"Last round of betting, gentlemen," said Lidner. "Birthday boy goes first."
Light shrugged and threw in two chips, keeping his face a careful blank. It had been a decent party—as decent as a prison party ever got, at least—with new books for his library from Rester and Gevanni, a set of colored pencils from Lidner, and an array of new family photos from Near. To Light's relief, there was no alcohol, but there had been sushi, poker, and a cake that Gevanni had written Light's name on in a surprisingly elegant hand. The sushi was hopelessly Americanized and the cake was rather dry, but Light thanked them for it anyway. It's more than I expected, really. I'm out of my rooms, at least.
Gevanni and Rester called. Near folded. "I hate this game."
Lidner tossed in two chips. "You only say that because you keep losing."
"How difficult that must be," said Light. "My heart bleeds for you."
"It should," said Near. "You've won almost every hand."
"Well, when it's your birthday, you can choose the game you're good at." Lidner smirked. "Assuming there is one."
Near huffed disdain, reaching for his hair. "Just show your cards."
Obligingly, Gevanni, Rester, and Lidner revealed their hands. Light leaned in to study them, clucking his tongue pensively.
"Ace high, one pair, two pair. Huh. Not terrible."
Lidner rolled her eyes. "Cards on the table, Kira."
Smug-faced, he complied, revealing a trio of sixes. Lidner groaned.
"Another round to the birthday boy," said Rester, shoving the pile of tokens toward Light. "A shame we're not playing for money."
Light shrugged, stacking his new chips neatly. "Not really. I've got no way to spend it."
"You could try to bribe your guards," joked Lidner. Near's head shot up, and she smiled at him. "What? I said he could try, not that he'd succeed."
"If you want a raise, Miss Lidner, you could just ask."
"It was a joke, Near. Just like your card playing."
Near sat back, tugging his hair. "I let him win."
"Sure you did," said Light. "Just like you keep letting me win at Go."
"How uncharacteristically generous of you."
"It's your birthday," said Near, deadpan. "Perhaps I'm taking pity on you for being old."
Light frowned. "I'm not old."
"Older than me."
Lidner snorted. "Of course he's older than you, Near. You're practically a fetus."
"Practically?" said Light. "I think he may still be one."
Near tugged his hair. "That is a biological impossibility."
"So is being elderly at 29, but I don't hear you protesting that."
"29," said Gevanni. "It'll be a big one next year."
Not really. "Depends on how you look at it, I guess."
Lidner raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"
"If you look at my past, any birthday I have is a miracle. If you look at my future, none of them mean a damn thing." Bitterness tinged Light's voice, but he forced a smile and reached for the cards. "Another round?"
In unison, their eyes all flicked to Near. Stone-faced, the detective pushed back his chair and stood, his fingers in his hair. "Light, would you mind helping me clear the table?"
"Yes. It's my party."
"That wasn't a request."
Sighing, Light got to his feet as well, collecting his and Halle's plates and stalking off to the kitchen. He dumped the dishes in the sink and turned to leave, only to find Near blocking his exit, a short stack of dishes in his arms.
"Would you rather wash or dry?"
Light reached for the faucet. "Wash."
"Good. I'll dry."
They set about their tasks in silence, avoiding each other's eyes. Three plates in, Light finally spoke. "If you're going to lecture me, I'd prefer you get it over with."
"I'm not here to lecture you. You just seemed like you needed an excuse to be alone."
"You're still here."
"Someone has to supervise."
Of course. Light lapsed back into bitter silence, trying to ignore his captor's eyes on the back of his neck.
"You're in a sour mood today," Near said at last.
Light shrugged. "It's my birthday."
"So? I thought you liked birthdays."
I usually do. He stared at the plate in his hands, uncomfortable. Though Near was careful never to leave him cooped up for too long without a case, opportunities to leave his rooms were still few and far between. Whatever his feelings toward growing older, he should have been enjoying himself. I can't. "I'm having a hard time getting excited about another year in the same spot."
"Better that than the alternative."
"I know. It's just...five years is a long time. You know?"
"I know." Near fidgeted with his hair, staring at a spot just above Light's shoulder. "I haven't left the building in a few years either."
"By choice, though."
"That's not the same thing."
"If you wanted a choice, you—"
"Should have thought of that before I became Kira. I'm aware." The prisoner let out a quiet breath, scratching his scarred cheek. "Five down, decades to go."
"Would you rather it be over sooner?"
"Then I fail to see the problem."
Despite his words, Near's eyes radiated concern. Light looked away, dunking another plate. I hate when he does that. "It doesn't matter."
"It does to you."
"I don't matter."
Near snorted. "You're about a decade too old to sound that melodramatic, Light."
"I'm young at heart."
"You're a pain in the ass."
Despite himself, Light smiled. "You're one to talk."
"Tu quoque is a fallacy, not an argument."
"And argument from fallacy isn't a denial."
Near's lips curved upward. "Fair enough."
"I'm not ungrateful, Near. Really. I just find it hard to tell sometimes when I'm just a prisoner to you and when I'm part of the team."
The detective blinked. "You're always a prisoner, and you're always part of my team. Does that clarify matters?"
"You're not making any sense."
I know. "It's just smaller than I'd like, I guess."
"You're a legally dead mass-murderer being held in secret for your own protection. I can't exactly throw you a parade in the streets, Light."
Light handed him the wet plate with more force than necessary. "I don't want a parade, goddamn it. I just—some people who should be here aren't. All right?"
"Oh." Near looked abashed, turning the plate over awkwardly in his hands. "Roger?"
"Him. Dad. Mom. Sayu." Light bit his lip. "She's pregnant."
"I know. I gave you the photos."
"My sister's married, and I've never met her husband. I'll never meet her son. I held her when she was a baby, and now she's got one of her own. And I never will."
"Probably for the best. You never struck me as the parental type."
"I'm not. That's not the point."
"What is the point, then? You've lost me."
For God's sake. "Family, Near. That's the point."
"You still have one."
"On the other side of the goddamn world. Prisoners on death row still get visitors, but I don't. When I finally get out of here, no one will even know I've died, let alone where I'm buried. Just Rester, Halle, Gevanni, and you. I'm not a prisoner here; I'm a ghost. You all might as well be throwing me a seance."
Near set the dried plate aside, looking up at Light with a frown. "You knew from the start what your sentence meant. I don't see why it's only dawned on you now."
You wouldn't. Light scrubbed a pair of chopsticks in angry silence. Cryptography and forensics came as naturally to Near as breathing, but understanding human emotion was another matter. Light didn't blame him for the deficit—most of the time—but it frustrated him nonetheless.
"I offered to let you talk to them," Near said at last, quiet. "You turned me down."
"The offer still stands."
Light shook his head. "I can't."
"Then what do you—"
"I don't know. I don't want to miss them, but I don't want them to see me like this, either."
"As a failure."
"Better to be a failed tyrant than a successful one."
"If you say so."
"I do. You don't get a pass on what you did, but that doesn't mean what you do now doesn't count. You're making the best of your situation and trying to be a good man. I respect that. Your family would, too."
But I don't.
Light let out a slow breath, reaching for a new set of chopsticks. "I'm aware of that. It doesn't change my answer."
"I'm sure. It's my problem, not theirs. I'll figure it out on my own."
Near tugged his hair. "I'm sorry you're upset."
"I know." Light dropped the chopsticks into Near's side of the sink. "Forget it. Let's talk about something else."
"Not much to talk about there," said Near. "I've handled a few cases, but nothing complex enough to bring you in on."
"You've been saying that for weeks."
"It's been true for weeks. The moment I find something worth your time, I'll let you know."
"My time's pretty damn cheap these days."
"That explains why you squander so much of it on me. Speaking of which, are we still on for Go tonight?"
"Don't think I'm going to let you win, though. Birthday or not."
"I never expect you to let me win. I just expect you to lose."
"And how well does that usually work out for you?"
"Poorly. But I'm an optimist." Light cracked a weak smile, handing over the last of the dishes. "See you at eight?"
Near nodded. "See you at eight."
Light's rooms had changed little in the three years he'd been upstairs, each lamp and piece of furniture still in the same spot where Roger had left it. Only the walls had changed, their sterile whiteness now broken up by the pencil sketches Light had drawn to pass the time: memories set to paper, haphazard and untrained. His past self would have laughed at his drawings, he was sure, but he taped them up nonetheless, the territorial markers of his hidden cage. It isn't much, they seemed to say, but this is mine. They couldn't make his prison home, but they made it his.
I wonder what Mom would think.
He set his presents down on his bed, tacking his new photos up beside the rest, then wandered back out to the living room in search of something to do. His eyes landed on the bowl of fruit atop his back table, and he frowned in confusion. I could have sworn that was full when I left. What the hell...?
"Hyuk. Nice party?"
Light tensed and turned around. Ryuk was stretched out on his couch, face frozen in his usual rictus grin. Oh, shit. Masking his fear, Light folded his arms across his chest. "It was."
"Looked like it. Why didn't you invite me, huh?"
"Ask Near. Like most other things in my life these days, I don't control the guest list."
Ryuk sat up. "You seem touchy."
"Thought you'd appreciate a friendly visit. Don't suppose you get many these days, heh."
It was all Light could do not to grind his teeth. "No thanks to you."
"Hey, now. What did I ever do to you, huh?"
"Betrayed me. Abandoned me. Tried to kill me, if Near can be believed—"
"Didn't try very hard, or you'd be dead. Besides, that was years ago."
"Five years last month."
"Hyuk. You see? Old news." Ryuk cocked his head, sounding amused. "Can't hold a grudge against me over that."
"I'm spending the rest of my life in prison. I'm fairly confident I can."
"That's not my fault."
Light's voice was acid. "Isn't it?"
"No. You had that notebook five days before I showed up, and you'd already planned out everything on your own. This whole Kira business didn't come from me. I just tagged along."
"You're still the one who dropped the Death Note."
"And you're the one who picked it up. Hyuk. You never gave me credit for your ideas when they were working. Can't blame me for them when they go wrong."
He's got a point, damn him. The realization only irked Light more. "Piss off, Ryuk. I'm busy."
Stagnating. "Doesn't matter. You're visible to everyone at headquarters, and I'm being monitored. The last thing I need is another reason for Near to distrust me."
"Seems to me he trusts you well enough. You call this a prison? Looks pretty low security to me." Ryuk scratched his face and looked around, plainly unimpressed. "You could break out of here if you wanted."
"If I had a place to run to, maybe. But I don't."
"You used to take risks."
"I used to, yes. Then I realized how much it hurts to get shot."
"Well, aren't you boring."
Light froze. "If you're here to kill me—"
"I'm not. Hyuk. Why is that always the first thing you think when I show up?"
"I can't think of any other reason you'd come back. The last time I did anything that might interest you was three years ago."
"That girl who tried to kill you, you mean? Eh. Watching you trying to figure it out was pretty entertaining, but when you can see everybody's lifespan, there's not much suspense." The shinigami's shoulders rose and fell. "You'd feel the same, if you'd traded for the eyes."
He watched me. He watched all of it. Angry heat rose in Light's cheeks, but his voice was cold. "You could have said something."
"Would you have found that reassuring?"
"Then what would be the point, heh? You're a smart kid, Light, but don't be so full of yourself. I've got no desire to start trailing you around again."
"Consider the feeling mutual."
"I thought you might say that."
"What the hell do you want from me?" Light snapped. "Entertainment? I'm not your plaything, damn it. I never was. I've got a new life now, Ryuk, and one of the few good things about it is that it doesn't include you."
"Wouldn't stop you from picking up where you left off, though, would it? Given the chance."
"I'm not lying."
"That would be a first." Ryuk held up a hand to pre-empt Light's protests. "No need to be so touchy about it, Light. Near knows as well as I do that you'd go right back to being Kira if you could."
"Maybe I would, but it's a moot point. It's not going to happen. Unless you drop another notebook, I suppose, because there's no way I'm ever getting that one back—"
Light's anger evaporated, replaced by a chill of alarm. "You what?"
"Dropped a Death Note. Three weeks back. I thought you already knew, you and Near being so close these days..."
I didn't. Light turned away, fighting to keep his face calm. "I don't suppose you'll tell me where it is."
"Then I don't see how you expect me to find it."
Ryuk threw back his head and laughed. "Find it? Hyuk. You think this is still about you?"
"You certainly made a point of coming to see me."
"Yeah, to tell you about it. Doesn't mean I wanted you to have it. You're old news, Light. Let somebody else have a turn, heh?"
The prisoner glowered at him, bristling. Old news. Tell me something I don't know. "Gladly. Who?"
"Ah, ah, ah. You know I can't tell you his name."
"But it is a him."
"It is. Smart guy. Took me two years to find the right person, but he'll do fine." Ryuk's head tilted, almost doglike. "Reminds me of you, actually. Not in the looks, but the rest of it."
"Two years?" Something clicked in Light's brain. "There was another Death Note case two years ago. Near consulted me on it in passing, but he never mentioned—"
"That wasn't me. That was Midora. Bribed herself a notebook off the Shinigami King and dropped it willy-nilly into Tokyo, thinking everybody there must be like you."
Light snorted, a bitter smile on his lips. "All Japanese look alike to you lot, do we?"
"All humans, actually. Pah. Shinigami. Doesn't matter how many times I tell them, it never makes it through their skulls."
"Shinigami are stubborn assholes? Color me shocked." Beneath the banter, Light's mind was racing, trying to figure out what Ryuk was playing at. Near said the killings stopped, but he never recovered that notebook. If the owner died or gave it up, it's likely the shinigami might have taken it back, but none of the shinigami I've met would ever willingly give away a Death Note. Not to another shinigami, at least. So are we dealing with one notebook, or—?
"You haven't changed a bit, you know," said Ryuk, cutting through Light's train of thought. "Still thinking you've got to figure it all out on your own to be smart. Hyuk. If you want to know something, all you have to do is ask."
"How many notebooks are in human hands right now?"
"Yours and Midora's?"
"Midora's is mine. Her human killed himself, so she gave up and gave it to me. Seemed to think I do a better job of this, heh."
"Then the second one is—"
"Yours." Ryuk leered at him. "Don't tell me you forgot?"
"Of course I didn't," Light lied. Though he was still technically the owner, he hadn't seen his Death Note since his arrest five years before. Downstairs, the constant threat of gas had been more than enough to keep the notebook's presence in mind. Upstairs, it was all too easy to forget. Out of sight, out of mind. "Two notebooks, both yours. So that's the game."
"If a new Kira shows up, there's no way Near doesn't take the case—which is why you're dropping it now, while he and I are still around. Since I'm still a Death Note owner, you can switch between trailing us and your new Kira at will, allowing you to watch both sides of the investigation and play us against each other when you get bored. I'm surprised at you, Ryuk. That's almost clever."
Ryuk's shoulders rose and fell. "I learned from the best."
"How very flattering. What have you told him?"
"Not much. The rules of the notebook, ownership, the simple things. And you. Hyuk. He's very curious about you."
A nervous shiver spread down Light's back. "You told him my name?"
"Of course not. Where's the fun in that? Besides, it's against the rules."
"I wasn't aware you put so much stock in rules."
"Not in your rules. Shinigami rules, sure. I'm not eager to run afoul of those."
The prisoner raised an eyebrow. "Well, aren't you boring."
"Heh. Cute." Ryuk's expression never changed, but the slight bounciness in his movements radiated amusement. "I was going to kill you, Light. Near's not wrong about that. I heard him out for curiosity's sake, and sure enough, he found a loophole. Told me you might be interesting again in the future, too if I left you alone. I can't say I really believed him, but I thought, who knows? Wouldn't be the first time you've surprised me. So I left you alone. And now, here we are."
"Here we are." Light turned his back and walked over to the table, retrieving a banana from the bowl. "Never count me out, Ryuk. You should have known me better than that."
"I guess so. Huh, that reminds me. There's one other thing I told the new guy."
"He knows you're alive."
Light froze, the blood draining from his face. Dropping the half-peeled fruit back into the bowl, he turned back to the shinigami in alarm. "What do you...?"
Ryuk was gone.
Light bit his lip and sat down, staring at the intercom button on the wall. Another knockoff Kira, and Near claims he has no cases. So much for part of the team. Part of Light was tempted to say nothing, to repay Near's lie of omission with one of his own, but he knew that it was futile. Sooner or later, Ryuk would be back, and there wasn't a single person on Near's team who couldn't see him. For all I know, they were watching the monitors already. It's bad enough Near doesn't trust me to know about this case. The last thing I need is to make it worse.
Damn it, Ryuk.
He pressed the button.