Chapter 1: Near
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.
Chapter 2: Light
The fluorescents were too goddamn bright.
Reluctant to wake, Light rolled onto his side and flung an arm over his eyes, but it was no use. The lights in his cell had only two settings in eternal, rigid rotation: fifteen hours of blinding light, then nine of blinding darkness, day after endless day. If he had been a lesser man, the lighting alone might have driven him mad–which was probably the intent, whatever Roger's feeble justifications about "security" and "monitoring." Near had made it clear enough how little he cared for Light's well-being.
Light opened his eyes with a groan, blinking, though part of him wondered why he bothered. Every inch of his two-by-three meter world was as familiar to him as his heartbeat: the smooth gray concrete of the walls, the dull steel tiles of his floor, the overhead cameras recording his every move. Even as he slept, even as he used the toilet, even as he stripped off his clothes to change, he knew he was being watched. For all his isolation, he had no privacy, no chance to hide or rage or vent. Whatever he did or said, Near would know of it. That knowledge chafed him worst of all.
The space beneath Light's bed was filled in with concrete, and his comically thin pillow and mattress were very near as hard. A stainless steel toilet and sink stood along one wall, and what few possessions he had–his borrowed books, toiletries, a plastic cup, two washcloths, a towel, soap, and a week's worth of underwear and gray scrubs–resided in a two-drawer nightstand along the other. Except for the chin-up bars just beyond the foot of Light's bed, the walls were barren, his faded blue quilt the sole splash of color in his monochrome, grayscale world. He'd asked Roger once, early on, if he could at least put up a few posters, anything to make his cell feel less like a tomb and more like home. No luck. Roger had turned him down, of course, with some Near-ish excuse about "security." As if putting up a print of Starry Night would let him teleport to freedom—or give him immunity to gas.
Damn him to hell.
Light knew why Near was so paranoid, of course. He'd guessed it the first time Roger had lectured him on the automatic, dire consequences if he tried to loosen or pry up any of the metal floor tiles. When he'd finally recovered enough to get out of bed, he'd spent almost a whole morning confirming his theory, rapping the tiles with his knuckles until he found the one–the only one–that sounded hollow. That bastard put the Death Note in my cell, but if I try to take it out, I'll be gassed. It was a clever way to ensure Light kept his memories, he'd grant Near that much. Insulting and infuriating, but clever.
Clever, insulting, infuriating. Near in a nutshell, right there.
The photos were still on the floor.
Light's face darkened as he saw them, and he turned his head away, Near's taunts still ringing in his ears. There had been a moment—an exhilarating moment—he'd truly considered proving Near wrong, tempted to shove his ruined hand between the bars and damn them both. But in the end, the fear he'd seen in Nate River's eyes had stopped him. For all the boy called Light no threat, for all he claimed Light was too terrified to die—when Light had threatened, Near had believed him. That was victory enough.
Light glanced at the photos again, misplaced splotches of color against the gray tiles. By chance, most had come to rest atop the secret compartment, the crimes of Near's new nemesis burying the weapon of the old. Light couldn't suppress a bitter smile at that.
I suppose it wouldn't hurt to take another look…
With a grunt, he shoved off the covers and stood. Kneeling beside the fallen photos, he collected them left-handed—his maimed right hand too stiff and clumsy for a pincer grasp—and plopped back onto his bunk, tucking up his legs cross-style like a child.
Five photos, each of a different victim—all male adults, though the similarities ended there. The dead men differed wildly in age and appearance, yet the circumstances of the scenes indicated they had not been spur-of-the-moment victims. Each victim was clad in pajamas, suggesting they'd died in their own homes, and every corpse had the same pose: arms outstretched as if crucified, hands resting atop something white. A holly wreath ringed each man's forehead like a crown, perfectly fitted. If there were any other clues in the photos, they weren't obvious to Light.
There aren't enough victims here to draw L's involvement, and this is textbook organized serial killer behavior—likely a visionary type, given the Christian symbolism, yet straightforward nonetheless. Why would Near take an interest in this ?
Light frowned, more bemused by that mystery than the murders themselves. Though he had no intention of helping Near, part of him had hoped for more, something to spark his imagination in the long, lonely hours between his meals. Boring as his schoolboy days had been, imprisonment was worse, an endless cycle of sleeping and waking with gray monotony between. Books helped, but they weren't enough, and the cell was too small to do much else. Light had considered asking Roger for a baseball to bounce off the walls, like the lead of that prison-break movie he'd watched in English class, but he'd quickly thought better of it. One mis-aimed bounce or bobbled catch, and the ball would fly through the bars and trip the sensors. Even if he'd had two good hands, it was just too much of a risk.
Survive five bullets; killed by a baseball. Wouldn't that be a joke.
An unseen door clanged, interrupting Light's thoughts. Hastily, he set the photos atop his nightstand, staring through the bars at the vaultlike door separating his visiting area from the outside world. That had better not be Near again. Soon enough, the door opened to admit Roger, a tray in one hand and new books in the other.
Light relaxed. "Morning, Roger."
"Good morning, Light. Sleep well?"
"Well enough. Until the searchlights came on, at least."
Roger smiled at that and approached the cell door, sliding the tray through the meal slot with practiced care. Setting the photos on the nightstand, Light crossed the cell to retrieve his breakfast. Blueberry oatmeal and buttered toast. Not bad. He sat on the floor beside his bunk and began to eat, frowning as Halle Lidner came through the oubliette door with a duffle bag.
"What's she doing here?" Light asked Roger.
Has it been a week already? The prisoner glanced at the neatly folded pile of dirty laundry in the corner of the cell and realized that it had. My sense of time is getting worse. "Huh. Time flies."
"I'm sure it does," said Lidner, her voice acid. "Eat up, Kira. Some of us have things to do."
Light raised his eyebrows, but did as he was told, reluctant to start a fight with a woman so clearly on her period. Once he'd scraped up the last of the oatmeal, he set the bowl and tray on the bunk and stood, hooking his thumbs in his pockets and flashing Lidner a jaunty grin.
She didn't return it. "Tell me when you're ready," she said, sliding a set of wrist-and-ankle shackles through the slot. "You should know the drill by now."
Yes, I do. With a resigned sigh, Light grabbed the shackles and retreated to the corner, kneeling to restrain his ankles and securing his wrists behind him. As usual, he struggled to close the left cuff, his right hand still clumsy and stiff long after Matsuda's bullet had torn through it—and when he finally succeeded, it was too tight. Oh, well. Sitting back on his heels, he tugged at the restraints to prove they were secure.
"About time." The keypad outside his door clacked quietly as the irritable agent typed in the code to open his cell. "Get down. I'm coming in."
Light complied, bending his head to his knees as Lidner entered. She approached him warily, her Taser drawn and leveled at his back. "I won't bite," he said, amused.
"No talking, Kira. Head down." She took up a position beside him, her aim unwavering.
"It is down."
"I said no talking. Roger, we're all set."
Light gritted his teeth as Roger moved about the cell, replacing his dirty clothing and linens. Why did it have to be her? Being forced to kneel in shackles once a week just to have his laundry done was humiliating enough, but at least Rester and Gevanni kept things impersonal. Lidner, on the other hand…
"Head down, Kira."
She wrenched his neck sideways and drove his face into his knees, blocking his view of the rest of the cell. "Now it is."
"You do realize I need to breathe, right?"
"If you can talk, you can breathe. Stop talking."
Stop breathing, you mean. Light fell silent and glared at the floor, seething. His legs were falling asleep, and the left handcuff dug painfully into his wrist, but he didn't dare ask for relief. At last, Roger declared himself satisfied and left. Lidner followed a moment later, her Taser trained on Light to the last, pausing only to drop a key beside him as she left. Then the cell door slammed shut, dividing Light from the rest of humanity once more.
"All right," said Lidner. "We're out. You can go ahead and release yourself now."
She'd left the key out of his reach, forcing him to squirm and flop to it like a landed fish. Hot-faced with embarrassment, he turned his back on the bars to extricate himself, in no mood to see the smug look he was certain Lidner would be giving him.
Light's jaw clenched, but he said nothing. At last, he worked himself free and shoved both key and shackles back through the slot. "Thanks for your time," he said sweetly, offering the prickly agent his most sincere-looking smile. "I appreciate it."
Lidner paused, studying him with deep suspicion. Then she sniffed and turned away, marching out of Light's enclosure without a backward glance. The moment she was gone, Light's smile evaporated.
"Who spat in her tamagoyaki?" he asked.
Roger sighed. "I'm sorry, Light."
"Don't be. It's not your fault she's crazy." Light chafed his wrist, grimacing, then crossed to the nightstand for a change of clothes.
"She lost a brother and several friends to the Kira case. You can't blame her for holding a grudge."
Light shook his head, tossing a fresh set of scrubs onto the bunk. He'd had this argument before. "Her brother was Higuchi's doing, her coworkers were Mello's, and Mello was Takada's. She's got no reason to take them out on me."
"I doubt she sees it that way, I'm afraid." Roger paused, rubbing his hands together nervously. "She also watched your, ah, interview with Near last night."
That explains it. "Let me guess. She didn't like my attitude."
"You could say that, yes."
Roger turned his back as Light began to disrobe—a meaningless gesture, given the cameras, but still appreciated. For all he was Light's primary jailer, Roger had never treated him unkindly, let alone with the clear contempt the others showed. It had been Roger who'd nursed him through the early, terrifying days of his convalescence, reading aloud for hours to distract him from his pain and the restraints binding him to his bunk. It had been Roger who brought him books even after he recovered, discussing them with him at mealtimes rather than treating him as a chore.
Near's wrong. If there's someone I owe any gratitude, it's Roger. Not him.
"You could at least have brought Rester," Light grumped.
"I wish I could have, but he and Gevanni aren't here. They should be back in a day or two, but I didn't think you'd want to wait."
"I suppose not. Business or pleasure?"
"Fieldwork for L."
"For L," Light echoed, the title sour on his tongue. "Of course. The big case."
Light was silent a moment, pulling down his shirt and smoothing it into place. "Was it your idea?"
"You can turn around, you know. I'm clothed."
Roger did, clasping his hands before him. "Was what my idea?"
"Sending Near to see me."
"I knew nothing about it until Agent Lidner asked me to stop him."
"Which you didn't."
"It wasn't my idea, no. But I thought it was a good one."
Light raised an eyebrow. "Good for me, or good for Near?"
"Can't it be both?"
"Not in my experience."
"Hmm." Roger studied the prisoner a moment, his expression haggard. "May I give you some advice?"
As if I have a choice. "I'm not going anywhere."
"No. You're not. That's the problem. If you were going to walk out of here in five years, or even ten, I'd leave you be and wish you luck. But you aren't. Like it or not, you're in Near's custody, and that isn't going to change. If you want to hate him, you have a right, but the only way to improve your situation is through him. I won't be here in thirty years, Light, but he will. And so will you."
I know. Light stared at his hands and said nothing, suddenly very interested in the state of his fingernails. Near had been right about one thing: despite his sentence, despite Near's safeguards, Light had never truly thought of his prison as permanent. He couldn't. For all his defiance, he was far more brittle than he wanted to admit.
Imprisonment, isolation, mockery, maltreatment—I endured them all from the first L, I can damn well do it now. But not forever. Not to no purpose. Not like this.
Please, not like this.
"Near can be difficult to work with," Roger continued, "even for me. But he's offering you a chance to prove yourself, Light—reluctantly, yes, but a chance. You would do better to be his partner, not his enemy. For your own sake."
"Not his enemy," Light echoed, a bitter lump in his throat. "It's a little late for that."
"Near doesn't seem to think so."
"Why? Because he taunted me? Because after two years of ignoring me, he condescended to acknowledge I exist? By that standard, Lidner wants to be my friend."
"He saved your life."
The prisoner laughed, but there was no joy in it—a cold, mirthless sound. Shaking his head, he grabbed the fresh sheets Roger had brought and began to make his bed. "Some life."
"You blame Near for that?"
"He put me here."
"No. You did. It was that or have you killed, Light. Death sentence or not, if he'd sent you to prison—"
"Yes, I get that. Really I do. I would show you my immense gratitude, but it doesn't fit in my cell. I'm dying in here either way, Roger. I don't owe Near a goddamn thing."
The old man sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. "Matt—"
Light let out a low breath of his own. Roger rarely called Light "Matt" and never seemed to notice when he had, but it usually preceded a stern lecture of some sort. It's probably his son's name, or one of his old students. Light had never cared enough to ask.
"I know," he said sharply, cutting his jailor short. "Whatever you're going to say, Near already said it. I'm well aware what an ungrateful, arrogant coward I am."
"Is that what you think of yourself?"
Roger's voice was gentle, but the question stung. Light turned, hesitating a moment before shaking his head. "Of course I don't. Near thinks it, though. He made that much perfectly plain."
"So you care what Near thinks of you, then."
Light grimaced. "You know damn well I didn't say that, and I don't need a mediator telling me how I feel. I'm a grown man, not one of your orphans."
"I see very little difference."
"Look closer, then—you'll see plenty. Age, for one. Living family." Light flashed a sardonic smile. "Body count."
"Don't be so sure. You wouldn't be my first student to have one."
"True. I forgot about Mello."
"Him, yes—and others, too. You killed more of my former students than you realize, I'm afraid."
Roger's expression was still kindly, but Light bristled at the reproach in his voice. "That many, huh? What the hell did you do to those kids?"
"Raised them. Taught them. Gave them stability and structure. Childhood trauma aside, gifted children are often high-strung. Even with the best upbringing, some are bound to fall apart. In one fashion or another."
Why, I do believe he's talking about me. "You ran a training ground for superdetectives. Your fault or not, the least you could do is clean up your own messes."
"And we do. You looked at the photos Near gave you, didn't you?"
"I had nothing better to do."
"What did you make of them?"
Light shrugged. "Straightforward serial murders. The lack of connection between the victims was a bit odd, but other than that—"
"Nathan Ransom, Nigel Remington, Nicholas Riesling, Nathan Rogers, Neil Rhodes—and each of them the third in their family of that name. Does that change your analysis, Light?"
Light's eyes widened in sudden understanding. Though he'd noticed Near's odd attire, both in the Yellow Box and again the night before, he hadn't thought much of it, too used to the original L's idiosyncrasies to be surprised by his successor's. But N.R. IIIs, all in pajamas–Nate River, Third L—it's not a coincidence. The killer knows him personally, knows that he's L now, and knows that he wasn't L to start. Which can only mean…
"The killer came from Wammy's House," said Light, cursing himself for not seeing it sooner. "That's why Near came to me."
"Among other reasons." For a moment, Roger looked like he wanted to reach through the bars, deadly sensors or no. Then he let his hand drop. "Whether he admits it or not, Near is trusting you. He doesn't like it any more than you do, but he needs your help. Don't let spite get the best of you. If you turn him down, he won't ask you again."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"I said I'll consider it. All right?"
"Thank you. That's all I ask." Stooping outside the cell door, Roger pushed several items through the slot. "Paradise Lost, as promised…and Dante's Divine Comedy. Near seemed to think you might enjoy it. Anything else you need?"
My freedom. "Not that I can think of."
"Good. If you change your mind, I'll be back with lunch." Gathering up Light's tray and the duffel of dirty laundry, Roger walked over to the massive door. Moments later, Light was once again alone.
With a sigh, the prisoner bent to collect his books, frowning at the manila folder he found beneath them. What the hell? Opening it, he discovered a sheaf of police reports, and a brusque, handwritten note:
Assuming you didn't shred my photographs in a fit of pique, these should give you the relevant context. Should you care to discuss them, let me know.
Light slammed the folder shut, torn between curiosity and pride. On the one hand, Near might well be watching, waiting to see if his human plaything would take the bait. On the other—
As long as it's here, I may as well look through it. I have nothing better to do. Even if I do spot something, I don't have to tell Near. I could crack the case myself, without his help, and he'd never have to know. Or I could give him a few hints, even, make him beg me for advice. It wouldn't mean I have to help him. It wouldn't mean a goddamn thing...
As good a liar as he was, Light Yagami couldn't fool himself. He'd known it from the moment Near first called him Second L, the moment Light's sneering successor had lowered himself to ask for help: he was going to do it. However much it rankled, Light was going to take the case.
Tucking his hair behind one ear, the prisoner sat down on his bunk to read.
Chapter 3: Near
As Near had expected, the news wasn't good. "You're sure of this?"
"Positive. In all likelihood, you're looking at three more victims. Assuming she stops there." Grim-faced Rester peered back at Near and Lidner from an oversized screen, Gevanni barely visible beside him. "There wasn't much more to see beyond the photos we already had, but whatever there is, we've seen. Unless you've turned up something new on your end, there's nothing more we can accomplish here."
On my end? That remains to be seen. Near ran his thumb over the card in his hand, pensive. "Nothing yet. You've done well, both of you. Come home."
"Thank you, L. We'll be on the next flight back. I should warn you, though–the Brits weren't happy you sent Americans rather than working with one of theirs. We'd be wise to bring someone from the NCA on board, if we need someone on scene again."
Near stared at his budding card tower, tempted to knock it down in disgust. Nationalist resentment. Just what I needed. As far as most of the world knew, he was the same L that had always been, making the six year delay in catching Kira his failure in their eyes. Deserved or not, L's reputation had taken a serious hit, and his current close ties to a single country didn't seem to help matters. Kira destroyed L in more ways than one–and now I need his help. There were no other leads he could hope for now, no other options for success. The injustice of it was infuriating, but it was better than no chance at all.
"Duly noted," he said. "And that reminds me. I've brought a new consultant onto the case."
"Excellent," said Rester. "Is he British?"
"I see. Someone we've worked with before?"
"In a manner of speaking." Near stacked another pyramid, bracing himself for disapproval. "Light Yagami has agreed to cooperate."
He'd expected the stunned silence that followed, but it bothered him all the same. Glancing up, he saw the two men turn to Lidner, Gevanni opening his mouth to no doubt ask for an explanation.
"No, she didn't approve," said Near, relishing Gevanni's jerk of surprise. "Mostly for emotional reasons, though she made one or two logical points. If you want to argue with me as well, be my guest."
"Can we trust him?" Gevanni asked weakly.
"Of course not."
Near turned. "There are only four people I trust to any extent, and I'm speaking to three of you now. If I rely only on people I trust, I'll lose."
"There's a difference," said Lidner, "between working with someone you don't know if you can trust, and working with someone you know you can't. A big one."
"I agree." The commander's face loomed onscreen, his scowl-wrinkled features blown up to absurd proportions. Is that anger I see, or merely thought? Or worry? Rester's tone offered no clarification. "Gevanni and I will be back tomorrow. Let's put this discussion on hold until then."
Near averted his eyes, adding more cards to his tower to hide his dismay. Though he understood his subordinates' hesitation–even shared it, to some extent–the implied criticism still rankled. If I were the real L, would they still balk me? Would the real L care if they did? Much as Near wished he were wrong, he knew he wasn't. He was L, and his logic was sound. That should have been enough for anyone.
"I understand," he said. "Schedule your flight. Once you're back at headquarters, we can go down and debrief Light Yagami as a team."
Rester nodded. "We'll be back as soon as we can."
"I'll see you then."
Roger pressed a button, and the screen went blank. Near stacked another pair of cards, keenly aware of Lidner's eyes on him.
"All of us?" she asked. "Is that really wise?"
"We're running low on time. Better to get everyone on the same page than have to repeat ourselves."
"He tried to kill you."
"Two years ago, under entirely different circumstances. I'm aware."
"I'm not talking about the Yellow Box. I'm talking about the other night." Lidner's voice was quiet but sharp, a tensed coil ready to spring. "He tried to gas you."
Near grimaced. "Threatened, at best–and even that's disputable. In any case, he backed down of his own accord. If he had any real design on my life, he would have acted."
"Unless he's waiting for a chance to take us all out at once. I don't like this, Near. I really don't."
Yes, you've made that clear. Near reached irritably for his hair, lapsing into silence as Roger spoke up at last.
"If I may?"
If I may. Near marveled once again at the strange inefficiency of human communication. He's going to speak his piece whether I allow it or not–he knows it, and we know it. Why waste time asking for permission we're socially obligated to give? He kept his thoughts to himself and nodded, gesturing at the man to continue.
"Light is bitter, certainly," said Roger, "but he's no kamikaze. Not that I've seen, at least. If you're concerned, I can turn off the sensors until your meeting is over. He'll have no way to hurt you then."
"Except a Death Note, you mean," said Lidner. "If he realizes he won't be gassed..."
"He'd still have to pry up the tile. Seeing as he has no tools and only one good hand, I have every confidence you'd beat him to the draw." Near climbed reluctantly to his feet, turning to stare her down. "Watari will monitor the meeting from up here and deactivate the sensors until we're clear. If Kira tries anything, you have my permission to give him a few new bullet holes. Any objections?"
She hesitated, then shook her head. "I suppose not."
"Good. Goodnight, Lidner."
Her posture stiffened, but she didn't challenge the dismissal, her high heels clacking sharply as she walked away. Roger sighed.
"She's too hard on him," he said quietly.
Near snorted derision. "And you're too soft. He's a murderer, not a guest. If he doesn't like his accommodations, he's got no one to blame but himself."
"I don't deny it. But he's still a human being, Near–and your responsibility. Mistreating him won't accomplish a thing."
Everything's my responsibility. "I'll keep that in mind."
"That's all I ask." Roger adjusted his glasses, giving his former student a half-formed smile. "L chose you for a reason, you know. Whatever happens, I'm sure he would be proud."
"He didn't choose me. He chose us." Bitterness tinged Near's voice, surprising him. "I'm just the one who survived."
"All the more reason he'd be proud. It's more than he managed himself." Roger rose, giving Near a polite nod. "Goodnight, L."
The young detective watched his Watari go, then turned back to his card creation. With a sharp jab, he knocked it down, cups and wands and pentacles all collapsing in a heap.
I am not L.
Light Yagami had been waiting for them.
He'd taken pains to hide it, but Near knew. Even if Near hadn't seen the man pacing on the monitors a few minutes earlier, he could see it in the way the prisoner sat on the very edge of his bunk, his Bible opened several hundred pages prior to where Near had seen him reading two days before. He's desperate for interaction, but doesn't want us to know. I could almost pity him.
"Ah, you came." Kira tossed the book aside without checking his page, the eagerness of the action belying his careful, casual drawl. "Roger said you might. Come on in."
As if he were running this meeting, not me. More amused than annoyed, Near motioned his team through the doorway. "Rester, Gevanni, Lidner–our new consultant. I believe you've already met."
"Once or twice," said Rester mildly, walking up to the bars and thrusting a hand through. "Nice to have you on the team."
Near watched intently as Kira flinched, the prisoner's eyes flicking up to the vents before he shook the offered hand. Definitely not a kamikaze, then. Good. He gave Lidner a pointed look, and her lips thinned. Recovering, Kira stuffed his hands into his pockets and smiled at the assembled investigators.
"Feel free to sit," he said. "I'd offer you chairs if I had them, but my hospitality is somewhat circumscribed at the moment."
"Understood." Near flopped down into his customary position, drawing a deck of playing cards from his pocket. As usual, he was the only one to sit. "Let's get started. I've already filled him in on the basics."
"Good. That'll save time." Rester gave the prisoner a considering look. "Tell me, Kira. What do you already know?"
Rester frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"Yagami, not Kira." The prisoner looked at Lidner. "If I'm part of the team now, I'd like to be treated accordingly. No more insults."
"You were Kira for six years," said Lidner. "It's a little late to complain about it now."
"And I've been Light Yagami for twenty-five. I prefer to be called by my actual name."
"Which makes you the only one on this team who does," Rester put in. "Focus on the task at hand. What do you know about this case?"
For a moment, Light Yagami looked like he might argue. Then he forced a smile. "Five victims, one per week, all with Near's initials and found in their pajamas. Cause of death: cardiac arrest. Postmortem toxicology results indicated the victims were knocked unconscious with thiopental, then killed with a potassium chloride injection directly into the heart. No syringes, fingerprints, or DNA evidence were recovered from any of the scenes, nor were there any signs of struggle or a break-in. The killer simply waltzed in, killed his victims, posed them, and waltzed back out, leaving no unintentional evidence." He glanced at Near. "He did leave holly wreaths and blank puzzle pieces of some kind, but I haven't–"
"They weren't blank," said Gevanni. "Just painted over. We managed to match all the recovered pieces to a 24-piece toddler floor puzzle. There's no way to track where the killer bought it, though."
"Twenty-four pieces, and three at each scene," Kira mused. "That suggests he's got three more victims in mind."
Near shuffled his cards. "She."
"The killer is most likely female."
Kira frowned. "That seems like a leap. Women aren't prone to genius. Or serial murder, for that matter."
"Neither are men, Kira, yet here you are," Lidner said. Gevanni let out a bark of laughter he quickly disguised as a cough, but the prisoner merely grimaced.
"You have me there," he said mildly. "Fine. Why do you think it's a woman?"
"Because I know who she is."
Kira's confusion was almost palpable. "You already have a suspect?"
"In theory, yes. In a practical sense, no." Near drew a card and studied it, his expression blank. "As I told you before, there was one student at Wammy's besides Mello and myself with knowledge of the Kira case. By process of elimination, that makes her our suspect."
"Not exactly a friend of yours, I take it."
I don't have friends. "No. We had no particular rivalry, either, but…no."
"Until now, you mean."
Kira folded his arms. "And you aren't tracking her down because…?"
"When a child arrives at Wammy's House, all records of their birth name are destroyed. When one of us ages out, we're then given new legal documentation in whatever name we care to use. According to Roger, Janus—the suspect—never received that paperwork. A few days before she aged out, she simply left."
"So you're saying she's untraceable."
"Near enough. I had Roger interview her closer acquaintances to see if they'd heard anything, but no one had." That they'd admit to, Near didn't add, but he knew he didn't have to. Light Yagami might be many things–manipulative, deluded, narcissistic–but unintuitive wasn't among them. "Tracking Janus down directly is a fool's errand. Best to stick to the evidence she left us."
"Most of which is aimed at mocking you, not finding her. Though the wreaths are a little baffling. It's a Christmas symbol, I know but—"
Near drew a card and examined it. The Suicide King. How ominous. "I wouldn't expect you to get that—it's her idea of a joke. You see, where we grew up, another name for Christmas is Noel."
The prisoner raised an eyebrow. "No L. The killer went to all that trouble for a pun?"
"So it would appear. I would also note that, at her present pace of one murder each Thursday, her penultimate victim will die on Christmas, and the last on January first—the month of Janus."
"Huh. Not a fan of subtlety, is she?" Kira pursed his lips. "What about the puzzle pieces?"
"Three at each crime scene, all white on one side and numbered on the other. I had quite an interest in puzzles when she knew me. As for the numbers—" Near looked at Rester, and the commander stepped forward, handing Kira a photo of the assembled, numbered pieces through the bars. "What do you make of that?"
The prisoner's eyes skimmed the picture, and Near watched him with interest. He already knew what the image meant-Gevanni had solved it the day before-but novelty wasn't the point. Proving Kira's worth as an investigator was.
32 31 14 13 32 31 33 33 12 22 33 44 25 31 43...
"It's a numeric cipher," Kira said. "Given the lack of single digit numbers or any digit higher than five, my guess is a Polybius–and since I don't see any elevens or fifteens, probably using a mixed alphabet."
"That's what we thought, too," explained Gevanni, "which–"
Kira held up a hand to silence him. "No. No hints. Let me figure it out."
Good boy. Near's lips crept upward as Kira bent to study the cipher. For once, the prisoner's arrogance worked in Near's favor. The more he impresses the others, the less they'll balk me about using him—and the more attention he gets, the less he'll complain. Either way, I win. A few minutes later, Kira grinned and looked up.
"You didn't tell me she dropped my name," he said.
"You solved it?" asked Rester.
"What there is of it, yeah. 'Kira killed L. This.' Given her clear distaste for Third L here, I'd wager the rest of the message is an exposé of some kind. His real name would use up all the remaining puzzle pieces by itself, but she could call him a fake or fraud–"
"You solved it that quickly?"
Kira shrugged, unable to completely hide his self-satisfaction. "It's not that impressive, really. She wanted it to be easy to solve. If she hadn't, she'd have used a double encryption, and a less obvious keyword than 'Near.'"
"Exactly right," said Near. "Though I'd note that 'Near' would only be obvious to the people in this room. She meant that message for me, not the public."
"It's more than that." Kira set the photo down. "Early on, as a distraction, I used three victims to send L coded messages that looked like clues, but were actually taunts. Three messages, three puzzle pieces. She's referencing something I did, but only the original L would remember." He wore a peculiar, wide-eyed expression, as if torn between horror and awe.
"So that's it, then," said Gevanni. "The clue we were missing. Right?"
"No." Kira answered at the same time Near did, and they looked at each other in surprise. "No," repeated Near. "We already knew she was taunting us. This merely confirms what I suspected: she knows more of the Kira case than I do."
Rester hooked his thumbs into his pockets. "Not more than Yagami does."
The agents turned appraising looks on their captive consultant, and Near tapped the king of hearts against his face in satisfaction. Excellent. Frustrating as it was to rely on his ex-nemesis for success, the fact he could was a vindication of his decision to ask for help—and of keeping Kira alive at all, a decision even he had frequently second-guessed. He's behaving about as well as I could hope…and far better than I feared, given his temper tantrum the other night. Thus far, my plan is going well.
Kira cleared his throat.
"It also confirms something else," he said. "I need to see the crime scenes. In person."
Near's satisfaction vanished. "Out of the question."
"I'm not asking for a pardon. I'm trying to help." Someone behind Near sniffed in derision, and Kira's eyes narrowed. "Are you calling me a liar, Lidner?"
"Doesn't matter," she shot back. "L said no. End of story."
"I didn't know you were his spokeswoman. Didn't learn much from Kiyomi, did you?"
Lidner's face colored in unmistakable fury. "How dare you—"
Near tugged his hair in disgust. So much for going well. "Enough. I can't trust you out of this cell, let alone overseas. You have the crime scene photos—"
"Taken by idiots who didn't know what they were looking for," said Kira. "You know full well that's not enough."
"I can go back tonight, with L's permission," said Rester. "I don't mind. I can take any photos you need."
Kira grimaced. "And I appreciate that, thank you, but you don't know what you're looking for either. Hell, I won't know what I'm looking for until I see it."
"Assuming there's anything to see," said Gevanni. "Just because she left fake clues doesn't mean she left real ones."
"Of course she did. She doesn't want to discredit L, she wants to discredit Near—to paint him as an inferior, a fake. Creating a case no one could solve won't do that. But creating a case L could solve, but Near can't? That would." Kira turned to Near for support. "Am I wrong?"
No. More's the pity. "That's my theory as well, yes."
"Then you know I'm the only person here with any chance of spotting the real clue. You know that."
Reluctantly, Near nodded. "I do."
"I'm not asking you to trust me. If you want to keep a gun to my head the whole time, or drag me around in shackles and a straightjacket, so be it. But you need to take me to London, Near." The prisoner clung to the bars, imploring. "You asked me to help you. Let me help."
Near stared at Kira's hands, the murderer's knuckles clenched white on the barrier of his prison. I think he's in earnest. Two nights before, the same pose had been threatening. Now, it was merely pathetic. Raising his eyes to Kira's face, Near gave a tight smile. "I'll consider it."
Lidner's voice was indignant. "L, you can't—"
"Thank you for your input, Light Yagami," said Near firmly, interrupting them both. "You three, come with me. We have things to discuss."
"He's not proposing this out of the goodness of his heart," said Lidner. "He wants out for his own purposes, not yours."
Near twirled his hair. "I don't disagree."
"But you don't find that suspicious?"
"He's spent almost two years in a cage half the size of your bedroom, Halle," Rester said. "Any of us would want out in his place. That's doesn't mean he's plotting anything."
"It doesn't mean he isn't, either," said Gevanni. "I'm not saying it's the only possibility, but it wouldn't be the first time he's turned a prison stay to his advantage."
"A prison stay he volunteered and planned for. I don't think even the most paranoid observer would say he volunteered for this." Rester's eyes flicked to Halle as he mentioned paranoia, but she gave no sign that she had noticed, nor did he belabor the point. "I don't trust him, Near, but I trust your judgment. If you want one of us to take him to London, I wouldn't mind."
"That won't be necessary, Commander." Near studied the wall just over Rester's head, wishing the room were less resonant. "If the British police are resentful I passed them over for American agents, sending you back with a Japanese national won't help matters. You and Gevanni already put in appearances in this case as CIA agents, and Lidner's too recognizable from her time as Kiyomi Takada's bodyguard to pass herself off as a British agent. If I grant Light Yagami's request, I'll have to escort him myself."
Those weren't his only reasons—Light Yagami was too slippery to trust to the supervision of inferior minds, and he and Lidner would kill each other rather than work together if given half a chance—but they were the most tactful. Even so, the reaction was as immediate as it was predictable, all three agents jumping in to comment at once. Near covered his ears, wincing at the sonic ambush.
"What else do you want me to do?" he asked angrily. "His logic is sound. L's credibility with the world is already in tatters. If I don't solve this case—"
"You can walk away," Lidner said. "Just say there aren't enough victims to interest you. No one would question it."
Rester shook his head. "Too many people know he sent me and Gevanni. If he backs away now, it'll be seen as a loss."
"Better to lose a case than his life," Lidner shot back.
"L didn't think so," said Near. "Neither do I. Puzzle pieces or not, she won't stop at eight victims. If I try to back out, she'll keep going until she discredits me completely. I'm certain of that."
Gevanni shook his head. "There has to be a safer way. If we just keep thinking—"
"I have been thinking," said Near. "I'm telling you, Kira is right. I may look like a child, but I'm not an idiot."
"We know that, Near," said Lidner. "We simply–"
"Then listen!" he snapped.
The word echoed off the walls, followed by a stunned silence. Embarrassed, Near reached up for his hair, his subordinates' stares seeming to burrow into his skin.
"It's all right, L." Rester's voice was hushed, almost a whisper. "We're listening."
Near flinched inwardly at the pity in the commander's voice, but he refused to let it show. Twisting a lock of hair between his fingers, he directed his words at his agents' feet. "Give me twenty-four hours," he said. "If I can come up with a way to contain Light Yagami all of you can accept, I'll take him to London. If any of you still object, he'll continue to work from his cell, and I'll find some British agent to use instead. Fair enough?"
Rester nodded. "Fair enough." After a moment's hesitation, the other two murmured agreement as well.
"Good. Meeting adjourned." Without another word, Near turned his back on them, shuffling toward the safety and isolation of his room.
What do I do now?
Chapter 4: Light
Midmorning found Light in his usual position, curled up on his bunk with a book—though in truth, he was barely reading. He'd spent half an hour on a single page, trying to force himself to focus, but it was no use. As soon as he read the words, they slipped away from him, as if each letter had been greased with lard.
It can't be much longer now.
He'd gotten no answers out of Roger at breakfast, and Near still hadn't come back. That was probably a good sign. If there was one thing Light could count on from Near, it was bluntness to the point of cruelty. He wouldn't have hesitated to come back and tell me if the answer was no. He's thinking about it, at least. Even so, Light wished he'd think about it a little faster. Even if the answer was ultimately no, the sooner he knew for certain, the less devastated he would be.
Or so he hoped.
A door clanged down the hall, and Light's heart raced. Please be Near. Abandoning all pretense of calm, Light tossed the book aside and stood up, massaging his crippled hand nervously as he stared at the door. Two days ago, he'd stood in the same spot, hoping his visitor wasn't Near. Now he hoped it was.It would have been funny, if the joke weren't him.
The heavy door swung open, revealing an unaccompanied Rester. Shit. Despite himself, Light's hopeful smile faltered.
"Word from upstairs?" he asked.
Rester nodded, sliding the familiar set of shackles through the slot. "Put them on forwards. Near wants a word with you."
Light blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"I'm here to escort you upstairs."
Light stared at the commander in mute disbelief, his heart pounding as he understood. Near could be cruel at times, but he'd never take Light out of his cell just to tell him he had to stay in. If Near was bringing him upstairs…
I'm getting out.
I'm getting out .
Lightheaded with relief, he put on the shackles, snapping them shut around his wrists and ankles as quickly as he could manage. When he was done, he tugged on them for proof, flashing the agent a broad, giddy grin. "I'm ready."
Rester returned the smile. "That was quick." Entering his passcode, he grabbed the handle and pushed the door to Light's cage ajar. "All right, Yagami. Come on out."
"I'm taking you to London," said Near.
Light glanced around at his assembled teammates, but none of them said a word. "A wise decision."
"We'll see." Near drew a pair of tarot cards, stacking them neatly atop a half-formed card castle. Strange. "There are conditions, of course. As far as the British police are concerned, you're an NPA investigator and I'm a British private eye. Obviously, the official story is that we were chosen by L for this case, and are working under his supervision. Gevanni has forged IDs for both of us in the names we will be using. I expect you to stick to your role at all times." Near hesitated. "For obvious reasons, should you make any…slip-ups regarding our real identities, I'll ship you straight back here. Is that clear?"
Light nodded. "Perfectly."
"Good. My new identity is Michael Kale. I suspect you'll find it easy to remember."
You bastard. Light stiffened, an angry heat rising in his cheeks. "Seems a bit unwise to steal an actual agent's identity."
"It's for your protection. I can only assume Janus has been keeping a close eye on the investigation of her crimes, and I know she's familiar with the names of the men who worked against Kira in Japan. If I show up with a Japanese investigator in tow who wasn't among the Task Force, it won't be hard for her to deduce who you really are—and given how strongly she feels about my succeeding L, I doubt she'd feel very kindly toward you, either." Near turned his head, one eyebrow cocked in challenge. "Is that a problem?"
Despite the surface logic of his words, Near's smug expression left little doubt as to the real reason behind his choice. If that were all, he could have chosen Aizawa, too, or Mogi, or anyone but the idiot who shot me—but if I object, I go back to my cell. It pained Light to admit how little control he had, yet it was the truth. He had no choice. Not really.
"It's not a problem, no."
"Excellent. I thought you'd see the logic."
Light blew out a resigned breath. "Any other conditions?"
"Of course. You will follow my orders without question. You will remain within my sight at all times, unless you get my permission first. Except when we're in the public eye, you will be shackled at all times unless I determine otherwise."
Light cracked a wry smile. "You sure it wouldn't be easier to just handcuff yourself to me?"
"Easier, probably. Safer, clearly not." Near turned his attention back to his construction. "Your curfew will be ten o'clock. At that time, you will be unchained for bed—after submitting to soporific sedation first. If any of these conditions seem intolerable to you, or if you break any during our stay, I will call this mission off immediately and return you to your cell. Understood?"
"You accept these conditions?"
"Good. Bow your head."
Light blinked, confused. "Why?"
"Just do as he says, Yagami," said Rester.
At least he didn't say Kira. The prisoner lowered his head, gnawing his lip as he stared at the floor. The position was far less uncomfortable than his usual kneeling pose, but he felt distressingly vulnerable all the same. Is this a test?
Something hard yet flexible wrapped around his neck, the ends connecting with an audible click. Confused, Light probed the circlet with his fingers, his face flushing as he realized what it was. "A collar. Really?"
"A precaution. A transmitter in that necklace will broadcast your location at all times. If you do take it into your head to run, you won't get far." The white-haired detective raised his shirt, revealing a small clicker hooked onto his waistband. "It also does this."
Pain lanced down Light's spine, sending him crashing to the floor. Yelling in fear and surprise, he thrashed uncontrollably in his shackles, his vision a redscale, flashing blur. At last, the pain receded. Cheek pressed against the carpet, he lay still, one knee throbbing in complaint.
"For God's sake, Near!" Roger snapped, outraged. "Was that necessary?"
"It was." Near's voice was flat as ever, nigh robotic to Light's ears. "That was four milliamps of electricity, Kira. One press of this button will knock you down for ten seconds, should you decide to misbehave—and should you attempt to remove that collar without my help, it will activate automatically and shock you until you stop. Consider yourself warned."
Humiliated, Light raised his head from the floor to glare at him, but Near didn't notice. The young detective wasn't looking at Light but at Lidner, fingers meshed in his hair as he calmly stared her down. At last, the female agent sighed and nodded, turning away.
"You all right, son?" Rester asked, reaching down to help Light up.
I'm no one's son. My father's dead. Light waved away the offered hand, trying to find his feet unaided. I didn't wet myself, at least. "I'm fine."
"See, Roger?" said Near. "No lasting harm done—and as long as he behaves himself, there should be no need for another demonstration. Isn't that right, Light Yagami?"
Light clenched his teeth, a muscle twitching just below his ear. "Even the most idiotic officer is going to question why a supposed agent has a shock collar, Near."
"If you wear a turtleneck, no one will see. I gather that won't offend your sense of style." Near cocked his head. "Unless you object to being released under these conditions?"
Screw you. With a jingle of chain, Light lurched upright, painfully aware of the pity in Roger's eyes. In everyone's eyes, if he was being honest, except for Near's. I told him I wasn't his dog, so he collared me. He didn't have to go that far. An ordinary stun belt would have achieved the same end, if precaution had been the point, but Near didn't really want Light to behave. He wanted Light to submit. It was the most L-like Light had ever seen him—and worse, Light couldn't say no.
I have no choice.
Part of him wanted nothing better than to spit in Near's face and return to his cell with his dignity intact, but he knew he wouldn't. Heavy as his shackles were, his desperation weighed on him far more. Better a collar than another gun in my face, or another day in a cage. At least this way, I'll see the sun. Two years in, Light's pride wasn't in tatters but in splinters, each fragment sharp enough to cut. The tighter he clung to what was left, the more he felt the pain.
"I accept the conditions," he said quietly. Nearby, Roger sighed and shook his head, but Near pretended not to notice.
"Does anyone else object to my working with Kira under these conditions?"
One by one, the SPK members shook their heads.
"Good," said Near, turning back to his card castle. "Get him changed. We leave for the airfield in an hour."
Light's appearance had changed dramatically by the time he set foot on the plane. Freed of his shackles and prisoner's gray, he almost looked like his old, free self, as if merely returning to normal clothes had taken him backwards in time. Only his hair spoiled the illusion, having been freshly cut and dyed by Rester to match the short, dark hair of the real Matsuda. Light hadn't protested at that. Embarrassing as the style was, simply having the oily mess trimmed and out of his face was a relief.
Stepping up into the private jet, Light felt a strange rush of déjà vu. He didn't remember anything about the plane that must have brought him to his prison, but he remembered the one before—the numb, interminable flight back to Japan after his father's death, still in shock over what he'd lost. They must have buried my ashes beside him—or what they think were mine, at least. Probably Mikami's. Mikami had had no family to mourn him, and Light's family no body to mourn. It was just the sort of heartless, utilitarian calculus Near would use.
"Where do I sit?" Light asked Roger.
"Wherever you'd like."
The cabin wasn't large—though still larger than his cell had been—with only six chairs and an odd sort of couch. Near was already settled into a front-facing seat, frowning at a web of string stretched between his hands. Light hesitated, then slid into the seat facing him, struggling gamely to adjust the buckle. His white-haired jailor blew out a breath of annoyance.
"You can ask for help, you know."
"I can manage."
"Roger, please help Mr. Matsuda with his seatbelt."
Gritting his teeth, Light dropped the seatbelt and raised his hands, allowing himself to be buckled in like a child. "I would have gotten it."
"Perhaps, but we're running late. I assume you're sitting in the cockpit?"
"That was the plan," said Roger. "Though if you need me to supervise–"
Near gave his assistant a baleful look. "I can manage."
"Very well." With one last, concerned glance at Light, Roger turned and walked away, leaving an awkward silence in his wake. A moment later, the cockpit door swung shut. Light worried his lip.
"How long's the flight?" he asked.
"About nine hours."
"Ah." We must be on the East Coast, then. Until he'd gone outside, Light had half-assumed they were in Britain, but entering traffic on the right lane had been enough to reveal the truth. He glanced around the cabin, bobbing his head in thoughtful consideration. "This is nice."
"The jet. I had a lot of perks as L, but I never had a private jet." He smiled. "Had to settle for business class."
"Yes. Well." Near wove his thumbs through the string in his hands, shifting its shape from a web to a saltire. "That's the difference between being L's successor and a fake."
Light lapsed back into silence, watching Near maneuver his loop of string from a saltire to two parallel lines, then to a simple X, then back to the saltire once more. He always has to be doing something with his hands–puppets, cards, string. It's disturbing. He couldn't put his finger on what was wrong with Near's mind, but something clearly was. L gave me the same feeling, damn him. They have that much in common.
He cleared his throat. "I've never seen that variant of ayatori before."
"Unsurprising. I never took you for an expert on cat's cradle."
"Not by choice–Sayu made me learn. I only know two-player, though."
Near shrugged, his expression unchanged. "I've never played that way."
We're conversing, at least. That's a start.
"It's been a while, but I remember most of it," Light said, leaning forward. "I can teach you–"
"No, you can't. Cat's cradle can be played with one player, but it can't be played with one hand." The young detective looked up at last, his eyes narrowed. "There's an entertainment system, if you're bored. Just keep the volume down."
The prisoner leaned back, face flushing, as the plane began to move. So much for rapport. Without thinking, he reached for his throat, scratching at his hidden collar through the black fabric of his turtleneck.
"So you live in America now," he said, after a pause. "It makes sense, I guess. No point in uprooting your team when you yourself have no family ties, right?"
Sighing, Near dropped the string from his fingers, crumpling it into a ball. "Is there something you want from me, Kira?"
"Conversation would be nice. I haven't had much chance of it of late."
"Conversation isn't my strong suit."
Light smirked despite himself. "I noticed."
"Anything in particular you want to discuss?"
"I don't know." He hesitated, trying to think up a topic the detective might accept. "What's Ryuk up to these days? I didn't see him upstairs."
"No idea. Once I burned Mikami's notebook, he went home. Haven't seen him since."
Home? "That's not possible. Even if you destroyed that notebook, he would have had to—"
"Kill you? Yes, that's what he assumed, too. Fortunately for you, I convinced him to run the relevant rules by me first." Near cocked his head, his eyes fixed on the headrest of Light's chair. "As he explained it, a shinigami whose notebook is picked up by a human may return to the shinigami realm indefinitely under one of four conditions: if the original human owner of the notebook dies, if the notebook is destroyed, if a different shinigami takes possession of the notebook in his place, or if there is no current human owner to haunt. The original notebook Ryuk gave you is now the shinigami Sidoh's, and Mikami's notebook is destroyed, so Ryuk has no further tie to either of them."
"That still leaves the one in my cell. I was the original owner, and since I still have my memories—"
"You were and you weren't. You were the first human to touch it, yes—but Ryuk didn't own it then, did he?"
No, he didn't. Light frowned, thinking it through. I took it from Rem's corpse, not from him. I only gave it to Ryuk after Mello showed up, but the first person he gave it back to was…
His eyes widened. "My father."
"Is the original owner, yes—and since he's already dead, there was no need to kill you. Convenient, don't you think?" Near cracked a tight, self-satisfied smile.
That's not the word I'd use. "Very."
"Technically, the rules still insist that Ryuk write your name from the shinigami realm when you die, but they don't specify a time limit to make that happen. And since Ryuk is free to return to our world any time he chooses as long as you continue to own that notebook, he has no reason to kill you prematurely."
"Prematurely," Light echoed. "I see."
Near restrung the ayatori loop around his fingers, leaving Light to mull his information in silence. I'm the reason Dad died, and it saved my life. That, and Near. Light stared bleakly at his damaged hand, discomforted by the thought.
"So Ryuk's gone, too. Him, Takada, Mikami…" He bit his lip. "Just Misa and I left now, I guess."
Near didn't look at him. "Just you."
"Misa Amane's dead."
He broke the news without emotion, as if he were telling Light the weather. Light stared at him, torn between horror and incredulity. "You're joking."
"She's been dead ten months, Kira. Jumped off a building on Valentine's Day. Just the sort of overdramatic gesture you'd expect from her, really."
Light sat in stunned silence, watching Near's fingers shift from figure to figure. Misa's dead? It had been almost two years since he'd last seen her—and longer than that since she'd been of any use—but the news left him hollow all the same.
"You should have told me," he said hoarsely.
"Oh?" Near looked up from his tangle of string. "I didn't think you cared about her."
I didn't think I did. Light had asked about Mikami the moment he first woke up in his cell, but it had never occurred to him to ask about Misa, then or since. She didn't remember anything, and I destroyed all the physical evidence that she'd mailed those Second Kira tapes. They had nothing on her. I made sure of that. The task force would have told her Light was dead, he knew, but she'd survived the death of loved ones before. As far as he'd known, he had no reason to worry over her. As far as he'd known, he had no reason to care.
But I do.
The realization startled him. No, he didn't love her. No, he never had. But for six years, Misa had shared in every part of his life—his first imprisonment, his home, his crimes, his bed—and despite himself, he had grown used to her presence. She was a fixture, a constant, dependable in her availability if not in common sense. She wasn't love to him and never would be, but in an odd way, she was home.
And now she was gone.
They all were.
Glancing down at his hands, Light realized they were shaking. Embarrassed, he clenched them both into fists—his left hand properly tight and white-knuckled, his right a crippled, useless claw.
"Are you all right, Kira?"
He looked up and realized Near was still watching him. "I'm fine."
"Good." The detective turned his attention back to his string. "I thought you would be."
Light bristled. "Anything else I should know that you haven't told me?" he asked.
The young detective said nothing, intent on his string. Swallowing his irritation, Light repeated the question. "Anything else–?"
"Yes, I heard you."
"You could have acknowledged it."
"I just did." Near twisted his fingers. "It appears that collar didn't damage your vocal cords any. Probably for the best."
For both our sakes, I'll pretend you didn't say that. "Probably," Light agreed, masking his anger with an affable smile. "I still have a question, though. Is there anything else–?"
"Crime rates are back up to pre-Kira levels, several countries are at war, and terrorism is on the rise again. Other than that, no." Near glanced over at him at last, his expression unreadable. "The world has already forgotten you, Kira. You might as well return the favor."
I expected as much. Six years of proper guidance wasn't enough to permanently surmount centuries of moral decay, Light knew, but he'd hoped some of the changes he wrought might outlast him. But he was wrong. For all he'd struggled, for all he'd sacrificed, humanity remained the same: still selfish, still vicious, still rotten. However much times changed, human nature never did.
You have no excuses. I taught you better. I tried.
Yet here he was, again, fighting the same losing battle. Near's methods might be different—and less effective, certainly—but his ends were the same. Fight crime, restore justice, protect the innocent. The world might not remember Kira, but he remembered the world. Whatever he'd lost, he still had that.
"I might as well," he echoed, "but I won't. I don't give up that easily."
Ignoring the detective's eyes on him, Light watched the clouds roll past.
Chapter 5: Near
Kira was asleep.
Near watched him from a nearby chair, one leg tucked up beneath him. The mass-murderer lay on his side, curled in slightly on himself to fit his lanky legs onto the sofa. Roger had offered him one of the beds, but to Near's surprise, Kira had declined.
"I've spent the last two years on a glorified pallet," he'd said, offering up his bare arm to be drugged. "A few nights on a loveseat won't kill me."
No, it won't. If anything, Kira looked happier asleep. Younger, too. Awake, the tense desperation etched on his features made him look years older than he was. Asleep, it was easier to remember that Light Yagami was only twenty-five.
Then again, so was L, when Kira killed him.
Frowning, Near ran a lock of hair between his fingers. From his perch atop the desk chair, he could barely make out the dark collar half-hidden beneath Kira's blankets. Though Near had few regrets about shocking his prisoner–he'd made his point to Kira and Lidner both–seeing the man writhing on the floor in pain had bothered him more than he'd thought it would. A belt would have worked just as well, and humiliated him less. Perhaps I should have...
"You should get some sleep yourself, Near."
The detective glanced up at Roger and shook his head. "I'm not tired."
"He won't move until morning. You know that."
"I'm not worried he will," said Near. "Just...thinking."
"About the case?"
Roger came over to stand beside him, joining his study of the sleeping murderer. "You shouldn't have collared him."
"Shocked him, you mean?" Near rubbed his hair with his thumb, his face a careful blank. "I promised my agents I wouldn't come without unanimous agreement on their part. I had to convince Lidner I had him firmly under control."
"By torturing him?"
"No, by tasing him. There's a difference. And for what it's worth, I'm not sure Lidner was wrong."
The old man sighed. "Near–"
"L would have done the same. Don't tell me he wouldn't."
"Yes, he would," Roger admitted softly. "That doesn't make it right."
"He survived five bullets. One little shock won't kill him."
"And it wouldn't kill you to show a little grace. You won, Near. He knows it better than you."
Near snorted. "He doesn't act like it."
"He's proud, yes—but name one of your ex-classmates who wasn't. Give him a chance to earn that pride, and he could be an incredible addition to your team. Keep rubbing his face in the dirt, though—"
"He'll turn on me the first chance he gets. I'm aware." Near twirled his hair in silence a moment, watching Light Yagami's chest rise and fall. "He's not one of my old classmates, you know."
"I never said he was."
You don't have to. The way Roger treated the captive killer, the way he talked about him, the way he sometimes slipped and called Kira "Matt"—it didn't take a deductive genius of Near's caliber to understand what Roger thought. One of his students gets gunned down in Japan, and four days later I put him in charge of a similar-aged Japanese genius full of bullet holes. I should have known he'd see it as a replacement.
"You can turn the lights out if you like," he said. "I need a little time to adjust, that's all. I won't stay up much longer."
Roger nodded, offering his ex-student a thin smile. "I understand. Goodnight, L."
The room went dark, but Near's eyes never left the sleeping killer. Perched in his chair, he kept his lonely vigil long into the night.
Morning found Near underslept and irritable, still unadjusted to his new surroundings. Kira was having no such problems.
"About time you woke up," he said cheerfully, shaking the cereal box at Near. "Come eat. The sooner we start visiting the crime scenes, the better."
Near glared. "Aren't you supposed to be shackled, Kira?"
"Roger said it could wait until after breakfast, unless you object."
I object to your very existence, Near thought savagely, rubbing the blear from his eyes. Sliding off the bed, he came to join Kira and Roger at the table. "It's fine. But next time, Roger, ask me first."
"I didn't think you'd want me to wake you." There was a touch of censure in Roger's voice, as if he knew full well his charge had stayed up later than he'd claimed, but he poured Near a bowl of cereal without further comment. "You still like Cheerios, don't you?"
Near dug into his cereal without enjoyment, doing his best to ignore the conversation around him. There was something surreal about sitting across a table from his ex-nemesis, eating breakfast together like family, but Kira didn't seem to notice. Shoving his bowl aside, the mass murderer stood up, rolling his shoulder.
"I suppose taking a shower is out of the question?" he asked.
"On the contrary," said Near. "Given how much time we'll be spending in each other's company, I'd much prefer you keep yourself clean."
"And this device of yours won't shock me into next week if it gets drenched?"
Oh. Near frowned. "I hadn't thought about that. I suppose if you were shackled—"
"He'll need help washing himself if you do that," said Roger. "One of us supervising should be enough."
No, it isn't. The question had been innocent-sounding enough, but Near wasn't fooled. He's testing the limits, trying to see how seriously I take the rules. He's behaved himself so far, but if I cut him slack this soon, I'll regret it.
"I'll supervise," he said, forcing himself to look Kira in the face. "I brought a pair of handcuffs along. Once you attach yourself to the showerhead, I'll take the collar off."
Kira cocked his head. "And if I need help to wash?"
"You've been managing one-handed so far. I have every confidence you'll do so again." Near pushed his own bowl away and stood up. "I'm ready whenever you are."
The prisoner stared at him a moment, then shrugged and wandered into the bathroom. Roger looked at Near. "I can watch him, if you prefer."
"No, it's fine. The sooner he gets used to my supervision, the better."
For both of us.
Pulling the handcuffs from his suitcase on the way, Near barged into the bathroom without knocking. "You can keep a towel on until everything's set, if you like."
"I don't care. Nothing you haven't seen before, anyway." Kira stripped off his boxers and stepped into the shower stall without a trace of modesty, arching an eyebrow at Near. "Are you going to handcuff me, or –?"
Near handed him the handcuffs, watching in irritation as Kira secured one end around his right wrist and the other end to the showerhead. He looks like he's enjoying this. Gritting his teeth, Near stepped into the shower stall beside his prisoner, keeping as much distance as he could. He slid the fob quickly over the sensor at Light's throat and pulled the unfastened collar free.
"There," he said shortly. "If you need anything, let me know."
The detective retreated, shutting the stall door behind him with more than necessary force. Enthroning himself on the toilet lid, he fidgeted with the collar in his hands as the sound of running water filled the room.
"Oh, damn." Through the door, Near saw Kira's silhouette move. "I may have found a flaw in your system."
Near frowned. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Hang on." More movement, followed by the obnoxious squeak of wet skin against a smooth surface. "Yes, definitely a flaw."
"What did you do?"
"The soap got away from me. My arm's not long enough to reach it. Would you mind?"
With a soft groan, Near got up and reopened the shower stall, stooping to retrieve the bar of soap for his naked prisoner. A small puddle formed by his feet as he handed it back, waterlogging one of his socks. "You're lucky I didn't send you to prison."
"I don't see why that's relevant."
Is he really that naïve? "It's a reference to…" Near trailed off, suddenly noticing that Kira was smirking. "Never mind—a tasteless joke. Just keep better hold of it this time, all right?"
"I'll do my best."
Shutting the stall, the disgruntled detective trudged away once more. This time, Kira's voice followed him to the toilet. "You know, as long as you're here, we might as well talk business."
"You could tell me more about Janus."
Near snorted, studying his wet sock in dismay. The texture of the soggy fabric made his skin crawl, but he couldn't leave Kira unattended to get a new one, and going sockless on the tile would bother him just as much. Damn him. "This really doesn't seem like the time."
"Why not? You're here, I'm here, you have nothing better to do..." Metal rasped on metal, making Near wince, but Kira kept on talking. "Might as well use our time efficiently, right?"
"The last time I saw her was seven years ago, and we weren't close even then. Whatever information I have is well out of date."
"It's still better than none. If you want me to solve her puzzle for you, the more I know, the better."
"Fine. When I knew her, she was blonde."
"That's a start. Short? Tall?"
"Short for her age. Taller than me."
Oh, for fuck's sake. "I don't see how that's relevant."
"Pretty girls are always relevant, Near."
"In that case, let's talk about Misa Amane."
For a moment, the only sound in the room was running water. "Eye color?"
"I don't know."
"You had a girl in your class, and you never looked at her eyes?"
Near sighed. "She wasn't in my class. She's nearly your age."
"I don't often look at people's eyes. Female or otherwise."
"Your loss. Anything else I should know? Talents, hobbies, interests?"
"Oh, hold on. I have to wash my hair."
Retreating into silence, Near gave his own hair a vicious jerk. He's doing this on purpose. Kira had broken no rules—not yet, at least—but his petty rebellion was a nuisance, nonetheless. Unless I draw firmer boundaries, he'll keep testing me. I won't shock him for this, but I ought to do something. The problem was, he had no idea what.
"Just how long does it take you to wash your hair?" he asked.
"Given that my hair was just dyed yesterday, quite a while. I've been washing my hair in a prison sink for two years. Cut me some slack."
"You're the one who didn't want to waste time."
"True." There was a short pause. "All right, I'm listening."
Near drew a breath, weighing his words. "The first thing you need to understand about Wammy's House is that even there, Mello and I were outliers. The primary goal was to find a successor for L, yes, but most of the students there had no interest or aptitude for the job. It wasn't a problem. Roger let all of us pursue our own interests, whether they aligned with the primary mission or not. Those of us who gravitated toward investigation and forensic science were trained as potential successors; everyone else was trained to be an expert in their chosen field, someone L could consult if a case ever called for specialized knowledge. Art, history, marine biology, medicine, literature, engineering—any field you can think of, someone at Wammy's probably studied it."
"I'm guessing Janus was a successor."
"Initially, yes. She had a certain fascination with true crime Roger hoped he might be able to channel, but her real interest was computers. There were rumors during the start of your case that she'd managed to hack L's network somehow and read his files on the case, but I don't know if she actually did. She did follow your doings rather obsessively, though. I can attest to that."
"Hmm. It's more likely she hacked the NPA than L. Does she speak Japanese?"
"Not that I'm aware of. She had friends who did, though—Carver, Matt, one or two others. It wouldn't have been hard to get one of them to translate files."
Oh, right. "One of Mello's friends. Quick to backtalk, eager to show off, but easily led. You know him, sort of. During Mello's abduction of Takada, some of your followers gunned him down in the street."
A drawn-out silence followed Near's words. Good. With any luck, he'd given Kira something new to mull over in place of new ways to irritate his jailer.
"Is something wrong?" asked Near, all innocence.
"No. Just thinking."
"Well, think faster. You wanted to view the scenes today, didn't you?"
The water switched off inside the stall. "I'm done."
"About time." Near passed his prisoner a towel. "Dry off your head and neck, at least. I wouldn't want you to short-circuit your collar by accident."
Wet as Kira's body was, his voice was completely dry. "Yeah. I'm sure you wouldn't."
I wasn't being sarcastic. Much as Near tried to keep his eyes from wandering, the scars on Kira's torso and shoulder drew his eyes like magnets. As little sympathy as he had for the first L's killer, Near was practical, not cruel. Kira's death wouldn't grieve him, but Kira's screams brought him no pleasure. Near had heard them enough times to know that much.
Not that he'd believe me.
Reaching up, he fastened the collar around Kira's neck once more.
Two crime scenes later, Near was ready to scream.
"Thank you for all your help," he said, shaking the officer's hand. "I know it can't be easy for you, having outsiders take over a case."
"Don't worry about it. Some of the others are a bit peeved, sure, but it's not as if we were making any headway ourselves." Inspector Lewin pressed Near's hand firmly. "If L can figure it out, more power to him, I say."
That remains to be seen. Near pulled his hand back, resisting the urge to tangle it in his hair. "I'm sure he's doing his best." He glanced over to where Kira stood rocking on his heels, watching them both with a dopey, puzzled grin. "Matsuda-san."
"Ah, sō desu ka." Turning to the officer, Kira bowed politely. "Sumimasen, Lewin-san. Sayōnara."
Inspector Lewin glanced at Near, who tried not to grimace. "He says farewell and thank you for your time," he translated.
"Oh, of course. Tell him he's welcome."
I'll tell him something, all right. "I will."
Gesturing to Kira to follow him, Near led the way out of the house and down the sidewalk. The moment they were safely out of earshot, he rounded on his prisoner. "Explain yourself."
"Nani?" Kira blinked at him, all wide-eyed innocence. "Wakaranai."
"Yes, that. Exactly." The young detective tugged at his hair in irritation. "You speak English perfectly well."
"I do, but Matsuda doesn't. You told me you'd ship me back if I didn't play my role well enough, remember?"
You knew full well that wasn't what I meant. "If I'd meant to be that anal about your performance, I could ship you back now for investigating the scene too intelligently."
"You could. But that would defeat the whole point of bringing me here, don't you think?"
Kira was grinning now, smug as a cat dropping a dead mouse on his owner's shoe. Damn him.
"Think, Mike," he continued cheerily. "You told me Janus probably monitors the investigation, and she had ample opportunity to bug her crime scenes. If I take you aside to talk in private every time I find something, it's a glaring clue that we're discussing something important. But if I can't speak English, that gives me a good reason to keep calling you over—and since you say she doesn't speak Japanese, even if she somehow overhears us, she'll have no way of knowing if I actually found anything or just need a translation." Kira scratched his neck, arching an eyebrow at Near. "Is that a problem?"
Yes. "No," said Near, sullen. "Though the next time you have a brilliant idea that requires my assistance, I suggest you warn me first."
"If I'd thought of it in advance, I would have. It only—"
"Lord Kira will return!"
Kira cut off abruptly, his head jerking around at the proclamation, and Near's hand rose to his hair. Street preachers. Just what I need right now. This fanatic was older than many, well into his sixties at least, and both his ragged clothes and the upturned cap at his feet testified he'd seen far better days—though he'd retained his ability to shout.
"Pay no attention to the doubters, the sinners, those who rejoice in our savior's absence! Have any among us not seen the power of our Lord? Have any on Earth not heard of his mighty deeds? Have courage, friends—he has not abandoned us. Put your faith in his return, and you will be among the blessed. Lord Kira, hear the cries of your servants, let us once more see your glory…"
Near pulled up his coat collar and walked past, ignoring the man completely. "What an idiot," he muttered, darting a sidelong glance at his prisoner. "You'd think a..."
Kira wasn't there.
Near turned in alarm, his voice dying midsentence. Light Yagami had stopped to listen, his hands jammed deep in his pockets as he watched the preacher rant. What are you playing at, Kira? Near's hand went to his pocket as well, fingers hovering over the button that would send the murderer to his knees, but Kira didn't seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on his would-be prophet, an inscrutable frown creasing his features.
"Haven't you heard?" he asked. "Kira's dead. Why else would he have disappeared?"
"To test our faith, of course–to find his true friends in this sinful world! He'll be back, young man, just wait and see. Those who believe will have his blessing; those who desert him will taste his vengeance. He'll reveal himself to His chosen soon enough. Glory, glory–"
"A fool's hope," Kira interrupted. "Reveal himself? You don't know anything about him. How would you even know he was the real thing?"
The preacher drew himself up, affronted. "I'm a prophet of God, young man. When Lord Kira stands before me, I'll know."
Near snorted, drawing a withering look from the self-proclaimed prophet. "A god of murder isn't much of a god, old man."
"Not murder. Justice."
"Murder in the name of justice," said Near. "A laudable motive, but still a crime."
"By whose laws?" the preacher shot back. "Man's? Who is man to judge God?"
"Who is God to judge man?"
For a moment, the preacher simply stared. Then he shook his head. "Someone must."
"I don't disagree. We call those people judges, and hold them to the law."
"Judges in the pockets of criminals, enforcing laws written by crooks."
"Better than murderers beholden to no one, enforcing laws written by their whims."
"Our Lord Kira is not—"
Kira cleared his throat, and both men jumped in surprise. Embarrassed, Near reached for his hair, but Light Yagami paid him no mind. "Who did you lose?" he asked gently.
The preacher bit his lip, his expression pained. "My daughter. Walked home from the bus stop one day and never arrived. They never found a body, but it's been–they said there's no hope..." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Lord Kira will judge the guilty. I know it. He'll come back. He'll come back."
The man's voice cracked as he spoke, but Kira's expression never changed. Drawing a handful of change from his pocket, he pressed it into the preacher's hand.
"Keep the faith."
Tears welled up in the man's eyes, and he nodded. "Lord Kira bless you, young man."
Kira said nothing. Turning his back on his would-be prophet, he trudged away down the street without a backward glance. Near trotted after him, hurrying to catch up.
"Care to explain what just happened?" he asked.
Kira didn't look at him. "Did I break any rules?"
"Then no. I don't."
Light Yagami's voice was frigid, and Near's command died on his lips. Falling into step beside his prisoner, he tried to read the man's face, but Kira's expression was unnervingly blank.
What the hell are you thinking, Kira?
Near wasn't sure he wanted to know.
Chapter 6: Light
Light sat primly on the loveseat, flipping through a binder of photographs and trying to ignore his white-haired overseer a few feet away. Near had clapped him back in irons the moment they re-entered the hotel room—unsurprising, after the stunt Light had pulled with the preacher—then begun building a matchstick tower on the desk, leaving his prisoner to stew in silence. I suppose the shackles are a compliment, really. Even now, he still thinks I'm a threat.
Light wished he thought so, too.
His chains clinked softly as he turned the page, looking up from his binder to glare at Near's back. For all his annoyance, the detective hadn't pressed Light for an explanation—nor could Light have provided one if Near had. The knowledge that he still had supporters should have energized him, but all he felt was numb. I said people like that were who I was fighting for, and then I abandoned them. I failed. The fact he'd been forced to do so was no excuse; gods might suffer setbacks, but not defeats. Especially not from petty children like Near. I made myself shoes I could never fill, and when I tried to walk in them, I fell down. It was a bitter, humiliating thought.
Near claimed the world had forgotten Kira, but it was a lie. Even now, Light had supporters, people living by his precepts and trusting in his return. I can't escape while I wear this collar, but I have time. If I solve this case for him—if I make him trust me, even a little—then perhaps next time...
"It's almost curfew, Kira," Near remarked. "If you need the bathroom, I suggest you do it now."
Light grimaced and closed the binder, setting it carefully aside. "Thanks for the warning."
"You're welcome." Chains jingling, the prisoner started toward the bathroom, but Near's voice called him back. "Light Yagami?"
"If you would prefer a bed, you may use mine. I expect I'll be up late anyway."
Did Roger tell him to say that? Light frowned a moment, then shook his head. "The loveseat's fine. It's not as if I'll be uncomfortable. I'll fall asleep wherever you drug me."
"If you prefer."
Light puzzled over the overture as he brushed his teeth. Near hadn't cared enough to look up from his tower, and Light doubted it had been the detective's idea—yet he almost believed the gesture was genuine. Only after he was curled up on the loveseat, waiting for the drug to take effect, did he realize why that was:
Near hadn't called him Kira.
Light stepped around the tape outline on the floor to peer more closely at the bookshelves, one ear attuned to the conversation behind him.
"Have you tried offering them protection?" Near asked.
"We don't have the manpower," said Inspector Lewin. "There are more men with those initials living in London than you'd think. We did warn them, though."
"Did you release details?"
"No. We just confirmed what was in the papers, warned them to check their security systems, and advised them to leave town for the day if possible. Unless you want us to compromise the investigation, there's not much more we can do."
Near said nothing, but Light sensed his dismay—and shared it, though he couldn't say so. Feigning monolingualism had quickly passed from amusing to tiresome, but dropping the illusion now would only draw suspicion. It's useful, at least. I wasn't wrong about that. Once convinced Light couldn't understand, Inspector Lewin had attached himself to Near instead, often seeming to forget that Light was there. With any luck, Janus would do the same.
A scattering of papers covered a nearby shelf. Light frowned at them, then turned to Near. "Kale-san?"
Inspector Lewin jumped, but Near merely turned his head. "Nan desu—oh. Have those been photographed?"
"What, those papers? Hang on." Walking over to Light, the officer removed a camera from his pocket and snapped several photos, documenting the undisturbed condition of the shelf. "There. Tell him he can play around all he wants."
Though his words were aimed at Near, Inspector Lewin's wide, patronizing smile was fixed on Light. Inwardly grimacing, Light returned a smile of his own, blinking vacantly to show he had no idea what the man had said. "Arigato."
"He says thank you," Near said.
"Oh. No problem." The officer walked away without a backwards glance. A moment later, his conversation with Near resumed.
Playing around. As if he's doing anything useful. Fuming, Light sifted through the papers, scanning each one for the slightest hint of a connection to the other victims. Soon, his fingers bumped something that wasn't paper. With a puzzled frown, he pulled the mystery item free.
He placed it back on the shelf and continued rifling through papers, waiting nearly a minute to call Near over. "Kale-san? Koko ni kite kudasai."
"One moment," Near called back in the same language. "You found something?"
"Maybe." Flashing his best impression of Matsuda's dopey, apologetic smile as the detective approached, Light continued the conversation in Japanese, maintaining his upbeat tone in case of bugs. "There are five crime scenes so far, and each victim's body was found in a different room: kitchen, dining room, home office, living room, basement. But do you know what every one of them had in common?"
"I will once you stop showing off and tell me."
Light cocked his head slightly toward the shelf. "An Apple tablet."
"So remember when I told you I sent L messages? They were about apples. You said Janus was into computers, and we know she knew about those messages—this could be another one of her puns."
Near was silent for a moment. Then he sighed. "A tenuous theory at best. They're iPads. Everyone has one these days."
"Probably true. But that they'd each happen to have it in the same room where they died—what are the odds of that, I wonder?"
"Hmm. I'll think about it."
"For now, yes."
It took all Light's effort not to clench his teeth. "We finally have a lead, and you're dragging your heels?"
"If I seize evidence for further investigation, I have to assume she'll know. Better to wait until I'm sure we're on the right track."
"You do realize it's Wednesday, right? If she follows her pattern—"
"Even you couldn't thoroughly investigate five computers between now and this evening, let alone solve whatever clue she left on them. There will be another victim tomorrow. We might as well accept it and do this right."
For all the emotion in Near's voice, he might as well have been giving a book report. Light stared in disbelief, torn between wanting to punch the detective and knowing he'd earn a one-way ticket back to his cell if he did. "You're giving up."
"I'm being realistic. Even the best detective can't save everyone. You of all people should understand that." Near's hand twitched up toward his hair, but he let it drop, raising his eyes to Light's instead. "There's no possible way to catch Janus before tomorrow, and you know it. Don't let your emotions get the better of you. It's a setback, not defeat."
It feels like defeat. Near might not care about saving lives, but Light did. Every victim Janus killed on his watch was another taunt, another reminder of just how little Kira's sacrifice had meant. I had the power to stop these kind of things from happening once, and now I can't. Not that a Death Note would be effective in this case. Loath as he was to admit it, he knew Near was right—and that admission galled him worst of all.
Light blinked and realized he'd let his acting lapse. Quickly, he shook his head and resumed his smile, pretending he'd only been staring into space. "Just a setback," he echoed. "I'm sure his wife and mother will agree."
"I'm sure they won't. But it can't be helped." Near let out a slow breath. "If there's another Apple at the scene tomorrow, I'll make a request to collect them all for you to look at. In the meantime, keep looking for other leads. Fair enough?"
Do I have a choice? Reluctantly, Light nodded. "I can do that."
"Good. I'm counting on you."
He nodded again and returned to his papers, hearing the detective's footsteps recede behind him. Once Light's back was turned, his smile crumpled and fell apart, like tissue paper in the rain.
You and everyone else.
The sun rose before Light did, prodding him awake with insistent brightness. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, the prisoner blinked away the last of his drugged stupor and looked around.
"Where's Roger?" he asked.
"Out," said Near. "I didn't think you'd mind. You can pour your own breakfast, can't you?"
"That depends. Am I in shackles?"
"Only if you want to be."
"I'll pass, thank you." Grabbing a bowl and the box of Cheerios, he came to sit across the desk from Near, who scowled as Light set his breakfast down.
"Mind the tower, please."
"Oh. Sorry." Near's matchstick tower had grown quite a bit since Light had seen it last, giving him a good estimate of how long Near had been awake. "Didn't sleep well, I take it?"
"I slept fine."
Liar. If Near's matchstick tower and baggy eyes hadn't given it away, the defensiveness of his answer would have. Did conscience keep you up, or just irritation that you've been outplayed? Light's money was on the latter, but it was satisfying either way.
"No word from the police yet?"
"No. Watari called them earlier, but they said they had nothing new. All we can do now is wait."
Light gritted his teeth. "Your favorite strategy."
"For the time being, yes." For the first time since Light had awoken, Near looked up. "You're the last person I expected to react like this, Kira. This is hardly your first brush with human mortality."
"I care about innocent people. Is that so hard to believe?"
"Yes." Near set another matchstick atop the tower, meticulously nudging it into alignment, and Light's face heated.
"That's rich, coming from you. Have you ever had a human feeling? Besides disdain, I mean. You do at least seem to feel that."
Near clucked his tongue in irritation and reached down again, but Light got there first. Grabbing the matchbox away, he pocketed it, relishing Near's momentary shock.
"I accept that your pride is hurt," the detective said coldly, "but—"
"My pride? My pride? What about yours? If you hadn't dragged your feet, we might have solved this already—you knew about this case for weeks before you asked for help! People are dying—"
"And whose fault is that, Kira?"
Light drew up short. "Not mine, if that's what you're implying."
"Isn't it?" Despite his words, there was no censure in Near's tone—merely weary boredom. "You're the reason she's angry. I'd say that makes her your fault."
No. No, it's not. Few of the deaths Light had caused had left any scuffmarks on his conscience, but there were enough. He refused to accept any more. "Interesting logic. Last I checked, she's killing NRs, not LYs."
"Because I'm the current L, yes—but I didn't succeed him because I wanted to. I did it because you left me no choice."
"You had plenty of choice! You could have left it to Mello, you could have walked away—"
"As could you. You could have burned the notebook at any time and walked away from your crimes scot-free. You didn't. People were dying then too, Kira. What was I supposed to do?"
"The right thing."
"Which I did. You were a homicidal tyrant-like it or not, you had to be stopped. Though I was far kinder to you than you would have been to me, had our roles been reversed."
"I don't owe you an apology for being alive."
"I never said you did. Just that I showed you more mercy than you showed me."
Light grimaced. "You buried me alive. I don't call that mercy."
"If you'd preferred death, you could have achieved it without my help. Since you haven't, I feel safe in assuming you prefer to live." Near traced circles on the desk with his finger, avoiding Light's eyes. "Am I wrong?"
No. There had been times, now and then, that Light had been tempted to flip the cameras the bird and thrust his hands between the bars, or else put the chin-up bar to a darker use, but they were always fleeting. Ending his life was the last bit of control left to him, the only freedom he could hope for. Logically, he should have welcomed it, but he hadn't.
He still didn't.
"I don't want to die," he said at last. "That doesn't mean the way you've treated me is mercy."
"One stun gun blast isn't torture. Neither is your confinement. Don't be dramatic." Near stared at his matchstick tower, his expression disgruntled. "Had you gone to prison, your accommodations would be the same, if not worse. Like it or not, you're a murderer, Kira. Punishing you is not hypocrisy."
"What about encouragement?"
Near looked up. "I'm sorry?"
"After I came out of surgery. You refused me painkillers until I answered your questions. It wasn't punishment, you said, just encouragement. Remember?"
"I do." The detective's words were quiet, almost—almost—as if he were ashamed. "I didn't think you would."
"Well, I do. Disoriented or not, it's not the sort of thing you forget." Light's eyes blazed with fury, but he didn't raise his voice. "You tortured me."
"It was necessary."
"You bragged in the warehouse that the notebook might be a fake, and you clearly had hidden pages. I needed to know if there were any other weapons out there." Near lifted his eyes to Light's, unblinking. "Because you were still alive, Ryuk wouldn't tell me before he left, and you weren't cooperative. I had to know."
"I was in the fucking hospital!" Light's voice rose and cracked like a boy's, and he gritted his teeth in embarrassment. "If I'd had other weapons, I would have hidden them. You could have waited."
"I didn't think you would survive."
Light looked away, his good hand clenched at his side. "Is that supposed to make it better?"
"Not better, no. Only justified."
"Funny. That's exactly what I said. But I killed murderers, Near. I didn't torture them. Whatever else you think of me, that's a line I didn't cross."
"Kiyomi Takada begs to differ."
Light slammed a fist down on the desk, and the matchstick tower crumbled. Stone-faced, Near reached up for his hair, his eyes staring through Light rather than at him.
"Control yourself, Kira," he said. "I don't want to shock you again."
"Then don't. I'm not threatening you. Take some responsibility for once."
"Responsibility?" Near's eyes narrowed. "You dumped the fate of the world in my hands when I was thirteen, and I've been carrying it ever since."
"I know the feeling."
"No, you don't. I know your history, Kira. You were a sheltered, gifted child who couldn't accept being wrong, so you told yourself you were entitled to murder. No more, no less. The world was merely your justification in retrospect."
"You've never lost someone to murder, have you? Someone who mattered to you?"
Near tugged his hair. "L."
Of course you'd say that. "Funny. He never mentioned you were close."
"You said someone who mattered, not someone I was close to."
"You knew what I meant. Misa's parents were murdered, did you know that? She nearly was herself, too. Mikami's mother was killed by joyriders—I learned that when I first looked him up. Kiyomi lost a sister. She didn't talk about her much, but when she did, you could see the pain in her eyes. Even the good stories, the happy ones—they were all tainted, because she knew the ending. Misa was the same. She'd spend all day cheerful and smiling but wake up crying, and it would be all I could do to calm her down. I found it annoying at times, I admit—but after Dad, I understood. There's no such thing as closure. Just time." Light shook his head. "You solve cases, but it's just a game to you. If you'd ever felt loss—not just lost someone, but felt it—you'd know tracking down criminals isn't justice. The only justice is stopping evil before it begins. If you want to see injustice, don't point fingers at me. Go back to that preacher. He understands injustice better than you ever will."
"He's a deluded old fool, no different than any other man screaming on street corners about his gods. He's welcome to his own emotions, but the irrational doesn't become true because one man cried."
"It's not irrational to want justice for a loved one."
"It's irrational to think killing someone for killing someone else is justice." Near looked up. "Which is the only reason you're still alive."
This again. No matter what the disagreement was, Near always returned to the same point, as predictable as masks at a Noh play. When I argue emotion, I'm irrational; when he does it, it's a trump card. What a joke. It wasn't an argument, it was a threat—and Light was sick of it.
He cracked a bitter, rictus smile. "And the fact I was a far more successful L than you has nothing to do with that, I suppose."
"Deliberately botching your biggest case isn't what I'd call success."
"It is when doing so reduced the worldwide crime rate by over seventy percent."
"Excluding your own murders."
"No. Including them. Unlike you, I play fair."
Near's eyes narrowed. "Tell that to L."
L, again. So you do have feelings. "I wish I could. Unfortunately, the thought of keeping my predecessor in a cage never occurred to me. Again, unlike you."
"You were not my predecessor."
"That's funny, because I seem to remember you calling me 'Second L' and praising my investigative skills. Or was that a lie because you were desperate?"
"I flattered your ego, and it got me nowhere. I'll stick to the truth from now on."
"You claimed it was the truth then."
"Part of it. You were a brilliant investigator. You were also a callous megalomaniac who deliberately undermined a key murder investigation and plotted the murder of your own colleagues to save your skin."
"For the greater good," Light corrected.
"No. For your good. You didn't end crime, you merely shifted the potential victim pool and centralized the source—all because you were too much a coward to admit that when you first used the notebook, you made a mistake." Near's voice was a katana, cold and sharp, each word calculated to cut. "You'd never lost anyone in your life until a few months before your capture, yet you lecture an orphan on how it feels. You know your actions were irrational, so you appeal to emotion rather than admit you were wrong. You're a coward, Kira—nothing more, nothing less. You don't really believe your justifications. You just can't admit to yourself you're a fraud."
Light stared at him for a long moment, stung. Then he smirked. "I guess that makes you my successor then."
"I told you not to—"
"Or what? You'll shock me for being right?" Voice ringing with anger, he leaned over the desk to stare Near in the eyes. "You've mocked and abused me every step of the way, but I'm the one solving this case. Because you can't. Janus is right, Near. You'll never be L's successor. Just mine."
Light half-expected the burst of pain at the back of his neck, but that didn't make it hurt any less. His arm struck the desk hard as he fell, but he couldn't pull it back, his body convulsing out of his control. Dimly, he heard someone laughing, but he thought it might be him.
I'm still alive…
At last, his vision cleared. Still wheezing laughter, he propped himself up on one elbow, wincing at the pain in his arm. Bruised, but not broken. Luckily for me. Soft footsteps approached him, and he turned his head, blinking up at Near with a wry smile.
"You certainly proved me wrong," said Light. Rolling onto his stomach, he pushed himself up to all fours. "Go ahead and kick me in the face, Near—it's what L would have done. Did do a few times, actually."
"I don't want to kick you."
"Then get the hell out of my way."
Stooping slightly, Near held out a hand to help Light up. "Here."
Light stared at the hand in disbelief, his eyes flicking up to Near's face in confusion. The detective's eyes were unusually wide, and his lips bore no trace of the smirk Light had expected. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think he were the one who'd just been shocked. Snubbing Near's hand, Light grabbed the desk instead and pulled himself to his feet.
The door flew open.
"What the hell do you two think you're doing?"
Light's voice died at Roger's furious expression, but Near showed no sign he cared. Withdrawing his hand, the detective turned to face the doorway. "It doesn't matter. We're done."
"You'd better be. Inspector Lewin just called me. They've got another victim."
Of course they do. Light couldn't tell if his sudden nausea stemmed from the news or electric shock, but it didn't matter. I failed again. "Do you have a name?"
"Noah Roberts. They're securing the scene right now, but he said to come as soon as you're able."
Near nodded, his face blank once more. "Then we will. Get dressed, Kira. I'll take the bathroom first." With one last, inscrutable glance at Light, he shuffled away into the bathroom, leaving an awkward silence in his wake.
"Are you all right?" Roger asked, hesitant.
Not even close. "I'm fine. Did Lewin say where the body was?"
"Bedroom, I believe. His mother found him."
Something heavy and cold seemed to have taken up residence in Light's guts, but he refused to let it show. "He lived with his mother, huh? So Janus finally found a victim to match Near's maturity level. Good for her."
"Fair? In good taste? I don't care, Roger. I couldn't give less of a shit." Light jerked out his clothes drawer with far more force than necessary. "He can threaten me, he can torture me, he can shut me in a goddamn tomb, and nobody even bats an eye. Not even you. And maybe, just maybe, I might deserve that, but I don't have to pretend I like it. I can still criticize him, damn it. For God's sake, let me have that."
"What? What is it?" Light turned on the man in a fury, eyes stinging with rage. "What the hell do you want from me?"
"The victim, Light." Behind his glasses, Roger's eyes were soft and sad. "He was five years old."
Chapter 7: Near
The Roberts' home wasn't large, but it was cozy, the perfect size for an only child and the single mother who adored him. Everywhere Near looked, he saw traces of the victim—baby pictures on the mantel, toy dinosaurs on the end table, a crude, crayon drawing of two stick figures framed on the wall. Mommy and Me, the drawing read, in a kindergarten's teacher's meticulous hand. It wasn't entirely clear, but the figures seemed to be holding hands.
Near looked away.
In the corner, a modest Christmas tree dropped needles on the carpet, surrounded by presents their intended owner would never open. Part of Near wondered what Ms. Roberts would do with them, but he knew better than to ask. Expressions of grief made little sense to him, alexithymic as he was, but he had grown up among orphans. It hadn't taken him long to learn that some questions could get you punched.
"It's all right, Ms. Roberts,” he said. “Take as much time as you need."
"Thank you. I'm sorry. I just—I don't understand. I don't understand…"
Neither do I, thought Near helplessly, watching her sob into her hands. His own hands longed to reach for his hair, but he settled for tugging at his collar instead. Damn this suit. Until this case, the last time he'd worn anything but pajamas had been his mother's funeral fifteen years before, and even then no one had forced him to wear anything this constricting. His suit was as loose as it could be while still passing as professional, yet even so it felt like a straitjacket. It was all he could do not to shriek and rip it off his body piece by piece.
That high-pitched wailing isn't helping, either.
"I know it's a shock," he said flatly, but her volume only increased. I wish she would stop. Why do people even do that? He'd never lost a child, but he'd lost a mother, and he hadn't cried. It looked uncomfortable, to say the least, and the object of grieving wouldn't know the difference. All things considered, Near didn't see the point. "I know this is hard for you, but I promise, we'll catch the person who did this to your son. L himself is on the case."
"L?" She looked up at that, cocking her head in disbelief. "What makes you think I care about L?"
Near blinked. "I thought it might comfort you."
"You've never lost anyone, have you?"
You're not the first to ask me that today. "I'm sorry I upset you, Ms. Roberts. It wasn't my intention."
"L himself," she repeated, shaking her head. "Fat lot of help he is. He talked a big game about catching Kira, then nothing for six years—"
"That was different. He'll get justice for your son, Ms. Roberts. Just give him time."
"Give him time? How much time is he going to need? Six years to catch Kira—six!—and then an announcement that Kira is dead? No body, just his word! What proof is there L caught him at all?" Her voice soared high and shrill, and Near winced in physical pain. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just—maybe L was wrong. You know? These things, these murders—Kira stopped them…”
Hunching over in her chair, she dissolved into another puddle of tears. Near said nothing, picking at his too-tight clothing in discomfort. As hard as he pretended he didn't care about others' opinions, being unable to defend himself bothered him. Damn you, Light Yagami. This should have been your job. Kira was a master of feigned sympathy and social grace; Near had no such skills. The only comfort he had to offer was the truth, and that was little enough.
An old voice whispered in his head: “Well, that was a near thing…”
"Kira was a murderer,” Near said, pushing the thought aside. “He was no different from whoever killed your son."
"I used to think that. I did. But now..." Ms. Roberts shook her head. "If Kira were still alive, my Noah—maybe he wouldn't—"
Kira stood in the doorway, his expression grim.
Speak of the devil.
Near rose from his chair, forcing himself to look the victim's mother in the eyes. "Please excuse me a moment." She nodded, waving him off with a gesture, and the detective stepped aside to speak to his prisoner. "Nan desu ka?"
"I searched his bedroom," Kira replied in the same language.
"He seems a little young to have an iPad of his own, don't you think?"
The man's tone was more sad than accusatory, yet Near felt the condemnation nonetheless. A lead weight formed in the pit of his stomach as he turned back to Noah's mother. "Ms. Roberts, do you own an iPad?"
She blinked, her confusion palpable. "I don't see how—"
"Just answer the question."
"No. I never saw the use. I have a laptop, though, if you need to—"
"Did Noah have one?"
"What, an iPad? Of course not. If I don't have one, why would he?" Bewildered, she looked from Near to Kira, her red-rimmed eyes wide. "Is something wrong?"
Near didn't stay to give her an answer. Turning on his heel, he marched into the bedroom. "Inspector Lewin?"
The man looked up, startled. "What is it?"
"Bag that iPad as evidence. Get someone to bag the iPads at the other crime scenes, too. We may have a lead."
"I'll get someone right on it."
Kira lingered just outside the door, scratching around his collar through the fabric of his turtleneck, but Near was more interested in the floor. A rough outline marked where the boy's body had lain, pitifully small, surrounded by building blocks, trains, and stuffed bears. She had to clear the toys to make room for him, Near realized. All this to prove a point. His hands twitched toward his hair again, and this time he let them.
"Well, that was a near thing…"
Inspector Lewin's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," lied Near, releasing his hair. "Let me know when you've inventoried the evidence. We should report back to L."
Kira had vanished from the doorway when Near turned to leave, but he hadn't gone far. Just down the hallway, the prisoner stood slumped in dejection, one hand still scratching his neck. I shouldn’t have shocked him. Near had been annoyed, that he knew, but he hadn’t realized he’d been angry until he’d already grabbed the clicker and pressed. He wasn’t sure who his lapse in control had frightened more: Light Yagami, or he himself. When he hit the desk, I thought he’d broken something for sure. I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t know why I did.
“How are you feeling, Matsuda-san?” he asked in hushed Japanese.
“Wonderful.” Kira’s voice was frigid. "Still think this is all my fault?"
Near shook his head. "I didn't mean that."
"Yes, you did. Call me a coward all you like, but I never killed children. Grant me that much, at least."
A victim is a victim, thought Near, but all he said was, "I know."
"You spoke to the mother?"
"I did. She didn't hear or see anything. He was dead when she woke up."
Kira wet his lip, looking past Near rather than at him. "It doesn't make any sense."
No, it doesn't. The ages of Janus's past victims had been anything but consistent, but they had all been people for whom a fancy tablet wouldn't look out of place. Noah Roberts, on the other hand… There are dozens of grown men with the same initials she could have chosen. Why him?
"I saw the puzzle pieces," Kira added after a pause. "33, 31, 43. She's definitely talking about you."
33 31 43. Kira killed L; this L is. The last six letters would almost certainly be "a fraud," just as Light—as Kira—had predicted. Near sighed. "You’ve done well, Matsuda-san."
"Not well enough." Kira glanced over at the victim's mother, still crying in her chair. "I'm done here. Whenever you’re ready, we can go."
“Just let me grab my coat.”
Kira's hands were clenched at his sides, unhappiness etched across his face. "If I'd noticed the pattern at the first crime scene, two days ago—if I'd mentioned it—would we have had time?"
Of the thousands of murders he could feel guilty about, he chooses the one he didn’t commit.
It was a pathetic sentiment, illogical to the point of irony, yet for once Near found himself sympathizing with the killer. "No," he said firmly. "There's nothing you could have done. It was my—it's not your fault."
He sensed rather than saw Kira's eyes widen, his own eyes fixed on the wall next to Kira's shoulder. It's my own fault, my failure. You did everything I asked of you. I have no one to blame but myself.
"Well, that was a near thing…"
Near walked away.
That night found the detective perched on his desk chair once more, looking over a stack of iPads and one quiet, sleeping prisoner. Kira had looked almost relieved when Roger had brought out the hypodermic, and Near couldn't blame him. If he weren't so bothered by needles, he'd have been tempted to co-opt a dose for himself.
At least that way, I'd stand a chance of getting some sleep.
"Is he out?" Roger asked.
Near nodded. Shifting in his chair, he drew something from his pocket and held it out for Roger to take. "Here."
"The remote to Kira's collar. I've decided it's best for all concerned if you carry it."
Frowning, Roger took it. "Are you certain?"
"I don't want any repeats of this morning, Roger. If he thinks I still have it, that should be deterrent enough. If not, you can press the button just as easily as I can." Near pulled his hand back. "Do you disagree?"
"You know I don't."
“Good. Then we’re on the same page.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Roger pocketed the clicker. "Near?"
The detective paused. "Yes?"
"What Light said this morning—about you interrogating him—was it true?"
I forgot he could hear that. They had set up a bug for Roger to eavesdrop on the room while he was out, just in case Kira tried anything, but with everything else that had happened, Near had forgotten. He stared at the wall beyond Roger's head, tangling two fingers in his hair. "What, the painkillers? Of course it is. I'm surprised he remembers it. Between the sedatives and the trauma, he was still fairly out of it at the time—"
"Near." Roger's voice cut through the detective's babble like a knife, sterner than Near had ever heard it. "Is that why you waited to call me in from the orphanage?"
"Part of it, yes. I was busy, Roger. I didn't have time to waste on nonessentials."
"Nonessentials like me, or nonessentials like him?"
I phrased that badly. "Neither. Both. Does it matter?" Near's grip on his hair tightened. "He survived, and you're here—and unless you have a time machine tucked away in your bags somewhere, that's the end of it. I'm trying to stop a killer. I don't have time for—"
"Distractions," Near concluded firmly. "If I'd known he remembered, I would have apologized, but now is not the time. If you want me to grovel before Kira, I can do it once Janus is in custody. Until then, I can only handle one aggrieved serial murderer at a time." He spun his chair to face his Watari, scowling. "L did far worse to Amane with far less need. Don't try to tell me he wouldn't have done the same."
"You are not L."
Near blinked, shocked into echolalia. "Are not—L?"
Sighing, Roger pressed his glasses back up his nose. "Mind if I tell a story?"
"I'm an adult, Roger."
"And I'm an old man. Humor me."
That's a non sequitur. Lips thinning in annoyance, Near nodded assent. Roger smiled.
"There was once a synagogue with a beloved, elderly rabbi who had served the community for decades. When he decided to retire, his congregants were horrified. They'd grown used to the way he ran things, you see, and didn't want anything to change. So in the end, they hit on a solution: they would hire the rabbi's son, who had grown up at their synagogue and closely resembled his father, to be his replacement."
Roger paused for breath—or to let his words sink in—before continuing. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way they'd planned. Though the son looked like his father, they had different leadership styles, and even their views on religion didn't completely align. At last a delegation was sent to talk to the new rabbi, demanding to know why he didn't do things the way his father did. 'I do exactly the same as my father did,' the rabbi replied. 'My father never imitated anyone, and neither do I.'"
The old man raised an eyebrow at the detective, clearly waiting for some sort of response. Near twirled a lock of hair around his finger, frowning.
"I didn't know you were Jewish," he said at last.
"That's not the point."
"Well, that's all I got from it. I'm no good at parables. If you want to tell me something, just tell me."
Roger sighed. "You weren't chosen to be a copy of L. You were chosen to be extraordinary in your own right. You use his alias, you have his job, but for better or worse, you're not him. You have a brilliant mind, Near—not L's mind, but just as capable. You don't have to copy him to succeed."
"He was the best."
"But not perfect. Misa Amane, for instance. Her shinigami killed L rather than let her be arrested and tortured again. If he had treated her humanely, if he'd given the shinigami reason to think he might be open to showing Misa mercy—how many other lives might have been spared? How many thousands of lives?"
"That's pure speculation, and a logical stretch to boot. If he'd simply kept Light Yagami away from the recovered notebook, as caution should have dictated, he'd have achieved the same result–inhumane treatment or no. Besides, by that argument, he could have saved thousands of lives by sneaking a live round into Soichiro Yagami's gun. Would you have argued for that?"
"Of course not, but 'he could have done worse' isn't a defense."
"Nor is hindsight much of an attack. L took the actions he felt were reasonably necessary at the time, and now I do the same. Just like your story said.” Releasing his hair, Near reached for his matchsticks instead. “I don’t know what more you want from me.”
“Do you remember when you first came to Wammy’s House, Near?”
Near was silent. Now he’s nostalgic. How wonderful. He couldn’t see how the topic change was relevant, but he wasn’t prone to nostalgia himself. His past wasn’t a place he cared to revisit.
“You were seven, I think,” Roger continued. “Tiny for your age. You barely spoke two words together to anyone for weeks. Then one day you came into my office and told me you wanted to eat your meals in your room, because the other children were too raucous. That was the wording you used: ‘my peers are too raucous.’ So much confidence, but you looked like you were about to flee the room. I didn’t know what to make of you.”
“Eight,” mumbled Near.
“I was eight, not seven. And I wasn’t confident, just awkward. Is there a point to this?”
“Yes, that’s what I realized. I was used to kids who were full of bravado, competing with each other to mask their insecurities, but you—you were like water about to boil. Calm on the surface, frantic underneath. As if you’d never been taken seriously in your life, and if you made a single error, someone would snatch it all away. You had no interest in competing. Not if there was a chance you might lose.”
Near sighed. “Again, is there a—”
"You’ve mistaken succeeding L for competing with his memory, and it’s making you miserable. He thrived on pitting himself against others, in standing alone. You don’t. You’ve never been a loner by choice, Near; you rely on others’ support and approval. One of your greatest strengths—one L never had—is seeing people, not pawns. I chose you to use those strengths, not compare yourself endlessly to L. I didn't choose you to be a copy."
"You didn't choose me at all. L did. Mello and I both—" Understanding struck the detective like a lightning bolt, sudden and painfully clear. "He didn't pick us."
"No." Roger's voice was hushed, almost apologetic. "He didn't. Choosing a successor was Quillsh’s idea, not his—he was too busy with other things. Quillsh told me to narrow down the choices, that L would take an interest eventually, but—"
"But he didn't want to be replaced." Near felt sick. I have no right to wear L’s name. Janus and Kira—they were right.
Roger shook his head. "That's not it. L gave us permission to reshape Wammy's House to hunt for a successor. He just didn't want to be the one to make the choice."
No. The Japanese Task Force members had given various explanations for why they had trusted Light Yagami so long, but one point had impressed them all: he'd had L's vote. "He said if anything happened to him, Light could take his place," Matsuda had admitted. "Sure, he was suspicious of Light, but they thought so alike it was eerie. None of the rest of us could keep up. What else were we supposed to do?" Near had scoffed at the idea then—L had already had successors, after all—but he wasn't scoffing now. Not in the slightest.
L knew Kira would likely kill him, and that he'd take full advantage of that endorsement if he did—yet L said it anyway. He took more interest in a mass murderer than he ever did in me.
"But he spoke to us," Near protested, flinching at how childish it sounded. "He gave a speech. You said he singled Mello and I out—"
"For the look in your eyes, I remember. It was the other way around. I singled you two out, and asked him what he thought. Do you know what he said?"
I thought I did. "No."
"He said only a fool would trust the impression of a man who had observed someone for a few minutes over the judgment of a man who had known the person for years, great detective or not."
"Is that supposed to impress me?"
Roger adjusted his glasses, sighing. "You never met L in your life, but you're more concerned about whether he would approve of you than the fact that I and your other teachers, the people who loved and raised you, thought you were the best for the job. What does that tell you?"
"That I hate being lied to. Mello and I weren't idiots, Roger. You could have just told us the truth."
“Mello was self-doubting, desperate for approval; you were unmotivated and desperate for acceptance. It seemed like a harmless lie.”
Mello died for that lie. Mello killed for that lie. Now Janus is killing for it, too. Near turned away. “You thought wrong.”
“Perhaps I did. But hindsight isn’t much of an attack.” Roger knew Near too well to reach for his shoulder, but he rested a hand on the back of the detective’s chair. “It wasn’t meant to be a lie forever, Near. Quillsh and I, we were sure L would seek you both out in time. We thought you’d both be established detectives in your own right before he ever had need of you. Forgive us. We thought we had time.”
You thought you had time. The excuse echoed in the hollows of Near’s mind, unsatisfying. You thought you had time. "That's very motivational, thank you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a rogue killer to catch."
"I’m busy, Roger. Goodnight."
Near didn't look up, but he could feel Roger hesitate. At last, he heard the man's footsteps retreat, followed by the soft creak of the door. He chose me, but he always takes Kira’s side. He chose me, but he still treats me like a child. He chose me, not L…
“Well, that was a near thing.”
In the morning, he’d be fine again: underslept but pokerfaced, the weight of the world secure between his shoulders. But in the dark, quiet solitude of the hotel room, no one saw the World’s Greatest Detective curl in on himself, rocking and humming as he had when he was a child.
I am no L.
I am no L.
I am no L.
Chapter 8: Light
I wish I had two good hands.
Light scowled at the tablet on his lap, swiping at the screen to undo the accidental zoom his clumsy hand had wrought. The confidence he’d felt upon first exploring the iPads had evaporated completely over the weekend, as idea after idea turned up nothing useful. Near was of little help, his knowledge of computers far inferior to Light’s, and he’d long since given up even the pretense of supervision. Not that I could get up to any trouble anyway, even if I’d been inclined to. Near had seen to it that all the iPads had their WiFi capabilities disabled before retrieving them from the police, ensuring both that Janus couldn’t spy on them and that Light couldn’t make contact with anyone behind Near’s back. Light didn’t mind the lack of trust, but the lack of success was beginning to rankle.
At this rate, we won’t make it in time.
Tossing the iPad aside, Light buried his latex-gloved hands in his hair and groaned. Near clucked his tongue in disapproval, eyes still fixed on his matchstick castle.
Light shot a baleful glare at the detective. “A brilliant deduction.”
“Mine usually are. What seems to be the difficulty?”
"I've gone through everything I can think of, anywhere a decent coder might hide a message. Nothing. Whatever clue she left us, I can't see it." He rubbed his face wearily. "Maybe she did hack L. I assumed I knew everything he did, but there might be something I didn't know—"
"Or something he didn't. How good was L with computers?"
"Competent. He knew how to use one, but Watari did the heavy lifting for him."
"So coding, hacking—that wasn't his skill set?"
Light frowned. "Come to think of it, no."
"Then you're looking in the wrong place. Janus's point was to set a clue L could find, not one you could."
I should have thought of that. Sheepish, Light bit his lip, keenly aware of the time he'd wasted on the false trail. "I looked in the obvious places, too. Documents, added apps—nothing."
"Hmm." Near poked the topmost matchstick, nudging it into better alignment. "We know she was inspired by your messages to L. Tell me more about them."
"Not much to it, really. While I was experimenting with the capabilities of the notebook, I instructed three criminals to write out essentially meaningless final messages, with the first character of each line spelling out a message to L."
"'L, do you know? Shinigami love apples.'"
Near quirked an eyebrow. "Very mature."
"I was seventeen. It seemed clever at the time."
"I'm sure it did." The detective pinched another matchstick between his fingers, thoughtfully tapping it against the desk. "So her messages might follow the same acrostic format?"
"It seems probable. I didn't find any documents that could be read that way, though—it looks to me like she got these secondhand and left the original owners' files and apps untouched. What's on the computers doesn't match the victims, but they don't match each other, either."
"If she left the apps untouched, then she must have stashed the clues in one of the standard programs. A standard program with writing that can be modified, but the police wouldn't think to check..." Near froze, the matchstick suspended in midair, then broke out in a broad, impish grin. "Oh, of course. Let me see that computer."
I hate when he smiles like that. Uncanny as Near's seldom-changing expression was, seeing the detective unabashedly show emotion was outright wrong—like hearing a newborn boy suddenly speaking in the deep, masculine tones and full sentences of an adult. Worse, Near only wore that expression when he felt he'd beaten someone, and Light had a nagging suspicion that someone was him.
Frowning, he held out the tablet for Near to take. "Care to show your math?"
"Apples, Kira," the detective replied, his fingers flicking across the screen. "Apples. An Apple product, preprogrammed on every iPad, with customizable content that displays as a list, and which the police would never imagine to be relevant..." He turned the screen around, his grin wider than ever. "Does this look familiar?"
Near Death Experience Experience 4:29 Andrew Bird
Do You Know Who I Am? 2:52 Echo and the Bunnymen
You Can't Win 4:19 Kelly Clarkson
Know Your Enemy 3:10 Green Day
iTunes. She hid her messages in iTunes. Galling as it was that Near's thoughts had outpaced his, Light couldn't help mirroring the detective's grin. We've got her.
"Near, do you know," he read out. "Yes, that does ring a few bells."
"Only because you're being smug." Re-energized, Light rummaged through the stack of iPads to find the one from the second crime scene. "Get those matches out of the way and make yourself useful. We've got a deadline."
- Near Do You Know
- Where I Will Be
- Is What You Are
- Christmas Is Already Here
- I'll See You Then
- Your Partner Has Friends Near
Light ran his finger over the paper in his hands, underlining the final clue. Next to him, Near adjusted his webcam.
"You got the email?"
Onscreen, Rester nodded. "We did. We've got a few theories on what it means, but—"
"As do we. Care to join us, Yagami?"
He didn't call me Kira. From the look on her face, Lidner had noticed the change, too. Light smirked, shifting over to make sure he was fully visible on her screen. "Hello."
Lidner and Gevanni murmured greetings, but Rester smiled. "Nice to see you awake. I trust you've been behaving yourself?"
"Admirably, for the most part," said Near. "But pleasantries can wait. You had some theories, you said?"
Gevanni nodded. "Obviously Christmas is a date, but we think it's a location clue, too. 'Where I will be is what you are,' 'Christmas is already here'—it's the same joke she made with the holly. Noel."
"There are three streets in London named Noel," said Lidner. "There's a short Noel Street in Soho, and two Noel Roads in—"
Near raised a hand to cut her off. "Acton and Islington, I know. Where she'll be is what I am: NR, Noel Road. 3 Noel Road, to be specific."
"We looked into both the Islington and Acton addresses," said Light. "Both appear to be owned by the same woman, whose listed name is 'Natalie River.' There's no doubt it's her."
"Two locations," Rester mused. "That's not unmanageable. It would be easy enough to send two teams—"
"No need," said Near. "Islington is a fakeout. She's in Acton."
"How can you be sure?"
Light shrugged. "The most recent clue: 'your partner has friends near.' At first glance, it seemed to be more of a warning than a location hint. But if you view the word 'near' as an adverb, rather than a proper noun—"
"The Japanese School in London is one of the key centers of activity for Japanese expatriates in the city. It also happens to be in Acton, a block and a half from the start of Noel Road." Near plucked a stray bit of lint from under his collar and flicked it away. "There's no doubt about it, she's in Acton. Or she will be in two days, at least."
There was a momentary quiet, each of the agents mulling over the new information. For all the gravity of the situation, Light couldn't suppress a smile. I almost forgot how much I loved this. Solving puzzles, catching criminals, dazzling his less-gifted colleagues—it had been all he had wanted once. Respectability, stability, career success. A life his father could be proud of. A life Light wouldn't have to hide. I could have had it, too. Would have, if not for Ryuk. Even in prison, Light had seldom regretted his choice, but he couldn't help wondering all the same. The possibilities haunted him. He suspected they always would.
Lidner broke the silence first. "So she wants to meet you in two days, in a location of her choosing?" She shook her head. "Sounds like a trap to me."
Near nodded. "Almost certainly a trap, yes. The last clue all but confirms it. Prior to Noah Roberts, all her victims were socioeconomically comfortable adults, people for whom owning an iPad would be utterly unremarkable. She wanted her clues to stay hidden. The only reason to suddenly switch to a child victim, as far as I can see, is because she changed her mind. And the only factor that might make her do that is—"
"Yagami," interrupted Rester. "Of course. All her other clues seem preplanned, but the last one only makes sense if she knows a Japanese agent is working with you, which she can't have known until you got to London last week."
"Does she know who he is?" Gevanni asked.
"I'm not sure," said Near. "Neither 'Kira' nor 'Light' are difficult words to find a song title for. But whether she doesn't know or simply doesn't want us to know she does, I'm not sure."
All eyes turned to Light, who grimaced. "I suspect she knows. If she's this knowledgeable about the case, she'd know the real Matsuda's no intellectual heavyweight. I doubt she'd change course on his account." He scratched his neck and shrugged. "Either way, it doesn't really matter. The fact she's changing her plans at all means we've put her on the defensive for once. I consider that a positive development, trap or not."
“What’s the plan, then?” asked Rester. “If you know it’s a trap, you can’t simply walk in.”
Near cocked his head. “Why not? You know it’s worked for me before.”
“If you know your enemy’s strategy, it works,” said Lidner. “If you’re counting on improvisation, it’s suicide.”
“Do you have any idea what she’s planning?” Gevanni asked quietly.
"One of two things will happen. If her motive is simply to test me and judge for herself if I'm worthy, she might surrender once her clues are solved. If she bears a grudge..." Near pulled his fingers from his hair, leaving a defined pincurl in their wake. "Things get messier."
Gevanni’s lips thinned. “In other words, you don’t know.”
“No. We—I don’t.”
"Why not fake her out?" Lidner suggested. "Let her think you solved the other clues, but not the last. Send Kira and Roger to Acton, and you go to Islington instead. You're the one she's after, and you're the one we can least afford to risk."
"If she knows I have Kira with me, she'll be after him as well."
"Yes, but he's—"
"Expendable?" Light interrupted sourly. "Disposable? Sitting right here?"
Lidner didn't flinch. "Yes. If anyone is going to run that risk, it should be you."
"Well, on that point, I agree with you. Which is why I already proposed that plan to Near myself." Light smiled, savoring Lidner's stunned reaction. "He’s the one who said no."
Her features tensed into a confused frown. “Near, is he—?”
“Yes, he’s telling the truth. Janus is no fool—and as you said, I’m the one she wants. If I don’t show, she won’t either. She’ll simply kill another two victims, then start the cycle again somewhere else. I don’t intend to sit back and let that happen, but I don’t intend to throw my life away, either.” The detective picked at his pajamas. “I’ll hide a bug on Yagami before we go in, and station Roger and a team of plainclothes backup somewhere hidden but nearby. When I say the proper code word, or when Roger hears the situation getting out of control, he’ll send the police in immediately to arrest her and extricate us. Sound reasonable?”
“I’d feel more comfortable if we were there,” said Rester. “There’s time. We could be your backup team—”
“She’s seen you and Gevanni before, and the Brits are already resentful at being sidelined. Come to London if you like, but I’d rather work with the police this time.”
The statement was mild enough, but Near’s voice made it a flat dismissal. Rester hesitated, then nodded. “We’ll stay put, then.”
“Excellent. Roger will keep you updated. Anything else?”
“Just one last thing.” Lidner leaned in, her stern face dominating the screen. “If anything happens to him while you’re in there, Kira—anything at all—I’m holding you personally responsible, whether he agrees or not. Remember that.”
It was all Light could do not to laugh. God help me, she sounds like Dad with Sayu’s boyfriends. “Don’t you dare lay a finger on her, be a gentleman, have her back by nine, or else…” The absurd protectiveness had amused Light at the time, but she’d needed more protection, not less. Lidner appointed herself Near’s family because she lost everyone else, but that doesn't make her righteous. I’ve lost people too. He hadn’t killed Mello, whatever she thought, but he wished he had. Lidner’s hatred didn’t bother him—only the fact he’d failed to earn it.
Light stared back, unflinching. “I won’t let anything happen to him. You have my word.”
Near cleared his throat. “Yes, thank you, Lidner. I’ll let you be about your business now. If you don’t hear from me again until Friday, a Merry Christmas to you all.”
“Merry Christmas, L.”
The connection cut off, and Near handed Roger the laptop. “You were awfully quiet.”
“I had nothing to add,” Roger said.
“I was talking to Kira.”
Light noted the edge in Near’s voice, the way Roger’s face fell at the rejection. Outside of business, the two men had barely spoken in days, and Light suspected he was somehow the cause. They must have fought while I was sleeping, the day Near shocked me. I know Roger wasn’t happy about that. Light hadn’t been happy about it either, but his opinion carried no weight with anyone. He’d gotten surprisingly used to that.
“They don’t trust me,” he said quietly. “Explaining the clues is one thing, but I figured they’d accept orders a lot more readily coming from you.”
“True.” Near’s fingers drummed against his thigh a moment. “Would you like to go for tea?”
“Would I what?”
“Tea. I assume you drink it.”
Light frowned in confusion. “I do, but—“
“Good. Get your coat and let’s go.”
More bemused than ever, Light obeyed.
British tea wasn't a patch on Japanese, Light quickly decided, but he found himself enjoying it nonetheless. Just holding a warm teacup in his hand was soothing, one of the everyday pleasures he'd barely thought about until it was taken away from him. Tea, sunlight, hearing other people talk to each other, mirrors, the act of opening a door… Every day he added new sensations to the list, and every day he knew they wouldn't last. Determined as he was to capture Janus, he hadn't forgotten the end of her freedom meant the end of his own. By Friday I'll be back in my cell, and nothing will have changed. Assuming Janus doesn't kill us first.
Sipping his tea, he glanced across at Near. There was something strangely familiar about sitting in a tea shop with him, a feeble ghost of memory just shy of déjà vu. He looks nothing like L, and yet…there is a resemblance, somehow. A likeness. Light didn't always notice the commonality, but when he did it was undeniable. Part of him wondered if Near ever thought the same about him.
"Why are we really here?" he asked.
Near's forehead creased. "I thought you'd enjoy it."
"Bullshit. You've never given a damn if I'm happy before."
"We have time to kill, and I wanted tea. I wasn't aware that was suspicious behavior."
Coming from you, it is. Light rotated his wrist, swirling his tea, then set the cup down with a pointed thunk. "So what did you and Roger fight about?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
No, of course not. "We're here because you want something from me, and you don't want Roger to know about it. I'm not an idiot. Just tell me what you want."
Near stared at his teacup in silence a moment, his expression unreadable. "This plan. For Thursday. Do you think—would my predecessor have approved?"
Light smirked. "Which one?"
"His. I already know your opinion."
He didn't deny I was his predecessor this time. Taken aback, Light glanced down at the table, considering. "I think he would have sent me in alone, to be honest. Odds are, she knows who I am—and if she does, there's a good chance she's angry enough to take the bait. And if he couldn't get me out in time, or she decided not to show and went on killing instead, he would have shrugged it off and figured he'd get a second chance."
"That's what he'd think?"
"That's what he'd think. What I'm pretty sure he'd think, anyway." Then again, I also thought the same of you. "He might have surprised me, though. He did from time to time."
"What was he like?"
"Our predecessor." Near's voice was hushed, almost embarrassed. "What was he like?"
You must be joking. "An asshole."
"I was looking for slightly more detail."
"A moody asshole."
Near said nothing, but his baleful glare spoke for him. Light sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"I don't see why you're asking me," he said. "You're his successor, you've met him yourself—"
Well, that's interesting. "He never spoke to you?"
"Not in person. He gave a speech at the orphanage about a year before your case, but only through a computer." The detective shrugged. "Roger told me what he looked like once, after he—after I was chosen. I never spoke to him one-on-one.
"Huh." Light weighed the new information a moment. That explains why his mask was so shoddy, and why— "That explains why he never mentioned you."
Near flinched at the comment, but Light barely noticed, too awash in his own thoughts to care. He wants a simple answer, but I don't have one. I should, but I don't. He knew what L had been to him—a rival, a challenge, his death proof positive of Light's superiority—but that said more about himself than L. He was the Hawthorne effect made flesh; I only saw what he wanted me to see. And I didn't care. Light had lied to L with every word, every smile, every sip of tea, and he had no doubt L had done as much to him. For all the time they'd spent in each other's company, their only honest interaction had been their last: a callous smirk and a helpless look of fear.
What was L like?
He'd given a brief eulogy at L's gravesite, of course. They each had. Light's had been a masterwork, an insipid, four minute parade of lies the Task Force had swallowed with relish. If he'd had any reservations then, he'd interred them with L's ashes, and the grass of his heart had long since covered them both. Exactly who he'd beaten mattered to him not at all. All that mattered was that Light had beaten him. All that mattered was that he'd won.
What was L like?
"I don't know," Light admitted at last. "He had his quirks, but I never—I always suspected they were an act. We weren't exactly open with each other. Even when I lost my memory of being K—what I am, I still remembered what he'd done. What he would do, given half a chance. His thought process, his rationales—they weren't all that different from mine. The ends always justified the means with him, no matter what the means might be. Torture, spying, false imprisonment, deliberately allowing people to die—he had a code of sorts, but no real morals. He didn't pretend he did, either. When he was right, no one challenged him; when he was wrong, he never apologized. It was infuriating, but it made him predictable. At least to me." He stared at his teacup a moment, then shook his head. "That didn't answer your question, did it?"
"Don't be. It was a stupid question."
"A stupid answer, too." Grimacing, Light sipped his tea. "Like I said, he was an asshole. No need to complicate it further."
Near cracked a thin smile. "There's one way we both resemble him, I suppose."
"Ha. Speak for yourself."
The detective's tea was already gone, and his prisoner's wasn't far behind. Near glanced at Light's cup and pulled out his phone. "Should I—?"
"Yeah, go ahead."
As Near dialed, Light continued to sip in silence, lost in his own thoughts. Working with Near, he'd begun to feel almost nostalgic for the days he'd worked with L against Higuchi, but now that he examined those memories closely, he saw little to miss. I thought I'd let my grudges go when I buried him, but I guess I'm still bitter. I don't have any right to be, but I am. Though as things turned out…
"Roger? It's me. Come pick us—" Near froze, his expression darkening. "I am."
Something's wrong. Stomach knotting, Light half-rose from his seat, but the detective ignored him.
"No. No, just a coworker, but I know who might—01962 981309. Winchester, yes. Donna Carridan. She'll know." A pause. "Yes, yes, I know. Thank you. Goodbye." Near ended the call and looked up, his expression unreadable. "We have to go."
"Yes, now." Taking out his wallet, Near threw a clump of bills down on the table. "Out the back door. Move."
Unnerved, Light grabbed his coat and followed, pulling it on as he walked. Ahead of him, Near did the same, jamming a black stocking cap onto his head and shoving as much of his distinctive hair under it as he could. He didn't stop at the sidewalk, but kept on walking, heading in the opposite direction of their hotel.
"Where are we going?" Light asked.
"We have to switch hotels. Just keep your voice down and follow me."
"Switch hotels? I don't…" He trailed off as Near pulled the cell phone from his pocket and pitched it into a nearby garbage can. Janus. This has to be about Janus. Light's stomach clenched in sudden fear. "What the hell did Roger say to you?"
"That wasn't Roger. That was the police." Near tugged at the bottom of his hat, agitated. "Roger's dead."
Chapter 9: Near
"Roger's dead?" Kira's voice rose in pitch, as if the news had plunged him back into early puberty. "What the hell do you mean, Roger's dead?"
"I mean he's dead. What did you think I meant?" Near kept walking, but a hand on his arm jerked him to a halt.
"Goddamn it, you know what I meant! How can Roger be dead? How the hell did he die?"
"I didn't ask for details. I heard that cop's voice when we were at the Roberts house, which means he must work homicide. That, and the fact the cops were called to the scene at all, tells me all I need to know."
Wide-eyed, Kira let him go. "She knew where we were staying?"
"So it would seem. Fortunately, I always have a backup location prepared." Eerily calm, Near began to walk again. "We'll walk around and ride the tube for a few hours, just in case we're being followed, then make for the new hotel after dinner. We can plan our next steps from there."
"Just keep walking."
"No!" Kira's hands were fists at his sides, his feet rooted to the pavement. "We have to go back."
"We have to identify the body, Near! We need to talk to the cops, we need to—we have to do something…"
I don't have time for this. "Roger's dead, Yagami. Dead. Deceased, passed on, gone. If you don't want to follow suit, I suggest you keep walking."
Pain burst in the back of Near's skull, and he stumbled forward in surprise. Did Kira just punch me? He spun on his heel, frowning. "Was that-?"
A second punch caught him on the jaw, knocking him to the pavement. With a grunt of pain, Near reached down for the button to operate Kira's collar, remembering all too late that he no longer had it. Oh, fuck me. Throwing up an arm to shield his face, he dug his hand into his pocket anyway, hoping against hope that bluffing would be enough.
For a long moment, Near and Kira stared each other down. Then the prisoner raised his hands in surrender and backed away.
"Go ahead," he said bitterly. "Go right ahead. At least I earned it this time."
Yes, you did. Unfortunately, Near had no way to dole it out to him. He peeled himself off the concrete and regained his feet, inquisitive fingers prodding the tender spot on his jaw. "Are you done?"
"Good. Because I need you to be. If going back would accomplish anything, I would do it. But it won't. Even assuming she didn't stage the scene to make us suspects, we don't have time to spend the rest of the day tied up in questioning and paperwork on his account, and your alias won't stand up to police scrutiny that close. She's cornered us, Light. You're the only backup I have left, and I need you to focus." He stared at Kira's feet as he spoke, humiliated by how much it sounded like begging. "Can you focus?"
Slowly, reluctantly, Light Yagami nodded.
"All right then. Follow me." Near turned and stalked away, hearing Kira's footsteps follow suit behind him. Though he tried to exude confidence, his mind was awhirl with indecision, returning time and again to the same impenetrable question:
What the hell do I do now?
There was only one bed in the room, a sad-looking king-size with a tacky brass headboard. Near had expected as much, but the implication was still depressing. We came in with no luggage and paid for a single night's stay in cash. If I'd been the attendant, I probably would have assumed the same. He glanced around for a loveseat or recliner one of them could use, but the only other option seemed to be the floor. It doesn't matter, I suppose. I don't have the medicine to sedate him, and no one else to supervise him, either. I'll simply have to stay awake.
Damn you, Janus.
He turned to Kira. "It's no penthouse."
"It's no cell, either. It's fine." Kira stripped off his coat and tossed it carelessly over the television, leaving Near to hang it up. "I don't really care."
With a soft sigh, Near tucked both coats into the closet. Though he could sympathize with the prisoner's irritation, it was decidedly inconvenient all the same. I hoped he'd gotten it out of his system on the way, but… "We need to decide what we're doing."
"What's to decide? We know where she'll be and when she'll be there. That's all I need to know." Seating himself on the bed, Kira stripped to the waist, then bent down to remove his socks.
Near frowned. "What are you doing?"
"I don't exactly have a change of clothes, do I? The suit will be fine as long as I don't sleep in it, and I'll do what I can with the rest in the sink. If I wring it out well, it should be dry enough by morning." Kira tugged his belt free. "I'll just wear the underwear two days running, I guess. Wouldn't be the first time."
The puckered bullet scars stood out on Kira's torso like screams in a silent room. Near dragged his eyes away from them, turning his back to give what privacy he could. Behind him, Kira snorted derision.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Near, you're not a girl. You might as well take yours off, too. I'll wash them while I'm at it."
Near hesitated, torn between his eagerness to be free of the suit and his distaste for exposing any more skin than necessary. After a pause, he sighed and began to undress. "We still need to talk."
"We are talking."
"She's a bitch."
"Can you be serious about this?"
"Serious as a—"
Near rounded on him, his voice snapping like a whip. "Shut up."
Kira flinched and nodded, his eyes dropping to the floor. "I'm sorry. I'm not—I don't know why I'm doing this."
It's called grieving. In ordinary circumstances, Near would have allowed it, obnoxious as it was. Now, he had no time. "It's understandable. Can we—?"
"Discuss the plan. Yeah. Just let me rinse out these clothes first, all right?"
Wordlessly, Near held out his shirt and socks for Kira to collect. Once the prisoner was out of the room, Near gathered up their respective suits and hung them in the closet, folding the pants carefully to minimize wrinkling. What is the plan? He didn't relish the idea of facing Janus without backup, but being cautious hadn't availed him much so far. Bringing Kira was a risk, and it's the only thing I've done that she didn't predict. Perhaps more risk is what we need.
Then again, less risk wasn't an option anymore.
Scratching under his collar, Kira leaned against the bathroom doorway. "All right, talk. How badly screwed are we?"
"Very. At best, we can't contact the police without that information reaching Janus. At worst, we're wanted suspects. I disposed of my phone to prevent them from tracking us, if the latter is true, but now I have no way to contact the rest of my team. I could contact Wammy's House for help, but there's a non-negligible possibility that Janus has eyes and ears there, too." Near reached up for his hair and discovered he was still wearing his hat. Grimacing, he yanked it off. "We can also conclude that the probability that Janus merely intends to test us rather than destroy us is somewhere around 0%."
"Yeah. That's about what I thought." Kira let out a low, resigned breath. "Is there any good news?"
"I still have a pair of handcuffs."
"That's very encouraging."
Near shrugged, fidgeting with the hat in his hands. "There's still two of us. Assuming Janus doesn't have backup of her own, we outnumber her."
"How safe is that assumption?"
"I don't know."
Kira stared back at him grimly, then left the doorway to seat himself on the bed. "So what now?"
"Unless you can think of something else, I see two options. The first is staying put. The new director of Wammy's House knows how to contact my team if necessary, and I just gave the police her number. Once she knows Roger is dead, she'll be on the phone to Rester immediately—and knowing my team, they'll be on the first flight to London they can get. Since your collar has a tracking device, we can simply hole up here and wait for them to find us."
"Will they get here before Thursday morning?"
"Then that's not good enough."
I knew you would say that. For a moment, Near was reminded powerfully of Mello. Rush in half-cocked, damn the consequences, never admit defeat. It's never been my style, but under the circumstances... "Then there's only one choice. As you said, we know where she'll be and when. We can turn up, confront her, and hope for the best."
"With no backup and no firm plan." Kira pressed his knuckles to his mouth, frowning in thought. "Can we use the media, somehow?"
"I'm not set up to act as L, and couldn't possibly do so in time."
"L," Kira echoed. "If he were here, he'd go with option one. Hang back, bide his time, and let more victims die, hoping for a clearer shot at Janus in the future. That's what he'd do." He bit his lip. "I have one question."
"If she bests us—if we die—do the killings stop?"
"I believe they would."
The man on the bed nodded, his face pale. "Then we risk it. That's my vote, at least."
"I agree," said Near. With a grunt, Kira flopped backwards onto the bed. Near cocked his head. "Tired?"
"No," Near lied. "Go ahead and sleep. I'll stay up and keep watch, just in case."
Kira raised an eyebrow. "In case Janus attacks, or in case I do?"
Yes. "It's fine. Just go to bed. Better that one of us is well slept, at least."
"Better that both of us are." He eyed the headboard, chewing his lip. "You said you still have the handcuffs, right?"
Near followed the look, momentarily puzzled. Then he understood. "This is hardly the time to engage in sexual perversions."
Light Yagami's stammering, red-faced reaction was everything Near could have hoped for.
"Not like—I wasn't suggesting—!"
"No need to be so embarrassed, Kira. I imagine a handcuff fetish must be rather convenient in your situation."
There was a long, incredulous pause before Kira replied. "You're joking."
Near smirked. "An astute observation."
"Well, I'll be damned. You have a sense of humor after all."
"It's a well-kept secret. You really want me to do this?"
"I wouldn't say I want to," Kira said. "But if it's the only way you'll trust me enough to sleep, I'll do it. I'd rather risk a little lost dignity than you screwing up from sleep deprivation and getting us killed."
Us, he says. As if Kira cared if Near survived. "And if Janus does somehow find us tonight, how exactly do you plan to get away?"
"I suppose I'll just have to slip out of the handcuffs, won't I?"
Near scowled at his partner, studying him, but the slight curve of Kira's lip could mean anything. "If your goal was to make me trust you enough to sleep—"
"I was joking. If Janus shows up while we're asleep, we're both dead anyway, handcuffs or no handcuffs. It's not much of a risk." Light Yagami shrugged, his face still unreadable. "I've got no reason to hurt you now, and every reason to keep you alive. If you'll still only trust me in chains, so be it—but either way, I'm going to sleep."
I don't trust you in chains. I don't trust you at all. The thought of sleeping next to the first L's murderer, vulnerable and unaware, violated every instinct of self-preservation Near possessed—but he needed the sleep, and he knew it. Feeling oddly guilty, he retrieved the handcuffs from his coat, threading them around a bar of the headboard to secure his prisoner's wrists. "Is it uncomfortable?"
"Eh. I wouldn't want to sleep like this every night, but it's not bruising anything but my dignity." Kira grinned sheepishly. "Half-naked, collared, and chained to a bed in a cheap hotel. My parents would be so proud."
"I suspect your state of undress would be the least of their objections."
The prisoner's smile vanished. "Mom would probably be delighted I'm alive, whatever I've done," he said softly. "But Dad—yeah. You're not wrong about that."
Is that regret I hear? It wasn't a tone Near had heard before, nor one he expected. Not from Kira, at least. "I was told he pointed a gun at you once."
Kira blew out a long, audible breath. "He did indeed."
"And nothing. It was a long time ago. What do you expect me to say?"
Near cocked his head. "I was just making conversation."
"The hell you were. If you want conversation, why not start with your parents, huh? What do you think they'd say if they could see you now?"
Unbidden, Near's fingers twitched toward his hair. "I don't know."
"I didn't ask what you know. I asked what you think."
"I have no idea. I never met my father, and my mother—I never spoke to her."
"Oh. I see. She gave you up early, then?"
"I never said that." Near rolled his forelock between his fingers, watching the hairs roll and tangle before his eyes. "I didn't speak until I was five. I could understand words just fine—could think up responses, even—but when I tried to say them…" He made an aimless, wandering gesture with his free hand, as if even now he were grasping for words. "I don't know. The words got lost, somehow. I don't know where they went."
He expected Kira to mock him, but for once the prisoner held his tongue. Why am I telling him this? Kira hadn't expected an answer, only to shut him up, and Near wasn't looking for sympathy. Not from him.
Well, that was a near thing…
The words kept coming.
"She put me in therapy, I think," he said. "I don't remember much of it, just that I hated it. I do remember they day someone told her it wasn't working, that I was never going to talk, or go to school or take care of myself. That I was too broken—too retarded—to be normal. I had some picture cards she made me to show to people when I wanted things, but none that said 'he's wrong,' so I handed her the ones for 'no' and 'go home' instead. She threw them at me and started to cry. I remember that."
At last, Kira spoke. "That's why she gave you up?"
"She didn't give me up. She died. Five days later. She told me we were going for ice cream, then drove into the river by our house. I was—I was in the backseat." Near's voice was calm, flat, expressionless, but he tugged his hair so hard it hurt. "A fisherman saw what was happening and managed to pull me out. Big man, red hair. I never learned his name. He dumped me on the bank, said 'that was a near thing,' and dove back in to get my mother. Neither of them made it back."
Metal clinked as Kira shifted, turning over to face him. "I'm sorry."
"Yes, well. As you said. It was a long time ago."
He remembered the funeral, an interminable, intolerable crush of strange clothes and strange places and strangers. "It's tragic, but can you really blame her?" he'd heard his aunt say. "Look at him. She might as well have poured her love into a black hole. He doesn't even care that she's gone." But he had cared. He had.
His hair slid between his fingers, soft and familiar. "I started speaking a few months later. Just echoes, at first. My first word, I repeated so often my first foster mother joked it was my name. Just one word. Over and over—"
It took the detective a moment to realize he hadn't been the one to speak. "Yes."
He could feel Kira's eyes on him, but he didn't dare look up. Resisting the urge to hum, Near twisted and tugged at his hair, the extended silence pressing down on him like so much water.
Say something. Please.
At last, Kira did.
"After L arrested Misa, I volunteered to be imprisoned myself," he said quietly. "Spent fifty days in a cell no bigger than yours, handcuffed hand and foot at all times. They'd free my hands for meals, or to use the toilet, but that was it. I thought I was going to die in there. I really did. And worst of all, I thought I was innocent. I gave up the notebook a few days in. Dad, though—they told me he was still at headquarters, but after I got out I learned the truth. He'd had himself imprisoned, too. Not in protest, but to prevent him from killing me if the accusations turned out to be true. I suspect that's what gave L the idea. One last little test, as a condition of my release. When I got into Dad's car, I thought I was being freed. Instead, he announced we were going to be executed. He drove to an isolated underpass, pointed a gun at my head, and said he'd see me in hell...and fired." He wet his lip. "My father wasn't a good liar, and I'm more suspicious than most. But I believed him. That's the part that still gets me. Even now, I'm not convinced it was entirely an act."
Briefly, silence reigned. Then Light Yagami shrugged. "He did apologize afterwards. Dad, not L. Said he'd only done it because L said it would show once and for all that I was innocent. If I didn't kill him in self-defense, that would be the proof."
Near found his voice. "But that doesn't necessarily follow. Why would L—?"
"Assume I wouldn't see through the act? Assume I wouldn't hesitate to kill my own father? He didn't. None of the Task Force ever questioned the story he gave them, but as soon as I had a little time to think, I figured it out. L had firm physical evidence that Misa sent the Second Kira tapes to Sakura TV, and she'd spent most of her imprisonment asking after me. He assumed Misa would kill my father the moment I seemed to be in danger. The real test was whether I'd retaliate against her." Kira shook his head. "I never told Dad that, but I confronted him about it once. L, I mean. In private. He told me I should focus on catching Kira, not worrying about what-ifs. But he never said I was wrong."
Disturbed, Near said nothing, adrift in his own thoughts. He'd asked Kira earlier what L was like, but he hadn't received a coherent answer. Now he had, and it brought him no comfort. Roger was right. I never knew L at all. I cared more about a stranger's opinion than I ever did about his—and now I've lost them both. The last words he'd ever spoken to Roger were terse and cold, and he would never have a chance to take them back.
Mother. L. Mello. Roger. What's the point of being able to speak if I still never get to say goodbye?
Sighing, Kira cracked a thin smile. "There. You have the story. Happy now?"
For once, their eyes met, and neither man looked away. They weren't friends—could never be friends—but they shared an enemy, and now they had shared secrets, too. Confessing to the past couldn't change it, but something had changed. Not by much. Not enough. But some.
If nothing else, I won't die alone.
Near glanced at Light's hands. "May I ask a question?"
"You just did."
"If it had been the other way around—if I had died, and my mother had lived—would you have killed her?"
Kira blinked and frowned, seemingly puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"For all she knew, I was a burden, a drain on society. That's why she tried to kill me. What distinguishes your thinking from hers?"
"Quite a bit. I killed criminals, not the disabled—"
"For how long?" Near interrupted. "Takada announced you planned to kill noncontributors, too, remember?"
"Abled noncontributors, and I had nothing to do with it. Mikami told her to say that, not me."
"Yet you never made her issue a retraction."
"Does it matter? Yes, I planned to tackle laziness eventually, but as you can see—"
"How would you decide who was lazy? Unemployment benefit recipients? Many of them can't work, and many of the rest can't find jobs that will take them. Anonymous postings on the internet? How would you even begin to vet those claims?"
"Even if you'd won, even if you'd ruled the world, you would never have built a utopia. The moment you did, Ryuk would have been done with you, and you knew it. You might not have wanted to admit it, but you knew. Your new world was just a lie you told yourself. Once you ran out of even petty criminals, you'd have moved on to whoever you deemed lazy, and after that, what?" Near's voice rose, sharp and insistent. "What other drains on society would you have justified to yourself? People too elderly to work? The homeless? The mentally ill? Children like..."
Near. Near. Near. Near.
"Children like me?"
Kira turned away without an answer, his handcuffs rasping against the brass. "I think I'm going to sleep now, if you don't mind."
Of course you are. Twirling his hair again, Near nodded and backed off, giving his prisoner some space. "Mind if I watch TV?"
"All right, then. Goodnight."
There was no response.
Near opened his eyes, blinking in the darkness.
The slight rocking motion of the bed had woken him, but he couldn't immediately identify the cause. Then he heard a shuddering gasp behind him, and he knew.
There were only three reasons for the man to shake and gasp like that. Masturbation wasn't possible with his hands chained to the bed, and if Kira were disturbed enough to laugh in his present circumstances, he wouldn't likely be lucid enough to try to suppress it.
Which left only one option.
Light Yagami is crying.
Near froze, unsure how to react. Offering consolation wasn't his strength under any circumstances. Offering consolation to Kira—the man who'd come within a letter of murdering him, the man he'd imprisoned, collared, and threatened to gas—seemed little short of impossible, even if Near cared to try. He wasn't sure he did.
He's cried from pain a few times, but never from grief. Not that I've witnessed, anyway. Why now? Is he crying for Roger? For Janus's victims? For himself?
Does it even matter?
Light's sobs and sniffles shook the mattress, but barely any sound escaped his lips. Near winced. If I show I've noticed, it will just embarrass him. He's trying to silence himself. He doesn't want me to hear, let alone help. Much as it bothered his conscience to do nothing, stinging the prisoner's pride would only make things worse. Near was 95% certain of that.
There's nothing I can do.
Berating himself for a coward, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep.
Chapter 10: Light
The sun was high and slanting through the blinds when Light finally woke, his head pounding and his body stiff. Blinking away the last echoes of a nightmare, he covered his face with a groan.
Wait a minute.
He pulled his hands away and stared at them in confusion.
"You looked uncomfortable, so I took the handcuffs off when I woke up," came Near's voice. "I didn't think you'd mind."
"I don't. I just—I didn't sleep very well."
"Mm. There's a glass of water on the nightstand for you. Once you're up, we can go find lunch."
Lunch? Light glanced at the clock in dull surprise. "Why didn't you wake me earlier?"
"You seemed to need the sleep."
I can't argue with that. Much as he'd hated Near's determination to sedate him, drugged sleep had at least been dreamless. Only natural I'd dream of the warehouse again, under the circumstances. God knows my subconscious needs no prompting on that score. He'd woken several times in the night, distraught and shaking, but thankfully Near had slept far more soundly than his prisoner. Though time and captivity had long since blunted the edges of Light's pride, allowing his captor to hear him cry would be more humiliation than he could bear.
Does he have nightmares too, I wonder? Of the warehouse? Of water?
Light sat up and grabbed the glass from the nightstand, chugging it down in one go and walking to the sink for more. "So what's the plan?"
"Lunch, then Acton. She won't be there until tomorrow, presumably, but we can have a look around, knock on a few doors. The more I know going in, the better."
"The more you know?"
"I'm not taking you with me."
Light stiffened, staring at Near in disbelief. Deprived of his matches, the detective was playing his odd, one-man string game again: parallel lines, simple X, saltire, parallel lines, simple X, saltire. "Why not?"
"Pragmatism. If you go and I stay back, she'll suspect a trap, but the other way around? I'm the one she's really after, and if she knows who you are, she knows you have no reason to save me. You can't escape with that collar on–not for long, at least–and if Janus bests me, you're the only one left with half a chance of tracking her down." Parallel lines, simple X, saltire. "I'll leave a note for you to give to Lidner. I can't vouch for her behavior, but—"
"Bullshit. You said yourself the only advantage we have over Janus is numbers. Going in there alone is suicidal." Light folded his arms. "This is a test, isn't it."
"I assure you, it's not."
"Then what is it?"
"Conscience." Near crumpled his string into a ball and stuffed it back into his pocket, turning to face Light head on. "You're helping on this investigation because you believe you have no other choice. I'm fully aware of that. In truth, I was counting on it. But you're not wrong. Facing Janus now, under these circumstances, is most likely suicidal—whether we both go together or not. I don't regret coercing you to help me, but I'm not L. I won't put someone's life at risk who's not a willing volunteer."
Flushing, Light turned away. He thinks I'm a coward, he means. Much as he hated to admit it, he'd never given the detective any reason to think otherwise. Near had seen him beg for his life, for painkillers, for the barest taste of freedom, and he'd undoubtedly noticed Light's nightmares, too. Every day, his panicked screams in the warehouse echoed in his bones: I don't want to die, I don't want to die. Despite his best efforts to blame shock and blood loss, Light knew the truth. He hadn't been confused. He had been terrified.
He still was.
I don’t want to die.
Light had walked into the warehouse half-convinced he was immortal, but he had no such comfort now. Pride and duty demanded he go, but another voice, shrill and terrified, urged him just as strongly to stay behind. And when she's done with Near but hasn't found me, what then? When she goes to Japan and starts killing schoolboys named Yagami until she exposes my secret or I come to face her, what then? Near wasn’t entirely wrong; Light didn’t have a choice. He could face Janus now with Near, or face her later alone.
I don't want to die.
He wet his lip. "Then consider me a volunteer."
For an instant, something like relief flickered across Near's face. Then the detective turned away, reaching for his suit jacket. "Then you'd better get dressed."
The sky was a cold, joyless gray as Light turned onto Noel Road, reminding him powerfully of the walls of his cell. Almost enough to make me homesick. The weather had been cold but snowless, leaving the straw-brown lawns ugly and bare. A few houses showed signs of life—curls of smoke from the chimney, the telltale glow of a television through the window—but the street was deserted, still, lifeless.
Even the trees look dead.
Several of the houses were strung with lights, but 3 Noel Road wasn't among them—an unremarkable, brown brick semi-detached enclosed by a garden wall. Grim-faced, Light took a step toward it, but Near's voice pulled him back.
"Where are you going?"
"To take a closer look," said Light. "Isn't that what we came for?"
"Eventually, yes. I'd like to interview a few neighbors first. See if any of them have seen 'Natalie River' around lately—and what she was up to, if they have. It's Christmas Eve. Someone's bound to be home." Near stared at the house a moment, eyes narrowed, then pressed his lips together. "I'll take this side of the street; you take the other."
"You want us to split up? Here?"
"Hmm. You have a point. Very well, we'll stay together. Anywhere you'd prefer to start?"
Light looked down the street and smiled. "How about with him?"
Four houses down, a tousle-haired, gangly teenager in glasses had just come outside, a soccer ball tucked under one arm. Throwing the two detectives a brief, incurious glance, he dropped the ball, pushed his glasses back up his nose, and began drilling inexpertly against the side of the house.
Near pursed his lips. "Him?"
"Why not? If he's dedicated enough to drill in the cold on Christmas Eve, I'd bet he's outside a lot—and if anyone's likely to have noticed a pretty blonde girl hanging around, it's a teenage boy."
"I never said she was pretty."
"You never said she wasn't. Either way, he's the only one outside. We might as well start there."
Light trudged up the street without waiting for a reply, gratified to hear Near's footsteps trailing behind him. "Good afternoon."
The boy jumped, the ball rolling away across the lawn as he turned in surprise. "Who, me?"
No, your shinigami. "Do you have a minute?"
Scratching his freckled, blotchy cheek, the boy darted a nervous glance toward his front door. "I, um—do you want my mum? She's not home right now, but—"
"It's all right," said Near. "We're detectives. We'll keep our distance, we just have a few questions."
"It was Stephen's idea," the boy blurted.
Light grinned, earning himself a scowl from Near. "What was?"
The boy realized his mistake and flushed a furious red. "I don't—I don't know."
"Well, we're not here about that," Near cut in firmly. "We're looking for someone, that's all. Did anyone move into the neighborhood recently? A woman, perhaps?"
This is going well. "Why don't we start with names, Mike?" he asked, smiling kindly. "I'm Touta Matsuda, and this is my partner, Michael Kale. And you are?"
"Uh, Bertie. Bertie Reeves." The boy—Bertie—gave an awkward half-wave. "Nice to meet you, I guess."
Near frowned. "Reeves?"
"That's what I said."
"Do you have any brothers, by any chance?"
Bertie shook his head. "Just me. Well, and my mum. I had some stepbrothers for a bit, but—"
"Forget it," said Near. "How well do you know your neighbors, would you say?"
"I see them around sometimes. I know their names. I mean, we're not friends." Bertie gave a rueful shrug. "I, uh, don't really have friends."
"You wouldn't happen to know of any neighbors with the initials 'NR,' would you?"
"Other than me, you mean?"
"Mum calls me Bertie, but I'm a Norbert, really. I don't think there's anyone else."
"Norbert?" Light raised his eyebrows. "Named for your father, I suppose?"
Bertie's eyes widened. "How did you—?"
"Just a guess."
"Oh. Uh, yeah. I was named for my dad. And his dad. It's a family name, I guess. Why?"
Light and Near exchanged a look. "It's nothing," said Near. "Can you excuse us for a moment?"
Allowing Near to pull him aside, Light switched to hushed Japanese. "We found her next victim. Now what do we do?"
"I don't know," Near replied in the same language.
"We can't leave him here."
"We can't take him with us. Even if his disappearance wouldn't bring a horde of cops down on the area by tomorrow, especially given the initials, just look how wary he is. We'd never convince him to come."
Light glanced over at Bertie. "What if we tell him the danger he's in?"
"He either won't believe us, or he'll panic. Possibly both. I've seen rabbits less jumpy than this child." Near's hand rose toward his hair, but found hat instead. Recoiling, he jammed the hand back into his pocket. "He may well be safer where he is. We're the ones she's trying to snare."
Which would be a lot easier for her to accomplish with a hostage in tow. Worrying his lip, Light studied the teenager. Bertie wasn't tall, but he moved with an awkwardness that spoke of recent growth spurts, and his freckles and nervous manner made him appear far closer to childhood than adulthood. Fifteen, maybe. Sixteen at most. Too young to drive, let alone to die.
There's no good age to die.
"Hey, Bertie," said Light, reverting to English and walking back toward the boy. "You said you know your neighbors at least a little bit, correct?"
Bertie twitched at being addressed, but nodded.
"Does that include whoever lives over there?" Light pointed.
"Number 3, you mean? Or Number 5?"
"Number 3," said Near.
Bertie frowned, pushing his glasses up his nose with one finger. Roger used to do that. The memory brought an ache to Light's chest, but his reassuring smile never faltered. "Do you know anything about them?"
"Not much. I mean, I saw her once. She went around and introduced herself to people when she bought it. The house, I mean."
"Did she give her name?"
"Uh, I don't remember."
"What did she look like?"
"She was, um, blonde."
Great. He's about as descriptive as Near. "Tall? Short? Skinny?"
"Kind of chubby, I think. And maybe…" Bertie waved a hand in the air, slightly above the level of his head. "This tall?"
"Was she pretty?"
As Light had expected, Near glared, and Bertie's face reddened. "Uh, I don't—maybe?"
"It's all right. Forget I asked."
"When did she buy the house?" Near asked.
"Few months ago. Around the time school started, I think. Maybe before. She came around and introduced herself, but she never moved in. It was weird."
"She never moved in?"
"Never moved in, right. No trucks, nothing. She just didn't show up. Mum thinks she just plans to flip it or something."
"And you never saw her again after she came to your door?"
"That's right." Bertie pinched his lower lip between his teeth. "No, wait. No. I saw her over there, uh, last week. She waved at me."
Light's eyebrows rose. "Last week?"
She found out Kira had come to London as Near's partner, then went to the house to set something up. Eyeing Near, Light could tell the detective was thinking along the same lines. "That's very helpful. Thank you."
"Is she in trouble? Uh, the blonde lady?"
"Nothing we can't handle, Bertie. Thank you again for your time." Light turned to Near. "Now do we look at the house?"
"I think that would be wise."
"You're going to break in?" asked Bertie, his eyes alight with excitement. "Can I come? I'm really good at—well, not breaking in, but I've snuck into places a few times with Stephen. Like, um, my school. I can help."
Light exchanged a look with Near, who sighed and nodded. "Why not."
"Wait. You won't tell my mum about this, right?"
Light grinned. "I won't say a word."
There's one dilemma solved, at least.
The interior of 3 Noel Road was unfurnished, but at least the lights worked fine. Sneezing at the dust, Light flipped the switch, looking around to get a sense of the layout.
"It's like a haunted house," said Bertie, his voice awed.
"Maybe it is," said Light. "Don't wander off, all right? Stay by me or Mike."
The boy rolled his eyes. "I'm not stupid. Ghosts aren't real."
"But clues are, I hope," said Near archly. "If you run around without us, you might compromise them. Matsuda, check this floor. I'll go upstairs. Bertie?"
"I'll go with you."
Light's every nerve tingled as he crouched down, exploring the carpet with his fingers. There was definitely some dust, but not nearly enough to leave visible footprints, nor was there any sign of a recent entry. The living room was equally fruitless, as was the bathroom. Bertie says she was here a week ago, and he's got no reason to lie. She was planning something. But what?
Wandering into the kitchen, Light began tugging open cabinets and drawers, finding them empty. Upon opening the pantry, however, he broke into a wide grin. There on the shelf were a knife, a packet of zip ties, several bottles of clear liquid—and a holly wreath.
Upstairs, someone screamed.
Light grabbed the knife and raced up the stairs. Bursting into the upstairs bedroom, he found Near slumped on the carpet, Bertie crouched and gibbering in panic beside him.
"I don't know what happened," the boy babbled, "he just kind of put a hand on his head and collapsed, just bam, right in front of me—"
Dropping the knife, Light pushed Bertie aside and pressed two fingers to Near's carotid, relieved to feel a pulse. He's alive. Thank God. The irony of the thought wasn't lost on him, but he couldn't afford to laugh. Without Near, he was stranded completely, left to face Janus alone and unarmed. Even if he survived, there would be no convincing the SPK Near's death hadn't been his fault once they found him—which, given his tracking device, they would. Don't you dare die on me, Nate River. Not now.
Though remaining unconscious was no great help, either.
Light chewed his lip, his mind racing. Any chance of calling backup had died with Roger, and Light and Near's forged identities wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny of a hospital. If I call an ambulance, I'll undermine him as thoroughly as Janus could hope, but I don't know what's wrong with him... If Near had any medications, he couldn't have taken them in over a day, and Light couldn't begin to guess what they might be. The best he could do was wait and hope Near woke up on his own.
"He's dead, isn't he?" whined Bertie. "Is he dead?"
"No." Light removed his fingers from Near's neck, scratching his own instead. "He's going to be okay."
"What's wrong with him?"
"He fainted, that's all. It happens." God, I hope I'm right. "We'll just wait here for him to wake up."
Bertie's face contorted in guilt. "I'm sorry. I should have caught him, I wasn't thinking—"
"It's not your fault," said Light, taking the boy's shoulder and looking him squarely in the eye. "You didn't—"
Tightening his grip on Bertie's shoulder, Light shoved him away from Near with as much force as he could.
"Hey! What are you—?"
Light was on his feet in a flash, grabbing Bertie by the throat and dragging him upright. With a grunt of rage, he slammed the boy back-first against the wall.
"Hello, Janus," he said calmly.
"J-Janus? I don't—"
Light's grip tightened, and his captive's voice died with a gasp. After a moment, he relaxed his grip, allowing her to suck in a shaky breath. "Don't lie to me."
"I'm not—" Her words became a gurgle as he choked her again, longer this time, leaving her panting for air. "H-how did you know?"
"Your eyes look blue, but they're brown right around the irises. My old girlfriend wore color contacts. I know how to tell."
"Damn. Fair enough." Janus smiled weakly, holding out a hand for him to shake. "Nice to meet you, Kira."
Light smiled back—a vicious, predatory grin—but his hand never moved from her throat. "What did you inject him with?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does." Light's fingers tightened slightly. "What did you inject him with?"
"Whatever he's been injecting you with. He shouldn't die from it, though I can't be entirely sure. His definition of death seems rather spotty to me."
Light grimaced. "Meaning?"
"Meaning you, of course. Has he been keeping you as a pet all this time? Or did you rise from the dead, like a proper god?"
She pouted her lips, amusement dancing in her false-colored eyes. "Pity."
"In your position, it should be encouraging. If you ask nicely, he might do the same for you."
"Collar and all?"
How the hell does she know about that? Light's eyes narrowed. "I don't know what you—"
"No, of course you don't. You never appear in public without your neck covered, and you scratch it a lot without thinking, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence. I hid cameras at those crime scenes, you know."
"What can I say? Turtlenecks itch."
"So why wear them?"
The lie came smoothly, without thinking. "Because Near controls what I wear, and he's an asshole."
Janus stared at him a moment, then let out a peal of girlish laughter. Light tensed, a tremor of warning racing down his spine. She knows something. Something's wrong. Uneasy, he darted a glance at Near, but his incapacitated partner hadn't moved. The handcuffs are in his pocket. If I can get to him without letting go of her…
"You really are a pretty liar, Kira," she said. "A pretty anything, actually. I can see why L was fooled."
I could choke her unconscious. It wouldn't keep her down for long, but it might give me time…
"Hey, now." Janus wriggled in his grip. "I'm flattering you. The least you can do is pay attention."
"And the least you can do is shut your goddamn mouth," he said, his eyes returning to her face. "Before I do it for you."
She raised an eyebrow. "You'd hit a girl?"
"Did you murder chivalry too, or was it already dead when you found it?"
Light slapped her.
"Nathan Ransom, age 36," he said coldly, and struck her again. Slap. "Nigel Remington, age 42." Slap. "Nicholas Riesling, age 50." Slap. "Nathan Rogers, age 29." Slap. "Neil Rhodes, age 43." Slap. "Noah Roberts, 5 years old." Slap. "Roger Ruvie. Age 72."
His hand stung as he let it fall, but not half as badly as her face. I hope not, at least. Cocking his head, he flashed her a predatory smile. "Is that everyone, or did I miss a few?"
For an instant, Janus almost looked frightened. Then she recovered, anger dancing behind her eyes. "That was uncalled for."
"Your objection is noted."
"Did he slap you like that?" she asked, mimicking the tilt of his head. "Near, I mean. After he caught you."
No, he shot me. "He did not."
"Oh, of course. Seven slaps is one thing, but as many as you've earned? That many blows to the head would have killed you. Even coming from a weakling like him."
Light said nothing, darting a glance back to the unconscious detective on the floor. His right hand was strong enough to slap her with, but it wouldn't be any use in restraining her, and there was no chance of dragging her over to Near one-handed without her breaking free. In truth, he was a little surprised—and concerned—that she hadn't tried to bolt already. If she was paying close enough attention to notice I have a collar, she was paying close enough attention to notice I avoid my right hand if I can help it. Not realizing his weakness would be one thing. Realizing it and choosing not to exploit it, however—
"How did he catch you, by the by?" Janus asked. "I can't imagine you simply rolled over and surrendered. You don't strike me as the type."
"Mm. You think so, do you?"
"I do. You make a lovely dog, but I wouldn't peg you as a bitch."
"If only I could return the compliment."
She smiled. "You may as well just tell me, you know. If you're waiting for him to wake up, we'll be stuck here a while."
Light let out a long breath. Stay calm. I can't let her rile me. "There's nothing to tell. I miscalculated; he capitalized. My own subordinates did the rest."
"That's it? Seems a bit anticlimactic."
"In retrospect, perhaps."
"Ah, well. Everyone miscalculates, I suppose. Even would-be Ls." Her smile broadened, and she pulled something from her pocket. "Tell me something, Kira. If you don't have a collar, what does this thing do?"
Near's clicker was in her hand.
Smiling sweetly, she pressed the button.
Chapter 11: Near
Groggy and disoriented, Near opened his eyes. Where am I? Last he knew, he'd been walking into the bedroom, but he couldn't remember sitting down. His clothes felt different, too—looser, lighter—and something stiff dug into his wrists and ankles. Grimacing, he tried to move his arms, but the pressure on his wrists held them together.
Plastic. Zip ties.
Understanding spilled over him like cold water, rousing him completely. Looking around, he found Kira slumped over before the radiator, a rubber ball gag dangling from his neck and both hands hidden behind his back. Someone had stripped him of his coat and suit jacket, but the rest of his clothing remained—though the pants were noticeably wet. Near shifted in his chair, keenly aware of his own full bladder.
The man blinked and raised his head, offering Near a sickly smile. "You're awake."
"What happened to you?"
"Janus." Kira's voice was soft—hoarse, even—but ripe with disgust. "You all right?"
"I'm fine," lied Near. "How long was I—?"
"I don't know. It's been dark for a while, but my sense of time…" Light wet his lip. "I think it's after midnight."
Thursday, then. Christmas Day. Near glanced down at himself and realized he was back in his customary pajamas. "Tell me she didn't."
"What, strip you? She did. But that really isn't—"
"Not important. Yes, I know."
Near's eyes darted around the room, taking stock of their situation. A folding table and a second chair stood against the nearby wall, but beyond that the room was unfurnished. The door was closed but likely unlocked, though he could only test that theory if he could reach it. Which he couldn't.
What do I do?
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Light nodded, his ashen face calling him a liar. "She had a little too much fun with my collar, but I'm fine now. As fine as I can be handcuffed to a serial killer's radiator, anyway."
"She had the controls, Near. I had her all figured out, and then…" Light trailed off, shaking his head. "I'm sorry."
Not as sorry as I am. He'd assumed the police had taken custody of the clicker and key fob at the scene, but the idea of Janus knowing to look for them had never crossed his mind—nor could he have done anything, if he had. Thanks to the safeguards he himself had designed, the only way to remove the collar without the fob would have been to break the lock apart as quickly as possible and pray the ongoing shock didn't do Light a permanent injury.
"It's not your fault," he said. "It's me she got the jump on first, not you. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine. Really. Just a bit—shaken."
"Understandably so. Where is she now?"
"Out. She left to dispose of the collar a while ago, to make sure Rester and the rest don't follow us here. I tried yelling, but I'm pretty sure the neighbors aren't home." Light bit his lip. "What the hell do we do?"
I don't know. Near wiggled his fingers, itching to give his hair a sharp tug. "We wait," he said. "Wait, and hope an opportunity presents itself. Unless you can slip out of those handcuffs, of course."
Light smiled. "I wish. Sorry to disappoint you, but I really was joking."
"That's a shame."
Downstairs, a door slammed.
For just a moment, they met each other's eyes. Then Light looked away. "Don't let her think you care what happens to me," he said. "She thinks we've been working together all along. Don't give her the excuse."
Before Near could answer, Janus appeared in the doorway. Well, she's cleaned herself up. Gone were the glasses and acne blotches, but the freckles remained, as did the androgynous, brown-dyed hair. In lieu of her boyish coat, she now wore a white blouse and skinny jeans, and her lips were a deep, bloody red. In one latex-gloved hand, she carried a tote bag; in the other, she held a knife. When she realized both men were staring at her, she smiled.
"Happy Christmas, gentlemen," she said, setting the bag down on the table. "Are you hungry?"
Near glared. "No."
"I was talking to Kira," she said. "It takes six to eight hours for food to pass through a person's stomach, and you, Near, don't have that long."
"And he does?"
Janus ignored him. "Kira?"
"You really should eat something, you know. After the mess you made on my carpet, I can't imagine there's much left in there to digest."
Light raised his head, the ghost of a smirk on his lips. "It takes six to eight weeks to die of starvation, and—unless I miss my guess—I, Kira, don't have that long."
"Fair enough." Dragging another chair to the center of the room, she spun it around and sat backwards, cocking her head at them. "You two aren't much of a party, you know."
"Be fair. You're not much of a host," said Near.
Janus shrugged. "We could play a game."
Hairs rose on the back of Near's neck. "What sort of game?"
"Twenty questions. Well, fifteen questions, technically. It's simple. You ask me anything you like, and I'll answer truthfully. Once you've asked me fifteen questions…" She tapped her knife against the back of the chair, raising an eyebrow to underscore her meaning. "The game is over."
If you can't win the game, if you can't solve the puzzle… Near's hands clenched uselessly, straining against their plastic bindings. "For Light Yagami as well?"
"No. Only for you. That's question one."
"I never agreed to play."
"I never said the game was optional."
"What happens if I refuse?" Near asked.
"Once enough time has passed, I'll declare it a forfeit. Same result." Her smile widened. "That's question two."
Light cleared his throat. "Out of curiosity, if I ask a question—"
"I'll stuff that gag right back between your lying teeth," she said. "I'm playing with Near now. You'll get your turn."
Thirteen questions left. The longer Near could delay and keep her talking the better. Gevanni, Lidner, and Rester are in London by now, I hope, and they know I had suspicions about this place. It's a slim chance, but it's a chance. He glanced over at his fellow captive, but Light's face revealed none of his thoughts. Thirteen questions. Thirteen.
"Why?" Near asked.
"Why what? You'll have to be more specific. Why this game? Why this case?"
Janus arched an eyebrow. "Are you trying to trick an extra question from me?"
Why shouldn't I? Near began to reply, but caught himself just in time. Knowing Janus, she'd count rhetorical questions against his total, too. "Perhaps."
"Clever, but no. Rephrase the question. Why what?"
"Why this game?"
"Two reasons. For one thing, I'm killing some time. Forensic estimations of time of death only narrow it down to a window of several hours. If I kill you too soon after midnight, it won't be completely clear that you died today." Her voice was disturbingly cheerful, as if she were discussing a television show rather than the impending murder of the man she addressed. "More importantly, though, this is a punishment. If you don't understand why I'm doing it, there's no point."
Near thought hard, fighting to keep his focus. "Am I correct in—scratch that. It seems logical to assume that I'll get longer answers for questions you like, and shorter answers for questions you don't."
"You're correct in that assumption, but phrasing your questions as statements still counts. Four down, eleven to go."
Damn. Near paused again, drawing out his consideration as long as he could.
"You're not fooling me, Near," she said coldly. "Piss or get off the pot."
"Fine. This punishment you mention. What is it?"
"Once you run out of questions, I'll sedate you, then administer a potassium chloride injection directly into your heart. I can't guarantee it will be painless, but it should be humane. After that, I'll take your corpse into the bathroom, pose it appropriately, then take Light to another house of mine for safekeeping. Oh, and I'll call the police, of course. No point in killing you if they don't find you, right?"
A cold shiver prickled down Near's spine. "Why are you doing this?"
"Another excellent question. Because of L, of course. After everything he sacrificed, the least he deserves is for the world to know his name and story, not to be blamed for your mistakes. I never intended to harm you, at first—just to let the world know the truth—but when I realized you've been using Kira to solve your cases—"
"I told you, that's not true," Light interrupted, his voice rising. "I haven't—"
"Manners, Kira. No one was talking to you." Janus tapped the knife against her knuckles for emphasis, and Light lapsed back into angry silence. "As I was saying, I'd been cutting you the benefit of the doubt—that Roger and the others had pushed you into the role, and that you were largely a pawn in their game. You were still young, after all. But to allow L's killer to live, let alone employ him to help you steal L's name? That's unforgivable, Near. For that, you deserve to die."
Five questions down. "Did the others deserve to die, too? Noah Rogers and the rest? If all you wanted was for the world to know the truth, why not simply write an exposé? Why murder?"
"I'm hearing several questions there, but I'll be kind and score it as two. If I didn't immediately jump to killing you, what makes you think I jumped to killing them? I did write an account of L's life, including the truth about his death, and showed it to Roger for approval. He gave me a scolding, confiscated my computer, and destroyed everything. For invading L's privacy, he said, but I knew the truth. L's enterprise is how Wammy's House makes its money, after all, especially now that Wammy's dead. That's why I left."
She paused, brushing her hair back from her eyes. "My second try was more indirect. Remember B? I thought the true crime I wrote about his case was excellent, even if I did take some liberties with the names. I wrote it in Mello's voice for thematic resonance—you have to admit, they had a lot in common—but it let me work in references to L's death and the issue of successorship, too. I had a publisher all lined up, but again, Roger found out and quashed it. It was disrespectful of me to appropriate Mello's identity, he said—all while helping you appropriate L's. I had a good laugh over that." She shrugged. "It wasn't a total waste, though. All that research certainly gave me a few ideas."
"I've noticed," said Near, his voice acidic. "You claim I deserve to die for disrespecting L's sacrifice, but you do the same to Mello? You've got some nerve."
Janus snorted. "Please. L was a detective; Mello was a killer. A friend, once, but still a killer. It's not the same at all."
"So are you."
"On a much lesser scale than him, yes—and your new pet dwarfs both our body counts combined. Strange how ready you are to make excuses for him, but not for me." She tilted her head, pouting. "A girl might almost think you were sexist."
This time, Near didn't rise to the bait. Six questions to go. Glancing over at Light, he asked the first question that came to mind. "If I deserve to die for imprisoning him rather than killing him, what do you plan to do with him?"
"Oh?" Janus raised her eyebrows. "Is that concern I hear?"
Yes. "Just curiosity."
"I see. In that case, I plan to extract a full, undeniable, video or audio-recorded confession from him by whatever means necessary, both regarding his crimes and your actions, to be left for the public with his corpse. Then I'll execute him next Thursday, using the same method I used on you." She flashed Light a bestial smile. "Though in his case, I may skip the sedation. There's a poetic justice to his dying of cardiac arrest, you know. It would be a shame for him not to experience it to the full."
Near bit his lip, rocking ever so slightly against his bonds. I can't think like this. I need to move. There had to be some way out, some way to persuade her, but his mind kept drawing blanks. I need to think.
"What if," he began, "what if I agreed to film a confession myself, if you turn Kira over to the proper authorities instead? Surely the truth would be more convincing coming from me, rather than a torture victim, and I know details of Wammy's House he doesn't. And according to the Japanese, L intended to leave Kira's punishment in the hands of the authorities anyway, so you'll be doing what L would have wanted." Swallowing, he forced himself to meet her eyes. "You have to admit, it makes more sense."
"More sense to you. If I turn him over to the authorities without proof, he'll find a way to slip out of their grasp for certain, and I won't have proof until I can film your admission. That means I'll have to drag both of you back to my hiding place until I can get everything set up, allowing you two more time to conspire or be rescued. I may not have been successor-track, Near, but I'm not a fool."
"Well, you could have fooled me," said Light. "You do realize the SPK and Wammy's will hunt you down for this, right? You might have us tied up, but you're a dead bitch walking. I'd pay good money to see Lidner tear you apart."
Janus frowned. "Be quiet, Kira."
"Or what?" Light snapped, his handcuffs clanking against the radiator. "You'll torture me? You'll kill me? You've already made that much clear!"
Sickened and helpless, Near watched her rise from her chair. "Leave him alone," he said. "What does it matter? He can't do anything to you. Leave him alone."
Janus ignored him. Grabbing Light by the hair, she jerked his head back, pressing the tip of her knife against his cheekbone an inch below his eye.
"It matters because Kira will be in my custody for another week, and I don't care to be annoyed for that long. The sooner this little power struggle ends, the happier both of us will be." A thin bead of red ran down Light's cheek, and Janus eased back slightly. "I need your body to be recognizable, but I don't need it to have two eyes. Do I make myself clear?"
Light set his jaw. "Perfectly."
"Good." With a flick of her wrist, Janus opened a gash across his cheek.
Near squeezed his eyes shut at Light's howl of pain, desperate to cover his ears and block everything out. I have to move, I have to stim, I have to move, I need to move… Whimpering, he rocked back and forth as far as his restraints would allow, thumping rhythmically against the back of his chair.
"Don't be childish," Janus's voice scolded him. "You've seen blood before."
He heard her only vaguely, as though through water. Unable to form a reply, he continued to rock, his hums and squeals of distress only growing louder.
"Nate." The name cut through Near's distress, making him pause. Light's voice. "Nate, it's all right. You're okay."
"Kira, I warned you—"
"So poke my eye out later! I'm trying to calm him down for you, damn it. Do you want him to play your game or not?" A pause. "Nate. I promise. You're fine. I'm fine. Breathe, all right? Breathe."
Near hummed, shaking his head furiously.
"Nate, please. It's all right."
It's not all right. It's not. Slowly, Near turned his head to face Light. "All right. All right?"
Light nodded and cracked a weak smile, his head pressed against his shoulder in an attempt to stop the bleeding. "We're all right."
"All right," Near echoed. "Yes. I am—I'm all right."
"Thank you, Kira. That was very helpful." Marching over to Light, Janus tossed the knife aside and grabbed the gag around his neck. "Open your mouth."
Light raised his head, one side of his face a ghoulish, bloody mask. "You're still going to—?"
"Or I could follow through on my threat. Your choice."
All the fight drained from Light's face, and he obeyed, submitting meekly to being gagged once more. Near looked away, struggling to regain his composure. Three questions left. Any possibility of rescue or reprieve for himself was too remote to hope for, but he couldn't bring himself to resign the game. Lidner would never forgive me. Nor would Roger. Near wasn't one to believe in an afterlife, but he couldn't rule it out, either. If there were any chance of meeting his mentor again, the last thing Near wanted was another scolding.
"After we're dead, what will you do?" he asked quietly. "Will you go on killing?"
"I hadn't planned on it, no. If Wammy's House tries to prop up another fake in your place somehow, I'll be back, but short of that…I haven't thought it all out, really. I'll disappear and change identities for certain, but beyond that, I don't know. Work in IT, I suppose, or theater tech. I'm no Kira. I'll be just as happy to remain obscure."
Both Near and Janus startled at the sound. Grimacing, Light arched his back, squirming uncomfortably against the radiator.
"Stiff back?" Janus asked sweetly.
Light nodded. Are those tears in his eyes? The man had every right to cry, but the Light Yagami Near knew would never have let Janus see him do it. Not unless he had given up.
Near tried not to think about that.
"Poor baby. Just hold on a bit longer. Once we're done here, I'll take you somewhere more comfortable." She turned her attention back to Near. "Last question. Make it count."
Last question. Last chance. Forcing himself to look Janus square in the eye, he asked, "Do you honestly believe L would approve of what you're doing? That the man who arrested B and gave his life hunting Kira would ever put a crazy serial killer in charge of his legacy?"
"That's two questions, Near, but I suppose it wouldn't hurt. I'm not trying to take charge of his legacy, merely to let it stand on its own. You, on the other hand, perverted his legacy, sold the world a pack of lies, and ran L's reputation into the ground. He sacrificed everything in pursuit of justice, and no one even knows or cares that he died. Because of you. Both of you. Call me whatever you like, but I choose to think he'd be more disappointed in that." Solemn-faced, she rose from her chair. "And that's the end."
Near was silent, fixing his eyes on the ceiling as she rummaged through her bag. Though he could hear his pulse racing in his ears, he felt eerily calm. It's over. He wiggled his fingers behind him, wishing he could tangle them in his hair, but he knew Janus would never allow it. People say hair keeps growing after death, but that's a myth. It is one of the last things to decompose, though. Flesh, then hair, then bone…
He made a face as Janus pressed the holly wreath onto his head, the dagger-sharp leaves pricking and scratching him. "For what it's worth, I always liked you," she said quietly, bending to unbutton his shirt. "You weren't very approachable, but you weren't arrogant. I could see that. It wasn't fair, the pressure they put on you. But nothing ever is." She studied his face a moment, her eyes full of pity. "I'm sorry things had to turn out this way."
As am I.
Gently, she pulled his shirt apart, baring one shoulder for injection, then returned to her table for the syringe. Distantly, Near could hear Light's labored breathing, interspersed with soft grunts of pain—or perhaps of protest. He still has a chance, at least. Lidner will blame him, but she'll be out for Janus's blood, and the others won't be far behind. Keeping him is a recent addition to her plan, so she can't have been as careful about covering her tracks. There's a chance. No matter what, though, Kira would outlive Near. There was an odd, bitter humor in that.
Mama, I'm scared…
Janus was back again, syringe in hand, her lips curved in a false, clinical smile. Shivering, Nate closed his eyes and waited for the end to come.
Near heard a wet, squelching sound, then a choking gasp of pain. Opening his eyes, he found himself face to face with Light.
With a grunt, Light plunged the knife between Janus's ribs once more, then tossed it aside. Clawing one-handed at the buckle of his gag, he at last managed to loosen it, tugging the ball free from his mouth and gulping noisily for air.
Light Yagami didn't answer. Doubling over, he retched up a thin stream of bile, then reached once more for the knife.
"Light, are you—?"
Near's voice died in his throat as Kira looked at him, the killer's eyes cold and hard. All too late, Near remembered what Light had told him: Janus had taken his collar away. He doesn't have a tracker. He can run for it now, and I can't stop him. If he leaves me alive, I can hunt him down, but if he doesn't—
Grim-faced, Kira rose to his feet, the knife gripped tightly in his hand. For a moment, he studied Near in silence. Then he took a step toward the chair.
He's going to kill me.
Near squirmed against his bindings, all the calm he'd felt as Janus approached him gone in an instant. His pulse surged in his ears like rushing water, old memories rising to choke his protests in his throat. Dying at Janus's hands had felt inevitable, but dying at Light's…dying just as he thought he'd been rescued…
Please no. Please no. Please no.
Without a word, Kira walked behind the chair, looming outside Near's range of view. Verging on panic, the detective bit his lip, willing himself not to lose control again.
The zip tie binding his wrists began to vibrate.
"Well, that was a near thing," Light said softly. "Hold still. I'm just cutting you out."
Dumbfounded, Near blinked in surprise. "Hold…still?"
"I mean it. I'll probably cut you if you move. I've only got one good hand, remember?"
"The crack," Near said, realization dawning.
"You broke your thumb to slip out of the handcuffs."
"Didn't have much choice, did I? That hand wasn't doing me much good, anyway." Near wiggled his fingers, desperate to stim, but Light rapped his hand with the butt of the knife. "Stop it. This is hard enough without you moving."
"Sorry." But why? Even if Light didn't want to kill him, he could have simply fled. He had no tracker now, after all, and Near was in no position to follow him anytime soon. Killing Janus saved his own life, too, but he has no reason to cut me free. I never gave him one, so why…?
The zip tie parted, and Near jerked his hands away. Grimacing, he chafed his wrists, trying to erase the tight plastic from his sense memory. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Try not to kick me."
Kneeling, Light set to work on Near's feet, sawing through the bonds that held them to the chair. Blood still oozed down his ashen face where Janus had slashed him, and his teeth were bared in a grimace of pain. Near sucked in a breath.
"You look terrible," he said.
"No, you aren't. Once I'm free, I'll call you an ambulance."
"If you take me to the ER, they're going to ask questions. Questions that end with me in prison, if not on death row. Once they realize I'm not actually Matsuda and the NPA didn't send me, how long do you think it'll take before they figure out the rest?" Light shook his head. "I appreciate the thought, but I'm not letting Janus win to balm your conscience. Not now."
"It's not conscience. Just concern." Near's voice was still too shaky to be imposing, but his expression tried its best to make up for it. "You need a hospital."
"I survived five bullets. A broken thumb won't kill me."
"But it will hurt. I'm offering you painkillers, Light."
For a moment, Light said nothing, sawing away at Near's bonds in silence. At last, he said softly, "It's not the first time I've done without."
The plastic gave way, but neither man moved—one enthroned on his chair, the other kneeling at his feet. Looking down, Near could see the blistered flesh peeking out of Light's turtleneck, the blood on his face, the skinned, mangled mess of his right hand. What can I possibly say to him? Light's rescue of Near might nullify his murder attempt in the Yellow Box, but not the hundred thousand other murders in which he'd played a part. Justice and logic demanded he return to his cell, and Light had to know it. Whatever Near's personal feelings, whatever Light's sacrifice, nothing had changed.
But it has.
"Why didn't you do it?" Near asked softly.
"I promised Lidner."
"You don't give a damn about Lidner."
"I don't give a damn about you, either." Tossing the knife aside, Light wiped his good hand on his shirt. "Yet here we are."
Here we are. Prying off his holly crown, Near rose unsteadily to his feet. "Look at me."
Slowly, hesitantly, Light raised his head.
"I can't take you anywhere looking like that, but if we wait here, there's a chance the police will find us before my team does. I won't take you to the hospital, but I do need to go make a phone call. If I ask you to trust me, just this once—will you do it?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Light looked away again, his lip between his teeth. At last, he nodded. "All right."
"Good. Go back over by the radiator, all right?"
Crossing to Janus's side, Near knelt and rolled the body over. With her eyes closed, she looked almost harmless—more like Bertie than the killer she'd really been. How much of that was really acting, I wonder? He couldn't bring himself to regret her death, but part of him wondered if he should. After all, Light had once tried to kill him, too.
When did I start thinking of him as Light?
Grimacing, Near rummaged through her pocket until he found the handcuff key, then went to secure Light's empty cuff around one of the pipes. "I'm sorry to have to do this."
Light shook his head wearily, his voice lifeless and dull. "No, I understand. Just—hurry, okay?"
A few weeks earlier, the defeat in Light's tone would have thrilled Near no end. Now, it merely stung. "I will."
"Good." Cradling his broken hand to his chest, Light closed his eyes. "I'll be here."
Turning his back on both killers—the living and the dead—Near walked away in search of help.
Chapter 12: Light
The fluorescents were still too goddamn bright.
Light raised his good hand to shield his eyes, blinking away the dark spots now dancing in his vision. Though he'd already been awake, the sudden snap from pitch darkness to light had caught him by surprise. Damn it, Near. The detective had been attentive and sympathetic to Light when he returned from calling for help, but the moment the rest of his team arrived, he'd turned his attention to other things. Though Light had hoped for a few more days away from his cell, Near had washed his hands of him, shipping him back to headquarters with Gevanni the day after Christmas while the rest of the team remained in London to "sort things out." Logically, Light couldn't argue with Near's reasoning—his mangled thumb had required surgery to repair, and the few doctors Near trusted not to ask too many questions were in the United States—but emotionally, it stung.
He could have told Gevanni to fix the lighting, at least. He could have done that much.
Gevanni had tried to help, at least. Light couldn't fault him for that. The first two days, the agent had been a frequent visitor, dutifully bringing Light his meals and reading aloud from The Lord of the Rings to make up for Light's inability to turn pages himself. It was kindly meant, but it hadn't helped. Gevanni's discomfort at being alone with him was far too obvious to be reassuring, and his frequent expression of pity only reminded Light what he had lost. When he had finally given the agent permission to leave him alone, Gevanni's clear relief had been one more dagger in the heart of Light's pride. Roger would have stuck around no matter what I said, and probably lectured me besides. But Roger was gone, and Light was alone. He had all the time in the world to hate himself for that.
I did what you asked of me, Roger. What the hell am I supposed to do now?
As if in answer, the outer door clanged.
The prisoner sat up with a sigh, his fingers tracing the stitches on his cheek. A few moments later, the inner door swung ajar, and Light's appetite curdled.
"Happy New Year," she said, shifting his breakfast tray back to both hands as she entered. "Sleep well?"
"I thought you were still in London."
"Well, I'm not. Our plane came in yesterday." She held up the tray and arched an eyebrow. "Everything's back to normal now.
So it seems. Light had expected nothing less, yet the news hurt. He's been back since yesterday and didn't bother to let me know. He could understand Near not wanting to see him, but the detective could still have sent a message, at least checked whether Light was okay. The fact that he hadn't spoke volumes. He cared when I was an ally, but I'm no use to him now. Out of sight, out of mind.
Lidner watched him, frowning. "Is something wrong?"
"You used to be a better liar."
"It's not a lie."
"If you insist." She slid his breakfast through the meal slot. "Careful. The oatmeal might still be hot."
Light stared blankly at the tray on the floor, then shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
"Too bad, because my orders are not to leave until you eat. Be reasonable. Your body needs to heal."
My body isn't doing anyone any good, least of all me. "I'll eat later."
"You'll eat now. If I have to sit here and harass you until you do, so be it. I have nowhere else I need to be."
"Near's paying you to annoy me, now?"
She shrugged. "Every job has its perks."
Light glared at her. "Look. I know you hate me, but I told you I'd keep Near alive, and I did. I fucking did. Just this once, can't you leave me alone?"
Of course not. Angrily, he flung himself back down on the pillow and turned to face the wall. Lidner sighed.
"I thought you would appreciate some company," she said.
"According to Gevanni, you didn't much care for his, either. He's concerned about you, Yagami. We all are."
Light snorted, but said nothing.
"Is that so hard to believe?" she asked.
"From you? Definitely. I'll believe Ryuk had my best interests at heart before I believe it of you."
Light heard a soft thump outside the bars and turned his head to look. Lidner had seated herself cross-legged on the floor, staring up at him. I wish she would stop looking at me like that. When the SPK had arrived to find him huddled beside the radiator, battered, bloodstained, and sitting in his own filth, even Lidner hadn't been able to hide a look of pity. At the time, he'd found that almost gratifying, but now it began to grate. Then again, if I had a mirror, I'd probably look at myself the same. Maybe Ryuk's way really would have been kinder.
Lidner was still watching. "You're being childish, Yagami."
"I've had a rough week. I'm entitled."
"You can talk about it, you know. I won't comment."
Light snorted derision. "I'll pass."
"That's your call."
He turned his face back to the wall, letting silence swallow them both. She isn't calling me Kira. Half of him hoped it was a peace offering; the other half suspected a trap. Not that it matters, I suppose. I'm already in a cage. It doesn't get more trapped than that.
"The funeral," he said at last. "You went?"
She nodded. "He would have been pleased at the turnout, I think. According to Near, everyone currently at Wammy's was there, plus a number of past students, old coworkers, friends of Quillsh Wammy—"
"Not that I saw. The ceremony was lovely, though. There's an old Jewish custom that at the graveside, each mourner throws a shovelful of dirt into the grave to help with the burial. The rabbi said it's one of the greatest acts of charity a person can perform—doing a loved one a favor they can't do for themselves, knowing they'll never be able to repay you. I'd never really thought of it like that." Her voice was hushed, thoughtful. "We each took a turn. Except Near. He took two."
No family. Something twisted painfully in Light's gut, leaving a hollow void where his stomach had been. I never asked him about his family or his background—or himself, really. The only person here who cared about me, and I never even asked. He should have been used to sudden reversals by now, inured to unfinished business and loss, but he wasn't. If anything, they hurt worse.
"I didn't know Roger was Jewish," he said.
"That's not the point. The second shovel was for you. I thought you'd want to know."
"Roger's dead. I highly doubt he knew the difference." Light shook his head. "I should have been there."
"No, you shouldn't. The last place you should be showing your face is a chapel packed with past and present Wammy's students, especially in your present state. You stand out enough as it is, and with those bandages..." She trailed off. "That's not what you meant."
No, it isn't. Light said nothing, his lip pinched between his teeth. Lidner sighed.
"I'm sorry, Yagami. I didn't—"
"Didn't what? Didn't think I was capable of remorse? Is that it?"
She didn't flinch. "I don't doubt you're capable. I just think it's misplaced."
"Janus would agree with you on that."
"Kira," he corrected. "Remember? I'm Kira. That's what you call me in your head. The only person who didn't was Roger, and he's dead." He curled in on himself. "Leave me the hell alone."
Fury colored his cheeks, and he sat up to glare at her. "What the hell do you want from me? Details? You want to hear about how she shocked me with that goddamn collar while listing off the names of people I killed? You want to hear about how she stuffed a gag in my mouth so I'd stop begging her to stop? How I could smell when my skin started burning? How I passed out and woke up in a puddle of my own vomit? Is that what you want to hear?"
"Is that everyone, Kira, or did I miss a few?"
Sudden moisture stung Light's eyes, tears of pain and rage and loss, humiliating him as they fell. Gritting his teeth, he wiped them away with his good hand, avoiding the long, half-healed gash across his cheek. "She put a knife to my throat and told me exactly what she did to Roger—every cut, every stab, how much it bled, how deep, where. Told me she'd love to do the same to me, but it wasn't how I had to die. Do you have any idea what it's like to hear that and not be able to speak? To answer? Because I know someone who does, and I saved his fucking life, and this is the thanks I got. So take your concern and piss off, Lidner, because I'm not touching that food unless you tase me, and I've had enough of that, I've had enough, I don't want to be useful anymore, I've had enough..." He was babbling now, words tumbling helplessly, his good hand clamped over his eyes in a pathetic attempt to hide his face. "Leave me alone. Please, just leave me alone."
The door to his cell swung open.
He curled in on himself, flinching away from whatever force Lidner would use to subdue him, but no pain came. Looking up, he saw her standing over him, the tray once more in her hands.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she said. "I just want you to eat."
"If you won't do it for me, do it for Near. He's worried sick about you."
Light grimaced. "Not worried enough to check on me himself."
"We arrived after your lights-out time. Once you've had breakfast, he's asked me to bring you upstairs."
Oh. "You could have mentioned that," he muttered, glancing at the tray in her hands. "How much do I have to eat?"
"Use your best judgment. It's your stomach, not mine."
Wordlessly, he accepted the tray, starting into the oatmeal without enthusiasm. Though he didn't look up, he could feel Lidner's hawkish eyes boring into his skull.
"Near says you had a chance to kill him," she said. "After you stabbed Janus."
Light tensed, but forced himself to keep eating. "I suppose I did."
"Why didn't you?"
"I made you a promise."
Lidner snorted, her eyebrows rising. "You expect me to believe that?"
"Not really." He studied his spoon a moment, thinking. "If I'd killed Near and you had caught me, I'd have either died at your hands or at the hands of Near's successor. Given my injuries, the fact I was stranded in an unfamiliar country, and the fact there was likely already a manhunt underway for me, the odds of my successfully escaping were negligible. Life in a cell isn't much of a life, but it's still better than dying. I simply played the odds."
"That's awfully clear thinking for someone who was recently tortured."
Light shrugged. "I am a genius."
"That may be, but I've seen you in pain before. Level-headed isn't the word I'd use to describe you." She cocked her head. "You must have had some reason."
If only I did. Light had had no reason—none that he could articulate. Only the sudden, fleeting impression of a five-year-old, strapped into a sinking car. "I don't know," he said reluctantly, after a pause. "I wish I could give a reason, but I can't. I wanted to run for it, I really did. But when I looked at him, all I could think was that he didn't deserve to die. Even after he imprisoned me, even after he tortured me, when I saw him strapped down with that goddamn holly on his head—"
"You couldn't do it."
Light nodded. "And now I'm here. That'll teach me to be sentimental, I suppose."
He smiled ruefully, but Lidner didn't return the expression. "The first few months after you arrived," she began softly, "Near had someone watching the cameras around the clock. Your stunt with the watch shook him up more than he wanted to admit, and even with you injured and bedridden, he was half-afraid you'd find a way out. I asked him any number of times why he didn't just gas you and eliminate the threat, but he insisted he couldn't. Even now, I don't understand why."
Neither do I. Hairs rose beneath the bandage on his neck, but Light went on eating, letting the recitation wash over him like cold water.
"For the first few weeks, Near didn't let me watch the cameras alone. He didn't trust me, not after I spied on him for Mello. Once you finally recovered enough that Roger could move out of the basement and we could activate the sensors, Near told me I could have a chance. He showed me where to find the override button in case you tried something stupid the sensors wouldn't stop, then left me alone for the night. You didn't try anything stupid, of course—you were asleep and strapped to the bunk—but I sat there for an hour with my finger on the button, trying to decide whether Near would thank me for ending your life."
The prisoner looked up sharply. "You what?"
"I'm not proud of it. I told myself you deserved death, after everything you'd done, and that we'd all breathe easier with you gone. But in the end, I couldn't do it. I took my finger off the button and just watched you sleep."
"You suddenly realized it was the same reasoning I used, huh?"
"Actually, no. I suddenly realized if I did it, Near would fire me. That's the only reason I stopped." She shrugged. "As I said, I'm not proud."
A cold prickle ran down Light's spine. "Is there a point to this story?"
"The button was a fake. Near was testing me. He never asked me why I didn't do it, just told me he was glad I hadn't. And after that, he trusted me." Lidner held his eyes, her expression solemn. "I don't like you, Yagami, and I certainly don't forgive you. But I do trust you. Just thought you ought to know that."
For a long moment, Light could do nothing but stare at her. Then he sighed. "Well, that's a start."
"It is." She held out her left hand for him to shake. "Halle Bullock, former CIA."
Her real name. A symbolic gesture, at this point, but still a welcome one. He pressed her hand firmly, a slight smile on his face. "Light Yagami, former NPA. Pleased to meet you."
Releasing her hand, Light glanced at his half-eaten breakfast a moment, then slid the tray off his lap. "You'll have to help me with the shackles. I can't do it with one hand."
"No need." She gestured at the open cell door. "Just follow me."
The rooms were laid out like an apartment, lacking only a kitchen to be complete. To one side of the vestibule, a small but cozy bedroom stood ajar, the twin bed far more inviting than Light's own. On the other side, another door was shut, presumably hiding an office of some sort. The living room was sparsely furnished, but it held a television, armchair, and loveseat, with a small kitchen table and two chairs tucked against the back wall. Near sat twirling his hair on one of the chairs, frowning at something in his hands. When he saw Light enter, his face lit up almost hopefully, only to fall back into its usual, cautious blankness.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, shoving the object in his hands back into a pocket.
Light shrugged. "I'm not terminal. The stitches come out tomorrow, the cast in about five weeks. All things considered, I'm feeling pretty good."
"I'm glad to hear it. Come sit."
Light obliged, his eyes still soaking up the room. "How was London?"
"It took some clever thinking to cover up your role in things, but we managed. The Janus case is officially closed. L's perfect record is intact." Near gestured to a bottle and two plastic flutes on the table. "I thought that probably deserved a celebration."
"Champagne, obviously. I told Rester it was traditional. He likes tradition."
Light raised an eyebrow. "Are you even old enough to drink this?"
"Technically, no. But there's no point in being L if I can't break rules once in a while."
"Another perk of being L's successor rather than a fake, I suppose."
"I don't know about that. Seems to me you broke more than a few rules yourself." Ever so carefully, Near pulled out the cork and poured, then slid one glass toward Light. "Happy New Year. I was going to wake you at midnight and do this properly, but Gevanni thought you needed the sleep."
"He was probably right." Light's left hand closed around the flute. New Year's Day. January first. I'm supposed to be dead. An odd mixture of anxiety and triumph filled him at the thought, and he raised his glass in toast. "To Roger. He ought to be here for this."
They sipped in unison, the bubbles tickling Light's throat and his memory alike. Two years ago, I was toasting to victory. Now I'm toasting to loss. Making a face, he set his glass back down, drinking in his surroundings instead. "So this is where you sleep, huh? It's nice."
"It was Roger's, actually. But I think—I've been thinking it should be yours."
Light blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"He didn't designate anything here in his will, but I'm sure he would want it to go to you. The rooms will have to be modified some, of course—a door with a keypad, security mesh for the windows, that sort of thing—but you'd have more privacy up here, not to mention more space. I thought you might prefer it to our current arrangement." Near cocked his head. "Is something wrong?"
Stunned, Light fumbled for words, his eyes darting around the room that Near had just called his. A space of my own. The idea was almost foreign to him. My own rooms, my own furniture, my own things... "No," he said hoarsely. "Nothing's wrong. I just—if you keep me here, won't someone question who I am?"
"Highly unlikely. Rester will be filling in as my new Watari, but on paper, these are Watari's rooms. The government won't pry into your real identity, and letting you live here as a decoy protects Rester as well. It'll take about a month to get everything ready, but once I do, there should be no problem."
A month. Two years after the warehouse, almost to the day. "Sounds like you have it all figured out."
"Almost. Though there will be conditions, of course."
Light grimaced. "If you try to put another collar on me, so help me—"
"No collars, no. But when you leave the room, I'll expect you to wear this."
Something metallic clicked against wood, and Light turned to see what it was. A familiar, stainless steel timepiece lay atop the table, its hands still marking Tokyo time around the dial. Either that's the same one Dad gave me for graduation, or Near dropped several thousand dollars on a replacement... Speechless, Light picked it up, fighting the urge to tug the crown to check if it were really his.
"Yes, it's the same one," said Near, a note of amusement in his tone. "I made a few alterations to it, though. Well, unmade an alteration of yours, to be more accurate, and added one of my own. I didn't think you'd mind."
"No. No, I don't." Light ran his thumb over the steel band, relishing the familiar texture. He took out the hidden drawer and put in a tracking chip instead, but it's the same watch. Dad's watch. I wonder if he'd even want me to have it back. A hard lump formed in the prisoner's throat, and it took him a moment to find his voice again. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Other conditions. If I allow you outside this room for any reason, your curfew will be ten p.m. unless I specifically say otherwise. You may not touch any computers, phones, or other communicative devices without both supervision and my prior permission. If you violate any conditions, attempt to escape, or otherwise make me regret this in any way, I can and will return you to the basement for however long I deem necessary. Also, unless there's a specific case in progress I've asked your help on, you'll be expected to stay in here at all times. This may be closer to house arrest than prison, but it's still a life sentence."
"Understood. Anything else?"
"Something has to be done about the notebook."
Light looked up, a tight knot forming in his chest. "Destroy it, you mean?"
"If you want me to, I will, but I'd rather you keep your memories—which presents a problem. I can't let you have access to the notebook, obviously, but if I take it away from you without permission, you'll automatically lose possession after a certain period of time. However, if you're the one to designate the storage place for it..." Near trailed off, raising an eyebrow meaningfully.
Oh, of course.
"Leave it in the cell," said Light. "That's as secure a place to keep it as any."
"I thought you might say that."
The prisoner looked down at the watch in his hand, his mind struggling to absorb his new situation. I'm getting out. He'd grow sick of this room too, soon enough—he had no illusions about that—but it was a definite step up, and the rest of Near's offer mattered to him more. He wants me as a teammate, not a prisoner. He wants me to help him be L. Part of Light would always chafe at living in Near's shadow, bound to serve the man who'd replaced him, but he'd learned to adjust his expectations. There would be no more glory for Kira, but he wouldn't languish in oblivion either. Of all the investigators in the world, I'm the one Near trusts. It wasn't much, that knowledge, but it was something. It was enough.
I'm still alive.
Cracking a smile, Near raised his glass. "To a new year," he said. "May it be better than the last."
"That wouldn't take much."
Grinning, Light set the watch aside and raised his glass instead. "Kanpai, Nate-kun."
And as the champagne slid down Light Yagami's throat, he felt something more than the alcohol warm him. Not humiliation, not rage, but something all but forgotten, a feeling he hadn't had in a very long time:
Chapter 13: L
A/N: Yes, as you've all guessed, this is indeed the final chapter. I do have plans for two one-shots in this same AU—one a prequel from Roger's perspective, one concerning Near's 21st birthday—but for now, this is the end. To all of you who have followed Near and Light's adventures this far, thank you for reading!
ONE YEAR LATER
"So you won't help us?"
Near swallowed the urge to sigh, thankful that Aizawa and the others couldn't see his face through the phone. "I never said that. Simply that I haven't made a firm decision either way. You must admit, it's a puzzling case."
Someone snorted. Ide, probably. "I'll say. We've been treading water and waiting for you to contact us for weeks."
"Then I'm sorry I kept you waiting. That was not my intent." A partial truth, at best, but Near tried to sound sincere. "I'll talk this over with my team and get back to you as soon as I can. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," said Aizawa grudgingly. "In the meantime, we'll keep looking on our own."
"A very wise course of action," said Near. "Now, if there's nothing else—"
"There's, uh, one thing." Matsuda's voice was hushed, and he sounded almost startled to hear himself speak. "May I talk to you alone? Just for a little bit?"
Oh, no. "If it's all right with your teammates, it's all right with me. Aizawa?"
"Sure, go ahead. Just give us a second to get out of your way."
The sound of chairs scraping floor made Near wince. A few moments later, Matsuda picked up the phone, and the background noise vanished.
"Is anyone else there with you?" he asked.
"Only me. Is something wrong?"
"No. Well...no. I just had a few questions."
"About the case?"
"About the case you had in Britain."
I was afraid you'd say that. Lying for necessity didn't normally faze the detective, but the stricken expression Matsuda had worn when Near told him Light had died of his wounds haunted Near's conscience even now. He saved my life, and I repaid him with unearned guilt. And now I'm going to lie to him again.
"What about it?" he asked quietly.
"Why did you really use my name?"
"Expedience. The killer was drawing inspiration from aspects of the Kira case and was clearly aware of the main players involved. I guessed that if she believed I had sent one of the very agents who brought down Kira after her, it might draw her into the open, so I had the investigator I was working with use your name as an alias. I can't give you details, obviously, but suffice it to say the ruse worked."
"Yes, I get that, but—why mine? Why not Mogi's, or Aizawa's? I wasn't intimidating, I wasn't even helpful, I was—I was useless."
"You saved my life. I wouldn't call that useless."
"Yeah, but nobody knows that. I mean, except us...right?"
"Except us, nobody knows what any individual task force member accomplished, for good or ill. I needed a name, and yours was the one that came to mind. There was no real thought to it beyond that."
"Oh." For all his protestations, Matsuda sounded almost disappointed. "I hoped—"
"Your name was the first I thought of, Matsuda. That's a compliment." Of sorts.
"No, no, I'm not offended, I just—I talked to Director Kitamura about you at the New Year's party. When I asked him if he'd heard from you at all, he said not since that big drug case two years ago."
"Was he lying?"
"Of course not. I had no reason to speak with him again. Not until this case, at least."
"But you said you used an NPA investigator on your case. The one in Britain."
"The NPA doesn't have authority outside of Japan. You'd need the director's cooperation to take someone overseas."
"I didn't want to go through official channels, so I used an officer who was on holiday. Far less paperwork that way."
"Mogi took all of December off that year. You've only done two cases in Japan, and you used us for both of them. We're the only ones who know about the notebooks. Are you saying you used some other officer you'd never worked with before over him?"
I don't like where this is going. Near reached for his hair, his mind grasping for a better story. "You've got me there."
Matsuda sounded shocked. "So you admit you've been lying?"
"I do. Would you like the truth?" Near didn't wait for an answer. "He wasn't NPA. He's a Japanese expatriate, a private investigator I've worked with elsewhere. I only told you he was NPA so you and the others wouldn't be offended that I'd picked a private investigator over one of you."
"Living in America. Yes. For all the reasons you yourself mention, it was easier to bring him along disguised as one of you than to bring one of you for real."
"What exactly are you accusing me of, Matsuda?" Near said calmly.
"I'm not accusing you of anything. I just thought—you had somebody Japanese investigating, and, well, if you were trying to cover up his identity, then maybe—"
"You thought I might be hiding Kira somewhere to solve my cases for me, is that it?"
The policeman chuckled nervously. "That does sound pretty stupid, doesn't it?"
Stupid but true. "It's understandable. After all, Light Yagami was your friend, wasn't he?"
"I don't know. I thought he was, but—"
"Even so. You trusted him. You admired him. It's only natural you wouldn't want to believe—"
"That I killed him. Yeah, I know." A heavy sigh came down the line. "I had to, though. I had to."
"I'm not about to disagree. After all, you saved my life."
"I know. I just wish—I just wish I could have saved him, too." Matsuda sighed. "Don't mind me. I'm being stupid again."
Anything but. "Did you tell Aizawa and the others any of this?"
"No. I didn't want them to make fun of me, so I kept it all—"
"To yourself. Excellent. Keep it that way. The last thing I need is for any of them to mistrust me just as we have to work together on a case."
Matsuda's voice brightened. "You're taking the new Kira case?"
"Don't call it that." Near winced, surprised by the sharpness in his reply. "Whatever the general population thinks, we know better. Kira was a murderer, but but he wasn't a fool, nor did he prey on the weak in search of applause. He was an adversary L respected enough to risk his life opposing. Calling this weak-willed opportunist Kira is an insult to L's memory—and to Light's."
"Oh." There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. "You know, speaking of the Yagamis—Sayu got engaged a few weeks ago. I just thought you might want to know."
"Engaged? I didn't know she was dating."
"Well, she wasn't, last time we talked. She met him soon after that big drug case you helped on the year after Kira. They've been dating ever since, and now—I guess they decided it was time."
"Mrs. Yagami must be thrilled."
"Yeah. Yeah, she is. They both are. About time they had something to celebrate, you know?"
"Indeed." Will Light celebrate, I wonder? Somehow, Near doubted it. "Unfortunately, I need to go brief my team, so if that's all—"
"Oh, yeah—the new case, right?"
"Got it. I'll let you go, then."
"Thank you. I'm sure we'll talk again soon." Near reached for the button, but Matsuda's voice stopped him.
"If you see him again—my double, I mean—then tell him...uh, tell him I said hi. Okay?"
Near nodded, then remembered that Matsuda couldn't see him. "I will."
With a click, Near terminated the connection and rose from his seat, frowning down at the now-empty screen. I'll have to admit the truth to him someday—he deserves that much—but not yet. Not until Light's ready. Matsuda might have forgiven Light, but Near doubted the opposite was true. One thing's for certain, though. That man is smarter than L ever gave him credit for.
Someone knocked on the door. "Are you done?"
The door opened, and Rester poked his head inside. "What did he want?"
"He suspects that Light's alive. I put him off for now, but if I don't think he's really convinced."
"Well, he's not wrong. Will he make trouble, do you think?"
"Unlikely. Whatever happened in the warehouse, he doesn't seem to bear Light any lasting ill-will. Besides, he wouldn't have asked to talk to me in private if he intended to share his suspicions with the others."
"Even so, if Matsuda suspects, he's likely not the only one. It might be wise to have Yagami sit this case out." Rester fixed his charge with a level look. "For several reasons."
Near raised an eyebrow. "I appreciate the concern, but I wasn't about to include him in a video conference. I can ask for his input, at least."
"Of course you can. You can do whatever you want. I'm only suggesting—"
"I know. Do you have the time, by any chance?"
"You were supposed to meet him for Go half an hour ago."
Damn. Near glanced down the hallway, giving his hair a vicious jerk. "Thank you, Rester. Tell Gevanni and Lidner I'll be there to brief them in an hour."
"Yes, sir." The man's smile radiated amusement. "I'll tell them to make sure they're on time."
The world believed Light Yagami dead and buried, but in truth, they were wrong on both counts. A little worse for wear, certainly, thought Near, inputting the code that would open Light's door, but not dead. Not even close. If anyone had told him three years ago that his inconvenient prisoner would become not only a resource, but something almost resembling a friend, Near would have dismissed the suggestion without a second thought. Yet as he walked into Kira's domain, nodding in apologetic greeting, he couldn't deny it was the truth.
"You're late," Light accused.
"I know. Something came up."
Sighing dramatically, Light marked his page and set his book aside. His chestnut hair was shorter now, and a prominent red scar arced below one eye and across his cheek, but beyond that he looked little different than when Near had first visited his cell. Even Light's clothes were unchanged, the same dull, gray scrubs he'd worn throughout his three years of captivity. Near had considered giving him new clothes along with his new rooms, but in the end, he'd decided against it. The scrubs were a symbol, an unspoken reminder that Light was still a prisoner, not a guest. Near sometimes wondered which of the two of them needed that reminder more.
He was still wary, of course. Light didn't have to kneel while his enclosure was searched anymore, but searches still took place from time to time, just to be safe. The cameras in Light's new cell were better hidden than those in the old, but they were there—though Near rarely checked the tapes—and he'd been less than truthful about the watch Light wore, as well. Though he had indeed hidden a microchip in it, it was a decoy. The real tracking device was hidden under Light's skin, implanted while he was under anesthesia for the surgery on his hand. It seemed unlikely Light would try anything rash, but if he did, Near was ready for it. He'd made certain of that.
Lidner may trust him completely, but I don't. Not ever.
Near slid into the chair across from Light, glancing down at the Go board on the table between them. "I'm white again, I take it?"
"Of course. You don't get to stand me up and still go first." Light placed a black stone. "If you want to play black, come on time."
Near scoffed and placed a stone of his own. "I didn't stand you up, I was busy. Not everyone gets to lounge around reading all day."
"Nor would I, if I had other options. Unfortunately for both of us, I don't." Another black stone clicked against the board, and Light raised an eyebrow at his opponent.
"And whose fault is that?"
"You haven't brought me a case in two months. I'd say it's yours." Despite his words, Light's eyes twinkled with amusement.
"My fault there aren't any cases of interest? I thought you wanted the serial murder rate to drop."
"Don't give me that. You've been working. You just haven't seen fit to include me."
"Everything I've done for you, and you still don't trust me?" The detective feigned indignation. "And here I thought we were friends."
"Friends? Please. 'I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.' I'm afraid you don't qualify."
Near huffed and placed a stone. "Bernard Shaw?"
"Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray."
"I'd have thought 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' would be of more interest to you."
"Not a chance. I read to forget my situation, not to be reminded of it." Light set his stone with a resounding clack, cutting off one of Near's liberties. "Not your wisest move."
"Nor my worst. Don't get cocky, Yagami." The detective studied the lay of the board, one finger snagging a lock of hair. "Besides, by that standard, I'm better friend material than you. At least I'm not scarred."
"Your loss. Girls love scarred men. It makes us look tragic and dangerous."
Well, that explains why she hosted Mello. "I'll defer to her opinion, then. I've never made much study of male beauty."
"You've seen me naked. How much more study do you need?"
"I have indeed. Remind me to ask Miss Lidner if the resultant mental scarring looks tragic and dangerous, too." Clack. Near lifted his finger from the stone he'd just played, smirking at the stunned look on Light's face. "You were saying?"
"No, thank you. I don't need that much study."
Wry-faced, Light clucked his tongue in disapproval. "You don't need any study in being a cheeky bastard, that's for certain."
"You brought it on yourself."
"Strange. I seem to hear that a lot. So, are you going to tell me why you almost stood me up, or?"
"Your sister's getting married."
Light froze, his hand suspended over the board. "Who told you that?"
"Please tell me he isn't the groom."
Near's lips quirked upward. "He isn't the groom."
"Well, thank God for that. Anyone I know?"
"I doubt it. She's only been dating him for two years, I gather, so she must have met him after your arrest. Still, two years is nothing to sneeze at. I assume she must have found something in the man to like."
"I guess so." Light's hand shook slightly as he set his stone, but his face betrayed none of what he must be feeling. "I suppose sending an anonymous wedding gift is out of the question?"
"Given that Matsuda suspects you're alive, yes."
Light looked up sharply. "Did you tell him?"
"Of course not. He figured it out on his own. But I didn't outright deny it, either." Cocking his head, Near gave the former Kira an appraising look. "He misses you."
"That's not surprising. He always was a fool."
"Most people are."
"Most people didn't shoot me."
"It's your move."
Near had no intention of closing the discussion, but Light's face might have been carved from stone. He's not ready. Light's family and friends had the closure of believing him dead, but Light had no such solace about them. Knowing the people he'd known and cared about still existed, that their lives had moved on without him—that was a pain Near understood all too well. His only comfort was knowing none of them had any idea he was a prisoner, but now I've taken that away from him, too. With time and success, Near hoped, Light Yagami might come to see his new role as one to be proud of. But he wasn't there. Not yet.
With a sigh, Near abandoned his protest and placed a stone instead. "I may have a case for you."
"It appears someone found another Death Note."
A strange, longing look filled Light's eyes, intense and wistful. Then it faded. "Imagine that."
"The public's already hailing it as the return of Kira, but this killer's an admirer of yours, not a copycat. Whoever it is, they're killing the elderly, not criminals—and almost exclusively within Japan."
"Interestingly, no. All the deaths were complications of pre-existing health problems."
"Mercy killings, then. At least he sees them that way." Ignoring the game entirely, Light drummed his fingers on the table. "What else do we know?"
"According to your old friends at the NPA, the killer seems to be choosing victims based on internet postings."
"That's not much to go on."
"I know. I hoped you might have some insight."
"On the murders?"
"On the killer."
"Hmm." Light pressed a knuckle to his lips. "He's young, most likely depressed, and has an ailing grandparent. Does that qualify?"
Indeed. Near drummed his index finger on one of his stones, keeping his face a careful blank. "Explain your reasoning."
"An adult would use the power either to kill for personal gain, if he were healthy, or to kill himself, were he in the same condition as the victims. This person isn't doing either. He's got Kira's idealism, though not my ideals—he fancies himself a god of mercy, not justice. Coupled with the level of comfort navigating the internet, that suggests a young killer. However, a teenager wouldn't jump to the idea of relieving suffering among the elderly unless he'd been exposed to said suffering, which suggests he has a relative in that condition. Had, I suppose. He'd want to test the Death Note on someone whose death he could hear about in detail, and that rules out strangers in nursing homes. In all likelihood, a relative was among the boy's first victims, if not the actual first. "
"Why assume a boy?"
"A poor assumption, then. Most serial killers are male, but 'angel of mercy' killers often aren't. Besides, outliers exist—as you ought to remember."
Light bit his lip, his fingers rising to the scar on his cheek. "All criminal profiles are based in probability. You asked for my insight, not hard evidence."
"True—and as it happens, I agree with your insight. The harder question is what to do with it." Pale fingers groped for paler hair, and Near's brow creased in thought. "How would L have handled this case?"
"Methodically. If we accept that the killer had a relative among the earliest victims, pinpoint the earliest victims and work backwards. Assign officers to tail any descendants who fit the profile, then compare their movements to any time of death patterns that may be found among the victims. If you can narrow the pool of suspects down to a single person, you win. That's where L would start, at least."
"It would be risky for the tails. More than risky. If the killer cares as little for their own life as you suggest, they have no reason not to trade for the eyes. Or any reason to fear the repercussions of killing an officer, for that matter."
"I know. The fact remains, that's where L would start."
"And where would you start, Light Yagami?"
"Me?" Light frowned in thought, momentarily silent. "This killer doesn't share Kira's ideals, and only an idiot wouldn't realize mimicking Kira would bring L down on him. The only logical explanation is that he's desperate for recognition, particularly yours. He wants to be important, but feels that he isn't. Young, feeling ignored, and viewing death as a mercy—I'd say there's a good chance he's depressed. If you were to make a public broadcast denouncing him as a copycat and declaring him unworthy of your time in front of the entire world, well—"
"The problem might solve itself?"
"It's not entirely ethical, I suppose."
"It's not entirely practical. Even if it worked, we wouldn't be able to confiscate the notebook. Anyone could pick it up and resume the killing."
"Once the original owner is dead, the shinigami is free to leave, and according to Ryuk, extra Death Notes are quite rare. If the killer commits suicide, his shinigami will most likely take the notebook and return home."
"Leaving it free to try again with another human. That's no better than leaving the notebook here." Near's eyes narrowed. "Unless that's what you want?"
Light raised an eyebrow. "After everything I've done for you, you still don't trust me?"
"After everything you've done to me, it's a wonder I trust you as far as I do."
"Fair enough. Though I'd point out that risking a murder weapon as powerful as the Death Note falling into the hands of someone who doesn't share my ideals would have been out of character for me even when I still was Kira, so I have no reason at all to risk it now. That said, you took control of the notebooks last time, and a new one still cropped up. Seems to me you're just delaying the inevitable either way."
"Hm. I suppose that's true." Near set his stone beside one of Light's, removing it from the board. "I'll take it under consideration."
"Does that mean you want my help, or—?"
"It's your move."
As Light's eyes dropped to the board, Near seized the opportunity to study him. L's way and Light's way. Both logical, both flawed. He didn't have to choose between them—could use neither, or only part, or even both—but having the opinions to weigh was comforting. It gave him a starting point, at least. Synthesis, collaboration...that's my way. Roger wasn't wrong about that.
"Out of curiosity," Near asked at last, "if it had been a copycat—someone who shared your ideals, not just your weapon—would you still have helped me?"
Light was silent a moment, staring down at the board. At last, lips curved into a cryptic smirk, he raised his eyes to Near's. "An interesting thought. Though I suppose the real question is, if it had been a copycat, would you have asked my help in the first place?"
No. Near didn't voice his answer, but he did return the smirk. "A pleasure working with you, as always."
"Not yet, but soon. I just have to brief Lidner and Gevanni and contact Aizawa. We can play a full game after that."
"I see. Will you want me to save the board, then?"
"Don't bother. We both know you'll cheat while I'm gone."
"Some people would call that projection, Near."
"Some people clearly haven't seen you play Go."
Light snorted and placed a stone. "I'm a legally dead prisoner in a top-secret compound. People don't generally see me do anything."
"That doesn't negate my point."
"I'm not the one who said one of the perks of being L is getting to break the rules."
"Only because you're not L anymore."
"You're right, I'm not. You are." Light grinned. "Don't try to tell me you don't cheat, Near. You're L. Breaking rules is part of the job."
Near raised an eyebrow. "You would know, Second."
"So I would. Your move, Third."
With a huff, Near bent to study the board again, irked but gratified. In a few minutes, he'd be himself again: harried but dispassionate, the weight of the world secure between his shoulders. But as Near folded his hands over his mouth in contemplation, no one saw the World's Greatest Detective smile, his predecessor's words echoing in his thoughts:
I am L.
I am L.
I am L.