Uh… hai, thar. The short story is that Koneko Zero got Eltea back into animanga with style, and now that Eltea and I are officially housemates… Well, inevitably, there's this. And one more piece that I'm still editing. I'm not going to make any promises beyond that, because my life is still a total disaster (in a different country now!), and I'm afraid I über-suck at answering reviews these days, but I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you very sincerely for the support I've gotten on this site over the years. (…oh, sweet Jesus, it is "years.") Y'all are kickass.


Mello had never told anyone.

There had been questions once—they'd had a calculus test, and he'd been up all night studying, and his eyes were gritty and still burning with the round imprint of the sun that had risen into his window as he traced numbers and letters and integral signs. But he was powering through, because he was Mello—he was Mello now—and nothing that couldn't stop a bulldozer dead would stand in his way.

Then he'd hit a question towards the end (mercifully, he would realize when he could once again conceptualize mercy) that he had no idea how in God's name to approach. The thing was a fortified city of mathematical complexity, walls rising a hundred feet into the air, fringed with spikes of iron. He was weaponless and powerless and going entirely numb.

His heart was fluttering, and then it was pounding, and he turned his pencil over and over and over in his unsteady fingers, but he couldn't make it stop. His eyes locked on the stark black of the print type—doesn't make sense don't know how never learned it they never taught it fuck shit that's not fair not right someone should complain but I should know how to do it I should know how to figure it out I can't I don't I'm trapped I'm scared I'm worthless.

I'll never win.

If this was all it was—if this was all there was—if life found the one thing, the many things, anything you couldn't do and buried you in it and slammed the sarcophagus shut so that only gleaming granite remained—if this was it

That strange sound was his own gasping, and every eye in the classroom was on him—a dozen, a hundred, a thousand pairs of shotgun barrels, empty, cold, trained on his face as the heat rushed and then the blood drained and still his breath came in strangled hiccups that didn't seem to carry any air.

He shoved his chair back, the metal feet banshee-screeching on the linoleum, and ran.

There was a talk with the nurse later, after he'd come back from the woods having combed all of the pine needles out of his hair. But he didn't tell her a damned thing, because she didn't care, not really, and she had no right to know. He played every card she wanted—overtired, overextended, overwhelmed; coping, adjusting, ordinary stress—and sent her toddling off again. He'd sussed out how to deal with doctors about as soon as he'd learned to talk. Talking was all they wanted, anyway; they hated doing things; give them something nice to write down, and they'd leave. Sorted. Simple. Done.

He felt it twice during the stint in L.A.—felt the room shrinking and the light dwindling and the world caving; felt the hot sourness squeezing up his throat. The first time, he'd presented the plan for his preliminary counter-Kira offensive, and the guys received it pretty well, but the more he talked, the more the whole thing shredded into miserable failures before his eyes. The second time, he was just sitting on one of the terrible couches, and without any warning things collapsed. One moment you'd think they could bribe at least one interior decorator in the greater Los Angeles area with coke—and then what am I doing what in the fuck was I thinking I could die I could die here someone could knife me between the fucking ribs because he didn't like the look of me and who would like me they never did and Jesus fucking Christ I can't lose not now it can't end here I can't be L if I'm dead.

But there were advantages in that place. Rod's sleek housecat could come and go as he pleased, and that included booking his shit out of the room in favor of a supply closet where he could hide for hours, clutching a chocolate bar to his chest like a child's teddy bear.

He could go for some chocolate now. His hands are empty. But… wait.

His fingers are bleeding where he's chewed and torn at his cuticles; red halos well around the chipped black lacquer on his nails. Except there's something wrong with that—something missing. He doesn't feel anything.

The rawest strip of the scar is stinging, though. That hurts like a bitch. He wants to touch it carefully, prod it with gentle fingertips to figure out why, and then he realizes that there are tears on the good side of his face. His gloves are on the nightstand, and his cell phone's lying on the bed next to him, and then it doesn't take long to remember that he never wants to touch that fucking thing again, because it—because it's all—

Matt comes in, and the panic doubles, trebles, skyrockets exponentially in ways that Mello knows how to calculate and could and will, because shame he's still got, somehow, in ways he knows are twisted—

Matt sits down next to him, takes Mello's hand, and puts a glass of chocolate milk into it, curling Mello's bleeding fingers around it when he just stares. Just staring confirms the distantly-perceived suspicion that it's made with Hershey's syrup, because Nesquik is the Devil.

"There's another one in the fridge with brandy in it," Matt says, "but it probably tastes like shit." He shoulders Mello over a little ways, lies down on the creaking mattress, and wraps both arms around Mello's waist. The cool curved edge of the goggles digs into Mello's hip a little, but he doesn't mind as much as he expected.

Mello forces down the thorns and steel wool clogging up his throat. "Don't fucking—"

"Tell anyone?" Matt says. "Like who?" He nestles in a little closer. A droplet of condensation from the glass trails down Mello's palm. "So you've got an anxiety disorder. I've got ADHD. Near's pretty much the poster boy for agoraphobia—and probably Asperger's. He and L can divvy those up."

There are little ripples in the surface, and a few little bubbles. "I knew that if anyone figured me out, it'd be over."

"I figured you out a long time ago," Matt says, "and now it is over. And I'm glad."

The glass is cold. The distant ache in Mello's fingertips starts to differentiate itself into a throbbing. "The fact is that I was faking from the beginning. I knew that. I was never good enough."

"You were better," Matt says. "You always have been. You still are."

Mello takes a sip. Nesquik is the Devil, but the Devil's a ways off yet.

"You should have gone into the milk flavoring industry," he says.

Matt winks. The goggles make it hard to see things like that, but Mello can always tell. "Nah," he says. "I'm exactly where I should be."