Near was alone.
He often was—he preferred it, really—but tonight he felt it more than usual. Even the familiar, calming smoothness of his cards couldn't distract him from his thoughts, from the case that had occupied him for over a month without results.
Five victims now, one per week, each with the initials NR III. Five victims found dead in their pajamas, holly wreaths around their brows and white puzzle pieces strewn beneath their hands. I know who you are, Third L, they taunted. Prove to me you're not a fraud. It was a challenge, a puzzle made just for him, and he had a damn good idea who was behind it.
A damn good idea—and no proof whatsoever.
It infuriated him.
Near set another pair of cards atop his tower, adjusting them slightly so they would stand on their own. Truth be told, it had become more of a stadium than a tower, a sprawling, tarot-card Coliseum now more than three feet high. Soon enough, he would have to stand to reach the top, a prospect that only soured his mood further.
Mock me all you want, but I will catch you. Whatever it takes.
The young detective jerked, startled, knocking over several cards in the process. Clucking his tongue in disgust, he gathered them up and rounded on the intruder.
"I told you to go home," he said.
Lidner smiled in apology. "I know. Is it a problem?"
"I suppose not." Turning his back on her once more, he resumed construction on the Coliseum. "What's on your mind?"
"Why are you doing this to yourself?"
Huh. That isn't what I expected. Near leaned a pair of cards against each other, waiting to be sure they'd hold before offering a reply. "Doing what?"
"Being testy. Shutting everyone out. Moping."
"I'm not moping."
He could practically hear her eyes roll behind him. "Fine. Struggling, then."
"I'm not struggling, either. This is how I act. You know me well enough to know that."
"I know you've been stimming more than usual lately. A lot more."
"I don't remember hiring you as my therapist," Near said sullenly.
"You didn't. But I am a detective, Near. And it doesn't take a genius to read the clues you've been leaving." A note of amusement entered Lidner's voice. "Not when you're literally walling people out."
"They're only cards. They have no greater symbolic significance."
"You don't think you can live up to L, do you?"
Near said nothing. High heels clacked on wood—once, twice, three times—and then Lidner was beside him, smoothing her skirt as she knelt. Now she's staring at me. I wish she would stop. Unnerved, he reached for his hair, twirling it between his fingers for reassurance.
"No," he mumbled, resolutely looking anywhere but at her.
"Was that an answer or a refusal?"
Both. "No, I don't. And it appears someone else shares my opinion. Does that satisfy you?"
Near's lips pursed, and he set another fragile pyramid of cards on the wall before him. Though others often mistook his awkwardness for arrogance, he had rarely meant to give that impression, too aware of his disabilities and limitations for pride. His intelligence, though—that he was proud of, the one area in which he'd always had perfect confidence. Until now, at least. There's something I'm missing, something I should notice. L would have seen it. But I don't. It didn't gall him that he'd been challenged. It only galled him that his challenger was right.
I am not L.
He glanced over and realized Lidner was still staring at him.
"It doesn't matter," she said softly, and for a moment Near had the disturbing impression she had read his mind. "What L would have done, what L wouldn't have done—he isn't here. You are. Gevanni, Rester, and I—we came to work for you." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, her eyes never leaving him. "You're L's successor, Near. No one expects you to be his ghost."
Near said nothing, watching her warily in case she tried to hug him. She should have known him well enough by now to know he hated to be touched, but neurotypicals often forgot such things. Especially the females.
Lidner didn't. "Remember Kira?"
"He would be hard to forget."
"L didn't defeat him. You did. Doesn't that tell you anything?"
Near picked at the fabric of his shirt. "Only with help."
"There's nothing wrong with needing help, Near."
There is when there's no one left to ask. "I don't have any help. Not this time."
"You have me." Was it just his imagination, or was her voice suddenly higher pitched? "You have Gevanni, Rester, Roger—all of us."
"That's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?"
Yes, her voice was definitely higher. Hurt feelings, most likely. Near gave his hair a sharp tug of irritation. "I meant intelligent help," he said, as if it were glaringly obvious-which it was. "A peer, not an underling. Preferably someone familiar with the details of the Kira case, too. But with L and Mello dead, there's no one left who…"
Yes, there is.
Near's expression soured.
"Him," replied Near, spitting the pronoun out like rotten food. "Kira. If anyone knows his case, it's him."
Lidner's eyes widened. "You can't be serious."
"I wish I weren't, but I am. You did say I could ask for help, didn't you?"
"Not from him! He's a criminal, Near. A mass murderer. L would never…"
"L did," he said, cutting her off. "L knew what he was and brought him into the investigation anyway. Along with several other career criminals, I'm told."
"And how well did that strategy work out for him?"
Badly. "Light Yagami has no Death Note, no allies, and nothing to gain by causing trouble, nor do I have any intention of letting him out of his cell. I would hardly call the situation comparable." Near tilted his head, resenting his own conclusions but unable to refute them. "He has the knowledge I need, and—much as I hate to admit it—he has the brains. If you see a logical alternative, I'd be glad to hear it."
She did grab for him this time, an impulsive reach for his shoulder he ducked to avoid. Hastily, she jerked her hand back, her face coloring at her mistake. "Near…"
"Roger's been up and down to his cell every day for almost two years, and he hasn't been murdered yet. That oubliette is the most secure dungeon Quillsh Wammy's inheritance could buy. A crazy serial killer he may be, but he's well contained. I wouldn't even consider this if he weren't."
Lidner arched an eyebrow. "You've never seen The Silence of the Lambs, have you?"
"I highly doubt Kira wants to eat me, Miss Lidner. That wouldn't be his style."
"He could still want to kill you."
"I'm sure he does. Which is irrelevant, because he can't." Near turned to face his subordinate, his eyes wandering to one side of her face as usual. "I understand your concern, but I designed the safeguards myself. He can't hurt me. If he so much as reaches too far through the bars, he'll trip a sensor, and his cell will flood with gas. Roger made that clear to him from the start."
She considered that a moment. "The whole oubliette becomes a gas chamber, then?"
"Including the part you'll be standing in?"
Near paused, sheepish. "Light Yagami is many things, but suicidal isn't one of them."
"That means yes."
"How very perceptive of you."
His eyes narrowed. "Do you trust me or not?"
"You, yes." Lidner's words were oddly clipped, an effect Near interpreted as irritation. "Him, no."
"Fair enough. Neither do I." Holding his breath, Near set another pair of cards carefully atop the Coliseum. The cards stood, and so did he. "Stay here and wait for me, if you prefer."
She bit her lip, her hand rising as if she longed to reach out for him again. Near's eyes narrowed, and she let the hand drop. "All right."
"We'll be visible on the monitors. If you see something that concerns you, ring for Roger."
"I'll ring him now."
"If you must. I trust your judgment." As you don't trust mine, he didn't say, but he knew she heard it nonetheless. Brushing off his pants, Near trudged away, pausing at the door for a final glance back. "Oh, and Miss Lidner? Watch out for…"
"Mind the card towers. Yes, I know."
The world believed Light Yagami dead and buried, but in truth, they were only half right. Buried, certainly, thought Near, descending the tight, spiral stair of the oubliette, but not dead. Not yet. It would have been easy, so easy, to simply let the man die, to watch him bleed out on the floor of the Yellow Box like the sniveling coward he was. Easy, but a waste. Loath as Near was to admit it, Kira was the world's foremost living expert on Shinigami and the Death Note—and arguably on L, as well. Whatever else Light Yagami was, he was still a resource, and Near never discarded resources if he could help it.
Even inconvenient ones.
A hulking metal door loomed at the base of the stairs, rivet-studded but handleless. Pale fingers tangled in unruly white hair as Near peered into the retina scanner and pressed his free hand into the fingerprinting gel, his jaw clenching at the unwelcome brightness and texture. The door swung ajar with a resounding clang, and the young detective hurried through, waiting for that door to slam shut before repeating the operation at an identical door a few paces away. Soon enough, he was through, blinking in the artificial brightness of Kira's domain.
"Ah. Nate-kun." The former god peered over a book, his voice frosty with disdain. "I expected Roger."
Near said nothing for a moment, drinking in how far his enemy had fallen. Far from the new world he'd imagined, Kira now reigned over a lonely cage half the size of a parking space, his every move monitored and exposed to view. A wall of titanium bars divided Light Yagami from his rare visitor, giving Near the impression of a zoo exhibit. The common Kira: genus Yagami, species Light. Natural habitat: Tokyo, Japan. Highly intelligent, but prone to megalomania and narcissism.
A tight smile creased Near's face as he approached the bars. "It's been a while, Kira-kun."
"I hadn't noticed." The caged murderer noted his page and set his book aside, turning to face his visitor with a resigned expression. "Got bored of watching me on the monitors, I take it?"
"Watching you sulk on your bunk is hardly riveting viewing."
"Be fair. Sometimes I exercise. Or bathe."
"I don't consider that riveting viewing, either."
Kira shrugged. "Your loss. Not my fault you didn't leave me much else to do."
You could kill yourself. Near eyed the chin-up bars attached to the far wall, the cell's sole nod to luxury. They had been a last minute addition to his designs, and not an entirely kindly one, either. A length of torn bedsheet, a hop off the bunk—it wouldn't take Light Yagami's genius to find a way out of his confinement, yet he'd never even tried. Which is for the best, I suppose, but curious nonetheless. Part of Near was tempted to ask him why, but he knew he wouldn't trust the answer, even assuming the man gave one. Or had one.
"Still reading Darkness at Noon?" Near asked politely, his deadpan expression unchanged.
"That one? No. Finished it yesterday." Kira patted the tome on his bunk. "I'm rereading the Bible now."
"Oh? I never took you for the Christian type."
"I'm not. I find the mythology interesting, that's all. But Roger said he'd bring down Paradise Lost next time, and I could use a refresher course first."
"I see." Near cocked his head, one hand reaching up for a lock of hair. "Ask for The Divine Comedy next. I know Roger has a copy, and it's long. It should keep you occupied for a day or two, even at your speed."
Kira's eyes narrowed. "You came down here to start a book club?"
"Not quite. I came down here to ask your help."
Satisfaction swelled in Near's chest as he watched Kira's mask of disdain crumble. Whatever answer the prisoner had expected, that clearly hadn't been it.
Reaching into his pocket, the detective withdrew a sheaf of photos, slipping them through the meal slot of the cell's metal door. Hesitantly, as if wary of a trap, Kira slid off his bunk and came to collect them, drawing up short to avoid walking into the door with his third step. He used his left hand, Near noted as Kira withdrew, noting also the lingering stiffness in the prisoner's gait. Matsuda should be proud. As far as the former Task Force knew, Light Yagami had died in custody of his wounds. Not for the first time, Near wondered what they would say if they knew the truth.
"These are crime scene photos," Kira said hoarsely, interrupting his jailer's thoughts.
"Perceptive as always."
"You want my help on a case?"
Near shrugged. "Someone's killed five victims with heart attacks. I thought you might have some insight."
"I didn't do it."
"That was a joke."
"I'm aware of that, too."
Kira rolled his eyes and leafed through the photos, frowning. "This doesn't look like Death Note work."
"I don't believe it is. But it's connected to the—to your case nonetheless. I'm 99% certain of that. And since I didn't join the case until it was already well underway, you know much more about it than I."
"Talk to Matsuda, then."
"I tried. It seems he doesn't trust me."
"I'll be damned. He has half a brain after all."
"So he does. After all, he shot you." Ignoring the scowl his words earned him, Near reached up to fidget with his hair. "I'd prefer a bit more than half a brain, though. L would have been ideal, of course, or Mello, but seeing as they're both unavailable…"
Kira laughed, brief and bitter. "That's a delicate way to put it."
"Unavailable, dead, murdered. Whichever you prefer. In any case, it leaves only you to consult with, Second L—much as we both dislike it."
Near paused, watching his prisoner for a reaction, but Kira's face was inscrutable, half-hidden behind an unruly curtain of hair. This must be what people feel like when they try to read—well, me.
"I've studied the case files, you know," he continued. "All the cases you solved in your downtime as L, trying to stop your colleagues and the ICPO from doubting your abilities. Twenty-four cases, and the only one you failed to solve was your own. I'm not surprised the world was fooled. For a mass murderer, you have quite the deductive talent."
Kira raised his head at last, a wry smile twisting his lips. "Was that meant to be a compliment?"
"Merely the truth. Don't let it swell your head."
The prisoner made a noncommittal noise, tucking a long strand of chestnut hair behind his ear as he studied the photos. For a man who'd spent nearly two years with no access to luxury—a man who'd been dragged in bloody and bandaged, his very survival no guarantee—Kira looked surprisingly good. His boyish face was leaner but not yet lined, and his arms testified that he'd found uses for the chin-up bars after all. Though his hair was much longer, it somehow suited him, and he carried himself as if still in suits instead of prison drab. Near grimaced and twisted his hair.
Two years since his last shower, and he's still more charismatic than I'll ever be.
"Why not ask one of your successors?" Kira asked. "Not Mello, obviously, but someone from that orphanage of yours. Isn't that what they're there for?"
"Under normal circumstances, yes. In this case, no."
Because in this case, I can't trust them. "Only one of them has that much knowledge of the Kira case, and she wouldn't help me even if I could find her."
"What makes you think I will?"
"Self-interest. Boredom. Curiosity." Near made an effort and met the prisoner's eyes. "Gratitude, perhaps."
Kira snorted derision. "Don't hold your breath. I owe you nothing."
"Strange. I'd agree your life is worth nothing, but I assumed you'd value it higher." Near tilted his head like a curious dog, smirking at his captive. "Tell me, Light Yagami. Just how many times did Mr. Matsuda shoot you?"
The hauteur slipped from Kira's face like falling water, leaving a dark flush of anger in its place. "Five."
"How many hours were you in surgery? The first one?"
"I don't know."
"Who paid for it?"
"Me. Who kept you out of prison, out of the hands of your would-be victims? Who spared you the death penalty? Who told the world you died a hero, so your family wouldn't face retaliation on your account?"
Kira said nothing, his posture stiff as a day-old corpse. Near waited several seconds for an answer before clucking his tongue in distaste.
"You owe me everything, Kira. You don't deserve to breathe, let alone speak. You should have bled out on the floor of that warehouse like the worthless killer you are. Yet here you are, alive and whole, because I saved you. Because for all your arrogance, I thought you might someday be of use." Near took another two steps toward the bars, his eyes intense. "Was I wrong?"
At last, Kira found his voice. "What's in it for me?"
"I don't give mass murderers bribes, Kira-kun. I'm offering you something to do besides rot. It's more than you deserve."
"Then the answer is no."
"This isn't a negotiation."
"Isn't it?" Kira took a step closer, peering pointedly down at the detective from his full height. Damn him. Near's jaw clenched, but the prisoner took no notice. "You're asking for my help, not the other way around. If you won't make it worth my while…"
"You'll do what? Read the Bible? Do pull-ups? Bathe?" Near's shoulders rose and fell with deliberate contempt. "As someone recently reminded me, you don't have anything else to do."
"I'll think of something."
"You won't. You've been telling yourself that this whole time, haven't you? 'I'm still Kira. I'll think of something.' But you won't. You're not a god, Light Yagami, nor are you a threat. Just a vain, deluded criminal still too terrified to die."
The words fell like lead weights from Near's tongue, hard and poisonous, and he saw them taking effect. Kira stiffened, his good hand clenching on the photos, the other a deformed claw at his side. Did I sting you? Good. Leaning in further, Near continued.
"You have nothing else to do. You will never have anything else to do. Have you enjoyed these past two years, Kira? The next fifty will be the same. You will never leave. You will never go outside. You will have no visitors. Roger's library is large, I admit, but it won't last as long as you. Assuming some other Wammy's alumnus hasn't replaced me by then, someone less generous than I. Do you know how easy it is to kill a man who's already legally dead? All my successor would have to do is turn on the gas, then fill the stairwell with cement. Your body would never be found."
Kira's good hand struck the bars with a startling clang, and Near took an involuntary step back. Gripping the bars with his right hand, the prisoner snarled down at his captor, his face a purpling mask of rage.
"You think I don't know where I stand?" he snapped. "I don't give a damn about your life, let alone your gratitude. Call me a coward, call me a murderer, but I'm not your goddamn dog. So take your little offer, Nate, and shove it up your ass."
Near watched the man's hand with widened eyes, Lidner's warning about the gas popping unwanted into his mind. Does he know he could kill me where I stand? Kira must have considered it, fantasized about it, some long night alone in the dark—and, like a fool, Near had given him the chance. The common Kira: genus Yagami, species Light. Highly intelligent, undomesticated…and carnivorous.
I can't say I wasn't warned.
Eyes fixed on the hand clutching the bars, Near reached up to twirl his hair.
Then Kira's hand retreated.
"Get out," he said quietly, turning his back on the detective. "Get out and leave me alone."
You're already alone. Near set his jaw at the order, but decided not to press his luck. "You can keep the photos. I have spares."
With deliberate slowness, the prisoner opened his hand, sending photos cascading to the floor of the cell.
"I see," said Near. "I'll leave you to consider then, shall I?"
There was no response from the man in the cage, but the detective hadn't expected one. Returning to the door through which he'd entered, Near pressed his hand and eye to the scanners, heaving a breath of relief once he was safely through.
Well, that could have gone worse.