Author's Note: This started out as a Drabble Game prompt—Matt/Mello/Near, "Strip Poker." It was slow at first, but then it started growing, and then it started sprawling, and then it just refused to end. Have fun…? XD

Thanks to Eltea, for the beta, as always. And for help with some of the video game stuff. :P I are n00b.


Near was lying on his side on the floor of Matt's and Mello's room, pushing his train back… and forth… and back… and forth, watching it as if it was lit up like Las Vegas, as if there was a movie showing on the other side of its tiny plastic windows. Plastic wheels grated quietly on the hardwood—Krt. Krt. Krt. Krt.

Matt glanced over at Mello, who wadded the latest chocolate wrapper into a ball and pitched it at the trashcan. It bounced on the rim and popped in.

"You know what we should do?" he asked.

Matt covered a yawn. "What?"

Mello smiled like a complacent cat. "We," he announced, "should play strip poker."

Kr— "Why in the world would we do that?" Near inquired.

Mello ceded a languid shrug. "Why not?"

"For starters," Near answered calmly, fingertips dancing over the roof of the train once more, "we're all boys—"

"Homophobe," Mello interjected.

"—and beyond that, I don't even know how to play poker."

Mello grinned, wolfishly this time. He was very animalistic today.

"You'll have to learn fast, then."

Near did, of course, because that was the Near way of doing things.

The younger boy had forsaken both of his socks before Matt was forced to choose between relinquishing his goggles and relinquishing his shirt (he picked his shirt; the goggles were lucky) and had pulled one knee up against his chest as he examined his cards. They were all sitting on the bed now, and Mello was discounting Matt's reasoning, as Mello liked to do.

"This is a game of skill," he reported, looking disdainfully at the goggles Matt was rearranging on his head. "Luck has nothing to do with it."

"Luck has a great deal to do with it," Near corrected absently. "Or, rather, chance does. It's more balanced that way than most card games. I see your DS and raise you another DS."

They'd started out betting with chocolate squares, but when it looked like Mello was inches away from eating the whole pot, they replaced them with game cartridges. The bigger Nintendo 64 games counted for ten DS ones, and PlayStation discs were worth twenty.

Mello scowled at the pile of games in the middle and then at his cards, Near wiggling his toes idly. Matt wasn't sure that he'd ever seen Near's feet before, encased as they usually were by a layer of white cotton. They were almost absurdly cute feet—absurdly cute feet with round white toes like soap bubbles, gently underscored with a bit of pink to prove that their owner was, in fact, alive.

Matt blinked and focused on his cards. Maybe he had reached the fabled threshold of having played enough video games to warp his mind.

There was a great deal of gritting of teeth from Mello's side of the circle after that, because that was the point at which Near figured poker out and usurped complete control of the game.

Matt was down to his Pac Man boxers and his goggles, and Mello was in his plain black pair, his shirt, and of course his rosary by the time the blond finally cracked.

"All right, stop," he snapped.

Near blinked at him innocently, wide gray eyes hidden and revealed at turns by eyelids so pale they almost seemed translucent, the curved lashes fringing them a lushly dramatic black that looked incongruous.

"What's wrong?" he asked innocently, adjusting the fan of cards in his fingers.

Mello scowled, tossing his cards down. "This game's boring," he decided. "Let's play something else."

Matt perked up. "Like what?"

Near set his cards on the bed, the other hand rising to permit a finger to twist itself in his hair. "Do you have anything other than cards?" he asked.

"We don't need cards," Mello proclaimed. "We can play—"

"Super Smash Brothers?" Matt cut in hopefully.

Mello silenced him with an imperious glare. "—Truth or Dare," he finished.

Matt wrinkled his nose. Super Smash Brothers didn't involve dredging up everybody's deepest, darkest secrets and didn't end with all the participants feeling stupid and ashamed.

Well, it didn't usually.

"Truth or dare, Near?" Mello prompted smugly.

Near gazed off into space as he considered, twirling at his hair more avidly now, seeming to calculate the consequences of either route.

"Hurry up," Mello said.

"Truth," Near decided.

Mello frowned thoughtfully. "How'd your parents die?" he inquired at last.

"Mel!" Matt cried.

You didn't ask that. You just didn't. Mello was Mello, which meant he broke the rules when he could get away with it and bent them when he couldn't, but even he shouldn't ask that; even he didn't have the right. That was sacred ground. Mello, of all people, should understand that.

Near's hands stilled, his index finger twined in his pale hair, and he trained his unblinking gaze on Mello.

"I don't know that they did," he said calmly after a moment, moving again. "I was in a great many foster homes, but I don't remember my actual parents at all."

Matt remembered—remembered what? A park, quiet; grass, green; a hand, warm and firm, encompassing his. He remembered face-colored blurs and a breeze that set the thick heat to churning.

Mello was looking at his hands.

"Truth or dare?" Near asked him.

When Mello glanced up, jaw set, eyes intent, Matt knew what he was going to say.

"Dare," he decided.

Near smiled. "Kiss Matt," he said.

It was as though he'd said Kill Claudio.

Mello stared at Near, and Matt stared at Near, and then they eyed each other for a moment, uncertain and bewildered and almost… something else.

"That's dumb," Mello announced finally.

Like snow-capped hills rising from the landscape, Near's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "You don't have to do it," he remarked idly, "if you don't want to."

If you're chicken. If you can't even play your own game.

"Yeah," Mello retorted, "well, watch."

Matt opened his mouth to protest, but before he could bribe, coax, or coerce his vocal cords into helping out, Mello's fingers were coiled in his hair, Mello's moist breath was misting over his cheek, and Mello's clumsily determined lips had stifled his objections.

They were frozen that way, suspended like some strange statue joined by their mingling breaths, Matt fumbling blindly for Mello's face with his unresponsive fingers, bright gold hair tickling at his palm, for an endless instant.

Then they had separated and realigned, their entity-identities reestablished and distinguishable. It was cold. Matt missed the faint brush of cotton and wooden beads on his bare chest, felt the absence like a physical emptiness, and wondered vaguely and bemusedly if the dizziness was normal.

"There," Mello spat around a smirk. "Truth or dare, Near?"

Near blinked again, the subtlest hint of uncertainty flickering across the motionless tundra of his face. "It should be Matt's tu—"

"Shut up," Mello interrupted, eyes blazing, fingers curling into fists. "Truth, Near, or dare?"

Something sparked in ashen eyes.

"Dare," Near answered, relishing the curl of the word.

Mello's grin was downright frightening.

"Near," he said sweetly, "I dare you to kiss Matt."

Near opened his mouth and shut it. He looked to Matt.

"God damn it, Mel," Matt managed.

Near waited for a cringing Matt to turn, and then he leaned forward, sleeve-swathed hands supporting him on the cushy wasteland of the comforter, to brush his lips across Matt's for a moment that the boy thought (rather guiltily) was not nearly long enough.

As anyone with one eye and half a brain might have predicted, Near's kiss was like the rest of him—cool, and quiet, and pale, like the negative of a shadow, like the whisper of snowfall in the dense silence of a frozen world. Matt found himself missing the snowflake tingle the second it had melted and gone.

With what might just have been a hint of a smile and a rumor of a blush, Near glanced at the goggles perched on Matt's head.

"Truth or dare?" he asked them.

Matt grimaced. "Truth," he decided.

Near's magnetic hair drew his finger to it again, and he toyed with it absently. "What's your favorite color?" he asked.

"Um," Matt responded, considering; "blue."

Mello stared. "That's it?" he demanded.

Near was definitely half-smiling now as he met Matt's eyes, quirking a partially-visible eyebrow, a white arch behind his white bangs. So subtly that it was barely visible—but he knew Matt saw it, because Near knew everything—the boy indicated Mello with a tiny tilt of his head.

Yes, Matt thought; it was fitting that he should get his revenge.

Then again… Near had had a hand in this, too.

He realized that his two motives were not mutually exclusive.

"Mello," Matt said slowly, a lopsided smile sidling onto his lips, "truth or dare?"

Mello shrugged, affecting disinterest. "Dare," he answered, as Matt had known he would.

He couldn't stifle his triumph.

"Kiss Near," he commanded.

Near looked betrayed and Mello looked scandalized, but then they regarded each other with a respective frigid and searing determination. When they crushed together, yellow and white hair tangling, fingers gripping each other's shirts to pull closer or push away or more probably both at once, it wasn't just a kiss—it was a silent fight.

And watching them kiss was almost better than kissing either of them.

Suddenly and strangely, like the dash of lightning that roused Frankenstein's monster to life, Matt understood the appeal of voyeurism.

That was interesting.

He was slightly disappointed when they pulled apart, assiduously avoiding each other's eyes. Near looked at a space of the bed to his left, his finger working at his hair so fast Matt half-feared he'd pluck himself bald, and Mello looked at Matt. His glare succumbed to a bit of a smirk as he considered options and opportunities.

"Truth or dare, Matt?" he inquired pointedly.

"Truth," Matt answered.

Mello frowned, which was unsurprising—a dare was a much better vehicle for revenge.

Which, of course, Matt knew just as well.

Mello made a face. "Eh… What do you think is your worst quality?"

Matt blinked. It wasn't humiliating, or incendiary, or obnoxious—really, it didn't make for a very Mello-Approved question at all.

"I dunno," he decided. "I guess that I'm lazy. Schoolwork's just boring, so I don't like to do it." He thought it over for a moment before adding, "And I can't beat the Master level on Mortal Kombat 4. Even when I play with Raiden."

Faintly, almost imperceptibly, Near smiled. "I hardly think people will grudge you that," he noted.

"But it's so annoying!" Matt protested. He sighed. "Well, truth or dare, Near?"

"Truth," Near decided.

Matt scratched his head under the goggle strap, searching for something provocative but not too embarrassing. He settled on: "What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?"

Near considered. "I assume you mean besides my joining this game," he noted.

Mello rolled his eyes expressively, and Near smirked a little before settling again to consider the question.

"I suppose," he mused, "I should say the pneumonia winter. But I don't actually remember much of that, since I was unconscious for large portions of it. Perhaps I should say the heart valve replacement surgery, but I was unconscious for all of that, or at least all of the parts that would have been traumatizing."

Matt and Mello stared at him.

"You had a heart valve replaced?" Matt asked dumbly, as if Near would joke about something like that.

Well, as if Near would joke about anything.

Sure enough, Near nodded. "Mine was congenitally faulty," he explained. Before Matt could parse the word, however, the pale boy was curling a finger in his hair and elaborating. "It was the mitral valve, if you know which that is. Mine was leaking, to the effect that I couldn't keep food down very well and was getting progressively weaker. So they replaced it with a metal and plastic one, and if my heart's beating fast enough, you can hear the flaps clicking shut."

Matt and Mello exchanged glances. Matt let Mello ask; he was never worried about invading people's privacy to satisfy his personal curiosity, and Matt usually got away with following his lead.

"Can we hear it?" Mello asked, right on cue.

Near sighed. "If you like," he conceded, looking down to unbutton his pajama shirt.

He hadn't realized, Matt discovered with a jolt, that under all the baggy clothes, Near was a little bit thin and more than a little bit frail. His ribs poked out, as did his collarbones, though Matt forgot them as he focused on the long, gleaming white scar that divided Near's chest in two. Patiently, Near waved them in.

Mello pressed his ear to Near's skin first, chewing on his lip as he concentrated, sky-blue eyes flicking over the varied disorder of the room. He drew away. "That's weird as hell," he decided.

Near shrugged. "Keeps me alive," he answered. He beckoned to Matt, who leaned in, propped himself up for leverage, and set his ear to the leftward side of Near's chest, closing his eyes to listen.

Sure enough, as Near took a deep breath, he heard it—a quiet, consistent ticking sound, like Near had a time-bomb in place of a heart. The rhythm mesmerized him for a few long seconds, and then he sat back, looking at Near like he'd never seen him before.

And maybe, in some ways, he hadn't. Maybe he'd always discounted the body because of the mind.

Near threaded the buttons through the holes again and smoothed his collar.

"Jeez, Near," Matt managed, his voice sounding hollow. "That sucks."

Near shrugged. "It sucks a great deal less than death."

Mello shifted, his bare legs whispering against the comforter. "'S your turn, Near," he reminded them.

Wrapping his arms about the knee he'd drawn to his chest once more, Near tilted his head slightly. "If you insist on continuing," he intoned, "I will pick you, you will pick dare, and I will come up with something uniquely humiliating, such as sending you to Mr. Wammy's office stark naked with something compromising written on your forehead in permanent marker. Consider that a factual reality. Would you rather end the game now?"

A dark scowl descended onto Mello's face, but he knew when he'd been beaten. He huffed quietly. "Fine."

Near smiled. "Thank you," he said. "That is a very considerate choice."

It also saved Near the trouble of thinking up the epic 'something' he'd promised to write on Mello, but Matt certainly wasn't going to argue.

He flopped down on the bed and held his chin in both hands. "Can we play Super Smash Brothers now?"

Near was back to twirling his hair. "But you always win," he pointed out.

Matt unleashed his best puppy eyes on the pair of them. "You can team up," he suggested.

They stared at him like fuchsias were sprouting from his nostrils.

Right. He'd forgotten who he was talking to.

Mello eyed Near, and not in a You-Can-Play-Ganondorf-If-You-Want kind of way.

"Yes?" Near prompted, meeting his gaze levelly.

"I want to see what you look like with clothes on," Mello announced, the glint in his eyes brooking no refusal.

The corners of Near's lips twitched upwards. "I believe," he remarked, "that 'she' said something similar."

There was a pause.

"Ow," Mello groaned. "My soul is bleeding."

Near looked decidedly smug.

Mello got up on his knees and rifled through the pile of abandoned raiment on the bed. He turned up his pants and Matt's shirt and pitched them both at Near's head, looking—for a flash of a moment—concerned and faintly apologetic when the other boy wasn't fast enough to catch them and received a wallop of cotton to the face. By the time Near recovered, of course, Mello had regained his composure.

"Do your model walk," he ordered.

Near raised a vaguely-visible eyebrow, slipped off the bed, and stepped out of his baggy pajama pants, the newly-revealed lines of him all smooth and milky pale.

Matt wondered if he'd glow under a black-light.

Upon replacing his pants with Mello's—which would have looked odd on anyone else, let alone Near—pallor incarnate unfastened his shirt again to pull Matt's over his head in its stead. He tugged at it a little, seeming satisfied enough, and folded his hands behind his back, attending Mello's reaction.

Flat on his front, elbows on the bed, chin in his hands, Mello considered with practiced disinterest. "You look all normal," he noted. "Like a human being and whatever."

Matt was thinking more along the lines of, like our lovechild after a thorough bleaching, but he managed to keep the thought inside his head.

"I think you should walk down the hall like that," Mello was musing. "Scare the crap out of some people."

Near's shoulders made a little hop of a shrug, Matt's shirt moving with them. It was all very odd, seeing the stripes bend as the fabric wrinkled, trying to accommodate a significantly smaller frame than the one it was accustomed to. An index finger rose to lose itself in the white hair again.

"I don't know if that will accomplish anything," he said, "but I will if you like."

Something just under the calm surface of his voice indicated, I will if it'll shut you up.

Matt looked at Mello. "You should put Near's clothes on," he suggested.

"You should put your brain back in," Mello retorted. "Besides, I wouldn't fit."

"You'd fit his shirt," Matt insisted, "and I'll wear yours, and we can go see what L thinks."

"He'll think we've lost it, stupid."

Matt waved a hand. "He'd never be able to tell the difference. That's the beauty of it."

"Your mom is the beauty of it."

"Shut up, Mel."

"You shut up, with all your stupid ideas about trading clothes—"

"You started it!"

"And I'm gonna' finish it, too." There was a brief pause, and something flickered in Mello's eyes. "Gimme your goggles," he commanded.

Matt clutched them protectively, cherishing the familiar curve of the cool plastic even more now that it was threatened. "No!"

Mello's mouth set in a thin, hard line, and he raised an eyebrow slowly, as if it was a guillotine blade. "Give it here," he repeated. "You take my rosary. We're doing what you wanted."

"But…" Matt realized he'd been trapped.

Some days, he hated playing with geniuses.

Well, most days, but some days in particular.

Reluctantly, he ceded the goggles to Mello, snatching the cord of the rosary as if he was negotiating a hostage situation (which he supposed, to some extent, he was). With an uncharacteristic docility, Mello peeled off his shirt, handed it to Matt, retrieved Near's, and threaded his arms through the sleeves. His fingers danced about the buttons. Matt waited, Mello's still-warm, practically pulsing tee-shirt in both hands, to get the full effect.

Mello in any color other than black was strange enough, but seeing his graceful neck rising from Near's white collar was downright uncanny.

Then Mello arranged Matt's goggles atop his head, and Matt's brain practically exploded.

He slipped the crucifix over his head and held onto it like a lifeline. This was just too weird. His suggestion-creature had gotten out of control and was rampaging through the countryside messily devouring livestock.

Mello wriggled off of the bed and folded his arms across Near's shirt. "Come on," he urged. "Let's go show L."

Feeling consummately stupid—maybe Mello was right about that much—Matt trailed the goggle-thieving blond up the stairs, Near not far behind. Three sets of bare feet snked on the steps, counting down or up or maybe both ways simultaneously, and then, far too soon, they'd reached the top. Mello banged unabashedly on the door.

"Excuse me a moment, Detective," L's voice murmured. Someone mumbled in agreement, and there was a click, followed by a creak, followed by unassuming footfalls approaching the door.

The door in question opened. L's smile held out admirably when assailed by a sudden incredulity as he processed the bizarre vision before him.

"Whaddya think?" Mello inquired cheerfully.

L paused tactfully. "I feel," was the verdict, "like I should be surprised."

Mello looked pleased.

"Can we play Super Smash Brothers now?" Matt muttered.

L tilted his head. "Can I be Zelda?" he wanted to know.