He's never really thought about the fact that, someday, it might all come to an end. He lies on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, and the room is dark. The door is cracked open, cutting a thin, sharp swathe of light across the centre of the floor.
For the moment, it's quiet, though he knows that won't last for long; it's almost seven o'clock.
He flicks through the worn pages of a book, bored, barely registering that he can't even see the words on the darkly shadowed pages. Instead, what catches his attention are the crumples and creases; marks and tiny rips that can never be erased.
He sighs and sits up, tossing the book aside and jumping off the bed just as the call comes.
"Mihael! What are you doing? Get down here!"
He stuffs his hands in his pockets and makes his way to the door, nudging it open with his foot. The bright, warm light from the hallway floods across his face, and he squints, hearing the familiar banging of annoyed activity from the kitchen below.
"Mihael!" He hears the tired irritation in her voice, hears the fatigue and weary apprehension.
The kitchen's hot and full of steam; pans bubble over on the stove, and the kettle's making a shrill whistling noise that causes her to exclaim in exasperation, wiping down her hands and hurrying to fetch it.
He doesn't really see why she bothers, and as he slips into the room, regards the situation with a kind of lazy boredom.
The sound of the front door slamming is sudden and loud, and then...
"Why must you always do that, every night! Is it too much to ask for you to just--"
He shakes his head, blond hair falling into his eyes, and sighs.
So here is Mihael Keehl: a small child of seven, who's standing in the corner of the noisy kitchen, simultaneously despairing for and pitying his parents. It's habit now; tuning out their pointless, infantile arguments until he can't hear them anymore.
He leaves his mother, incensed and currently brandishing a spatula at his father, and wanders over to the cutlery draw to start setting the table.
It's all so tiresome.
Dinner is over; it was an icy, uncomfortable affair, and Mihael could bring himself to eat very little. But afterwards, as usual his father's pulling him aside and slipping some chocolate into his hands, pinching his cheek and pushing him into the other room.
That's right, be a good little boy and run along; let the grown-ups have their chat.
Mihael hates being condescended to - but he does appreciate the chocolate, and like so many other young boys when pushed, will grudgingly admit he loves his parents - and so considers it an acceptable trade.
He sits himself down on the sofa, sinking into the soft, worn red fabric; a fire crackles and spits in the hearth opposite, and he watches it dance. Soon, the chocolate is gone, and he starts to kick the coffee table in front of him as boredom sets in. He's not supposed to leave yet, he knows; he can still hear the subdued voices drifting through the doorway.
But then, the silence begins and he rolls his eyes, perfectly aware of what's going on. Far too aware for a boy of his age, he knew most would say. Mihael is intelligent, and he knows it. Knows it in the way that he already likes to read more intellectual books than his parents; knows it in the way that the crosswords in the paper hold no challenge for him anymore.
He's perceptive, and even if it hadn't happened a hundred times before, could still tell that it was all okay when his mother entered the room.
She's smiling, cheeks flushed, and a hint of the prettiness that once occupied her features returns - though the smile creases up those fine lines round the corners of her eyes, and she still looks old; worn. She hurries over to him and scoops him up, hoisting his thin frame easily into her arms, and she clutches him close.
His father watches from the doorway, now grinning, a glass of beer in his hand.
The house is finally quiet as Mihael clings to his mother, small hands gripping the back of her blouse, face buried in the warm softness of her hair.
Now, it's all okay - but it wasn't the first time, and Mihael knows it won't be the last.
Yeah. He loves his parents, but more than anything else, he pities them.
His parents go out together the next day, and leave him with a friend's teenage daughter. She starts stroking his hair and cooing idiotically - so he just gives her a withering glare, and stalks up to his room to be alone.
The evening creeps by slowly, and Mihael's downstairs, poking the dying embers of the fire in the sitting room when the phone call comes. He watches as she answers, watches as her eyes widen and mouth falls open. She gasps, and he sees her glance over at him, clearly panicked, before she turns away and speaks in hurried, hushed tones into the handset.
Mihael swallows, and feels his stomach tighten; twisting uncomfortably and finally settling in a pool of tangled nerves.
She gently lays down the phone and turns to him, a sickeningly fake smile plastered on her face. He stares at her, hating the act, hating the way she thinks she can fool him.
"I..." She falters, and wrings her hands, not quite meeting his gaze. The room suddenly seems cold, and with her lengthening silence, Mihael feels the hot, unwanted tears start to prickle at the back of his eyes.
"Y-your parents..." She bites her lip and tries to reach for him, but he pushes her hands away and turns to stare into the hearth. "They..." His breath catches in his throat as she forces out those words - those painful, punishing words he knows are coming, "they... it was a car accident."
He doesn't need to ask if they have survived; it's evident from the sorrowful finality in her voice; in the pity and tears that glisten in her eyes.
He stabs at the glowing coals with the iron poker, refusing to face her, lip trembling and eyes burning.
"Mihael..." she begins, and he knows she's trying to comfort him - but at the moment he hates her, can't stand her with a virulent passion that makes him clench his fists and fling the metal poker across the room.
She's backing away, looking worried - and he doesn't care in the slightest.
"Shut up!" He's choking out the words and screaming at her as the first tears spill out onto his cheeks, and he shouts and rages until his throat is sore, and she's just standing there, silently, and he can't take the pain that's building in his chest just because his parents were sososo stupid and that they would leave him like this, after everything they'd gone through, after all their hugs and promises and in spite of everything---
He coughs, half choking on his tears and uneven breath, and grabs the photo that sits on top of the fireplace - the one that sits in the centre, the one that has pride of place, the one that's of all three of them, smiling and sitting in the garden, contented and together and happy - and hurls it at the floor, at the cold dark tiles that surround the grate.
It shatters, and glass sprays everywhere - and the photograph drifts into the coals, bringing them to life in one final burst of green flames; popping and hissing in objection. But then it's gone, and the fireplace becomes dark, dusted with the ashes of those memories.
Mihael inhales shakily for a moment, before collapsing to the carpet among the shards of glass, sobbing quietly as he shakes with the breathy gasps wracking his small body. And this time, when she approaches him and gingerly takes him in her arms - he doesn't fight, and instead clings desperately to the only other warm figure in the room. She doesn't smell like his mother, or feel like her, and it hurts so much he can't bear it.
But the living room is suddenly so cold and dark, and Mihael has no-one else.
He never saw her again. After that night, Mihael was passed from person to person, from place to place for nearly a year. The first orphanage he was sent to was in Leipzig, only a few miles from his hometown - but he was deemed too disruptive and troublesome, and was moved on to Heidelberg. Essen. And, ultimately, Rostock.
It was there that, finally, one of the staff members began to notice Mihael's intelligence; disguised as it was beneath that veneer of aggressiveness and arrogance. He took the young boy aside, and began to teach him. At first, Mihael was reluctant - but the sessions revived that spark he'd once had; that enjoyment he gained from learning something new.
He picked up the Polish and English he was taught almost immediately, and took great pleasure in mocking all the other children in languages they couldn't understand. This made some of the older orphans furious - but Mihael had a natural talent for dealing with people, and when he was so inclined could easily talk himself out of any situation. He was small - but his intelligence and instinct for leadership attracted the others to him, despite his attitude.
However, after four months in Rostock, he was told that he might be moved again - but this time, to England.
He didn't even wait for the strange foreign woman to finish explaining before he said,
"Yeah. I'll go."
Mello's tired, irritated, and resenting the fact that he let himself be manipulated so perfectly. That's right, he thinks, they made so sure to flatter my ego, tell me I'm special, that I can make something of myself if I come here... and then manage to tell me nothing at all.
He knows it was impulsive, but he doesn't really care. It's an exhilarating feeling, leaving all of those ordinary German orphanages behind - he might hate the fact that here they don't really explain anything properly, but at least they don't treat him like he's stupid.
Here, they know what he can do, and he fully intends to take advantage of everything the Wammy House has to offer.
He's led in through the imposing, heavy front doors, and amuses himself by taking out his frustration on the woman showing him in; complaining loudly about anything that comes to mind, demanding to know exactly what goes on here and why they're doing it.
But he's glancing around the large hallway as he walks, taking in the high ceilings and marble tiles; the bookcases and elaborate doorways. And through one of the doorways, he sees a strangely pale, hunched boy, and pauses.
More than anything else, Mello's amused. Is that the kind of child they have here? But the others, outside... And then the boy looks up, and Mello's confronted with those cool, calculating grey eyes. He hovers, watching him for a split-second more, and then Mello forces himself to look away and carries on, stamping noisily forward over the tiles, resuming his complaints.
Even as he's left to settle into his new room, Mello can't quite forget that look. Yeah, the pale boy looked a bit weird... but there was something about him, that made him stand out from all the other children Mello had seen playing outside. Time to investigate.
It does not take him long to discover that the boy he'd seen was named Near, and that he'd been top of the class since his arrival only a few weeks earlier. Interesting.
Maybe here was someone he could really talk to; an equal. And perhaps Near would know more about what went on in this place.
It's Mello's first night at the Wammy orphanage, and he lies awake in bed, buried underneath the thick covers. He's not bothered by the unfamiliar room; not bothered by the darkness which is broken only by the thin shafts of moonlight creeping in from the window. He is bothered, however, by the fact that he doesn't know what's wrong with him.
There's an unpleasant, nervous feeling in his stomach - but Mello knows that's ridiculous, because he can't possibly be worried about this.
In the past year, he's become stronger, and he's perfectly capable of standing on his own two feet. Mello hasn't forgotten the pain of losing his parents (no, could never forget, not when the image of their burning photograph is etched so vividly in his mind), but he also knows that he's pushed past it.
He's done with grieving. And here, he has a fresh start - and the chance to prove himself in a way that would never have been possible a year ago.
So he'll play their game, and he'll become one of their prodigies - but he'll be the one reaping the benefits.
That thought makes him feel a little better - but as he falls into a restless sleep, all he can really see are those strange, attentive grey eyes.
It's during class the next day that he really gets a chance to study Near - watches how he hardly has to think before he's writing an answer down; watches how he twirls those pale curls around one finger; watches how he bites on the end of his pen, and tries to pretend that he doesn't see Mello's gaze on him.
He admits it; he's intrigued - and Mello smiles in amusement as he sees Near glance back at him yet again This could be interesting.
It's not until evening, though, that he has a chance to catch up with Near, and comes across him sitting on the floor in one of the side rooms, a large complex puzzle spread out before him.
"You're Near", he announces, and the pale boy looks up at him, expressionless. He doesn't reply.
So, he's going to be like that. Well, that's fine. Mello's not the kind of boy to be discouraged so easily, after all. He sits himself down opposite Near, and is met with those striking eyes again, watching him, judging him.
It makes him a little uncomfortable, but he forges ahead anyway, "I'm Mello."
Still no response. Mello's lips twist into a frown, and Near's gone back to looking at his jigsaw. Had he overestimated Near's intelligence? Or was he simply arrogant?
"...they say you're the top of the class. That's true, right? Which means, out of anyone, you've got to know something about this 'L'..." He glances down, irritated, and moodily pokes at the half-completed jigsaw; the emerging picture seems to be something inane and childish.
This was what had been hovering at the back of his mind - that they were all supposed successors for 'L', and yet weren't even told who he was, and hardly anything about him. To be perfectly honest, Mello could survive without knowing. But it seemed an appropriate topic with which to approach Near, so it would have to do.
He blinks and feels something in his chest tighten when Near glances up at him - expression still unreadable, but there was some emotion in those eyes which made him wither a little inside. Pity? Condescension? Disappointment?
"There's not much to tell," Near shrugs, "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."
It's an unuseful reply; is that truly all he knows? Or is he just being deliberately obtuse? But if he knew more, Near could tell Mello - couldn't he see that? From what he had seen today, he was the only one anywhere close to Near's level!
"I knew that," he says impatiently, needing for Near to be aware that he was attentive, had already picked these things up for himself. What he needed right now was insider knowledge, and hoped Near could be the one to give it to him.
"Then why ask about something you know none of us knows?"
Mello's eyes widen as the snide comment comes from those calm lips, that expressionless face.
So that was it; Near thought him a fool. And it hurt, that the one person who had seemed worthwhile in this place insisted on snubbing him; looking down on him. Well, fine.
"You may be top of the class for now... but it won't be for long," he blurts out, childish rage taking over, hating that he's being treated like this. He deserves better, and he's going to make sure Near knows it.
But Near's back to focusing on his puzzle, ignoring him again - and Mello can't stand it, and storms out of the room.
Near... he's an emotional-cripple, that's what he is. It's a bitter thought, but it makes Mello determined to get a reaction out of the other boy - he might have maintained this calm façade so far, but with Mello around, it wouldn't be so easy. Of that he was sure.
Over the next few weeks, Mello watches Near closely. Sits beside him in class, talks to him as often as possible, even though it's clear that Near's not interested in the slightest, and couldn't care less whether or not Mello is there.
But in a way, he's glad for Near's silence; glad that Near's arrogance is so utterly overwhelming. It gives him all the more drive to study, to better himself, to finally shock some expression and feeling into that cold, blank face.
He's as good as Near - better, even - and he'll prove it. So during his free time Mello retreats to the library; at night he hunches over his desk, and he works.
He's tired, and a little lonely (because who wouldn't be, when all you had time for was studying, or keeping track of that egotistical robot boy?) but soon - oh, how it was worth it when he finally wrote an essay that was deemed better than Near's.
Mello hadn't seen Near's reaction, admittedly, but he could imagine it.
He's had the victory he's been craving, and suddenly, that's what's most important - spending time with Near is no longer a priority (because despite hidden hopes, Near is clearly not interested, and Mello refuses to lower himself if Near doesn't want to acknowledge his abilities) so, it's fine.
...except, it's not.
Because Mello knows that in the end, the few 'victories' he has are hollow; Near is still top of the class most of the time, while Mello has to work himself into the ground just for the chance of beating him. Mello might have confidence - but he refuses to delude himself, and it's a painful, harsh realisation that maybe he is second to Near, and maybe always will be.
So it's this realisation that makes him run to Near's room, kicking the door open, hearing the satisfying crash as it hits the wall. He wanders in, treading on scattered toys and wondering at how neat-looking and unused Near's desk appears. It makes him want to yell in frustration - but, instead, he just moodily grabs the report sitting on the clean surface and crosses back across the room to leap onto Near's bed (which, he couldn't help but note, was so much more fluffy and soft than his own - and somehow, this just exacerbated his mood.)
But... there's a nearly finished jigsaw puzzle sitting next to him, and so it's with great satisfaction that he first completes it (and it's not fun in the slightest; he can't see what Near enjoys about these infantile games), and then, before Near can see, lifts it up between his hands, watching it crumble and fragment, and the pieces scatter around him.
Yeah, it feels good. Feels good to finally vent and give form to these feelings that have been plaguing him for so long.
But then he looks up, and sees Near standing in the open doorway - pale, frozen, and... shocked.
And suddenly, it doesn't feel quite so good. And when Near finally seems to pull himself together, and ask in that lost voice, "...what are you doing?" There's that twist in his stomach, and he pushes it down, far away, and summons a grin he no longer really feels.
He jumps off the bed, and wants nothing more than to flee - and it makes him bitter. Near deserves hatred, deserves all of this - and yet he can stand there with that look on his face, with those pale curls falling in front of his eyes, and somehow make Mello feel at fault?
It's unfair, so so unfair, and Mello despises him for it.
But, there's a sense of finality about this situation, and he has to try something - and so he smirks (hey, might as well make the most of it... and who knows how Near will react?) and reaches out, brushing his fingers against the other boy's shoulder.
Mello's breath catches, and he swallows hard as Near leaps away as though scalded; that look of - of horror evident on his normally stoic features was something that Mello would never forget. He watches Near flee, and it's uncomfortable, though it's a slight he knows he deserves.
One thing, though, stands out from this: Near reacted to him. For the very first time, he had managed to get Near to admit that he was human. That in itself gave him some pleasure - and so he leans back against the door frame, raising an eyebrow and wondering how much further he can push Near.
Because, undoubtedly, this is the end. Mello knows enough of Near to realise that the other boy will take no more - and if he's honest with himself, Mello's sick of giving. He lets the smirk slip onto his lips, and watches with an interest which twists his heart as Near's façade cracks.
There it is. It's childish, and futile, and an awful response... but it's everything Mello wants. A hollow victory. He slips away without another word, leaving Near there on his bed.
Later, he's sitting alone in the garden, and a boy slightly older than himself approaches.
"Hey... we heard that, earlier, you made Near cry!" he sounds slightly awed, and almost amused at the concept.
...what, you think that's something clever, something to be proud of? Making an eight year old cry?
Mello just stares at him coldly (and there's that funny feeling in his stomach, and he refuses to believe it's guilt) and it's a few moments before he responds.
"...yeah. Yeah, I did."
It hurts, but it's the way things have to be : Near will never forgive him, and it's time for Mello to set himself up for success.
So time passed, and Mello was swiftly established as 'Near's rival' - though he certainly never spoke of it, and neither did Near. He'd tell himself that Near was just as arrogant as ever, and complain loudly about him to the other boys he'd taken to spending time with.
But it didn't change the fact that, sometimes, he could help but keep his eyes from drifting to Near. And that, sometimes, he'd see a flicker of something in Near's hurried glance, and find himself wishing that if only Near had seen his worth; if only, he himself had been good enough.
Though someday, he vowed, he would be.