On Wednesday, she fails a math test and her brother has to go to the hospital because he manages to fall down and crack his head and has to get stitches, and Mercedes tweets worst day *ever* because she figures she's allowed to exaggerate.
She gets a lot of sad emoji @-replies that don't actually make her feel better, and then unfollows and blocks some chick she started following last month, because the chick thinks it's a good time to lecture Mercedes about counting her blessings. And if Mercedes blows up at anything right now she's just going to end up crying for ages, so she just unfollows and blocks instead.
Then Thursday morning Jaime has to go back to the hospital because he's got a fever for some reason, Thursday afternoon LeAnn leaves for Disneyland and Hannah texts them all to say that her flight back from Michigan is delayed for basically ever, and then Mercedes leaves her backpack on the bus because . . . well she doesn't even know. Because she's an idiot and God hates her or something - which is totally proved by how, right when she turns around and realizes that she doesn't have her bag - which has her wallet and her keys and her umbrella in it - the sky opens up and just starts to pour.
By the time she gets to the front door of the building she's soaking wet. Her mom doesn't answer the buzzer, which means she's still at the hospital, and of course LeAnn's already gone and Hannah and her grandma won't be at her place yet.
Face burning, she tries Chloe, but apparently Chloe's out too; then she winces and even tries Miss Anita, because even if Miss Anita drives Mercedes crazy she's nice and she's safe and listening to her flutter and tell Mercedes she should take ballet and wear prettier clothes and do something with her hair is better than standing out in the rain.
She doesn't know a lot of the other people in the building well enough that the idea of being in their place isn't scary, and besides, most of them'd be away, after-school not after-work; she could just get one of them to let her into the building, but then she'll have to sit outside the condo until Mom got home, and she really, really doesn't want to have to text her mom about this while Mom was still at the hospital.
So she stares at the top row of names for a while before she pushes one of the middle ones and is embarrassed enough she can't even tell if she hopes she gets an answer or not.
It's Steve who answers the phone, and Mercedes feels herself cringe a little bit; his, "Hello?" sounds kind of startled, actually. Well. She supposes they probably don't get a lot of visitors. Actually she doesn't think she's ever seen anyone visiting except the one cute black guy, and he's gotta live somewhere far away because he comes in chunks months apart.
She automatically tucks some of her wet hair behind her ear and says, "Hi. Um. It's Mercedes, if you remember me - " and she kicks herself because that sounds so stupid, why is she so stupid? " - I just, I left my bag on the bus, and it's got my keys in it, so I was wondering if you could, um, let me in and," she feels her shoulders inching up as she says, "maybe I could borrow a towel? I'm kind of wet, and Mom's at the hospital - "
"Sure," the speaker says, and, "don't worry about it," and then the door's buzzing open.
Mercedes wonders if it's possible to die of embarrassment as she gets to the elevator, literally dripping on the floor. Hi, I'm Mercedes the idiot who leaves her backpack lying around and gets herself locked out of home, she thinks, savagely. I bet you're impressed.
It takes her a minute to stop hesitating and actually knock on the door.
And if it is possible to die of embarrassment, Mercedes thinks, she's probably going to do it right about now. Especially since the first thing Captain America says when he opens it is, solemnly, is "You know you forgot the magic word."
Except then his face changes all at once and he says, kinda gently, "Hey, I'm joking," and Mercedes realizes her face scrunched up a little and then she gets distracted from maybe starting to cry by a little orange shape trying to get past Steve's legs and out the door.
Mercedes almost goes to pick the kitten up, except unsurprisingly given Captain America, he's pretty fast and gets the little thing instead, lifting her up to eye-level and saying, "Would you stop that?" while she mews at him. "Come on in, and really - don't worry about it," he adds.
The inside of the condo is kind of the same layout as hers, except turned sideways and with a bigger living-room, probably because there's only two bedrooms. She takes off her coat and carefully hangs it up on the door-handle so it doesn't get anything else wet, and leans down to take off her boots; the kitten gets in and around her feet and pounces on her hands, which she can't help but smile at.
A Sphynx is totally off the table now for years: they're expensive, and then it's just adding someone else who might have something big go wrong and end up costing a lot for medical - well, veterinary - bills, so the smile is a bit sad, but it's still hard not to smile at a kitten falling over while it attacks your fingers.
"Here," Steve says as she stands up, and drapes a huge towel around her shoulders, and then hands her a folded up t-shirt. "You'll swim in that, but you're soaked - give me your wet stuff and I'll throw it in the dryer. Is your coat dryer-safe?"
"I dunno," Mercedes says, blinking, and picks it up to look. "I'm not good at laundry symbols," she admits, finding the tag, "does this mean dryer-safe?" and she holds it up. The kitten jumps at the dangling sleeves, but not very well.
"Yeah," Steve says taking it from her, and Mercedes isn't sure what he's trying-not-to-smile at honestly, "it does. The bathroom's over there, there should be a comb in basket by the sink."
The shirt is kind of huge, but that's not surprising; her jeans aren't actually too bad, because her sweater and her coat kind of covered them and the bottoms were tucked into her boots, but her socks are wet from the hole in the toe and her sweater and her tank-top are wet, and her hair's wet, and her sports bra is wet. She scowls at that for a minute, but the shirt's really dark blue, so she decides she's just too miserable to care and then bundles it up inside her shirts.
Then she spends a little bit of time yanking the tangles out of her hair and wincing and - she has to admit it to herself - looking around as much as she can without actually snooping.
She's pretty sure the bathroom was renovated recently: every other condo she's seen in the building has a shower-tub together, not a freestanding tub alone in one corner with a little pedestal table beside it for some bottles of stuff, and a shower-stall in the other, and besides the tiles are really nice and everything's kind of warm colours with little bits of copper decoration here and there instead of dull white and beige tiles with some flower-patterns here and there. It's totally not what she'd expect guys living on their own to have. There's even a couple of pictures on the wall, the kind that, like, pretend to be canvases stretched over frames but aren't really. One's sort of abstract-y and the other one looks like a blurry kind of Impressionist-looking cafe or something.
There isn't very much counter or cupboard-space. There's stuff tucked away behind the mirror and then there's a little bit of space in the cupboard under the sink, and room for the one basket beside the sink, but the towels and stuff must be somewhere else: all she sees in the cupboard is a kind of a big first aid kit that she really wants to look inside but doesn't touch because she's not - really - snooping. And the towels on the rack and the hand-towel are super soft.
The only thing that's the way she'd expect is that the soap is just soap, like Zest or something, the kind of stuff that smells "like soap" instead of like anything, and the shampoo in the shower is cheap 2-in-1. But the toothpaste is fancy all-natural baking-soda Tom's of Maine stuff, which is kind of funny.
And she's totally hiding now and if she doesn't come out soon it's gonna look like she is snooping. Which she's not.
The kitten pounces on her feet again when she opens the door, and then kind of falls over. It's hard not to giggle, and Mercedes does and then crouches down, extending her fingers to be sniffed.
"Here," says Steve, coming down the hallway and holding out a hand for her wet stuff. Mercedes hesitates.
"You don't have to - " she says, and stops when he shakes his head and smiles.
"I was putting a load in anyway," he says, "they're fast machines."
"Okay," Mercedes says, biting her lip. "Thanks." Then she looks down at the kitten.
The nice thing about pets is they always mean you have something to talk about. "So her eyes still aren't so good, huh?" she says, and now that the kitten is rubbing against her fingers she feels like she can pick it up. It makes a mew sound, but it doesn't sound like it's unhappy. "Like, they don't look infected anymore but it doesn't seem like she can see."
"No, Chloe says she probably won't, the infection came right at the wrong time," Steve replies, over the noise of setting up the machine. "Doesn't seem to bother her much though - except she really wants to get out into the hall and panics when she gets there." He comes out and reaches over with three fingers to scratch over the kitten's head where she sits in Mercedes' hands.
It's pretty obvious it's just Steve here, and Mercedes refuses not to try to act normal even if she is embarrassed, so she says, "James's not - ow!" and she catches the kitten and pushes it the rest of the way onto her left shoulder, where it had tried to jump to and kind of overshot, catching itself by digging in its claws.
"Yeah, watch out for that," Steve says, laughing a little. "She doesn't really believe people's left shoulders have nerve endings."
"Guess she wouldn't," Mercedes says. "James's not here?"
"No, not right now," Steve says, and he's still smiling but for a second his expression gets a little bit complicated in ways Mercedes still doesn't understand but recognizes from her mom, so she veers away.
"Um. Can I use a computer or something?" she asks. "My phone's almost dead and my charger was in my backpack and Mom's at the hospital so I don't want to run out of battery but I should probably look up the lost and found and email them or something."
"Absolutely," Steve says and he nods towards the living-room, "do you want the computer, or the or-something?"
Still refusing not to act normal, Mercedes replies, "Does the or-something have a touch-screen? Mom says I sound like I'm trying to stab the computer to death when I use a real keyboard."
What she can see of the kitchen looks like it's renovated, too, in these bright fresh happy blues and yellows. The living-room's got a couch on one side, a futon-couch on the other side and then a really comfy-looking arm-chair over to the side. The arm-chair's got a bear with a big red heart in front of it that says Happy Anniversary, and Steve must catch her looking at it, because he sighs as he picks up a tablet from the desk where a really slick looking computer is and hands it over.
"The way Tony Stark checks to see if you're still friends," he says, giving the bear a resigned expression, "is by seeing how irritating he can be before you stop talking to him."
Mercedes bites her tongue on saying, but it's still there, so it's gotta mean something, because that's totally into "rude and bratty" given the circumstances. She doesn't say Holy shit Tony Stark gave you a tacky teddy-bear? because, like, hello, Avengers and she's not dumb. She takes the tablet and says, "Thanks," instead and then, "Woah," when she swipes it open.
"Browser's down at the bottom, the icon that looks like a monocle - one of those weird one-eye-glasses things," Steve says, glancing at the tablet with a look that's really close to the one he gave the bear, "works like normal. Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, and the land-line is just over there if you want to call them without running your batteries out."
Mercedes sits on the couch, carefully, pulling her feet up so she can sit cross-legged and keep her toes warm. The tablet is definitely not an iPad, or a Surface, or a Dell or in fact like anything anyone could possibly buy. Mercedes has the sudden kind of overwhelming feeling that she's sitting here looking up the transit lost-and-found on some kind of brand new Stark Industries prototype, and that makes her feel a little bug-eyed.
Steve's gone into the kitchen, and the kitten's wandering around and jumping up on the big, kinda pretty cat-tree that's beside the futon. Like it doesn't look like most of the cat-furniture Mercedes' ever seen, which is just like two-by-fours with cheap carpet nailed on. It's almost more like a kind of a sculpture in pretty dark wood that's got some pads on it. Except the kitten really likes it, crawls all over it and digs in with her claws at the top curve. Then she curls up on top of it and flops over to sleep.
The lost-and-found information's pretty easy to get hold of, but it's also kind of the perfect example of that's-what-I-was-afraid-of. At least there's an online form so she doesn't have to go through the embarrassment of calling them. She's just about done filling it out when Steve comes back out of the kitchen carrying two mugs and passes her one.
Mercedes blinks and takes it; it smells like really good hot chocolate with cinnamon in it. "Thanks," she says, tasting it; she was right. She thinks Steve's mug has coffee in it - doesn't look like hot chocolate from what she can see and now that she's paying attention the place smells like coffee a bit.
"I figured," Steve says, moving the bear and sitting in the armchair, giving her a look that's knowing at the same time that it's something else she doesn't recognize, "that if I asked you'd probably get uncomfortable and insist you didn't want to make any trouble, or you might go far enough to actually fib and say no, so I decided to take the small risk you're one of the few people in the world who hates chocolate."
Mercedes isn't sure what to say to that, really, but Steve smiles slightly and saves her from it. "Mercedes," he says, "it's fine. Really. You're not interrupting anything and you're not being a bother. I was actually sitting and reading a book that's honestly pretty depressing, to take - to kill time." And then he adds, "And everyone in the world's forgotten something important somewhere really inconvenient, trust me."
"Why were you reading a depressing book?" Mercedes asks, because she never knows what to say when people try to make her feel better by pointing out that other people screw up. She's always pretty sure the answer but I'm supposed to be smarter and better than that is one they're going to argue with, or maybe even get insulted by, so . . .
Steve sighs and says, "Because unfortunately, I need to know what's in it," with a kind of a crooked half-smile. "Doesn't mean I have to try and read it all at once, though, or that talking to someone isn't a much nicer option. Did you find the lost-and-found?"
Now Mercedes sighs. "Yeah," she says, "and I put the claim in, except it all goes to the stupid Lost Properties place over on 34th Street. And they're only open normal hours on weekdays and you have to show up with picture ID which I don't even have. Why does everyone do that?" she adds, realizing she sounds a bit whiny but not able to stop herself. "Like, who do they think can get there on a week day during the work day? It's so stupid. Anyway. It's gonna be a pain." She picks at the frayed bit in the hem on the leg of her jeans.
"What was in it?" Steve asks, and she shrugs.
"My school stuff," she says. "And my umbrella. And my phone charger. And my wallet. And my keys. And some other junk but that's the stuff that's a problem. Not that my wallet really has anything in it," she adds, picking at the frayed bit a bit more, "I don't take my bank card anywhere, but it's got, like, a couple gift-cards from my birthday and stuff. And like, we have a spare set of keys. And Mom's got the same phone charger. I just feel really stupid." She stops herself and adds, "Sorry."
"No need to be," Steve says.
There's a sound, like a phone alarm, and Mercedes and Steve both end up looking at the table where there's a Samsung phone that's buzzing. Steve's face goes kind of blank, and he gets up and turns it off and then says, pretty cheerful, "That's telling me food would be a good idea to go with coffee." He tilts his head towards the kitchen and says, "Come see if there's anything you'd like."
Mercedes hesitates, remembers what he said about the hot chocolate and says, "Okay."
She ends up having starfruit which is now officially her favourite fruit in the world, and some lychee nuts, and most of a bag of peanut M&Ms. Steve has the rest of the lychee nuts and a peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich.
Because she picks up random stuff like this sometimes, Mercedes says, "You know we have totally different bananas now than when you were a kid?" and Steve smiles.
"So I've heard," he says. "A couple of people expected me to be really shocked about it but honestly, I think I ate maybe three bananas my whole life before I thawed out. They were expensive, and we mostly spent what he had on other stuff." He pauses and adds, "Not always better stuff, but other stuff. And then we lived on military rations and scrounging and there weren't a lot of bananas along the Western Front." He says it so fake-serious that Mercedes ends up giggling. "Honestly," he says, "we were doing pretty well if we got anything fruit-like that wasn't canned, and if the cans still had good seals."
"What'd you eat?" Mercedes asks and Steve laughs a little.
"You know how everyone today's into organic food?" he asks. "Hundred-mile diet, Omnivore's Dilemma, that kinda thing?"
Mercedes rolls her eyes. "Yeah," she says, because one of her aunts is completely into that stuff and sometimes gets on her mom's case for "so much processed food."
"Back then it was completely the other way around," Steve says. "Processed cheese was miracle food - it lasted longer," he says. "Preservatives were amazing." He makes a kind of and so on gesture with one hand. "So we had stuff like cheese out of tubes - "
"Ew," Mercedes says, wrinkling her nose and Steve grins.
"It's amazing what you'll eat if you're hungry," he says. "Granted, the German cheese was awful. Any time you ended up scavenging some of that from their rations, you tried to find some guy who hadn't had it yet to trade with, because nobody else would."
Steve also explains about needing to eat like more than twice what normal people or even like, normal fit guys have to eat, and while he's doing that there's a phone-vibrating noise and he fishes what's obviously actually his phone out of his pocket and answers a text.
Mercedes pretends that doesn't make it pretty obvious that the phone on the table wasn't his, and that that means the alarm wasn't his either.
He's kind of surprisingly easy to talk to, and Mercedes ends up explaining how school works now because apparently that's not how it worked in the Thirties and it's also something that hadn't come up. "That's always the exciting part," Steve says, "finding out the sudden huge thing I don't know that everyone else knows so well it didn't occur to them to mention."
And the question kind of sneaks up on her, slowly, but then it's really big in her head, sort of eating away at her other thoughts and it's probably because she's trying not to think about telling her mom about her backpack or think about Jaime and what getting sick all the time means and how they're still waiting for the detailed test and stuff like that. And maybe because it's pretty obvious if the phone on the table with the food alarm isn't Steve's then it's James' and he doesn't have it with him, and that's probably why Steve's expressions keep getting complicated.
But eventually she fiddles with the hem of her jeans again and says, "Steve? Can I ask you a question? Like," she says, giving a little shrug, "I guess a kind of nosy question. And I mean, it's fine if it's no because it's really none of my business, but, like if I don't ask then . . . "
"No, go ahead," he says, giving her a look like he's wondering what she could possibly ask.
She has to take a deep breath. And also ends up looking at her hands for a minute as she asks, "What . . . happened, to James? I mean, like," she adds, glancing up but not actually fast enough to get a good look because wow she can't believe she asked that, "like, I know the history stuff, I mean the stuff that's in history books, and like the first time that time we talked when he was annoyed at me for following him he sort of told me just because how the conversation was shaped like and, like, I can figure out what 'evil science Nazis' means in context, I'm not dumb, but - "
This time she does get enough of a look, and Steve's face is kind of blank and she immediately wants to disappear into the couch. "Never mind, it's totally not my business, I'm sorry - " and she'd go on, except he reaches over to touch her knee and she stops.
"It's fine, Mercedes," he says, in a much more serious voice than he's used yet. "It's a fair question, and it's a better idea to ask me than him. It's okay. You just startled me, that's all."
"I just," she says, still not entirely feeling like it's okay, "it's." She lifts her hands a little helplessly and then drops them into her lap again. "When I don't know things it's like I'm walking in a dark room and I don't know what's on the floor or if I'm gonna knock something over and break it or what."
"I know that feeling, and that's a pretty good way to describe it," Steve says. He leans his elbows on his knees and stares into middle distance for a minute. "You said you know the history," he says, and Mercedes nods.
"I know the 401st got totally wrecked in Italy, the first time HYDRA used their super-weapons," she says, slowly, "and he was one of the POWs, and then the big exciting story everybody knows, and then I know about how he supposedly died. But, like." She wrinkles her nose. "The other Howling Commandos kind of refused to talk about either of you much, you know? About stuff that wouldn't go in the papers."
Steve nods, looking serious. "That stuff's true, as far as it goes. The rest of it - " he pauses and rubs at the back of his neck for a minute. "While Bucky - James - was in the camp in Austria, Schmidt's pet scientist Arnim Zola experimented on him. We knew that," he says with a kind of sigh, "but we didn't know with what, or what he was doing. That's not the kind of thing you tell your captive subject, and the factory and camp kind of blew up on our way out. Turns out," and he opens his hands, "it was with things related to Dr Erskine's formulas."
"What made you into, like - " and Mercedes gestures because wow, now she can't think of a not kind of offensive way of saying that. "Sorry, that was really awkward," she adds, wrinkling her nose. But Steve smiles, one that actually looks amused.
"Exactly," he says. "Erskine did the first parts of his research and development when he was still in Germany, some of it even more or less at gunpoint under HYDRA's supervision. They were a bit annoyed when Peggy broke in and ran off with him."
Then the smile fades and Steve goes on, "Nothing showed up on any of the tests we knew how to take. I don't even know if you could test for it now. But it meant when Bucky fell off the train he survived it, and the cold, and a while later some of Zola's guys found him." Now Steve's voice is more expressionless, like how Mercedes' mom talks about when her dad was manic, or about Jaime's medical stuff. "He'd lost most of his arm, so they got rid of most of the rest and fit him with the one he used to have. They couldn't get him to cooperate, so they put him in cryo-freeze for a while, while they figured out how to get around that."
Mercedes thinks about lying in the snow with most of your arm basically broken off and actually that's about as far into thinking about the awful as she can really get: everything else turns into, like, line-drawings in her head, flat and detached, storyboards instead of real things. Like she can't figure out how to make it real in her head. "And they did," she says, and Steve nods slightly. He's looking into the middle distance again, until he lets go a breath in a whoosh and sits up.
"They figured out how to make a machine that . . .basically erases memories," he tells her. "It's a bit more complicated than that, but the neuroscience isn't important. Erase someone's memories of their entire life, they forget who they are and why they're fighting you, they're scared and confused and vulnerable. Makes them a lot easier to condition." His voice is even and matter of fact. "When they weren't using him as a weapon, they froze him. And that's pretty much it."
"Until DC-14," Mercedes says softly, mostly thinking aloud. She notices her hands are in fists and makes them let go. It's not like she could do anything to anyone anyway.
"More or less, yeah," Steve says, reaching for his new cup of coffee. Mercedes can't think of anything to say - stuff like that's fucked up and that's horrible and if you haven't already killed everyone can I help is weird and kinda off and she doesn't really want to say it and breaking things is kind of not an option and neither is crying - but after a second he catches her eye and says, "You know you're the first person he actually talked to that wasn't me, or someone he had to deal with because of me? Come to think of it, pretty sure you're in the first ten overall. Third, if you leave out ordering frappucinos and a security guard at Stark Tower."
Mercedes looks down, feeling herself flush and feeling suddenly awkward. She shrugs. "I just wanted to figure out how he could get to the other roof," she says, and it feels kind of stupid. "Then he was all kind of messed up on the roof, like, he was bleeding and he didn't seem to even know."
Steve's face gets a really resigned expression again. "Yeah," he says. "He does that." And he sounds so much like Mercedes' mom - and maybe because she's still trying to figure out how to deal with the other feelings - that Mercedes ends up giggling.
Then she shrugs again. "I dunno," she says. "I guess I just kind of liked that he didn't seem to have any . . . like, ideas, about what I'm supposed to be or something. A lot of the time it feels like people don't talk to me, they talk to, like, the shape of me they have in their heads. I kinda hate it."
Steve's smile is a little crooked. "I know the feeling," he says. "And you're right, he doesn't do that a lot."
Then he hesitates and says, "Mercedes, you're absolutely welcome to stay until your mom gets home, if you want to. I mean that. But you look tired, the dryer just stopped and I can actually get you into your place in pretty short order, if you want to go home."
Mercedes blinks at him and then frowns. "How?"
She really should have figured out the answer for herself, because of course Captain America can pick locks. "You can probably steal cars and break into places by the window, too," she says, watching him stick the little pieces of metal into the dead-bolt lock.
"And I'm surprisingly good at forging signatures," Steve says, absently, as something goes click and he opens the door for her. "Also I used to be a pretty good pick-pocket, but I'm a little out of practice, so I wouldn't want to have to do that one in a hurry."
"School history books always leave out the fun stuff," Mercedes mock-complains and then says, "hang on a sec, I'll give you your shirt back," because she forgot to change back up at his place. She pulls on one of her pyjama-t-shirts because it's easiest and then folds his shirt up carefully.
"Thank you," she says, handing it back to him.
"Any time," he says, and it's like they're not just automatic words, like he means them. "And you know," he adds, "you can come up and play with the kitten sometimes, if you want. It's not the same as having your own, I know, but it's probably good for her to know more than two people."
"Thanks," Mercedes says, shyly, and then waves good-bye and closes the door.
Then she has a shower, just in case there's any cat left on her; she's just getting out when her mom calls from the hospital to say that Aunty Colleen will be there in a bit, because Jaime has to stay overnight for observation. Mercedes just says okay and doesn't tell Mama about her bag because she just . . . can't.
When Aunty Colleen gets there, Mercedes buzzes her up and unlocks the door and goes back to watching the Phinneus&Ferb episodes on the DVR. Only when Aunty Colleen's voice says, "Is this yours, sweetpea? It was just outside in the hall," does Mercedes get up and go to meet her at the door.
She's holding Mercedes' backpack, with a small folded note that says Mercedes in James' messy printing. Mercedes takes the backpack, stares at the note, and then bursts into tears. She tries to explain, but she doesn't think she makes sense.
She cries for a long time, until she falls asleep on Aunty Colleen's lap on the couch.