Author's Note: For the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Jenwryn. Influenced more than it ought to be by her amazing fic 'Time,' which I attribute more to the fact that it is everything L/Mello ought to be than to my utter failure to be creative. XD Gushing gratitude to Eltea for beta work, as always. :)
Jenny, my Jenny, you make my world all kinds of amazing. Happy birthday!!
Mello is fifteen, and L is twenty-five.
It gives a whole new meaning to the word "no," and to the words "wrong," "forbidden," "disgusting," and "restraint."
L is the world's three greatest detectives, and he is its first most foolish man.
It's Mello's eyes that do it—or that's what he likes to think. It's because they're cold, and hard, and hostile; it's because they're chips of well-protected ice until they settle on him and unfreeze. It's because they're not the only thing that melts.
L's single sensual vice is the sweets that feed his overactive brain, flooding it with the critical volume of carbohydrates required to keep it afloat. He reassures himself that he has no active agency over the persisting whispers of his subconscious, and the part of him that scoured psychology textbooks at the tender age of eight, the better to play ball on the therapists' close-trimmed fields, knows he's mostly right.
Acknowledging that the foibles are not his fault does not erase them, and the implications amplify.
The dreams are sometimes warm and soft, and sometimes they swell with so much humid lust that he wakes up shaking, soaked in sweat and shame. The first time he opens his eyes and thinks he tastes chocolate in the back of his throat, it's all he can do to choke down the bile that seeks to follow.
The dreams that end in discovery make it difficult to get out of bed at all.
He strives not to differentiate. They are all his successors; they are all his prodigies; they are all his children—his extraordinary children, but not enough the first to justify debasement of the latter. He strives not to notice the way that Mello draws, rises, gravitates to his touch, sidles by him, brushes past him, revels in the only vague motions of affection that L knows how to mime.
L is the world's three greatest detectives, but a halfwit would see the unwonted openness in the cold-guarded eyes. When he can, whenever he can, L avoids looking into that sudden, inviting vulnerability, because the vacuum hollowed by the departed petulance will devour him completely if he wanders too close. What coils in those eyes is more than admiration, more than adulation, wider than wonder and broader than respect, and it is the most terrifying thing he has ever dared to see slantways from behind his hair.
Part of it must be that Mello is Mello, that Mello hurls the whole of himself into every thought and action, hell and high water welcome; and part of it must be that Mello is wildly unbalanced at the base of things; and part of it must be that Mello is fifteen years old, and he thinks as though he's twice his age, even surfeited on a hormone high.
Part of it must be that L is a prominent object—obvious, available, and very, very powerful despite appearances.
L will not believe that it is more than muddled idol worship that shines in Mello's eyes.
He will not profit from it.
He may be a lecher, but he is not a hypocrite.
He will not sacrifice the unstained L to the momentary weakness of a soul he barely believes in.
One word, two letters: no.
Mello is seventeen, and L is twenty-seven.
They stand on either side of the threshold, L with bare toes curling in the familiar carpet, Mello's soft feet (he has seen them; they are; they would patter on the stairs but that now they hide within rubber and steel and tight laces over a canvas tongue) planted on the doorstep, half-turned to go.
But Mello isn't going.
"You know what I'm going to say," he remarks, "don't you?"
"Yes," L answers. "Don't say it."
No one has ever accused L of being indirect.
People have called him justice.
Mello smiles a little, and L's stomach makes a twist-jerk maneuver like an elevator with half the cables snapped.
He wonders how long he has before he hits the ground.
Defiance turns on a tall-treaded heel, black knapsack dangling from one shoulder, and joins Matt in the idling car without looking back.
L is still standing in the doorway long after the exhaust fumes have dissipated into the air.
Mello will be three days from nineteen, and L is twenty-nine.
Winter has them now, caging them between fingers that L imagines are not too unlike his own—long, and thin, and white. He pictures tendrils of frost curling about the knuckles and misting over the nails, and he wishes socks didn't feel strangling.
There is a knock at the door.
L nudges another sugar cube over his bottom lip and pushes it around with his tongue.
Nobody's answering the door. L glances at the clock in the bottom-right corner of his screen.
You really can't get good help at three o'clock in the morning.
He unfolds his limbs off of the chair and trudges down the stairs, heels scuffing on the runner, stifling a sigh as the bronze door knocker smacks sharply and impatiently again and again, the sound echoing through the foyer until his ears ring with it.
He fingers the small switchblade in his right pocket and pulls the door handle with his other hand.
He half-expects to be looking down a gun barrel at his last few seconds of existence, but destruction is not so literal.
Mello flashes a semiautomatic grin and swaggers past.
"Matt's got a girlfriend," he announces; "the fucking bastard. He's completely whipped, too—three weeks, and he's doing her laundry, like some kind of fucking puppy. Christ. I'm not going to sit around for that shit, believe you me."
L does believe him. L would believe in anything that came from Mello; any invention, any lie.
"Do we have chocolate?" Mello asks, already halfway into the kitchen.
Mello's always halfway into the next thing before he's left the first. Maybe it makes him feel like he doesn't have to disconnect completely. Maybe he's never truly broken from anything.
He's here again, after all. Close enough to touch.
L hates that this is what he lives for—seeking out things he doesn't understand and diving in without gauging the water's depth. It's part of him; it's who and what he is. He doesn't segue, like Mello; he falls all the way and fights free as an afterthought.
Someday it'll kill him.
Perhaps not today.
Mello has climbed onto the counter and is kneeling there to search, having kindly kicked off his boots, which sprawl now on the linoleum with laces trailing, his backpack dropped beside them. A pale hand is scrabbling on the top shelf of the cupboard for the stash of chocolate bars that he knows no one will have dared to displace.
"Oh-fucking-yes" is the vocalization of his triumph as he settles cross-legged on the countertop with prize in hand.
L loiters by the door, and watches, and waits.
Expert fingers peel back the foil, and he feels like it's his skin.
Mello snaps off a square of chocolate, sets it on his tongue, and closes his eyes gratefully for a long moment, savoring. The few seconds of kind anonymity are short, and then Mello's eyelids snap up again, and he smiles and extends the hand that bears the bar.
"Want some?" he asks.
L shakes his head. He would never be able to come that close to Mello's taste and walk away unscathed.
He could go for some cake, however. He needs something to steady his hands before they vibrate off of his wrists and tumble to the floor.
Mello is taller, longer, leaner, colder now, a specter of Ifs curled on the countertop—and yet he's somehow still so small and sharp and bright, even head-to-toe in black; still sweet like milk and cocoa; eyes never twice the same.
Mello is quiet as he nibbles on the corner of the chocolate bar. L itches at his ankle with the other foot.
"It sucks," Mello mutters. "Being alone. It sucks, and I hate it."
He smiles, thinly, sadly, one slim, dangling foot in its black sock tapping Morse Code against the door of the cabinet below.
"I guess I'm preaching to the choir, though, aren't I?" he asks, softly, gentle.
If L hadn't known before, he knows now that Mello, little Mello, has changed. Has learned. Has grown.
But he's still a boy.
L had been seventeen, coiled to read Camus in the old armchair that attracted sunbeams, when Watari had ushered in another child who had scored off the charts, a small one, fragile, with sleek yellow hair and eyes that had seen fear so many times they'd exchanged it for anger instead.
L had watched, from a distance and with an abstract fascination, as Matt, the drifter, latched on and dug in and chiseled through the shell. He had watched Mello come alive.
Matt will be back—or will plead for Mello's return. This is a certainty. Neither is quite fulfilled without the other.
This is just Base in their game. This is a neutral place. This is solid ground for a tactical retreat.
Mello seems to expect an answer. L shrugs vaguely and sidles over to the fridge, which welcomes him with a hum and a cold breath and a familiar aura of fluorescent light tinged pink-pale and flickering.
There's a nervous smile in Mello's voice.
"You haven't said anything."
L watches the boy from behind the shelter of his bent shoulder. What is there to say?
"It's nice to see you," he lies. "I'm glad you're back."
What can he do? Tell the truth? I'm terrified of what you do to me? You're even more beautiful now than you ever were, and I couldn't take it then?
Mello is, of course; he draws the eye and owns it—even tired-out and travel-worn, even beaten down and reaching, even alone.
Yes. L knows what it means to be alone.
He makes his eyes focus on the contents of the refrigerator, greeted by the usual precarious crush of tins and jars and plastic bags, haphazard piles of edibles and oddments, towers of Tupperware, and more than one unintentional mold culture.
The bottom left drawer, traditionally reserved for produce, is at Wammy's marked with a Gothic L in Sharpie. He eases it open, and the three remaining quarters of his pre-sliced chocolate cheesecake are waiting.
He feels ill.
Sick. He's sick.
He pushes the drawer shut, straightens, and finds the bag of jellybeans in his designated section of the pantry.
Mello snaps off a piece of chocolate with his teeth, and it's cold eyes and not cold air that makes L suppress a shiver.
"Where did you go?" he asks the boy against the silence. "And where is Matt now?"
"London," Mello answers, fingering the foil with an expert delicacy, and now L only wishes it was his skin. "We wandered around Ireland a little, but the work, such as it is, was best in London. Matt does lots of small-time computer stuff, illegal stuff, hacker stuff. I tried to get a foot in the door doing different shit—private detective shit, mostly—but it just… it didn't go very well."
Mello has always been in danger of disappearing in the shadow's breadth.
It's pitiful and tragic, and L doesn't know how to stop it.
He wonders, for a short, ridiculous moment, if there's a chance that Mello is just as scared of him.
The frame shifts, black-leather-jacket, black-jeans, and pale angles in flux; and Mello slides off the counter in favor of leaning against it instead.
L used to wonder what angels would look like.
Mello's black nail polish is chipped, and the faded black denim is scuffed at the knees and frayed at the ankles, and if all is fair in love and war, L wants to know what horrors self-loathing justifies.
"It's all the same," Mello concludes. "Everything."
Except you hovers, electric, just past L's lips, in air that is suddenly too-close, like socks and shackles—stifling.
Mello's eyes haven't learned to relent.
"You're the same," he decides, and it falls between observation and accusation, which is somehow worse than either.
L pushes a jellybean into his mouth and doesn't taste it. "Yes," he responds. Don't say it.
Mello's shoulders undulate into a shrug, and the corners of his lips curl, and his eyes gleam.
"It's comforting," he decides. "Knowing that you'll be here. That things will be like I left them."
It just figures that L has a case here in England for once. It just figures that he's trapped. It just figures that Mello will always know where to find him. It just figures that the world is boundless when he wants to hold it, save it, cradle its weight; and it shrinks to a matchbox when he seeks to hide.
He slides another jellybean onto his tongue and distantly detects the flavor they call lime—half-sweet, half-sour, wholly artificial.
"You're always welcome here," he says, because he must say something, must wrest control from the clenched fists of silence.
Mello smiles, warmly—he's learned how to be genuine after all. Matt has taught him that much.
"Thank you," he responds.
L tenses to move, and Mello reads every line of him.
"Work to do?" he prompts, cheerfully, and Matt's lessons undermine him.
L nods, resists the urge to clutch the crinkling plastic bag of jellybeans to his chest, and goes, feeling pale eyes and unspoken indictments searing tiny holes through the flimsy cotton that covers him.
Mello is half an hour older, and L is the same.
There is a knock at his door. It doesn't take a genius to determine who's behind it.
"It's open," he calls, and he closes himself.
Mello stands in the doorway, casting a long shadow into the hall.
"Still up," he remarks.
"And you," L returns, watching the reflection in the computer screen.
Mello's hands slide into his pockets, and he looks away. L wouldn't credit the gesture if he hadn't seen in the kitchen what Matt has wrought.
"Can't sleep," Mello explains. "Just…" Black socks whisper on the hardwood; the rest is cotton pajamas, not the ones they were before. Near's negative—since when has Mello worn socks to sleep?
"You've shared a room with Matt for the last twelve years," L supplies. And now you're overcompensating for his absence.
Mello ducks his head, hair sliding, and the screen's flat rendition can't do it justice. Past the windowpane, snow bleeds from the silence.
"You get used to things like that," Mello mutters.
L shuts his eyes for a long moment, because if he looks, he will see, and if he sees, it will all fall to pieces.
"You may stay here if you like," he permits.
Mello has never been spoiled—not here. He made do with what was available. He settled for second place, for secondhand, for second-best.
Perhaps getting what he wants will soften him, then, simply because he's never had it.
Footsteps whisk across the carpet, and springs creak as Mello sits down on the edge of L's bed.
It's a challenge and an invitation, and L feels everything in him go tight, because it all hangs here, turning, as snowflakes whiten out the sky.
In twenty minutes, Mello is blissfully unconscious, embraced by the pillow beneath his cheek, hair splayed out like a sunburst.
L catches his thumbnail between his teeth and watches everything flex gently as the boy breathes. He has been calculating that he may be able to finish unraveling the intricate weave of evidence and untruths if he says up all night.
Quietly he delves his hand into the dwindling supply of jellybeans. Tomorrow he can run, and it's safe enough to look for now.
Mello has always provided a great deal to look at.
He's colored like peach flavor, with butter-hair and a strawberry mouth. The fingers that graze the pillowcase edge are pale, slender, and smooth, and this—this scene, this moment—is not what L wanted but precisely what he imagined it would be.
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
L's damnation is soft, and warm, and tickling; just as absurd, if not so amusing.
He could do to snatch that sleep while it darts before him, but he's better than that. Stronger. Resilient.
The snow muffled the night, but it magnifies the morning. The clouds have cleared, and the world is yellow, and pink, and then white throughout. Cold radiates from the window, L curling his toes against it, but Mello stirs at the intrusion of the light, not the chill—three blankets drape over limbs which are bent like they're broken.
The harbinger of hell looks peaceful when he sleeps. L has conjectured before—and assured himself repeatedly—that 'Mello' is wishful thinking, that it's an aim, a hope, an ideal; that Mello strives for serenity.
When Mello framed himself in the doorway eight and a half hours ago, it became forty percent less likely that Me at the beginning and L in the center are a pair of alphabetical coincidences.
Keys clicking and the clattering of displaced jellybeans wasn't much of a lullaby, and it doesn't make much of a reveille, but as the rustlings indicate Mello gathering himself to sit up, L hears no complaints.
"G'morning," the voice slurs faintly, and L feigns glancing over one shoulder, counting on sleep-blurred eyes to complete the illusion of his having looked.
"Good morning," he replies.
Scrubbing at his face with one hand, Mello heaves himself to his feet and staggers to the door, mumbling something about breakfast cereal and Roger's worst nightmare.
L turns to the miniature refrigerator tucked under his desk. He's not leaving his compromised sanctuary, not yet.
Besides, he has a carton of strawberries in here.
He sits down by the biggest loop in the plastic track just as the little engine rattles valiantly by.
There is a seventy percent chance that Near will say what L anticipates. The question is more how he will couch it than what his opinion on the matter will be.
Near doesn't move, his eyes on the train chattering along the plastic rails.
"He's not a child anymore," he announces.
L tilts his head, as if perhaps redistributing the cranial fluid will jar new neurons into life.
"What about you?" he prompts—which is changing the subject, and they both know it, but he's genuinely curious.
Near flicks a switch, and the train jitters onto the rightward fork of the track.
"I want to stay this way," he notes, hands curled protectively within his sleeves. "It's safe." He glances at L, half-pensive, half-sardonic, and presses the button to change the train's speed from 2 to 3. "Mello doesn't really go for safe."
Yes, L has noticed that particular trend.
"He just goes," Near muses, watching the little engine careen around a curve. "And he doesn't know how to stop once he's started."
They both watch, in silence, as the train hits the tighter loop too fast, jumps the track, and crashes onto the carpet, where it lies looking wrecked and forsaken, wheels still spinning, tiny headlight aglow.
After a few long seconds tick away, Near picks up the toy and examines it, running a finger absently along the new scratch in the smart paint.
"I don't think it's possible not to be in love with Mello," he remarks. "Because… he is love, in a way—violent, and brash, and insuppressible… but fragile, too. And he doesn't take no for an answer."
He looks at the train, and then he holds it out in one white hand.
"What do you want?" he asks.
L breathes, accepts the train, and sets it on the track again.
It's impossible to think properly while he's driving, as at least one foot has to patronize the pedals.
He doesn't wear shoes, however, which is technically illegal.
It is fortunate that Mello says nothing. Mello just watches the dim world blur outside, streetlamps staring, headlights sharp and blinding, the greenery going dark.
L stops just before they reach the bridge, pulling into the lot to park. There is another thick portion of silence to swallow before he gets out of the car, and Mello follows suit.
His feet should be freezing, but he doesn't feel them.
He sets both elbows on the rail and watches the water run below. The rush, the haste, the roar; he tries to picture how it would look if he could see the truth, could know the mystery, could point to every atom and explain.
He thinks that nothing would be beautiful anymore.
Mello folds his arms and leans out, and the crucifix sways, and in the hazy city lights that probe the dark and glint among the waves, his profile stands in pale monochrome, a monument.
"This," L tells him, "is all I have to give."
He wishes he could sit on the railing to improve his cognitive functions, but that sounds unadvisable.
Mello shifts, and turns, and doesn't trust it.
L reaches for his hand, and he cedes it. It's warm.
They stay a long moment, linked and looking at the river, before Mello draws him closer and raises the other hand to L's face. His fingertips are warm, too, and soft, and tentative—for Mello, at least. They learn, linger, trace, translate—the river is in L's temples now, and he can't hear over its voice.
"Yours," L says, "alone."
Mello condenses into his arms and holds him just a little too tight.
"If you want me," he murmurs.
Somehow, M and L are stronger, and L touches his lips to goldspun hair that the lights have faded to silk.
He whispers, "Yes."