Author's Note: Spoilers for Volume Nine again. Beta work by the inimitable Eltea again. Hope you enjoy again. ;)


CZECH MATE

Mello has been staring at the cracked silver mirror for three and a half hours almost exactly. No, not at the mirror—at the scar. He is sitting silently, his hair encroaching blithely into his face, his elbows on his knees, his hands folded between them, and he is staring at the scar.

It started in the hospital. Matt had known he couldn't fix this, had known he shouldn't even touch it, and had known, with a gut-deep, whole-hearted, incontrovertible surety, that someone had to do something.

But that someone wasn't him.

He'd considered the risks of toting a semi-conscious teenaged mafia boss—dressed in leather, a sooty crucifix still looped resolutely around his neck, a breathtakingly harsh burn carving an unapologetic track down his face and neck like the rash from Hell—into a community hospital. And then he'd weighed those risks against the possibility of Mello dying under his incomplete, amateurish care, of infection or worse.

The world might not have been ready for the former, but his heart couldn't have taken the latter. And that pretty much decided things.

Thus it was that Matt spent three days among scrubs and surgical masks, watching nurses cringe and tallying the wrinkles multiplying on doctors' foreheads, seeing gauze go on white and come off a tainted, copper-streaked beige. They let him sleep on the hideous elephant-gray window seat in Mello's room, an adequate space, as far as hospital rooms went, that they shared with a hollow-eyed girl whose legs were riddled with third-degrees.

When they had first arrived, Matt had immediately invented an elaborate story that painted Mello as his goggle-clad companion's half-brother: they were Czech immigrants alone in the States, with no health insurance to speak of—but enough vaguely-questionable cash to assuage any monetary concerns. It was Czech, given myriad options, because Matt knew enough of the language to murmur to himself as he gnawed on his fingernails, and because none of the employees' nametags indicated that they might notice the difference. Matt's story went that Mello, a pyrotechnics specialist (the act of conveying this detail had required a great deal of creative and exaggerated pantomime), had just arrived from Prague, and he'd ended up in a dreadful accident due to some faulty wiring before he'd managed to get his visa. He didn't speak much English, and the nurses, bless their dear hearts, probably wouldn't get anything out of him, so they didn't need to try. Masking triumph with some well-polished pathos, Matt had concluded that if the hospital let out word of their visit (and of Mello, registered in their records as "Stefan Ctvrtlanik"—a triumph in unpronounceable monikers), the brothers would almost certainly be deported back to the Czech Republic, where they would once more resort to washing windows to keep their sisters off the streets.

All in all, it was a whole lot more plausible than the truth.

Though Matt attributed some of that to the efficacy of his pantomime.

The fourth morning, the day the understaffed and overwhelmed establishment had designated as the one upon which the reticent Czech that was Mello could go home, Matt woke up, spinal cord protesting vociferously (and possibly in Czech), on the pathetic excuse for a couch acting as his pathetic excuse for a bed. The sheets of Mello's own, highly preferable bed had been thrown back, and Mello himself was nowhere in sight.

Before Matt had time to panic, he noticed the corona of fluorescent light spilling out of the doorway that lead to the cramped bathroom. On wobbly legs he stood to approach it.

Mello had placed his hands on the edge of the sink for support, and his bare feet looked small and stranded on the ocean of faded linoleum tiles. The halfhearted knots at the back of his pastel patient's gown failed to hide the ridged rigidity of his spine or the sharp angles of his shoulder-blades, both of which Matt blamed on the grave dearth of chocolate in the hospital menu.

But perhaps the blame was better laid on the object of Mello's utterly undivided attention—the mirror.

They might as well still be there now, for all Mello has said and done—might as well still be in front of the mirror in the hospital room lavatory, with its ancient lipstick smears and the viscous hints of rather less savory leftovers. Instead, it is the square of mirrored glass that leans lackadaisically against the stained wall of Matt's apartment, and Mello is mesmerized.

Obediently, if wordlessly, Mello donned the soft white tee shirt, faded blue jeans, and zipper-front fleece jacket with which Matt plied him this morning. It isn't too far-fetched to surmise that he might instead have languished in his pajamas indefinitely if not for Near's usual choice of raiment.

Of course, if Matt knows very well that if anyone says the N-word, Mello will never recover.

Matt sits down next to the crate that serves as Mello's chair and tries to meet the pair of powder blue eyes in the mirror. It terrifies him how dead they look.

He manages to sit still for a full minute before he fidgets.

"Say something," he prompts, his voice deafening in the heretofore unbroken silence.

His heart leaps as a sliver of humanity surfaces in Mello's eyes.

"Fuck," Mello says, obligingly enough.

"Eloquently put," Matt replies.

Mello swallows hard. "I can't look at it," he announces quietly.

Matt finds this statement slightly strange, as Mello has been doing nothing but looking at it for almost four hours.

"It makes me want to throw up," he adds, a shadow of the old fire sparking in those pale eyes. "I want to claw it off. Rip it to pieces."

Matt has always prided himself on knowing how to coax Mello out of even the darkest moods, but he doesn't have a clue what to say now—what, if anything, he can say. If words even exist for moments like this one.

"Mello…"

"People will stare. Insulting and unsafe."

"Mello—"

"It's disgusting, isn't it?" Uncharacteristically unadorned fingers, fingers that look brittle and insubstantial when they lack leather gloves, probe the topography of the tissue on their owner's left cheek.

Matt clambers to his knees. "Mello."

The eyes flick away from their favored subject for the first time in a sixth of a day. "Matt?"

Matt peels off his own gloves, drops them to the floor, and, unabashedly and without a split-second's hesitation, lays a hand on either side of Mello's face.

"Mello," he repeats, "you're alive. You're here. You're intact—yes, you are. In all the ways that count." Matt stares him down for a long moment, refusing to quail under the icy implacability of the electric blue. "Also," he finishes primly, "you play the best antisocial Czech I've ever seen."

For the first time in four days, Mello cracks a grin.