Notes: For moontyger, because without her I wouldn't love Near half as much as I do now. :)
"Nate! Nate, darling!"
Though he heard the voice echoing from the hallway, he didn't look up. A few lone toys lay scattered on the carpet in front of him, but for the moment his attention was focused solely on the multi-faceted coloured cube which he clicked and rotated in his hands.
The living room was light, airy, and immaculately clean. Indeed, if he himself hadn't been sitting there in the middle of the floor as living proof, one might not have known that there was a child living there at all. He didn't even look up when footsteps sounded, and he heard her come into the room; she walked first to the large alcove in front of the window, and tugged listlessly at the curtains, gazing out over the precisely striped lawn.
Nate had never much cared for looking out of the windows; as far as he was concerned, there wasn't much to see. Rows of houses, each identical to the one before. A neat, green square of garden in front of that white, pristine suburban house. His parents had always been concerned with outward appearances.
He much preferred to stay indoors.
He finally looked up as she left the window and came over to stand beside him, sinking into a crouch, a pink lipsticked smile plastered on her face, "Mommy's looked after you, right?"
He didn't reply; Nate was only seven years old, after all, and they rarely listened to anything he had to say. She fell silent for a moment, and watched him click the cubes into position; the constant, repetitive 'snap' as each coloured facet fell into place seemed to irritate her.
Her gaze flickered up towards the mantelpiece, upon which stood several neatly framed photographs; Nate appeared in none of them. All had perfect composition; perfect colouring - snapshots of a life his parents seemed to treasure and desperately try and cling to, all the while maintaining a façade of pleasant congeniality. A small sigh escaped her, and she turned back to him.
She still wasn't leaving. He blinked and looked up at her questioningly. Her slender arm came out and seemed to hover for a moment by his hair, as though perhaps thinking to tousle the soft, pale curls as she had never done before - but then the hand fell away, and instead moved to gently flick an imaginary speck of dust from the shoulder of his oversized, white pyjamas.
No one had bothered to get him dressed today.
His mother removed her hand and stood up, smoothing down her lilac skirt as she did so. Nate was glad she hadn't tried to hug him - he couldn't remember the last time one of his parents had initiated contact, and now even the thought of it made him feel uncomfortable.
He turned the hard, plastic cube over in his small hands, attention fixed on it once again. He was aware of her standing there, watching him for a few moments more, and then she was gone, hovering in the hallway and calling for his father.
"Nate... we're just going out for a little while, okay? You can manage by yourself, right?"
Another of those rhetorical questions that he never deigned to answer. Nate felt a strange sort of distance from his parents; for any other child, it might have been unwelcome - but as far as he was concerned, his parents were little more than familiar strangers. For as long as he could remember, his parents had not been cold or cruel - just, remote, as though pretending that most of the time, he wasn't there.
He had adjusted accordingly, and now no longer consciously recalled those feelings of loneliness or hurt, or of wanting to be held. Now, things were the way they were, and Nate believed himself content.
He nodded and bit his lip, pretending not to notice the packed bags waiting by the front door. Once the door was closed, and he heard the engine of the car start up and then disappear down the street, there was silence.
Nate snapped the cube one more time, and all the colours were set into place.
He stayed there on the living room floor, still in those white pyjamas until night fell. His parents did not return, and eventually he just clambered up onto one of the armchairs, and fell asleep curled up on the large cushion.
Nate was awoken suddenly the next morning by a loud rapping on the front door, persistent and invasive. He yawned, but slid down off the chair and padded, barefoot, out into the soft carpeted hallway. A large, dark shape loomed outside the frosted glass, and he reached up on his tiptoes, so that he was able to stretch to reach the cold door handle.
A faintly surprised looking man wearing a uniform gazed down at him; Nate instantly recognised him as someone that he had seen his parents talking to before. On what subject, he had never known - but his mother had always tried to look to look her best, forcing on that smile he was so familiar with and leaning forward, trying to charm him.
"...are your parents in?" The man looked apologetic, and almost sorry for him. Nate kept his expression neutral.
"No. They left yesterday."
The man blinked, and looked faintly confused, "...left?"
"Yes," Nate nodded, and played with the end of his sleeve, "I don't think they're coming back."
He was faintly surprised, then, when the man didn't question him any further; perhaps what he saw when he looked over past Nate's head into the bare hallway told him enough. Or, perhaps, it was an occurrence he had come encountered before.
The uniformed man crouched down so that he could look Nate in the eyes, and put on that pitying, forced smile. Nate hated it, the way all adults did it. The way he saw it, people should either show what they're really feeling, or not show anything at all.
"Don't worry," the man made as though to reach out and pat him on the shoulder, but Nate shied away, and half hid behind the open door. The man froze, and dropped his arm in defeat. "Alright, you just wait there. I need to go and make some calls."
As the strange man left the doorway and returned to his van, Nate was finally able to read the bold, serious-looking lettering on the side.
'Morrell & Co. Debt Collection Agency'
It had been quite a long time; it soon became apparent to Nate that he had no relatives who wanted him, and that his parents were not going to be found. Either way, he had been taken away from their silent, picturesque house (so perfect on the outside, he heard them say as they came to take him), and eventually, after much discussion, debate and arguing on the part of various adults who decided he was their responsibility, ended up on a plane.
He had never been on a plane before, and even the apparently kind man called Roger who accompanied him, and spoke with a strange British accent could not put him at ease. It did not bother him that he was leaving America; nor that he might never return. He simply hated the fact that he did not entirely know what was going on - these adults, these various strangers - all talking about him, and what they thought was best.
Nate hadn't expected to be asked his opinion on the matter - his parents had never listened to him, so why should these people?
On the plane, though, Roger did ask him. Though when it came to it, he wasn't really sure what to say.
It didn't make everything okay, but it helped.
Near adapted quietly, and without any fuss. He'd accepted his new name ("we like to give all of our children a fresh start," Roger had explained, "and all of you are intelligent enough to realise why anonymity will be important."), and settled into his new room.
He wasn't used to all the noise and boisterous activity from the other children, and kept very much to himself as he had always done. Some of the well-meaning staff would make attempts to draw him out and persuade him to join in, but he politely refused, every time.
Near was, however, secretly delighted to find that the schoolwork they did here was on a much higher level than anything he'd had to sit through before. Admittedly, it was still easy for him - but it was an improvement. He knew - from what Roger had told him - that all of the children here were what they referred to as 'gifted', but despite being one of the youngest, he had yet to find another who worked on his level. The house also had huge libraries, and Near would sit for hours, making his way through the heaps of books he had collected.
He'd never really seen the point of making a fuss about anything; thinking calmly and rationally was the logical way to do things. So it was with very little interest that he noted the arrival of a rather noisy new orphan, who joined the Wammy House only a couple of weeks after himself.
He glanced up from where he sat piecing together a large jigsaw puzzle, and saw through the doorway a child with chin-length fair hair reluctantly following one of the female staff, and complaining loudly in heavily accented English.
For a split-second the foreign boy seemed to stop in his tirade and stare at Near curiously, scanning him briefly before walking on, continuing with his objections.
It was at that time that Near made his initial judgement of the boy; temperamental, impulsive, over-emotional - dismissible. He would not realise until years later how both utterly right, and yet utterly wrong that first assessment was. In all, he did not have cause to think of him again until mid-morning the next day.
He just wouldn't stop staring.
Though he didn't really like to admit it, it was somewhat unnerving. For the vast majority of his life, very little attention had been paid to Near. As a result, he was perfectly content to keep his own company, and was accustomed to being ignored.
He'd disliked the furore which had surrounded him in the months after his parents' disappearance, but had accepted that it would only be temporary. And, indeed, once he'd arrived in England, he was - for the most part - left to himself, because that was what he wanted. Even the other children had quickly realised that Near was not going to become 'one of them', and simply regarded him with that distant, faint awe which they saw as his due for almost immediately becoming top of the class.
But no one had ever been so persistently focused on him as this boy seemed to be. It was that foreign blond child from before - the noisy one, who he'd deemed so ignorable. What could he possibly find so interesting about Near?
As it happened, he found out that very evening.
He recognised the voice and looked up from his puzzle, rather taken aback as the newcomer eyed him speculatively for a moment, before sitting himself down on the other side of the jigsaw. Near did not reply, just regarded him, expressionless, and slotted another piece into place.
The boy was unphased, and continued, "I'm Mello."
His accent was strong, but Near knew that because he was young, it would soon fade. Mello's English seemed to be good, at any rate, if his tirade from the previous night was anything to go by.
The other boy frowned slightly at Near's lack of responsiveness, but seemed content to continue talking.
"...they say you're the top of the class. That's true, right?" He narrowed his eyes as Near just picked out another loose puzzle piece, and promptly found where it belonged. "Which means, out of anyone, you've got to know something about this 'L'..." Mello glanced down in annoyance, and moodily poked at Near's jigsaw, "...they wouldn't tell me much."
"There's not much to tell," Near finally met Mello's intent gaze, and shrugged, "I haven't met him yet, though they say he's coming back here soon. He's the best detective in the world, and one day, one of us will take his place."
Mello bit his lip, and didn't look pleased.
"I knew that."
Near felt faintly annoyed at the other boy's arrogance, and set about straightening the puzzle where Mello had prodded it into odd curves.
"Then why ask about something you know none of us knows?"
He saw Mello's eyes widen briefly, as though hurt, but then his expression contorted into a scowl. Near was intrigued that, apparently, he had said something offensive - though it had honestly just been a curious question. It simply confirmed his first opinion of the boy, though - temperamental; volatile. If he'd been the type to care, Near would have made a note to tread carefully around this one.
Mello remained silently angry for a moment, and then stood up. "You may be top of the class for now... but it won't be for long," he declared heatedly, and then, when Near failed to respond, made a noise of exasperation and stormed out of the room.
As soon as he was gone, Near looked up to gaze thoughtfully at the empty space where Mello had been sitting. If he were honest with himself, it was rather perplexing. Certainly none of the others had ever reacted to him with this much interest - or violence - and Near hadn't had cause to get annoyed with any of the other children before. Mello... was different.
Although, he reasoned, it wasn't so unsurprising if it just turned out that Mello was intensely competitive - he would have expected to encounter a lot of that here anyway. Perhaps it was merely inevitable.
Yet... as the weeks went on, Near knew that wasn't quite it, and it unsettled him that, for once, he couldn't work out what the problem was. Mello always seemed to be watching him closely; studying him, or finding some excuse to come and taunt him.
Mello just wouldn't leave him alone.
Even in class, Mello would frequently come and sit beside him, and talk at length on how much he liked or disliked a particular subject - or about how he expected they'd all be utterly disappointed when they finally got to meet L. He was outspoken, and he was honest. Near found that as much as the other boy irritated him, distracted him - he couldn't help but appreciate how he didn't hide behind a mask, or tell sweet lies to try and pacify the teachers as so many of the other children did. Mello was himself, openly, and said whatever came to mind.
In some small, secret way, Near envied him for that.
At first, he never did manage to surpass Near, though, in terms of either essay marks or test results. Mello would try, again and again - only to come second, always. Near could see how it bothered him; could see the anger and pain flash across his features - but then his mouth would settle into that determined smile, and Near would know that Mello was not willing to give up just yet.
It was how things were.
Sometimes, Near would get up in the middle of the night to walk to the library to fetch a book he suddenly thought to read - and he would pass Mello's door, and see the light seeping through the cracks and keyhole - and he would pause. He knew that Mello was studying. More and more recently, the blond boy had looked drawn and tired, but his marks had pulled up. A couple of days ago, he even beat Near on an English paper - and that seemed to have decided it.
From then on, Mello seemed to view Near as his rival, and the casual, almost friendly discussions stopped. Until that happened, Near hadn't realised how... used to Mello's presence he had become. He knew this change was partly his fault - his own reticence, his own projection of disinterest - no wonder Mello had given up on seeing Near as anything other than a competitor for the vaguely desirable title of 'L's successor'.
And so it was, with an unpleasant jolt of mortification, that Near realised he was guilty of that action he so despised in other people - disguising how he really felt. He had always been alone - and his parents had only ever talked to him as though they were actually interested when they had wanted him to do something. He was far too accustomed to automatically projecting that mask of indifference - without the slightest notion of how it might seem to those who it was not originally intended for.
Of course, it was far too late to do anything now, and Near knew both he and Mello were too proud for the situation to change. It was a sinking, gradual feeling - the unsettlement of an unresolved situation.
But in spite of himself, Near became more perceptive at reading Mello, and saw in his eyes the changes that constant studying and determination to beat him brought. Near reacted as he always had, and convinced himself that truly, it was better this way. He was better off alone.
Eventually, and perhaps unavoidably, things came to a head. It was five o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and Near had returned to his room to find Mello sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed, amidst a scattered jigsaw puzzle which Near had been working on, leafing through the pages of a recent science report he'd written that had been left on the desk.
Near just stood in the doorway and stared, as the other boy looked up and he was met with Mello's defiant gaze. Neither of them moved, and Mello smiled, looking rather pleased with himself.
"...what are you doing?" He found himself, once more, faintly at a loss because of this strange, unpredictable boy.
"Oh, nothing..." Mello grinned and jumped up, tossing the papers back onto the bed among the mixed up pieces of jigsaw. He sauntered over to where Near stood, and unexpectedly touched a hand to his shoulder.
The reaction was instinctive: Near stumbled back, away from that intrusive hand (oh, he could still feel the heat, the warmth from those fingers burning into his skin), and away from this boy who had once seemed so intent on working his unwelcome, irrational way into Near's life. Why this, why now?
He took a deep breath, and fled as calmly as he could to the back of the room, placing the solid presence of the bed in between himself and Mello.
Him - Mello - raised an eyebrow, and smirked,
Near hated this. For the first time in years, he felt flustered. He quickly schooled his features into careful neutrality, and began collecting together the puzzle from on top of his duvet, refusing to look up. He certainly wasn't going to give Mello the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him. But Mello simply leaned against the doorframe, and crossed his arms, as though waiting for something.
It was frustrating. Near wanted to believe that Mello was just acting this way out of jealousy - after all, he had threatened to displace Near from his standing at the top of the class, but as time had revealed, that claim had been unfounded. He'd had a few odd victories, but for the most part, Mello came second.
But jealously... wasn't it. At least, not completely. There was something else there, that he couldn't quite read; couldn't quite pin down. He knew that, in Mello's eyes, they must be rivals. But...
Anything else - from before - that had... gone, hadn't it?
Near climbed onto the bed, and scooped up the last of the loose pieces. It was niggling at him - and for the first and last time, he allowed some of his irritation with Mello to surface. He wanted this boy, who confused him and upset his ordered thoughts, gone.
Of course, they were children, but Mello still looked surprised that for once Near deigned to act like one. He watched as Mello shut his eyes, and smiled softly - and then, he was gone.
Near sat alone in the middle of his bed, and played with the cuffs of his long sleeves, lower lip trembling, pale curls falling into his eyes. Near hated being confused; Near hated not understanding. Then and there he decided that he'd had enough, and that he would no longer allow Mello to affect him in this way. Mello did not fit into the picture; Mello was nothing. Mello was...
He sniffed, and started piecing the puzzle Mello had destroyed back together.
He hadn't thought that Mello might do something like this. Hadn't been able to predict... Hadn't been able to...
He thought back to his parents; to their glassy smiles and utter disinterest - there was something he could understand; could deal with. But, this... Well, he would just have to learn. And so, eventually Near perfected his calm shell; not even that boy could provoke him now.
And yet, still, there were times when he would feel vaguely discomfited, and look up to find those watchful, intense eyes on him.
Near believed in logic, and order, and calm analysis. Mello was of the kind who seemed to persistently disregard all of these tenets, and Near should have been able to ignore him completely from the beginning.
And yet... for some reason, Near had never been able to - and still couldn't - quite put that blond, temperamental boy out of his mind.