A.N: Er, I know this took a looooong time, but it's also the longest chapter to date. ^.^U I was originally going to cut it into halves, but my sister talked me out of it. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I don't own DCMK or Bleach


11: Walking with Spirits

(World 11: Bleach)

"Hand over your money and valuables, Suit, and you won't get hurt!"

Kaito looked from the knives the stranger and his compatriots were pointing at him to the speaker's masked and hooded face and back again. He wasn't particularly impressed. The masked man and his two companions had (very clumsily) surrounded him when he'd decided to cut through this alley and were now actually trying the whole "your money or your life" routine. They didn't even have the courtesy to be well-dressed, he thought with irritation. Seriously, black woolen scarves and black hooded sweaters? Some people had no sense of style.

"I don't really have time for this," he informed them, just in case they wanted to change their minds. He felt a little like he should give them the chance. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered, but these three were just too pathetic. "You should really go home and rethink what you want to do with your lives."

The statement seemed to befuddle the leader of the three as he actually lowered his weapon for a moment before raising it again. "We ain't joking around here!"

"Neither am I."

"The hell is wrong with you?" one of the other two demanded with the frustrated anger of the thoroughly confused. Obviously, this wasn't how the world was supposed to work in his mind, and his sensibilities were rebelling at the change. Or maybe thinking was just too painful.

Kaito sighed. "Listen here. I'm not going to ask again. Are you going to let me pass or not? I have much more pleasant company than you lot waiting for me, you know."

"You aren't going anywhere until you hand over your wallet!" the original speaker declared, falling back on what he knew. He waved his knife threateningly for good measure. The other two followed his example like good little flunkies.

Kaito twitched. He'd never had much patience for idiots—especially not idiots who liked to brandish weapons like that gave them some kind of right to things.

The three would-be-thieves never knew what hit them.

X

It was nice to be back on Earth again and in Japan in particular, even if it was only the Earth and Japan of a different universe. He'd never heard of a Karakura before, but after having been on entirely foreign planets one came to truly appreciate that that really was a very minor detail. Although he had to admit that he had greatly enjoyed the chance to see outer space. It was one experience among many that he had had over the course of their journey that he would never forget (and which he was starting to be able to appreciate more and more as time wore away the shock and anxiety from the beginning of it all).

His first thought once he had established where he was, was that he would ask Kishiro to lead him to Kaito. Once they had met up, they could proceed to deal with securing shelter. This plan, however, was thwarted when he ran into a member of the local police.

"You!" the officer barked. "Why aren't you in school?"

Shinichi blanked for a moment, wondering what in the world the man was talking about. He hadn't been to school in months—and that included the one for wizards. In fact, he hadn't even seriously thought about school for most of that time. He certainly had no such obligations here. Then it struck him that the man must think he was ditching. With that in mind, he opened his mouth to answer, mind racing for a good excuse.

The officer, however, didn't wait for him to speak. The man simply took him by the arm and hauled him off to the local high school, muttering all the while about kids these days not appreciating a good education—and don't think he was getting away just by not wearing his proper uniform!

Twenty minutes later, Shinichi found himself seated in a classroom, listening to a lecture about Japanese history. The teacher had given him a slightly confused look, but she had apparently decided that Shinichi was a new student and therefore dealt with the situation as such. The detective was introduced to the class, assigned a seat, and told he would have to work on catching up on his own. Rather than argue the situation, Shinichi decided it would be easier to go along with it. Learning a bit more about the people here could only help. And, well…it was kind of nice to be in high school again. He knew people who would probably think he was crazy for even thinking such a thing, but he had missed this.

A sudden, shrill noise sliced through the classroom, making Shinichi jump. He looked around for the source, wondering why the rest of the students weren't doing the same—or, no, a few of them must have heard it too. A tall boy with bright orange hair had just shot to his feet and asked to be excused to the bathroom. The teacher agreed absently as she continued writing out dates on the board. The boy was followed shortly by two girls—one asking to go to the nurse's office and the other offering to take her there. Moments later, they too were gone. Then class continued as though nothing had happened, and no one commented on the fact that none of the three had returned by the time the bell rang. A common occurrence, perhaps?

It was odd, but Shinichi had to admit that it wasn't really any of his business.

A math test and some English later, lunch finally arrived. This was his chance. Slipping out of his seat, he took advantage of the chaos that inevitably followed the sudden release of restless students to make his own escape.

He wasn't entirely surprised to see a familiar figure in a white suit lounging by the school gates, waiting for him.

"Did you really miss school so much that you decided to enroll yourself?" Kaito asked the moment he was within earshot.

Shinichi rolled his eyes. "No. I was caught by an officer who thought I was skipping."

"Ah, that certainly explains it. So how was class?"

Shinichi took a moment to really think about the question. The materials they'd covered in class had been fairly standard and mostly familiar, but that sense of normalcy in and of itself had been refreshing. In the end, he settled for an earnest, "It was interesting. Though some kind of alarm went off in the middle of my first period. Most of the class didn't seem to care though, so I guess it was probably something private."

"Think you'll want to come back?"

"I doubt I could even if I wanted to. They have to realize soon that I'm not actually a student."

"True." Slinging an arm over the shorter boy's shoulders, Kaito started down the street away from the school. "Well, in that case, how about some lunch?"

As if on cue, Shinichi's stomach growled loudly, making the detective blush (why did his stomach keep doing that to him? It was a conspiracy!). The thief laughed.

X

In another part of town, an orange-haired teen was grumbling. "So where the hell is it?"

The small, black-haired girl standing a few steps away frowned, staring down at a device that resembled a cell phone. "I don't know. The signal's gone."

"Is it just me, or is that thing broken more often than it works?"

"It's never been broken," the girl retorted, annoyed. "There were good reasons every time."

"But this is, what, the twentieth false alarm?"

The girl blew out her breath in a resigned huff. "I'll drop by Urahara's after school to get it looked at, but I still say we should keep our eyes peeled. Something's not right."

"Yeah, well, I'm gonna go see if anyone else found anything."

X

"We can't afford to eat somewhere like that," Shinichi hissed urgently when his eyes landed on what appeared to be their destination, digging in his heels—or trying to anyway. Kaito seemed to know exactly how to shift his weight to abort his every attempt. "And I really don't think it looks like the kind of place that will let you use a magic show for payment."

Kaito only laughed and continued to drag his reluctant companion towards the front door of the restaurant he'd chosen (he'd passed it on his way to meet up with Shinichi and he'd already scoped it out and deemed it worthy). "Don't worry so much. I've got everything covered." He waved a bulging wallet in front of Shinichi's face before making it disappear. "We deserve a treat."

Shinichi frowned at him. "Where did you get so much money so fast?" Come to think of it, that hadn't looked like Kaito's wallet. His frown deepened. "And whose wallet was that?"

The magician didn't so much as bat an eye at the accusation. Instead, his grin actually grew wider. "Well, these three bozos tried to mug me—I think it was the suit. Anyway, it seemed they had a pretty good haul on them. Since they won't be needing any cash where they're going, I thought I'd relieve them of it. It's only fair considering how they made me waste my time sending them to the police station. I should have enough to get us a few nights in a decent hotel too."

"So…you mugged some muggers," Shinichi said, just to be sure he had the story straight.

"And turned them in to the police."

"Oh. I…guess that's all right then." He could almost feel sorry for the poor fools. It must have been a rather traumatizing experience. Then again, they'd brought it on themselves. And maybe they'd take the hint, learn the lesson, and shape up before they progressed to any more serious crimes.

Even if they didn't learn anything, they might very likely be too frightened of the prospect of ever running into someone else like Kaito to dare stray from the straight and narrow again. He almost laughed at the mental picture that brought up. Let them experience a little of what the police had been suffering for years.

Pulling open the restaurant door, Kaito grinned and swept him a bow. "After you."

Shinichi rolled his eyes but smiled as he walked inside. "You always have to be putting on a show, don't you?"

Kaito chuckled. "What can I say? It's in my blood."

They were seated a few minutes later at a table by one of the restaurant's second-floor windows. Shinichi was relieved to see that he recognized everything on the menu. Not that he didn't like to try new foods, but it made it difficult to order when everything was foreign. He still remembered the first time they'd looked at the replicator's menu on the spaceship. They hadn't known how to navigate it yet and they'd spent fifteen minutes wandering through lists upon lists of alien dishes. At that point they'd decided to take the close your eyes and stab your finger at it approach—and ended up with a bowl almost entirely occupied by what Shinichi could only describe as a cluster of orange worms soaked in moss green slime. Needless to say, neither of them had eaten it. Fortunately, they'd found the Earth menus shortly after that.

"What are you thinking about?"

Coming back to the present, Shinichi looked up from his menu and blinked. "Huh?"

The magician chuckled. "Seriously, you were miles away."

"More like light years," the detective replied with a wry smile. "It's kind of nice to be back on Earth."

"True," the magician agreed with a light laugh. "Although you may not want to say that too loudly. We don't want to get carted off to the loony bin."

Or sent to see another shrink, Shinichi thought to himself with a mental grimace. That was still one of his most embarrassing memories to date.

Their waitress returned with their drinks. "Are you ready to order?"

"I am. Shinichi?"

The detective nodded. They placed their orders and the girl moved to collect their menus. Before she could, Kaito snapped his fingers, causing the menus to slide together and fly into his hand. Their waitress stared as he offered them to her along with a yellow rose.

She took both with a laugh. "How did you do that?"

He waved an admonishing finger and grinned. "Ah, ah, a magician never reveals his secrets."

"Ah, trade secrets, I see. Well, I'll be right back with your orders."

Catching Shinichi watching him as the girl walked away, Kaito made another rose appear with a flick of his wrist. This one was a deep, rich crimson. He offered it to Shinichi, who blinked.

The detective could feel his face growing warmer, but he took the flower and set it on the dish beside his coffee cup.

Kaito's grin seemed to grow brighter as he launched into a description of a botanical garden he'd seen earlier that he thought they could visit. The place had had a large sign outside announcing an exotic new exhibit sporting what might be a newly discovered species of tree. Shinichi didn't think that either of them knew enough about botany to truly appreciate an exotic tree unless it was truly bizarre, but new discoveries were always worth some attention.

"And hey, you never know, it could turn out to be some alien seedling from Mars here to take over Earth's still-life population!"

Shinichi groaned. "Don't jinx it."

"Oops. Well, just in case, I promise to protect you from any alien plant monsters that may have been attracted by my comments."

"…Right, you do that."

It was with full stomachs and light spirits that they left the restaurant with plans to pick up some newspapers before looking for a hotel.

And, of course, that was when they saw their first monster.

It was big and black and looked like a cross between a gargoyle and a bear with a dash of wild boar if those tusks were anything to go by. Hunchbacked as it was, it still managed to be level with the second floor windows of the surrounding buildings at the shoulder. Its head was located somewhat below that, and it was the only part of the creature that wasn't black. Instead, it was bone white—possibly quite literally, as the structure of its face bore a remarkable resemblance to the face of a skull. Massive, curving tusks protruded from wide, heavyset jaws. Above them, a pair of black and yellow eyes stared hungrily from eye sockets so deep that they made the thing's face look more like a mask than its actual face. That thought summoned the image of a green, stone mask into Shinichi's mind. So maybe that really was what it was, although he couldn't for the life of him imagine why a monster would need to wear a mask. It wasn't like it could hide what it was, and it certainly didn't need the extra help to look monstrous.

The strangest thing about the monster, however, was the fact that it had a hole in the middle of its chest. It was almost perfectly round and he could see straight through it to the sky beyond. It didn't look like a wound, but it didn't look like something natural either. It should be getting in the way of all sorts of organs, not to mention the creature's spine. Although perhaps he shouldn't be trying to apply his knowledge of animal biology to a monster.

Wait a moment. Why wasn't anyone screaming?

"Kaito," he said hesitantly. "Do you…see that?"

The magician gave him a look with raised eyebrows then glanced back in the monster's direction. "Well, it is two stories tall. Kind of hard to miss, yes?"

So it wasn't just him. He felt both relieved and perplexed. So it wasn't something only he could see, but no one was screaming. Did that mean it was normal and harmless?

He looked back at the monster.

…No, he decided. Normal or not, that thing was most definitely not harmless.

A little girl came bursting from the crowded street before them, and suddenly the entire atmosphere changed. The monster's yellow eyes zeroed in on her and its massive jaws gaped open to emit an earsplitting roar. The sound ripped through the air in almost tangible waves. Then the monster lunged, long arms swinging. One clawed hand smashed through a shop window as it missed the girl by hairs. Alarms shrilled, and now (finally?) people were screaming.

The beast's bony shoulder crushed the side of a street sign as it charged. It was followed by a streetlight that snapped in half. The top half fell towards the street and right over someone's windshield. The driver yelled. His car swerved wildly before smashing into the side of a vehicle in the next lane.

In a mere handful of seconds, the entire street was in a state of utter chaos.

Shinichi barely noticed. All of his attention was on the monster and the little girl it was chasing. Her eyes were wide in abject terror as she zigzagged down the street, dodging people and debris alike. Yet it didn't seem to matter how fast she ran or which way she turned. The beast remained right on her heels.

Shinichi's hand dropped automatically to his belt buckle. An instant later a soccer ball went spinning through the air to smack the monster in the jaw just as it was about to chomp down on its prey. The girl tripped and landed flat on her stomach with a shriek. The monster too howled, staggering back and shaking its head violently from side to side like a dog shaking off water. Kaito took the opportunity to dart forward and scoop the girl off the ground—or, to be more accurate, to try because his hands went right through her. He stared.

"What the—"

"Kaito! Look up!"

The magician looked up to find his field of vision filled with a rapidly expanding patch of black rimmed by massive teeth. He could jump out of the way, but that would just leave the little girl vulnerable. Confused as he was about her apparent insubstantiality, her terror for the monster was clear enough.

So, instead of dodging, he took door number two and hurled the lightning he'd been forming in his hand into its stomach (he would have aimed for its chest, but it had a hole in it, and that seemed like it would have defeated the point). The crackling bolt of stark, white energy caught the creature head on and it doubled over. Its anguished shriek rose in pitch and it thrashed, smashing yet more windows and crushing the corner of one of the shorter buildings. It lashed out, smashing through a display window and tearing a decorative shelf full of fine china right out of the shop. Flower-painted shards mixed in with the glass. The shop's owner screeched. Alarms shrilled up and down the street, adding yet another layer to the uproar.

Shinichi ran to where Kaito was still standing like a sentry over the sobbing girl and knelt beside her. "You'll be okay," he said soothingly, hoping he was right. "Can you stand?"

She sat up and swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "I—I think so." Wide, scared eyes turned to look at him then up at Kaito. "Who—"

"I'm sorry Ojou-san, but I think we should talk about this later," the magician said without turning around. Thin threads of blue energy danced in the air around his right hand. The sparks around his left were turning orange and taking on the flickering quality of fire. Shinichi stared for a moment, still unused to such sights, then tore his gaze away to focus once more on the girl. That was when he noticed the odd little chain dangling from the middle of her chest. A fashion accessory? Never mind, that wasn't important.

Still trembling, the little girl clambered to her feet. "It won't help. There's always another one. I—I don't know what to do." By the end of her raspy declaration, her eyes were once more filled with tears. Shinichi reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, but, like with Kaito, his hand passed through her like she wasn't even there. He watched helplessly as she burst once more into tears. Seeing her more clearly now, he'd say she couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old. If she was a ghost, as he was starting to suspect, it was a terribly young age to have died…

Kaito tensed. "It's coming back!"

The child froze and Shinichi stood quickly.

The masked beast loomed over them, toothy maw hanging open and yellow eyes sharp with hunger. It didn't, however, immediately throw itself at them as it regarded Kaito with wary dislike. But its hesitation didn't last long. Soon hunger overpowered fear and it charged again, tusks lowered.

"Get down!"

The shout had come from an unfamiliar voice. Shinichi started as a blur of black flashed past over their heads. Kaito ducked and shifted closer to his companions, indigo eyes focused on the newcomer.

It was a tall young man with bright orange hair. He was dressed in rather old-fashioned clothes, Kaito mused, but that was nothing compared to the sword in his hands. The blade was about as long as the teen was tall and bore a rather distinct resemblance to a kitchen cleaver. It should have been quite the unwieldy weapon, but the stranger swung it with the ease of long practice.

Leaping straight at the monster, the stranger brought his sword up and over his head in a clean, downward sweep. The blade sliced right through the monster's head. Its mask shattered and it let out a last, furious roar before dissolving in a rapidly dispersing cloud of sparks. The teen landed lightly on his feet just as the last of the beast's black body vanished into thin air. He swung his sword up over his shoulder and turned to look around the street, possibly checking for more monsters. By now most of the pedestrians had cleared out of the area or were standing along the outskirts of the destruction to gawk at the debris. None of them spared the orange-haired teen a second glance, though several were eyeing Kaito and Shinichi with furrowed brows.

The stranger's brown eyes landed on the two travelers as well. Catching them and the little girl behind them all staring at him, he blinked, almost as though he was surprised. His gaze swept quickly up and down each of the three before focusing on Shinichi's face. He blinked again. "Hey, aren't you the new student from school?"

"Uh, yes, but that was a bit of a misunderstanding," Shinichi said.

"So you can see me."

"I take it that means some people can't," Kaito mused, glancing over at the rubberneckers. "Would that happen to apply to that monster that was here just now as well?"

"You mean the hollow? Yeah, that's right." In the distance, sirens sounded. The young man looked up then back at them. "You should get out of here before someone decides you guys have something to do with this." He jerked a thumb at the mess.

Both Kaito and Shinichi glanced automatically towards the ghost child. Brown eyes followed their gazes and softened as they focused on her as well.

"Right. Almost forgot," the teen muttered, apparently to himself, before stepping towards her.

"Hold on a moment." Kaito shifted so that he was standing in front of the wide-eyed girl. "What are you doing?"

The stranger held up a placating hand. "Hey there, you don't have to worry. I'm not going to hurt her." He paused as the flashing lights of police cars came into view. He let out a slightly frustrated breath as he scratched at the back of his head. His eyes flickered to the little girl again. "You know what, let's just get out of here, and then I'll explain."

X

It took some persuading, but they managed to convince the little girl to go with them just in time to avoid being arrested (not, Kaito pointed out with a wicked grin, that the police would have stood a chance against the great Kaitou KID even had they stayed). They hadn't, however, been able to get far. About two blocks from the site of the hollow attack, the ghost girl reached the end of her chain—literally. It wasn't always visible, but it seemed the chain Shinichi had mistaken for some kind of accessory was in reality a chain that connected ghosts to the places where they'd died. The four of them ducked into an alley between two office buildings to get out from under the eye of the general public.

Kaito checked automatically to make sure they hadn't been followed before turning to the stranger with the sword. "So then, who are you again?"

"I'm Kurosaki Ichigo, substitute shinigami. And you two are?"

"Kuroba Kaito," the thief replied with a showman's bow. His top hat appeared out of nowhere to accompany the gesture then vanished again as he straightened. "I believe you've met Shinichi here already. Incidentally, are monsters like that one you disposed of common in your world? We're a little new here. A heads up would be much appreciated."

Ichigo blinked. "You mean hollows? There have been more of them lately, I guess. Though we've been getting a lot of false alarms too."

"They keep chasing me," the little girl interjected, her hands gripping her own upper arms as though to shield herself from cold. "I—I can't take it anymore. Why do they keep attacking me? I've never done anything wrong. I've never hurt anyone. I just want to go home…"

"Where is your home?" Shinichi asked gently.

The girl's face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears. "It—it's not there anymore. There was a fire. Mom and dad were in it. I—I don't know where they are. I can't find them anywhere."

Understanding flashed across Ichigo's face. His expression grew stern though his eyes were kind.

"You should really move on," he told her. "Your mom and dad should be there too."

"But I don't know how," the girl whispered, her hands twisting into the hem of her shirt. "A—and I'm, I just…" She shook her head, clearly scared.

He crouched and offered her a reassuring smile. "I can help you."

She took a hasty step back, eyes going wide again. "I—I don't know… Where would I go?"

Ichigo considered her fearful face for a moment before moving to sit with his back against the alley wall. He patted the ground beside him. The girl hesitated then sat down, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. Patiently, the substitute shinigami explained about a ritual he called a soul burial. It was, he told her, a very simple process that would help her pass on to a place called the Soul Society, which Shinichi gathered was some kind of spirit realm. The girl listened in silence, her gaze fixed on the blank wall on the other side of the alley. The travelers listened just as intently.

"Will it hurt?" she asked when he had finished.

"Not at all."

"Okay then." She nodded to herself and stood up, her soul chain clinking softly. She took a deep breath and turned to face Ichigo. "I'll go."

"Right." Rising to his feet as well, Ichigo took a firm grip on the hilt of his sword. The pommel immediately began to glow white.

The ghost girl visibly braced herself. Then the sword hilt tapped her on the forehead right between the eyes and a glow blossomed in the air around her. Flickering lights rose around her and her face broke out into a relieved smile just before she faded away entirely.

"Thank you."

Ichigo slung his sword onto his back and turned his attention back to the watching travelers. "Did I hear you say something about another world?"

"That's right," Kaito agreed amiably, producing a set of juggling balls.

The orange-haired teen regarded them with a speculative eye. It was curious and a little wary. "So what world would that be? You don't seem to be shinigami, and you aren't hollows."

The magician chuckled. "I think we're from a little farther than that."

"I see." Ichigo mulled this over then shrugged.

"But we're human," Shinichi added quickly then wondered why he'd felt the need to clarify.

Before the teen could respond, a new voice called out, "Ichigo!"

Moments later, a small, black-haired girl dressed much like Ichigo himself landed beside them. Her dark eyes darted quickly over the three young men before focusing on Ichigo. "What happened?"

X

They had been escorted to a candy shop of all places. It was a rather out-of-the-way candy shop with no customers that they could see. The only person around appeared to be a small girl with black pigtails who was carefully sweeping the yard. She looked up at their approach and blinked big, dark eyes.

"Oh, hello Rukia," she said in a voice so soft it was almost inaudible.

"Hi Ururu. Is Urahara here?"

"Um, he went out a while ago, but I think he should be back soon."

"We'll wait for him then, if that's all right."

The little girl nodded, her eyes shifting to peer curiously at the travelers. She didn't say anything to them though.

Now they were being served tea by a rather peculiar blue penguin bird thing, a slightly flat and rectangular rabbit, and a long, skinny green creature Shinichi really couldn't put a name to. He couldn't keep his eyes off them as he tried to figure out what exactly they were. Frankly they looked like stuffed animals, but experience dictated that looks could be deceiving.

Kaito cleared his throat, causing all three of the critters to turn towards him. "So what kind of…creatures might you be?"

"We're Mod Souls," the rabbit explained, puffing out its chest as its ears curled up in excited cheer. "At your service. Would you like some sugar with your tea?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Didn't you already put three teaspoons of sugar in there?" the blue penguin asked, putting her stubby wings on where her hips would've been had she been human. "You know it's not good for you to consume too much sugar."

"Oh come now Ririn," the rabbit protested, waving an ear. "Don't be such a spoilsport. They're our guests!"

"I was just saying it isn't healthy," the penguin grumbled back. "I didn't say he couldn't have it anyway if he doesn't care about that."

As the two fell to bickering, the skinny green one offered Kaito the sugar container. It waited patiently until the magician had finished. When Kaito thanked it, it nodded and proceeded without a word to carry the container to Shinichi.

"No thank you," said the detective. The creature nodded again and replaced the sugar container. It seemed this particular Mod Soul was the silent type.

"Really Ririn, why must you always be so bossy?"

"I am not bossy!"

Shinichi lifted his cup to his lips, noting out of the corner of his eye that Kaito's eyes were twinkling with mirth. It felt rather a lot like they were witnessing an argument between siblings. Shinichi wondered if perhaps they should intervene as the two were squabbling right beside the steaming teapot, but the door slid open before he could make up his mind.

"Hello there!" In walked a man wearing a floppy, white and black striped hat. He had a cheerful, open smile on his face as he moved to take a seat at the table. The stuffed animal creatures stopped arguing immediately to greet him before hurrying to pour another cup of tea. "So, Rukia tells me you two are from another world."

Kaito grinned, taking a sip from his own cup. "That's right. We've been traveling for quite some time now. Seen some pretty amazing things along the way. This isn't even the first time something's tried to eat us—though it is the first time the thing with the big teeth has been selectively invisible."

The man laughed. "Oh, they're not invisible. It's just that, among the living, only those with higher levels of spirit energy have the ability to see them."

"Kind of a fine line though," Shinichi muttered more to himself than to the other occupants of the room, but the newcomer apparently had keen ears.

"That's true," he agreed.

Kaito set his cup down. "Since you said living, I'm assuming the rules are a little different for the dead."

"You would be correct."

"So then these hollow things are spirits of some kind? Or are they demons?"

"Oh no, I assure you, demons are quite different." The smile fell from the shopkeeper's face. He took a long sip from his cup before answering. "In fact, all hollows were human once. Rukia told me you two were helping a child's soul escape a hollow earlier. Is that right?"

Both travelers nodded.

"Then I'm sure you noticed that she had a soul chain."

They nodded again.

"Well, you see, if a soul stays in the world of the living too long after death, that chain will eventually break and a hole open in its chest. That is when you know that a soul has lost its heart completely. That is also when the mask forms and it becomes a hollow—a creature driven by raw instinct and hunger that will seek out and devour other souls."

"Is there any way to change them back?" asked Shinichi. The memory of the masked monster was still fresh in his mind, and the thought that it had once been human made his stomach twist. It didn't seem fair somehow.

"I am afraid there is not. The transformation can't be reversed. That's just how it is."

"But then what? They just—get killed?"

The shopkeeper didn't speak immediately. Instead, he refilled his teacup, all the while contemplating the detective with that enigmatic half-smile on his face. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, but Shinichi had the distinct impression that this Urahara was reading his mind. When the man finally spoke, Shinichi didn't miss the knowing note in his voice.

"It's not quite as simple as that," he said. "It's the duty of the shinigami to protect souls from hollows and help them pass on. You slay a hollow by destroying its mask. However, when a shinigami slays a hollow, it's not so much killing as it is cleansing. Perhaps it would be best if you think about it as a release. They can't ever go back to being who they were, but it's not the final toll of the bell either. There is a cycle and a balance to these things."

"Oh." Shinichi sat back and absorbed the new information.

"But enough about that," the shopkeeper exclaimed, waving away the somber atmosphere with a flick of the wrist before his face broke out into a grin. "So tell me, if you're not from around here, where are you from?"

Well used to the routine of explaining their origins by now, Kaito launched into the story. Since there were always those little, ah, sensitive details to be left out, he embellished a little. It had become a bit of a game with himself to see what new details he could come up with. A little embellishment here, a change of detail there—and it was amazing how differently the same story could be told when you tried (although he'd learned to be careful just how wild his embellishments got since Shinichi winced every time he heard him tell an outright lie. Not helpful for the aspiring storyteller).

"I see, I see," the shopkeeper said, nodding away like he'd heard it all before. "This is all very interesting. So what are your plans now? I may be able to find room for you here for the time being if you'd like."

"Thank you for the offer," Shinichi replied, surprised but grateful. "But we don't want to intrude."

"Though we would like directions to a decent but preferably not overpriced hotel, if you know any. We'll most likely be hanging around for a few days until Aome can find our translocater."

The man nodded in understanding. "By the way, can I see this bird of yours?"

The travelers traded looks. Not seeing any harm in it, Kaito held up his hand. In a puff of smoke, Aome appeared. Urahara leaned forward to peer at the small, white bird and she peered just as intently back.

"Fascinating," he murmured. "This energy pattern… I've never seen anything quite like it." He sat back on his heels, still beaming. "Well, I do hope you enjoy your time here. Feel free to drop by if you have anymore questions. In the meantime, I'll have Tessai get you a map. There are several hotels around town you can consider."

Urahara Kisuke watched the two teenagers go with a half smile still lingering on his face. These were certainly interesting developments. He'd never been an easy man to surprise, but he would admit this time to being intrigued—not by the fact that there were worlds beyond his own (that kind of knowledge was really rather basic for a scientist of his caliber), but by the tool they had mentioned and the thought of what kind of mind might have created it. What had its purpose been? Was there a greater purpose for the places it chose to carry its charges to or was it simply a matter of chance? Then there were the interesting assortment of energies he could sense around the two. He made a mental note to keep an eye on them.

"That man has one hell of a Poker Face," Kaito remarked once the shop had disappeared behind them.

Shinichi nodded, absently reaching up to pet Aome. "I noticed."

X

"Are they still here?"

Looking up from his tea, Urahara smiled at his latest visitor. "I thought you might be coming by. You just missed them."

The orange-haired teen wandered over to drop onto one of the cushions by the table. "So are they really from another world?"

"It would seem so," the shopkeeper replied, amiable as ever. "They had quite the interesting story to tell."

Curious, Ichigo listened as the man recounted some of the things he'd been told. It wasn't perhaps the strangest story Ichigo had ever heard, but it certainly wasn't an everyday one either. He tried to imagine what it would be like to suddenly be thrown into a completely foreign land with no way to go home or even make sure his family was well. He'd probably be going crazy on the inside at the thought of leaving his sisters with only their nutty father to look after them for who knew how long. It had to be hard.

"And you just sent them to a hotel?" he asked. "You could've just let them stay here. It's not like you don't have the room."

The shopkeeper looked hurt. "I did offer. But they said they'd prefer the hotel." He paused to take another sip of tea. "It's not hard to see why though, is it?"

Ichigo supposed it wasn't. There were times in everyone's life when you just felt like you had to do it yourself, not because you had anything to prove but just to know that you had the power to.

"Well," he said to Urahara before he left to make his own way home. "If you see them again, tell them not to be strangers."

X

Karakura wasn't a big city, though it wasn't a small town either. They had had their choice of rooms upon checking in at the hotel.

The room they ended up in was moderately sized with two beds separated by a nightstand. Across from it stood a dresser and a TV. A small, round table had been tucked into the corner along with a pair of padded chairs. It looked very much like most of the hotel rooms Shinichi had seen on the few occasions he'd gone traveling with his parents. They had gone ahead and booked a five-night stay as the hotel was having a promotion for it.

Now Shinichi was seated on the room's rather deep window sill, listening to the sound of running water coming from the bathroom. He'd just gotten back from filling the pitcher with ice and hadn't bothered turning on any of the lights other than the one by the door. Because of this, he had an unhindered view of the glitter of the street outside. Headlights and streetlamps glowed beneath rows of lit windows. Their room was on the fifth floor, and he could see quite a distance along the street in both directions. Beneath the haze of city lights, he could just pick out the shadows of people strolling about their business—heading home or out for dinner, possibly meeting up with friends…

Speaking of friends, they had been gone for more than half a year now. Their friends had to be worried by now. Even Shinichi had never run off for quite so long without a word to anyone. Although he supposed most of his acquaintances wouldn't know that. Of the few who did, Hattori would probably go to investigate the scene of KID's last heist eventually since he'd known Shinichi had been planning on going, and Ran would probably have told him she'd seen him there. He might even have heard the legend about the stone being an otherworldly relic, but he would have dismissed it as superstitious nonsense. Haibara, being Haibara, would probably start to think that they had missed some Organization members in the cleanup who'd gone after him or something of the sort. The thought bothered him. She had just started to really live her life. He didn't want to be the reason she picked up that old fear again.

Agasa would have told his parents. He wasn't entirely sure how they would take the news. He'd never been much good at guessing what his parents were thinking. They had a tendency to do things he didn't understand that left him wondering how they could possibly be related to him. Even so, he supposed even they would start to worry at least a little by this point.

There was always the possibility that time passed differently between worlds though. The dates certainly didn't match up between trips. Whether it would be better or worse one way or the other in the long run was a question he'd found himself unable to answer. Not that there was much point in dwelling on the matter, or so Kaito kept telling him. And Shinichi had to agree. It was just hard not to think about it as the tally of days in his notebook grew steadily larger and larger.

It was getting progressively easier though to let go of the pressure of not knowing and just focus on the present. In some ways, he felt he owed a lot of that peace of mind to Kaito.

The magician always seemed to know just what to say or do to make him feel like everything was going to work out in the end. If it hadn't been for his presence, Shinichi suspected he would feel a great deal more stressed about their situation.

Kaito…

He had spent some time reexamining the time he'd spent with Kaito and reevaluating the feelings that time had engendered in him. Some of it, he had noticed a while ago, but he'd never really paid attention to it other than the occasional moment of wonder. That he could come to trust a thief so implicitly…

Life really was funny that way. It was enough to make even a detective wonder if there really was such a thing as fate.

Here he was, a detective, best friends (possibly more?) with one of the most famous thieves his world had ever seen. A thief whose father had been his mother's teacher (he wondered at times if he and Kaito had ever met when they were kids. He'd have to ask his mother if—when—he saw her next. On second thought, maybe he wouldn't. Asking would mean first explaining how he knew Kaito. While he suspected the matter would have to come up eventually, he wasn't planning on thinking about it until it did. He generally preferred to put off contemplating dealing with his parents for as long as possible. It was a survival tactic really—or at least one that saved him a great number of headaches).

If someone had told him before this whole business with the gem that he would one day be (knowingly) sharing a hotel room with Kaitou KID, he would have said it was ridiculous (well, unless it had to do with taking down a bloodthirsty criminal, but that didn't count). Now it felt natural. And not just in the 'we've been doing this for a long time' way but because, even if he had the choice, he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather be here with.

He was happy. A sense of surprise flickered through him before it settled into something warm and soft and fuzzy.

Stepping out of the bathroom, Kaito turned to tell Shinichi it was his turn but stopped as his eyes landed on the boy in question. The detective was sitting by the window, face turned towards the dark, velvet sky. The touch of the moon traced his profile with lines of silver that threaded through the dark strands of his hair. The portion of his face that Kaito could see was still and peaceful in that way the magician had come to cherish. It was that small but genuine smile that made Kaito feel at peace just to see it.

The corners of his own lips turned up at the sight. Moving on silent feet, he padded up behind the detective and sat down on the sill behind him, looping his arms loosely around the other's waist. When Shinichi didn't react, he thought that perhaps the detective was too far lost in his thoughts. It wouldn't be the first time. But then Shinichi shifted and leaned back against him, turning his head slightly to look around and up at the thief. Their eyes met for an instant, and Kaito thought he detected a dusting of pink across the detective's face. He thought the color went rather nicely with that smile, and he found himself unconsciously leaning closer. But Shinichi had already turned away.

Kaito blinked then drew back, a rueful smile ghosting across his face. Ah well. Maybe next time.

They didn't say anything. Neither wanted to shatter the tranquility of the moment with something as harsh and concrete as a word. Instead, they turned their eyes back to the night sky outside and watched the moon emerge from behind a passing cloud in companionable silence.

X

Kaito woke at ten to six the following morning feeling refreshed and ready to get the ball rolling. His mind was already drawing up a list of the things they would need as he ran through his customary, morning exercises (which now included a routine for spirit energy control. He had a feeling he was going to need it). They didn't have to worry too much about money yet, but those kinds of things needed to be dealt with before they actually grew into problems. That meant finding jobs again. Depending on how long they ended up staying, they would eventually have to look for other lodgings as well. Unless they were lucky and the hotel's promotion was still available when their five days were up anyway. Finishing off his mental checklist, he pulled on his jacket and glanced over at Shinichi's bed. As he'd predicted, the detective was still fast asleep, blankets pulled all the way up. He'd curled up on his side at some point in defense against the sunlight seeping in through the thinner of the dual-layered curtains that Kaito had left shut. Smiling to himself, the thief made a mental note to pick up a cup of coffee on his way back. At least he didn't have to worry about Shinichi running into trouble while he was out, he thought, snickering silently. Left to his own devices, he was sure his detective could quite happily sleep straight through to lunchtime.

Pocketing a room key and coaxing a still sleepy Aome from her spot with the other doves, he headed down to the lobby. It wasn't quite seven yet, and there really wasn't much in the way of life to be seen around the premises. He only saw a handful of people in the halls, though he could hear a certain amount of bustle when he passed the dining area. A lone young woman sat behind the front counter in the lobby, surreptitiously covering a yawn.

She straightened in her seat when she saw him coming her way and smiled. "Good morning. How may I help you?"

"Good morning," the magician replied, offering her a sunny smile of his own. "I'm looking for work, actually. I don't suppose you know anyone who's hiring? Or somewhere I might go around here for such information?"

"Work?" The girl blinked. "Oh, are you moving here then?"

It was Kaito's turn to pause. Moving here? Well, he supposed it was a reasonable conclusion to come to when someone living in a hotel asked about jobs rather than sightseeing hotspots. The question, however, had evoked other thoughts he hadn't previously considered. He turned them over a few times then filed them away for future contemplation. "I suppose it depends on how the situation looks in a few days."

"I see." The girl's expression was sympathetic. "I can't say I know all that many places, but the restaurant next door is always looking for new waiters. I have to warn you though, the reason they're always looking is because the manager's a bit of a tyrant. A friend of mine worked there for a few weeks then quit because the woman was just too hard to please. I hear most of their waiting staff doesn't stay past a month. I actually almost never see the same server twice when I'm passing by."

The magician whistled. "That's a hell of a record."

"Yeah, they're practically famous for it. But they pay very well so people keep trying."

"Sounds like quite the challenge."

"It is."

"Then it's lucky for us that I like challenges."

The girl laughed. "That's the spirit. Good luck then."

"Thank you."

X

Students gathered around the score boards. The marks from their math test of the previous day had been posted for everyone to see. As usual, Ishida Uryuu held the honor of having the highest score. Today, however, his name had been joined by another, the two of them tied with full marks.

"Kudo Shinichi," the hyperactive Keigo read out loud. "Who the hell is that?"

"I think that was the name of that new student," the teen standing beside him responded. "You know, the one that showed up yesterday morning."

"Oh yeah. So where is he anyway?"

"Haven't you heard? No one's seen him since lunch yesterday."

X

"Another world?" Inoue Orihime gasped, both amazed and delighted by the prospect. She and her friends were currently taking their lunch break on the school roof. Ichigo and Rukia had just finished telling them about the two strange young men they had met the other day—one of whom was the new student who'd never come back. "That's amazing. I'm sure they've seen all sorts of things—like aliens or superheroes!"

"If they're from another world, how do you know they're not aliens themselves?" the bespectacled teen seated beside her asked, pushing his glasses up his nose.

Orihime's eyes widened. "You're right. So that means they might actually be aliens themselves." She turned expectantly to Ichigo.

"You'll have to ask them yourself about that," the lanky substitute shinigami replied, shrugging. "But they said they were human."

"It is strange though," said Rukia. "First a hollow we can't find, now people from another world? It makes me wonder if there's a connection."

"No, I don't think we have to worry about that," Ichigo said firmly. His certainty earned him a few raised eyebrows, but he didn't elaborate. It was just a feeling he had, after all. He'd always had a good instinct for people though.

"Well, I think we should try to make them feel welcome," Orihime declared. "Even if they're not aliens, they're still a long way from home. Oh, I know, we should invite them to eat with us—maybe have a barbeque." She nodded to herself. "So, Ichigo, do you know where they're staying?"

"Some hotel Tessai found for them."

"Okay. So once we have everything planned, we can send them invitations."

Later, when they had all returned to class, she found herself looking out the window at the autumn sky. She really was excited to meet these people from another world. More than that though, she was glad to know that there were two of them. It was good to know that they weren't alone.

Just one person could make all the difference when you were feeling lonely. Unconsciously, her hand rose to touch the pins in her hair: the gift her brother had given her shortly before he'd passed away. Yes, just one person could change everything.

X

Shinichi woke to the tantalizing aroma of strong, fresh coffee. Unable to resist its call, he blinked open bleary eyes. His brows furrowed as his sleep-befuddled brain took a moment to process what he was seeing. There was a large to-go cup sitting almost right in front of his nose (it was clearly the source of that wonderful smell). Further inspection revealed that said cup was sitting on the edge of a chair that had been placed right up against the side of his bed in order to position the cup as close to his face as possible without actually putting it on the bed itself. He stared, the peculiarity of the sight making him wonder if he was dreaming.

He contemplated the cup for a few more moments before deciding that A, he was fairly certain he was awake and B, there was no point wasting a perfectly good cup of coffee by letting it get cold. So he sat up and picked up the cup.

Having observed the whole thing from where he'd been feeding his doves, Kaito smirked. Operation "Lure Shinichi out of Dreamland with Coffee" had worked like a charm.

"How long have you been up?" the detective managed to ask around a yawn.

"Just a few hours. It's a bit cold now, but I bought you a breakfast sandwich too."

Shinichi spent a few more moments just communing with his coffee before reluctantly scooting off the bed and shuffling to the table, tugging the now empty chair with him. He wasn't all that hungry, but there was no point wasting good food. Covering another yawn, he unwrapped the sandwich and took another long gulp of his coffee. Wherever Kaito had bought it, it was very good coffee. He smiled faintly, feeling unusually content for a morning. He should really thank Kaito later when he was more awake.

He had nibbled his way through half the sandwich before his thoughts cleared enough to register what kind of sandwich it was. By then, Kaito had sent his doves off to explore as they wished. The magician was now watching him eat with his own cup of (very creamy) coffee. Shinichi couldn't help but notice the way his free hand kept going up to his ear every now and then as though to adjust something. An earpiece?

He frowned in confusion. "What are you listening to?"

"I will be applying for a position on the waiting staff for the restaurant next door," Kaito said by way of explanation. "One of the receptionists told me they're always hiring because management's demanding and not many people can stand it for long. However, for those who can, I hear tell the rewards are more than fair. So I took the liberty of scouting out the premises earlier."

"And planted bugs?"

The thief smirked. "For study purposes, of course. It's amazing the kinds of things you can learn about people just from a handful of conversations."

Shinichi sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You're invading their privacy." He knew it was useless, but he still felt obliged to point it out.

Kaito actually laughed. "Don't worry, I'll only use the information I need. But really, that receptionist wasn't kidding when she said the manager was a tyrant. I've only been listening for twenty minutes, and she's already chewing out victim number seven. And all the poor girl did was overlook the fact that the saltshaker on the corner table just ran out of salt. Then there was this guy earlier that she totally tore apart for accidentally putting the wrong pattern of spoon with an order of soup."

"And you want to work in this place?" Shinichi asked, mystified. It sounded to him like news that should send potential employees scurrying the other way. "Does this manager lady wear diamond earrings or something?"

"Nope. Although she does have quite the exquisite string of pearls—just kidding. They were only well-made fakes anyway." His grin morphed abruptly into a grimace as his hand flew up to yank the earpiece from his ear. "Yikes! She could give old man Nakamori a run for his money with those lungs. Not to mention that temper!"

"I'm sure there are other restaurants nearby that might be hiring. I mean, this place you're eavesdropping on hardly seems worth the trouble even if the pay is better."

"Ah, but it's about the challenge, not the money—although you can't deny we need the money too. They also happen to have a trial period during which our lack of proper paperwork won't stir up as much of a fuss. By the time it does matter, I'll have them begging me to stay."

Shinichi realized with a certain amount of bemused wonder that Kaito was actually looking forward to this venture. Then again, all this reconnaissance he was doing suggested he was approaching the matter like one of his heists. Well, as long as Kaito was having fun, Shinichi supposed there wasn't any point in his worrying (a Kaito who was having fun was a lot safer to live with than a Kaito who was bored as long as whatever he was having fun plotting wasn't directed at you). Although he was still having a hard time understanding what about this whole thing could possibly sound fun to anyone.

"Do you need any help?"

Kaito waved him off with that all too familiar shark's smirk stretched across his face. "Nah, I've got this one covered. Besides, you have your own work to do."

"…I do?" This was news to Shinichi.

Kaito snapped his fingers and a stack of pamphlets appeared in a puff of smoke beside Shinichi's coffee cup. "These are some of the areas around Karakura that offer more affordable housing—a lot of them are aimed at students and the like. As I doubt we'll be able to stay here for long after the promotion ends, we will need a backup plan. Of course, if Aome finds the stone before our time here is up, it won't matter, but it's best to be prepared."

"I assume I'm supposed to go look these places over then?"

"That's right. Take Kishiro with you though. I don't like the idea of you running around by yourself with monsters popping up everywhere."

"You make it sound like the streets around here are being overrun."

"For all we know, they sometimes are." Draining the last of the coffee in his own cup, Kaito stood up and stretched. "I'm going to head over for a little more scouting now before I awe them with my presence. The spare key's on the nightstand."

"Have fun then."

X

It was a nice town, Shinichi decided. There was plenty of vegetation and the atmosphere was relaxed despite the warm buzz of activity. A river glittered between sloping banks covered in lush carpets of grass. The outskirts of the settlement were heavily forested and looked like they probably offered at least a few good hiking trails. The two neighborhoods he'd visited so far had also seemed peaceful and the people he'd talked to friendly.

It seemed they had caught this world in the midst of autumn. The day was on the windy side, and Shinichi could see colorful leaves dancing past him on the wind as he made his way through the streets. Red, orange, yellow, and brown leaves of varying shapes and sizes skittered and spun over the pavement. There were even several white leaves in the mix. One of them caught on Shinichi's sleeve and he noted with interest that it was so thin he could almost see through it. It was also rather brittle and cracked in two at his touch. He'd never seen anything quite like it.

He was passing by what appeared to be a park when he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a familiar school uniform. Turning automatically for a better look, he spotted a young man standing beneath the spreading boughs of a knobby tree with pale, almost white leaves. They were the same kind of leaves he'd been marveling at before, he noted absently. The teen himself was wearing glasses, and from where Shinichi was standing the glare of the sunlight on the lenses meant he couldn't see the stranger's eyes. Even so, he could tell that the young man was frowning.

Something about the image struck Shinichi as off, but before he could pinpoint what it was, the stranger turned abruptly towards him. Shinichi saw him do an almost imperceptible double take before stepping forward.

"Excuse me, but where did you get that dog?"

Shinichi blinked in momentary confusion then looked down at Kishiro. He'd almost forgotten the Spirit Beast was currently a medium-sized canine. Having shape shifting companions could get a little confusing. "Oh him? He's not actually mine. I'm just looking after him for a friend."

"I see. Would you mind if I take a closer look at him?"

The detective raised an eyebrow at the unexpected request but nodded. He didn't see any harm in it. "As long as he doesn't mind."

The bespectacled teen moved to crouch down in front of Kishiro, who cocked his head to one side and sniffed at him. Both dog and man studied each other for several moments before the stranger shook his head and rose. Shinichi thought he heard the stranger mutter to himself, "No, that's not it."

He nodded politely to Shinichi. "Thank you. Sorry about taking up your time."

"It was no problem. I'm not in a hurry." He hesitated only a moment before asking, "Is there something wrong? I couldn't help but notice that you seem a bit troubled."

"What? Oh, no, it's nothing," the stranger assured him before wishing him a good day and heading down the street. Shinichi watched him go then glanced down into Kishiro's furry face.

"He was definitely looking for something," he mused. "I wonder why he seemed to think you might be related."

The Spirit Beast tilted his head to one side in a gesture that somehow managed to feel like a shrug without involving any shoulders. Shinichi laughed and patted it between the ears.

"Come on, we'd better be on our way too."

X

Ishida Uryuu frowned as he left the park behind. All around him, the strange spiritual pressure that had been pervading Karakura for days continued to nag at his well-honed senses. But why couldn't he pinpoint where it was coming from?

It had been strong there in the park, and for a moment he'd thought he'd found it in the stranger's dog. But while that dog had indeed had some unusual powers of its own, it had not been those of a hollow. He had also sensed a strong presence at the school, by the river, at several locations throughout the shopping districts, and more. And they had all been the same—or at least that was how it felt to him, and he was fully confident in his skill at reading such things. Yet, at every point, he'd found nothing. Surely the same hollow couldn't be at all those locations at once, so it had to be a camouflage tactic. Or was it possible that the creature could create clones? It was possible.

Still, that didn't change the fact that he had been unable to find any traces of the beast at all beyond the feeling of its presence. If it had been the lingering presence of residual power left behind by something passing through, he might have understood it, but it felt at every location as though the hollow should be standing right beside him. Except, of course, that it never was.

The line between his brows deepened as he pushed his glasses further up his nose. "Where are you hiding?"

Or perhaps…perhaps that was the wrong question.

X

Shinichi was unpacking the takeout he'd brought back for their dinner on the hotel room's small table when he nearly jumped out of his skin at a voice whispering "Boo" right into his ear. He managed not to yelp, but his sudden start didn't agree with the carton of soup he'd been in the process of opening.

"Whoa!" A pair of hands shot around him from behind to catch the carton before it could spill hot soup all over the table and Shinichi alike. The plastic lid bounced on said table and rolled over the edge. "You really should be more careful there, Tantei-kun."

"You're the one who snuck up on me," Shinichi spluttered in indignation, turning his head to glare at the culprit as he fought to calm his racing heart. With Kaito standing so close behind him, he had to look up, which somewhat detracted from the strength of the glare, but he managed. "If you have to scare people, you can at least try not to do it when they have their hands full of scalding liquid."

Kaito only laughed, completely unrepentant. "Sorry, I guess it was a little careless of me. This stuff smells good by the way. Where's it from?"

"There's a Chinese restaurant down the street that I've been told specializes in preparing full meals for groups of various sizes. Normally, they deliver, but since this was their smallest package and I had time, I told them I'd just wait and bring it myself. I tried to choose food that won't taste terrible cold, so if we don't finish we can also eat it for breakfast tomorrow." Shinichi took the soup carton from him and set it down with care. Then he nudged the thief's arm aside so he could finish setting out the utensils. "How did it go at the restaurant?"

"I start tomorrow, of course. Don't tell me you doubted my abilities!"

Heaven forbid that ever happen, Shinichi thought wryly. "I just thought I should ask."

"In that case, it went wonderfully. What about you? See any monsters in the neighborhood?" His tone was jovial, but Shinichi didn't miss the sudden, sharp focus in his eyes.

"No, I didn't. My day was actually very peaceful."

"That's good." Taking a seat, Kaito picked up one of the pairs of disposable chopsticks and snapped it apart. "Any luck with the search?"

"Unfortunately, it's a no to that too so far." Sighing, Shinichi took the other pair of chopsticks. "The neighborhoods were nice, but the few apartments that aren't currently occupied already have people scheduled to move in shortly."

"We'll just have to keep looking then."

"I did meet this high school student who was strangely surprised to see Kishiro though." Picking up a cube of tofu, Shinichi's thoughts drifted back to that peculiar meeting. It was still nagging at him—that sense that something had been off… "It was the light," he said out loud as it finally clicked.

Kaito paused with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. "The light?"

"It's what's been bothering me. The sunlight reflected off his glasses, but it shouldn't have. It was too shady where he was standing."

"Leaves and branches aren't exactly compact though. It's still possible for light to make its way through."

"I know, but it wasn't just his glasses. There was a large patch of sunlight on his shoulder too that shouldn't have been there. It was almost like—like only some of the shadows in the area could touch him while some of them couldn't."

"…Okay. That's all very interesting, but I'm not sure why you're so bothered by it. We already know there's a lot of supernatural activity going on in this world. Maybe this guy you saw was a ghost."

"I don't know… He didn't seem like a ghost to me."

Kaito chuckled. "No offense Tantei-kun, but you're hardly an expert."

"I suppose you're right…" Shinichi stared pensively at his rice for several seconds longer then shook his head. "It's just—something about it just doesn't feel right."

Kaito watched as the detective fell back into a preoccupied silence. He knew from experience that Shinichi's hunches tended to be worth listening to, but as far as he could tell the kinds of problems this world was likely to have were unlikely to be the kind you could deal with just by putting together the pieces. While their arsenal had grown, he was smart enough to know that they were far from experienced enough to go leaping into other people's supernatural problems without guidance. Besides, from what they'd learned, the natives had things covered. Hopefully, whatever was bothering his detective was normal for these parts and would be dealt with shortly.

In the meantime, unless it made itself known as a problem, he was quite content to occupy himself with more substantial matters. He just had to figure out the best way to get Shinichi to cooperate.

X

Shinichi had only just gotten back to Kaito and his hotel room after a morning stroll to the nearest convenience store with a bagful of supplies and a stack of newspapers in hand when a knock came at the door. Confused, he set the stuff down on the table and went to answer it. They didn't know anyone who would come looking for them. Had they done anything that might make the hotel staff want to speak to them? Maybe someone had noticed that they were keeping animals in their room. Now that he thought about it, he'd gotten so used to having them around that he'd forgotten to ask if the hotel allowed pets.

Bracing himself for a confrontation, he was caught off guard when the first thing that greeted him upon the opening of the door was a rose. Blue eyes blinked at the flower before traveling to the hand holding it and up the attached arm to meet a familiar pair of indigo orbs.

"Are you ready?" Kaito asked before Shinichi could speak.

The detective blinked again. "Huh? Ready for what?"

"Well, I was thinking of starting with a late lunch, as I'm fairly certain you haven't had any yet," the thief explained, grabbing one of Shinichi's hands and pressing the rose into it with a grin. "Then we can head over to the botanical garden and see those alien seedlings! Or whatever approximation thereof anyway."

"…Aren't you supposed to be at work though?"

"I took that extra shift yesterday so I'd have this afternoon off."

The detective's brows furrowed slightly. Yesterday, Kaito had said he had to take an extra shift because there had been several large parties scheduled at the restaurant and they needed all available hands on deck. He hadn't said anything about getting a break for it or going anywhere. They only had one more day left before they had to find new lodgings. It really didn't seem like the right time for relaxing strolls through botanical gardens. But even as the thoughts ran through his head, he was already being herded outside. His jacket had mysteriously made its way back onto his shoulders without his knowledge and the rose he'd been given earlier now peeped out of his breast pocket. Kishiro, who had hopped off the bed and padded towards them, was given an admonishing look and waving finger by Kaito.

"You're not coming this time," he told the Spirit Beast. "This is a date, so no tagalongs. If Aome comes back, let her know we'll be back after dinnertime."

Disappointed, the cat fluffed out its fur then turned and hopped back onto the bed. Kaito made a quick check to make sure his birds had water before sweeping Shinichi out the door. The detective had frozen and turned pink at the word 'date' and didn't seem to know what he should be doing. But Kaito was happy to take advantage of the situation to get his own plans rolling.

X

"I've sent in a request to Research and Development for an in-depth analysis of the sites Uryuu pinpointed."

"Yeah? And what did they say?"

"I haven't received a reply yet."

"That's no help."

"We just have to be patient."

"Maybe there isn't anything there at all," the substitute shinigami suggested. "I mean, we've been searching for this thing for ages and found nothing." And when he said nothing, he meant nothing. Not even a single scared soul or a cracked stretch of pavement.

Rukia shot him a look. "And I suppose you're going to say we're imagining it all. No, this is real. We just—need to understand."

"Maybe it's invisible," a new voice piped up as a young woman with long, sunset-colored hair fell in to walk beside them. "Then we could walk right by it and never even know!"

"Know about what, Orihime?"

The conversation stuttered as one of their less spiritually aware classmates butted in. The topic was shelved with haste and excuses quickly fabricated. Ahead of them, the tallest of the teachers accompanying their group waved for everyone to begin crossing the street.

The teaching staff at Karakura High had decided that, with the new exhibits available in their town's very own botanical garden, it was time the students went on a field trip. It was after all, they said, the chance of a lifetime. New discoveries didn't grow on trees, even if this particular new discovery was one, and who wouldn't want to get a glimpse of history in the making? Of course, they couldn't flood the place with the whole school population at once. It just wasn't practical. So instead the students were split by year and further divided into more manageable groups that would be escorted to the gardens by a teacher come their assigned field trip slot. The rest of their classes for the day would be spent in free study or—for the less fortunate—makeup tests for missed or unsatisfactory work.

This idea was why Ichigo and his friends were now traipsing through the city streets. The botanical garden they were headed for was only a ten minute walk from campus, so the school had deemed a bus unnecessary. Keigo had complained that the school was just being stingy, but personally Ichigo didn't mind. The weather was just this side of chilly but not yet to the point where it was uncomfortable.

A walk might also help him clear his head. All this tension about the hidden or invisible or imaginary or whatever it was hollow had been getting on his nerves. It was like having an enemy breathing down your neck but not being able to move even to turn and see its face. It was making him restless, which didn't help his mood.

It just seemed ridiculous that they were going to see some trees while whoever or whatever was out there went about its business.

He hadn't been seeing as many ghosts around town lately.

"We're here!" someone at the front of the procession cried out. Ahead of them, the glittering, glass roof of the greenhouse gleamed under the afternoon sun. The doors were pushed open and the students filed in.

Sensing things had never been one of Ichigo's fortes, but even he knew the moment his foot crossed the threshold that something was wrong. Beside him, Rukia drew in a sharp breath, her eyes immediately going to scan the leafy green vegetation overflowing on all sides.

"What…is that?" Orihime asked in a hushed whisper, her own eyes wide.

Rukia checked to make sure no one who shouldn't be was close enough to hear them before answering. "I've felt this hollow's spiritual pressure before. It's the same one that's been eluding us these last two weeks."

"Does that mean this is where it's been hiding?" The taller girl's worried gaze flickered to their oblivious classmates. If they were attacked here… It was almost impossible for their classmates not to get caught in the crossfire.

"It could be. Or it could just be like the other locations where we've sensed it but found nothing."

"No. This is different."

All three teens turned at the new voice to find their school's top student and resident Quincy had come up behind them.

"Its presence is much stronger here than it has been at any of the other locations," he continued. "I would recommend that we all keep our eyes open."

Before anyone else could speak, a man dressed in the clothes of one of the facility's tour guides raised an orange flag and called for the students to gather round.

"Many of the trails are on the narrow and twisty side," he was saying, voice ringing out clear over the heads of the milling students. "So make sure you stay close to the person in front of you. We don't want anyone getting lost. Also, some of the plants we have here are poisonous, so be careful. Don't touch anything unless someone wearing a badge like mine tells you it's okay to do so first. Now, is everyone ready? Then follow me! You guys are in luck. In addition to the brand new exhibit of which I'm sure you've all heard, we also have a new butterfly exhibit opening today. They're only going to be here for a few weeks, but some of them are species you can't normally see at all in Japan."

It was the most stressful walk through a botanical garden any of them had ever had—not that any of them frequented such places, but Ichigo had always had the vague idea that gardens were supposed to be quiet places set apart from the hustle and bustle of real life. This felt more like they were on some jungle expedition where there could be poisonous snakes dropping from the branches overhead at any moment.

The sprawling grounds of the botanical garden had been divided into individual chambers dedicated to different climates. They saw everything from orchids to cacti to deep, jungle ferns. There were colorful hydrangeas and verdant pools of water lilies drifting beneath makeshift bridges. And every step of the way that heavy, chilling presence accompanied them like an unwelcome guest.

Yet another set of doors opened and suddenly that feeling intensified tenfold. Uryuu and Rukia jerked like someone had just dumped buckets of ice water over their heads. If he wasn't already so tense, Ichigo would have stiffened. As it was, he only turned to sweep his gaze over the vegetation. Throughout their class, others too shivered. The tall, silent figure of one Sado Yasutora—better known as Chad—drifted through the crowd to join the group around Ichigo. The rest of their more spiritually aware classmates, however, had no idea what they were sensing. All they knew was that they didn't like this section of the garden.

Oblivious to the sudden unease rippling through several members of his audience, the tour guide came to a stop and swept his arms out wide. "And this is our newest exhibit. These trees were discovered only recently. In fact, they haven't even been named yet! Or not officially anyway. We've been calling it the Panda Grove around here. I'm sure you can see why."

Ichigo tuned out the rest of the guide's chatter. "It's here."

None of the people around him had to ask him what he meant. The problem was, no matter which way they looked, all they could see was foliage. They needed to search the place more closely if they were going to find the source—unless, of course, it chose to show itself and attack them then and there. Barring such an event, however, they needed to slip their classmates.

They all breathed sighs of relief when the guide announced that they would be moving on and a hollow had yet to leap from the bushes. As the rest of the class continued on to the next chamber, Ichigo and company hung back. Lagging farther and farther behind, they waited until their classmates were almost entirely out of sight before turning as one and heading back to the courtyard that housed the new tree species. It was time to go hunting.

X

There had been a murder. It had happened in a bookstore they had stopped by on their way from the restaurant Kaito had chosen for their lunch to the botanical garden. It hadn't been a hard case, but it still threw a wrench into the atmosphere.

"Are you all right?" Shinichi asked hesitantly as he and Kaito were finally allowed to leave the scene of the crime. It was a shame, the detective reflected with a silent sigh. It had been such a large, well-stocked bookstore. But he doubted he'd want to shop at it again. Not for a long time anyway, and by then they would probably have moved on.

The magician cocked an eyebrow at him. "Of course. Why do you ask?"

Shinichi didn't answer right away. In his mind's eye, he saw once more the fleeing culprit being yanked off his feet by a tripwire he didn't know when Kaito had set. The guy had been pulled up to the bookstore ceiling where he spent the next several minutes being spun around and around like a demented ceiling fan until the police could get him down. By the time they did so, the man's face had turned green, and the first thing he'd done once let down was to throw up and flop face down onto the floor.

"I just…had the feeling that you might be a bit upset," he said finally.

Kaito folded his arms behind his head, indigo eyes flickering up to the periwinkle sky overhead. He considered brushing aside the question with a joke, but in the end he decided against it. "I suppose I may have been a little miffed. I don't generally appreciate having my plans interrupted—especially not by killers." And frankly the man's sob story had been annoying. "But what about you? This is the first case you've run into for a while."

Shinichi let out a halfhearted laugh. "To be honest, it was a bit of a shock." A sigh escaped his lips. In truth, he had been very much enjoying the respite. It had been…uplifting, he supposed was the best word for it. Back home, he saw murder so often that there were times when he'd found himself wondering if that really was human nature. It was a depressing thought. He really had needed this break, even if he hadn't realized it. Deep down, however, he knew he would return to his work eventually (it was his duty, his life, his passion and his burden). He just didn't want to go back to it right now. "But I guess maybe some things just aren't meant to be."

"Pardon? I think I missed something there."

"What? Oh, uh, I was just thinking. It's nothing important."

Kaito's eyebrows rose to meet his hairline. He hadn't missed the melancholy expression that had drifted across his companion's face. Then again, he suspected he knew at least some of what had been going through his detective's head. He'd often wondered himself at Tantei-kun's knack for being there whenever trouble was brewing. It had to get tiring at times. Of course, someone had to be there to make sure the murderers didn't get away with their crimes. Kaito himself knew all too keenly the pain an unresolved case could cause. Perhaps Shinichi's bizarre affinity for homicide cases was fate's way of attempting to cure some of that pain.

Considering travel to other universes was possible, such a concept wasn't difficult to believe at all. Not necessarily fair, but when weighed beside the consequences… He shook his head. What was he thinking? He'd never been one to believe in preordained futures. Your future was something you made. And he wasn't going to let himself or Shinichi waste the rest of their afternoon brooding!

"You know, I heard the coffee shop by the garden is famous for its special house blend. Did you want to grab a cup before we go inside?"

Shinichi perked up immediately at the mention of coffee. Coffee sounded like just what he needed right now. "Okay."

X

"They sure went all out when they built this place," Kaito marveled.

Shinichi agreed. Not only had every chamber of the establishment been skillfully arranged so that there would be flowers blooming in every season and something interesting to see every turn a visitor took, but the paths had been designed to emulate architecture from various parts of the world to match the plants' native lands. They were currently standing on a small but elegant stone bridge that arched gracefully over a quietly bubbling stream. Said manmade stream meandered through the various rooms of the greenhouse. Here it fed a deep, green pool upon which white water lilies drifted in serene clusters. Accompanied by the gurgling of the water and the humid atmosphere, the place had an almost dreamlike quality.

And yet Shinichi found himself feeling uneasy. He found himself looking over his shoulder every now and then to stare at the deserted paths behind them and search the leafy underbrush. But for the life of him he couldn't figure out why.

"What's up? You've been rather jumpy since we came in."

Shinichi grimaced. It seemed Kaito had noticed. "I don't know. Maybe it's just leftover tension from the case. It just feels like—like there's someone breathing down my neck."

"Well," Kaito said after a moment's consideration. "I can assure you that there isn't. The air in here does seem a bit heavy though. The humidity perhaps?"

"That has to be it," the detective agreed, trying to convince himself.

They shared a thoughtful silence before Kaito cleared his throat. He leaned against the side of the bridge, letting his elbows rest on the smooth, stone banister. "The other morning, when I went to ask the receptionist about finding work, she asked if we were moving here."

"It's a logical conclusion," said Shinichi, looking up at the magician with curious eyes. Kaito being Kaito, there was a reason behind his rather random comment.

"Indeed it is. If I asked you what kind of future you would like, what would you say?"

"…What?"

The magician chuckled. "Not much, it seems. But seriously, we've seen quite a lot of different types of worlds and lifestyles, and I'm sure there's lots more where they came from. Surely you must have had favorites. So tell me, if you picked one, which kind of world do you think you'd like living in best?"

"What…are you saying? Why're you asking me this?"

"It simply occurred to me that it's something we should be thinking about." Turning to face Shinichi, Kaito caught the detective's startled gaze with his own. He had his usual smile on his face, but his indigo eyes were sharp and entirely focused. "This is, after all, our lives we're talking about. It's always good to plan ahead, yes?"

"But, I mean, you can't actually be suggesting we give up…"

Kaito waved away his dismay with a light laugh. "No, no, that's not what I mean at all. I still want us to get home, and I'm having fun with all this traveling. It doesn't, however, hurt to have a backup plan. Keep our eyes and minds open to the possibilities and all that."

Shinichi's breath caught in his throat as his hands clenched on the bridge banister. The sheer magnitude of what Kaito was suggesting was staggering. Yet at the same time he couldn't refute the practicality of the idea. But the thought made his stomach clench and his mouth go dry.

"Shinichi?"

Dragging himself out of the strange, numbing whirl of uncertainty and dread that had swamped him from what felt like nowhere, Shinichi hurriedly pulled himself back together and forced an uneasy smile onto his face. "I…" He stopped, swallowed, and cleared his throat. "I don't know what to say."

"That's all right. Like I said, it's a backup plan. I doubt we'll need to start really considering it for a long time yet."

"Oh…"

"Hey look, according to that sign, the famous discovery should be just up ahead."

Grateful for the change of topic, Shinichi let Kaito pull him away from the bridge and up the next winding path.

X

"Panda Grove, eh?" The magician laughed. With their black trunks and nearly white leaves, there was certainly a panda-esque quality to the grove. "Fitting name. I certainly haven't seen trees like these before. How about a picture?" He glanced at his companion only to find Shinichi frowning, hand raised to his chin. Odd. "Is there something wrong?"

Blue eyes blinked then looked up at him. "It's not wrong exactly. This just…doesn't make any sense."

Kaito cocked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"These trees," the detective said slowly, gaze swiveling back to fix upon the dark, knobby trunks and pale, pale leaves. "I…I've seen them before."

"Really? I thought they were supposed to be a new discovery."

"But I've been seeing them all around the city since we got here." Taking a step closer to one dark trunk, Shinichi tilted his head back to stare at the spreading boughs with their translucent leaves. He reached out to touch the black bark but pulled back before his fingertips made contact with the rough surface. "I'm sure they're the same species."

"Hold on a moment. Where exactly did you say you've seen them?"

Shinichi turned to find Kaito watching him with an odd expression that made him shift his weight uncomfortably. "Well, there was the park, outside the apartment buildings I visited yesterday, by the convenience store—oh, there was one in front of the restaurant too."

"As in the restaurant we ate at earlier today?"

"That's right." He paused. The magician's expression had grown grave, and it was making him nervous. "Why?"

"Because, Tantei-kun, there were only two trees in front of that restaurant, and they were both Sakura trees. The owner had them planted because they named the place the Sakura House. The story was on their menu."

"What? But I…"

The sound of running feet drew their attention to the paths leading towards the other exhibits. A few moments later, five teenagers came bursting into the clearing. They both recognized Ichigo's lanky frame and bright orange hair in the lead. The small, black-haired girl who'd taken them to Urahara's was there as well. Of the remaining three, Shinichi was surprised to note that one was the bespectacled young man he'd met at the park.

The orange-haired teen skidded to a stop as his face contorted in confusion at the sight of the travelers. "What the—what are you two doing here?"

"Well, we were here to see the sights," Kaito drawled. Sharp, indigo eyes swept over the Karakura High students, taking in the tension in their stances and the faster-than-normal breathing. "But I get the feeling that that's about to change."

"You two should leave," Rukia advised. "It's dangerous here."

"Oh no, you can't leave now," a new voice answered, making everyone jump. The hairs on the back of Shinichi's neck stood on end as a strange chill raced up his spine. The voice echoed all around them so that it was impossible to pinpoint where exactly it was coming from. With it came a sensation of great pressure. It felt like the atmosphere in the greenhouse chamber was growing thicker by the moment. "My what a feast I've found. But perhaps all at once is a little ambitious. Yes, I shall take my time. It's much more fun that way."

Even as it spoke, the light around them shifted. Shinichi's first thought was that the shadows beneath the trees were growing longer, but no. The blackness on the ground was much too thick and dark to be mere shadows. They looked much more like pools of spreading ink. They rippled over the ground, spreading rapidly from where the three strange trees sank their roots into the earth, tendrils meeting and entwining to form a web of pitch blackness beneath their feet. Other patches drained of color, bulging upward and smoothing over to form a hard, white carapace.

It was a face—a white, bony mask that took up the entire floor of the clearing.

Everyone there's first instinct was to leap up and away from that terrible, white face with its malicious grin, but by then it was already too late. A sickly green light flooded the world around them as a force like a silent explosion caught them up in its claws. Their ears filled with the sound of rushing wind and crackling leaves as the air was blasted right out of their lungs. Then everything vanished.

X

When Shinichi regained consciousness, it was to find himself lying on a bed of leaves, looking up into the underside of a leafy canopy. He stared at them for a moment, wondering blearily if he had just made another cross-world jump. But then the events of the day came rushing back and he realized with a shock that those leaves overhead were the same, off white leaves that belonged to the trees at the garden. The same trees that had been hiding that monster.

Only…this couldn't be the botanical garden anymore. For one, he could see a sky through the spaces between the branches. There was no greenhouse roof in the way. Admittedly, that sky felt oddly close, but it was still sky.

Levering himself into a sitting position, he looked around. He was in the middle of a small, forest clearing. All the trees were the same species, and the leaves crackling beneath him when he moved testified that they had been around for a long time.

"Kaito?" he called out. His voice sounded small in this stillness—dying away almost just as it left his lips. "Kaito! Kurosaki-san!"

There was no answer. No animals stirred in the branches. No wind rustled the leaves.

It was starting to give him the creeps.

Where was he? Had that creature somehow transported him back to…to…wherever it was the trees it had been hiding in had come from? Or had it spawned so many offshoots in the time he'd been unconscious that it had completely taken over the town? His breath left him in a huff. He really didn't have much to go on. For all he knew, this was a different planet altogether.

First thing first though. He needed to find out if there was anyone else around or if he was here alone.

X

Opening his eyes to an unfamiliar landscape had, over the past months, become something of a norm for one Kuroba Kaito. It had its inconveniences, but he'd always prided himself on the ability to adapt to differing situations. Therefore, he wasn't really all that put out when he found himself in a forest full of weird trees. What did confuse him was that he was almost certain there had been a monster trying to eat him and his companions. Not that he had any complaints about not being eaten. He just would have appreciated some clue as to what had happened and where Shinichi had disappeared to.

He'd climbed up a tree for a better look around. All he'd learned from that was that it was trees as far as the eye could see and there was no wind to speak of. In fact, the air around here was so still that his own breaths might as well have been wild gusts in comparison. That meant no glider. It was a bummer, but he'd make do.

And he'd spotted a human life form through the openings in the canopy.

Smirking at his good fortune, he swung back down through the branches. He dropped back to earth right beside the aforementioned human being.

"Hello there!" he said by way of greeting.

The person—a pretty young woman with her long hair held back by a small, flower-shaped pin—let out a yelp of surprise and jumped away from him. Large eyes swept over him before the girl visibly relaxed.

"You were at the garden earlier, right?" she asked.

He smiled and offered her a rose. "Indeed I was."

Her eyes lit up at the sleight of hand. "Oh, that was really cool. Are you a magician?"

He laughed. "The best, if I do say so myself. Am I right in assuming that you are one of Kurosaki-san's friends?"

She introduced herself to him as Inoue Orihime. She had, she explained, been searching for their wayward friends, but he was the first person she'd found. Although she assured him that the others were there—somewhere.

"I can feel it," she said with absolute conviction.

"Well, who am I to argue with a woman's intuition?" It was all they had to go on at this point.

Deciding they could talk and search at the same time, they continued on their way. It was, Kaito reflected, not exactly the best search plan he'd ever participated in. They had no real way of telling either where they were, where they'd been, or even if they'd somehow gotten turned completely around. In fact, the only thing the plan had going for it was that it beat sitting on their hands. At least the company was good.

In the short time he had known her, Kaito had observed that Orihime was a cheerful and good-natured girl with an animated imagination and rather…odd tastes. She had offered him a chocolate covered rice ball from the snacks she'd packed to share with her classmates on their school outing which he had politely declined. He liked chocolate and all, but he drew the line at having it with rice. The idea was just…the opposite of appetizing, to put it politely. He couldn't help but eye the young woman who'd offered it to him with mixed fascination and bemusement. She was munching away at one of those aforementioned rice balls with every sign of enjoyment. It was almost enough to make him want to try one.

Almost.

"You don't seem to be particularly worried about our misplacement, Ojou-san."

The girl blinked then laughed. "It's not that I'm not worried exactly. But since we're both all right, I'm sure everyone else is too. We just have to find them."

Orihime was in the middle of telling him about a popular television show called Spirit Hunter when she cut herself off mid sentence and spun around. Her hand flew to her hairpin. At the same time, Kaito felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Orange light flashed then spiraled together to form a translucent shield just in time to catch an incoming claw halfway through its vicious, downward swipe. Said claw drew back and smashed into the shield again before its owner backed off and roared in thwarted fury.

Kaito would have liked to be surprised, but he wasn't. If anything, he was more surprised that it had taken this long for the creature to show its ugly face.

Indigo eyes hardened as the thief turned all of his attention to the matter at hand. The mask was their weak point, Urahara had told them. Destroy the mask and the hollow went with it.

Energy crackled and the air filled with the acrid scent of ozone.

X

Shinichi had no idea how long he'd been walking. The angle of the sunlight—if it even was sunlight—hadn't changed, but he was starting to think that that didn't mean much wherever this was. It felt like he hadn't gone anywhere at all even though he knew he'd been walking in a straight line for a while. Everywhere looked and felt the same.

He was just beginning to wonder if this was some bizarrely realistic dream when his ears caught the hint of distant voices. He immediately turned towards it and picked up his pace. As he drew closer, the voices resolved into coherent words.

"—is this place?"

"How the hell am I supposed to know?" a more familiar voice, Ichigo's, grumbled. "I already told you everything I know."

"Sheesh. You don't know very much."

The answer was an irritated growl.

Stepping between two dark trunks, Shinichi blinked. He was seeing double? On the right stood Ichigo as he'd appeared at the botanical garden. On the left—stood Ichigo, only this one dressed in the black garments he'd worn the other day when he'd been fighting hollows. Both turned to look at Shinichi when he arrived.

"Oh hey, you're here too?" the one on the left asked.

"You know this guy?" the one on the right asked.

"This is Shinichi. He's one of the visitors."

"Visitors?" the one that Shinichi now knew couldn't be Ichigo repeated, confused. "What visitors?"

"Didn't I tell you about them?"

This got an instant scowl. "You never tell me anything!" the not-Ichigo exclaimed, pointing an accusatory finger at his double. "I deserve to know what's going on too!" From there, he launched into a rant about not being appreciated which sounded like the continuation of an old complaint. The sword-bearing Ichigo sighed and turned to Shinichi.

"Just ignore him," he said. "Do you have any idea where we are?"

"None," the detective replied, wondering how he was supposed to know if a native from this world didn't. "Do you happen to know where those trees were discovered? I didn't get the chance to read the plaque."

The shinigami's brows furrowed as he thought. "I wasn't really listening when the guide introduced it. I do remember something about mountains, but that's it."

"Is it possible for that creature to have transported us to whatever place in the mountains that was?"

"I don't know. Maybe." The look in his eyes, however, belied his words, not that Shinichi could blame him. They could all feel the strangeness in the air. The muted quality of the world… It just didn't feel like Earth.

"I know," the not-Ichigo said suddenly, drawing the other two's attention back to him. "Maybe we're actually somewhere in the Soul Society!"

Ichigo looked thoughtful for all of two seconds before the expression shifted abruptly to one of fierce alertness. "Heads up! Kon, watch Shinichi." The last of his words were yelled as he swung his sword off his back and leapt.

The ground shook with a bestial roar. Ichigo let out a battle cry of his own. Leaves crackled and crunched. Kon grabbed Shinichi by the arm and half dragged him away from the next explosion of leaves and black, monster limbs. Shinichi stumbled before he got his feet under himself and turned his head for a better look at the battle behind them.

There were three of them. Their bodies were misshapen, black splotches against the pallor of the forest. One was tall and thin with arms so long that its knuckles would have dragged on the ground had it not been swinging its arms in an attempt to smash Ichigo into the ground. The other two were smaller but broader. One was covered in spikes. The other sported an extra pair of arms. All of them had black and yellow eyes that gleamed with malice and a raw, insatiable hunger.

But the thing that really struck at the nerves, Shinichi thought just before he had to turn his attention forward again to keep from tripping, was that they all had the same face.

X

A blue white arrow flashed through the air and the latest hollow to attack Uryuu disintegrated. He watched it go with a critical eye. It wasn't right. He had already obliterated over a dozen hollows, but he could still sense that presence all around him. It didn't even fluctuate. If it weren't for the evidence of his own eyes and the fact that he could feel that his arrows were hitting home, he would have thought he was shooting at illusions.

The second strange thing he'd observed was the way the hollows always knew where he was. They had to in order to ambush him as many times as they had. If they were simply attacking as they came upon him then he should have seen some of them coming. Instead, the forest always looked deserted before a masked monster leapt at him from seemingly unoccupied branches or from behind trees that were far too thin in comparison to have hidden them without considerable planning.

His third observation was that this forest felt like part of the Soul Society. The ground, the trees, the air—all of it was thick with spirit particles.

Sensing a flare of power that he recognized as belonging to Orihime, he turned and broke out into a run.

Dry leaves slithered and crunched beneath his feet. He had sensed both Chad and Rukia earlier, but the fights must have been short because the spikes in energy level had dropped before he could reach either of them. Normally this wouldn't have been a problem for him, but the overwhelming presence of the hollows was too distracting.

Clearing a last screen of trees, he opened his mouth to call out. The words never made it out of his mouth. Instead, he threw himself to the ground as a bolt of lightning blasted past just a hand's width over his head. A moment later, something that had been behind him let out a screech.

"Sorry if I scared you," a cheerful male voice he didn't recognize said into the ensuing silence. "But rest assured, my aim is always superb."

"Indeed," the Quincy replied sourly as he got back to his feet. He brushed a few leaves from his clothes before giving the speaker a searching look. It was the taller of the two teens they'd run into at the garden. His features bore a certain similarity to those of the boy Uryuu had met first at the park, and he wondered idly if they were related. Not that it was important. He was more interested in the buzzing electric glow wreathing the stranger's right hand.

Noticing the direction of his gaze, the stranger flicked his wrist. Suddenly there were six balls of lightning spinning in the air. Uryuu tensed before he realized that the stranger was juggling. But why?

For his part, Kaito cast an eye over the surrounding forest to check for any signs of more monsters. When he saw none, he turned his attention to Orihime. "Orihime-san, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she assured him. Jogging up to join him, she beamed at the sight of the bespectacled newcomer. "Uryuu! I'm so glad to see you."

He nodded and looked her over for injuries. "I'm glad to see you're unhurt."

"We've been wondering where this is. Do you know?"

"My guess would be somewhere in Soul Society."

"I was wondering. Do you think—could it be…?"

The Quincy's face darkened but he shook his head. "I don't think so. The sky's too bright." Of course, the world of the hollows might have sunny spaces somewhere, but even if it did Uryuu doubted the place would look like this.

Kaito listened with interest to the exchange, reading the expressions that flittered across the two teens' faces and committing them to memory. There was worry, relief, unease, hope, uncertainty—indeed, the slew of facial expressions said a lot more to him than their handful of ambiguous words. It made hits own thoughts turn to Shinichi. If he too had been running into monsters… His hands clenched involuntarily but he forced them open and smoothed his face into its usual unreadable cheer. They had to find him. Catching a particular snippet of the conversation, he interrupted.

"You said you can sense where the others are?"

"Yes, but the spiritual pressure of this forest creates a lot of interference here. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I can locate them when they are engaged in battle."

"So…we have to wait until one of the others gets attacked then try to reach them before the battle ends," the magician summarized, not at all pleased.

"Unfortunately, that does appear to be the case." He paused and his eyes narrowed slightly, swiveling towards the right. "That one's Ichigo."

X

It had been a long time since it had had so much fun. It had always been a cautious one: biding its time and building up its strength as it honed its skills in avoiding detection. Its first and only goal was to survive. That was, after all, the desire of every creature. It would hunt and eat and live to hunt again. So was the cycle of existence.

These days, however, it had found itself growing tired of creeping and skulking in shadows. Why should it not eat when and where it pleased?

Even now, it watched as those little humans and shinigami ran and fought, completely unaware of just how futile their struggle was.

It could keep them apart and watch them scurry like rats in a maze. Or perhaps it should herd them together—watch their hopes rise then fall… Yes, that sounded most entertaining.

It laughed.

The poor, poor fools.

X

Shinichi had no idea how many masked monsters had come and gone by the time they found the others. Too many, was all he could say. Everyone was breathing hard as they dropped to sit in a loose circle on the forest floor.

"I don't understand," Rukia was saying as she wiped sweat from her forehead. "We've been wandering for hours but there's just no end to this place."

"Maybe it isn't what it seems," Orihime suggested. "Maybe it's all an illusion that we're trapped inside."

As the discussion wandered on over shaky trails of speculation, Shinichi leaned against the tree trunk behind him with a sigh.

"Tired?"

He glanced up to find Kaito sitting beside him. "Yeah. I feel like I've been running marathons all day."

"I know what you mean. If we ever see Master Genkai again, remind me to give her my most heartfelt thanks. Without all that hellish grilling, I don't think we'd have made it even this far."

"You are getting pretty good at it," the detective said, recalling the rather spectacular explosion of red and blue fire Kaito had disposed one of the last monsters to attack them with. He had somehow managed to make the whole thing look effortless, like a choreographed performance. The bow he'd taken afterward helped. At the same time, seeing Kaito essentially blowing the thing up had been… He shook his head. The things were trying to eat them. It was only natural that they defend themselves. And if left alone, he knew the monsters would only go after other souls—many who wouldn't be able to defend themselves. He had to remember that.

"Of course. There's no point doing something if I'm not going to do it well. Besides, I did promise to protect you from alien seedlings."

"They're not aliens."

"Close enough."

Shinichi still didn't see the connection but decided it wasn't worth debating. "I still don't understand why I've been seeing these trees all over the city."

"About that. I asked Orihime-san earlier, and she told me she hasn't seen any of them either. In fact, I think you're the only one who has."

"That makes me feel loads better," the detective said dryly.

"Hey, it's not a bad thing. You should know by now that just because you're the only person who can see it doesn't mean it's not there. Besides, from what I heard, they've been sensing that monster from the garden all over the place. Some of the locations they mentioned match the ones you brought up."

"Really?" Letting his head fall back against the trunk, Shinichi pondered this new piece of information. Pulling up that moment at the park again, he took the tree out of the picture, and suddenly all the shadows made sense. But what did that mean? They'd sensed its presence… And that sky… He straightened abruptly, startling the magician. "They're all the same!"

His shout put an end to all the conversations buzzing about the gathering as everyone turned to stare at him.

It was Kaito who asked, "What?"

"All those trees—these trees, I think they're all the same. That's why I've seen these same trees where you guys say you've felt this creature. They're all extensions of the same entity."

"It's possible," Rukia mused. "Like different branches on the same tree."

Kon shrugged. "Okay, but so what? That's not gonna help us get out of this forest."

"Actually, it would change everything," Uryuu said slowly. "It would mean this entire place is its creation. It hasn't been hiding in the forest, it is the forest. Everything here is a part of it."

Ichigo frowned. "But what about the other hollows?"

"They all have the same face," Shinichi replied. "Mayb ethey're just like the trees."

"It still doesn't explain where we are."

"Well," Rukia began, thiking out loud. "Some hollows have the power to hide themselves by retreating into the space between the world of the living, the Soul Society, and their own world. If it found a way to grow its offshoots there but stil close enough to affect the world of the living, it could explain the places where we sensed but couldn't see it." Her gaze fell on Shinichi. "Although I don't know why you could see them then."

The detective shifted uncomfortably. "I…can just see things sometimes. I don't know why."

"I'd say the real question is why the rest of us can see them now," Kaito interjected, sensing Shinichi's discomfort. "Does this mean that creature has taken us into this space between that you were talking about?"

"It's more than that." Uryuu waved a hand to indicate the entirety of the landscape around them. "We're not talking about a single tree here and there. We're talking about this entire space."

"It's like it made its own dimension," Orihime said.

"Exactly. And that means it's only playing with us. It's making us run in circles and slowly sapping away our strength." Thoughts raced behind Uryuu's sharp eyes, connecting the dots and assembling the big picture. He didn't like the picture, but it crystallized abruptly to take on an almost jarring clarity. Why hadn't he seen it sooner? "It doesn't need to defeat us in battle. It just has to keep us here. If this entire forest is its body then it can just absorb our spirit energy. That explains why we've been tiring faster than we normally would, and why we've been having such difficulty recovering our strength."

"So the longer we're in here…" Orihime said slowly, eyes widening as the full horror of their situation sank in.

"The weaker we'll become," the Quincy finished. "However, a creation of such complexity must take a great deal of energy to maintain. It can't be easy. If we could disrupt it with a burst of equal or greater force for even a moment, we should be able to break out. Of course, if we fail, we'll have used up so much energy that we'll probably perish right here."

An uncomfortable silence wrapped itself around the group.

"We should try," Chad said, speaking up for the first time. "We don't have a choice." He didn't have to elaborate. It was true. They could try to break out and possibly fail or continue as they had been and fail for certain. Not much of a choice.

"All right then." Ichigo got to his feet, dusting a few stray leaves from his clothes. "The longer we wait, the less likely this'll work, right?"

Shinichi stood along with the rest of them, feeling awkward. What was he supposed to do? Unlike Kaito, he only knew a little about all this spirit energy business—hadn't wanted to know more than he had to, in a way. Now, however, he found himself regretting it. He should have paid more attention when Kaito had been learning—or even asked the magician himself to teach him more. But he had let his own fear of changing (being changed?) get in the way, and now all he could do was watch.

He didn't know what they were doing, but he could feel the change in the air. It began to crackle and burn with steadily growing brilliance. The air grew heavy and he found himself having difficulty breathing. The very ground beneath his feet began to tremble. Sinking to his knees, he pressed himself back against a tree. His vision sparked and wavered, and he didn't know if it was from lack of oxygen or something else entirely.

All around them, the forest shuddered. Branches shook and leaves broke away to spin through the air in gusts of bone white flakes. In the distance, the horizon wavered, but it held.

It would not let go so easily.

One by one, its captives sank to the ground, their faces contorted with effort. It knew it simply had to hold on for a little longer and it would win. Only Ichigo was still on his feet. He was breathing hard, sweat running down his face, but his shoulders were set and his eyes still burning with determination.

Kaito grimaced. He'd been tired before, obviously, but this was a whole new kind of tired. It was the kind of tired when even breathing felt like hard work.

Finding Shinichi's hand, he gave it a squeeze. "We're not going to die here," he promised, though he didn't know if Shinichi was even awake to hear him. "There're still too many things we have to do."

He still had to become a world famous magician even better than his father. Hell, he could become a worlds famous magician now if he wanted. The thought was rather intriguing. He'd even venture to say he'd gotten started already. And he'd never been one to give up on anything halfway. There were tricks he'd been planning that he still had to perfect. There were foods he had to try and places he had to see. He still had to introduce Shinichi to his mother and wow Shinichi's friends into becoming his erstwhile supporters! He hadn't even kissed Shinichi yet. Though he supposed that could be quickly remedied… He considered the idea then tossed it out. This was not the time or place—important things shouldn't be rushed. And there would be a right time, because they were not going to die here. Besides, he wasn't sure Shinichi was even conscious anymore, and that would ruin the point.

Gritting his teeth, Kaito pulled his feet under himself and staggered back to his feet. Holding onto the tree trunk with one hand for support while he continued to grip Shinichi's hand with the other, he closed his eyes and forced all thoughts out of his mind, focusing instead on that inner spark he'd only recently learned to use. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought he heard the others moving—sensed their determination and their strength.

Just a little more, he thought. The words repeated themselves over and over until they became a mantra in his head. He could feel the fabric of reality shaking. Just a little more.

Prying open bleary eyes, Shinichi stared up into the canopy to the sky beyond. His breath caught in his throat. He had no idea what he was seeing. There were lines of light woven throughout the air like some enormous spider's web. Each thread pulsed as though it had a heartbeat. Even as he watched, they grew steadily brighter and thinner—

The sky shattered.

X

A shadow fell over the small clearing that had once housed the Karakura botanical garden's prized new exhibit. Now, however, all that could be seen was the unconscious figures of several young men and women. All around them, the scattered remains of a massive, white mask melted slowly into nothing.

"My, my, this is a bit of a mess, isn't it?"

X

Kaito shot bolt upright, mind going from fast asleep to wide awake so abruptly it was a physical shock. Indigo eyes took in his surroundings at a glance. He was sitting on a futon in a Japanese-style room. Another futon lay neatly folded not too far away. And there, sitting beside him with an open book in hand, was Shinichi. He relaxed, but the confusion remained. Last he remembered, they were still in that forest. How had they gotten here?

Shinichi looked up at the sound of movement. Relief washed across his face. "Kaito! How are you feeling? You've been sleeping for two days!"

Kaito stared at him. "Two days? Well, that certainly explains why I'm so hungry. Where are we anyway?"

"We're at Urahara-san's candy store. Apparently he found us all at the garden and brought us back here. Everyone was pretty exhausted, but everyone else was up by this morning. Urahara-san predicted you'd be out longer though, since you've never had to use that much energy at once before." Shinichi fell silent, blue eyes turning to a point in the distance as his shoulders hunched slightly.

Kaito frowned. He opened his mouth to ask Shinichi what was wrong, but the detective spoke before he could utter a word.

"You said you were hungry, right? There's food waiting for you in the dining room. Come on, I'll show you the way."

Indigo eyes narrowed. He recognized an evasion when he saw one, but Shinichi was sorely mistaken if he thought he could hide anything from a master thief. His stomach grumbled and he sighed. First thing first. He really needed some food. He'd even try a chocolate covered rice ball right now if he had to.

X

Urahara greeted them with a good-natured smile when they entered the dining room. He was seated at the table beside a black cat, who also turned to stare at them as they came in.

"Good afternoon," he said. "Please, have a seat. You two have a visitor."

They followed his gaze to the other side of the table.

"Aome!" Shinichi exclaimed, surprised. The blue-eyed bird looked up from her dish of water and cooed a happy greeting.

"We found her flying around our basement," the shopkeeper explained. "She seemed quite interested in the senkaimen."

"Did there happen to be any green stones there?"

"I thought you might ask. I remembered what you said about your device, so I took a look around and found this." Grinning, Urahara reached inside his coat and produced a round, green sphere. He set it carefully down on the table. Perfectly spherical, the stone's emerald depths had grown dark and now glittered with a myriad of tiny points of light like stars gleaming in a deep, green sky. In the heart of that breathtaking galaxy, a figure hung suspended. It looked vaguely like a woman, her graceful form defined by a misty nebula.

"So is this it?"

Kaito picked the sphere up and turned it over, examining it with a critical eye. Then, satisfied, he made it disappear. "Yep. I guess that means we won't have to worry about getting an apartment after all."

Urahara cleared his throat. "I understand if you're eager to be on your way, but if you're not in a rush, why not stay a few more days? A little more rest after what happened won't hurt, and I believe Orihime would be disappointed if you miss her barbeque. They were going to bring you the invitations the other day after their field trip, but as you know they never quite got around to it. In the meantime, you can tie up any loose ends you might have left. I checked out of your hotel for you and brought your birds over, but I believe you have a few other issues that need your attention as well." He gave Kaito a meaningful look, and suddenly the magician remembered that he technically still had a job.

"A few more days it is then. Though I'm afraid that means we're going to have to impose upon your hospitality after all."

"Don't mention it."

X

Tugging his jacket closer about himself, Shinichi looked up at the pale, autumn sky. He was waiting outside the restaurant Kaito had been working at and taking the moment to enjoy the fresh, evening air.

Suddenly the door behind him flew open and Kaito came bounding out, an indignant scowl stamped across his face.

"I can't believe she fired me!" he exclaimed, grabbing Shinichi and heading down the street at a brisk pace. "The nerve!"

"Well, you were absent for two days without explanation," Shinichi pointed out, lengthening his stride to keep from being dragged. "Everyone told you the manager was strict. And it was your trial period."

"But I was the only person she's never screamed at before now," the thief huffed, still dissatisfied. "Some people just don't know a good thing when they see one."

Deciding it was time to change the subject, Shinichi tugged on the thief's sleeve and pointed to a bakery on the other side of the street. "I was thinking we should get a cake or something for that barbeque tomorrow. It was rather thoughtful of them to put it together for us. It's the least we can do."

"Of course, that's a great idea." Kaito's sour mood evaporated in the blink of an eye. "And that means we need to see which one tastes best first. Come on, let's eat!"

TBC


Next: An Adventure and a Half [Slayers]

A.N: I was originally going to have them visit Soul Society as well, but the chapter was already so long that I decided it really didn't need it. My second reason though is that there are just too many Bleach characters to introduce properly in a setup like this (to do it right, it would be a whole story all by itself I'm sure). I hope people aren't too disappointed. Next up is Slayers! It's one of my personal favorite series. ^_^ For anyone who hasn't seen it, I highly recommend season 2 (Slayers NEXT). It's the best out of the four. The fourth was frankly a bit of a disappointment. Each season is pretty much its own story so I don't think it makes much difference to watch them out of order. On a random side note, I created two crossword puzzles while motivating myself to write this chapter. One is on Kaito and Shinichi's anime encounters. The second is based on the first ten chapters of Travelers. I still have to put up the answers, but for people who're interested in that kind of thing, you can find them at:

site. (google address) / site / phantomdestinies / puzzles