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so they like you (do you like you?)

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When Mercedes gets the text from Steve that says hey kiddo, what are you up to? it takes a lot of self-control not to send one back saying trying not to be a bull in a china shop and failing.

It's not really true and it's definitely not fair, but it's what she feels like and it's super, super frustrating. And it's frustrating that it's frustrating, and it just keeps going around and around in circles and it's really all LeAnn's fault anyway for being away on a trip.

Apparently her dad's, like, cousins or something like that, who are literally his only living family in the world ever anymore except for Gramma Maligaya, just moved to Florida from the Philippines and LeAnn's dad decided the whole family was going to go help them settle in. They even took the dog. And Gramma Maligaya who was frankly probably harder to look after than the dog, even though Mercedes' mom and Hannah's Gran had totally promised they'd keep an eye on her and someone'd be over at mealtimes and everything, since it wasn't like Gramma Maligaya did a lot other than watch TV and listen to her stories on audiobook.

But nope, they got Gramma a plane ticket and left three days ago and since then LeAnn's Twitter and sporadic texts have been an endless stream of "kill me now" or "why is my life" or "I cannot believe Dad thought this was a good idea" and finally "I cannot believe I am related to this person", which was about the son of the cousins who's apparently a complete and total jerk.

Mercedes feels for her. Mercedes also wishes she were home because if she were home she'd know how to deal with Hannah being Fragile.

Okay, no, Mercedes corrects herself, that's not fair: all things considered Hannah is, on the grand scale, actually pretty damn tough, especially since her life up till a couple years ago reads like the backstory to one of those totally hyperdramatic novels Mercedes' one cousin reads, where nobody anywhere has ever had a parent who wasn't real-shit hideously and horribly abusive somehow, at all.

Mercedes gets impatient with the books, which her cousin Raquel is always trying to get her to read, because they seriously are all the same: some girl with a really horrible past (like, really horrible) ends up getting into biiig trouble and running away with a boy or maybe a werewolf or maybe one of each until the love-triangle works out and either finding true freedom in the world or saving the world, depending on whether the book is "realist" or not. If it's realist, there'll probably also be drug-use, which will totally read like something out of a bad Special Episode on TV and not like any of the users or ODs Mom talks about from the ER, and the heroine will always learn her lesson about heroin.


And like okay fine, whatever, Mercedes doesn't care what Raquel likes so much but she gets bored, because there's never any normal people. Except that Hannah's life totally reads like one of those (actually worse than one of those) until she came to live here with her Gran.

Except the books also never actually have anyone in them have to deal with stuff like Hannah, like falling asleep in class because the bad dreams keep her up sometimes, or freaking out because you accidentally spilled your lunch on the ground and that means Horrible Things, or like right now when she's all quiet and brittle and weird because her period is freaking her out because of . . . stuff.

Mercedes isn't great at quiet and brittle. She feels like she never knows what to say. What she wants to say is oh my God, you need to go back to your doctor and tell him he's a jackass and he needs to prescribe you birth-control pills so you can just not have this, or like I will walk with you to the clinic so you don't even have to deal with your normal doctor, that's what they're for, you don't even have to tell your Gran you're freaking out again - because while Hannah's Gran wouldn't care about the pills because her Gran's not stupid (thank God), but Hannah has a big thing about not wanting to make Gran upset by letting her know that she's having, like, well, trauma-problems, so.

And Mercedes does sort of recognize the hypocrisy in being all, don't be stupid, tell your Gran so she can help, but honestly just because she does something doesn't mean it's a good idea. Besides if it were this bad she'd tell her mom. Probably.

And if LeAnn were here Mercedes totally would say all that. Or at the very least she'd start to say that and then shut up when LeAnn gave her the Shut Up Now Mercy warning look, but honestly she probably even wouldn't because Mercedes is right. But when LeAnn is here then she's, well, here - she can be the sort of like cushion where Mercedes can say the difficult thing and then LeAnn can, like, put qualifiers and padding words on it and make it into something that doesn't just bowl Hannah over, especially when she's being fragile and it's something about her.

Mercedes worries about doing that. Like it's not like Hannah's weak but Mercedes knows she, Mercedes, is loud and, like . . . just kind of a lot. Like in how she projects herself. She does it on purpose, she's always done it on purpose, but now she doesn't really know how to turn it off and she knows she bowls people over and Hannah's really kinda . . . bowl-able. Especially when she's messed up because that means she gets hyper-nervous about being annoying and needy which means she backs right off any time something doesn't get a super-positive response and sometimes Mercedes isn't sure whether she's doing that, especially when she's kinda tired and worn out anyway, and Mercedes has not had the best week on family end and at this point she's about ready to jump out a window.

Except Hannah's week is totally worse than hers, so that would be being a jerk, because at least she's not having a major thing because of a basic bodily function because her father was like actual should-be-shot evil. In fact her father wasn't! So, like, on the scale here, she's ahead. And should suck it up.

And besides she knows if she doesn't keep Hannah with her and doing stuff, when stuff's bad like this, Hannah will go and sit in her room and read stuff on the internet she really shouldn't and, like, write poetry and while writing poetry in general is totally cool, the kind of poetry Hannah writes when she's like this is like tailor designed to stab at her own brain with serrated knives, so this poetry at these times is not cool. And then Hannah'll get really upset and cry herself to sleep and say stuff on Twitter she's super-embarrassed about later.

Aaaand then Mercedes will get texts and DMs from LeAnn going WHAT IS UP WHAT IS HAPPENING?!! and it just gets bigger and also right now Mercedes feels like the worst person in the world for even being frustrated, because it's not like Hannah does this on purpose and actually she's trying really hard not to and besides it wouldn't be a problem if Mercedes weren't so . . .

Something. If Mercedes could figure out how to be less something, the whole world would be better, except she keeps getting stuck on the first step, which is figuring out what the fuck she's supposed to be less of.

Funnily enough she'd been almost starting to entertain the idea of, like, texting to see if maybe Steve and James were out, and if they were out if it would be okay if Hannah came to visit the kitten too because Mercedes thinks she's just about exhausted her capacity for watching the TV shows she and LeAnn and Hannah share and she doesn't have a good idea what to do next.

At the text alert Hannah looks up from checking her Twitter. "What was that?" she asks, eyeing Mercedes' phone.

"I got a bugle call for Steve's texts cuz it's funny," Mercedes says, opening up the text app and sending back, sitting on my bed while Hannah sits on my floor + I try 2 think up something 2 do.

"Huh. I never heard it before," Hannah says, and Mercedes shrugs.

"He doesn't really text that often? And like, when have I got my ringer on."

"Point," Hannah says. Then she says, "Oh god, Lola fell and cracked her wrist."

Hannah's in and out of LeAnn's place often enough she calls Gramma Maligaya Lola like LeAnn does. Technically LeAnn says Mercedes can too, except Mercedes doesn't feel like she spends enough time around the old lady to actually do that and it's sort of awkward enough that Gramma Maligaya totally nixed Mercedes using Mrs? So she doesn't.

"LeAnn says they've been at the hospital all day and her mom took her phone away for talking back," Hannah goes on. "She totally borrowed some other girl waiting in the ER's iPod Touch even to tweet."

"Wow is everyone in that family going to be so much fun when they get home," Mercedes says, shaking her head, as her notifications light up again with Steve's reply and she swipes over to the app. "That whole trip was so not a good idea."

"Gran says LeAnn's dad feels guilty for packing his mom up and coming here," Hannah says. "Like, back when. Like there was something about, there was like a plan to wait until more of the family could come, or something? Except then he got that job and just kinda went with his mom and never looked back. And now there's just the cousins, so like. He feels guilty."

"Right, and like," Mercedes replies, reading as she talks, "I get that, but if you stop and think about it dragging a whole bunch of people down so everyone'll be unhappy and stressed out kind of isn't the way to make up for it. I don't think anyway. I mean I get family being really important, trust me, but like at some point you have to stop and think, like, does this actually make sense? Like is it going to get what I want out of this? I don't think anyone did that."

Hannah doesn't answer. Steve's text says, how do you feel about ferrying the fuzz-brain from our place to park avenue? which she has to read a few times before she figures out what it's saying because it's one of those times where you really don't expect to be hearing or seeing that so your brain doesn't get with the right shapes right away. Hannah says, "What's wrong?" and Mercedes realizes she's scowling at the screen.

It's just her figuring-stuff-out-scowl but . . . well. Hannah's not having a great week.

"Nothing," she says, "just, hang on one sec." serious? she texts. "Steve's just asking me something," she adds, "hang on."

yeah, comes Steve's reply. thought we were going to be home by tonight, definitely not going to happen, honestly I'd rather not send some driver over with my key.

Mercedes can read between those lines, and honestly she's a bit smug, because what's between the lines is: she doesn't make James twitchy about who's been in his place. Which thought makes her glance at Hannah, who's scrolling through tumblr now in a kinda blank way, and she types back, i'm kinda hanging with hannah, ok if she comes? and gets back sure, no problem pretty quick.

And well, like - it's not like Hannah's going to represent a potential threat. She bursts into tears or gets this frozen rabbit look when adult men raise their voices at her. Which is totally understandable, but definitely makes for it being hard to imagine her as a threat.

"Hey," she says, sitting up, "okay so, wanna help me take a kitten to Stark Tower?"


They stop by Hannah's place to get her jacket and her purse and for her to use the bathroom there so she doesn't have to think about it while they're out. Then Hannah follows Mercedes upstairs.

A thought occurs to Mercedes right as she's trying to unlock the deadbolt, so that she ends up giving a little sigh of relief when the door actually does open. "What?" Hannah asks. She follows Mercedes in.

Mercedes waves a hand at the door as it closes behind them, and the multiple deadbolts. "The others can't be opened from the outside," she says, as Hannah blinks at them. "It means you can't really pick them, if you wanna get in through the door, you'd have to actually use a tool like a cutter or something and those make noise. Okay by James' standards they make noise."

"That's a lot of locks," Hannah says, and Mercedes' mouth turns up a bit.

"Yeah and they weren't planning to be out so maybe they didn't leave at the same time, or something, and sometimes James . . . doesn't go out the front door," she says absently, looking around and frowning at the absence of a small orange streak at least coming to look who it was before diving underneath something. "Hey kiiiitten," she calls, putting her purse down and slipping her shoes off.

Mercedes doesn't remember about the whole guns-lying-around-thing until she hears Hannah's sort of not-a-gasp and looks over to see Hannah staring at one on the coffee-table. It's actually half taken apart and Mercedes is kind of proud of herself for recognizing the Desert Eagle, but it's also kinda easy for the eyes to go from there to the one on the side table and then the one on the sideboard behind the couch and . . . so on.

"Yeah," she says, shrugging because it's kind of all she can do. If she starts trying to explain it's just going to get . . . messed up. Somehow. It's just one of those things you have to go with. "James has a lot of those."

Hannah's back to looking at the one on the table and frowning at it. "That's a big handgun," she says, and it occurs to Mercedes that she'd've seen some guns before, at least. Her father wasn't big on violence with people who could, like, hit or shoot back, but he still dealt with a lot of dangerous people, so.

"It's a .50 cal," she says. To sort of move them on, she adds, "James says the fact that it even exists is ridiculous."

"Yeah," Hannah says, shaking her head and turning back towards Mercedes, "you'd, like, punch yourself in the face when you used it. Hard. A lot. Even with two hands."

"Right," Mercedes agrees, "except not so much for him personally. So he says it's stupid that it exists, because there's like . . . three people like him, ish, including Thor who really doesn't use guns, but since it's there he might as well have . . .one."

Mercedes stops herself, corrects herself, so she doesn't actually repeat the might as well have something portable that blows at least fist-sized holes in people because even though she thinks it's funny and had totally giggled at the time, it's actually one of those times Steve had called from the kitchen, Your sense of humour is warped you know, which means it's probably even slightly more Wrong than she even thinks it is.

Sometimes her sense of humour's pretty warped. She knows that.

"Most of'em are smaller," she adds. Then she frowns and looks into the kitchen, which still doesn't show any sign of orange baby cat, so says, "Hang on be super quiet for a sec for me," and grabs one of the thin metal fancy salt-and-pepper grinders, because if she does it exactly right she can make a noise that's at least close enough to what James' left fingers sound like on the counter to make the kitten respond. It's not quite right, because she can't get the back and forth as smooth as the noise of just drumming your fingers on something, but it seems to work.

In the quiet, she gets a pitiful moooorwr! from somewhere down the little hall, and turns to triangulate it as another one comes, ruling out the bathroom and the laundry nook. Mercedes sighs.

"Are you stuck under the bed again?" she demands, rhetorically. "Why do you do this? Do you think he's like, hiding under there? Goof. Here," she says to Hannah, "hold my coat, I'm gonna have to crawl halfway under."

"How does she get stuck under the bed?" Hannah asks, following behind hugging Mercedes coat. "Like if she does this a lot, wouldn't - "

"She's not actually stuck," Mercedes says, sighing and kneeling and then bending to peer under the bed. "She just thinks she is. She'll even figure out she isn't eventually just, like. Not soon. And I don't even know - like, she's blind anyway so it's not like the dark would do anything? But she'll get herself between th - stuff under the bed and the wall and just like decide she's trapped and not come back out."

She squints under the bed and then says, "Hey could you turn on the light?"

There's a click and a little more light, enough to see the reflection of eyes. And also Hannah saying, "Wow, you were so not kidding about a lot of those."

"C'mere you stupid fuzzball," Mercedes mutters at Abrikoska, who is of course about as far as she can be without being out of reach and doing that thing where she freezes instead of coming closer and Mercedes ends up having to push the M21 out of the way before she can get at an angle to grab a paw to pull the little goof close enough for her to scoop under her tummy. She rolls over, kitten in hand. "Huh? Oh."

Right, there's the two bedside guns. Also the knives. Honestly, she reflects, she probably didn't even need to edit herself about the rifle under the bed, considering, but hey.

It's weird how they do get sort of invisible. Like not really, but like someone's bottle of moisturizer that lives on their bedside, or the tissues or bottle of Advil, or whatever. It's just always there but it's not yours so you're probably not gonna use it, so you just sort of . . . stop thinking about it. Like you'd start noticing if it wasn't there, but if it is, that's just how the room should be.

"I haven't tested or checked or anything," Mercedes says aloud, "but I'm pretty sure there's nowhere in the condo where a gun's further away than, like, a step and arm's reach. And the knives are just kinda everywhere. They're kinda like your Gran's bowls of Werther's candies?" She gives a kinda watcha gonna do shrug and rolls to her feet. Abrikoska mews.

"Hush you," Mercedes says, looking down at her and tapping her lightly on the nose, which she totally ignores. "Come have a treat and then you're going to cower in terror inside my coat till we get to the other place."

"There not a carrier somewhere?" Hannah asks, and Mercedes shakes her head, flicking the light back off.

"James carries her everywhere, she doesn't try to get away. She's kinda pissed off she doesn't fit in his sweater pockets anymore, actually. She's kinda a fraidy-cat. Treats are in the wooden box over there," she adds, pointing in the direction of the big cat tree - there being two now, one just where the entry-way lets out and then the big one behind the couch - and waving her hand. "If you want to grab one, they're the dried fish, s'how you make friends. Otherwise she'll kinda freak out and scratch you if you get too close. She kinda lacerated Chloe's girlfriend that time the bedbug guys let her out."

Hannah goes and digs in the box for the treats, and Mercedes sits down on the couch. When she looks around she can kinda see a bunch of things started and not finished - like the Desert Eagle taken apart to clean but not put back together, the start of what kind of looks like origami on the kitchen table, the dishes piled up but not in the dishwasher - and she kind of suspects that James isn't having a good day.

" . . . there's a knife in the cat stuff," Hannah says, coming over with the little bag of freeze-dried sardines.

"Okay that probably just fell in at some point when it was open," Mercedes says, absently. "If you take one out and put it on the couch beside you she'll come looking - she can't see, but she can smell them."

Hannah does, and Mercedes lets go of Abrikoska, who sits on her closer leg. She can't see the treat but she can obviously smell it: she does this thing she always does, stretching out her neck and visibly sniffing until she finally has to either step down onto the couch or fall over on her face, at which point she pads down and over to start gnawing on the sardine.

"Then just put the other one closer to you," Mercedes tells Hannah, "and she'll probably sniff your fingers and let you pet her after it."

They're both quiet for a moment, while the kitten gets halfway through the sardine. Mercedes just thinks through the route - not like it's complicated, it's Stark Tower, it's right there, but she likes to think this stuff through because it means it's in her head. She read somewhere that's mostly what things like first aid courses do for you, too - like, a day-long course is so not long enough to make anything into a habit, but it means you've at least thought about how you'd act in the emergency, and apparently that's the important part.

So there's a little bit of more or less comfortable silence before Hannah says, "Is it bad that this makes me feel better?"

Mercedes blinks at her, totally not following. "Watching a kitten eat a treat?" she asks, just to confirm, mostly because she doesn't even get how that's a question. Hannah picks at the seam of her own jeans.

"No," she says, "I mean - " and she glances at the gun on the table and shrugs and then says, "like if someone broke into the building at night, I dunno - "

"If someone's ever stupid enough to break in here at night," Mercedes says, very seriously, "they better hope Steve's here and awake. Otherwise they're definitely dead. Like, not hyperbolically dead. Just actually dead." She thinks about it. "Daytime might just be super scared, as long as, like, it's not actually this apartment or, like, obviously to hurt someone, cuz daytime sometimes people just break in to steal stuff, but night time, uh uh."

Somehow Mercedes expects Hannah's nervous laugh-it-off-giggle, but that's not what happens; Hannah just looks thoughtful for a moment. Mercedes almost asks what's eating at her except Hannah shakes it off. Mercedes sort of lets her. Sometimes it doesn't help anybody to try and figure out what's eating Hannah's head, if you don't have to.

"Hey, how come you're doing this anyway?" Hannah says in a total change-the-subject voice, as Abrikoska moves on to the sardine closer to Hannah and Hannah holds out her fingers. Abrikoska stops in the middle of gnawing and sniffs at the fingers and bumps her head against them, and then goes back to her treat.

"It bugs James when strange people come in here," Mercedes says, and then adds quickly, "like no, you're fine, I asked plus you like, live in the building, but like, strange strange people. Especially since the bedbug guys were douches and let the cat out. So Steve didn't want to send anybody from the Tower."

"Okay but, how come one of them couldn't come get her?" Hannah asks, and Mercedes shrugs. It's kind of a fair question but the answer's kind of . . . well. It's what it is. Which is, like -

Sometimes in Mercedes' head it's like she's got two lives, school-life and family-life, and Hannah belongs to the first one and James and Steve to, well, the second one - the one where there are a lot of nights Mama and Jaime don't come home, and all the things where life's . . . not just complicated because LeAnn and Hannah's lives are complicated, but they're also still . . .normal-complicated. They're not hospitals and allergies and weird fainting spells out of nowhere, there was never Mercedes dad and trying to be okay and learning not to do things or say things and him feeling so bad about it until he . . .didn't anymore.

Maybe it's weird that family-life feels like it fits with James and Steve better, but it does, and sometimes she feels like school-life is a different world and she's an alien moving through it.

"I dunno," she says. "Didn't ask. Probably could be Avengers stuff."

It's a dodge, and she knows almost right away she wasn't quite convincing because Hannah gives her a quick sideways look and then says, "Okay," and Mercedes recognizes the tone.

"Look, don't do that," she says, almost irritable and before she really means to, and Hannah blinks at her.

"Do what?" she demands and now she's agitated and Mercedes kicks herself, because the tone isn't a deliberate "fine don't tell me then" thing (that'd be LeAnn, if she was in a bad mood, and Mercedes could deal with that she'd just snipe at LeAnn for being nosy), that's not the problem and Hannah's not trying to make her feel bad, it's just . . . .

It's the sad tone, it's the one Hannah gets that means "oh you're leaving me out and I deserve it" and it makes Mercedes crazy that that's the first thing that would come to mind, except it's not on purpose and just -

There is no way out of this moment, she realizes, that doesn't mean doing something uncomfortable, and after a second biting her lip Mercedes decides that as long as he never has to deal with it, James'd probably rather she give a kind of rough-sketch than, like - well. Hurt Hannah. Even if it was Mercedes own stupid fault for getting them here.

She takes a deep breath. "So this is all me . . . putting stuff together," she says, sucking it up, "like I could be wrong, so don't, like, quote me on this - actually don't like ever talk about it, you know? especially not with him or Steve, but - like, James doesn't sleep very well. Like, at all."

She sees Hannah's first movement towards a nod of comprehension and then says, "Yeah, even worse than that," and Hannah makes a little grimace instead. "And then sometimes even worse, and then sometimes it all crashes - like sometimes he just can't sleep until he falls over? So like. My guess is James is asleep, and Steve doesn't want to wake him up right now, except if he stays asleep it'll be night, like maybe even early in the morning so like Steve'd rather they just stayed there but that won't work if she's here and," and Mercedes takes another deep breath, "Steve can't come get her because I'm . . . pretty sure James doesn't sleep if Steve's not there. So."

She's pretty sure why too, because she's not stupid, but that part she's not getting into. At all.

Hannah says, "Oh." And she's got a look on her face Mercedes can't quite read. Then she shakes that off too and says, "So, are they like . . . " she sort of waves her hands in ways that if you've got any brains you can tell means she's trying to find the right words for together, except without room for misunderstanding. "Because, like, there's two bedrooms with beds but one of'ems way bigger and the guns are all over that one and I didn't see any in the other one, and you said - "

Oh, that. Mercedes'd been worried Hannah'd ask something else.

"I seriously don't even know," Mercedes admits. "I mean it's not like I've asked. I mean like they don't act like a couple, not even like LeAnn's mom and dad, not that I've seen - like not touch-y cuddle-y or anything? And don't talk about each other like it. Mostly they talk about each other like you and me and LeAnn talk. And same with to each other." She shrugs, and then wrinkles her nose. "Except like guys do, where like you really can't say anything nice so you make up all these new ways of insulting each other that really mean nice things?"

Hannah briefly rolls her eyes - it's not like the three of them don't have some teasing stuff like that, but seriously with guys sometimes it's like the only way they even know how to talk to each other.

Mercedes goes on, "I mean I'm pretty sure they share the bed so like . . .probably? But maybe that just helps James sleep, like when you get freaked out at night - I mean like I . . . still crawl in with my mom, sometimes. Like if I have a really bad dream, like . . . fucked up kind of scary, or if Jaime died in a dream, or something." Mercedes shrugs again, embarrassed, but Hannah nods. "So I don't know," Mercedes finishes. "But it's almost like it doesn't even matter. Like no matter what, they'd still be the same. So I dunno."

She glances at the kitten, who's almost done her sardine, and reaches over to scritch her behind the ears. For a while Hannah doesn't say anything; like, Mercedes feels like Hannah's about to say something, wants to say something, but she doesn't, and Mercedes doesn't know what it is so she doesn't want to break the silence and make Hannah shut down. So she just pets the kitten a bit while Hannah doesn't say whatever it is.

Then, when she does, she asks, "Do you think it can be like that? Like it can not matter?" and her voice sounds a little weird, sad and wistful, and it seems like a really weird question, so Mercedes has no idea what's going on in her head. That's not good, she doesn't think.

"What, like . . . people can important - " Mercedes sort of loses the thread, trying to figure out the shape of the thought and Hannah looks down at the kitten who's finished up her sardine and is sniffing around for more.

"Like people can be important to each other and have it not matter if there's sex or not," Hannah says. "Like, in either direction. Like that wasn't what defined everything."

And wow there was some acid in that bit, like anger and resentment all stored up and then slipping out when Hannah doesn't really mean it to but it comes out anyway, like this short spray.

"Hey," Mercedes says, reaching over to pull on Hannah's arm a bit, to get Hannah to turn towards her. "You okay?"

Hannah's eyes are that little bit of bright-reflective that comes from having some tears in them, and she pulls the cuffs of her shirt over her hands. "I'm just tired of it being so important," she says, voice a little thick. "I just want it not to matter. And like people say that but they're lying - when they say it shouldn't matter, they want it to go away, to, like, stop existing, they think it's . . . bad, or shallow, or dehumanizing, it's still important just to them it's important that it's gone and that's not what I mean - I just want it not to matter."

She looks up at the ceiling and blinks her eyes a lot, like she's trying to get the tears to go away. "It's stupid. It's just a thing. I mean, who cares? Why did I even ask you, why is it important? I'm tired of it already and we're only fourteen, so like, how much worse is it going to get?"

She wipes at her eyes with her hands still inside her sleeves while Mercedes tries to take that in. Beside her Abrikoska sits up and makes a soft maow sound. She's facing Hannah, and Hannah looks at her, surprised.

"I think she's pretty good at knowing when people are upset," Mercedes says, softly, and then she can't really think of much else to say so she gives up and says, "hey, c'mere."

She slides over, moving the kitten in spite of protests, and wraps her arms around Hannah's shoulders, pulling her over to rest her head on Mercedes'. "It's okay," she says. It's a stupid, inane thing to say, but it's also kind of true, so it's what she says.

Hannah wipes her eyes and sniffs. "I just don't want that to be so important, the most important, whether people are having sex or not having sex and how but it's everywhere and everything you even think about it has to mean something, it's already in my head and I don't want it there, it's stupid." And then she says, "I'm sorry," which is Hannah-speak for "I feel bad that I'm upsetting you" so Mercedes turns a bit so she can wrap both arms around her instead.

Because Mercedes isn't upset, she just feels like she's way, way over her head. And she feels like she's floundering for a while, but finally says, "We'll make it not be. Us, at least."

"I don't think other people will let us," Hannah says, and she sounds tired. And Mercedes tries to think of something to say, and ends up shrugging a little again.

"So I'll punch them," she says, matter of fact, because at least it'll get her a laugh, like it always does when she decides the right solution is hitting people. Or lighting them on fire. Or whatever. And it does get a laugh, and Hannah wipes her eyes again and sits up.

"You can't punch everyone," Hannah says, sort of half-smiling.

"No," Mercedes agrees, "but I can punch a lot of people. And I can hit others with bricks. Or throw rocks at them."

Hannah half-laughs again and now the kitten sniffs at her hand; Hannah looks down, and pets her a few times on the head, and Abrikoska squeezes her eyes shut. She rubs her face against Hannah's hand, and then retreats to Mercedes' lap. "You okay?" Mercedes asks again, frowning. "You don't have to come."

Hannah manages a smile. "It's not like going home's gonna make me feel better right now."


Abrikoska does actually spend the entire subway trip sort of trying to burrow into Mercedes' ribcage. She's bigger than she used to be, of course, but she still fits pretty comfortably inside Mercedes' coat, especially if Mercedes folds her arms so the fuzz-brain's got something to sort of sit on. Every once in a while the kitten pokes her head out and meows to complain, but then burrows back in, although Hannah reaching over to pet her forehead and scritch behind her ears seems to help.

"Is it cuz she can't see?" Hannah asks.

"Part of it, I think," Mercedes says. "I mean like she's never been able to so it's not like it's that by itself but I bet, like, everything seems even bigger and more confusing and overwhelming when you're little and you're down one sense from everyone else. And, like, lots of cats don't like new stuff anyway, I think."

"Gran thinks we should get a dog or something," Hannah says, as Abrikoska squirms around to a new way of being curled up in case that gets her any further in her quest to be inside Mercedes ribcage rather than just inside her coat. Mercedes reaches into her coat to soothe the silly thing and glances at Hannah.

"Yeah?" she says, and thinks about James and the silly orange kitten. "That'd be cool."

"I dunno," Hannah says, biting her lip. "I mean, like, they're expensive. Not - like you can adopt, right, that's not it, but like food and stuff, and what if they get sick and there's vet bills and stuff?"

Mercedes settles back on the seat and then glares at a guy maybe a couple years older than them a little ways away, who she thinks has been paying too much attention. If you glare at the right time, it helps them figure out that if they come over and bug you, you're not afraid to embarrass them, so they usually don't. And there's a lady with silver hair, a shirt that says Death or Knitting and tattoos up her neck listening to her phone on headphones, which is good because it means if Mercedes does have to make a scene she'll probably have back up.

Money's complicated sometimes with Hannah, not so much because she's got, like, issues - well she does, but so does Mercedes and LeAnn's family and Mercedes recognizes that, that's not like, strange or anything - but because . . . well, it's complicated.

Like her Gran owns their place, no mortgage, but that was from like some big windfall years ago that came from suing the company her step-grampa worked for because he got killed on the job with a couple other guys, and their families got lucky and some hot-shot new lawyer wanted to pad his resume or something and took their case for next to nothing, so her Gran paid off the mortgage back then, like when Hannah was tiny and still with her mom and that bastard, so there's just strata-fees and the taxes and stuff. But those can get expensive, Mercedes knows from looking at stuff her mom's been stressing about, and, like utilities were expensive too.

And like her Gran had disability and did, like, quilting commissions and stuff which she was super good at, and there was some kind of fund thing that sent money because of Hannah every couple weeks and a couple other things like Hannah's one maternal uncle who had a good job now and bought groceries a lot, so overall they were okay and honestly Hannah worried a lot more than her Gran did, but she could still get herself super worked up about it and start trying to do things like live on one and a half meals or less a day again.

Mostly it comes down to sometimes Hannah getting all convinced she's somehow the worst, biggest bad and difficult thing in the world, and then trying to take up less of it, be less . . .everything.

"You want a dog?" Mercedes asks, because if the real answer is no then she's not gonna waste time pointing out other stuff. And sometimes when Hannah's thinking up the problems for stuff what she really means is I don't wanna do this but she can't say it. Of course sometimes it's not that and it's like almost more I don't deserve this so sometimes it's tricky.

Hannah shrugs and sits back, too, folding her arms. "Maybe," she says, in a way that means yeah. "I mean it'd be kinda nice."

"Well then we can find ways to make the other stuff okay," Mercedes tells her. "Like I dunno, even tell everybody you don't want birthday presents or to go out or anything, you'd rather they chipped in five or ten bucks for vet insurance. Like, your uncle gives you birthday and Christmas stuff, if you really want the dog and you're worried ask him for vet insurance or money for it. And ASPCA's got programs and stuff, with, like, the city, because pets are supposed to be good for mental health or something. Which is kinda smart."

"Maybe," Hannah says, not sounding very convinced. Then after a second she shakes her head. "Ugh, no, I'm sorry, I'm being negative, I'll stop, I promise I'll stop."

Mercedes gives her a very deliberate, very definite side-eye. "I don't think I can complain about anyone being negative, Hannah," she says.

"You're not negative," Hannah replies, dismissive, and Mercedes snorts, making the kitten curled up at her ribs startle.

"Have you seen my Twitter?" she demands. "Can you think of the last time I said anything on there that wasn't complaining? I bitch about everything."

"That's not being negative, Mercy," Hannah says, giving her a Look. "That's just bitching. You're never negative. Like, anything happens, you're always the one who's coming up with ideas about how to make it work out or how to fix it or whatever. Okay maybe not, like, with people just being annoying or stupid like LeAnn does and how to get along with people, fine, but I mean like . . . big things. You're always like, so we'll do this! or this'll sort it out! or whatever."

Mercedes gives her a genuinely dubious look. "I'm just stubborn," she says. "I hate losing. Even to, like, the universe."

"You're never nice to yourself," Hannah says, which feels like it comes out of nowhere and sort of leaves Mercedes wobbly and off-balance. "The only thing you're negative about is you. And like," Hannah adds, "I'm awful at being nice to myself but we know why I'm like that, but I don't know why you're like that."

Mercedes stares at her. Fortunately before she can either figure out what in hell to say to that or the silence descends into something uncomfortable, Hannah's looking up and saying, "Hey, this is us," and they can both be kinda amused at Abrikoska for complaining about Mercedes standing up.


Up close, Stark Tower is intimidating.

Tony Stark never did put the rest of his name back on the top, but the A that survived the Battle of New York is still there. He's the worst about dodging questions about it in interviews, too, and even nosy reporters eventually gave up after like four variations on a rambling speech about symbolism and stuff was all they would ever get when they asked why that was, if he was planning on renaming it, if it was going to be "Avengers Tower" or something like that. Mercedes kind of wonders if it's because since the Battle there hasn't really been anything for them to do as Avengers - like the Mandarin and the elves in London and then Insight were all there and gone so fast nobody could help anybody.

Every few weeks some tabloid will insist they're getting together to announce something because someone "close to" told them, but then the next week the same tabloid insisted there was some kind of weird-crazy sex-romance scandal going on up there somewhere, so nobody took it seriously.

Mercedes knows they are doing something Avengers-y, of course, but she's got no idea what. And from the time Clint was at Steve and James' being on time-out, she has been assured that "even if you took that stuff that shows up in fanfic, the sex pollen thing?" that even then literally all that would happen is by the time two specific people had finished arguing about the exact mechanics of the orgy, everyone else would have gone to sleep and slept it off.

"See," Clint'd said, "we can save the world because then there's a time pressure. And we can even handle non-world-ending big stuff because if we didn't we might look really stupid in the news. None of us like that. But Steve and Tony have been arguing about architecture and whether or not Stark Tower is ugly since before they were friends and they haven't stopped yet. And that's just them. Don't even ask about Tony and Nat. Or Steve and Bruce sometimes."

Mercedes'd asked, "What about you and anyone?" because she'd felt like being a brat.

Clint's grave reply had been, "See I get along with people. It's a finely honed skill."

Mercedes'd also been assured that the chances of anyone leaving anyone for anyone else, out of the whole mess of them, were very slim and if Pepper Potts ever did leave Stark they wouldn't have to wait for the tabloids to tell them, because the bender and the totally inappropriate slightly (okay more than slightly) stalkerish ploys to get her back (including skywriting and possibly rewiring all the screens in Times Square to read please come back I'm sorry) would be so epic that everyone in New York would know, and by that Clint meant possibly the state, and they probably would have to get Col Rhodes to come in and knock Stark out and put him in a bunker somewhere for a while.

Not that Mercedes ever believes the tabloids, but it'd been funny anyway.

It sort of occurs to her, looking up for a minute, that she doesn't even know if the Tower's ugly or not. Steve thinks it is; James thinks Steve's got seriously rigid taste in buildings; and beyond that there's actually pretty big arguments around, on blogs and stuff. But she really doesn't know. It doesn't seem like a question that matters. It's just . . . a building.

It's a big skyscraper, it has a kind of a funny shape because nobody likes to build big square skyscrapers anymore (and she doesn't blame them because those are kind of - well, if not ugly, really boring when you've got streets of them) and all glass on the outside because that's a thing. Plus the helicopter slash quinjet slash Iron Man suit landing-pad up there at the top. That part might be a little clunky. But it'd be hard to come up with anything that wouldn't be, really, except just being on the roof and that's just kind of dull.

"This place is really big," Hannah says, also looking up. "Have you even been here before?"

"Nope," Mercedes admits.

" . . . do you know where we're going?" Hannah asks, giving her side-eye. "Or were you just gonna go in and go 'hey point me to Captain America's private floor, I swear I'm a friend'?"

Mercedes rolls her eyes. "Okay first off I can call Steve. Second I'm pretty sure he'd've told someone I'm coming. Third I do know we're looking for a little alcove with a desk with a Stark Security person at it back towards the back of the lobby, because those are the only elevators that even go all the way to the private floors. And fourth now I really kind of want to walk up to whoever's there and announce 'hi I'm here to give Captain America his friend's cat', thanks a lot."

"Oh my god, Mercy," Hannah says, in her best resigned tone. "Oh my god."

The lobby's pretty impressive, too. It's where the gift-store is, and two really fancy looking cafes, the kind of cafe where they expected you to actually know real stuff about how espresso happens in Europe before you ordered and the sandwiches and stuff were made of kinds of cheese Mercedes doesn't even recognize, and then the entrance to the Stark Timeline which is basically just a mini-museum and which, Steve said once, is at least half lies. They're official lies, as in that's the official story and probably shows up in the history books, but they're still lies.

Other than that it's all marble and glass and plants and benches and a fountain and a lot of people in business clothes walking places very quickly.

"People who work here almost never come in the lobby," Mercedes says in a low voice, as Hannah stares around, because that's something else she knows. "The entrance to employee parking is like around the back and there's a pedestrian employee entrance there. Steve says almost everyone in the lobby is coming in here from somewhere else, either for meetings or to go to one of the cafes or something."

Hannah blinks. "There's parking here?"

"Underground," Mercedes confirms. "Steve says, anyway. He says there's basically a whole town underground. I have no idea how, don't ask."

"Isn't it, like, granite or something down there?" Hannah asks, and Mercedes shrugs.

"I said I dunno. Oh, hey," she says, spotting the desk and the alcove over near the back, "we wanna go over there."

There's a pretty black woman in a Stark Security uniform sitting in what looks like a pretty comfy desk chair. You kinda have to know what StarkSec uniforms even look like to recognize it as a uniform, unless you see the embroidered patch with STARK on it and then the name-pin underneath it. Otherwise it kinda looks like nice slacks and a jacket over a crew-neck shirt with a slightly wide belt.

The woman has a round face that sort of projects friendly, and her hair's all in thin locks and then twisted back into a knot. She also starts smiling when she notices Mercedes and Hannah are heading over.

When they get close enough she says, "Miss Sandoval and Miss Simons," in the way that like could be a question except she already knows the answer is yes.

"Yeah," Mercedes says, "I've got a cat to deliver." Not quite as good as the full line, but hey, she'll take what she could get. It's pretty nonchalant anyway.

Abrikoska decides to take this moment to squirm and stick her head and one paw out, maybe because she heard "cat". She, like, never gets called by her name: James calls her something in Russian, and Steve usually calls her some variation on "cat". So maybe by now she thinks that's her name.

She meows, loudly, and the security guard - her name-tag says "Stone" - grins.

"Captain Rogers said. I think this is the first time I've actually seen her, she's usually hiding in her human's hood or something." She almost looks like she's going to stretch her hand out, but Mercedes grimaces.

"She kinda doesn't like most people," she says, and the guard makes an ahhh face.

"Well," she says, "I'm Lia, you can just hit the elevators back there, JARVIS knows where you're going. And if you need a ride home or anything after just come back down and see me, I'll be here."

"Thanks," Mercedes says, and hooks her arm through Hannah's to drag Hannah behind her to the elevators.

The doors to the one on the right open as they get to them. Mercedes steps inside and turns around to push a button only to discover there are no buttons; at the same time Hannah says, "Who's JARVIS?"

"I am JARVIS, Miss Simons," says a guy-voice from, like, nowhere. It has a British accent. "Good afternoon. If you would stand back from the door," the voice adds, because Hannah's like only half in the elevator. She kind of jumps in, looking startled, and the doors close. "Thank you," the voice says. "I've let Captain Rogers know you're coming." Which is good, because Mercedes totally forgot.

Mercedes just barely feels the elevator start moving. Hannah's looking around, with her arms folded and her shoulders almost up around her ears, so it surprises Mercedes when she speaks and asks the empty air, "Are you, like, an AI or something like that?"

"That's correct, Miss Simons," the voice - JARVIS - replies. "I manage the Tower systems and operate a few personally, such as the private elevators."

"That is so cool," Hannah says. When Mercedes glances at her, her eyes are big and she kinda looks delighted. Internally, Mercedes shrugs: at least Hannah got something neat?

When JARVIS says, "Thank you, Miss Simons," Mercedes thinks the voice sounds kinda pleased. "You have arrived. I will not be able to hear you on this floor, but the elevator has a manual call button which should be obvious. Have a good afternoon."

And then the doors open.

Mercedes steps out into a kind of a tiny little hallway - just big enough for one elevator door and a nice looking little table with a flowering potted plant on it - that opened out into a really nice looking kitchen with Steve leaning on the counter and just sort of standing up the way you do when you just noticed a door open.

Abrikoska must recognize the smell of the place, because she immediately starts to squirm up out of Mercedes' jacket and Mercedes ends up kind of dropping her. Then she runs to Steve's feet and makes this sort of weird squeaking meow that's like she's trying to yowl but went too high pitched. Steve holds up a "just a sec" finger to Mercedes and drops to a crouch going, "Shhh. Hush, you - yeah, shoo, go find him and shut up," in a quiet voice, as Abrikoska sniffs his fingers a couple times and then turns away to one side and moves her head a little from side to side before scampering off out of Mercedes' sight, her feet making little skittering sounds on the tile.

Which pretty much confirms the James-is-asleep theory. So does Steve stepping into the hallway instead of anything else, and the way he says, "Sorry - I'd invite you in, but - "

"S'okay," Mercedes says quickly. And then, because she can see Hannah doing the bite-your-lips-not-to-smile thing which is, like, at least half nervous giggles, and so she might as well head off any chance of Hannah feeling bad later, she puts on a solemn voice to add, "You kinda look like you got attacked by a vampire," because, well, it's true. And Steve'd kinda have to be wearing the proverbial turtle-neck or scarf to hide it.

Hannah claps both hands over her mouth to cover giggles and Steve gives Mercedes a tolerant look. "Yeah, right now I would," he says, dryly. He reaches over to scruffle her hair, which is pretty fair given her being a brat, but she ducks anyway and makes a face. He smiles slightly and says, "Thanks, kiddo. And thank you," he says to Hannah, "for letting me completely interrupt whatever it was you were doing for a subway ride."

"Oh no, it's fine," Hannah says quickly, and Mercedes shrugs.

"No big," she says.

"Yeah, well," Steve says, giving her a bit of a knowing look this time, "you're gonna let me buy you supper as a thank you, so when you go downstairs just let Lia know where you want and she'll set it up. And that means anywhere," he adds, "if you want to go home and get something delivered go ahead. Just don't be stubborn about letting me say thanks," he adds, reaching over and mock-whacking Mercedes over the head with something invisible.

Hannah looked like she was just about to demur and then stops when he says it; Mercedes just says, "Are you actually allowed to call out someone else for being stubborn?" and okay mayyyybe that's a bit of showing off how she gets to tease, but oh well.

"I sure am," Steve says, pointing mock-sternly. "Because I know what I'm talking about." He smiles when Mercedes rolls her eyes all theatrical, and then he reaches over past her to hit the button beside the elevator. The doors slide open almost all the way. "Have a good night, girls," Steve says. "And thank you."

"Night," Mercedes says, waving it off, and Hannah echoes with her own have-a-good-night as they step back into the elevator.


Steve's already texted, or called, or something down to Lia the security guard by the time the elevator hits the lobby, which is impressive because it's a pretty quick elevator. When she tells them, Lia's eyes have the sparkle of someone who is seriously amused.

" . . . I don't really think we're dressed for a restaurant," Hannah says, looking at what are definitely lazy Saturday clothes - like they're not bad, Hannah doesn't own any ugly clothes and Mercedes is okay with her own, but they're definitely the kinda clothes you have on when your plan is to watch TV all day. Lia rolls her desk chair over to the side and turns to them, hands palm together in front of her lips like she's being all thoughtful.

"Mmkay," she says. "Here's my advice. I am, like, dead sure that you two have some restaurant you like - doesn't even matter what - that you can't get takeout or delivery from, that if you stop and think about it you'd think sounds really good to just go home and eat at on the couch or something. I just about guarantee that tonight you can get delivery from that place, and take it home, and watch a movie or play PS2 or yell at people on the internet or something."

She pauses and adds, "And I say 'just about' just because I can't actually guarantee that restaurant isn't owned by somebody who's just really that dedicated to No Exceptions to their no takeout-slash-delivery policy that they're gonna hold the line, because God knows stranger things have happened. But I would not rate the possibility very high on any list."

As Mercedes blinks and tries to think around that, Lia's smile gets a little bit conspiratorial and knowing at the same time and she adds, "Also, for the record? Cap never does this kinda stuff. I mean I think he ordered pizza once. He likes you, he appreciates the favour, and he wants to do something nice, but he's got a lot on his plate so thinking through exactly what can get kinda tricky. So just go with it and have a treat, seriously."

It's kind of a convincing argument. Hannah and Mercedes exchange looks and Hannah shrugs. "That taco place?"


They order it up to Hannah's because Mercedes' shirt and coat are covered with Cat Allergens so she's gotta run them both through the wash, because Jaime's sensitivities are up again, and also because since there's that anyway Mercedes gets her tlayudas with flour tortillas kinda just because she can. Somewhere out there, she thinks, her one aunt is disappointed in her and doesn't know why.

Which would at least make a change from being disappointed in her and knowing exactly why, starting with how she won't stop getting herself scraped up learning tricks.

They also get a drive home in a comfortable car with a driver who turns out to be really funny, so that when they get out at the building Mercedes has to gasp her thank-you through compulsive giggles. Food comes in a different car that kinda looks similar about twenty minutes later, and Mercedes reflects that people with a lot of money just totally live in a different world from everyone else.

Hannah's Gran's out at her choir practice, because that's her thing and because they're going to do a concert at Hannah's Gran's church in a couple weeks so they're doing extra practices. So Hannah and Mercedes get TV-tables and set up on the couch and watch Stick It! because Hannah loves it and Mercedes doesn't mind it.

After a while Hannah asks, "Do you think I should get a dog?" and Mercedes shrugs. Jaime's just as allergic to dogs, so it's still not in her own future so when it comes of the general desirability of dogs, that's something she doesn't think about so she won't feel bad about it.

"You want one?" she asks and Hannah chews on her lip. "You're gonna make your lip bleed again," Mercedes adds.

"Kinda, yeah," Hannah says, not answering the other bit but stopping the chewing. "But what if it doesn't like me?"

That's such a Hannah question. Mercedes gives her a look. "So you go to a shelter and get the dog that likes you," she says, patiently.

"Not everybody likes me, Mercy," Hannah says, shooting her a look, and Mercedes shrugs again.

"Yeah well, the world's got a lot of stupid people in it," she retorts. "So what else is new."

"You're biased," Hannah says, throwing a crumpled up napkin at Mercedes, really ineffectively.

"I'm biased about people liking you because I like you?" Mercedes retorts. "Well duh. It's not like I have to like you. I dunno if you noticed, Hannah, but there's a lot of people I don't like. Like, a lot of people I have a list.." And Hannah has to burst out giggling, which derails that argument nicely.

After a few more minutes of watching the gymnasts on-screen have life-drama, Hannah says, "Well at least we kinda got an answer to my question I got mad at myself for having."

Mercedes wipes her mouth on her forearm and shakes her head, reaching over to grab her Coke (the cane-sugar kind, so much better) so she can wash down her mouthful and say, "I was thinking about that on the drive home," she says, "when I wasn't trying to die of no oxygen, and I realized we totally didn't? Because, like," she elaborates, at Hannah's puzzled look. "I know Steve left pretty early this morning, and I know James didn't - like I know because I saw Steve and James wasn't with him, but I also kinda know because, like, there was stuff upstairs that I could tell that James, like, started to do and then got distracted or annoyed or something and went to do something else? Like the gun on the table. So I know he was home for a few hours? So Steve could've gone and visited someone."

Hannah frowns at her. "Is that really likely though?"

"I have no idea. Seriously." Mercedes shrugs again, palms up. "I know Black Widow comes to visit sometimes? She doesn't have a key but she does know how to break in without breaking anything so like how much does a key matter? And Steve's mentioned someone called Sharon, and someone called Maria. Plus like considering how this conversation started I shouldn't be leaving out guys and that's just a long list, although I'm pretty sure it's not Sam - the guy who comes to visit sometimes - because I don't think he's in New York right now. But yeah like, I don't know about likely, I just know we didn't get an answer one way or the other."

Hannah looks like she's thinking about this. "Would they sleep in the same bed if it was just to make James sleep better?"

Mercedes nods and washes down another mouthful. "Steve would pull out his own fingernails if he thought it would make James feel better. Or, like, cut his own face off."

She feels like maybe she should feel like she should shut up, like she shouldn't be talking about this, about them. But none of it's secrets, all of it's just stuff she figured out for herself and for some reason she . . .doesn't. She might if LeAnn were here, but . . .not just with Hannah. It's a weird thought and she's not sure about why she thinks that. Why she feels that. But it feels like it comes from the same instinct-place that she gets stuff like knowing when someone's having a bad time even if she's got no idea what to do about it.

Stuff that goes back to Dad, and watching him try to be okay. So for now she'll just go with it, and hope she doesn't regret it later. She might.

Hannah hugs her knees for a minute, leaning her chin on them. Then she asks, in a smaller voice, "Is the stuff the conspiracy forum says true?"

"Depends which stuff," Mercedes replies. She feels cautious all of a sudden. She knows what Hannah means - there's some thread on Reddit and like a separate forum, and there's lots of different Avengers conspiracy theories but a definite chunk of them are about the assassin from DC-14, who he is, if he is the "Winter Soldier" that shows up in some old documents and then gets dismissed as a myth or a lie, and if they are the same person, who that person is and where they came from.

Mercedes knows the answers, obviously, but she's not about to shout them out on the web. She hasn't really got into it about who James is or anything with Hannah or LeAnn either: once LeAnn gave up and admitted Steve was Captain America, Mercedes sort of let it drop, because really the only reason it mattered was she hates it when people act like she's lying or stupid, and everything else she'd ever said was, like, about Natasha visiting or something, because really cool, okay.

But once you kind of know that and you lurk on that kind of forum it doesn't get hard to make the basic connections. And Hannah lurks a lot of places online.

Hannah's legs drop so she's sitting cross-legged, and she pulls her to-go container full of enchilada over to pick it up. She pokes at it with her fork. "That he's James Barnes. Like. The. From back then. That he didn't die, and HYDRA found him and, like, erased his memory and like, controlled his mind. And that's why he was with them on DC-14, but then, like, the mind-control stopped working and that's why he disappeared. And why he's here, I guess, but like obviously Reddit doesn't know that part."

"HYDRA did a lot of other stuff," Mercedes says, flatly. "But basically, yeah. That version's more or less right."

Hannah pokes at her food again, and Mercedes isn't quite sure where to go from there. She's not sure what Hannah's thinking, even, or why she's asking, and Mercedes doesn't know how to ask her that either. Why this suddenly matters. It's not just curiosity, because even if Mercedes didn't mean to she knows she sounded kinda hostile about depends which stuff, and usually that makes Hannah change the subject or at least change it after there's the answer so she's not drawing attention to changing it, because . . .that's how Hannah is.

Except it seems like this time it's important for some reason.

"Is he okay?" Hannah asks, and her voice is pretty quiet.

Mercedes stares at her. Then she blinks a few times. She's not sure how to answer that either, or where the question comes from. Hannah's never shown even a little bit of interest before now. And sure okay visiting someone's place - places - and doing stuff might make a person a little curious but this still doesn't feel like "curious". Mercedes just isn't sure what it does feel like.

She sort of gropes for some kind of answer and settles on, "Sometimes. More or less. Sometimes not so much. He tries to be."

On the TV, the protagonist is having her big moment of crisis. Hannah actually takes another mouthful of her food, another couple, and Mercedes tries to figure out if this silence is uncomfortable or not. It shouldn't be that hard, but it is.

Then both their text-tones go off at the same time, which means LeAnn (or okay maybe just a huge coincidence, but most likely LeAnn and this time it's LeAnn). Who actually grabbed them in a group-chat to say, okay if I show my cousins pics of u 2? they r all SOOPER NOSIE. Hannah actually giggles.

"She's, like, so stuck in a grump now," she says, and Mercedes has to admit that's probably true. LeAnn could get like that sometimes. She texts back saying, sure, and so does Hannah, which isn't actually a given and why LeAnn tends to ask, while asking Mercedes too so it's not a Thing.

Hannah's twitchy about pictures, sometimes. One of the things Mercedes has to do with other friends, friends that aren't, like, just the three of them, is get them to Fucking Stop It when they want pictures of Hannah and Hannah tries to hide. It's not a fun teasing pushing game for Hannah. And Mercedes telling people she will break their fucking phones is somehow more convincing than LeAnn telling them to stop, and doesn't even make it all not-fun most of the time, because then Mercedes being Scary ends up as part of the joke.

People, Mercedes thinks, are kind of weird. But it works and it's not like she was ever not going to be the scary bitch, so whatever.

They finish their food and Mercedes puts the empty containers in the kitchen garbage before coming back to flop on the couch. They're almost at the end of the movie when she looks at Hannah, and gives in to the impulse she's been having for the last few minutes.

"You okay?" she asks, and Hannah looks at her. Then she looks like she's actually thinking.

" . . .more or less?" she offers, like a discovery rather than an answer, and looks at Mercedes. She shrugs.

"Okay," Mercedes says. She figures that's good enough for now.