ONE YEAR LATER
"So you won't help us?"
Near swallowed the urge to sigh, thankful that Aizawa and the others couldn't see his face through the phone. "I never said that. Simply that I haven't made a firm decision either way. You must admit, it's a puzzling case."
Someone snorted. Ide, probably. "I'll say. We've been treading water and waiting for you to contact us for weeks."
"Then I'm sorry I kept you waiting. That was not my intent." A partial truth, at best, but Near tried to sound sincere. "I'll talk this over with my team and get back to you as soon as I can. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," said Aizawa grudgingly. "In the meantime, we'll keep looking on our own."
"A very wise course of action," said Near. "Now, if there's nothing else—"
"There's, uh, one thing." Matsuda's voice was hushed, and he sounded almost startled to hear himself speak. "May I talk to you alone? Just for a little bit?"
Oh, no. "If it's all right with your teammates, it's all right with me. Aizawa?"
"Sure, go ahead. Just give us a second to get out of your way."
The sound of chairs scraping floor made Near wince. A few moments later, Matsuda picked up the phone, and the background noise vanished.
"Is anyone else there with you?" he asked.
"Only me. Is something wrong?"
"No. Well...no. I just had a few questions."
"About the case?"
"About the case you had in Britain."
I was afraid you'd say that. Lying for necessity didn't normally faze the detective, but the stricken expression Matsuda had worn when Near told him Light had died of his wounds haunted Near's conscience even now. He saved my life, and I repaid him with unearned guilt. And now I'm going to lie to him again.
"What about it?" he asked quietly.
"Why did you really use my name?"
"Expedience. The killer was drawing inspiration from aspects of the Kira case and was clearly aware of the main players involved. I guessed that if she believed I had sent one of the very agents who brought down Kira after her, it might draw her into the open, so I had the investigator I was working with use your name as an alias. I can't give you details, obviously, but suffice it to say the ruse worked."
"Yes, I get that, but—why mine? Why not Mogi's, or Aizawa's? I wasn't intimidating, I wasn't even helpful, I was—I was useless."
"You saved my life. I wouldn't call that useless."
"Yeah, but nobody knows that. I mean, except us...right?"
"Except us, nobody knows what any individual task force member accomplished, for good or ill. I needed a name, and yours was the one that came to mind. There was no real thought to it beyond that."
"Oh." For all his protestations, Matsuda sounded almost disappointed. "I hoped—"
"Your name was the first I thought of, Matsuda. That's a compliment." Of sorts.
"No, no, I'm not offended, I just—I talked to Director Kitamura about you at the New Year's party. When I asked him if he'd heard from you at all, he said not since that big drug case two years ago."
"Was he lying?"
"Of course not. I had no reason to speak with him again. Not until this case, at least."
"But you said you used an NPA investigator on your case. The one in Britain."
"The NPA doesn't have authority outside of Japan. You'd need the director's cooperation to take someone overseas."
"I didn't want to go through official channels, so I used an officer who was on holiday. Far less paperwork that way."
"Mogi took all of December off that year. You've only done two cases in Japan, and you used us for both of them. We're the only ones who know about the notebooks. Are you saying you used some other officer you'd never worked with before over him?"
I don't like where this is going. Near reached for his hair, his mind grasping for a better story. "You've got me there."
Matsuda sounded shocked. "So you admit you've been lying?"
"I do. Would you like the truth?" Near didn't wait for an answer. "He wasn't NPA. He's a Japanese expatriate, a private investigator I've worked with elsewhere. I only told you he was NPA so you and the others wouldn't be offended that I'd picked a private investigator over one of you."
"Living in America. Yes. For all the reasons you yourself mention, it was easier to bring him along disguised as one of you than to bring one of you for real."
"What exactly are you accusing me of, Matsuda?" Near said calmly.
"I'm not accusing you of anything. I just thought—you had somebody Japanese investigating, and, well, if you were trying to cover up his identity, then maybe—"
"You thought I might be hiding Kira somewhere to solve my cases for me, is that it?"
The policeman chuckled nervously. "That does sound pretty stupid, doesn't it?"
Stupid but true. "It's understandable. After all, Light Yagami was your friend, wasn't he?"
"I don't know. I thought he was, but—"
"Even so. You trusted him. You admired him. It's only natural you wouldn't want to believe—"
"That I killed him. Yeah, I know." A heavy sigh came down the line. "I had to, though. I had to."
"I'm not about to disagree. After all, you saved my life."
"I know. I just wish—I just wish I could have saved him, too." Matsuda sighed. "Don't mind me. I'm being stupid again."
Anything but. "Did you tell Aizawa and the others any of this?"
"No. I didn't want them to make fun of me, so I kept it all—"
"To yourself. Excellent. Keep it that way. The last thing I need is for any of them to mistrust me just as we have to work together on a case."
Matsuda's voice brightened. "You're taking the new Kira case?"
"Don't call it that." Near winced, surprised by the sharpness in his reply. "Whatever the general population thinks, we know better. Kira was a murderer, but but he wasn't a fool, nor did he prey on the weak in search of applause. He was an adversary L respected enough to risk his life opposing. Calling this weak-willed opportunist Kira is an insult to L's memory—and to Light's."
"Oh." There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. "You know, speaking of the Yagamis—Sayu got engaged a few weeks ago. I just thought you might want to know."
"Engaged? I didn't know she was dating."
"Well, she wasn't, last time we talked. She met him soon after that big drug case you helped on the year after Kira. They've been dating ever since, and now—I guess they decided it was time."
"Mrs. Yagami must be thrilled."
"Yeah. Yeah, she is. They both are. About time they had something to celebrate, you know?"
"Indeed." Will Light celebrate, I wonder? Somehow, Near doubted it. "Unfortunately, I need to go brief my team, so if that's all—"
"Oh, yeah—the new case, right?"
"Got it. I'll let you go, then."
"Thank you. I'm sure we'll talk again soon." Near reached for the button, but Matsuda's voice stopped him.
"If you see him again—my double, I mean—then tell him...uh, tell him I said hi. Okay?"
Near nodded, then remembered that Matsuda couldn't see him. "I will."
With a click, Near terminated the connection and rose from his seat, frowning down at the now-empty screen. I'll have to admit the truth to him someday—he deserves that much—but not yet. Not until Light's ready. Matsuda might have forgiven Light, but Near doubted the opposite was true. One thing's for certain, though. That man is smarter than L ever gave him credit for.
Someone knocked on the door. "Are you done?"
The door opened, and Rester poked his head inside. "What did he want?"
"He suspects that Light's alive. I put him off for now, but if I don't think he's really convinced."
"Well, he's not wrong. Will he make trouble, do you think?"
"Unlikely. Whatever happened in the warehouse, he doesn't seem to bear Light any lasting ill-will. Besides, he wouldn't have asked to talk to me in private if he intended to share his suspicions with the others."
"Even so, if Matsuda suspects, he's likely not the only one. It might be wise to have Yagami sit this case out." Rester fixed his charge with a level look. "For several reasons."
Near raised an eyebrow. "I appreciate the concern, but I wasn't about to include him in a video conference. I can ask for his input, at least."
"Of course you can. You can do whatever you want. I'm only suggesting—"
"I know. Do you have the time, by any chance?"
"You were supposed to meet him for Go half an hour ago."
Damn. Near glanced down the hallway, giving his hair a vicious jerk. "Thank you, Rester. Tell Gevanni and Lidner I'll be there to brief them in an hour."
"Yes, sir." The man's smile radiated amusement. "I'll tell them to make sure they're on time."
The world believed Light Yagami dead and buried, but in truth, they were wrong on both counts. A little worse for wear, certainly, thought Near, inputting the code that would open Light's door, but not dead. Not even close. If anyone had told him three years ago that his inconvenient prisoner would become not only a resource, but something almost resembling a friend, Near would have dismissed the suggestion without a second thought. Yet as he walked into Kira's domain, nodding in apologetic greeting, he couldn't deny it was the truth.
"You're late," Light accused.
"I know. Something came up."
Sighing dramatically, Light marked his page and set his book aside. His chestnut hair was shorter now, and a prominent red scar arced below one eye and across his cheek, but beyond that he looked little different than when Near had first visited his cell. Even Light's clothes were unchanged, the same dull, gray scrubs he'd worn throughout his three years of captivity. Near had considered giving him new clothes along with his new rooms, but in the end, he'd decided against it. The scrubs were a symbol, an unspoken reminder that Light was still a prisoner, not a guest. Near sometimes wondered which of the two of them needed that reminder more.
He was still wary, of course. Light didn't have to kneel while his enclosure was searched anymore, but searches still took place from time to time, just to be safe. The cameras in Light's new cell were better hidden than those in the old, but they were there—though Near rarely checked the tapes—and he'd been less than truthful about the watch Light wore, as well. Though he had indeed hidden a microchip in it, it was a decoy. The real tracking device was hidden under Light's skin, implanted while he was under anesthesia for the surgery on his hand. It seemed unlikely Light would try anything rash, but if he did, Near was ready for it. He'd made certain of that.
Lidner may trust him completely, but I don't. Not ever.
Near slid into the chair across from Light, glancing down at the Go board on the table between them. "I'm white again, I take it?"
"Of course. You don't get to stand me up and still go first." Light placed a black stone. "If you want to play black, come on time."
Near scoffed and placed a stone of his own. "I didn't stand you up, I was busy. Not everyone gets to lounge around reading all day."
"Nor would I, if I had other options. Unfortunately for both of us, I don't." Another black stone clicked against the board, and Light raised an eyebrow at his opponent.
"And whose fault is that?"
"You haven't brought me a case in two months. I'd say it's yours." Despite his words, Light's eyes twinkled with amusement.
"My fault there aren't any cases of interest? I thought you wanted the serial murder rate to drop."
"Don't give me that. You've been working. You just haven't seen fit to include me."
"Everything I've done for you, and you still don't trust me?" The detective feigned indignation. "And here I thought we were friends."
"Friends? Please. 'I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.' I'm afraid you don't qualify."
Near huffed and placed a stone. "Bernard Shaw?"
"Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray."
"I'd have thought 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' would be of more interest to you."
"Not a chance. I read to forget my situation, not to be reminded of it." Light set his stone with a resounding clack, cutting off one of Near's liberties. "Not your wisest move."
"Nor my worst. Don't get cocky, Yagami." The detective studied the lay of the board, one finger snagging a lock of hair. "Besides, by that standard, I'm better friend material than you. At least I'm not scarred."
"Your loss. Girls love scarred men. It makes us look tragic and dangerous."
Well, that explains why she hosted Mello. "I'll defer to her opinion, then. I've never made much study of male beauty."
"You've seen me naked. How much more study do you need?"
"I have indeed. Remind me to ask Miss Lidner if the resultant mental scarring looks tragic and dangerous, too." Clack. Near lifted his finger from the stone he'd just played, smirking at the stunned look on Light's face. "You were saying?"
"No, thank you. I don't need that much study."
Wry-faced, Light clucked his tongue in disapproval. "You don't need any study in being a cheeky bastard, that's for certain."
"You brought it on yourself."
"Strange. I seem to hear that a lot. So, are you going to tell me why you almost stood me up, or?"
"Your sister's getting married."
Light froze, his hand suspended over the board. "Who told you that?"
"Please tell me he isn't the groom."
Near's lips quirked upward. "He isn't the groom."
"Well, thank God for that. Anyone I know?"
"I doubt it. She's only been dating him for two years, I gather, so she must have met him after your arrest. Still, two years is nothing to sneeze at. I assume she must have found something in the man to like."
"I guess so." Light's hand shook slightly as he set his stone, but his face betrayed none of what he must be feeling. "I suppose sending an anonymous wedding gift is out of the question?"
"Given that Matsuda suspects you're alive, yes."
Light looked up sharply. "Did you tell him?"
"Of course not. He figured it out on his own. But I didn't outright deny it, either." Cocking his head, Near gave the former Kira an appraising look. "He misses you."
"That's not surprising. He always was a fool."
"Most people are."
"Most people didn't shoot me."
"It's your move."
Near had no intention of closing the discussion, but Light's face might have been carved from stone. He's not ready. Light's family and friends had the closure of believing him dead, but Light had no such solace about them. Knowing the people he'd known and cared about still existed, that their lives had moved on without him—that was a pain Near understood all too well. His only comfort was knowing none of them had any idea he was a prisoner, but now I've taken that away from him, too. With time and success, Near hoped, Light Yagami might come to see his new role as one to be proud of. But he wasn't there. Not yet.
With a sigh, Near abandoned his protest and placed a stone instead. "I may have a case for you."
"It appears someone found another Death Note."
A strange, longing look filled Light's eyes, intense and wistful. Then it faded. "Imagine that."
"The public's already hailing it as the return of Kira, but this killer's an admirer of yours, not a copycat. Whoever it is, they're killing the elderly, not criminals—and almost exclusively within Japan."
"Interestingly, no. All the deaths were complications of pre-existing health problems."
"Mercy killings, then. At least he sees them that way." Ignoring the game entirely, Light drummed his fingers on the table. "What else do we know?"
"According to your old friends at the NPA, the killer seems to be choosing victims based on internet postings."
"That's not much to go on."
"I know. I hoped you might have some insight."
"On the murders?"
"On the killer."
"Hmm." Light pressed a knuckle to his lips. "He's young, most likely depressed, and has an ailing grandparent. Does that qualify?"
Indeed. Near drummed his index finger on one of his stones, keeping his face a careful blank. "Explain your reasoning."
"An adult would use the power either to kill for personal gain, if he were healthy, or to kill himself, were he in the same condition as the victims. This person isn't doing either. He's got Kira's idealism, though not my ideals—he fancies himself a god of mercy, not justice. Coupled with the level of comfort navigating the internet, that suggests a young killer. However, a teenager wouldn't jump to the idea of relieving suffering among the elderly unless he'd been exposed to said suffering, which suggests he has a relative in that condition. Had, I suppose. He'd want to test the Death Note on someone whose death he could hear about in detail, and that rules out strangers in nursing homes. In all likelihood, a relative was among the boy's first victims, if not the actual first. "
"Why assume a boy?"
"A poor assumption, then. Most serial killers are male, but 'angel of mercy' killers often aren't. Besides, outliers exist—as you ought to remember."
Light bit his lip, his fingers rising to the scar on his cheek. "All criminal profiles are based in probability. You asked for my insight, not hard evidence."
"True—and as it happens, I agree with your insight. The harder question is what to do with it." Pale fingers groped for paler hair, and Near's brow creased in thought. "How would L have handled this case?"
"Methodically. If we accept that the killer had a relative among the earliest victims, pinpoint the earliest victims and work backwards. Assign officers to tail any descendants who fit the profile, then compare their movements to any time of death patterns that may be found among the victims. If you can narrow the pool of suspects down to a single person, you win. That's where L would start, at least."
"It would be risky for the tails. More than risky. If the killer cares as little for their own life as you suggest, they have no reason not to trade for the eyes. Or any reason to fear the repercussions of killing an officer, for that matter."
"I know. The fact remains, that's where L would start."
"And where would you start, Light Yagami?"
"Me?" Light frowned in thought, momentarily silent. "This killer doesn't share Kira's ideals, and only an idiot wouldn't realize mimicking Kira would bring L down on him. The only logical explanation is that he's desperate for recognition, particularly yours. He wants to be important, but feels that he isn't. Young, feeling ignored, and viewing death as a mercy—I'd say there's a good chance he's depressed. If you were to make a public broadcast denouncing him as a copycat and declaring him unworthy of your time in front of the entire world, well—"
"The problem might solve itself?"
"It's not entirely ethical, I suppose."
"It's not entirely practical. Even if it worked, we wouldn't be able to confiscate the notebook. Anyone could pick it up and resume the killing."
"Once the original owner is dead, the shinigami is free to leave, and according to Ryuk, extra Death Notes are quite rare. If the killer commits suicide, his shinigami will most likely take the notebook and return home."
"Leaving it free to try again with another human. That's no better than leaving the notebook here." Near's eyes narrowed. "Unless that's what you want?"
Light raised an eyebrow. "After everything I've done for you, you still don't trust me?"
"After everything you've done to me, it's a wonder I trust you as far as I do."
"Fair enough. Though I'd point out that risking a murder weapon as powerful as the Death Note falling into the hands of someone who doesn't share my ideals would have been out of character for me even when I still was Kira, so I have no reason at all to risk it now. That said, you took control of the notebooks last time, and a new one still cropped up. Seems to me you're just delaying the inevitable either way."
"Hm. I suppose that's true." Near set his stone beside one of Light's, removing it from the board. "I'll take it under consideration."
"Does that mean you want my help, or—?"
"It's your move."
As Light's eyes dropped to the board, Near seized the opportunity to study him. L's way and Light's way. Both logical, both flawed. He didn't have to choose between them—could use neither, or only part, or even both—but having the opinions to weigh was comforting. It gave him a starting point, at least. Synthesis, collaboration...that's my way. Roger wasn't wrong about that.
"Out of curiosity," Near asked at last, "if it had been a copycat—someone who shared your ideals, not just your weapon—would you still have helped me?"
Light was silent a moment, staring down at the board. At last, lips curved into a cryptic smirk, he raised his eyes to Near's. "An interesting thought. Though I suppose the real question is, if it had been a copycat, would you have asked my help in the first place?"
No. Near didn't voice his answer, but he did return the smirk. "A pleasure working with you, as always."
"Not yet, but soon. I just have to brief Lidner and Gevanni and contact Aizawa. We can play a full game after that."
"I see. Will you want me to save the board, then?"
"Don't bother. We both know you'll cheat while I'm gone."
"Some people would call that projection, Near."
"Some people clearly haven't seen you play Go."
Light snorted and placed a stone. "I'm a legally dead prisoner in a top-secret compound. People don't generally see me do anything."
"That doesn't negate my point."
"I'm not the one who said one of the perks of being L is getting to break the rules."
"Only because you're not L anymore."
"You're right, I'm not. You are." Light grinned. "Don't try to tell me you don't cheat, Near. You're L. Breaking rules is part of the job."
Near raised an eyebrow. "You would know, Second."
"So I would. Your move, Third."
With a huff, Near bent to study the board again, irked but gratified. In a few minutes, he'd be himself again: harried but dispassionate, the weight of the world secure between his shoulders. But as Near folded his hands over his mouth in contemplation, no one saw the World's Greatest Detective smile, his predecessor's words echoing in his thoughts:
I am L.
I am L.
I am L.