The problem is, it's hard to talk to Hannah or LeAnn separately. They're kind of glued together a lot of the time.
It's not wrong, or anything: Mercedes knows Hannah basically needs a sister, to be around all the time, and LeAnn's better at it for Hannah than Mercedes is, just like Mercedes is better at knowing how to deal with grownups and teachers than LeAnn is. And it's good, because LeAnn makes Hannah braver and Hannah makes LeAnn nicer, it just gets tricky when what Mercedes really wants - needs - is just to hang out with one of them.
Right now she just wants to hang out with LeAnn, or probably better way to say it would be that she wants to curl up in LeAnn's room and have LeAnn tell her funny things off, like, Gawker while Mercedes complains and bitches about stuff. She's too all . . . sharp and pointy and grumpy for Hannah right now, she knows it makes Hannah uncomfortable. Other times, though, the part where LeAnn always wants to solve things means Mercedes ends up wanting to strangle her, because LeAnn can't solve cancer (or whatever it is that's making Jaime sick this time because they can't even figure it out and the insurance is getting bitchy) or anything like that, and it'd be nice to just go window shopping with Hannah or do their nails or something.
And she tries not to get kinda resentful that it's easy for either of them to make it so they can just find her if they want to, but it's really hard to say hey can we just hang out without either LeAnn getting insecure and snippy or Hannah thinking she did something wrong, but it's hard. But as far as she can see there's no way to fix that. Her mom would just tell her to sit down and talk about it but sometimes Mercedes thinks her mom seriously overestimates her friends', like, emotional maturity.
Besides, it's not like Hannah's all shy-scared on purpose, and LeAnn just tries to solve things for people because she likes them.
But it means she's crankly and prickly to start with because she's out of sorts and has to be nice and then halfway through the school day she ends up with her throat starting to scratch and her head starting to hurt and her nose starting to plug up and she ends up wanting to wail that it's not fucking fair, which is embarrassing.
She tries to ignore it, but when she gets to the empty room after school for the Christmas Fundraiser meeting LeAnn looks at her and pulls her aside and says, in Spanish, "You need to go home, you look really sick and tired."
Mercedes tries to shrug it off and says, "Nobody's at home anyway," because her mom's still at work, but LeAnn gives her a serious look.
"No, but there's NyQuil at home and stuff like that," she says, "seriously, you don't look good. Go home and take a bath or something, okay? Hannah and me will check on you when we're done." And Mercedes head hurts and she isn't allowed to take tylenol at school, so she gives up and gets on the bus to go home.
Besides, LeAnn usually bitches like crazy when people sign up to help with stuff and then don't show up, so if she's saying Mercedes should go home, Mercedes must look as bad as she feels.
At home there's a note on the little whiteboard that sticks to the fridge: Reminder: Swing shift, home @ 11ish, tuna in the fridge, Jaime @ Colleen's, love you and a drawing of a heart. Mercedes drops her backpack in the hall like she's not supposed to and drops her coat on top of it, kicks off her boots and then ends up sitting in the hall for a couple minutes because she's dizzy.
What's in the medicine kit isn't actually NyQuil because her mom never wastes money on name-brands for medicine, but it's basically the same stuff it just doesn't cost as much and it's in pressed-powder pills instead of liqui-gels or candy-coated stuff. Mercedes looks at the dosage and swallows two of the round pills and then drinks a lot of water because one of them gets stuck in her throat. Then she pours a lot of the cold-and-flu bath-salts into the tub, fills it up with really hot water and risks wrecking her phone playing Candy Crush for a while until her head feels a little bit better and she can breathe.
Then she texts her mom with kinda sick like a cold maybe u and jaime should stay @ aunties im okay can get myself to school tomorrow.
Mercedes picks at some of the tuna for a bit, except she's not hungry and she kind of hates tuna casserole anyway, she just pretends she doesn't because it's cheap and with the special recipe Jaime can eat it and he either likes it or is even better at lying about it than Mercedes.
She'll probably find out when they're, like, thirty and trading stories.
Hannah sends her a Twitter message saying gettin supper u ok u want nythin?, because the wireless at school is free so the app is cheaper than texting; Mercedes thinks about it for a while but she's really not hungry and she'll feel bad if they go to the trouble and then she doesn't eat it, so she messages back no thnx mom left food ate already and then bursts into tears for no reason.
She hates being sick. Being sick makes her stupid and weepy and she feels awful.
It takes some work to make herself stop crying, and then she washes her face with cold water and blows her nose. She looks at her dayplanner for homework, but there's nothing except a math sheet and the thing is, even if she aces this midterm she's still gonna have to redo the class so there's no point. It's not even that math's really hard, it's just she hates Mr Tomo that much and if she repeats the class it'll be with Ms Lee anyway.
It makes her feel awful, too, but. At least Hannah isn't in that class anymore so she doesn't spend a lot of time wanting to stab Mr Tomo in the face with a pen.
Hannah messages back ok ilu ♥ ♥ chek on u when we get in; Mercedes picks at the tuna again for a few minutes, and then gives up.
She tries watching TV but the PVR is all messed up and the only thing on she wants to see is something on Discovery where they're basically poking fun at how the History Channel's aliens guy seems kinda put out now that there's proof that aliens actually exist and totally did visit earth but are pretty definite about not building the pyramids or the Nazca Lines or anything and actually they mostly spent all their time in Northern Europe anyway.
So of course the signal goes all bad in the middle. At that point she sort of throws the remote at it, and thinks maybe she should go to bed, except she's bored and lonely and today sucks.
Mercedes doesn't really decide to try going upstairs and seeing if she can play with the kitten, and she sort of blames the not-really-NyQuil because it just kind of happens. Like her brain remembers there's a kitten and Jaime's not going to be home anyway and thinks kitten! yay kitten! and then she's halfway up the stairs before she actually thinks about how this is going to mean she has to knock on the door and try to find some way to basically say hi I'm sick and unhappy and want to pet your cat that doesn't sound childish and stupid and intrusive.
And it's weird that the idea of turning around and going back downstairs having come this far is embarrassing since the only person who knows is her, but it is and she can't really stand it.
She sort of gives up, and when James answers the door she says, "Hi," arms folded around herself. "Today sucks and nobody's home and Steve said I could maybe play with the kitten sometimes - "
James is already crouching down and catches the kitten before she makes it out into the hall. He stands back up and hands her to Mercedes. "Come in, kid, you look miserable."
Inside the condo looks wrong, but Mercedes' head is so gummed up it takes her a minute to figure out what it is. Then she squints and says, "Didn't there used to be a wall between here and the kitchen?"
There isn't, now. There's a sort of pillar thing that looks like wood painted white but then with random paint sketches on top of it, swirled all around with a line of copper from top to bottom, and it looks like it holds up the corner but otherwise it's all counter, lower on the side that looks at the dining room and higher on the side that faces the door. It's kind of nice, actually, and it makes the whole place brighter, but Mercedes is pretty sure it used to be just like hers but sideways, with a whole wall.
"Someday," James says, by way of answer, "Steve's going to run out of shit to tinker with in here and I'm gonna have to post flyers. 'Wanted: something in your place to fix or renovate to satisfy ongoing need in test subject to go "Look, look what I can do now!"'"
Mercedes ends up giggling, mostly at the tone of voice, and that makes her cough and the kitten who's climbing up the front of her sweater-coat make a noise of protest.
She's bigger, the kitten, but she's still small enough that she fits on Mercedes' shoulder and can pull herself up the chunky-knit sweater without wrecking it; somehow Mercedes doesn't think she'll ever get very big. And either she remembers Mercedes or she's just really friendly, because she bumps her face against Mercedes' jaw.
From the kitchen, across the counter where he's pouring something from an on-stove coffee-pot into a mug that says What do we want? Coffee! When do we want it? I'LL FUCKING CUT YOU!, James gives her a kind of a thoughtful look. "How sick are you?" he asks.
Mercedes shrugs, self-conscious. "Just a cold," she says, and thankfully doesn't end up with a coughing fit or sneezing or anything to make that sound dumb. "I took stuff for it, I'm fine." She squints at the cup in his hand and asks, "What's with the mug?" so as to change the subject, and because it's a weird enough mug she can ask and have it still be normal.
"Stark needs more hobbies and less money," James replies, and then nods at the little wooden box that looks kind of like a treasure-chest that's beside the cat-tree now. "Toys are in there, the more noise it makes the more likely she is to be able to follow it."
And maybe if Mercedes felt better she'd also feel more awkward but right now the kitten is nice and Steve invited her and James doesn't seem to mind so she just doesn't care. She sits on the floor beside the cat-tree and opens up the box.
There are a lot of toys. Most of them have bells, or something that goes click or makes a whirring noise. In the background Mercedes can hear the sound of dishes in the kitchen and laundry and James moving around and basically ignoring her, but she just sits on the floor between the coffee-table and the couch, near the box and the cat tree, and gets the kitten to chase stuff everywhere, bouncing like crazy and making funny noises herself. The funniest is the little remote control mouse that makes a noise when it moves but doesn't when it stops, so that the kitten goes nuts and freaks out all over the place making little hnnh! and prrt! noises and Mercedes ends up giggling until she coughs again.
She looks up, still coughing into her elbow, at the sound of a cup getting put down on the coffee table: this mug says I shoot people. And sometimes cut off their heads. There's a picture of a camera underneath. Inside is something steaming that looks kind of red-orange and foamy, spicy smelling.
Mercedes isn't dumb: it's pretty clear it's for her, and it's pretty clear it's some kind of cold-remedy-thing, so she picks it up to blow on it and taste it before she asks the obvious question. And blinks. It's kind of gingery-lemony-weird-spicey but really sweet with honey and milk and it actually feels really good on her throat.
"Tumeric, ginger, lemon, honey, milk," James says, before she can ask. She swallows another mouthful and something occurs to her.
"I'm not gonna get you sick am I?" she asks and James sort of does this huff-exhale-laugh thing.
"No, kiddo, you're not gonna make me sick. Steve just used to get sick every time he fucking turned around and all most people had to treat this stuff was alcohol, which he couldn't really drink. I picked up a few tricks. Drink it, it'll at least do something."
"Thanks," Mercedes says for lack of anything else, and then ends up laughing as the kitten tries sniffing at the cup and licking some and jerks her head back, pawing at her nose a bit.
"No, you don't want any of that either, you moron," James says, and Mercedes glances up before she realizes he's talking to the little cat. "There's nothing in mugs you ever want to fucking drink."
The kitten washes her face furiously, makes a bunch of sounds that kind of remind Mercedes of startled pigeons and then jumps up on the table to climb up James' arm. James looks at her and says something in what Mercedes figures is Russian and looks really put upon when the kitten rubs her face against his chin, but even with her head full of fuzz Mercedes's pretty sure that's a bunch of BS.
"Where's your brother?" James asks, as the cat settles herself like a scarf around his shoulders and he absently pets her forehead.
"Aunt Colleen's," Mercedes says, sniffing and wiping her nose on her wrist before she can stop herself. "Still don't know what's going on with him but he's not really up to going to school so he goes to our aunt's for the day and does homeschool stuff there and Mom picks him up on the way home." She thinks and then says, "Homeschool stuff is like - "
"I know," James interrupts, but not, like, mean or anything. "All those tests and nothing, huh?"
Mercedes shrugs. "Can't find any of the cancer or anything else except he keeps getting sick and his white blood-cell counts are all weird and all over the place. And even when he's not sick he's weird-tired, but he gets these fevers for no reason, and it's just weird. Dr Col - that's our family doctor - he says if it were just Jaime the specialists'd probably just go 'oh wow super interesting try this' and ignore us, but apparently there's like a bunch of cases that are kind of the same and some of them are actually important. Insurance are still being dicks, though." She realizes she's babbling and shrugs again.
"Hn," is what James says. Then he takes the cat off his shoulders, hands her to Mercedes and says, "Stop sitting on the ground, you're gonna put a crick in your neck."
The thing she notices now she's on the couch is that there's totally a combat knife on the table beside her. And another one on the other table and also a handgun. James is in the back hall, so Mercedes stares at it for a minute, blinking, and then starts looking around.
They weren't there last time, when Steve was here, and neither were the other guns and knives that she catches sight of all over the place so that basically - she figures out after a minute or two - there's nowhere in the room anyone could sit without having a weapon in, well, right in reach.
She doesn't really mean to say anything about it, but sometimes when she has a cold her brain is stupid and when he comes back she ends up looking up and asking, "How many guns do you have?" At least James mostly looks a little bit amused.
"A lot," he says, matter-of-fact and Mercedes tries to ignore how she wants to blush for being so fucking rude. And since she figures she might as well ask, since she's already embarrassed herself -
"Is that even legal?" she asks.
"Not even fucking remotely," James tells her, same matter-of-fact voice. "But most of'em weren't legal for the people I stole them from, either, so I figured what the hell. Knives," he adds, "are easier to buy."
"Yeah," Mercedes says, "Dad got me one like that when I was eight." She points to the one all by itself near the cat tree. At James' raised eyebrows she wrinkles her nose. "Mom wasn't super-happy about that. I either lost it or it's packed up somewhere in storage," she adds, because she hasn't actually thought about it in a long time.
A few minutes later his phone buzzes and James looks annoyed as hell, but he digs something out of the freezer and sticks it in the microwave and it turns out to be really good kind of stew thing with lamb in it that apparently somebody named Maria made, and its spicy enough to make Mercedes' nose run. Which at least makes it less stuffed up.
James eats half kind of perched on the side of the counter and his phone buzzes again, but this time apparently it's a call and he answers it with, "Yeah, I was ignoring you. Yes, I'm eating. Fuck off and go finish watching bad movies."
Mercedes tries not to snicker, but it's kinda hard. "Steve's watching bad movies?" she asks, when James hangs up, looking exasperated. Except Mercedes is starting to think exasperated is kind of a lie, especially given how he was just talking to Steve.
"Foster found out he hadn't got around to seeing Star Wars and went kinda fucking nuts about wanting him to come watch it with her in some kind of weird rearranged order to see if it actually worked with someone who didn't know them," James says.
"You've seen'em?" Mercedes says, covering her mouth to try to stop a yawn. James snorts.
"Kiddo, I'm an agoraphobic insomniac, I've pretty much seen everything ever fucking filmed," and then he goes right onto, "pass me your bowl," in that way people do when they don't actually want you to answer what they just said.
Mercedes does, feels awkward for a minute and starts to say, "I should go home - "
"Your mom home yet?" James asks, rinsing out both bowls under what looks like really hot water. Mercedes wonders if he can feel heat with his left hand.
"Not till eleven," Mercedes says, covering up another yawn. In her lap, the kitten's started to knead at her sweater, and James indicates her with a knife - kitchen knife - he pulls out of the drawer.
"Might as well wait until she gets bored and wanders off, then," he says, "or she'll whine."
Mercedes strokes the little cat a few times and thinks about nudging her off, but then James is handing her a plate of cut up starfruit and she's kind of easy to convince with that. She wonders where they get it.
When she wakes up her throat hurts a lot and so does her head and it kind of feels like her bones hurt and her nose is totally plugged and Mercedes isn't totally sure where she is until she moves and something makes a mrrrt noise and she realizes there's a lump curled up in front of her against her stomach.
She doesn't really remember falling asleep, kind of remembers the kitten kneading at her legs and then James turning on some kind of audiobook while she ate and her head feeling kind of heavy and then -
She's on the couch, but there's a pillow under her head and she's covered up with a blanket and she starts to sit up but then she's coughing, a lot. By the time she's done someone's handing her a glass of water and some blue liqui-gels and it turns out that someone is Steve.
The light's turned down. Actually the lights are off except the little lamp on the other table and the one in the kitchen. Mercedes takes the water and manages to get some kind of voice out even though she's croaking to say, "F - I mean I'm sorry, I should go home - "
"Your fever's 104, kiddo," says James' voice from over towards the kitchen and Mercedes tries to make her eyes work right. "You're not going anywhere until your mom gets here." And there's the kind of tone in his voice like her mom gets sometimes, where it's not that you can't argue, it's just that arguing won't do any good, because you'll lose.
Her head really hurts. Her arms hurt. The kitten yawns at her and stretches her front paws. "No," Mercedes says, because she argues with her mom too and she's trying to think, "Mom's staying at Aunt Colleen's I told her I'm sick I don't wanna get Jaime sick - "
She tries to stand up and falls over, forgets she has the cat in front of her so the poor baby yowls and jumps down and Mercedes feels really dizzy and light headed and now her stomach's upset.
Steve catches her arm and helps her sit back down, and now she can see James standing a little bit back, arms folded, with a complicated look she doesn't understand but isn't . . . bad. "No, kiddo," he says. "Your brother's staying at your aunt's and your mom's coming back to get you. Some idiot got into a three-car pileup so she's gonna be a while, so take the damn medicine and stop trying to fall over and give yourself a concussion."
He's got the same exasperated in his voice he had with Steve. And the cat.
After a second Mercedes takes the capsules from Steve and swallows it with the water because she feels really, really awful. Then Steve passes her another cup of the tumeric-ginger stuff and squeezes her shoulder.
And she should go home, she should really go home but if she goes home there's nobody there and it's all dark and Mom won't be home for ages if there's an accident making traffic bad and she doesn't want to -
She realizes she's almost fallen back to sleep when James is taking the half-empty mug out of her hands and then before she can say anything he's actually picking her up. And nobody's done that since her dad died because even though she was smaller she was still too big for her mom to lift and her head hurts and her throat hurts and she almost starts crying.
So much for looking after herself, some part of her thinks, all twisted up. But then James is putting her down on a single bed with a pillow and a lamp on the bedside table and covering her up with a comforter.
"Just shut up and go to sleep, kitten," she thinks she hears him say. "You're not the first person to get the flu."
"Now that sounds familiar," comes a kind of a murmur from the door and she definitely hears James say, "Shut up, Steve."
Then she gives up and closes her eyes.
She wakes up one more time to take more of the cold medicine. Her mom gets there at around two in the morning, but this time the drugs are still working and Mercedes can think and sort of walk. Steve hands her mom the rest of the packet of drugs and tells her not to worry about it, and when Mercedes wobbles a little bit James catches her by the shoulder.
"Sorry," she says, her voice all raspy and he mock-ruffles her hair.
"Go home and go to sleep," he says. "All things considered I'd rather you weren't sitting in an apartment with a fever of a hundred and four by yourself, kitten."
He seems kinda startled when her mom hugs him a bit, though, and says, "Thank you so much," before steering Mercedes to the elevator.
She tries to say, "I'm sorry, Mama - " but that's as far as she gets before her mother says, "Don't be completely ridiculous, go straight to the bathroom and take some drugs and go to bed, my love, right now."
And she steers Mercedes by her shoulders once they step in the door, so Mercedes gives up and does as she's told.