A/N: Dear Death Note friends,

As you've probably puzzled out, I'm mostly out of this fandom these days. I still love the DN boys to pieces, but I'm playing fifty-two-card pick-up with my life right now, and when I write, it's to try to get a novel together… or to play in the Doctor Whoniverse, because I lack discipline. Check my profile here for a link to the numerous fics that aren't posted on this site; many of them are Death Note, so all is not lost. Anyway, we had some good times, we had many hundreds of thousands of words, and I intend to finish "The Hunt" someday when I suck less—but I'm afraid it's a bit of a sayonara for now. Please accept my love, my apologies, and this rather weird fic. (I promise it's less cracktastic once Matt's sober!)

Thank you all,



I got a bulletproof heart
You got a hollow-point smile
Me and your runaway scars
Got a photograph dream
On the getaway mile

– "Bulletproof Heart" – My Chemical Romance –

"You've got to be fucking kidding me!" Mello bellows.


"How could you possibly drink all of this?" he demands, gesturing jerkily to the vast array of shiny bottles scattered all over the living room carpet. "The human body only has five liters of blood!"

I survey my domain. You know, like a lion. Roarrrrr.

"I did have to pee a couple times," I tell him. "Like… lots of times."

"Matt," Mello says, slowly and with his teeth grinding together, "it's Christmas."

Psh. How drunk does he think I am?

"I know that," I announce, stuffily. "For your information, Jesus was all about drinking. Remember that whole water into wine thing? The Bible encourages getting wasted."

Mello applies one leather-gloved hand to his forehead. "Not on Christmas, Matt."

"People always drink wine on Christmas," I reason. "And champagne on New Years. And beer on Saint Patrick's Day. And margaritas on Cinco de Mayo. And Valentine's Day is usually vodka. And bourbon for birthdays, especially if you're old."

"Okay," Mello cuts in, holding his hands up. "We're an alcoholic culture; that's really inspiring. But the fact that people sometimes drink wine on Christmas does not mean that you are allowed to drink the contents of an entire liquor store."

I look over the sea of glass and attempt to do some estimation. It doesn't go very well, mostly 'cause they keep blurring and doubling and moving around and stuff.

"A quarter of a liquor store," I say. "Tops."

Speaking of tops, Mello is wearing leather. I think Mello wears leather because it has so many associations, some of them kind of conflicting, and he likes to keep people on their toes. Or on their knees, if you know what I mean, but that's kind of the point, too. Because the thing is, really tough people wear leather jackets, right? And bikers wear a lot of leather, because it's kind of like armor against the wind, and Mello needs all the armor he can get. And obviously it's, like, super-kinky, and Mello definitely uses it to look like a total freakin' tart, but I think he's aware of all the other stuff, too, at least at some level. I think he wants all of those implications to be shifting around in someone's head as they try to get a handle on him.

"Fine," Mello says. "Only a quarter of a liquor store. Congratulations. You cleaned out all the booze I was going to drink to drown my sorrows."

"Well, duh," I say. Because. Really. Duh. "You get really sad when you drink, and I don't want you to be really sad. I want to protect you."

This sounds very noble to me. I'm definitely the lion around here. Ooh, I'm totally Gryffindor. Fuck yeah. Usually I feel more Hufflepuff, you know, especially because badgers have stripes and all.

Oh, man, if I'm the Lion King, does that make Mello Nala? He's gonna flip a bitch if I tell him.

In the meantime, he's looking at me really funny, like I said something crazy. Which I might have done. I don't remember; I'm trying to figure out whether a Hufflepuff scarf or a Gryffindor one would clash less with my hair. For the moment, I'm leaning towards Hufflepuff.

No one realizes how hard it is to be a cherry-redhead. Seriously.

"You want to protect me?" Mello asks incredulously, and I guess the incredulity (this is a really fun word to think about when you've had a quarter of a liquor store tops) kind of makes sense, because he's the one who's always packing heat and stuff. Honestly, I just prefer the kind of guns that are on the other side of a TV screen, preferably in a first-person shooter that involves either zombies or Nazi troops, and either way there had better be some awesome gore for headshots.

But the thing is that the guns and the leather and the whole show of power are exactly why Mello needs the protection. He really-truly-honestly believes that a gun and a rosary are all you need to get by and look after yourself, but it just takes so much more than that. The world is meaner than Mello thinks it is.

But, see, I figured it out. When I was sitting up over him while he was all fried-faced and bleedy and would just sleep a lot and then cry at the pain sometimes and then be like "Fuck!" because it hurt like hell to get saltwater in an open wound like that, I spent the downtime mostly thinking. I didn't even smoke much, 'cause his skin was so irritated already—not-smoking, by the way, was reallynotcool. Anyway, I'd sit and watch my hands shake and chew on my fingernails and make sure the chocolate milk was still cold for when Mello woke up next, and I'd think about stuff. So I figured it out.

Everybody to come out of Wammy's House has an Achilles heel—or two, or three, or seventeen. And everybody to come out of Wammy's House needs to be protected from something.

L needed protection from people—more even than he knew, if the bits and whispers we can piece together and fill in are true. Near needs protection from the world, because he's so small, and it's so big, and he can control it from inside a fortress with his crazy-massive brain, but if he steps outside, it'll crush him like a piece of cheap plastic underfoot. I think that's the reason he's so pale and fragile and tiny and all of that—I think it's the way the universe has of warning him how careful he has to be.

Mello… needs protection from himself.

It's true. He can take on anything from the outside; anything you throw at him, he'll rip to shreds, but that's kind of the problem—he's always worked too hard and expected too much of himself. He doesn't set limits, because he refuses to believe they're there. He never stops, and you pretty much have to blow his face off to get him to slow down. He's stubborn and smart and loony and gorgeous, and he's got no brakes and no rearview mirror. He just goes. And he'll keep going until he's worn the tires down to metal frames and scraps of rubber, if nobody holds him back, and he'll end up in a ditch somewhere.

So that's where I come in.

And while we're talking about me, I guess I need protection from Mello. 'Cause seriously, anyone who would drink a quarter of a liquor store to prevent him from feeling sad would die for him in a second.

I don't really wanna die.

When I am no longer hazily focused on the intricacies of a Captain Morgan label—it's got lots of nice colors; holy crap, that guy's coat is awesome—I look up and discover that Mello has vanished into the kitchen. I think he's making me a Hot Pocket, which, for Mello, is pretty much a declaration of love.

Obviously today was a success.

It is tomorrow. My hangover is a work of art.

The kind of art that makes you want to jump off of the fire escape to your agonizing death, that is.

My first conscious thought is Help I'm dying Father why have you forsaken me. My second is Aw, crap, it's December twenty-sixth.

December twenty-sixth is a fierce contender for the biggest letdown of the entire year. You already opened all your presents and played with them and broke a few and stole somebody else's (…okay, so Wammy's House Christmases are not entirely exemplary), and there's this four-day stretch of wintry dead zone sprawling snowily between you and New Year's Eve. The department stores don't know whether to keep playing Christmas carols or go back to the elevator music and "light rock"—which is such a bullshit genre that it's almost worse than the nine thousandth rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

(This is a serious accusation. The "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a terrible song, because it makes you think Christmas might be more than just an isolated flicker of brightness on one dark-ass calendar.)

I think they should just move Christmas to December thirtieth and let the party run for forty-eight hours straight, but nobody listens to me. It's that Jesus guy. Jesus should cut us some slack sometimes, that's all I'm saying. Jesus would be totally down with a forty-eight-hour party. This is all starting to sound worryingly familiar.

Mello comes in like a small herd of leather-clad elephants. In related news, I will never get that image out of my head.

"Oh," he says. "You're alive. Congratulations. I'd call the Guinness Book if we weren't trying to stay under the radar. Here."

He's holding out the coffee pot, which is half-full.

Oh, God, I don't have a pessimistic cell in my body. I don't even have a pessimistic mitochondrion. Someone shoot me, please.

"Does it have chocolate syrup in it?" I ask, and talking feels like French-kissing sandpaper, so that's nice.

"My half did," Mello says, and leaves it on the bedside table so that the nightmare elephants can migrate back to the kitchen in peace.

It's hard to like Mello, but it's horrifyingly easy to love him. I think foreground people are like that; Mello's violence is captivating. It's like watching a train wreck in slow-mo. It's like being in a train wreck in slow-mo.

Once I get past the first burnt-bean kick, the coffee isn't half-bad, which marks a two-hundred percent improvement in the brewing department as far as Mello is concerned. His domestic skills are improving by the day, which is kind of charming in a way I'll never explain to him, because I value my life and would like to keep all of my fingernails.

It's even more impressive, though, given that he barely knew what coffee was when I first dragged him here and spread him on the couch and had to chain-smoke seven and three-quarters cigarettes before my hands would stay still. I'm not sure he knew his own name early on—the real one or the alias. By the time he was speaking every now and then (as sparingly as possible, really, because the whole mess of shredded…ness… would start to bleed if he worked his jaw too much), he knew me and chocolate, and I didn't push him any further than that.

Domestic, though? Never his thing anyway, and only worse after he got himself blown sky-high.

After a week and a bit, I came back from a grocery run and found the flat—flat, apartment, whatever—completely silent. I flipped, because he'd just started walking, and when Mello can get a centimeter, he'll drive himself a mile. I figured he'd probably gone after Kira on foot, armed with nothing more than one of the kitchen knives, the Pacific Ocean be damned.

Anyway, I freaked, and I started tearing the place apart looking for a clue towards where he'd gone. Gradually at first, and then all at once, I realized that there wasn't as much to tear apart as there should have been, because two weeks of dirty laundry had vanished from the premises.

So had the laundry detergent.

Didn't take a genius.

So I blasted through the door to the complex's laundry room like a bat into hell—you know, for some variety—to find him standing standing in front of the washing machine, detergent in hand, staring into the drum with his face utterly empty. I'm talking devoid, like him blinking was the cursor flash in a blank document. Now, hang on for the understatement: Mello's not exactly a neutral guy. I'd never seen him like that, with all the emotions and their energies wiped completely clean, and I started to think some scary words—words like post-traumatic and catatonic and their whole breed, the ones that make a gut-wrenching, soul-wrecking tragedy sound like some kind of bacteria you can kill with penicillin and a tetanus shot. I think they make them sound like that so people don't get scared, because when people get scared enough, they do things, and we certainly can't have that.

I guess you're probably wondering a couple things. Like how I have money for a flat-and-whatever; how I have the money to buy enough clothes to blanket its square-footage; how I knew what city to be in when the shit went down and the mushroom cloud went up; and how I nursed a self-destructive psychopath, if not back to health, then at least back to coffee-brewing capacity.

The answer to the first one is that I make websites. And I'm really damn good at it. And when I get bored or tired of it, I go to websites made by people who are less damn good at it, and I set up nifty little phishing scams and get people's bank account passwords, and then I help myself to some of their dispensable income, like skimming foam off the top of a latte.

As far as clothes, see money above.

The answer to the third one is Near. Near has a talent for finding things—things like people's unlisted phone numbers. Things like people themselves. Things like a scent on the wind that tastes like propane and whispers of premonition. Near's spent his whole life dodging trouble, because if trouble tracks him down, he won't stand a chance. I guess he's gotten pretty good at spotting it on the horizon for other people, too.

The answer to the last one is that I'm a fucking badass. Although if you want to get a little more specific, suffice to say that WebMedic is particularly unhelpful when you're hyperventilating, but some of the big med schools have exam review notes online if you know where to look, and if your mind's sharp enough and your need's desperate, sometimes you can learn pretty quick.

Yeah, I should've gone to med school. Doctor Jeevas. Wouldn't that be kickass?

It's weird to think what might've happened if we'd had a shot at normal lives. I mean, you don't really walk out of Wammy's House normal by any stretch of the imagination, but if L had won, and the world had been safe… I have to think about it; nobody else will.

I think Near would've gone L's way in the long run even if he'd had a choice. What else can you do with a brain like that, when the only thing overdeveloped about you is your misanthropy? Not exactly a fuzzy bunny, that Near kid. He's got the talent for disconnecting the heart that won L his fame, and I think he's darker underneath—plastic's a whole lot colder than candy, and Near's insides are like ice. He's merciless. And he's bitter right down in his core, which is even more dangerous. If someone had loved Near—if someone had bundled him up and held him close and melted him—I think he would have turned out beautifully.

Sometimes I think I should have picked Near instead. Sometimes I think Near might have needed me more.

What would Mello have done in an open-ended life? I mean, is there any profession out there that he'd be suited for? All of the world's hierarchies are designed to channel human energies and filter them until they're harmless. Society exists on the basis of obedience and order, and Mello is one big, blond package of revolution. You can't exactly slot that in somewhere and hope for the best.

I like to think he could be a film director, though. And his movies would oscillate between startling violence and unabashed illumination of the human soul, and tons of people would go see them and walk out nauseous and utterly confused.

Anyway… when I'm most of the way through the coffee, I've rejuvenated my capacity for rational thought—or so I think, believing it's rational. I'm telling you, hangovers will flay you alive. Be kind to your liver, kids.

I take the almost-empty coffee pot back to the kitchen, staggering only a little as I walk, recoiling only a little from the light. Neither of those is terribly unusual, hangover or otherwise; I'm basically a vampire who runs errands sometimes.

Mello doesn't look up from the newspaper, but I know he's paying attention, because he's trying not to smirk. Not-smirking has never been a talent of Mello's, however, and he doesn't seem to have developed a knack for it overnight. He also doesn't seem to care.

I drop down into the chair across from him, which happens to be lower to the ground than I remembered and made of harder plastic. Landing heavily on my ass actually kind of reminds me of something.

I grab the edge of Mello's newspaper, flatten it on the table despite how deeply affronted he looks, and stab a finger down on the ad.

"What?" Mello asks, as if he could possibly be illiterate.

"Read, dumbshit," I say—lovingly; and suddenly pitying birds that swallow stones to digest, because it feels like my throat is lined with gravel. "There's an outdoor ice-skating rink downtown, right under the giant Christmas tree by the mall and stuff."

Mello tries to snap the paper back up dismissively, but I leave my hand on it and stare at him expectantly until he meets my eyes.

"What's your point?" he asks, though he's probably deciphering all of my motives as we speak.

I say, "Well, you worked straight through Christmas." I don't say Near probably got an army of new robots, and I drank all your booze.

I say, "And through your birthday." I don't say, When you refused to stop for chocolate cake, I took your temperature after you finally passed out.

I say, "Besides, it's probably the only way to get cold in this stupid city," because I can't say I've seen you sitting by the window, watching the rain try to wash this grimy urban tangle clean, and I know you wish it was snow back home.

I say "It'll only be there through January." I don't say We might not last that long.

He can probably hear me anyway. But it's not voicing it that counts.

He gives me a long look. The stark eye buried in all of the scar tissue always looks tired, and the other one always looks suspicious, but I think I've got him snared.

"You want to go ice-skating," he says, not a question.

I smile slowly. He's mine. "We can get hot chocolate afterward."

Mello pushes his chair back and stands. "In that case, hurry your ass up."

I win.

So I'm pretty sure ice-skating, as a general activity, was developed by incompetent girlfriends who needed an excuse to bundle up cutely and cling to their boyfriend's arms instead of coming up with a real date. I guess that makes me the incompetent girlfriend.

I figure I should probably give a shit. But I don't.

I reach for Mello's arm when we've both strapped on our nasty, hideous rental skates, which took about six times longer for Mello because he pulled the laces all the way out and then rethreaded them to his personal satisfaction. I grab his elbow, because going for his hand would be a little too gay even for us. I mean, Mello's wearing black jeans instead of his favorite leather ho-pants, so we have more of a margin than usual for homosexual activity that can be disguised as friendship, but the last thing I want to do is scare him off on a day like today.

Mello hesitates when we step onto the ice, which is disturbing, because I've seen Mello hesitate about three times in my life, and one of them was when given a choice between two equally excellent chocolate bars.

"No one's going to recognize us," I say casually. A cluster of squealing girls slides past; they're all hanging onto each other and giggling like they'll never break apart, and they'll never grow up. Like the future is a still-frame photograph of now. "You've been watching the news even more closely than I have, and there's nothing about us these days. They don't have any pictures anyway, so unless you're expecting Cleo the Voodoo Psychic to skate by and turn us in—"

"Shut up, Matt," Mello says, but he's grinning, and he grabs my hand and drags me out onto the ice.

The next part's like one of those cheesy dreams you're not sure whether to be embarrassed by or happy about. I'm totally the incompetent girlfriend. Oh, well.

We used to skate on the pond in Winchester all the time, especially on days when it was warm enough that it probably wasn't safe. Mello actually fell in once—Valentine's Day when we were twelve.

Still probably the best Valentine's Day I've ever had.

We'd been skating for a while by the time it happened; it was the middle of the afternoon, which was about as stupid as stupid gets when it comes to thinning ice. I'd just stepped off onto the stomped-down snowbank and started undoing my skates when there was a creak, and then a crack, and then the surface collapsed under Mello's feet like a warp hole, and he plummeted.

This was not the first time Mello had almost given me a heart attack, and even then I doubted that it would be the last.

I didn't jump in after him, because I wasn't dumb, and I didn't panic. I tore my coat off and flopped down on my belly on the snow and tried to pick him out through the churning water and the chunks of ice.

In seconds, he came up gasping, hair plastered to his face, his cheeks hot-pink, and his soaked parka looked like it must've weighed more than he did, but Mello is first and foremost a fighter.

I held my arms out towards him where he was sputtering and treading water and dipping under every time the cold threatened to lock his joints, but he was too far to reach. That was when I started to be terrified, because I could try to swim to him, but he was a better swimmer anyway, and what good was two of us drowning going to do?

I hope you don't know this personally, but when you think the word "drowning" in the context to your best friend in the universe being about to do it, something snaps.

In my case—luckily—something also clicked. I threw Mello my jacket like a tow-rope, and it sunk uselessly the first time, but when I drew it back out and cast again, he caught it. I reeled him in and hauled him out and got his parka off of him, because it would just insulate the cold or something, and then I started dragging him back towards the House without taking off my other skate. High-low-high-low the whole quarter-mile back, skidding on the snow, with my arm around Mello's waist, ice-water leaching into my clothes from the contact, both of us shivering, his breaths coming out in faint little huffs of mist around his teeth chattering.

That was when I started to believe in guardian angels.

Although I decided ours was pretty shitty when it didn't save us from Roger's forty-five-minute lecture, which was just as bad as drowning would've been.

We survived, though, and we put it behind us and basically forgot until winter rolled around again. That next year, in November, the first morning the pond had frozen solid, Roger and Wammy got into one of their huge married-couple fights about whether or not we should be allowed to go out and take our chances on the ice. Mello and I were sitting in the hallway outside Wammy's office with our skates on the floor between us, anticipating the worst, because "irresponsible and endangering" was not only a good argument; it was also true.

But then L emerged from his bedroom at the end of the hall and started slouching past us. Mello perked up immediately. I didn't think listening to L telling stories about busting stupid bad guys was quite as good a winter activity as skating, but it was better than moping around wishing Roger would get Alzheimers and forget to discipline us, so I figured that was okay.

Except L did a very L thing—he paused as he reached the door, curled his hands in his pockets, tilted his head, and listened for a long, long moment or two.

Then he opened the door, stepped inside, closed it, and waited for the bickering to trail off.

"Let them go," he said. "This is how we learn."

I started believing in angels again.

Later—years later, when he was gone, when he'd faded into the night for the last time, and then the night had swallowed him—I turned that over. I still don't know whether he meant we as humanity, or we as people like us—people who are too-smart and reckless.

I guess it doesn't matter much.

Well, the point is, Mello and I are pretty fly at ice-skating, which is good, because we look fantastic, and bad, because people are taking notice of us.

I'm still confident in what I said, and I'll eat my gloves if anybody calls us out and sics the coppers on us, but when you've been living in fear for as long as we have, it's rubbed your nerves raw, and attention makes you antsy. Let's just say it's not the half-artificial cold that makes it feel like spiders are crawling up my spine.

But you know what? Life is unjustly short, even if you're one of those giddy girls in denim miniskirts, not one of the wanted criminals. And you can't beat death, but sometimes you can outrun him for a while.

Unfortunately, he also owns the finish line.

The douchebag.

I seize Mello's arm again and start us off like a shot—like a pair of shots, skate blades slicing, shaved ice spraying, the lame ads on the rink walls blurring into a wash of saturated colors. We fall easily, automatically, into synchronization, moving as two halves, matching step for step and stroke for stroke, whisking past other skaters and ruffling the faux-fur on their jacket hoods. We're flying. We're unstoppable.

Okay, obviously both of those are lies.

After a few insane laps, we slow down, panting too hard to laugh much. We follow the loop again, lazily this time, letting the momentum carry us, and I never want to let go of the stupid, crazy, brilliant bastard cutting off the circulation in my arm.

I guess they haven't been playing Christmas music—despite the trimmed fir that still looms over the rink, looking amazingly fake next to the palm trees and flowerbeds—because while I'm trying not to listen for Mello's heartbeat, as that would be creepy, I detect the dulcet strains of dance-pop.

Entirely seriously, Mello lifts his unoccupied hand and holds it up against the left side of his face, spreading his fingers to peek through them, covering the worst of the scarring.

"Going incognito?" I ask.

"Going GaGa," he says.

I actually snort, which is slightly embarrassing. And then I start thinking about Mello dancing to "Poker Face," which, unsettling correlations to real circumstances aside, I really can't afford to do in a public place.

"The wristbands last all day," I tell him. "Let's go get some caffeine."

"And by that you mean 'Let's go find a café with outdoor seating so I can smoke,'" Mello says.

I can't help grinning. "All work and no controlled substances makes Matt a dull boy."

"I don't think anything makes Matt a dull boy," Mello says airily, and leads us off the ice before I can figure out if he means it or not.

"I want a mocha," Mello says.

Biggest damn shock of my life, right there.

The girl behind the register snaps her gum and attempts to hit a few keys without messing up her neon pink manicure, which clashes impressively with the green apron she has to wear. "What size?"

"Tall," Mello says.

"No," I cut in. "Tall is the smallest one."

He stares at me like I've grown a third ear in the middle of my forehead, then turns that look on the girl with the gum.

"Tall is small," she confirms.

"Grande is the next one," I say, "and venti is the biggest."

I have now acquired a second nose to go with the new ear. Somewhere, Picasso's spirit is extremely pleased. "What in the hell?"

"It's Italian," I explain. "Or something."

"There is nothing Italian about Starbucks," Mello says.

"He wants a venti mocha," I tell the girl hastily.

She tortures the gum some more, and it sounds like a gunshot from this close. "A peppermint one?"

As if Mello could stand to see chocolate adulterated. "Just the regular kind," I say.

She taps a button with her nail, then frowns and taps it again, attempting to make contact with her fingertip this time. "Whipped cream?"

"For Christ's sake, I just want coffee," Mello growls, although to me it sounds resigned. "Is that really so hard for you people to understand?"

The girl looks offended and a little scared. I put a hand on Mello's shoulder and push hard enough to turn him away from the register a bit. "Why don't you go find us a table before the other nicotine addicts take 'em all?"

He gives me a long-suffering look.

"Venti," he says venomously, but he goes.

"Sorry," I say to the girl, digging for my wallet. "I'll have a peppermint one, please. Tall-as-in-small." I smile, but she's not convinced.

Mello has that effect on most people.

"He's a veteran," I say. And he is, in his way, just not in the way the word implies, so it's kind of the truth.

"Oh." Her eyes go wide, and she leaves the gum alone for a full second and a half. "Is that why…?" She gestures to her face. There's a dusting of glitter over the blush on her cheekbone, and she's retained just a little of her summer tan. Her eye-shadow matches her nails, there are clumps in her mascara, and she grew up here—in the City of Angels, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, tuning out the gang violence to listen to Katy Perry sing about her life. It's no wonder she and Mello don't speak the same language; they're not from the same universe.

"Yeah," I say. "That's why."

I pay her in cash, drop my change in the tip jar, and go loiter by the counter until my order's called. Turns out Venti is gigantic, but Mello's going to suck it down so fast it won't have time to burn his throat.

"I don't know why we do it," he says when I sit down and push the tall—yeah, I went there—drink across the table to him.

"Drink coffee until we can't sleep when we want to?" I ask, patting down the pockets of my coat in search of cigarettes.

"Save people," he says, clasping his hands around the cup, "who don't even know what we're saving them from."

I have my right hand in my left breast pocket and my left in the right-side inner lining, so I look like a disoriented octopus, but I stop and look at him. "What else are we going to do?"

He sips at his hard-earned mocha and arches his remaining eyebrow at me. "Is that supposed to be 'No one else will save them whether they deserve it or not,' or 'We'd be bored as fuck without a crisis that'll probably get us killed'?"

I smile at him. He smiles faintly back, and mocha steam rises from the little hole in the lid and curls around his face.

I'm thinking I should've gotten a venti-er drink, because I never want to leave.

When we've run out of coffee and philosophy both, I've only got a little bit of my second cigarette left, so Mello watches passersby, and I finish it in silence. Cigarettes are like matches, and matches are like lives—the ones we go through as pieces of our larger passage on this planet, the ones that are linked together but separate. The stages. You want to hold onto one when you like it, but when it's about to burn your fingertips, you drop it, grind it out beneath your heel, and light another one. It'd be a nearly perfect system if you could buy another box—either when you ran out or when you just got tired of this kind of match.

I toss the butt of the cigarette onto the sidewalk with its predecessor and stamp it out.

"What do you want to do tonight?" I ask.

Mello lifts the hood of his coat and settles it over his hair. The motion looks natural and arbitrary if you don't see the policeman prowling up the street.

"While we're having a holiday," Mello says, "let's buy more booze. Then we can get drunk off our asses and play 'Candy Land.'"

I catch myself just before the words make it past my lips.

"I love the way you think," I say instead.

I hope he understands.

Between his well-made fake ID and his less lovingly-crafted (but even more convincing) physical deformity, Mello has no trouble getting at least a fifth of a liquor store through the line at the supermarket. The weird looks we get, by the angle of them, are because it's the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, not because people suspect us of flouting the insane American age restrictions.

That's the thing, though, with Mello—well, one of the many things, obviously, or I'd have shut up by now. I mean, the scarring was grotesque. It wasn't his fault his face had gotten blasted while still in the gas mask and half-melded to it, so that the plastic melted, and his flesh burned so deep that doctors would have puked, let alone old friends who'd picked their way through the rubble to drag him out. Histrionic as he may be, though, Mello's not the Phantom, and he wears it as another piece of his costuming. I think it impresses people more than any leather jacket ever would—and it represents him better. Mello used to look like some kind of angel child, blond and bright-eyed and delicate, but just beneath that boiled a frantic energy and a panther's grace. He's always been this way—beautiful, and desperate—and now it shows. He doesn't have to compensate with his clothing anymore; he doesn't have to prove it; it's written on his skin for anyone who cares to look.

Believe me—people care.

And… I tell him it's badass, which is true. I tell him it's better than a tattoo, which is debatable; those you design yourself, and you can hide them if you want. I don't tell him about Two-Face, in Batman. I don't tell him about the white knight who wants to play by the rules and sinks into corruption instead, sacrificing his principles, forsaking everything that separates us from them. Mello already knows that you can't beat the bad guys if you play a different game than the one they've picked. There's no need to rub it in. He's got too many wounds to add another if I can ever, ever help it.

I'd like to help it—all of it. I don't know if I do, or if I can.

"Double orange, bitch," Mello says, and then he raises the bottle and takes a long, long swig. He taps his little yellow gingerbread-ish kid on the closest orange square on the path and then sets it down on the next one along. "Your ass is mine."

The terrifying truth of that aside—is any part of me not his?—I lift the top card off of the pile and accept the bottle he holds out. I've had just enough vodka already that I can barely taste the candy cane I completely obliterated five minutes ago after landing on the Mr. Mint square, and I flip the card and tilt the neck of the bottle in preparation.

Then I start laughing.

Mello's good eyebrow flicks up, and then his eyes narrow. "You didn't—"

"Motherfucking Queen Frostine," I confirm, smacking the card down on the carpet in triumph. "Read 'em and weep."

I dance my little red token guy around the wide curves of the pathway, all the way up to the sanctuary of pink bubbles and frothy ice cream where the queen in question resides. She's tantalizingly close to King Kandy's castle (…kastle?) and the end of the game, and she looks like the lovechild of Glinda and the Statue of Liberty. My kind of woman, I gotta say.

"You bastard," Mello says as I snatch up the bowl of ice cream we always put on the floor, positioned just beside her delightful domain for whoever the cards choose to reach it first. "You always get that ho."

"What can I say?" I preen a little before digging into the fudge ripple, though which I then announce, "I'm a chick magnet."

Mello scowls. "You're going to be a butcher knife magnet in a minute if you don't drink so that I can go."

I'm not going to bother defending our agreement that Candy Land is better with real candy rewards and alcohol. I think it's fairly self-explanatory.

I drink so that he can snatch the bottle back and pull a card from the deck. Vodka and chocolate—this must be what being Mello tastes like, and I'm not sure I could handle it all the time. Then again, the burn of the booze and the thick frigidity of the ice cream is a combination of sensations that I'd be willing to try again. Kind of hurts, though. I think I've succeeded in confusing my throat.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Mello says. He turns the card, storm clouds moving in on all of his features and settling to pour.

"Plumpy?" I demand, more of the Candy Land gods than of Mello himself. Putting the earliest destination card in the deck immediately after the last is sadistic even for them. "That's not friggin' fair. Just take another one."

Mello flicks the card aside and knocks back a substantial portion of vodka. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, picks up his yellow plastic avatar, and sets it firmly on the designated square, just one turn's length away from the start. "Whatever," he says. "That's the fucking game."

The dried, chocolate-dipped apricots that await—because prunes would have been gross even chocolate-ified, whether or not the dude is supposed to be a plum tree goblin or something—probably aren't hurting his remarkable equanimity. The only thing Mello is more than he's a sore loser is a stickler for the rules.

Also, I just thought the phrase "remarkable equanimity" while tipsy and gaining. I am awesome. Just gonna say.

Mello makes up some ground when I get stuck in Gloppy's Molasses Swamp (of Doom)—which we have commemorated with a bowl of chocolate pudding that has caramel syrup swirled in—but it's pretty clear how this rousing round of a children's board game is going to end. That's part of why I don't even care that Mello gets distracted in the middle of his next turn.

"You've got…" he says, and gestures to his chin.

"Huh?" I ask—the epitome of eloquence, as usual.

Man, does my vocabulary increase in direct proportion to my blood alcohol content, or what?

Anyway, Mello waves a hand at his face again, and I blink at him like the sad, drunk bastard that I am. Just when I've become vaguely aware of the smear of pudding at the corner of my mouth, Mello leans forward and licks it off.

Oh. Shit. Oh, shit. Shit, oh.

Then he pulls away, sits back, and won't look at me.

When I first got to Wammy's House—bear with me; I swear this ties in—I wanted to be friends with everybody. Now, I'm going to save you a hell of a lot of trouble and let you in on a little secret: you can't. You know why? Because not everybody wants to be friends with you. People are mean for lots of reasons, usually because they're scared or unhappy or insecure, and kids are cruel, because they have no other power in the world.

The first day, when I was still reeling—groggy from the coach ride down from Gloucester; achy from hauling my admittedly few earthly possessions from the last orphanage; wondering what I'd written on that weird aptitude test that had convinced these people to transfer me—Roger took me up to the room I'd be sharing (with only one other kid, holy crap!) and sat me down on my bed.

"Be careful," he said.

I blinked at him.

"Your roommate is a right little terrorist," he elaborated.

I blinked.

"He's one of the cleverest children here," Roger said. "But you're clever, too, so don't let him tell you he's better than you are."

I blinked, which this time meant Everyone's better than I am; I have no parents and no money and hardly any clothes and everyone says so.

"He's just trying to make something of himself," Roger went on, "the only way he knows how. That's what we're all doing, isn't it?"

I blinked a little more. In this case, the translation was Hooray, another psychiatrist. You know I figured you dumbheads out a while ago. I'm hungry.

"Why don't you put your things down," Roger suggested, "and we can get you some lunch?"

Well, that was a start: one problem down, eight million left to go.

I went back up to the room after lunch—which Roger made for me to my nod-and-head-shake specifications, and which no one darted in and tried to take from me. None of the kids running around screaming outside actually took notice of me at all, which made me feel both very small, and very safe. If they didn't care, they wouldn't come after me.

When I reached the room, I sat down on my not-even-creaky bed and got out my battered old Gameboy, which I had fought most of the other kids for and won during a toy drive a few years previously, acquiring two black eyes and a sprained wrist in the process. It was then that I'd discovered that that's what I was—a game boy. It was the one thing that really helped, because I could vanish into any protagonist I wanted, and if I was smart and determined enough, I could beat the game, and nobody could take that little victory away from me.

And then a boy who was prettier by far than any of the girls I'd seen careened into the room, bare feet slapping on the floorboards, trouser legs trailing, eyes wide and chest heaving from the dash up the stairs. He slammed the door and looked at me, and Mario died an unpleasant death as I stared back in undiluted horror.

His gaze flickered over my secondhand jeans and the faded striped shirt that I liked, and then they settled on the goggles that I'd found on the side of the road when I'd been running away from the place in central London. The strap had been broken, but the lenses hadn't had a scratch, so I'd stopped to pick them up and then sat down right there on the curb to start to fix them, which was why they caught me so fast. Especially since I'd sacrificed a good escape attempt for the stupid things, I'd taken to wearing them all the time, and the pretty boy was examining them curiously.

"Those are cool," he said.

I'm pretty sure that was the first time anyone had ever called me that.

Angry voices rose and mingled, not quite drowning out the matching angry feet that were ascending the stairs. The boy's eyes flicked to the window. There was a tree outside, but the only branches within reach were scraggly, and as thin as he was, I didn't fancy his chances with that route.

I lifted up the trailing edge of my duvet. I hadn't had time to put anything under the bed, not that I had anything to put under there anyway. The boy flashed a grin, threw himself underneath, and curled up; I dropped the covers and picked up the game again just as the door opened, and a couple of furious kids stomped in.

"Mello here?" the first one wanted to know.

He was the kind who was tall and big and broke littler children in half and/or gave them black eyes over Gameboys. I did not want to be in his bad books, but the course of my actions had already been set.

I shook my head.

He huffed, glared at me for good measure, and then retreated again, slamming the door shut after himself just to make me jump—which worked.

Mello crawled back out again, stood, and dusted off his hands.

"Thanks," he said.

I spoke the first word in two weeks: "Sure."

And that's the thing—you let Mello give first, because he needs to know he's leading, and then you take that precedent and run like hell.

Mello stares at the carpet, which really isn't interesting to start with, and makes another very indistinct motion with his hand. "You had…" He clears his throat and glances at me, surprised and almost a little confused. "You should draw; you're about to win."

Run like hell.

"I forfeit," I say.

He looks a little more surprised and a little more confused.

Then I dive on him and make up for eight years of trying not to kiss him all the time.

It is tomorrow. My head once again feels like it's about to split like an overripe coconut. I wonder if I'm officially an alcoholic yet or still just really stupid. The coconut analogy hints towards the latter.

Mello slides out of the bed and puts on a pair of my jeans. I want to tell him how hot that is, but stringing sentences together is kind of like herding cats.

Mello finds a shirt, dons it, finds a sweater, dons it, and finds one of his coats with the fur around the hood, which—shockingly—he also dons. Then he turns and smirks at me, presumably because I look about as coherent as I feel.

"I'm going to put Pop Tarts in the oven," he says. "Not the toaster-oven, the oven. We can see what happens."

"I love the way you think," I manage.

He avoids the various drunken-sex detritus scattered all over the floor and returns just long enough to kiss me very wetly.

"I love the way you are," he says.

I guess he understands.

I'd meant to remind him to be sure to take the Pop Tarts out of the foil before putting them in the oven, but apparently he figured that out himself, because I don't hear the fire alarm as the smell of warm chocolate Pop Tarts spreads through the entirety of our humble abode. Then I remember that I disabled and gutted the smoke detector so that I could light cigarettes inside, so it's perfectly possible we're going to die in a cataclysmic Pop Tart fire.

But Mello's clever. So probably not.

I bury my face in the pillow just in case he comes back, so that he won't see me grinning like an idiot. Maybe—just maybe—it'll be a really damn good year.

Hold your heart into this darkness
Will it ever be the light to shine you out?
Or fail and leave you stranded—
I ain't gonna be the one left standin'
You ain't gonna be the one left standin'
We ain't gonna be the ones left standin'

– "Bulletproof Heart" – My Chemical Romance –