I thought I lost it all the day that I lost you.
It's taken me until just now to find the truth
You've always been here haven't you?
Haven't You?, Matt Skiba

x.

Mello slammed his laptop closed. "Damnit! I thought I had it that time!" He pushed his chair back from the kitchen table. He'd been trying to hack into the FBI email servers for hours, but it had been an exercise in futility.

"These files we retrieved earlier are useless as well," Near said, motioning to the laptop in front of him. The younger detective was sitting on the living room floor, hunched forward over a laptop — a sight Mello had grown familiar with. After coming back inside the night Near had tried to start the car, Mello had promised that he'd take him back to DC once they determined who was behind the assassination attempt and agreed on how to best incapacitate them. They'd been working around the clock investigating leads. While they'd collectively been able to pinpoint several possible suspects, a motive was seemingly non-existent.

Near had sprawled printed-out copies of email exchanges and case files across the floor, sitting in the center of them with the laptop, taking in all the information at once. Mello didn't ask if that was actually an effective way to do anything. Still, he couldn't suppress an occasional eye roll when Near stared unblinking into space like the universe would whisper answers to him if he just listened hard enough.

Mello spent most of his time with a pair of headphones pulled snugly over his ears, listening in on conversations between agents working outside the law, trying to pick up chatter relating to the case. But aside from the occasional rumor that someone important had been killed, there was nothing useful.

"If it wasn't for this damn snow I'd go surveil everyone on this suspect list and I wouldn't need to worry about goddamn counter-intrusionmeasures," Mello said. It wasn't his style to sit around staring at computer screens, waiting for the puzzles to miraculously click together in his mind. He knew they never would. But it wasn't just the snow keeping him from leaving. The reality was that it would be too dangerous to take Near with him and even more so to leave him here alone.

"You should go," Near said, meeting his eye. It was clear from his gaze that he knew he was the reason why Mello wouldn't leave. "I can continue to remotely surveil the feeds you establish."

"Yeah, maybe." Mello stood up and swung open a cupboard door to divert the topic. The truth was that he didn't give a damn who was behind the plot on Near's life. For all he cared, it was some jealous colleague with too much time on their hands. He could understand better than anyone how easily Near could breed feelings of contempt. The bigger question was why should Near want to go back? What kind of life was he in such a hurry to get back to? Being kept in shiny office buildings like a caged bird, wheeled out when cases went over the heads of every other person with an Ivy League degree and six figure salary.

Mello turned a can of tomato soup over in his hand to check the expiration date. He kept all his safe-houses stocked with nonperishable items but he hadn't restocked since his last stint here. Even though it was a year from expiration, he put it back and reached for a bag of stale mini chocolate bars. He sat on the counter-top, shoving a piece of candy between his lips.

Near was twisting a piece of hair between his fingers, staring at the spot that Mello had just been standing like there were numbers in the air he was adding together.

"I should contact Roger," he said, "he'll be able to set me up with proper safeguards and resources to see this through."

"Too dangerous right now," Mello mumbled, his teeth ripping open the wrapper of the candy bar, "want one?" There was no question that Roger's every breath was being monitored. That someone was just waiting for Near to make the mistake of contacting him.

Near shook his head, eyeing the candy with a sort of tempered annoyance. But he seemed to accept Mello's opinion on reaching out to Roger, as if he already knew that's what he would say. "Do you have those emails from earlier? I want to read through them—"

"It's midnight." Mello was staring at the clock on the stove.

"So?"

"It's officially Christmas," he said, his mouth full of chocolate. He wasn't entirely surprised that the significance of the date had been lost on them all day as they'd been working. But the idea of continuing to work through the morning now felt less like a chore and more depressing.

He twisted around to open the cupboard behind him, fishing out a bottle of whiskey. "We should celebrate."

Near shot him a skeptical look. "I don't drink."

"Why am I not surprised?" Mello decided it was best not to bring up the night he'd walked in on Near drinking after L's death. "But what if I told you I had a bottle of wine stashed here worth upwards of $6,800?"

"I'd say the chances are good that you could be brought up on federal smuggling charges."

Mello raised an eyebrow and poured a glass from the dark bottle. He didn't have wine glasses, but a plastic cup did the job. He took a small sip before placing it on the floor next to Near's laptop. Near glanced over at it, a small frown on his lips at the unwelcome distraction.

"Don't worry," Mello said, "I won't report you to the authorities."

He mixed his own whiskey and coke before sitting on the sofa, putting his feet on the coffee table. "We could see what shitty Christmas movie is on?" He glanced down at the back of Near's head, his white hair curling at the ends where it hit the collar of his shirt.

Near grabbed a stack of email print-outs as if to demonstrate that he planned to keep working. Mello sighed and took a slow sip of his whiskey as he flipped back and forth between Home Alone and the Grinch. He was at least encouraged that Near was gradually sipping the wine while making small notes in the margins of the documents.

It was somewhat fascinating to see how hard Near was working on the case. Mello always had the distinct impression that he played with action figures and puzzle pieces until a sudden stroke of genius came over him. But watching him work tirelessly, turning information over with such care and precision made him feel better somehow, less short-changed.

"There's more in the bottle." Mello motioned lazily towards the kitchen table when Near swallowed the last of his wine.

He nodded and loosened the top button of his shirt as he stood up. "It finally feels above freezing in here."

"See, it's a Christmas miracle," Mello said, noting that the warmth of the alcohol had given Near's cheeks a rosy pink tinge as well.

He tried not to let his surprise show when Near returned with a full cup and sat on the opposite end of the sofa with him leaving one empty cushion between them, like they were saving room for someone else. They sat in silence, Mello half afraid to move — like he'd break the trance Near was in and he'd realize he wasn't working and crawl back in front of the laptop. They took sips of their drinks in a sort of comfortable silence as the December wind moved through the trees outside and mindless commercials played on the TV.

"Sorry that this had to be your Christmas," Mello said finally, turning his head. Near had his feet underneath of him as he leaned on the arm of the sofa.

"Are you?" Near asked — but it wasn't exactly a question he expected Mello to answer.

Mello shrugged and took another sip of his drink. The answer was no, of course. But how could he admit that? How could he tell Near how natural it felt being together these past couple days?

"Where were you this time last year?" Near asked, taking a sip of his wine before staring up at the uneven wooden panels in the ceiling with a sort of despondent expression on his face. There were moments like now where Mello couldn't follow Near's shifts in mood. He turned back to look at him, his eyes dark and unreadable. Mello scrambled to come up with an answer.

"Beirut," he said. "I'd just finished a job and went out to unwind. It wasn't long before I met someone at the bar. We had a couple drinks, I guess, and ended up back in my hotel room." He shrugged, wondering if that's what Near really wanted to hear. If that's the kind of honesty he expected. He thought of the nameless man he'd taken back to his room, fumbling down the hallway, pulling clothes off of one another, kissing to keep the need for words to a minimum. He remembered emptying the contents of the hotel mini bar between the two of them and then the mindlessness of what followed. He left in the middle of the night; paid for the room, and boarded a red-eye out of the country.

Near stood up, running his hand along the back of the sofa on the way to the kitchen. He grabbed the wine bottle by the neck and poured the rest into his cup. "And here I thought you'd be handing out presents to needy children," he said, laughing at his own joke into his cup.

"Ha ha ha," Mello said sarcastically, "and what about you?"

"About me?" Near repeated on his way back to the sofa. He sat his cup on the table and laid back over the side of the sofa so his feet were hanging over the armrest and his head was on the cushion between them. Pieces of his hair pressed against Mello's thigh — the white a stark contrast to the black of his jeans. Near pressed a finger to his lips as if he was thinking of something much more complex than a memory.

"Yeah." Mello tried not to focus on the sudden closeness or the way Near's lips were stained red from the wine. "What were you doing this time last Christmas?"

"The same as you; indulging in alcohol and anonymous sex," Near said nonchalantly. For the second that Mello believed him a wave of jealousy rushed over him. The room felt like it'd turned on its side - the air stuffy and oppressive as he thought of some stranger pressing their lips to Near's skin. But Near was glancing up at him with a smirk on his lips.

"Actually, I was working," he said, pushing his hair off his face. "There was a drug ring we had been following for months out of Atlanta. We were just closing in on several key players in the operation. I was at FBI headquarters overseeing the tactical operation."

Mello had to physically resist the urge to let out a sigh of relief. "So the narcs don't even take a break for Christmas? How joyless." He imagined Near hunched over a laptop, a team of investigators in suits buzzing around him. Everyone wishing they were home with their families. Where would Near have wished he was?

"It really doesn't matter to me." Near was watching the reflection of the TV in the window. "It's just another day, isn't it."

"You can say that," Mello said, running his finger along the material of his jeans, until his finger touched a few strands of Near's hair. "But you're talking to the person who remembers a certain antisocial ten-year-old who spent Christmas Eve building a three-story gingerbread house."

"Then you'll remember that it was a present for L." Near glanced up, his eyes fixated on the rosary hanging down Mello's chest. He reached his hand up and ran his finger over the smooth beads, letting them slide through his fingers.

How many Christmases ago was it that Mello had watched Near across the dining hall of Wammy's House? The staff had set up a Christmas tree in the center of the room. Each window was decorated with strings of colored lights. Kids were running around, playing with the toys that Watori had left for them under the tree. Mello had been given a set of walkie talkies but he hadn't been in the mood for playing with them. He was watching with a sneer on his face as Near sat at a table at the end of the room adjusting a gumdrop in a dollop of icing. L stood behind him, ruffling his hair fondly. Mello could still feel the pain of his teeth sinking into his lips when L pointed down to the candy cane walkway approvingly.

"Well, it's a perfect example of you being driven by the Christmas spirit," Mello said, looking down at Near.

"You knocked it off the table as soon as you had the chance," Near said, letting the rosary go, so it swung back against Mello's chest. Mello remembered how Near's face had gone completely red when he turned to discover what had happened. And how L had rushed over, grabbing a candy cane off the floor and stooping down to pull Near in for a hug. How his eyes had flashed towards Mello over Near's shoulder.

"Is it too late to apologize?"

"Yes," Near mumbled.

"Where did you and L go that night anyway?" Mello asked. Roger had ushered the students into the auditorium for the terrible rendition of A Christmas Carol that some of the students had been rehearsing for months. But Near and L had been notably absent. He'd mentioned it to Matt who had only shrugged, and continued staring down at his game.

Near stared up at the ceiling, suddenly looking much younger and sadder somehow. "He tried to convince me that he needed help making hot chocolate. I was only nine but I knew he was lying, I knew he was just trying to cheer me up. But I went with him to the kitchen anyway, and he nodded his head as I pulled out all the ingredients, like I was teaching him something. We dipped shards of the gingerbread house into our drinks and—" Near stopped and looked over at Mello.

"And?"

"And he told me that you hadn't smashed the gingerbread house to be mean. He said that you had only done it because you were sad and didn't know how to tell us."

Mello let out a breath, somehow any opinion that L had of him, even then, felt empirically true. "Did you believe that?" he asked.

"Of course, he's L."

"I wasn't a very happy kid," Mello said, trying not to dwell on the reality that he wasn't a very happy adult either.

"It's not like you didn't have a good reason. We were orphans. And it was Christmas time," Near said.

"Those things are both still true." Mello took a sip of his drink. On the screen the cartoon characters had joined hands around a Christmas tree.

"Mello?"

"Mhm?" Mello hadn't taken his eyes off the TV.

"I think L would be happy to know we're together on Christmas."

He glanced down at Near, and while his eyes were shut there was a small smile on this lips.

While he wouldn't say it, he knew Near was right. That somehow he and Near belonged together, belonged to one another. That L always knew it too. He closed his eyes as the ending credits ran on the TV screen, listening to Near's even breaths as he drifted off into sleep.

A couple hours later, he woke up to find Near's head was in his lap, his forehead pressed against his abdomen, and fingers loosely clenching the black material of his sweater. Mello smoothed Near's hair off his cheek. He slid down, lifting his feet onto the sofa, his legs half on top of Near's. He pulled the smaller man closer, so he was resting on his chest, his hair softly touching Mello's chin. He wrapped an arm around him, hoping that he was still warm enough.

As he closed his eyes again he tried to imagine what his life would have been like if every Christmas since he was a kid had been spent with Near. If they'd had a normal life — just like Matt had said. If he'd always been able to hold Near in his arms. For a second he even imagined them trying to out-do one another with presents on Christmas Day. But something about all of it was making him sad for both of them. He could only hold Near tighter, trying to believe that they still could be more than just orphans on Christmas.

In the morning when Mello opened his eyes, Near was on the opposite end of the sofa again, his hair damp from the shower. He'd pulled a cardigan on over a fresh collared shirt. There was something soft and welcoming about the scholarly cleanness to his image that Mello had always been drawn to. It was a departure from his own darker clothing - but it suited him. Near turned a page in the Sherlock Holmes book, an empty cup of coffee was on the table.

"Damn, what time is it?" Mello squinted at the sunlight pouring through the window. He raked his fingers through his hair, working out a tangle as he pushed himself up.

"Only nine-thirty." Near glanced at him before returning to the book.

Mello was surprised that he wasn't already hunched over his computer working on the case. But maybe he had decided that it'd be pointless today — that no one was going to communicate on work email during the holiday.

He stretched his legs out in front of him, his stomach sour from the whiskey. He stood up and walked to the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water before staring out the window. Last night felt so close to something — something he'd spent years running from. The idea of continuing to be alone together in the cabin having these small moments with Near was maddening. He felt like he was on fire with all the things he could say, all the ways he wanted to close the space between them. Pretending like his only interest in any of this was returning Near safely to DC was the biggest lie he'd ever had to keep going.

"We should get some fresh air," Mello said, glancing back to Near. "it will help to clear our heads."

Near looked out the window at the snow covered ground, the wind blowing through the trees of the cloudy landscape a small frown on his lips.

"I have an extra pair of boots you could wear," Mello said, thinking of the boring loafers that Near had been wearing when they arrived — probably still wet from the other night.

"Okay," Near agreed, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Give me five minutes," Mello said.

He headed for the bathroom, not feeling in the mood for a shower himself. Instead he scrubbed the stale taste of whiskey from his mouth with his toothbrush before washing his face. After dragging his bangs back over his eyes he grabbed a spare set of boots from the bedroom closet.

"That's a lot of excessive buckles," Near said as he tied the laces over his black pants.

"Excessive from a functional point of view maybe," Mello said, appreciating the sight of Near in his clothes, even if it was only boots.

Near's lips quirked into a smile as he grabbed his coat from the back of the kitchen chair.

"So where are we going?"

"There's a lake down there." Mello motioned past the trees that were blocking it from view. The area was a campground in the summer — making it virtually useless to him six months out of the year. But he could appreciate the trail that cut through the trees, even if it was snow covered. As they walked down the sloping path, Mello was glad for the fresh air, the bright light cleaning the heaviness from his thoughts.

"Do you come here often?" Near asked.

"Not recently. I've mostly been in Eastern Europe this past year." Mello said. "But Matt and I came here a lot during the early years of the Kira investigation." He stared out over the frozen lake that had come into view. "I have so many safe-houses like this one...they all start to look the same. But they're more convenient than a hotel. Much easier to play dead when I need to."

They both stopped at a wooden picnic table, and Mello kicked the snow off the top so they could sit down. Icicles hung around the edges of a charcoal grill next to them. Near used the top of his boot to knock them off, watching them pierce through the untouched snow beneath.

"I didn't know how to ask earlier. About how you survived." Near glanced over at him, "how you got away."

Mello let out a breath, glancing up at the heavy gray clouds drifting over the hills surrounding them. They was so low, it looked like the tops of the pine trees at the peaks of the hills might burst them open. He turned back to Near who was patiently waiting for some big revelation. But the answer had to be exactly what he'd already worked out on his own.

"I had broken into the reporter's house the night before and replaced her scraps of the Death Note. Then it was just a matter of escaping before anyone realized that my body wasn't in the burning rubble." He took a breath, "I thought I was pretty goddamn brilliant until I found out about Matt. They must have replayed the clip of him being shot a hundred times in the span of twenty-four hours on the news."

Near nodded, their breaths were silent clouds in the air.

"Why didn't you tell me that you were still alive?" he asked. Mello could tell that was the question he was actually interested in hearing the answer to.

"I didn't think you'd care." It was a half-truth. It wasn't that he was sure that Near wouldn't care — it was protection from the disappointment if he didn't.

Near looked down. The thick soles of Mello's boots looked out of place with the rest of his clothes. "I'm sorry — that I would have ever given you reason to think that."

"Sorry that I didn't tell you. I guess part of me was waiting for you to figure it out."

Near shrugged. "Maybe I would have. I have to admit that for a long time a part of me didn't believe that L was really dead. I thought that he faked his death out of necessity. That he was waiting in the sidelines for me to capture Kira."

His eyes were dark and unblinking — in that way that always reminded Mello of L.

"But then when you and Matt were killed everything felt real. And I wanted to bring Light Yagami to justice more than ever before, because I knew I had to avenge you all. I thought that it was like a game somehow. That once I won, everything he'd taken from me would come back. Like chess. All the pieces weren't really gone forever. Your opponent had just taken them for now. The board would be reset."

He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. "Of course it didn't. So the feeling in me that you hadn't really been killed — I thought it was some irrational hope — just like I'd had with L. I didn't want to entertain it, I had to accept that I was the only one left."

Mello could feel the rawness of Near's words in his own chest.

"You shouldn't have to be alone," Mello said, reaching a gloved hand over to grab Near's.

They looked at one another, and the frozen landscape around them folded away. Like the scenery in a play that was no longer required. Near's dark eyes were all Mello could focus on. He leaned forward, his hand gently gripping Near's cheek before he pressed their lips together in a soft but purposeful kiss. Near's eyes widened and he made a noise that wasn't quite surprise.

Mello pulled back, Near's face was bright red.

"You've probably already worked this out," Mello said, more nervous than he could remember feeling, his heart pounding loudly in his ears as he said the words, "I probably don't have to tell you how I feel…"

He took a breath, wishing he could stop talking, wishing he could really taste Near's lips, push his tongue through them — which was strange because he was never interested in kissing anyone, it always seemed unnecessary, boring even. But nothing about Near had ever been boring to him.

Near was looking into the distance, like all his responsibilities were watching them from the trees, his hair blowing against his cheeks. "You were the first one of us to realize that we don't belong together," he said, "and now more than ever we occupy two different worlds."

"Don't use your goddamn job to make excuses." Mello grasped Near's shoulder, but the younger man was staring at the table beneath them, like he was trying his best to keep his thoughts together.

"Whether you recognize it or not, I am L now," Near's voice broke over the words. "My life is about justice — it's not about — about..."

The knots of repressed ache that Mello had been storing for the past couple days seemed to come undone at once. "Dammit Near," he said, looking imploringly at him — trying to show how much he needed this, how much he knew that Near needed it too, "you either feel something or you don't!"

Near shook his head, dropping his eyes to the ground. "I — I should be working on the case." His voice was calm but different from his usual even tone. It was forced. He stood up, watching his boots sink into the snow again. He took a step back hesitantly, like he wasn't sure that he was really going to walk away. But after one final glance at Mello he turned and walked purposefully through the woods in the direction of the cabin.

"Fuck," Mello said under his breath to the space that Near had just occupied. He went to slam his fist down onto the table but stopped himself and took a breath, watching the wind kick up snow on the surface of the lake.

After years of burying what he'd felt, he had his answer. The idea that there's catharsis in truth was the biggest line of bullshit Mello had ever been told. He didn't feel like some weight had lifted or the truth had set him free. He just felt stupid and naive. This was the outcome he'd had enough sense at fourteen to foresee and prevent by keeping his mouth shut. A couple days alone with Near was all it had taken to bring it to the surface

There was a part of him that wasn't even surprised that things had gone this way. A part of him that had always known Near would say that; that it wouldn't work, that he couldn't let himself. Because he had expected this. Prepared himself for it in some secret way even.

He pulled out the pack of cigarettes he'd found in a drawer in the kitchen. They had been Matt's — left here by accident years ago and forgotten in time. He placed one between his lips. He didn't like to smoke but there was something calming knowing they were Matt's. It was the closest he could come to summoning his ghost; the presence of a friend. It made the thought of continued loneliness more bearable. Because he hadn't always been alone.

When he'd taken the final drag of the cigarette he crushed it into the tabletop, leaving behind a satisfying black smear of ash. But the reality was that he couldn't stay out here forever. Predictably there was a childish part of him that wanted to hop in the Mustang and put states, countries, and time zones between the two of them. Then he wouldn't have to face Near, wouldn't have to see this through. But that impulse was drowned before it had fully formed.

He had to go back to the cabin and give Near some bullshit excuse and continue to help him solve the case. Then he could put him back where he belonged and they could both go on living the best way they knew how. He walked slowly back to the cabin, trying to fit his feet into the footsteps that he and Near had made together on the walk over and not in the uneven imprints that Near had made when he'd left.

When he got to the tree line by the cabin his heart dropped to his stomach — another car was pulled behind his own. He instinctively reached for the gun in the pocket of his coat, clicking off the safety as he ran to the porch. Who could be here now? Would government agents really have tracked them here? Without hesitation he kicked open the front door, sending it flying back, cracking against the wall. But no one was inside and nothing was out of place. He kept his gun pointed straight out in front of him as he walked through each empty room.

"Mello!" a man's deep voice called out, echoing through the trees. Mello ran back outside. The heavy footprints leading away from the cabin caught his eye. He ran alongside them and down the curve of trees that led to the back of the lake. He heard his name again and ran faster, his blood pumping in his ears. Why the hell had he let Near walk back alone? How could he have been so careless — so stupid.

He stopped at the top of the rocky cliff that overlooked the lake and took in everything at once. A burly man dressed in a black leather jacket was holding Near by the throat, slammed up against a tree. There was an angry red welt under Near's eye and blood running out of the corner of his lip. Near was struggling to kick his feet up against the tree — trying to hold himself up. Trying to breathe.

"PUT HIM DOWN!" Mello yelled, surprised at the fury in his voice, his gun pointing directly at the man. The man abruptly let go of Near's neck, allowing him to fall to his knees, gasping for air in the snow.

"Mello — it's not polite to point a gun at a friend," the man said, clucking his tongue, and Mello's eyes narrowed. The bigger man was mostly known for doing hits for the mob. He was someone he'd worked on cases in the past with, someone he'd meet up with at bars when work took them to the same areas. Someone he'd let crash here before. They weren't friends exactly, they simply benefitted from one another's cooperation and shared resources.

"What the fuck do you want Kimbel?"

"Two weeks ago — you tell me over drinks that you've been hired to trail a top US intelligence official. Shortly afterwards you drop off the map. Then I hear talk that the same snot-nosed kid that killed Kira was blown up — assassinated. It wasn't hard to put two-and-two together."

Mello's eyes dropped to Near, who had staggered to his feet. Mello took a step closer to him, keeping his gun trained on the other man as he moved through the snow.

Kimbel sighed, watching Mello with a sort of bemused expression. "Then I think to myself... isn't this the same kid you worked with the mafia to fuck over a couple years ago? Now I know you Mello — I know you wouldn't put a vendetta like that to rest with just an anonymous hit. An explosion even? Not your style. So I came here to ask you how it really went down thinking I was in for one hell of a story. But what did I find?" He glanced over at Near, "He's L — right? The secret weapon of every alphabet agency. The mastermind behind how many of my buddy's deaths…I find him traipsing through the snow around your property like he's on a goddamn winter vacation!"

"What the hell does it matter to you?" Mello yelled, finally close enough to grab Near by the sleeve of his coat, pulling the shorter man behind him.

"It matters to me because you're fucking up your reputation for a cop — this kid is an narc — he's a fed — he's everything we are supposed to stand against."

"It's my choice!" Mello said, feeling the anger swelling in his chest. The only way his reputation would be ruined is if someone like Kimbel started running their mouth off. Mello knew what he had to do, should do right now to make sure that didn't happen. But he could feel Near's gaze on the back of his neck. No matter how strong the impulse was to pull the trigger, he couldn't bring himself to kill someone in cold blood in front of him.

"The thing is buddy, you have too much shit on me — on all of us — to have the ear of the FBI sharing meals with you." Kimbel pulled a gun from inside his coat, and pointed it at Near's head, his brows knitting together. "I'm doing you a favor," he said gruffly, before pulling the trigger.

Mello threw himself towards Near, shoving him to the ground before he heard the gunshot boom through the frozen air. He felt the shot rip through his shoulder, but even as he staggered back from the impact he fired his own gun. He saw the first shot connect with Kimbel's thigh, causing him to fall back and the second bullet struck the other man in the chest before he'd hit the ground. He fell backwards, sliding down the snow covered rocks leading to the lake, and crashed through the ice.

Mello glanced over at Near, who was picking himself off the ground. "Stay there!" he ordered, keeping his gun pointed forward as he ran through the snow and slid down the hill after the body.

Kimbel's body was lying face down in the frozen water, the ice he'd crashed through was floating around him like broken glass. And without pausing to check if he was already dead, Mello put one more bullet in his temple to be sure. He finally lowered his gun, stuffing it back into his pocket before letting out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. He closed his eyes for just a second, shaking away the wave of dizziness that had overcome him. He knew he'd been hit in the shoulder — he just didn't know how severe the damage was. But he couldn't be out here in the snow trying to figure it out.

Near was standing on the top of the snowbank, looking down at him — his eyes wide as the wind whipped his hair against his face.

"We have to get back inside," Mello shouted as he climbed back up the icy rocks, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in his shoulder. There was no way to be sure that Kimbel had come alone — or that he hadn't told others what he was doing. The only way that Mello could regain control of the situation was to get back to the cabin.

"Are you okay?" Near asked, searching for evidence of an injury, scanning the black fabric of Mello's coat. "I thought—"

"Of course I am," Mello said too quickly. He'd made it up the hill and stood beside Near, glancing through the trees for additional threats. "I'm just out of breath." His hands were shaking, and he shoved them into his pockets, telling himself that it was just adrenaline. He didn't want to think about what would have happened if he'd gotten there a minute later. He didn't want to look at the red fingerprints on Near's pale skin — didn't want to meet Near's eye at all. All he could focus on was trying to keep his breathing under control as they made their way through the trees, to stay focused on what he had to do, to keep moving his feet.

"You're bleeding." Near had a note of panic in his voice, looking back at the trail of blood that was following them. Mello could feel the sticky warmth of blood trapped under his sweater, worming its way down his stomach.

"The bullet must have grazed me." He could see the cabin through the trees but another wave of dizziness came over him. He reached out and gripped Near's shoulder for support.

Near didn't say anything as Mello continued to press more weight down on his shoulder every couple steps. The closer they got to the cabin the more he negotiated with himself about how much further he had to keep walking. First it was just inside the door — then to the porch — but he'd just be happy if they made it to the tree line at this point. The drops of blood landing in the snow were coming quicker now and he knew that he only had a matter of time until the blood loss caused him to blackout entirely.

"Mello—"

"Lock all the doors once we're inside. Take my gun. Keep it with you. There's antibiotics in the cabinet under the bathroom sink — gauze...and..." he was mumbling while his vision was tunneling. He realized that they made it onto the porch and had just crossed through the open door. Some part of him decided it was okay to sink to his knees now onto the cabin floor, to rest finally — his hand fumbling with the zipper of his coat.

"Just stop talking," Near said, his hands working quick to pull off Mello's coat. He sucked in a sharp gasp of air at the sight of where the bullet had torn through Mello's shoulder. Mello's chest was covered in blood, the ends of his blonde hair were sticking against the wound as his head hung forward. Near didn't investigate further before jumping up and rushing into the kitchen in search of towels.

The floor seemed so welcoming, and Mello laid back down against it, his hair spilling out around his head. He lay there listening to Near's footsteps moving through the cabin — the floor creaking under the weight. The world outside had been silenced — the birds scared off by the gunshots, even the wind had died down.

"I'm okay," Mello whispered to himself, pressing his hand against the piercing pain in his shoulder. He wasn't aware of when it'd started hurting so bad, or when his breaths had become so shallow. "I'm okay," he repeated weakly, as Near returned with a dishtowel, prying his hands away from the wound.

All Mello could focus on was the way Near's breaths were staggered — almost like he was choking again. He groaned as Near pushed away the fabric of his sweater to access the wound. Mello could smell the blood — he could see it on Near's pale hands as he reached for extra towels on the floor next to them. Near was applying pressure to his shoulder and Mello had the distinct impression that he was sinking into the floor beneath his grip.

"Mello—Mello—open your eyes!" Near's words were shaky, like the syllables couldn't escape his lips in the right order and Mello could feel hot tears falling onto his cheeks. Mello didn't remember closing his eyes but it seemed like a good idea to keep them shut.

"I'm sorry," Near kept repeating the words like a prayer — like a confession — like a deal he was making with someone Mello couldn't see. Mello wanted to tell him that he didn't need to be sorry, that he didn't need to be so upset. That everything that had happened today didn't count because it was still Christmas. And Christmas wasn't even a real day. He wanted to sit up and assure him that he'd survived worse.

But it took all of his energy to crack open his eyes again. Near looked so scared, so fragile and alone as he choked back sobs. A purple bruise was already forming under his eye, the blood from his split lip had wormed its way down his chin. The added color on Near's face seemed more out of place, more lurid than the bullet wound in his own shoulder. Everything had happened so fast - but didn't it always? Once again he hadn't been there when someone he loved was getting hurt.

"Please stay with me — please don't leave me alone again," Near whispered, wrapping an arm behind Mello's head. His white hair hung over his face making Mello think of the snow beating down on the windshield the night he'd driven them here. He thought of the M&Ms he'd crunched between his teeth as he drove and how the tie Near had been wearing looked so out of place.

The pain in his shoulder was spreading down his arm and he grimaced and felt a wall of blackness closing in on his thoughts. The sensation of Near's hot tears on his face and the pressure he was applying on the wound faded along with the pain.

And through the cobwebs of unconsciousness overtaking him he was sure he heard Near saying that he needed him, that he wanted him — that he loved him. Mello wanted to repeat the words — whether they were real or imagined, but a soft groan was all that he heard come from his lips. Everything felt far away — like it was happening at the wrong end of a tunnel. But Near was safe and holding him and that's all he'd really wanted in the end.


Author's Note: So this may very well be the longest chapter I've ever written of any fanfic ever. But yeah, it was necessary. I pretty much wrote this while listening to Matt Skiba's, "Haven't You" on an endless loop. I think Mello's middle name *is* probably danger, but if you're trying to get into the mood of the story, I highly recommend it. Also, there's some amazing artwork that goes along with this chapter, so head over to my tumblr page to check it out!

Anyway, I hope you all are still enjoying this story. Please continue to leave reviews, as the support and feedback is much appreciated! :)