Author's Note: OMIGAWD. Christmas can now end, because this is my last Christmas gift: Eltea's, the prompt being "Christmas Eve" or "pillow fight."

I did both prompts, of course. And Eltea—also known as Alien ABC's for this fandom—was kind enough to beta for me, too. And she was FRIGGING AWESOME enough to give me what is hands-down one of the greatest fics ever written, which you had better run-not-walk over to the Alien ABC's profile to read. There are links in my favorite stories list, and she's among my favorite authors; just GO. It's called "Martyr," and it will change your life.

In other news… a great deal of credit is also due to The Pyrat, whose fic "Red Is for Valentines" made first-person Mello seem viable to me. So viable, in fact, that I had to stop reading that fic halfway through to start this one. XD Go read it, too, because it's awesome. :)

Go forth and be literate! …after you stay here and enjoy, I hope. ;)


"What the fuck, Mel?"

I'm really not that hard to get along with. Listening to Matt talk, you'd think I was a fucking diva or something.

Really, though. There are three main tenets to my existence: Chocolate, Leather, and Absolutely No Bullshit Ever.

The problem is that people have gotten attached to their bullshit, and they cling to it like leather to my ass—which, yes, I know all about; did you think it was remotely possible that that wasn't deliberate?

Stupid, though, the bullshit. If I'm having a lame-ass fucking morning and somebody asks me how I'm doing, I tell them that my day blows more than a cheap imported whore whose rent's due Friday.

Is there something wrong with that?

All right, there are a couple things wrong with it. First of all, rent should always be due on Saturdays, since Friday is usually payday. Second, stop outsourcing prostitution. Honestly.

Other than the factual inaccuracies in my hyperbolic tendencies, I think I'm probably the best roommate a guy could get.

"It looks like fucking Barbie fucking threw up in my laundry basket!"

…except when I tossed my new red skinny jeans in with Matt's whites.

Well, it wasn't like I knew how to do the fucking laundry. I'd been Dry Clean Only for years.

"You'll look fine," I assured him.

He would. Matt looked good in everything—white, pink, nothing but a towel, probably nothing at all…

I went back to watching some Latin guy swing his hips in a music video. Something in Spanish about a sweltering Mediterranean holiday, and, baby, I will

Whoa, how did that get past the censor?

"I'm not wearing this shit!" Matt was howling.

The taste of your sweat makes the liquor all the sweeter… Jesus, where was this guy getting this stuff?

And really, if the chick's sweat tasted like tequila, something was horribly wrong.

"Cry me a river," I sighed, "build me a bridge, and get ove—"

"You fucking turned my clothes pink, Mello!" he interrupted. The neighbors were probably shaking their heads right about now. Or loading their shotguns. "How hard is it to figure out that red bleeds?"

"The only thing that's bleeding right now," I reported, "is my ears."

He pushed a newly-pink button-up shirt in my face, obscuring my view of the Spanish-singing perv on the TV. "I need this," he growled, "for Sunday."

Sunday. Eh. Mr. I've-Got-White-Hair-Like-Einstein-So-I-Must-Be-Smarter-Than-You was throwing a little Christmas Eve shindig on Sunday, to celebrate the fact that we'd shown Kira to the door and kicked his ass out of it.

He also probably intended to get me drunk and ravish me. You know how Near is. Feisty little bugger.

The problem was that, particularly given Near's rambunctious tendencies, I definitely needed Matt to come with me. Who else would protect my honor and stave off Near's lascivious advances?

"My bad," I said, maneuvering around the sleeve so that I could catch the artist's name as it popped up on the bottom corner of the screen. "I'll buy you a new one."

"You're damn right it's your bad," he muttered.

And then he hit me with it.

Hit me. With his shirt.

As in, used it like a whip.

As if it wasn't painfully clear who was supposed to be the dominatrix in this relationship.

So I picked up one of the ratty-ass pillows and slapped it into his face.

I did my best demon grin. That'd teach—

I received a faceful of shirt. I should have seen that coming from a mile away, or at least eleven inches, which was how far he'd drawn back to swing.

Quickly, and probably wisely given the aerodynamics involved, he gave up the shirt in search of the other mismatched throw pillow, and we went at it like two…

Metaphors fail me. We went at it like two stupid boys having a pillow fight.

You know.

Or at least you do if you're a stupid boy who's had a good pillow fight in the relatively recent past.

The general rules of Pillow Combat are threefold:

1. Keep the corners—and the zippers in particular—away from your opponent's eyes. Nobody wants to die here. Not like this. Not in pillow-faced agony.

2. In general, don't aim for the face. It's a sensitive place. Your teeth are there. And your nose. And lots of things with many blood vessels—things which were not meant to be rearranged.

3. Utilize caution and discretion, as opposed to all your strength.

We both knew the rules.

Accordingly, we both quite contentedly ignored them all.

Rules are laaaaaame.

As Roger had always used to say, however, they were there for a reason, which was why I was slightly dismayed but none too surprised when I beaned Matty particularly viciously upside the head, only for him to get a very dazed look and sort of flop down on the couch, plush weapon sliding from his hand and rolling halfheartedly across the floor.

War is hell.

"Are you okay?" I prompted, tossing my pillow aside and hoping it didn't sail into anything breakable before recalling that we didn't have anything valuable in the first place. "Speak to me, Mattikins."

"You're a dick, Mello," he muttered, putting a hand to his forehead.

"I believe the verb you're looking for is 'have,' not 'are,'" I told him, "and the adjective you wanted was 'gorgeous.'"

This, of course, translated to Jesus, Matt, I'm sorry, all right?

He glared at me, but I think he understood.

That was why we hadn't killed each other by now.

Which was a good thing.

When we strutted through the door to the SPK building two spare days later, it was to what should have been a Sexiest Pair of Guys of the Year award.

Instead we got a lot of blank stares.

Well, I did. Matt was wearing jeans and a crisp new white shirt—yeah, I came through—and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

I, on the other legs, had wanted to take my red skinny jeans on their maiden voyage.

Red was a Christmassy color; I don't know what the Prude Crew's collective problem was. I had my red jacket on, too, the one with the really soft white fur lining. I looked like an elf, for Christ's sake—what more did they want from me?

All right, probably an elf in a seasonally-themed porn movie. Details, details.

Near, to give the poor little bastard some credit, didn't look surprised. He did, however, have a rather considerable pin in the shape of a Christmas wreath attached to his lapel, which I concluded must have been secured there with superglue—because otherwise, he would long since have removed it and buried it in some dark corner where it would never again see the light of day.

Mr. Sentimental, that Near.

"Hello, Mello," he said, because he liked to see me twitch. "Good evening, Matt."

Matt handed over the little snowflake-shaped ornament he'd bought while I was purchasing him a new shirt to replace the pink one. I had been entertaining too many mutinous thoughts of putting it in with my dark wash blue jeans the second we got home to notice him browsing around by the checkout.

"Thank you," Near told him placidly, accepting the little trinket and shuffling over to the vast, prickly Christmas tree to hang the thing from an unused branch by its thin red ribbon.

I looked around. There was a good-sized dessert table, but not that much chocolate. Not as much chocolate as we had at home, certainly.

Then again, we could have fed at least two third-world countries with the chocolate we had at home, so maybe that wasn't really saying much.

Whatever the case, I couldn't help but start to wonder why we'd come to this stupid thing instead of hitting up the bars. I was willing to bet that the bars would be open even on Christmas Eve—it was fucking New York, after all. The bars would probably be open on Judgment Day, just in case you were on the fence and then decided that hell sounded significantly more badass than the alternative after all.

I was thinking that if we ditched now and made for the nearest—oh, har—alcohol repository, that Gevanni guy would probably come with us. Dude looked like he'd just been sentenced to sit through the most boring PowerPoint presentation in the history of the known world.

Grudgingly I waved hello to Halle, too. Things had been pretty… awkward… since the whole invading-her-apartment episode. It wasn't my fault she'd immediately started stripping, you know?

Not that I didn't have that effect on most people.

But really. The kind of person I'd want seducing me wouldn't have to try that hard.

Halle honestly just wasn't my type. It wasn't only that she was desperate—it had been disappointingly easy to manipulate her, too. Someone like, you know, Matt—Matt would've told me where to shove that gun and then given me a detailed demonstration just to save me some time.

Matt was legit that way.

I sort of nodded-shifted-my-weight to acknowledge Rester. Dude still looked like he wanted to eviscerate me and deck the halls with my entrails. He probably could have, too. He seemed to have adopted Near by proxy, not that I could blame him—I've always been vaguely surprised that I've never seen anyone stop on the street to pinch Near's cheeks.

"Is anybody else gonna get here?" I asked coolly.

What I really meant was Did you invite anyone additional who wants to kick my ass?, but Near pretended not to know that.

"I was hoping that the President might come," he noted unconcernedly, "but he had a previous engagement."

Now he was just showing off. Arrogant little bastard.

"He should've canceled for you," I remarked, pouring myself a tall glass of eggnog, because he didn't have anything more potent. I supplemented liberally with chocolate syrup.

Don't judge.

"This place is so bangin'," I added airily, "I can't imagine how he could bear to miss it."

Near looked bored. Matt smacked my arm. "Could you be nice?" he hissed. "I can't take you anywhere."

You can take me anywhere you want, babe, I caught myself thinking. Bed, floor, shower, desktop, pool table—

That was an image I needed to get out of my head, for the sake of my own sanity.

It would have been bad form to throw Matt on the floor and rip his clothes off here, anyway.

Especially since I'd just bought him that shirt.

And hell—Matt probably didn't want to be ravished, certainly not by the red-coated prospective star of 'Naughty List XXX.' And everybody knows it's no good unless you both want it.

Plus Rester would castrate me in less than three seconds.

You can't get much done in three seconds.

I handed Matt a flute of eggnog. "Drink and be merry," I instructed. "It's Christmas."

"Not yet it's not," he retorted, but he upended the thing and emptied it anyway.

You could always count on Matt not to waste liquor.

You could always count on Matt for everything, and that was the problem, really.

While everyone else was staring incredulously at me and my terrible manners, Gevanni went and hit up Near's computer. I saw him double-click on something in the music player and prepared for some fucking baroque to get this party started.

No, wait.

I—want to rock and roll all ni-i-ight
And party every day

Well, in that case.

I took the glass out of Matt's hand and set it and mine down on the table, the better to drag him out to the unimpeded area that seemed to be passing for a dance floor. We were going to have fun whether Near liked it or not.

Well, I was.

I swung my hips. Those skinny jeans looked damn good. Good enough to merit turning Matt's whites pink, I thought, though he probably begged to differ.

I raised my hands over my head and spun, making sure all bystanders got a view sufficient to turn them into bydroolers. Everybody in that room probably wanted to do me right about then.

Everybody except Rester, anyway. What a rebel.

Guitar solo—I was born for this shit. I made a point of rocking out with the air guitar despite the fact that I know how to play a grand total of about two power chords. Most of it's the enthusiasm anyway.

Enthusiasm I could do; talent was a bit harder to come by.

Matt retreated to the eggnog the second I turned my back. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him down another, but I got distracted when Halle joined me and started dancing with a sort of tentative modesty she certainly didn't show to teenagers loitering in her bathroom. She probably thought I was lonely or something. That I had shame.

Women are so silly sometimes.

After presumably arranging the playlist to satisfaction, Gevanni came over to partake in the partying too. Guy could dance, though not quite like the maniac in the music video. Guy was pretty hot, all told. Nice eyes. Blue-gray, piercing. You don't notice this kind of stuff about a person when he's pointing a gun in your face.

For your further reference.

The next time I got a glance of him, Matt was chatting with Near—or grudgingly grumbling to him, by the looks of things. That concerned me a little; collusion between two genii was never a good thing.

Unless I was one of the genii in question, of course. Then it was okay.

Well, hell; I was here to get wasted and to display my red-skinny-jeans-clad ass, in either order. Worrying about conspiracy wasn't on the program. It wasn't on the menu, so I wasn't going to swallow it.

I didn't worry about shit anymore, as a general rule. After we took Kira down… nothing seemed worth worrying over. We'd won. I'd lost half my face, and Matt's baby had gotten shredded, and Near had gone into Yellowbox Warehouse me-style, with a gun holstered on his chest and a knife strapped to his calf, but we'd won. L was revenged, and after half a fucking decade, life could go back to normal.

Or as normal as we ever knew it to be. All relative. You know the drill.

It was weird, though, and almost unnerving. Matt and I could go out for pizza, go out for ice cream, go to Sees—we could do shit, go places, be in public, and it didn't even fucking matter. We were just people again, just boys, just human beings. We weren't sitting on the chessboard anymore, waiting to get flicked over and tossed in the box.

Just stupid kids now. Near had made sure we were legit and everything. It was weird to be legit. It was weird to tell the truth. It was weird not to pace nights and pull my hair out days (my hair; what a waste). It was weird… to be safe.

It had come at a price; everything does. It hadn't been easy, and it almost hadn't been at all.

Takada. The fucking bitch. I'd thought I was dead. Fucking rearview mirror saved my fucking life.

I ask you, what kind of a whore—?

She didn't need that kneecap anyway.

I almost put another through her forehead when I thought Matt was dead.

The cops saved him, you know. The fucking cops, of all people. Near must have had something to do with it, or maybe they just actually believed in justice or something crazy like that.

You know, justice. That thing. Like, not shooting the shit out of some poor bastard fleeing Takada's lackeys in a red car held together by a few strings of almost-liquid metal and a hell of a lot of luck, the rest being steel Swiss cheese.

Who would've thought Police have taken an armed, unidentified young man in a red sports car into custody for questioning about Kiyomi Takada could sound like such beautiful fucking poetry?

Takada's guys were pretty fucking illegal anyway, and they must have known it. Their "hunting licenses" were legal. Firing on Matt? Not so much.

Fucking dickheads. I almost tracked them all down and ripped them to pieces one at a time, just to make a fucking point. You didn't do that to Matt. Not to my Matt. Not if you wanted to live.

Takada burned in the fucking church, which was fine with me. I swallowed my pride and skulked off to Near.

Look, it was the only way I could think of to get Matt out of the cops' hands and back into mine, all right? There are two things more important to me than the Near shit: one of them is saving my sorry ass, and the other is Matt. Matt in general and Matt on the whole.

Matt being whole.

It was too bad he'd lost the goggles, though. The frames had deflected a bullet from his eye, yeah, but he loved those things.

I'd been scouring eBay since I found out, but no luck so far.

He'd been able to go in and get a real fucking prescription, though, thanks duly bestowed upon Near and his legitimacy fetish.

…I could dance to those thoughts. I could dance to those all night long. We'd made it out of that shit alive, mostly in one piece, and, at the end of the day, that was all that really mattered.

Life is a pretty good reason to shake your ass on the dance floor.

Good enough, anyway, if you need a reason at all.

Me and Halle and Gevanni and the thumping bass, and life. That'd do quite well.

Matt was stumbling on the front steps of the SPK HQ, his feet tangled in each other. I grabbed his arm, and he waved me away. I ignored him.

He pushed me off of him when we reached the car, staggering for the driver's side.

"Matt," I said.

"What?" he mumbled, fighting the keys out of his pocket.

I moseyed over and plucked them from his hands.

"I'm driving tonight, Matty-Boy," I declared.

He gave me his best drunken mutinous glare, which was somewhat less than intimidating.

Cute, mostly.

Not that I was thinking that, looking at his pouting face in the buzzing orange glow of the parking lot lights. Not that I thought about that a lot more than I would have liked to.

"I want to drive," he announced, leaning in closer than necessary, one fumbling hand reaching for the keys. "It's my car."

I batted his hands away—gently; I didn't want to knock him over.

"You're totally smashed," I informed him, "and I had half a glass of eggnog. Let me."

He chewed on his lip, shifted, and then stomped his foot, sulked, and admired the pavement for a second before looking at me.

And then he raised his arms and cupped my face in both hands.

"I want to protect you," he said.

I stared at him. He was drunk. He didn't know what he was saying. And he was holding me—touching—his hands—

"Let me drive, Matt," I managed, sounding faint even to my own ears. "It's okay."

"It's not okay," he muttered, but he went around and sat down in the passenger seat, struggling to buckle his seatbelt.

I took a deep breath and got behind the wheel. Focused, or tried to. Made a concerted effort to run a hand across my face without looking like I was doing it.

Apparently I wasn't focusing hard enough, because we weren't even halfway home before I swerved to dodge a cat and slammed us into a telephone pole.

There was blood on Matt's forehead, lots of it, and the withering airbag had left his nose streaming, and his eyes were closed, and for a second I didn't see him breathe.

When the cops came, I was cradling him and crying, stroking the matted hair away from his face and whispering, insistently, that it would be okay.

They were smart enough to bundle me into the ambulance with him, and I suspect they only pried me off at the hospital because I had so much of his blood on me.

…on the upside, my new skinny jeans were redder than ever.

I told them we were homeless so that they'd let me sleep in Matt's room. His forehead needed twelve stitches, but the whiplash was mild enough that they released him the next day, and the nurse tactfully didn't comment on the fact that the insurance card I offered had a home address after all.

Matt was awake long enough to swear up and down in a hazy-eyed mumble that he was fine, though he fell asleep again as soon as I'd seat-belted him into the taxi. I supported him through the lobby and in the elevator, and his face was so white that after tussling with the key to the apartment, I carried him through the door.

Nice fucking honeymoon, right?

I got some water into him before he passed out again, on his bed this time. Sleep was probably better than anything I could do for him.

I woke up to him stepping on me. Well, to his howl as he stepped on me, the gist of which, as far as I could tell, was "What the fuck are you doing on the floor?"

I moved to pull the blanket over my head. "Making sure you don't die," I answered.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

"It'd be lame," I explained, "if you died."

He sat down on the bed and touched the gauze just below his hairline, numbly. "'Lame'?" he repeated.

"Hella lame," I confirmed.

Matt discovered the dried blood in his hair (I'd gotten some out at the hospital, but it was hard to differentiate the two colors) and wrinkled his nose.

Then he realized something else.

"You fucking totaled the car!" he shouted, scooping up the nearest pillow and bringing it down on the back of my head.

"Ow," I said, none too eagerly, then, "Sorta," less eagerly still.

"So what am I supposed to take to get the groceries I'm sure you completely fucking forgot about?" he demanded.

"Bike," I suggested, sandwiched between two pillows since he'd abandoned his weapon. "Sexy."

…I was tired, all right? I'm serious. I'd kept dreaming I'd killed him and waking up to make sure it wasn't true.

There was a long silence, and then Matt muttered something about blood in his hair and headed for the shower.

I climbed into his bed, curled up under the sheets, and breathed in the smell of him, underscored with the copper tang of fading blood and tainted by the stale sterility of the hospital, both of which he'd carried back with him.

When I woke up next, there was a pillow under my head, and my phone was vibrating its way off the nightstand. The second I slung an arm out for the thing, it leapt off the edge and burrowed into the sheets and clothes strewn across the floor.

"Fuckhellpieceofshitdie," I muttered, shifting, then straining to reach and succeeding only in falling out of the bed.

A great deal of digging through crumpled clothing ensued, after which I snapped the phone open and smacked it against my ear.

"What's up?" I prompted.

"It's me," Near said.

"I know," I responded immediately, which was an unadulterated lie.

Come on. I couldn't let him think he was right in implying that I had assumed it was Matt, which he was, because I had.

Near made an absent Hm noise, but he moved on before I could build to a proper rage.

I'd just woken up, after all.

"I saw a car on the news," he announced, "that looked suspiciously like yours. Or, rather, that looked suspiciously like the wreckage of yours."

I bristled. "Your point?"

I imagined him shrugging. "I just wanted to make sure that you were all right," he informed me calmly—not that Near did anything uncalmly. "It would be unfortunate if you died."


Near sighed. "You didn't let Matt drive, did you?"

"Of course not," I snapped.

He gave me a pause to realize that I'd just admitted to crashing into a telephone pole.

"Fuck you, Near," I spat.

"Maybe later," he replied idly. "Would you two be interested in coming to my New Year's party?"

"You just had a Christmas party," I pointed out.

"Parties are good for morale," he explained.

"So are pay raises," I retorted.

"Is that how you motivated your Mafia colleagues?" Near inquired politely.

I was going to punch that little shit in the face the next time I saw him.

"Bitch," I muttered.

"Churl," he countered cheerfully.

I was doing something very wrong if this was entertaining him.

"Nobody says that," I sneered.

"I just did," he answered.

"Your vocabulary is outdated," I announced.

"Your mother is outdated," he rejoined contentedly.

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I shut it again.

"I've been watching network television," Near confided, "now that I have more free time. It's very useful for updating my vocabulary."

"I don't want to go to your stupid party," I muttered.

"I'll call Matt later," Near promised.

"You do that," I said. I hung up.

Then I simmered a while, kicking at the mess on the floor. We both knew I'd lost.


Taking deep breaths, I muttered under them to calm myself, counting down the Top Ten Ways to Ruin Near's Life: 10. Take him clothes shopping. 9. Descant at length on the lead paint controversy. 8. Borrow his pajamas without permission. 7. Host an elaborate ceremony to marry his robots to Barbies. 6. Kidnap him and take him to a bar. 5. Tell him Santa Clause isn't real and insist that he doesn't understand the import of this revelation. 4. Replace all his white socks with pink argyle. 3. Stare at his face and ask, "Where's the fuzz?" 2. Dye his hair while he's sleeping—purple sounds nice. 1. Blow up a Toys Я Us store.

That always made me feel a little better.

Going through the list, I mean, though I imagine blowing up a Toys Я Us would be pretty soothing.

I shucked off my bloody jeans (bloody, that is, in every sense of the word), looked at them mournfully, borrowed the closest available pair I could find on the floor to replace them, and traipsed down to the laundry room, where I put them in a washing machine by themselves this time. Hopefully most of Matt's bodily fluids would come out of the fabric.

…oh, shut up.

I had just settled in front of the television when keys ground in the door, which creaked, admitted a certain lead-footed someone, and then was kicked shut behind him, because a certain lead-footed someone was on the phone and didn't have a free hand.

"Yeah, sure… Great. Okay, we'll see you then."

I glanced at Matt, faux-bemusedly, as he stepped into the living room, shutting his phone and jamming it into a pocket with one hand, the other laden with a fat plastic bag.

The latter he tossed at me as he moved the glasses up to his forehead, carefully avoiding the white gauze that lay too bright, too blatant under his bangs. Fumbling, I caught the bag, discovering five bars of chocolate, three packs of cigarettes, and…

"Hot Pockets?" I inquired, quirking an eyebrow.

Matt shrugged. "Everything's closed," he related. "It's Christmas."

It was, wasn't it? Jesus.


"So I had to stick with the gas station."

Didn't make much difference to me. I could have subsisted on chocolate and Matt's company for a dozen lifetimes. Hot Pockets and everything of their ilk were just nutritional supplements, as far as I was concerned.

"Do we have Ramen?" I asked.

"Between the Gatorade and the marshmallows," he answered.

I stared at him.

"It's a little thing we like to call 'hyperbole,' Mel," Matt explained. "And we're going to Near's New Year's party."

"Excuse me?" I prompted.

He smirked. "I don't mind going," he announced, "and it'll teach you not to say 'We never do anything around here.'"

I gave him the finger, but he quite contentedly laughed it off.

Little bitch.

It was probably a little bit blasphemous to carry Grand Theft Auto V into the Day Mass in my backpack, but I didn't think Jesus would mind.

I made sure to ask Him not to tell.

And then I thanked Him. A lot.

I wasn't ready to head to confession yet. I wasn't comfortable with the intermediary, even if we were Near-Approved Legit now.

Plus I would've had to bring in a long-ass list if I didn't want to forget any of the things I'd done.

Whatever the case, the way Matt's jaw dropped would've been worth the eternal damnation.

"I… didn't get you anything…" he managed, eyes glued to the front cover, glasses sliding down his nose. "I thought we weren't gonna do Christmas…"

"You didn't die," I reminded him. "And that is pretty fucking nice."

He managed to tear his gaze away from the game for a minute to look at me.

"Thanks, Mel," he said.

"Merry Christmas, Matt," I said.

The other thing I prayed for was that New Year's Eve would never come.

It came.

So much for that plan.

There is something uniquely gut-wrenching about walking into a room expecting one thing, only to find something very different.

For instance, a bunch of people who want to stab their bite-of-fudge toothpicks into your throat.

I looked at the ex-Task Force, and they looked back, eyes hardening, faces going dark.

Even with Matt at my side, they outnumbered us two to one—and that Mogi guy could've broken my neck between his first two fingers.

I was going to kick Near's ass to Alaska for this—where he would hopefully blend into the snow and die of exposure before he was found.

Accordingly, I attempted to ignore the death glares I was getting by the bushel and stalked right over to Pajama Boy.

"May I talk to you in private?" I gritted out.

Near shrugged—shrugged, I tell you—and led the way to a small office just a few steps down the hall.

He was already leaning against the wall by the time I'd slammed the door shut and wheeled on him.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I howled. "What the fuck are they doing here?"

"They're in the States this week," Near reported, perfectly calmly, one hand very predictably moving to his hair. "That's part of the reason I wanted you to come to this party as well."

"You wanted to feed me to those people?" I demanded. "That's nice, Near—real nice. Little gladiator game in the middle of your living room?"

"I was hoping," Near replied placidly, "that you and they might be able to reconcile on common ground."

"Real fuckin' brilliant, genius," I snorted, pacing now, trying to give the nervous energy an outlet. Matt was out there. Out there with the wolves. Oh, Christ; why hadn't he followed me? "You can't just pave over that kind of shit. I'm the reason Yagami died, Near."

"I dare to hope that my Japanese colleagues can be convinced to look at the circumstances rationally—"

"Near," I said, "they're not going to be rational. You can't expect them to be rational. You know what normal people do, Near? They form attachments to other people, when they find somebody they really care about, and when one of those people dies, rationality does not enter into the equation. Everybody loved that guy, Near—you could tell, and they had good reason. The fact that I didn't want to get him killed doesn't make a difference; the circumstances are irrelevant. He's dead, and that's what matters. It came down to him or me in that room, and whether it was right or wrong, I picked me." I clenched my fists, relaxed them, took a breath, and looked at the blank-faced boy by the door. How was it that he could be so far from innocent but still so naïve?

"You and I," I told him, "are the only people in the world who wanted to catch Kira more than he did—and we're the only ones who sacrificed more." I looked down at my overstated combat boots and wondered what, exactly, I still thought I had to prove. "And it's probably a good thing he died then, because he was happy. Because he didn't know better. The truth would've killed him, and a man like that deserved dignity at the end."

"Kira took something from all of us," Near murmured, and what he was saying was Not like L.

"I miss Wammy, too, y'know," I heard my voice divulging, though it obligingly lowered itself for the purpose. "Every damn day."

"So do I," Near responded, "but this is the world we've got."

I drew another deep breath and released it.

"Okay," I said. "Now I'm going to kick your ass."

Near looked momentarily stricken, but before I could take more than two menacing steps towards him, Matt burst in, quickly followed by Halle, Rester, and Gevanni, the latter two having already drawn their guns.

There was a long pause, and then I looked at Near.

He very obligingly stepped aside, revealing the intercom he'd been activating with his shoulder-blade this whole time.

I stared for a moment more.

And then I flung myself at him, hoping to have a chance to mangle a few limbs and/or puncture an important organ before they pulled me off.

"I hope you've been going to the orthodontist," I screamed, "because they're going to need your dental records to identify you!"

Being the prescient bastards that they are, Rester and Matt manhandled me to the floor before I could tear Near into itty-bitty albino pieces.

Which, I guess I have to admit, is a good thing, since it was his party and all.

Near, smiling like a contented feline, conducted us back to the main room, where I pointedly avoided everyone's eyes.

And then I heard something—something strange, which I doubt even Near had anticipated.


I looked up. It was that Aizawa dude. His face gave nothing away, but he was applauding. And then the others joined in, smiling a little, tentatively, but… approving.

This was eight kinds of fucked up.

Maybe nine.

I tried to look modest, but modest wasn't exactly my forte, so I settled with scuffing my boots on the floor and sitting down on the couch off to the side.

Matt sat down next to me, and Near shuffled over to curl up next to him, still looking much too pleased with himself.

"You know," Matt commented, "if you work on your pole dancing for the talent competition, you could go for Miss America ne—"

I heaved a throw pillow at him. Throw pillows are well-named.

He ducked.

It hit Near square in the face.

Everyone in the room went for their guns, but before they could turn me into blood-splatter art on a couch-back canvas, Near did something unexpected.

He pitched it back.

Kid had never had much of a throwing arm, but it was definitively the thought that counted, and he knew it.

I caught the pillow and walloped Matt properly this time before he could squirm away. Near was giggling and didn't stop when Matt fled into his lap, squeaking, and covered his head. Near salvaged his glasses as I started laying about with the pillow recklessly—though at least I was kind enough to try to avoid people's eyes this time around.

All was going very well until someone nailed me in the back of the head, and I went toppling over on top of Matt, who was still on top of Near.

Almost too stunned to notice the incredible warmth of the strip of skin pressed against my stomach where Matt's shirt had ridden up—almost, but not quite—I looked over my shoulder for the culprit.

Matsuda stood there, swinging the pillow like a gunslinger, grinning like a goof.

I decided I kinda liked that guy.

Accordingly, I heaved my pillow at him and crowed my triumph when it hit his chest and sent him staggering.

Thus began the Great Pillow War of New Year's Eve.

On the brink of COMAD (Cushion-Oriented Mutually-Assured Destruction), Gevanni saved the world as we know it by hitting up the tunes again.

Baby, close your eyes and listen to the music
Drifting through a summer breeze
It's a groovy night, and I can show you how to use it
Come along with me, put your mind at ease, hey

Oh, boy.

Gevanni was out to get me, too.


Oh, well. It was quite the remix, and I'm not one to waste a good dance opportunity, regardless of the precise circumstances that render the conditions danceable.

I grabbed Matty, dragged him out with me, and put my hips to good use.

A little less conversation, a little more action, please
All this aggravation ain't satisfactionin' me

I was wearing the dark wash skinny jeans this time, but they probably looked almost as frigging excellent as the red ones.

I was glad of it. I liked being eminently bangable.

A little more bite, a little less bark
A little less fight, a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart, and, baby, satisfy me

This time, Matt stuck around, possibly in the interest of preventing any of the others from tapping my fine ass while he had his back turned.

We made the obligatory ruckus when the giant disco ball descended in Times Square, and then there was some decent champagne, and then a little more dancing. The clock hands were pushing one in the morning—well, figuratively, since everything in the room was digital to the extreme—when the general wearing-out process seemed to reach a tipping point. Matsuda, whose endurance was quite impressive, stepped back off the dance floor and stretched, scratching ruefully at his head.

"Guess we should probably head for the hotel in the relatively near future," he noted. He paused, and then chuckled. "…near future…"

I ate another truffle and threw the wrapper at him.

"This might be a reasonable time to conclude," Near agreed. "Welcome to the new year, everyone. I really do believe that we can make a good one of it, all of us together." I hadn't seen him drinking any champagne; this must have been calculated schmaltz. "If you need someone to drive you back, I'm sure Commander Rester can be of service. Oh, and… Mello?"

Oh, goody, my favorite part.

"What?" I asked.

Near smiled innocently, which was more ominous than just about anything else on the planet.

Since prolonging the inevitable was unwise at one in the morning anyway, I followed Near back to the same office that had seen our last conversation. He wasn't playing games this time—he sat down in the high-backed rolling chair and drew one knee up to his chest, his finger working in his hair.

The polite thing to do would have been to take the other chair, but you know me.

"Yeah?" I prompted, standing with my arms crossed.

"What you should do," Near said, "is to get him drunk again and kiss him."

I stared.

"Because," Near elaborated patiently after a moment of silence, "if he reacts poorly, you can claim that you were equally intoxicated, and if he reacts well, then you're home free."

I stared a little more.

Near was giving me relationship advice.

"You have a strange, twisted little mind," I realized.

"I think it's indisputable," he replied crisply, "that I have a strange, twisted, extremely considerable mind."

I shrugged.

Near sighed. "After all this," he went on, shaking his head and sending curls bouncing, "you still haven't learned how to gamble it all for what's really important? He's almost died twice on your account. Just think how much you would regret never having acted if he had—if he was gone and never knew, and you'd never have the chance to look him in the eyes and tell him the truth. Hasn't he given enough for you? Doesn't he deserve to know?"

I wanted to pinch my arm and wait to wake up.

"Where are you getting all this?" I demanded.

He twirled the finger delicately deeper into his hair. "Halle and I discussed the matter in detail on the twenty-fourth after I spent the evening talking to Matt."

His jugular vein was in danger again. I tried to estimate how long it would take Rester to bust through the door and cut me into bite-sized pieces.

"You told Halle about this?" I snapped.

Near snorted. "Hardly. She's female. She figured it out on her own, and virtually instantaneously at that."

I glared at him uselessly for a second, and then I blew out a breath that made my bangs go fwoosh.

"He's my best friend, Near," I said. "I can't risk that."

Near tilted his head a moment as he considered, and then he spoke.

"Pansy," he remarked.

Back to the staring-in-disbelief part of the program.

"What?" I sputtered.

Near shrugged. "You're being a coward," he informed me calmly. "You know Matt's far too committed to you to think about leaving over something like that. It's not him you'd be gambling; it's you. You don't want to have to own up to your own feelings, and you're afraid of disrupting the status quo even if it is in your favor. This is the first time in your life that you've ever cared about someone more than you care about yourself, and I think you're terrified."

I opened my mouth. I shut it. I realized I probably looked like a fish and resolved never to do that again.

"Well?" Near said.

I folded my arms tighter across my chest and kicked at the floor. "Well… shit, Near."

"I gave you your lives back," he noted, "and I can't make you live them the way I'd like you to, but… I'd hate to see all that work go completely to waste."

It was my turn to sigh meaningfully.

"I'll see what I can do," I promised.

Near smiled, his finger in his hair past the second knuckle. "That's all I ask," he replied.

Matt had spent more of the night dancing than drinking this time around, so I wasn't too worried about letting him drive.

Additionally, I wasn't going to be putting myself in control of a moving vehicle anytime soon.

It was unfortunate, however, that this arrangement left me pressed up against Matt's back, my arms wrapped around his waist, headlights and taillights winking in blinding collusion was we tore through the streets. It probably wasn't safe at all to hit the highway at one-thirty on New Year's, but… I wanted to go home. I wanted my bed. I wanted to pull the blankets over my head and pretend that I could turn the world off like the halogen lamp on the nightstand.

Life was more like the streetlights, though. Faint and unsteady and uncanny and inescapable.

And… orange… or something.

More than a little guiltily, I let my hands brush Matt's sides as I disentangled myself and stepped down in the apartment's cramped parking garage. I pried the helmet off, raked a hand through my hair, and watched Matt do about likewise.

Redheads. What is it about redheads?

Matt shrugged (in general, rather than in response to my rhetorical question) and stretched, and then we trooped up to the elevator, leaned idly against opposite walls as it ferried us upward, and headed down the hall to our dirt-cheap but dirt-solid apartment. Matt let us in, and we tossed our helmets onto the bedroom floor, because that was where everything clothing-related, including protective gear, went to languish and presumably die.

"Do we have any booze?" Matt asked, shedding his brown leather jacket and moving for the living room.

"You just had champagne," I reminded him.

"Yeah," he conceded, voice growing more distant as the walls got in the way, "but I was going to take advantage of the fact that no one'll expect me to do shit tomorrow by getting wasted and playing GTA until my thumbs bleed."

"How ambitious," I said, following to flop down on the couch as he battled with the PlayStation.

Truth be told, we had forty ounces of vodka in the fridge, but I wasn't about to tell him that after what Near had suggested. It all sounded much too… horrifyingly plausible.

Matt sat on one of the couch pillows and started making good on the latter part of his resolution.

I wanted to reach out and run my fingers through his hair, wanted it so acutely that it ached.

Redheads, man. Fucking redheads.

"Matt," I said as he put four bullets in a cop's chest, "when was the last time you smoked?"

"Thirty-two days ago," he answered absently. "It was looking like I might actually live long enough for lung cancer."

Fuck you, Near. Stop being right, God damn it.

"Huh," I concluded sagely.

Matt sent his enterprising little criminal scurrying to hide behind the display in the gun store, the better to snipe SWAT personnel until they got pissed enough to send the army after him. I heaved myself up, headed to the kitchen, and there assembled two Hi-Fis, one part vodka, two parts Sunkist, which I brought back to the living room in order to dangle one in Matt's peripheral vision. Obediently, he sent his avatar outside to be shredded by the newly-arrived tanks, freeing his hands to accept the offering. I settled on the couch with mine.

"Make sure to use a coaster," I warned him gravely.

"Wouldn't want to ruin the carpet," he replied.

Matt nursed his drink, gazing pensively at the screen as it faded to white, the word WASTED hovering in the bottom corner.

Funny word, "waste."

It was pushing four-thirty by the time we started considering going to bed. I'd forgotten exactly how many times I'd refilled the glasses.

To his alcohol tolerance's credit, Matt's dude on the screen was still wandering around, quite contentedly shooting up anything that moved, and didn't look drunk at all.

I, however, was experiencing some pronounced judgment impairment.

That's why I got up and planted my hands on my hips the next time he died.

"Bedtime," I announced.

Matt tossed the controller to the floor and pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes. "Guess so," he muttered.

I threw both arms around his waist and hauled him to his feet.

Impaired judgment, I said. Pay attention.

Feeling blood rush to my face as my brain, panting and cursing its shin splints, caught up with the rest of me, I focused intently on brushing off Matt's shoulders.

"Mello," he said.

"Matt," I returned.

"Mello," he repeated, slightly sharply.

I looked at him, which was probably what he'd wanted anyway.

Matt drew a deep breath and bit his lip. He appeared to be struggling. "Just—you—flirt. With everything that moves. With everything that has a pulse."

I blinked. Then I blinked again. Pretty soon, I would be pushing my blinking quota for the day.

"It's kind of—instinctual," I said. "It was extremely advantageous in the Sordid Past."

I hoped I was conveying the melodramatic capitals correctly.

Matt frowned. We were standing practically nose-to-nose, and I was mesmerized by his mouth. It was just… really… nice…, is all.

"I know that," Matt persisted, both hands in his hair now, fingers tangled, elbows dangerously close to my chest. "And I understand that, or at least it makes sense, but I just—I can't—keep going like this. I can't keep sitting here with my mouth shut and my heart open hoping something'll fall in. Just—" He folded his arms, tightly, securely, protectively, and looked away. "I fought for you. I always have. I would've died for you. I almost did, and I'd do it again in a second, if you asked me. You're it, Mello. You're everything. You're all that's ever mattered and all I've ever cared about—you must've noticed that much. I'd have to be insane or in love with you to stick with you this long. Christ, they're probably the same thing anyway. I'll leave, if you want me to, or I'll stay and keep my fucking mouth shut, but I just… I need to know, Mel. I need to know where you stand, and how you feel, if you feel anything—I don't know. I can't just guess anymore. I'm tired of guessing. I'm tired of pretending like it doesn't hurt."

I looked at him, looked him in the beautiful blue eyes, and scrabbled blindly for the right words to crush together into coherence.

Was I breathing? It sounded like we both were. Praise Jesus and thank God for involuntary reflexes.

"You're going to have to say it," my voice told him faintly. "You're going to have to say it first. I'm not brave enough, Matt; I'm just not."

He took both my hands in his and squeezed the life out of them.

After all that, after all this, after everything we'd done and almost died doing—after all that, the crazy kid was still a hopeless romantic.

It was so fucking beautiful that he believed.

"I love you, Mel," he said. "I've loved you since I knew what it meant to love somebody."

I slipped my arms around him again, drawing him close, or drawing close to him; I didn't care. His hair was even softer than I expected, and I curled my fingers in it possessively—as if they'd ever forget.

"I love you, too, Matt," I whispered. "And I am fucking terrified of what that means."

We took it slow—and gently. Really gently. We could fuck around with chains and whips and virtually-indelible teethmarks later; this was the first time.

And that meant something, for once. That meant a lot.

Because this part, this time… this was love, articulated and in motion. It was a breathtaking, heartrending, too-short-endless outright miracle.

Slowly, gently, warmly, kindly—was this what it meant? Was this what love really meant?

I thought it had to be.

His palms were beneath my jaw, his fingers gliding across my cheeks, then down my neck on either side, exploratory, sliding down my chest to take the hem of my tee-shirt in both hands and lift it free.

Free. Exactly that. Liberated. Open and naked and true.

I breathed him in, mouth to his throat as I bested the buttons of his wrinkled shirt. His fingertips traced lacework up my ribs, webs of warmth along my skin; I pushed his shirt off of his right shoulder, let my hand slide down the swell of his bicep, and pressed a kiss to every freckle I'd uncovered. He drew tangled cotton over my head, smoothed my hair down in its wake; tilted my head back, met my eyes…

"We're drunk," he said.

"Only a little," I murmured back.

He grinned, rakishly, glasses drifting out of place again. "Don't you want to remember this?" he asked.

"If it's good enough," I retorted, "I will."

He grinned. "I'll do my best, then."

We had a bit of trouble getting my pants off—tight pants look good, but they lack something of practical value—but that was all right. It wasn't too hard to turn a bit of squirming into pretty effective foreplay.

Not like we really needed more foreplay. It was fairly obvious that we were both quite prepared.

Slow, gentle, unrepentant—Matt's mouth on my stomach, on my chest, up my neck, under my ears. I combed my fingers through his damp hair, clenched them, dragged him in for another long, slovenly kiss. The bedsprings creaked sympathetically, harmonizing with the soft little moans and sighs and whimpers that Matt's careful attentions elicited from me against my will.

Damn him. Damn his power to wreck me with my own uncertain need. Damn him for loving me back.

I was doomed.

I also had the best orgasm I can remember.

You win some, you lose some, and sometimes you do both at once, which is even better.

"Let's go to the park," Matt proposed the next quasi-morning.

I opened one eye. I'd been planning on lounging here as long as humanly possible, half-asleep, dreaming up permutations of and variations on the unmitigated wondrousness of the night before.

"Come on," Matt insisted.

Damn it. I had to. I was the one who always said we never did anything.

"Now?" I prompted, settling my face better against the pillow and closing my eyes again as Matt's index finger trailed deliciously down my spine.

"I could make you breakfast," he offered. "If the Bisquick isn't molding."

"That's a big 'if,'" I pointed out.

"You could put chocolate syrup on your pancakes," he coaxed.

I weighed my options. "Will you put chocolate chips in?"

Matt leaned down to kiss my shoulder blade. "Absolutely," he reported.

I turned my head enough to make a face at him. "I'll think about it," I promised.

"Jolly good show," Matt decided. His fingertips trilled over my ribs once more, and then he retreated.

When the scent of chocolate-chip pancakes was too persuasive and pervasive altogether, I peeled my face off the pillow, dragged myself to my feet, found a notorious pair of pants, and staggered down the hall to the kitchenette.

"Look," I told Matt, happily stroking the clean red denim. "Your blood came out of my jeans."

Matt blinked, batter-coated spatula in hand.

"I'm not sure what to say to that, Mel," he admitted.

"You could start with 'Congratulations,'" I suggested.

"Or with 'Maybe you should slip into something more comfortable,'" he countered.

I gave him the most innocent facial expression I could muster. "But won't my pancakes get cold?"

"Nothing can be cold in your proximity," Matt informed me calmly, the implication dancing tauntingly in his bright eyes.

Damn. What a terrible dilemma—more sex, or warm chocolate-chip pancakes?

Well, sex wasn't going anywhere, but the pancakes wouldn't last all day.

Also, Matt was a messy eater, and my personal mantra, as we know, is "No chocolate will be wasted."

Certainly didn't hurt that Matt was only wearing jeans. Licking Matt is so fun it should be illegal.

Of course, in some countries, it would be.

God bless America. The Pope'll come around.

Or come out.

Hey, you never know.

Typically—wonderfully typically—Matt took my hand the second we got outside and refused to let it go. He'd be buying me flowers and chocolate next.

Not that I had a problem with that.

It was freezing down on the street, and the sidewalks were slick with ice and clumps of slush, even now that it was well past noon. We huddled in our coats and huddled together, and I shoved my free hand deep in my pocket and clung to Matt with the other.

Which was almost certainly what he'd been intending all along.

I didn't have a problem with that, either.

We found a café where Matt could get his coffee fix—for of course coffee had come swiftly on the heels of cigarettes—and I could indulge in some thick hot chocolate, and we settled to watch the passersby, many of whom we happily subjected to merciless ridicule once they were out of earshot. I made sure to get some whipped cream on my lip so that Matt would have to kiss it off, and he obliged, tasting of the milk and sugar and cinnamon he'd dumped into his coffee cup.

It was downright frigid as we started back for home, but our hands and our mouths and our hearts were more than warm enough.

And then we got hit by a bus.

…of course not; are you fucking kidding me?

There's something wrong with you.