"Die, bitch!" Mello howled, pounding at the controller buttons.
"Eat shit," Matt retorted, tapping away much more calmly for a smooth combo.
Near, who had been finishing his two-and-a-half-feet-tall three-dimensional puzzle of the Taj Mahal all night, dozed on the couch, vaguely watching the yellow ninja and the blue one beating at each other, flipping elaborately, and hurling projectiles of poison and ice. Matt was winning by a gradually-increasing margin, and Mello had begun to grit his teeth audibly.
Smiling faintly, eyelids sliding, Near drifted across the diaphanous barrier between fantasy and dreams.
He opened his eyes.
It was very early yet, and the room was still and gracefully shadowed, suspended in the pale delicacy of dawn. The symphony conducted by the frogs that frequented the pond was in full swing, and a soft breeze shuddered through the bamboo, gently rattling a thousand little leaves. Near sat up on his pallet and stretched his bare arms over his head, focusing on feeling the drowsy muscles stir and respond. He drew a centering breath of the crisp morning air, tasting the scents and the moisture, and gathered himself to his feet to dress.
Near was fond of his plain white outfitting; it was close enough not to catch or obstruct his movement, but never so tight as to be restrictive. Prepared now, he left his bedroom, drawing the door gently shut behind him, and padded down the hall to the central room of the compound, where its two most prominent members were already situated. Watari, the owner, sat before the low table, deft fingers manipulating the complex gears of some new project that lay in polished pieces, and L, the reverend primary tutor, was sitting on the floor nearby, his knees against his chest, eating from a bowl of very tiny strawberries.
This was no ordinary ninja training facility.
If there was such a thing.
"Good morning, Near," L bid him. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," Near answered, sitting down close to him. "Thank you."
L passed him a bowl of blueberries, which began cheerfully staining his fingers purple as he selected the first one to eat.
Near was about to inquire after the day's agenda when he heard footsteps in the hall.
Shortly, of course, Mello strode in, a bleary-eyed Matt in tow.
"What are we doing today, L-sensei?" the blond asked immediately.
"The usual," L replied, contented and unperturbed. "Have some breakfast, Mello, Matt. It is the most important meal of the day."
Grudgingly, Mello joined them, black cloth rustling quietly. Near's fellow star student frequently found mealtimes irritating, as he was impatient to move along to the next activity, but food was not negotiable with L.
Matt, who wore red, plopped down next to Mello, as always—the two were virtually inseparable, which was charming when it wasn't slightly frightening.
L handed more fruit to his newly-arrived protégés, who went at it happily enough despite Mello's general anti-breakfast sentiments.
Naturally, Mello wanted to jump, fairly literally, into the middle of things after that, but, as usual, L directed their attention to a quieter activity first.
Mello's killing instincts were nigh-on inimitable, but he was rather too impetuous to play a truly solid game of chess—his defense suffered from his single-minded focus on the attack, and he started, slowly, gradually, and inevitably, to panic when any of Near's various pincer maneuvers began to close about his proverbial throat.
He was, in a word, flawed.
But it was fun to play him anyway, and he fairly often caught Near by surprise and shattered a stratagem to pieces.
…Near wondered if it was normal to make jokes inside one's own head.
Tough crowd today.
Feet swaying absently—for he played his best chess game lying on his stomach on the floor with his knees bent, feet in the air; his logic and cognition tended also to improve drastically after he'd taken the first of Mello's pieces and begun to fiddle with it—he eyed Mello interestedly, calculating and superimposing imaginary move-lines on the squares of the board.
He fingered Mello's captured pawn, and the other boy gnawed at his lip.
Before Near could zero in on his next victim, however, the big gong sounded, and the very air hummed with the reverberations of the shuddering bronze.
Matt, who had been lounging off to the side toying with the last of his breakfast, looked up, and the three of them partook in a triangular exchange of startled glances. Then, of course, in perfect synchronism, they turned to L.
L was already on his feet, accepting the shining black sheath of his katana from Watari, one white thumb darting over tendrils of ivory adornment, and slinging the strap across his chest.
Linda scampered in, dark eyes wide, pigtails askew, still tugging her lavender outfit properly into place.
"It's them!" she announced unnecessarily, wringing her hands.
L nodded to the tensed trio by the chess set, who leapt up and bounded over to Watari. Matt thanked Watari for the twin eskrima he favored, and Mello received his pair of shining sai. Near, for his part, took his tall staff in both hands and twirled it once, reveling in its familiar balance in his grip.
L was standing by the window, looking out where the wind traced a clattering path through the bamboo, the reeds that fringed the pond rustling with a quiet urgency.
"I suppose this was inevitable," he mused. "Our methods are different; they're more likely to clash than they are to coexist."
Mello tied his face mask behind his head and gave the sai an ostentatious spin, eyes narrowed above the strip of black cloth.
"A clash is what he's going to get," he declared.
Watari shouldered his crossbow, drawing the silver-blue cloth of his own mask over his nose. "Shall we go?"
As they headed resolutely out of the compound, the hairs on the back of Near's neck prickled, his fingers tightening on the smooth wood beneath them. Much as he trusted L with his life, much as he trusted Mello to be conveniently bloodthirsty, much as he trusted Watari's accuracy, much as he trusted his own skill and practice—admittedly, those not so much—it was difficult to say what might happen in the cool open air of morning.
He set his shoulders and his jaw. Whatever happened, he wasn't going to take it sitting down.
Assembled on the lawn just past the trailing footpath to the pond they found a group of men dressed as they were—but all in gray.
There was a very tall man with broad shoulders, one with sharp eyes and a scowl, another who looked unsettled but resolved, and a younger one with a haphazard stance, as if he didn't quite know what was going on. Their answer to Watari was an older man at the back of their ranks, and their answer to L was the young man in front, whose eyes were an exquisite shade of honeyed brown, and whose drawn sword was exquisitely sharp.
"L," he said, voice smooth and unhurried.
"Raito," L returned, posture improving dramatically as he rose to the challenge physically as well.
"Children?" Raito prompted, smirking at Matt, Mello, and Near in particular.
"Not much younger than you," L countered quietly.
Raito's eyes smiled coldly, but his fingers clenched around his sword hilt. "I hope you've trained them," he noted.
L smiled back, genuinely.
"You'll see," he responded, "won't you?"
He slid the katana free, and sunlight licked a wicked gleam along the length of the blade.
Raito raised his sword, but L moved first, and they smashed together, steel ringing, colors flashing, tree-filtered sunbeams blinding where they met the striking silver blades.
And so it began.
Near parried a strike from the young-looking one, who had advanced on him almost halfheartedly, swinging a sword that was rather more committed to this whole killing business than its wielder appeared to be.
He looked like a nice human being, Near noticed as the weapon slammed into his. He kind of didn't want to smash the guy's kneecaps.
But he didn't want to get decapitated, either, which was a significantly higher priority.
His opponent's sword nicked his staff, then, and Near detected an unusual anger stirring in his stomach. Who was this idiot? More importantly, who did he think he was, taking that kind of destructive liberty with one of Near's few possessions?
His hesitant adversary looked surprised and then concerned as Near started pushing him back, guiding their pas de deux towards the pond, the rattling reeds egging him ardently on.
The novelty of Near's sudden intensity seemed to be wearing off, as his opponent began better mustering the force and courage to retaliate. Again the power balance shifted, and Near was hard-pressed to fend the man off, to push him back—two more steps—one—
His victim stumbled in the stone-spotted mud and fell, arms flailing, into the pond with a tremendous splash, sword tumbling unceremoniously beside him.
Sputtering and sitting up, mask sagging to reveal a face accustomed to bewilderment, he blinked up at Near—who set the end of his staff to the wet fabric in the center of the man's chest.
"Concede," he commanded.
"You cheated!" was the protest.
"No," Near corrected equably; "I utilized my environment. Please concede."
"You're a cheater!" the man insisted, scrubbing a wet sleeve across his wet face, the better to stare incredulously up at Near.
Near took one hand off of the staff to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Concede," he offered, "or I will knock you unconscious and leave you to drown in the pond."
A frog hopped into the man's lap, and he took to staring at it instead.
"No wonder Raito hates you guys," he muttered.
The frog had no suggestions.
Near shifted his weight and glanced pointedly over his shoulder at the continuing battle.
The man folded his arms across his chest and pouted.
"Fine," he muttered. "I concede."
Near lowered his staff to beckon, and the man grudgingly—but obediently—took to his feet, found his sword, handed it over, and set the sociable frog down on an available rock.
Grip tightening on his staff again, Near led the way back towards the fray, searching for Matt and Mello—the former visible darting about the edges of the chaos, lashing out with both shining eskrima; the latter a pitch-dark phantom among the gray, bright eyes blazing, sai gleaming coldly as he stabbed, twirled, and then gripped their hilts to lay out blows bolstered by the steel within the curve of his knuckles.
Hastening now, Near let his victim follow him back, as something in the man's dark eyes made him trust that there would be no violation of the sanctity of concession.
Coming closer, Near saw that, as he had instinctively predicted, L and Raito were engaged in what looked like the grudge match of all grudge matches—more than just a fight, more than just a contest; vicious, violent, and venomous; brown eyes smoldering, gray eyes flashing, sword blades sparking in the sun like things alive.
L's face was shadowed not just by the trees. "You have no cause to come here."
Raito slashed, and L parried, and Raito slashed again, sweat shining on his forehead.
"You're cause enough," he retorted.
"If I didn't know better—" Blades clashed, steel rang, Mello darted in the background, sai glinting coldly as he fended off one of the enemies in gray. "—I might think that was a compliment, Raito-kun."
Raito ducked a blow, but narrowly, and the abruptness of the motion sent his mask sliding, slipping to hang about his neck, revealing disheveled cinnamon hair and a striking face younger even than Near had expected from seeing just its owner's eyes. The face in question was purely, plainly stunned, almost excited, for an aching moment before it crumpled into anger.
"Don't call me that," he hissed.
L brought his katana down with all the force he could muster, the muscles in his back twisting, shifting, surging, and as Raito pushed his sword against it to block the strike, his knees quavered and gave.
"It's your name," L countered.
The fiercest part of the storm shuddered to an awkward, uncertain halt as Raito dropped his weapon to catch himself with both hands, panting, and stared up at L, who stepped forward, pushed the fabric of the fallen mask down with the tip of his blade, and touched the point to Raito's white throat.
"Concede," he ordered.
Eyeteeth gleamed in the boy's grimace. "You've hardly earned my submission," he muttered.
L smiled thinly, tossing his head to throw his wild hair out of his face.
"You're hardly in a position to argue," he responded.
Raito gritted his teeth but said nothing.
L glanced around, waiting for the larger battle to stagger to a bewildered halt as Raito's associates noticed their leader's defeat. Matt, Mello, Linda, and the other scattered children also stopped to look for guidance, tentatively lowering their weapons as L nodded to them in turn.
Raito frowned uncertainly, looking as though he was struggling not to ask the obvious question.
Smiling indulgently, L answered it anyway.
"Would you like to come in for tea?" he inquired.
Raito made an unflattering sulking face. "I'm not going to date you again," he warned.
L merely smiled some more. "Inviting you and your fellows to tea does not constitute a date," he replied.
Near's sullen victim, who had sidled up beside him, perked up suddenly.
"Tea for us, too?" he prompted.
L turned to him, still smiling. "Tea solves everything," he remarked.
A few spare minutes saw all the swords put away in favor of saucers and teacups.
Near couldn't believe this.
Actually, given L, he could, and frighteningly easily at that.
Speaking of L, the man's tea had characteristically disappeared under a mountain of sugar cubes, and an odd, faint, amused smile frequented his expression as he sat with his knees up and conversed idly with a cross-legged Raito.
Matsuda, as Near's new friend was called, was draining teacups as if he'd traveled through a desert, and the others were admiring Linda's latest sketches—and surreptitiously laughing, supporting Near's hypothesis that she was drawing caricatures of Raito and L.
Mello flopped down next to him, and sloshing tea came within a centimeter of escaping the rim of his cup.
"This is weird as hell," was his verdict.
Matt sat down on Near's other side, cradling his cup much more carefully, unsurprising given how many he'd accidentally broken over the years.
"Kind of nice, though," he decided. "And it's good tea."
Near stacked his sugar-cube tower a little higher. "The tea is always good," he agreed. "I am intrigued by the company."
Mello eyed Aizawa. "I tried to put a sai through that guy's kidney," he noted, "and now he's here for tea. Weird as hell."
And woke up as his actual shoulders, back on the playroom couch, jerked accordingly.
Matt and Mello were still battering away at their controllers, and a vast variety of slightly tinny sword-clashing noises emanated from the television speakers as their characters battered away at one another.
Blearily Near raised his head just in time to see Matt whittle down the last bit of salubrious greenness in Mello's health bar.
"Damn you!" Mello howled, dropping his controller to the carpet to clench both hands in his hair.
"All's fair in love, war, and Mortal Kombat," Matt assured him, patting his arm.
Glaring at him, Mello caught sight of Near—and elected to fluff his hair instead of pouting some more.
"You were kicking a lot," Mello informed him. "Weird dream?"
Near blinked at him.
"You have no idea," he said.