"Last round of betting, everyone," said Lidner. "Light, what's it going to be?"
Light glanced around the circle of players, calculating. Near's face, as usual, betrayed nothing. Gevanni was sweating again—he's out—and Rester's frown left little doubt his cards were garbage. That leaves me, Near...or Julia. The newest addition to their card circle sat across from him, meek and handcuffed, still looking faintly terrified at being included. Light flashed her an encouraging smile and tossed in a chip. "Bet."
Gevanni and Rester folded. Julia wet her lip and set her cards down, too, her handcuffs clinking against the tabletop.
"Folding again?" asked Light.
"My cards aren't that good."
"That's what bluffing is for. It's not chess."
"Not everyone's a natural born liar, Kira," said Lidner.
"Only the lucky ones," said Light.
Near scoffed and threw in a chip. "You have an interesting definition of luck."
"It's his birthday," said Julia. "You should be nice to him."
Light grinned. "Yeah, Near. Be nice to me."
"Show me your cards first," said Near.
Light turned over his hand: two pair. The moment Near smiled, he knew he had lost.
"Flush," the detective gloated, showing his hand. "So much for you being lucky."
"You should have bet higher," said Light.
"You would have folded if I had, and I would have ended up with the same amount."
"Not necessarily. You might have lost out on a bigger pot."
"Nonsense. You're just disappointed everyone isn't just letting you win this year, so you have to salvage your dignity somehow."
"I don't need anyone to let me win."
"Yet you lost."
"Are they always like this?" asked Julia.
"Not always," said Lidner. "Sometimes they sleep."
"That's an exaggeration," said Gevanni.
"Hardly. There's not a single subject those two can't turn into a dick-measuring contest somehow."
"I have absolutely no interest in the dimensions of Light Yagami's dick," said Near.
Light grinned. "Only because you've already seen enough to know you'd lose."
Near scoffed, twirling his hair. "Bullshit. Are you dealing a new hand or not?"
A flicker of movement caught Light's eye, and his smile faltered. A sudden spasm gripped his lungs, and he flung an arm across his mouth, coughing helplessly. Shit. His eyes watered as he straightened back up, and he blinked furiously to hide it.
"Light?" Julia watched him, her eyes sad. "Are you okay?"
"I can grab your oxygen if you need it," said Gevanni.
"I said I'm fine. Just a spasm." Cracking an apologetic smile, he stacked Julia's plate on his and stood. "Deal me out. I'm going to clear some of these plates."
"Are you sure?" Julia asked. "I can do it, I don't mind—"
"I'm sure. I need a drink of water anyway." He glanced over at Near for permission. "I'll be back in a minute."
The detective nodded. "Go ahead."
Light collected as much as he could carry and walked off to the kitchen, depositing the dishes in the sink. Stone-faced, he turned on the water, then spun around to face the door.
"I figured you might show up," he said coldly.
Ryuk's face popped out of the wall, grinning. "You know me too well."
Much too well. "Does Julia know you're here?"
"Good. Keep it that way."
"Relax. I'm not here to hurt her."
"Why the fuck are you here, then?"
Ryuk shrugged. "Figured we should talk."
Light tensed, his knuckles clenching. "If you've dropped another goddamn notebook—"
"Relax, I said. Hyuk. The only notebooks down here are the ones in that cell of yours. I don't have any others."
"Thank God for that. The cell's not big enough to add anyone else."
Ryuk chuckled. "She seems to like you."
"Julia? Yeah. People tend to do that when you're nice to them."
"You weren't nice to Misa. She liked you fine."
"No one ever said Misa was bright."
"You sure didn't. Henh. What's your interest in this one, anyway? She doesn't seem your type."
"I don't have a type."
"In women? Sure you do." The shinigami's head cocked. "Disposable."
Rolling his eyes, Light turned off the faucet. "That's not very flattering."
"It's not wrong, either."
No, it's not. "Why the hell are you here, Ryuk? To make fun of me?"
"You are pretty entertaining to make fun of, I'll give you that. But I'm not here for you. I came for these." Ryuk held up an apple, pleased with himself. "When I saw there was a party, I figured I should pay my respects."
"You came down here just to steal Near's apples?"
"I'm not stealing. He gave them to me."
"Likely story. Why did you really—?" Ryuk burst into dry, mocking laughter, and Light's eyes narrowed. "What's so funny?"
"Near and I have an arrangement now, Light. I've been down here once a week for months."
"Since we last talked. He really didn't tell you, huh?"
"You know damn well he didn't." Ryuk was no good to Near as a spy with both notebook owners already under tight surveillance, and Light doubted Near cared enough about Julia to offer bribes on her behalf. Which means... "He's paying you off to leave me alone."
"Henh. Took you long enough."
"I did wonder why you were so willing to go along with pretending I was dead. You've never cared about me that much."
"No, I don't," Ryuk agreed cheerfully. "I told you that from the beginning, remember? In the end—"
"You'll be there with an open notebook and a pen. I know."
Humiliated, Light bent over the sink to scrub a glass, keeping his back to the shinigami. Ryuk inched closer, far too close, looming over Light like a shadow. Go away. Light's hands shook as he wet the sponge, and fear squeezed his ribs like a clamp. Leave me alone. Unable to speak, he bent over and coughed, wincing at the rawness of his throat.
"That doesn't sound good," said Ryuk.
No thanks to you. "I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine."
"If you're here to tell me my time is up, stop playing around and get it over with." Light's voice rasped like a saw through wood, hoarse and disdainful. "You didn't toy with Libra this long."
"Is that what you really want?"
You know I don't. Twice now, Ryuk had seen him on death's doorstep, choking on gas or blood. Twice now, Ryuk had heard him beg for rescue. Whatever Light did, there would be a third time—and when there was, he wouldn't wake up to have a fourth. Light knew that. So did Ryuk. The quicker I die, the less time I'll have to panic. I don't want to die. I don't want to beg, either.
"It's a joke, Light. Henh. Always so damn suspicious."
Light wet his lip. "I have reason."
"Fair enough." Ryuk's eyes glittered, wide and ominous. "So you think I killed Libra, huh?"
"That's what Near thinks."
"I'm not sure."
"Hyuk. I'll make you a deal. Tell me what you think happened, and I'll tell you if you're right."
"Forget it. He's dead. I'm not." Light dipped his sponge in the sink, his voice bitter. "That's what counts."
"Oh? I thought you'd want to know how he died."
"Not enough to play games. I'm not your plaything, Ryuk. Keeping you amused isn't my damn job."
"You never used to mind."
"I've grown up."
Ryuk's grin widened, and he gave a slight nod. "I see. I'll go talk to Julia instead, then, henh?"
"No, you won't." Light brandished his sponge angrily, spraying Ryuk with water as if he were a disobedient cat. "I'm done, okay? I'm done with you. Take your fucking apples and go."
"I never touched Nick Wolff. He did it himself. Idolized his father, you know—he really thought the guy would approve of him. Wrote his own name down when he realized he was wrong. Hyuk. Not as much like you as I thought he was, I guess."
I guess not. "Just more proof you never knew me as well as you thought you did. I'd never be that much of a coward."
"Brave words from a guy who went down screaming."
"Yeah, I went down screaming. And then I got up and kept going. I always get up, Ryuk. If you know anything about me, it's that."
"You won't always get up. No human ever does." Ryuk took a step back. "I'll see you around."
"Not if I see you first."
"Heh. Cute. Happy birthday, Light."
Light said nothing, his knuckles clenched white on the counter. When he finally turned around, the shinigami was gone. Good riddance. He rubbed his face wearily with his hands, then fished the sponge out of the sink.
"I know you're out there, Near," he said quietly. "You might as well come in."
Shamefaced, Near poked his head around the doorway. "How did you know?"
"You would never leave me unsupervised this long. How long were you listening?"
"From the beginning."
"Good. Then you know I wasn't plotting anything with him."
"I never thought you would." Near walked into the kitchen to join him, grabbing a towel from the drawer. "Can I help?"
"You might as well."
For several minutes, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, washing dishes in silence. I wish he would speak. Though Light kept his eyes on his work, Near's anxious concern engulfed him like a blanket: warmly meant, but thick and stifling. Don't look at me like that. At last, as though reading Light's mind, Near wiped his forehead and sighed.
"Are you mad at me?" he asked.
"For eavesdropping? No. I'm used to it."
"I meant about Libra."
Light let out a slow breath. "I'm not thrilled about it."
"We saw no reason to burden Senator Wolff with the truth. As for you...you were already in pain. After how badly you reacted to Mr. Aizawa, I saw no reason to hurt you further."
"Libra's relationship with his father is his own problem. Not mine. I'm a grown man, Nate. I don't need coddling." Light handed Near a clean glass. "Not that it makes any difference, really. He was both the original owner of the notebook and the current one. If he hadn't done it, Ryuk would have."
"You knew that going in, didn't you?"
"I didn't see an alternative."
Just like Mikami. "I don't think there was one. A shame his father had to see it, though."
Near looked up. "Are you all right?"
"You don't sound fine."
"Now you sound like Ryuk."
"He may have had a point.
"Ryuk? Not a chance." Light wet his lip. "Have you really been bribing him?"
Near paused, then nodded. "I needed to be sure he wouldn't expose your secret to Libra. He was reluctant to help."
"Of course he was."
"Do you want me to tell him to stay away from you?"
"Makes no difference. I'm never going to be rid of him, whether I can see him or not."
"Even so, if it makes you uncomfortable—"
"It's fine. I'd rather he come bother me than Julia, if he's that bored. It's easier for me to get away from him."
"Yes, speaking of that." Near set his dish aside and reached for another. "I've been thinking."
"Julia. It's been almost a year now, and she's shown no sign of causing trouble. Perhaps—"
"You want to bring her upstairs."
"Would it bother you?"
Light frowned. "Why would it bother me?"
"I was not so lenient with you."
"Well, for one thing, she's not me. For another..." He paused, struggling to put his thoughts into words. "Well, to be honest, if you were still as paranoid about your prisoners now as you were then, I'd have to assume you've been lying about how much you trust me."
Near smiled. "Do you want to tell her, or should I?"
"You should. She's still petrified of you. Giving her some good news in person might help."
"Am I really that frightening?"
"You threatened to torture her."
"Oh." Near tugged his hair, abashed. "I didn't mean it."
"I know that, and I know why you did it. Doesn't mean it was any less frightening to her." Light wet his lip. "Thank you, by the way."
"Ryuk's apples. I don't know how much that's costing you, but—"
"Don't worry about it. I would do it for any member of my team."
"Especially Lidner. She's a very useful nuisance."
Light raised an eyebrow. "A ringing endorsement."
"Useful is high praise."
"The highest in your vocabulary. And inconvenient is practically a curse word."
Near nodded, smirking. "You know me well."
I do. "I'm sorry."
"You aren't an inconvenience."
"Not now, I'm not. But I was."
For a moment, the third L merely stared at him. Then, he sighed. "Yes, you were."
They slipped back into awkward silence, Light's apology leaden on his tongue. He didn't want a lecture, but he had expected a reaction, and Near's seeming indifference bothered him for reasons he couldn't define. Does he think it's too vague to be genuine, or am I telling him something he already knew? Uneasy, Light hurried to change the subject.
"Do you know which set of rooms you're giving Julia?" he asked, unnaturally cheerful. "It might be nice to take her up and show it to her beforehand, like you did for me. I can do that if you're busy, I don't—"
"You're not you either, you know."
Light's chipper voice died. "What?"
"I asked why you weren't jealous of Julia, and you said she wasn't you. You're not who you were six years ago, Light. You are not a failure for being alive, and flagellating yourself isn't the same thing as taking responsibility. I don't believe anyone in your family would hate you for who you are today." Near's voice was surprisingly earnest, and for once, his eyes met Light's. "Your father included."
How am I supposed to respond to that? "You never met him."
"I know he spent weeks in a cell rather than risk the chance he might lose control and hurt you if you were guilty. Whatever you promised him, that's not the act of a man who wanted you dead. And even if he would have—I know what it feels like to disappoint a parent to the point of murder. You know that. But they felt that way about who we were then. Not now."
"That's different, and you know it. If she came back and saw you now—no one's going to complain about finding out their autistic son became the world's greatest detective. But finding out your son is the world's greatest murderer isn't—"
"—as welcome a surprise. I know. I'm sure he would be upset, Light. That doesn't mean he would want you dead."
"You don't know that he wouldn't."
"You don't know that he would."
"No, I don't. But the fact that it's up for debate..." Light shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "It doesn't feel great. Let's just leave it at that, okay?"
To his relief, Near didn't push. "The Task Force sends their regards."
"You invited them?"
"I didn't see any reason not to, now that they know. Matsuda seemed disappointed he couldn't make it."
"He has a new baby. I wouldn't expect him to come." Light smiled, touched despite himself. "I wouldn't expect any of them to."
"You've resigned yourself to small birthdays?"
"The birthday isn't small. Just the crowd." A lone photo of his newborn nephew cradled in Sayu's arms, red-cheeked and squalling, held place of pride in the center of Light's wall collage, but the rest still lay untouched in a box beside his bed. He hadn't asked the boy's name, and Near hadn't told him. I had the chance to go back, and I said no. The less I dwell on it, the better. "The people who matter are here, Near. I promise, I don't mind."
"All right." Near set the final plate in the dish drainer and handed Light the towel. "Come with me."
The February chill bit into Light's skin as he leaned against the doorway, catching his breath. "Lovely weather we're having."
"Don't be a baby. It's not that cold."
"Are you going to tell me what the hell we're doing on the roof yet?" Light's hand went up to his blindfold, but Near swatted it away.
"When we get there, I'll tell you. Just trust me, all right?"
"If I have to."
Amused, Light pulled the hood of his borrowed coat tighter around his face and allowed Near to steer him forward. "This would be a lot easier if I could see."
"I'm aware of that, but Lidner says that would defeat the point of a surprise. Careful, there's two steps up here."
Light inched up the steps and through a doorway, hearing it swing closed behind him. Ahead of him, someone—Julia?—giggled.
"Near, this is really getting—"
Near tugged the blindfold off Light's eyes, and he squinted in the sudden brightness. He stood inside a large greenhouse laid out like a Japanese garden, the branching paths lined with the familiar plants of home. A small, lily-filled pond sat in one corner, and a miniature rock garden occupied another. At the center of the greenhouse, Julia and the SPK stood gathered around a sheet cake on a small folding table.
Stunned, Light looked around the greenhouse. "Near, what is this?"
"Your birthday present," said Rester. "We all helped set it up, but it was his idea."
"With two of you here, it seemed logical," said Near. "If this were a regulated prison, you would be allowed recreation time outdoors. I decided there was no good reason you shouldn't get the same."
"So you put in an entire fucking garden?"
Near shrugged, fidgeting with his hair. "You wouldn't let me send you home, so I thought...perhaps I could bring some of it to you."
"You told Julia about this before me?"
"I didn't know until yesterday," said Julia. "But I made the cake, look."
Light looked at the table. It was a simple sheet cake, inartfully frosted, festooned with sprinkles, dabs of icing...and thirty flickering birthday candles, arranged to form the kanji of his name.
"Did you have to use so many candles?" he asked quietly.
"It's a big number, Light." Julia looked embarrassed. "I thought—I thought you'd appreciate it."
"I do." Thirty years. For a fifth of his life, he'd been a prisoner. For another fifth, he'd been hunted. Yet against all odds, he was still alive. Battered, isolated, and humbled, but alive. Every person at the table had once wished him dead, but now they were offering him cake and well-wishes. Any birthday I have is a miracle, and this one especially. She's not wrong.
But I can't blow out this many.
"Is something wrong?" Lidner asked.
"No. I'm fine." Touched, he peeled his eyes from the candles and smiled. "This is really nice, Julia. Thank you."
She beamed at him. "You're welcome."
"All of you. Thank you. This is—this is too much."
"Just practicality," Near insisted. "The air gets dry in the winter. You'll have an easier time breathing in here."
"What Near means to say is that you're welcome," said Lidner. "Now get over here and blow out these candles before we have more wax than frosting."
"Yes, ma'am." Light took a step toward the table, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him short.
"Can I help?" Near's expression held no pity, only understanding. "I know you don't need it, but—"
Please. "You're in charge. I won't tell you no."
"Since when?" Rester asked.
"It's my birthday. I'm feeling magnanimous."
Julia giggled, cutting herself off abruptly as the SPK turned to look at her. Amused, Light studied the candles, watching the flames dance and flicker in neat lines. Maybe I won't always get up, but for now, I'm standing. I'm moving forward. For all he'd lost or thrown away—health, family, freedom—he couldn't wish for anything more than that.
"Together on three," Near said quietly. "One, two..."
Side by side, they blew the candles out.