"Please excuse the state of my office," said Roger. "I wasn't expecting visitors."
"I understand. I'd have given you more warning, if I could." Quillsh Wammy took off his hat, setting it gently atop Roger's desk. "Wasn't sure I could fit this into my schedule."
Roger gave him a stern look. "You carry a mobile, I assume?"
"Only when the boy makes me. I'm not here as Watari, Roger. This is strictly R&R."
"I'm honored. You still could have called."
"You never used to mind me showing up."
"I didn't say I mind." Flustered, Roger swept a stack of papers from the desk and shoved them into a drawer. "How long are you staying?"
"Not long, I'm afraid. The next few weeks are going to be hell."
"Do you have time for a game of draughts?"
"Absolutely not." Quillsh raised a playful eyebrow. "Now, a game of Go, on the other hand..."
Roger sighed and pulled a Go board from the cabinet. "You never change."
"At my age? Don't see any reason to."
"There are other games in this world worth playing, you know. Draughts, Chinese chequers, Cluedo, chess—"
"Bah." Quillsh harrumphed. "Inferior games."
"Are the games inferior, or are you inferior at playing them?"
"What is this, an interrogation? I enjoy Go. We can't all be cliché old bachelors and play chess."
Amused, Roger pushed his glasses up his nose. "I believe you mean classy."
"I meant what I said, damn it. I'll never understand that game's ubiquity among men our age." Quillsh drew the bowl of white stones toward himself, leaving the black for his opponent. "Hell, even if you like that sort of thing, shogi is a better game."
"Japanese chess. The boy's been studying it between cases to kill time. I've got no more of a head for it than I do Western chess, but the added variables spice things up considerably."
"You play him?"
"Hell no. He's brilliant, a natural. He wouldn't still be playing it if he weren't."
Of course. "He hasn't changed much, either."
"Not in that area, no. I've given up on it. He'll accept a bit of challenge where cases are concerned, and that's what matters. Sulking whenever some correspondence player bests him in shogi won't hurt anyone but himself."
Roger smiled. "Might hurt you."
"Bah. I'm too old to invest much energy in teenage sulks, and you know it. If he wants to act half his age, that's on him." Quillsh gestured at the board. "Are you playing or not?"
"I'm considering my options."
"Be patient. My mind's not as quick as it used to be."
"Neither's my body. I don't want to keel over waiting for you to move."
"Hmph. You haven't changed, either." Roger placed his stone with deliberate slowness, raising a grizzled eyebrow at his opponent. "Some of my seven-year-olds have more patience."
"Perhaps the boy's rubbing off on me."
Quillsh flashed a broad, schoolboy's grin, the decades falling from his face like water. "Seven-year-olds, eh? They give you much trouble?"
"Not much. I think I terrify them. The teenagers, though...they're another story."
"They always are. Puberty addles their brains, makes them forget how to feel fear. The best you can do is help them remember once in a while."
I can't. The failures hovered before his eyes, as they often did: B disfigured, in handcuffs; A motionless and pale. "They're orphans, Roger," Quillsh had told him, "and high-strung, gifted orphans at that. Even without the trauma, some were bound to fall apart." It was true, Roger knew, but believing it was another matter. Before L, Quillsh Wammy had been doting, monitoring his orphans' progress like the grandchildren he'd never had. A decade later, Watari barely knew their names, let alone their neuroses. They've seen enough fear already, and however hard I try, I can't fix that. I can't frighten them. It's they who frighten me.
Roger pushed the thought aside.
"It was easier for you, Quillsh," he said quietly. "You're a genius in your own right, and they respect you for it. I'm an ordinary man trying to guide extraordinary minds. They have no reason to look up to me."
"I didn't hand you the job for your mind. I wanted your work ethic. Give an ordinary child a challenge, and he'll work at it as best he can. Give a gifted child a challenge, and he'll either master it instantaneously or give up in frustration. Those children of ours are brilliant, but in the long run, perseverance matters more. They can't learn that skill from a library. They can learn it from you."
"If they care to. Most of them don't."
"That may be, but they'll still have the skill. Whether they choose to use it is up to them."
The door of the office slammed open, and both men jumped. A short, blond thundercloud in human form stood scowling in the doorway, his mouth already open to complain.
"What is it, Mello?" asked Roger.
Mello's eyes flicked suspiciously to Watari. "Who is that?"
"An old friend," replied Quillsh, before Roger could answer. "Do you need something?"
"I want to talk to Roger. Not you."
Roger swallowed a sigh. "Is anyone sick, choking, bleeding, or lighting anything on fire?"
"No, but Near is—"
"Then I should be free in a few hours," said Roger. "And next time, please knock first. Understood?"
Mello said nothing, his expression sullen. Darting one last, wary glare at Roger's guest, the boy turned and marched out. Roger sighed and stood, crossing the room to close the door once more.
"Not a fan of waiting, is he?" Quillsh asked.
"No. Remind you of anyone?"
"Heh. He does, at that. Something in the eyes. Is he always this impulsive?"
"We're working on it."
"He is? Or you are?"
Roger smiled. "Mostly me, I suppose."
"Hm. And the other one—Neil, was it?"
"Near. He's steadier, more deliberate, but rigid. Too rigid. I've been trying to persuade him to loosen up."
Quillsh arched an eyebrow. "They're oil and water, I take it?"
"Sodium and water would be more accurate. They're good boys separately, but not a good mix. With each other, or...anyone, really." Roger sat heavily, drumming his fingers on his bowl of stones. "I worry about them."
"They'll be fine. They have you."
So did B. "I'm not the one whose opinion they care about."
"What are you proposing?"
"They're competitive because they lack confidence. When L has time, I was hoping—"
"He won't. I've talked to him. Says only a fool would ask for his opinion on children he knows nothing about."
"I'm not asking him to choose, just to talk to them. In person, this time."
"And he's not interested. It's unfortunate, but it's his call." Quillsh scratched his chin. "Can't say I really blame him. If there were someone out there destined to take over my job after I die, I'd be in no rush to sit down with him, either."
"You told me he approved the idea."
"He has. Doesn't mean he likes the necessity. For God's sake, he's barely twenty-four. If he wants to imagine that he's immortal a little while longer, I'm inclined to let him."
Twenty-four. I keep forgetting he's that young. "You know him best."
"As well as anyone can, I suppose. God only knows half of what goes on in that boy's mind."
"He's lucky to have you."
Something in his tone made Watari pause. "Are you jealous of him, Roger?"
"Of course not. Doesn't mean I don't miss you sometimes."
"Only sometimes?" Quillsh asked gently.
You know the answer to that. Roger pushed his glasses up his nose, studying the board in brittle silence. One of his stones was at risk, nearly cut off, and he placed another to protect it. I had a choice, and I chose you. You had a choice, and you chose L. The memory should have hurt him—had hurt, once—but the wound had long since scarred. I knew your feelings when you left, but I'm still here. That was a choice, too.
"You're easy to miss," he said.
Quillsh snorted. "You seem to be alone in that opinion."
"The children miss you, too."
"Bah. The ones you have now never met me."
"It's your orphanage. They know who you are."
"Mine? No. The orphanage might have my name on it, but it's not mine. I've been away too long."
"Perhaps you should remedy that."
"Perhaps." Quillsh studied the board, frowning. "I've been thinking about it, you know. Coming back."
Roger looked up. "I thought you were enjoying yourself."
"I have been. I am. But the boy's grown now, much as I hate to admit it, and myself—well, I'm not getting any younger. Better to quit this fool adventure before time forces my hand." With a quiet sigh, the aged inventor placed a stone. "Better for him, at least."
You won't quit. Roger tapped his stones thoughtfully, but his eyes were on his partner, not the board. Whatever Quillsh Wammy might tell himself—whatever he might tell Roger—he had never been content to sit idle. Retirement was a lesser man's dream, trading in power and relevance for rest and comfort. Roger looked forward to it. Quillsh never would. He loves L too much to leave him—and if he did, he'd be starting some new venture within the week. I've never been enough to keep him here forever. I never will be.
"I know that look." Quillsh's voice cut through Roger's thoughts, drily amused. "You don't believe me, do you?"
"I would never doubt you, Quill."
"Oh, don't patronize me. You've got every right. I know full well I've said this before."
Three times. "You're allowed to change your mind."
"Well, I won't. I mean it this time. The minute this case is done, so am I."
"I'll believe it when I see it." Roger cut off one of Quillsh's liberties, flashing the inventor a smug grin. "Shouldn't have left me that spot."
Quillsh grimaced at the board. "Was that necessary?"
"It was satisfying. How long do you think it'll take him?"
"On this case? God only knows. This is a strange one, Roger. Even by his standards."
"There's no chance it's coincidence?"
"I wondered the same, until I saw the reports. They're dying in clusters, when you adjust for timezone differences—the pattern's clear as day—and they didn't die of heart attacks. Their hearts simply stopped. A few had undiagnosed enlargements or prior heart trouble, but most were completely healthy. As healthy as dead men get, anyway."
Oh. Roger turned the information over in his mind, troubled. "That doesn't sound like much to go on."
"The boy has a theory, but we can't test it without Interpol's approval. They're convening tomorrow."
"They're antsy. Can't say I blame them. Murder is one thing, but this is almost Biblical." Sighing, Quillsh leaned back in his chair. "I haven't seen the boy this excited in years."
"I don't like it."
Roger took his hand off his bowl, dropping all pretense of the game. "L can handle it, surely?"
"He's certain he can, and he's probably right. Doesn't mean I enjoy seeing him at risk."
"He hasn't died yet."
"No, he hasn't. But that streak ends for all of us someday. He may be too young to believe it, but I'm not." A phone buzzed in Quillsh Wammy's pocket, and he shifted to pull it out. "Ah. Speak of the devil."
"What does he want?"
"Come immediately, he says." Quillsh stood grimly, pocketing the phone. "I'm sorry."
Roger stood as well, masking his disappointment. "No, it's quite all right. We can finish the game another time."
"I'll come back as soon as I can. And I'll ask him again about visiting, when this is over. Whatever his thoughts on training successors, taking a victory lap among fans might appeal to him more."
"They'd love to have him, if he has the time."
"I'm sure they would." Watari lifted his hat from the desk and put it on. "I can't promise I'll stay in touch, but keep an eye on the papers. Should be an interesting read."
"Tell the boy I wish him luck."
"I will. And Roger?"
Quillsh smiled. "If there's one thing I know about L, it's that he loathes asking for help. If they're coming to you to solve their problems, they value your opinion more than you think."
Roger forced a smile. "Thank you, Quill."
"Anytime, old friend."
The door closed. Alone, Roger lingered at the door a moment, eyes closed and shoulders bowed. Then he crossed back to his desk, scooping the Go stones one by one into their bowls, until a rap at the door made him look up.
"Mello, is that you?"
The door creaked open, and a pale, disgruntled face poked in. "Mello is a nuisance."
Near. Roger straightened at once, adjusting his glasses. "He can be, yes. Do you want to come in?"
Near nodded and stepped forward, shutting the door behind him. He eyed the Go board curiously, one finger tangled in his hair. "What is that?"
He turned to leave. Roger suppressed a laugh. "Go is the name of the game, Near. You can stay."
"I was playing with an old friend, before you came in here. What can I do for you?"
"I just want to get away from him."
"Then stay as long as you like." The old teacher sat behind his desk, folding his hands. Teach them perseverance, he said. I wonder... "While you're here, would you like to play a game?"
"I don't know how."
"I'd be happy to teach you."
Near hesitated, then nodded. "All right."
"Come sit down, then." Roger smiled. "Black moves first."