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1.

She meets Sam Wilson, aka the only person Mercedes has yet seen visit James and Steve, on a sunny day. Of course, he shows up more or less immediately after she's fallen flat on her back, after missing her first try at getting from one balcony on the neighbouring building to the other.

She has permission. And it's only the second floor. It's not even really the second floor, it's more like just the ceiling of the first floor. But the fall still sucks and she's still super winded in the ow kind of way and also kind of happy she didn't hit her head on the grass she managed to land on as well as her back. And it's embarrassing, which of course means that while she's lying on her back wheezing and trying to figure out if she's going to die or broke anything, James steps into her field of vision, folding his arms and looking down at her.

"I told you you need to build more muscle before you try that shit," he says, in that mild bland tone he uses to say things like I told you so. Mercedes looks up at him, kind of upside down because he's standing by her head, and scowls.

"I think my lung collapsed," she says, because she's not going to dignify what he said by responding to it. She turns her head a little and oh God there's Steve and someone she recognizes but doesn't even know, why does this happen to her? Okay that's a stupid question, given the answer is total coincidence and stop whining it could be worse, but still.

James' mouth twitches. "No, it didn't," he says and Mercedes goes back to glaring at him.

"How would you even know you're not a doctor you're not even a paramedic," she grumbles all in one breath, even though he's clearly right because she's starting to get her breath back, to be able to take a proper breath again. It's not like she hasn't knocked the wind out of herself before. A lot. This one was just a bit . . . more.

"You're not screaming enough for a collapsed lung," he tells her in the same bland voice. And Mercedes bites her tongue on repeating any of the oh you'd know stuff because it occurs to her he probably does so she doesn't have a retort for that right away, and he just goes on, "I mean if you really want we can call an ambulance and take you to the ER and they can cut into your ribs - "

"You're being a jerk," she informs him, interrupting. "You should stop being a jerk and help me up, I just fell a pretty long way for a normal person." And that makes him openly kind of half-laugh at her, but he does step over to one side, turning. He holds out his right hand so she can take it and he can pull her to her feet.

"Strength training, kid," he says. "Fast-twitch muscles. Explosive power. Before you try this shit from anything higher, or with harder ground underneath."

Mercedes dusts the grass and stuff off her back. "Yeah, yeah," she mutters. "Bossy."

Steve and the other guy've come over, by now, and Mercedes refuses to be self-conscious, even if Steve's kind of laughing at her too, just being nicer about hiding it. Instead she says to the other guy, like totally nothing is anything but normal, "Hi. I'm Mercedes." And then to sort of, what did LeAnn call it, hang a lampshade on the whole thing, she adds, "And I don't usually fall."

The guy holds out his hand, and Mercedes takes it. He's black, and really good looking (in a way that would be "hot" if it weren't also "pretty sure you're old enough to be my dad"), with really short hair and that kind of thin goatee thing, which really works on him. And he has a nice smile. "Sam Wilson," he says, "and I believe it. Figures it's always the few times you do, someone's around to see it, am I right?"

The part where he can say it without sounding condescending, and actually sounding commiserating, means Mercedes cautiously pencils him into the list of okay adults in her head. Especially since he doesn't follow it up with telling her to be careful, like most adults do. Some of them do it to everyone, but Mercedes knows she gets it more because she's a girl.

"Yeah, well," she says, sighing. "God thinks He's funny or something." And isn't offended when Sam laughs.

"Seriously," he says. "I sympathise. I'm on an embarrassing amount of video falling off stuff and crashing, so I know how it feels."

He's around every few months and starts saying Hi when he sees her; she finds out he's a social worker and used to be a PJ and was the guy with the awesome wings at DC-14.

And she notices the couple times she sees James around him, she thinks maybe he kind of looks like she feels when she's around her one aunt on her mom's side who's a lawyer and really really pretty and elegant and stuff, and married to another lawyer and always has perfect makeup and clothes and stuff, but is still pretty nice as a person, just to top it all off. Like you always kinda want someone else to be there so you don't have to talk and, like, let the other person know how not that you are.

If it were anyone else, she thinks she'd probably feel defensive, like, for James. Except Sam Wilson's too . . . something. Like friendly, and cool, but that's not all the words for it - more like he thinks other people are cool, too, and they don't have to do anything for it, they just are. Or something.

It's weird.

 

2.

It's a Saturday and Mercedes is sitting on the bench at a bus-stop.

She's not actually waiting for the bus; she doesn't want to go anywhere. But this isn't a very busy bus-stop to start with, and at least until one of the buses does a full trip around their route she feels less conspicuous sitting on this bench by herself than she does in a park or anything. After all, she could just be waiting for one of the rarer buses.

She's out here sitting on the bench because since the coughing part of this flu is just lingering and lingering and lingering she can't really go running - at least without coughing a lot and she'd kind of like to keep this lack of super sore throat - but home feels kind of cramped and claustrophobic, LeAnn's out doing something with her mom's family in New Jersey, and Hannah's hiding. Mercedes isn't sure what Hannah's hiding from, and she doesn't think Hannah is either, but she's been edgy all week and even LeAnn managed to accidentally make her cry on Thursday and she's definitely forgotten how to tease people or take being teased without getting stressed out, so she's basically hiding at her place baking too much stuff with her Gran.

Mom's home, and part of Mercedes would totally go for curling up on the couch with her mom and watching something dumb, but Jaime's home too and being around home being jealous was just making Mercedes really, really pissed off at herself.

So she's out here, sitting on the bus-stop bench, and trying to flip her totally-not-a-practice-knife-at-all and catch the handle without dropping it.

She made it herself out of stuff like duck-tape and packed sand. Actually she made like twelve of them, before she got something that did actually feel like it's the same weight and balance as the knife her dad gave her. Then she painted it bright red and green and yellow and stuck sparkly stickers on it and eventually had something that worked for practice that she's pretty sure won't immediately scream "knife" to the wrong kind of people, like cops with too much time on their hands.

Mercedes mostly drops it. Like right now. And as she sighs and bends over to reach it, some lady she didn't notice standing behind her says, "You're watching your hand. Always watch what you're going to catch, not where you think it's going to land. Your hand doesn't need supervision."

Then the Black Widow sits down beside her, like it's totally no big thing. And Mercedes tries to remember how to even act cool.

Today Natasha Romanoff isn't dressed like a hipster. In fact Mercedes can't think what she's dressed like, because it's not . . . like anything. She looks nice, because it'd be hard to make her look bad, but she's just got ordinary jeans and a red t-shirt underneath a light leather jacket, with her hair in a messy pull-through bun, and mostly she just looks . . . normal. Like you wouldn't even notice her if you didn't know who she was already, and maybe not even then.

Which is kind of impressive for a woman with bright red hair.

"Hi," Mercedes says, sitting up. "What are you doing here?"

She almost gives herself a hard time for it. But it's a natural question, and it's a question that's pretty naturally her, too. It's not like she's that friendly to most grownups. She knows that.

"Waiting for the bus," Natasha Romanoff replies and Mercedes rolls her eyes; Romanoff laughs and it's weird, it's the kind of laugh that makes you want to smile, too, even if you don't really think anything's funny. "I was forcibly replacing some stuff in the Rogers-Barnes apartment while they were out," Romanoff goes on.

Honestly, Mercedes thinks as she looks at Romanoff with eyes wider than she wants them to be, she's more surprised that the lady's telling her that than - on reflection - that she probably broke in and did it. Mercedes's kinda come to the conclusion that when you're basically superheroes who get stuck with the shit like fighting off massive alien armies when there's, like, six of you, or taking on secret evil science Nazis hiding in a global espionage group . . . like basically, when you get to that, "normal" doesn't mean anything anymore. Like it just doesn't apply. Like fishes and bicycles.

"Why?" she asks. Decides to treat this like it's normal, too. It's not normal, but that's not the point.

"Because their shampoo was terrible," Romanoff replies. She's smiling slightly and the smile is kinda like the laugh, in that it makes you want to get her to keep smiling. Mercedes wonders if she's doing it on purpose.

Or maybe when you do what she does, it gets to be automatic when you're being nice to people.

"Do we need a formal introduction?" Romanoff adds, and Mercedes shrugs. She feels self-conscious all of a sudden, and she's not really sure why.

"You clearly already know who I am," she points out.

"And you recognized me at your front door," Natasha Romanoff replies. She tilts her head. "James says you're good at that."

Okay she knows exactly why she's self-conscious now, she just doesn't want to think about it, or think about wanting to know what James might say to other people about her, or anything like that, so Mercedes closes that door and shrugs. "I don't get why everybody else is so bad at it," she says. "Faces have shapes. It's like not being able to tell the difference between a triangle and a square. I don't get it."

"Most people focus on how faces are moving," Natasha tells her, matter of fact. "Expressions, and how the person doing the looking feels about what they see. Recognizing someone is as much about subconscious cues and feelings as it is about what they actually see."

Mercedes turns the sentences upside down in her head, and then puts them back, and tries to metaphorically squint at them. She knows she's frowning and she looks at Natasha. "Really?"

Natasha nods. She looks kinda amused, but not like she's joking, just like Mercedes' reaction is funny. Mercedes tries to wrap her head around the idea.

"That's so weird," she says, and she means it, and Natasha laughs at her again. The defensive, "What?" gets out before she really means it to.

"I know people who worked for decades to be able recognizes faces the way you do," Natasha replies. "I was just thinking about the face one of them would be wearing, if he were here." She nods at the practice-not-knife. "Did you make that?"

Mercedes goes with the change of subject because she feels kinda flustered. "Yeah," she says, and passes it over when Natasha holds out a questioning hand. "My dad got me a tactical knife once for my birthday," she explains. "Was in storage, but Mom got some other stuff out the other day and brought it home too, and I figured I'd ask - I'd learn how to use it."

The correction almost isn't even there, she just realizes as she's talking she's not up to actually saying some things out loud yet. She goes on, "But I wanted to not be, like, still dropping it all the time and fumbling with it when I tried working with it, so I figured I'd need something to practice with, but I also kinda didn't want to get accidentally arrested because it looked like I was wandering around like a crazy person tossing a knife all over. So I figured making something might be a better idea than buying something, you know?"

"That's a good call," Natasha says, shifting her hold on it a couple times and then handing it back. "Smart idea."

Then she looks up and says, "And this would be my bus." She stands up, and, as it pulls up, she says, "If you feel awkward asking, just mess around where you're pretty sure he can see you. That or the actual knife." She nods at Mercedes' hand. "You'll definitely get advice. Whether you want it or not."

Then she's getting on the bus. Of course.

 

3.

There are things you expect and things you don't. Even when Captain America lives in your building.

One of the things you don't expect is to come back from the corner store to find Tony Stark in his ridiculously expensive car, like, parallel parked in front of your building, in a suit - like, a cloth suit, not an Iron Man suit - and sunglasses, with his hands on his hips pushing his suit-coat back, glaring up at the building.

"Holy shit," LeAnn says, right about the same time Mercedes puts it together, "is that - "

"I dunno," Mercedes retorts, letting herself be a little bit snide, "you gonna believe me if I say yes?" And LeAnn glares at her, and elbows her in the side with the arm not carrying her slushie.

"Okay how many times am I gonna have to say I'm sorry?" LeAnn grouses, stabbing at her blue slush with her spoon-straw. Mercedes shrugs.

"I dunno, try one more time, see what happens." She's just teasing anyway, and LeAnn knows it: Mercedes is gonna needle her about that till they both die, the same way LeAnn's gonna needle Mercedes about that time she poured a whole glass of water in her lap because she just . . . missed her mouth somehow. She's still not sure how that happened, but it did.

They both slow down, as the distance between them and the ridiculously expensive car closes. Stark looks at the sidewalk and then stamps up to the door again and pushes numbers into the keypad. From where they are Mercedes can just faintly hear the ring of the system calling up, and then the click of it hitting an answering machine.

Over at the curb the passenger side door opens and Bruce Banner leans out of it, because that's a thing that totally happens and Mercedes is not even at all going to make that a Thing because it's totally normal for people to visit the people they saved the world from aliens with and one of those lives in her building so of course it has come to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner outside her building. This is totally normal.

This is so not normal.

"Oh my god that's totally Dr Whatsisface isn't it," LeAnn says in a super-quiet voice. "Like. The Hulk. Ohmigod."

"Dr Banner," Mercedes hisses. "God just take a breath and be chill already."

"I am fine," LeAnn retorts, "they aren't even paying attention to us, you be chill."

Dr Banner calls, "Doesn't seem like he's answering," in this super-mild but, like, super-dry, super-ironic voice.

"He so does not look like he could be the Hulk," LeAnn murmurs, and Mercedes shoots her a glare (which does nothing) but she's gotta admit LeAnn's right. In comparison to Stark's I-am-so-slick outfit, Dr Banner's wearing dark slacks and a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He's got a pair of, like, reading glasses with the ear-hook-piece hooked over the front pocket.

"Yeah, you're hysterical," Stark calls back, not really paying attention, coming back to the sidewalk and glaring up at the fourth floor.

Then all in one sort of sudden turn he's facing them and pointing a finger at them and saying, "You."

Having Stark pay attention to you all at once is actually kind of intense. LeAnn takes a step back. Mercedes kind of wants to take a step back but totally refuses to. The guy goes on, anyway, without really waiting: "You were veering, you live in this building."

"Um," says LeAnn. "Yeah?"

"So which exact window," Stark starts to ask, "is - " and then Mercedes can hear herself cutting him off and manages to think that hey it would be great if her reflexes would check in with her fucking brain here and give it the casting vote.

(As she thinks it she can also hear James' voice saying, Language.)

Like, even if she is in fact gonna do the thing her reflexes want her to do, it would just be really nice if they asked first, is the thing. But so often, they don't.

"Everybody's name's on the door-buzzer," is what her reflexes say. She hooks the thumb of her free hand through her belt-loop and deliberately takes a sip of her slushie. LeAnn gives her a sideways look and sort of sidles back and a little bit behind her. Every bit of her body-language says, okay, you're gonna be like that, you get to handle all of this I'm out. And that's probably fair, seeing as Mercedes is getting protective and belligerent at Tony Stark on a sidewalk. If she were LeAnn, she'd throw her hands up too.

Okay no, actually, if she were LeAnn she might be bodily dragging herself away, because that's the difference between her and LeAnn. But that's not the point.

Just to save time, though, she swallows the mouthful of slushie and says, "And yeah, I know who you are, I've got a TV and I wasn't raised in a dark hole in Antartica. I also saw you go up and try the buzzer and not get answered, so just maybe that means either nobody's home or nobody wants to answer."

But Stark didn't even look like he'd been going to say anything. Instead he's folded his arms and is giving her a long, thoughtful look. From the car, Dr Banner looks like he's stepping hard on a grin.

"She's got a point, Tony," he says. Stark ignores him.

"You must be chocolates-girl," Stark says eventually. His voice has this kind of weird resigned sound to it, with like something else Mercedes can't identify. She hears LeAnn make a little choking noise and once again tries really hard not to have any feelings about him knowing that because, like, people talk about things going on in their lives and she is a thing that sometimes goes on in James and Steve's lives and that's fine. That's totally normal. You talk to your friends about stuff that happens in your lives. And they're probably like friends. Coworkers. Something.

So she just says, "Maybe. I've got a name, though."

"Yeah," Stark says. He gives her a Look. "But considering you're being the opposite of helpful right now, 'mercies' doesn't really seem apt, now does it. But never mind," he goes on, and he's pulling something out of his inside pocket, "I don't need help anyway, I can solve everything by myself."

He's flipping through screens on a really weird looking thing that's . . . maybe sort of like a tablet, except it doesn't look like one Mercedes's ever seen, even the one Steve has that she's pretty sure is a Stark prototype or something, and it's almost transparent. Again, her reflexes kick in before her brain does and she hears herself saying, "That better not be, like, some kind of x-ray or locator or something."

Oh god, shut up, self, she thinks.

But it better not be.

Stark stops and gives her a look she can't interpret at all, except that maybe there's a little amusement in there. Sort of.

"What exactly would you do if it was?" he demands. Then he waves a hand at her and says, "Never mind, don't answer that. It's not."

Dr Banner's out of the car now, door still open, and he's come over, close enough that he doesn't have to like half-yell to be part of the conversation and elaborates, "He's not suicidal," in the same voice he used to point out nobody was answering the buzzer. Stark turns and gives him an annoyed look now.

"And I'm also not actually that fucking horrible of a human being, thanks," he says, sounding annoyed, or maybe outraged. "It's building plans, Miss Extremely Protective Sandoval. I own three units in here, thank you very much, and when I bought them I got the architect's plans - ahah!" he says, and slides the thing back into his pocket. "It is that one. Told you. Hey, is there a girl's name that means 'extremely protective'?"

LeAnn makes a noise that's kind of like a snorting laugh. Mercedes doesn't step backwards to stamp on her foot. She thinks she should get points for that. She's also grateful once again that she doesn't, in fact, blush. Like, ever. Because if she did, she probably would. It just sort of feels like she is, with the flushing feeling in her face. But she knows it never shows.

As Stark goes to the flower-bed and crouches down to reach for something, Dr Banner covers his face with his hand for a moment, the other one holding his elbow, and says, "I'd apologize for him, but he's just going to do it again, so there's no point. Bruce," he adds, and holds out his hand, letting the other arm drop.

Mercedes isn't going to not act like she can take this all in stride, so she takes it. His hand is warm and dry and kind of soft and she has to admit LeAnn's right about not expecting the Hulk out of this calm, quiet guy. "Mercedes," she says, and then LeAnn murmurs her name when Dr Banner extends his hand to her.

Over by the flower-bed, Stark stands up, and then takes few steps backwards and throws a small rock at the window. Mercedes stares. Dr Banner stares and then demands, "What the hell are you doing?"

"Getting Rogers' attention," Stark replies, like throwing rocks at people's windows is a normal thing to do. "Bedroom window, it opens and I don't see a screen."

Actually it opens right when he throws a second rock, so Mercedes hears herself make a kind of squawking noise. But Steve catches it, looks at it, and then drops it somewhere inside before leaning his head and arms back out the window. Dr Banner's covering his face again, the other hand on his hip; Stark looks totally unconcerned.

Steve looks annoyed. Seriously annoyed. Mercedes doesn't actually think she's seen him look that annoyed before. He stares at Stark just long enough to, like, clearly establish this is my annoyed face, and then says, "What's next, serenading with a big stereo?"

"Now that would make the tabloids happy," Stark replies blandly. "Also I can't believe you wasted however many minutes of your life on that movie - "

"Why the hell are you throwing rocks at my window?" Steve interrupts. It's the kind of voice that just knows if it doesn't stop you right now, you're gonna go on forever and ever.

(A few teachers use that voice at Mercedes sometimes. Mostly annoying teachers.)

"You weren't answering your door," Stark says, spreading his hands. "Or your phone."

"Yeah that was on purpose," Steve retorts, "I was busy. The polite thing to do is leave a message, and then the person you're phoning will get back to you when they're less busy."

"Right," Stark says. "So I got him," and he jerks a thumb at Dr Banner, "and rounded up the car and dodged a few people and then drove here and with traffic that was an hour and what, forty five minutes? By now even you must need a break from being busy."

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. Mercedes calls up, "I told him he should go away," because she kind of feels like she needs to.

"You did not," Stark protests, and he turns to frown at her. When Mercedes stares at him in disbelief, he insists, "You didn't. You interpreted behaviour, you never told me I should do anything."

And Mercedes thinks oh, my god. " . . . most people would get the subtext," she retorts. "I was trying to be polite."

"Huh," Stark says. "Keep practicing."

That actually kind of makes her fume, but Steve interrupts before she can think of a retort. "Thanks, Mercedes," he says, and now he sounds resigned. "Believe me, you couldn't've stopped him. What do you want, Tony?"

"Get dressed and get your bikes and follow us," Stark replies, "I want to show you something."

Steve stares at him. For kinda a long time. After a bit of that time he starts shaking his head slightly, keeping his eyes on Stark. Stark opens his arms and shrugs.

"What?" he asks. "What's the problem? You want to bring the cat? She can ride in the car. Hell the kids can come," and he gestures across himself to Mercedes and LeAnn, "if their parents are around to sign non-disclosures for them. Come on, seriously, wasting time, I've seen your Blue Steel look before."

Mercedes is kind of staring at him now. LeAnn is probably staring at him. Dr Banner isn't, but that's because he's covering his face. Steve stares at Stark for a second longer and then looks at Dr Banner and demands, "Has he slept lately?"

"No," Dr Banner says, with a sigh.

"And he's driving?" Steve demands again, expression turning incredulous. Stark looks affronted.

"No, Jarvis is driving," Dr Banner says, although Mercedes doesn't really think the car looks big enough for three people.

"Good," Steve says, emphatically, and Stark rolls his eyes.

"Are you coming, or are we going to keep revising a balcony scene here?" Stark demands. "C'mon, seriously, you want to see this. Promise. When was the last time you were out of the building this week, come on, you know you're going to come eventually anyway let's just skip this, it's boring. Do not make the obvious joke," Stark adds, although Mercedes totally can't think what it is, "there are innocent minors present."

Steve looks upwards, like for patience, and then says, "If you ever do this again, I'm just going to throw something back at you, hard enough to hurt. If I'm not answering there's a reason."

"Yeah, but I already knew none of the important reasons applied today," Stark countered, waving it off.

There's this long sort of stretched beat where Mercedes actually wonders if Steve's going to yell at him, and then Steve shakes his head and, like, very definitely sort of ignores him instead. He looks at Mercedes and says, "Have a nice afternoon, girls. Sorry about the congestion."

It's a pretty clear this is how polite people behave moment, so Mercedes shrugs and says, "No problem," cheerfully, and out of the corner of her eye sees LeAnn wave. Then Steve's sliding the window closed.

"See?" Stark says to Dr Banner, as Mercedes brushes past them both and pulls LeAnn with her. Part of her has the tiniest impulse to see how serious the bit about only needing non-disclosure agreements (not like she'd tell anyone anything anyway), but LeAnn might actually combust from the awkward and Mercedes is pretty sure she won't be able to avoid ending up in a sniping match.

"You know, some day he's going to throw you in the river," Dr Banner replies. "Bodily. And I'm just going to watch."

Mercedes and LeAnn are almost to the door when there's the sound of the window opening, and then a short startled yelp and Stark saying, "Jesus fuck! You said next time!"

Mercedes hadn't seen the rock, and she doesn't think it actually hit him - the way he jerked sideways makes her think it whistled past his ear or something. Mercedes looks up just in time to see James' irritated expression before he turns away, and she hears him say, "Yeah, and I didn't hit you either." Then the window closes with a bang.

Mercedes looks at LeAnn, which given she doesn't want to burst out into giggles right here, right now (because that's so stereotypically teenage girly) probably isn't the best idea, so they both immediately try to look somewhere else.

"He's got a point," Dr Banner says, blandly. "It's not like he'd miss by accident."

"Yeah," Stark agrees after a second. "Fair." And then they get in the car, and LeAnn unlocks the building door.

When it closes behind them she says, "Oh. My. God."

 

4.

Mercedes ends up with a key so she can visit the cat.

James and Steve's door has three deadbolts and a chain, and only one of the deadbolts has a keyhole on the outside. If those are locked someone's home, and they'll either answer or not answer if it's not a good time or if someone's asleep, which happens. If they're not home, only the one deadbolt gets locked, and she can go in and play with Abrikoska. The kind of unspoken bit there is that if there's no one home at the times she's likely to be home and the cat's there (so they're not just at Stark Tower for a weekend or something), it's pretty much because of someone or someones' bad day, and that tends to mean Abrikoska could use company, because she is kinda the world's clingiest cat.

It also, and she'll admit this to herself if to no one else, means there's somewhere she can go hide. If someone's there it means there's someone to talk to; if there isn't, there's a kitten to play with and a quiet space where there's nothing there she should be doing - or worse, something that needs doing or would make things better, but she can't do - and nobody's gonna call the landline and her aunts and uncles are guaranteed not to be there.

I don't even know what they want from me, she complained once. She feels bad she ends up complaining so much when she's here, but on the other hand Steve asks about this stuff and James doesn't ask he just . . . says stuff that's like asking except like he already knows the answer and all there is left is to agree with him and, like, elaborate. Like Jesus, Mama doesn't care what my jeans look like, they meet school dress-code and it's not like whether I'm wearing low-rise or not is gonna do anything about the fucking insurance or make the difference in a medical breakthrough.

That time James hadn't even joked about language, because he admits that when it comes to health insurance companies you just kind of need all the swear-words you can get. He'd just said, They feel useless and out of control, kiddo, just like you. So they're trying to make themselves feel better by telling you what to do. Their brains say 'well I gotta control something' and you're something so they figure hey, let's control you.

She'd muttered, Yeah, well, they should cut it the hell out.

Just keep saying 'mom doesn't have a problem with it' like you're a broken record, James advised. Mercedes'd wrinkled her nose.

Yeah but then they go bug my mom about it, she objected.

They'll bug her anyway, he'd told her. Be a broken record, you won't have said anything but a simple truth and you won't've gotten into a fight. Since nothing short of the god-damned advent of some angel showing up to tell them to cut it out is likely to make the rest of your family quit right now, that's probably as much of a win as you're going to get.

And that's probably true. So sometimes she just . . . hides. At least she honestly and truly never gets the feeling either James or Steve minds.

Today she's pretty sure they're gone, so she's kind of surprised when the other deadbolts are on. She knocks, and it's even weirder that she doesn't recognize the voice that says, "Yeah, hang on," like it belongs to someone tired. It's a guy, but that's all she's got until the bolts slide and the door actually opens.

Mercedes blinks at the man who answers the door, who she really hasn't ever met before, and then blurts out, "What are you doing here?"

God, sometimes she just wants to crawl under a rock and die.

Not-agent-anymore Barton aka codename Hawkeye looks at her and says, "And we skip right over 'who are you' plus - " and he sort of gestures to her up and down, "so I'm going with you're Merce - shit cat -!"

She was expecting it, so Mercedes is already dropping and catching the stupid kitten as she tries to run out the door, scooping her up in the crook of one arm and saying, "No you don't, stupid. Why do you do that? You don't want to be out here, you get panicked when you're out here, why are you stupid?"

Abrikoska tilts her head back and meows, opening her mouth to show all her teeth, but doesn't try to get down. Then Mercedes looks back at the man who doesn't actually live here and thinks, well this is awkward, and says, "Um. I can go - "

"Bring the cat inside, kid, I was warned," Not-Agent Barton says, sounding like he's resigned. He steps back and, because she can't think of a better idea and Abrikoska does need to go back in the apartment, at least, Mercedes steps in the door.

She puts the kitten down and kicks off her shoes and tucks her hair behind her ear. The kitten sort of scrabbles and scampers around to jump up on the back of the chair as Barton goes around it to go back to where he must've been sitting on the couch, given where the plate and the mug are, and he pauses to look down at her.

"Yeah you are pretty fucking dumb," he tells her. She meows; he says, "Yeah your human's out there somewhere but trust me you try and find him you'll die, and we'll all be sorry."

Then he pets her and doesn't get claw-lacerated. Mercedes blinks a lot and stares at him. He notices. Of course.

"What?"

"Do you . . . come here a lot?" she asks, honestly wondering if somehow this guy's been sneaking in when she's never seen. When the guy gives her a quizzical look she finds herself saying, "She doesn't like new people. I mean not like she meets a lot of them but I know for a fact mostly new people who try and touch her end up bleeding."

"Oh, right, that," he says, sprawling back on the couch. "I have weird animal powers, fuck knows why. They like me. No particular reason." His tone makes it seem more like it's some kind of mystery that would be annoying except it's not important enough. "A horse followed me into a house, once," he adds, like an afterthought.

"Why?" Mercedes demands, distracted from repeating the bit about how she could totally leave now. Not-agent Barton shrugs.

"Hell if I know, you'd have to ask the horse."

"No, I mean," she says, tucking her hair behind her ear again, "like why was there a horse following you, why were you . . . " she trails off, trying to think how to phrase it.

After a second it kinda feels like he takes pity on her or something and offers, "What was the scenario that lead to that being a situation that could happen? Well a lot of it I can't tell you," he informs her, "because if I did other people might try to kill you and then James'd kill me and then Nat'd try to kill him and he'd kill her and really this just ends up with way too many fucking bodies all over the place and Rogers looking like a kicked puppy. Short version, I was on a farm in the middle of nowhere, Russia, and I didn't really feel like bleeding out, so I was trying to see if someone in the house would come out from under the bed long enough to help me not bleed to death, and their horse tried to follow me. Good ice-breaker, though."

It might be a little weird, Mercedes thinks, that her life by now is the kind of life where that seems totally believable and not something she needs to question anymore.

She folds her arms, shrugs a bit and says, "So why are you here?" She doesn't actually add it's not like they get a lot of visitors because she doesn't think she has to.

"I'm on time-out," Barton says, and then he, like, glances at her and shakes his head - not, like, at her, but like he's telling her to ignore that. He says, "You know how you can end up with anniversaries of shitty things? Same date as the shitty thing comes around each year and it's always a bad day?"

He asks the question like he's expecting her to say yes, like the elaboration was just so she'd understand the kind of day he meant, and she nods.

"Well," he says, "for reasons I have absolutely no interest in explaining right now, today's one of mine. There was a meeting, I was . . . admittedly pretty much being the opposite of helpful at the meeting, it got . . . suggested I come here instead and have some herbal tea and - " he makes sort of measuring, shaping gestures with his hands.

"Have a time out?" Mercedes fills in, maybe kind of in revenge for the part where he felt like he needed to spell out what she meant about the horse instead of skipping it and just answering what she was being clumsy about asking. Barton sighs.

"Pretty much," he admits. He's surprisingly chill about it. "This is more or less the equivalent of being told to go sit in the other room and think about my attitude. Which I kinda deserved. On the other hand, the couch is really comfortable, you can find almost every piece of visual media made by man on that TV, the food's pretty good, and there's enough security shit and weaponry - like grenades - in the neighbouring condos that I feel pretty secure about it, so it's not all bad. I'm gonna pour myself more rooibos. You want rooibos?"

Mercedes stops with her mouth half open to ask what he meant, or maybe to ask if he's sure he doesn't want her to go, but gets derailed by his question. "Uh," she says. "Sure? Never had it."

"Great," Barton says, pushing himself up off the couch and grabbing his mug, "learning experience. Always take advantage of those."

Right about then, Abrikoska makes a flying leap to Mercedes left arm, and it's a good thing she's wearing a sweater. "You know, other people have nerve endings there," she tells the kitten. The kitten head-bumps her chin, which probably isn't an apology. Mercedes gives up and goes to sit in the armchair with her legs crossed, so the dumb thing can roll over and demand Mercedes rub her tummy.

Apparently Barton already made the rooibos, whatever that is - like, Mercedes has seen the word show up in like Starbucks and stuff, but she's never actually tried it or cared. It only takes him a second to pour it from a medium-sized blue teapot Mercedes's never seen before. She wonders where it came from, since she knows James and Steve both have the same basic opinion of tea, which is "the British are weird".

Barton hands her a mug full of kind of red-looking warm liquid that smells kind of like how spice would smell if it wasn't spicy. It's the one that says, You read my mug. That's enough social interaction for today. Barton's using the red Keep Calm and Carry On mug.

Mercedes is still trying to figure out if she can cite Steve as a primary source for her history unit on how the real reason that poster got made was if Britain got invaded, that poster going up meant that covert SSR and other agents were supposed to start sabotaging and fucking with everything they could reach, so really it translates to "blow shit up and kill Nazis".

She might do something else for that project anyway.

Abrikoska flops over her lap like a dishcloth. Scratching gently under her chin, Mercedes eyes Barton and says, "I'm pretty sure this is a grenade-free home." Actually, she knows it is: James has knives and handguns everywhere (like, everywhere, everywhere) and Steve's famous shield is tucked away under the bed where you'd never see it except if you were trying to rescue an idiot kitten who somehow got herself confused and stuck between the shield, the wall and the M21, but Steve's been pretty definite about there being no grenades.

Since James gets his handguns by stealing them from people - a lot of them teenagers - that he doesn't think should have them, Mercedes hasn't figured out exactly where he stole the rifle from. Maybe Steve actually went and bought it. If you can do that. She doesn't even know.

"Oh the grenades aren't here," Barton says, looking slightly amused. "They're - " and then he pauses. He gestures just slightly with a finger to one side, then the floor, then the other, and back to the first, and says, "in that one. Stark bought all three neighbouring suites," he explains when she blinks at him in confusion. "Both sides and downstairs."

"That's creepy," Mercedes says, without thinking. Though now she remembers him saying he owned three units. "Why?"

Barton laughs a little. "Never tell Tasha I said this, but she and Tony Stark have at least one thing in common, and that's solving problems for people that the people in question didn't ask to get solved, and may not have known about, and definitely didn't ask them to solve. Neighbours, in this case."

"I guess that makes sense," Mercedes admits. The soundproofing is pretty good, but she knows her next-door neighbours can hear it when, like, Mercedes' mom hangs a picture, and she also knows fixing holes in the walls is a thing that happens in this condo a lot.

Abrikoska sneezes and startles herself, flailing around, so Mercedes scoops her up and puts her on her paws. She settles down on Mercedes' thigh. Barton's giving her a thoughtful look that makes her hackles rise just a little bit before he says, "You take a lot of stuff in stride, don't you, kid."

LeAnn asked once why she doesn't mind the part where James and Steve both call her "kid" a lot, because she mostly gets nasty if other people do it. She's not even sure, because it's not even that they're different, because it's the same when Barton says it - it means something different. Like, maybe . . . it feels like including, instead of putting down. Or dismissing. Or something.

She shrugs. "We were a few blocks away when the Chitauri showed up," she says, matter-of-fact. "Like they never actually got as far out as us, but Mom and me and Jaime saw the portal and then we hid in the subway where the cops told everyone to go. Plus my neighbour totally crashed a plane into the Arctic Ocean in 1945 and drowned and then got literally frozen into a block of ice and then got thawed out, and that's the less weird of their stories. And elves fucked up Greenwich. Like, eventually you just sort of have to, I dunno, rearrange what you think is normal for what kind of situation. I mean, like, the richest guy in the world showed up once to throw rocks at my building window."

Barton laughs softly. "Yeah, I heard about that. He was pretty impressed, in case no one ever told you - surprising?"

It is, considering, so it must've shown for him to ask, but Mercedes just shrugs again. She doesn't really know what to say.

"I'll tell you a secret," Barton says. "Stark loves it when people give him shit. It means he can relax and stop worrying about whether or not he's going to squish them."

Abrikoska gets up, stretches, jumps down and trots over to beside the box of cat-toys, tilts her head back and makes her high-pitched meowing-noise that's always like a request. Mercedes pretends to roll her eyes, out of habit, but gets up and digs out the stick with the ribbon and the little jingle-bells on it to drag across the floor.

"So you've almost got the whole set," Barton goes on, conversationally, "I'm here, Nat thinks you're great, Banner was with Stark the day he showed up to be obnoxious, Wilson's here all the time, that leaves - what, Thor?"

"War Machine," Mercedes says, casually. Or trying to be casually. "Ex-Director Fury."

"Nah, you don't want to meet Fury," Barton informs her. "He'll offer you a job, and then Barnes'll break his nose and potentially we're back to bodies all over the place, which is just really untidy." Since Mercedes has no idea what to say to that, she doesn't interrupt as he goes on, "I think Rhodes is still patiently purging the DC rat-holes of HYDRA remnants."

"I've basically sworn on my soul that I'll get his autograph for my friend's grandmother if I ever actually meet him," Mercedes admits. She totally has, too. Hannah's Gran totally brought it up right out of the blue, but she was pretty serious about it.

"Yeah?" Barton says, conversationally. "Who's that?"

It's a half an hour later and Mercedes has basically laid out the whole population of the building for him before she realizes she's done it.

 

5.

The three of them - Mercedes, Hannah and LeAnn - sign up for the trip to the Planetarium mostly because it gets them out of mandatory PE team sports and watching a bad eighties movie adaptation of the book they're reading in English. Mercedes doesn't notice that the featured famous science person is actually Dr Jane Foster until they're on their way.

They do a few activities in the morning, and then there's lunch, and then a movie about the Hubble telescope, and then the big Special Star Guest Presentation Thing, which is not what they call it but what everyone knows it is.

Dr Foster turns out to be tiny, really excitable, and hilarious to watch. It's all girls; the whole thing is a Girls In Science outreach program or something, which is basically one of those, like, "here get excited by science by cutting normal school, doing some stuff, and meeting a famous science person who will explain something to you, hopefully excitingly." In this case it's totally Dr Foster going "so we thought the universe looked like this, and then I hit the prince of Asgard with my van, and now we know it's way more complicated and confusing, and that is awesome."

And that's actually how she describes it, right down to "hit the prince of Asgard with my van". At least she's, like, really actually excited about this. Not pretending-for-kids excited: excited, even when she's using words that people who don't have multiple physics degrees can understand. Also she's pretty funny, and intersperses the explanations with stories about her initial discovery and SHIELD stealing all her work ("So there I am, years of research gone, but I have my notebook, so I am completely ready to take on the universe - ") and about people and organizations she's worked with or trained under when she was a student.

"I'm not allowed to tell you that the moral of this story is that you should totally always drive your equipment van too fast into situations with bad visibility if you think it'll get you the data you desperately need," Dr Foster says, at the end of the hitting-with-van story, "because that would be hideously irresponsible of me as a role model - but if I were allowed, I might."

She also talks about her intern who came from Political Sciences instead of, like, astrophysics, and about how actually science is not a mystical secret knowledge or anything but something everyone can and should take part in and contribute to and that elitist jerks in science are the same as elitist jerks everywhere - "Look," she says, "these are exactly the same people who sneer about other people's clothes and treat people badly because they're wearing a knockoff instead of a brand, except they decide to do it in a different field. This is not a secret club that you have to get allowed into. Some people treat it like it is - okay a lot of people - but they're completely wrong."

Dr Foster is in the middle of explaining what an Einstein-Rosen bridge is (and why you don't just call it a wormhole even though it's basically a wormhole) when Mercedes phone buzzes. When she checks, it turns out it's buzzing for the thing she's allowed to have it for, which is her mom saying call me. She says don't panic right afterwards, but like that works. Ever.

Mercedes eases away from Hannah and LeAnn, shaking her head when Hannah gives her the "should I come with you?" look and going over to Mrs Levin, their science teacher, to murmur, "It's my mom, I need to call her?" Mrs Levin gestures her out a side door into what looks like a back hallway - the kind that mostly exists for employees to move stuff around in, and tells her that she's not sure if the door's going to lock automatically or not, so she'll stay there and Mercedes should knock when she wants to come back in.

Mercedes nods distractedly, closes the door, leans against the wall and slides down it to sit and hits the shortcut to call her mom.

When she picks up the first thing her mom says is, "Everything is okay, nothing is on fire, nobody is dead, take a deep breath," and Mercedes rolls her eyes - though for whose benefit, she's not so sure.

"I'm fine, Mama," she says. "What's up?"

"Your brother had another fainting spell, that's all," her mother replies and Mercedes rubs her forehead. Those keep happening, and they can't figure out why, and because they can't figure out why and Jaime's young and a bunch of his test results are still so weird, they have to go to the ER every time. It's frustrating. Everything's's frustrating. She wants to hit the wall, but she thinks maybe they'd be able to hear that in the other room and it'd interrupt. Or something.

"Okay," is what she says. "Does he have to stay overnight?"

Her mom sighs, which means the answer is yes. "Dr Howe wants him to," she says. Mercedes shrugs, even though her mom can't see her, because, like, things like shrugging get into your voice a bit.

"I can get home," she says. "Today's the planetarium anyway, so it's not like - "

"Do you want to go home," her mom asks, "or do you want to come here?"

The answer is already in her mouth without having to think about it; she says, "Go there," except she's pretty sure she should go home, because it's only Wednesday, and she doesn't have her stuff, and besides -

"Then come here," her mom says. "Text me when you start this direction, okay?"

She feels like she should be thinking about the complications, including, like, is she allowed to just hang around Jaime's bed for ages, but - "Okay," Mercedes says, and says goodbye, and I-love-you, and hangs up.

Then she pulls her knees together and puts her face in her hands for a minute.

She jumps when a man's voice - pretty low - says, "Are you alright?" because she didn't know there was anyone there. When she looks around kind of wildly and this time actually notices the tall, built blond guy sitting over on a backwards chair with a book in his hands, it takes her exactly two seconds to stop blinking like a dumbass and recognize who he is, and then -

It's mostly laughing? It's kind of laughing. She guesses this might be what they mean when they talk about hysterical laughing, because it's not really that funny, except it is, and she can't actually stop. Thor - because of course it fucking is, of course - starts looking really concerned after a second, but Mercedes sort of waves her hands and shakes her head.

"Sorry," she manages to say, gasping a little bit and gulping the laughter back. "No, sorry, it's fine, it's just - really funny, just - hang on a sec - "

"Please take your time," Thor says, holding his own hand up a little, and sounding like he means it, sounding like he's concerned and that almost makes Mercedes burst into tears.

She kind of hates this. It happens sometimes, when something ends up being wrong with Jaime again, or the insurance, or family, or something, where suddenly it's like it takes nothing to turn her into a stupid damn sprinkler. She thinks maybe if she were allowed to punch things it might happen less, but then she'd be punching things all the time. And when people are nice, it just makes it worse.

So it takes her a minute or two staring at the floor to totally get it together and she has to wipe her eyes a bit and take a deep breath before she can say, "Sorry. It's just, it's funny - my name is Mercedes, I live, like, a floor down from Steve - " and there's the dawning recognition, and she goes on, " - so you might actually've heard of me, and that just makes it funny, you know, coming out here - "

"You were quite focused when you came out," Thor says, and Mercedes thinks maybe he relaxes a bit. "I thought it would be less . . . unsettling, if I said something before you noticed you weren't alone by yourself." He pauses and says, "Noticed by yourself, that is."

"Yeah," Mercedes agrees, sliding down the wall to straighten her back enough to put her phone away before she rolls to her feet. "Um. And that makes sense, and if it weren't, like, me, probably just end up with the startling, but it was just - " Oh my god, she thinks, Mercedes, shut up - " - funny." She clears her throat. "Kind of boring place to be hanging out," she says, because it's the first change of subject she can even think of and oh, god, she needs to change the subject.

Thor smiles slightly. Seems like he's okay with the subject change. That's good. He gestures to the door with his book. "I am just waiting," he says. "People often get distracted if I lurk too closely, and honestly the presentation is more interesting than I am, so being a distraction would be a waste. Besides," he says, holding up the book, "I have a book."

That seems almost like it's a joke, but Mercedes doesn't get it. Maybe it's a private one. The title of the book turns out to be Culture, Identities, and Technology in the Star Wars Films by someone academic and stuff that Mercedes doesn't know. "Wow," she says. "Not what I would have expected."

"Many people have said that," Thor says, thoughtfully. "But it is interesting so far."

Then Mrs Levin sticks her head around the door to check if Mercedes is done, and she waves slightly in a half-assed good-bye and hurries back into the other room.

She can't keep track of the rest of the presentation, which kind of sucks, but she manages to act like she can. When it's done there's a handout they all take so they can go to different stations and try to fill in the answers. Mercedes is too out of it to even figure any of it out at all - well, like, she probably could but god she doesn't care right now - so she just blatantly copies off Hannah, who doesn't mind. When that's done they hand it in to Mrs Levin, everyone gets a sticker because clearly they're all twelve, Dr Foster says thank you and everyone choruses thank-you back because if you don't you get a lecture, and then it's time to go.

It's basically end-of-school - everyone else is just going back to meet buses and rides. So Mercedes tells Hannah and LeAnn what's going on and hugs them, and then sidles over to Mrs Levin to tell her, while everyone gathers up their stuff. As people file out the door, Mercedes peels away and heads the other direction, to go find something to drink or something before she tries to make her way to the hospital.

A voice behind her says, "Hey! Um - Mercedes? Hang on a sec?" When Mercedes stops and turns around, Dr Foster is following her at a sort of half run. For a minute part of her sort of tries to panic, to wonder if she forgot something, or accidentally took something, but honestly she can't be bothered to feel it.

Dr Foster holds out her hand, when she stops, and Mercedes takes it, kind of blinking. "Hi," Dr Foster says, "Jane. Listen - do you want a ride?"

Mercedes stares at her, totally caught off-guard. "I - um," she says, "I'm going to a hospital in Brooklyn, it's kind of a - "

"I know," Dr Foster says, "well, I mean, I don't know but I figured that's where the hospital would be - the thing is, I'm done," she goes on, and Mercedes gets kind of distracted by the way she moves her hands when she talks and tries to shake it off. "I mean, I'm back to do the same thing tomorrow, so I don't need to move anything or take any of my stuff and I really wasn't doing anything after and we have the car and I don't know if you noticed, but it's kind of pouring outside."

Mercedes looks around, trying to find a direction that lets her look outside - and Dr Foster's right. Dr Foster hooks her thumbs in the back pockets of her jeans and shrugs.

"It's really not a big deal," she says. "Promise. Thor has to practice his driving anyway, you can come help me convince him I'm telling the truth about weird driving laws. Well, driving laws he thinks are weird. I just, I know - what it's like," she says, a little quieter, "when family's in the hospital all the time. And getting soaking wet and being alone on public transportation doesn't really make it better. Also I have cookies," she adds, making a big deal about making that conspiratorial, like she's skipping over the awkward moment of commiseration.

Mercedes gives up. "That would be really great," she says.