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The first time LeAnn sneaks out, it's to go on a date with Lucas Moreno. She has to sneak out because her dad has this weird antiquated thing about how she's not allowed to go on solo dates until she's sixteen, and Mercy and Hannah are both busy so they can't pretend they're going to the movie and just let LeAnn wander off and then meet up with them later. But this time Hannah's out of town doing some kind of quilt-craft-show thing with her Gran and Mercy's doing a keep-the-family-peace dinner over on Staten Island which probably means she's there overnight too, and tonight's the only night Lucas isn't working so they can go see the movie.

LeAnn honestly doesn't care so much about the movie. She's just tired of the stupid dating rule. Her mom doesn't say anything, because this is one of those Compromises On Childrearing where Mom figures it's not that bad so she lets LeAnn's dad have his way, in sort of a trade off. LeAnn is not really okay with it as a trade off but it's not worth arguing. But it's stupid.

So she sneaks out after her dad goes to sleep and goes to the late show with Lucas and they make out in the back row. And then she sneaks back in and Lulu almost catches her except she tells Lulu that she just got up to get something to eat and since Lulu doesn't have her glasses she doesn't see that LeAnn is in date clothes not pjs. And she manages to get into the bathroom before her mom comes out to see why she's woken up Lulu.

It basically works. And it's totally worth it, even though Lucas dumps her for Brandy Hemmingway the week after. Because he's kind of a crappy kisser anyway.

Mercy just gives her a patient look and says, "Seriously you risked getting grounded for the rest of your minority for Lucas?"

LeAnn says, "Shut up Mercy."

"I told you he was a dick," Mercy says, because Mercy never shuts up. A terrorist could point a gun at her and tell her to shut up and she probably still wouldn't shut up, and if she did shut up, she'd just be saving up to say something later. Something extra. Or something.

"Actually you said he was a piece of shit," Hannah says, still colouring in the chart for their project. Hannah at least was neutral on Lucas, which is nice, because LeAnn feels guilty about crushing on boys Hannah doesn't like. Except Hannah doesn't like very many boys. They all make her nervous.

"Okay so I was pissy that day," Mercy retorts. "Point stands."

"Shut up, Mercy," LeAnn says, lightly chucking the pencil crayon at her head. "I don't care anyway."

She ignores the slightly knowing look Mercy gives her, but at least this time Mercy does shut up.

 

Sometimes LeAnn hates being the normal one.

She's not really, and like, she knows that. Or like she knows nobody else thinks of her that way. Like the normal one's dad wouldn't have Guilt about dead relatives he left behind (not that it's his fault and not like he actually did but try telling his guilt that), and stuff like that. Plus like "the normal one" is a stupid designation anyway, what does "normal" even mean? Nothing, that's what.

Plus like. Mercy has this amazing ability to both feel like she's totally alienated from everyone else's experience and feel like her life is totally ordinary at the same time, which has got to be like some straight-up psychologist crap, and Hannah. . . doesn't even really know what normal means. So neither of them would even think about thinking of LeAnn as "the normal one".

But she feels like she's the normal one.

She's the one with two parents and if Dad had bad things happen before he came to the US he's been fine since he came to the US and she's got the twins and her little brother and Lulu and her mom, and Gramma and Grampa and her aunts, and they're all fine, nobody's sick or anything, nobody died, and nothing bad's ever happened to her. Like the closest to different or abnormal she's ever really come is that she tested into "Gifted and Talented" when she was in grade five, but after looking at the program Mom decided that LeAnn should stay in the normal stream. Which was totally the right call as far as LeAnn's concerned, since that was right in the middle of Mercy's bad stuff and if her mom had made her change classes she'd've probably, like. Bit someone. Really hard. More than once.

So LeAnn really feels like she's the normal one and sometimes she hates it, because it feels like she should be more together and get pissed off and upset less. And seeing as she has a dad, and he's not evil, like she shouldn't be so pissed off so often that he's a bit overprotective and, like. Strict.

It's not even everything. Like she can go out with Mercy and Hannah and do whatever. It's just when boys get involved or something. So it's not that big a deal. Except it is. Just like nobody ever thinks of her as the normal one except her and she still feels defensive about it.

Also she feels like she shouldn't get so mad that they're still living in a three bedroom because it's paid off and it makes sense to save money and, like, it's not like sharing a bedroom with Robbie is a huge hardship especially since she spends so much time at Hannah's anyway and still would even if she had her own room and just -

Stuff. It makes sense. It means there's stuff in, like, college funds. Or for when Lulu needs to go into care, which is probably pretty soon.

She shouldn't hate it all so much.

She totally hates it. So much.

Except when she doesn't.

And that's when she feels like a total teenage cliche and also like she wants to bang her head against the wall until her brain stops being so stupid. And complaining about it -

Well like: hello, she'll just go complain about it to her friend who's brother's probably dying of something new and creepy and maybe the fault of aliens!

(LeAnn hasn't brought that up because she's pretty sure Mercy would go ballistic because she's being all denial about it but, like, even LeAnn knows the one thing that's the same with Mercy's brother and all the other cases is that they were in New York when the Chitauri attacked and, like, close enough to hear the explosions. She heard her mom talking to Mercy's mom about it until they realized she might be able to hear them.)

Or instead, maybe she'll complain to her other friend who got, like, molested by her dad her whole life and whose dad let other people pay to do the same thing, the friend who lives in nightmare-terror that someday her dad's going to come back to the US and try to take her back! Yeah, that sounds like fun too.

Or not.

And all of that makes her feel bad because it makes her feel like she's ungrateful for great friends, which she isn't, she's just -

Frustrated.

With everything. Especially herself. Because it would all be easier if she didn't just have sudden spikes of feelings. She hates feelings. And she can't say anything to any grown up because they just tell her it's all part of being a teenager and then she wants to hit them with a baseball bat because that's smug patronizing bullshit.

Adults never react well to being told that they're spewing smug patronizing bullshit, though. So mostly she just screams into her pillow when nobody's around and gets over it. Mostly.

 

The second time she sneaks out she almost breaks her neck. For real.

She has a plan. LeAnn likes having plans. They make her feel in control, which is like a sentence asking to be psychoanalyzed even she knows that so she's never going to say it out loud. But they do.

Her plan is simple. Her dad's out of town and her mom's taken a sleeping pill. LeAnn can't risk going through the living-room because Lulu's sleeping super-light, but, she figures, she's got a way around that.

If she goes out her window then it's almost a piece of cake to sort of step to the little lip of the window for the back room for the next-neighbours, and then she can grab onto their deck railing and let herself dangle from the edge. From there, the drop isn't bad - it's just far enough to jar, not far enough to hurt, if she lets herself dangle.

She's done it before, and she was like two years younger, and also her dad lost his mind, but she knows it can happen. She can do it. It wasn't even hard.

Then she'll meet Tammy down at the corner and go to Mika's horror-movie-party, get a cab back, maybe have a quick nap in the car until around 5am and then say she went out running with Mercy that morning, which will also totally explain why she's tired. Okay she doesn't do that very often, but she does it sometimes.

Mercy's okayed the fib. Mercy's also told her this is a really stupid idea, she shouldn't do it, that climbing around now is going to be totally different from climbing around two years ago because her body's different, and also that it's a stupid idea. LeAnn told her to shut up.

Mercy also refused to say she wouldn't tell Hannah.

"Look I won't bring it up," Mercy tells her, folding her arms. "But if Hannah asks me I'm gonna tell her and then we both get to deal with her after that."

"Hannah just hates Vince," LeAnn tries to argue. God, it would be nice if either of her friends could, like. Grow a libido. Or whatever.

"No, Hannah thinks Vince is creepy," Mercy corrects. "Okay, so I haven't met him, so I can't weigh in, but frankly I trust her creepdar, okay? So just be careful. But it's still stupid, you don't even like Mika that much, you're going to be stupid tired at school, and Vince is definitely too boring for this much work."

LeAnn bites back saying anything mean. She doesn't really want to. She definitely doesn't actually want to demand if Mercy even likes boys, because Vince is gorgeous and anyone with eyes who liked boys could see that, because that'd be nasty. Besides, she's pretty sure Mercy would like boys if any boys showed up that didn't take the fact that she scares them personally, and if Mercy ever had like a week without worrying about anyone else. Basically, she thinks Mercy just doesn't have the energy to like boys. Which okay that's legit, Mercy's got a lot of stuff on her plate and everything, but seriously -

She's pretty sure Mercy doesn't like girls, not like that. And she reacts enough to movies and TV and stuff that it doesn't seem like she's not interested in anything. Mercy just has more important things on her mind. All the time.

It doesn't help LeAnn feel any less defensive and stupid and shallow to think about it like that. Doesn't help that Mercy's probably right that this is stupid, too. Honestly when Mercy's saying something's a stupid idea, that's kind of like a warning siren because Mercy does stuff that still makes LeAnn want to know what the hell goes through her head. But somehow knowing that doesn't actually make LeAnn decide not to do it.

She just sort of . . . ignores all those parts of her thoughts, all the parts of her that know that, and focuses on how things need to work. Focuses on the plan.

When it goes wrong it goes wrong so fast it's like she can only ever remember what happened, not like she ever lived through it. Like for a second she wasn't even there, not really, not her soul or something, like she got yanked right out of her body for a second but then she checked back in and the memory plays at full speed. That's what it feels like.

She gets her window open and gets so she's sitting on the sill. She gets her feet under her and manages to slowly stand up - totally using all the core strength they go on about on her workout videos - and holds onto the siding with her fingers. She steps to the side and reaches over with one foot and gets it where she wants -

- and then she's dangling from a tight grip on her forearm, dangling almost right against the side of the building, and her heart's going so fast she can't breathe, and she's so terrified she can't even scream just make these little super quiet sob-whimper noises, and she's remembering what it felt like to have her foot slip and her weight go all the wrong way and to fall away from the building off into space and know she's going to hit the ground and break.

And have someone grab her arm. And not hit the ground.

Now she's hanging here instead, remembering all of that like someone's sticking a hand down her throat.

Down beneath her is the path. And the wall. And all kinds of things made of rock and cement she was about to fall onto and hit and oh fuck fuck god fuck god Christ god Jesus Jesus fuck.

She looks up. She's still breathing in tiny little gasps that aren't even getting into her chest and she thinks she might burst into tears and she wants to scream but she can't. Instead she looks up at the hand holding her forearm, and then up fingers and wrist and arm to the person it belongs to.

LeAnn knows it has to be James.

At the same time that her head is full of screaming and the desire to start crying like a baby, it's also totally calm and thinking just fine like nothing's happening. And that part says, she weighs at least a hundred and fifty pounds and the grip on her arm isn't even hurting and his hand doesn't even look like it's straining. It's clearly a guy, holding onto the neighbour's balcony railing, leaning out from it with his feet braced against the bottom, and holding both of them up by one hand. Because his other hand is holding onto her arm. And that hand's kind of glinting in the light.

The one holding the railing. The one holding her arm is flesh and blood. Which totally does narrow it down. Also the person has hair long enough to fall around their face as they look down at her. Add it all up and it's pretty obvious.

She can't see his face. She can hear him when he speaks. Just barely. Her heart and her squeaking breaths are pretty loud in her ears. But she can hear him, and he says, "Don't flail around. Really don't make any fucking noise. Or this is all gonna get way more fucking awkward than it needs to be."

LeAnn nods, jerkily. "Okay," she says, softly. "I. Um."

"Chshh," James says, like there's a harsher noise at the start than just a normal shh, and she shuts up.

She manages not to scream when he shifts his grip down to the bottom of the railing and then steps off, swinging them both down by his metal arm until she's dangling close enough to the ground that it's a little drop when he lets her go. Though maybe she can't take credit for not screaming since her throat closes up and she almost falls over even though it's only a little drop because her knees kind of give out.

It's a lot further when he drops, but he acts like it's nothing, like he just hopped a low fence, and he just stands up and folds his arms.

Now LeAnn can see his face, because of the street lights and the front lights of the building. He really is really white. Like, whiter than white people are supposed to be, she thinks, even if he's, well, also really super pretty. He's wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a zipper, and a half-glove on his metal hand, and a really exasperated expression on his face.

LeAnn feels like she's two years old. She can feel her eyes prickling. It's stupid, it's just because she got scared, but fuck -

"That was really fucking stupid," James says, pretty quietly. "And you are really fucking lucky I fucking saw you start to climb out of that fucking window."

"I know," she says, now also feeling two feet tall. "Thank you."

She bites her tongue on are you gonna tell my dad? because then she would have to actually die on the spot. She might cry, though. She might not be able to stop herself from crying.

"Don't fucking do it again," he says. "You need to fucking sneak out that fucking bad, find some other fucking way."

"I was going to a. Kind of a party," she says. She doesn't know why she's explaining. Actually she does know why she's explaining: because she just about killed herself by falling off the building, or at least hurt herself real bad, and she doesn't know how to deal with the part where Mercy's crazy superhero friend (supervillain friend? whatever even?) just physically caught her and got her safely on the ground and now doesn't even seem to think it's a big deal that she's sneaking out, just that she did it a stupid way.

And it was a stupid way and she knew it and she can't even think why she was that stupid. Why it seemed so important. God she's so stupid.

Except now he's giving her a look she doesn't understand. She keeps babbling, remembering to keep her voice down at the last minute but still babbling like she can't stop herself. "Well like we're gonna marathon horror movies at this girl's house - " and then she trails off because hello can the earth swallow her now oh Jesus? But the face he's got still doesn't make any sense, it's just so . . .much of whatever it is that she doesn't understand that she manages to make her own stupid voice shut up.

"Where?" he asks, and she does not understand that either but she bites her lip.

"Um," she says. "Queens."

"By yourself." It's a pretty flat statement.

"Um." The answer to that one's kind of obvious, so she just leaves it and looks at the ground. She realizes she's got her hands clasped in front of her, with her clutch purse string still around her wrist. Jesus.

He stares at her and the whole thing plays back in her head. Oh god can she just die right now?

"Um," she says. "That's kinda stupid too, isn't it."

She wants to say please don't tell Mercy I fell except if she opens her mouth again she's totally going to cry, so instead she bites her lip harder.

The sound James makes is like a sigh on steroids. When LeAnn looks up he's got both hands to his face and she looks down fast as he drags them down his face.

What does that even mean, when it's someone like him doing it at someone like her?

"Come on," he says, gesturing her towards the back door. "Go inside."

Now she does ask, "Are you gonna tell my dad?" as she follows him and he unlocks the back door.

"No," he says, sounding tired and resigned and she doesn't understand why. "I'm not going to tell your dad."

They take the elevator. He hits 4 and LeAnn can't even work up the wherewithal to ask what's happening, even when he ushers her in his door and then closes it behind them.

LeAnn goes in enough to see around the wall and there's three people there: Steve, coming down the hall that goes to the other rooms, and then a white guy with brown hair on the couch and a white woman with really bright red hair -

- oh Jesus oh shit that's the Black Widow, LeAnn thinks, and almost cries then. She thinks about the Bible story about Lot's wife and wants to know why you can't ever turn into a pillar of salt when you need to.

Everyone looks surprised, except James, who grabs Steve's upper arm and pulls him into the kitchen out of her line of sight.

LeAnn hears quiet, really fast conversation that isn't in English or Spanish. The Black Widow and the white guy, who by process of elimination (obviously not Tony Stark, or Thor, doesn't look like he's the guy who's the Hulk sometimes) is probably Hawkeye both glance at the kitchen and then at each other and then Hawkeye mimes whistling and covers his mouth.

LeAnn can feel her shoulders crawling up towards her ears, hunching down. She can feel her eyes going prickly again. The thing she wants most in the whole fucking world is to be able to go back to the beginning of tonight and do it over and do something less embarrassing, like accidentally putting her whole diary on the internet.

The Black Widow starts to get up. LeAnn's eyes start to fill up. And then there's the sound of the balcony door closing pretty hard and LeAnn jumps. Looks over to see what has to be James jump from the balcony presumably to the roof from a standing start.

Steve comes out of the kitchen rubbing his forehead and looking a bit rueful.

"I'm going to make tea," says the Black Widow, in a totally calm and friendly voice. "I think we're going to need it."

LeAnn bursts into tears, which counts as the second most humiliating moment of her entire life.

 

Everyone's super nice about it which doesn't help. Steve gets her tissues and a drink of water while a kettle boils and LeAnn tries to get a hold of herself, and Hawkeye tells her that whatever happened he guarantees Steve's done something stupider and more reckless. That makes Steve cough, and LeAnn laugh. Hysterical giggles, anyway. Something.

None of them say they're going to tell her dad either. LeAnn feels like such a fucking child.

The Black Widow, who tells LeAnn to call her Natasha, ends up walking her down to Mercy's place. She also brings the teapot. LeAnn tries to apologise but every time she tries to talk she ends up crying again. Eventually she takes the hint and stops trying to talk.

She knows Mercy's mom's working overnight tonight, so it's just Mercy answering the door in her pjs. She starts out with a look of totally weirded-out confusion (because like, who would be knocking on the door?) that turns into total wide-eyed concerned panic.

So LeAnn starts crying again, of course. Because that's totally going to help the situation.

"What - ?" Mercy starts, but Natasha puts a finger to her lips and guides LeAnn inside by the arm so she can close the door behind them.

Mercy just sort of automatically wraps her arms around LeAnn's shoulders, hugs her, and looks at Natasha, who is by the way still totally a superhero and the Black Widow and oh god LeAnn's just going to die right here.

"What?" Mercy demands, looking back and forth between them. "What happened?"

"I f-fell," LeAnn manages and then can't talk again; before Mercy can react besides her eyes getting really wide, Natasha fills the rest in.

"She was climbing out the window and slipped," she says, matter-of-fact. "James was restless tonight so he was around to catch her. Milk in your fridge?" She puts the teapot down on the table.

"Oh my Jesus God LeAnn," Mercy says, breathless, and then more normal she adds, "yeah, sugar's . . .I don't know I don't have sugar on a lot of stuff and Jaime can't but it's somewhere go ahead and look if you need it?"

LeAnn tries to get the crying under control while nobody's talking to her. People talking to her just seems to equal crying. Natasha's opened a couple cupboards and found the mugs, which is really kind of impressive since Mercy's kitchen makes intuitive sense to absolutely nobody except Mercy's mom. She gestures to LeAnn with one.

"She take sugar?" she asks, and when Mercy shakes her head she goes on, "probably don't need it then - ah, nope."

She pulls milk and raspberry jam - of all things - out of the fridge. And she scoops a bit of jam into one cup and then picks up the milk. She makes an inquiring gesture at Mercy.

"Uh, yeah," Mercy says, her arms still around LeAnn's shoulders. "And LeAnn. Did you just put jam - "

"Weird Russian thing," Natasha says, conversationally. "Go sit down, I'll bring it out."

It's not actually like an order but it's hard to do anything else anyway, so LeAnn lets Mercy pull her into the living-room and push her onto the couch.

"Oh my god, LeAnn," Mercy says softly, "I told you - "

"I know, okay, I'm fucking stupid - " LeAnn starts and then they both jump at Natasha's voice.

"It wasn't that stupid," she says, coming in and carrying all three mugs by bracing the third between the other two, handles holding it somehow. "You were just lucky and unlucky at the same time. You know there's a tree that shades that part of the building? It's been wet. There's probably an algae film over there."

She puts the tea down on the nesting table beside the couch and between the couch and the chair.

LeAnn stares at her. It's . . .not something she'd ever have thought of.

"I've climbed a lot of buildings," Natasha says, deadpan, sitting down and tucking her feet up beside her. She didn't put her shoes on upstairs, LeAnn realizes.

Mercy snorts, almost spilling some of her tea. LeAnn picks hers up and cradles it in her hand.

"Are you okay?" Natasha asks LeAnn, directly, and LeAnn feels her face flush.

"I kinda want to die of embarrassment," she manages to make herself say in a kind of even voice, but she has to look down at her tea. "But yeah, otherwise I'm okay."

After a beat when nobody says anything she looks up to see Natasha giving her an are you sure look, and she shrugs. "I dunno maybe my arm's a bit sore," she mumbles. God she just wants to go hide somewhere.

"Shoulder's fine?" Natasha presses, and LeAnn nods. "Okay. Check your forearm for bruises tomorrow," Natasha says, gentler than LeAnn expects. "Handprints are hard to explain. Nobody's mad at you," she adds, and waits until LeAnn looks at her.

"I dunno," she mumbles, looking down again because Natasha seems so sincere. "I mean like I totally don't blame him but he, uh, James," god it is so awkward, is she even allowed to just use his first name? "seemed kinda - " like I was the stupidest fucking moron on the planet to him right then? but LeAnn doesn't even know how to say it.

"No way," Mercy interrupts before Natasha says anything, "he took you upstairs, he's not mad. Seriously trust me - Wait," she says, interrupting herself, "did he do the 'what is my life, what are my choices' face?"

LeAnn frowns at her, but Natasha seems like she almost inhales her tea and has to cough a couple times.

"Like, did he have this face like he was questioning the entire path of events that led him to this moment," Mercy elaborates, "because it's clearly the most totally like whatever - " and she makes a kind of gesture, " - moment that could be possible so clearly he had to do something to get himself here?"

"Um," LeAnn says. "Maybe. Like . . . it was kind of like the look Mom gets when Lulu's dog does something and makes a mess?"

Natasha's shoulders are shaking now, but she's managing not to laugh out loud, which is . . . nice? LeAnn guesses? She's not sure what's funny. But funny is better than anyone being pissed off at her? Maybe?

"Yeah, like that," Mercy confirms. "That's not mad," she says, confidently. "That's his face for when he remembers all the people he likes pull stupid stunts and give him grey hairs and this probably says something about him."

That makes Natasha actually just . . . laugh. It's this almost whooping laugh, like she's having the same difficulty getting air in that LeAnn was before. She sort of collapses limply against the chair and laughs like that's the funniest thing she's heard in years, and LeAnn does not get it. At all.

Mercy manages to look dignified. Sorta. "What?" she demands, over the laughter. "It's true." She shrugs. "It's not mad," she repeats, just to LeAnn, like hysterically laughing super-assassins on your chair is normal. "It's not. It's just that plus, like. I dunno." She shrugs again and makes a face. "Sometimes James has a hard time with some stuff? Like. People are hard? Reactions get weird. It's like things get lost in the wiring sometimes or something." She shrugs a third time. "When James is mad at something he just wants it to go away. And like he's not polite about it. At all. Like this one time at the Starbucks this guy was hassling the barista and James seriously just turned him around by his shoulder and told him he was an asshole, get out. He doesn't really waste time with . . . anything, if he's mad."

Natasha's calming down, and points at Mercy. "She's right," she says, catching her breath. "Oh fuck. Sorry, that's just the best description of that expression, that's fucking hilarious. 'What is my life, what are my choices'." She takes a sip of her tea and clears her throat. "Mercedes is right, though," she repeats. "He's not angry - not with you, anyway. He could just see you were upset and didn't want you going out alone like that and didn't think he was going to make it any better and didn't want to get you in trouble. So he brought you upstairs so someone could make sure you got somewhere safe for the night."

"Fuck," LeAnn says, because now she feels worse. And then she realizes she's swearing, and makes it worse by saying, "Shit - I mean. God. I'm sorry - "

"Don't be," Natasha says. "LeAnn, shh - it's okay." She sits up again and settles herself, and it's almost like a kind of graceful bird settling down, LeAnn suddenly thinks. Even more when Natasha tilts her head. "Do you know why Steve looked like he did?"

". . . no?" LeAnn says, but Mercy's almost talking on top of her.

"Oh my god did he fall out a fucking window and break something when they were kids," she says, putting her hands on her face.

"Ankle," Natasha says.

" - how did you - ?" LeAnn starts and then stops because she does not even know how to end that.

"There's a special version of the what-is-my-life-what-are-my-choices look that happens when Steve already did the thing he's giving you the look for," Mercy says. "There's this sort of half of a second extra when he blinks."

"He totally did that," LeAnn hears herself say. And he did, she can see it in her mind's eye.

"If it's something he did he stares off into the middle distance over your shoulder," Mercy says solemnly.

When Natasha gives her a curious look Mercy suddenly looks abashed and takes a drink of her tea. "I maybe punched someone at school," she says, looking down.

"Wait, was that Terrence Riley?" LeAnn asks, half-distracted, because she totally feels like she's trying to swim in a river with three currents and latching onto the last time Mercy was at the principal's office seems like something she can do.

"Yeah," Mercy replies. "I made him take a swing at me first," she adds, defensively.

Natasha presses her lips together like she's not going to laugh and she's just going to leave that one alone. "The point is he's not mad at anyone except maybe himself," she says, to LeAnn.

LeAnn stares at her because that makes no fucking sense since he just saved her from a broken neck and like what the fuck could he -

But Natasha just goes on, "You got a plan for tomorrow morning?"

"Uh, I was gonna say I went for an early run with Mercy," LeAnn says, sort of like a robot. "Come back with her. Except I was stupid twice over and I forgot to take running clothes with me."

Fuck she is such a moron.

"Good thing we're the same size," is all Mercy says.

"Good," Natasha says, briskly. "I'm going to leave you two to get some sleep; I'll take myself and the teapot back upstairs. You're sure you're okay?" she asks LeAnn.

LeAnn shrugs but nods. "Yeah, just feel stupid, that's all. I'll check, though. Wear long sleeves or whatever if I need to."

"Hey," Natasha says, a bit more gently, and LeAnn glances at her. "Nobody got hurt, nothing got broken, no big deal," she says. Then she hesitates and adds, "Just - do me a favour. Don't go to house-parties alone, okay?"

She leaves, and Mercy gets up to lock the door and then gives LeAnn an odd look. "What?" she asks. "You have a weird face."

"I dunno how she knew I was going to a party?" LeAnn says, because she probably does have a weird face. "Like. H - James, he asked where I was going, but that was down outside the window. And he didn't talk to her when we went upstairs he just went and talked to Steve in the kitchen and I couldn't understand them, and then he went up on the roof."

"Oh," Mercy says. "M'pretty sure when he and Steve aren't talking in English it's Russian and she's Russian so she probably overheard? And seriously, Lee-lee, it's fine. He's probably just, I dunno, felt awkward and he didn't want to be mean. Natasha's right if he's mad at anyone it's himself."

LeAnn gives her a bewildered look, because she feels bewildered so she thinks she's got the right. Mercy shrugs.

"Okay, no," LeAnn says, "Mercy that doesn't make any sense, why the fuck would he be mad at himself?" She's too tired and upset to stop herself from swearing, even though she doesn't actually like swearing all the time.

Mercy huffs out her breath, blowing the little wisps of short hair around her face out of the way. "It's . . .like it doesn't actually make much sense anyway?" she says. "It's just what happens? Like he'd be mad he wasn't nice to you and like he had to go get Steve or Natasha to talk to you instead of just explaining. It makes him mad at himself?"

She spreads her hands a little helplessly. "I dunno what he thinks. He hates that it's hard to deal with people sometimes? Except that just makes it harder. Like, hating that it's hard. And then I think it gets hard not to be mean, and he doesn't want to? I dunno that's usually when he pretends to be annoyed and tells me to go do something else. He hates that. I think it gets worse when it's with people he likes."

At LeAnn's blank look Mercy rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he likes you," she says.

LeAnn's going to start crying again. Instead she takes a shaky breath and says, "I really kinda want tonight not to have happened."

"C'mon," Mercy says. "Let's go to bed."

 

It only takes a few minutes for LeAnn to pull out the fold-away mattress and Mercy to find her the blankets and a long t-shirt to lend her for pjs. Then they both lie down and Mercy turns out the lights.

Mercy breaks the silence with, "Are you okay? Like, really?"

"I feel like the biggest fucking loser on earth," LeAnn says, flatly. "I'm super embarrassed and I dunno what I'm going to even tell Hannah because you're right not telling her isn't cool, and it's all my own fucking fault, but yeah, sure, otherwise I'm fine." She sounds bitter even to herself.

It's everything she's been thinking, put into words, but it still sounds way uglier when it is words.

"It's not that big a deal," Mercy says. She sounds like she means it, which is worse. "I'll tell her, I'll tell her you were afraid she'd feel bad about not wanting to go, and I'll tell her to roll her eyes at you about it, and it'll be fine."

LeAnn doesn't answer.

"And you're not that stupid," Mercy goes on. "God it's not like I haven't done a lot of shit that almost got my neck broken, I just got lucky. And you got unlucky."

"Why would James like me?" LeAnn demands. It's a stupid question and it's kind of not the point but she doesn't know how to answer the point. Or what the point is. It's changing the subject. Except that it's not actually a more comfortable subject, because she's an idiot.

"Why wouldn't he?" Mercy demands back, and LeAnn can hear her turning over in bed to face her.

"Because I'm some dumb bossy teenager," she says. "And like okay I'm your friend but that's no reason he should like me. And I act nervous around him, I'm awful."

"James gets weirded out by people not acting nervous around him," Mercy informs her, quiet. "At least if they know. And there's lots of reasons to like you. I like you. Why do you and Hannah get so surprised that people like you?"

LeAnn is so not going to let that one pass, and doesn't. "Oh my god you are not allowed to say that."

"Whatever," Mercy says, sounding annoyed, but it works in that it makes her shut up. Mercy is so not going to get into a conversation where she has to acknowledge that she's a great person.

After a few seconds of silence LeAnn says, "Sorry," because she doesn't want to go to sleep with that.

Mercy doesn't answer right away. When she does, her voice is quiet. "Lee?" she says.

"What?"

"You know you're a good person, right?"

LeAnn thinks it's extra unfair that crying is not only embarrassing and difficult and makes your nose snotty, but also hurts when it knots your throat up.

"Thanks," she says. Because everything else sounds awful, and she's done sounding awful for today.

 

In the morning LeAnn actually goes running with Mercy, instead of just pretending. But she insists that Mercy just give up being nice and, like, feel free to lap her. Or whatever. LeAnn jogs, like a normal person. Mercy jogs fast, and then suddenly spurts forwards into sprints that mean when she throws herself at a fence she lands halfway up it. Or more. And then throws herself over the top, turns the drop into a roll forward and starts running again.

Mercy runs like she's always practicing how she's going to get away from something. But even when she's just jogging, she goes faster than LeAnn. So LeAnn says oh my god, Mercy, I know the route, just go and double back and stuff and several times Mercy ends up out of sight.

The last time she doesn't double back. LeAnn catches up to her, sitting on the sidewalk and holding a gauze pad to the side of her leg and scowling. LeAnn slows to a walk, looks at the chain-link fence with the untidy top, and then at Mercy. She stops beside her friend, resting her hands on her hips.

"You know you don't have to make me feel better about being stupid last night, right?" she says. Mercy glares at her and throws a small rock from the sidewalk at her. She misses.

"Screw you," Mercy says, sullenly. "I almost made it. Besides it's not that bad."

"You are like the only person in the world who goes running with gauze and real bandages in her pocket," LeAnn says, tilting her head. Mercy mutters something. "Huh?"

Mercy looks up, looking like she sort of regrets whatever she muttered, and then she sighs. She peels the gauze away from her leg, showing a patch of skin scraped off that only Mercy could call "not that bad", although it has sort of stopped bleeding. Or at least, there's only little beads of blood welling up, and those'll probably clot before she ends up with blood running down her leg. She folds up the gauze and puts it in her pocket, presumably in case she rips any more skin off on the way home.

"I said, only because James has self-destructiveness issues. And don't say anything about role-modelling or whatever," Mercy warns. "He's like the last person who wants me to get cut up. That's why I know the what-is-my-life-my-choices look so well."

LeAnn looks at her as she stands up. "I'm not even gonna comment."

"Shut up," Mercy says, almost automatically. "Besides, I almost made it. So it's fine. C'mon, loser, let's go home."

 

They're back from the run before anyone at LeAnn's house is even going to be awake, so LeAnn eats breakfast at Mercy's. Usually, on the few occasions she's gone running with Mercy before, LeAnn's dad's still home, and he gets up for five-thirty, so she goes home for breakfast. Today it strikes her that really Mercy's place is the same size as LeAnn's family's, if not a little smaller because the layout runs at a 90-degree angle, and yet somehow it feels huge and empty. Or like it would if Mercy were the only person here.

LeAnn knows that Jaime spends a lot of time at his aunt's, because he can do his homeschool stuff there and because Colleen and Assem are super careful and thoughtful about his allergies. And Colleen's place is closer to the hospital where Mercedes' mom works, so sometimes her mom will sleep there if shifts are weird. It's not quite most of the time, she's pretty sure everyone's home on average four days out of seven, but still. She hasn't really thought about how Mercedes eats breakfast alone a lot.

Inviting Mercy over isn't really a good idea because breakfast is already crazy, LeAnn knows. And like Breakfast has always been Hannah and Gran Time, way back to when Hannah was tiny and all the way through the bad years before Hannah ran away from her dad, and it's one of the rituals Hannah builds her life around. It's not even that they'd even mind company, that's not it at all - they're actually super welcoming . . . but even LeAnn's sometimes felt totally the odd person out, a guest at an event she doesn't quite understand. She kinda thinks that'd be like someone taking sandpaper to soft skin for Mercy.

Thinking about it, LeAnn files away to ask in, like, a week or so, if Mercy minds her coming over here for breakfast more regularly because her house is too crowded. It's not even a lie: breakfast at her house is too crowded, and she's totally fine with eating Jaime Safe Food for breakfast. Actually she's pretty sure she could make something more interesting that's Jaime Safe than Mercy's habit of pouring off-brand rice-krispies into yoghurt and calling it a day, for that matter.

Actually -

While Mercy starts making coffee, LeAnn goes and frowns at the clothes she took off last night. They didn't get dirty, and if they're a little more glam than she usually wears to school it's not by much - she didn't want to look like she was actually dressing up for Vince, like he was that important, because he's not - especially if she doesn't duplicate the glittery makeup. Which she doesn't think she can, because she doesn't think Mercy owns any glittery makeup. Mercy owns, like, foundation and eyeliner and mascara and other stuff to make her look like she's, like, a seventeen year old without any makeup on, instead of looking like she's got makeup.

It's ridiculous. Mercy's probably actually better at makeup than LeAnn is, but that's all she uses it for. LeAnn can't figure out if Mercy knows that's part of why so many of their teachers and stuff are so hard on her - not that they even, like, know that's why, but that she always comes off like that much older and so everything she does is that much more aggressive. Knowing Mercy, she might be doing it on purpose. But knowing Mercy, she might not be.

Mercy combines this incredible insight and also being incredibly dense and LeAnn can never actually predict which she's going to be about anything.

The point is, LeAnn doesn't think she needs to go back home except super-quick to grab her bag. "Hey," she asks, "you mind if I use your shower and get dressed here?"

"Uh-uh," Mercy says. "No problem. You want coffee?"

 

In general, LeAnn reassesses the concept of "sneaking out". Probably just a better idea to stick to times she can pretend she's staying over with Mercy or someone else, and go from there.