A/N: The material of chapters 1-3 has now all been combined into one chapter, as of August 16, 2010. New material starts in chapter 2. Sorry for any confusion. Thank you so much to my beautiful beta reader Meiyl, who thought up some excellent wordings in a couple of places and helped clean up everything. Disclaimer: The story and characters of Death Note were created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
A/N: The material of chapters 1-3 has now all been combined into one chapter, as of August 16, 2010. New material starts in chapter 2. Sorry for any confusion.
Thank you so much to my beautiful beta reader Meiyl, who thought up some excellent wordings in a couple of places and helped clean up everything.
Disclaimer: The story and characters of Death Note were created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
1. Black Friday
Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day. I'm not at all sorry I spent it in my room with the shades drawn, smoking, playing video games and completing odd hacking jobs—after all, that's how I've spent every day for the past year and a half. Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to affirm their sweet family bonds, go to overpacked parades, and stuff their faces. I've lived most of my life in Winchester, England, I've never had a family, I hate crowds, and the only food I have in my apartment is a few cans of instant soup and some moldy apples. Can you tell I think Thanksgiving is fucking boring?
My phone rings from next to my laptop on the coffee table. When I flip it open to look at the caller I.D., it only displays "Unknown Number." What a piece of crap. I spent hours tinkering with this thing when I got it, removing protections and hacking the operating system so that it would do everything I wanted it to, and now it can't even tell me the number of whoever's calling me. I obviously need to tweak it again.
I press the button to accept the call anyway. "Who is this?" I ask, then take a long drag on my cigarette.
"Matt? It's me."
I swear my heart stops beating for a second. I gasp, immediately choking on the smoke, and start coughing painfully. My cigarette falls to the floor, still smoldering, and I can barely keep the phone next to my ear. "What... the hell?" I splutter between coughs. "Mello?"
I haven't heard Mello's voice in almost five years. It's unmistakably his, even though it has a slightly lower, rougher timbre now. "Yeah... Did you miss me?" He gives a hoarse laugh.
When I finally manage to stop coughing, I'm completely speechless. I've spent the last four years or so believing that Mello was dead, for fuck's sake, and now he's calling me out of the blue and asking me if I missed him? My lack of an answer doesn't seem to faze him, because he goes on. "I need a favor, Matt. I didn't want to get you involved, but you're the only one who can help me."
"Goddamn it, Mello!" My vocal paralysis is broken. "Help you with what? Where the fuck have you been?"
I hear a snapping noise on the other end of the line. I'd know that sound anywhere—he's eating a chocolate bar. It's probably the same brand he used to get when we were kids. "I can't explain now. I need to meet with you."
"What do you mean, meet with me? Do you know where I am?" And how the hell does he still have my number?
He exhales harshly, breath crackling over the phone. "I've been tracking you for the past eighteen months."
"What?" It's a good thing I dropped my cigarette, because otherwise I'd be choking on it again. "You—you—" I think I'm fuming as much as the cigarette is; I wouldn't be surprised if smoke were coming out of my ears.
"Please don't get angry, Matt." His voice sounds strained. "Will you just meet me today? I promise—I'll tell you everything."
"Your promises aren't worth shit," I snap. I think I'd rather go on believing he's dead. "Leave me alone. You're good at doing that." Bastard.
I hear another whoosh of breath. "Matt, please. I want to see you."
"Fuck you," I snarl, and hang up.
I stare at the phone in my hand for a long time, breathing heavily. Then I remember to stamp out the cigarette I dropped before it sets fire to the rug. My head is pounding, my heart is racing, and I feel like shit, but I don't light up another one. I reach toward the coffee table to grab my goggles, shaking as I tug the strap over the back of my head and lower the lenses over my eyes. The orange plastic is scratched and foggy.
Mello's alive. I slump over on the couch and bury my face in the crook of my arm, still clutching the phone. The goggles bite into my skin through my sleeve and pinch the bridge of my nose, but after a while I don't notice. I concentrate on breathing and not sobbing or throwing up, counting inhales and exhales until my mind goes blank.
Some time later, someone starts banging on my door. I sit up wearily, readjusting my goggles, and try to shake the pins and needles out of my hand. The time on my phone reads 12:05—I've been lying in a stupor for at least forty minutes. I'm pretty out of it, and I still feel awful, but at least I'm a little calmer now. I put the phone back on the coffee table when the banging gets more insistent. Who the fuck could it be? A neighbor?
"Keep your shirt on, I'm coming." I stumble to the door, flip the deadbolt back, and jerk the door open. A tall figure in black leather and a fur-lined hood is standing in the hallway. It sure doesn't look like one of my neighbors, and why the hell would any of them be knocking on my door, anyway?
The figure raises gloved hands to slowly lower the hood. I now see that it's a man with light, shaggy hair and a hideous scar that looks like a burn covering the left side of his face. My eyes widen behind my goggles.
"Mello?" My voice is a scared whisper. His hair is longer than I remember it, he must be at least a foot taller, and his outfit is bordering on ridiculous, but who else could it possibly be?
This can't be real. I just heard Mello's voice for the first time in ages, and now, less than an hour later, he's outside my door. In a daze, I start to reach out my hand to him, as if to make sure he's tangible, before I remember I'm extremely pissed off at him and cross my arms. "How the hell did you get up here?"
"It's not hard to sneak into an apartment building," he points out. "Can I come in?"
I glare at him for a few seconds, then turn around and stalk back toward the couch. It's my own fucking apartment and I could just tell him to get the hell out, but I know that he's stubborn enough to barge in here no matter what I say to him. Why bother?
When I hear the door close behind me, I look around at him again. "What are you doing here?"
"I told you. I need your help." His deep voice is unnerving; the scar is downright horrifying.
"What the fuck did you do to your face?" I ask softly.
His eyes narrow slightly. "I don't need reminding that I'm ugly," he mutters.
I narrow my eyes right back at him, frowning, but I can't stay angry at him, not when he's here, real and alive. I'll settle for being exasperated. "Just... tell me what happened."
He takes a deep breath. "Can we sit?" He looks a bit insecure, hugging his arms, but he's staring straight into my eyes. My goggles protect me somewhat from the intensity of his gaze.
Wordlessly, I walk around to the front of the couch, sit down, and gesture to the cushion to my left. He shrugs out of his coat and hangs it up on the rack by the door. When he approaches the couch, he sits in exactly the same manner he used to as a fourteen-year-old kid—bent over, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. It brings a knot to my throat.
Mello doesn't say anything for about a minute; he just stares at the coffee table. Then he abruptly says, "I joined an organized crime syndicate." He glances sideways at me. "About three and a half years after I left Wammy's. I was hiding out with a gang in L.A. until about two weeks ago."
This revelation should astonish me, but it doesn't. I mean, when Mello left the orphanage, I knew he'd be doing something incredibly dangerous to go after Kira—I just didn't know what. Mello does basically whatever the hell he wants, and he's smart and determined enough to pull it off. They don't let eighteen-year-olds into the mob for nothing. I wonder what he did before he joined them, and how he ended up in L.A, but I guess I don't really want to know the details.
"I thought Kira was supposed to be in Japan," I say, looking back at him stonily. Only the right side of his face is visible.
"Of course he's in Japan, but what the hell could I do there?" He absentmindedly fingers the rosary resting against his chest. I can't believe he still has that thing, since he seems to have gotten rid of everything else from his previous life. The red cross eerily complements the black leather. "I needed an established gang of criminals—people who had a grudge against Kira, who had resources... who didn't give a shit about following the law, you know? I mean, L worked with the police, and look where that got him." Yeah, like I needed reminding of that. Mello's fingers continue to flick over the wooden beads. "I had to get pretty high in the ranks before I could do anything to get to Kira," he adds. His calm voice is utterly incongruous with the serious shit he's talking about.
My gaze rakes over his glossy leather outfit. I still remember the plain, baggy clothing he used to wear, before L died and our lives fell apart. I wonder what he would have looked like if he had stayed at Wammy's, if he hadn't forced himself to grow up so fast. His current getup is the finishing touch on his merciless mobster persona—it's alluring and intimidating, showing off his assets while at the same time clearly stating Don't fuck with me.
He really isn't the kid I grew up with any more. But it doesn't matter; he's still my best friend. Actually, he's my only friend. I never really had use for friends before I met Mello, and when he was gone, I didn't care about finding someone else to follow around. How pathetic—the guy I consider to be my best friend is someone who hasn't bothered to speak to me for five years.
I calculate from the time he said he joined the mob that it must have been at about the same time I graduated from Wammy's. I guess when he had the resources of a crime syndicate, it was easy to track me from Winchester to the U.S. That doesn't excuse the fact that he was basically stalking me for a year and a half—or the fact that he's a total fucking bastard. I finally break the uncomfortable silence.
"Why didn't you tell me where you were?" I demand, keeping my voice as steady as possible. He turns his head to face me. I look into his eyes, willing myself not to let my gaze wander to his scar.
A ghost of a scowl appears on his face. "Why do you think, Matt? I wasn't about to drag you onto the streets with me. And once I got into all that mafia shit, I expected to get killed any day." He points to the scar that I'm trying so hard to ignore. "I didn't want this to happen to you. Or worse."
So, he wanted me to be safe. What kind of excuse is that? He still left without deigning to say goodbye. He had my number all this time—couldn't he have at least sent me one fucking text message, just to let me know he wasn't dead?
I irritably take out my lighter and another cigarette from my pack. The view of Mello is distorted by my goggles, but I can see him wrinkling his nose out of the corner of my eye as I concentrate on lighting up. I take a drag and exhale slowly, ignoring his disapproval—I'll bet anything he's smoked more potent stuff than this before. "Keep talking. You still haven't told me what happened to your face."
He doesn't meet my eye when I look pointedly back at him. His mouth is a grim line. "I got Kira's murder weapon," he says bluntly. I raise my eyebrows, but he doesn't notice, since he isn't looking at me. "My gang and I were figuring out how to use it, but then the Japanese police raided our hideout and stole it back."
"So the Japanese police did that to you?" When I allow myself a glimpse of the scar, it seems even worse than when I first saw it. His face looks as though it's been half burned off, the skin charred and leathery. It's gruesome, even through my goggles. I swallow and look away again.
"No." There's a soft squeak of leather as he crosses his arms. "I set off some explosives I'd planted in the hideout so I could make a run for it."
I freeze with the cigarette halfway to my lips. "Fuck," I say in a faint voice, rather ineloquently. It's really the only word that can sum up my thoughts right now. I stub the cigarette out in the ashtray on the coffee table. "How the hell did you get out of there alive?"
Mello smirks. "It wasn't that bad." He notices the incredulous look I'm giving him. "Okay, so it was bad, but I escaped the worst of the explosion. I was wearing a gas mask, so it only got half of my face. Most of it didn't hurt." He shrugs. "The nerve endings were all gone."
I shudder, feeling more than a little sick. "You could have died of fluid loss, or infection, or—"
"I know. But I didn't. All I needed was a little luck and some knowledge of burns." He yawns, as if to emphasize that it's no big deal. "Keep it clean and cool but not cold, don't let anything touch it, basic stuff like that."
How he could have remembered anything about field medicine while running away from a burning building with his face on fire is beyond me. "How did you get yourself to a hospital before going into shock?"
"Hospital?" He looks at me like I'm stupid. "You think I'd go to some emergency room and leave a record? Burns that cover less than twenty percent of the body are low-priority treatment, anyway." All third-degree burns need immediate medical attention, you idiot, I want to tell him, but I keep my mouth shut. "I had a kit hidden about a quarter mile away, with a clean sheet, bottled water, antibiotics—stuff like that. It wasn't too hard to fix myself up. It could've been a lot worse."
So, he had expected the possibility of treating himself for severe burns when he'd rigged the explosives... That settles it. He's fucking insane. "You say all you needed was a little luck?" I exclaim, shaking my head. "Man, I think you're stretching the limits of the English language there." I don't want to count all the ways he could have kicked the bucket. Never mind hypoperfusion or various other medical complications—if the police had caught him, the burn would've been the least of his problems.
His smirk expands into a slightly manic grin. "I guess you could say God was on my side," he says. As if God would be looking out for someone like Mello. To get to the top in organized crime, I'm pretty sure you have to break at least half of the Ten Commandments.
It's too incredible to think about. Whether it was a divine miracle or just a fluke, Mello has officially wormed his way out of the deepest shit I've ever seen anyone get into. I guess he really must be too damn pretty to die.
Conversation with Mello is awkward, but I'm getting used to it, I think. I'm just suspending my disbelief that he's sitting on my couch, scarred and leather-clad, slowly explaining what he's been up to during the past three months. I have too many questions and he doesn't have enough answers, but for some reason, it's all right. I still have the feeling that I know him. Why is it so easy to fall into familiarity with Mello, when almost nothing about him is familiar any more?
We've been talking for at least an hour now. Far more disconcerting than Mello's presence is the stuff he's telling me about the Kira case. Killer notebooks, Shinigami, kidnappings, blackmail, and—most shocking of all—exchanging information with Near. Well, if the white-haired wunderkind has accepted invisible, extra-dimensional death gods as fact, I guess I'll have to do the same.
But there's still the one question hanging between us that I'm afraid to ask. It's an ugly, painful question, like a ragged splinter, and I know it'll hurt when I try to rip it out, but I have to know the answer. "Mello... I've got to ask you something."
"Okay." He stops relating yesterday's events and looks at me inquisitively.
"Why did you leave without saying goodbye?" My face feels carved out of marble, cold and unmoving. I can't look directly at him.
There's a strained pause. Maybe he doesn't have an answer—maybe the only possible reason is that he's just a jerk, and I don't think Mello would ever admit that. I feel my stomach sinking. Then he says, "You didn't find the note?"
"Note?" I glance up sharply. "You left a note?"
Mello's eyes widen. "Shit." He looks slightly sickened. "You must be even more pissed off at me than I thought, if you didn't even read the... God, Matt, I'm so sorry."
My voice is hollow. "Where did you leave it?"
He looks down and starts fiddling uneasily with his rosary. "In your copy of Paradise Lost," he says hoarsely. "The back cover."
That was the book we were studying in Advanced Literature that term. I remember, because that was the only assigned book that I never finished reading. I locked myself in the room for days and didn't go to classes when Mello was gone. All of my work was abandoned until after New Year's, when the next term started. Of course I never cracked open that goddamn book ever again.
"I never would have left without telling you," Mello insists, his voice constricted. "Never. I thought you knew that."
"All I knew was that you did," I respond quietly, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.
I get no satisfaction from looking at Mello's stricken, scarred face. It isn't hard to see the fourteen-year-old in his features now, exposed, defiant and unsure. This is someone who has committed murder, extortion, and countless other despicable crimes, who has survived the streets and the mob, who has managed to escape from so many fires—figurative and literal—that he started himself. He's scary as hell, and more than a little evil. I should be terrified of him, but I'm not. He shouldn't be tormented with remorse for what he did to me all those years ago—the most innocent of his sins—but he is.
The worst has already happened, and he's still here. I've listened to his story so far; I haven't kicked him out, even though that might be exactly what he deserves. I know now that he actually gives a shit, and that he did back then, too. And no matter how illogical or stupid it is, I find myself forgiving him.
Mello's still staring resolutely away from me; I have to say something. "Mello..."
When Mello finally looks in my eyes and sees the absolution waiting for him there, his face softens infinitesimally. It will take a lot more time and effort, but I think I'm well on my way to having my best friend back, magnificent bastard that he is.
We sit in expectant silence for a while. Then Mello stands up. He seems a little sheepish, but at least he isn't looking all guilty and hangdog any more. "I need a chocolate bar," he announces. He walks to the door and starts searching all the pockets of his coat.
"So... um..." I look at him over my shoulder. "Near thinks the person pretending to be L right now is Kira himself?" Besides the fact that I'm trying to make normal conversation at this awkward juncture, I'm really trying to wrap my head around the concept.
"Yeah. That's what Halle told me." He continues rifling through his enormous coat. "I had already known that Kira was somehow connected to the Japanese police, but I just thought the L impostor was an incompetent idiot," he says. "He's been bluffing this whole time."
I let out a low whistle. "No wonder they haven't made any progress in the last five years... Kira's even more of a bastard than I thought."
"No shit." He finally finds a chocolate bar and greedily tears open the foil wrapper.
And when it rained money two days ago... that was Near? I shouldn't be surprised. Something that extravagant smacks distinctly of the kid's style, and when I saw the news of the crazy mob in Manhattan attacking a mysterious anti-Kira organization, I guess I knew subconsciously that Near might have been involved. I've just been accustomed to ignoring Kira as hard as I can for five years. Until two hours ago, the hunt for him was always Somebody Else's Problem; it struck too close to home.
Mello gnaws pensively on the end of his chocolate and walks back to the couch. "How'd you get all the intel from this Lidner woman, anyway?" I ask when he flops down on the cushion next to me. "Did you fuck her, or what?"
He laughs humorlessly. "I don't let that kind of thing distract me from what I need to do." He licks the chocolate residue off his lips. "Halle's all right. She paid for me to get to New York, you know. She made sure I was okay after the shit went down in L.A... She didn't even tell Near about me, even though the little prick figured out everything on his own." His thoughtful expression displays a hint of true gratitude—pretty rare for Mello. Then he shrugs casually, with a little arrogant smirk that manages to look winning rather than obnoxious. "She did want me—still does, probably—but hey, who can blame her?"
I shake my head. From the way he talks, you'd think Mello's ego is inflated about as much as a blimp, but I think maybe it's just bravado. Anyway, I don't have time to dither over Mello's self-esteem. "One more thing," I remind him, resting my elbow on the back of the sofa and propping up my head. "What do you actually need my help with?"
His expression is serious, but his tone is light. "Nothing too dangerous, but mostly illegal. Some surveillance and tracking work." He nods at my laptop. "I'll need your hacking expertise, too."
I shrug. "Sure. I'll do it."
He cocks his head slightly and brandishes his half-eaten chocolate bar. "I can't pay you, you know. All the mafia funds are out of my reach at this point. Right now, Halle's paying for a room for me, but I only have enough cash left over for myself."
Shaking my head, I reassure him, "It doesn't matter. I've got enough for both of us, and I've got lots of equipment. I do shit like this for a living." I lean back and put my legs on the coffee table. "How else do you think I pay for all my video games?" I do legal jobs, too, but of course the ones on the wrong side of the law are more lucrative.
He looks at me uneasily. "I really do need you to do this with me. There isn't anyone else left." He takes another bite of chocolate. "Even after all I've seen in the mob, you're still one of the best tech and espionage guys I know, and I'm sure you've only gotten better over the years." His face breaks into a mischievous smile. "Remember when you put those cameras in Roger's office?"
I crack a grin. "Yeah, that was fun." The old codger didn't really do anything interesting except maintain his insect collection and discipline unruly students, but the point was that I had managed to infiltrate his office and spy on him for about two months before anyone noticed the cameras. I'm damn good at that stuff.
"All right," Mello says, and I can tell the gears of his impressive mind are whirring at full speed. "Halle said that Near talked to a couple of guys on the Japanese task force... They're going to resume investigation on the person that the real L suspected of being the Second Kira. Halle told me when this other SPK agent's going to drop off those two guys at the airport, so in order to get anywhere with this lead, I've got to follow them. Can you help me do that?"
"Of course," I answer, sitting up straight. "When should we start?"
There's a shrewd glint in his eye as he stands up decisively and crosses his arms. "Right now."