A/N: And the one-shot wonder returns! And ahead of schedule, even. So, here's an alternate take on post-canon Death Note, and I mean alternate as in from my previous fic, At Your Grave. We're not as heavy this time around, but still, a little tear warning goes out. It may happen.

This one was a little strange for me to write, as it is very heavy for dialogue, in fact it's dialogue based, as the title suggests. I usually hate writing dialogue, as it's one of my weak points, so this one was a little challenging. It's possible you might see a shonen-ai pairing for Mello/Near, (surprise), but it's just intended as friendship this time around. If you wanted, you could also spin a Matt/Near thing in here… but again, unintentional.

On top of having a dialogue challenge, this is also the first time I really got to play around with L. Seriously. So hopefully I've managed to keep him IC. … Blah! Enough rambling! On to the fic!

Warning: Spoilers! We are post-canon, so all my be revealed.

Disclaimer: Death Note and characters are © Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Title and ending quotes are © their respective owners, credits given in second A/N.

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Last Words

Raven Ehtar

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"Life is a dream, from which only death awakens us."

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Near knew that he was dreaming the moment he opened his eyes. He knew this for a few reasons. The first was that he appeared to be in one of Wammy's many common rooms, a bright summer sun shining in through the bay windows. The last place he remembered being was in Japan and Wammy's was in England. It had also been February when he had closed his eyes, so the bright light and peeks of green leafy trees outside the window were completely out of the proper timeline. Even if the discrepancies in place and time could be forgiven – which they could not – then there was the absence of dozens of children, either in the common room or outside the window to take into consideration. Wammy's was not what one could call full in the way of orphans, but there was always one or two within sight, getting underfoot and causing a ruckus. There was only one in this room that Near could see, and he was the focus of all of his attention, and the main reason he knew he must be dreaming.

The man in front of him was dead.

Red hair, a long and lanky frame thrown into a lazy sprawl on the floor, a pair of orange tinted goggles over his eyes, and a familiar striped shirt. This man – for he was a man, and not a child – was supposed to be dead, gunned down in Japan not three weeks ago by Kira supporters. But here he was, laying on his stomach and trying, unsuccessfully, to build a tower out of poker cards on the floor.

It was Matt, number three in line of succession to the title of L, best friend to Mello, and good friend to Near as well. He was one of the best hackers in the world before he had been killed, and quickly working his way to becoming the best. Also an incurable gamer, Near had trouble sometimes remembering him without a handheld consol or videogame controller in his hands. Hands that were now, very carefully and slowly, bringing two cards together in an apex, forming the first A-frame on the second level of a tower. He used too much force, however, and the whole thing shook apart, fluttering to the ground. "Ah, man…"

He looked over at Near, goggled eyes barely visible, and a rueful grin on his face. "I never understood how you could spend hours doing this, Near. It seemed so boring, just stacking or putting puzzles together. I think I get it now, though. You need that much time just to get it right." The grin widened even further, and the gamer pulled the goggles down to hang loosely around his neck. Murky green eyes sparkled mischievously in the sunlight from the window. "How's it goin'?"

Near didn't know what to think. He knew this was a dream, as there was no logical conclusion to be made that it was not a dream. However, he had never dreamt this vividly before. Everything was in place, from furniture and wastebaskets to the titles he could just make out on the bookshelves lining the wall. Dust motes floated through the air. The carpet was in some need of vacuuming. One of the pictures adorning the walls had the slightest tilt, in need of straightening. The atmosphere felt just like Wammy's, and the scents were all correct, crayons and dust and the faint suggestion of supper being prepared. And Matt himself was just as he had been in life. Near was never a very social person, but there were two people he could say he knew well enough to visualize without effort, and Matt was one of them.

Matt tilted his head at Near's hesitation, the grin never fading. He had known Near a long time, so probably understood the albino's confusion. "What's up, Near? Feelin' shy today?"

Near straightened imperceptibly, one hand rising to tangle itself in his hair. For anyone who knew him, and Matt certainly did, it was a sign of either deep thought or a distraction technique. "Merely curious, is all. Why would I be dreaming of Matt attempting to construct a card tower?"

Matt glanced at the wreckage that had been his experiment against gravity. The grin became lopsided. "Yeah, that would be kind of weird, huh? Quiet games like this were never my style." He shifted from his prone position on the floor and sat up, crossing his legs Indian style. He looked up at Near, eyes bright. His grin was gone, but the amusement was still in his face. "Seems doubtful that you would dream of me playing your kind of games. What does that say to you?"

Near considered. Dream interpretation was not his area of expertise, but that didn't mean he hadn't spent some time looking it over. It related to psychology, after all, and how the human brain worked and dealt with all it had gone through during the day, so study of the subject had been made. To dream of Matt was not unusual. They were friends, or had been friends while at Wammy's, and Near liked to think that the bond hadn't been completely dissolved after they had left. Matt had recently been killed in the fight against Kira, and thanks to his and Mello's actions, Near had been able to determine exactly how his prey was moving. A friend dying in sacrifice to you, intentional or not, was not such a strange thing to dream of. Why they were here at Wammy's was also an easy deduction, as this was where they had spent the most time together, and would be the most familiar setting for a dream to take place. But why would Matt not be playing his most familiar games as well? Why play with Near's style of game?

Near's first thought was that it could be his mind telling him that Matt had, in life, also been struggling to catch up to Near, to become number one in the line of succession. Playing a game that he clearly had no skill for, but that Near played as a day to day habit could be there to symbolize his attempt to emulate Near. Except that Near knew better. Matt wasn't the type to struggle for anything. Near had the suspicion that if he had truly cared about becoming the next L, he could have done it. The fact that he still remained number three for all his apathy just went to further convince Near of his untapped potential.

His next thought was that it was Near projecting onto Matt, trying to think of him as an even closer friend by giving him familiar playthings. That was also quickly discarded. Matt was a close enough friend, and having him play at cards didn't make him seem closer, it made him look ridiculous. Was it guilt, then? Nostalgia, loneliness, or anger? Was it just a random happening that occurred in dreams? He looked back up at Matt, who was waiting patiently for the younger man to work through the possibilities.

"Matt's behavior does not incur any plausible explanations. I can only assume that it is a random occurrence of my dreaming."

One of the redhead's brows lifted, his head tilting to the side. "Hmph. Only logical conclusions, huh? Still?"

The hint was not lost on Near, who frowned at the hacker. "Is Matt suggesting that this is a visitation?"

"Guess so," he said off-handedly. If there was ever a person who could act as though being visited from the other side was nothing more than pedestrian, it was Matt. "I don't blame you for being skeptical," he continued, flipping a few fallen cards. "I would be, too. A ghost visiting me in my dreams? Yeah, right…" The green eyes traveled back over to Near, not quite as light-hearted as they had been. "But consider what else we've been forced to believe over the last couple of months."

Kira, a notebook that fell from the sky and killed those whose names were written within it, shinigami, the specters of death… yes, it was all quite unbelievable. It was ridiculous, really, the kind of thing one would find in a gothic graphic novel, not newspapers. And yet, it was all true, every bit. For years, the world had been run by a set of rules that belonged in one of Matt's videogames, not life. So, was the idea that he could be visited by departed spirits so strange? In comparison to what had been happening in the world, it really did seem pedestrian. "I don't deny the possibility of such a thing," Near admitted, Matt still watching him. "I merely suggest that it is more likely my subconscious responsible for this scenario, rather than Matt's errant spirit."

Matt shrugged. "Can't really argue with that, and there's no real proof I can give you that I'm really here. I know I am, but that doesn't help you." The older man turned his head and looked out the window, teeth biting into his lower lip and fingers of his right hand drumming a tattoo on his knee. Near found himself smiling a little. Matt always did have to be doing something with his hands, whether it was his games, a keyboard, a set of dice… The hacker looked back at the detective, raising one brow. "How 'bout you just keep an open mind, then?" he said. "You don't have to believe that I'm here, but don't write me off out of hand."

Near considered, and then nodded curtly. "That seems a fair compromise." The small man walked over to where Matt sat, and settled into a crouch on the opposite side of the fallen cards. Slim fingers working quickly and precisely, he began gathering the small squares and stacking them neatly into a deck. His own need to do something with his hands had finally become too much, dream or no dream. "What is the purpose of this visitation?" he asked, not looking up from his task.

A second pair of hands came into Near's field of vision as Matt helped him gather. "Can't I just drop in on an old friend?" his tone was light, teasing again. "Who says there has to be a reason for it?"

The last card was put with its fellows, and Near straightened the deck carefully, lining up the edges. "From my somewhat limited knowledge in the area, disembodied spirits do not just 'drop in' without cause. There is usually something driving them to appear before the living." Near looked up, holding a Jack of hearts and a five of spades, taking in Matt's form. Every line of his posture spoke of idleness and the quiet kind of devil-may-care attitude that had always characterized the redhead. Near's expression became shrewd. "And knowing Matt's personality, it would have to be more driving than usual to get him to act, not less."

Matt laughed, a smooth and rolling sound that revealed two rows of white teeth. "True enough," he said around his mirth, shoulders shaking.

Cards were leaned together, pair after pair in quick succession by a set of pale fingers. Matt's hands were slower in their work, and the placement of his cards not as exact, but they did not fall. Some minutes passed before Near finally paused in his task to look at the older man. "Well?"

Matt didn't ask what he meant, just cocked his head, the familiar mischief shining in his eyes. "Can't you figure it out?"

Near huffed a frustrated sigh, turning back to their project, starting the second level. "Matt is at least strengthening his case that he is a spirit," he said with a touch of irritation. "My own subconscious has never been this stubborn."

Matt just laughed again at Near's display. Not many people ever saw the stoic male show much in the way of reaction to anything. Matt had been one of the few, and he had been as amused then as he was now.

Near thought about it, carefully placing his cards. There were thousands of cases, anecdotal evidence of spirits, and very little scientific. Of those that could be said to have referred to the friendlier brand of visitor, there were many different tales to choose from. However, there was one overriding theme they all had in common. "There is some parting message that Matt did not have the opportunity to deliver in life, and so he decides to give it now?"

A pair of aces was set delicately into place before Matt answered. For all his care, he almost set their monument tumbling. "Something along those lines, yeah."

"It is unlikely to be about the Kira case," Near said thoughtfully, working through the logic verbally. "That seems to have wrapped up adequately. There are some new cases being brought to my attention, but Matt would have no personal stake in any of them, as far as I am aware…"

The redhead snorted, nearly jostling the cards to the floor again. He steadied them as he answered Near's unspoken question. "C'mon, Near. You really think I'm going to come all the way here to give you a clue for a case? You already doubt if I'm real, so why would I give a hint if you wouldn't believe it?"

"Good point," Near conceded.

"So. Not something work related, it's gotta be personal, right?"

It was Near's turn to tilt his head. "A personal message?"

Matt nodded. He looked at their growing tower of balanced cards, his expression becoming thoughtful, and the murky greens even cloudier. The tower was not as uniform as Near's usual constructions. Here and there were signs of less experienced hands, the lines a little more haphazard. No taking his gaze away from the tower, Matt spoke softly. "Do you think they meant for us to come out like this? Thinking that everything is a game?" The eyes flicked back up to Near, who was watching the gamer closely. "I mean, it seems kind of irresponsible to me, raising a bunch of kid geniuses to act selfishly and to think of life as just play."

Near just shrugged at Matt's observation, taking up another pair of cards and positioning them. "If it results in achieving our goal, then I see no reason to regard it as anything more than a detail."

The older man regarded the younger out of the corners of his eyes. "What about compassion, Near? Care and sympathy, are they just details, too?"

"In most cases, they are unnecessary," Near said, still working with the cards. "In fact, such feelings could cloud one's judgment and reasoning, resulting in a loss."

"… Like with Mello?"

Near's hands came to an abrupt stop, bumping a supporting pair of cards and shaking the entire structure apart. Matt waited until the avalanche of suits settled before continuing, not acknowledging the detective's rare slip. "Mello was a game, too," he said quietly. "Though if he ever found out, he'd have skinned us both. You can't tell me that that 'game' was without compassion." Green eyes pierced through the albino. "That's why I played, and I know that's why you played, too."

The game. The game that had started soon after a certain blond boy had first arrived at Wammy's, sprung up between the two top students as entertainment. Near and Matt had seen that the new arrival was troubled, haunted by whatever lurked in his past, as many others at the orphanage were. The challenge to draw Mello as far away from that past as possible had begun only as a new kind of exercise. A new way to test their skills. As the three boys came to know each other, and spend time in each other's company, though… it became personal.

"Yes…" the albino said, voice just barely more than a whisper. "And the result was far from satisfactory."

"Near, there's a good chance that what happened couldn't have been changed. Don't you dare blame yourself for Mello's death."

Near shook his head. "It was because of my miscalculation that Mello left Wammy's. There should have been a way to prevent him from leaving."

He remembered that day, when he and Mello had been called into Roger's office, and told that L had been killed by Kira. He remembered Mello's reaction, his escalating anger and grief. He remembered what he had said; attempting to call Mello back, to calm him… but it had only pushed him further away.

"If you can't win the game… If you can't solve the puzzle… Then you're just a loser."

Matt was speaking, calling Near back from his memories. "L's death hit Mello hard. I doubt any scenario would have had him staying close. You know how he is. Always full-throttle, never taking time to think things through as he should."

Near did not respond.

"I'm as much, if not more to blame," Matt said, leaning back on his hands. The lanky spirit watched as his friend seemed to draw away into himself. It was his usual defense mechanism; he's used it even as a child. Retreat, hide, and internalize. "I was there; I was with him when he came up with that crazy idea to grab Takada. I should have seen what he really had planned. It should have been glaringly obvious, and I should have come to you."

That shook Near out of his thoughts, and he looked up. "Mello deliberately planned to sacrifice himself?"

"Yeah. Stupid Mello…" Matt scowled, his voice trailing off. Mello had been his best friend, but he had still been left out of the blonde's plans. The reasoning was understandable, but it still hurt. "Prideful to the end," he said loudly, covering his stinging feelings, "and stubborn as hell. Kinda like you, you know?" The dead hacker managed a small lopsided grin to accompany the jibe.

Near snorted lightly, not denying his proposed traits. "Matt as well."

Matt widened his eyes and a hand came up in feigned innocence. "Me? Stubborn I'll own, but prideful? Only over my games and my mad hacking skills, man."

For a minute neither man spoke. It was an awkward moment where neither was quite sure which way the conversation would progress, or in what state they would be in when they arrived. For a moment, they just paused, gathering their thoughts.

Near considered everything that had just been said, the emotion and thoughts it had stirred up. On the surface it was surprising that he was responding so easily to such small statements and prods, but this was a dream. The walls that he had built up over the years meant to keep the tribulations of the outside world out and leave his logic composed, were failing miserably. This was a dream, and the trouble was already inside with him. There were no barriers to hide behind.

"… It does not surprise me," he said finally, beginning to collect the cards again, "that Mello would put himself in danger for the sake of the Kira case. It does surprise me that he would sacrifice Matt in the endeavor."

Matt shrugged again, watching as the cards were stacked neatly in a pile. "I don't think he intended that. If there were any miscalculations on his part, that was it. And I was reckless, I got myself trapped."

Yes, the car chase. Matt had been skillful in avoiding his pursuers, but in a city where he was the stranger, the ones chasing had the advantage, and cut him off. That had been Matt's 'miscalculation'. Funny how for all three of them, the ones most hurt by their mistakes were each other. "There is much I am willing to forgive Mello for," the younger man said quietly, "but that would be the line. No amount of compassion would have allowed me to forgive him if he had deliberately sacrificed Matt as well."

There was another brief pause. "Even if I had agreed to it?"

Near looked up from his card gathering to find himself under an uncharacteristically intense green stare. He gazed back as steadily, grays refusing to give ground to the more colorful pair. "Yes. Even then."

Matt smiled lightly, the intensity of his gaze dropping several notches at once. "That's sweet, Near."

Near looked away from the specter of his friend, straightening an already perfectly straight pack as an excuse. It was hard to look at Matt and not be reminded of the times they had shared as children, just the two of them and with Mello as well. It was painful to think about, to be faced with, and he wished he still had his shields. "Is this Matt's purpose for visiting me, to tell me that I am not responsible for Mello's death?"

With his eyes averted, Near couldn't see it, but he could tell by the tone of his voice that Matt's smile had widened to a grin. "So you accept me as real, and not just a dream?"

"I consider the possibility."

"Good enough." Near heard Matt shift, and risked another look up. The redhead was staring up at the ceiling, as though trying to remember what he had come to say. It would be typical of him, even dead, to forget something like that. "I guess you could say that was a highlight. I don't want to see you 'in person', so to speak, for a long time. Beating yourself up over this will do you no good, and no one still alive knows how to read you properly. We did, but…" Matt's gaze met Near's again, and the younger man forced himself not to look away. "You just have to watch yourself, now that we aren't there to shake you out of yourself."

Near nodded, accepting Matt's clarification. If that was just a highlight, though, then there was more. "And?"

Matt sighed, eyes softening and dropping to the carpeted floor. "And… I wanted to say that I'm sorry." He shook his head sharply, jagged red bangs falling foreword. "I tried, I really did for once, and everything came out wrong."

Near smiled, hoping Matt could hear it. "I may remind Matt of the advice he gave me not two minutes ago. Teach by example."

Matt chuckled. It wasn't the full laugh of a few minutes ago, but a rueful kind of snicker. He glanced up, and Near caught a glimmer of over-bright green through red lashes. "… I miss you, Near," he said softly. "With any luck, I'll miss you for a long time, but… I miss you."

There was a sudden prickling behind Near's eyes, and a constricting in his throat. He bit at the inside of his lip, distracting himself with the pain, surprised that it didn't wake him up. When he trusted himself to speak, his voice was low to keep it from breaking. "I miss you, too."

Matt smiled, and pushed off of his hands. He leaned toward Near until their foreheads came together with a little bump, red hair and white mingling to the color of a dark rosé wine. Matt leaned some of his weight against Near, who matched him until they were supporting each other. With eyes closed, Matt murmured, "Promise me that you'll take care of yourself, alright? You're only human, and that's okay."

Near exhaled. It might have been a breathy laugh, or just a sigh. "Given that Matt may be a construction of my own guilt and loneliness, such a promise may be insubstantial… but I promise."

He felt, more than saw, Matt's lips curve upwards. "Thank you, Nate."

"You are welcome, Mail."

For awhile they just rested together, absorbing what they could while the dream lasted. Near allowed himself to slowly relax, his shields, such as they were by this point, lowering even further. He chanced a glance up through the pinkish haze of comingled bangs, searching for proof that this was his friend, and not just a product of grief. The whispered words were past his lips before he could recall them:

"I don't want to wake up."

Again, that crooked smile and green sparkle that reminded Near of lazy summer afternoons spent on Wammy's lawn, spread in the shade of trees and playing board games. Of autumn evenings in the dusty attics, searching for something to occupy their wandering minds. Of winter nights when they had stayed up until dawn, huddled under blankets like natives, working their way through Matt's videogame collection.

Reaching up, Matt tweaked the young detective's nose between his fingers.

"I didn't, either."

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Near wasn't sure what he had expected as he felt the dream begin to shift around him. Perhaps to wake up, finding himself back in familiar surroundings of his headquarters in Japan, maybe for the dream to continue on to scenes less understandable but more typical of the dreamscape…

He hadn't expected to find himself sitting in a plush couch of an extravagant hotel room. To his left the entire wall was taken up with monitors, each flickering with different images, secret glimpses on people's lives. To his right were a few computers, also glowing with electronic life, their wires tangled and snarled under the desks like a nest of snakes. Directly in front of him was a long, low coffee table set out with a wide assortment of food and drink: all sweet. Cups of coffee and black tea, each with stacks of sugar cubes standing precariously balanced beside them, cups filled with even more of the squared sweets, dozens of chocolate bars, boxes of doughnuts, bowls of ice cream topped with syrup and nuts, plate after plate of cake, plastic cups of several different types of pudding, a large serving plate of sliced fruit, jars of jelly and jam, bowls of mixed candies… it was a dentist's nightmare.

It was all background to Near. What took up his field of vision was the man perched on the sofa across from him, opposite the mountain of refined glucose. Hair a blue-black and shaggy mess, skin an almost pasty pale with light purple rings under eyes as forgiving and readable as wells, a baggy white shirt that threatened to slip off of the thin shoulders, worn blue jeans, and a pair of bare feet sunk deep into the sofa's cushions, toes rubbing together absently. He leaned his lean frame forward, reaching around his own knees, which were brought up close to his chest, to pluck up a cluster of sugar cubes with his long fingers and drop them into one of the cups of coffee. He stirred the sweetened liquid with a spoon held between the tips of forefinger and thumb.

Picking up the cup with those same digits, as though afraid the porcelain would impart some kind of contaminant grime onto him if he were to risk more contact, he took a noisy sip. Only after the cup was replaced to its saucer and a stray drop of coffee licked away from the corner of the man's mouth did those deep voids for eyes meet Near's.

"Hello, Near."

Near felt his breathing stall for a second. This was L, the best detective the world had ever known, and his predecessor. He had only ever met the man a few times in his life, and those had been when he was much younger, but L was the kind of person that stuck in your mind after meeting him. "L…"

"I believe Matt has already spoken with you."

The young detective nodded, gathering his scattered thoughts. Yes, this was L, the man he idolized and strove to become, but this was still a dream. If nothing else, he had to remember that. "Yes, he has."

The spoon was picked up again, and used to transport a lone sugar cube from the cup to the elder man's mouth. He spoke around the sweet, not waiting until after he swallowed to continue the conversation, as had been his habit in life. "Had he convinced you of our reality, or do you still believe this to be merely a dream?"

"There is sufficient evidence to contend either theory, but nothing conclusive."

The silver spoon twirled slowly in L's fingers. "What do you believe?" L asked, his monotone voice working to further settle Near back into his rational thought patterns. "What does your instinct tell you?"

His instinct? So much for trying to stay purely logical… "That you are truly a spirit," he said, voice flat, "somehow inserted into my dream state. However, there is quite a lot to argue against it as well, and I cannot simply believe with no evidence."

"Very good," L said, his own voice devoid of any discernable inflection. "Instincts are a powerful tool to the detective, allowing you to make deductions by leaps and bounds. But to do so wantonly invites disaster. Instinct," he said, jabbing the spoon toward Near for emphasis, "tempered by logic. Do not forget." The spoon flipped, and L used it to trace a swirling, wandering pattern in the white frosting of a nearby cake.

Near watched, waiting for more from the reclusive spirit. The atmosphere here was very different from what he had experienced when he had been with Matt, which was to be expected. Near and Matt had known each other since early childhood, and had spent time in each others' company practically every day. There was familiarity, camaraderie with Matt. With L, it almost felt like being called back to his days as a student, relearning his lessons. He had been finished with those for years, and it rankled a little to be spoken to as though he were a child again.

As L showed no sign of giving up his game of doodling in the frosting, Near broke the silence. "Is that the extent of the message?"

L looked up, "Message?"

"Matt led me to believe that I was being visited for the delivery of personal messages. Is this not true for L?"

"Hmm…" L leaned back, licking the spoon clean of its frosting before resting the metal against his lower lip. "There are many things I could tell you, pertaining to your new title and what you may expect… but no." He stretched forward again, putting his spoon down with a clatter and taking up a large glazed doughnut with his fingers. "I have no message to convey on my own behalf. I am here to answer a question." A large bite was taken from the doughy confectionary, and mercifully swallowed before L finished his thought. "I believe you had one for me?"

Near didn't even need to think it over. While there were many questions he could have asked his mysterious predecessor, there was only one that was important enough to him to warrant a spiritual visit. "Was it intentional?"

"You refer to the non-decision that was a decision." The raven head tilted. "Or was it a decision that was no decision at all?"

"That is precisely what I am asking," Near replied, gritting his teeth quietly.

"It was entirely intentional."

Near blinked at the direct response. "Why? To what gain?"

Again, Near felt as though he were back in the classroom when L responded with: "Why do you think? Reason! If I had chosen you over Mello, what would have happened?"

"Exactly what did happen," Near replied without hesitation. "Mello would have left the institution, and I would have been left with the title."

"With the added effect of Mello harboring a great deal more resentment toward you than he did." Another bite was taken from the doughnut, leaving a smudge of glaze across one cheek. "Mello," he said around the mouthful, not swallowing first this time, "gave the title to you himself, and so also had himself to blame for any situation he found himself in from that point on."

The younger detective waited until L finished his mouthful before speaking again, hoping to avoid seeing any more of L's food in the process of being eaten. "I fail to see any practical application of that."

L looked up. "Oh? Well, in that state, he was still able to come back to you. He may not, and as it turned out he didn't, but the probability was significantly higher than if he completely blamed you for all."

"Or you."

"Or me," L conceded.

"And if L had picked Mello over me, he would have taken it, with no intention of accepting any aid." It was all so ridiculously simple, sitting here in front of L. Was it all falling into place because this was a dream, or was it L's spirit - if that's what it was - that had everything clicking over so easily?

"Indeed. Even if you offered your assistance, he may have refused simply to feel he held that power over you." L tilted his head to the side, wide eyes almost accusing. "I realize now that the three of you were closer friends than you ever let on, but I still feel this to be a reasonable hypothesis."

Near nodded, L was right. For how close Near and Matt had been, and in turn Matt and Mello, for Near and Mello there was always tension. There was not quite the level of hatred that everyone always assumed there was, but… it was never relaxed between them. "And if L had stated that we were both to act as his replacement?"

L paused, hand halfway to another sugar loaded snack on the table, the doughnut abandoned. "I must admit, I considered doing just that for quite awhile. Each of you had traits that the other lacked; you would have complimented each other very well." A melon cube was plucked up and consumed, the juices licked away from his fingers.

"L did not believe we could work together, if told that was how he wished his legacy handled?"

The raven head shook. "No. You were both raised to be competitive. Perhaps too competitive," he added in an undertone. "I am sure that it would have strained any kind of working relationship you might have had."

Near twisted a lock of hair behind his ear thoughtfully, watching the supposed spirit as he worked his way through the colorful foodstuffs. "Even with the new understanding of our friendship?"

"Yes."

The smaller man leaned back slightly into the soft supporting cushions. "So the deliberate neglect to choose an heir…"

"It was the most promising option," L said, gulping down a mouthful of tea. "With no confirmation either way, there would still be competition, but competition that could drive you both higher, rather than tear you down from the inside." The detective paused to drain his cup, and then set it back carefully on the table. "It was the least of available evils."

The hand in Near's hair tugged at the strands painfully. "I understand."

Dark eyes in a pale face swiveled and locked with Near's. "But you do not approve."

"No."

L nodded curtly, as though expecting the answer he received. "Understandable. And regrettable that events have turned out as they did."

L turned his attention fully to the table, then, seemingly dismissing the younger man sitting across from him in favor of indulging his sweet tooth. Near, rather than watch as several pounds worth of confectionary were consumed in the space of minutes, turned to look at the bank of monitors, which had been flickering in his peripheral vision the entire time. There were approximately two dozen screens, each showing differing scenes, occasionally flipping to a fresh image. What they showed appeared random, but as Near watched, he realized that some of the screens showed bits and pieces of his own memories: his old room at Wammy's, an elaborate domino mosaic, the image of Matt and Mello playing through a window, the first time he had met the members of the SPK…

The other images were unfamiliar, but it became apparent that they were things that L himself had seen or experienced. One screen showed a middle-aged man with a mustache that Near knew as Quillish Wammy, viewed as though the camera were on or near the floor, looking up at the man. A few showed scenes of children running back and forth, or faces up close, most likely past possible successors. One screen showed the inside of a sterile jail cell, a badly scarred man with black hair and… red eyes, shouting at the camera, though there was no sound to go with the image. Another showed Light Yagami, who later proved to be Kira, sitting in a chair and typing at a computer, a silver cuff around one wrist and a chain leading towards the camera…

Near blinked and shook his head. If he let himself, he could easily watch those screens for hours. L was still picking through the assortment of foods absently.

"Is this all?" Near asked, calling the older man's attention back to him.

L didn't bother to look up from the small pattern of red and blue candies he was making when he answered. "As I have said, there are many things that I could say to aid you in the task of becoming the new L, but I will not. You have had your preparation during your stay at Wammy's House, and your involvement in the Kira case has given you a good start in real world problems. There's nothing that I could tell you that you do not already know, or will know without my intervention."

Near didn't speak, but waited until L pulled himself away from his game, and trained his charcoal eyes on him.

"So," he said, businesslike, "with no new information to give you, I have a reminder. The title of L will come with a great deal of stress and responsibility, as you know. You will be tempted to withdraw into yourself as a way to cope, but you cannot allow yourself to withdraw completely." He shifted slightly, toes curling in the cushions. "To function efficiently and effectively, you will have to use those instincts of yours', and you cannot do that from behind a shield. It is perfectly acceptable to experience your cases on a human level."

A small smile made its way onto Near's face. "Matt said something very similar."

L returned the smile, spinning a spoon between spidery fingers. "Which is why this is a reminder, and not fresh information."

-------

The dream shifted again, and Near suspected what was coming next. He was also almost completely convinced that this dream of his genuinely had been invaded by spirits. No other dream of his had ever been so vivid, smooth, or coherent. Dreams were places where things like linear time and location were optional at best, and while Near seemed to be time traveling from place to place, once in a certain location, everything solidified and stabilized.

If he were to believe that what he saw and heard here was the product of some kind of spiritual puppetry, then it added a great deal more weight to the whole situation.

It also made what he foresaw as the next visitation much more alarming.

He was outside. It was early evening, the lowering sun sending long, reaching shadows of trees across a manicured lawn, the sky's shade deepening from a fine-weather blue to a rich azure. A small breeze gusted past Near, chilling him slightly and bringing him the scent of a wood fire. It was probably just coming on to autumn, from the feel of things. He also appeared to be on the back lawn of Wammy's. To his left was the building, a tall and intimidating structure of brick, to his right was nothing but open lawn and some trees in the distance, and directly in front of him was one of the many small playgrounds Wammy's kept for its wards.

Near scanned it all carefully. If his surmise were correct, then there was one more person likely to make an appearance. He looked all along the side of the building, in the swings of the playground, in amongst the poles of the jungle gym, and in between the far trees, but could not find the figure he was searching for. He began to relax slightly, starting to believe that he had finally lapsed into a more normal dream state.

Behind him, he heard a splashing, and tensed again. It was a constant sound, a soft, repetitive plash-plash-plash that had gone unnoticed because its consistency relegated it to mere background. Near turned slowly, and saw that the sound came from a fountain, continuously spewing water from its center to fall and be collected in the stone basin.

It was a large fountain, which had been dismantled years before Near had left the orphanage. It was large enough that the dark body resting on the lip of it could stretch out on its back, arms folded and bolstering its head, one leg also laid out across the stone, the other bent, foot resting on the gravel strewn ground.

Mello. Of course.

He was, for the most part, as he had appeared the last time Near had seen him, just before he died. Body long and wiry, hair raggedly cut but still as straight as in his youth, the russet scar masking half of his face… the only difference Near could see from this Mello and the one from before was the clothing, which more closely resembled what he had worn as a child. Still form fitting and black, but no longer leather, it looked like cotton. To protect him from the chill of wind and hear sucking stone, he also wore a black, zip-up hooded sweatshirt, lined, Near saw, with white.

Mello must have felt eyes on him, but he didn't take his gaze away from the darkening sky over him as he greeted his visitor as he always had: "Near."

Near's hand immediately went to his hair. "Mello."

A minute passed in silence before Mello rolled his head to the side to look at Near, his eyes looking light in his face without the perpetual scowl he used to wear. He smirked at the pale detective. "So, how's life?"

Near felt as though the proverbial rug had been pulled out from under him. That was not the attitude he had been expecting from Mello. Caught off guard, all he could think of to reply with was: "Mello's attempt at humor is in poor taste."

The blond man sat up with a grunt, curling one leg into a half-lotus, his smirk still in place. "Still no sense of humor, eh?"

Near tried to maintain something of a poker face, but was finding it difficult with this non-confrontational version of Mello. "My appreciation for comedy is as well developed as any," he said. "I merely point out that Mello's morbid joke was less than appropriate."

Mello's smirk widened into a full grin, revealing sharp teeth and pulling at the scarred skin oddly. "So glad you agree with me, then."

The albino gave up his poker face and scowled. Mello only chuckled.

"Mello seems very… nonchalant, considering the circumstances." Near hoped he didn't sound as petulant as he thought he did.

"Yeah," the blond said, pulling at the hem of his black and white sweatshirt and shaking it out a little. "Death's not got a lot going for it, but one thing I will say is that it puts things in perspective."

"Perspective?" Near asked, tugging at his hair.

The foot hanging free kicked, heel striking the stone of the fountain on each backswing. "Mm. You know, that thing you always insisted I never had any of."

Near sighed, letting his hand drop away from his hair. In a way, Mello was behaving as he always had, doing his best to get under Near's skin. The only difference was that he was controlling himself and attempting understatement. Near was slightly ashamed to realize that it was working better than anything else Mello had ever tried. "This is what Mello has chosen to share with me on his visit to the land of the living?" he asked, impatience seeping into his tone. "His newfound 'perspective'?"

Mello raised an eyebrow, taking note of Near's timbre and expression. "Who says I'm here to share anything with you?"

"Matt has already tried that ploy, Mello. Visitations do not occur without good reason."

"Ah, yes," Mello leaned back on his hands, torso hanging out over the splashing water, looking contemplative. "There must be some kind of 'driving force' for spirits to reveal themselves to the living." He cocked his head at Near, his countenance taking on a touch of its former iciness. "But that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be important for you. My reasons may be completely selfish, and still be enough motivation to bring me here."

Near felt oddly comforted by that familiar chill turned on him. Now it felt like he could think properly. "That still leaves us with the question of what that motive is, selfish or not. Why is Mello here?"

"Clever little Near, never to be distracted from his course." He gave the younger man a brief look as full of resentment as when they had been children, when life had revolved around exam scores and rank, and every little weakness in their opponent was noted and exploited. Then it was gone, evaporated, and Mello shrugged carelessly. "Let's just say I've come to check up on you. See how you're doing on new cases, if you've been keeping busy."

Near stared blankly for a second before returning the shrug, at a loss. "New cases come in every day," he said, unable to think of any reply other than the truth. "There have been several related to supposed Kira copycats, or groups of Kira supporters still causing trouble. Several governments are requesting assistance with-"

"Chicken shit, Near," Mello interrupted, a sneer twisting his features. "That's all those are, and you know it. You'd be wasting your talents on those idiots if you did more than put their requests through the shredder as soon as they came in. Please tell me you have something more promising than those."

"It's no game when it comes to the welfare of others, Mello."

Mello snorted. "Since when? You, Matt and I probably know better than anyone, even L, that everything is a game. People included."

Near paused, thinking about Matt and L, both of whom had thought of life as a game, and who died because they each made a small miscalculation in their strategies. He looked at Mello; according to Matt, he had sacrificed himself on purpose. Was it just because he saw it all as a game, and didn't care? Had it meant nothing more than strategy? "Recent events lead me to think otherwise," he said mildly.

Blond hair tossed back and forth as Mello shook his head. "Didn't they teach you anything at Wammy's, or were you too full of yourself to take anything in? Life is a game, to be won or lost."

"… And Mello lost."

"Did I?" Again, that look somewhere between ice and acid. "Did I, really? See, here's the funny thing about life, Near: No on lives through it. Sure, I died, and so will you, eventually." The eyes narrowed to slits. "But did I really lose?"

Had he? His overall goal had been to outdo Near, and prove that he was better, the most worthy to succeed L and take over his legacy. The Kira case had just been the medium to reach that goal. By his death, by forcing Teru Mikami's hand to write his true name in the real Death Note, he had simultaneously saved Near and his team from a fatal blunder and provided them with proof to convict Light Yagami. He had done what Near could not, saving his life in the process. By his own standards and guidelines, Mello had finally won their private contest.

But had it really just been a game?

"Did Mello want to die?"

The splashing of the fountain suddenly seemed very loud, the breeze chillier as it pierced through flimsy cloth and into flesh. Mello turned his head away, looking off into the outlying tree line with a distant look on his face. Near watched him as his expression shifted across a small spectrum, from thoughtful to sorrowful to irritated, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the lip of the fountain. "I'll admit," he finally said, still looking away from Near, "as things progressed, I did crave that release." A brief, sardonic smile flickered over his face. "You'll never know how many times my gun looked like an invitation, or how many times Matt saved me. Talking me down, just being there…" His chin lifted, taking in the deepening blue, his eyes tiny pools reflecting back pieces of the sky. "Yes. I did want to die, and I had for a long time."

It wasn't a surprise. He hadn't expected Mello to make such an extreme move to win their little competition without some kind of ulterior motive. He was passionate, but he wasn't a martyr. "Did Mello use it?"

Blue eyes slid back over to Near's gray ones. "The Note, I suppose you mean?" Near nodded. "No. I might have craved death, but I'd rather hold onto my soul."

Near released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He supposed, if he believed that this really was Mello's spirit speaking with him, then he shouldn't have been concerned, but there was always room for doubt wherever Mello was concerned.

Mello hopped up from the fountain, his boots crunching in the gravel, and dusted himself odd fastidiously. "Now my turn to ask a question," he said, not quite so somber. He came closer to Near, reminding the younger man just how short he was. When only an arm's length away he dug into a back pants pocket, pulling out a small rectangle and holding it out for Near's inspection. "Remember this little item?"

It was a photo of a young boy. He had fine, angular features, only somewhat softened by the lingering presence of baby fat, serious blue eyes, under which were the beginnings of dark circles. His hair was straight and blond, cut neatly just over his eyes and at shoulder length. He wore a loose black shirt and the merest suspicion of a smile. Behind him, framing him on either side, were two large deciduous trees, their leaves tinged with yellow and gold.

Near stared at it much longer than necessary. He recognized it immediately; after all, he'd held onto it for five years. "Mello's photo…"

"Uh-huh." His fingers twirled, and the photo flipped around, hiding the boy and revealing the white back, perfectly clean save two words. "'Dear Mello'," the blond man read the words out for Near. His tone was flat, revealing nothing as to what he was feeling. "You wrote this on the back of it."

Near only nodded.

An eyebrow arched elegantly, "Why?"

Gray eyes locked with blue, doing their best to glare while appearing unaffected. It wasn't working very well. "The most obvious explanation would be that it is a message."

"Two words, directly in the center. Did you ever mean to write any more?"

"No. Mello has the entire message."

"Hmm." Mello turned the photo back around and looked at the back carefully, as though expecting the words to have changed while Near read them. "Dear Mello…" He glanced up, a hint of another smirk lurking in the corners of his mouth. "Almost out of character for you, Near, but at the same time, it's you all over."

Mello looked over his shoulder suddenly, like he'd heard something, and seemed to survey the entire scene before him. He tucked the photo into a pocket in the white lining of his sweatshirt, and spoke to Near without turning back to face him. "You'll be waking up. Soon. Anything else you got on your chest you'd better say now."

Near started. Already? That was barely any time, he'd had much more with both Matt and L, why was his time with Mello so short? He thought, searching for anything he still wanted to say to the explosive blond, and only came up with one thing. "Why?"

Mello still didn't turn to look at the albino, but watched something in the distance. "Why? That's pretty vague, Near. Why what?"

"Why the way Mello died…"

He scoffed, tossing his head and finally looking back at Near. "And they called you number one," he mocked. "To win. To win the game, the only sure way to get Kira and-"

"No!" Near surprised himself as well as Mello with his shout, finally giving into the rising frustration. It was a frustration he had felt often while awake, thinking over Mello's motivations. Faced with Mello himself, and without the benefit of his shields, he was losing his composure. He glared at the black clad man that had been both rival and friend in life, not caring about the incredulous look he got in return. "There's always more than one way," he growled. "You could have come to me, Mello. We could have planned and caught the lot of them, and you and Matt would still be alive! You… you gave up."

He could feel the treacherous sting behind his eyes, the constricting of his throat that threatened to choke his words. Near ground his teeth and dropped his head, staring at his feet. Shields or no shields, there were some things he refused to show, and if he maintained his stare down with Mello, the older man would see and recognize the brightness of Near's eyes. He would not give Mello that satisfaction.

He didn't hear Mello come close, didn't notice his proximity until he felt a pair of arms wrapping around his shoulders and pulling him up against Mello's body. Near froze in the embrace, feeling Mello's chin coming to rest on top of his head. Mello had never hugged him before. It was oddly… comforting.

"I'm sorry," Mello murmured over his head, sounding sincere. "For leaving you alone, with no one to fight with or to watch over you. I guess I'm still as selfish as ever."

"Yes, you are."

The arms around him tightened slightly, the chin in his hair shifted to Mello's cheek, his breath ruffling the younger man's curls. "Sorry," he whispered.

Mello didn't let go or make any move to step away. After a minute, feeling awkward with his arms limp by his sides, Near hooked them under Mello's, resting his hands on the older man's shoulders. Mello didn't object, and Near began to relax.

"Are you happy, where you are?" Near asked into the black fabric pressed against his face.

Mello shrugged, the movement taking Near's hands up with them. "Sure," he said, still speaking into Near's hair. "It's better than where I was. I'm not quite as… unstable anymore, and Matt and L are here. There's only one real thing that I miss." Mello pulled back and caught Near's chin between strong fingers, forcing him to look up into Mello's face. There was no teasing there, now. No sarcasm, no irritation, no resentment, and no humor, only intensity was left. Near blinked at it.

"I had better continue to miss it for a good long while, understand?"

Near didn't trust himself to speak again, just nodded as best he could while Mello held his chin elevated. Satisfied, Mello released him and brought him close again, while Near buried his face into the folds of Mello's black and white jacket.

Near gave up the pretense of distance, and held on as tightly as he could, crushing the older man into him while Mello returned the pressure ounce for ounce, making it hard to breathe. He held on, willing Mello to stay, willing himself to stay asleep, to remain where those closest to him still breathed. He could feel it slipping, though. He could sense that lightening around the edges of his consciousness, that familiar feeling of the current reality giving away to the larger, more prevailing one.

Slowly, Near's arms began to draw in. Not because he was pressing tighter, but because there was less to hold on to. Mello was beginning to fade, his already slight frame ebbing away like sand in the tide.

Near's arms were practically laying across his own chest, palms clasped at his shoulders, when Mello whispered into his ear. Near kept his eyes closed, afraid of what he might see, and afraid that if he opened them, he would wake.

Against his ear, three words in a ghostly breath. "Vergiss mich nicht."

Near shivered, feeling the last ties of sleep decay and snap, and dug his fingers into his own shoulders cruelly, the pain only speeding him to waking. Speeding him away from Mello, from L and Matt, from Wammy's and the memories, hurrying him back to his body, to his bed and his warm blankets; sending him sprawling from one dream into a much longer one. Holding on desperately to the last threads of sleep, he returned the whisper with one of his own.

"Nie."

-------

"Sleep now, and dream
Of the ones who came before.
They are calling
From across a distant shore.

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see.
All of your fears will pass away.
Safe in my arms,
You're only sleeping.

And all will turn
To silver glass.
A light on the water.
All souls pass.

Don't say,
'We have come now to the end.'
White shores are calling.
You and I will meet again.
And you'll be here, in my arms,
Just sleeping."

-------

A/N2: So, tears? I did a little. Why do I always write sad stuff?! I have to write something upbeat soon, or you'll all think I'm emo or something… T-T

References and Credits:

Title quote: This is from the play La Vida es Sueño, (Life is a Dream), by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Rather famous play that takes a look at the human condition and the reality of life.

End quote: This is a set of selected lyrics from the song Into the West by Annie Lennox for the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. This song has a lot of meaning for me, and I thought it fit the story rather well. I recommend a listen to anyone who is brave… it makes me cry, (but I'm a crybaby).

Vergissmeinnicht: This is a German word meaning 'forget me not'. From what I understand this means both the turn of phrase and the flower. There's no real logic as to why this particular word popped up, other than I was listening to a German song, and this word was repeated several times. I happened to be writing out the Mello/Near conversation at the time, so it just got spliced in. I know Mel is Russian, but German seems like one of those languages he would know. The word Near used, 'Nie' means 'Never'. The song that inspired this was Vergissmeinnicht (heh) by Eisbrecher. Again, I recommend a listen. It doesn't fit the fic, but it's a cool song.
Update: This has been changed since the initial posting, as a reviewer has pointed out to me that the single word 'vergissmeinnicht' is just the flower, and not the statement. That has been fixed, so now we have 'vergiss mich nicht' instead. (Such a poor linguist, Raven.) Thank you so much for pointing that out Mia!

The friendships: Kay, hopefully they were explained out well enough here, but in case anyone is confused about the relationships of the three boys, it's the same set-up I had in At Your Grave, and that's just starting out in Ghostly. It's explained some more in both of those, so if there's any confusion, check 'em out. (hint, wink, nudge)

Thanks go out to everyone who has read, and to those who are steadily becoming regular visitors! The support is appreciated, loved, adored, and cherished!