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Names Are Just Words

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November 11, 2009
12:33 a.m.

There was nothing but blackness for what seemed like hours, my head lost in the storm of colorless void, sinking, giving out. It would be an easy thing to let myself slip away. The weight of living really was a heavy burden on my shoulders--always had been. To die would be to relinquish pain and struggle forever. To die would be a banishing of my fights along with my sins. It might be better, after all--better for the world. Certainly at this moment it seemed too difficult a thing to battle against. Might as well just release my hold and slide downward…

But no--impossible. There was too much to get done, too much unfinished business, too many reasons to live. I was grasping for escape, finding that somewhere in the pitch-blackness of this hidden place I was making progress. I was surfacing, somehow, from a pit I couldn't remember falling into. My hands clawed ferociously, determined to find substance, determined to conquer this hole of nothingness. I had never once surrendered, never once bowed out to anyone or anything--and death sure as hell wouldn't be any exception. With a final heave of determination, I broke loose.

Pain.

I was instantly crushed from all sides with wrenching pain too fierce to describe. I was unsure, disoriented, misplaced, and in that haze I wondered briefly if this was what Hell felt like. Without a doubt that was where I'd end up, if I'd died. But no, in another instant a second wave of pain shot through, igniting my senses, bringing me back to this shell of flesh and bone. In a rush, I felt my fists clench and my voice break with the agony. Another instant and my ears were wracked with an onslaught of crackling noise and my nose contended with the stench of smoke and scorched flesh. Sight came last, blurred at first, hopeless, but then it focused little by little and I could see the blood seeping into the soil beneath my face. Yes, I had a face, and limbs, and they were functional. I'm here, now, in a material plane too wretched and twisted to be Heaven or Hell.

I'm alive.

In that moment I realized I had trouble breathing and so I worked to move, to free my lungs from whatever bound them. I pushed with my hands, feeling something solid thwart my efforts. I glanced over and noticed the obstruction around my face, tightening. I tore at it blindly, hearing a snap, and dropped the ruined gas mask I'd used to hide my identity on the ground before me. The Plexiglas was half-blackened and cracked open, and the rubber was partially melted. It had torn out some of my hair when I dislodged it, but I found I could breathe easier now, though my vision was still fuzzy.

I turned to look behind me and found a pair of hulking steel beams had caved in around me, forming a haphazard barrier against the piles of concrete debris surrounding me. They'd fallen in just such a way so I hadn't been crushed flat. I found my voice spark with a dry chuckle. Luck? No. No such thing. I'd chosen that room on purpose, that room on the second floor where Yagami followed me. I knew that room had steel beams in the ceiling, and I knew exactly where I'd planted every explosive. I'd done the math, making doubly sure, and I knew that if I timed everything perfectly in that situation then I might crawl away without too much damage. At the very least, I expected to survive. And I had. I chuckled again, but this time the act forced blood to well up in my throat and I coughed it out in front of my face, adding to the puddle in the dirt.

Good, I'm alive, so now I just have to see how bad the damage is.

I curled my fingers into the soil, testing my legs, finding them responsive, not broken, though bruised. My ankle felt sprained. Good so far. I pushed with my feet, inching out from beneath the cradle of destruction, forcing my body clear of the heated metal and onto the bloody earth. Once there I inflated my lungs freely, catching my restrained breath, tasting the blood in my throat at last. I collapsed in a heap from the effort, feeling sharp shards of wood and metal scrape at me from below. The entire ground was littered with debris and hunks of concrete. Daggers of wood still lingered with fiery cinders, glowing orange in my decayed vision. At least I could see, and breathe, and smell them burning. My brain hadn't been damaged. Still good so far.

I pushed forward with my knees, trying to lift myself up, to see if I was capable. I would force myself to be if necessary. I made it to my knees and caught sight of my left arm. It was slick with blood and hot with pain from elbow to shoulder. I tried to inspect it, but lifting it caused hotter pain to flare through my neck and side, bolting all the way up into my face. I had to lean back on my hands, catching my breath yet again, feeling gasps of agony build up. Furiously, I choked them back down. Fine, I would crawl until I could walk.

I had to focus. I couldn't afford to stay put. I didn't know how long I'd been unconscious. The Japanese police could still be on the property, searching for me, if they'd survived. It'd been more likely for them, armored and covered as they were. I couldn't let them find me, not in this state, not at any cost. If they did, it was all over.

I crawled across the debris-laden dirt, swatting aside scorched beams and shards of broken glass. I crawled until my lungs were raging and my head was spinning, and then I crawled further, letting myself collapse finally beside the garage that was on the far side property. Half of it was caved in with hurled debris, but I had intentionally kept my motorcycle in the furthest corner, behind everyone else's vehicles. I forced my way up onto my knees, hitting the button that worked the pulley chain. The rickety door slid open, squealing too loudly, so I shut it off. It had opened enough for me to crawl through, so I did, letting my muscles go limp after. The left side of my face was constantly stabbing with pain so I laid the right side on the cool concrete of the floor, collecting my breath. I would need every ounce of strength to get the hell out of here as fast as possible.

I worked up my energy and crawled across the floor, making it to my motorbike. I took a couple deep breaths, and then gritted my teeth as I heaved myself up onto my feet. Once I put my weight down on my right ankle, it stung with agony. So I had sprained it. No matter now. I leaned on my bike for a few more seconds, trying to keep my head from spinning. It spun anyway, so I ignored it and sat down on my bike, turning the key in the ignition and revving the engine. I opened the back door and drove out of the garage. I looked around cautiously, but I didn't see anyone near me. I maneuvered my way through the bumpy terrain of the property, flinching endlessly from the stabbing pain.

I made it onto the small back road leading off the property and gunned the motor as fast as I dared. I was still dizzy, and the more the wind slapped at my throbbing face, stinging and biting, the more nauseous I felt. I began to swerve as my limbs shook from the strain and my vision deteriorated, getting speckled with sick colors. I'd barely made it three miles but I had to pull over or I would wreck and smash my brains all over the asphalt. I couldn't let it end that way, of all things.

I slowed down and turned off the road, rolling into a small gas station. It was closed for the night, so I drove around back, unable to steer straight any longer as my guts lurched. The front tire wobbled and I threw my left foot out to catch myself, tumbling out of the seat and tucking under. The bike veered to the right and toppled over, dying, as I collapsed. I hit the ground too hard on my hands and knees, jerking my chest with the impact, and I felt blood burst up in my mouth. I coughed, and it wracked my body with still more pain. I lay there doubled over for a few long minutes, unable to move. My breath came short and my chest began to pound. If I didn't keep it under control, I might start to hemorrhage. No, damn it! I couldn't afford to come this far just to die here! That simply wasn't an option!

If I stayed here, I would either be found by the taskforce soon enough, or else I might die from my wounds. I wasn't sure just how bad they were, and I had no way to tell. I couldn't drive any further without crashing, and all my nearby Mafia associates were now blown to hell. I had no place to run to, nowhere safe to hide, to recover.

Except of course…for one place. Damn it, but I had no other options left. I would finally have to bring him into this directly. I'd held off for so long on involving him any deeper. Until now, the Mafia syndicate I'd been living with had only known him as an anonymous hacker on the other end of the phone line. He'd done many assignments for me long distance, including reprogramming the missile we'd used to transport the Death Note, but I'd always kept him obscure, out of the picture. We'd briefly shared an apartment during my initiation stages in the Mafia, but we'd hardly really spoken about anything other than my plans. Since I'd become a valued member, advisor to the Boss of my particular collective, I'd stayed with them at our base almost exclusively. I went back to the apartment to check on affairs every few months or so, but I hadn't stayed in a year and half, and I hadn't seen him face-to-face for three months now. I was so close to telling him I no longer required his help. He would have been free to go.

But now all of that was changed, and I had no choice anymore. My plan was destroyed, and I would have to rethink everything from the beginning. I would have to start back at square one. But I would have to live through this first.

I dug my cell phone out of my pants pocket, groaning weakly with the movement, and hit the button to dial his number. I brought it to my ear, listening to it ring, once, twice, three times… When he finally picked up on the fourth ring, his lethargic voice answered with an unenthusiastic, "Hey."

"Matt," I choked out.

"What's up?" he muttered languidly, his voice straining through pursed lips. He was undoubtedly smoking again, as he always seemed to be doing. If he wasn't doing a job for me, he was playing some manner of video game and smoking. Of course, he chain-smoked on the job as well. Even back at the Institution, he would go out in the yard behind the big tree and sneak cigarettes. God knows where he got them.

I was drifting. Not good. I bit my lip hard. "Matt, I need…" I didn't want to say it, and so I hesitated even in spite of the situation. Survival was my top priority now, but even so...my pride was brooding over me. "I'll be coming there now," I told him at last.

"Yeah? For what?" His voice had changed so much, except for the tone. It was deeper, smoother, but it was still spiced with an air of drastic uncaring.

"Just…be ready. Go out and pick up…medical gauze and tape…"

"Huh? Why?" he asked, his inflection barely tweaking upward.

I bared my teeth as a wave of pain swept through. I held it in, but it came out in my voice against my will. "Nnn… Just do as you're told!"

"Mello?" he questioned. "You okay?" He almost sounded concerned.

"No," I growled. "What do you think…the medical gauze is for?"

"Fuck, man." I heard shuffling and clattering over the line. "I'm on my way out now. When you gonna get here?"

"An hour, maybe… Be ready for me to stay there a while…"

"Got it."

I hung up and then dialed the number for one of Rod Ross's underground contacts, who specialized in transportation. He remained under the radar since he never actively participated in any crimes. He simply picked up cargo from one location and took it to another, no questions asked, and was impossible to track. His name was almost as nonexistent as mine. I told him where to find me and then dropped the phone, letting my arm go limp.

I stared up at the night sky, for the first time in long while. By the time I heard a car engine, I realized I had been nearly asleep. I jerked up, snapping out of it, but the effort hurt terribly. I heard the car door open and the sound of boots hit the concrete. I tried to blink away the fog over my vision, but my head was pounding and pounding. I shook it away and sat up, my vision clearing enough to see the transportation expert waiting beside his car. I could only see his silhouette, his eyes hidden behind large sunglasses.

"You M?" the man asked gruffly.

"Yes," I answered, forcing myself onto my feet with horrid strain and lancing agony. "You Tanis?"

"That's me. You sound like you’ve been through hell."

"Did I ask for your input?" I snapped. I was battered and bleeding, the extent of my injuries unknown, but still I found myself muttering, "I can walk, I can walk." He didn't seem to hear me, and if he did he didn't acknowledge it. I shuffled my way over, limping, as he opened the passenger side door of the car and I sank into the seat. He shut the door and then climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine.

"Where to, M?" I told him the address of the apartment building where Matt was staying. He backed out of the lot and pulled onto the road, hitting the gas and speeding off. We drove for a long while, longer than I could keep track of. He didn't ask any questions, didn't even glance at my injuries. Good. Exactly as I was hoping. Rod and our syndicate had used this man's services on more than one occasion, and he'd never slipped up even once. He had nerves of steel and a matching collectedness, which was good for working with all the criminal outfits he did, and also good for this particular situation, since I wasn't sure how bad I looked.

I kept drifting off, wanting so badly to shut my heavy eyelids and sleep. I caught myself doing so a few times and lifted my hand, punching it hard against the door. He jumped a little in his seat and looked over at me. "What is it, M?" I had a strong reputation amongst the criminal underbelly of America, so seeing me in this state must have been surprising. I hoped it was too dark for him to tell clearly what bad shape I was in. I hated showing such weakness to anyone, but I wouldn't have been able to stomach it if Matt had come in person. If I could handle this on my own, I had to.

"Have to…stay awake," I stressed. "Do something clever, Tanis… Impress me," I said.

"O-Okay, M…" He seemed to ponder a second before he turned on the radio. A crash of drums and guitar blared from the speakers and he cranked up the volume, which stung my ears and started my head throbbing even worse. But the pain kept itself constant with it, and I was able to remain more awake. I gripped the seatbelt in my fist as the atrociously loud rock music continued to screech in my ears. "We're almost there," he told me over the sound.

When we finally pulled into the parking area behind our apartment building, I was more alert and aware. He shut off the engine and got out, coming around to open my door for me. He didn't say anything as I struggled to my feet, leaning on the car as I pulled a wad of cash from my pants pocket. I held it out and he took it.

"This is everything I have on me. Take it and forget you ever saw me tonight, Tanis…if you know what's good for you. Don't forget I can find you if I need to."

"Believe me, I do know." I was glad my threats held enough clout even in my current condition. Despite the fact that I was a nineteen-year-old ordering around older, larger, crime-hardened men, not a single one of them had deigned it wise to cross me, or even dare to disagree. Hopefully my reputation would stay intact even after this. If not, I knew whom to blame.

Tanis got back in the car and drove off as I made my way to the back door of the building. It was like stepping on razors every time my right foot hit the floor, and the pain shot from there up to my face. But I'd made it this far, and I didn't intend to take any more hits on my pride. I staggered up the stairs, having to concentrate far too hard on putting one foot in front of the other. The pain was searing, so white-hot that it almost felt ice-cold. The irony sickened me enough to prompt a scoff through my gritting teeth. The sweltering agony spliced me through my whole left arm and that side of my face, spangling my vision with sick colors continuously. Every step felt like a hundred miles, and our apartment was only on the third floor.

Had I ever felt pain this intense? Maybe I had, before the orphanage, before the rich caretakers' attempts at doting and sheltering…but I couldn't be sure. I kept seeing those fading pictures, probably memories, of a blonde man I hated and feared and had never really known--except of course for his fists; I knew them well. Who was he? My uncle, or my elder brother, or my father? All I was sure of was the stench of alcohol on his breath, his voice screaming in my face... Most of those memories were a fading blur now.

No, this was definitely the worse pain I could remember, so it was also the worst I'd ever known. I was dizzy and nauseous. Even I was surprised I'd been able to make it all the way back here intact. I was thrown through a wall on the second floor of the Mafia hideout, crawled over the rubble, and trudged through the debris. I somehow navigated through the heaps of rock and twisted metal on my motorbike, with the wind and dust stinging my exposed skin as it blew across me. I just drove as fast as I could, away and away. It seemed as if it had happened so long ago, at the edge of my memory where my family resided. How I made it all the way back here to the apartment in East Los Angeles…I couldn't quite recall anymore, even as I stood here now. Shit, my mind was drifting again.

I made it to the door of the apartment, taking out the key, half-fumbling. I bit my lip ferociously to withhold the groans my body was insisting I produce. It begged me to just fall to my knees and go limp, to cry out for his help, but I refused and threw open the door to the shit-hole apartment, letting out my breath, finally, when I saw him there on the dingy sofa...