A/N: Yay, another Mello/Near fic! After slipping for the first time into the realms of 'M' ratings, I needed to get back to something a little safer. A huge thanks goes out to everyone who supported me through that, and to those who continue to do so. To everyone who has favorited or alerted me as an author: Thank you! The support means everything to me! (And not to worry for those wanting more 'M' stuff... my pervy brain is churning away.)

And special thanks go to the following: peneloo, Breena Marie, and Voice of the Shadow Realm. This summer has been a reintroduction for me after a two year hiatus, (shudder), and you are doing wonders for my confidence. Thank you so much, ladies!

Disclaimer: Death Note is © Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata… Stop reminding me…

-------

Puzzles and Darts

Raven Ehtar

-------

A dart made a slow arc through the air, trajectory lined up just so for a perfect shot into the bull's eye of the board across the room. It struck with a dull thump…

And bounced off. The point hit dead center, but lacked the proper power to drive the tip in and make it stick. Instead, it fell to the ground to lay with dozens of its relatives.

Near sat back in his chair, one knee raised to his chin, and contemplated the dart graveyard under the board. He made no move to gather the failed throws, nor did he have his subordinates do it for him. He still had plenty laying on the table next to him, and in darts, the rule was that there was never to be more than three darts in the board at one time. So far, the board remained empty. Every one of his darts had been perfectly aimed, and if they had possessed enough force, there would have been a miniature version of Robin Hood's 'split arrow' trick. But they had lacked that force, and each one had tumbled to the ground. He almost felt sorry for them.

The teenager picked up another dart and fiddled with the colorful flight. There had been a time, years ago, when the darts he aimed had all stuck. Every single one would be buried almost past the point, occasionally missing the bull's eye, but always hitting the bull. That… that had been a very long time ago, and in truth, he hadn't done it alone. He had needed another person's force to drive the darts home, just as the other had needed Near's precision to aim.

Near sighted along the dart carefully, adjusting his fingers and grip until the point was just where he wanted it. His posture was all wrong, according to experts in the game, but he knew that and made allowances. The angles of his shoulder and elbow were corrected, bringing them into proper alignment… there. Just there, he could see the path through the air his projectile would take, that would send it straight to the center.

Slowly, he pulled back his hand, brought it forward with a snap, releasing. Again, the trajectory was perfect; his dart had no spin or wobble on its journey through the air…

The dart bounced, and landed in the pile with a clatter. Near glared at them.

He lacked energy. He had always known that as a fault in his personality. He was brilliant and could master any number of puzzles and solve almost any problem set before him, but his initiative to set plan into action had always been low. Such as with the Kira case. Near was in little doubt that if he had not had his own personal reasons for becoming a part of it, then it would not have been his drive that got him involved. It was interesting, certainly, and offered plenty in the way of mental stimulation… but unless there had been the motivation to catch Kira as a way of avenging L, that's probably all it ever would have been: a mental exercise.

Another dart was picked up from the table and examined. All of his projectiles had high density tungsten barrels, which was incredibly expensive, but made for a slimmer and relatively heavy dart. They fit well in Near's slim fingers, and responded better to his throws than brass, nickel, or silver. The shafts were all composite, which were harder to shake loose than aluminum, and wouldn't break quite as easily as plastic. The flights were all brightly colored, some with designs, and made of soft plastic. Soft flights were hard to find, but Near preferred them. Durable points, dense barrels, and aerodynamic shafts were all components of a good dart, but flexibility was important as well.

Near began to sight along the dart, training it to the target. Without flexibility, without a measure of give, when one dart came close to another already embedded into the board, one would have to fall to the floor…

-------

A brass dart with a red flight fell to the floor, unable to pierce the harder plastic of the board it had been flung against. Near - a very young Near - ignored the laughter that came from behind him as he shuffled forward to gather his little set of projectiles from their final resting place.

"Honestly, Near," the blond boy behind him said, still chuckling, "can't you even get one to stick? You've been at this for almost an hour, and not a single one has stayed."

Near didn't respond to Mello's comment, but went back to his place, placing the toes of his leading foot on an invisible line on the floor precisely eight feet back from the board. Carefully, he took aim.

When all three darts once again met the floor, Mello laughed again. "You suck at this game, Near. Not a single one!" He continued to laugh at Near's weak throws, quite amused both by the albino's limitation and his stubborn determination.

Near watched him until his chuckles subsided, twirling his hair with the hand not holding the darts. When Mello had finally calmed, he tilted his head. "Mello will notice," he said quietly, "that all of my darts strike the bull's eye."

Mello continued to grin, shaking his head. "It doesn't matter if they don't stay. A bounce-out doesn't score."

Near frowned a little, looking down at the colorful little bouquet of flights clasped in his hands. He was supposed to be Mello's rival, to compete against him for the number one spot and the title of L, but…

Mello blinked as the darts were pressed toward him. A look up revealed a relatively blank Near, but the dark eyes seemed a little wider. "Show me," he said.

The older boy only hesitated a moment before taking the proffered darts and jumping to his feet with a toothy grin. "Okay!" he said, taking the place Near had stood, approximately 3 inches too far back, but Near refrained from correcting him. "I'll show you how to really throw darts!" He aimed carefully, then drew back and threw the dart, much harder than Near had ever done.

The younger boy covered a wince at the loud thud the dart made as it slammed into the board. Mello's dart stuck, just outside the bull in the 17 bed. It wasn't a bad fist throw, but Mello growled in frustration. He'd been aiming for the bull's eye. He took out the next dart and sighted along it, taking more time on his second shot. The arm came back again, came forward with even more speed than the first, and released.

Bang!

The second dart buried itself all the way up to the brass barrel, the neon green flight vibrating with the force of the throw - in the double ring, 2 bed.

Near kept his face neutral, and started preparing himself for the explosion that was coming. Mello wasn't the most patient child at Wammy's, especially when it came to his personal performance. 21 points on his second throw, when he was trying to show off, was likely to set him off.

When Mello saw the result of his second throw, he scowled, sucking in a breath through his teeth. The last dart was brought up, aimed with even more care than the first two, drawn back, Mello's upper body leaning back as well, and thrown forward with all of the boy's might. Mello grunted as he released the dart, and Near was sure he heard a small 'snap' of Mello's elbow popping as the joint reached its limit. The dart was a blur as it sped through the air, the bang as it landed the loudest yet…

Near stared. So did Mello. The dart was buried, once again all the way up to the barrel, only now it was planted firmly into the plaster of the wall.

For a minute neither boy moved. Near was sure that any comment he might make at this point would only enrage the blond, who was already trembling slightly, hands balled into fists at his sides.

When Mello finally did move, it was towards the wall, where the third dart had been lost. Taking hold of the barrel and shaft, he pulled at the dart until it came loose. Or rather, until most of it came loose. The point was still fixed in the plaster. Mello growled again and went to put a new point on the dart. Then, pulling the last two free, walked over to Near and shoved them back at the albino.

Near took them quietly, only looking at them instead of the blond as he threw himself back into the cushions.

"Thank you, Mello," he said, finally breaking the awkward silence. "That was… a good demonstration."

Mello snorted from his place on the sofa, arms crossed firmly across his chest. "A good demonstration of what?" he demanded, tone almost peevish. "Of how to fail miserably at something?"

Near tugged a little at the lock of hair caught between his fingers. "No. Mello's throws were very good. Mello scored 21 points on his first turn, while I, as Mello pointed out, have earned none after an hour's worth of play."

"At least you hit the board every time," Mello snapped. "And the center! All you need to work on is how hard you throw and you'll be able to play a perfect game!"

"While all Mello lacks is an element of control," Near pointed out. "I may have precision, but without the force to drive it forward, it will amount to nothing. Mello's skills will earn him points, while mine procure none."

Mello didn't reply, but continued to sulk in his place. Near got up and started playing his hopeless game again. Mello watched, no longer laughing as the darts landed on the floor, one after another, too focused now on how each one struck the bull's eye perfectly. Near ignored his audience now, concentrating entirely on the board.

The fifth round and still not a single point due to bounce-outs. Near gathered his fallen darts, got back into position, and was drawing back when he felt another hand close around his. Startled, he looked up to see Mello standing over him, gripping Near's hand, preventing him from throwing. "Mello?"

The young blond looked at the toy Near held in his hand, blue eyes like chips of ice thoughtful. The grip wasn't painful, but it had no give in it, either. Near held still. "You have the accuracy," Mello said slowly, "and I have the strength. Why don't we try something?"

Near didn't reply, and didn't move away as Mello shifted to stand directly behind him, his right hand cupping itself around Near's. The grip around his hand was lighter now, Near could probably have slipped away if he'd wanted to. Mello bent down slightly to come even with Near's ear. Even with both of them so young, Mello was still taller out of the two. "Now," he said, adjusting his grip on the pale hand, "you throw like you normally do, and I'll add a little more propulsion. With any luck, we'll get your shot, and no bounce-out."

Near frowned. The plan could work, he supposed, but there were flaws. Not the least of which, the strength Mello was proposing to use in conjunction with Near's precision could overpower Near and ruin the shot. Or hurt Near. The frown deepened slightly, creating a tiny line between his non-existent brows. He could refuse this offer of help, of joining forces, and probably should for safety's sake. But Mello offered the chance for interaction so rarely, and if it helped to soothe him after his own 'failure' at the game…

"Alright," he said.

He began lining up the shot, feeling Mello tense behind him in preparation. The hand drew back, and the second grip tightened just a little. As Near brought his hand forward, Mello pushed as well, adding quite a bit of speed to Near's initial throw, and curving the line he saw in his mind leading from the point of the dart to the board. There was a dull clunk as the dart hit the target, sunk in, and stuck. Triple ring, 16 bed.

Near felt Mello tilt his head at the result. "Better," he said, letting go of Near's hand so he could grab another dart. "Let's see if we can improve it."

The routine was repeated, the second dart landing in the outside single area, 14 bed. The third in the single inside, 8 bed. 70 points altogether. The game was repeated several times, and while Mello's mood had brightened at the initial success, he was growing frustrated that they could never make it any closer to the bull than the inside single. The frustration came to a head on one particularly energetic throw, which tweaked Near's shoulder painfully, and sent the dart into a double ring, barely on the board.

Near stepped away from Mello, holding his pained shoulder. "Mello," he said, covering the strain in his voice, "this does not appear to be working. Perhaps we should try something different."

Mello looked at Near's shoulder, but didn't comment when Near failed to acknowledge his discomfort. "Like what?'

Near handed Mello his remaining darts, who took them with a confused look, and moved so he was standing in Mello's old position. Being shorter, he couldn't quite wrap around Mello as the older boy had done with him, but he arranged himself so he could take hold of Mello's hand and sight along the dart.

"Rather than Mello forcing my hand to add strength," he said, "I will guide Mello, and he will provide his own power without the filter of a second hand."

"I don't know if that'll work, Near."

The albino took a step away. "If Mello believes that it is not worth the experiment…"

Mello made a disgusted noise, and grabbed Near's hand before he could pull away. "I didn't say that, stupid. I just…" he paused, then decided against whatever he had been about to say. "Let's try it."

Mello lined himself up, and waited for Near to make his modifications. He resisted a little at first, but quickly relaxed as the younger boy moved his shoulder back, his elbow out, his wrist into a more neutral alignment. Even the arrangement of his fingers was altered, but just a tiny bit. Enough to improve the release, but not enough to ruin Mello's technique. When the boy was done, he stepped back, hands at his sides. "Mello may proceed when he is ready."

Mello threw, and struck the triple ring, 3 bed.

A second attempt earned an inside single, 16 bed.

As he walked back from gathering the darts, Mello was shaking his head. "I don't know, Near," he repeated. "This doesn't seem to have been much of an improvement."

"That was only two attempts, Mello. Hardly worth discarding yet."

Mello only shrugged and moved to the invisible line, already making the adjustments before Near got to him, working from memory. After making the last few corrections, instead of stepping away, Near held onto the hand holding the dart and moved it slowly backward and forward. Mello twisted around a little and looked at Near questioningly.

"Like this," Near explained. "The trajectory is as important as the aim. Mello let's his strength get carried away with him, and that's why his darts fly wide."

"Strength is the skill I bring to the table."

"And control is mine." Near looked over at the board, seeing what needed to be done to achieve a bull's eye, or a triple 20, or any of the possible scores. "Mello must learn to temper his strength, or it will do him no good."

Mello grunted, his only reply to Near's observation. When the small boy released his hand, Mello continued to move it along the pathway he had been given. Near could see him trying to imagine the line extending from point to board, finding it and feeling it out to send the dart along.

The dart arced, wobbled slightly on its journey, hit the board… in the bull. Not the bull's eye, but the bull at last.

Near smiled slightly at their combined success, and turned to look at Mello, when he was suddenly grabbed up in a fierce, rib creaking bear hug. Somewhere over his head he heard Mello whooping as he was lifted and swung in a circle. "Yes! We hit the bull! Finally!"

Near gasped, catching his breath as he was dropped unceremoniously on the sofa again. Mello jumped back into position in front of the board, grinning from ear to ear, and eyes shining like polished ice. "C'mon, Near! Let's try it again!"

-------

The dense, strong dart with the flexible flight offered no insights as Near stared at it, frozen in his chair, the weight of the projectile in his fingers feeling distant and unreal. The other members of the SPK, vague forms moving in the background, made no sign if they noticed Near's immobility. They had worked with the small detective long enough to no longer notice his quieter eccentricities.

That game of darts, when they had been able to work together, cooperating instead of competing, had been a very long time ago. It only seemed longer now because of how unlikely it eventually became that they could ever do it again, or had ever done it before. It had been before their rivalry had escalated to hate and disgust, before the competition to become the best and reach the goal of L had driven its wedge between them. Before Wammy's, and their twisted game of setting their wards against each other like prize fighting dogs to determine which was the best, had labeled them forever as enemies.

The heavy tungsten rolled in a soft grip.

Before that, Mello and Near had been able to speak without cutting each other down, been able to stay in the same room without watching each other out of the corners of their eyes. Each of them had been aware of a certain pressure, and they had both been naturally competitive - Mello, especially. But before Wammy's took that natural tendency and cranked it up, they had almost been friends.

Near, cold and calculating and run by logic and reason. Mello, intelligent and intense, guided by his sense of self-worth and instinct. Opposites; white and black; day and night… and nearly comrades.

It was ironic, really, how after L had died, failing to name his heir, that the orphanage had tried to get them to work together. Ironic, because it was their game that had driven them apart. They had tried to become flexible too late, Near and Mello were already jostling each other out of place.

Running his fingers along the metal of the dart, Near tried to remember the last time the two of them had shared a quiet moment. It was hard to pinpoint, as the wedge had been driven in gradually. There wasn't a day when they had both woken, knowing they would forever be rivals, but… there had been a turning point, when everything had gathered to a head. Just before that point… ah. That was it.

-------

It was that same playroom, a year or so after their first dart game. It had been a sweltering summer, and most of the children were taking advantage of it and spending every spare moment outdoors. All except for Near. He shared none of his classmates' interest in their afternoon rambles, their roughhousing and pointless games that did nothing but exhaust the body and injure those who were too slow or uncoordinated to keep up. He stayed within the confines of Wammy's, even though it was almost unbearably hot and close in the old building. He stayed within the safety of the playroom, sitting in his usual spot on the floor, putting together a blank puzzle. It was one of many that he had convinced Roger let him have. Originally they had been meant to be used as an arts and crafts project for the younger children: drawing their own designs on the blank pieces to play with and solve later. Near had taken a few, and left them as they were out of preference. The one he worked on that hot day in summer had been one of his largest, and it took him quite awhile to solve, unfamiliar with it as he was.

On the sofa behind him, draped over the back and head resting in the seat, resembling a puddle rather than a boy, Mello watched. For awhile he had been snacking on a chocolate bar, a sight that was becoming more and more frequent, but had given it up as the heat turned the candy into a gooey mess in his hands. Now he simply studied the albino as he snapped piece after piece together.

Near, for the most part, did his best to ignore the attention paid him by the older blond. The new tension developing between them was making any time spent alone each others' company uncomfortable. It was becoming especially difficult for Mello, the younger boy knew. He was torn between two of his own drives: to be the best - the trait that their custodians were encouraging - or to go against what was expected. He wanted to defy Wammy's, to give less than his all just to show he was independent of their wishes, but to do that meant appearing less than he was, and giving up the title of L.

He was struggling, and was on edge lately. Sometimes it was hard to know what kind of Mello you were looking at: a boy who still saw you as a casual companion, or who saw you as a rising threat. Near found it best to let Mello be the first to make a move. Let let him show his cards before Near decided what to put on the table.

Finally, Mello tipped his hand a little, and spoke. "You know you're supposed to draw on those, right?"

Near paused in sliding a corner piece into place, analyzing Mello's tone. It appeared to be one of the in-between Mellos he was dealing with now, not quite his old self and not as biting as he could be. The possibility was there for him to swing fully into either persona. Near decided on a neutral response, "Yes."

"Then why don't you put something on it?" Mello sounded frustrated today. He was trying to understand him, Near knew. Either out of genuine interest or as a way to eventually undermine him, but he wasn't getting anywhere.

"I prefer white," Near said, plucking at the loose fabric of his shirt. "I find loud colors distracting, more of a hindrance than a help."

Behind him, he heard Mello shift, allowing his legs to flop down into the seat of the sofa. "Then wouldn't you want a lot of color on your puzzles?" he said, a new edge in his voice.

Near paused again, sensing the change in atmosphere, as well as in Mello. That blasted tension, slowly building and crackling…

"Isn't that what Wammy's precious number one would want? An extra challenge?"

Near wasn't sure how to respond, if there was any way for him to reply that would placate rather than rile up the blond sitting so closely behind him. Deciding his safest option, would be to remain silent, he continued to piece his blank puzzle together.

The silence held until Near put the last piece into place, completing his perfect little rectangle of white. Just as it clicked into its snug home, he heard Mello's feet hit the floor and walk over to him. Without looking at the boy as he bent down, Mello snatched up the puzzle and took it with him to one of the tables. With only his back visible to Near, he couldn't tell what the blond was up to until he walked back and set the puzzle in front of him.

It was no longer blank; not quite. The majority of it remained as pristine as ever, but in one corner was a clear, bold capital letter L, drawn in with permanent marker. Near stared at it, nonplussed. He looked over at Mello, who was still squatting beside him, frowning.

"Well?" Mello spat. "It's not colorful, so it won't distract you. It's a theme I know you like, and now the puzzle's not blank."

Near didn't blink, still confused. Hadn't Mello been on the edge of breaking into a fight with him? If he were still angry, then wouldn't he have used every color available and scrawled over the whole thing, just to upset him?

Mello's eyes shifted to the side, his mouth twisted slightly. "Do you like it?"

Gray eyes blinked. From the brink of one extreme in mood to another in the space of minutes. He allowed a tiny smile to show. "Yes. I like it."

Mello smiled too, a rueful upturn that was both amusement and apology, sapphire eyes light in his face.

It was the last time such a friendly expression would be turned on Near.

-------

Somewhere in the SPK, Near still had that puzzle, which had quickly become his favorite and he could solve simply by feel. Stored in a box, which was stacked with many others in a room, gathering dust.

Near told himself that it wasn't the memories that prevented him from taking out his old favorite plaything. His life was built on logic and reason. Memories of a childhood companion, who was now his sworn opponent in a game of death and manipulation, those would not keep him from his puzzles. No, the real reason was very simple:

There was a piece missing.

The tungsten hovered into place, ready to be thrown along its perfect path through the air. Near knew that it was a useless exercise. Without the proper force, no matter how well aimed, it would never score.

A puzzle missing even a single piece was unsolvable.

-------

The dart whizzed through the air, barely a blur on its journey from hand to board.

Inner single, 19 bed, just shy of the bull.

Mello snorted, and pulled out his second dart, the brass barrel feeling overly smooth and almost greasy in his fingers.

He was alone for the moment in what had become the recreational area of the gang's most recent hole. Even when dealing with a group composed of murderers, thieves, extortionists, and your basic thug, there was a time when everyone was either asleep or out of the hideout on some fraudulent errand. Mello sought out those moments, and made sure he was awake to enjoy them. They were the times when he could relax a little, when the mask he wore for his current security could slip a fraction.

The second dart flew, and landed triple ring, 18 bed.

The blond growled, recognizing the pattern. His third dart, if it followed form, would either land outside single, or in the wall.

Mello shook out his arms, trying to let the tension seep out of his neck and shoulders, and readjusted his feet. As he brought up the last dart, he felt his body move almost of its own accord. His shoulder shifted backward, his elbow opened and came forward, his wrist straightened. Across his fingers, Mello could almost feel the memory of touch that had been little more than a breath when it had originally been caused.

"Like this…" the memory whispered.

Mello's breath hitched, his body tensed.

"… Mello must learn to temper his strength…"

The hand and its dart slowly dropped.

"… or it will do him no good."

The dart fell to the stained carpet, and Mello made his way to one of the chairs, throwing his slim frame into it. Ghosts continued to haunt him, to tease and taunt and goad. He did his best to ignore them. He would busy himself with anything he could to chase them away, but his most frequent task involved facing the ghosts, chasing them down himself.

Kira, and his quest to reach him before Near. Outdo Near, beat him, outsmart him; show the albino that he had been right in his surmise all those years ago. Precision and force worked best together, but when separate, force would be the one to score points, while precision would fail on follow-through, and score nothing.

Mello's hand slipped into a pocket, fingers curling around the single puzzle piece there. A tiny white puzzle piece, with one bold line of black down its center, its edges worn smooth from years of use. Mello had wondered, back when he had taken the single piece, why Near hadn't objected. He had taken it right from the boy's slender fingers, promising him that this wouldn't be the last puzzle he couldn't solve. Near had just stared, wide, bottomless eyes unblinking.

He had wondered then, but looking around now, at the dark and dingy surroundings that he was forced to call home, every corner speaking of rot and corruption, and knowing Near's twisted sense of humor and metaphor, he thought he understood.

A puzzle missing a piece was unsolvable.

But the piece, unique in shape and taken away from its interlocking neighbors, belonged nowhere.

-------

A/N2: Huh. That was short, considering it was something I wrote. Eh, it felt like it needed to be said.

So, a little OOC, I know, but I kinda liked the idea that Mello and Near could have been friends, if not for the competitiveness of their surroundings… ie, Wammy House. I always seem to develop these weird fascinations for orphanages and insane asylums…

References:

Darts: I never thought that I would be entering the words 'dart anatomy' into my search engine, but it happened. Everything in here referring to darts is as accurate as I could make it, from terminology of the parts that make up a dart, (point, barrel, shaft, & flight), to the materials said parts can be made of, to the scoring on the board. For those confused by the board terms, here are the parts of the board, from center out: The bull's eye, the bull, (or double-bull), a single area, (which I called inside single), a thin stripe called the triple ring, another single area, (outside single), and then the last thin stripe, the double ring. The term 'bed' refers to the pie slices of the board that are worth different points. Very interesting stuff, actually. Oh, and tungsten barrels are expensive. $100-$195 for a set of three, 95-98% purity. Yikes.

As always, thank you all for reading, and I'll see you again soon!