Botan led Ali through the chaos of the spirit realm departments, dodging ogres and apparitions all bustling on their way to deliver their various reports. Ali almost screamed when she first saw the troll-like creatures scurrying about in loincloths. There were monsters in the spirit world?
“We’re not so different from the human or demon worlds,” Botan laughed. “We have all kinds of different races here!”
“There’s a demon world too?”
Botan waved her hand reflexively, as if to shoo a particularly aggressive bee from her face, and laughed nervously. “Oh it’s not so interesting as it sounds,” she said dismissively. Ali got the feeling she wasn’t supposed to know about that yet. Either that, or Koenma wanted to keep her interested enough to take him up on his offer. “They’re sentient beings anyway, if a bit violent at times, and so they come through spirit world when they die, just as humans do.” Ali’s mind wandered to her father. Had he come here as well? “Anyway, we’re almost there,” Botan said.
This area of the palace was much quieter than the rest. There were only a handful of servants milling about, straightening décor and cleaning. A wispy old fellow bowed as they approached. “Miss Botan, I am sure you are not lost, but it is odd to see you bring a guest to these quarters.”
“I’m not ferrying this girl, Taro,” she said, returning his bow. “Lord Koenma has asked me to personally escort her to his estate in the human realm. He hopes she will find it comfortable and safe and choose to remain under his majesty’s protection.”
“How wonderful! Young lady, do not hesitate to ask for anything. The cook will make you whatever you like to eat.” His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “She used to bake me the most delicious tiny cakes whenever I was on guard duty.”
Botan pulled Ali along the hall and waved goodbye to the old man. “We’ll be sure to give Ai your love!”
When they were around the corner, Ali asked, “What would it mean if you were “ferrying” me?”
“It’s my job. I’m a ferry girl,” Botan said matter-of-factly. “I guide souls to the spirit world so that they can go on to their final resting place, wherever that might be. You may have heard of the Grim Reaper. That’s me!”
Ali took in Botan’s bright pink kimono and light blue hair again. She laughed. “I’ll admit, you are not what I pictured the Grim Reaper to look like.”
“No one ever does,” Botan winked. “Ah, here we are!” She led Ali into a guarded room at the end of the hall. Inside the room was another door with more guards interspersed among the furniture, trying their hardest not to look out of place. “Afternoon, gents! Botan here with a special assignment from Koenma!” She greeted a pair near the door and handed them an envelope sealed with a bright red K.
They cracked the seal and read the contents. The larger of the two, a surly man with a permanent frown, scrutinized her. “She’s just an ordinary human. What’s she doin’ in Spirit World?”
“Did you even read the orders?” his effeminate partner sighed. “Forgive my idiot brother, Miss Botan, Miss Ali. Enjoy your stay at Hotel Koenma.” He ignored his brother’s stammering protests as they each pulled a key from around their necks. Two keyholes appeared on either side of the door and the brothers slotted their keys into the one nearest them.
Keys and door vanished into a bright light as the portal formed. This was different from the one Koenma had summoned for her and the detectives to return to Spirit World. It was more permanent, but it had requirements for passage it seemed. Rules for who could and could not use it.
“Thanks boys!” Botan waved and pulled Ali through the portal.
As before, thoughts of how the portal functioned fled Ali’s mind once she was on the other side. She blinked to clear her vision. This room was just like the one she had left. Even the guards looked the same.
They paid her no mind as a middle-aged serving woman scurried across the room to them, bowing deeply. “Lord Koenma sent word of your coming, misses. If you would follow me, I will show you to the estate.”
“Are we not in the estate?” Ali asked wonderingly, taking in the ornate decorations on the walls and tables.
Botan giggled. “No, silly. This is just the Reikai Security Post. The house is up the hill!”
They exited into a small courtyard bathed in the late afternoon sun and Botan bounced along the path ahead. It wasn’t a large hill, but sure enough, there was a terraced, gentle slope leading up to a mansion. This was where she was going to stay?
“Are you okay, Miss Ali?” Botan hurried back to her side.
Ali scrubbed the errant tears from her cheeks and nodded. “It’s just been so long since I had a roof over my head,” she said, thinking of the hut she had grown up in and the man who had raised her under his roof. Two years since she had buried him and burned it to the ground. Two years since she had been alone. It might as well have been a lifetime ago.
She expected laughter, but Botan took Ali’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, her own eyes holding back tears. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said. “It’s probably been ages since you had a proper anything. Food, bed, bath.”
Ali turned her head to the side and inhaled a whiff of her arm. She grimaced. “No, and I guess I really need that last one,” she laughed.
Botan laughed with her. “I would never insinuate you need one, but a hot wash always does feel best after roughing it for any length of time.” She tugged at Ali’s arm and nodded towards the mansion. “Come on, I’ll be sure to draw you up a nice bath to relax in once we get you settled.”
Ali’s stomach fluttered at Botan’s smile. “Are you sure you’re really the grim reaper?” she teased.
Botan blushed. “I get that a lot.”
“Well, you’re very comforting,” Ali said. “Which, I suppose helps in your line of work.”
“It does,” Botan grinned. “Come on, I’ll show you the house!”
Ali was content to follow Botan through the halls and listen as their guide explained some of the layout. There were three floors and a basement level. The first floor held a grand ballroom and dining room towards the front. There was a large kitchen to serve those rooms when there were guests of import attending a gala, with access to the basement pantry through the grand kitchen as well. For the residents, there was a smaller kitchen and dining area to use in the day to day.
The second floor held libraries and lounges and offices. Botan laughed as Ali peered into one of the libraries and sighed at the sight of all the books. “There will be time for that later,” Botan chuckled. “First, we have to get you to your room and into a nice relaxing bath.”
“I am looking forward to that,” Ali sighed.
The third floor had seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. Botan took Ali to the corner room at the end of the hall. Through one window there was a view of the woods behind the estate. The others looked down on the courtyard. The room had minimal furnishings; a king-sized bed that she imagined would feel like laying on a giant marshmallow, a bedside table with a reading light, a vanity, an armoire, and a lush, chaise lounge.
Botan went to start a bath for her and returned a few minutes later to find her still rooted to the floor in the middle of the room. “Ali? Your bath is ready. Would you like to soak now?”
This was too much luxury. There was no way she would be able to spend more than one night in such an outlandish “safehouse,” but her fatigue convinced her to at least take advantage of it for one night. She smiled at Botan. “I would very much like to be rid of all this grime.”
Botan stayed to help Ali scrub all the dirt and sweat from her abused skin. To Ali’s relief, Botan didn’t question or comment on the dried blood or the scrapes and scars that crisscrossed Ali’s body. Some were from her flight, fighting would-be captors and enemies. But others she had no recollection of. They were older, fainter, but they glowed white against her skin scrubbed raw.
Once she was sure Ali was free of dirt, Botan left her to wash her hair. She shampooed it several times before it no longer felt like rope in her hands and the water ran clear instead of brown. Fully clean, she piled her hair on her head and dipped her body in the steaming, scented water. There was a hint of rose oil in the water and it instantly relieved all the remaining tension she carried.
As she melted into the water it occurred to her just how tense she had been, how much abuse she had caused her body. She didn’t expect one good soak to completely soften muscles she had tightened over years of sleeping on the ground and running, but it was a pleasant start.
Botan knocked on the door after an hour. “Miss Ali, I know you are enjoying yourself, but I wouldn’t want you to turn into a raisin and shrivel up.” Ali could almost see the grin in her airy voice. “There’s a fresh robe out here in the vestibule and your bed has been turned down if you are ready to sleep.”
Ali thanked her and climbed out of the bath. Her legs wobbled beneath her and she had to hold on to the edge to keep from tumbling to the floor. She chuckled to herself. Relaxed muscles were dangerous. When she regained her balance, and support, she toweled dry and wrapped up her damp hair. She found the robe Botan promised and donned it before heading back to her room.
The sun had set while she was in her bath and the moon was beginning her slow climb into the dark sky. Ali closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She could still smell the forest. She fell into the bed and was surprised to find it firmer than it looked. It wasn’t nearly as hard as the ground, but it was firm enough to convince her tired body that she wasn’t completely out of the woods. With the breeze carrying the rustic outdoor air over her, she fell deeply asleep.
Ali had her most restful sleep in years, but was still up with the sun. Frowning at her reflection in the vanity, her hair all askew from being slept on while still damp, she returned to the bathroom to wash it once more. She decided to freshen up while she was at it and washed the rest of her as well. She ran a hand up one arm and smiled at how rejuvenated her skin looked and felt.
Putting on a fresh bathrobe, it occurred to her that she didn’t have any clean clothes to change into. As she emerged from the bathroom, she spotted Botan shuffling out of the room next to hers and rubbing the last of the sleep from her eyes. “Good morning, Botan!”
The ferry girl jumped at the sound of Ali’s voice. “Oh, Ali, good morning.” She placed a hand on her chest and sighed. “Have you been awake long?” she asked.
“Nah,” Ali shook her head. “Body’s still used to getting up at first light so I decided to have another shower.”
Botan chuckled. “Well don’t wash yourself raw.” She stretched one arm over her head as her jaw cracked with a yawn. “Care to see if breakfast is ready?”
Ali’s stomach grumbled. In all the excitement of the previous evening, she hadn’t eaten supper. “Absolutely,” she grinned, suppressing a blush at the sudden volume her stomach was emitting in anticipation.
Together they ventured to the smaller kitchen to discover the cooks had already laid out a hearty breakfast for them. A bowl of miso soup, a bowl of rice topped with grilled salmon, a fried egg, and a pot of tea awaited each place setting. Ali’s mouth watered and she hurried to the table. “Thanks for the meal!”
Botan also expressed her gratitude and laughed as Ali dug into the rice with the fervor of a starving girl. Ali slowed her pace after the first few mouthfuls. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been feeding herself in the mountains. She hunted what small game there was, and foraged for the rest. She hadn’t had steamed rice in at least two years though, and her woodland version of miso soup was bland in comparison to the hot liquid pouring down her throat.
She sat sipping her tea as Botan finished her meal. Placing the cup on the placemat, Ali bowed her head to Botan and looked up at her with the biggest puppy-dog eyes she could muster. “You wouldn’t happen to have any clean clothes I could borrow? I need to wash mine and they’re all I have.”
Botan smiled. “Absolutely. C’mon.” She took Ali by the hand and led her back upstairs. “I know just the thing.” She rummaged through the dresser in her room, her brow furrowed as she made her search. Her eyes lit up when she found the items she wanted and she handed them to Ali. “Those should fit you just right.”
“Thanks, I promise I’ll return them once my clothes are clean.”
Botan dismissed her with a wave of her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Honestly, unless those clothes have some sentimental value to you, I’d suggest just tossing them.”
Ali sighed. “They’ll probably disintegrate in the wash anyway,” she frowned.
Botan grabbed her by the shoulders and met her gaze. The ferry girl’s eyes sparkled and Ali’s melancholy evaporated. “Don’t worry,” Botan said. “We’ll go shopping and get you a whole new wardrobe!”
Ali smiled. “I would like that, very much.” Botan shooed her to go and dress.
Back in her room, she shed the bathrobe and stepped into the jeans Botan had given her. The other girl was slightly taller, but the waist fit Ali perfectly. She modified the length of the legs by rolling the ends of each into a short cuff. She threw the shirt over her head and stuck her arms through each short sleeve. Admiring her reflection, she noticed the cerulean blouse brought the blue out of her blue-gray eyes. Her heart danced in her chest. She could have a whole new wardrobe of clothes that fit and flattered her, if she stayed.
“I knew that would be the perfect color for you,” Botan exclaimed when she emerged from her room. “Are the pants ok? Do you need a belt?”
Ali shook her head. “No, they fit quite comfortably. Thank you.”
Botan smiled. “Don’t mention it,” she said. “Would you like to see the grounds this morning?”
“We didn’t get to do much exploring last night,” Ali replied. “And I’m not quite used to being cooped up. Some fresh air would be nice.”
“Well there’s plenty of that outside!” Botan led Ali back downstairs and out the front entrance. Before they got very far, they spotted Kurama walking up the path. Ali’s heart skipped a beat and she resisted the urge to wave with as much exuberance as Botan did. “Good morning Kurama!”
“Good morning, ladies,” he said with a polite bow. “I trust you slept well?” This last was directed at her.
“Best sleep I’ve had in years,” she said. “Cleanest I’ve been in years, too,” she joked half-heartedly.
His smile took her in and she prayed her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “Are those Botan’s clothes?”
The ferry girl’s cheeks flushed too. Evidently, she hadn’t known him to notice such things. Seeing her flustered filled Ali with a sudden, strange confidence. She relaxed her stance, looping her thumbs in the belt loops at her hips, and smirked at him. “She’s letting me borrow them for today. I didn’t exactly bring any luggage with me when you guys dragged me away from my home.”
Botan blinked surprise at her change in demeanor, but Kurama’s eyes glinted playfully. “We can go fetch it if it’s that important to you.”
“And miss out on a whole new wardrobe to go with my new fancy house?” she teased. Until the words were out of her mouth, she hadn’t realized she’d made up her mind to stay. Just as she’d suspected leaving Koenma yesterday, seeing Kurama again was enough to convince her. At the very least, she had someone to talk to again.
Botan and Kurama laughed with her. “Well, I should go let Koenma know your answer,” Botan said. Ali blinked as an oar appeared out of thin air into Botan’s hand. She swung it behind her legs as she hovered off the ground. “I’ll be back in a jiff!” she called as she flew towards the clouds.
“How did she-“
“Didn’t she tell you?” Kurama chuckled. “She’s the Grim Reaper.”
“She didn’t tell me she could FLY.” Ali didn’t pout for long. She grinned up at Kurama. “So, care to escort a lady around the gardens?”
He bowed, a much deeper bow than his earlier greeting. “It would be my honor.”
Ali ignored the swimming sensation of her stomach. She was going to be perfectly safe here, and she was going to make friends. Her life was finally going to be some semblance of normal.