Author's Note: This story follows the canon of the anime series (I haven't read anything beyond) - with the slight divergence in that Mello secretly survives.

Tossed in the viper pit, all those feelings and fears,
And all that difficult shit in all those tender years.
-Down the Deep River, Okkervil River

Two years since the Kira case was closed


Mello stood back to inspect his work. The surveillance camera was imperceptible from its place beneath the cabinet. He'd already installed the rest throughout the apartment. Typically, this level of surveillance wouldn't be necessary - but his client had stressed that his target was a high level official in the US intelligence community. There were any number of ways they might already be evading wiretapping and other relatively less intrusive methods. Beyond his target's line of work- details about them had been nonexistent - and he knew better than to ask. He'd had clients disappear when he'd pressed for information in the past. And the amount of money on the line for this particular case was too high an amount to compromise for any reason.

His services didn't come cheap - and only those with the right connections would even know how to contact him. Meaning, whoever he was here to surveil was worth the price. He glanced through the glass balcony doors across from him. The apartment was situated in a wealthy part of Washington, DC reserved for lobbyists, diplomats, and officials from any number of government agencies. The city's lights were blinking on one by one - and he knew his window of time was coming to a close. He zipped his black messenger bag closed and pulled it over his shoulder

Since faking his death during the Kira case he'd gone underground. He'd let the dust settle after the case had been closed before reemerging as a private investigator to the elite. He disguised himself under a number of pseudonyms and worked out of a series of safe houses he'd set up in various countries. Most of his clients were officials within governments who called upon him to monitor criminal organizations. Occasionally, he'd be hired to spy on those same government agencies on behalf of criminal organizations - it was a job to him, not an ethical crusade. And if there's anything he'd learned in the two years he'd been doing this, it's that governments were no less corrupt than anyone else. Wealthy men - whatever organization they worked for - were only ever going to look out for their own interests. Cops could kill citizens just as easily as street thugs. Look at what had happened to Matt…

He shook his head - he couldn't think about that right now. He needed to maintain his trademark attention to detail. An errant wire could blow the entire operation. He scanned the apartment one final time. The bookshelves were lined with a combination of top psychology and criminology journals. A Rubik's cube was being used as a paperweight to hold down case files on the coffee table. Plastic containers of ramen lined the cupboards and carefully stacked dirty coffee mugs were waiting to be washed by the sink. No doubt there was some sort of housekeeper that would be expected to take care of such things. Still, it represented a kind of immaturity to Mello - which stood in contrast to the otherwise pristine apartment.

But there wasn't time to stand around and hypothesize about his target - and soon he wouldn't need to. Between the surveillance programs he'd installed on his target's computer and the cameras throughout the apartment - there wouldn't be much he didn't know about the person who lived here. He pulled the hood of his coat down over his face as he left, securing all the locks in place on the front door as they had been when he'd broken in.

When he got back to his hotel room he opened the Chinese takeout he'd picked up on the way before flipping open his laptop. He accessed the camera feeds he'd set up, watching as all the rooms of the apartment appeared on his screen in separate video feeds. He wondered what he would uncover - was his target suspected of espionage? He shoved a spoonful of rice between his lips, really this was better than watching a movie. A slow burn - knowing that whoever he was about to see walk through the front door would inevitably end up imprisoned at best - but more realistically, he'd read about their "suicide" or "skiing accident" a week or month from now. But he couldn't feel too bad - he was the messenger after all, simply relaying information. What his client did with it didn't rest on his conscience.

The front door was opening - and when the person appeared on the screen he sucked in a breath. He started choking on his last spoonful of rice, his hand pressed tightly over his mouth as his eyes stayed stuck to the screen. He reached for a plastic bottle of cherry coke and leaned in closer to his laptop.

The same wavy white hair which fell over dark unreadable eyes. The slight slouch and pinched shoulders. The air of restless disinterest that he'd always found infuriating. Mello took a breath - convinced that Near would immediately sense him. That maybe the whole thing had been a set-up from the start. He glanced over his shoulder and then at the chain lock over the wooden hotel door. No, he quietly reminded himself, no one knew he was alive - not anyone in the US government - and certainly not Near. He'd been so careful. And if Near had somehow uncovered the fact that he was alive, there'd be no logical reason to construct such an elaborate rouse. Mello felt his shoulders unclench, he took another swig of soda and focused on the screen.

What exactly was it that his old rival was suspected of - did it have any merit - and if it did - what would he do about it? Near tossed his coat over the back of the chair by the door before taking a sip of the to-go coffee cup he'd walked in with. He was still small - but he'd abandoned the oversized shirts for a collared button-down, tie, and straight-legged dress pants that was no doubt more suited for the business world. But even from the grainy quality of the camera, Mello could see bags under his eyes that would have rivaled L's. Near probably saw sleep deprivation as some sort of misguided homage to his mentor. The idea stirred some of the old feelings of contempt he still held towards L - the unrealistic expectations, contrived rivalries, and the fate he'd made inevitable by allowing himself to be killed by Kira.

Near headed straight for the desk by the balcony, and Mello's eyes shifted to the video feed at the bottom of the screen. Near flipped open his laptop, a small frown playing at his lips as he wrapped a finger around a strand of hair. A small window popped up on Mello's laptop which showed him Near's screen. But there were no immediate red flags to indicate why he would be under suspicion. He was simply looking through case files, presumably for work, stopping occasionally to make small notes in the margin of a notebook. It would have been altogether boring if Mello hadn't always been curious on learning how Near worked through cases.

By the time Mello had finished his takeout and started on a chocolate bar nothing of note had happened. It appeared that Near was simply working, and while it was excessive, there wasn't anything suspicious about his behavior. A little after midnight, Near let out a small sigh and stood up to stretch. He opened the door to his balcony and walked out into the frozen December air. Mello didn't have a close up on his face - but from the camera that was tracking his movements, he just appeared to be staring over the edge, looking down at the cars passing below. His hair was whipping against his cheeks in the night air, his breaths were almost imperceptible white clouds. What could he be thinking about that was making him grip the railing so hard?

When he finally came back in and closed the doors the stoic and calculating expression from earlier had retreated. Now there was a heaviness to his movements, like the wind had been whispering threats in his ear. Mello let out a breath - he had never tried to understand Near when he had the chance. He'd thought of him as cocky if not robotic - mimicking L like he was some sort of teen idol. Mello had only found out too late that there was more to his younger classmate than what he'd come to believe.

Near closed the balcony door and grabbed one of the academic journals from his bookshelf before sitting on the sofa. He didn't make it more than fifteen minutes before his head lolled to the side and he repositioned himself so he was lying down, his head resting against some case files on atop of one of the cushions.

It was after 2AM and in spite of the excitement of the unanticipated sight of Near - Mello was feeling tired himself. He activated the motion sensor feature on his computer - before closing his own eyes. Something about the rise and fall of Near's shoulders, the way he rested his chin against his hand, the tufts of soft hair falling over his eyes flooded Mello's mind with a heavy nostalgia. But his days at Wammy's House felt like they must have happened to someone else or in another lifetime at least. He wondered if Near felt the same way, he wondered if he ever thought about Wammy's House still, and if he did, if he ever thought about him.

It was two months before L's death and Mello couldn't sleep. He'd barely slept through a single night the first year that he'd been taken to Wammy's House and even after all these years, sleep could still be elusive. Matt was sleeping in his bed on his side of their dorm - the video game he'd been up all night trying to beat was still in his hand. Mello shifted, kicking the covers down to the bottom of the bed with more force than necessary.

There was something about staring at the ceiling that made insomnia he got up and walked around it put him back in control of the situation - or at least it made it feel that way. After pulling a pair of jeans over his boxers and lacing up his boots he pushed open the door to their dorm and headed down the hallway.

Most nights he could still see the lamps from kids studying from under their doors - but everyone had just taken their finals and students were finally catching up on sleep. So when he saw the light on in the library, it'd immediately caught his attention. Even from the doorway he knew it was Near. The hunched posture and mop of white hair staring at the laptop screen was unmistakable. Putting up with his rival's haughtiness was preferable - almost a welcome distraction to wandering the hallways alone.

He pushed his hair behind his ear and strode into the library - in a way that he hoped convey that he wanted to be as disruptive as possible. The library was dark except for the small lamp that was attached to the table that Near was sitting at and the glow of his laptop. The walls of books were black shadows and the wooden tables reminded Mello of small wooden lifeboats, motionless in a dark ocean.

He perched on the end of the table closest to Nears. "I thought even you would relax - now that you've validated your self-worth with your exam scores."

If Near was startled or annoyed by his presence he didn't show it. "I'm not studying," the younger boy said without looking up.

Mello looked at the printed articles scattered across the long table - faces of Japanese criminals stared back up at him from newspaper clippings.

"L has been sharing information about the Kira case with you?" Mello immediately felt jealousy rising inside of him. How was he supposed to prove himself if L had already chosen Near as his apprentice on the Kira case?

Near was twirling a piece of hair against his cheek with a sort of purposeful detachment. "Not exactly."

Mello pushed himself further onto the table and dangled his feet over the floor. He hated that he was intrigued, that he needed to know exactly what L had or had not entrusted Near with.

"So this is your own little independent Kira investigation?" It was a guess - a tactic to make Near talk.

"Something like that." Near brought a finger to his lip as he highlighted a sentence in one of the articles.

"So you admit it - you think L needs your help."

Near sighed and looked up at him, as if resigning himself to the fact that Mello was going to require some explanation before he'd leave. "The Kira case isn't solved," he stated. "Certainly it's reasonable to conclude that assistance is required."

"How can you say that - how can you lose faith in L. Because of one case?" The loyalty Mello felt to L was boiling through him like some sort of patriotic vitriol. Later when he'd think about it again, it'd surprise him - but now in this moment it just made his anger towards Near surge.

Near sighed and glanced down at his hands. "Seeing as you're second in line to succeed L -"

"According to you maybe-" Mello interjected.

Near raised an eyebrow and continued. "You should know, yesterday I overheard a conversation between Watari and Roger. They were arranging funds for the school in case something should happen. If Watari has lost faith in L's ability, why shouldn't I?"

"Because he's L!" Mello yelled, jumping down off the table.

Near looked up - not at Mello but down the hallway. "Keep your voice down, students aren't supposed to be out of their beds at this hour."

There was no way that Near actually thought Mello wasn't aware of that rule. Condescending comments like that were just one of the reasons that he couldn't stand the other boy's presence. But he couldn't rule out that Near wasn't just trying to make him storm off in frustration now. Instead, he brushed his long hair off his shoulder and took a seat across from his rival. The younger boy looked tired, like he'd been up for days. And there was something about the uncharacteristically messy way the case files were laid out that conveyed a sense of panic. It was so unlike Near to be anything less than composed - for a moment Mello wondered if he was being too hard on him. After all, if Watari was discussing what Near said he had - then there was a real chance that the investigation had beencompromised.

Thinking of L's possible death in that moment felt like a knife in Mello's stomach. L had been a distant father, big brother, and mentor all-in-one to him. On his birthday he'd always send some expensive pastry from whatever corner of the world his latest investigation had taken him. And when L visited the school, he'd make time to sit down with Mello and run recent cases by him – shooting him encouraging looks as he put the pieces together.

"Look, I'm worried about him too," Mello said. It wasn't the first time he'd thought it - but it was the first time he'd said it out loud. Under normal circumstances he wouldn't dare make a concession like that to anyone - let alone Near. But nothing about the Kira investigation had been normal.

"It's not L I'm concerned with - it's about allowing a serial killer to go free," Near said.

"You're truly disgusting." Mello narrowed his eyes - the flippancy of the comment made him sick. "How can you say that about the person who has looked after us all these years?"

Near leaned closer to the screen like he could ignore Mello into nonexistence.

"Answer me dammit!" Mello reached across the table and slammed the laptop closed, pressing his palm down to keep it shut.

"Remove your hand from my possessions." Near tried to slide the computer from Mello's grip.

"Fine," Mello said with a smirk, letting go of the computer before reaching down to pluck out the flash drive that was sticking out of it. "Is this the information you need, junior detective? To defeat Kira? To preserve justice?"

"How childish are you? Give it back," Near said, watching as Mello clutched the flash drive in his fist. But Mello didn't care if it was childish - there was something satisfying about having Near's attention all to himself.

"Admit that you care about L."

Near sighed and Mello could see him resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "L is a great detective - if he lives, he'll go on to solve countless cases."

"Not what I asked," Mello said with a patronizing shake of his head.

Near crossed his arms and glared up at Mello. "If you want a fight, you're out of luck."

"Yeah? What about a chase?" he said with a smirk - and before Near had a chance to respond, the blonde had turned and bolted out of the library. He didn't look back but he could hear Near's footsteps smacking down the hallways after him as he passed empty classrooms. He kept going – straight out the back entrance of the building and onto the lawn.

Near was behind him - reaching his arms out to grab any part of him he could as they ran across the grounds of the school. It was dark and the grass felt wet under Mello's feet from the rain earlier that day. But he knew he couldn't slip – he had to get down to the lake if he wanted to prove his point. The younger boy had to know with a growing dread exactly where Mello was going. When Mello reached the end of the wooden dock he finally stopped - panting as he held the flash drive over the water of the lake. In the day the lake was alive with students, it was used by the school's rowing team and was a nice retreat on hot summer days. But now, in the dark - it looked bottomless - the water inky black, reflecting the white light of the moon in slow ripples.

"Please Mello - don't," Near said through a staggered breath as he stepped onto the wooden dock. Now that he was looking at Mello his eyes looked huge and as bottomless as the water surrounding them.

"Just say it! Just say that you care about L - that you're doing this little investigation to save him!" Mello extended his arm higher into the air. Near opened his mouth and looked unsure for a moment - his eyes cast down to the plank he was standing on. The moonlight was reflecting off the cold metal flashdrive - and for a moment Mello felt triumphant - he felt like he'd beat Near in something more meaningful than a grade on a quiz.

But the next moment Near lunged at him, grasping Mello's arm in his fist and using his weight to bring it down. Mello shoved but the other boy wouldn't let go. His fingers were grabbing onto whatever he could - Mello's sleeve - his hair - his fingers. Mello shoved him again and even when Near stumbled backwards, he didn't let go of the older boy. When he fell backwards he pulled Mello down on top of him as he slammed onto the wooden dock. Near groaned under Mello's weight, but was undeterred from continuing to pry at his fingers.

"Let go of me!" Mello yelled - trying to get off of the other boy and stand back up. But when Near wouldn't let go, Mello threw his free hand back and punched him in the nose. Near sucked in a breath before cupping a hand over his face. He rolled onto his side - his feet hanging askew over the side of the dock.

Mello stood up. "You're pathetic!" he yelled, "what good does it do to solve any case if you don't care about people? If you can't feel anything other than the hollow victory of figuring something out? This isn't a math equation Near – these are real lives! This is L's life!" And the next second – Mello did something he'd deeply regret in years to come: he swung his arm back and tossed the flash drive into the lake.

Near stood up - his mouth dropping open like it was the entire world falling into the black water. And only a split second after it splashed, he had jumped in after it.

"Near!" Mello yelled, standing on the dock. The water wasn't very deep - but it was dark, and Near was barely coming up for breaths as he tried to trace the path that the flash drive must have taken.

"Are you crazy?" Mello yelled - barely able to tell when the younger boy was coming up for air. His white shirt looked more like a sheet in the dark - a drowned ghost - and the sight of it was more than unnerving. "You're never going to find it!" Mello said - more out of concern than mockery. He said it even as it was obvious that Near couldn't possibly hear him, as he dunked his head up momentarily before diving back down. When he finally surfaced for more than a second, he treaded water to catch his breath.

"Did you find it?" Mello asked meekly - feeling a strange guilt creep into his chest - hoping his concern could downplay what he'd just done.

Near swam to the shore and Mello followed - his boots sinking into the soft mud. "Did you find it?" he said again, watching as Near's shoulders violently moved up and down as he struggled to catch his breath.

"You idiot!" Near turned to him - holding the flash drive between his fingers. "Do you realize what you could have done? What this could cost us?"

Mello took a step back - the blood was still running from Near's nose - but mixed with the water it looked pink and unnatural against his pale skin. His shirt was clinging to him - accentuating how small he really was.

"Damnit Mello! What goes on in your mind? What do you think of me? Of course I care about L," Near said, taking a deep breath - waving the flash drive through the air. "Why do you think I've been doing all this research? L is the only person who has ever looked at me and thought I was worthwhile. He's the only person who ever made me feel like there could be a place in the world for me - that I could have a purpose. So have I studied hard to get good grades to achieve that purpose? Of course. Sorry if that makes me seem so terrible to you - so monstrous that you have to sabotage the work that could save his life."

Near wiped some of the blood that was working its way down his lips onto the back of his soaked sleeve. He was shaking and Mello wanted nothing more than to will all of this to be some sort of messed up dream.

"I'm - I'm sorry - " he said meekly, gripping Near's shoulder. It was the first time he'd ever touched the other boy. Something about the connection felt warm - made him want to keep his hand there. "I know what you mean-"

Near snapped his head up and took a step back. "You don't - you don't understand anything! You wonder why I'll always beat you Mello - it's because I understand nuance, I understand subtlety. You make your mind up and you see what you want to see. About me and about everything else!"

Mello felt like he'd been punched in the face. Near turned and ran back towards the building, his hand wrapped around the flash drive. Whether he was going to the headmaster's office to report him or back to his dorm to dry off didn't make a difference now. Mello walked back to the dock, where there were drops of Near's blood, still wet under the dark sky. He laid down next to them and let Near's words pierce into him. Because what he said was true - and Mello knew it. There was something missing in him – some blind spot in his heart that chose anger instead of understanding. It was something he'd always suspected about himself but had never known how to articulate. What would L have said if he had watched what had just happened. There was no doubt in his mind now that he wasn't L's successor. It wasn't that he wasn't smart enough, it was the blind spot – the anger – that would always lead him astray, would always make him lesser than Near.

But Near's words had a greater impact. In the weeks that followed, Mello would watch Near – trying to figure out what it was that he hadn't seen about him for all these years. The softness in his eyes as he helped tutor the younger children - the way he'd push back the baggy white shirts he'd wear from his knuckles when he'd go to write something in class - the piece of hair that he liked to twist around his fingers when he was thinking. And late at night - Mello still walked by the library - knowing that inside Near was working hard to protect the only person he cared about in the world - the only person who he thought cared about him. Mello felt the weight of all of it. How it wouldn't occur to him until after the Kira investigation that somewhere in those two weeks he'd fallen in love with Near. But somewhere inside of him he knew then what he knew now - he would never deserve him.

Both of them woke up to Near's cellphone ringing from his coffee table around 6AM. Near leaned his elbows on his knees as he stared at the carpeting of his apartment, the phone pressed to his ear. Mello stuffed an earbud in so he could hear audio of the conversation. Maybe it would finally indicate what any of this was about - what Near was being surveilled for. But after a few moments it was clear that the person on the other end of the phone was the new headmaster from Wammy's House okaying some funds for programs. After the conversation Near put on a pot of coffee in the kitchen before heading to the shower.

Mello dialed the number of his client. It was a private line that had been set up only a week ago - a line only the two of them could access.

"It's me," he said through the voice distorter. "I need to discuss the case."

"Go on."

"You didn't tell me that this case involved tracking the top-ranked detective in the world. It's a matter of time before he realizes that he's being surveilled if he doesn't already."

"I thought you were the best in the business." Even through the phone Mello could hear the arrogant smirk.

"I'm simply pointing out that you did not provide key facts that could have aided the investigation," he said through gritted teeth.

"Well rest assured - this is not a long-term assignment. We want Near taken out by the end of the week."

Mello paused and pushed his bangs out of his eyes. He was only half-awake, maybe he'd misunderstood. "I'm not a bounty-hunter."

"Of course not," his client said softly. "But you must understand that with a target such as Near, we couldn't entrust the project to a brute hitman whose methods could be detected. You, on the other hand, are a top rated private investigator and come recommended by the best. We will compensate generously for this extra task."

The way he was talking about Near - as if his murder was an added chore on Mello's to-do list made the blonde bite down on his lip. He had to stay calm - he had to keep up the act if he had any chance at figuring out what the hell was going on.

"What's the point of surveillance then? If you just want him taken out this is all unnecessary."

Mello could hear his client take a drag of a cigarette. "We need to be certain that Near doesn't suspect a threat on his life. If he would leave behind some indication of such - it could be… damning for the parties involved."

"I understand," Mello said.

"So, we have a deal?"

Mello watched as the younger man emerged from his bedroom - tightening a tie around his neck in the mirror. Mello remembered the way he'd looked that night by the lake all those years ago. His eyes blown open with passion and rage and loneliness. How warm he'd felt under his palm - just for that split second they'd touched then.

"Yes," he said with the same measured coldness he reserved for clients. "Of course."

"Excellent. For now, your instructions are to continue to monitor him - be certain that he doesn't suspect anything. And plan to make his death look like a mob hit. But keep the details to yourself - the less I know the better."

"Understood," Mello said because he had to. Because if he didn't the assignment would be passed on to someone else. Someone who would murder Near. The thought alone made him want to find the person on the other end of the phone and center his Glock between their eyes. It didn't matter, he told himself, because that wasn't going to happen.

After the phonecall he left his hotel room - because the importance of tracking Near's movements was more imperative than ever. He'd have to follow Near's schedule carefully and develop a fail safe way of faking his rival's death before the week ended. If he were undermining anyone but Near he wouldn't be so worried, if it were anyone but Near he wouldn't be so determined.

Author's Note: Thanks for reading the first chapter of my first Death Note fic. If you're enjoying this story, please leave a review and let me know! More to come with much drama ahead! - Shrink