Everyone had their own personal Hell. For some it was school, with the mindless day in, day out, go to class, take test, pass, and move on to the next grade, only to deal with the same mindless drivel in more 'challenging' doses. For others it was home, a place they never felt they belonged, even if it was where they lived their entire lives. And still others, like Katsuragi Yako, felt work was their own Hell on Earth.
Of course, no one else had to deal with a demon that was, quite literally, from Hell itself.
The young detective stopped at the school gates. Kanae was running to catch up to her, schoolbag in one hand while waving with the other to get Yako's attention. There was the hint of a frown on her friend's face.
"Kanae, what's wrong?"
"Huh?" said Kanae as she approached Yako. She shook her head. "No, no! I wouldn't say anything's wrong, exactly, but it's been a while, hasn't it? I barely see you outside of class. You're always busy solving mysteries with your assistant."
Assistant. Yes, that was what people thought Neuro was: her assistant. More than once Yako wondered how he could pass himself off as such. It was obvious, even to someone as admittedly simple-minded as herself, that he acted more like a detective than she ever did.
No wonder Neuro didn't hold most humans in very high esteem.
"What about today?" Kanae asked. "Think you have time?"
Yako sighed. It wasn't that she didn't want to hang out with her friend. Quite the opposite. Not only had the HAL case been particularly draining, both physically and emotionally, there was a new soba place that opened up a few blocks away. She could practically feel her stomach grumble in anticipation.
"Sorry. I wish I could, but . . ."
If she did, her head would be 180 degrees from where it was meant to be. And that was if she were lucky.
"Don't worry about it! Some other time," said Kanae, an overly cheerful tone to her voice. But she wasn't fooling Yako. The slight crinkle near her eyes gave away her disappointment. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I promise I'll make it up to you!" Yako called out as Kanae turned the corner, disappearing from sight. "I'll make sure not to eat as much so you won't be stuck with a large check!"
Kanae glanced back and laughed, a genuine—if somewhat exasperated—laugh. "Idiot! How is that helping me?"
Yako allowed herself a small smile as headed in the opposite hurried down the streets toward an all-too-familiar building, the one with the door that read Katsuragi Yako's Demon Detective Office. She was a block away when she felt a bit of wetness splash against her cheek. She cursed the weather, or perhaps the weather reporter, who stated with pride there wouldn't be a single cloud in the sky. It didn't matter either way. What did matter was the umbrella she left by the front door of her house.
The light drops here and there quickly became larger, heavier, until Yako found herself caught in the middle of a downpour. She held her schoolbag over her head in vain. Her best chance was to make a dash for it and hope she wouldn't be completely soaked. She ran the rest of the way, splashing into large puddles and getting wetter in the process. After a quick climb up the stairs, dripping along the way, she wrung out the water from her hair and clothes. Once she was satisfied with her level of dryness—which was still rather damp—her hand hovered over the doorknob, as if she were debating whether to go inside.
That wasn't true, of course. Yako knew she didn't have any choice but to go in, lest she incur Neuro's wrath—well, more wrath than usual. The reason she was still outside, shivering from the air conditioning blowing on her, was quite simple.
She was figuring out what Neuro would throw at her for being. Yes, for being. She learned long ago no matter whether she was late, early, or exactly on time, he would always be sure to throw something at her, with frightening accuracy, as she entered the room. In her mind, the only logical conclusion was that he was annoyed with her simply existing.
Yako mentally ran through the objects in the office, knowing that with each passing moment the object in question would be bigger and bigger. Maybe one of the many staplers Neuro always seemed to have on hand? She shook her head. Probably not, since he had thrown one at her yesterday. She checked her watch. Considering how late she was, it would have to be something fairly large. Perhaps the TV again.
There was only one way to find out. Slowly, she turned the knob and pushed on the door. A quick peek didn't reveal anything dangerous. The bookshelves lined the perimeter of the office. Akane was at her usual spot on the wall answering emails. The couch and coffee table were in the center of the room.
Yako took a hesitant step in.
Then again, there was a large, black mass where Neuro should've been, sitting smugly at his desk. Before she could dodge what he had thrown at her—it was the TV this time, she knew it!—Yako slipped and slammed the back of her head against the floor. She opened her eyes, half-expecting to see stars, only to find herself gazing at Neuro. Somehow he'd managed to make his way from the desk to the ceiling in less time than it took most people to blink.
"I'm sorry I'm—"
There was a loud shonk above her. Before she could see what had made the noise, there was a crash as sharpened metal met tile, cutting off the lock of hair at the back of her head that refused to lay flat.
Yako paled, eyes wide. Since when did they have a guillotine in their office?
"Aw, that's such a shame," said Neuro, with his usual 'innocent' face. He pushed off the ceiling and landed gracefully next to her. "If you had only slipped a few feet back."
She shot up and reached for her neck, gently rubbing it. No doubt that would've amused Neuro, but Yako rather liked her head where it was, thank you very much.
"I got your text," she started, pushing herself off the floor. The action took more effort than usual, her whole body screaming in protest at the soreness. Ignoring the feeling, she walked over to the desk where Neuro now sat. "What case do we have for today?"
"Louse," Neuro said, his eyes narrowed, "I thought you had evolved after the HAL incident. But if you feel the need to repeat everything I say, perhaps I assumed incorrectly."
A nerve in Yako's face twitched. "Forgive me for thinking we had one since, you know, you demanded I come down here!"
"If I sensed the hint of case, I would've found you immediately. It's so troublesome tracking you down," he said, voice laced with mock weary. "You should stay here all the time instead." He pointed to a spot beneath Akane with a dog bed and collar, the chain attached to the wall. Neuro being Neuro, the spikes on the collar, which were intended to be on the outside, were pointed inwards, and the 'bed' consisted of a few slabs of concrete. "See? What do you think?"
Yako crossed her arms across her chest, making an X. "I refuse!"
"Such an inconsiderate slave. After all the trouble I went through to get this for you."
A loud grumble answered him before she could respond. Yako placed a hand over her stomach. "So hungry . . ."
Neuro turned away from her, scoffing. "Are you sure that stomach of yours hasn't been replaced by a black hole?"
Yako glared at the back of his head as he stared out the windows. As if he were one to talk. The way he ate his mysteries, he was as much a glutton as she was.
Besides, it was his fault she was so hungry. He texted her before she could have her late afternoon snack. When was the last time she had okonomiyaki or takoyaki or soba? Oh, soba! Would she ever get to visit that new soba shop? If Neuro had anything to say about it, the answer was a resounding no.
Yako felt her mouth water. Thinking about food wasn't helping.
"Hurry up and get something," said Neuro. "You're even more useless when you're hungry."
He was actually letting her eat? Even if it was more for his benefit than her own, for Neuro that was an act of kindness.
Still, she wouldn't complain. Yako placed her schoolbag on the table and rummaged around for her coin pouch. She smiled when her hands wrapped around the familiar plastic of the bag. Maybe she would get some soba after all. Pulling out the plastic pouch, she unclipped it and turned the bag upside down above her hand.
Nothing. Not even a single yen. She looked forlornly inside the coin purse, her stomach noisier than ever. How could she forget? She used the last of her allowance the day before at the dango shop.
"Say, Neuro. You wouldn't be willing to. . ." Yako paused, a sheepish laugh escaping her lips. "Lend me some money?"
A wide grin stretched across Neuro's face. "Even if I did, why would I lend it to you?"
Yako held her head in dismay. It was a long shot, to be sure. Why had she expected anything less?
"However," Neuro said, getting up from his chair, "if you're that hungry, let me treat you."
Yako's face turned an odd shade of green. She remembered the last time he offered her food. "I'm fine. I'd rather not have poisoned curry or poisoned katsudon or poisoned, well, anything at the moment." Or ever.
"Tsk! What a shame." Neuro shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out something spherical. Yako did a double take. "And here I thought I would be a kind master and give you a reward for all your hard work."
He suddenly tossed the thing to her. With only a few seconds to react, she caught the thing awkwardly, nearly dropping it in the process.
"A pomegranate?" She brought the reddish-pink fruit closer, inspecting it. "I didn't think they grew this time of year." Yako eyed him suspiciously. This was too nice a reward. "You injected this with poison or laxatives or some other horrible thing, didn't you?"
Neuro didn't say anything, and yet she could practically hear his response. 'As if I would tell you.'
She returned her attention to the fruit in her hand and gave it a light squeeze. Not too firm or too soft. Just right. Yako could already imagine how sweet its seeds were. It looked positively perfect. Too perfect, now that she thought about it. Yes, he must have done something to it. She looked back to the puzzle-eating demon only to find him at the computer studiously ignoring her.
There were a million reasons not to eat the pomegranate, not the least of which was that it came from Neuro. Unfortunately, her mind was no longer in control. Her stomach had given the command to start digging in.
With a soft plop onto the sofa, she gave a quick thanks for the food, then tore into the fruit with almost superhuman strength. She placed the pieces of skin onto the table, grabbed a couple of seeds and dropped them into her mouth. They were sweet, sweeter than she'd ever eaten before. Grabbing a few more, she closed her eyes as she chewed, without the slightest worry of the juice dripping down her fingers. Soon enough the seeds were gone, leaving her with red-stained hands.
At his desk Neuro looked up from the computer, eyes glowing unnaturally green. "I take it you enjoyed your reward?" he asked, an odd tone to his voice. It reminded Yako of when he was on the brink of solving a mystery, only there was something different about it she couldn't place.
The worry that left her while she was eating returned full force.
"For now. I think I'll wait to see if I drop dead in the next few minutes before I give you my final—" She turned, ready to finish her scathing remark, when she saw his face and stopped.
Yako had never been as terrified of the puzzle-eating demon as she was at that exact moment. It wasn't the glowing of his demonic eyes that scared her, but rather his grin, stretched wide enough to show every one of his sharpened teeth, and the way his hands gripped the desk, claws digging in where his gloves should've been.
He had to have heard her, but he didn't answer. His gaze wasn't even on her face, but on her fingertips. What about them could be so fascinating to hold Neuro's gaze? Yako looked down and gasped.
Where there was once pomegranate juice, her hands were now covered in blood.