Chapter 1: Light
"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.
Chapter 2: Near
"Is he all right?" asked Gevanni.
No. Near nodded, sliding back into his seat. "He'll be fine. Just feeling his age."
Lidner snorted. "He's twenty-nine. You make it sound like he's turning forty."
"Probably feels like he is," said Rester. "Most people spend their twenties discovering themselves and building careers. He's spent his in prison."
"That's his own fault," said Gevanni.
"I never said it wasn't. Even so, the Kira case feels like a lifetime ago to me. I can only imagine what it feels like to him."
A brief silence followed Rester's words. "It's not the first time he's done this," Near said at last. "I doubt it will be the last, either. He'll come around. Just don't give him any more reasons to feel like the world's moving on without him for a while."
"Such as telling him his sister is pregnant?" Lidner asked drily.
"Any more reasons, I said. It's a little late for that." Near's fingers rose to his hair. "I thought he'd be happy for her."
"He is." Rester's voice was calm, reassuring. "Don't blame yourself, Near. He took it hard when she first got married, too."
Lidner shook her head. "It's not the same. Weddings are a one-time event. Nephews are forever."
"So are husbands," said Gevanni.
She raised an eyebrow at him, amused. "Not always."
Gevanni's face colored. "They're supposed to be."
"Either way. Light was upset he missed Sayu's wedding, not that he missed his new brother-in-law. He's going to miss this kid's entire life. And that's not even touching on how he'll feel if she names her son after Soichiro Yagami." Lidner's voice was grave. "Or worse, him."
Gevanni blinked. "Would she do that?"
"She's having a boy," said Rester quietly. "It's possible."
Near stared at the abandoned deck of cards on the table, his lip between his teeth. I shouldn't have mentioned Sayu. Not to him, not yet. Giving Light new photos of his family had become a birthday tradition, but he wouldn't have noticed if Near had held some back for later. He could have waited until the birth, at least. As far as she knows, he died a hero. She's got no reason to question that now. The world assumed that New Kira was the original come to finish the job, and death was a flawless alibi. Even if Sayu had suspected the truth, she had no reason to doubt Light's innocence now—and what better way to apologize to her dead brother for ever doubting him than to give his name to her firstborn son?
What better way to make sure Light never sees his family again?
"We can tell him she named him something else, then," said Gevanni. "He'll never know the difference."
"Unless he contacts his family," said Lidner.
"Near already offered to let him see his family," Gevanni replied. "Light turned him down."
"He's about to have a nephew now. His calculus may have changed."
Rester shook his head. "Near offered on the assumption that Light's family members were adults who could keep a secret. Expecting a child to understand the situation and keep his mouth shut would be too much of a risk, regardless of what Light wants. Light may resent that, but he knows."
"It doesn't matter," Near cut in, irritable. "Upsetting or not, I promised him I'd keep him up to date on his family. The only way to keep him from finding out would be to stop giving him photos of Sayu altogether. He made his choices; he can live with the consequences." He'll be fine. "Just give him time."
"Time for what?" asked Lidner. "If there's one thing he's not running short on, it's time to himself."
Near shot her a baleful look. "And what do you propose I do about that? Let him wander the building?"
"You could find him a case," she said.
"We can't," said Rester. "Even if we had time to screen one for him, we can't spare anyone to supervise. We're short-staffed enough as it is."
"Thanks to him," said Gevanni.
"Thanks to Mello and Janus," Near corrected. "Not that it matters. Even if we could spare someone to watch him, the risk of him finding out about the New Kira case is too high. He'll just have to muddle through on his own."
Lidner frowned. "For how long?"
"Until we close the case."
"That could be years."
I know. "If you have an alternative, I'm happy to hear it. People are dying, Lidner. Right now, my priority has to be them."
"We could bring in outside help," said Rester. "Close the case faster."
Near shook his head. "Not an option. Not with Light here."
"I thought Light wasn't the priority," said Lidner, raising an eyebrow.
"He isn't. But there's a rather large difference between locking him in and risking his life." Near grabbed a pair of cards from the table, leaning them carefully against each other. "I'm trying to balance my obligations, not ignore them."
Behind him, someone sighed. "You could reassemble the Task Force," said Rester. "They have as much of an interest in hiding his identity as we do, and concern for his family as well. It wouldn't be much risk."
"Why not?" Gevanni asked. "They already know about the notebooks, and you've worked with them before. They're probably expecting you to call."
They probably are. Grimacing, Near added more cards to his budding tower, trying to ignore the weary throbbing in his head. In theory, Rester and Gevanni's logic was sound. In practice, it would be a disaster. I need more help, but if I'm right that New Kira is based in the United States, I would have to bring them here to be any use at all. I've kept them in the dark this long, but I'll have to admit Light's alive if he's living right under their noses. Even if Near moved Light elsewhere for the duration, the arrangements and preparation would take weeks, and the absence of whichever SPK member he sent as Light's warden would be impossible to conceal or explain away. The Task Force wouldn't insist on Light's execution—most likely—but they might well insist on taking charge of Light's imprisonment themselves, half a world away from Near's oversight and under far more punitive conditions. I can't do that to him. Or to me. Strange as it felt to call Kira a teammate, he was, and Near had lost enough teammates already. Losing another wasn't a risk he was willing to take.
Not yet, anyway.
"I'll talk to them," Near said at last. "Let them know I'm on the case and may need them later. I'd rather not bring them here, but there's no harm in keeping our options open."
"There's no harm in telling Light what's happening, either," said Lidner. "At the very least, he deserves to know why we're neglecting him."
"We're not neglecting him. Just not giving him extra privileges. There's a difference." I have no reason to feel guilty. I don't. "I only tell him about cases he's a part of. He accepts that."
"All the more reason to tell him. He knows far more about shinigami and the Death Note than we do."
"Because he used them," said Gevanni. "That's a terrible idea, Halle."
"Why? C-Kira was a notebook case, too, and Near consulted with him anyway."
Rester cleared his throat. "The notebook is only part of the problem. C-Kira targeted the elderly and vulnerable—people the first Kira was trying to protect. New Kira is targeting criminals. They aren't the same."
"It's still murder, either way," said Lidner.
"To us, yes. But to Light?" Rester shook his head. "I don't doubt his commitment to fighting crime, and he's served us well when our interests are aligned. But if he still prefers Kira's methods—"
Lidner cut him off with a gesture. "I know that. I'm not saying give him access to the casefiles, I'm just saying we can consult with him where he is. Like we did with C-Kira. He can't conspire with New Kira from his room, even if he wanted to."
"Perhaps not, but he can still feed us false leads and misinformation to slow us down. There's no good reason to take that risk."
The intercom buzzed, and Near jumped, his handiwork collapsing in a heap. Now what? Disgruntled, he tugged at his hair, resisting the urge to cover his ears. "He probably forgot something out here. Gevanni, go see what he wants."
"Of course." Rising, the agent walked off to silence the intercom. Near sighed and swept up the ruins of his card tower, aligning the deck and stuffing it back into its box.
"What a mess this is," said Rester quietly.
I can't disagree. "We'll sort it out."
"The ICPO called this morning. They want proof this Kira isn't the same one we stopped the first time."
Near looked up sharply. "Tell them I say it isn't. That's proof enough."
"Not to them. It was easy to convince them that C-Kira was just a copycat, given the different choice of victims, but this time—we can't afford to have them turn against us, L. Not without other backup in place."
"What do you want me to do, then?" Near snapped. "Hand over the notebook? Hand over Light?"
"Absolutely not. But if you call in the Task Force, that gives you credibility. They were there when you took down Kira. They would know if you have anything to hide." Rester's voice was calm, but his face told another story. "Better to reveal Light's secret to the Task Force than to the ICPO, Near. For us, and for him."
Tense and guilty, the new L stared past Rester's head, his fingers digging into his arms. Damn it to hell. "Duly noted."
"So you agree?"
"I'll consider it. We'll try to sort this out on our own first, and call in the Task Force if strictly necessary. But until and unless that happens, no one says a word to Light. Is that clear?"
Rester nodded, but Lidner still looked mulish. "It affects him, Near. You know that. Help or no help, he has a right to know there's a new Kira running around. "
"I agree—and when the case is over, I'll tell him. Not before." For once, Near forced himself to look her in the eyes. "I can only deal with one disgruntled mass-murderer at a time. I refuse to deal with two."
"Moot point, L." Gevanni returned from the intercom, his expression sheepish. "He already knows."
Over the years, Near had grown accustomed to Light's presence, but Light's rooms were a different story. Although he didn't regret allowing Light to stay there, some stubborn part of him still walked in expecting to see Roger. Time had eroded that disappointment to a dull ache, but he doubted it would ever completely go away.
Though right now, the one looking disappointed is Light.
"You lied to me," said Light.
Near's fingers twitched, reaching for his hair. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly? You told me you had no cases—"
"That I require your help on, yes. It wasn't a lie."
"It wasn't the truth."
"I share case information with you on a need-to-know basis only. It's a privilege, not a right."
Light raised an eyebrow. "Ryuk just dropped by for a chat. I'd say I need to know."
"I didn't know he would do that."
"And if he hadn't, then what? It took you years to solve my case. How long did you plan to keep putting me off?"
Accusatory as his words were, Light sounded more hurt than angry. Near winced. "That was different."
"For one thing, I wasn't on your case from the beginning. For another, I'm no longer thirteen. I solved C-Kira quickly enough, didn't I?"
"With my advice," said Light. "And given that Ryuk claims C-Kira's notebook is the one he just dropped, I'd say your resolution left something to be desired."
Near's eyes narrowed. "My resolution was the one you advised me on. That's hardly a good argument for being allowed to help on this case."
"I never said I want to help."
You never said you didn't. "It doesn't matter what you want. You're not helping. Not with this."
"Why not? I know more about the Death Note than any of you. I know more about Ryuk than any of you. If you just—"
"Knowledge you gained in the course of a six-year murder spree. Be reasonable, Light. You know exactly why I can't let you on this case."
The prisoner let out a breath, his lip between his teeth. "Because you don't trust me."
Not that far, no. "Would you?"
"No." Deflated, Light sat down wearily. "I'm sorry. Today isn't going according to plan."
Near sat down beside him, masking his concern. He's not angry. He's frightened. "What did Ryuk tell you?"
"He's been watching us since at least the Janus case. Probably longer. He's not the one who dropped a notebook to C-Kira, but he got the notebook from the shinigami who did." Light fidgeted, his eyes never quite meeting Near's. "He picked out New Kira deliberately. Says he reminds him of me."
"He? Ryuk specified male?"
Light nodded. "And a smart guy, he says."
He'd have to be to resemble you. "Did he tell you anything else useful?"
"The only notebooks in human hands right now are mine and New Kira's, which should keep things fairly contained. Ryuk's plan is to follow New Kira around, then pop over to check on what we're up to whenever he pleases. Play both sides."
Thoughtful lines creased Near's face. "Ryuk can't teleport, can he?"
"No. He flies."
"Could he use the shinigami world as a shortcut of some kind?"
"Perhaps, but it doesn't matter. If he's dropped a new notebook, he can't go back there. Not while the first human owner is still around."
"Of course. So to be able to switch back and forth between following New Kira and following you—"
"It limits your search radius. Yes." Light raised an eyebrow. "Assuming you trust me, of course."
Near mulled the information over, quiet. Do I? Though Light had protected Near in London, there had been an element of self-preservation to the act, and for all the cases and games of Go they had shared since, Near was still Light's jailer. If he decided New Kira's methods were preferable to Near's—or worse, saw an opportunity to take New Kira's Death Note for himself—he would betray Near just as easily as he had Near's predecessor. Near had little doubt about that. Not that it matters. So long as Ryuk's involved, I can't stop him from spying, let alone prevent Light and New Kira from communicating. I have no choice but to trust him.
Near changed the subject. "He didn't mention anything about New Kira's objectives, did he?"
"Not a word. Though given your reluctance to tell me anything, I'd wager it's criminals dying this time around."
"He's following your old pattern, yes."
"My successor. How nice." Light looked away, his face unreadable. "It was only a matter of time, I suppose."
Near wet his lip. "It's not your fault."
"I never said I felt guilty. Just concerned."
"Oh." That's not reassuring. "About?"
"In my experience, having a successor doesn't generally end well for the original."
"You shouldn't have any reason to worry. One of the perks of already being dead is that people won't try to kill you anymore."
The prisoner didn't smile. "Tell that to Janus."
"The exception that proves the rule. As you'll recall, she only tried to kill you after she knew you were alive."
"So does he. Ryuk told him." Wearily, Light rubbed his forehead. "He already knows."
Near worried his lip, shaken. "Does he know your name?"
"Not according to Ryuk. But if he's as smart as Ryuk claims, and he gets access to the NPA files—"
"That's a pretty big if. He'd have to be able to both hack and read Japanese. Neither is a very common skill set around here."
"Ryuk handpicked him to be my match. I wouldn't rule it out."
"Even if he does piece it together, he's got no reason to kill you."
"Other than the fact I failed, you mean? Other than working with you? You don't know anything about him yet. For all you know, he's Janus in reverse." Light's voice simmered with bitterness. "Damn that shinigami. Why did he have to do this now?"
I don't know. "Boredom, most likely. It's been five years since he last had any fun."
"Unlikely. He spent five years between L's death and your arrival with nothing much to do and no reason to expect that would change. He made an occasional gripe about it, but he seemed perfectly content to wait things out. He's got no reason to suddenly be impulsive now."
Near shrugged. "You know Ryuk better than anyone."
"I do. That's what scares me." Light studied his hands, his lip between his teeth."If he loses this notebook, God only knows when he'll have a chance to get another. He wouldn't squander his chance this soon without a good reason."
"People are easier to induce to commit crimes in their teens and twenties. Perhaps he wanted to act before his chosen human got too old."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps he wanted to act while you and I are still around to hunt him down."
Pale hairs rose on Near's neck as he weighed the implications, groping about for a counterargument. Even if I'm partly right, it wouldn't explain why Ryuk began looking for a new Kira now. Not unless Light's right, too. Ryuk already knew Near would destroy the Death Note if Light were dead, ruining his chance to haunt Near's investigation as well as New Kira, and if Near died, Light would never be allowed near any investigations again. The best Light would be able to hope for was keeping his anonymity in prison, assuming the government—or Ryuk himself—didn't kill him first.
Suddenly, Light's fear made perfect, horrible sense.
"I doubt it makes much difference," said Near. "New Kira has a Death Note. Technically speaking, we could die at any point."
"Huh. I suppose that's true." Light cracked a rueful grin. "First time I've ever had to worry about that. From a human, anyway."
Near returned the smile. "About time you bowed to tradition, then. You're the only L who hasn't."
"I'm also the only L who wasn't a millionaire. Can I bow to that tradition, too?"
"Once we solve this case, I'll consider it."
Light raised an eyebrow. "We?"
"You. Me. The SPK. We."
"I thought you weren't going to let me help."
"I don't think Ryuk's going to leave me any choice. If he's going to be bringing you messages, I need to know what's in them."
"That sounds enthusiastic."
"Also, I trust you."
A quick, startled expression flitted across the prisoner's face. Then he smiled. "You should have led with that."
"Oh? My apologies." I have no choice. Hesitant, Near put his hand on Light's shoulder. "Nothing's going to happen. We'll figure this out, Light. I promise."
Light's grin faded. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Nate."
"I won't." Near tightened his grip, giving what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. "I should go back and update the others. Figure out what our next move should be."
"Probably wise. I take it you're canceling Go tonight?"
I should. "No. It's your birthday. I'll be here."
"All right." Light's lips twitched as he looked up, a halfhearted attempt at a smile. "See you at eight."
"See you at eight."
Releasing Light's arm, Near got to his feet to leave. The moment the door closed behind him, he buried both hands deep in his hair.
What do I do now?
Chapter 3: Light
Antonio Jorgens. Crime: double homicide. Place of death: United States. Date of death: February 26, 2018. Time of death: between 4:00 and 4:15 p.m.
Eitan Shamir. Crime: home invasion homicide. Place of death: Israel. Date of death: February 23, 2018. Time of death: 10:36 p.m.
Nadezhda Andreyevna. Crime: filicide. Place of death: Mordovia. Date of death: February 18, 2018. Time of death: uncertain...
Light leaned back in his chair with a grimace, his fingers sliding from the keyboard. Though he'd accepted his relegation to data collation duty with good humor—without internet access, there was little else he could do—the endless parade of names and dates had begun to overwhelm him.
Startled, Light glanced up to find Near standing over him. "Yeah. A lot of dead criminals."
"How perceptive. Anything more specific?"
"His focus appears to be on violent crimes—murder, rape, aggravated assaults. He's taken out a few people who had merely been accused, not convicted, but no one who claimed self-defense or hurt someone unintentionally. Likewise, he's killed people who weren't incarcerated, but none who had already completed a sentence."
"Interesting." Near mulled that information over a moment in silence. "So you've been through everything?"
"Of course not. You gave me a stack of records the length of War and Peace, Near. Even I don't work that fast." Light set the laptop aside, scratching his cheek. "I don't type as fast as I used to. And every time I think I'm almost caught up—"
"New Kira puts you behind again. I know." Near sounded vaguely amused. "No need to be defensive, Light. I wasn't accusing you of anything."
Light grinned. "Well, that's a first."
"Ha. Any thoughts on when you'll be done?"
"I'm making a time chart of when and where the known victims died, to see if we can spot any patterns. It should be done by the end of the day, barring the latest victims."
"Good. In the meantime, take a break." Near jerked his thumb toward the monitors. "There's something you should see."
"A recording?" asked Lidner.
Rester nodded. "He emailed it to CNN a few days ago, it seems. The email address seems to be a dead end—one of those Ten Minute Mail temporary addresses—but I have a few friends at the FBI trying to trace the email back to an IP address, and the people at CNN were kind enough to make a transcript of the audio for us as well forward us the recording itself."
"He had to know they'd pass everything on to us," said Gevanni. "If he's as smart as Ryuk thinks, I can't imagine he left much evidence for us to find."
"I suppose we'll find out," said Near.
Light glanced down at the transcript in his hands as Near pulled up the file. L and his team around me, and a message from Kira. This feels familiar. When Misa had done the same, she had intended to help him. With this stranger, he had no such reassurance. He understands Kira better than Misa ever did, that much is clear. For all the criminals he's killed, he hasn't hurt anyone who was merely reckless or acted in partial self-defense. But whether he views me as an ally or an obstacle...that, I just don't know. Light was in uncharted territory now, a Kira hunter in truth as well as name. Last time, he had known all the answers. This time, he knew only enough to be on edge.
This is how Dad must have felt, the six years he was hunting me down.
Light pushed that thought aside, pointing at the screen. "What does that symbol mean?"
"Not much of an astronomist, are you?" asked Lidner.
Light shook his head. "I don't get much opportunity to stargaze."
"It's the symbol for the constellation Libra," said Gevanni. "The scales of justice."
Light's eyebrows rose. "How subtle."
"Says the man who called himself 'Killer,'" said Lidner.
"Other people named me Kira. I didn't choose it for myself."
"I'm sure your taste in aliases is impeccable, Light," Near put in, his voice sour. "Could we focus on the case at hand?"
"I am focused. Look." Light pointed at the screen. "Fuzzy image, white background, black text. Or black symbol, in this case. He's clearly familiar with Misa's videos, but unlike her, he's not claiming to be Kira. Not visually, at least."
"Yes, I noticed that too. Let's see if he explains himself." Near pressed a button on the remote, and a disjointed, mechanically altered voice filled the room.
"Hello. If you have been following the news, I am sure I need no introduction. However, to prove my identity, I have included a list of criminals with this recording, all of whom will die three days after this recording is postmarked. If you are watching this on air, then those men are already dead, and reporters have already confirmed their manner of death matched the details I sent. This is not a trick. I am who I claim to be.
"But who am I, you ask? A good question. Some of you have called me Kira. You are wrong. Though our methods and goals may be the same, I am not the man you feared five years ago, and I do not want his name for myself. Make no mistake: whatever our similarities, I am not Kira. Kira was a fool—an earnest fool, but still a fool—and it crushed him. He failed you. Abandoned you. I won't. Unlike him, I know what I am doing, and who I am up against. I am no fly-by-night god, no moonlight dreamer. Give me your support and loyalty, and I will finish what he could not."
From the corner of his eye, Light saw Near and Rester turn to look at him, but he pretended he hadn't seen. Red-faced, he glanced down at his transcript, rereading the damning words as the voice droned on.
"In Roman times, Justice was viewed as a god. Now, we have reduced her to a mere idea. Have you never wondered why the statues of Justice in our courthouses always cover her eyes, though the Romans never did? Because justice should be blind and treat everyone equally, some of you may say, but that's a lie. If that were true, she would be shown with no pupils—blind, not blindfolded. The Romans saw blindness as a sign of wisdom, but covered eyes means something else. You've heard the expressions. 'Pull the wool over her eyes.' 'She's been hoodwinked.' A blindfold means deception, being tricked. Every courthouse statue accidentally reveals the truth: our lawmakers have cheated and misled Justice, and they have cheated and misled you, too. No more.
"To my fellow law-abiding citizens in whatever country you call home: do not be afraid. I am here to help you, not hurt you. Ordinary, decent people have nothing to fear from me. Only the guilty, those selfish few who make life hell for others, should be afraid. If you know of any such people, point them out and I will deal with them. If not, all I want is for you to carry on your lives in peace.
"To the police forces and law enforcement agencies of the world: I have no desire to harm you." A sudden, garbled noise interrupted the broadcast. "...you aren't going against my instructions, there is no need for us to be enemies. Come with me. Work with me. Together, we can create a better future.
"To the criminals, terrorists, and tyrants: this is your last warning. Petty criminals who have paid their debts to society and gotten their lives back on track will not be targeted, but recidivism and violent felonies will not be tolerated. Your actions are your own failings, not society's, and good people shouldn't have to pay the price for your behavior. Reform yourselves or face the consequences. If you would rather act like wild dogs than human beings, I will treat you accordingly. The choice is up to you."
The robotic voice fell silent, and the image cut abruptly to black. Without a word, Near turned off the screen, setting the remote control aside. "Initial thoughts?"
"He likes to hear himself talk," said Lidner.
"I think we all reached that conclusion, yes. I was hoping for something slightly more substantial."
She rolled her eyes. "The speech pattern was odd. Does that count?"
"More than odd," said Rester. "There was no sentence flow at all. It sounded as if he said all the words out of order and reassembled them."
"Would a voice changing program do that?" Near asked.
"Unlikely," said Rester. "Speaking of which, his voice changer sounded pretty rudimentary to me. If I had to guess, he just copied the voice track twice in his recording program and altered the pitch of each track. No actual voice changer required."
Near tapped the table with his fingers. "I see. Can it be reversed?"
"I doubt it would tell us much," said Rester. "If he's making so little effort to mask the voice, it probably isn't his."
"That may be. But if we can find out whose voice it is, that may lead us in the right direction anyway."
"I can give it a go," said Gevanni. "It would take some educated guesswork and some time to sit and tinker, but it shouldn't be impossible."
"I'd appreciate that." Near glanced at Light. "You're being awfully quiet."
Light shrugged. "I don't have much to add."
"Give me something."
He looked down at the transcript in his lap, his finger tracing the page. Give me your support and loyalty, and I will finish what he could not. A bold claim, and a troubling one. Light had convinced himself once that he was the only one capable of being Kira, but five years of failure had taught him more humility. I always said what mattered was Kira's ideals, not Kira's identity. Whatever Near thinks, my pride was never the point. Much as the new Kira seemed to enjoy mocking the old, he was still following Light's ideals to the letter.
It should have thrilled him.
You aren't going against my instructions, there is no need for us to be enemies...
Light looked up sharply. "This message was meant for me."
"Explain," said Near.
"As Rester pointed out, he seems to have edited this audio pretty heavily. So why is there a blip during his message to the police? If he's half as meticulous as we're assuming, he must have listened to the finished product before sending it out, and there's no mistaking that something weird happened there. If a word got omitted by accident, wouldn't he have gone back to correct it?"
"Perhaps it wasn't worth the time," said Lidner. "The missing word has to be 'if.' The meaning was still clear."
"You assume the meaning is clear. But what if he put the blip there deliberately? What if there never was a word there at all?"
Near frowned. "I don't see the point."
"'You aren't going against my instructions' isn't a continuation of the police message. It's the start of a new paragraph. You Aren't Going Against My Instructions: Y-A-G-A-M-I."
A stunned silence followed Light's words, but he didn't dare look up. Nauseated, he traced the fatal words with his thumb, waiting for someone else to speak up first.
"Jesus," said Lidner quietly. "He figured it out."
"It could be a fluke," said Gevanni.
"Unlikely. Look at the words he used to insist he wasn't me: 'I am no fly-by-night god, no moonlight dreamer.' Night and god are translations of the kanji for Yagami, while moon is—"
"The kanji for your name. Moon Light." Near's face was grave. "One or the other could be a coincidence, but not both. He knows."
Light set the transcript aside with shaking hands, keeping his face a composed blank. "You have to take me off the case."
"Nothing's changed, Light," said Rester. "We expected him to reach out to you."
"Through Ryuk. Not by name." Light rose from his seat, his good hand clenching. "I want to go back to my room."
"Light—" began Lidner, but Near cut her off, standing.
"It's all right. Gevanni, see what you can do with that audio. You two, look over the transcript again. If he wants Light to get in contact, he may have left him some clue as to who he is."
Rester nodded. "We'll look into it."
"Good." Near looked over to Light, concerned. "Let's walk."
You don't have to ask me twice. Nodding once, Light turned and walked toward his room without waiting for Near to follow. A moment later, Near was beside him, puffing indignantly. "You didn't have to run," said Light.
"You didn't have to walk so fast."
"I don't want company."
"I'm aware of that." Near didn't budge. "You're overreacting."
"I'm playing it safe. If he has my name, he can make me spy for him, or else sabotage the investigation. Safer for everyone if I stay out of the way."
"He'd have to kill you within 23 days, and forfeit Ryuk's ability to spy on me as well. He wants you for an ally, Light. He has no reason to kill you now."
Not unless I give him a reason. Light was a pawn, an asset, his knowledge valuable to both sides. New Kira's message was an invitation, but beneath it was a threat: Choose wisely. I can kill you if I want. However much New Kira wanted Light's knowledge, he'd want that knowledge out of Near's hands just as much. If Light sided with Near, New Kira would kill him. Light had no doubts about that.
Because I'd do the same.
Light wet his lip. "Put bugs in my room, alongside the cameras. You'll still be able to hear what Ryuk says for yourself."
"I intend to. You're changing the subject." Near stepped in front of him, his expression concerned. "You're not telling me something, Light. I need to know what it is."
"I'm not hiding anything, damn it. I just want to be left alone."
"I can't do that."
With a pah of disgust, Light pushed past him, heading toward his room again. Only when he reached the door did he remember it was locked. Goddamn it. Turning back, he saw that Near hadn't moved. "Can you let me in?"
"Not until we talk. Nothing has changed, Light."
"A Death Note user has my name."
"So? Ryuk's had your name for over a decade."
"That's not the same!"
"Isn't it? Think, Light. Neither of them would gain anything from killing you now." Near took a step forward. "If he merely wanted to ask you to join him, he could have done so through Ryuk, privately. Instead, he made a broadcast. Why?"
Why indeed. It was a valid question, once Light stopped to think about it, and he realized he already knew the answer. "The message was meant for both of us. He wants you to know the offer was made."
Near nodded. "If he wanted to manipulate you against us with the Death Note, he wouldn't have revealed to me that he knows your name. That's not his goal. If he can make me distrust you, he can both deprive me of an ally and divert some of my attention from him to you—and if he can scare you into refusing to assist me, it would look as though my distrust were justified. He wants to make us panic, Light. Stop panicking and think."
Light chewed his lip, working over the implications in silence. Much as it pained him to admit, Ryuk knew his fears and weaknesses as well as anyone, and the shinigami wouldn't scruple to tell New Kira what he knew. Not if he felt it would make things more interesting. I let him play me once, and now he's trying it again. I need to focus. I need to breathe.
"You're not a coward, Light," Near said at last. "I know that. You came with me to face Janus. I won't leave you alone to face this."
"I never thought you would. But Janus was different, Near."
"She killed innocents. A child, even."
"And New Kira kills criminals. That doesn't make him any less a murderer."
"Maybe not. But risking my life to protect children is one thing. Asking me to risk my life to protect a bunch of scumbag murderers and rapists..." Light shook his head. "You can't honestly tell me you don't see a difference."
There was a pause. "You're a murderer too, Light."
"You don't seem to be. By your own logic, if New Kira killed you, it wouldn't be a crime worth investigating."
"I never said what he's doing isn't a crime."
"You never said it is."
Light flinched, raising his eyes to meet Near's. Moments before, the detective had been sympathetic. Now, Near seemed to have retreated into himself, his voice distant and cold. I said too much. Nervous, Light drew a steadying breath and tried to undo the damage.
"Murder is always a crime," he said shakily. "I know that."
"Just not always a serious one. Is that it?"
Careful. "I'm not on his side, and I'm certainly not saying he's right to kill anyone. He's not. I'm just saying I can't bring myself to feel upset that they're dead. Not upset enough to let him kill me, too. I know what you think this message means, and I hope—I really hope you're right. But I can't do this. I don't—I can't." Unthinking, Light scratched the scar on his cheek. "I'm sorry."
"I understand." Near studied him gravely, his expression unreadable. "May I make a suggestion?"
"Work from your room for a few days, if it makes you feel better. We have the transcript already, and I can burn you a copy of the recording easily enough. You're likely to spot things the rest of us can't, and with any luck, Ryuk may stop by to talk to you, too. So long as you appear to be alone, you might be able to pry something useful out of him."
"And if I can't?"
Near reached for his hair, his expression unchanged. "That would be unfortunate."
What does he mean by that? Unnerved, Light watched as Near began to unlock his door. "If I wanted to help New Kira, I wouldn't have told you about Ryuk in the first place. You know that."
"I know." Near held the door open. "I'll have Gevanni bring over the transcript and the paper records you were looking at. What you do with them is up to you."
Light forced a weak smile and walked through the doorway, tensing as the door locked behind him. With a sigh, he walked into his living room, stopping cold at the sight of Ryuk stretched out on his couch.
"Hyuk. Hello again."
Of course. Light arched an eyebrow at his shinigami, unsmiling. "You turned up fast."
"Wouldn't miss it. You got the message?"
"I watched the video, yes."
Ryuk's grin widened. "And?"
"I'm thinking about it."
"That's it." Light jerked his thumb toward the door. "Now get out."
"You could be more polite, heh. No need to—"
Ryuk blinked at him, then shrugged. "If you insist."
I do. Light watched the shinigami leave in silence, his good hand clenched at his side. When he was at last truly alone, he rubbed his face wearily and sat, tucking his legs up on the couch beside him like a child.
There is no need for us to be enemies.
Chapter 4: Near
"Couldn't calm him down?" asked Lidner.
Near shook his head, sliding back into his chair. "He's going to work from his room for a few days. I told him we'd make sure he has what he needs."
"Is that really wise?" asked Rester. "Letting him work unsupervised?"
"Better that than him not working at all. He's got a right to be frightened, Rester. Give him time."
"If Libra's really threatening him, we don't have time to wait for him to pull himself together enough to help."
"Assuming he even wants to help," said Gevanni.
Near looked up sharply. "Don't play into his hands, now. Libra wouldn't have made that message public unless he wants us to distrust Light."
"I know. That doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong." Gevanni's eyes were grim. "Can we trust him?"
I don't know. "We can trust him. We just can't rely on him. There's a difference."
"Not enough of one," said Rester. "If we can't use him, we can't use him. Either way, the outcome's the same."
Near's fingers drummed his leg. "Libra mentioned a list of names. Do we have a copy, by any chance?"
Rester nodded. "We do."
"Good. Find out where they're being held. If he's telling the truth, they should die within the next twenty-four hours."
"Shouldn't we warn them?" asked Gevanni.
"No point," said Lidner. "Even if we could find Libra by tomorrow, it wouldn't matter. He wouldn't promise a date of death if he hadn't already written it down."
"So we're just going to sit back and do nothing?"
Near didn't answer, fidgeting with the hem of his sleeve. I had a similar argument with Light once, the day before Noah Roberts died. He would have worked through the night if I'd let him. But Libra wasn't Janus, and his criminal victims weren't five-year-old boys. Near might not see much moral difference, but Light had made it clear he did. He doesn't want to stop Libra. Not really. He just doesn't want to die.
"We're not doing nothing," he said at last. "We're doing what we can. Focus on the video for now. If those criminals are still alive at the end of tomorrow, we'll disregard the video and go back to our original lines of inquiry."
"And if they aren't?" said Lidner.
Near looked at Rester. "Then we call in help."
"So this is where you've been working from," said Mogi.
Near nodded. "Since the Kira case, yes."
"It's nice," said Matsuda, looking around in touristic wonder. "Smaller than I expected, but—"
"Yes, well. After the Kira's Kingdom mob stormed our skyscraper, I began to see the virtue of a lower profile."
"Probably wise." Like Matsuda, Aizawa explored the layout with his eyes, but his expression was more appraising than awed. "The old L's base in Tokyo always struck me as a bit much, anyway."
I wouldn't know. "I had this building designed to accommodate my team, but they prefer to have apartments of their own. There's plenty of room for you to stay here."
"You sure you want to do that?" asked Ide.
"Yes. I'm 95% certain Libra has access to NPA records, so he likely knows you were involved in the Kira case. I've taken precautions, of course—your NPA records list you all as currently assigned to a mundane murder case in Tokyo, and there should be no documentation of your flight overseas—but I'd rather be safe than sorry."
Matsuda's head whipped around. "He knows our names?"
"Doesn't matter. If he doesn't know we're hunting him, he's got no reason to bother with us." Ide glanced at Near, his lips a thin, flat line. "I take it you have a lead, then?"
"The beginnings of one. You saw the broadcast?"
Aizawa nodded. "We watched it."
"Good. One less thing to debrief you on." Near looked over at Rester, uncertain. I said I was going to tell them myself, but perhaps... "Your rooms are on the second floor, but there are only three suites. One of you will have to share."
"I can sleep on a couch," offered Matsuda. "I don't mind."
"There's a rollaway bed you can use," said Rester. "Near, perhaps it's time to debrief?"
Near's hand crept toward his hair. "It can wait until they're done moving in."
Matsuda's eyes lit up. "You can give us a tour!"
"For God's sake, Matsuda," said Ide. "This is a murder investigation, not a sleepover."
"He has a point, though." Rester gave Near a pointed look. "If you're not going to debrief them, perhaps a full tour?"
"Of course," said Near. "Come along. I'll show you the kitchen."
"That's not what I meant."
Yes, I got the hint. Irritated, Near looked away. "Later."
"Is something wrong?" asked Aizawa.
"Hey, what's that?"
Near turned. To his chagrin, Matsuda's finger pointed directly at the keypad beside Light's door.
"That's classified," Near said.
Ide raised an eyebrow. "You brought us all the way here, but you won't trust us?"
"He trusts you," said Rester. "Tell them what it is, Near. Or I will."
"No need. I'll show you." Grudgingly, Near walked over and pressed his fingers to the scanner, then bent to let it scan his eye. Straightening, he stared at the door, trying to ignore the Task Force's eyes on him. "I don't—just try not to overreact."
"Overreact to what?"
Near knocked twice on the door. "Are you awake?"
"Yeah, I'm up," came the muffled reply, and Near heard Matsuda gasp. "Just give me a second."
The detective didn't. Wordless, Near pushed the door open just as Light emerged into the entryway. Eyes wide, the prisoner froze, staring at his ex-teammates in startled horror.
For a split second, no one moved.
Then Aizawa lunged.
Matsuda's yelp of warning died away as Aizawa slammed Light back against the wall. Grunting, Light flung up his hands to shield himself, but Aizawa ignored the motion. Seizing Light by the neck, the snarling agent slammed the prisoner's head against the wall again and began to squeeze his throat.
Well, this was a mistake.
"Release him," Near snapped, his fingers rising to his hair.
Aizawa didn't turn around. "You said he was dead!"
"He tried to kill us!"
"I'm aware. Take your hands off."
Reluctantly, Aizawa let go, his face a mask of disgust. Light slid down the wall, gasping, but the agent ignored him. "Explain."
"I don't see what there is to explain," said Near, sullen. "I said at the warehouse I intended to leave him alive. Nobody protested."
"And keep him somewhere no one would ever find him," said Ide.
"You were unaware of his existence until I opened the door. I'd say I kept my word."
"You have a strange definition of truthfulness," said Aizawa. "And prison, for that matter. He's Kira, for God's sake! A locked door? What kind of half-baked security is this?"
"There are more security measures in these rooms than meet the eye. Besides, he's been in my custody five years without causing trouble. He's earned a few minor privileges."
Ide's eyebrows rose. "Minor privileges? He earned an execution, Near. You know that."
Near stiffened. "Odd. That sounds like something Kira would say."
"All the more reason he deserves it. If that's his idea of justice for murder, he can't complain when he gets the same sentence."
"I'm right here, goddamn it." Light rubbed his throat, his face dark with humiliation. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here."
"You shouldn't be here," retorted Aizawa. "If Matsuda had better aim—"
"Enough." Rester's voice cut through the conversation, commanding and sharp. "Mr. Aizawa, Mr. Ide, we can discuss this elsewhere. Calmly."
Relieved, Near watched Aizawa stiffen, then turn on his heel and walk out. Soon, only Matsuda remained, staring at Light as if he hadn't noticed how deliberately the prisoner was looking anywhere but at him.
Light's voice was arctic, and Matsuda winced. Wetting his lip, Near motioned toward the door. "Mr. Matsuda, if you wouldn't mind."
Disappointment etched in his features, Matsuda beat a reluctant retreat. Near followed without a word, all too conscious of Kira's eyes on his back.
"Why the hell didn't you tell us sooner?" snapped Aizawa.
So much for calm discussion. "It was more convenient not to."
"Don't be flippant," said Ide. "You've got some nerve lying to our faces and then asking for our help."
"Does it matter? If I didn't need your help, you would never have known the difference."
"If a man screws around and his wife doesn't know, is it still cheating?"
Near clenched his jaw. "I wouldn't know."
"You gave us a body," said Mogi. "Fake remains. That's taking it a little far, don't you think?"
"They weren't fake. They were Teru Mikami's."
Aizawa's eyebrows rose. "You let us bury a Kira next to the Chief?"
Oh, please. "You already thought you were burying a Kira. I don't see why you'd be outraged now."
"Because you lied to us, for a start," Aizawa said. "For heaven's sake, you couldn't have told us this before we got here?"
"Would you have still come?"
"Then what was my incentive to tell you?"
"Honesty, I would hope. Basic respect." Ide's eyes flashed, his anger plain. "You didn't want our input before. Why the hell should we help you now?"
"Because somebody has to stop Libra," Matsuda said quietly.
Aizawa rounded on him. "Why? So Near can give him a cushy room and keep him as a pet?"
Near yanked his hair hard enough to hurt. "That's not what happened."
"It sure looks like it," said Ide. "He should be dead or in prison, Near. Not living in a luxury suite."
"He's my prisoner, not yours. The only one who decides where he should be is me."
Ide's frown deepened. "The Task Force was hunting Kira well before you. We've got a right—"
"You hunted Kira. I caught him. Every one of you would be dead without me."
"And you'd be dead without Matsuda," Ide shot back. "Seems like it goes both ways."
Matsuda stared at the floor, mumbling something inaudible. Near gave his hair another vicious jerk.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I promised I would lock him up where no one would ever find him, and I have. I didn't lie about that."
"Not about that." Aizawa's face was stony. "Just about everything else."
Guilt pricked Near's insides, but he tried not to let it show. "I admit I may not have been—entirely fair to you," he said, reluctant, "and I do understand your concerns. But I promise you, Light Yagami is not the man he was five years ago. I wouldn't have allowed him this much leniency if he were."
"And you're sure of that, are you?"
"London," said Matsuda quietly.
"What?" asked Ide.
"L's case in London, where he used my name. That was Light. He helped on a case."
Near nodded. "Yes."
Stunned, Aizawa looked from Near to Matsuda. "You knew about this?"
"I didn't know, I just...guessed. But when I asked Near, he said—he said I was wrong." Matsuda looked shaken. "I wasn't wrong."
Mogi looked incredulous. "You took Kira out in public?"
"With substantial precautions, yes. The killer was out to discredit me, using the original L's time on the Kira case as a basis. I needed someone who knew the Kira case, someone who could think like a Wammy's alumnus would. It was a calculated risk."
"A crazy risk," said Aizawa.
"It was. But not because of him." Near twirled a lock of hair around his fingers, looking at the wall over Matsuda's head. "I kept him in a cell, at first. Down in the basement. Constant monitoring, security bars, every security measure I could buy. I even had sensors installed, to gas him if he reached outside the bars. I never visited, just looked at the monitors from time to time. When I went to ask for his help, it was the first time he'd left his cell in almost two years."
"How big of a cell?" asked Matsuda in hushed tones.
"Two and a half meters by three."
Ide whistled softly. "Well, that explains why he agreed to help."
"Indeed." That and Roger. "To make a long story short, we solved the case, but the culprit found us first. She killed Roger—my Watari—to isolate us, then managed to entrap us both. I don't know everything she did to Light while I was unconscious, but he tried to protect me, and it cost him. It cost him dearly."
We could play a game.
Near yanked his hair, shutting out the memory. "She was going to kill me, but he got loose. She nearly succeeded. He could have killed me right there, or simply let her finish me off and fled on his own. But he didn't. Strange as it sounds—he saved my life."
Aizawa arched a dubious eyebrow. "Intentionally?"
"He cut me free from a chair rather than cut my throat. I have to assume he knew the difference. In either case, I refitted Roger's rooms to contain him, and he's been assisting me on occasional cases ever since. I've never had any reason to doubt his loyalty, and I don't doubt it now."
"Other than his being Kira," said Aizawa. "I'm not working with him again, Near. Not a chance."
Ide nodded. "Agreed."
Near wet his lip. "I understand your concerns, but think about this practically. Light knows more about the Death Note than any of us, and if anyone can predict Ryuk's thinking, it's him. He doesn't have to be trustworthy to be an asset."
"The first L thought so, too," Mogi said quietly. "I'm with the others. Either he stays on the case, or we do. Not both."
As I expected. Conscience-pricked, Near reached into his pocket for his cat's cradle loop, closing his hand around it for reassurance. He wanted off the case, anyway. He'll understand. "Fair enough. He'll be confined to his room until the case is over. You have my word."
"That's not good enough," said Aizawa. "You can't tell me that room's secure enough to hold him. Not with a new Kira on the loose."
Rester's eyes narrowed. "He's never tried to run before."
"Doesn't matter. He had nowhere to run to. Now he does."
"If he tries it, he'll lead us straight to Libra," said Near. "He doesn't know it, but I had him microchipped. We can track his location wherever he goes."
Mogi shook his head. "He knows all our names, Near. You, your team, us. All our faces. If he makes it to Libra, he could kill us all long before we reached him."
"He wouldn't do that."
"Are you sure?"
Near rubbed the string in his pocket between his fingers, letting his silence speak for him. Ide sighed. "You said there's a cell downstairs?"
"He's done nothing wrong."
"He murdered thousands of people," said Aizawa.
Near shot him a withering look. "He's done nothing wrong recently. His rooms are adequately secure. That's the end of it."
"When he helped you," said Matsuda, "when he went to London, what did you do? I mean, you said you took precautions..."
A sour taste flooded Near's mouth. "No."
"No, you didn't?"
"She turned it against him. I can't do that to him again."
"Can't," echoed Ide, "or won't?"
"Then that leaves the basement," said Aizawa. "That, or the Japanese government suing you for custody."
Near looked up sharply. "You have no right—"
"He's a Japanese national, arrested in Japan by Japanese agents. We have every right."
"I arrested him."
"Not legally. American agents have no jurisdiction in Japan."
"The U.S. had caved to Kira," said Rester. "We weren't American agents."
"Then you had no jurisdiction anywhere." Aizawa met Rester's eyes without flinching, immovable. "Even if the U.S. refuses to extradite him, they won't leave him in your custody once they know. He'll wind up in a proper prison either way."
"He'll wind up dead either way," said Near. "I won't allow it."
"Then work with me, damn it. The real L thought he could use Light without trusting him, too, and it nearly cost us all our lives. I've got a responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen again."
I'm not him. "This is a distraction."
"It sure is," said Ide. "Aizawa's right. We'll never get anything done if we have to worry about two Kiras."
"You don't." Near's nails dug into his palm, and he fought down the urge to tug his hair. "I understand why you're emotional, but Light isn't the enemy. Not this time."
It was Mogi's voice that answered, soft but firm. "Can you promise us that?"
Near looked from agent to agent, but their faces were stone. Only Matsuda appeared conflicted, his weight shifting from leg to leg. I have no choice. Rolling his string loop between his fingers, Near turned to Rester. "Take him downstairs."
"Are you sure?"
Near nodded. "Impress on him that it's not a punishment. He's done nothing wrong. Tell him that."
Rester looked at him gravely. "Do you think it'll make any difference?"
No. "It might."
"All right. I'll tell him."
"Thank you, Rester."
No one spoke as Rester left. Once the sound of Rester's footsteps died away, Near turned to Aizawa with a scowl. "Happy now?"
Aizawa nodded. "I'll stay, if that's what you mean."
"And the rest of you?"
Ide glanced at Mogi, who shrugged. "We're staying."
"Good. While we're on the subject, I have a few conditions of my own." Flat-voiced, Near forced himself to look Aizawa in the eye. "Condition one. I brought you here because I could use the help, but you work under me, not above me. Like me or hate me, I am still L. If you can't follow my orders, leave now."
"We know that, L," said Aizawa. "Your investigation, your rules. We were only—"
"Condition two. You wanted responsibility for Light. You've got it. You've all made it clear you don't feel safe unless he's caged, and I'll accommodate. But putting him down there and forgetting about him for however long it takes to catch Libra is not an option."
"So, what then?" asked Ide. "You want us to babysit him?"
"Babysit him. Talk to him. Bring him meals. He could stand to see a few new faces, even if they're less than friendly. Besides, you have a right to an explanation. It won't hurt for you to have a chance to hear him out."
"I'm not interested in hearing any justifications from the man who tried to kill us," said Ide.
"Be that as it may. You came here to be part of my team, and this is part of their job. Now it's yours." Near raised an eyebrow. "My investigation, my rules."
Matsuda wet his lip. "I can do it. I'm less useful to the investigation than they are, anyway. I don't mind."
Is that guilt I hear? "I appreciate that, but my rule applies to all of you. Do what you like once you're down there—forgive him, scream at him, it makes no difference—but you will go down and see him at least once, or Rester will book your ticket home. We're investigating a notebook case. I won't have any cowards on my team."
Ide and Aizawa exchanged a glance, but Mogi nodded. "That's a reasonable request."
"A few minutes ago, he was insisting Light was his prisoner and none of our concern," said Ide. "I don't see why—"
"And then we made him our concern. Least we can do is own up to it." Mogi's voice was firm. "What else?"
Near let out a breath. "Condition three. Whether you leave or stay, if any of you so much as think of telling anyone Light's alive, I'll see to it you never work again. Not as an investigator, not as a busboy, nothing. Is that clear?"
Aizawa let out a breath. "I made that threat so you would listen, Near. I won't expose him unless I have to."
"You won't expose him, period. I owe him my life. Threaten to destroy his again, and I'll destroy yours." Near's voice snapped like a whip, harsh and angry. "Is that clear?"
Slowly, reluctantly, Aizawa nodded. "Perfectly."
"Fine. Go out and fetch your baggage, and I'll have Gevanni show you to your rooms. I'll debrief you in an hour."
One by one, the agents filed out, Matsuda nearly jogging in his anxiousness to be gone. At last, only Aizawa lagged behind, his shoulders hunched and defensive as he walked away.
"Mr. Aizawa, one more thing."
The agent paused in the doorway, turning back reluctantly. "Yes, Near?"
"Don't ever lay a hand on him again."
To Near's surprise, Aizawa looked ashamed. "I don't intend to. Seeing him again like that, I just—I don't know what I was thinking."
You weren't. "I can understand that. I'm sure it was quite a shock."
"That's one way to put it. Doesn't mean it was professional of me, though." Aizawa ran a hand through his hair, sighing. "You could have warned us, you know. Once we got here."
Near shifted his weight, uncomfortable. "I suppose."
"You suppose. Huh. Sometimes you sound just like L." The agent chewed his lip, looking past Near at the wall. "I'll take first shift after the briefing, I guess. Might as well get it over with."
"Don't mention it. Anything else you need from me?"
"Not at the moment."
"Then I'll see you at the briefing."
This time, Near didn't watch Aizawa leave. Sinking heavily into a chair, he hugged his knee to his chest.
This can't end well.
Chapter 5: Light
I almost forgot how much I hate this place.
A short stack of books lay on the nightstand beside Light's bunk, but Light couldn't bring himself to touch them. Instead, he lay on his bunk, prodding the fresh ring of bruises around his throat and hoping he merely looked calm. I'm not calm. Though Rester had done his best to reassure him that his stay was temporary, that it wasn't a punishment, Light didn't buy it for a moment. "We took out the sensors on the bars," Rester had said, as if that were enough to make a difference. "He wants to make this easier on you. Please don't make it hard." He'd said nothing about the sensors under the tiles, of course, and Light hadn't bothered to ask. However much Rester might talk about trust, Near had never trusted Light that much.
And now, he doesn't trust me at all.
The outer door clanged, and Light's hand clenched on his blanket. Moments later, the interior door swung open.
"Are you awake?"
Rester. Light relaxed slightly, still facing the wall. "Yeah."
"Near's still briefing the Task Force, so he's sending me on a run for takeout. I figured you'd want something, too."
A takeout menu slid through the meal slot, and Light turned over to see what it was. Japanese. Of course. Have to make Near's guests feel at home. Nauseated, he shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
"You will be in an hour."
"Please don't do this."
"I'm not doing anything. I haven't done anything." Light's voice rose, bitter and angry. "Just leave me the hell alone."
"No. I'm trying to make things easier for you, Light. Don't make it harder."
"I didn't ask for your help."
"You didn't ask for Roger's either. Doesn't mean you didn't need it."
You're not Roger. Reluctantly, Light sat up. "I want to talk to Near."
"You will. He's just a little busy at the moment."
"So was I, until he kicked me off the case. Did he say how long I have to stay here?"
"Until the Task Force agrees you aren't a threat, or until the case is over. Whichever comes first."
Light shook his head, a chill settling into his stomach. "I didn't do anything."
"I know. This isn't a punishment, Light. Not beyond the usual, at least."
"Easy for you to say. Your side of the bars has an exit." He spit the words like venom, his knuckles paling at his sides. "I'm already a prisoner, goddamn it. I was already locked in. The only way I could possibly cause trouble for Near is through Ryuk, and he can get in here just as easily as upstairs. I'm the one being threatened by a killer, Rester. How the hell am I a threat?"
Rester sighed. "I don't know. But I'm not the one you need to convince."
"You're the only one I can convince. Near's not here, everyone else is upstairs—"
"They'll come down. Near's orders. He's adding them to the biometrics as we speak."
No. Light paled. "I don't want them here."
"They're not going to hurt you. They just want to talk."
"I don't care."
"Then you're being a fool. If you don't want to be stuck here until the end of the case, persuading them you're trustworthy is the only chance you've got."
Light gritted his teeth. "And how do you expect me to do that, huh? Beg for sympathy? List off all the reasons Near owes me?"
"You could start by apologizing."
"For what? Lying to them? Not letting them execute me? They were trying to kill me. What the hell did they expect me to do, accept it?" Frustrated, he scratched the back of his damaged hand. "If I wanted them dead for the hell of it, I had six years of opportunity. Near forced my hand. I did what I had to do."
Rester's eyebrow rose. "Is that so?"
"Yes. I'm not Janus, damn it. I only killed when it was necessary."
"A hundred thousand necessary deaths? I can't imagine why they think you're a threat."
Light flinched back as if Rester had struck him. "Misa and Mikami—"
"Were acting on your orders, which makes you equally culpable. You were a cop once, Light. You know full well that's not how it works."
"I know how it works. I don't have a Death Note, I don't have any allies, and I don't trust Libra worth a damn. I'm not a threat. Near knows that."
"Prove it, then. Take responsibility. Stop making excuses. Show some remorse." The agent's eyes were sympathetic, but his voice was firm. "Apologize."
I can't. Light picked at his injured hand, his face burning. The prospect of years in a cell, without even the comfort of Roger's visits, was bad enough. Grovelling before the very men who put him there would be far worse. They don't want to hear me apologize, they want to see me beg. I won't do that. I can't.
"What's the point?" he said at last, his voice hollow. "They're not going to listen to me."
"Matsuda will. The others might. They aren't idiots, you know. If you give them a reason to listen, they'll hear you out."
"Or they'll just assume I'm lying. I've been yelled at enough today, Rester. Last thing I want to do is listen to another rant about how I deserve to die." Bitter, he slid off the bunk to pick up the fallen menu. "Why is he doing this to me?"
"He's trying to help."
"Letting people gawk at me like a fucking zoo animal isn't help. He didn't even warn me they were coming, he should have—"
"I know, and I'm sorry. I thought he had. Otherwise, I'd have made a point to warn you myself." Rester sighed. "He doesn't process his own emotions well, let alone understand other people's. He's got a lot of gifts, but that's not one. In his mind, everyone working together is the rational option. I don't think he had any idea you and they wouldn't see it the same way."
"Maybe. Or maybe he's just a coward and hoped they would yell at me, not him."
Rester's expression didn't change. "That's also possible."
"I'd call it probable."
"Call it whatever you like. But I was there, Light. He fought hard for you. We both did. He only agreed to this when it was clear the alternatives were worse."
Light snorted derision. "Worse for Near, you mean."
"No. Worse for you. As you said, you're being threatened by a killer. The sooner we end that threat, the better. We can't do that without help."
"I was helping!"
"For a few days. Then you stopped. You didn't leave him much of a choice."
"So it's my fault for being a coward, is that it?"
Rester sighed. "I didn't say that."
"You implied it."
"No. Even if you hadn't walked off, Near felt—and I agree—that in light of Libra's message, it would be a bad idea to allow you back on the case."
Of course. "Because I'm untrustworthy."
"Because Ryuk is. Put your anger aside for a minute and think this through. Libra's not only threatening you, he's spying on you as well. If he gets word from Ryuk that you're helping us, what happens then?"
"The same thing that's going to happen to me anyway when he realizes I'm no use to him." Light crushed the menu in his hand, spitting his words past the hard lump in his throat. "I don't want to die down here, Rester. Not here. I—please don't make me."
For a moment, the agent was silent. Then Light heard his footsteps approach the bars. "You're not going to die here, Light."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. Look at me."
Light raised his eyes, sucking in his breath at the sight of Rester leaning on the bars. "You—"
"I know you're scared, and you've got reason to be. I also know we haven't always given you much reason to trust us. But this isn't like last time. Near's not punishing you. He's trying to save your life."
That's not what it feels like. "I know."
"Then help us out. Talk to the Task Force. That's all we're asking."
"I told you, there's no point. You saw how they reacted. If Near can't convince them to trust me, they sure as hell won't listen to me."
"I also saw how they reacted once they'd had time to absorb the shock. They're not unreasonable, Light, and Near has faith in you. He wouldn't send them down here if he didn't think you had a chance."
"Faith in me, huh? He has a strange way of showing it." Light shook his head, reassured despite his words. "I'll try to talk sense into them, I guess. But if anyone grabs me again, I'm done. Fair?"
"Fair. What do you want for dinner?"
"I don't care. Whatever you got for my birthday is fine." He held out the crumpled menu. "And tell Near I want to talk to him. Soon."
The agent nodded, reaching through the bars to take the menu from Light's hand. "I will."
Rester smiled and walked away, the metal door slamming shut behind him. Alone, Light ran a hand through his hair and flopped down on the bunk to wait.
I wish he would say something.
Light stood with his hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. Across the bars, Aizawa watched him like a predator, his face furrowed in disdain.
"So this is where you live now," he ventured at last.
Light nodded. "Apparently."
"Huh. And I thought your old apartment was small."
Was that a joke or an insult? Even after studying Aizawa's face, Light still wasn't sure. "I manage."
"I can see that." The agent scratched his neck, his discomfort plain. "I'm sorry. For earlier. It was...unprofessional of me."
"It happens." Unprofessional, he says. Not unjustified. "I've survived worse."
They lapsed back into silence, at a loss once more. Light looked down at the floor tiles, fighting back the urge to run. Stop staring at me, damn it. Just curse me out and get it over with. Uneasy, he reached up to scratch his scarred cheek.
"Did you get that in London?"
Light's head snapped up. "How the hell do you—?"
"Near told us you saved him from a serial killer, that's all. I was just asking."
Just asking. "Yeah, I did," Light said coldly, his hands shaking. "For all the good it's done me."
"Seems like you were doing pretty well when we arrived."
"I've spent the last five years in prison, and everyone I care about thinks I'm dead. I wouldn't call that doing well."
"I spent the last five years thinking you were dead, then found you living it up in your own private apartment. Given the alternatives, I'd say you're doing well." Aizawa studied him a moment, clearly unsatisfied with what he saw. "Why did you do it?"
"What, save Near? I didn't th—"
Careful. "An opportunity to do some good fell into my lap. I was seventeen. I did the best I could with it."
"By killing people?"
"Killing criminals. I already told you—"
"But they weren't all criminals, were they? Some of them were cops. Or L. Or us."
Light wet his lips, wary. "I didn't kill you."
"Not for lack of trying."
"I tried to kill you once. You tried to kill me once. I'd say that makes us even."
"The hell it does. Matsuda would have drilled you between the eyes if we'd let him. We didn't. We stopped him. I don't remember you showing similar restraint." Aizawa shook his head. "I can understand the criminals. I mean, I can't justify it, but I can see how someone would. But us, Light? The FBI agents? Your father? How the hell do you sleep at night?"
"Badly," Light admitted. "Ask Near, if you don't believe me. He'll show you the tapes."
"No need. The question was rhetorical."
This isn't working. Humiliated, Light looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry."
"For what? You just claimed we were even. You can't justify yourself and ask for forgiveness, Light. That's not how this works."
"I'm not trying to justify myself. You asked me to explain. I'm explaining."
"I don't want an explanation. I want you to own up to what you did."
"I know what I did. I don't—"
"I don't care if you know. I care if you understand. I worked with you nearly every day for six years. Even when I suspected you, I did everything you asked of me. You had dinners at my house. You met my wife. You met my daughters. And you still ordered a goddamn murderer to kill me while you watched, then showed up for work as if nothing had changed." The agent's voice rose in anger. "We weren't strangers to you, damn it, and we sure as hell weren't criminals. You didn't try to orphan my daughters for the greater good, Light. You did it because you were a fucking coward."
Light drew a shaky breath. "I understand your feelings," he said quietly. "You love your daughters. Anyone would."
"Of course I—"
"Would you die for them?"
Aizawa's eyes narrowed. "If I had to."
"Even if it meant them growing up without a father?"
"Better to grow up without a father than not grow up at all."
"Exactly. When I became Kira, I knew what would happen to me if I were caught. What would happen to my family. But I also knew I couldn't trust anyone else with that power. It had to be me, or it would be no one. If there was a chance I could make the world safer for them, for Mom and Sayu, then the risk would be worth it. And I succeeded, Aizawa. Crime rates plummeted; wars ended. My risk paid off."
"Until the warehouse."
"Yes. If I'd wanted you dead, I could have done it at any point after getting rid of L. I didn't. But when Near came along, I knew that getting rid of my pursuit was the only way to keep the changes I made alive. To keep good people like your family and mine safe. I did it to protect myself, yes, but it was for the greater good, too. It wasn't personal. I did what I—what I thought was the right thing to do."
For a long moment, Aizawa said nothing. When he spoke again, his voice was preternaturally calm.
"So what you're saying, then," he said slowly, "is that it would be better for my daughters to be fatherless than live in a world where you had to pay for your crimes. Is that it?"
Light shook his head, his lip between his teeth. "No. That's not what I—"
"Not what you said? Not what you think?"
"Not what I meant. I may have phrased it badly, but—"
"You phrased it fine. You're not wrong, Light: I would gladly give my life if I could give my daughters a safer world. Which is exactly why I risked it hunting you."
"I know that. I understand that. I only—"
Aizawa's hand slammed against the bars, and Light flinched back instinctively, his eyes rising to the vents. The agent's lips curved up in grim satisfaction. "Well, look at that. Now you're listening."
Light swallowed, the scar on his cheek burning. "Please don't do that."
"Then shut your goddamn mouth, Light, before I come in there and choke you again."
I'm already listening, damn it. Silently, without breaking eye contact, Light sat on the edge of his bunk.
"I talked to the Chief about you once, a few years after L died. I asked him why he'd been so damn certain you were innocent, why he'd been willing to lock himself up and risk his life in that car to prove it. He told me he'd struggled with himself about it, but you'd made him a promise that if anything happened to him on the case, you'd track down Kira yourself. That you'd make sure Kira died. 'Every boy keeps secrets from his father,' he said, 'but when Light makes a promise, he keeps it.' He believed that promise, Light, right until he died on your watch. Yet here you are. Alive."
"I meant that promise, Aizawa. I never meant for him to die. I swear."
"What did you mean to happen, then? If he'd done what you wanted and killed Mello, what then? That phony thirteen day rule was the only thing standing between you and suspicion, and you knew it. I'm no genius, but I'm not stupid. I know what you planned to do."
"No." Horrified, Light stood up, his voice imploring. "I didn't—I thought if he killed Mello, he'd stop feeling helpless. That I'd be able to convince him to use it again, for legal executions, to stay alive for Mom and Sayu. If I'd known...I would never have hurt him, Aizawa. You have to believe that."
"The hell I do. You expect me to believe you were thinking of my daughters? You used your own father, you used us, and all you want to do now is justify it. I don't believe you, Light. I'm just sorry I ever did."
So much for Near's faith in me. "Aizawa, I—"
"Enough. I tried to keep an open mind, Light. I told myself, well, Near caught him. Near's been watching him for five years now; he knows Light's thinking better than I do. But he's wrong. You're not sorry. Just sorry you were caught." Aizawa's eyes were hard as iron, and his voice dripped contempt. "Near likes you because you're smart, that much is clear, but I care more about whether you have a soul. You don't. I'm starting to wonder if you ever did."
"You wanted to know what I was thinking. I told you. That doesn't mean I still—"
"I wanted to know if there was any part of you left that was still Chief Yagami's son. Looks like you told me that, too."
Light's hands gripped the hem of his shirt. "I'm his son. I've always been his son."
"Then keep your promise."
Aizawa didn't. Stiff-gaited and silent, he swept from the room without a backward glance.
"Light, are you awake?"
Curled up in his bunk, Light didn't answer, hoping the man would simply leave. Unfortunately, Matsuda had no such tact.
"Hey, wake up," he said, coming closer. "I brought you dinner. It's pretty good, I tried some upstairs. It's on a tray, though, so I'm not sure where it goes..."
Sighing inwardly, Light sat up. "There's a slot in the door."
"Oh, down here?"
"Yes." The tray scraped against the tiles as Matsuda shoved it in. Light winced. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Wow, this really is small, isn't it? Near wasn't kidding."
For fuck's sake. "Is that all Rester sent you for?"
"No. I mean, yes, but..." Matsuda fidgeted. "I heard Aizawa talking. He seemed...pretty angry."
No shit. "And you thought you'd come yell at me, too, huh?"
"No. I only—I wanted to see if you were all right."
For a moment, all Light could do was stare at him. "I'm in prison, Matsuda. I'm trapped in a cage talking to the man who fucking shot me. Why the hell would I be all right?"
"Oh." Matsuda's expression crumbled. "I didn't mean it like that. I thought—"
"I don't care what you thought. Get the hell out and leave me alone."
"But Near told me I could talk to you."
"Near lied. He's good at that." Frustrated, Light turned away. "I've got nothing to say to you."
"Well, I've got something to say to you. So just listen, okay?" Without waiting for a reply, Matsuda continued, the words gushing out of him like a rapids. "I didn't hate you, Light. Not when I shot you, not really. I was scared, I was angry, but when they pulled me off you—I was glad. I was grateful. Whatever you'd done, I didn't want you dead. Not when I really thought about it. I just—I just didn't think."
You don't say. Light stared at the wall in pointed silence, his back to the agent. It was a pointless gesture, he knew—and a childish one to boot—but it was the closest thing to an exit he had. He shot me. Now I'm here. I don't give a damn what he felt.
"We waited for you, you know, at the hospital. Even Ide. They told us you were in surgery, that it didn't look good. We waited for hours. Mogi was talking to me, trying to tell me it wasn't my fault, that you forced my hand, and Aizawa and Ide—Ide said I shouldn't feel guilty, you got what you deserved. And I guess, in a way, they were right, but I did feel guilty. I did. I had to shoot you to save Near. I don't regret that. But I didn't have to shoot you so much, Light. I was...I didn't have to shoot you that much."
No, you didn't. Stone-faced, Light picked at the scar on his hand, trying his best to tune Matsuda out. Aizawa's anger had stung him, but he'd expected it. Somehow, Matsuda's rambling confession disquieted him far worse.
"I couldn't stop thinking about that, you know. All those shots. I kept wondering, maybe, maybe if I hadn't kept firing, it would still have stopped you. Maybe you could have survived that. Maybe I wouldn't question myself so much if you hadn't. And that, those few days after...that's when I started to hate you, Light. I felt like shit, and it was because you died, so I told myself I had nothing to feel guilty for. You weren't human, you were a murderer, you deserved it, you deserved worse...I told myself I hated you, and I believed it. Because feeling guilty was worse. And then one day, I thought maybe—maybe Light did this too. At the start. And I felt like I finally understood."
Matsuda paused for a response, but Light didn't give him one. He sat like a statue, grim and silent, his eyes fixed on the wall of his cell.
"I asked Ryuzaki once, if Kira's first kill was that hostage-taker, why he waited two days before killing anyone else. He blew me off, you know, as always. Said the first kill was a test, and Kira probably wanted to lay plans before making his next move. But that wasn't right, was it? You felt guilty. You were afraid. You convinced yourself it was righteous because accepting the guilt was worse. But if you couldn't live with one death, how could you live with two? Or ten? Or thousands? You could have killed all of us once L was dead and gotten away with it. As far as you knew, there would have been no one left to chase you, and if you made us all disappear like that FBI agent's wife, all you'd have to do is go into hiding and you'd be presumed dead, too. The perfect alibi, forever. You're smarter than me, Light, a lot smarter. If I thought of it, I'm sure it must have occurred to you. But you didn't do it. I don't know if it's because you'd have to kill your father, or if you didn't want any of us dead if you had a choice, but it doesn't matter. Aizawa says you don't have a conscience, but he's wrong. You do. And that's why you can't admit that you're sorry. But you are, Light. I know you are. I know it probably doesn't make a difference, but I know. And I guess—I guess I forgive you."
"No." The word was out before Light could stifle it, and he reddened. Gritting his teeth, he turned to face the bars. "I'd like to eat dinner now."
"Oh. Okay. I can come back after—"
"After I eat, I'm going to bed. It's been a long day, Matsuda. I just want some fucking peace."
"Oh. Gotcha. I'll just...come back tomorrow, then." Deflated, the agent walked away, pausing in the doorway to look back. "Light?"
"I'm glad you're alive."
Light closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Matsuda was gone.
Wearily, the prisoner prodded his neck and glanced down at his tray of food. After a moment's hesitation, he left it where it was, curling up beneath the covers to stare at the wall once more.
Chapter 6: Near
"We found a lead," Gevanni said.
Near blinked, raising his eyes from the card castle taking shape beneath his hands. "The voice on the tape?"
"It's a woman," said Lidner. "Rester was right. The reason Libra did such a sloppy job of masking his voice was because the voice on the tape wasn't his."
"She could be an accomplice," said Mogi. "Misa Amane—"
Gevanni shook his head. "It's not an accomplice."
"How can you be sure?" asked Rester.
"Because she's dead," Lidner cut in. "Does the name Elle Saunders ring any bells?"
Ide and Matsuda stared blankly at her. Aizawa shook his head. "Should it?"
"Probably not to you," said Gevanni. "Elle Saunders was a congresswoman from Ohio who had announced a run for U.S. Senate this year. She died about a week before the Libra killings began...of a previously undiagnosed heart condition."
Near tapped a card against the table, his mind racing. "Are you certain the voice is hers?"
"Beyond a doubt. She had a very distinctive voice." Lidner's face was calm, but her voice radiated satisfaction. "Remember how we all agreed the audio sounded disjointed? It's because he cut and pasted the individual words from her old campaign speeches on YouTube. Like clipping letters from old newspapers to make a written message untraceable, except with audio rather than print."
"And not untraceable," said Ide.
Lidner nodded. "Yes. I managed to pinpoint which speeches some of the rarer words came from and compare them to Libra's audio directly. There's no doubt about it. It's her."
A grim hush followed her announcement, and several eyes flicked to Near. "What does it mean?" asked Matsuda.
"Either Libra wants us to believe he murdered Saunders, or he doesn't mind us believing it. Whether it's actually the truth is another matter." Elle's voice. L's voice. A deliberate pun? Or am I overthinking this? Cautiously, Near added the card in his hand to the tower, trying to ignore the attention on him. "In either case, it's a lead."
"You said Saunders was running for office," said Aizawa. "Who was her opponent?"
"The incumbent, Dr. Mark Wolff," said Gevanni. "I glanced over his biography, but nothing in depth yet."
"Senator Wolff," Rester mused. "Didn't he oppose President Sairas's decision to formally support Kira?"
"On American sovereignty grounds, yes. His primary argument was that Kira had the right idea, but the solution was to speed and expand the use of executions in America, not to relinquish control of the American justice system to a foreign agent."
"How very principled of him." Near's voice dripped disdain. "Does he have any children?"
Gevanni nodded. "Two. A daughter in high school, and a son at Hayes College."
Near's eyebrows rose. "Hayes College. That's only an hour from here, isn't it?"
"Ninety minutes, I'd say. With traffic."
"No traffic if you have wings," said Ide. "How far is Ohio?"
"For Ryuk? Too far," said Lidner. "At least five hours to the nearest part of the border. To anywhere well-populated, further than that."
All eyes flicked to Near. "What do you think?" Matsuda asked.
It fits. Near studied his card tower a moment, his lips pressed into a pensive line. Anyone inside Ohio was too remote for Ryuk to plausibly commute to, and except for politicians, few people outside Ohio were likely to pay close attention to a senatorial race in another state. Not close enough attention to commit murder over, at least. Besides, if Light can be trusted, Ryuk chose Libra for his resemblance to Light. A politician wouldn't have much obvious commonality for Ryuk to spot, but a bright young college student with a well-placed, law-and-order father...
"It's a solid lead," he said. "Lidner, look into Ms. Saunders. I want a timeline of what happened before she died and the names of anyone else with reason to want her dead. Rester, look into Senator Wolff. I want to see every statement he's ever made concerning Kira. Aizawa, Ide, get me the names and backgrounds of every staffer on his campaign under the age of 30. Gevanni, look into Senator Wolff's son. I want GPA, extracurriculars, public statements, anything you can find."
Gevanni nodded. "I will."
"What about me?" asked Matsuda eagerly.
Near looked up. "You and Mogi keep charting the victims. If there are any patterns—time, location, anything—I want to know about them. As for me, I'll see if I can find any other suspicious deaths between Saunders and the first known Kira victim. Kira didn't wait a week between his first kill and his second. I doubt Libra did either."
"Near." Lidner's expression was concerned. "If we're right about this lead...if Libra's connected to a sitting senator—"
"It complicates matters. Yes, I know."
"It's more than a complication," said Gevanni. "The ICPO won't let us keep Kira's identity hush this time. If we drop a bombshell like that into a re-election campaign, we're looking at lawsuits, publicity, investigations—"
"I said I know," said Near. "Just focus on the lead for now. If we find actionable evidence against a suspect, we can decide how to handle it then. Any other questions?"
The assembled agents looked at each other, shaking their heads. "I think we've got it, Near," said Ide.
"Good. I'd like a word with Rester in private. Everyone else, you have your assignments."
They left the room in ones and twos, orderly and quiet. Soon enough, only Rester remained. "You wanted to see me?"
Near nodded, adding a pair of cards to his castle. "I'd like an update on Light Yagami."
"He's been quiet. Reading, mostly. The Task Force have been taking turns bringing his meals."
"All of them?"
"They've all been down at least once. Not happily, but they've gone."
That's a start. "And?"
"He won't talk to them."
Near looked up sharply. "Light won't?"
"He and Aizawa had a fight of some kind, and Light's refused to even talk to anyone since. Matsuda's been down there every day trying to coax a response out of him, with no luck. Says Light just turns his back on him every time."
Oh, for fuck's sake. "Does he talk to you, at least?"
Rester nods. "He wants to talk to you."
"Tell him I said to act his age. I'm doing the best I can, and he's not helping matters."
"Tell him yourself."
"If I had time, I would. I don't."
"You have time right now. It's been six days, Near. You can't put this off forever."
Near squirmed, reaching for his hair. "I'm not putting anything off. I'm busy. Besides, the last thing I need right now is to be yelled at."
"Funny. Light said almost the same thing." Rester's tone was mild, but his eyes were stern. "Don't expect me to tell him to stop hiding from responsibility when you're doing the same thing. I can't force you to talk to him, but I won't keep covering for you, either. That's not fair to me. Or to him."
"You sound like Roger," Near grumbled.
Rester shrugged. "Somebody has to."
"I suppose." Near looked over his unfinished card tower, then got reluctantly to his feet. "See what you can find regarding Senator Wolff. I'll talk sense into Light."
"I will. Thank you."
Don't thank me yet. Hair between his fingers, Near slunk away, leaving the cards untouched behind him.
He found Light reading on his bunk, a shrunken splash of color in the cold, gray cell. The prisoner's eyes narrowed at Near's approach, but he said nothing, his lips a thin, tight line.
He looks terrible.
Near cracked a hesitant smile, holding out the Go board. "I heard you might appreciate some company."
I probably deserve that. "It's not the first time I've been late for a Go game," Near said, trying to make a joke of it. "You can be black, if that helps."
"All right. Then I'll be black."
"I don't give a shit about Go, Near. Where the hell have you been? It's been a week."
"Six days, actually..." Guilt-pricked, Near trailed off under Light's glare, setting the game down on the floor. "I've been busy."
"Yeah. So Rester keeps telling me."
"It's the truth."
"I never said it wasn't." Stiffly, Light marked his page and set the book aside. "Any progress?"
Near nodded. "We have a lead."
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Oh, come on."
"I can't talk to you about case details, Light. I gave my word."
"You gave me your word I wouldn't have to live down here unless I misbehaved." The prisoner spread his arms. "And here I am."
Here you are. "I didn't have a choice."
"I didn't have a better choice. This isn't a punishment. It's protective custody."
"Protective for who?"
"How? These bars aren't going to stop a Death Note, Near."
"No, but they may stop Libra from using one. If you refuse to cooperate with Ryuk while you're upstairs, he knows you've taken my side. If you refuse to cooperate with Ryuk while you're down here, he'll see it as a choice made under duress. As long as he thinks you're no use to me, but might help him given the chance, he'd be a fool not to keep you alive." Taking a step closer, Near put a hand on the bars. "Libra has us on the defensive, Light. I'm doing the best I can."
"The hell you are."
Near sucked in a breath. "You don't have the fondest memories of this cell. I understand that. But—"
"Do you?" Light's voice was hard. "I spent two years in here wondering if you'd change your mind. Wondering if you'd kill me. I tried to think up all the ways you could torment me, if you wanted. Setting off the sensors while I slept, if you were merciful. Coming down in person to toy with me. Cutting off the water. Sealing the vents. Filling in the stairwell and leaving me to starve. That's what I did with my time, Near, when I wasn't reading. When Roger wasn't here. I thought up every eventuality I could imagine, just so if it happened, maybe I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe I'd be able to keep my dignity. This time, at least."
Fine, white hairs rose on Near's neck. "I told you I'd keep you alive."
"You did. Then you tortured me. It was a little hard to trust you after that."
Oh. Near stared at the bars, chagrined. Solitary confinement was a torture all its own—he'd known that—but the idea Light might have still feared for his life had never occurred to him. I tortured him, avoided him for two years, then threatened to gas him and seal away his body in my first visit. No wonder he almost lost control.
"You wasted your time," he said quietly. "If I'd wanted you dead, I wouldn't have spent that much effort on saving you. I'm utilitarian, not a sadist."
"I know you aren't. But is Libra?"
Near reached for his hair. "I don't know."
"Neither do I. If he really is like me, he'll gloat, but he won't torture people for the hell of it. Not unless he wants to send you a message, which he might. And if he does—there aren't many limits with a Death Note, Near. I know that better than anyone."
"You also know being upstairs wouldn't protect you. If anything, you're safer down here."
"Not by much."
"I disagree. I'm sorry you've been inconvenienced, but your rooms are a privilege. They are not a right."
"I'm not trying to be difficult, damn it. I just don't want to die in a cell. Is that so damn much to ask?"
"For a mass-murderer? Yes. Yes, it is." Why can't you understand this? "You tried to murder everyone else in this building, and now you're upset that they won't trust you. You're not the victim here, Light. They were. Get that through your head."
Light's eyes narrowed, his posture stiff as a day-old corpse. "So that's all I am to you, is it? A mass-murderer?"
"Of course not. But it's part of who you are, for certain. Cooperating with me after you were caught doesn't just make your crimes go away. You of all people should know it doesn't work like that." Near curled his hair around his fingers, uncomfortable. "You can come upstairs to shower twice a week, and I'm trying to negotiate for more. It would be a lot less difficult if you weren't doing your best to live down to their expectations."
"It would be a lot less difficult if you stopped negotiating and started giving orders. You're L. Act like it."
"I am. Our predecessor gave up his own anonymity and put himself at risk to convince the Task Force to accept his leadership. If you think he wouldn't have locked you up to appease them, you're wrong."
"That's not what I meant. You don't need the Task Force."
"I need someone."
"You had me."
"Did I? I tried bringing you in on this case, Light. You walked away."
"Long enough. You're not the only murderer out there worried about Libra. I refuse to throw their lives away waiting for you to regrow a spine."
Light drew a deep breath. "Can you blame me?"
"No. But I can't rely on you, either. That's the problem." Near forced himself to meet Light's eyes, trying to sound apologetic. "I didn't bring them here to make your life miserable. I did it to protect you. There are plenty of competent agents out there, but very few I can trust not to reveal I've been harboring Kira. Whatever the Task Force thinks of you, they care about your family too much to expose you. Other agents don't. Better for you to be here for a little while than on death row for the rest of your life."
"I suppose." Morose, Light rubbed his neck. "So what are the conditions?"
"For the showers. They want me supervised, I assume."
Near nodded. "And you'll have to be handcuffed at all times while out of your cell. Ide wanted shackles, but Matsuda talked him down."
"At all times? Unless they expect me to shower in my shirt, I don't see how..." Light trailed off, stormclouds gathering in his eyes. "No."
"No. I'm not letting them frogmarch me naked through headquarters just to take a goddamn shower. Screw that."
"You won't be naked. You'll have a towel." Kira shot him a blistering look, and Near fidgeted. "It's a start. If you show them you can follow orders—"
"They won't care. It's not worth it, Near. I can wash myself down here."
"Which will do precisely nothing to stop them from seeing you naked. They've been watching the cameras, Light. It's nothing they haven't already seen."
Light's face darkened. "You're going to make me do this, aren't you?"
"Yes. You didn't complain about showering with handcuffs on in London. There's no reason to be irrational about it now."
"So anything I agreed to in London is fair game now, is that it?"
Shit. "That's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean, Nate?"
"What you agreed to in London was a compromise. I needed to convince my team it was safe to trust you, while still giving you a chance to earn their trust for real. You understood that, and you accepted it. Whatever complaints you had about the rules—valid complaints, in retrospect—you exceeded my expectations at every turn." Near pressed a hand against the bars, his voice gentle but firm. "This is no different. The Task Force has no reason to trust you, Light, so I've given you the best chance I can to persuade them otherwise. Only this time, you've thrown every chance I give you back in my face. Why?"
Light said nothing, his expression hard.
Near's fingers twitched. "During the C-Kira case, I asked you what you would do if a case like this ever arose. You dodged the question. Remember that?"
"I didn't dodge. I asked if you'd trust me."
"Which isn't an answer."
Light shrugged and studied his hands. "Answer enough."
"I didn't push you on it. Maybe I should have, but I didn't see the point. Not when it was a purely hypothetical situation. But now? I need an answer, Light. I can't let you dodge anymore."
"I'm not dodging. I'm neutral. That should be good enough."
"No. When the two options are 'mass-murder' and 'saving thousands of lives,' being neutral isn't good enough."
"Then what the hell do you want from me? Even if I offered to help you, Aizawa wouldn't allow it."
Well, you're not wrong. "So talk to him. Convince him otherwise."
"I tried. It wasn't what I'd call a productive conversation."
"And whose fault was that?"
"Not mine. He told me to kill myself and stormed out." Light scratched the back of his injured hand, his expression hollow. "Not much I could really say to that."
Damn it, Aizawa. Chastened, Near plucked guiltily at the hem of his shirt. "Rester didn't tell me that."
"Does it matter? You saw what happened when he got here, and you sent him down anyway. What did you think was going to happen?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. Exactly. At least in London you had a goddamn plan, Near. Now you're just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks."
Near tensed. "That's not true."
"Isn't it? You lied to me to keep me off the case until you decided you needed my help, then you kicked me out again. And now you're blaming me for not being helpful?" Light shook his head. "Make up your goddamn mind."
"I didn't kick you out. You walked out."
"Because a serial killer threatened me! Why is that so goddamn hard to understand?"
"'There's no need for us to be enemies,' he said. That sounds more like an invitation than a threat to me."
"He used my name."
"More than a week ago, and you're still here. If it were my name he'd found, or even Matsuda's, we'd have been dead within a day." Frustrated, Near tugged at his sleeve. "You are not the only person in this building whose life is in danger, Light. Has it ever occurred to you that if Libra managed to find your name, he almost certainly found those of the Task Force as well?"
Light blinked. "He hasn't killed them."
"Because he doesn't know they're here. Do you think they're any less afraid than you are? One careless word from Ryuk, and Libra will mow them down like grass. They know that. And every one of them agreed to help anyway."
"They could have stayed in Japan. That's their choice."
"And becoming Kira was yours. Stop wallowing in self-pity and look around you, Light. The world is full of murderers in cells, and they've been living in fear of the Death Note for a lot longer than you. If you can't stand six days of it, imagine what you put them through for six years."
"And there's no difference between me and them, is that it?" Light's voice rose, incredulous. "I've helped you on dozens of cases, I saved your life—"
"One life against thousands. You can't claim you deserve a second chance despite your murders and deny that chance to people who did far less. You're smart, Kira, not superior. The only difference between you and them is that they didn't help create Libra in the first place."
For a moment, Light looked as if Near had slapped him, a flicker of pain in his eyes. Then his face darkened, his good hand clenching at his side. "Get out."
"It's the truth."
"I don't care. Get out."
Near jumped at the sound of Light's hand striking the wall, his hands rising involuntarily toward his ears. For a moment, the two men stared at each other. Then Light pulled his hand back and turned away.
I went too far.
Near lowered his arms, staring at Light's back in dismay. "I'll—I'll keep you updated. On the case."
The prisoner didn't move, his silence heavy as lead. Reluctantly, Near turned toward the door, his twitching fingers rising to his hair. Only once he reached the base of the staircase did he realize he had left the Go board behind. Roger would know how to handle this. Roger would know...
Stone-faced and stimming, he began to climb.
Chapter 7: Light
As always, morning came far too soon.
"It's me, Light," Matsuda said softly. "I've got your breakfast."
Light didn't answer. Wrapped tightly in his blankets, he did his best to feign sleep.
"I know you're awake, Light. I saw you move."
"I can't. Will you please just sit up?"
Reluctantly, Light complied. "What's in the bag?"
"Clothes, I think. And sheets. You know, clean ones." Matsuda cracked a nervous smile. "Laundry day, right?"
Oh. Light glanced over at the pile of dirty clothes beside the nightstand, wetting his lip. "I didn't think Near would send you for that."
"Well, to be honest, he didn't. Gevanni's doing that. I'm just taking you up to shower while he does. That'll be nice, won't it? Going upstairs?"
"No." Light scratched his cheek, his voice hardening. "I don't need a shower. I've been keeping myself clean just fine."
Matsuda's face fell. "I know that, but Near said—I don't think it's supposed to be optional, Light. I'm sorry."
Of course. Resigned, Light stooped to collect his breakfast, struggling as usual to grip the tray with his right hand. Matsuda's eyes followed him, soft and pitying, and the prisoner's jaw clenched. Raising his head, Light stared pointedly back, holding his gaze until Matsuda reddened and looked away. Don't look at me like that. Not here.
"It's good food today," Matsuda said at last. "Oatmeal and muffins. I think Rester said they were pumpkin. The muffins, I mean. Not the oatmeal. Pumpkin oatmeal would be weird. Or would it? You probably know more about American food than I do, you've lived here for five years..."
Light sat on his bunk, resisting the urge to sigh. Though a loud, bitter part of him longed to throw Matsuda's overtures back in his face, his more rational, practical side held him back. I need to talk with someone, damn it, and he's the only volunteer. For all Near's assurances, Light had no confidence his stay in a cell would end anytime soon. The more he insisted on solitude in the meantime, the more his mind would slip—a fact Matsuda seemed to recognize as well.
He doesn't know it, but he's trying to be Roger. Is that why I resent him so much?
"I never really had American-style breakfasts before. Except in L.A., that one time, and I didn't really eat much besides eggs. But this-this is nice. Like a dessert. Maybe it gets old if you eat it too much, I guess, but I like it. I thought about making some monjayaki somehow, let you have a taste of home for once, but you know me. I'm not really a good cook..."
"It's fine," Light said, dipping his spoon into his oatmeal. "Near thinks tamago gohan is a health risk, but I get natto and miso soup on my birthday. It's not quite the way Mom would make it, but—"
"But it's something."
Matsuda smiled, inching closer to the bars. "Your birthday wasn't that long ago, was it?"
"End of February. I'm twenty-nine now." Light forced a smile in return. "I'm getting old."
"Seems pretty young to me. Still in your twenties."
"Not for long."
"Almost a year."
"As I said."
"A year is long."
Light shook his head. "I'm here for the rest of my life, assuming Libra doesn't kill us all first. Compared to that, a year is nothing."
An awkward silence prevailed. Before his imprisonment, Light had prided himself on his conversational skills. Now, after years of near-solitude, even thinking up safe topics was a challenge. Most of our past interactions were lies, and I haven't done anything in prison he'd be interested in. Nothing I want to talk about, anyway. Embarassed, Light looked down at his food, shoveling oatmeal into his mouth as he tried to think up something to say.
"How are things at the NPA?" he said at last.
"Different. Really different. The Task Force disbanded after you died, obviously. L's called us together a few times since then, and we still talk, but for the most part—" Matsuda shrugged. "I don't know. I worked on regular cases before yours, and that's what I do now, too. What we all do. But after six years with L, and then you—it's normal now, but it doesn't feel right. Like an old pair of boxers. I got stretched out too much, and now I can't snap back to a normal size. Does that make any sense?"
Shockingly, yes. "I know the feeling."
"Yeah. Yeah, I figured you might." Another pause. "There's a guy on the force now, started a few months after the warehouse. Nice guy. I tried to mentor him a bit, show him the ropes, have somebody look up to me for once...anyway. He says he knows you."
"What's his name?"
"Yamamoto?" Light looked up, legitimately surprised. "He's a cop?"
"Yeah. A pretty good one, too. He's worked with L and us a few times, you know, since you and the Chief were—"
"Unavailable," Light finished for him, his voice flat.
Well, how about that. "Does he know?"
"About you? No. As far as he knows, you died protecting us from Kira. We never told him the truth. The first case we worked on together, when he found out I'd been on your task force, he took me out drinking to swap stories. Raise a glass in your honor. He had no idea that you...that I'd...I told him a few stories about the good times. How you and L used to fight, how you saved me from the Yotsuba Kira, that sort of thing. Funny stories. He talked more than I did. I guess he had more good memories to tell."
"That must have been an interesting conversation."
Matsuda nodded glumly. "He admired you a lot. Says you're part of the reason he joined the force."
"Ironic. You're the reason I left it." The agent looked at him blankly, and Light sighed. "It's a joke. I'm glad he's doing well."
"It must be hard working with him. If you're still keeping him in the dark, I mean."
"No harder than working with anyone else. It was hard to lie to people at first, but now? It's a habit. I don't even have to think about it anymore. Listening to Yamamoto praise you, though, that first time—that was hard. I just kept thinking, I bet this is what Light felt like at L's funeral, listening to us."
I wish he'd stop making those comparisons. "I didn't mean that. I meant it must be hard to get anything done if he doesn't know what's going on."
"We've told him the important things. He knows about notebooks and shinigami, he just doesn't know about you. As far as he knows, Mikami and Misa were the Kiras." Matsuda hesitated. "You...heard about Misa, right?"
"It was awful. She'd been coming up to us after the warehouse, crying, wanting to know how you died. Mogi got the worst of it. We asked Near to do something, but he just cut her loose. He said in his mind, burning the notebooks was the end of it, and we could deal with her as we saw fit." He shrugged, looking ashamed. "We were going to arrest her, but she didn't remember anything, and when we went to look at the physical evidence L collected from those videos she sent...well..."
"It was gone. I know."
"You destroyed it, didn't you?"
Light shook his head. "I hid it."
"Does it matter? She's dead. I'm here." He scratched the back of his hand, careful not to let go of his spoon. "Case closed."
"I guess so. Still, the way it happened...it doesn't seem right."
No, it doesn't. He hadn't asked for Misa's devotion, but he had made use of it, persuading her to give up years of her life for his sake. Suicide or not, her death was as much his fault as Mikami's had been—and Takada's was worse. They thought I was a savior, and it killed them. I killed them. I'm the only one left.
Matsuda's eyes were on him. "Can I ask you a question?"
You just did. "Depends on the question."
"Did you hate us?"
"Before or after you shot me?"
Light hesitated, then shook his head. "No."
"You were useful to me. Then you weren't. There wasn't any more feeling to it than that." Just like Takada. Just like Mikami. Just like Misa. "After L died, I thought if I just drew the investigation out long enough, the world would unite behind Kira enough that the Task Force would have to disband. That even if you didn't change your opinions, you'd accept the inevitable. Then Near turned up, and it all fell apart. I didn't want to kill any of you. I just didn't see much of a choice."
"We were in your way?"
"Oh." Matsuda wet his lips, looking unsatisfied. "I guess that hasn't changed much, huh?"
No, it hasn't. "You're not in the way, Matsuda."
"Aren't we? We got you locked up, we got you taken off the case—"
"I'm Kira. Near would have taken me off anyway." He made that clear enough. Light frowned at his food, casting around for a distraction. "Whatever happened to that girl you were dating? I never asked what you've been up to."
"We're still dating. Or still together, I guess I should say. I—she's my wife now."
"You got married?"
Matsuda nodded, beaming. "I proposed a few days after the warehouse. I needed something—I needed something to go right again. To feel right. I don't know what I would have done if she said no, but...well, our son just turned three, and we've got another one on the way. I didn't have to worry, I guess."
Light forced a smile. "Congratulations."
"Yeah. We found out right before I left. I thought she might go through the roof when I told her I had to come here and maybe miss the birth, but she didn't. I mean, she didn't like it, but she understands. A born detective's wife, my brother says. She's a lot like your mother that way."
I hope not. The well-wishes settled like burial ash on Light's tongue, a private funeral for what he had lost. Yamamoto spent years looking up to me, and now he's taken my place. Matsuda, too. The NPA, marriage, kids—that was supposed to be my life. He wanted to resent them for it, but all he felt was numb.
"I should congratulate you, too," Matsuda said hesitantly. "You—you know your sister's expecting, right?"
Light nodded. "Near told me. Mom must be thrilled."
"She is. She's moved in with them now, did you know that? Sayu and her husband." Matsuda wet his lip. "They miss you, Light."
I know. Deeply uncomfortable, the prisoner picked again at his food. "Not much I can do about that."
"I could talk to Near for you. He let you talk to us, I can see if he'd let you—"
"No point. He already offered."
"I don't want to talk to them, Matsuda. Can we talk about something else?"
"You don't miss them at all, do you?"
Light looked up sharply, horrified. "Of course I do."
"It's none of your goddamn business. They've gone through enough without me disrupting their lives again."
"And this is better? They think you're dead."
"Good. I might as well be." Light jabbed his spoon down angrily, sending a lump of oatmeal flying from the bowl. "I can't do anything for them except be a burden, and the Light they wish were alive doesn't exist. I'm gone either way, damn it. Better a dead hero than a living felon."
"You're afraid they'll reject you, aren't you?"
Matsuda's voice was gentle, almost pitying, but Light bristled all the same. Chewing slowly to buy time, he avoided the agent's eyes. "I didn't say that."
"They won't be happy at what you've done. Of course they won't. But they love you, Light. Whatever you've done, they don't want you dead."
My father loved me, too. Light clenched his teeth, setting his half-finished tray aside. "I'm done."
"Are you sure? There's no rush, you can finish—"
"I'm done. Tell me what to do."
The agent's eyes lingered on Light's breakfast, but he didn't push the point. "Just take off your shirt, I guess, and I'll give you the handcuffs. We should be the only ones on the main floor right now, but still...no reason you should have to walk around naked, right?"
"Right." Part of him wondered whether the reprieve had been Matsuda's idea or Near's. The rest of him found it difficult to care. Whoever it was, they got it backwards. My legs aren't the part I'd rather hide. He turned away and wrestled his shirt over his head, bracing himself for Matsuda's reaction to his scars.
It didn't come.
Light turned around. The agent's back was to the bars, both the handcuffs and a towel extended in his hands behind him.
"You don't have to do that," said Light.
"I know. Let me know when you're ready, okay?"
Strangely gratified, Light draped the towel around his shoulders like a shawl, then fastened the handcuffs into place around his wrists. "I'm ready."
"Great." Matsuda opened the door. "Let's go."
Steam coiled upwards in wispy spirals as Light stepped into the tub, finally allowing himself to relax. True to Matsuda's word, there had been no one along their path to gawk at him, and Matsuda himself had insisted on waiting outside the bathroom to allow Light a semblance of privacy. It was meaningless, of course—like the rest of his apartment, his bathroom was monitored—but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Near was right, damn him. If it weren't for the handcuffs, I'd almost feel like a human being again.
Eyes closed, he ducked his head under the spray, letting the warm water cascade down his back.
Startled, Light turned around. Two bulging, yellow eyes leered down at him from the shower wall.
His head hit the wall of the shower as he slipped backwards, and he groped for the bath rail with a curse. Chuckling, Ryuk emerged the rest of the way from the wall, his self-satisfaction obvious.
"Light?" The doorknob clicked as it opened, and Matsuda's voice grew clearer. "Is everything okay?"
"I'm fine." Damn it, Ryuk. Light poked his head out of the shower curtain, praying the shinigami would stay quiet. "I slipped, that's all. No harm done."
"Oh, I hate when that happens. Just be more careful, okay?"
The door swung shut again, and Light rounded on Ryuk like a hissing cat. "What the hell was that for?"
"It was fun."
"Relax. Hyuk. There are cameras in your bathroom, but none over the shower, and the shower curtain should hide us both. And as long as the water is running and we keep our voices down, heh—"
Oh. "Matsuda can't hear us."
"I knew you were smart."
"That's rather clever."
"Knew you were a flatterer, too."
Light rolled his eyes and reached for the soap. "What do you want?"
"Been a while since we talked. Figured I should check in."
"You figured, or Libra sent you?"
"Bit of both, really. He's about to make a move, Light. A big one. Thought you should know."
A big move. Light's breakfast turned queasily in his stomach, but he tried not to show it. "I don't suppose you'll tell me what it is?"
"Wasn't planning to, no."
"So something's happening, but you can't tell me any practical information about it?"
"Hyuk. Never said I can't."
"Won't tell me, then, making the warning completely useless to me. Does that sum it up?"
"You sound like Near."
"He doesn't trust you either, heh? And here I thought you were such good friends."
You and me both. "Don't sound so shocked," he snapped, seething. "You're the one trying to turn him against me."
"Hey now. Libra's the one behind that. I'm just watching the results."
"And if Libra kills me next, will you just watch that too?"
"You already know I would."
Would. Not will. Light wasn't sure how much reassurance to draw from that. "I know. Stupid question."
"I don't mind. Heh. I came all the way out here to visit. Might as well answer a few questions while I'm here."
"Just not the important questions, right?"
Pensive, Light dragged the washcloth over his scars. "Ryuk?"
"If Libra kills me, what happens to my Death Note? Does it go to whoever's holding it, or—?"
"If someone kills a Death Note user with a Death Note, the notebook belongs to them whether they're holding it at the time or not."
"So Libra would take ownership, but the notebook would stay here?"
"Until or unless he came to get it, yes. Those are the rules."
"Does Libra know that?"
"I see." If that's the case, Libra would lose more by killing me than he would gain. Without a Death Note owner here to haunt, Ryuk can't spy on Near. It was a comforting thought, though not entirely a relief. Ryuk wouldn't tell him that rule unless he asked, and he had no reason to ask unless he considered killing me. He's given me a reprieve, not a pardon. "Could he force me to escape and take the notebook with me, or would that be impossible?"
"No idea. You really don't trust this guy, do you?"
"Why should I? You told me he wasn't trustworthy right from the start."
"No. I just said he reminded me of you. Funny how you assumed the worst from that, heh?" Ryuk leaned in closer, leering. "What does that say about you, Light?"
"It doesn't say anything." Seething, Light turned away to reach for the shampoo. "If that's all you came to tell me—"
"I see the old crowd is on the case now. That must have been a fun reunion."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If you're kicking me out, I've got to report back to Libra, now, don't I? If I tell him Near's got your old friends working for him now...might solve your little problem, wouldn't it?"
"It might," Light said, trying to sound indifferent, "but it wouldn't be wise. Matsuda's my only source of case information at the moment, and as for Near—I can't say for sure how Near would react, which worries me. If Libra's about to make a move, he wants Near to be more predictable, not less."
"Don't tell him anything, Ryuk. Not a goddamn word."
"Heh. You sure it's Libra you're worried about?"
Light's good hand clenched. "As far as Near knows, you haven't been back here since the first time you showed up, and Libra has no other way to find out the Task Force is here. If he kills them, Near will know you visited and I didn't tell him. I'm already back in the basement, damn it. I really don't want to know what the next level of Near's distrust looks like."
"You think he'd go that far?"
It wouldn't be the first time. "I don't know."
"Fine, fine. Hyuk. I won't tell Libra anything."
"Anything, huh? That would be a little suspicious, don't you think?"
Ryuk cocked his head. "You've got something you want me to say?"
"Yes. Tell Libra—" Light wet his lip, choosing his words carefully. "Tell him I'm unable to help him in my present circumstances, but I'll be watching what he does in the future. All right? Use those exact words."
"Unable, heh? Not unwilling?"
"Unable to help him, yes. Let him read into that what he will."
"You're planning something, aren't you?"
"Wait and see."
"Hyuk. You know, you're starting to sound like your old self again, Light."
Do I? Light shrugged, his face a careful blank. "You should go."
"Before somebody notices, heh?"
"Something like that. Like I said, I'd rather not get in any more trouble on your account."
Ryuk chuckled. "Don't worry. I won't get caught."
"Good. Though actually, on second thought..."
"Stop by Near on your way out. Don't tell him you talked to me. Just mention that you were scouting the place and noticed a few old friends, but didn't want to interrupt them to say hello."
"That part of your plan?"
"No, but it might net you a few apples. I know him. Given the choice between raiding the fridge and risking their lives, he'll pay up whatever you ask."
Ryuk's grin widened. "You're that worried, heh? No need to bribe me, Light. I already told you I wouldn't."
"I know that. Near doesn't. Let them be the ones to sweat for a change." Light turned his back on the shingami, slicking back his wet hair with both hands. "Besides, you've got a ways to travel. I'd hate for you to start turning handstands halfway home."
"Hyuk. If you're looking for hints about where I travel, you'll have to do better than that."
"I had no such intentions," Light lied. "I'm just looking out for your health."
"Oh? That would be a first."
"I need to shower. Go bother Near."
"I will." Ryuk's voice oozed amusement. "Speaking of Near, you want to know something funny?"
"I have a feeling you'll tell me anyway."
"Aren't you smart. That question you asked me, about who owns the notebook if someone uses a notebook on them? Near asked me that first."
"No. Right after the Task Force left the warehouse."
Light froze. "What are you implying?"
"Hyuk. See you later, Light."
"No. Answer me, damn it." He turned around. "What are you—?"
Ryuk was gone.
Light stared dumbly at the vacancy, blinking shower water from his eyes. It could have been a hypothetical question. L asked a bunch of questions when he first met a shinigami, too. Even as he thought it, though, he knew the comparison was wrong. L's questioning of Rem had been in a moment of calm, and even then the questions had focused on the problems at hand. When Near had questioned Ryuk, one Kira was en route to the hospital, and another was dead on the floor. Curiosity or no, Near wasn't one to waste time in a crisis. If he'd asked, he had a reason. No. Ryuk wants to mess with my head. It doesn't have to mean what I think it does. It doesn't have to mean...
"Light? Are you almost done?" Matsuda's voice called through the door. "I don't want to rush you, but—"
Unnerved, Light shut off the water. "I'm done."
"Oh. Dry off and get your pants on, then. I'll wait out here."
Pulling the towel off the rack, Light dried himself as best he could. Only when he reached for his clothing did he realize his hands were shaking.
It doesn't have to mean Mikami.
Chapter 8: Near
"...so in conclusion," said Lidner, sighing, "Elle Saunders is a dead end. Unless Gevanni's got something, at least."
"Thank you Lidner." Near's voice was monotone. "Gevanni."
"Your findings on Senator Wolff's son."
Near took another matchstick from the box, eyeing the growing tower before him as Gevanni rose to give his report. Clearing his throat nervously, Gevanni flipped through the sheaf of papers in his hand.
"Nick Wolff, age nineteen, 4.0 GPA. This is his second year at Hayes College, but he's listed as a junior due to AP credits. By all accounts, he's extremely bright."
"What's his major?" asked Rester.
"Unsurprising, given his family background." Near added his match to the tower, pensive. A promising college student following in his father's footsteps. Another resemblance to Light. "Any extracurriculars?"
Gevanni nodded. "As far as I could find, he's active in the campus chess club, a representative in student senate, and an Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brother. He doesn't live in the frat house, though. He's got a studio apartment off campus."
"How convenient for him," quipped Ide. "A lot harder to be a mass-murderer with other people right under your nose."
Lidner shot him a look. "Light managed."
Ide's face darkened, but he didn't argue. Mogi cleared his throat. "What does his attendance record look like?"
"Nearly perfect attendance," said Gevanni. "In his college career thus far, he's only missed a single day of class: the day after Elle Saunders died."
Near looked up. "You're certain of that?"
"We confirmed it with his professors. And one other thing..." Gevanni set a printout on the table, sliding it carefully toward Near. "He speaks and reads Japanese. One of the classes he missed that day was Advanced Japanese Composition."
It's him. It has to be him. Near stared at his matchstick tower, weighing his options. I don't have enough to prove it yet, but the longer he's free, the longer Light and the Task Force remain at risk. If I keep playing defense, I'll lose.
"We could put a tail on him," said Rester. "Try to gather more evidence."
"No. If he has the eyes, we'd just be handing him another advantage." Near tapped a match against the tabletop, then looked up. "We arrest him, as quietly as we can. If we catch him with Ryuk, we have our proof. If not, we search his apartment for the Death Note and question him until Ryuk shows up."
"Question him where?" asked Gevanni. "Here?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Ide. "The last thing we want is him getting any intelligence about our headquarters."
"Assuming he hasn't already," said Gevanni. "Ryuk knows this place as well as anyone by now."
Near nodded. "Which is all the more reason to take him somewhere Ryuk doesn't know and Libra can't possibly have planned for. Besides, since Light is here, Ryuk following us to this building would be meaningless. If Ryuk tails us from campus to the interrogation site, however—"
"It proves Wolff owns the notebook," said Matsuda, wide-eyed. "We've got him."
Mogi's voice was stern. "Not yet. Near, what do you have in mind?"
"After our last meeting, I took the liberty of buying a suitable house out in the country, about thirty minutes' drive from Hayes College. It's isolated enough that we should be able to use it without attracting notice—and it has a lockable cellar." Near glanced over at Rester. "I assume it's ready?"
"Yes. I set up the cameras and sound system yesterday. We'll be able to see and hear anything Libra does in the cellar, but he won't see or hear us unless we want him to."
"Good. Rester, Lidner, Mogi, Aizawa, and Ide, you five will set up surveillance outside Wolff's apartment in two cars. Once you've confirmed he's inside, Rester and Lidner will arrest him. Your badges should be enough to persuade him not to make a fuss, but if not, do the best you can not to make a spectacle. Search him, cuff him, blindfold him, and take him out to one of the cars. Lidner and Mogi will stay behind to search Wolff's apartment. Rester, Aizawa, and Ide, you'll escort Libra and Ryuk to the interrogation site." Near paused. "Aizawa, Ide, Mogi, I must caution you not to say anything within Wolff's hearing. I hope I don't have to explain why."
"Afraid he'll be able to deduce we're Japanese?" said Ide.
"And from that, your identities. Yes. We have to assume he's read the NPA files of the Kira case and knows your names."
"What about me?" asked Matsuda.
"You'll be coming directly to the interrogation site with me to wait for the others. I don't drive."
"Shouldn't that be my job?" asked Rester.
"No. You need to be with Libra. If he's anything like Light, he'll try to probe his captors on the ride. If nobody responds, that's nearly as suspicious as someone speaking to him with an accent. I don't want to take any chances."
Gevanni cleared his throat. "And me?"
"Someone has to keep an eye on Light while we're gone. I'm entrusting him to you."
"I can do that," said Matsuda. "Gevanni's better at this kind of thing, and my English isn't that good anyway. I don't mind."
"Thank you for the offer. The plan stands. Gevanni, you'll stay here. Matsuda, you'll come with me." Near added a stick to his tower, his pulse surging despite his outward calm. Apples or no apples, Ryuk was the last being Near would call trustworthy—and whatever lingering sentiment the shinigami might feel for Light, he'd never owed any particular loyalty to Near. Libra could still take out the Japanese Task Force at any time, and might even be controlling them now. This isn't over. Not yet. "Any other questions?"
"What happens if Ryuk isn't there when we arrest Libra?" Ide asked.
"If he's not there, he's either at headquarters or on his way to it. In either case, Gevanni will give him directions to where we are. I have no doubt what we're doing will be of far more interest to Ryuk than watching Light read." Near raised his head. "Anything else?"
His teammates looked at each other and shook their heads.
"Good. Pack overnight bags, just in case, and meet back here in an hour. You're dismissed."
Near was almost skipping as he approached Light's cell, but the prisoner's eyes never left his book. "You're improving. It only took you three days this time."
"Sorry. I told you I'd come back when I had something new to report." Near gripped the bars of Light's cell, a smirk on his lips. "We found Libra."
This time, Light looked up. "You arrested him?"
"Not yet. I wanted to warn you before you left. It'll just be you and Gevanni for the next day or so."
"Noted. Is that all?"
"I thought you might have questions."
"What for? You won't answer them. Update me again when you know more."
He's still angry. Near's smile faltered, and he hastily lowered his hands and turned away. "All right."
"No, wait." Light's voice brought the detective up short, and Near spun on his sock-clad heel. Light was on his feet now, the book set aside and forgotten. "I do have a question."
"How did Mikami die?"
Startled and wary, Near forced himself to meet Light's eyes. "He died in the warehouse."
"I didn't say where. I said how."
"You know how. While we were distracted by your injuries, he stabbed himself in the aorta with his pen."
"Was it his own idea?"
"It was a suicide."
"So was Kiyomi Takada."
Kira's eyes judged him, hard and cold. Near's hand rose to his hair. "What are you accusing me of, Light?"
"Nothing." The prisoner turned away, his posture unnaturally stiff. "Forget it."
"No. This didn't come out of nowhere. Someone talked to you. Who was it?"
"It doesn't matter. Forget it."
He doesn't want to tell me. Which can only mean... Near sucked in a breath. "You've been talking to Ryuk."
"You're changing the subject."
"How many times did Ryuk visit and you not tell me?"
"If he'd said anything useful, I would have told you."
"That's not what I asked."
For a moment, Light was silent. At last, he mumbled, "Once."
"A few days ago?"
"And he told you I killed Mikami?"
"Not outright. He implied it."
"And you believed him?"
"Should I?" Light turned toward him, more disappointed than angry. "I wondered, you know, in the beginning. Once I finally had a clear head again. But I knew you would never erase your own memories, and the SPK clearly still had theirs, so I decided I was wrong. Letting someone outside your team use the notebook, though—I never thought you'd run that risk."
He already knows. Resigned, Near let out a breath. "I didn't want to. I had no choice."
"But you gave the order?"
Light looked as though Near had punched him. "Who wrote the name?"
"I don't know."
"I don't. I wanted to use Misa, but my team thought it would be too risky. So I sent Rester into the city to persuade a random bystander to do it, under the guise of a foreign visitor asking for help addressing a letter." Near fidgeted with the cuff of his sleeve, bracing himself to be screamed at. "The only example I had of a Death Note owner being killed by a Death Note was Kyosuke Higuchi, but given what I knew of the timing and circumstances, I could deduce that ownership passed either to the killer or to whoever was holding the notebook at the moment of death. If the former were true, destroying the notebook would ensure the passerby forgot his encounter with Rester entirely, and if it were the latter—"
"You'd make sure the notebook was on the floor when Mikami died, then drop a match on it before anyone could touch it," Light said coldly. "The odds of the bystander ever realizing the truth were remote enough that you'd still get away with it, and the Task Force would never know what you'd done. The perfect murder."
"Not murder. Self-defense."
"He hadn't done a goddamn thing to you yet."
"He was going to."
"Doesn't matter. Under the law, it's not self-defense."
"The law wasn't written with killer notebooks in mind, Light. You know that better than anyone. Mikami would have killed me, my team, and your Task Force if I hadn't intervened. It may not have been legal, but it was necessary."
"You could have arrested him."
"If I had, you'd have gone free, and Teru Mikami would still have died. Admit it. If I'd simply arrested Mikami rather than killing him, you would have finished him off yourself."
"Am I? Kiyomi Takada did everything you asked of her. Preached your gospel. Wrote your names. Covered your tracks. Shared your bed. And the moment she stopped being an asset, you murdered her. Why would Mikami have been any different?" The detective took a step toward the bars. "I regret having to do it, Light, but you're the one who made it necessary. You have no right to complain."
"You could have told me yourself. You should have told me."
"Before London, I didn't see the point—and while we were in London, the last thing you needed were new incentives to turn on me."
"I didn't want to lose you."
"Lose me as an asset, you mean?"
"No." Near tugged his hair, embarrassed. "As a friend."
There was a long hush before Light responded. "Huh. You're more like L than I thought."
He doesn't mean it as a compliment. "It's the truth."
"Bullshit. You don't have friends, Near. Just people you either pay or force to be here."
"Perhaps. But I care about the people who work for me and protect them if I can. That's more than I can say for you."
For a moment, Light merely glared at him. Then he spread his arms, gesturing at his cell walls. "Thanks for the protection."
"That's not what I meant."
"Oh? When did you protect me, then? London?"
"I tried to. When I left for Noel Road, I offered to let you stay behind. You declined. You chose to come."
"And if I hadn't, and you died, what then? You admitted yourself that the SPK would have killed me. You killed a man to get me, then didn't bother to make any arrangements to keep me alive once I'm no longer useful to you. If I had to guess, you still haven't." Disgusted, Light shook his head. "I'm not your friend, and I don't work for you. Not anymore. I'm done, Nate. Go protect someone who cares."
Kira turned away without a word.
Now what? Near's fingers twisted cruelly in his hair, and he bit back a whimper of distress. After a moment, he stepped back from the bars, his voice hushed. "I understand."
"Great. Piss off."
Deflated, Near trudged toward the stairwell exit, the silence weighing on him like stone. At the door, he turned around, his eyes on the floor. "I did make plans for your continued care, Light. Later than I should have, but...if something happens to me, you'll be safe. You have my word." However much that's worth to you now. "I had intended for you to advise my successor, whoever it is, but now that the Task Force knows your secret—well, I've been wondering if you might prefer me to make an arrangement with them. Either for after my death, or...sooner. If you want."
Light's grip on his shirt tightened, but he didn't turn around. Drawing a breath, Near continued.
"I can't promise they'll say yes, but I suspect Matsuda and Mogi would be willing to take over your care if I paid for it. Your friend Yamamoto, too, if they needed help. Given your past relationship with him and his closeness to the team, I doubt there would be any danger in telling him. You wouldn't be free, and I can't guarantee your cell in Tokyo would be as nice as your room upstairs, but you'd be home. Close enough for your family to visit, if you chose, and if not—you'd still be away from me. If you chose."
If you chose.
Near raised his eyes to Light's back, searching for an answer, but all he found was silence. Tugging once more on his hair, he turned and walked away.
"So that's Libra?" asked Matsuda.
Rester nodded. "Seems like it. He didn't look shocked to see us, at least."
"He looks so young."
So did Light. Near watched the monitor intently, sizing up his suspect. Though the blindfold made Nick Wolff's expression impossible to read, his posture was oddly casual, as if he hadn't noticed the handcuffs binding him to his seat. The effect was mesmerizing—and unnerving. I've been in his position before. I was not that calm.
Why is he so calm?
"Where's Ryuk?" Near asked.
"He wasn't there," said Aizawa. "Probably on his way to Light right now."
"Or on his way back," said Ide.
Near shook his head. "Gevanni would have called us."
"And if Gevanni just didn't see him?" asked Matsuda.
"Lidner and Mogi are at Wolff's apartment," said Rester. "If he turns up there, they'll give him directions to us."
"Excuse me." The bound boy's voice came suddenly through the speakers, polite but firm. "Was someone going to ask me questions?"
Near blinked. Matsuda jumped.
"Can he hear us in here?" asked Ide.
"Only when my microphone is on," said Near.
"Hello?" Wolff tapped the arm of his chair with a fingernail. "Anyone there?"
Near frowned and tapped the button to activate his voice-changing microphone. "Yes. I am."
"Oh, okay. I was starting to wonder."
"My apologies for the wait, Mr. Wolff," said Near. "Are you comfortable?"
"Where did you find the notebook?"
"Are you a cop?"
"Answer the question."
"You kidnapped me. Answer mine first."
"You're in custody, yes. Answer the—"
"You didn't read me my rights."
For fuck's sake. "I am not a state agent, and nothing you say will be presented in court. Miranda doesn't apply."
"Oh, I see. You're L, aren't you? I wondered if you were."
"Just answer the question, Mr. Wolff."
"Sorry. I got distracted. What was the question?"
Near suppressed a sigh. "Where did you find the notebook?"
"The one in my backpack? I bought it for class. I don't remember where. Walmart, probably, or—"
"No. Not that. The killing notebook."
The boy in the chair shrugged. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Near took his finger off the button, looking up at Rester. "Thoughts?"
"He hasn't wiped his memory," said Rester. "He's too calm."
"But what is he trying to accomplish, then?" asked Ide. "He has to know the way he's acting is suspicious. Shouldn't he pretend to be frightened to throw us off his track?"
"Taunting us, perhaps?" Aizawa chimed in. "He knows we have nothing solid against him. He probably assumes that unless he says something incriminating, we'll have to let him go."
"He's not wrong," said Near. "His father's a senator. Unless we want a political incident on our hands, we'll have to release him."
Rester shook his head. "You just told him his Constitutional rights don't apply. Unless Ryuk turns up, even if we release him, we'll have a political incident anyway."
"Or unless he confesses," Ide said.
"Yes. Or that."
Slim chance of that, Near thought, watching the monitor. Though Wolff was blindfolded and could hear none of their conversation, he seemed content to wait in silence, drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair like a bored schoolboy. He's impatient, not nervous, and he's not bothering to pretend otherwise. Why? What does he gain? The longer the interrogation went on, the more likely that Ryuk would return. The boy had to know that.
Near switched the intercom back on. "Am I boring you, Mr. Wolff?"
"A little bit, yeah. Can I take this mask off, at least?"
"Not at the moment. Tell me, did you watch New Kira's broadcast on CNN?"
"Libra's broadcast, you mean?"
"Not when it aired. I watched it online afterwards, though."
"What did you think?"
"I don't know. I mean, that's kind of an open-ended question, isn't it?" The boy settled back in his chair, sighing. "I thought it was a load of crap, to be honest."
"Well, the aesthetics, for one thing. This guy calls Kira names and says he's something better and different, but he models the look and sound of his message on the ones Kira sent? That's a mixed message right there. I'm not saying I agree with Libra, but if he wanted to distinguish himself from Kira, that's not how I would have done it."
Near reached for his hair. "How would you have done it?"
"I would have chosen a different visual, for one thing. Either a blank screen, or something more modern than that faux-VHS bullshit. I mean, taking a digital image and distorting it to look old? Forget how it undercuts the message. How pretentious can you get?"
How pretentious indeed. "I see. So you would change the visuals, not the message?"
"If I were Libra, yes. I don't know the guy, but I assume what he said what he meant."
"You assume Libra is male, then?"
The boy shrugged. "You've looked into this a lot more than I have, and you wouldn't have hauled me in here if you believed Libra were female. I'm just assuming you're right."
"And if I were to tell you that I found a secret message in Libra's speech, one that aligned better with the visuals than you assume...would that change anything in your analysis?"
"Depends on the secret message. Like I said, you've spent a lot more time thinking about this than I have."
Near frowned. "You said the aesthetics were one reason you thought the broadcast was a load of crap. What were the other reasons?"
"Well, the content, obviously. I didn't support Kira. I don't support Libra."
"I see. And what does your father think of that?"
For the first time, Wolff hesitated. "You know, I haven't asked him."
"You haven't spoken to him about Libra?"
"But you can guess what he thinks, can't you? He's on record as supporting Kira, after all."
"No. He supported a more consistent application of the death penalty, not abrogation of control to a foreign power. He was clear about that."
"So his objection was that Kira was foreign, is that it?"
"In very, very simplified terms, I suppose."
"And if I told you Libra is American?"
"Then you've probably got reason to think so."
"I do. Would that change your father's opinion any, do you think?"
"You would have to ask him about that. Not me. I don't see what my father has to do with this."
"I understand." I finally seem to have struck a nerve. "You're studying political science, am I right?"
"You want to follow in your father's footsteps? As a politician?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"But you're considering it?"
"Maybe. I want to make a difference. If that means running for office, sure. If better opportunities arise, maybe not." The boy's lips curved into a wry smile. "We'll see."
Near released the microphone button, troubled. He's confident Ryuk isn't coming, but why? Since he knows about Light, he knows we couldn't leave headquarters completely unstaffed when we came after him, and whoever we left could tell Ryuk where to find us here. He hasn't given up the notebook, and we know Ryuk only dropped one. So how—?
Shaken, Near pulled out his phone and dialed Gevanni's number.
"Maybe he did give up the notebook," said Matsuda. "If he were smart, he could have left himself instructions on what to do, even if he doesn't remember leaving them. That's the sort of thing Light would have done."
Aizawa scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous. Without memories of the Death Note, anyone with half a brain would think a message like that was a prank."
"Not if he left something in the message that could only have come from him. Then he'd have to believe it."
"Yeah, or he'd think he was going insane," said Ide. "Which do you think is more likely?
Two rings. Near ignored them all, his fingers drumming nervously on the back of his phone. Three rings. Pick up, Gevanni, damn you. At last, on the fourth ring, a chipper voice spoke.
"Hello. You have reached the voice mailbox of..."
Near froze, the blood draining from his cheeks. Beside him, the debate continued.
"Maybe he's just off visiting Light again, then," Matsuda mused. "We know Ryuk splits his time between the two of them, so his not being here doesn't—"
"Be quiet, all of you," Rester cut in. "Near, what's wrong?"
With trembling hands, Near hung up on the call and returned the phone to his pocket. "We have to go back."
"What, right now?" asked Aizawa, startled.
Near ignored him. "You brought the sedative?"
Rester nodded. "I did."
"Good. Dose him. We can drop him at a hospital on the way back."
"How much of a dose?"
"As much as you safely can. The more time you can buy us, the better."
Rester nodded. "All right."
Aizawa folded his arms. "Near, what the hell is going on?"
"This is a trap. He isn't giving us any evidence to prove him guilty, but he's not trying to look innocent, either. He knew if he put enough pressure on us, we'd turn out in force. He's using himself as a distraction."
"A distraction from what?"
"The notebook," said Ide, his eyes widening. "He's not the owner."
Yes. "Either he's the real Libra's accomplice, or the true notebook owner is his. We aren't up against one Libra. We're dealing with two."
"But there's only one notebook," said Aizawa. "Surely he wouldn't—"
"He let us catch him. He's been feeding us clues to lead us here from the beginning. If we'd caught him with Ryuk, that would have been game over, and he knows it. The only way his plan makes sense is if he could guarantee Ryuk would be well out of our way when we arrived."
"He could have sent Ryuk to Light," Matsuda insisted.
Ide shook his head. "Too risky. He couldn't know exactly when we were coming, and Ryuk suddenly hanging around headquarters for days on end would have tipped us off that something was up. Near's right. An accomplice is the only explanation that makes sense."
"We need to call Lidner and Mogi back immediately," said Rester quietly. "They don't know they're in danger. If you're correct—"
"No need. Libra's not after them." Near jerked his hair, dawning horror in his voice. "He's taking Light."
Chapter 9: Light
"He became quicker of movement than the other dogs, swifter of foot, craftier, deadlier, more lithe, more lean with ironlike muscle and sinew, more enduring, more cruel more ferocious, and more intelligent. He had to become all these things, else he would not have held his own nor survived the hostile environment in which he found himself..."
Light turned the page, fuming, his lunch cold and untouched on the floor. Though Light had avoided any mention of Mikami since his argument with Near, Gevanni had insisted on trying to explain himself—a move which had not improved the prisoner's mood.
"I was the one he assigned to tail Mikami," Gevanni had said. "I followed him for weeks. When we tried to replace the pages in Mikami's notebook, that was me, too. He wasn't a personable man. Even though we never spoke, I think I knew him as well as anybody could. After we discovered the notebook switch, Near came to me and asked what I thought we should do. If I thought there was any way to detain Mikami and bring him to our side. I told him that would never work."
"Because Mikami deserved to die?"
"No. Because Mikami was fanatic enough to die rather than help us, and you were ruthless enough to help him along. They had to identify Kiyomi Takada by her dental records, Light. If anything, based on what we knew, we were doing him a kindness." Gevanni rubbed his shoulder, ill at ease, but his eyes never left Light's. "Near didn't try to argue that I was wrong, and I'm still positive I was right. But if he could have found a way, he would have spared you both. I just thought—I thought you ought to know that."
As if it makes any difference. Light had turned his back on Gevanni then, stony and silent, and eventually the agent had taken the hint. The prisoner could believe Near's team had considered themselves justified. He simply didn't care. Near trapped me here without a trial and expects me to be grateful. I'm not grateful. I'm ashamed I ever was. Yet Near had also offered him an out, a chance to leave Near behind entirely if he chose. Whatever Light had come to expect from his captor, he hadn't anticipated that.
Damn it, Near.
The outer door clanged, and Light's teeth clenched. Burying himself in his book as the inner door opened, he asked coldly, "What did you forget?"
"You're Kira, aren't you?"
That's not Gevanni.
Startled, Light looked up. A short, round-faced woman stood in the doorway, aiming a pistol at him with trembling hands. Behind her, grinning smugly, was Ryuk.
"I am indeed." Light set his book aside and forced a smile. "You must be Libra's girlfriend."
Her face darkened, but Ryuk laughed. "Hyuk. Careful, Light. She's got a gun on you."
"I can see that." A gun. Why does she have a gun? The only advantage a gun held over a Death Note was the ability to kill without a name or face, but Libra had made it clear that neither was a barrier to his killing Light. Either he thinks this will intimidate me more than a Death Note—unlikely—or the gun isn't meant for me at all. Which means...
"You killed the agent, didn't you?" Light asked, far more calmly than he felt. "The one upstairs."
She nodded. "It's just you and me now. No one's going to interrupt us."
Just you and me. Wary, he wet his lip, his eyes fixed on her gun. "I don't see the point in coming all this way to kill me."
"I'm not here to kill you."
"Then would you mind pointing that thing somewhere else?"
"What? Oh." Embarrassed, she lowered the gun. "Sorry."
"It's fine. You have a name, I take it?"
No last name. He extended a hand through the bars. "I'm Kira. Nice to meet you."
Julia glanced at Ryuk for guidance, but the shinigami merely shrugged.
"Don't look at me, heh. He doesn't bite."
Cautiously, she came over to shake Light's hand, her grip weak and sweaty. "Nice to meet you."
"You've never fired a gun before, have you?"
"I have. Just—not at a person before." She withdrew her hand, rubbing it on her stomach. "I didn't expect it would be that hard, given—everything."
"Given you've been killing people on Libra's behalf?"
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to. Ryuk's hovering behind you, not me."
Ryuk shook his head. "Quite a jump there, Light. As long as you're nearby, I can hover behind whoever I want. You know that."
"I do. I also know Libra used himself as bait to lure Near's team out of here. If he's anything like me, he wouldn't do that without absolute confidence that they wouldn't turn up before he disposed of any evidence he had. That means he must have cut you loose days ago, at the latest, and you haven't spent that time here. The only logical explanation is that you've been trailing her."
Julia blinked. "You are smart. Libra wasn't wrong."
"Smart enough to get myself into trouble. If your boyfriend's not careful, he'll end up the same."
"He's not my boyfriend."
But you want him to be. The years of captivity had robbed Light of some social graces, but he could still read people. She's his Misa, but steadier. Less irrational. Does she have the eyes, I wonder? "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have assumed. Close friends?"
"Not—not that close. He helps me with essays, and I coach him in chess. That's it."
"You play chess?"
Light's eyebrows rose. "It's kind of you to coach for free. Most players at your skill level would expect payment."
"I do, usually. But I've been struggling a bit with my papers, and he's a 4.0, so when he approached me...I thought a trade might be more useful."
"And get you more time with him."
She blushed, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "Now you're making assumptions again."
"Sorry. It's just that he must trust you quite a bit, if he's giving up his memories and leaving the notebook to you."
"Give up his—oh, no, he never used it. It's always been me."
Oh. "You killed Elle Saunders?"
"Libra asked you to?"
"No. We didn't—it was supposed to be a joke." Julia twisted the ends of her hair between her fingers, reminding Light uncomfortably of Near. "He was helping me with an essay, and I saw the notebook on his desk and asked about it. He said it was some dumb prank he'd found on the sidewalk, so he picked it up before it could scare any kids. We started joking around about who we'd kill if it were real, and he mentioned her, so—"
"You wrote her name in to amuse him."
"He laughed. We didn't know. But when I went online after I got home, the news—we figured it out after that. I didn't want to touch it again, at first, but then Ni—then Ryuk showed up, and Libra asked for my help. Said the notebook had come to us for a reason, and we'd be cowards not to use it for good, especially since you'd already proven it could work."
Is that what I proved? Light rubbed his face, thinking. If you own the Death Note without using it, you won't lose your memories when you give it up. Libra made sure to pass it on to her before writing in it himself, assuming that he ever did. "So why do you need me?"
"Ryuk told us where you were, but not much else. Libra managed to get into L's computer system through that video file we sent, but the personnel names in the system are fakes. Ryuk said you know the real ones." Julia pulled a pen from her pocket. "Libra wrote out all the descriptions. Just add the names for us, and I'll set you free."
For a moment, Light said nothing. "There was malware attached to the video file. You knew Near would ask for the file unedited, so CNN would forward it on just as they received it. Clever."
"Yes, but that's not the point."
"I get the point. I just don't see why you need me. If you've got access to the computers, you have access to the camera footage. Just trade for the eyes and leave me out of it."
Julia frowned. "Trade for what?"
"The shinigami eyes," Ryuk interjected. "The ability to see the names and lifespans of other humans. Shinigami do it naturally, but for humans, heh..."
"It's a trade," said Light, inwardly cursing. "Half your lifespan to the shinigami, nonrefundable. If you lose possession of the notebook, you lose the eyes, but your missing lifespan stays gone."
She looked up at Ryuk in bewilderment. "Why didn't you tell us this before?"
"Hyuk. You never asked."
Bullshit. Light fought to keep his face calm, furious at his own stupidity. You didn't tell them because then Libra would have killed us all off weeks ago rather than hatching a plot to get to me. She'd give up half her lifespan if he asked. If he'd kept his mouth shut, Libra would have gone on thinking he needed Light to succeed. Instead, Light himself had let slip that he was unnecessary, leaving himself with precious little room to bargain.
"Eyes or no eyes," he said, "you can tell Libra there's no point. This L isn't the first, and he won't be the last. There's a whole stable of successors training to take over when he dies."
"We know," said Julia. "Ryuk told us about the orphanage, but we don't know where it is or what it's called. That's the other reason we need you."
"So you can monitor the orphanage?"
"No. So we can destroy it. Ryuk said the students' names are all hidden from public knowledge, but the director's name wouldn't be, and they must keep some sort of records. If we can find the director's name, we can make them send us a list of the students and eliminate them all at once. A gas explosion, or a mass shooting, or something like that. Something that won't point back to Libra. He's got it all figured out."
The blood drained from Light's face, leaving a sudden chill behind. "They're children."
"Potential Ls. Lowering the murder rate will save thousands of children, and the only way to do that safely is to prevent any new Ls from taking over. Libra says we don't have a choice."
"And you agree with him?"
"I don't know. I don't think he's wrong, but—I don't know."
He's not wrong. As long as the Wammy's House program existed, Libra would never be safe. Light knew that from bitter experience. Yet destroying an entire school of orphans, many of whom were never under consideration to be L in the first place—that was a jump Light struggled to make. I told Near I never killed children, and that's when he began to trust me. That's the line I never crossed. Light understood Near's reaction to Noah Roberts' death far better now than he had at the time, but it had made sense even without further context. There was something instinctively, uniquely horrific about a murdered child. Anyone with a strong sense of justice would recoil from the idea.
But not Libra.
Light shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't help you."
"Can't, or won't?"
"Both. Even if I kill L, even if you take out his successors, there's still the ICPO. There's still adult graduates of that orphanage all over the world. I'm lucky to be alive after everything I've done. I won't get that lucky a second time."
"You won't have to. Libra's not you. He won't get caught."
"He will. Trust me. Two people can't hold off the entire world forever."
"Three, if you help us. We're on your side, Kira. Your successors. Why won't you help?"
"For one thing, as I said, it's pointless. For another, I don't trust you."
"But you trust Near?"
"I trust him not to deliberately kill me, yes. You came in here pointing a gun at me. In my experience, that doesn't indicate a welcome with open arms." Light rubbed his neck, tense and wary. "I've got no reason to trust either of you, and I don't believe for a second Libra trusts me. When I was Kira, people I'd used but couldn't trust usually died at the earliest opportunity."
"Like this, you mean?"
Julia pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket, and an iron weight settled in Light's chest. No. Don't tell me.
"A gun and notebook paper," he said, half-expecting his voice to betray him. "That doesn't exactly make me feel more trusting."
"It's not meant to." She unfolded the sheet and held it up, just beyond his reach. "He told me if you were reluctant, I should show it to you, and if you still wouldn't help—"
Light's hands clenched uselessly at his sides. "You'll add my name to the description."
"If I have to. As I said, it's a last resort."
My successors. Light's pulse surged in his ears as he read, so fierce he could almost hear it. Death by gunfire. Upon the return of his captors, is accused of being in league with Libra and is ordered executed by the present L. After pleading for his life, is gunned down by his captors as he cowers in his cell. Fails to die immediately, and is granted a mercy shot several minutes later.
Feigning calm, he cracked a slight, wry smile. "Seems a bit excessive."
"I'm sorry. He—we saw your back in some of the footage, and he thought—he thought this might be persuasive." Julia wet her lip. "It's a precaution. I don't want to use it. Neither does he. I promise."
But he's willing to. Light stared numbly at the paper, scratching the scar on the back of his hand. He's got me cornered, but he's not perfect. He assumed that if Near wanted me to die here, he'd have me shot. Which means for all his spying, he doesn't know about the gas.
For all the good that does me.
"What happened to you?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts. "Those scars."
"I got shot."
"I know, but—"
"I resisted arrest. I got shot. I assumed Ryuk would have told you about that."
Ryuk grinned. "I would have, if they'd asked. They didn't ask."
"Why hold back? You told them everything else."
"Hyuk. Not everything."
You told them enough. "In any case, it doesn't matter. Killing me won't change a damn thing. Libra's plan still won't work."
"Well, what would you do then?" Julia asked. "If you know a better way—"
"I do. Go back to wherever you hid the notebook and burn it. Now, while you still have the chance."
Julia stared at him. "You're joking."
"I would never do that."
"Then you'll die. Sooner, not later. It doesn't matter how loyal you are, or how closely you follow Libra's instructions. Eventually, one of you is bound to screw up—and when that happens, he'll kill you to save himself. You'll never be more than a tool to him, but in his mind, he's irreplaceable. He'll kill you without a second thought."
"You're wrong." Her voice rose in pitch, more disbelieving than angry. "You don't know him. He would never do that."
"No. He kills murderers, not—"
"He doesn't hurt people who help him."
"I knew a girl like you once. Met her in college, dated a bit, then parted ways. She became a news anchor; I became Kira. When I realized she was a supporter, I reached out to her, brought her into the secret. She spent months persuading the world to accept me in public, then killing for me when she was alone. She was the best assistant I could have asked for, right up until she wasn't. She was kidnapped by my enemies with Death Note paper in her possession. I couldn't let them find it, so I promised her I'd come rescue her to calm her down. Then I forced her to burn herself alive."
"Your spokeswoman," she said quietly. "You killed her?"
"Without a second thought. I thought I was protecting myself. As it turns out, I was too late."
"I'm not denying it. Once you believe your own survival is a moral imperative rather than a personal preference, it's amazing what you can justify to yourself."
"Libra doesn't do that."
"Libra convinced himself to kill children. I'd say he does."
She pressed her lips together, red-faced and silent. Ryuk chuckled. "Hyuk. Go easy, Light. You're on the same side."
Are we? "You told me Death Note users never come to good ends. I'm just passing on the warning you gave me."
"He's not you," Julia insisted, sour. "I know you want to believe that nobody else could possibly succeed if you failed, but it's not true. You couldn't outsmart this L, but he did. Within weeks. That should tell you something."
"Not much. A woman outsmarted me and this L both once, without any Death Note at all. Came close to killing us both, but she made a mistake in the end. Now she's dead." Without thinking, Light touched his scarred cheek. "Everyone makes mistakes eventually. Everyone."
"And? Stopping now won't stop L from hunting us. You know that. Even if I wanted to stop, we have no choice."
"If you go back and destroy the notebook, you'll lose your memories, and there'll be no proof against either of you. Sure, you might still be in trouble for gunning down one of L's teammates, since you're on camera right now, but given the lack of memory I doubt Near will keep you in custody. One of my accomplices had no memory when I was arrested, and he let her go. Worst case scenario, he'll lock you up alive. If one of his successors catches you instead, you've got no such guarantee."
"Libra would still remember."
"He will—and he'll hate you for it. But he'll be alive and safe, and he'll find other causes to spend his life on. If you really love him, you'll give him that." Light wet his lip, his voice quiet. "I promised my father I'd kill Kira personally if anything happened to him on Kira's account. He died in front of me. Every accomplice I had, every ally—all dead, all of them. I thought I was protecting something, but I destroyed it. My family, my team, my own life. I'm the only one left, and sometimes I wonder if the rest of them came out ahead. If you'd asked me even three years ago, I'd have jumped at the chance to try again, but now? I'm not as good a chess player as you are, but I can spot an impending checkmate when I see one. Best to give up the Death Note, accept the draw, and move on."
She wet her lip. "You're determined to protect L, aren't you?"
"I don't give a damn about L. You're my successors. I care about you."
"Then prove it. Help us." She held up the pen. "Help us, or get out of the way."
Light stared at her hand, his lip between his teeth. If I refuse, I'm throwing my life away for nothing. She knows about the eyes now, and they can pry information about Wammy's House out of Near when they kill him. Unless someone kills her or traps her here, we're all dead either way. If he wrote fake names, it wouldn't take long for Libra to notice, and the Death Note could force the true information out of Light easily enough. If he wrote real ones, then tried to withhold Wammy's House information, the same held true. No matter what path he considered, they all ended the same place: Near's team dead. Children dead. Light dead.
And it's my fault.
He hadn't asked for Libra to follow him any more than the first L had asked for him, but the responsibility was clear just the same. If I hadn't entertained Ryuk for so long, he wouldn't have dropped another notebook. Even if he had, Libra would never have thought to do this on his own. This is my legacy. He understood now, too late, why his father had died hunting him, why Near had killed to stop him, why Matsuda had gunned him down. He didn't enjoy the knowledge, but he understood. I would have killed Mikami to save myself. Near wasn't wrong.
I don't have a choice.
Pasting on a smile, Light extended a hand through the bars. "Give me the page."
"You'll do it?"
"You've convinced me."
Relief flickered behind her eyes. "Thank you."
Don't thank me for this. Light took the pen and paper from her hands, doing his best to hide his nausea. Don't thank me now. "I assume the first description is meant for L?"
"Mmhmm. The others can be in any order, they're all basically the same."
"That makes sense." He uncapped the pen and began writing, trying to push the consequences from his mind. "What happens after this?"
"You go free. I mean, we'll be keeping you in handcuffs as a precaution, just until we can confirm the Death Note worked, and Libra will have questions about the orphanage, but after that, it's up to you. We'd love it if you helped us, but if you need some time away—"
"No, I'll stick with you. You'll have an easier time of things if the world believes L's still alive. For that to work, you're going to need what I know." I have no choice. "What about my Death Note? I assume Libra would have a use for it."
"We have that covered. Once L tells us where it is, we'll figure out how to retrieve it."
"It would be easier just to take it with us."
"We don't have time to hang around here looking for it. If L catches on too quickly and sends the police—"
"You don't need to look for it. I know where it is."
"He told you?"
"Not exactly. Here." Finished, Light capped the pen and handed the page back. "That's everyone on the team. This L's team, anyway."
She perused the names with interest, then pocketed the page. "Where is it?"
"Here in the cell."
Her eyebrows rose. "You expect me to believe he let you keep it?"
"Sort of. It's under the tiles. If he'd taken it away completely, I would have lost my memories of it years ago. He didn't have a choice."
"I suppose, but that seems like an awful lot of risk—"
Light held up his damaged hand. "I've only got one good hand, and there's nothing in here I could wedge between the cracks. Until you showed up to rescue me, it wasn't much of a risk."
Julia stared at him for a moment, then turned to Ryuk. "Is he telling the truth?"
"About the notebook? Heh, yeah. It's in the cell. Has been for years."
She looked at Light again, wary and silent. Light sighed. "I've got no reason to mislead you, Julia. I've gotten rather attached to being alive."
"A few minutes ago, you were trying to persuade me to give up."
"Because it was the best course of action. Since you wouldn't take it, I've moved on to the second best." Light held out his arms through the bars, his face a mask of false calm. "Handcuff me to the bars first if you distrust me that much. If anyone else gets their hands on that notebook, I could lose over a decade of memories. I'd rather not risk leaving it behind."
"I suppose that's fair." She eyed the floor tile a moment, then pulled out the handcuffs. "Hold still."
"Don't thank me yet. If I can't get that tile open with what I've got, it'll have to wait until later."
"Understood." Lip between his teeth, he watched her secure the cuffs around his wrists. "You do have the key to these, right?"
"Of course. I'm not stupid."
"Sorry. Had to check."
The cell door rasped open, and Light barely suppressed a flinch. "I hate that noise."
"You'd hate it more if I left you here. You said it was this tile, right?"
He glanced over. "Yeah."
"I think I can get a nail file in there. Hang on."
Hang on. A cruel joke, though she didn't know it. Ever so cautiously, he tested the handcuffs and found that one was loose. No. Not yet. If I run for it before she trips the sensors, she'll stop, and the door to the stairway won't lock down. She'll write me into the notebook and leave. I have to wait for the sirens.
"You won't get enough leverage starting from the side like that," he said. "Pry a corner first. That shouldn't be quite as hard."
"Oh, you're right." Julia withdrew the file and set to work on a corner instead. "I knew that."
"I believe you."
Light complied, hiding his face against the bars. I still have a chance. The gas will be concentrated on the cell, so the visitor area will take a lot longer to fill up. If I escape these handcuffs and head for the door, there's a chance Near might figure it out and come back before I stop breathing. There's still a chance. As hard as he tried to reassure himself, though, he knew Near wasn't coming back. There would be no rescue. Light would face his death as he had promised his father: self-inflicted, captive, and alone.
I don't want to die.
A terrible sound, high and shrill, filled the cell, and every hair on Light's body rose. Behind him, the partially pried tile clattered back down.
"What the hell is that?"
Checkmate. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"He must have—must have put an alarm on the tile. In case I—" Something hard prodded the back of his head, and his grip on the bars tightened. The gun. "Don't shoot me."
"What the hell did you do?"
"I didn't do anything!"
"You did something! What did you do?"
"I don't know! Don't shoot me, Janus, please—"
Pain erupted in Light's skull, knocking him forward into the bars. Stunned, he hung limply from his wrists, red starbursts dancing in his vision. She shot me. No. She hit me. Something warm dripped down his neck, and he struggled to lift his head. She hit me with the gun. Why? Why would she...?
The alarms sounded fainter now, as if he were hearing them from underwater. Confused, Light took a breath—and immediately began to cough. I have to get out of here. He tugged at the handcuffs in vain, his efforts too frantic to be effective, and cast a desperate glance over at the doorway to his cell.
The door was shut.
For a moment, Light stared at it blankly, unable to process what it meant. Then he began to laugh. I'd hate it more if she left me here. She wasn't wrong. The prisoner shook helplessly, his desperate, mirthless giggles rapidly fading into painful coughs. I'm going to die. A thickening haze swirled around him, filling his lungs and throat with fire, and he blinked back a scrim of tears. I don't want to die. Not like this. I don't want to die.
I don't want to—
Nate? Choking, Light raised his head. Nate, help me...
The gas swirled around a pair of legs just beyond Light's reach, but they were far too long to be Near's. Looking up, Light saw Ryuk's face above the fog, peering down at him with interest.
Chapter 10: Near
That was a near thing.
Near stared down at the bed, his fingers snagged painfully in his hair. Light Yagami's chest rose and fell with the rhythm of the ventilator, his lower face obscured by tubes and a strap. The contraption reminded Near painfully of a gag, but Light seemed to be at peace, the tense lines of his face slackened by unconsciousness. One arm lay outstretched on the bed, crisscrossed by IV lines and medical tape. The other rested atop Light's stomach, the puckered bullet scar plain to see. Part of Near wanted to touch him, to feel the man's pulse for himself, but the eyes of his teammates held him back. He wouldn't want me to touch him, anyway. Not after this.
This is my fault.
"He'll wake up," said Matsuda quietly. "He has to."
"You don't know that," said Ide.
"He survived the warehouse. He'll survive this."
"It's encouraging he made it this long," put in Lidner. "If not for Gevanni..."
She trailed off, glancing over at the second bed. Weakly, Gevanni shook his head, shifting position against his pillows. "It was my fault she got to him at all. I should have seen her coming."
"None of us saw her coming," said Near. "I have no complaint with your performance. You did what you could."
"Doesn't feel like it."
"You had the presence of mind to play dead after being shot, despite being caught by surprise, and the fact you made it to the monitors with those injuries is remarkable. If you hadn't been there to hit the override, Light and the girl would be dead."
"How do you feel?" Rester asked.
"Right now? Drugged. In general?" Gevanni smiled weakly. "You weren't kidding about being shot, Rester. It hurts like hell."
Rester grinned back. "Once Light wakes up, I'm sure he'll be sympathetic."
If Light wakes up. Much as Near wanted to believe, Light's doctor had been less than sanguine. "He's stablized, and that's a good sign," the man had said, "but the damage to his lungs is serious. Depending on how long he went without oxygen, the damage to his brain may be as well. Right now, there's no way to know."
There's no way to know.
"Might be better if he didn't," said Aizawa. "Stop breathing for too long—"
"We don't know how long he wasn't breathing," said Matsuda.
"We can guess, and it isn't good. Even if he does wake up, there's no guarantee that's still Light in there. You think a man like that would want to live as a vegetable? Better for him to die in peace than survive like that."
Near tensed. "Rester."
"Please punch Mr. Aizawa in the face for me."
Aizawa's face darkened. "That isn't funny."
"It wasn't a joke. Rester, please punch—"
"No, L." Rester's voice was firm. "I will not."
For a moment, no one moved. Then Matsuda broke the silence. "His mother should be here."
"No. No way," said Ide. "That's the last thing we need."
"But he needs her. She's his mother. You've seen his room; you know he misses them. He's earned that much, hasn't he?"
"It's not a matter of what he's earned," said Lidner. "Libra knows we're here, and he's already targeted this place once. Light wouldn't thank us for putting his mother in danger."
Near eyed Light's hand again, guilty. "She's right."
"But he might be dying!" protested Matsuda. "She may never get another chance!"
"All the more reason not to tell her. She already had to grieve her son once. It would be cruel to bring her here just to lose him again." Please, let this be the right choice. "Once we have Libra in custody and Light is out of danger, I'll ask him what he wants. But right now, we're in as much danger as he is. The last thing we need is an emotional civilian underfoot."
Mogi put a hand on the agent's shoulder. "He's not going anywhere, Matsuda. It can wait."
"Libra can't," said Gevanni. "The moment he gets back to that Death Note and realizes his plan failed—"
"He'll write both their names, just to be safe. Light and the girl." Near gave his hair a vicious jerk. "I know."
"We can arrest him again," said Ide. "Bring him back here."
"Not without firm evidence, we cant," said Rester wearily. "Senator Wolff cancelled his campaign events to be at his son's bedside. If we try to arrest him at the hospital, we'll have a national news story and a Congressional inquiry on our hands."
"Which means Light's dead either way." Gevanni shifted on his pillows. "Dead, or imprisoned beyond our control."
Near nodded. "That seems likeliest, yes."
A hush fell over the agents, every eye fixed on Light Yagami's bed. Only the rhythmic hiss-beep of the ventilator disrupted the silence, each repetition another dagger in Near's conscience. Though he had managed to bribe or threaten into silence the local officers who had come to Light and Gevanni's aid, a sitting senator would be far harder to intimidate. If he pursued Nick Wolff without evidence, he would lose Light just as surely—and his credibility as L, besides. If they find Light here, he's not the only one they'll send to prison. But I owe Light a peaceful death, at the very least, and Libra won't give him one. I know that much.
He hadn't been shocked to find Death Note paper in the woman's pockets—thankfully, the police had obeyed Near's orders not to search her clothes themselves—but reading the death Libra had intended or him had chilled him to his bones. Suicide. Upon witnessing the deaths of his team, becomes consumed by feelings of guilt and failure. Writes out a suicide note apologizing for his interference in the Libra and Kira cases and explaining where to find Kira's Death Note, then leaves that note on his desk, leaves his headquarters, and commits suicide in such a way that his body will not be found. Compared to the fate Libra had planned for Light, it was almost merciful, yet it struck unnervingly close to home. I would have finished what my mother started—walked into the river and weighed myself down. Would I have known I was being controlled, or thought it was all my own idea? Near wasn't sure which possibility was worse. He was only glad he would never find out.
Because of Light.
Light's handwriting had been rushed and shaky, but his plan had been neither. The names of the Task Force were correct but misspelled, various kanji swapped for homonyms to disguise what he was up to. For Near's team, Light had gotten more creative: Stephen Penber. Halle Kenwood. Anthony Ruvie.
"What do we do now?" Mogi asked softly.
I don't know. "We wait."
"Libra," said Lidner. "His plans just fell through, too. He let us find him thinking we wouldn't live long enough to do anything about it, and he's lost his accomplice to boot. He'll make a move once he's out of the hospital, I'm sure of it."
Near nodded. "She's right. Light just handed us a clear advantage. There's no point in doing anything until we have some idea what he'll do now."
"He'll murder Light, that's what he'll do." Ide's face was hard. "It's what Light would have done."
"He saved our lives," said Matsuda.
"This time. Doesn't erase what he did before."
"We have the notebook scraps," said Mogi. "If we have a sample of Nick Wolff's handwriting, we can compare—"
"I did," said Near. "It's not his handwriting. Unless I miss my guess, he dictated the descriptions and left the writing to his accomplice, in case she was caught."
"So you're saying we have nothing?" said Aizawa.
"We have his name," said Gevanni quietly.
"That's basically nothing."
"By itself, maybe. But with a face—"
"No." Near rubbed his hair between his fingers, disquieted. "That's not how we do things."
"It's the only way to get to him before he gets to Light," Gevanni said.
"And if Wolff drops dead in a hospital right after we interrogated and drugged him, Light dies either way," said Lidner. "And we all go to prison, most likely, once they find out we've been harboring a mass-murderer."
Mass-murderer. Near's eyes flicked to Light, but the comatose prisoner didn't react. "We need to leave."
"What, right now?" Ide asked.
"Yes. We'll relocate to the house we interrogated Libra in, and make that our headquarters for now. We'd be fools to stay here now that it's clear Libra knows where we are."
Rester frowned. "We can't move Light or the others. Someone's going to have to stay here."
"No. Two someones." Near picked nervously at his shirt. "Libra's last plan depended on us leaving only a single guard behind. It's unlikely he'll try the same trick twice, but just in case—"
"I'll stay," said Matsuda.
"As will I," said Lidner. "Once Gevanni's feeling up to it, I'll send him to join you. Assuming the case isn't closed by then."
Near nodded. "Thank you both."
"You'll have to be careful," said Aizawa. "We know Libra got to our security system. If he's monitoring our communications, too—"
"The cameras are all turned off, and I had Rester tape over the lenses. I can't do anything about the footage he already has, but he won't be seeing anything new." Near turned to Matsuda and Lidner. "Beyond that, nobody touches the computers or the landline phone for any reason. If you must get in touch with us, do it by prepaid cell only. Lidner, I'll leave one with you, and Rester will have the other. Any communication between here and the temporary base will go through you two. Understood?"
Matsuda nodded. "Understood."
"Good. Rester, Lidner, I'd like a word. Everyone else, collect your things. We may be roughing it for a while."
The assembled agents filtered out, silent and solemn. Near rested a hand on Light's bedrail, the other knotted in his hair. The last time he'd seen Light like this, he'd been indifferent, more concerned with information than Light's survival. Now, he felt hollow and cold, a yawning, black pit where his intestines used to be.
Please wake up. Please.
He raised his head. "Hmm?"
Lidner smiled weakly. "You wanted to talk to us?"
"Yes. The moment Light wakes up, call me. If he can tell me exactly what happened downstairs, that might be enough to put Libra away. The sooner I can talk to him, the better."
"I'll tell Matsuda."
"Thank you. Rester, find Ryuk and come with me."
"Where are we going?" Rester asked.
Reluctantly, Near turned away from the bed. "To save Light's life."
Libra's accomplice raised her head from the bed as they entered, her round face sallow but full of resolve. "What do you want?"
"I have a few questions for you," said Near. "How are you feeling?"
"Lousy. What do you care?"
"I don't, actually. Just trying to be polite." Hands in his pockets, the detective peered down at her with distaste. Taller than me, but still short. Baby-faced. Not as pretty as Misa, but she has the same eyes. Excluding the glasses, of course. "What do you know about Libra?"
"You're L, aren't you?"
"I am. And you are?"
She lay back, her hands clenching in their restraints. "I'm not talking to you."
"Fair enough. I can answer for you." He took a step toward the bed, gratified to see her shrink back. "Your name is Julia Nguyen. You turned twenty this month. Your father lives in Virginia but works in D.C.; your mother is dead. You're a sophomore at Hayes College. 3.2 average. Isn't that right?"
She bit her lip. "How did you—?"
"One of my associates contacted the Hayes registrar. Once we had your name and home address, it was easy to find the rest."
"Your major is financial math. You have no siblings. You run the Hayes College Chess Club, and your tournament play is impressive for a woman of your age. Oh, and in your free time, you've been complicit in the murder of several thousand people. Are you ready to talk to me now, or should I go on?"
The girl stared at him a moment, horrorstruck, then turned her head away. "I want a lawyer."
"Your boyfriend said the same."
"I don't have a boyfriend."
"Your partner, then. Libra."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I have video footage of you gunning down one of my agents, and two sheets of Death Note paper were found in your pockets. Don't try my patience, Ms. Nguyen. I don't need Kira's testimony to lock you away for the rest of your life."
She wet her lip. "You want me to make a deal with you."
"It would be wise of you, yes."
"I'm not interested."
"I see." Near eyed her with distaste. "You do realize he'll kill you, correct?"
"You sound like Kira."
Light told you that? "You should have listened. Kira's a smart man."
"Is, or was?"
"Is." For now. "As is your other intended victim, Agent Gevanni. This would be an entirely different conversation if that weren't true."
"You'd get the same answers, though. Libra won't leave me here. Once Ryuk tells him about the eyes—"
"You'll already be dead. As soon as Nick Wolff leaves the hospital and realizes you and Kira aren't at your rendezvous point, he'll kill you both to make sure I can't use you as witnesses. It's the only logical step for him to take."
"That's possible. I have been wrong before, albeit infrequently." Near resisted the urge to pick at his shirt. "If it were only your life at stake, I'd be willing to gamble, but I have no intention of putting Kira in danger again. Tell me where to find your Death Note, and I'll make sure you and Libra both survive. You have my word."
"Survive how? Locked up in cages, like you did Kira?"
"That's how prison generally works, yes."
"Is that a refusal?"
"Yes. I have nothing to say to you. Get out."
"That's unfortunate." Reaching for his hair, Near turned grimly to Rester. "Get the information out of her. I don't have time for this."
"The same way we handled Kira. Take away her oxygen, for a start, then move on to more direct methods if needed. We can't afford to sit around and wait."
Rester's face was hard. "You want me to torture her?"
"If she insists on it, yes. Whatever it takes, Rester. Worst come to worst, she's not the only one with a Death Note."
"You're bluffing," blurted the girl, horrified. "You can't do that, you're not..."
Near raised an eyebrow at her, his voice dripping with contempt. "Now you sound like Kira."
"No. You can't. You can't—"
"I'm out of patience, Ms. Nguyen. Tell me where the notebook is, and I'll protect you and Libra both. Otherwise, I'll make sure whatever harm comes to Light comes to him, too. All of it. Do you understand?"
She stared back at him, her eyes wide with fear and her lips pressed firmly together. After a moment, Rester cleared his throat.
"L, a word outside?"
Near gave the woman one last, withering look, then stalked out. Rester followed a moment later, shutting the door gently behind him.
"I trust your judgment, Near, you know that. But if you expect me to torture a bedridden girl—"
"Of course I don't. I just want her to think you will." Near turned to Ryuk. "You heard all of that?"
"Hyuk. Most of it."
"Good. Go in and talk to her, but don't mention you talked to me. Remind her that she can give up the notebook any time she likes. If she's at all intelligent, she'll take you up on it."
Rester frowns. "If she gives up the notebook, she loses her memories. She'll be useless to us."
"Not useless. The only chance to persuade Libra not to kill them both is to convince him they're already dead. Ryuk's word might be credible enough to convince him, but if he goes back to retrieve the notebook and Julia Nguyen is still the owner—"
"He'll know she's still alive, and Ryuk is lying." Rester glanced up at the shinigami. "Can we trust him?"
"Depends," said Ryuk. "What's in it for me?"
"Entertainment," Near said flatly. "If Libra kills Light, he'll own both notebooks. You won't be able to come spy on us anymore."
"You're moving out. Light's staying here. Seems to me that's true either way."
Near's jaw clenched. "He's kept you amused for years. The least you can do is—" Ryuk's laughter cut through his words, cold and harsh. Unnerved, Near reached for his hair. "I don't see the humor."
"You. Worrying about Light. Hyuk." The shinigami shook his head, still grinning. "Funny how humans work."
Very funny. "He's my responsibility."
"That's your problem. Don't see how it's mine."
"I'll make it yours. If he dies, I'll burn the notebook. Both notebooks. You'll never get another chance to come down here."
"Never, heh? That's an awfully long time. You plan to live forever, Nate River?"
No. Near jerked his hair. "I'll put out a bushel of apples for you. Once a week, from now until Light dies. However long or short that may be."
Ryuk tilted his head, considering. "What kind of apples?"
"Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp. Juicy ones."
"A full bushel?"
"It's a bribe. I have no reason to cheat you."
"I'll send Rester out right now."
"Hmm." The shinigami studied him for a moment, then nodded. "Deal."
"You'll do what I asked you to?"
"Yeah, sure. Hyuk. Why not."
Near's breath left him in a silent torrent. Thank the cosmos. "Rester, if you wouldn't mind..."
"Apples and prepaid cell phones. I'm on it."
Rester walked away, but Ryuk's eyes never left Near. "Never thought I'd see the day you and Light were friends."
"I don't have friends. Just people I pay or force to be here."
"Heh. Sounds like something Light would say."
It was. "Are you going to earn your apples or not?"
"Sure, sure. Just enjoying the moment." Ryuk leaned in, his bulging irises alight with malicious glee. "He called for you, you know that? At the end. Kept staring at the door like he expected you to come in and save him. Never saw that coming, heh. Every time I think I've figured him out...well, you know the feeling, don't you?"
"I do." Near's fingers were clenched on his shirt hem, his voice clipped and cold. "Talk to Julia, then get out. I don't want to see you go near him again."
"I can't promise you that."
Ryuk stared at him a moment longer, hesitating, then vanished through Julia's door. Shaking, Near hugged himself and rocked on the balls of his feet, his nails digging into the skin of his arms. I let this happen. I let this happen. What do I do now? Light might have known, would have had some idea, but there was no way for Near to ask him. For the first time in three years, he was truly on his own.
What do I do?
Still shaking, Near walked away.
"Near, wake up."
Near raised his head groggily from his sleeping bag, glaring at Rester. "I just fell asleep."
"I know. You have a phone call."
Sunlight leaked around the blinds as Near sat up stiffly, rubbing his eyes. Sleeping away from his headquarters was always hard, but in the past he'd at least had beds. Lying on the floor of an unfurnished room had made the task nearly impossible. The last time I spent the night in an empty room was in London, and that wasn't by choice. Or alone. He'd grown calluses over that memory, tried to ignore it, but it hadn't been enough. Lying awake, the guilt had choked him worse than any water ever had.
I promised him this wouldn't be London. I failed.
"What's wrong?" Near asked.
"Matsuda's asking for you. Says it's important."
"I didn't ask. He's calling from a computer, not the cell phone. I told him to hang up and get Halle, but—"
Damn it, Matsuda. Near held out his hand. "Give me the phone."
Rester handed it over without a word, his face grave. Tense, Near pressed it to his ear. "You're using the wrong phone."
"I know, I'm sorry, but Lidner's got the cell phone and she isn't—you told us to call you when Light woke up, but—"
Libra could hear this, you idiot! "He's awake?"
"He was, but he didn't—he started choking on the ventilator, so I took it out, but he wasn't lucid, and Ryuk—Ryuk said—"
"Ryuk came back?" Dread seized Near's mind like a riptide, dragging him down into panic. "Let me talk to Light. Now."
"I can't. Don't you get it? I'm trying to—"
"I don't care what you're trying to do! Let me talk to Light. Now, damn it."
"I can't," Matsuda repeated, his voice shaking. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Light's gone, Near. He died a few minutes ago."
Chapter 11: Near
"Near, open the door."
Near ignored him, adding another pair of cards to his tower. Outside, Rester's knocking grew more insistent.
Go away. Near's hands shook as he reached for new cards, fighting back the urge to rock and moan. Go away and leave me alone. He had no idea how much time had passed since Matsuda's news, but it felt like an eternity—or no time at all. Near wasn't sure.
Near didn't care.
Leave me alone.
The door swung ajar with a crash, and Near jerked in surprise, covering his ears. His Watari stood in the doorway, his face lined with concern. "Near, are you all right?"
Near blinked at him, disoriented, then at the collapsed ruins of his tower. "You broke my door."
"You broke my door."
"It was locked."
"Yes, it was. I assumed, as a detective, you could deduce what that meant."
"I did. That's why I'm here."
Sullen, Near reached for his hair. "I'm fine."
"You dropped the phone without a word and locked yourself in your room. Your team is worried about you, Near. Myself included."
"Leave me alone."
"That's an order."
"No. Libra's still out there, and they're frightened. You brought them into this. They need you to lead."
"Tell them nothing's changed. When Libra makes his next move, I'll deal with it. Until then..." He scooped up his fallen cards, neatening them into a pile to begin again. "Nothing's changed. Tell them that."
"You tell them. You're L. This investigation is your responsibility."
So was Light's safety. "I'll tell them in an hour. Now get out."
Rester let out a breath, seemingly at a loss. "I talked to Lidner after you left. She confirmed what Matsuda told us."
"You thought he was lying?"
"No. I thought you might want to know more about the circumstances."
"One Kira took out another. Those are the circumstances. I don't need any further information than that."
"No one wrote his name, Near. His body simply gave out. Lidner thought you should know that."
"I see." Near rolled a lock of hair between his fingers, reluctant to ask the question that weighed on him. "He was—he was afraid?"
"Matsuda didn't think so. Confused, yes, but not scared. Or in pain."
That's more than his victims could say. Near nodded absently and reached out for his stack of cards. "I see. If that's all—"
"Are you all right?"
"I told you, I'm fine."
"I don't believe you."
"He was my prisoner. Not my friend. He was clear about that. I won't disregard his wishes by pretending otherwise."
"He was always going to die in custody, Rester. If anything, it's overdue. No point in getting worked up over it now."
For a moment, Rester simply watched him. "He's with Roger, at least. A better place."
"Decomposition is a process, not a place."
"You know what I mean."
"I do. And it's nonsense. Even if I believed in a heaven, I wouldn't expect to find Light Yagami there." Near drew another pair of cards, refusing to acknowledge how much his hands were shaking. "Get out of my room."
"It wasn't your fault," Rester said quietly. "Light made a choice."
"He didn't want to die."
"No, he didn't, but he was willing to take the risk. The last thing he'd want now is you trying to take the credit."
Mello took a risk. Roger took a risk. L took a risk. Near's voice was bitter. "I'll keep that in mind."
"He deserved this, Rester. You know it as well as I do."
"Do you really believe that?"
No. Near studied his tower in guilty silence, all too conscious of Rester's eyes on him. "He's a mass-murderer. Was. Saving a few lives doesn't change that."
"More than a few. It took us five years to reconstruct L's case from scratch. How many people would have died while your successor got up to speed?"
Near bristled. "I was thirteen. It wasn't my fault."
"I wasn't blaming you."
"What were you doing, then? Lecturing me on ingratitude? He's dead, Rester. That's all. If you have something that needs my immediate attention, say so. If not, get the hell out of my room."
Rester sighed. "Lidner needs to know what to do with the body."
"Tell her to leave him alone. I'll figure it out when I get back."
"That could be months from now."
I know. "He's not going anywhere."
"He's also not going to keep. You said it yourself: decomposition—"
"Stuff him in the freezer. Once rigor mortis passes, he should be bendable enough to fit."
With a hiss of irritation, Near knocked the card tower flying. Before Rester could respond, someone rapped on the door frame.
"Rester?" Aizawa called. "Lidner wants a word with you."
"Tell her it can wait."
"She says it can't."
"All right. Keep an eye on Near for me, will you?"
I don't need a babysitter. Seething, Near scooped the jumbled cards into a pile as Aizawa came to crouch nearby.
"Can I help?"
Near shook his head. "Just get out."
"It'll go faster if I help."
This time, Near didn't bother to answer. Grabbing as many of the cards as he could, he moved to the opposite corner of the room to rebuild in peace. Behind him, he heard Aizawa sigh.
"It's funny," the man said at last, softly. "When you first showed up claiming Light was Kira, I didn't believe you. He'd proven himself innocent, after all, and all the time I'd spent with him...he was his father's son. Warm, friendly, dutiful. Not as relatable as the Chief—he was too smart for that, talked right over our heads half the time—but we were colleagues. Partners. I came around to the truth faster than the others, and I'm proud of that, but it doesn't change the fact I was wrong. For five years, I was wrong. And you were right. After the warehouse, I promised myself I wouldn't make that mistake again, that I wouldn't let my own feelings interfere with a case. So when I came here and saw Light alive, I was determined not to trust him. Not to let him make a fool out of me again. You told me he'd changed, and I didn't believe you. I couldn't. But I misread him, again, and now—I trusted my emotions above your judgment, and I was wrong. Both times, I was wrong. And you were right. I don't know who that says more about, me or you."
It says more about Light. "I'm not your priest, Aizawa. If you need to make a confession, find someone else."
"He was your friend, wasn't he?"
"He wasn't my friend. He was my responsibility." Near tugged his hair. "Now he's dead."
No, you aren't. "You told him to kill himself."
"Not like that."
"He told me otherwise."
"No. Light promised the Chief that if anything happened to him, he'd put Kira to death himself. He wanted to know what he could do to make me trust him. I told him he could start keeping his promises. I meant to hurt him, not—"
"Give him ideas?"
Aizawa let out a breath. "I'm not proud of how I reacted. But if that's what convinced him to do what he did—well, I can't really say I regret it."
"Of course not. He's dead. You got what you wanted. Now get the hell out of my room."
"Have Lidner cremate him."
Near looked up, indignant. "Excuse me?"
"Lidner wants to know what to do with him, and you don't have time to worry about it. Have him cremated. Once this case is over, we'll take care of the rest."
"The hell you will."
"You want to blame me for what happened. I get that. But if there's one thing I know about Light, it's that he wouldn't want to be buried here. Not when there are people ready and willing to take him home."
Home. Guilt gnawed at Near's stomach, and his eyes fell to the floor. I was going to send him home. Light had never told him his decision, but Near had little doubt what it would have been. Whatever their not-quite-friendship had meant, it hadn't escaped Near's notice that no art of himself had ever appeared on Light's walls. Aizawa's right. He belonged in Japan.
Not that it makes much difference now.
"You won't tell his family?" Near asked.
"No. No point in making them grieve twice. We were his team once. We'll see to it ourselves."
Near nodded slowly. "I'll pay for it."
"You don't have to—"
"He was my responsibility. I'll pay."
"All right. Thank you."
Don't say that. Near raised a dismissive hand, waving Aizawa away. "Full briefing in an hour. Close the door on the way out."
"That may be—the latch appears to be broken."
"I'm aware. Just do your best."
Aizawa's footsteps retreated, and the door creaked shut behind him. Biting back a whimper, Near clutched his head and rocked in place, all pretense of calm deserting him.
"What am I looking at?" asked Near.
"You were right about how he would contact us," said Ide. "I monitored the email account you got Libra's video from. About half an hour ago, we received a message addressed to you. Ten minute mail."
"Can we trace it?"
"We can try, but I doubt it." said Rester. "He took precautions last time. I'm sure he did this time as well."
"What was the message?"
"A taunt," said Mogi.
Of course. "Show me."
Wordless, Ide turned the screen.
HELLO, L. I AM SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS.
"Ten minute mail," said Near quietly. "He'll be logged out by now, won't he?"
"If he had been, we'd have seen a new message by now," said Rester. "No point in emailing us if we can't reply."
Near stared at the words, unblinking, his nails digging into his sleeves. "Move over, Ide."
"Are you sure?"
"He's addressing me. Presumably he wants a response."
Reluctantly, Ide vacated the chair, allowing Near to sink down in his place. Drawing a knee up to his chest for comfort, Near began to type.
And I for yours. She was very young, wasn't she?
He hit the send button and waited, scarcely daring to breathe. A minute later, the computer beeped an alert. New message.
Near clicked on it.
IF YOU WANT TO PROVOKE ME, YOU'LL HAVE TO TRY HARDER THAN THAT.
Near gritted his teeth, and Aizawa whistled quietly. "He's awfully confident, isn't he?"
He is. "Arrogant, not confident, Mr. Aizawa. Confidence is a weapon. Arrogance is a weakness."
"Whichever it is, it's making me nervous," said Ide. "He just took a loss, didn't he?"
"He did. Undeniably." Near considered a moment, then typed out a response.
I'm not here to provoke you, merely to point out your situation. We've lost nothing I can't afford to lose. Meanwhile, you have no allies, no backup plan, and I know exactly who you are. Your life is in my hands now, Libra. If you have any self-preservation instinct, the one who should drop the provocation attempts is you.
Is your caps lock broken, by any chance?
He jabbed the mouse button harder than strictly necessary and sat back to wait.
He didn't wait long.
IT'S AN AESTHETIC CHOICE, BUT THANKS FOR YOUR CONCERN.
Aizawa snorted derision. "Well, if we didn't already know he's a teenager..."
"He's toying with us," Rester said. "I'm with Ide, Near. Something about this doesn't feel right."
The boy's confidence nagged at Near, too, but he shrugged the feeling off. "He's a mass-murderer. Of course it doesn't."
"The last time he acted like this—"
"I'm sure he has a plan in mind, Rester, but I need to know what it is. Given how much he loves condescension, I doubt it'll take much provocation to make him spit it out." Near tapped at the keyboard again, choosing his words with care before hitting send.
You have two options left, Libra. Either you surrender yourself without a fight, or I stop you by force. If you choose the latter, I'll reveal your identity to the world and leave you to the government to deal with. You'll be looking at a death sentence, your family will be dragged through the mud, and your father's political career goes down in flames.
That's option one.
Option two: you surrender of your own accord, and I protect you the way I did Kira. Your family is spared the knowledge of what you've done, your identity remains a secret from those who want you dead, and you can live out your remaining lifespan in peace. In secure custody, of course, but in peace.
The reply was nearly immediate.
I SEE. WHEN YOUR DOG DIES, JUST GET A NEW ONE, RIGHT?
He wasn't a dog. Near's fingers tightened painfully in his hair, his field of vision narrowing to a single word. Don't call him that. He wasn't a dog, he wasn't a dog...
Near looked up to find the Japanese agents staring at him and realized he'd been rocking in his seat. Embarrassed, he let his hand drop, dashing out a curt but measured reply.
You're a mass-murderer, Mr. Wolff, and a political assassin to boot. Given the enormity of your crimes, its as good a deal as you're going to get.
"Do you really think he'll go for that?" asked Ide.
No. "It's worth a try."
"No way this works," said Aizawa. "He's too cocky. There's no way."
"Probably not. But if he gives us more information in the process, it's worth it."
They fell silent again, watching the screen. At last, the response arrived.
OH, DEAR. YOU SEEM TO HAVE FUNDAMENTALLY MISUNDERSTOOD THE NATURE OF THESE NEGOTIATIONS. I HAVE ATTACHED SEVERAL CLARIFYING DOCUMENTS I RETRIEVED FROM THE PERSONNEL FILES OF THE NPA. SINCE I KNOW YOU MAY BE WARY OF OPENING THEM, I WILL SUMMARIZE: THEY CONTAIN THE NAMES AND PHOTOS OF FOUR MEMBERS OF YOUR TEAM, NAMELY TOUTA MATSUDA, SHUICHI AIZAWA, KANZO MOGI, AND HIDEKI IDE. THIS IS A HOSTAGE NEGOTIATION, L. UNLESS YOU WANT THEM DEAD, IT IS MY TERMS YOU SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT, NOT YOURS.
I PROPOSE A MEETING, FACE TO FACE. I HAVE RENTED A STORAGE UNIT WITHIN DRIVING DISTANCE OF US BOTH THAT SHOULD SUFFICE. IN TWO DAYS TIME, I WILL EMAIL YOU THE DETAILS, AND YOU WILL COME TO MEET ME THERE ALONE. YOUR TEAM WILL ASSEMBLE IN YOUR HEADQUARTERS, WITHIN VIEW OF THE SECURITY CAMERAS, TO MAKE CERTAIN NONE OF THEM ATTEMPT TO INTERVENE. ONCE THERE, YOU WILL GIVE ME YOUR NAME. ONCE I HAVE ESTABLISHED YOUR NAME IS ACCURATE, I WILL LEAVE THE REST OF YOUR TEAM IN PEACE, UNHARMED, PROVIDED THAT THEY IMMEDIATELY WITHDRAW FROM PURSUING MY CASE. IF YOU REFUSE TO AGREE TO THESE TERMS OR TRY TO CONTRAVENE THEM, I WILL ENSURE YOUR JAPANESE STOOGES DIE PAINFULLY, ONE BY ONE, WHILE YOU WATCH.
THE CHOICE IS YOURS.
Near stared at the missive, speechless. Beside him, Aizawa cursed loudly.
"I suppose that explains the confidence," said Mogi.
Agitated, Ide shook his head. "I knew it. I knew he had a plan."
"Calm down," said Rester. "Let L think."
"Let L think?" Aizawa snarled. "He's not walking in there, and you know it. Not for us."
"Mr. Aizawa, please." Numbly, Near reached for his hair. "That isn't helpful."
"There's got to be an alternative," said Mogi. "Stall for time, at least."
Near nodded, setting his fingers to the keys.
Don't mince words, Libra. You don't want a meeting. You want my execution.
Again, the reply was swift.
IS THAT A PROBLEM?
Near threaded his fingers through his hair, but the stim brought him little comfort. He wants me to die like Light, terrified and helpless. He wants to mock me as I die. He could feel the eyes of his teammates on him, waiting for guidance, but his voice wouldn't respond. He wants to play a game.
Tense to the point of shaking, he replied.
I have no intention of laying down my life for nothing. What proof do I have you won't kill them anyway?
A minute ticked by, then two. At last, the message came.
WHY WOULD I? AGENTS OF THE LAW ARE MY NATURAL ALLIES, AND I HAVE NO DESIRE FOR UNNECESSARY LOSS OF LIFE. IT WOULD IRREPARABLY HARM MY PUBLIC IMAGE. YOUR TEAM IS NO REAL THREAT WITHOUT YOUR BACKING. FOLLOW MY DIRECTIVES, AND I WILL LEAVE THEM IN PEACE.
You aren't going against my instructions, there is no need for us to be enemies... Grim-faced, Near turned to the rest of his team. "Thoughts?"
"He's lying," said Ide. "If he meant to let any of us live, he wouldn't have asked Light to kill us all."
"I agree." Near plucked at his hair, pensive. "Most likely, he plans to pry the names of Gevanni, Lidner, and Rester out of me, and whatever other information he can get as well. He'd be foolish not to try."
"But if you don't go, Libra kills us all," said Mogi. "Those of us he listed, anyway."
Rester shook his head. "We can arrest him again. No need to worry about them finding Light anymore."
"If Senator Wolff makes a fuss, they'll still find Julia Nguyen. Light may be free of consequences now, but the rest of us aren't." Near's eyes narrowed. "Libra won't follow through on his threat unless I refuse to comply. If I send a message agreeing to his terms—"
"It buys us time," said Ide. "Two days."
"That isn't much," said Aizawa.
"You'd rather die now?"
"Quiet, both of you." Rester looked at Near, concerned. "What do you want to do?"
Two days. Near stared at the screen, his face a careful blank. Why leave me so much time? Confidence or not, it was an irrational risk to run without cause. He's not as prepared as he wants me to think. It's the only explanation that makes sense.
I have a chance.
He began to type.
There's a flaw in your arrangements. I can't drive. If I can bring one member of my team along as a driver, I'll accept your terms. Otherwise, I'll have to decline.
Aizawa frowned. "Is that true?"
"I was thirteen when I began chasing Kira. Believe me, driver's education wasn't exactly—"
Near's inbox pinged.
YOU EXPECT ME TO BELIEVE THAT?
Ignoring the murmurs around him, the detective dashed off another reply.
I'm disabled and rarely leave home, and when I do, one of my team can drive me. I've never had any reason or inclination to learn. Is that a problem? I can leave him in the car if you're concerned.
Near stared at the screen as he waited, tugging at his hair. At last, the reply came.
ONLY ONE PERSON, AND YOU'LL BRING HIM INTO THE UNIT WITH YOU. I DON'T WANT ANY OF YOUR TEAM WHERE I CAN'T SEE THEM. IS THAT ACCEPTABLE?
Thank God. He let out a breath, bending forward to compose his answer.
That's acceptable. One last question. My driver would like permission to retrieve my body afterwards. Is that acceptable to you, or do you have other plans?
This time, Libra didn't hesitate.
FEEL FREE. I HAVE NO USE FOR A CORPSE.
"Near," said Rester quietly. "May I have a word?"
"In a moment."
Very well. I'll wait for the directions. See you in two days.
With preternatural calm, Near shut the laptop and got up from his chair.
"Well, you've bought some time, at least," said Rester.
"Easy for you to say," snapped Aizawa. "You're not going to die if Near doesn't think up a plan."
"We knew there was a possibility Libra knew our names," said Mogi.
"Yeah, we knew. Big difference between a possibility and a threat, though, don't you think?"
You sound like Light. "No one is going to die," Near said firmly. "Print out those emails for reference, then shut the computer down—and not a word about the case or anyone working on it until you leave the room. He's sent us malware before. We have no guarantee those emails were clean."
Mogi nodded. "Understood."
"Good. Rester, come with me."
He walked away in silence, trusting the agent to follow suit. Only once they reached his room again did Rester finally speak.
"We need to call Lidner. Tell her to keep an eye on Matsuda."
"I don't disagree," said Near, "but hold off for now. She still has two patients to look after. If he panics, he won't be any use to her."
"He deserves to know he's been threatened, Near."
"Libra threatening the Task Force is unfortunate, but not that unexpected. Better to hold off on telling him until I have a plan of action to report."
Rester gave him a strange look. "You're being awfully calm about this."
"Would hysterics be more productive?"
"We need to inform Lidner, but for now, I need your phone. There's someone I need to talk to first."
"You have a plan?"
"Most likely, yes."
"Thank God. You had me worried you really meant to meet with Libra."
"I do. That's the plan. Once I make this call—"
"Are you out of your mind?"
Near's fingers twitched at the sudden rise in volume. "I said I would meet with him. I have no intention of giving him my name."
"And if he knows about the eyes?"
"If he did, he would have no need to meet with me. He has footage of all our faces already." The detective wet his lip. "I'm not an idiot. I met Kira and Janus face-to-face as well, and I haven't died yet."
"You came damn close, both times."
"Close and dead are very different things. I'm not going in alone, Rester. I'll be fine."
"Going in there without a plan is suicide, Near. Plain and simple."
"I have a plan."
"Putting yourself in harm's way is not a plan! Gevanni was right. If we treat Libra like we did Mikami—"
"We have no proof. Even if we did, the notebook we have is ownerless now. If we let a civilian use it to kill Libra, they'll own both notebooks."
"Meaning Ryuk will come find them, for certain." Rester put his hands in his pockets, thoughtful. "One of us will have to do it, then."
"You'd rather gamble with the Task Force's lives? If he gets your name—"
"I'll die. And? I'm not a child, and I'm not a coward. I'm done letting other people run my risks for me."
"Even if it gets all of us killed? Our names, your contacts, Wammy's House—if he gets your name, he can have all of it, everything you know. No. I'm sorry, Near. Better to sacrifice a few memories than all of our lives."
"And what a noble sacrifice that would be." Near's voice cracked like a whip, his calm demeanor shattering. "Kira gives his life to stop Libra rather than use a Death Note again, and L uses it to murder a criminal. Not even a criminal, a mere unproven suspect. That's not who I am. That is not what we do. I have no intention of dying, but if I do—if there's even a chance that you're right, that this better place of yours exists, I'm going to go there as an L. Not a Kira."
"I will not do it, Rester, and I'll end the careers of anyone who does. You said this investigation was my responsibility, and now you're trying to wrest it away from me? I'm still L, like it or not, and I'll handle my cases as I damn well please. With or without you. Is that clear?"
Near forced himself to look his Watari in the eye, his hands clenched tight on the hem of his shirt. At last, Rester sighed and nodded, his voice softening in defeat. "Very clear, L."
"Good. Give me the goddamn phone and get out. I'll brief everyone together once I'm done."
Rester held it out to him, his face grim. "You're taking a hell of a risk. I hope you know what you're doing."
"Don't worry. Ryuk said he chose Libra for reminding him of Light." Near's lips quirked upward as he dialed, mirthless. "Time to find out how true that is."
Chapter 12: Near
Holy crap, an update! Sorry for the ridiculously long wait on this one (long story short, unintended pregnancy plus special needs child plus unemployed husband was not a recipe for great mental health or much free time on my part) but now that life seems to be looking up and my daughter actually sleeps once in a while, I'm back to finish what I started. Thanks for not giving up on me, and I hope this chapter is worth the wait.
Near played cat's cradle by touch alone, his eyes fixed on the road outside the window. Besides himself, the house was deserted. Only a pair of handmade masks remained to keep Near company, and their faces—the crude likeness of L he had made six years prior, and a new, rushed facsimile of Roger—were not reassuring. Dead men, murdered mid-case, leaving me to press on. If I die here, who will I leave?
By now, he knew, Gevanni, Lidner, and the Task Force would be assembled in the main room of headquarters in accordance with Libra's orders. A childish part of Near itched to call them, to talk to someone, but he knew there was no point. He was committed now. The last thing he needed was another lecture on the potential flaws of his plan.
The fact Libra hasn't simply killed the Task Force means he doesn't know they know my name, but that doesn't mean we're safe. All it takes is a simple conditional clause in the Task Force's death descriptions—"before dying, discloses to Libra any names of L and his teammates that he knows of"—and Libra can eliminate us all at his leisure. Whatever my team thinks, I have to act before he does.
Rester's car pulled up to the curb, and Near reluctantly pocketed his string. Grabbing his masks, he walked outside and climbed into the front passenger seat.
"You're late," he told the driver sourly.
"Barely is still late."
"This isn't my car, and I haven't driven out here before. Don't take a tone with me."
"My team's lives are at stake here. I can't afford to let Libra think I've stood him up."
"That sounds an awful lot like someone else's problem. Are you always this polite to people doing you favors?"
"No." Abashed, Near fastened his seatbelt. "You didn't have to come."
"Maybe not. But after what you showed me, I won't rest easy until I know the truth."
Near glanced over at his reluctant chauffeur, appraising. He was a middle-aged man in a neat black suit, his eyes framed by rectangular glasses and his hairline receding. He looks nothing like Rester, but he's tall enough. Behind a mask, he'll do.
"I assume you have the key?" Near asked.
"Yes. And a body camera as well. Your agent saw to that." The man patted his tie clip. "Should already be transmitting."
"Excellent. How well can you see without your glasses?"
"Well enough not to walk into things. Not well enough to drive."
"Well enough to leave them behind in the car once we arrive?"
"If I have to."
"Good. Libra's seen the agent you're impersonating, and he doesn't wear glasses. If you show up with them on, he'll notice."
"Makes sense, I suppose. What's that?" Near's driver asked, jabbing a finger at Near's lap.
"I can see that. You've got two. Hasn't he already seen your face?"
"If only you show up in a mask, he'll wonder why I'm hiding your face. If we both do, he'll assume it's a precaution of some sort and not think about it any further."
"Do you really think so?"
"I intend to encourage him in that misconception, yes." The detective ran his fingers over L's face, ill at ease. I gambled with people's lives at the warehouse, too, but I was playing with loaded dice. This time, the stakes are real. "Once we get inside, no matter how tempting it may be, don't say a word. When you're certain—if you're certain—just give me a signal. Do you understand?"
"I understand. Though, as I said before—"
"Even if Libra is who I think he is, I can't guarantee he won't kill you to save himself. I refuse to put you through that risk unless you're one hundred percent convinced."
"And if I never am?"
Upon witnessing the deaths of his team, becomes consumed by feelings of guilt... "That's your prerogative."
"That's not what I'm asking."
"I know." Near shrugged and looked down at his mask. "Libra is my responsibility, not yours. I'll figure something out."
The metal door rasped open, and Near ventured warily inside, resisting the urge to cover his ears. The storage unit was smaller than he had envisioned, barely eight feet by ten, its walls lined with boxes and old junk that seemed unlikely to belong to a teenage boy. An abandoned unit, bought as is under a fake name. Even now, he's cautious. A black and white television sat atop a stack of boxes, one antenna snapped off. Along the opposite wall stood a wicker chair, its seat punched out and never replaced. Even for Near, the effect was claustrophobic, like being shut into a walk-in closet.
Or a cell.
Near looked behind him, relieved to see the door still open. Turning back, he noticed a tattered blanket draped over a cot along the far wall, a shock of brown hair barely visible at one end.
That can't be him.
His eyes narrowed as he approached the recumbent figure. "Libra?"
Cautiously, Near pulled back the blanket—and recoiled in horror. It was a mannequin, bewigged and clothed in gray, its face painted yellow in a slit-eyed caricature of a Japanese man. Robotic laughter flooded the unit, but Near barely noticed, his knuckles clenched white with fury.
How dare he. How dare he. How dare—
"What do you think, L?" asked the computerized voice. "I'm not much of an artist, but I think it's a decent likeness. Don't you?"
Dummy-Light leered up from the cot, a streak of red arcing across his right cheek like a second smile. Near made a small, strangled noise, unable to look away. "You have no right," he choked out at last. "You have no right."
"What do you mean? I made it just for you. It's a terrible thing to die alone. I thought a little company might be a comfort."
You have no right. Near's fingernails dug into his palms as he stared at the mannequin, Libra's words a distant echo in his mind. A firm hand fell on Near's shoulder, and he jumped in surprise, staring up into his inexpertly painted likeness of Roger.
"Are you all right?" Near's masked companion asked quietly.
Near nodded and shrugged off the hand, his heart racing. Libra wanted to rattle me, and he has. I need to focus. Twisting a finger in his hair, he looked around for the source of Libra's voice. "You said this was supposed to be a meeting. If you merely wanted to communicate remotely—"
"It would have been, if you'd agreed to my original plan, but you insisted on bringing a driver. I'm happy to leave your team alone, but I don't trust them that much."
Liar. "If you're not here, how do you intend to verify I'm not just playing dead?"
"You don't know the description I've written for you. Believe me, I'll be able to tell."
"Ah, of course. I saw the last description you wrote for me. I imagine my cause of death hasn't changed much." Near's eyes alighted on a pair of speakers half-hidden behind boxes in the corner. He won't have put the camera there, but where...? "How did you word it? 'Consumed by feelings of guilt and failure—' "
"Nice try, L, but I have no intention of showing you my hand. Not yet, anyway."
"You brought me here to die. The least you could do is give me some idea how much pain to expect."
Even through the voice changer, Libra's amusement was obvious. "If you're that impatient to find out, I could always—"
"No, thank you," Near said curtly. "I can wait."
A low chuckle emanated from the speakers, but the detective barely heard it. His eyes swept the ceiling, narrowing a the telltale red light of Libra's camera. He wants me dead, but he's in no rush. Just as I expected. For all his supposed similarities to Light, Nick Wolff reminded Near far more powerfully of Janus. So long as Near restrained himself to bitterness rather than outright defiance, Libra would happily prolong the conversation just to watch him squirm. He wants to gloat; I want him to keep talking. For now, our intentions are aligned.
"Those masks are hideous, you know," said Libra. "I assume you made them yourself?"
"I did. Though from what I see of your art skills, you have no right to judge."
"At least you could tell who mine was meant to be. What is that thing on your face, L?"
"Yikes. Are all Ls required to be ugly?"
Irritated, Near touched his mask. "Perhaps. Does it matter?"
"No. I'm just curious why you bothered."
"Some of Kira's associates could kill with only a face. Since you now own Julia Nguyen's notebook, I'm taking no chances. I'd like to finish this conversation uninterrupted, and as for the designs...well, as you said. It's a terrible thing to die alone."
"And my company isn't sufficient? Ouch."
"Mannequins and disembodied robot voices aren't particularly comforting, no. Especially when the voice may not even be yours."
"Oh, it's mine this time...just with modifications. I'm taking no chances, either."
"Yes, of course. You're very prudent." Near picked a bit of fluff from his shirt, the picture—he hoped—of detached disdain. "I suppose stealing a dead woman's voice is too much work for a real-time conversation."
"It was hardly stealing. She wasn't using it."
"Because you murdered her."
"Does it matter? All those speeches, and not a single point worth making. My broadcast was the first time she ever said anything sensible."
"Disagreeing with your father politically is not a crime."
Libra didn't rise to the bait. "She spent years slandering crime victims to let rapists and murderers go free. I'd call that criminal."
"She was a public defender before running for office, and not everyone the police arrest is guilty. I'd be careful about denouncing defense attorneys, Libra. Your life may depend on one someday."
"You intend to represent yourself at trial, then?"
"Irrelevant. Whatever she thought of his actions, Elle Saunders would have defended Kira to the best of her ability. Just as she would have done for you, had she been assigned to your case."
"Which she wouldn't have. Cut the hypocrisy, L. For all your moralizing about the importance of trials, you never intended to give me one."
Well, he's not wrong. "I would if I could. The homicide statutes weren't written with killer notebooks in mind."
"The laws on false imprisonment and harboring fugitives aren't unclear."
"I broke the law to save a life. You broke it to take lives. There's a difference."
"You didn't save much."
Near wet his lip, glancing over at the dummy. "I'm aware."
"I considered turning you in, you know. Letting the government sort you both out for me. Discrediting you seemed a kinder option than death, and unmasking Kira would have ended the insulting speculation that he and I were the same person."
"Why didn't you?"
"You knew too much. Besides, it felt like cheating. If I were going to beat you two, I wanted it to be at your own game."
"I see. For someone so determined to distinguish yourself from Kira, you follow his methods remarkably closely."
"I did. Not anymore. Purging the world of crime is a noble goal, but Kira's approach was far too limited. Without you to worry about, I'll finally be free to expand."
Keep him talking. "More defense attorneys, I take it?"
"No. Their jobs will disappear soon enough. What Kira never understood is that chasing criminals is treating a symptom, not the source. Addicts, welfare scroungers, illegals, the incurably mentally ill—at best, they're a drain on society, and at worst, violent crimes waiting to happen. Deterrence doesn't work on irrational minds. Once their numbers are culled, we might finally get somewhere."
"Ah. Eugenics." Near's fingers gripped the hem of his shirt. "How original."
"Not eugenics. I'm targeting the problem people only, not their children."
"For now. Having your parents murdered and growing up in foster care isn't a recipe for stable, productive adults."
"That sounds an awful lot like someone else's problem. If they follow in their parents' footsteps, that's on them. They have free will, just like everyone else."
"Political scientists would disagree with you."
"Let them. As a wise man once told me, if political scientists really understood their subjects, they'd be politicians."
The masked man beside Near sucked in a breath, but Near resisted the urge to turn. "Most politicians would disagree with you, too, I suspect. President Sairas was nearly impeached over his support for Kira. I doubt anyone will be in a hurry to repeat his mistake."
"They only turned on Kira after he lost. I don't intend to lose."
"Neither did Kira."
"I'm not him. This conversation is going in circles, L. Give me your name, and let's end this."
Near glanced over at his fake Rester. Slowly, reluctantly, the man nodded.
I've got him.
Feigning calm, Near lifted off his mask. "Before I die, may I ask one more question?"
"Just one. How much does it bother you that Light Yagami won?"
There was a moment of silence from the speakers. "I don't understand the question."
"Sure you do. You're foolish, but not stupid." Near smiled mirthlessly at the camera, his tone dripping disdain. "You're not a crusader for justice, just a common mass-murderer who thinks killing is a game. And perhaps it was, to you, but I'm not the opponent you meant to play. Your video stunt was full of references to Kira, but not a single mention of L. I was an obstacle to you, nothing more. It was Kira you wanted to beat."
"I beat both of you. I don't—"
"I played right into your scheme, yes. I'll admit that. But if you expect me to believe you wanted Light Yagami to save my team's lives and kill your best ally in the process, I'd say you've finally misread me. He ruined your plans, eliminated your best ally, and gave me the chance I needed to confront you, and all you can do to him in reprisal is make a childish effigy he'll never see. He won, Mr. Wolff. You trapped him in a cell with a gun to his head, and Light Yagami still got what he wanted."
"Some victory," Libra snarled. "He's dead."
"On his own terms, beyond your ability to punish or make an example of. Light Yagami was brilliant, and—twisted as it was—he had a moral code. But you? You're a plagiarist—a cheap imitation, nothing more. That's why Kira evaded capture for six years, and Libra barely lasted six weeks. You're nothing special. Just one more criminal Kira managed to take down."
"Enough." The computerized voice snapped like a whip, harsh and angry. "You're stalling for time. Give me your name, L. Now.
"Senator Mark Wolff."
"Your own name."
"No, Nick." The man beside Near removed his mask, speaking up for the first time. "I'm here."
A sharp intake of breath resonated through the speaker. "What is he doing here?"
Checkmate. "You wanted to beat Kira, not me. What wasn't clear from your video, though, was why. Why reach out to Kira in secret, but revile him publicly in the same message? Even assuming Ryuk told you nothing about Light, Kira's touchy ego was common knowledge ten years ago. As far as you knew, shaming him would make him less likely to help you, not more. You weren't doing it to mislead me, either; your plan depended on me noticing the hidden code, too. The only logical explanation is that there was another target for your message, someone you wanted to convince that you weren't Kira. That you were superior to Kira. All I had to do was figure out who you were trying to impress—and your touchiness on the subject of your father, coupled with his very public opposition to Kira, made him a fairly simple guess."
"L contacted me two days ago," said the senator. "Admitted to having taken you for interrogation, but asked to meet me in person to apologize. Said I deserved to know the chain of events leading to your becoming a suspect."
"After reviewing the evidence, Senator Wolff has kindly agreed to become my successor," said Near. "If I die, my team will step down as you requested, but the investigation itself will go on. Just as you faked the voice of his opponent, I've given him the ability to mimic mine—and his first action will be to order the arrest and questioning of his son, Nicholas Wolff. Is that a problem?"
"I told you you could bring a member of your team," said Libra, agitated. "Not a stranger. I told you—"
"And I brought him anyway. Criminals don't make the rules, Mr. Wolff. It's about time you recognized that." Near shrugged. "You could still kill my Japanese teammates, of course, but your situation won't change in the slightest. Even eliminating me won't benefit you anymore. Not unless you kill your father as well."
"I know it's you, Nick." Senator Wolff's voice was oddly hushed, as if he were speaking at a funeral. "I wouldn't have taken that mask off if I wasn't sure."
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
Yes, you do. Despite the digital alterations to Libra's voice, the boy's desperation was plain to hear. He has the senator's name and face now. If Libra were anyone else but Nick Wolff, he wouldn't hesitate. Near couldn't sympathize, not with Libra, but he felt a twinge of pity. For all Libra's scorn toward Light, they shared a weakness after all.
"I didn't want to believe it. I still don't. But after watching the tape of your interrogation, I had to know. I had to. And now, when you quoted me...why the hell did you do it, Nick? What was the point?"
Libra cut himself off too late, his horror almost palpable, but the senator didn't seem to notice. "You think I wanted this? You think I wanted Elle Saunders murdered? You dragged some poor girl into this, you threw your life away, and for what? To impress me? Is that really what you think I'd want?"
"You said Kira had some good ideas, but foreign terrorists shouldn't interfere with our laws. I just thought—if the power came to me—"
"That I would feel differently about a domestic terrorist than a foreign one, is that it?"
"I'm not a terrorist!"
"I just listened to you lay out a plan to murder American citizens for political ends. Nick, what the hell do you think a terrorist is?"
"It's over, Mr. Wolff," Near interjected. "The choice I offered you still stands. Tell me where you are, and I'll send an agent to collect you."
"Suit yourself. But if you harm any of my agents, Senator Wolff and I will go public. Your name and face will be in every police station, worldwide—and once you're caught, you'll spend whatever time remains before your execution among the very inmates you've been hunting. I'm sure you'll all be excellent friends."
An eerie, staccato sound ebbed from the speakers, halfway between sobbing and wild laughter. Suddenly uneasy, Near pinched his hair between his fingers. I've heard that sound before. If he goes after the Task Force anyway... "I'm not trying to torture you. I'm trying to help you. Turn yourself in, and I'll make sure you're protected. You and your family both."
"Listen to him, Nick," said the senator. "Turn yourself in. Don't throw your life away."
"I can't. I'm sorry, Dad. I don't—I can't."
"Don't be a fool. I don't approve of what you did, but I don't want you dead. Just turn yourself in and end this. Please."
This isn't good. "Your father wants to help you, Mr. Wolff. Stop sulking and give us an address."
"ATO House. 185 North Broadvale. By Old Main." The robotic voice was softer again, almost fearful. "I'm sorry."
The senator released a breath, but Near merely nodded. "You're doing the right thing. Rester, report to 185 North Broadvale. We'll meet you there. Senator, how far is that from here?"
"About half an hour."
"Half an hour. All right. Libra, if you could just—"
"Hyuk. Too late."
Near froze. Even through the voice changer, the shinigami's amusement was unmistakable. Oh, no. "What do you mean?"
"You'll see soon enough."
"Ryuk, what the hell do you mean?"
"There's no one there," said Senator Wolff. "Who are you—?"
"Be quiet. Ryuk, answer me."
"Relax, Near. No one's dead that you care about, if that's your concern."
"No one's dead that I—?" Near looked over at the cot, dawning horror in his mien. "Nick Wolff, speak up."
"Libra. Talk to me."
Light's mannequin smiled up at him, silently mocking. Somber, Near pulled the blanket over its face.
Senator Wolff wet his lip. "L?"
"Change of plans. You go on without me. I have a problem to deal with here."
"What's going on? Who were you talking to?"
"I'm sorry, Senator." Near didn't look up. "Your son is dead."
Lidner's face loomed large on the video screen. "It's over?"
"Yes. The police found Nick Wolff's body an hour ago, and his notebook is in Rester's possession. It's over."
"Are you all right?"
"Senator Wolff is taking it hard, but he doesn't blame us. He's agreed to go testify before the ICPO about what he witnessed in exchange for Libra's identity remaining classified. That should assuage any doubts on their part."
"I didn't ask about Senator Wolff. I asked about you."
"I'm fine." Liar. "Once we're done with the police, I'll be there to debrief everyone. I'm sure the Task Force are eager to get home."
"Can you blame them?"
"No. Though I've gotten rather used to having them around."
"Don't sound so self-pitying. I'm sure they'd be happy to let you visit."
"I certainly hope so. I plan to fly out for Light's funeral, at least."
A strange, startled expression crossed Lidner's face, and she bit her lip. "Right. About that. I consulted with Aizawa, and...well, we've decided to postpone the cremation for a while."
"Was there a problem?"
"Sort of. You see—"
"He changed his mind." Damn it, I should have seen this coming. "I understand. I'll figure something out when I get back, we ought to—"
"No, Near, not quite. It's just that, on second thought, he didn't think it was what Light would want." Lidner's voice was even, but her lips quirked upward as she spoke. "Under the present circumstances, at least."
Near frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, come on," rasped an offscreen voice, barely audible. "Stop teasing him and turn the goddamn screen."
"Lidner, what the hell is—?"
The image on the screen abruptly turned, and Near's breath caught in his throat. In a nearby bed, a familiar figure struggled to sit up, his face pale and bisected by a nasal cannula. When he noticed the phone pointed in his direction, he waved, a weak grin crinkling the scar tissue on his right cheek.
Lied. Lied to me. They lied, they lied, he lied...
Near stared at his prisoner, wide-eyed and shaking. "You—you—you—"
"Me," Light said weakly. "Sorry to mislead you."
"I know this looks awful, but we didn't have much choice," Lidner's voice put in. "When you get here, I can ex—"
Near hung up.
Chapter 13: Light
Light grimaced and tried to sit up, shifting uncomfortably against his pillows. "I didn't—"
"Not you, Kira. You shut the hell up." Angry red splotches marred Near's pale face, and his voice had razors in it. "I was talking to Lidner and Matsuda."
Matsuda fidgeted, his eyes darting from Light to his boss. "It wasn't his fault."
"So the plan to lie to me about my own prisoner was your idea?"
"No. Well, sort of..."
"We signed off on it," Lidner said calmly. "You don't really think we'd let Light call the shots without oversight, do you?"
"I didn't think you'd let Kira call the shots at all! What the hell were you thinking?"
"Please don't shout," said Matsuda. "He's supposed to be resting."
"He's supposed to be serving a life sentence for mass-murder, not countermanding my orders!"
I missed you, too. "I didn't."
Near ignored him. "Kira is my responsibility. It's my job to know where he is at all times. If he can persuade my own team to hide him from me—"
"You knew exactly where he was," said Lidner. "We told you he was here."
"You told me he was dead!"
"You told Matsuda I was dead for five years. He told you I was dead for a couple of days." Amused, Light plucked at the cannula running across his cheek. "Show a little perspective."
"Light Yagami." Near's voice was acid. "If you want to end up downstairs again, by all means, keep talking."
"You can't put him downstairs," said Matsuda anxiously. "It's occupied. Julia Nguyen—"
"Will make room if I tell her to."
Near rounded on Matsuda, hissing in wordless fury, and Light's breath caught in his throat. I didn't expect him to be this angry. "It's all right. L, can we discuss this in private?"
Near glared at him for a moment. Then his shoulders dropped. "Fine. Lidner, Matsuda, get out.
Matsuda bolted. Lidner did not. "Light, are you sure—?"
"The boss has spoken."
Light's eyes flicked to Near, but the detective looked unamused. A moment later, they were alone, the tense silence between them broken only by the rhythmic hissing of Light's oxygen. I wish he would stop staring at me. I wish he would speak.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," said Light.
"I thought you were one."
"I'm corporeal, I promise." He held out his hand. "If you don't believe me—"
"That won't be necessary."
They lapsed back into silence, staring at each other. At last, Light sighed and let his hand drop. "You're being ridiculous, Nate. If you've got something to say—"
"Don't 'Nate' me, Kira. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I thought you'd be happy to see me."
"I'm glad you survived. I'm outraged you lied to me."
"Technically, I didn't. Matsuda did."
"At your direction. You're in my custody, Yagami, and you know full well why. You do not hatch plots without my knowledge." Near's hands clenched at his sides, his nostrils flaring. "I ought to handcuff you to that bed."
This is hardly the time to engage in sexual perversions. Light bit his lip to suppress a grin. "Be reasonable. If I wanted to kill you, I could have done it without gassing myself."
"That's not the point. You broke the rules. You manipulated my own team into lying to me."
"I didn't manipulate them. I asked. You gave up your chance to interrogate Libra's co-conspirator to keep me alive. They assumed you would want me to stay that way."
"Don't flatter yourself. Libra knew you had vital information about me. I was trying to keep it away from him. Nothing more."
"So was I. Your gambit wasn't going to work. Libra wasn't going to believe he'd lost a key asset solely on the word of a mercenary shinigami. Not a chance."
"And you thought the word of one of my agents would be more credible?"
"The trick to lying believably is to tell people what they already want to believe. To justify killing you, Libra had to tell himself you were untrustworthy. To justify what happened to Julia, he had to believe he'd damaged your cause worse than I did his. Ryuk's word wouldn't fit either narrative, but Matsuda giving news of my death in a way that confirmed you'd been lying earlier and suggested you were desperate to keep me alive—"
"He'd want to believe it."
Near sighed, his scowl easing. "You could have told me."
"Both of your reactions had to look genuine for this to work. Matsuda's that good an actor. You aren't."
"You could have told me afterwards."
"I was more use to you as a failsafe. Libra could have gotten your name through Matsuda or any of the Task Force, had he thought to try it, but he wouldn't have pressed them for any other information. Had he gotten control of you, though, he would have grilled you for every bit of information he could. I tested the notebook's limits pretty thoroughly. You couldn't have revealed I was alive to Libra if you yourself didn't know I was."
"I can see how that helps you. I don't see how it helps me. If you took over as L to hunt Libra down, he would have realized what had happened fairly soon."
"Hunting him wasn't the plan. Eliminating him was." Light coughed, wincing at the pain in his still-raw throat. "I'm sure Lidner's disposed of it now, but she left a scrap of paper in her desk drawer, just in case. If Libra had—"
"She did what?"
"I know how it sounds."
"No. You don't. If you did, you would never have suggested it."
"Do you think your teammates are stupid? Lidner only did it after I suggested adequate safeguards."
"Adequate safeguards? You're Kira. There are no adequate safeguards on your own damn murder weapon!"
"'Car accident. After burning his Death Note, walks carelessly out into traffic and is struck and killed by a passing car.' Lidner wrote it all out, then shellacked and lacquered everything except for a small space for me to write the name. I couldn't change the description if I wanted to."
"You could still write someone else's name."
"What would be the point? I had one scrap, with barely enough space for one name. The only way I could get at my notebook would have been to control a member of your team to retrieve it, but I couldn't get out to the paper without being caught—and even if I had, I couldn't have altered the description to work for me. The only way to get Libra's notebook from him would be to kill him and take it, but the description would have prevented that. At most, I could have killed one person, and Libra was much more of a danger to me than anyone else was. It might not have been plan A, but it wasn't a risk."
"That's not your call to make, Kira. Not Lidner's, and certainly not yours." Near's face was stoic, but his voice was anything but calm. "I ought to have you dragged downstairs right now."
Shit. "I would appreciate it if you didn't."
"Give me one good reason why not."
"I saved your life."
"And then you lied to me to get your hands on notebook paper."
"You used a notebook as a last resort to stop Mikami and I from doing something worse. You have no right to judge me. I just proposed the same failsafe you did." Light kneaded the bedcovers without thinking, nervous. "I had Death Note paper in my hands this week already. You know that. If I wanted to turn against you, I would have done it then."
"That's not the point. Stop justifying yourself. Stop."
"I'm not justifying. I'm explaining. I broke the rules for a reason. If you want to send me downstairs for that..." He wet his lip. "Just let me take my oxygen with me. Please."
For a long moment, Near stared at him, his face unreadable. "I'm not sending you downstairs. But don't ever suggest something like that again, for any reason. Understood?"
Thank God. "I understand."
"Good." Near released his hair and folded his arms. "What did the doctor say?"
"That my tennis comeback is definitely cancelled."
"You're not funny."
"Good news and bad. The good news is that you're stuck with me for a while. My lungs shouldn't get any worse."
The tension drained from Near's face. "And the bad news?"
"They won't get any better, either. I'm going to cost you a fortune in my old age, if I make it that long."
"That's fine. If I make it that long, I'll pay it."
So he does still have a sense of humor. That's a relief. "Your plan was a good one, by the way. Bringing in his father."
"Afterwards. Lidner played it back for me."
"Oh." Near fidgeted, tugging at his sleeve. "She shouldn't have shown you that."
"What, because Libra insulted me? He was a childish piece of shit. I expected nothing less." It wasn't strictly true—the dummy had bothered him more than he wanted to admit—but the lie came smoothly to his lips. "That eulogy you gave me, though...I didn't expect that."
The detective's face took on a faint pink tinge. "Yes, well. I thought you'd died."
"Sorry to disappoint."
"I didn't say I was disappointed."
Light cracked a weak smile, gratified to see Near return it. A moment later, Light was coughing again, his throat and ribs burning with the strain. "Damn it."
"Does it hurt?"
"I've felt worse."
"That's not what I asked."
Light hesitated before nodding. "It's pretty bad."
"I'll talk to the doctor. See what I can do."
"I'm already on a drip. It's fine."
"I said I'll talk to the doctor. I didn't ask for your opinion."
Near frowned. "You're not fighting me."
"Wish I could. Don't have the energy."
"I guess that's fair." The detective fidgeted, staring at Light's hands. "You scared me."
Oh. Coming from anyone else, it would have been a mild rebuke. Coming from Near, it bordered on confession. Light wet his lip. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd care. Not that much, at least."
"I have to care. You're my responsibility."
"I'm trying to be serious, Light."
"So am I."
Silence descended once more, and Light rubbed his aching throat, grateful for a break in the conversation. When he put his hand back down, Near reached out for it, careful not to disturb the IV port taped onto Light's wrist.
That's new. "It wasn't your fault."
"I didn't say it was."
"Oh." Light looked down at the pale hand resting on his, strangely reassured. "So, what's the verdict?"
"You appear to be corporeal."
"I told you. Thankfully, the rest of the team was more easily convinced."
Near pulled his hand back. "How did they react?"
"They took it fairly well, but they've had practice. Don't count on Aizawa showing up to my funeral, though. Next time, he won't believe I'm dead without a notarized autopsy report."
"I suppose that's reasonable. He's already been to one funeral for you, and he was expecting to take you back to Japan to bury again."
"I know. Once he stopped swearing, he told me." Light coughed helplessly, his grip tightening on the covers. Damn it. "I told him he should be happy to avoid the inconvenience."
Near huffed, amused. "I'm sure he loved that."
"He threatened to choke me again. I think he may have been serious."
"He could still take you to Japan, you know."
"Is that a threat?"
"I meant alive." The detective looked down at him, his lip between his teeth. "My offer still stands. I built my headquarters here to avoid dragging my team away from their homes. Your situation is different, but the principle isn't. I'm happy for you to stay here, but if you would prefer to live out your sentence in Japan, I'll make sure it happens. The task force won't say no."
Back to Japan. Light swallowed painfully, the ramifications of Near's offer racing through his mind. His cell would never feel like home, no matter what country it was in, but the totality of his exile had settled like dust upon his soul. If I go, I'll look like I belong there, and I'll hear my own language again. I can taste Mom's cooking. I can meet Sayu's son. He would have to give up working cases, but he could live with that. After five years of ghosthood, feeling like a person again would be reward enough.
"I can't." The words dragged from Light's lips, reluctant to be said. "I appreciate the offer, but I have work to do here."
Near frowned. "My team and I managed just fine before you joined."
"I'm not worried about the team."
"You're keeping her, aren't you?"
"Not by choice."
"By necessity. I know." She knows too much about him. Too much about me. Near couldn't risk a trial for Julia Nguyen, any more than he could have for Light. She would linger, isolated, in the same cell Light knew and loathed, without even a Roger to make her sentence bearable. Light didn't have to wonder what that would feel like. He knew.
My successor, she called herself. She wasn't wrong.
"Let me look after her," Light said. "Somebody has to, and you can't deny I've got the most free time."
"I don't expect you to do that."
"He would not. You nearly died down there, Light."
"We both did. If she can stand it, so can I."
"If this is a ploy for me to add you onto the biometrics—"
"No. Someone can let me in and out. Just put in a buzzer system so I can let someone know when I'm ready to come up."
"By the time I do that, it would be less work just to have Rester feed her."
"It's not just feeding her. Even I would have fallen apart without Roger to talk to, and she's not me. If I leave her here, she's not going to make it." Just like Misa. Just like Takada. Just like Mikami. "It wasn't me who convinced her to kill anyone, but I'm still the reason she's here. If Libra's not here to take responsibility, I should. That's what Roger would tell me. And my father—I think he would, too."
Near studied him for a moment, hesitating. At last, he nodded. "All right. But I'm not letting you anywhere near those stairs until the doctor says you can handle it. Fair?"
Light smiled. "Fair."
"Good. You should get some rest."
"I've been in bed for days."
"That doesn't necessarily mean you've been resting."
"Well, I certainly haven't been getting laid."
"I would hope not." The detective sighed. "I ought to talk to the rest of the team. Get some sleep while I'm gone."
"Don't call me sir."
"Better." Near paused in the doorway, turning back to meet his prisoner's eyes. "Light?"
"Roger would be proud."
Those fucking stairs.
The world believed Light Yagami dead and buried, but in truth, he was only winded. Just beyond the first metal door, he pressed a hand to the wall as he stopped to catch his breath. Lidner clucked her tongue in disapproval. "Going down is the easy part, Yagami. Are you sure you're up for this?"
"Don't be stubborn."
He glared at her. "I'm fine."
"All right. I suppose Rester can carry you back up, if necessary."
I've been carried before. "Not necessary."
"Oh, I'm sure. But I'll have him come to retrieve you, just in case." She pressed her fingers into the gel and peered into the retinal scanner, prompting the second door to swing loudly ajar. "Just buzz us when you're done, all right?"
Light nodded and walked forward, his grip tightening on the bag he carried. Dull as his old cell had once seemed, the sight of it now set his heart racing for reasons unrelated to the exertion of getting there. Nothing's going to happen. I can do this. I can. The door slammed shut behind him, and he winced, turning toward it with sudden panic.
"What are you doing here?"
Julia stood just beyond the bars, watching him, her face puffy and miserable. Light shrugged. "I thought you might want some company."
"I'm not here to gloat."
"I don't believe you."
I can't imagine why. Light walked toward the bars, holding his bag up for her inspection. "I've been studying chess tactics while I was recovering. Thought you might enjoy a game."
"You have time for that?"
He smiled wryly, picking at his scrubs. "I'm stuck here, too. If there's one thing I have plenty of, it's time."
"No, I know that, but I thought—I didn't think you'd want to spend it down here. With me."
"Because I tricked you into gassing us? If anything, you should be the one hating me."
Julia wet her lip. "He was going to kill you. Whether you helped us or not. I knew that. I was—I was lying."
I know. "Don't worry about it."
"I tried to kill you."
"I've tried to kill every person in this building at some point, you included. If you can get past it, so can I." He slung the bag down at his feet, sighing. "I've been where you are. Physically and mentally. I spent almost two years in that cell before L was willing to let me out."
"Years?" Her voice rose in horror. "How did you stand it?"
"Because I had company. Do you want to play me, or—?"
"Yes, please. I'll play."
"Good." Light smiled and sat down, setting up the board just beside the bars. After a brief hesitation, she sat as well, pushing her glasses nervously up her nose.
"I'll be black," she offered.
"That's kind of you."
"You're lower ranked."
"No ranking at all is technically lower, yes." He slid the king's pawn forward. Her reply move was immediate. "You play Sicilian, huh? Aggressive."
Julia smiled. "You have been studying."
"I wouldn't lie about that."
"Don't expect me to be impressed."
"I won't. I'm better at Go and shogi than chess, and hardly a master at either. Though I am a quick study."
They played a few moves without words, furtively eying each other between moves. As a chess player, she was focused and ruthless, entirely unlike the nervous, hesitant girl she had first appeared. Which one did Libra think he was getting, when he chose to use her? Light didn't dare ask.
"Why did L let you out?" asked Julia.
"He needed my help on a case. Once I proved my value to him, he decided to use me more often."
"He'll let you out, too. Just give it some time."
She moved a piece, shaking her head. "L hates me."
"He'll come around."
"I shot his agent. He hates me."
"Gevanni will be jumpy around you for a while, for sure. But he'll get past it. So will L, eventually. He's forgiven worse." Light cracked a tight, rueful smile. "A lot worse."
"You tried to kill him, didn't you?"
"With a scrap of Death Note paper, while he and his team watched. It didn't end well for me."
Julia wet her lip. "That's why they shot you."
"Why would you do that?"
"I told you. Wait long enough—get desperate enough—and everyone makes mistakes. Even Kira."
Her eyes were on the board, but Light could see the moisture in them. "Or Libra," he agreed.
She said nothing for a long moment, pretending to consider her next move. At last, she captured his knight and looked up. "You were right."
"About making mistakes?"
"That woman. Lidner. She said—she said L told him I was dead."
"To protect you. Yes."
"And Nick didn't care."
Of course he did, Light was tempted to lie, but there was no question in Julia's voice. Just a hushed, reluctant statement of fact. "I'm afraid not."
"I should have believed you. I thought you were trying to trick me out of killing your friends, but—"
"I was. Doesn't mean I was lying." My friends, she says. "If I gave you some advice now, would you believe me?"
She nodded. "Please."
"If you're going to fixate on the past, remember that you made a difference. Not as much as you wanted, but some. There are people out there, hundreds of them, who only sleep soundly at night because you took away their monsters. There are people out there who are only alive because of you, even if they don't know it. Whatever happens to the crime rate now, their lives are forever better. Because of you. However much L tries to convince you otherwise—and he will—it was worth it. For them."
"That's what you think?"
"That's what I try to."
Julia stared at the board. Then she sighed and nudged a piece forward. "Is that all?"
"Lidner's a decent person once you get to know her, but she can carry a grudge forever, so mind your manners around her. Gevanni will be jumpy around you for a while, but he's not the vengeful type. Neither is Rester. You'll be fine with them."
"Will ignore you for as long as he can. Don't worry, though. He's got more of a soft side than you'd expect by watching him. Unless you act up, he won't leave you here forever."
"Or torture me?"
Light looked up. "Who said anything about that?"
"L did. He said—he said they'd done it before."
"He's got no reason to hurt you. You'll be fine."
"That's not a denial."
No, it isn't. "Everyone makes mistakes."
"That's a pretty big mistake."
"Says the girl who tried to murder me."
Her face reddened. "Oh."
"Relax. I was teasing."
"I really am sorry about that."
He slid his queen across the board. She grinned. "Mate in three."
"If I move my knight here, your king is exposed to my queen. The only place you can retreat to is here, but if you do, my queen comes in to check you. Taking her with your rook is your only option, but that cuts off your king's retreat completely. Once I move my knight back to where he started..." Triumphant, Julia tucked her hair behind her ear. "Checkmate."
Whatever I do. Light studied the board a moment longer, then reached through the bars to shake her hand. "Well, well. You really are that good."
She beamed at the compliment. "You doubted me?"
"A little, yeah. Won't make that mistake next time."
"You don't really think I'm letting you off without a rematch, do you?" He flicked over his king, amused, then began gathering the pieces. "I've clearly got a lot to learn."
"I like a challenge."
"No, I mean...why waste your time on me?"
Because I'm lonely. Because I'm bored. Because someone did this for me, when I was down here, and he'd expect me to do the same for you. Every rationale he could think of sounded pathetic, yet every one of them seemed to fit. Because you're the only person left alive who can't judge me. Because somehow, you remind me of Misa, but you remind me of Sayu, too.
Because it's my fault.
"I can't come out of my room without a reason," he replied smoothly. "According to Near, this qualifies."
Julia looked unconvinced. "You'd rather be down here?"
"It's not my first choice, no. But I'll take what I can get."
"Thank you, Kira."
"You can use my name, you know. Nobody calls me Kira here unless they're annoyed."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it. I don't mind." He zipped the bag shut and stood, hoisting it back onto his shoulder. "I'm sorry to leave you after one game, but I'm really feeling those stairs. I'll stay longer next time, I promise."
"Then I'll hold you to that."
Somebody should. Light chewed his lip. "I had a girlfriend once, back in my Kira days. You remind me a little of her. Not in terms of personality, but—she adored me, and I wasn't interested. Not in that way. Not in any way, or so I thought. So I strung her along, pretended affection for her, just as long as she was useful. And once she wasn't—"
"You lit her on fire. You told me."
"No, not Kiyomi. Another girl."
"You had two of them?"
She raised an eyebrow. "The same times?"
"That's not the point. What I'm trying to say is, when I ended up here, I was so caught up in myself and my situation that I never asked about her. Not for years. But over time, I started to realize I'd been wrong. I did care. Not in the way she wanted, but as a teammate. A partner. And when I think back on my old life, on all the things I miss, she makes the list. Never thought I'd say that, but it's true."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because if he'd survived, Nick would have felt the same about you."
For a moment, Julia Nguyen was silent. "Thank you, Light."
"No, it isn't."
No, it isn't.
Smiling faintly, Light pressed the buzzer to go upstairs.
Chapter 14: Light
This fic has been a longer journey than I expected, but this is finally the end. (Though not for the Noelverse as a whole, I hope...) Thank you for sticking with me this long, and I hope this chapter doesn't disappoint!
"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.