DISCLAIMER: Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro and its Characters are property of Yūsei Matsui. NOT ME.
I PROMISE . . .
"There. Perfect!" Yako dropped the pure white lace of her Mother's veil and stepped back to admire her work.
"How is it? Does it look okay?" Haruka, asked as she turned to look herself over in the mirror. The dark-haired woman was sporting a furious blush, and certainly the heat and rush of blood would make it a bit difficult for her to think properly, but no one with eyes could deny she was stunning in her bridal gown. Yako's Mother had always been a great beauty—except when she was cooking—so it stood as no surprise she would be a dream in white for her second wedding.
"You look like a fairy princess, Mom," Yako smiled. "You'll knock him dead just setting foot on the walkway."
Haruka tried not to, but couldn't help the small giggle of girlish delight that escaped her at the idea of flooring her beaux at the last minute. Her husband-to-be, Saotome Kuniharu, was a rough and tough man, collected and grounded in every way possible in spite of his questionable line of work. It was strange to her friends that someone so scary was her boyfriend for the past year and a half, much less that they were getting married. But Haruka was tough in her own way too, and they genuinely loved each other, so it was no question that they would be happy together.
But her smile quickly softened as she looked at her daughter. Yako looked very elegant and mature for only being twenty-one. Wearing her own white dress—it was strapless, instead opting to fasten around her neck and had no back—white lace gloves and a red rose in her hair, Haruka was certain her daughter looked ready for her own wedding.
And knowing that made it somewhat sad that she wasn't.
"What's with that face?" Yako teased. "You look like someone just poured doused your strawberry parfait."
Haruka sighed helplessly. Yako was very thoughtful towards other people. She could easily tell when someone was uncomfortable or trying to hide something. She had always been able to tell her own Mother's moods to the point she cheered her up almost before she realized she was upset.
"Come here, Yako…" Haruka opened her arms and soon enveloped her daughter in a tight hug.
"Mom, what's wrong?"
"I just. . . You should be getting married before your old ditty of a Mother remarries," the woman sighed. "You deserve to be the bride today. . ."
Yako snorted. "You want me to marry your fiancé? That's kinda freaky, Mom."
"Yako, I'm serious," Haruka said. "You're beautiful, and smart, and deserve more than me walking on into my happiness and leaving you alone."
Sighing, the daughter hugged her Mother again. "I'm fine so long as you're healthy and happy. Speaking of which, how have you been breathing lately?"
"I keep telling you, I'm fine," her Mother replied firmly. "It was just a bad case of the flu that one time, and that was months ago. Now, don't try and change the subject—"
There came a knock on the door. "Haruka-san, it's time."
The bride's raging blush returned with reinforcements. Her face burned like the summer sun, because she knew she was going to get married, even as she hid beneath her veil and prayed for just another ten minutes. Just twenty more minutes before that short but perilous walk down the aisle. Just another hour. She wasn't sure if she was ready for this. Just one more day. She was too old to be getting married again. What was she thinking?
"Mom, don't you dare start that again!" Yako said firmly, hands on her hips. She could tell where her Mother's thoughts were going, even if she couldn't clearly see her face. "You are getting married today, because you love him and he loves you. Got that?"
She quickly retrieved her Mother's bouquet of white flowers from the table and forced it into her hands. "Shoulders back, deep breath, big smile."
Haruka couldn't help but smile at her daughter's bossy behavior. Her lovely daughter who had always been so much more composed and mature than most adults. The two embraced once more before they opened the doors. "I love you so much, Yako. I just want you to find your own happy ending, and. . .I don't want you to feel as if I'm leaving you behind. . ."
Yako gave her Mother a tight squeeze before pulling away. "Come on! Saotome-san is waiting!"
Haruka took a deep albeit shaky breath before opening the doors and stepping out into the hall.
So encouraged, and happy and nervous, the woman wouldn't have thought to look back at her only daughter and see the pained and sad expression on her pretty face.
Yako was startled by a sudden shadow passing the corner of her eye, but turning, she saw nothing. But she knew he was there, waiting. She silently pleaded for just a few more hours. 'Please wait. . . Not yet. . .'
Looking back at her Mother's back, she tried to mask her inner turmoil.
Haruka had no reason to worry about leaving her daughter behind.
In truth, Yako was the one leaving everything behind. . .
- - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - -
It hadn't been just a cold, or a bad case of the flu. Yako had always known that. But she had prayed that whatever it was would not put her Mother on her death bed. She prayed that the woman would be back on her feet again in a few days. She wished that she could open her eyes and tell her everything was okay. She wished she would smile and joke around about how this was going to affect her work at the magazine.
But Haruka didn't open her eyes. She didn't smile. She didn't speak. Her dark-haired Mother just laid there, pale and small and unmoving.
Yako didn't know what to do. Visiting hours would be over soon. Surrounded by the whiteness of the hospital room and the beeping and pumping of the machines, she was too afraid to leave her alone again. When her Father had died, she had been sixteen and the loss had nearly crushed their small family. But because they had held on to each other, they had managed to make it through, somehow.
If her Mother died here, in this quiet, sterile place, Yako knew she wouldn't be able to survive it. But looking out the window right across from her
Yako suddenly felt a chill.
It wasn't like when the air conditioner was left on so high, that she actually felt the need to put on a sweater. It wasn't like when she ate or drank something so frosty that the inside of her mouth went ice cold, either.
It was more the sensation of someone moving their hand along her back, while not really touching her skin in the slightest. It raised the hair on her head to the point it actually hurt. Some animal instinct told her that a predator was in the room. She felt an inexplicable need to run, but the door was at her back, and so was the predator.
Slowly, very slowly, and almost against her will, Yako very slowly turned around.
Dressed in a suit of the most perfect-blue fabric she had ever seen, Yako looked up into a pair of black and green eyes set within a pale face. And while his bangs were jet black, the rest of his hair was a bizarre blond-green. She also saw small, triangular beads hanging from the ends of his hair, flashing gold in the light of the setting sun.
Overall, he looked like an ordinary person from one of the western countries. But then the man smiled, much broader than any ordinary person, and displayed shark-like teeth that could not belong to someone human.
"I caught you," he mused. His voice was darker than midnight, and rumbled like a deep chasm in the Earth.
Yako was clearly confused, but couldn't find her voice to question him. So he offered an explanation, pointing his middle finger down to the floor.
Looking down, Yako saw the stranger's black booted foot standing on her shadow. And while completely harmless in every possible way, something about it was terrible and frightening. She quickly stood up, which drew her shadow away from his foot, and faced him while putting her Mother's bed at her back. Whoever, whatever this person was, she had to protect her Mother.
"What do you want?" She demanded, glad her voice wasn't shaking.
The man looked from her to Haruka, asleep in the bed and chained to various machines. For one brief moment, his smiled faded to a look of deep contemplation. But his grin quickly returned, broader and sharper than before and Yako felt her fear spike.
"What do you want?" He returned her question, playfully. "I did come all this way to grant you one wish. I did promise, after all."
At this, Yako blinked. Nothing he had said made any sort of sense to her. "I don't understand what you mean."
"Your human brain can't be that soft!" The stranger groused. "I caught your shadow, so now you have the right to ask one thing of me. That was what we agreed upon before." He paused. "How long has it been here? You are older now, but you humans grow so fast, it's not the best way to measure time."
"I don't know what you mean!" Yako shouted. She quickly quieted and waited, but no one seemed to have heard her raise her voice. Her Mother went on sleeping, and Yako didn't look to disturb her. "Look, whoever you are. I don't know what you came here for, but please leave. My Mom isn't feeling well and I don't want to bother her sleep. So please. . ."
"Do you want that woman to return to good health?" The man asked. "Is that your wish?"
"Of course I want her to get better!" Yako snapped. "But I don't see how you can do that when the doctors here haven't even told me anything new! What can you possibly—"
"That woman is going to die in four hours, thirty minutes and seventeen seconds."
The stranger's deep voice and composed words shook Yako to her core and her voice died in her throat.
"If you say that you want her to live, I can do that easily," he smiled. "You just have to be sure that's what you really want of me. You only have the one wish. I don't intend to grant you another."
Struggling to breach the scream of horror in her thoughts, Yako somehow found her voice. "Why. . .did you say that. . .? How can you say Mom is going to die. . .?"
"I can tell things like that," the man said. "I am a Demon, after all."
She tried to back away further, but her Mother's hospital bed prevented her from doing so.
"Do you want me to return her to good health?" He asked again, slightly more impatient than before. "If so, you'd better tell me now."
Yako threw herself between her Mother and the Demon. Thinking about what she knew in the movies and novels, she knew that making deals with demons and such rarely worked in the person's favor in the end. It always had a way of coming back around at them.
". . .Why would you want to help me at all?" She asked.
The stranger tilted his head to one side and watched her through narrowed eyes. "I promised that I would. When I stepped on your shadow, I was to give you one wish. It's rather simple."
It sounded simple. But it still didn't explain anything.
But. . .if her Mother could be saved. . .
"If you make her well again, she won't suffer anymore?" Yako asked. "She won't ever be sick again?"
"She won't likely contract any other human disease—"
"Human, demon or otherwise, she won't ever get sick again?" She interjected. "I don't want you turning it all around so that she still dies, just to suit you."
The stranger shrugged. "Death doesn't suit me at all. I overall dislike it unless I'm fighting against someone that ultimately has to die. There are specific reasons a person might fall under this category, but I doubt your Mother would be one of them."
"So. . .she wouldn't ever be hurt or anything like that again?"
"There are limits to things like that," he scoffed. "However, so long as she's smart, and looks both ways while crossing the street, I think she'll simply die of old age like most other humans."
His offer sounded genuine. She didn't understand his reasons for offering this chance at all, but he sounded. . . Sincere wasn't the right word for it. Blunt, maybe, but she couldn't be sure.
Yako took a steady breath, and asked one last question. "What would you want. . .in return for doing this?"
The Demon was silent and still for a long moment before he smiled once again. And pointing his middle finger straight at her, he answered her as bluntly as before. . .
- - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - -
Yako cheered with everyone else when her Mother and Saotome exchanged bites of cake, and then kissed for the hundredth time that day. Soon, their faces were smothered in white frosting, but they looked happier than ever.
Watching her closely, Yako had not once seen her Mother experience any further illness. Not even allergies seemed to slow Haruka down anymore. She was perfect.
And while she had not seen him since, Yako knew that the Demon was always nearby. There were certain shadows that were darker, colder than others. That was him. Watching her. Waiting to collect his payment.
Startled from her thoughts, she turned to meet the even gaze of her Step-Father. Saotome Kuniharu was taller than the average Japanese male, but still had the typical black hair and dark eyes. There was a small scar like a crescent moon just beside his right eye that Yako had always wondered about. Ever since she had first met him, Yako had always been reminded of a cat. She had this feeling that he could go and do whatever he wanted, no matter what fences or walls happened to be in his way.
"You look lost in thought," the man smiled, offering her one of the glasses he was carrying. She accepted the drink, but didn't feel like swinging it back. "Something the matter?"
Yako shook her head. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it.
The man shrugged it off, taking a swig of his own drink as he looked into the crowd of people he knew and didn't care to know. "I'm sure you've got something to say to me. Some Do's and Don'ts, maybe?"
The golden-haired young woman giggled at his on-the-ball attitude. At least he had the courage to ask her outright. Not too many men could.
"How often do you drink?" She asked.
"Once a day," the man answered. "Maybe twice, if it's a good day."
"I don't drink at all, but I have known Mom to knock back a beer right after work ever since I was sixteen," Yako smiled. "Please, be careful with how often you drink together."
"Okay," he shrugged. "What else?"
"Do you celebrate any holidays? Alone, or with friends and family?"
"No family. But the guys and I will get together now and again if there's nothing else to do."
"Mom really likes Hanabi*. She usually goes with co-workers, but she prefers going with family, so that's a day to set aside. If you can."
"Alright, that's fine."
"Whatever you do, don't let her cook." Yako could not stress this point enough.
"That, I learned about first-hand!" Saotome chuckled nervously. The man actually trembled. "But, that crazy flare is something that I like about her. Even if I'll never eat another bite of her culinary inventions, I don't mind. Plus, I can always send her confections to some competing companies."
Yako laughed. At least he was aware of the dangers of letting her Mother into the kitchen. "Hire a maid that will cook for you. Or, maybe, suggest that Mom actually take a cooking class. If she can add the right parts, she might be able to pull through. . ."
"Not likely," he replied all too quickly. But he wasn't mean about it. Just frank.
"Keep on top of her about any medications she has," Yako went on. "Most of what she takes is allergy meds, but there are times when she neglects the really important ones. Make sure she takes them all properly. If she has a relapse. . . Just stay on track and don't let her ignore anything. It's important."
"You got it," her Step-Father finished off the last of his drink. "Anything else?"
Yako looked across the reception hall to where her Mother was having pictures taken with friends from work. Haruka was glowing with happiness, more than Yako had seen since her Father died. And the gold-haired beauty knew she deserved it.
"Love her," she said at last. "Love her so much she forgets whatever happened before you. Make her happier than I ever could. Keep her safe, and don't ever lose her."
She met her Step-Father's gaze with a sad smile. "That's all I want for her. . ."
Saotome stared at the young woman, surprised and concerned at her final request. It almost sounded like a dying wish or something.
But before he had the chance to ask about it, he heard Godai shouting across the hall. Someone had likely bumped into his and set him off. The idiot was too easily riled up.
"You'd better go see to that," Yako sighed. "We don't want him breaking a champagne bottle over some poor guy's head."
Saotome agreed and quickly set off to go smooth things out. But the sad look in his Step-Daughter's eyes lingered in his thoughts until the end of the reception.
And even though he couldn't really explain it, he felt as if he had been forced to say 'Good-bye' in the same instance as 'Hello.'
- - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - -
Yako embraced her Mother as she walked her to the car. From here, Haruka and Saotome would go to Hokkaido for their Honeymoon and have the chance to completely forget everything and anyone else.
"Oh, Yako," she smiled through her tears. "I love you so much. . .!"
"I love you too, Mom," Yako squeezed her in a tight hug. "Take care."
"See you around, Yako," Saotome smiled with a wave.
"Thank you, Saotome-san. . ."
Letting each other go, Yako watched her Mother rush to the car, only to stop and toss her bouquet over her head and into the crowd behind her. The lace-bound flowers sailed through the air, shedding some of their snow-white petals over everyone. . .
. . .Before landing right in Yako's arms.
Everyone clapped, although some women whined where most everyone else cheered.
Yako caught the wide smile and the delighted wave from her Mother, and quickly forced a smile. She waved after the car as they drove away, and only dropped her arm once they were completely out of sight.
Looking down at the bouquet in her hands, Yako let her feet lead her away from the rest of the crowd to a certain tree some ways away. It was close enough that she could still hear the people talking and music playing, but was just far enough away that she couldn't really decipher any of it.
Standing in the shade of the tree, she sighed and let her hands drop while she looked up at the branches hanging over her head. The patches of white sunlight and blue sky alongside the emerald-green leaves made for one of the prettiest things Yako had ever seen in her life. She wished she could take a perfect photo of it and carry it with her forever.
The shade of the tree suddenly chilled to a familiar cold, and Yako bowed her head with a sigh. She didn't have to turn around to know it was him.
"Saotome-san is a bit rough, but he'll take good care of Mom," she said, somehow managing a smile. "They'll be happy together. I'm glad that I was able to see them off. They'll be okay."
Yako could feel her tears trailing down her warm cheeks, but still kept up her smile. As sad as she was, as much as it hurt be leaving, she felt honestly grateful for so much. And because of that, she smiled.
"For whatever it's worth. . ." She whispered, ". . .thank y—"
Suddenly, the Demon's arms shot out and pulled her back against him. She felt him rest his chin atop her head, as well as the rumbled of his voice as he spoke.
"I don't need your thanks," he said pointedly. "All I want is you. You kept me waiting. You promised me, and I promised you. That's all there is to say."
Yako didn't make a sound as her tears flowed freely down her face. But as the Demon held her close, she was comforted. In spite of it all, she was glad to have him holding her. Though she doubted he meant it as a gesture of kindness.
The blue-clad Demon slowly drew her back, step by step, until she felt the cold start to envelope her from all sides.
She was going away. Never to return to this world again.
She had promised away her freedom to save her Mother's life. She had agreed, knowing full well that loneliness and this Demon awaited her.
And although she had no regrets, although she knew nothing and no one could save her, Yako stretched out her hand towards the party going on some ways away. She wanted someone to save her from the darkness.
But she know that no one could.
And she was drawn back without a sound.
A short while later, Godai and his co-workers would come looking for her to invite her for a drink. But they wouldn't find her. Only the bouquet her Mother had tossed over her shoulder, laying at the base of a certain tree, would be the only thing they would discover in their search.
- - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - -
No one remembered that hot summer day fourteen years prior.
No one except the blue-clad Demon. He had been a bored adolescent at the time, wandering one of the surface worlds Hell sometimes connected with.
He had expected the strange passage of time, as well as the brainless masses that ruled the daylight hours. They were archetypal, yet at the same time interesting for various reasons. They might be worth a second look later on, but for the moment they did nothing to assuage his boredom.
That is, until a small human girl with wheat-gold hair trotted over to him and started walking alongside him while chattering away. She didn't really say much of consequence, but he let her stay, anyway.
During their walk to nowhere in particular, he quickly discovered that he enjoyed teasing the girl. He would almost trip her, but she still fell to the ground, unable to catch herself. He hurried ahead of her, and watched in amusement as she vainly attempted to catch up to his inhuman speed. But he would stop and wait for her to stand at his side again.
It was when he snatched her white sun hat off her head and danced around her that it happened.
She chased him, and he stayed just out of reach, dangling her hat just above her head.
It was obvious that she would not be able to catch him, so it came as a surprise when she suddenly shouted, "I CAUGHT YOU!"
The Demon stopped and turned around. The human girl stood wheezing about two feet away, but bore a look of intractable victory.
"I still have your hat," he told her. "And you haven't caught me yet."
"I did, too!" She declared, still breathless from the chase. She pointed at the ground, where right beneath her feet, she stood upon his shadow. "I caught your shadow, now gimme back my hat!"
The Demon youth stared at the small child with something akin to amazement. But it swiftly turned to amusement as he returned her hat to her head and knelt down in front of her.
"You know, where I come from, when you step on a person's shadow it's an offer of marriage," he smiled. "You just proposed to me."
The girl straightened her hat before meeting his green gaze evenly. "Really?"
"Now, if I step on your shadow, it means that I accept your proposal and we are engaged," he went on. "Should I do that?"
"I don't mind," she answered with all the blithe disregard of a child for the future. She let her gaze wander to the red sunset beyond when she remembered. "But Papa says I can't get married until I'm at least twenty. We'll have to wait a long time still."
The Demon found himself laughing. As ridiculous as the idea of marrying a human was, it had a strange sort of merit to it. Almost no one brought Humans down into Hell anymore, so he would be the first in a good long while. She was smaller and weaker than he would ever be, so she would have to obey him. It would certainly drive his Father up the wall with aggravation, as he had yet to gain his permission for such a thing. That was enough encouragement for him.
"Okay, it's settled then! You and I will marry!" He laughed, but stopped before he could stand up. "Oh, before I forget. What do you want as an engagement present?"
"A present?" The girl blinked.
"It's customary," the Demon shrugged. "When a couple becomes engaged, the groom gives his bride-to-be a specific gift of her choosing. When she accepts this gift, it is official and the couple will return home to get married."
"Oh! Well. . ." She let her gaze wander to her sandaled feet, deep in thought. "I dunno. What will I want when I'm twenty?"
The Demon shrugged. "Tell you what. I'll let you grow up a bit more, then I'll come back. I'll step on your shadow, and you can tell me what you want then."
"Whatever I want?"
"Whatever you want," he agreed. "But you have to wait for me to come back. You can't marry anyone else."
"I promise!" The girl cheered. "I just want you!"
"Good to know!" The Demon laughed. "I'll wait for you, too."
The two walked a little farther together, eventually coming to the street where she lived and there they parted ways.
"I'll see you again soon," he told her. "And don't keep me waiting."
"I won't," she answered as she hopped and skipped down the street towards home. She stopped half-way to turn back around and wave. "Don't forget me!"
The Demon waved back before he continued on his own way. He came to the park nearby, and walking right up to the nearest tree, he vanished into its stretching shadow.
Not to be seen or heard from for the coming years.
Until a certain human girl walked by on her way to visit her Mother in the hospital.
- - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - -