Author's Note:

This chapter experienced just about every bad thing that a chapter can...with the large exception of pure abandonment. And each of these things, as is true in all such cases, was the author's fault. Major life occurrences notwithstanding, I take responsibility for that. And I apologize to my readers - one particular reader especially - for the long space of time since The Love Below was last updated. In addition, I would like to sincerely thank all who have stayed with me through that time, and all who have reviewed thus far.

I can truly say that this story has changed my life in a deep and profound manner, and, as it nearing its final chapter, I do hope that I have given this novel all the spirit and fire that it has given me. I don't know how often it is that writing a story can move such mountains, but when it does...a writer's attention must be paid.

Also, thank you for the rough patches through this. You know who you are.

Chapter Seventeen - Last Chance

"Human love! Love is not an inhabitant of the earth. We worship him as the Athenians did their unknown God: but broken hearts are the martyrs of his faith, and the eye shall never see the form which phantasy paints, and which passion pursues through paths of delusive beauty, among flowers whose odours are agonies, and trees whose gums are poison."

-Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey

Mello ought to be working on his essay...he really ought to be working on his essay. The thing was due on Monday and, piss-ant that he was, Professor Laurel would never accept it handed in late. But Mello was having so much trouble concentrating right now! Every little thing around him seemed to be screaming for his attention. The grain of the wood on his desk top...the sound of the old air conditioner whirring overhead...things that were normally minutiae were now like giant elephants in the room.

Mello reached for the pen at the corner of his keyboard. Slipping the cap between his lips and chewing at it restlessly, he decided to screw the essay. For now anyway. He'd come back to it later. Or maybe he wouldn't. Or maybe he would. He needed the grade, after all, if he wanted L to...

Mello sighed. The last time he'd seen L had been remarkable and glorious and fantastic and special Mello set his pen down again. For everything it had been, it was still...Mello didn't regret it. Mother of God, no. He'd do it all again in a heartbeat, and in fact was aiming to as soon as he could. Mello thought he had felt connected to L was nothing compared to how he felt now.

And yet...there were...things. Not problems, exactly, just...things. Issues, perhaps. That was a good term for it. Issues.

Near, for instance. Near was an issue. Mello picked up his pen once more and set to drumming it rhythmically against the edge of his desk. Mello knew he'd brought this on himself - he knew it. He'd agreed already to Near's presence. Told L it was okay. Signed his name on the dotted line of a contract written in tears. And yet...and yet it was agony to have him there. Seeing L touch Near in any place at all made Mello smolder inside with rage. To see him touch Near there...wrap his lips around him there...

The tap tap tap of the pen's rhythm increased in speed and volume. Mello felt sick...and restless. He needed an outlet for his frustrations.

And no sooner had the thought run through Mello's mind than his bedroom door opened to reveal Near.

"Jesus!" Mello demanded, rocketing out of his chair. "Don't you ever knock?"

"Perhaps a visit to the otologist is in order." Near mumbled. "I did knock. Leaving without speaking to you was out of the question, so here I am."

Mello looked Near up and down and saw that he was apparently reluctant to set one foot on Mello's carpet. Near hung in the doorway, looking anywhere but into Mello's eyes.

This was so typical of him. Do something insensitive and then claim he had every reason to. That it was Mello's fault he was affronted. Of course Near couldn't have made a mistake. Or maybe it wasn't typical of Near at all. Maybe this was a new branch of trickery designed for some other nefarious purpose.

"You're a liar, Near." Mello said. "I would have heard you!"

Near glanced up and met Mello's eyes just once before dropping them again. Beyond that, he didn't say a word.

Mello felt a hot rush of shame add itself to the mix of an already heady emotional cocktail. An apology forced its way past his lips.

"I'm sorry, Near...fuck."

Mello knew that Near hadn't lied to was just...there was so much...too much going on...and then...

But Near nodded the apology away and acted as if all was instantly forgiven. Maybe it was. Though he still wouldn't meet Mello's eyes, choosing instead to look at some far off point on the floor.

"L told me to come here," he said. "He said he would be here after I arrived."

And after a few moments of shifty looks and awkward silence, Mello saw that this was true. L came upon Near from behind - Mello saw from over Near's shoulder. Near must have heard him approaching, because he turned to look over his shoulder. He said hello to L. Mumbling once again. Then he stepped out of the doorway to let him pass, and Mello saw that L was wearing his usual white shirt and blue jeans, hair still in disarray.

While it was novel to have L in his bedroom, it was not novel anymore for L to call unexpected meetings. Mello had only to wait for what he would announce.

L said nothing by way of greeting. He simply stated, "Today we're going someplace new. My bedroom."

Then he turned and set off for the hallway outside, and Mello and Near followed.

It was everything and nothing all at once. Everything and nothing that Mello expected. He'd expected something large, something grand, something intimidating somehow. And it was. It was all of those things. The ceiling was high, arched in the center...a simple but imposing chandelier hung from its middle. No light shown from its crystalline fixtures, though. No light shown from any of the lamps or sconces around the room. Only shadows, and a dim ray of tonight's full moon. Everywhere Mello looked there seemed to be windows, but they were all partially obscured by heavy curtains. Especially the one behind the bed. Its curtains hung haphazardly from one corner - draping to the floor gracelessly and mirroring the rumpled state of the bed.

And this was where Mello found nothing that he had expected. Because he had never dreamed that this bed would be so...sad. Sad was not the right word but it was all his mind could supply. More like a desert than an oasis...more despairing than a place of refuge and rest should ever be. A single pillow. A tattered coverlet, hanging onto the bed itself only by one corner, the rest lying in a heap on the floor. It was the biggest bed Mello had ever seen, but it was also the loneliest.

This was not the place that the world's greatest detective ought to call his own. It looked more suited to an abandoned pauper than a pampered billionaire like L. And at the same time...

At the same time, Mello could see elements of L's self inside the room. The solitude...the intensity. The other-worldly sense of time and though this room existed outside anything Mello had known before. And there was a certain...charm about the place, despite some of its furnishings being worn. Much like L the person, the room did not dress itself in expensive silks or mind odd looks from passersby. It contained what it contained and was as it was - and that was enough.

"It's raining," Mello heard L say.

He was looking out of one of those large windows, hands held loosely in his pockets. His back was curved slightly, in its usual fashion. Just enough to form a pronounced slouch but not so much that any deformity was called into question.

"It's nice," Near said next. Mello found that Near was right: the rain made the world outside L's window look like a watercolor painting...the colors running together...shapes indistinct. And it formed a beautiful kind of music as it fell. Constant and smooth and steady. No thunder. Just soft beating.

From his place at one of the end-tables, Near crossed the room and laid himself down on L's worn bed. L watched him as he went, expressionless. He made no sound and moved no muscle in protest...simply gazed as it happened.

There was a time when Mello would have been astonished by Near's audacity but by now he had come to understand a little of how Near ticked. They were not so very different, Mello thought, when it all came down to it. Their places in the world were nearly identical. And they both wanted the same things. To Near, this was just the most direct way of chasing his goal.

...tactless though it may be.

But L seemed to pay it no was like he was in another world entirely, as well as being here and in the moment. Mello had always loved how L had the ability to inhabit two spaces at his mind could take him to different places and still hold the present one inside itself.

It was time for Mello to play his part though. Make up for Near's utter lack of finesse. He went to L and took his hand gently...trying to bring him more fully into the present moment. When L looked down at him, Mello tried his best to give a warm smile. But L looked back at him with empty eyes. Mello did his best to hurry L towards the bed, but with each footfall, it seemed that L was moving more and more slowly. In between shooting him encouraging looks, Mello saw that L's expression grew increasingly somber. The shadows that played about the room darkened around them, almost too quickly to be believed natural, and they seemed to darken on his face.

Mello let go of L's hand when they were close. He arranged himself opposite Near on the bed, lying there and waiting for L to take the last steps.

By the time L reached the bed too, it was like a spell had been cast. By what or by whom, Mello didn't know, but it was there. His eyes were intent on the place where Mello and Near both lay...deep and unyielding. If L were eager to approach them, he didn't show it. And if he were reluctant, he didn't show that either. There was just the action of his hands setting themselves palm down on the coverlet...the bend of his knee as it too fell onto the sheets, bringing L to them.

He loomed over them, on hands and knees, in a way that was entirely nonthreatening. To his right, Mello saw Near reach up a hand and trace it down the front of L's white shirt. Near's skin was so pale that his hand was nearly indistinguishable from the material. Especially in the darkness. And L let it happen...he even lowered himself a bit into the touch.

Odd that Mello no longer felt the edge of competition urging him to push Near away. Jealousy ate at him, to be sure...and that did urge him. But to win...

Without his conscious thought, Mello's hand reached up and slid itself into L's black hair. The locks were so soft under his palm...and L's eyes drooped closed when Mello smooth exhale exiting that perfect mouth.

It was so quiet...and so dark...and so still...

Too long had it been rushed between them...too long had the frenzy of games and the quest to prove oneself pushed any...any peace out of this. Mello was so grateful for L's suggestion of coming here...without the seclusion of L's own room...he may never have known such tranquility...

A slice of moon-ray pierced the window before the bed, catching on L's back and illuminating the edges of his form with a soft glow. Especially around the sharp edges of his hair, where Mello noticed a pronounced halo effect. He thought it was beautiful. And fitting.

L moved out of the moon-ray quickly, though, and into the shadow. Bangs obscuring his eyes, he ducked his head down over Near. Mello could tell from the soft smacking sound that L was kissing him. And while the whole thing made his stomach ache inside, as it had every single time before (and in addition to ache: boil, and burn), some part of Mello was...what? Captivated? Bewitched? Something. Something that left him bound as tightly as if there were cords of rope around his wrists. Involuntarily, he removed his hand from L's hair and it fell to the mattress with a thump.

And here Near's hands took over Mello's...they were sinking into the strands while L kissed him, slow and gentle and soft. Near was perfectly still underneath L, except for those hands moving relentlessly through his hair.

Here L held his weight up with one hand alone and used the other to maneuver down Near's side. His hand dragged down the rough cotton of Near's pajama top to its hem, and then slipped up underneath it, running its way up the skin of Near's chest. Mello had never touched Near that way (and never cared to!) but he could imagine the softness L must be relishing. Near was every inch a virgin. Mello himself was too, but he knew that his skin was rougher. It made him wish he had spent less time carousing outdoors and more time sitting still with a book, as Near had.

Finally they broke for air. By this time, Near's top was pushed high - bunching up underneath his chin. White chest exposed, he showed no hint of embarrassment. Mello found that Near only looked dazed...and tired. His ribs rose and fell with heavy breathing.

L himself looked much the same, though more subdued. And Mello could see him better with every passing second, because now he was leaving Near behind and advancing ever closer. His eyes were darker than Mello had ever seen them...

And his lips were just as warm. They moved over Mello's easily, and some distant part of his mind realized that they'd already found a rhythm together. A gentle to and fro that set Mello's heart pounding and his blood racing. And that was even before L's tongue snaked out to curl itself around his own. Mello realized his hands were sliding over L's back, up and down, finding no purchase anywhere and not much caring.

But he could hear Near shuffling around beside him, followed by the faint sound of buttons popping.

Mello was slipping closer and closer to the edge of the mattress, almost ready to tumble off its precipice. But there was L...always there to guide him. Mello felt his hand at his hip, easing him back towards the center. And when he was finally where he'd started, L's hand slid down his thigh and hooked itself under his knee, hiking Mello's leg up and around L's waist.

Mello could happily have stayed in such a position for the rest of his life, how good did it feel to be locked so close to L. Lips and hips as one. But then L pulled his mouth away and reached blindly out for Near. Mello watched as their lips met again, this time above his head. Still his leg was wrapped around L's waist, and for the first time, Mello saw, concretely, that L was truly with them both. It was amazing that L could handle both of them and not spread himself too thin at any point.

Mello saw that Near had gotten his pajama top completely removed and had moved on to divesting himself of his pants, even as L kissed him. And as though he wanted to create some strange mirror image, L's fingers slid down Mello's thigh and up to the waistband of his trousers, working the buttons open nimbly.

There were matching sighs from the two of them after that. Mello realized that he shouldn't be surprised that L could multitask. L could do anything.

And he could apparently time anything as well, because just as Mello and Near's sighs were turning to gasps and moans, L stopped and...eased away from them. Mello was too powerless against the feeling to protest. All he could do was wait. He saw L lean over the left edge of the mattress and rummage about underneath the bedskirt, coming back holding something tiny filled with clear liquid.

Mello knew what that would be. He just didn't know what he ought to do.

It turned out that while it wasn't easy, it wasn't difficult either. There was rearranging to be done...testing and experimentation of what was working and what was not...but in the end, it was not long before Mello felt him slide just there...and everything he'd ever read about this - things like ownership and claiming and marking turned out to be only half-truths. Because if L was claiming Mello, Mello was claiming him right back. It wasn't more taking than wasn't to hurt him, or to chain him up...and neither was it a purely selfless was to bend him without breaking...

Too much time (and too little) passed before it was over. And it was over only for one, because L wasn't finished yet, Mello saw, though Mello himself was plainly spent. There was more fumbling around and more slickness to be had in more Near was in for something that Mello knew he wasn't likely to forget.

He heard Near say something about doing it another way, and then there was even more rearranging, but soon enough it was happening.

Mello felt tears prick at his eyes but they didn't fall. He thought about turning his back on them while it went on, just to spare himself the sight, but as it was ending, he realized he hadn't made up his mind in time. It was already too late to turn over. He'd seen it all, and somehow managed it.

Then L crawled between the two of them and pulled back the sheets. Mello struggled to be quick about settling himself underneath the covers, and saw Near do the same on the other side, but both of them were rather the worse for wear and speed wasn't on their side.

L didn't seem to mind the time it took. He laid down with them and rested his head directly on the mattress, leaving the one pillow to the side for Mello or Near to use. He closed his eyes.

But Mello doubted that he got any sleep.

The sun wasn't out when Mello opened his eyes again. Not even the glimmer of a few rays shone on the horizon. The outside world was still all moonlight and shadows. But the rain had stopped.

Someone, probably L, had lit one of the sconces. It gave off enough light for Mello to see that Near was awake too. He was sitting with his back propped up against the headboard. His knees were raised up against his bare chest and the fingers of one hand were twirling a lock of hair over and over.

"Mello is awake," he said. At first Mello thought Near was simply stating the obvious - as he often did - to make some obscure point. But then Mello found that he was actually alerting L.

L, who was standing at one of the far windows again, looking out into the night with his hands in his pockets. At Near's words, he turned and made his way back to the bed, taking a seat on the edge. He sat with his back to the both of them, as though he wouldn't (or couldn't) lose sight of that window.

Mello hurried to rub the sleep out of his eyes and sit up straight. Right now, it didn't matter that he was only half-dressed in an unfamiliar bed. Mello could feel it inside himself that L wanted to talk now, and say something important. All the rest could wait.

"It's time to say goodbye."

He said it like it was a simple fact. Something that he'd been waiting to say for quite some time.

Mello saw the fingers twisting in and out of Near's hair abruptly stop.

"You both will remember the case I told you about...? It's happening...I warned you that I would have to leave. And now I must. He's...that is to say...the one who...well...the stakes have been raised. If I am to go, I am to go now. Or never."

Still L wasn't turning to meet Mello's eyes, or Near's.

"I want you both to know that I didn't plan things to be this way. I didn't...I never...What's done is done, but I...I find myself clinging to the hope that I have done more good than harm. And I have never before had to reassure myself of such a thing."

Mello opened his mouth to speak. To say what, he didn't know. Something. Something wise, or at least comforting. But the words never came, and L continued on.

"However...I know at least that my original goal remains intact. And even has been met." L sounded dully pleased by this. He shifted a bit in his perch on the bed.

"I have made my decision."

The words lingered on the air for some time before being swept away by the next.

"When I return from Japan, I will tell you who my successor is to be. I know the choice has been long in coming...and I do apologize for that. You two are the last people I need to explain this to but...L's job is a serious one. I needed to be sure. Maybe I could have been more efficient in the choosing, but..." L's voice trailed off into nothingness.

Finally Mello found it in himself to speak.

"Why are you waiting to tell us who it is?" he asked. "Why not now?"

Apparently this question was enough to tear L's gaze from his beloved windows and bring it forward to his audience. He turned his whole body toward Mello and Near, and looked them in the eye, before he answered.

"Because to tell you now would be to unleash more problems on an already problematic world."

Suddenly Near spoke up. His voice sounded as calm and monotonous as ever, but Mello still thought he heard a twinge of regret underneath. "When will you return?"

"I don't know...I only know that I will be back." L said. And with that, he turned away again.

The three of them sat in silence after that. There didn't seem to be much left to say, or to think. Though there was plenty to feel...and Mello thought maybe they were each taking the time to feel it in their own way. He himself was sprawled out on the bed with no particular attention to where his limbs fell. One foot was tapping on the sheets in a fit of fidgeting. Near was still, as usual. Staring at the floor. And L...L was held still, but poised. Like he was listening.

Finally he stood up, turned around, and crawled onto the bed between them again. But unlike hours before, there was nothing sexual in the gesture.

"I leave tonight." L said. Then he reached up and cradled Near's jaw in one hand, kissing him softly on the forehead. Near's eyes slipped closed as he did. Next L turned to Mello, and repeated the gentle touch at his cheek, and repeated the kiss.

And even before Mello felt his lips ghost away, it seemed, L was off the bed, and gathering up a cell phone from the bedside table, and was gone.

When Mello saw L walk out of the room that night, he thought he'd heard bells.