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After she gets Mercedes tucked into bed with some more cough syrup and antipyretics, Clara drops her scrubs in the laundry basket, climbs into the shower and cries for roughly forty-five minutes, sitting in the bottom of it, hugging her legs.

It's not the most useful thing to do, but if she doesn't get it over with now she's going to do something inconvenient like burst into tears in the middle of work or some other really damn inconvenient time and she'd like to avoid that if at all possible. So she hugs her knees and rests her forehead on them and cries, and resents the God-damn hell out of anyone out there who gets to raise their kids with a partner who's alive and there and useful, or even anyone who isn't but who can afford to take a week off work without looking at their credit cards and wanting to scream.

Then she washes her face and reminds herself that for some people, that last part would be "without worrying about the mortgage" or "without worrying about the rent" and on and on and on, and this year's strata fees are paid and she's still God-damn lucky her father-in-law helped them pay this place off before he died.

Clara washes her hair, shaves her legs and underarms because why the hell not she's in here anyway, and then gets out and braids her hair back out of her face while it's still wet. Then she heats up some of the tuna casserole still left in the fridge and picks at it for a while, sitting on the couch in the mostly dark.

She wakes up to the sound of Mercedes getting up and stumbling to the bathroom to throw up. And Clara gets up and goes to the bathroom and is glad Mercedes' hair is still in the ponytail she wears all the time. She cradles her daughter's head in between bouts of coughing and throwing up that blessedly stay separate. And when Mercedes hasn't thrown up for ten minutes and is falling asleep kneeling in front of the toilet, Clara puts her back to bed and picks up the phone to call out of work.

Her luck's good enough she gets Julian instead of Pam, which is almost enough to have her crying out of relief; he tells her not to worry about it. "Clara," he says, "relax. You never fucking call out, and Magdalena Lopez's desperate for shifts anyway. I'll deal with Pam. She can come live in reality with the rest of us. Last thing you need is for your kid to need to be in the hospital, right? Not like we don't got enough people in with this flu already."

When she hangs up, there's a text from James' number, saying to let him know if someone needs to look in on Mercedes tomorrow. Clara's vision blurs a little bit one more time, and she texts back saying thank you, but she's called in for the day.

Then she turns the do-not-disturb on her phone and goes to bed before she ends up crying for the rest of the night.

 

Around five in the morning she sort of half-surfaces to feed Mercedes more medicine, shepherd her to the bathroom, through a glass of the powdered green Gatorade from the cupboard in spite of weak protests about how it tastes, and then back to bed. Mercedes' fever's one-oh-one now instead of one-oh-four, but it still doesn't make Clara happy.

The next time she wakes up it's quarter to eight, and the land-line's ringing. It takes Clara a second to focus on the fact that the only reason for that is someone trying to get in the front door, but then she scrambles out of bed just in time for it to stop ringing and presumably go to voicemail. She curses under her breath, waits a second and then picks it up on the first ring of the next try.

"Sorry," she says, "I was asleep - "

"Good," is what Colleen says in the other end, "you should've been. And you should go back to sleep after I go home."

Clara buzzes the front open and then goes to unlock the condo door. Then she dumps the two-day-old coffee in the sink and runs some soapy water through the pot, dumps the grounds in the garbage and rinses out the filter holder so she can make some more. She's still doing that when Colleen knocks, so she calls, "It's open," and fills up the coffee-maker with fresh water.

When Colleen opens the door, it's with groceries in reusable bags hanging off one arm, and Clara tries to start, "Oh, Colleen, you didn't have to - "

But Colleen puts them down on the table and starts unwrapping the scarf from her neck while cutting Clara off with, "You are absolutely right, it was a totally and completely voluntary action on my part, and you're not going to worry about it, Clara, okay?" She folds the bags down and says, "It's just some milk and toilet paper and Lysol wipes and stuff like that. Stuff I know I never think about needing for when someone gets sick until I've gotta run out and get it. Plus a couple soups and some frozen stuff from Whole Foods."

She glances at Clara and adds, "And Jaime's fine, he and Assem are bonding over this book-and-TV series called 'Horrible Histories'. Which I actually don't like, so it's nice for Assem to have someone who appreciates them, even if that someone is eight." Then she gestures at Clara with a box of something frozen that promises to be organic and free trade. "You look exhausted."

Clara gives the groceries one last guilty look and then gives up, scrubs her hands over her face and says, "It took me till two to get home last night because of that fucking pile up."

Colleen gives her a slightly horrified look. She's got her hair in twists right now and it really suits her, brings out the elegance in her face. Clara's pretty sure she looks like a hungover slob in comparison. "So you should seriously go back to bed," she says. "Last thing you need is you getting sick. Am I smelling fresh coffee?"

Clara gets her some almost on automatic, and it takes a few minutes after she sits down to realize that Colleen's not just tucking the groceries away like she said when she waved Clara to the kitchen chair, she's actually basically managed to clean the kitchen, too. Or at least tidy it up, pile all the dishes in the sink, run clean water over them, and wipe the counters.

"And no," she says, as she catches Clara noticing, "I didn't have to do that either, that was a completely free choice, too. It's okay, Clara. You were tired when you dropped Jaime off yesterday, honey. It's okay to let people help sometimes, you know?"

Then she gives Clara a strangely knowing look and adds, "Especially people who aren't keeping count, okay? I don't do that. I figure maybe it's worth saying that out loud. If I say I can help I can help and I'm not saving up favours for later." She folds up the tea-towel she's using and adds, "I don't look at relationships as obligations, I look at them as commitments. Okay?"

The world seems determined to make her cry, Clara reflects, but she blinks a few times rapidly and says, "I'm sorry, Colleen, I'm not being fair. It's just," and then she sighs and says, "sometimes my family - " and then she stops because she doesn't know how to say it without feeling more disloyal than she can stand.

Colleen gives her a tight smile and says, "I figured. Assem's family's like that sometimes - most of the time - which is why he lives in New York when they live in Chad. Mom's family was like that, in the really bad way, which is why I've never met them."

Clara rubs one hand over her face and Colleen reaches over to squeeze her elbow, which considering Colleen doesn't touch people very often is a definite Gesture. "Honestly," she says, a little softer. "I can't fix cancer or whatever it is, I can't make insurance companies not be complete and total shit, but having Jaime stay at the house and picking up groceries and tidying your kitchen, I can do. And I don't mean you look bad, Clara, but you look tired."

Her mouth quirks and she finishes, "So relax and drink your coffee. How's the sicky? And I promise, I've got hand sanitizer in the car and I had the original flu-shot and the supplemental, so I'm fine."

"Her fever's down but not gone, and she started vomiting this morning," Clara says, giving up this time, too. "And once she feels a little bit better I'm going to have a hell of a time getting her to be honest with me about how she sick she really is."

Colleen gives her a small smile, but it's gentle and actually lights up her eyes. "Like mama, like baby," she says, teasing and Clara manages a tired laugh.

"Yeah, well."

"She alone here last night till you get home?" Colleen asks, getting up to get the coffee carafe and bringing it back. "Or did she go to one of her friends' places?"

Clara shakes her head, and if she were less tired she'd feel a twinge of guilt but right now she's just. . .she's tired, and she's willing to accept it when people say something's no problem. Mostly. "Upstairs neighbour she made friends with summer before last," she says, "they got a new kitten and she's got a standing invitation to go visit it. Apparently she went up there and then fell asleep on their couch. James didn't really want her to go home alone with a fever so he called me and left her to sleep."

"That's nice of him," Colleen says, but the slightest tinge of hesitation in her voice makes Clara half-smile.

"Spot the lady married to a prosecuting attorney," she says, gently teasing, and Colleen grimaces but lifts her coffee a little in acknowledgement.

"It colours the way you see the world," Colleen admits. "It does. But it's just - "

Clara shakes her head. "No, Steve and James are safe, trust me." And she hopes Colleen will take her word for it, because she doesn't want to get into how she's so sure of that. Even if Colleen would accept the short version instead of prodding at it, "Captain America's my upstairs neighbour" is a longer conversation than Clara wants to get into. "And honestly, with Hannah and LeAnn both having their grandmothers' at their places, better she not take the flu in to the elderly.

Colleen's eyebrows go up. "'Steve and James'? Brothers or roommates or a Thing?" she asks, and Clara actually has to laugh.

She's wondered more than once herself.

"To be honest I have no idea, except they're not blood relatives," she says. "Could be any one. Permanently attached, whatever it is - James isn't . . . well," she says, waving a hand. "He has PTSD, or something like it, like Hector. He moved in a few months after Steve moved here." She shrugs. "I know Steve looks less anxious and worried since then - "

"But I'd feel that way, too, if I knew someone important to me who wasn't well was where I could keep an eye on him," Colleen finishes, because she knows. "Fair enough, I guess. I can see why Mercedes might get attached to someone she can see her dad in."

Clara sips her coffee and smiles a little. "Actually, apparently they made friends about her running thing, the parkour."

At Colleen's look of interest, Clara explains about the running and tells the story - at least as Mercedes told her, altered a little to account for not wanting to get into the enhancements.

"And it went from there. Which I am all for, actually," Clara adds, "because while I know she wouldn't even hear me if I said 'don't do that, you'll break your neck', she listens when he says 'don't do that until you can manage this many pull-ups' and 'don't do that until you're overshooting your landings on this bit you know you can do by this many feet', or when he tells her if she breaks her neck doing something stupid, he will actually come to the hospital and make fun of her. So it's good."

Colleen gives Clara a fair-enough expression, both hands wrapped around her mug. She's got a red-gold polish on her fingernails and Clara's a bit jealous - she's too light to pull that off.

Clara pours herself the last of the coffee. "Honestly," she admits, "I've been worried about what you were thinking of."

Colleen exhales through pursed lips, like a tension snapped, and says, "Yeah, me too, I just didn't know how to say it? She's so desperate for an older male figure in her life, but she's so defensive of anyone she thinks is looking down on her or assuming stuff - "

"I know," Clara says, fervently. "Believe me, I know. Not so much, now, and . . . she confides in him. Actually, once he came down to tell me trying to hide Jaime's medical things and how worried I was wasn't working."

Colleen's eyebrows go up again, but more in appreciative surprise than anything. "That's nice," she says.

Clara doesn't add that she's relatively sure that if someone looked like they were trying to take advantage of Mercedes they'd disappear, never to be seen again. Her daughter did fill her in on what she knows about why he came to be here, not to mention alive; Clara's not sure that should have made her feel more secure instead of more worried, but it did. It's probably a character flaw.

"Anything new on Jaime's tests?" Colleen asks, dragging Clara's attention back; she shakes her head.

"Nada," she says. "Still the same abnormal bullshit, still no sign of cancerous cells anywhere, still no explanation but they can't write it off as psychosomatic because of the other cases with the same thing and because of the continual abnormal white blood cell behaviour. I catch myself thinking," she adds, "that I almost wish it was the leukaemia so I'd know. Then I fucking cross myself and touch wood and find some salt to throw over my shoulder and everything else - "

"I get it," Colleen agrees, shuddering. "Well," she adds, sighing and looking at her cup, "I should gather up Jaime's stuff and head home so you can sleep."

 

One of the things Colleen brought in the groceries was a fruit and yoghurt parfait from the deli and Clara devours it without the least hesitation. Then she pulls on comfortable weekend clothes and finishes cleaning the kitchen, gives Mercedes more medicine, gently stops her from trying to apologize or talk or do anything but go back to bed, and winces at listening to her cough in her sleep.

She also throws out everything in the kitchen that's dead or gross or just not something she wants to eat, and includes the tuna casserole even though if she's being thrifty and responsible there should be two more meals in it. By the time she's scrubbing the sink out with steel wool she knows she's using cleaning to avoid dealing with her feelings, but doesn't let that stop her from moving on to the bathroom.

Then she vacuums. She's most of the way done the last room - the living-room - when Mercedes comes out to the edge of the hallway wrapped up in the blanket her abuela knitted for her.

"Mama," she says, frowning while she squints against the light. "Stoppit. If you have to stay home with me go rest or something - "

"Mi vida," Clara cuts her off, "get a drink of water and go back to bed. I'm home, your Aunt Colleen started it by cleaning the kitchen for me, it'll be nice for everyone when it's done and I might as well. And don't tell me I can go to work if I need to," she adds, pointing a warning finger at her. "You're tilting sideways, if it wasn't toward the wall I'd be afraid you're going to fall down."

Mercedes protests a little more, but Clara finds more Gatorade and shoos her back to bed. Besides: once she's done vacuuming and then washing the bathroom and kitchen floors, she's done and the house is clean and opening the windows airs it out.

Then she makes a cup of camomile tea, sits down on the couch to watch something on the PVR, and falls asleep.

 

Knocking at the door wakes her up. The clock says one-forty-five, and she manages to call, "Just a minute," and to remember to speak English while she's at it. She turns off the TV, glances down at her clothes to make sure she didn't wind up with anything caught anywhere funny in her unplanned nap, glances at her hair in the reflection on the microwave door and then opens her own door.

Steve Rogers is standing outside with a reusable grocery bag hanging from one arm, and a look that's got a bit of knowing in its amusement. "I woke you up, didn't I," he says. "Shoulda texted first."

Clara shakes her head, smiling. "Only because I fell asleep by accident," she says.

Steve is easy to like. This was true even the week he moved his things into his place and said a friendly hello to everyone he ran into, and it hasn't stopped being true. Maybe it's because he so clearly wants to be friendly, wants to like you and that kind of thing is appealing. Maybe it's just because he is, Clara is fully willing to admit, adorable, if functionally about ten years too young for her.

(Because as far as she's concerned seventy odd years frozen doesn't count.)

"Ah," he counters, lifting one finger, "then I really should have texted first. Accidental sleep is usually sleep people need." But his smile is mostly joking, and he asks, "Can I bug you to let me come in for a minute?"

"Of course," Clara says, with an odd complicated pleased feeling that for once, for once, someone's dropped by her home to see it clean. Instead of the state it usually is when anyone and everyone drops by. "Do you want some coffee or tea?" she asks, mostly out of habit.

Steve shakes his head, smiles, says, "Thank you, but I am completely fine. I dropped by," he adds, following her into the kitchen, "firstly, because I figured you guys would want this back." And he reaches into the bag and passes over Mercedes' phone.

Clara can't help laughing, a little bit, as she takes it. "Okay," she says, "now I know my daughter's sick, she hasn't even noticed she doesn't have it." She eyes the bag and adds, "But that's not just for a phone, not that size."

Steve grins, like she caught him at something but he doesn't mind. "This is true. The bag is mostly for this - " and he pulls out what looks like a frozen Pyrex container with a blue lid, " - which I was actually going to bring down anyway - a friend of mine is an amazing cook," he explains, holding up the container in one hand, "and this is . . . some kind of salmon-and-prawn-and-sun-dried-tomato-something. If you don't like fish, not to worry, I'll fob it off on someone else, but if you do, then please take it, because I'll feel bad if I have to throw my amazing-cook-friend's food away, but we're not really . . . " he trails off, glances at her like he's making a quick decision and settles on, "fish . . .isn't okay."

Clara eyes the container and takes it from him, popping off the lid and seeing, sure enough, frozen prawns and pink salmon meat and what looks like some kind of risotto. She does take in the pauses and how he changed from we're not into fish or something like it to fish isn't okay. "If you're sure," she says, giving him a sideways look and he nods.

"Honestly, I wouldn't normally give away Maria's food for anything less than saving someone from dying of starvation," he says, solemnly. "But it's fish."

"Then thank you," Clara says, and slides it right into the hole in the fridge she's just finished cleaning out. "That means I don't have to make supper. But you said mostly," she adds.

And actually, she realizes, he's very clever. He's just clever in an open, honest way - but still clever enough that he's managing this, in drips and dribbles and cheerful neighbourliness and she's not even surprised when he says, "We-ell the last one I know I'm going to have to talk you into."

He's right; the last thing he pulls out is a pharmacy bag, and he's already holding up one hand before Clara can do more than take a breath and open her mouth to tell him she can't let him do that. "Hear me out?" he asks.

And then he actually waits, to see if Clara will, so she lets the breath go and gestures for him to go on.

"Okay," he says, and puts the bag down on the kitchen table. "This is a codeine cough-syrup, a prescription anti-nauseant that I am strongly advised by everyone I know who's had this flu will be a God-send by tomorrow at the latest, and the new Epiflu antivirals - which got approved because they showed up to a five-day decrease in symptoms and more importantly the fever's gone within the first two days instead of recurring like it does without these, and that takes contagion risk down as fast as possible."

Clara bites her lip, and looks at the bag instead of at Steve. He goes on, "Also, they didn't cost me anything. Well." He gives her a slightly sheepish half-grin when she looks up. "Okay, they cost me actually asking someone for something instead of not doing that and waiting until he gets tired of watching me do without it and decides to be overbearing and disrespectful. But that's not actually much. And it makes him feel needed, so everyone wins."

Clara takes a deep breath, lets it out and says, "Well, you know you won with the second thing," she says, and tries not to sound snippy about it. She realizes she's toying with the end of her braid and looking at the little folded over bag, again. Part of her, and it's just barely the part that's in control, still wants to insist she can't accept.

The rest wants to reach over and hug the bag to her. She knows how much the Epiflu costs. And most of the anti-nauseants that are working this time. "But there's something else," she says, looking head on at him, and noticing that when she does some of the gosh-gee young appealing melts off, and there's someone quite a bit older - at least inside his head - and more serious looking at her.

"Yeah," he says, and the difference in his voice, too. "There is."

And he glances at the hall, and back to her and says, "Clara, your daughter was the first person my best friend talked to, chose to talk to, besides me."

There's a beat, or maybe half of one - just enough for her to grasp that's important, but not enough for her to interrupt before he goes on, "For that matter, I'm pretty sure she's the first person who talked to him because she wanted to, not because she had to deal with him because of me. And she figured out exactly who he was and the first thing she did was ask him if he was okay, because she knocked him off balance by saying it. She reacted like he was a person, not a ticking bomb."

He glances down the hall again and says, "I don't know if I can actually explain to you how much that means. Actually, I'm pretty sure I can't, and I'm completely sure I can't without telling you more horrific stuff than you need to deal with. Mercedes has been a good thing," and he meets her eyes, "and most importantly she's been a good thing that didn't have to be there and can't be written off as being because of any other vested interest. And . . . " he exhales and some of the lightness comes back, but mixed up with the wry. "really to cap it all off, we both know exactly how bad it is trying to deal with . . . people being sick, when there's only one income for the house but you don't want to leave anyone alone."

Clara finds she's crossed her arms, that she's staring mostly at the wall and she knows she's not even going to argue when she says, "You two just aren't going to be happy until you make me cry, are you?"

"I was about to say I've got a hanky," Steve replies, solemnly, "but actually I don't and spent a while being horrified at the idea once I caught up on microbiology."

When she bursts out laughing, Clara knows it's mostly a release of tension and it doesn't last long. But when she's done he adds, "But I can go get some tissues."

She wipes the wetness under her eyes. "She's going to want to know where it came from," she says, reaching over to pick up the bag.

"I think there's actually a text on there to deal with that," Steve says, pointing to the phone. "And Bucky - James - had a lot of practice bullying medicine into people."

Clara huffs another short laugh. "I bet."

 

When Steve's gone, Clara takes out the medications and looks them over, checking for conflicts out of habit. The pharmacy has a name she doesn't recognize, but when she looks at the address she realizes it must be in Stark Tower. She shakes her head, pushes thinking about it away, and pops one of the anti-virals out of the foil, picks one of the anti-nauseants out of the bottle, and pours a dose of the cough medicine.

She goes and sits down beside Mercedes on her bed and smooths a hand over her hair. At Mercedes squinting her eyes open and her little sound, Clara asks, "How do you feel?"

"Bad," Mercedes admits, her voice croaking. "I think I want to throw up but I don't want to get up. And my head hurts. And it hurts when I cough. Was there someone here?"

"Mn," Clara says, non-committal. "Got some other medicines I want you to try, okay? No, don't fuss. Just take them, mi vida, we'll talk about it later. Should make you feel less like you want to cough and throw up."

Mercedes sits up enough to take the two pills and drink the cough syrup and a little bit of Gatorade. Then she leans over and curls up with her head against Clara's thigh instead of back onto the pillows. "Mama, I don't feel good," she says, in a voice as small as Clara's heard for a while.

She pets her daughter's hair and says, "I know, baby. You'll feel better soon."