom she couldn’t see for the stack of papers. “Botan, if you please.”
“Right away, sir!” a bubbly voice answered.
Returning his attention to Ali, he said, “I have a safe house back in the human realm. Much as I would prefer to keep you here, you are still of the living world, so you must return there. Don’t worry,” he added hastily. “It is protected by a powerful barrier and is well guarded by my personal forces.” His cheeks colored slightly and he rubbed the back of his neck. It made the prince look boyish. “It’s actually my vacation home.”
Ali laughed. She couldn’t help it. “You have a vacation home in the human realm?”
“What? A prince can’t have private real estate in an exotic locale?” He smirked.
Before Ali could retort, a young woman entered the office from a side door. Her bright pink kimono was the least flashy thing about her. Ali had never seen anyone with violet eyes or hair as blue as the sky. “You called for me, Koenma sir?” Botan’s light, bubbly voice was just as pleasant in person as it had been over the intercom. Ali was instantly enamored.
“I would like you to escort our guest to my private estate in the human realm,” he said, extending his hand towards Ali. “Please alert the guards to allow her full access to the grounds and the staff to make her as comfortable as possible.”
“As you wish, sir!” She gave him a cheeky salute and winked at Ali.
“Ali, this is Botan.” Ali inclined her head in polite greeting. “She is my personal assistant but I will lend her to you as I sort out the details of our arrangement.”
“If I decide to stay,” she said, stressing the ‘if.’
“If, yes.” He nodded but she didn’t think he believed she would refuse him after a night at his vacation estate.
She stood straighter as a moment of stubbornness coursed through her. She didn’t care how grand a palace it was or how safe; she would take her one night and go home no matter what.
“Botan,” he went on as if he hadn’t noticed the newly stoked fire in Ali’s eyes, “I’m counting on you to keep her company tonight.”
The colorful girl’s eyes widened. “You mean, I get to stay there too?” Her body trembled as though she was restraining herself from leaping at him and embracing him.
Koenma cleared his throat. “Strictly a working vacation. A special assignment. You’re still on duty, after all.”
Botan bounced on her heels. “It will be my honor!”
Her enthusiasm infected Ali. “I’ll be in your care,” she said with a mischievous grin.
“You know the way?” Koenma asked. Botan nodded. “I’d escort you myself but,” he gestured at the massive piles on his desk. Ali thought they had grown in the short time she’d spent talking with him, though she couldn’t figure out how. “I’ll send Kurama over in the morning to get your answer.”
More like “convince you to stay,” Ali thought. She had a feeling that if she was even slightly on the fence about staying, talking to Kurama would make up her mind for her, regardless how obstinate she wanted to be. Something about him intrigued her and reminded her of home. In spite of how she felt about staying, she was looking forward to seeing him again.
A/N: A note on language/culture: this story is based on an anime I loved as a teen (and still love to this day). I also still watch a lot of subbed anime and read a lot of manga. In the spirit of the source material, I try to incorporate as much of the original language as possible. What I mean by this, is there might be certain tics or phrases that aren’t necessarily common to native English speakers, but which crop up in Japanese and in particular, in anime/manga and their translations. I do not sprinkle baka’s and kawaii’s and sumi masen’s in my stories. I use the English equivalents for any such phrases I include (e.g. in this chapter when Ali tells Botan she’ll “be in your care,” this is an English translation of a common phrase in Japanese (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) which is fairly complex and versatile and can be translated in many ways.)
Likewise, honorifics are very important when referring to other people in Japanese, but as my story is being told in English, I am not including -san’s or -sama’s, rather if an honorific would be attached to a character’s name I will instead use a title like Sir or Miss.
Then again, if I’ve done my job well as a writer, you shouldn’t even notice them.