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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

GOTG fic: (The Whole World) In Your Hands (2/3)

December 20th, 2017 (09:10 pm)
hopeful

feeling: hopeful

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

For all that going to bed early sounded like the normal and responsible thing, it was really a load of shit. Peter couldn’t sleep. He didn’t even want to sleep.

He just didn’t want to be out with the others either.

Slumping back on his pillow, Peter didn’t know what the hell he wanted anymore.

Above him, the stars looked the same as they always did. Unchanged.

Normal.

Grunting, he flopped onto his side and curled up into a ball with a hint of petulance. When he’d been a kid, he’d been forced to sleep in a room just off of Yondu’s. He was a flight risk, Yondu had said. Besides, he’d argued with a hiss of his jagged teeth, it was the only safe place on the ship if the crew decided to eat him.

Peter had believed him, because of course he had. And for as much as Yondu had scared the shit out of him, Peter did feel safer there. He’d liked tucking himself in, curling into the tiniest of balls and pretending like he was back on Earth with his mom, listening to music and life was normal.

Balefully, Peter studied the wall. All those years he’d spent hating Yondu and now? He missed him.

Yondu was the only family he’d known most of his life, and there was no way in hell he’d been a perfect father, but Peter understood it better now. He knew that keeping Peter on board was the best way to keep him safe. On Earth, Peter would have been a sitting duck, and his grandfather, good intentioned as he might have been, would have been no use again Ego’s machinations. Under Yondu’s protection, Peter had been out of Ego’s view for decades.

That didn’t make everything better, of course. Peter was still thoroughly screwed up thanks to Yondu’s lack of parenting prowess. Teaching a kid to steal and shoot while threatening to eat him wasn’t exactly how you created a well-adjusted adult. But, considering the alternative…

Peter shudder, a jolt of electricity running down his spine and tingling in his fingers.

He hated that he missed it. Not Ego, of course, but the light. That immediate sense of belonging and purpose. The power, to be clear, had been incident for Peter. Yeah, it was nifty to think about making monuments of Heather Locklear, but the idea that he had a father who loved him and sought him and wanted to build a future with him.

It was the thing he’d always wanted.

It hadn’t been real, though. Peter had to remind himself of that. Ego had been a maniac. Destroying him had been the only option. He didn’t regret that; not at all.

But he had to regret destroying the light.

Just a little bit.

Who wouldn’t regret that? Peter had tasted it, if only briefly. He’d understood, if only for a second. He’d felt the way the energy had thrummed in his hands, filling every last hole of him until he’d felt like he’d been ready to explode.

Forlornly, he held out his hands, turning them over and back in front of himself. They were just hands, just like they’d always been. Human hands.

There was no sign that they had ever been anything different.

Normal.

Killing Ego had been necessary. It had been the right thing. He’d do it again; he would.

But, no matter what he tried to tell himself, it was still his dad. And killing him, no matter how unavoidable, still felt like killing part of himself, too

He swallowed, feeling inexplicably guilty.

There was no point in worrying about that now. That was the past.

Peter had to look to the future.

Closing his eyes, he tucked his fingers against himself again and made a willful attempt to sleep.

These were normal things to think about after committing fratricide.

Completely and totally normal.

-o-

Sleep wasn’t important.

The pretense of sleep, however, was paramount.

He made a point, therefore, to sleep in every now and then. This usually consisted of staring blankly at the wall, but the extra internal torture was worth it for the semblance of external control.

Or something.

Peter could hardly think straight even after his third cup of coffee. He was going for a fourth when he found Rocket having an animated debate with Kraglin.

Kraglin’s presence on the ship was still sort of weird to him, but it wasn’t like he was going to throw the Ravager out. They had a history together, and while he and Kraglin had never been exactly close, they also hadn’t been enemies. Of all the crew, Kraglin had only threatened to eat him once, and it had been so ineffective that not even Peter had believed it.

Besides, kicking Kraglin to the curb would be kicking the last of Yondu’s influence to the curb. He wasn’t ready to do that yet.

Not that his opinion entirely mattered. The rest of the crew seemed to have taken to Kraglin immediately, and Rocket, who usually pissed people off the fastest, seemed to be his new best friend in the making.

“Nah, scheduled shifts are too rigid, man,” Rocket was saying, picking at his teeth and flicking bits of his breakfast on the table. “I mean, you guys were Ravagers. And you still had a sign up sheet?”

“No one signed up,” Kraglin said. “It was assigned.”

“Yeah, and it all depended on how well you got along with Yondu at the moment,” Peter muttered, taking a sip of the coffee, hot and black. “By the time I turned 18, I was almost always on night shift.”

“Because you was always running your mouth,” Kraglin said.

“Then why were you on the night shift with me?” Peter asked.

“Because Yondu needed someone he trusted to make sure you didn’t run off,” Kraglin said, shaking his head. “Which is what the schedule is about. Accountability!”

Rocket made a face. “Eh, we’re a small enough outfit; I think we’re accountable without the structure.”

“You set autopilot and hope for the best most nights!” Kraglin said, sounding vaguely apoplectic.

“And we haven’t crashed yet,” Rocket said. “I mean, except when we’re actually in the cockpit.”

Kraglin was shaking his head. “This just ain’t no way to run a crew,” he said. “Who is on breakfast duty? Who is going to clean the galley?”

“I think the answer is you and you,” Rocket said with a wicked smile.

Kraglin glared at him, but there was little menace behind it. “You could learn something from the Ravagers.”

“And you could learn something from the Guardians!” Rocket countered. He shrugged, seemingly indifferent. “Anyway, it’s not my call now, is it?”

With that, they both turned to look at Peter. He had quickly drunk the cup of coffee and he had been pouring the next. He stopped, suddenly self conscious. “What?”

“We need you to make an executive decision,” Kraglin said. “As captain.”

“Yeah,” Rocket said. “Do we run this thing with a schedule and structure? Or do we keep on with the way it’s always worked for us?”

Always made it sound so definitive. Funny, it had only been a few months.

A few months.

It felt like a lifetime.

The crushing slowness of time was matched only by the sharp tearing of loss. It had been easy to be sure and confident when he was the asshole blowing off the captain. But now he was the captain, and the weight of that became so much more telling.

He didn’t have Yondu’s passion. He didn’t have Ego’s power.

He was just Peter Quill.

Whoever the hell that way.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, making his way to the door. “You guys figure it out, okay?”

It wasn’t okay, of course.

But Peter was already out the door before they had a chance to tell him otherwise.

It wasn’t exactly the most mature tactic, but when all else had failed in Peter’s life, avoiding the truth was always a fantastic option.

-o-

The plan was to take a few days to let the crew normalize. They had two new additions flying for the time being, and it was important to let both Mantis and Kraglin take stock of their new situation and make sure this was what they wanted. More than that, the Guardians were a tightknit group. If there was any signs of conflict, they would have to deal with it before heading back into the job market.

Therefore, the plan was to see how they settled and slow move them back into a normal routine as they started to plot courses and take care of the ship. They also had to watch their asses now that they had managed to piss off another extreme race with a strong sense of vengeance. He made sure to give each team member their own jobs and a purpose, to make them all feel like they were a needed part of the group.

As for Peter himself, the only plan was to make sure that everyone else was okay. All he had to do for his own purposes was never sleep, drink too much, avoid real food and smile on cue. The first allowed him to avoid the intense calling of the light. The second was his means to deal with the fact that he never indulged the intense calling of the light. As for the third, he found that an empty stomach was a good distraction to get him through the day. If his stomach was growling, he could almost believe that hunger was his primary problem.

The last, of course, was for the benefit of his team.

After all, being happy wasn’t part of the plan.

In fact, that was about the only part of the plan he had any confidence in at all.

-o-

There was some solace that everyone else seemed to be handling this well.

Take Drax, for example.

Drax had an easy friendship with Rocket, but that was only because they were equally antagonistic in their own way. He and Gamora had a respectful rapport, but he seemed to have at least enough sense not to inundate her with as many awkward personal interactions as he did everyone else. As for Groot, the two never got along and Peter suspected they never really would.

But Mantis was a whole different story.

Peter had been rather preoccupied on the planet, but ever since Mantis had joined them on board, Drax’s affections for her had been obvious. Since he made it abundantly clear that he did not prefer Mantis sexually, Peter could only deduce that he favored her paternally.

It was almost sweet.

“And never use the bathroom after me,” Drax warned, very seriously. “You will find the smell most unpleasant, and I cannot guarantee that the surfaces will be clean.”

Almost, Peter reflected dimly as he rocked back in his chair.

Mantis, seated in another one of the seats, nodded earnestly at Drax, who was situated in the copilot’s seat. “That makes sense.”

“For the record, you should know that it is not always this boring,” Drax said. “We are merely waiting for Quill to recover emotionally from the death of his fathers.”

“I’m sitting right here,” Peter reminded him with a scowl.

But Mantis was looking at him sympathetically. “If you would like some reprieve--”

Peter shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said, busying himself suddenly with controls pointlessly.

“I’m fine is a default response for his species,” Drax informed her. “I have not yet figured out when he is telling the truth and when he is lying.”

“Again,” Peter said. “Still in the room.”

Drax was frustratingly indifferent. “As it is, I just want you to understand that life will be far more busy once we get back to work,” he said. “But it is good work.”

Mantis chewed her lip, thoughtful. “Is it always so dangerous? Do you always fight foes that outmatch you?”

Drax puffed up his chest. “The bigger the better,” he said. “But I do not believe we have ever been outmatched.”

“You did defeat Ego,” she said with a shy smile. “I had not thought it possible.”

“That is what we do!” Drax insisted. “We are the Guardians of the Galaxy. Nothing can stop us, not when we are working together toward a common end.” He paused, looking at Peter. “Is that not right, Quill?”

Was it right?

Could nothing stop them?

Was unity all they needed?

If the answer was yes to all those questions, then Peter really would have been fine.

Since he wasn’t…

He forced a smile, giving an exaggerated and flippant shrug. “Drax doesn’t know how to lie,” he said. “So he must be right.”

Drax beamed; Mantis seemed to hesitate, but didn’t have any grounds to question him.

Peter thought that was well enough.

Sure, it obscured the truth, but it was the only piece of positive affirmation Peter had left.

-o-

For kicks, he made dinner. Sometimes, he started a friendly game of Aurellian checkers. He even did the laundry and streamlined the garbage compactor for better capacity. When those things failed to take up enough time, he updated the armory and replaced the exhaust vents. These were all productive and important things.

He had hoped that making a positive impact on the people around him would make him feel like he was accomplishing something.

And he could see that it mattered to his crew. He knew he was doing good things. Right things.

But the power in his hands felt tepid, and the things he accomplished were lackluster.

When he’d wielded the light, he’d been able to form monuments, reform the fabric of the cosmos.

Now, he could clean toilets.

He knew the latter was more important to the people around him.

God help him, though. He missed the former.

-o-

Peter wasn’t sleeping, but there was still a bedtime routine where Groot was involved. It hadn’t been Peter’s idea -- why would it? -- but Gamora hadn’t needed to ask for his help.

He was there, every step of the way.

Anything to avoid his own bed.

For now, they had set up a bed for Groot in Gamora’s quarters. Sure, he sometimes slept with Drax or Rocket, but Gamora’s room was his home. She let him keep his collection of toys -- twigs, rocks and leaves -- and he seemed to like to keep his little nest at the foot of her bed, where he could wake up and see her always.

At least, that was how Rocket translated it.

It still sounded like I am Groot to everyone else.

Standing up, Gamora straightened the leaf that was serving as a blanket. She gave a fond smile, stepping back toward Peter gently. “He’s getting bigger,” she whispered, quieting when Groot snuffled and adjusted his position. “He’s going to need his own room soon.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “His old room’s still open.”

“I just hope he’s comfortable there,” she mused. “I can’t tell if he remembers anything from the way things were before all this.”

Before all this. Groot had sacrificed himself on Xandar, given up everything for his family.

Peter had been willing to do the same on Ego’s planet, but it hadn’t gone quite as well. He’d saved the galaxy, sure.

But he’d lost some of the important stuff in the process.

He watched as Groot started to snore peacefully.

Peter didn’t even have the benefit of forgetting.

“Change is hard,” he said, almost without thinking.

Gamora looked at him, mildly perplexed. “What?”

Then Peter remembered: the lie.

He was lying about everything, especially about the part where he was perfectly okay.

Quickly, he gathered himself, wetting his lips. “Nothing,” he said. “Like I said, his old room’s still open. Or, if we want something closer to us, we can ask Kraglin to trade out. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

He made it sound very reasonable, but Gamora had seen his slip. She peered at him, almost a bit cautious. “Are you okay, Peter?”

She had to ask, and Peter knew that. She had to ask because Gamora wasn’t dumb and, for reasons that would never be totally understood, she cared about him. For someone who had been raised to be a killer, her capacity for compassion was sometimes surprising.

And occasionally very inconvenient.

So Peter did the only thing he could.

He made the most ridiculous face and made a snort that sounded so utterly fake that it hurt his ears. “Sure,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

She stepped toward him in concern now. “You can talk to me, you know.”

To her credit, she was trying. This relationship thing, the unspoken mess between them, it wasn’t easy for Gamora, but she was trying so damn hard. Ever since they’d left Ego’s planet, she’d gone above and beyond. She’d been available and accessible and compassionate and it was everything Peter had asked her for.

And Peter didn’t know what to do with it at all.

Finally, he shrugged. “I know,” he said. “I just….there’s not much to say, I guess.”

“Things shouldn’t be unspoken, Peter,” she said softly.

For a moment, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her about the dreams, about the draw of the light, about how much he ached for it. He wanted to confess how it felt like part of him -- a lot of him -- had died, and how he had no idea what normal was.

The rush of emotions was too much for him. He couldn’t grasp it himself, much less explain it to her. How could he tell her that he missed the father who had threatened to eat him as much as he missed the one who had tried to destroy the galaxy?

He swallowed hard, and the pain was impossible to hold back. “If I find the words,” he said, looking her in the eyes. This promise, it wasn’t much, but it was all he had to give. “You’ll be the first person I tell.”

That much, at least, was the truth.

Even if everything else was a lie.

-o-

The words never came. Days went by, and despite the familiarity of the Milano, Peter’s never felt further detached. The emptiness hadn’t gone away inside of him. If anything, it was getting worse.

Eventually, it was going to consume him, just like everything Ego touched.

The smart thing to do was deal with it.

But Peter’s never really been one to do the smart thing.

-o-

They were a week out from Behert when Peter made the announcement.

“We need a job,” he announced. It was dinner, and Mantis had made something that was strangely crunchy. This was a relief to Peter, not because he liked it, but because when he didn’t eat his helping, at least he didn’t look out of place.

All the same, making the announcing, he felt out of place.

The crew, the whole lot of them, seemed to blink in unison before exchanging uncertain, nervous glances.

It was a thing, Peter knew. After saving the galaxy the first time around, they had been a little unsure what to do next. Saving the galaxy was sort of a big thing, after all. That was how they had ended up protecting batteries that they would end up stealing.

That point notwithstanding.

If they didn’t have a normal, Peter would make it.

Now.

“I know a lot has happened, but the ship’s ready. We’re all healed up,” he said, trying to sound as confident as he had when he had practiced in front of the mirror. “I think it’s time.”

Rocket made that face like he was constipated. Groot’s eyes widened. Kraglin glanced at the group around him, trying to gauge their reactions. Drax was staring Peter down with unnecessary force while Mantis looked startled by the whole damn thing.

It was Gamora who spoke.

Of course it was.

“Are you sure we’re ready?” she said. She lifted one shoulder in what was supposed to be an unassuming shrug. “I mean, not all injuries are flesh and bone.”

“Yeah,” Rocket chimed in. “I mean, we’re still getting used to having two more jackasses around.”

“And honestly, sometimes I still think about leaving,” Kraglin confessed with a matter of fact nod.

“And I am still convinced that you are emotionally unhinged,” Drax blurted. “It seems likely that you are making a mistake being blinded by your abject grief.”

Peter drew a breath, holding it while the others grumbled at Drax’s bluntness. No doubt, they all agreed. No doubt, they had also agreed not to say it to Peter’s face.

Awesome.

When they stopped, Peter let out the breath. “I get it, I do,” he said. “A lot of shit went down, and I was at the center of it. And if you question my judgment, you have every right to it considering what I almost helped Ego do--”

“Peter, you know that’s not what we’re thinking,” Gamora cut in, her voice full of condescension.

“We all had our parts to play,” Rocket said.

“Not I,” Drax said. “I did nothing wrong.”

They collectively glared at Drax.

He considered this. “Not that I can blame you,” he said. “If my father was a celestial powers with immortality, I would have been distracted, too.”

Peter snapped his fingers, pointing. “Distractions, yes.”

Drax looked perplexed.

“We need a job for the distraction,” Peter said.

Gamora audibly groaned.

“No, seriously,” Peter said. “We’re sitting on this ship, flying around aimlessly.”

“It’s called keeping a low profile,” Rocket said. “I’m guessing the Sovereign have a generous bounty on our heads.”

“And? So does the Kree Empire,” Peter said. “But we didn’t let that sit around here and dwell on things.”

“It’s not dwelling,” Gamora said. “It’s coping.”

“I’d cope a hell of a lot better if I had something to do,” Peter said. He folded his arms over his chest. “I think we all would.”

He put it out there, the challenge implicit. They would want to disagree, but he knew they couldn’t. Rocket wanted to blow things up. Drax wanted to rip things to shreds with his hands. Even Gamora was restless without a mission to do. Mantis and Kraglin were ready to see if this whole Guardians thing was right for them. And Groot -- well, no one knew what he was thinking anyway.

They probably thought he was better off dwelling, but they all wanted a job, even more than he did.

By their silence, he knew he had their assent.

Even Gamora bit her lip and said nothing.

Peter nodded, rubbing his hands together. “Great,” he said. “I think I’ve got just the thing.”

-o-

The job was right up their alley. Big risks, high stakes, lots of adversity.

Basically, a nuclear power plant was going belly up on a remote moon in the Edelson system. The Edelson system was peaceful and lacked a significant military force, which meant it had minimal means by which to defend the site. Worse, the raw parts from the plant would be a heyday for pirates and other scavengers, making the system a hotbed for criminal activity in recent weeks. When the plant went kaput entirely, the raw nuclear materials would be raided and sold to the worst sorts of people in the galaxy.

Edelson’s government had evacuated the plant because of the volatility of the plant, and the straggling staff had been forced out or killed by the bandits. It was up to the Guardians of the Galaxy to secure the plant until it shut down entirely. No one had killed it already because with active leaks, getting close to the interior was suicide.

Peter had been sold at that point.

Suicide.

If that didn’t describe what the Guardians did, then Peter didn’t know what did.

They did this crap all the time.

This couldn’t possibly be any different.

-o-

The job wasn’t different.

Peter was, though.

True, he’d always lacked a bit of finesse, but he’d played the role of leader pretty well since the Guardians came along. He’d successfully negotiated all their other jobs, organized their logistics, and generally provided the kind of steady guidance a wayward group of quasi-reformed criminals might need.

But when the light had died, it must have taken that sliver of leadership with it.

“No,” Peter said, rubbing his head over the comm link. “I didn’t mean that it was your fault that the nuclear reactor was going offline, I just--”

There was a flurry of angry commotion on the other end of the line.

Peter winced. This was supposed to be nothing but a quick confirmation call before they entered Edelson space.

Instead, Peter had managed to personally offend the Edelsonian leadership council while simultaneously enraging the entire scientific community in the sector.

“I’m sure you did everything you could to prevent nuclear disaster--”

As another angry retort erupted over the line, Gamora slid into the seat next to him, raising her eyebrows.

He winced again, trying to offer her a disarming smile.

Given the look on her face, it was as pathetic as it felt.

“Just a misunderstanding,” he whispered.

“I would say so!” the man on the other end roared. “If not for our quick thinking, the entire system would have been affected by nuclear waste, but our scientists found a way to control the shut down over a period of time for the safest possible outcome! Granted, a manual shutdown would have ensured that no looting occurred -- the system is automatically scrambled when taken offline manually -- but the risk simply was not acceptable. Public safety is something we do not take lightly!”

“Understood, Chief Leader,” Gamora interjected before Peter had a chance to reply. “That’s why we simply wanted to know all the details of your shut down in order to make sure that we respect the steps you have already taken. We simply want to continue your work, not change it.”

Gamora may have been trained as assassin, but she had the instincts of a diplomat.

Over the line, there was a moment of stilted silence. Then a small huff. “Tempers are just running a bit thin over here,” the man said. “This has been a disaster on every front, as you can imagine, and the public relations element is simply something I struggle to tolerate.”

“We would never judge you for any of that,” Gamora assured him.


“Look, you have the schematics. You know everything we know,” the man said. “Just remember, you must not enter the power core. We could certainly go in and shut it down immediately, but only at extreme risk to the person assigned that task. At this point, we don’t know for sure how much radiation is leaking in the sealed area. It could be instantly deadly, and that wasn’t a risk we’ve been willing to take since the controlled shut down will only last for another week at best.”

“That makes perfect sense,” Gamora told him. “We’ll contact you when we’re in position.”

“Very good,” the man said. “Half of your payment has already been wired to your account.”

Gamora smiled. “We will do what we can to mitigate this disaster for you and your system,” she pledged.

“We’re skeptical of hired help, but you Guardians seem like a different lot,” the man said. “We’re pinning our hopes on you.”

“We will do our best not to disappoint,” Gamora concluded, ending the transmission. Looking moderately proud, she turned to Peter.

Peter wasn’t sure what to say.

He wasn’t even sure what he felt.

Pride? That his team had so grown into their roles as heroes? Relief? That Gamora and the others continually saved him from himself?

Disappointment? That he knew he was, more than ever, the expendable one?

“Sometimes it takes a fresh voice of reason,” she said.

“I guess,” he said, still a little awed. “I thought we were going to lose that job.”

“It was a misunderstanding, like you said,” she said, checking a few things on the computer. She shrugged. “I think you’re doing great.”

She was trying to be reassuring, that much was plain.

But--

“I’m doing great?” he asked, unable to hide his incredulity.

She blinked up at him. “Considering everything that’s happened, I mean.”

“I nearly blew the job,” he reminded her.

“And you’ve been through things most people can’t possibly imagine,” she returned.

He snorted. “So, what? This whole thing with Ego, being a god and not being a god, killing both my dads in a single job -- that’s my get out of jail free card?”

She tilted her head. “Your what?”

“In Monopoly,” he said, sighing.

She looked vexed. “Monopoly of what?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s a game. I just mean that you guys know that I’ve screwed up so many other things that I’m going to screw up again and you must have all planned accordingly.”

She reached out, hand on his arm. “That’s not what I said.” She ran her fingers down his forearm, stroking the back of his hand before locking her fingers around his. “That’s not what any of us think.”

The touch was almost electric. Peter could feel it, reverberating between them with a sudden pulsation he could scarcely control. The flicker of energy was like a flash of light, so clear, so powerful, so blinding.

The intensity of it didn’t exactly scare Peter.

The fear of losing it, however.

Abruptly, he pulled his hand away. “Yeah,” he said, words half-mumbled as he flexed his fist into a small, closed ball. “Okay.”

Her face creased with concern. “Peter--”

He was already on his feet, though, moving to the door. “You got this right now,” he said, gesturing to the controls. “I just need to be alone for a little bit.”

-o-

He needed to be alone; Peter hadn’t lied about that.

But he really didn’t want to be.

Lying on his bunk, he stared miserably at the ceiling. Being alone with himself was the worst, because then there were no distractions.

It was just him.

And the darkness threatening to overtake him.

In the dim light, he lifted his hands, looking them over once again. Here, they were unremarkable, but he could still feel the way it had been when Gamora had touched him. That spark of light had been unexpected, but undeniable. The intensity of it had been what he’d craved; it might be the solution he needed to fill the void.

That was more terrifying than all the rest.

Because Peter had seen what happened to the light. He’d heard the sound of his mother’s heart monitor flatlining before her hand fell limp at her side. He’d almost tasted it when Ego disintegrated into nothing in his hands. And he’d seen the light fade from Yondu’s eyes as space sucked him dry and cold on Peter’s behalf.

More than that, he’d felt it inside him. He’d felt the light flicker and die, burning through him and then dousing him in a darkness that threatened to consume him.

That was light did, apparently.

It went out.

It was a simple truth, too damn simple for him to struggle with it this much.

Sighing, he dropped his hands idly. He was more than tired; he was more than weary. He was exhausted, down deep in his bones. But every time he closed his eyes, he saw Ego’s plan for the universe and he saw himself nodding along as he wrote off his friends and the rest of the damn galaxy just for the feeling of electricity tingling through his fingertips.

If that wasn’t bad enough, when he woke up, he could still feel Yondu’s clod skin clutched in his powerless hands.

He closed his fingers into fists again, willing away the lingering traces of sensation.

No sleeping, no waking up, no touching.

Peter wasn’t sure what that left.

Except the job.

-o-

The job.

Peter couldn’t fix any of the other stuff, but he could fix the job. After all, he was a terrible friend, a horrible boyfriend, a poor excuse for a parent and a generally questionable choice for a leader.

But he knew how to run a job.

He’d been doing this shit since Yondu picked him up on Earth all those years ago.

Peter Quill could run a job just fine.

Except, as he came to conclude, he wasn’t needed.

Sure, he could run the job, but so could they. In fact, they could do it better without him.

Rocket had the perfect strategy to safeguard the dangerous sectors of the moon, and Drax’s intuition as a warrior devise a perfect offensive strategy to thwart the current pirates who had set up temporary settlement in the area. Gamora facilitated all other interactions with the Edelsonians, and Groot had learned to provide the right writing utensils to the right person at the right time.

By growing them himself, naturally.

Even Mantis and Kraglin were fitting in, Mantis with her ready pliability for any task and Kraglin’s ability to promote order and structure. Between the group of them, they honed their weapons, double checked their plan and had them in orbit before Peter could even find something to do.

It was true, Peter had always been sort of the odd man out when it came to the Guardians.

It had just never felt so damn noticeable before.

-o-

The next morning, Peter was the first one in the shuttle, prepping to launch. Of course, to the others, this would seem like the responsible thing the leader should do.

For Peter, it just meant he had to spend less time pretending to sleep, which was really cool by him.

He was double checking the stowed gear when Drax unexpectedly showed up.

“Hey,” Peter said. “I figured we’d have to drag you out of bed.”

Of the team, Drax was most likely to be late. Mostly because he existed on his own timetable, which did not always align with the rest of the world.

Drax sniffed, sitting down with a grunt. “My slumber was disturbed by a dream.”

“Nightmare?” Peter asked.

“To the contrary,” Drax said. “It was most enlivening. I have not dreamed of my late wife in quite some time, and I found the experience to be especially erotic--”

“Whoa, okay,” Peter said. “No further comment needed.”

“After I had attended to my needs, I could think of nothing further to do,” Drax said. He looked at Peter most critically for a moment. “Though I am surprised to see you hear.”

“Kind of my job to manage the big picture,” Peter said. “I’m responsible for making sure we’re on mission.”


“Naturally,” Drax said. “But Gamora told us to expect some inconsistency in your behavior.”

Peter straightened, starting to frown. “Gamora?”

“She was most concerned about your mental state,” Drax continued.

This was likely intended to be privileged information, not that Drax would have picked up on it. His lack of discretion was paired with his lack of common sense. “I’m fine.”

Drax looked perplexed. “But you killed your father only days after meeting him, and your adoptive father who you hated until only minutes before he rescue you died in your arms,” Drax said. “The emotional trauma of such actions would reduce the average man to abject grief and mourning.”

Peter made a face, trying not to show that it was a decently accurate description. “And that’s what you did? When your wife and daughter died?”

“Oh no, not the in the least,” Drax continued, matter of fact. “I am too strong. My grief was immediately transformed into unyielding rage that sent me on a rampage across the galaxy.”

“Yeah, well, I think I’m pretty strong too,” Peter pointed out.

It sounded meager, though.

He sounded meager.

The look of actual compassion on Drax’s face sealed the deal. “You are nowhere near that strong, especially now that you are so frail and mortal,” he said. “I would encourage you to take the time you need.”

“Great,” Peter said. “Thanks.”

“You would be doing us a favor, after all,” Drax said. “Your fragility in battle has always been vexing, but when paired with your tenuous mental state--”

“I get it, Drax, really,” Peter said. “And I’m fine.”

Drax slapped him on the shoulder. “You are not,” he said. “But that is why we are here to protect you, even when you foolishly lead us into battle while compromised.”

“Well,” Peter said, going back to his work. “If that’s not the vote of confidence I need this morning, I don’t know what is.”

-o-

Peter didn’t know.

He really didn’t know.

He didn’t know what he needed. He didn’t know what he needed. He didn’t even know what he was doing half the damn time anymore.

When the others convened a short time later, tasks were readily disseminated. With nothing left for him to do, Peter busied himself with the super important task of updating the flight log.

Now, there was value to this. Yondu had always told him so.

Which is why Peter had probably never done it.

Literally, not once.

At least making a flight log took longer than updating one. It would at least give him the appearance of being busy, even if it was entirely pointless.

More so because he couldn’t do it right.

He kept calculating distances wrong, and he couldn’t find the right systems to plot navigation charts. When trying to enter coordinates, his fingers fumbled over the keys, and he’d screwed up his entries so many times that he really shouldn’t have bothered.

With flight logs.

With this job.

With anything.

While deleting a line of calculations for the third time, he barely contained his huff of discontent. It was small and contained.

So of course Mantis noticed.

Slipping away from Gamora, whom she was helping with a final weapons check, she weaved her way through the shuttle to where he was sitting in the cockpit. Although she had warmed up quickly to the crew, she was still reserved and shy. She hesitated before sitting, chewing her lip for a moment. “May I sit here?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, nodding toward the chair even while his mind screamed no. “This is your ship, too, now.”

She smiled gratefully, arranging herself gracefully next to him. “Do you need help?”

“Oh, no,” Peter said. He smiled wide enough that she might believe it. “Flight logs are tedious but not too hard.”

She nodded. “I understand how difficult all this must be for you,” she ventured cautiously.

“Well,” Peter said, refusing to acknowledge much of anything. “You are an empath.”

“Not just that, though,” she said, leaning forward somewhat eagerly. “I knew Ego better than any of you. I saw what he did to his children, all of them. All of them before you.”

At this, Peter hesitated, fingers frozen midstroke. “How many brothers and sisters did I have?”

“I have lost count, there were so many,” Mantis admitted. “But I still feel them, their joy at finding their father and how quickly that joy turned to confusion before they just stopped feeling at all.”

This time, Peter had to swallow hard. He looked down at his idle hands. “So he was really dad of the year, huh?”

Mantis reached out, fingers grasping his arm. There was a warmth there, but it stopped short, as if by choice. Mantis smiled. “You were truly special, Peter.”

“I was,” he said, almost choking on the words. He half wished Mantis would provide the comfort he knew she could give. That might give him a reprieve, if only momentarily. Looking from her hand to her eyes, he knew that all he had to do was ask.

That was why he pulled his hand away.

“I’m not sure what the hell I am now,” he admitted.

Her hand dropped; her eyes with sympathetic. “You beat Ego. You did what no one could before you so no one else would suffer,” she told him. “That matters, Peter. That matters.”

“Sure,” he said, getting back to his flight log. His fingers felt numb on the keypad while he typed away. “That’s what matter.”

-o-

Of course, the thing about doing one thing right was that it didn’t guarantee you’d do the rest right. Peter had managed to save the galaxy twice over now. Some might think that this was a good predictor for future success.

But Peter suspected the law of averages was going to catch up with him sooner rather than later. Because, if his childhood was any indication, all success would be short lived.

Before Peter screwed that the hell up, too.

It was hard for him for him to decide now that he’d met his father if this propensity toward failure was on account of her mother or his father. His dad hadn’t exactly been the type to mess up, given that he could actually form planets. But, then again, his old man had killed his mother and fallen victim to patricide, so maybe it was his fault.

In either case, Peter had established himself as a screw up.

He’d always been messing up on Yondu’s crew, and when he finally had gotten to use the Milano for his own purposes, he’d usually needed Yondu to bail him out. The whole thing with the orb in the first place had been a series of unintended accidents, and it was entirely plausible that he could have destroyed the galaxy instead of saving it. He’d just gotten lucky.

This was something that Peter suspected they all knew.

He also suspected that none of them wanted to talk about it, especially now.

They didn’t have to, though.

Not when it was going to bite all of them in the ass someday.

-o-

Not today, though, Peter pledged to himself.

Not today.

The plan was too good; his team was too good. While the others disembarked for their various parts of the mission, Peter stayed with Kraglin on the ship. Officially, he had explained this choice as air support until negotiations were done with the local pirate groups.

Unofficially, he’d stayed behind because the others had it covered. They were probably better off without him.

This was supposed to be the easy out for everyone.

Until Kraglin started talking.

Because of course Kraglin started talking.

For all that Kraglin had chosen to join the Ravagers, he wasn’t really all that well suited for it. And Peter, who had been abducted against his will, had always fit right in despite the fact that he’d been a son of a bitch about it.

“I think I’m starting to see it,” Kraglin said, thoughtful.

Peter barely spared him a glance, keeping an eye out the window instead. From here, he could still see his team, spreading out to talk to the disparate groups as planned. They’d come prepared to fight, but diplomacy was worth a shot as far as Peter was concerned. Fewer chances for people to die. “I wouldn’t be too sure,” Peter said, watching as Gamora gestured in what could be assumed as a nonthreatening motion. “I’m pretty sure these idiots are going to start shooting sooner or later.”

“What? Oh, that,” Kraglin said. “Yeah, they’re definitely going to start shooting, but that wasn’t what I meant.”

“Yeah?” Peter asked blandly.

“I’m starting to see what Yondu saw in you, I think,” Kraglin continued. “He was always saying, the captain, that you were someone to watch. He thought you’d make a good captain yourself one day.”

At that, Peter gave the other man a quizzical look. Kraglin had been one of the softer Ravagers, but that didn’t mean he’d been easy to talk to. Sure, the guy had only threatened to eat Peter once, but as far as he was concerned, once was enough. “Thanks,” he mumbled. He gave a half shrug. “I guess.”

“I mean, no one else ever saw it,” Kraglin said with an amused sort of grunt. “We all thought you were a pain in the ass and that you were going to get us all killed one way or another.”

Peter glared at him. “I was the skinny kid you sent to do all the dangerous work.”

“And you were the only one Yondu would break any kind of protocol for,” Kraglin said. “I always thought, even when I didn’t understand it, that there must be something to that. There had to be something to justify why Yondu risked so much for you. I mean, hell, if he’d just delivered you to Ego, the Council would have been none the wiser. But when they saw you, it was impossible to hide the truth. Exile happened just like that.”

Kraglin was being wistful, for whatever that was worth, but it hurt to hear. Like he needed that now, to remember how the father he’d wanted had been right there all along. How Yondu would still be alive if it weren’t for him.

Looking down, Peter closed his fingers into fists. Something trembled inside him, and he felt a spike of emotion dance along his spine, sending jolts into his fingers.

Then, an alarm sounded. Peter glanced up, seeing the communications beacon had been activated in Gamora’s direction.

The surge of energy faded, and Peter unfurled his hands and tapped a few buttons on the console. “That’s the signal,” he said. “Negotiations are over.”

“Oh,” Kraglin said, sitting up to some attention. “So that means…”

Peter was already engaging the engines, taking to the air. Moving his fingers quickly over the console, he gripped the controls with the other hand. So tight that he almost couldn’t feel the hollowness inside his own skin. “That means,” Peter concluded for Kraglin. “That it’s time to fight.”

-o-

Peter sucked at most things in life, but he’d always been good in a fight. For what he lacked in strength, he made up for in determination. What he did not have in skill, he’d had in straight up luck. After all, if you fire your gun enough, you’re bound to hit something eventually.

That had been his plan most of his life.

Now that he was glaringly aware of his own fragility, he’d come up with a new plan.

Fight better, shoot straighter.

Win more.

In theory, it was a good plan.

But Peter was a perennial screw-up.

So when it all went to pot, he wasn’t surprised.

-o-

The problem wasn’t that they were outgunned. They had planned for that, and honestly, it was pretty much a given for their line of work.

And it wasn’t even that the stakes were high. They’d saved the galaxy; twice. Sure, this situation was important, but a system-wide catastrophe just didn’t carry the same weight as galactic annihilation.

It wasn’t even the fact that they were still a fledgling team made of weird misfits who got along with nobody. It wasn’t that Mantis was green or that Kraglin was an unknown entity. It wasn’t that Drax lacked common sense or Gamora was too calculating or that Rocket liked to blow up too much shit or that Groot was Groot.

No, with all of that, they were doing pretty damn well. Better than that, really. They were doing awesome.

It was the fact that Peter Quill was human.

With the empty soul of a Celestial.

Watching his team, he wanted to be impressed. But, seeing them in action, it was impossible not to think of them the way Ego had. Small and unimportant. Insects buzzing about their business, just waiting to be swatted.

But they thrummed with energy; they were alive. They were vibrant and real. Filled with purpose and intent that eclipse the temporality of their existence. That heart, that energy, that soul; it radiated off them like light.

Inconsequential as they were, Peter envied that.

That light, that was what Peter wanted.

It was what the soul of his Celestial half needed more than anything else.

But Peter’s not a Celestial anymore.

Peter’s just human. A mere mortal.

He watched again, paralyzed for another moment more while the forces converged against them and the odds shifted against them in a cosmic tilt that only Peter could conceive. Ego was in his head again, showing them how the pieces fell into place, how they would fall, one after another, and how quickly they’d be forgotten.

Gamora would be overrun; Drax wouldn’t even see the sword coming at his back. Rocket would run out of explosives, and Mantis wouldn’t know how to handle the flood of grief. Kraglin would turn tail but wouldn’t make it out of the system, and Groot would be reduced to splinters with no one left to repot him.

Peter’s legacy was even less noteworthy.

His life wouldn’t even cause a ripple.

Nothing he could do, no power in his hands, could make a difference. His life was meaningless, devoid of power.

His death, however.

Peter inhaled, purpose flaring inside him with a clarity he hadn’t had since Ego’s light filled his mind.

Now that might just work.

-o-

To say that it was a stupid risk was an understatement. In fact, given that Peter was the jackass who had saved the galaxy with a dance off, stupid was just sort of expected.

This choice, for all of the factors that influenced it, was downright suicidal.

Literally.

He was going to kill himself.

And salvage the job while saving everyone within the area. Waiting for shutdown had been the pragmatic choice, and that was why the Edelsonsians had taken that route. But it left the whole thing wide open to whatever the pirates wanted to do. The facility was too difficult to secure from the outside -- that was what his team was learning a hard way.

So if they couldn’t get rid of the pirates.

Peter had to sabotage their score.

The facility up top had been stripped. This was a waiting game to get beneath. Once the thing shut down, the parts would be voraciously scavenged before the officials had time to get here. By shutting the whole damn system down, it was possible to control the time table. In a controlled shut down, all the parts would be fully functional and online.

If the emergency shutdown was put in place, then the whole system would be scrambled as a built-in security measure. The parts, in essence, would become worthless. The Edelsonians had deemed such measures too risky because whoever attempted it would die.

But whoever attempted it would be a damn hero. Manual shutdown didn’t just save lives in the system; it prevented the proliferation of parts across the galaxy.

Now, more than ever, Peter appreciated the big picture; he understood it.

Ego had talked about finding meaning.

This was how Peter found is.

Sure, he might have wanted Star-Lord to be more of a living legacy.

But mortals couldn’t be picky about this kind of thing. Today, tomorrow, fifty years from now, what difference did it make? Peter’s existence was nothing but a blink of an eye, a wisp of the wind. If the days of his life were doomed to be short, then at least he could make them matter.

Purposefully, he turned off his commlink. His fingers felt strong as he approached the core building. He offed two pirates lying in wait, feeling confidence surge throughout him. The meaning gave him power; the purpose gave him energy.

Removing his mask, Peter lifted his fingers to the keypad. The Edelsonians had given them the passcode, just in case.

He typed it in.

Just in case someone had the guts to do what needed to be done.

The door hissed, the alarm beeped. A final warning screen appeared, waiting for Peter to enter the final few digits.

His idle hands didn’t feel weak anymore.

For a beautiful second, this was how it’d felt back on Ego’s planet when he’d believed he had the power to make a difference.

When he’d believed he was special.

A klaxon blared, and the exterior doors automatically locked as the air rushed out of the room. The secured entrance opened, one layer at a time, and Peter did not hesitated as he entered to face his last stand.

He was going to save lives before this was over.

Like father, like son.

You can screw up shit your whole damn life, but, in the end, you just have to make that last choice count.

-o-

The acrid scent filled his noses, and the heat of it made him stagger. He was reminded, as he felt his skin crawl, just how mortal he was. He was pretty sure that his heart plummeted, and he could feel the edges of his hair singe.

He wondered if they’d figured it out yet. He wondered if they’d converged on his position to stop him. He could almost hear them, yelling at him to stop. Telling him to stop and think this through. That they could do this together.

But that was the problem.

They thought they had it figured out.

They didn’t.

Because they didn’t need Peter like Peter needed them. They were stronger without him; they wouldn’t even miss him, not really.

The equipment hummed, and Peter wasn’t a nuclear physicist, but it didn’t take any knowledge to know where the source of the problem was. The lighted core was gleaming, so bright that it made Peter squint when he looked at it. He held his hand up to it, blocking his face, even as the light drew him forward.

Step by step, he could feel the heat tingling on his skin, dancing in his chest and rumbling in his gut. The intensity of it was nearly overwhelming.

It was the closest he’d felt to the light since Ego.

At the panel, he found that his eyesight had been compromised. The force of the radiation was weighing on him, and it took his brain a moment to make sense of the control panel. It wasn’t a coincidence, he decided, that he’d had too much time to rehash the details of the mission with himself. After spending so much time reading over the schematics, he knew them by heart.

He knew what to do.

The key, now, was to make his body do it.

With a grunt, he lifted his fingers and steadied his hand. Purposefully, he punched each button until the emergency shutdown procedure was completed.

Behind the glass, the light surged brilliantly for a moment.

One last moment.

Then, like all light, it burned itself into nothingness.

And took Peter with it.

-o-

The light faded with explosions of color, flickering embers from a slowly extinguished flame. Peter watched as the flitted away from him, each becoming more distant than the last as they dissipated into the expanse.

Ego’s face slipped by, and Peter felt the longing tingle in his fingertips. Yondu floated away, his open hands outstretched as oblivion claimed him. And there was his mother, hand still extended. Peter could still feel the power of her outstretched fingers, but this time, when he tried to lift his hand, he was too weak to reach back.

Like fireworks, bright and short lived, he saw the others. He saw Drax standing over his grave, promising to continue their work. He saw Kraglin holding back tears as the last person he thought to call kin was buried. Even Nebula, somewhere across the galaxy, will mourn for him with a curse at his complete lack of awareness surrounding his own mortal limitations.

Mantis, of course, would take it hard, but she would learn from it. She did not need to be sheltered, and Peter’s death would give her a grounding she didn’t have before. And Rocket -- well, he’d make fun of Peter in his eulogy, but he’d be the bastard who set up booby traps around his grave to make sure it never got looted.

Baby Groot would wave, but he wouldn’t remember Peter when he grew up. All he’d remember were the songs he used to sing.

Gamora would take it hardest, because she’d just learned to embrace the weaknesses of a relationship. This was the only unforgivable thing: his death might make her question her willingness to open her heart. Next time, she would be very careful.

Next time, she’d pick someone smarter. Someone stronger.

Someone built to last.

The last of the lights faded, though.

In the darkness, Peter faded, too.

This time, for real.

NEXT