Chapter 4- Glass Dominos
"If you're going to do it, Mello, then please do it now."
Mello looked up from his Sudoku game and blinked at the back of Near's head. From his position in the music room, he could perfectly see the small, white figure in the corner closest to him. The little bastard was hunched between two ever-growing glass domino towers, polishing the last piece against the sleeve of his pajamas.
Mello hadn't been paying any attention to him in the first place. Matt was practicing the Irish flute (odd, but then Mello was a self-taught pianist, so who the hell was he to judge?) and he could have just as well been hanging out there for his friend's sake, for all Near was aware. So what gave him the right to…?
"What the hell are you saying?" Mello asked.
"I'm saying the towers are now complete for your destruction," Near said.
…Of all the nerve.
Mello's fingers curled into the eight-by-four paper book. He tossed it onto the leather couch cushion beside him.
"I haven't destroyed one of your stupid domino towers probably in two years. What would make you think I'd care about something so trivial right now, anyway?" He gave Near approximately 1.3 seconds before demanding, "Well? I'm waiting."
"Jesus, Mello, calm down," Matt said. "He doesn't mean anything by it."
Mello pointed at him. "You, stay out of it."
Matt shrugged and recommenced his version of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."
"I didn't mean any offense," Near said, and Mello didn't know if it was meant sincerely or sarcastically or what. How the hell was he supposed to? Near never used any goddamned infliction in his words.
"I would only be offended if I cared," Mello snapped. "And I don't."
Lie. But so what? He would never admit that anything the big-headed monster did had any affect on him.
"Very well. Perhaps a different subject would suffice." Near paused and twirled a strand of hair between his fingers. "Where does Mello come from?"
Matt's perfectly tuned song was broken by a sharp, uneven peel before the flute-notes cut off. "Um, Near?" he said. "Bad subject. Very bad subject."
Near looked over his shoulder, toward Mello. "It's all there in your file, black and white and composed in L's own words."
Mello tried to relax his stone-stricken posture, but even Near saw through it.
"What, you don't know?" He gave a small, dry chuckle—more mocking than humored, from what Mello could tell. "The files are hidden and quite difficult to break into, but not impossible, especially with Matt's superior knowledge of petty annoyances, such as vault combinations. Don't tell me you couldn't figure out a way into the-"
"That is not the reason," Mello shouted.
In the same breath, he was suddenly standing, although he hadn't been conscious of the movement, and Matt had materialized in front of him, flute-less. He was pressing back on Mello's shoulders, keeping him in place.
"He doesn't know what he's saying," Matt said evenly. "And besides, who do you think will gain L's title if you kill Near?"
Mello's eyes flickered toward Matt.
Matt nodded. "That's right. Me. And what a bloody mess that would be. You know I don't care enough about it to ever live up to the expectations."
Mello took a step back, looking at the white marble floor. "I wasn't going to hurt him."
"I'm afraid I don't understand." Near said, with… was that a hint of regret?
Mello looked up at him and was glad that Matt was in front of him. Near was now standing, and it was always kind of creepy when he did. Not that he wasn't used to Near walking in front of or behind him, but there was something entirely different when Near was standing and facing him.
Those eyes. They were like the sightless glass buttons sewn onto the face of a handmade rag doll.
Mello shuddered inwardly.
"I had no idea the topic was such a sore spot for you," Near said. "Most of L's have pasts that are now detached but very much a part of them. I apologize for assuming you were just like the rest. I should have known better."
The only thing that kept Mello from turning Near's face inside out with his fist was that he sounded sincere. He still didn't soften his scowl, however.
"My life is here at Wammy's." Mello sounded much more confident than he actually felt. "I don't need to know how I got here. It's enough that I am."
Near hesitated. "You don't want to know where and who you came from? You're not afraid, are you?"
"I'll give you afraid," Mello hissed, and lunged forward. It wasn't his intention to hurt Near; honestly, he wasn't sure what he'd do if he were ever able to get his hands on the brat. But he had a sinking suspicion, though it might be far more revealing of his desires than he really cared to show. Relieving his frustrations in a purely carnal way was not such a far-fetched idea.
So it was good that something always got in his way. It saved him the embarrassment of scrambling for a legible excuse as to why the hell he accidentally shoved Near against the wall and kissed him stupid. He was pretty sure that would be the outcome anyway, or something else equally as mortifying.
Matt, the golden savior, restraining Mello yet again. He looked more amused than anything though, devious, like if Near weren't in the room, he would kiss Mello stupid just to shake him from his fury.
"What in the name of Good Glorious God is going on in here?"
A Roger-shaped silhouette filled the exit, harsh light blazing around him. It was an unforgiving contrast to the soft lightening of the music room. Mello blinked against it and shaded his eyes with his arm.
"Nothing," Matt said. "We were just… practicing the Waltz."
"The Waltz?" Near and Mello asked at once.
Matt slid an arm around Mello's waist and pulled his arm straight out with the other, like he were about to shoot an arrow from a bow.
"Judging from the mortified expression on Mello's face," Roger said calmly, as Matt began to walk Mello about the room. "And not to mention that what you are doing right now is a poor imitation of the Tango, Mr. Jeevas, I am not buying your story."
Matt dropped his hold, but didn't even bother to look ashamed of himself. "Oh. But it was a good try, you have to admit. And might I add, you look quite smashing in that blazer, Mr. Wammy."
Roger cleared his throat. "In any event, I see no bloodshed as of yet, so for the time being I'm going to let this slide. I've come to collect you for your appointment."
Matt deflated. "I don't need to go to any more appointments. I think I know when I'm-"
"You are not your counselor," Roger said. "Only she can decide when you're fine enough on your own. Now, please let's not have this argument again. Dr. Lorell is waiting."
Matt yanked his goggles over his eyes-something Mello had noted he did whenever he didn't like something and wanted to feel invisible-and stopped just as he was about to stomp passed Roger. He stared flatly at the older man.
"You, sir, are a controlling old goat." And then he disappeared down the corridor.
Roger let him go with a simple huff, and redirected his attention back to Mello.
"Mello, would you like me to escort you to the nurse's office? You're looking rather pale."
Kendra, Wammy's live-in nurse, was a young brunette from London. Kind, maybe, but she always blushed and dropped everything whenever L came within her peripheral vision. Recently she had taken to doing the same around Mello, and really, he couldn't deal with that right now.
He collapsed onto the sofa and ran the flat of his hand along his forehead. "No, I'm… I'm fine."
Roger hesitated and then said, "Very well. I'll see the two of you at the dinner table in one hour." He clicked his nail against his gold pocket watch and closed himself out of the room.
Mello took a deep breath in the silence, kneading his temples and trying to forget completely about Near, who was still hovering with unfailing confidence a few paces in front of the glinting domino structures.
Near had been right about Mello being afraid. In fact, Mello was extremely opposed to looking at his history files, though L had offered him a copy a multitude of times. He didn't know exactly what made him so uneasy whenever the topic arose. He only knew that it made him feel faint, disjointed.
He didn't like to think about it.
Thinking only conjured up images of nightmares that had haunted him up until a few years ago, when dreams of Near took over. L had told him he'd had these nightmares almost every night since he had been taken into Wammy custody, at nine months and eleven days old. L spent several hours a night tending to a fussy, restless, frightened Mello; calming him with sweetened milk and slices of warm pie.
That was the past Mello wanted to know about. Growing up at Wammy's, being cared for by L and sometimes Watari. That was his life. That was where he came from. He didn't need anything else defining him, telling him who he was and what he should be.
…He also didn't need Near invading his goddamn personal space.
He had knelt on the edge of the sofa, knees pointed toward and barely touching Mello's thigh. He leaned close into his face, head titled quizzically.
Mello shoved at him and sent him reeling onto his back.
"Why are you all up in my face?" He snapped. "Jesus, what's the matter with you?"
Near pulled himself up with all the speed of a turtle doped up on tranquilizers. "Nothing is the matter with me. I'm simply fascinated."
Near tilted his head a notch further, eyes narrowing with cold calculation. "Your emotions are so vivid I can see them brewing in your eyes, but I still can't make sense of them. Why should my asking about your past cause such a strong reaction when you don't know anything about it?"
"What's it to you?" Mello snapped. He pushed Near back.
"Would Mello feel better if I told him how I came into L's custody?"
Mello unfortunately couldn't stop the interest from passing over his face like a shadow. He had always wondered where the little weirdo came from-L never told him that part.
Near smirked and pulled a knee up to his chest. He had obviously read Mello's silence as a cue to go on, which, okay, maybe it was, but the little freak had better not assume he would be owed anything. As far as Mello was concerned, any information he shared was strictly volunteer. Information in exchange for information? Tch. He didn't think so.
"I was born in the United States to a very young and very naïve couple," Near said. "She was a seventeen-year-old runaway and he was the juvenile delinquent who helped her escape her wealthy but strict family. I was born three months later. They were living illegally in a condemned farm house in northern Pennsylvania."
"And were they albino's too?" Mello said coldly.
"My mother was, yes," he answered seriously. Mello blinked and said nothing. "They managed to hide out there for five years. That's when Amelia was born. My sister."
Near had a baby sister? It was hard to imagine. He seemed even less interested in the younger orphans than he was the elder, if that were at all possible.
"All I remember about Amelia is that she cried a lot." He threaded a strand of hair around his index finger, his gaze filmy and faraway. "And also that I'm the one who fed her milk from her bottles because our parents were too intoxicated to do it themselves."
Mello thought he saw something like annoyance crinkle around his nose, but it was gone almost before it was visible.
"One day, our father woke up sometime past noon from Amelia's cries. She was four months old at the time and her voice had gotten progressively louder since her birth. After a few attempts at screaming her into silence, and evidently none too patient to make it stop, he threw her into a plastic trash bag and buried her alive."
How he could relay that with such monotone was beyond Mello's comprehension. He would have been boiling with murderous intent, ravenous for justice.
… But Near only twirled his hair, eyes deep and far away.
"Didn't you do anything to try to stop him?" Mello asked, much too passionately. His pulse was throbbing in his neck. "I mean, that was your sister, for God's sake! Did you unbury her?"
Near's onyx eyes slid back to Mello. "Of course I tried. But I was five years old and critically malnourished. He stood guard with the iron shovel he had used to dig her grave. So I did the only thing I could."
"Pulled out a shotgun and blew off his balls?"
Near smirked. "That would have been a more satisfactory ending, but no. The only thing I could do was run. I was afraid, yes, but I wasn't running away- I was running for help."
It was impossible, Mello realized, for help to have come quickly enough to save Amelia. Chances were she had already suffocated in that bag before all the dirt had been packed into place. The frustrations of the human body must have been tenfold in a situation such as that, and Mello could only imagine what it must have been like, especially for someone as naturally slow-moving as Near. Did he ever berate himself for not being faster? Mello wanted to ask, but that would work against him. He didn't want to appear too interested in Near. Nothing good could come from that.
"I was quicker back then," Near said, and Mello had the uncomfortable feeling that Near was tapping into his thoughts. He tried to clear his mind. "I had to be if I wanted to avoid being smacked around. I could outrun both my parents easily."
Mello gaped a moment. "Then why are you such a snail now?"
Near smiled, but it looked like a frown. "After Amelia, I realized that speed was basically inconsequential. At least, it was when it really mattered. I couldn't save her. After that, there was nothing left to hasten myself about. I will still get a high-quality, tasteful, and nutritionally rich meal whether I am the first or the last to join everyone in the dining hall. I simply wont have to blow on my food if I'm the last because it will have already cooled to a satisfactory temperature. If I am the last in the showers, I don't have to hurry to make room for those waiting. If I am last to finish a test, my grade will not suffer; although, I have a significantly lesser chance of making a mistake because I didn't breeze through it like a tornado."
Mello felt himself change three different shades of red. He had always prided himself on being the first to complete exams in every class. Somehow, Near had been able to grind that thrill into powder and make him feel like a complete dunce for doing it.
He grabbed his Sudoku book and stood without a word.
"Dear Mello?" Near called, effectively halting him, which he hated.
"What, Near? What?"
"You shouldn't feel bad for me. It was a long time ago, and with L's help, I have stopped blaming myself. It's unfortunate, but I can't erase what has been done, and neither can you by feeling bad about it."
As usually when Near was speaking to him, Mello felt his brain scramble a moment before righting itself again. "Who said I feel bad for you?"
"You're more sentimental than you let on."
Mello fixed his scowl back into place. "And you're much less clever than you let on. You don't know anything about me."
"No," said Near, as Mello started for the door again. "But I would like to."
Mello paused with his hand on the door, then tch'ed loudly and exited before Near had the chance to weasel anything out of him because it was true. He did feel bad.
For a while, Mello was able to avoid Near easily enough. All he had to do was exit a room whenever Near entered, or keep walking if he came upon a room where Near was already present. This plan went along smoothly because, huge shocker, Near didn't seem to care. Near didn't outwardly acknowledge this situation at all and part of Mello wondered which one of them was actually doing the ignoring.
Unfortunately, Watari was making it rather difficult to continue this charade forever, which was exactly what Mello felt like doing. He would phone every afternoon, sometime between 9AM and 11AM, and although Mello liked and even respected Watari very much, he was more than a little annoyed that he was calling on L's behalf instead of L calling himself.
"Top of the morning to you, young Mello," Watari said today. Tuesday. The fifth consecutive day pretending Near didn't exist.
"Let me talk to L," Mello demanded. He already knew what Watari would say, though, and mouthed the words along with him, making a face.
"So sorry. L is busy at the moment."
"Yeah, eating strawberry rhubarb, no doubt," Mello snapped.
Watari's voice held a smile. "It's black forest cake at the moment."
Mello huffed and sunk onto the wooden veranda swing. It was dreary outside, drizzling and gray, but Mello was fed up with staying indoors. The other kids had been cramped inside for days now, as if the rain was made of acid, but Mello didn't care. A little water never hurt anyone.
"I've been told to inquire as to whether you and Near have gotten jackets."
"No, we have not gotten jackets."
"I've been told to ask why not in the event that your answer was no."
"Because if I go anywhere near that little white rat all you old people like to call Nate, I'll murder him."
The sound of shuffling papers drifted over the phone line. Watari cleared his throat. "I have a note here, from L. May I read it to you?"
"If he has something to say, he can tell me himself."
"If you don't acquire jackets by tomorrow morning at 11 AM sharp," Watari read anyway. "Kitchen privileges will be revoked and you are to eat whatever snacks are available to the rest of the orphans."
"But that's not fair!" Mello raved, darting off the swing. "I already have to eat my vegetables!"
Watari's voice held a smile. "It does my heart good to know L's successors have been spoiled every bit as rotten as he himself is. I always told him he would get his stubbornness back times three."
Mello rubbed his forehead, feeling the beginnings of a migraine tingling steadily behind his eyes. "Fine," he said. It was apparent none of his arguments would persuade Watari to put L on the line, so why waste the energy? He could save it for torturing The Decoys later. "I'll get us some jackets."
"I'm sure L will be quite pleased." Watari cupped the mouthpiece, from what Mello could tell of his sudden muffled voice. When he came back on, he sounded even more jolly than before. "I have one last message for you: Thank you very much, sweet pea."
Mello growled and clicked off the phone. L absolutely loved teasing him. No doubt it was where Near had learned it.
Now he'd have to spend his whole day with the freak. Like hell was he going to pick out a jacket for Near just to find out he had to take it back because it didn't fit properly.
With renewed vigor, he pocketed his cell phone and set off. The sooner this stupid errand was over with, the better. Then he could go back to a Near-free existence and everyone could be at least marginally less irritated.
Unfortunately, Mello only found his irritation mounting as he scoured what felt like the entire institution for the little blow-worm. He knew Near was always easier to find when L was home, since Near trailed L like a kite tail and L was usually either in the kitchen or his study, but he didn't expect him to be this difficult to seek out.
He had tried the obviously places first: His room, L's study, the kitchen, various favored play-spots, and any and all rooms he passed on his way to each of these destinations. It took far longer than Mello would have liked, and his patience had all but ran out at the beginning of his search, but finally he found Near in the library.
He was perched like some kind of mangled bird, curled over a knee, hair a wild splash of white from all his twisting and pulling at it. He was seated at a small mahogany table in the corner, hunched over a book so thick it was a wonder the little twit was able to lift it from the shelf.
Matt was there with him, huddled over the same book. The criminal. Probably it was him who got the book for Near, fetched it like his bitch.
Mello stalked toward them, unimpressed that by some miracle Matt had actually gotten Near to smile. In fact, it simply made him want to jam his steel-toed boot into Matt's spleen hard enough to knock out some teeth. His shadow fell across their bowed heads, which were titled too close together in his opinion, and crossed his arms. Neither of them looked up, which made it so much worse.
"Mello," Near said, coolly.
Mello ignored him, directing the heat of his glare at the goggles covering the part in Matt's hair.
"We found L in this book," Matt told him, oblivious to Mello's swelling exasperation. "Come have a look. It's downright hilarious."
Mello stalled, weighing his uncanny jealousy and sudden curiosity for a moment and finally dropped his arms. By all means, Matt was a traitor who couldn't seem to leave alone what wasn't his, so Mello decided, a bit hesitantly, to move around the right side and lean over Near's shoulder.
The big-brained, know-it-all's scent lingered around him like the smell of rain after a light shower, clean and earthy. Mello breathed deeply and focused on the picture on the open page.
The photograph was discolored in a splash of sepia that made it look far older than it actually was. A group of roughly forty-five children stood clustered together on the institution's front steps, mostly smiling with the exception of a few superior glares from a couple of the older kids. Watari and Roger stood to the far left with a red-haired woman Mello recognized as Roger's late wife.
It had a simple caption underneath: "Wammy's House, opening day." No names. No date.
It made sense, really. No one besides those who already knew L's identity would be able to figure out that one of these children was him, let alone which one. But for Mello, who knew L's face better than his own, spotted him right away. He was in the first row furthest to the left, clutching Watari's hand. He appeared slightly older than he did in the snapshot with his mother, and much less… alive. He wore the same blank expression that was so common on him in the present, same unkempt hair, same wrinkled, simple clothes. It was almost funny, but somehow looked too misplaced on his small, pale form.
Mello blinked and swallowed hard. L had been brought to live at Wammy's just after his mother had been murdered. If this photograph was taken on the opening day and L was already there, it meant his mother had been alive only days before. Leaning closer toward the book, Mello squinted at L's eyes, but the image was too fuzzy to tell if any tears were still evident. He'd never seen L cry or even come close to it, but he was sure he must have at some point in his life. If not at this point, then when?
The whole thing made him feel uneasy.
"There's nothing funny about this picture," he suddenly announced, reaching over Near's shoulder and snapping the thick cover shut.
"Hey!" Matt made a grab for the book, but Mello swatted his hand away. "What's your problem? Of course it's funny! It's L! Mini!"
"It is rather amusing," Near said, his monotone sounding ironic combined with the statement. "I've never seen a child with such a serious expression before."
"You must have never looked in the mirror," Mello spit. "Now get up. We're going into town for some jackets."
"Wicked!" Matt said, beginning to stand. "I'm going to get a new-"
Mello knocked his knee into the back of Matt's, making him fall into the chair again. "No. You pissed me off, so you get to stay here and make sure none of The Decoy's follow us out."
"Only Near!" Mello said. He grabbed the scruff of Near's shirt and yanked him to his feet. "I seriously can't deal with more than one of you moron's at a time!"
Matt grumbled something beneath his breath that sounded the exact opposite of flattery, but Mello was feeling surprisingly generous enough to let it slide.
TO BE CONTINUED...