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individualized study

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First rule, James tells her. Knives are like guns. They're for killing people. Nothing else. And Mercedes tries to carve that in her brain.

Other shit, other weapons, those you use to defend yourself, James says. Either you can use them to block an attack, or they're far enough away from you that you can put them down when they can't reach you, or you can use them put someone down without killing them. Knives and guns, no.

The look he's giving her is as flat as his voice. Best defense is not getting in the god-damned fight. Second-best defense is making it so something can't fucking get at you. Keep the other guy far enough away from you that nothing he's got for a weapon is going to work. Put something he can't get through between you and him. Immobilize him. Take your pick. And you can use shit like your body, blunt weapons, boards, a lot of stuff - with those things, you can defend without killing.

Even shit like swords, spears, he says, almost like he's reading her mind, because she was about to say, they're long enough that slices and cuts and stabs are all over there, out of reach, and he gestures with his left arm, and Mercedes nods, seeing the point. You don't have to kill an attacker with a spear, you can just keep poking at him and keeping him at the end of it. You can kill him, but you don't have to. You can use a sword to keep his sword farther away than he can reach, and you can use it to stab at him and keep him back. Same with a club, a bat -

A disc-shaped shield you throw like a frisbee? she says, and he rolls his eyes.

Yeah, if you want to be a grandstanding showoff, sure. Then he's serious again. Not these. The only defense a knife or a gun offers is killing the other person first, he says, his voice flat. They block fuck all. There's just about no fucking injury they can inflict that you can be sure won't kill the other guy, because in a fight with them you don't get that much control. Because in a fight the other guy doesn't cooperate by holding still. The only way to use a gun to defend yourself that isn't just killing the other person first is giving it to someone else to watch your fucking back - and kill the other person before they hurt you.

It's sort of shaped like a joke, but James isn't even gesturing towards a smile. Knives don't even give you that, he says, holding eye-contact until Mercedes nods again. You're not ready to kill, leave the knife the fuck alone - you're more likely to get yourself killed when the other guy takes it off you, or you cut yourself up by accident.

So that's rule one.


Natasha Romanoff had been right, not that that's some kind of big surprise. Mercedes doesn't totally understand all of the stuff she can see in James' face the day he finally does stop her, catching the practice knife at the top of its arc and saying, Alright, kitten, Iet's skip you cutting your fingers off. But none of it's bad, as far as she can tell.

Once or twice Mercedes's thought she should ask Steve about the times James slips to kitten instead of kid. At least, it feels like a slip, because it only happens when he obviously has something pretty heavy on his mind and he never seems to notice it, or at least doesn't act like he does, and otherwise it's usually kid, sometimes her name, and very occasionally when she's managed to get a really good jab or something it's something like mouthy brat while pretending not to smile.

But she never remembers to ask Steve when she's got the opportunity, and after a while she figures: what's she gonna learn that she doesn't already know? And does she really want to pull it out and make it all . . . open, all in-so-many-words? It's not like she doesn't know, and it's not like Steve (or James) doesn't know she knows, but she's not sure that, if they know she knows they know she knows, it's not going to . . .

It's stupid, but somehow that's the point where it all gets awkward and hard. Like maybe that's the point where it gets too far and all falls down, if they're all open about what they know, and know that the other person knows. Where if she just leaves it like it is, it's not. She doesn't talk to anyone about that, because it does seem so stupid and when she thinks about it she feels really exposed. She just decides, by herself.

It's not the first time she's made that kind of quiet, internal decision. Her first one was when she stopped going to church. Mercedes still isn't sure what she thinks about God, or Jesus, or any of the rest of it. She's not sure what she doesn't think, either. Mostly she doesn't want to think about it. But she is sure that with her dad dead and Jaime getting doses of poison every day in the hopes it'd kill the cancer before it killed him, if she had to keep listening to sermons telling her about God's love and what she's supposed to do to earn it, she was going to scream, probably right there in the middle of the Mass.

That was also the first time she had a big fight with her mom's family, one that was made worse in that little girls aren't supposed to talk back when someone tells them that what they're doing is a bad idea, especially when that "someone" is their aunt who is so much older and knows so much more than the little girl does. Since Mercedes had been ten and not really . . . sympathetic to other people and how they might be seeing the world, and also since nobody in her aunt's family ever got worse than the flu, she'd ended up half-shouting that actually her aunt didn't know anything and definitely didn't know what she was talking about and should shut up.

Theoretically she got sent to her room (or rather, the guest-room where she and Mama and Jaime were sleeping) for telling her aunt to shut up, but that was kind of pointless since she'd already run down there and slammed the door shut and put the dresser up against it, as much as she could. She'd stayed there until her mom got home from taking the little kids to the spray-park, had a thing-that-wasn't-quite-a-fight with her sister, and then promised Mercedes nobody was going to talk about it so would she get the thing out of the way of the door and come to the table for supper.

There was another couple of those fights before Mercedes' mom flat said that none of her aunts or uncles was allowed to talk about big questions with Mercedes without her mom around, and her mom shut down that kind of fight pretty quick, most of the time. And it's stayed that way.

Mama can only shut the fights down most of the time, though. It's not like most of Mercedes' extended family is necessarily any better at doing what they're told than she is.

It's not like she doesn't know half of the reason she clashes so bad with her mom's side is because she's like them, because of the ways she's like her mom, except her mom's better at not blowing up at people. Mercedes probably gets that part from her dad.

She knows that when her mom's family looks at her, they just see her dad and they don't like what they see. And nothing she really does helps that, and the knife work surely isn't going to. It's not that she doesn't care, but she doesn't care enough to change how she wants to be. Just enough to make her resentful and unhappy around their disapproval, touchy and easy to piss off.

With Jaime getting worse - weaker, anyway, like just tired all the time - for no reason, Mercedes is just grateful Aunt Colleen's around more. Aunt Colleen is a bit awkward around Mercedes still, and her eyes did get big when Mercedes explained what the multi-coloured thing she was throwing around was, but she doesn't pick and grate and nag at Mercedes the way her mom's family does. And her mom's sisters and brothers can't argue that Aunt Colleen doesn't have more time to spare, fewer commitments, or more money to spend on gas, because she does, so if anything they should be grateful she's stepping up more.

Mercedes knows a lot of the time they're not. She used to think they were being all controlling and domineering on purpose, but now she . . .doesn't think that. She doesn't even think that, like, her mother's oldest sister knows why she's all huffy that she can't find a reason to be around more than Aunt Colleen. That her aunt realizes it's about being possessive and territorial and insecure about it. Figuring out more about people's mostly helpful, but Mercedes really isn't sure she likes this particular part of it.

It'd be a lot easier to just decide all her aunts and uncles were jerks, instead of starting to understand why they do what they do.



Second rule, James says, the next time. You pull a knife, you're probably going to bleed.

He'd shown her other stuff, before, movements she could do to practice the right position of her hands, but he'd left the first-rule stuff to just sort of settle in on its own.

Mercedes tilts her head in a silent question and he gets a thin smile.

Think about how many people cut themselves up with kitchen knives, he goes on, and now there's a bit of wry humour - just a bit. Then think about taking that kitchen knife and waving it around right close to someone, and having someone wave another one back. You're both holding weapons sharp enough to slice skin and meat without thinking about it, and you - he points at her, are made of skin and meat. Pull a knife, you're probably going to bleed and what's more you're probably going to cut yourself because the other guy's going to be knocking into you and trying to force your hand places and block you and everything else.

You have time to plan for that, he says, you can get around it with armour, right kind of clothes, but that just means the armour gets the cuts instead of you.

And then he reaches over and raps her hard on the head with the fake knife, making her duck and yelp and glare at him. And if you've got that much fucking time to plan, he tells her, half sour-teasing and half kind of threatening, for a certain value of threat, I expect you to use it to fucking figure out how to stay out of the fucking knife-fight.

Mercedes makes a face at him. I'm not an idiot, she says, pretending to be huffy.

Good, he retorts. Keep it up.

These two rules, he tells her a lot more than once: knives are for killing, and if you pull one, just assume you're gonna bleed.


One weekend morning she comes back in for breakfast covered in red marks, including on her face, and her mom gives her the start of a horrified look before Mercedes holds up her hands - partly to stop the freak out, and partly so she can see better.

"It's just magic marker!" she says, and her mom stops with mouth like a quarter open around whatever she was going to say. "See?" Mercedes turns her hands around, because you can see it even better on the back.

Her mom blinks, and then her eyebrows go from raised-in-horror to knotted-in-confusion. "Why are you covered in magic marker?"

Mercedes can't quite resist starting out with, "Because permanent marker is too hard to wash off?" as she goes to the kitchen sink to wash her hands, and ducks the mock-smack her mother pretends to give her with the big spoon she's using to dish out yoghurt.

"You know what I meant, smart-mouth," her mom says, pretending she's annoyed. Well, mostly pretending. She hands Mercedes a bowl of yoghurt and cut up fruit and fake Rice Krispies.

If she just puts milk on, Mercedes can tell the difference and she hates the generic kind. But in yoghurt she can't, especially with fruit, and this way she doesn't have to make sure her granola's either safe for Jaime or carefully locked away from anything he's eating.

"You should see Steve," Mercedes says, placidly. She sits down and shrugs. "Demonstration," she explains, not waiting for her mom to have to prompt her. "How even if you do everything right you still end up with a lot of little cuts."

Her mother catches one arm and looks at it. "Yeah, a lot of them," she says, dubiously.

"Okay so we did it more than once," Mercedes says, making a face at her mother. Her mother makes a face back and puts Jaime's bowl on the table for him before sitting down with her own. "Like, a lot more. And I didn't bother washing it all off in between. And you should see Steve - James dragged him over for demo because he says Steve's knife-work and knife-defense are abysmal. Which is a kind of a huge exaggeration, but whatever."

Her mother sips her coffee and says, "Well at least I have more interesting stories than the women whose daughters all just do art and ballet."

Mercedes watches her mother out of the corner of her eye for a few minutes, as her mom eats her breakfast and drinks her coffee. Then she gives in and asks, "Does it bother you I'm learning this?"

Her mother doesn't answer for a second. She finishes a mouthful, spoon arrested on the way to take another one, before she looks at Mercedes.

"It would bother me," she says, "if you were stupid about it. I'm trusting that you're not going to be."

Mercedes can live with that, as an answer.


She never states the obvious. The part about how rule one relates to the weapons James always, always has to hand. It's another one of those things she doesn't need to talk about.