I sat cross-legged, staring at the phone in my lap. I was flipping through photos. There were a lot of pictures of this man with a gotye making funny faces.
Some of him with a strawberry-blonde woman. Strawberries. She looked familiar.
I focused on her face. High cheekbones, gray eyes. Freckles dotted her nose like the sun glittering on ocean waves. She almost looked fragile, but I knew she wasn't.
I traced the thin lines that made up her face with my eyes. Pepper.
—C A L I F O R N I A, 2 0 1 3—
"You're sending me away again."
"No—this is an opportunity, Cinnamon. You could make connections, meet new people."
"You're sending me to Darren Cross," I couldn't help the disgusted look on my face.
I sat across from my aunt in a coffee shop. We were seated in the corner of the room, away from prying eyes. It didn't really matter. There were always people watching in California.
I missed New York. I missed the city where gods walked among men and monsters lurked in the sewers and people could fly.
My aunt huffed on the other side of the table. Her name was Pepper Potts, but I liked to call her my Oasis of Normality.
She was like one of those relatives that you always heard breathtaking stories about, and when you finally saw her, she was just...normal. Just an ordinary human being.
That's what I liked about her. Even in a world of spidermen and earth-walking gods, my Aunt Pepper could recall the stock market and talk about what a great deal she scored on her high heels.
I loved her. But right now, I didn't want "normal."
"I spoke to Hope Van Dyne about your new assistant position," Pepper started.
"So did I." I cut her off. "I spoke to Hope Pym, and she told me that Cross was a psycho. Besides, I thought we were Team Stark, why would you sign me up to work for a company founded by Pym Tech?"
"Because if you want to pursue a career in diplomacy, that means you'll have to deal with grudges. Might as well get used to it," Pepper insisted, swirling her caramel drizzle mocha with a thin black straw.
This wasn't a business meeting, but our posture was perfect and our legs were crossed. That's how I knew we were related. We were too reserved.
Sometimes I wanted to choke on the constant formality.
"Assuming I'll have a future to pursue it," I mumbled, looking down at a tray of cookies I barely touched.
"Honey," Pepper reached across the table and patted one of my hands. Her usual tanned complexion turned pale, like fire to ice.
"You'll be fine. We'll deal with this medical disaster, and we'll move on. I found a doctor back in New York, some Strange guy..."
I perked up at the mention of the city. Pepper shook her head, "He's got a weird name, but his assistant sounded sane, so that's something. I'm trying, here."
I looked up. Pepper's concern was clearly written on her face. That's another way I knew we were related. We worried too much.
I sighed and looked out the window. I tried to avoid my reflection, "I still don't see the point in working for Cross—it's like you're sending me back to boarding school."
"Well, at least this one's in the country," Pepper's doppelganger in the glass offered me an apologetic smile. "That was for your own good."
"It was hell."
"You know you enjoyed it."
"Yes. Tons of people love to be cursed out in spanish and dodge erasers thrown by the Japanese educational system."
Pepper's mirrored image scoffed. "The food was good."
I turned back to her. "Yes. The strawberry shortcake was superb."
Pepper squinted. "I'm sorry, your mother didn't give me an instruction manual."
"She didn't leave me one, either."
Pepper squeezed the bridge of her nose with her fingers. "Please take the job. Let's try to stay rational with all of this: you're not dying yet, we don't know anything."
"You still have your future ahead of you. Take the job, and see where it leads."
I bobbed my head mechanically. Pepper wanted to act like everything was normal. Fine. I would pretend. I would pretend that I didn't feel like I was dying.
I would pretend that even if I was dying, an Avenger would be there to save me.
"Hey—oh. Yo," The metal door slid open to the room Mantis and I shared. Quill's eyes flit up to my spot, sitting on the ceiling.
My hair was dangling down—it only glowed in the dark, and shined dully in the dim lights of the ship.
"Hi. Apparently I can do this now..." I glanced down at the ceiling that I sat on. "You should get in on this, it's great for your back."
Quill shrugged off the surprise. I watched him carefully, wondering if this was the moment where he would casually ask me to leave his ship.
"So you're still bunking with us dwarves, Snow White?" He said.
My eyebrows creased. When I tilted my head to the side, I felt the weight of my hair shift. "I thought you would want me to leave...after that voicemail."
"Pfft, don't be so hard on yourself. Rocket keeps a bomb in a box." Quill remarked, leaning on the doorframe. "Besides, I'm pretty sure everyone on this ship has killed somebody.You're not the odd man out."
The crease in my eyebrows grew deeper. Peter misread it, "Unless you wanted to leave. I mean...it is your old life, if that's what you want..."
Peter watched with awe as I positioned myself sideways and glided back down to the floor. I held out my hand, and my phone fell at a slowed pace into my palm.
"Well...I was thinking. Trying to be rational about all of this..." I said, starting to gesture with my hands as I explained.
"I think I should stay with you guys until I sort out my head a little bit. I don't know who those people are or what happened to me, and maybe it would be better if I figured it out for myself instead of being told the details."
Quill digested my words, then nodded along. "Yeah. 'Think that's smart. Don't wanna end up like that movie Overboard, with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell."
"Yeah. Good-lookin', great hair. He was one of my idols growing up."
"Huh." The reference went completely over my memory-deprived head, but I nodded along anyway.
I was too excited: in a matter of days I'd gone from being completely lost to a tourist of the galaxy. I was almost bouncing from the rush.
"Thank you so much for letting me stay," I curled my hands beneath my chin. "This is like a Doctor Who episode...I forget what that is, but I'm still excited."
"See? Nobody gets my references either! This is gonna be so cool!"
"Yay! Bring on the cool space stuff!"