Mantis sat at the kitchen table, fingernails toying with the little dents and divots in the old, soft oak, and just watched.
She watched Pops putter around the old kitchen using old rags to dust off old counters, reach for a chipped mug and pour himself a cup of hot coffee, with a hum and a smile. He leaned back against the yellow, shimmery counter.
She watched Peter reach into the big white box in the corner, the refrigerator, and groan and make funny faces and stride over to the pantry. He pulled out a big black plastic bag and snapped it open with practiced ease, then started throwing things into it from the refrigerator.
“I thought you said you were gonna clean this thing out before we left, man.”
“Tell that to the mold colony. Ugh, it’s like a milk carton exploded in here… goo everywhere.”
“I didn’t even have any milk.”
“Well something crawled in here and died. Where’s the bleach?”
Mantis crinkled her nose up as the smell wafted toward the middle of the room.
Pops waggled his eyebrows at her, then seemed to steel himself to look over Peter’s shoulder. He groaned softly, then pulled Peter away and closed the refrigerator door.
“Forget it. I’m buying a new one.”
Peter shrugged then pushed past his grandfather on impulse, opening the door again just enough. “I’m at least going to rescue the beer.”
“Wash off the bottles, then stick ‘em in the freezer.”
“Right,” Peter mumbled.
“Then put the water pot on for Gamora,” Pops ordered, sitting down across from Mantis with his mug.
“Mmhm.” Peter set a few dark glass bottles in the sink, and ran the faucet until the water started to steam. He dipped a squat orange pot under the stream for a few seconds, then set it on the stove, turning a knob.
“Mantis, grab that stack. Let’s pick a place for take out,” Pops said, nodding toward the counter.
Mantis glanced behind her, eyes resting on a tan paper folder, with corners of smaller sheets sticking out from the edges. She got up and grabbed it, bringing the papers back to the table, where Pops spun them around and started leafing through them.
“What do you think, kiddo?” he asked, smiling at her. “Pizza? Chinese? Or there’s a little place on Tucker that makes some traditional Pho... They don’t deliver, but we can send Peter out to pick it up.” He jerked his head in Peter’s direction and grinned at her conspiratorially.
Mantis saw Peter’s shoulders tense under his sweatshirt, and she could tell he was pretending to ignore them, the same way he pretended to ignore Rocket sometimes.
But she could also tell he didn’t really mind.
“I like pizza,” Mantis offered. “We had some in New York.”
Peter sat down next to her, one of the clean beer bottles in his hand.
“Alright,” Pops nodded, then leaned forward, looking pointedly between Mantis and Peter. “Now this is a test.” His eyes rested on Mantis. “If you’ve had pizza, then surely you’ve been trained on the only acceptable pizza toppings in this household.” Pops smiled and glanced sideways at Peter, who shrugged and took a swig of his beer.
Mantis looked down at her hands nervously. Peter set down his bottle and slid his hand over, gently nudging her pinky with his.
She smiled, reflexively mirroring the one she felt from him as a quiet contentment rippled over her skin from the point of his touch.
“Pepperoni,” she said, barely above a whisper. “And sausage. Onions and mushrooms, sometimes. Never pineapple...”
“...Or green peppers, really. But that wasn’t a hard rule… Pops liked green peppers, but mom hated them. I never really cared either way…” Peter had said, around a half-chewed mouthful of garlic bread. It had been just the two of them, sitting around a too-big table at the big compound in New York late at night...
Mantis decided not to mention green peppers. Instead, she hooked her pinky around Peter’s and squeezed. Her antennae hummed.
Pops grinned. “Atta girl.”
There was something strange about a grown man, a good head taller than herself, crawling out of a nylon tent he’d taken the time to erect atop a child’s bed.
He grinned at her, in a silly sort of way, Mantis leaned on the doorway and couldn’t help but laugh.
“Found this in some box in the closet. I know it’s dumb…” Peter trailed off and stumbled down from the zippered opening on the single bed and onto the carpeted floor in the room he’d said was his when he lived in this house, many years ago. “But I thought it might be fun to drag it out.” He shrugged. “Lot smaller than I remember, though…”
“Do you sleep in it?”
“Huh? Well, no, not normally…” he pulled his knees up, still sitting on the floor, and leaned against the bed. “But sometimes. Mom got some glow in the dark paint, and we drew all kinds of stuff inside… bring the flashlight in and tell scary stories. She’d let me leave it up for a few days sometimes, on weekends… But really, it was for fun. Like… indoor camping.”
Mantis lowered herself to the floor next to him and found herself imagining playing in the little tent as a child.
There was a time, years ago, when she would have countered his stories with those of her own childhood, growing up with Ego. Because that was what people did, right? Telling him of her version of playing, talking to herself with no one else around, wandering the grounds until called for, until another child would come to play with her for a time, then…
She didn’t share those stories much anymore. Neither of them needed her to.
Mantis had come to understand quickly, that the pinched look on Peter’s face as she told him her stories meant that what she was saying hurt him deeply. Made him hurt for her . Wish that he could have somehow protected her from his--from Ego--all along, and feel regret that he had not. Even though there was no way that he could have.
Mantis had come to understand that her upbringing was not good or happy or healthy. But she had learned from her family that it was not too late to start again.
A little smile curled across Peter’s face and Mantis grew curious. “What?” she asked. He nodded back at the tent.
“Climb in.” He got up and held open the flap and she complied, scooting to the foot of the tented bed as she waited for Peter to turn off the lights.
The inside of the tent glowed in many different colors, with painted on hearts and stars and words and stick-figure people and the kinds of suns and clouds and trees that Groot had liked to draw as a child. Mantis sighed happily, leaning back to try and see every corner, every color and every picture.
The bed shuddered a bit as Peter tried to wrangle his large frame through the “doorway,” tossing her a flashlight as he did, and zipping the opening behind him. He was too tall to sit up, so he immediately laid on his back, his head in the middle of the bed, and turned himself so his feet were at the head, pulling his knees up and burying his toes under a pillow.
Mantis laid down too, resting her head next to Peter’s, and crossing her flannel-clad legs at the foot of the bed. Peter turned on the flashlight and ran the beam over some of the paintings for a few seconds before turning it off again. The artwork seemed to glow even brighter.
“What’s that one?” Mantis asked, pointing to one of the pictures, the same way she sometimes pointed out planets or stars when sitting with Drax.
“Mickey Mouse.” He was so close that Mantis could feel a wave of nostalgia-happiness break over her. “Think I drew that when we got back from Disneyland. Honestly, though… the park wasn’t the best part… it was the beach…”
She listened to him talk about a place called California and sitting in giant spinning tea cups for fun and about annoying his mother by singing a song about a small world over and over again.
“I didn’t know it yet, but she was already sick then. Or she’d just found out she was.”
Mantis set her jaw and twisted a finger tightly in the hem of her t-shirt. “She wanted to spend time with you… doing something wonderful. That you would remember,” she said softly. She wanted very much to cry, but also very much not to.
“Yeah,” Peter replied thickly. “I was mad at her, though. When I found out. I felt like she lied to me… then… bought me off. Like she thought I was some dumb kid… that a vacation would make it all better… when she finally did tell me that… she was sick…” He shook his head, before rolling himself onto his side and facing her. She twisted onto her side and rested her head on her arm.
“It took me a long time to understand… what she was trying to do, and why… and how much it must have hurt her, for me to be angry with her about it,” he finished.
Mantis smiled sadly and nodded. There wasn’t really anything for her to add. She knew this about Peter by now… that sometimes, he just needed to say what he needed to say.
She just leaned forward and lightly kissed his forehead, then dropped onto her back again, staring up at the drawings, which dimmed against the light of her antennae (which weren’t telling her anything at the moment that she didn’t already know).
She had never told him, but somehow he had known, almost from the beginning, that there was something… different… about how she perceived him. She’d known the second she read him the very first time--it was far too… specific… what she’d been able to feel from him.
A sad, dark and angry well of feeling sat deep inside both of them that knew where the connection came from--the common thread that had tied them together their whole lives, without them even knowing it.
The closest they came to discussing it was a quiet moment on the Milano after a bad job. She had made them both a hot, sweet beverage and sat quietly listening to one of his songs as she cleaned up some bad scrapes and burns on the backs of his hands and forearms.
“Sometimes bad things happen ,” Peter had said. “What makes them bearable, is when a little good comes out of them anyway. ” He’d smiled at her, and her antennae lit up and she knew there was a deeper meaning behind his words. “ Best kind of surprise… when that happens.”
Mantis felt Peter reach up between them and take her hand.
And she felt dizzy from spinning in a teacup. And cold and wet from the breeze and the ocean spray. And bored from waiting in long lines in the sun. And angry with mom and sad and regretful. And cozy in the tent and sleepy while listening to stories. And lonely, feeling like someone should be with her, who was not.
Mantis gripped Peter’s hand, in silent gratitude, as she greedily hoarded what he gave her.
And she saw herself as a child, standing on the beach and holding his small hand, both of them digging their little toes into the wet sand and giggling as the next wave came up to their knees.
She was happy to let the imagined feelings-moment replace any number of her real memories of growing up alone.
“I always did want a kid sister,” Peter said. Mantis barely heard him.
“You always had one,” she whispered back.