What would she find when she woke up? Yako didn't want to know. Would there be Neuro's unnatural green eyes staring back at her or the sight of her ceiling? There was only one way to find out. Her eyes fluttered open.
Never before had she been so happy to see her ceiling, even with the restless night of sleep. The dreams had not let up since they began last week. In fact, they were getting worse. This time the removal of clothes had been involved.
But Yako decided not to dwell on those thoughts. For the first time in ages, she had a weekend to herself. She could hardly remember the last time that happened. All of her weekends recently consisted of her following—well, more like being dragged by—Neuro in search of a mystery.
Yako stared at the ring reflecting in the late morning light and sighed. Taking Neuro's words to heart, she hadn't tried removing it again. Not that she didn't consider other ways to get it off. Cutting the band seemed the most reasonable solution, but the fear of losing her finger from the blade itself kept her from trying it out.
Besides, the ring almost felt like it belonged on her finger. Yako's eyes widened at the thought, and she shook her head. No, definitely no. She wouldn't allow herself to get comfortable with the idea of their 'marriage.' Her life was stressful enough without that making things more complicated.
Now that Yako thought about it, over the course of the week the ring, and what it entailed, hadn't been mentioned once, neither by her nor Neuro. That wasn't to say everything was back to normal. Maybe her dreams were making her paranoid, but Yako swore he was more . . . intimate than before. Nothing as blatant as when he licked her fingers, not that she would give him the chance to do that again. But his hands seemed to linger on her, whether he was dragging her to a case or twisting a limb past the point of breaking.
Still, Neuro surprised her with how little he was holding their 'marriage' over her head, as he'd done the first few days. That, combined with his now-found intimacy, only served to worry Yako more. Silence with Neuro was a sure sign he had something even worse planned.
Well, whatever he decided, there was nothing Yako could do to stop him. The least she could do was pretend to have an uneventful day—at least until he showed up and shattered her precious illusion of a normal life. She decided to indulge herself in a long bath before getting ready. Unlike last weekend, she took her time choosing her clothes. She eventually settled on a black pleated skirt and a t-shirt with the words 'Happiness is changing' printed on it.
Grabbing the keys to her house, she locked the front door and headed into the city. This would likely be her only chance to visit the not-as-new soba shop. Yako was so focused on getting there before the lunch rush that she almost didn't notice the familiar face she bumped into.
"Katsuragi?" asked the bespectacled boy with messy hair.
Yako smiled as he approached. "Higuchi-san! It's been a while."
His laptop was nowhere to be found. Higuchi was about a foot away when he stopped, his back straight, and bowed at a perfect 45-degree angle. "How are you?"
"I'm . . . better than I was after HAL, that's for sure." Try as she might, Yako couldn't bring herself to say she was great or good or even okay. "I see Usui-san's training hasn't worn off."
Higuchi shoved his hands into his pockets and muttered something under his breath.
"Unfortunately," he said, but his annoyed expression was soon replaced with a smile. "But I'm glad to hear you're doing better. I'm sure that case must've taken its toll on you."
Unconsciously, Yako rubbed her thumb against the ring. Oh, if only her worries were about the HAL case.
"Anyway, now that you're here, maybe you'll take me up on my offer."
Higuchi fiddled with his glasses, then pushed them onto his head. "For tea. Remember?"
"That's right." In the chaos of the last couple of weeks, Yako had completely forgotten. "Sure, that sounds great! Oh, and can we stop by that new soba shop, too?" She dug through her purse and pulled out her coin bag. "See, I have enough money to pay for my share!"
Higuchi laughed, shaking his head. "Sure, we can stop there. But I think you misunderstand what I—"
Her cell phone buzzing cut him off.
"Sorry," Yako said, rummaging through her purse. "Let me just . . ." Just when she was ready to dump everything out onto the sidewalk, she found it in a side pocket. She pulled the phone out and flipped it open.
Higuchi stepped closer, suddenly serious. "Is something wrong?"
There was a text message from Neuro.
Get to the office, unless you want to lose a limb!
Her eyebrow twitched. It was barely noon, and her attempt at a normal day was ruined. At least she still had Sunday, so long as Neuro didn't find another case. Which she had no doubt he would. She closed the phone and dropped it back in her purse.
"I think I might have to take you up on that offer another day," said Yako, sighing. "Something just came up."
Higuchi forced a smile. "Ah." Yako had already turned around, to the direction of the office, when he added, "A message from Neuro?"
Yako stopped in her tracks and looked back at him. "How did you—?"
"Who else could it be?" Higuchi asked, but she sensed he meant it rhetorically. His gaze went from her eyes to her hand. Her right hand. "I see. He's . . . very important to you, isn't he, Katsuragi?"
Yako followed his gaze and nearly choked. "I-I think you're misunderstanding. This isn't what it looks like!"
Higuchi shook his head. "I don't think I am. Maybe, this time, you're the one who's—"
Hands grabbed Yako's shoulders and squeezed tightly. It took all her strength to keep a straight face and not scream or wince. Seconds later the hand morphed into claws, poking through her shirt and into her flesh. Only one person—demon—was capable of doing that.
But how had he found her and so fast? The flashing of Yako's ring caught her attention. No, it couldn't be. Could it?
"Why, Yako! What a coincidence meeting you here, of all places. And just after I messaged you," chirped Neuro. He took one look at Higuchi, like one would a worm, before turning back to her. "We should be heading off, shouldn't we?"
Yako managed a slight nod as she was led away, Neuro's claws still pressed into her shoulders. Ignoring the pain, she turned slightly and waved to Higuchi. He returned the gesture half-heartedly, a look of understanding on his face.
Once they were out of sight, she glared up at Neuro. "How did you find me?"
"Did you not get my message?" he asked, releasing her after a block or so. He looked at her out the corner of his eye. "I didn't realize that boy was more important to you than helping me find my next meal."
"It's this ring, isn't it?" Yako demanded, out of breath. She struggled to keep up with his long gait. "That's how you found me."
Neuro smirked. "And if it is? What do you think you can do about it, louse?"
Something inside Yako snapped. She stopped walking. "I'll find a way," she said, eyes narrowed as she glared at the back of his head. "I don't care if it takes me weeks or months or even years. I'm going to remove this ring and have this ridiculous 'marriage' annulled. You just wait and see!"
There, she said it. The words she'd been meaning to say the whole week, but never could. Yako already felt a million times better. Her body felt lighter, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, and she felt completely re-energized. There wasn't anything she couldn't take on.
Neuro stopped and faced her. Yako didn't know what reaction to expect, but it wasn't the pleased look currently on his face. Her stomach felt as though it were tumbling into itself, over and over, and not because she hadn't eaten.
This wasn't right. Neuro wasn't supposed to be happy. Mad because she dared to speak out against him. Annoyed because she was delaying his meal. Or even simply bored because she had spoken nonsense. Any of those reactions would've made sense. But not pleased.
"Is that so?" asked Neuro, as he considered her briefly. He chuckled. "I look forward to it."
Yako gulped. "You're . . . not mad? Even though I'm trying to divorce you?"
"Mad? Of course not!" Neuro's grin grew wider. "The chase is the best part of any game! It's no fun when the prey gives in so easily. Besides," he said, as he continued his way toward their destination, "it'll make my victory all the more rewarding."
Yako's jaw dropped as she was left behind. Was that all this was to Neuro, a game? That would certainly explain why she could never win. No matter what she said or did, she managed to make things more enjoyable for him.
As it turned out, their destination was a small bookstore that had been burned to the ground. Sasazuka and Ishigaki had arrived first and were talking with the owner. Two or three high school students stood nearby, waiting to be interviewed.
"Because I had to go and find you, those investigators got here first," Neuro said, as Yako caught up with him.
Yako couldn't bring herself to care. This wasn't the first time they'd arrived late to a case. Sasazuka would be more than happy to have the help, even if Ishigaki wouldn't.
But Neuro's stiff tone did make her care. Very, very much.
"I'm sure you understand what that means." He pulled off his glove, sharpened claws gleaming. He could barely contain his sadistic glee. "Which limb would you prefer to lose?"
Yako backed away from the puzzle-eating demon, until she bumped into something solid. The brick wall of the building behind them. "What are you talking about? I prefer to keep all of my limbs!"
"Don't you remember my message? Yako, get to the office now, unless you want to lose a limb! So, which will it be?" With his ungloved hand, Neuro grabbed her left arm and pulled her to him, tracing her wrist with a claw. "Maybe a hand? You won't miss it."
Yako kept her lips pressed together. She knew better than to give him any kind of answer.
"Or perhaps, better yet…" Her arm still in his grasp, Neuro's hand went lower. Her mouth went dry as his clawed finger followed the hem of her skirt. A thin scratch appeared a moment later. "A leg. I would go for the hand, myself, but I'll leave the choice up to you."
"Neither," Yako said, trying to tug her arm from him. "I need both!"
"Tormenting innocent high-school girls?" A man chuckled, his voice light and melodic. "I didn't think such things interested you. How the mighty have fallen, puzzle-eater Nougami Neuro."
A flicker of recognition crossed Neuro's face. He frowned, but didn't around. "What are you doing here?"
"I think the better question is, what are you doing here?"
Yako peeked around Neuro. Her eyes widened at the sight that greeted her. The man stood almost as tall as Neuro, maybe an inch shorter. His long platinum blond locks were kept loose, framing his sharp features, and he wore a simple black suit and dress shoes, and red button-down shirt. No tie. Instead, the top two buttons were left undone.
But that was not what had shocked Yako. She had seen plenty of men in suits before, on the streets heading to school and on her cases together with Neuro. No, it was how inhumanly beautiful he was. A light seemed to pour out from his very being, calling to her, beckoning her to come to him.
There was no doubt in her mind this person was a demon. No human would've known about Neuro's puzzle-eating tendencies. So was he a friend? The idea of Neuro having friends was laughable, but then, so was the idea of him having a wife. If it weren't for the ring on her finger, Yako wouldn't have believed it. Even with the ring, she couldn't.
An enemy seemed more likely.
"Neuro?" asked Yako, looking back at him. He didn't answer.
She returned her gaze to this new demon when her voice caught in her throat. Her blood ran cold at the sight of his eyes. Lifeless eyes colored the most brilliant shade of midnight blue. She never experienced fear like this before: not with her father's case, not with HAL, not even with X. At worst she feared for her life.
But gazing into this demon's eyes, she feared for her very soul.
"I never thought I'd see you again," Neuro said, finally turning to the demon. "It's been a while, Lutan Shiferu."