Author's Note: Volume Nine spoilers. Um, again…

This grew organically and took on quite a life of its own, but it allowed me to let off a lot of steam during a very stressful day or two… A month agoAnyway, enjoy. x) Thanks as always to Eltea for fantastic beta work and tons of wonderful suggestions for general betterment. :)

You're right if you think I have something of a fixation with this scene. 'Cause I do…


The phone was going to ring in two minutes. But Matt didn't know that, and he didn't know what that phone call was going to do to his poor excuse for a life.

When Matt had turned thirteen, he had decided that he wasn't going to cry anymore.


The vow was made with the certainty and solemnity unique to children who truly mean each word they say—whose souls are encapsulated in every sentence. Who believe so strongly in the world and its ways that they trust it to believe in them.

In retrospect, maybe he should have known better.

He clung to the promise, however—kept it, to himself and to the world, as if that world might owe him something in return for his faith and adherence. It wasn't easy, but what it came down to was refusing to cry, no matter how much he wanted to, no matter how good it would have felt. There were no tears when he skinned his knee racing Mello down the hallway; no tears when he spilled cocoa down his front and burned himself so badly it blistered; no tears when he lost his footing in the treehouse, plummeted, and heard a bone in his arm snap. No tears. His eyes welled and his lip wobbled, but there were no tears.

It was Mello who had ruined it all, of course. Mello always did.

Matt hadn't cried when Mello had stalked out the gates with a pack slung over one shoulder. He hadn't cried when he'd watched Mello disappear beyond the horizon, off to God knew where. He hadn't cried until he'd been curled up under the covers that night, alone in the dark of the empty room, holding tight to one of the shirts Mello had left behind, a shirt abandoned like he had been.

Up until that moment, he had held out hope that Mello was coming back.

Well, he was nineteen now, and more fucked up than he ever would have thought possible.

He blamed that on Mello, too. Actually, he blamed just about everything on Mello. Including Elysse.

Mello ruined everything.

Matt scooted back so that he could lean against the wall. The controller cord just barely spanned the distance between the console and his hands, and he settled cross-legged, cigarette smoke twirling artistically into his eyes.

Elysse tossed her hair over her shoulder. It was a dull honey-brownish color now, wet as it was, but when it dried, it would be yellow. Bright, implausible, corn-or-Crayola yellow.

Elysse wandered nearer, toweling absently at the only reason Matt kept her around. She climbed over the cord strung across the middle of the room, passing into his direct line of vision, and he noticed that she was wearing nothing but her underwear and one of his shirts. It made his blood boil when she did that—when she presumed to own him so completely that his wardrobe was at her command. He didn't belong to her. He didn't belong to anybody, let alone Elysse fucking Poirot, who sat down next to him and snatched the cigarette from between his lips to plug it into hers.

He eyed her askance, hitting buttons with the half-attentive aptitude one could get with the kind of practice he had. She took a long drag on the cigarette, balancing it between manicured fingers, and then offered it to him.

Pointedly, he ignored her. He didn't want that thing. Not with her fucking saliva all over it, for Christ's sake.

Matt was no stranger to Elysse's bodily fluids, but this was different. This was his cigarette, and she'd gone and gotten her spit all over it. This was a matter of respe—

The phone rang.

Matt dropped the controller, letting it fall wherever the hell it would, and leapt up, sauntering to the kitchen for the phone. Any goddamn excuse to get away. He didn't know who'd be calling him now, and he didn't give a shit, so long as he had a goddamn excuse.

He snatched the receiver from the cradle. "Yello?" he permitted.


Matt stopped.

No. Just no. No fucking way, not after all this time, not now, not when he'd just started getting the hell over the second great rejection of his sad, sad little life—


"Fuck you, Mello," Matt snapped. "Fuck you and your fucking commitment phobia and your fucking inferiority complex and your fucking face."

There was a sound like a sob. The wind disappeared from the sails of his spite, leaving only the quiet, lapping waters of an old friendship stronger even now than any bond he'd ever formed with another human being.

"Inter… section of Twentieth and Kinsguard." Mello's voice was thin, thin and frail, insubstantial and terrifying. "Matt… Please."

And then the line went dead.

Slowly, Matt hung up. For a long moment, he stared at the phone where it lay innocently on the countertop, sunning itself, baring its curved back to the shitty fluorescent lights. Then he went into the bedroom.

"Get the fuck out," he told Elysse. She raised a sardonic eyebrow and opened her mouth to reply. His lip was already curling as he looked at his shirt draped over her body, halfway off her shoulder. "If you take my fucking shirt," he added, "I will make sure you fucking regret it. You've got ten minutes."

He slammed the door and took the stairs to the parking garage two steps at a time. The fractal patterns of the mold seemed to blur on the walls.

One of the few joys in Matt's joyless existence was the car. It was a sweet, sweet motherfucking automobile, and he went to a damn lot of trouble to make sure that his surrogate baby (a) remained intact, and (b) remained his. Wasn't easy in L.A. But then, sometimes Matt liked a challenge.

As he glided down Kinsguard—Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth—there rose a cloud of churning dust and cinders that grew thicker by the second. Matt set his jaw. The paint, the windshield—nicks and grit and scratches—if Mello valued his stupid fucking life, he'd better have the best reason the world had ever…

Halfway between Nineteenth and Twentieth, Matt saw a phone booth with a blurry red handprint on the glass, as if someone had been supporting himself as he rasped into the phone.

Matt swerved up to the curb, almost scraping the tire rims against it, and jammed the stick into Park. He shoved the driver's side door open, leapt out, slammed it shut, and half-ran, half-staggered to the alleyway that dwindled off of the T where Twentieth jutted into the ongoing length of Kinsguard.

Banshee sirens wailed, their plaintive voices cutting through the thick, smoky air to bore into his eardrums with undisguised glee. Matt's feet were like cinderblocks.

There was a slight, almost wraithlike form bent over a Dumpster, hands braced on the edge. It ignored his unsteady footsteps—ignored him until he reached out with a tentative hand and then recoiled as he saw the seared, bubbling flesh of the shoulder he had moved to touch.

It wasn't Mello. It couldn't be. Mello was a fifteen-year-old boy with a bob of yellow hair and an insatiable mischief in his bright eyes, a boy who captained soccer games with fiendish fervor, a boy whose shirt collar sometimes slid far enough to give Matt a glimpse of a collarbone so delicate he found himself inexplicably aching to touch it. Mello was a child who fancied himself clever, who was so painfully innocent at the heart of things that his solemn notions of his own maliciousness prompted indulgent laughter. Mello was an indelible symbol of bittersweet recollection, of a life and a world Matt pushed from his mind so routinely that it barely hurt anymore.

This wasn't Mello. This leather-clad hellion, this slender, tantalizing creature clothed in the implication of ruthlessness and the whisper of sin—with an isthmus of midriff caught between the leather that unconcernedly skimmed sharp angles and soft curves, that left nothing and everything to a starved, slavering imagination—

This couldn't be Mello. It wasn't fair.

"That bad?" Mello murmured, turning only partway—his head still bowed, his singed hair sliding in a burnt curtain over the worst of the similar destruction on his face. His eyes glittered coldly, and the thinnest of smiles claimed his lips, stretching the scalded skin grotesquely. "I can't feel it."

Matt swallowed. It was a damn good thing he hadn't eaten since breakfast ten hours ago, because if there had been anything substantial in his stomach, it wouldn't have stayed there long.

It was Mello. It could be, and it was.

A few words trickled into Matt's brain as neurons snapped and fizzled, but they were insufficient for speaking. Silently, working on breathing for a start, he went back to the car, opened the back door, and gestured eloquently.

Equally wordlessly, Mello stumbled over and crawled in. He curled up in that same, undiminished, goddamn Mello way he always had, facing the seatback, as if they were twelve again and fighting over something stupid, lying on their respective beds staring at the respective walls, both refusing to be the first to apologize.

Matt always lost that game.

They were stupid, stupid things that flitted through Matt's mind as he gunned it and started up Kinsguard again. Cops. Gangs. Whoever the fuck Mello had pissed off this time. They'd be after Blondie's blood, and he'd be in no condition to stop them from taking it.

In addition, Blondie was getting blood and ash and shit all over Matt's beautiful patent-leather seats. Fucking idiot.

Mello ruined everything.

At the first stoplight he didn't have time to run, Matt fought out a cigarette with shaking hands and lit it. With the nicotine squirming into his bloodstream, with his heartbeat settling to a quieter tattoo, he thought maybe he could endure this bullshit nightmare for just a little longer.

Mello coughed weakly. "Since when do you smoke?" he managed, barely audible.

"Since you left," Matt answered coolly.

He was rubbing it in at a time when rubbing it in was totally fucking unnecessary, and he knew it.

And it felt so damn good.

He blew smoke absently at the window, watching it rebound lethargically in that wispy way it did. Mello was quiet.

The fifteen-minute trip took eight and a half minutes, and then Matt was holding the elevator door open for Mello. Instinctively, he wanted to put a hand out to stabilize his charbroiled companion, but he hadn't touched him yet. He wanted to, desperately. And he abhorred the very abstract thought.

The key shrieked in the rusty lock, and then the battered door gave, ushering them into the hellhole that was Matt's apartment. There was no more sign of Elysse than a few pale hairs scattered on the linoleum—which was good, because Matt honestly didn't know what he would have done if she had still been around. She'd laid his shirt carefully over the back of one of the cracked kitchen chairs in what she probably thought was a brilliantly caustic gesture, and it hung there limply like a flag of surrender.

Matt left Mello standing in the doorway (leaving him somewhere was cruel and terrible and more satisfying even than he had expected) and went to his backpack, from which he retrieved the kit. He tossed it onto the bed, nodded to indicate Mello should join it there, and progressed to the bathroom to wash his hands thoroughly.

They were shaking.

Mello was admiring the little plastic kit when Matt came into the bedroom.

"Where'd you get this?" Mello inquired.

"I do explosions in movies," Matt muttered around a new cigarette, prying off the plastic lid and sorting through the gauze that spilled out like lacy entrails. "It's policy that we have to have one of these all the time."

Mello smirked, and the afflicted half of his face twisted again. Matt's stomach turned.

"It figures you'd find something halfway-legit to do in Hollywood," Mello remarked.

"Pays for the car," Matt countered, folding a damp towel. "Sometimes even groceries. Lie down."

Mello obeyed uncharacteristically docilely. Matt hesitated before pressing the towel gently to the epicenter of the burn, anticipating a cringe and an almost feral hiss of pain.

Mello didn't disappoint.

Lifting the towel momentarily, Matt picked glinting golden hairs carefully from the worst of the wreckage before he applied cautious pressure again.

Mello ruined everything.

Matt started laying gauze meticulously, feeling as though he was performing a mummification ritual. Maybe Mello would come back as an ibis or a crocodile.

No. He was a cat. A sleek golden cat with unnerving, unwavering eyes, the last two inches of his tail tapping out a slow, enigmatic rhythm.

Matt noticed something he hadn't had time to inquire about before.

"Why the fuck are you wearing leather?" he asked.

Mello moved to shrug and stopped, moved to raise his eyebrows and stopped, and settled with glowering a little. "Why the fuck not?"

Matt realized that he was wearing orange goggles and let it go.

When he'd wrapped and taped and arranged the gauze gently but securely in the interest of preventing infection, he moved to peel the shredded strips of maligned leather from Mello's neck and shoulder. He paused.

"What?" Mello prompted, teeth clenched preemptively.

"This is the part where it always says 'And proceed to your licensed medical professional,'" Matt noted.

Mello laughed humorlessly only to wince at the way it pulled his facial muscles. "Not an option, I'm afraid."

Matt curled his hand into a tight fist, released it, drew in a deep, nicotine-laced breath, and took the end of a scrap of leather between two fingers. "And why's that?"

Mello's face—the half of it not swathed in gauze, at least—contorted as Matt started to ease the warped leather away from the skin. "Fucking shit, Matt—God damn—" He breathed shallowly through his gritted teeth four times, closed his eyes, and lay still, jaw set. "I killed the chief director of the Japanese police. Tried to, anyway. And his whole task force. They probably survived, though; I rigged the room up that way."

Matt stared at him. "You deliberately blew yourself up?" he demanded.

Mello opened his eyes for the purpose of rolling them. The familiar pale blue was even more striking contrasted with the white edge of the bandage and the angry red of the burn that framed the left one on either side. "I didn't blow myself up. I blew the building up. I just happened to be in it at the time."

Matt stared at him a little more. "You're fucking retarded," he decided.

"That's offensive," Mello returned. "And it's an insult to the mentally disabled."

Matt stood and moved for the bathroom.

"You better run," Mello called.

"I'm getting hot water to help get what's left of your stupid fucking leather-fetish-whore-shirt off," Matt responded.

Mello pushed himself up on one elbow to gaze at Matt, eyes wide. "Oh, Matty," he gasped. "On the first date?"

"Dumbass," Matt retorted.

"Dipshit," Mello replied.





The compound word war continued until Matt returned, plied the next fragment of leather with the water, and began slowly peeling it free.

"God damn it, Matt—"

"Stop moving."

"I'm breathing. I can try to stop that, too, if you'd like."


They glared at each other. Mello huffed. "Bastard."

"Fuck you," Matt replied.

"Fuck yourself."

"More fun with two."

"Not with you."

"I'll have you know, Mihael Keehl, that I am a sex machine."

"Right, with lots of gears and wires and little tiny detachable par—son of a bitch, Matt!"

Matt looked absently down at the strip of leather he'd just ripped off mercilessly. "Oh, I'm sorry," he commented, completely guileless. "Was I a bit hasty?"

"Fucking douchebag," Mello muttered. "You're making mincemeat of me."

"That's what she said," Matt countered.

Mello smirked again. "I was asking for that one," he admitted.

"Begging on bended knee," Matt confirmed. He drew the last piece of leather free, wrinkling his nose at the wet schlup sound it made as it finally came away from the skin, and set it in the pile with its withered brethren. "Hungry?" he asked.

Mello offered a weak grin. "Got any chocolate?"

Matt sighed. Then he went to the cupboard and dug through peanut butter, the Ramen, and the cans of peaches that had expired during the last Ice Age. At the very back sat the half-pound chocolate bar Matt kept for two things and two things only: special occasions and cataclysmic disasters.

This was kind of both.

He lugged it into the bedroom and held it out. Mello's eyes lit up like bonfires.

That night, settled on the floor swaddled in the ratty mustiness of his spare set of sheets, Matt listened to Mello's soft breathing and wrapped his arms around himself, his heart banging an insistent fist against his ribs.

No one's home, he thought desperately.

His heart ached, too, dully but consistently, and the cliché wasn't as comforting as he would have liked. Damn thing was probably broken, given its flair for melodrama.

Mello ruined everything.

He had missed this—the stupid bantering, the stupid name-calling, the stupid connection. The buzz of tension that hummed, idly unresolved, just beneath the radar. The interplay; the exchange; the back-and-forth. The wild surges of spite and the imperturbable mutual understanding that ran beneath it. The bond that exceeded friendship, that surpassed affection, that was brotherhood and love and two types of loneliness that matched up like puzzle pieces, that was stitched up with electrical cords and glued together with melted chocolate.

Quietly at first, biting down hard on the knuckle he stuck between his teeth like some sort of sacrificial lamb, Matt went back on his word for the second time in six years.

Mello stirred, and Matt choked back the next helpless sob, but it was too late.

"Matt?" the voice prompted blearily.

He couldn't answer without revealing himself, so he feigned sleep, tear trails still hot and slick on his flushed cheeks.

The bed creaked, and then the floor did, and then the corner of the comforter brushed the small of his back. Mello's fingers started to work slowly through his hair. Dry, brittle gauze grazed his cheek.

"Matt," Mello whispered, "it's going to be okay."

"You left," Matt whispered back, new tears burning the corners of his eyes, furious ones. "You left, and you didn't write, and you didn't call, and you didn't come back."

Mello was silent for a moment. "I got involved with the mafia," he explained then. "I couldn't—"

"Don't give me your bullshit, Mello," Matt seethed. "You and your fucking bullshit. You're plenty smart enough to have figured out how. You could have. But you didn't."

Mello's fingertips stroked his neck, sliding along a vein. "All right," he conceded quietly. "You deserve better than the bullshit answer. You want the real answer, Matt? The real answer's that I couldn't stay there. Not with Near. Not with Roger. Not with the memories. The place's steeped in them, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't wake up every morning and remember that L was gone and lose him all over again. I wasn't strong enough. Is that what you want to hear? You want me to own up to it? Fine. I couldn't take it. Simple as that. It broke me, and I ran."

"And left me to put the pieces back together," Matt concluded bitterly.

Mello followed the curve of his ear with a fingertip. "The day hasn't gone by that I didn't wish I'd dragged you along. But I thought I'd be dead in the gutter in three days. I guess somebody up there has a thing for leather."

Har dee fucking har.

"I would've died for you in a second," Matt hissed, "and you know it."

"That," Mello replied softly, "is exactly why I couldn't give you the chance."

Matt watched the faint gray haze of the ambient city lights play on the scuffed carpet.

"Bastard," he decided quietly.

"Your bastard, though," Mello responded. "If you want me."

"Always have," Matt murmured. "Always did. Always will."

Mello smoothed Matt's shirt needlessly over his shoulder.

"Matt," he said.

"Mello," Matt returned.

Mello settled more over Matt than beside him, avoiding putting weight on the burn. Matt didn't mind, much as he would have liked to hate it. Mello's warmth was incontrovertible proof of his presence, existence, and proximity, and having that evidence after years of a void was terribly, intoxicatingly comforting.

"I'm sorry," Mello whispered.

It didn't solve anything. It didn't make the old pain go away.

But Mello was trying. And that helped.

"I'm sorry, too," Matt murmured back, his fingers finding the silken hair and sliding through its expanses.

That felt the same. That felt exactly the same.

"I guess we'll have to be sorry together," Mello remarked.

"I guess so," Matt conceded.

He sensed Mello smiling in the dark.

Despite himself, Matt had to consider the possibility that Mello only ruined most things.

When the morning dawned not too many hours later, tentative sunbeams' pale pink fingers found two boys curled on the bed, tangled and intertwined. A loose strand of unraveling gauze dangled unconcernedly, and a set of slender fingers curled around a fistful of a striped shirt. The phone was going to ring in two hours, because Matt was supposed to be on the stunt set by then.

Two hours was a long way away.