Nobody knew who brought the virus in, but as expected, Near was among the first to catch it.
Also as expected, he did not mention it.
Instead he sat quietly in the most remote corner of the house, and proceeded to finish his meticulous construction of a mega-robot which promised to have eight hundred parts. When only the head of the robot remained unfinished, he was dismayed to find that it actually had only seven hundred ninety-three parts (minus the stickers, which did not count); this fact put him off rather, so much so that he stopped working, enough to register that he was shivering. He lifted his hand to his face, and his pale little fingers were trembling; he pressed those fingers to his temples, and wondered briefly if what he felt was hot or cold. After a moment, in which he was annoyed with himself for wasting time, he decided that it was neither, and got back to work, carefully screwing the robot's beady eyes into the appropriate sockets.
He was only mildly surprised when the walls suddenly closed in on him and the floor became level with his vision; his last distinct thought before passing out was that he ought to have checked if it came with batteries.
It was Mello who found him two hours later – unintentionally, of course. He was sneaking into the forbidden storage room (which they all knew was really L's secret pantry) for a game of hide-and-seek, when he tripped over his unconscious rival, curled up on the floor and shaking like a leaf, hardly breathing. For a moment he just stood there, wondering if he could use this opportunity to – dare he think it? – get revenge for all those times Near had humiliated him; by squashing his fingers, maybe, or smashing up that robot that had obviously taken very long to put together, whichever would hurt worse.
It was very difficult not to lick his lips while he considered his options; they were all so tempting, tempting, sweetly tempting, and Near was always defenceless, but he was also always awake, and that had kept Mello from bullying him for the most part. Yeah, the prick was always watching, quietly observing, pulling on those annoying curls and acting saintly when he was really just laughing at them all – and he thought he was such a blasted genius, and that he was better than them, and – that he really did deserve to be L's –
The thought of L made Mello freeze all over. If something happened to Near, L would know.
He would also know who was responsible for it, and the thought of L not being pleased with him made him feel so sick he nearly spit up all over the immobile Near. He considered this. He scowled.
Then he bent down and slung Near's arm across his shoulders, hauling him up, disgusted with himself.
"Matt!" He yelled. "Matt – I know you're hiding in the music room, god, can't you put more effort into the game – go get Roger, Near's burning up or something."
He wasn't being kind. It just wasn't any fun, hurting someone who was so weak to begin with.
That didn't stop him from, er, accidentally knocking over the robot, as he dragged his rival away to what he hoped would not be a speedy recovery.
When Near woke up, the first thing he asked for was his blank white puzzle. And, as an afterthought, a glass of water. Then, after some more consideration, he asked what exactly he was doing in bed, since it was obviously still light outside. (Not that he minded much, to be honest. But the other kids already seemed put off by his inactivity, and his staying in bed would probably only serve to aggravate them further.)
Roger regarded him heavily before answering, "You seem to have a pretty severe case of influenza. Near, have you been getting enough rest lately?"
He blinked. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was wondering what exactly had happened to his robot, but he managed to answer politely, "Of course."
"Eating enough lately?"
Near laced his skinny wrists on his lap. The food at the orphanage was top quality, but he never had an appetite for it. Not many of the children did, although Mello was always filching chocolate from L's personal stash. "Enough, yes."
Roger took in the boy's solemn face, and decided that it was no use questioning him further. He had learned long ago that the children in the Whammy house solved their own problems, and did so alone. Instead he said, "The doctor came and advised that you don't move around much for the next three days, and that you stay in bed for at least another two after. He also said you should be – quarantined, for the time being. These things spread easily, you know."
He did know, so he nodded, then leaned back into his pillows, in some strange manner of silent punctuation.
Roger stood to leave.
"Um," Near started, uncertainly.
"I was...finishing a robot."
Roger adjusted his glasses. "Were you? It was Mello who found you, so he probably has it. I'll go ask him about it."
Near sighed, although the sound was so weak and thin it barely escaped his lips. He very nearly said don't bother, but held his tongue, in the entirely unfounded hope that perhaps Roger's question would get a favourable response, if Mello was in a good mood. Which wasn't likely.
This was unfortunate, as it had been quite a nice robot, even with the seven falsely advertised parts.
"I wasn't being nice."
"I wasn't going to hide in the off-limits area, either."
Matt didn't reply, and instead continued to push his thumbs down simultaneously. Those cheap water-game handhelds could get really addicting.
"And it was his fault for leaving his robot in the way like that." This statement was emphasized by the distinct sound of crinkling foil, and the crunch-crunch-crunch of chocolate fresh from the refrigerator. Mello's voice was a little bit thick, and when Matt looked up slightly, to see just how pissed he was exactly, the boy's face was a pretty alarming shade of cherry. It could be the rage, but then again Mello was always raging.
He knew he was going to get it, but he had to ask anyway. "You sure you're feeling okay?"
"I am NOT SICK," Mello all but spat. Crunch-crunch-crunch. "Only weaklings like fricking Near get sick." Crunch-crunch-crunch. "And I am NOT a weakling." He sat himself violently down in a chair, and seemed to swallow a bit of chocolate too quickly. His chewing abruptly turned to hacking, then wheezing – Matt rocketed out of his chair just in time to catch the blonde boy from sinking to the kitchen floor.
This was exactly why he preferred single-player games over team stuff.
Mello was not going to hate Roger's guts. Roger was a nice, stupid old man who had known L and Watari for quite some time and who always talked to the children gently and always broke up the fights, and he didn't deserve to be hated because he was just doing his job, and if Mello started acting violent Roger would tattletale to L, and that would dash his changes of becoming the successor even further...
He hated Roger's guts.
Although not as much as he hated Matt at the moment. Matt was such an annoying goody two-shoes tattletale – why did he have to go on and yabber to Roger about how Mello didn't seem to be feeling well? (Never mind that he had sort-of just saved Mello's life; trifling stuff like that was irrelevant, and went without saying. And him choking on chocolate had nothing to do with it – but it did force him to have to go get a check-up, and oh joy, look where that landed him.)
His hatred for Matt was microscopic in light of his hatred for the person in the bed next to his, though. Just the thought of being near him – oh god that name – made his blood boil so badly he could almost hear it bubbling all over him. (No, he was not just being stir crazy). The idea of spending another several days in confinement with the person he despised most in the world was enough to make suicide look appealing (even if the idea of all that wasted talent made him shiver – no, he, Mello, would not die, he would live on to forever, longer than Near and B and maybe even L). But Roger had said he was sick, and that they needed to contain the virus as much as possible.
Virus his ass.
"I bet you're wondering where your robot is," he sneered. Near kept his back turned and said nothing, so Mello couldn't tell if he was listening or even awake, although he did sort-of see Near's shoulder go up, just a little bit, maybe?
It didn't matter. He was so bored, and insults were the only available entertainment.
"Well it got broken," he continued. "All those little plastic screws just came popping off. I guess you didn't put it together very well."
The hitched-up shoulder sank the teeniest bit. Mello savoured the little show of surrender, propping himself up on one elbow so as to better project his taunts. "And it was your fault for leaving it in the way. You're lucky I saved your sorry ass, or you could be dead right now, you know?"
The room was painfully still for several moments. At length, Mello smiled a huge smile and sank blissfully back into his bed. If the underdog wanted to keep on being kicked, he was fine with that.
"Yes. Thank you." Near's voice was coppery with cold, and it seemed to slice the stale air of the infirmary neatly in two.
Mello's face crumpled into rage. He liked doing that, the evil little bastard. Liked stealing out victories at the last minute, lightning-fast and sneaky and always well-executed. Furious, he unwrapped the rest of his chocolate bar – Roger had let him keep it, after he had unleashed one of his potentially murderous glares – and bit into it noisily, ignoring the fact that his clogged nose made it taste no better than paper.
"Heya," Matt greeted. He dumped a plastic bag full of chocolate on Mello's bedside table, then settled himself on the bed directly across, flipping open his Gameboy as he did so.
"You'll catch it, staying here," Mello mumbled angrily, although he stuck his hand into the plastic bag and dug around noisily for the kind with walnuts. He needed nuts right now. Since he couldn't taste anything anyway he might as well enjoy the texture.
"I've got it already," Matt answered shortly. "Complained about severe headaches and got diagnosed. Roger seems bent on sending everyone with the teeniest signs of syndromes to confinement hell."
"Yeah, you probably got those from too much gaming." Mello meant it, too, but anything was better than being stuck in the ward with only Near (for a whole day already. one whole day!), who did nothing but sleep and sniffle chastely and solve his blank white puzzle, again and again and again.
Matt shrugged, and rubbed his nose. His voice did seem a bit thick, but if his head really hurt so much, why the heck did he keep on playing? Especially with those tinted goggles.
Mello kept eating chocolate all through the day. He was very careful not to let any little crumbly bits spill onto the bed, because that would be a waste of all the high-quality cacao beans.
Near had finished his blank puzzle nine times by then. The last two times he had completed it backside up, so that the pieces were all the same cardboard-gray, instead of glossy-white. When he was quite sure no one was paying attention to him, he would make action figures out of his fingers and have them attack each other in various clever ways. The next time Roger came, he would ask for his bucket of army men.
Matt had gotten all the way to world three when Super Mario, on his last life, jumped on an evil mushroom a second too late, and promptly died.
At some point Linda came inside with her sketchbook open to a fresh page.
She had tried to do so discreetly, but all three boys swivelled around and stared her into the ground when she had taken barely three steps into the room. She smiled pleasantly at them, got into the bed closest to the window (she preferred natural lighting, after all) and started to draw.
They made much better models when they were bedridden, even if Mello kept squirming around. It was hard to do the shading for their feverish faces, though.
Over the next two days, two more boys and another girl got sent to the infirmary. Mello longed to go outside, although his muscled ached all over and his head spun. Near and Matt seemed to take their own diminished health in relative stride; all three of them were skinny and pale to begin with, so it hardly made a physical difference.
Roger came in at ten o'clock every night to see if they were sleeping at the right time. He also kept the glasses by their bedsides full with water, presumably to help them sweat out the fevers that came and went in random waves over the course of their illness. "You'll probably lose the fever by tomorrow," he reassured an angry Mello, who had started to heckle him for more chocolate bars. Unfortunately, Roger had been told by the doctor that excessive sugar was not recommended for sick children, especially since it shot up their adrenaline and made them all the more resistant to staying put. "Once you lose the fever, it's a sure sign that the virus is on its way out. So as long as you don't get contaminated again, you won't have the flu for a while."
"It's not my fault I was contaminated." The word sounded much more offensive on his tongue.
Near gave a polite little sneeze, although his subsequent sniffles sounded rather like notmineeither.
The orphans of the Whammy house were not very good at sleeping. The dark room was filled with slurping back snot and rustling, and the sounds of pillows being fluffed, and heads turning over and over and over, but there was never any snoring, and very few stretches of hushed, undulated breathing. Unable to take it any longer, Mello clambered out of bed and paced around, deprived of chocolate and appalled at the thought of all that time wasted in bed, when he could have put it to better use working out ways to beat Near – who was sitting up in his bed, silently making caves out of his sheets and walking his plastic soldiers all over them (at least he had finally gotten rid of that annoying puzzle). Matt's face in the bed opposite was lit up in bright white and technicolor by his portable gaming device; the reflection of the screen on his goggles (he wore those even at night?) made him look rather like an insect television.
Mello paced and paced and ground his teeth, rubbing his arms together. Underneath his bare feet, the floor felt like ice. The room was freezing and frigid and was it just him, or were they were all acting so grossly lonely, and how was it possible to be lonely in a room full of so many other people? Why was it normal? Why were they sick and just idling the hours away like perfect little robots, drinking multivitamins and water and not getting a wink of sleep and no one really gave a shit; maybe Roger did, but he was paid to do so, by L and by Watari, who were never even there, and mothers and fathers were faceless spectres that only appeared when they were tremendously bored - like he was – NOT at the moment – and why were all of them so okay with this?
Or maybe he was the only one who wasn't, and that – made him – less than all of them, maybe, and –
"Dammit," he hissed, and almost without thinking he snagged his foot on a stray corner of Near's bedcovers. He would have tripped, but by skidding his foot the other way he managed not to, although in the process he ruined Near's blanket caves, and all the little green soldiers went scattering. Matt looked up from his game, and the other children stopped pretending to try to sleep. Near remained very still, surveying the scattered pieces on his lap with his ever-efficient calm; somewhere in the dark came the sound of Linda's pencil scribbling furiously.
Near bent down to pick up a fallen soldier. He propped it up on his left foot, and said, in what sounded like a very bad attempt at a French accent, "Oh no. A nuclear explosion."
Everybody knew that it was a silly thing to say, and as expected, Mello flew into a rampage.
Also as expected, Near did nothing to try and stop him.
A/N: Thanks for reading. This was submitted for a challenge at dn_contest, for the prompt Sneeze. Comments would be greatly appreciated. :D