By the time Matt's Camaro rolled into the private garage built right next to the early 19th century mansion block he lived in, troublesome thoughts had emerged in his head, like little drops of rain into the chlorine waters of a swimming pool. For the most part, though, the sweet taste of unexpected success still reigned: against all odds he had not utterly humiliated himself with Halle. Indeed, it seemed that he had made a mostly positive impression on the first woman, first person, he had ever gone out with. She had seemed interested, had laughed at his jokes, coined him "decent", and even if that wasn't the most uplifting compliment one could say to a man, it was apparently enough to make her want to see him again.

But, as much as the thought of it curiously tempted him, Matt didn't actually want to see her again. It wasn't personal; he'd liked Halle well enough. It boiled down to the fact that this just wasn't his life. As far as he was concerned, dating was what happened in movies and fanfiction. The dinner with Halle had been a foray by a stranger into a strange land, and now that his curiosity had been sated, he didn't really feel like visiting again anytime soon. And curiosity was what it surely must have been, what had made him yield to Mello's coercion with only the slightest show of resistance. What else could it have been? After all, he'd been mostly terrified to go, in the end. Meeting Halle at work hadn't been that bad – he'd been too irritated with Mello to care too much. The hours after work leading up to the date, however, had seen his nervousness skyrocket so that by the time he was sitting in his car outside Halle's apartment, he'd been horror-struck. Not even Mello's considerable willpower and charisma could have been enough to override it at that moment.

Matt stepped out of his car with a sigh, careful not to slam the door shut too hard. He didn't feel like crossing the yard and climbing up all the to the third floor; it was times like these that he truly wished he had a ground floor flat or at least that he lived in a modern tower block with a lift. He bid his Camaro goodbye with a loving glance and final gentle caress, and shuffled to the side-door where he came to a halt. The door had a reflective surface, which showed him that the gel he had used to pat down his hair before the date had seemingly evaporated into thin air, leaving behind what looked like a Witch's broom. Also, the artificial light of the garage lamps made his skin look sickly and yellow, his eyes glistened oddly behind the lenses of his glasses, as if he was about to cry or had allergies, and his face seemed somehow queer. Pasty and alien. The expression on his face was blank, and Matt was almost afraid to try and move his facial muscles in case it should make him look even weirder. Still, in the eyes of other people, he must look like everyone else. Tonight and every night. Just another human being.

And yet, Matt was a bit different from most. This much had been made clear to him by the so called normal people he had grown up amidst. He had seen it all, love, sex, relationships, children, all that jazz, happening to them, but had never felt the slightest inclination to take part in any of it. As time and years went on, most of his friends had moved further and further down the usual paths of life, many of them already had children, while Matt stayed the same he'd always been. By the time he got his first permanent good job, he had been all but completely alienated from his former friends. He still had a curious bunch of people he talked to face to face on occasion, but mostly his daily conversations took place on-line, where he was somewhat of an Internet celebrity. His various blogs and accounts had thousands of followers, even though none of them knew a single thing about Matt as a person, not that there was much to know, and he had never made an effort to learn about their personal lives.

Things had abruptly changed with the sudden over-abundance of Mello in his life, of course, but as eager as his friend was to share and gossip on the relationships and marriages of their co-workers or anyone he even remotely knew, Matt could muster only a passing interest in the things Mello seemed so invested in. He did attend to Mello's stories carefully and dutifully commented on them if he could think of something to say, but mostly out of obligation. Much like a childless single might listen to a close friend blabber on about their 2-year-old getting teeth, because that's just what you do. You pay attention to your friends and their lives.

Apparently Mello had finally deemed that it wasn't enough. He had tried setting Matt up with various people in the past, but never pushed it when Matt refused. This thing with Halle had been an unexpected move, and if the suddenness of it had been meant to forcibly thrust Matt into a well of self-reflection, Mello had succeeded. Matt couldn't remember the last time he had seriously entertained thoughts like the ones he was currently harbouring. It was like a thus far closed passageway had been opened, and it was beckoning Matt for a stroll inside. He could go on another date with Halle, and there'd be more talking and kissing, and then maybe there'd be another date still, and even if there wasn't, Mello would be more than eager to conjure up someone else for the purpose.

What a dreadful train of thought. In some weird instinctual way, Matt was attracted to Halle, but he still didn't really want her - touch her, see her, possess her or her attention as a romantic partner in any way. Truly he did not. And yet he'd been happy to agree to another date! There was no doubt about it; he could still evoke that warm fuzzy feeling in his chest that had no rational counterpart in his mind. Was it an ego thing? A cultural construct of masculine ideals that even Matt in all his disinterest and 'abnormality' was unable to reject? Or worse yet, an even more imperative biological instinct?

Mello of course was adamant that Matt's 'reluctance' was but a contrivance he had unconsciously built to protect himself from expectations placed on young men (and women). That he was like those teenage girls who declared themselves asexual to escape the social stigma of having no sex life or relationships. Matt had never deluded himself that way, though; there'd been no need to. He knew he wasn't asexual, not necessarily even in the lower left-hand corner of Storms' Model. He had urges, which he also satisfied, mostly in the confines of his shower cubicle, on a regular basis. He concocted elaborate, raunchy fantasies starring himself and various characters of his favourite games and sometimes films. Indeed, he very much liked sex, in his imagination. Mello, of course, knew nothing about this, as Matt planned for it to stay, and thus the man's conjectures were inevitably flawed. …Was that something Matt should feel guilty about? Mello and guilt were already linked in his mind in one endless ouroboros, what with the endless lectures and attempts to 'improve' Matt's life. Sometimes he felt he was but one big failed pet project for his friend.

Matt stomped up the final flight of stairs and then down the hallway of his floor with uncharacteristic vigor in his steps until he was faced with the light-brown wood panels of the door leading to his flat. Tonight its well-built, sturdy demeanour irritated him, and he gave it a petulant kick. It clicked shut with an unsatisfactorily lazy click.

Wait. Matt hadn't even opened it yet. Moreover, he was certain he had closed it when he left. The contents of his bedroom alone were worth a small fortune and that in mind he had installed a special kind of lock on his door. It looked your usual Yale lock on the outside, but was in fact only a facsimile of one. In order to open the door one had to insert the left temple arm of his glasses that contained a microchip with the appropriate signature. Technically, this was stretching the housing rules a little: The building was part of a reservation area, which mostly meant that there were heavy restrictions as to what could be done to the outside, but the residents' committee had also decreed that any and all modernizations done on the inside should also be brought to the consideration of everyone else. Matt didn't give a shit. He liked security and had gone to appropriate lengths to provide it for himself, too.

Too bad it didn't seem to be working too well.

Eyes wide, all earlier musings blown out of his head, Matt took off his glasses, fumbling a little before finally folding them in to the correct position, and then silently slid the right temple arm into the slot. A faint buzz was heard. Matt stared at the lock in hesitation. Could his flat truly have been broken into? It had happened only once before when the FBI had made a surprise house-call after Matt had semi-accidentally hacked into a government database, and even then Matt's expertly configured alarm system had alerted him to it the moment it had happened. There had been no alarm this time.

It occurred to him that he should probably phone the police, or maybe alert a neighbour or at least Mello. But on the other hand he was loath to do that, maybe due to some almost superstitious belief that nothing ever happened to him of all people, anyway.

One deep intake of breath, then his fingers removed the key, and he pulled the door open, almost soundlessly.

It was dark inside, which made Matt's chest cringe unpleasantly. He never shut down the lights in his flat, not even at night, the well-being of Mother Earth be damned. He had a "slight" phobia of darkness, or rather of the multitudes of evil creatures supposedly inhabiting it, courtesy of his exceptionally evolved powers of imagination and fifteen years' worth of horror games and films. And oh was he was imagining it all now. Dark beings, monsters, malevolent entities. Things with no names and only the barest hint of physical form. It was sad, really, how pathetically enslaved he was by his own mind's eye. He hadn't been even able to play Amnesia without having Mello camping out on the floor next to him in a sleeping-bag.

Speaking of Mello, it wasn't too late to call him. His very badass and skilled friend could be here in less than ten minutes on his exquisite Ducati 1098s that Matt himself had wired to illegal perfection. Happy to rescue his poor hapless friend and beat the lungs out of his intruders, assuming they had lungs. Happy to save the day and play superhero. Happy to be given an opportunity to demonstrate his endlessly infinite superiority, once again... It was far too easy to imagine the inevitable smug smile on his lips. 'The monsters again, Matty?' he'd say in that condescending way of his.

Matt stepped determinedly over the threshold, eyes immediately drawn to the only source of light, the television. It was muted and cascaded artificial white light in an eerie glow. It was a sight that sparked a pleasantly chilling memory from childhood. 'There is nothing wrong with your television. Do not attempt to adjust the picture... You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to...'

"-The Outer Limits," Matt dutifully finished under his breath as he stepped further in, much calmer now. There was nothing like one's childhood when you needed a Happy Place. To think he had almost called Mello when most likely he had simply forgotten his usual security measures amidst his panic-ridden thoughts about the date. How stupid to -

Matt's breathing hitched. There was a figure sitting on one of the bean bags. He'd missed it at first and now that he did notice it, his heart dropped to his knees in terror. This could not be happening. He took a moment to steel himself and then stepped closer, leaving the door open for quick exit. It was a human being for sure, but... there was something off about it. The head was lolling to the side in an odd, unnatural angle and one limpid limb was hanging off the side, seemingly lifeless but simultaneously tense, as if ready to twitch to life any moment.

"Who are you?" Matt rasped into the darkness, surprising himself. Why wasn't he running down the stairs, sobbing in terror? That's what he had always imagined himself likely to do in such a terrifying if unlikely situation as this. There was a goddamn monster in his sitting-room!

The figure jerked in response, the limp hand indeed the first to come to life, the head awkwardly following it by rolling into an upward position, crunching in protest. Then it turned to regard Matt. And just like that, Matt was thrown in the middle of The Ring.

Her hair was a long tangled mess of inky black, the sickly white but distinctly Japanese facial features almost non-visible behind the long fringe, eyes only a pair of black coals amidst it all. The bony white fingers of her hands clawed the yellow fake leather of the beanbag like an eager bird of prey as she (or it?) hitched herself over to crawl onto the floor with hunched shoulders. It moved in jerky pulls, hands grasping at Matt's fluffy carpet, but only managed a few feet before it collapsed on its side in a defeated heap and… mewled.

Matt blinked. His eyes trailed from the now gurgling figure to the white screen. Just white noise, no more. "Hey, Naomi," he sighed, as the more reality-oriented part of his brain finally kicked in full force.

The crumbled figure, also known as Naomi Misora-Penber, made a choking sound in response. Matt benignly interpreted this as "Hello to you too, Matt".

"Come on, then, let's get you up, yeah?" Matt turned to shut the door with a deep sigh and then shuffled over to Naomi to lift her up by the elbows. The woman kept losing weight as days went by, and it was becoming increasingly easy for even such a muscle-challenged lightweight as Matt to move her about. It was sickening. While even normal-weight Japanese women tended to be light as feathers, Naomi was tiny even for her race. "Hold on tight now, I'll help you back in the chair."

"I'm sorry, Matt, I'm here again," Naomi mumbled once seated, unusually coherently for her drunken state, albeit in Japanese; alcohol always made her lose the tentative grasp she commanded over the English language. Her husband, Raye Penber, was American but spoke fluent Japanese and thus Naomi had never had any real need to properly learn his husband's mother tongue. Not until they'd moved from Tokyo to London anyway. While she had been an exchange student in the US and had subsequently used English in her job later, she had quickly forgotten the language once she'd got married, and it had taken her a while to relearn it. She still forgot all about it in times of distress.

Luckily, Japanese was the one language besides English that Matt excelled in. As far as he was concerned, it was the one language in the world truly worth learning, computer languages non-withstanding.

"I don't mind, Naomi-san, you know that. Although… this is the first time you've gotten into my apartment without me being here, you know. How did you do it? I thought I'd made it practically impossible."

Naomi hiccupped. "You should change the lock."

Matt sniffed, affronted. From Naomi's drunken babbling along the years he knew that before her marriage the woman had worked in some kind of government intelligence agency unit. The uneasy transition from a government agent to a housewife had evidently taken its toll on her, and it now seemed to be a guilty pleasure of hers to employ the skills of her former profession only whenever Ray wasn't around to disapprove. Still, how the hell had she opened that door? Matt eyed her defeated posture in dismay; there was no way he'd be getting answers now. …Oh well, he'd get it out of her once she was sober.

"So. Something particular happen this week? It's been a while since I've seen you this sloshed," he asked, went to close the door and then plopped himself into one of the bags as well. Man, he loved these things. Nothing was more comfortable. And the extra pleasure of seeing Mello's usually army-worthy posture crumble in the confines of one of these things was not to be belittled either.

Naomi made as if to shrug. "He has a new assignment. Very hush hush." She pressed her right finger daintily on her lips. "Won't talk about it. Comes home in the small hours."

Raye Penber also did some kind of intelligence agency work, as Naomi had accidentally informed him long ago. She was truly lucky Matt had no interest in exploiting her in any way; there was a lot a hacker of his caliber could have done with that piece of knowledge. "Oh. Must be tough on you… What've you been up to then? I haven't seen you in the hallway."

Naomi made no answer, and Matt figured she was probably about to pass out. Perfect timing on Matt's side, then. While it had at first been exciting listening to her uncensored thoughts on her former line of work, she had quickly started repeating herself; Matt had heard most of her stories dozens of times. With a sigh, letting his thoughts wander and body turn to mush, he reached for the remote control lying on the floor and switched the static to the news to pass the time. He always made sure Naomi fell asleep before going to bed in case she tried to hurt herself in the sea of angst and self-loathing that mostly defined her drinking bouts.

In the mornings Naomi was without exception exceedingly embarrassed and usually gone before Matt woke up, leaving behind an apologetic post-it on the fridge. She was just one of those people who were a completely different person when drunk, Matt had come to think. Not unlike Mello, in fact, who tended to turn into a sobbing mess of Catholic angst while inebriated. Not that the man often drunk that much; he said he wanted to keep his mind clear in case he had to "save Matt from some trouble". Classic overprotective wanker behaviour.

There was a warm breath on Matt's ear interrupting his thoughts, and he started in shock as he realized that Naomi had somehow managed to crawl her way over to his chair and was now leaning against the bulging side of the beanbag, eyes gleaming drunkenly under the thick fringe. It occurred to Matt that he hadn't seen Naomi sober in ages. This pitiable state of inebriation had in fact come to stand for the woman's personality in his mind. What was she like, really like? He couldn't quite recall.

"Naomi, what are you doing? I must warn you, if you pass out on the floor, I may not be able to get you back up again."

"I think it's him." Her voice was hushed, barely above a whisper. A spindly arm crawled its way up Matt's chest and onto his neck, where it raised goose bumps on his flesh.

"Who?" he forced out, self-consciously hunching his shoulders.

She spoke softly. "It's Raye's fault. That I don't get pregnant. But he won't go to tests. I think he doesn't really even want children. He asks me if I'd like a dog. I hate dogs."

"What about a cat then?" Matt suggested distractedly, discomfort clenching his stomach as her strange perfume smothered him further, but Naomi paid him no mind and pressed even closer, now lying almost on his chest. Matt had never been this close to Naomi or anyone else apart from his mother, really, and was finding the experience vastly unsettling.

"It has to be him. The doctor said. There's nothing wrong with me, and I haven't been on the pill since we got married..." She trailed off, staring fixedly into the collar of his shirt. Matt again twitched involuntarily and then placed his hands awkwardly on her shoulders, intent on pushing her back and regaining his personal space before tackling this topic of babies.

When Matt had first met Naomi, she had shattered many of his expectations as to what Japanese women were like. Yes, she'd been exceedingly polite and mostly soft-spoken, but also displayed startlingly strong-willed behaviour: Matt had once heard her screaming like a banshee at Raye about his late hours at work. And that had been before Naomi had started abusing her weak tolerance for alcohol. It never ceased to amaze Matt how a woman like Naomi had ended up marrying a man like Raye Penber. A man of average looks, average habits and average opinions on everything.

"How can he," Naomi was saying resentfully, sounding less drunk by the minute. "How can he do this to me? The moment I agreed to marry him he started talking that I should quit work. Said he was afraid for my safety…. Said I would be so much happier at home with children and would never feel like I've given something up."

"Well, that's pretty-"

Naomi paid him no mind. "We've been married for three years with nothing to show for it… And he's a coward and scared to confront me. Drowns himself at work, Matt-kun..." Her bloodshot eyes slid fully open and focused in on Matt's face. "Would it be so wrong of me to do something about it?"

Alarm bells went off in Matt's head, but failed to elicit a reaction. He was too frozen in shock by what Naomi did next. She wrapped her arms around his upper torso and hauled him forward, wrestling him down and then all the way to the floor. In the next moment she had her lips on him, the slippery wet contact stunning him beyond words. Then her fingers were sliding under his new grey shirt, specifically bought for the date with Halle, and touched bare skin.

For a moment Matt's brain temporarily shut down. It was the timing, really. Had Naomi accosted him only a day before, Matt would have wrestled his way out of her grasp without a second thought and then called for her husband to pick her up. But this Friday, this particular Friday evening, his life taken a plunge into the deep end of life and it only seemed like a logical continuation to all the oddness that his beautiful, intoxicated neighbour was bringing it to a climax by making advances on him.

So, Matt let Naomi pin him to the floor like a ragdoll, take off his shirt, tug down his jeans and remove his socks. It was only when Naomi finally removed her own jeans and mounted his prone body with her white, naked thighs that it didn't feel quite so surreal anymore, and Matt became very aware of flesh touching other flesh. He squeezed his eyes shut, clutched the carpet and tried to think of England. It didn't work very well: His mother was Irish and his father Welsh, and despite having himself born at Oxford, he didn't feel particularly English. Right now he felt just discomfited beyond belief; the feel of Naomi's skin against his was making his very insides squirm in distaste.

Naomi was clearly very much of a different mind judging by the way she kept muttering "I want you, baby!" in broken English as she attempted to locate a passage into the inside of his briefs. Then Matt realized, with a panicked jolt in his brains, that rather than 'I want you, baby", she was actually feverishly chanting 'I want a baby!'.

Oh no no no. This needed to stop. He sure as hell didn't want to be the father of Naomi's baby, and the sex part was feeling less nice by the second too. Luckily the woman had momentarily slid off his body to try and drag down his briefs so Matt had no trouble sitting up and seizing her by the wrists. She struggled a little as he pushed her back but soon gave up and let Matt remove her off of him. Then she started to sob silently, head bent to hide her face behind a curtain of hair.

Matt took a moment to breathe and then lightly placed her hands on the top of her thighs. "I'm sorry, I can't do this." How bizarre, the entire thing. Just bizarre. He didn't even feel violated in the least. Naomi hadn't been that forceful and he could have stopped her much earlier. Indeed, he was starting to feel slightly guilty himself. He ought to have stopped her immediately. "Come now, Naomi, don't cry. You should try and get some sleep. Or maybe you'd like some tea first? I have a large collection. Or maybe you'd like to talk? About Raye and babies?"

In the end Naomi fell asleep right there on the floor. Matt fetched her a blanket, and then retired himself, overcome by sudden sleepiness. The episode had effectively put an end to his soul-searching, for the moment anyway. He would look into it more in the morning.

III

Mello woke up much earlier than he had intended.

It was always difficult for him to wake up late; his childhood rhythm had stuck on too well. His father, a devoutly Catholic man, had made the entire household - Mello's mother, his two sisters, and the servants - gather for a prayer in the family chapel at the crack of dawn even on holidays. Afterwards Mello had usually helped the cook with the breakfast before school, which started at eight. He had kept up the habit of waking up early in his later years as well, first at Eton and then during his Oxford years, to get ahead in his studies, of course, but mostly out of habit.

And perhaps out of a kind of guilt as well. He had realized he was gay when he was twelve, truly been hit by the reality of it at uni and then, after a brief struggle to accept it, started to compensate for it, in a way, by living out the Catholic ways of his childhood to the dot.

"Good morning, Mr. Keehl. My internal track record shows your daily coffee intake has increased from 300 to 500 mg per day over the past week. Please consider reduction! Some studies have reported that increased caffeine consumption is associated with a modest, but statistically significant decrease in fertility," was the greeting of the coffee machine from Hell this morning.

"Shut it, Numpty, I'm not in the mood." Numpty was his latest name for the wretched thing. It was a Scottish word that he had learned from Matt. He wasn't quite sure of its meaning; he just liked the sound of it. The very first name for the gadget had actually been Matt, but that had only made him sad. If only Mello had Matt wishing him good morning in his kitchen every day.

He drank his coffee slowly and waited more or less patiently until 7.30 before springing to action. He decided to take the bus, as always when not in a hurry – he still found London exciting to look at despite having lived there for years now. The weather was perfect this morning, too.

He pressed the buzzer, and the familiar theme tune of Doctor Who echoed in the flat behind it. Mello had a key, of course, and Matt had told him he could come in whenever he wanted, but Mello still preferred to announce his presence before barging in. It actually depressed him a little that Matt apparently never did anything … "personal" that he didn't want people walking in on. Why didn't he ever masturbate in the lounge? Or at least walk around naked? Why, oh why, not?

The door opened with an energetic swing. To Mello's utmost surprise, Matt was not only up, he was also fully dressed and looked like he'd been that way for a while now. And it smelled like tea in the flat. Absolutely unheard of.

"Oh, 'morning, Mel, I didn't think you'd be here quite this early," Matt greeted him with an unsettlingly wide smile and stepped aside so Mello could come in. He stepped in cautiously, taking a quick cursory glance over the lounge but noticing nothing out of place.

"Couldn't sleep. Why the hell are you up so early?" he grunted suspiciously, his good mood dissipating. Matt often told him he resembled a cat that way; always resenting changes in the routine. And there was definitely something odd about the atmosphere, he could smell it. About Matt too. He turned to look at his friend, who was still smiling, hands in the pockets of his orange hoody, observing Mello like he knew something his friend didn't.

Mello affected a confused smile. "What's going on?"

Matt kept smiling too. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. You look... taller somehow." Matt really did look taller, oddly enough. Taller and… manlier, almost. Was it the posture? The faint stubble on his cheeks? Mello definitely didn't want Matt growing a beard, oh no. Not on those sweet baby cheeks. "Did something happen last night?"

"Well…" Matt tapped his cheek thoughtfully. "Let's see. What is it now… Oh that's right, I almost had sex." He widened his eyes exaggeratedly, as if to say 'didn't see that one coming, did you?'.

Mello's heart stopped. "You- you did what?" Out of the corner of his eye he spied movement. A pair of white, naked legs moving languidly on the carpet behind the beanbags. It was enough to fill him with sudden rage that required no further elaboration. "That horny slut!"

Abandoning the alarmed Matt, Mello stomped over to the carpet, chest throbbing with righteous indignation and intent on beating the hell out of the lecherous woman he had entrusted his dearest friend with, but paused in surprise as the languid figure came into full view. What the hell? He took a moment to re-assess the situation. "Matt, why is your evidently hangover, very much married neighbour lying naked on your sitting-room floor?"

Matt shuffled forward to stand next to him, a strand of red hair taut over his knuckles as he absent-mindedly fiddled with it. "Well, she could've had my bed, but she refused to move. She was crying, see."

Mello swatted him on the head, unable and unwilling to contain himself in this moment of crisis. "You- Matt, why? What the fuck happened? What about Halle?"

Matt moved out of reach of the continuing series of slaps and gave him a look somewhere between bewilderment and hurt. "Calm down. The date was alright. I took her home at the end of it, and we kissed - well, she kissed me - and even agreed to go out again. Then I came home and Naomi was here waiting for me, and..."

"And?" Mello demanded.

"And she talked about Raye and about... babies. Which led to her wanting to have sex with me. Because Raye is apparently defective in that department. So she, uh, bounced on me. We didn't get that far, really. She took her clothes off and most of mine too, and then I stopped her." He saw Mello's rigid expression and misinterpreted it. "It's not like I encouraged her or- or wanted it, but she...caught me off guard. Although for a moment I thought about going through with it." He bit his lip guiltily.

Mello could take no more. It was just too much. "Oh for heavens' sake! At least tell me you were drunk? No, I take that back. Nothing good could come of you being drunk with an even more shitfaced Naomi."

Matt raised his hand to fiddle with the goggles round his neck, as if he hadn't quite heard Mello. "She's quite desperate for a baby, you know. And Raye isn't exactly meeting her half-way with this. It seems he's mostly avoiding her these days."

Mello's eyes bulged as his brain confirmed that, yes; it was indeed sympathy for Naomi he was hearing in Matt's voice. The stupid sod had almost been raped by this harpy and seemed to think nothing of it! Mello grabbed a handful of hair in both hands and pulled in frustration. Matt wisely chose to remain silent for the moment, eyeing him worriedly, and after a moment Mello let go, now much calmer. He was overreacting. Out of jealousy, most likely. Matt had said nothing had happened. Mello's plans were still intact. No unwanted conquest has been made on planet Matt. An easily demolishable colony, at most. "Alright. Move."

Matt eyed him distrustfully. "Why?"

"So I can get rid of her," Mello explained impatiently and demandingly shooed his friend to step aside.

Matt hesitated, glanced at Naomi's limp form under the blanket, dead to the world, and then back at the hard lines on his friend's face. Clearly he had misgivings about Mello's intentions. "Just let me wake her-"

Mello moved like lightning, securing his hands around Matt's waist and effortlessly lifted his friend out of the way. Then, ignoring Matt's protests, he gave Naomi's prone body a not-so-gentle nudge with his foot. The Japanese woman jolted awake instantly, bolting into a sitting position as if given an adrenaline shot, and Matt hurried to cover his eyes as the blanket slid down to reveal her bare, admittedly attractive breasts. Mello only narrowed his eyes and eyed her with palpable distaste. In all honesty, he had never liked Naomi: to him she was a spineless mess and a disgrace to her sex, who should have stood up to her husband ages ago. God knew she was capable of it; her former job description alone was testimony to that, surely.

"Good morning," he spit.

Naomi frowned groggily at the leather-clad legs before her, apparently not quite recognizing Mello, and fumbled up the blanket to cover her exposed chest. A laborious attempt to swallow was made and then she rasped, "What time is it?"

"I'll tell you what time it is. It is time you took a good, hard look at yourself in the mirror and asked yourself what the hell you think you're doing attacking your unsuspecting, defenseless neighbour like some depraved cougar!"

Naomi frowned slowly. "Matt...? Did I -?"

"Did you get wasted and sexually harass your neighbour?" Mello completed impatiently. "Yep! I can't believe you w-"

The Doctor Who theme cut off his words. All three turned to stare at the door.

"Are you expecting anyone?" Mello asked after a moment.

Matt shook his head. "No one besides you."

The doorbell rang again, impatiently. Matt shrugged and went to open it. In the hallway stood Raye Penber in dress robes, hands crossed on his chest, frowning worriedly. "Good morning, Matt, is Naomi here again?"

Matt stared at him dumbly. Mello resisted the urge to facepalm. Naomi shrank inside her blanket and crouched closer to the floor. Apparently the guilt was putrid in the air since Raye impatiently pushed Matt out of the way and made his way inside. His eyes landed immediately on his wife cowering behind Mello's legs, then Mello himself, who glared back, and then shot to Matt, who could still only stare in mute shock, apparently having completely forgotten about the very existence of Naomi's husband.

"What the hell is going on here? Naomi, are you naked under that?" Penber demanded in his broad Mid-Western accent, face darkening as he took in the details of the scene.

Naomi made an indistinct sound in her throat and turned her face away, effectively confirming her husband's suspicions that something ignoble had taken place. Mello sighed deeply inside, pondering the least messy way out of this, but Penber was already turning to Matt, a menacing scowl settling on his face. "What have you done to my wife?" He was not the biggest man in size but clearly in good shape and thus equipped with a clear physical advantage over Matt, whose daily exercise consisted of a climb up the stairs of his building and an occasional Wii golf match.

Matt opened his mouth, to say what, Mello hadn't the faintest idea, but he had seen enough. An open confrontation could only end with Matt getting his face smashed in. "Oh, please," he started. "Matt hasn't done anything. He has been on a date and only came back just now. It's me you're wanting to talk to. I came to see Matt last night but found something equally… delightful instead." He smirked lewdly.

Matt stared at him in shock, but Raye had luckily busied himself with investigating Mello from head to toe and didn't notice. The man looked suspicious but also wary. Mello smirked as he realized what he must be thinking. Mello was dressed in his weekend gear, which included his finest, impeccably tailored leather trousers, a tight black wife-beater and more bling bling than Lil Wayne. His shoulder-length hair was style within an inch of its life, his needlessly high-heeled boots had rhinestones all over them, and his fingernails were painted blue. In short, he couldn't have looked more gay had he tried.

But when you thought about it, as camp as Mello probably seemed to Penber, it was still a million times more likely that Naomi would fool around with him than with Matt. The short, geeky Matt whom the American wouldn't be able to imagine capable of seducing his wife. And of course he would never think his posh wife harassing anyone; the idiot probably stupidly assumed that Naomi was a victim here. It would be a delight setting him straight.

"And what exactly did you do to my wife?" Penber growled, shoulders tense, but still restraining himself from moving into a more physical offensive. It could be his professional principles telling him to get all the facts first, but Mello didn't feel like giving him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, he attributed it to cowardice; despite his obvious athletic prowess, Penber had the air of a penpusher.

It was Naomi who answered the man's question, having pulled herself to her feet. "What is it to you, Raye? You have never before asked me what I do at Matt's place," she intonated in her conscientious English and approached her husband, somehow self-contained even in her state of undress. Even Mello had to admit that she looked every bit the victim here. Pale skin, ragged ebony hair and dark, wet eyes – she could have been a film star in another life.

Penber breathed noisily though his nose but seemed to have no immediate comeback ready. Naomi gave him a moment, and then continued, "Raye, for your information, I haven't had sex with Mello. Or with anyone. We should stop to bother them and deal with this alone. Matt, I will come back for my clothes later." With that she pushed past her husband, pausing at the door to say Matt something neither Mello nor Penber could hear, and then exited the flat, bare feet making no sound on the floor. Her departure seemed to take the bravado out of Penber, and he made a move as if to follow her. But of course Mello just couldn't keep his mouth shut.

"Well, then, perhaps you ought to do as your wife would have it, for once."

The American turned back, "Don't think I'll let you get away with this. The moment I've dealt with my wife, I'll-" The man was practically shaking with rage. "I don't know what you've done, but it's clear to me you have taken advantage of a defenseless woman."

"Defenseless?" Mello spat, face contorting in appalled disbelief. "Trust me, if anyone's to blame here, it's your wife."

The American shook his head, neck muscles tense, nostrils flaring. "Are you trying to tell me she started it?"

Mello scoffed. "Well, how else do you suppose she ended up sexing up a gay man?

Penber now looked also confused besides furious. "Yeah, that's what I don't exactly get here. Aren't you after Jeevas? What the hell would you want from my wife, you goddamn circus freak!"

It was at this point that Matt, who had started spacing out of the conversation, snapped backed to the situation at hand just in time to see Mello flinch, cheeks burning as if slapped. The blond man's eyes flickered briefly to Matt and then locked back to his adversary, regaining their cool. "Ah, but you know, birds and blokes ain't that different from behind - an arsehole is an arsehole."

Matt blinked rapidly in disbelief - had Mello actually said what he thought he had? Judging by the way Penber seemed to be struggling for words, he had. In truth, Matt found it a little odd how Mello was so taking this to heart. In fact, the blond man hardly ever seemed to show his emotions like this. It often felt like, for one reason or the other, Mello actually kept putting on a show of some sort in front of his friend. The only time Matt had ever seen the man completely unaware of his surroundings or people around him was the one time he had gone to see his friend work out at the gym. It had been a curious experience.

"You- you- tried to- my wife-" Penber's face was getting purple. He had seemingly abandoned all thoughts of following his wife and was taking steps towards Mello in a decidedly menacing way.

Matt estimated that a fist fight was more than imminent and deemed it was time for him to step in. "Penber," he started, placing himself between the two other men, "Mello seriously hasn't done anything to or with Naomi. He's one hundred percent gay, you know that. He's just trying to rile you up, because he's a confrontational bastard and enjoys wreaking havoc on normal people's lives."

Mello made an indignant noise, but Matt ignored him and pressed on. "As to why Naomi ended up naked, I… Well. You know how she is when she's drinking." Penber probably didn't. "I actually think she could maybe use some help. You know, with her… addiction and all. She's been this way for a while now, hasn't she? She only ever comes here because she doesn't really know anyone else, you know. Unfortunately I was out last night, but Mello, uh, let her in and was perfectly civil towards her, I'm sure."

Matt was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the words seemed to come to him, for once. And they seemed to be having an effect on Penber, too. The man's shoulders were visibly sagging under the bathrobe, and his eyes steered away from Mello to rest somewhere on the carpet.

"Has something… like this happened before?" he asked with an effort.

Matt hurriedly shook his head. "No. Usually she just talks- uh, nothing coherent, really, just random things in Japanese, and then falls asleep."

Penber regarded him solemnly for a moment. "Right. I'm going to take your word for it. I have no reason not to trust you, I suppose." He stressed the word 'you, giving Mello a glare. "Anyway, I'll, uh, go now. To talk with my wife. You've been a good friend to Naomi, Matt. I'll make sure she won't come here anymore to bother you, I can assure you that."

Matt bit his tongue, not wanting to argue; he truly did hope Naomi and Penber came to an understanding, and Naomi would no longer feel the need to confide in Matt. So, he simply nodded in answer and moved to the door to shut it after the American, making sure through the peephole that Penber did indeed go back to his flat.

Mello cleared his throat. "Well then. Chances are you've gotten away with this like a boss. I didn't know you to be such a good liar."

Matt turned to look at his friend and nodded in relief. Penber had never come for his wife before. True, Naomi was usually gone much earlier, but her husband's appearance was still startling. Most of the time Matt only saw glimpses of the man, and even those brief encounters were always awkward; they didn't have much in common with each other.

"I suppose I did. No thanks to you, though. As much as I appreciate you trying to bail me out of trouble, you seriously went overboard with him, you know. And her, for that matter. Did Numpty not provide you with a cup of coffee this morning or something?"

Mello made a frustrated noise. "No, it's- I was just caught off guard. I hate surprises."

Matt nodded wisely. "So it's the cat thing?"

Mello rolled his eyes. "Sure, the cat thing. And I can't help disliking Naomi. She's always leeching off of you."

"She's lonely. She doesn't really know anyone here."

Mello made an indifferent gesture, signaling he was done with the subject, and turned towards Matt's kitchen, no doubt to witness with his own eyes the miracle that was tea made by Matt.

"Hey, Mello", Matt stopped him, a sudden quip dancing off his tongue, "why did you blush when Penber insinuated that you're after me?" Matt didn't know why he failed in making it sound like a joke. He opened his mouth to correct himself, but then he realized Mello had completely frozen in his spot. With a peculiar sense of foreboding, Matt let his mouth fall shut and waited. It took Mello almost five seconds to turn around and flash him a questioning smile. And he was blushing. "Mel, I think the time in which a believable excuse could have been given passed at least three seconds ago."

Mello's smile turned uncertain. He regarded Matt with a steady gaze, but his hands were clearly bunched into fists inside the pockets of his leather jacket. Then he gave a defeated shrug, an almost shy look softening his face. "I guess I've blown my cover."

Matt was going to need more than that. "You mean…?"

"Well. Penber was right, in a way. I do find you… well fit, is what kids say these days, I believe."

Matt blinked. "I'm sorry what? You mean you're like… attracted to me?"

Mello gave a slightly uneasy shrug. "Yeah. I'm sorry. What can I say, I'm only a man. A gay man. With a best friend who's... not too hard on the eyes."

The lightness of his words was in obvious contrast with the guarded look in his eyes, but Matt couldn't find the words to address it. Mostly he felt like gaping at this surprise revelation, but it didn't seem appropriate somehow. "Well, it's alright. Weird, but- uh. I guess you fancy a lot of people?"

Mello hesitated for a fraction of a second. "Yeah I suppose I do. I've fancied a lot of guys. And fucked most of them too." He laughed when Matt made a face. "It's not like me to act coy. If I see something I like, I go after it."

"You didn't go after me, though," Matt pointed out, now curious. To think that Mello found him attractive. "Even though you had me locked in an elevator the first time we met."

Mello made an amused noise and advanced into the kitchen, with Matt in his tow. He seemed relieved now that his friend was obviously taking this in his stride. "You'd have probably got an aneurysm if I had."

"Well, yeah, I'm almost having an aneurysm right now. I can't believe you have such an awful taste in men. I thought you'd be into blokes like Daniel Craig or… Aaron Ramsey."

"Aaron Ram- I can't believe you even know who Aaron Ramsey is!"

"Well, I wouldn't, but for the fact that he's the wallpaper on your phone. And how could I know what kind of people you shag, I've never seen any of them, now that you mention it. Or… have I? Have you done anyone at work?"

"That's for me to know and you to-"

"Oh no, not Aiber the Arsewipe, right? I'm not sure I could live with that."

"I don't even know who that is!"

"He's that blond hulky French guy with the Beckham hair and supposedly sexy stubble, which just makes him look like he spends most of his time licking the boss's arse, which I'm pretty sure he do-"

"And what in this description makes you think he might be someone I've slept with?"

"Well, let's see-"

And so from there on the conversation flowed more and more naturally and by the time they were seated in the arm chairs of Matt's kitchen and sipping cups of steaming Earl Grey, it was a Saturday like any other. For the most part anyway. This time it was Mello taking the brunt of most of the banter, and Matt playing the host. Naomi and her inconvenient husband were promptly ignored for the time being, and Halle only occasionally alluded to whenever Mello got the chance to badger Matt about the date. It was like the both of them had realized that for whatever reason this might the last time in a while they would have a chance to do this, with just the two of them, and that many things were about to change in their lives.

III

A/N: Oh the agony I've been through with this fic… About a year ago, when I finished the previous chapter, I ran into a wall with where I wanted to go with the story. I'm not a fan of straightforward romance (when it comes to my own writing, anyway), but on the other hand I felt ill-prepared to go through with the gravitas of my intended subject – this was, after all, supposed to be a comedy! And it still is; I think I've come up with a nice compromise. I've dropped certain themes and ideas, and consequently should be able to finish this thing in 15-20 chapters. Yay.

I'm really sorry I just disappeared. It's my modus operandi in life, I guess, to drop everything and flee without a word. (_ _)''