DISCLAIMER:Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro is the property of Yūsei Matsui. I just like playing with it.

Stranger in the Dark

Every winter, Yako had the strangest dream. When she was younger, the dream had always been really foggy, but she still dreamed. With each passing year it became more and more detailed. With each cold night, she was able to remember more and more about it.

White snow.

White snow, touching pitch black.

Emeralds shimmering from beneath the shadows.

And her own voice echoing in her head.

"Can we play together again?"

No one answered, but her own voice went on.

"…Really? Now isn't good?"

Again, no other voice reached her but her own.

"I'm sorry I can't stay… But I promise—"

And then, without fail, Yako would always wake up.

It was a strange dream. She wondered who she was talking to. She wondered why she couldn't hear their voice, no matter how hard she tried. But more than anything, she wondered what she had promised that day.

"Is it straightened yet?" Yako called from atop the ladder. The banner stretching across the second story windows had been slipping all afternoon, but she had finally secured it properly.

"It looks good!" Kanae called from the ground. "Be careful coming down!"

"It's fine!" Yako smiled as she slid easily down the ladder. She had never had any problems with heights as a kid, and being twenty years old it would be ridiculous to suddenly start. Besides, the ladder was perfectly safe.

Her red-haired friend heaved a sigh, though whether it was relief or exasperation one couldn't say. "You're just looking to scare me to death, I swear!"

Yako just laughed as she took back her jacket and scarf, the black fabric of both accenting her wheat-gold hair. "You need to relax a little, Kanae-chan!"

The two had been put in charge of decorating the outside of the literature building for the Christmas Season. Even though neither of them took part in any actual clubs, and hardly anyone actually came to the campus during the holiday week, they were commissioned by the college to do something. While hardly exciting or fun, they had been sure to do their job of hanging ribbons, wreathes, tinsel and holiday whatnot to a T.

Needless to say, they were ready to go home.

"Are you going anywhere for the holidays?" Kanae asked as they retrieved their bags. Yako already knew that her friend was going to attend a ski trip with her parents and their friends.

"No plans, just lazing around." The blonde was perfectly happy with the thought of hanging around her apartment in her pajamas, settling down with a pot of hot chocolate and decent book or two.

"I heard it's going to snow pretty hard," Kanae stretched her arms over her head to the gray clouds in the sky. "Christmas day should be really pretty, but getting ready takes so much work and before you know, the day is gone."

Yako simply shrugged. The holidays were rarely the main focus of her life come winter. Only the dream that she saw night after night meant anything to her during the end of the year season.

"Didn't you go missing around this time of the year when you were a kid?" Kanae suddenly piped up. "When you were still a little girl, you disappeared and came back without any memory. Ah, it's like a mystery novel or something! You really should write a story about that!"

Yako had told her about it only once and it had always fascinated her, though she only seemed to recall the story around the Christmas season. Yako herself didn't usually like to think about it. Ever since she had suddenly woken up in her Mother's arms, she had never looked back on that blank space in her memory. Only once, when Kanae had asked her back in high school had he ever recalled the story of her brief disappearance.

"I can't write about something I can't even remember, Kanae…" Even if the memory never came back, she could live with it. She was missing just a little part of her childhood. It didn't bother her. That's what she always told herself.

But Yako trailed off as something suddenly occurred to her. Something impossible. Something she had never thought about before, in spite of how often she wondered about that dream.

Could those vague images possibly be fragments of memory from the time she had gone missing?

'Maybe I should go back to that forest…'

That was the thought that resonated in Yako's head after she and Kanae had parted ways at the train station. And before she knew it, Yako rode the train further than her apartment to the outskirts of town. There she got off and started walking.

Her parents had owned a house near here once when she was a child. It was around that time that she had gone missing and come back without a scratch. After that incident, her father had taken a job deeper in the city and they had never thought about it again.

Now that she was here, Yako realized she should have thought things through a bit more. It had been a complete whim that had taken her feet there, and it was long before the sun had gone down that Yako realized she was lost. Completely and utterly lost. Now it was dark, getting colder and she was alone.

"I really want to slap myself right now…" Yako muttered. Tilting her head back, she could see the silver moon shimmer from behind the clouds. Checking her watch, reading 8:05, she groaned.

But now that she was totally lost, all she could do is sit herself down and wait until morning. As unpleasant as the thought was, she didn't want to be wandering around in the dark and fall and break her neck. So she found a comfortable seat at the base of a tree, held her jacket tighter around her small frame and tried to doze off while struggling against tears.

What had she been thinking in coming here? That she might remember something if she entered the woods? As if it was that easy.

Yako didn't know how long she was asleep, but when she suddenly awoke she felt stiff and uncomfortable. What exactly had awoken her was only a brief puzzle, as she found herself looking at a pair of blue-clad legs standing before her.

Following them upwards, Yako met a pair of emerald-green eyes smiling down at her.

Startled, and although she was as stiff as a board, Yako jumped to her feet. The man was still two heads taller than she was, but she was able to see him better. He was dressed in a blue suit, though she could only tell it was blue because of the pitch black cloak that covered his shoulders and went down to his feet. His hair was a peculiar green-yellow in the back, while his bangs were as black as his cloak. His skin was pale, his eyes somehow black and green, and he smiled like a shark.

This man, this creature of the dark breathed power and intelligence. And while some animal instinct screamed 'danger, run, hide,' something stronger assured her that she was safe in his presence.

He raised his eyes to the dark sky overhead. "It will start snowing soon," he said. His voice was like a precious stone hidden deep within a cold mountain. "When the snow surrounds this place, the birds will stop singing, the insects will stop breathing, and the trees will fall into a deep slumber. It will once again become a forest of death."

The stranger looked back at Yako. "So what would bring one such as yourself to this place?"

Yako shook her head, unable to find her voice. This seemed to amuse him and his smile broadened, displaying his sharp, white teeth. She felt another flash of fear, but it stilled swiftly for the sake of one question. "Who are you?"

"An inane question," he said. "Boring and unnecessary in this place. Why don't you answer my question? What brought you here?"

Yako took a deep breath, trying to think of an answer. "I…I think I lost something here and…I was looking for it."

"At such a late hour?" He chuckled. "You're not very smart."

She flinched at the sting of his blunt insult, but couldn't deny it.

"It would have been better if you had left before dark," the stranger went on, turning and walking away.

Yako stumbled as she followed after him, not ready to be left alone again. But as they walked through the woods, it soon became so dark Yako couldn't even see the trees. Even so, the man continued walking without the slightest stumble or anything. He seemed to know where he was going, so maybe he could lead her out of here.

"Do you live around here?" She asked.

"Not far," he said. "You clearly do not frequent this area."

"Not really, no," Yako sighed. "I used to live nearby when I was kid, but…circumstances forced my parents to move."

He nodded with a deep hum. "Yes, I was very angry when they took you away from here…"

Yako jerked, not sure if she heard him right. "Wait, what?"

He finally stopped and turned to face her again. The shadows of the tree branches wrapping around him like the arms of countless lovers welcoming him home. And still he smiled at her through the dark. Again, Yako's fear announced itself and this time she could not ignore it.

"Who are you?"

"You know me, Yako," he said. Her name slipped out of his mouth like a well kept secret. Hearing it spoken both terrified and thrilled her. "I've known you your whole life, and I've watched you grow up from a distance…"

"You've been spying on me?"

The dark stranger chuckled. "Quite the opposite. You've been spying on me."

Yako might have found this statement absolutely ridiculous, except that that strong sense of safety once again calmed her anxieties and she knew she could believe him. "Me…?"

"Ever since you were a baby," he said. "Every time you peered from the window of your nursery and longed to explore the dark, wild realm beyond. You were calling for me." The stranger chuckled. "Imagine my surprise when you actually came looking for me."

"But I don't even know your name," Yako insisted.

"Yes, you do."

Yako would have again protested, when something icy touched her cheek. Feeling cold water trail down her skin, she looked up to find countless snowflake falling from the dark sky above like large white feathers.

She looked back to man before her, watching the snow land on his black cloak and completely vanish. She was enraptured by the sight and just stared at his shoulder for the longest time.

White snow, touching pitch black.

She had seen it countless times in her dreams. She finally saw the complete image.

She finally remembered.

Yako had waited until Mom and Dad had gone to sleep. She was tired of hearing them say no, and decided not to ask this time.

She pulled on her pants and a sweater and crept through the dark house to the door. There, she pulled on her coat and gloves and hat, followed by her boots. The moon was full and made the snow shimmer and glow outside. It was the perfect time to play.

Carefully, she opened the door. Carefully, she closed it behind her.

And just like that, she was free. Tearing across the yard, she entered the trees and just kept running. Once out of earshot of the house, she released a shriek of laughter that stirred even the slumbering trees.

Only when she tripped on a rock and was sent rolling down a hill did she finally stop. But even then, she roared with laughter. She had never felt so happy before as she did laying there in the cold snow.

She had quite literally stumbled upon a clearing of untouched snow and went to work building snow men of all sizes and shaping snow angels on the ground. The night grew darker, but she wasn't the least bit afraid.

Not even when she saw tiny creatures creeping through the shadows or among the trees.

However, she paused when she heard footsteps crunching through the snow and turned around to see a tall man dressed in black crossing the clearing to where she stood. He was really tall. She had to crane her neck back until it hurt to look him in the face.

And yet, in spite of the fact that he was much bigger than she was and she had never seen him before, Yako smiled. "Do you want to play with me? We can have a snow ball fight."

The stranger agreed.

Yako lost miserably, but didn't cry about it. Even though it had hurt.

They played a series of games in the snow, several she had never even heard of before.

Eventually, she got tired and fell asleep. But he was still there when she woke up later.

They continued to have fun and walked further and further into the forest.

The sun came up and crossed the sky faster than it usually did.

But voices soon broke the pleasant lull of their playtime. Voices calling her name were coming.

"It seems that someone is missing you," he said. He was still smiling, but Yako could see that he wasn't happy.

"Mama and Papa," Yako sighed. Her parents would be mad at her for sneaking away. But she looked back at him with a hopeful smile. "Can we play together again?"

He smiled back at her, kneeling down and taking her face in his large hands. "I would be happy with just stealing you away. You could stay with me and we would always be together. Our games would never end."

"Really?" She gaped, unable to imagine it.

"But that would be…unfair," he sighed. "You are still just a child, and it wouldn't be fair of me to take you away now. Even if you want to come with me."

"…Really?" Her heart sank. "Now isn't good? What about tomorrow?"

He laid one black-gloved hand over her eyes. "The memories of this forest, of meeting me…I'll hide them away," he whispered. "Forget, and go back to you parents. But if you ever remember, come back and I'll play with you again."

Yako reached up to hold his hand. "I'm sorry I can't stay… But I promise I'll come back! I'll come back and we can play together all the time!"

Though she couldn't see it, she knew he smiled.

And then he was gone.

She had fallen asleep in the snow. When she woke up, her mother was holding her close and scolding her for her bad behavior.

She didn't remember how she had come to be outside, but she let it go and returned home with her Mom and Dad and never thought about it again.

Yako was unable to control her trembling or her tears as they poured down her cheeks.

She had forgotten him. This creature of the dark, who had played with her for a full night and day. She had turned her back on him and these woods in which he ruled.

"You made me wait for you," he said, still smiling with those gleaming teeth.

She met his green gaze, though her tears made her vision a blur. She couldn't trust herself to speak, so she just nodded in response.

"It's getting late and I'm tired," he sighed turning and continuing through the trees.

Yako watched him move further ahead before glancing back the way they had come. The forest was black and white now. The pathways through the woods would all be blocked. The snow would surround and trap anyone caught inside.

She could go back.

Or she could follow him.

She had people waiting for her outside.

But she had kept him waiting.

Looking back at his black-clad figure leaving her behind, Yako remembered. All those nights she spent as a little girl just gazing out her window, wanting to run out of the house in just her pajamas and find adventure far beyond the trees. Even when she was surrounded by concrete and steel, even when she didn't know what she was looking for, Yako had stared out her window. Looking across the city, trying to see something.

She had kept him waiting. Even if she didn't know what was ahead of her, even if she didn't really understand everything, she had made her decision a long time ago. She was just late.

Yako followed after the tall, dark creature, when he suddenly stopped walking and she nearly collided with his back.

"What brought you here?" He asked her again.

She didn't have to think about her answer this time. "You did."

"And what is my name?" He inquired, a smile in his tone.

Yako went black for a moment, but she didn't really have to wonder about that question either.

"Neuro."

The snow fell heavily over the next couple of weeks, blanketing everything in a cold embrace.

When the police finally started looking for Katsuragi Yako, her footprints had long since disappeared.