Damn, Mello thought, looking at the sheet of paper in front of him. The sight was absolutely sickening and all too familiar. Damn it all.
Maybe the worst part was that he didn't even feel surprised. This situation had repeated itself far too many times for him to be caught off guard. Disappointment was as bitter as ever. Being prepared didn't soften the blow, but for the most part, he had expected it.
I've grown accustomed to losing.
"Sixteen again," grumbled an annoyed voice next to his ear. "What am I, stuck or something?"
"I'm fourth," Linda stated smugly from the other direction.
On the last day of every month in Wammy's House, the ranks were always presented for all to see right here, in the main hall. The list was pinned to a board on the wall, one name printed under the other in a neat row, starting with the one whose academic scores were the highest this time around. To Mello, this day was something of a special holiday. His personal best and worst, most hated and most beloved day of the month.
The crowd was growing steadily around him, with more students filling the room, impatient to see how they fared. Some were obviously pleased with the places they've managed to get. Others, not so much. The usual mix of excited, happy, disappointed and angry voices filled the air.
Mello didn't say anything. He glared at that first name right on top, the name that again wasn't his, and he felt like laughing. He wanted to turn around, walk away, find some small, closed space, crawl in there, and laugh like an idiot. He wanted to laugh because it sure as hell was better than crying.
No, not even close. What he really wanted was to punch something as hard as he could, keep punching until it couldn't get up, and not stop even then. All the nights he sacrificed for studying, all those hours and days of working his ass off turned out to be for nothing again.
Near's name was right on top, just like two months ago and three months ago. Mello was second. Second! That word, that curse, was stuck in his head in a loop like a catchy tune that you just can't forget no matter how much you want to.
Second. Second. Second again!
His fists were clenched so tightly that the nails almost broke the skin of his palms.
Sidoh's Death Note was incredibly easy to steal. The lazy oaf didn't even stir in his sleep when Ryuk snatched it from his belt. He just kept on snoring like nothing ever happened.
Well, his loss. Ryuk chuckled to himself and looked down at the portal to the human world. The transparent surface wavered gently, shimmering with soft, white light. On the other end of it, billions of humans were going about their short lives. One of those humans would hopefully be able to provide him with some entertainment.
He didn't know who would end up picking up the Death Note. He didn't know what to expect at all, and that in itself was kinda fun. When was the last time he felt that uncertain about the future? Sure, you could win at cards or you could lose, but all the games he played were mixing in his memory by this point—an endless string of repetition. There were far too many habits, far too much routine and not enough variety. This new adventure was something new and different. He was looking forward to more surprises down the line. He just hoped that the human would speak enough English to understand the instructions.
One quick toss and the notebook was falling down into the gateway. Now, it was time to wait.
Mello was pacing angrily through the courtyard, not minding the morning chill. He was alone. Everyone was probably still talking about their scores or preparing for classes that would start in an hour.
I screwed up again.
Just last month that first place was his, with Near as the second best for a change. Back then, Mello did a better job.
It has happened before. Sometimes, he succeeded in pushing Near off his throne. Sometimes, not often enough, he would see his own name right on top, but he could never stay there for two months in a row. Somehow, he had never managed that. Not even once.
The infuriating thing was that Near didn't even bother to show up. His face wasn't there in the crowd. He wasn't in a hurry to see the list like Mello was. That overconfident little brat.
No, not overconfident. He beats me seven times out of ten at least. That's a perfectly valid confidence, no matter how you look at it.
Mello felt like laughing again. It was all so pathetic. He was pathetic.
What had he done wrong this time? Did he not work hard enough? Should he have devoted even more time to studying? Was he just not good enough?
He stomped down on that thought. It was useless and counterproductive. It was an obstacle he needed to overcome. He was good enough last month. He was good enough for L to consider him a candidate for an heir to begin with. He was still in the running; no matter how many times Near had upstaged him. He had qualities that Near would never have, and that was obvious to both L and Wammy.
That's right. Enough angst, enough self-pity. He needed to get a grip and get over himself. He just had to try hard enough and he wouldn't go back to that second place again. He just needed to put everything he had into it and...
And that was the exact same pep talk he's been giving himself every time. Every fucking time.
It was like walking in circles, like living in a circle. Working, trying, putting every last bit of effort into it, losing anyway, whining, doubting, giving himself a pat on the back, starting over. Rinse, repeat. An endless cycle of repetition that always led to the exact same place.
Mello laughed dryly. After all, it was important to be able to laugh at oneself, wasn't it? You're supposed to be able to laugh at your own failures, right? It was some kind of a great wisdom straight out of a fortune cookie. Laugh like you're actually amused. Laugh instead of splitting somebody's lip or breaking his nose. Laugh so loud that you almost can't hear your own thoughts. Almost.
Mello stopped in front of a large elm tree. On sunny days, he sometimes enjoyed sitting under it and reading in its shadow. Well, not today.
Sorry about that, tree.
He swung and landed a punch on the bark. It hurt, but not nearly enough. He swung again.
You're beating up plants now, Mells? Asked a snarky voice in his head that sounded an awful lot like Matt's. I guess other kids aren't enough for you anymore, eh? Mother Nature better look out.
"Shut up," Mello said out loud, and laughed even harder. "Just shut up."
Still laughing, he sat down on the grass. It was slightly damp, but the hell with it. He took a few deep breaths to calm down. He needed to stop this. He needed to relax and get himself together before class. Breathe in, breathe out. Time to end this one-person pity party. No more of that.
He looked up at the sky. It was clear and blue without a single cloud. The weather would likely be nice and warm today. Of course, that probably meant nothing at all for the dead bird that was swiftly falling from that lovely sky, seconds away from splattering on the ground. A tiny, black dot, easy to notice with the bright blue background.
A black dot that, after Mello squinted his eyes enough, didn't look like a bird body at all. More like... a book?
Yes, it was indeed a book. Its pages fluttered gently in the wind as it fell, landing about ten meters away from Mello. He looked up again, but he didn't see any airplane or the white jet line he expected to see there. Just the sky.
Mello opened the slim, black notebook and looked at the rules written on the inside cover. Then, he smirked.
The human whose name is written in this notebook will die?
He had to admit that it sounded pretty cool. Whoever came up with that joke had no shortage of imagination. Matt had once convinced (read: forced) him to sit through a horror movie about a killer videotape, but a killer notebook? That was new. Horror flicks these days seemed to regurgitate the same ideas over and over again. This was like a breath of fresh air. If they made a movie about it, Mello wouldn't have to be persuaded to see it.
Then again, it fell from the sky. It fell from the sky and there were no planes.
Don't be an idiot, he berated himself. Just because you didn't notice it doesn't mean there wasn't any. Somebody had to have dropped this thing, and for that they would need an aircraft. You just couldn't see it with the naked eye, that's all.
It could be too small and too high to be visible from the ground. The question was, who would go through this much trouble for a prank?
A rich weirdo with a private jet and too much time on his hands. That was one answer. Or, maybe there really was a movie coming, and dropping notebooks from the sky was a part of some unconventional ad campaign. It would work on Mello; he'd give them that.
But what if...
An image flashed before his eyes. It was Near, clutching his chest, gasping, falling over, twitching.
It wasn't an unpleasant image at all.
I'm not falling for this already, am I?
No, of course not. It was a prank, nothing more, but Mello also had a sense of humour. If it was a joke, why not go along with it? Why not conduct this thought experiment as the pranksters had surely intended? Why not ask: if I had the power over life and death, how would I use it?
He slid the so-called Death Note into his bag, and walked at a brisk pace towards the main entrance. He had some writing to do.
Matt hated the scoring day. He hated it with passion ever since he became Mello's friend. Why? Because, aside from the times when he managed to climb to the top, it affected Mello in about the same way the full moon affects a werewolf. And while the movie werewolves, dangerous as they were, tended to be rather predictable after their change, Mello's monthly transformations came in many variations, all of them awful. It could be the explosive rage, it could be the silence, but the worst by far, and thankfully the rarest, were the tears. Matt hated seeing Mello cry even more than he hated being the one he took his frustrations out on, but it was 'this' day, so he was ready for pretty much anything.
Plus, he had one thing to comfort himself with. Whenever Mello went supernova, it was intense but short lived. After the initial reaction, he would always turn his emotional turmoil into determination to do better next time.
"Mells? Are you there?" Matt asked, standing next to the door to their shared room. He went to check that bloody list relatively late. After Mello didn't come back right away, Matt knew what he was going to find. If Mello had been first, he would have come back right away to share the happy news.
Matt went there anyway just to be sure, and he wasn't met with the pleasant surprise. Mello was second and this day would be the usual taste of hell on earth.
"What? Yes, I'm here," Mello replied from the inside. He sounded focused. Slightly amused maybe, but certainly not enraged or even put off.
Matt opened the door, cautiously sticking his head into the room. Mello was sitting at the computer, writing something in a notebook.
"Yeah. It shouldn't take long."
"The classes start in twenty minutes," Matt said, relaxing a little bit. Mello was distracting himself. He was trying to stay busy instead of beating himself up over his newest failure.
"I'm almost done here, man."
Matt shut the door and let out a little sigh of relief. He knew he wasn't out of the woods yet. Mello would likely be on edge today and something might set him off later, but for now things were looking fine. Mello had found something else to occupy his thoughts, and that was the best possible reaction.
The world was pretty full of people who harboured a death wish, and a lot of them could be found with the simple magic of Gentle search, as Mello discovered when he set out to find some "victims".
Adam Owens, a former football player turned quadriplegic after a car accident. He was apparently pretty vocal about his desire for euthanasia. Mello found out about him from a soppy article, written by a journalist who clearly sympathized with the man's situation.
Sasha Pajari, different continent, similar story. This time it was a debilitating disease, not an accident. The wish was the same, and just as illegal in her home country. Pro and anti-euthanasia crowds clashed in the forums, just like with Owens. Writing her name gave Mello the chance to practice his Cyrillic.
Then there was, last but not least, Axel Zhang—an American rock singer with an inoperable brain tumor, whose concert would be taking place tonight in Death Valley. He was the most perfect of Mello's test subjects.
Not that he expected that test to work, of course. He knew that Death Note was a hoax, and it was as obvious to him as it would be to any sane person.
Still, even after he finished writing the names, he couldn't silence that small part of his brain that was asking what if, no matter how silly it was. Then again, maybe that was part of the fun too.
The stage was brightly lit, and the crowd swarming under it was screaming in frenzied delight. The enthusiasm and dedication seeped through Zhang's microphone as the strumming guitars, beating drums and pounding bass reverberated through the walls of the large venue.
He's singing like there is no tomorrow, Mello thought, but of course, even if there really was no tomorrow for Axel Zhang, it would be because of his progressing illness, not some supernatural uber-weapon.
(But what if...)
The man on the stage finished the song and flashed his audience a charming, pearly-white grin.
"Listen up, you guys! Listen up!" He gestured at the crowd, trying to silence them. "I was going to stay with you a little longer, but sometimes you just have to know when to make an exit. I'm sorry, but It's just better to quit on your own terms, if you know what I mean."
There was some feverish light in his eyes when he put the microphone down.
Then, he took a small gun out of his pocket and without a single word or a moment of hesitation; he shot himself in the temple.
First came the silence. Next there were murmurs. Then, finally, the screams started again.
"Holly shit, Mells!" Matt shrieked, staring wide-eyed at the TV screen, "Did you just see-did you just see that?! Holly shit!"
It was impossible. This whole scene was fucking impossible! The shot was impossible, the splash of blood and brain matter was impossible, and the goddamn Death Note was impossible. Nothing about this made any sense. Nothing about this could have actually happened.
But... but I did it.
Death Note was there. It was lying in a desk drawer, with the instructions written in Mello's messy handwriting on the front page.
Suicide, exactly at midnight, with a gun. Mello liked the idea of sending the guy off with a bang. Even the line about making an exit was of Mello's own authorship.
The Death Note... It works.
It couldn't work. It shouldn't work. It had no right to work.
But it did work all the same.
Mello's heart was beating fast. He could feel the pulse in his ears as the realization dug deeper into his mind. The Death Note was real.
And he was a murderer.