Title: Coward

Author: Miru

Rating: T for some language, mentions of violence

Warning: Spoilers for chapter 99, and if you don't know who Matt is

Notes: Written after episode 35 aired.

-----

"You listening to what I say, carrot-top?"

The sound of an adolescent voice - unstable and growling high, then low, and back again, a slave of the monster called 'puberty' - shouting in arrogant rage. And then the sound of a fist impacting - a dull thwock, like a stick heating a slab of meat. No resistance.

Matt staggered back, shaking his head, wincing as he did so - he could taste blood in his mouth, from where his teeth had cut into the inside of his mouth. That one would be leaving a pretty bruise the next day. It wasn't unbearable, but he didn't straighten up, merely fell back to lean against the brick wall enclosure of Wammy's House, looking up at the taller boy. His eyes were narrowed behind his goggles, but his voice he kept flat, almost blank, almost uncaring.

"That one hurt, Salem"

"It was meant to."

Salem was a good few inches taller than Matt, easily towered over the other boy, and grabbed him by the neck of his shirt, fisting the material in both hands and pulling forward. Matt found himself peeled off the wall and drawn closer to the other than he would have liked. Salem smelled like sweat, a fact that he didn't hesitate to point out, and got a good hard shake for.

"Listen."

"I'm listening."

"No, shut up, and listen well." Salem leaned in even closer, and Matt wrinkled his nose but refrained from saying anything, if only to spare himself from the headache of being shaken again.

"You're going to stop fucking around with me."

"I don't know what you're talking about." The words were spoken mildly, but there were the slightest hints of a smug smile on Matt's face, a fact that Salem didn't miss.

"You know what I'm talking about!" Matt's headache escalated to magnificent proportions when Salem shook him, snarling loudly. "You're going to stop messing around with the House rankings, you got that?"

Oh, that. This can of worms again? Matt snorted. "What you mean is, you want me to score less so you can take third place."

The last word of that sentence came out mangled, because Salem had given him a hearty open-handed whack across the face, sending him reeling back. Before he could fall over, his head spinning, Salem grabbed him again and pulled him up close, leering into his face, shark like, for all it was worth. "You better start listening, or I'll make sure you have to." The growl was accompanied by a shove, pushing Matt back against the wall.

Then Salem stomped off, his footsteps still loud despite the muffling effect of the grass underfoot.

Once he was sure that the other wouldn't be stomping back for another round, Matt picked himself up off the grass, flattening out the front of his shirt (which was stretched, goddammit, another shirt ruined, and he liked this one, too) and dusted himself off, rubbing his cheeks. The coppery taste had faded, but it still stung. Better visit the infirmary.

"What the hell happened to you?"

A familiar voice, accompanied by the faint snapping sound of chocolate. Matt looked up to find Mello rounding the corner of the building and strolling into sight, a half-eaten bar of chocolate in hand, and an eyebrow raised in observant skepticism.

"Salem."

"Again?"

"Uhuh."

It had become a semi-regular occurrence since sometime around a few months ago. Not any of the other boys, just Salem, number four at the House, and one of the older, bigger, more aggressive kids. Roughly once a week or so (sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many tests and assessments they'd been given recently), Matt found himself being harassed by the older boy in various little ways: glares, smug, sarcastic comments, little pranks. Only recently had the aggression escalated into something more physical. Most likely because the gap between third and fourth place had become more noticeable. Especially to people like Roger, and Watari, and L.

The fact that he'd be able to continue splurging his allowance on video games and hanging out with Mello if he maintained his high ranking meant Matt worked to keep his place up at the brink of third place, and Salem continued to beat down on him. Not exactly the most pleasant arrangement, but what the hell, Matt had already learned to live with it.

And as for why Salem picked on him in particular? Matt figured it had something to do with him always sleeping in class and playing video games, yet still maintaining the spot. Also probably with how Salem's grades were close to third, but a long shot from second.

The snapping noise of chocolate breaking, as well as the soft rustling of grass underfoot as Mello approached, looking Matt up and down with a scrutiny rarely found in kids their age.

"What this time?"

"Probably the latest math test. I did pretty good on that one."

Turning his back to the sun and leaning into the shade of the wall, Matt slipped off his goggles and wiped them on a clean bit of his shirt, squinting at Mello as he did so. The blond was looking at him critically, chewing on the end of his chocolate, and the look made Matt uneasy. Probably because it usually meant the blond was irritated. Either that, or hungry for chocolate, and, seeing how he was gnawing furiously at the bar in his hand, the latter seemed an unlikely option.

"Why don't you fight back?"

"Huh?"

"I said, why don't you fight back?"

Straightening his goggles on his nose, Matt shrugged.

It was only when Mello began glaring daggers at him that he answered, scratching his head.

"If I fight back, he'll hit harder. He's half a foot taller than me, too. I figure it's best to let him do his thing."

"He's beating you up, for chrissake."

"Not like it's going to kill me."

"Bullshit."

An atrocious vocabulary for any child, but neither Mello nor Matt had ever cared. Matt merely shrugged again, and rubbed at his cheek. "He'll get tired of it soon."

"Yeah, while you get beat up more?"

"Look, it's no big deal, okay?" A slight hint of irritation. "Besides, he'll probably get yelled at by Roger for it anyway. No need for me to do anything about it, and I'd only get my ass pummeled anyway."

"You're a coward."

The words were spat out with a vengeance, and Matt looked up to find Mello glaring at him.

"What--"

"You're scared, aren't you? Of getting beaten up more. So you be quiet and hope that he'll lay off."

Matt wasn't the type to take offense at anything easily (he was too apathetic to be offended; insults and taunts rolled off his back like nothing), and Mello was no exception. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he shrugged, eager to get back to his room and play games. This entire conversation wasn't very productive, in his opinion.

Well, it wasn't. At least until Mello whocked him a good one straight in the nose.

This one was entirely unexpected, and Matt fell to the ground with a grunt, snorting blood. In the short moment where he shook his head, trying to make some sense of just what had happened, Mello was down on him, straddling him, grabbing the front of his shirt with both hands.

"Fight back, you idiot!"

Wiping a trickle of blood away from his upper lip, Matt glared at the blond, answering the furious demand with apathy.

"I'm not going to fight if it's only going to get him more riled up."

"Pfff." The furious little fists unclenched, and Mello stood up, looking irritated. "See, you're a coward." Mello crossed his arms and made a childish 'hmph' noise as Matt got up once more, rubbing his noise. Some sight he'd be the next morning. Best stay in bed all day. "I don't get it. If someone tried doing that to me, I'd beat them up hard."

Matt have a dry smile - one much more mature and cynical than it should have been at his age. "Yeah, see, maybe that's why you're number two, and I'm happy with being number three."

There was a slight pause as Mello hesitated - a rare occurrence when it came to anything involving Mello - then spoke, a slight scowl on his face now, to match Matt's wan smile. "Roger once said that you might even be able to come close to me if you just tried harder." The words had a slight edge, now, like a cat bristling in an alley. "Why don't you?"

Wiping off the last traces of blood, Matt only shrugged. "If I did, I have no doubt that you'd be furious at me. Besides, I don't care about the rankings. You know that."

"So, what, you're staying as far away from second place as you can 'cause you're afraid of me?"

"If you want to put it that way, sure. I kind of like having you as a friend."

Mello stared at him for a long moment before taking a bite out of his chocolate bar, the brittle candy snapping and littering the ground with tiny bits. "I once read in a book that you can't gain anything without fighting for what you believe in." A pause as he chewed, and Matt waited for the final verdict.

His eyes never leaving Matt, Mello swallowed before speaking, his brow furrowed into a frown.

"I kinda wish you'd stand up for yourself for once."

"But I don't have anything to believe in."

"Bullshit." The word lingered in the air, bitter and distasteful, as Mello went off, leaving Matt alone with his accusations.

-----

Matt never got the chance to prove himself, because Mello disappeared the next day. The day that they heard the announcement, that L, their hero, their idol, the one person they'd all been trying to be, was dead. Dead as the proverbial doornail, slammed down by Kira. Near was to take his place and start working on the Kira case. And Mello spent exactly twelve hours in his room, speaking to no one, letting in no one, before vanishing the next day.

Matt was the first person to know he'd left, because he'd come to Mello's room early in the morning the day after their little talk, determined to tell him that, maybe, there was something he'd stand up for. After all, Mello had never been that honest to him before, and he'd felt the need to repay that favor. Offer to help him fight Kira, since it was obvious that that was what Mello was going to do. Go after the bastard that had killed their mentor.

Only, Matt knocked on the door, and got absolutely no response.

The door creaked open when he gave it a hesitant push, the sound effect exactly like that of a horror movie, and gave him a clear view of the empty room, neat and blank. Mello had never been all that messy, but the room was freakishly clean, as if no one had ever lived there in the first place.

As Matt stood at the doorway to this room that a ghost had lived in, he glanced out the window.

The sky was blank, not a cloud in sight, and he turned away from the room.

-----

Salem didn't harass him again. There was no reason to, after all. For one thing, L was dead, and Near was the next L, meaning that their generation had no more reason to compete. For another, he was now number one, since Near and Mello had both left. And, probably, most importantly, he left the orphanage soon after anyway. Packed up his things in a backpack and walked out one night, never came back, never looked back, only walked forward.

And buried himself in anonymity.

Mello's accusation of cowardice never quite left his mind - a rare thing, since he usually forgot such remarks the moment they were done being said - so he pushed it to the back of his conscious, and lived the very life that he'd been living so far, regardless of what Mello had said so many months ago.

Hacked into other people's bank accounts and drained them for a living, occasionally worked with a few other hackers for greater profit, then dropped everything (including whatever alias and fake identity he'd been using) and retreated the moment things began looking dangerous. Toyed with a few illegal activities - cracking the police network, helping out local gangs, fucking around with the city network - but quit it the moment investigators began sniffing up on him, and pretended to just be another guy, a programmer who lived in the shady part of the city and was a little antisocial, but otherwise okay.

He made a hobby of hijacking other people's cars - his own car wasn't half bad, modified to hell and back, but with a nice pick-up - and driving them several miles down highways, then abandoning them by the side of the road. It didn't matter if he left behind any fingerprints or hair or anything; there were no records on him anywhere, which was convenient. Whatever he did, he could easily run away from it the moment he lost his fancy for it. Here one moment, gone the next, flitting from place to place all under the shield of anonymity, the question mark, and FILE NOT FOUND warning popping up in the police network, the big blank space that was everywhere.

He was a ghost.

One night he jacked a red BMW and went racing with it down the nearest highway, entered a nearby little shanty town, parked it by the side of a pub, then left it there, the keys locked right in there. With any luck, the original owner would find it. Eventually. With a full tank, too. How kind of him.

Turning into an alley, he lit up a cigarette, took a long drag and let the nicotine calm his blood. Life was getting rapidly boring. He was passing by one of those street vendors - this one a pretty-ish young woman doing Tarot readings and other voodoo mumbo-jumbo - when the voice called him, seductive and snake-like.

"Hey, you there."

"Hn?" Lit cigarette in his lips, he looked over, hands jammed in his pockets.

"Yes, you." The woman smiled - it was really creepy, no that he looked carefully - and leaned over her little table, beads and bracelets jangling wildly. "You are running from something, aren't you?" Matt didn't answer, just gave his cigarette a long drag and looked at her blankly from behind his goggles as she continued. "I can tell, you know. You might not believe me, but it's true. You are afraid of fighting, so you are always running. That I can tell even without my cards. You are scared of something, aren't you?"

Giving a low laugh, Matt tossed a five-dollar bill on her table and walked off, waving at her over his shoulder. "Maybe, lady."

That was two accusations now, and they stuck in his mind like unwanted leeches, hard to tear off, especially when three weeks later he was making his way back home from a nearby LAN party (something he'd indulged in for the hell of it, something on a whim) via one of those narrow back alleys and felt a gun barrel shoved against the small of his back, a low voice growling behind him.

"Don't move."

Raising his hands in the classic 'I don't have a weapon' pose, he sighed. "What do you want." A statement more than a question, preparing for the inevitable.

"Everything you have."

"Wallet's in my back pocket, cellphone's in the inside of my vest, and I have a PSP in my right pocket. Nothing else of worth unless you want my clothes, too."

A pause, and sound of rustling as the guy reached into his pockets to filch the items. Matt's cheek was itching, but he stayed still. No big deal. He'd be able to recover anything with a few nights of hacking, anyway. No big deal.

"Why aren't you doing anything?"

"You have a gun. I don't. Simple."

"Most people don't think like that."

"Good for me, then."

In the end, he lost a few hundred dollars worth of stuff, but he was unharmed.

"See, Mello?" He wasn't even aware of the fact that he was talking to a man he hadn't seen in four years until the name left his lips, turning to so much white mist in the cold winter air as he dug through a hidden pocket sewn into the hem of his vest for the keys to his flat. "Being a coward pays off."

"Does it now?"

The voice startled the living shit out of him, and he nearly dropped his keys as he whirled to face the figure to his right. Peeling out of the shadows like something from a horror flick, Mello came into view, bandages looped crazily about his head and one visible eye aglow with a mad light to match the cracked smile on his face.

"Long time no see."

The cigarette slipped from his lips as Matt nodded, managing a wan smile himself.

"Nice. You been stalking me?"

-----

"So, what's the plan?" Matt sipped at his coffee, frowned, and added a spoonful of sugar before downing half of it in one gulp. "I'm guessing you've got something ready, judging by all those papers you got there."

"Yeah." Mello's response was tense, short, to the point. Too to the point, actually.

When no elaboration came, Matt finished off his coffee and perched himself on the arm of Mello's chair, lighting up a cigarette. "And--?"

"We're kidnapping Takada."

"Alright."

Mello looked up at him, something in between a frown and a smile on his face. "No complaints?"

Matt only shrugged, picking up the picture of Halle and scrutinizing it closely. "Not really." Waved the photo in Mello's direction. "She's pretty hot."

"You're avoiding the point again."

"Habit. You should know that by now."

A pause. "Why aren't you looking for an alternate method?"

"Psh, Mello, you're smarter than me. Whatever plan you have's gotta be better than what I can think of." He let go of the photo, let it flutter back atop the pile of other papers strewn about the laptop sitting there. "'Sides, you're a mafia-man. You must be good at this shit."

Mello laughed, dry and cynical, but still a laugh, and it was enough to make Matt smile as well.

"You're still a coward."

"Why, thank you."

"Don't run away this time."

The words were thrown out casually, but they made Matt pause, and he blinked, turned away from Mello and took a long drag at his cigarette. Watched the smoke spiral into the air and dissipate. 'You can't gain anything without fighting for what you believe in,' was it? "But I don't have anything to believe in," he'd answered back then. He didn't care for much, after all. Everything went by, and as soon as it was over, it wasn't worth fighting for. Who cared, anyway?

The keys to their car - his modified-ass red clunker, a beauty once you got used to the odd gear-shifts and the altered steering wheel - clinked loudly as he tossed them up and down in his hands, smiling at the way they glittered in the dim light of their room.

"I won't."

-----

His cigarette glowed brightly - too brightly, almost - as he pressed his foot down on the accelerator, maneuvering the car (it purred softly under his touch, sweet and easy, thanks to a few more modifications he'd done, changing things here and there; pity this would probably be the last time he'd ever---)

"Takada-sama!"

The sound of loud cheering snapped him out of his thoughts, and he immediately tense, came this close to pulling the trigger of the smoke gun. Dammit. Taking a deep drag on his cigarette - let the nicotine calm his nerves - he peered out his window. The great Takada-sama (ha!) was getting off her car, surrounded by throngs of loving fans. And bodyguards. With guns.

His eyes narrowed, Matt let out a long breath. What he wouldn't give to be able to vanish, to just run away, disappear like he always did, just take another name and then live on until no one cared about his any more. That had been his life, his belief - if there's a problem too big, just go the other way. No use in straining oneself. No use in working too hard. No use in trying the inevitable, right?

His foot paused on the accelerator of his car, his finger on the trigger, and he closed his eyes.

"No."

(Not this time.)

He pulled the trigger, then slammed down the accelerator, giving a harsh laugh. The car squealed, the tired screeching loudly on the asphalt, and the car shot forward like a stung beast, roaring down the road. The bodyguards weren't far behind him, but he didn't care, he was pumped too high on adrenaline. He'd never had a thrill like this in years. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that this would be the end to his free days - no doubt they'd drag him off to prison, stick him there for a few dozen years, then march him off to the electric chair - but he didn't give a damn any more.

(Hey, Mello.)

And even as he got off the car, hands raised high to show them that he didn't have any weapons, open to the words, there was a smile on his face. No regrets. None at all. You hear that, fortuneteller bitch? You were wrong. I'm not running. I'm right here. Right—

(Look.)

The first bullet hit him in the shoulder, and the second one must have pierced a lung, because he immediately gasped for air - or, tried to, all that came up was blood, thick and heavy. Couldn't even taste his cigarette any more. A few more bullets hit him, but he was already probably too far gone, he couldn't even feel them, was only vaguely aware of the sticky feeling as blood began trickling down the side of his face. The barrage had forced him back a few steps, and he stood there, head raised to the skies; the Tokyo city lights were too strong, they drowned out the night sky and filled his vision with a neon glow.

Not a bad way to go.

'See, Mello, I told you.' He tried to laugh, choked on blood. 'I didn't run.'

(Looks like I had something after all.)

He was dead before he hit the ground.