Peter swears they’ve had this argument a hundred times before.
“ – course it’s broken,” she’s saying, halfway through re-assembling one of their older handguns and pacing across the length of the common room. “Because this happens every single time, you say you’ll fix it –”
“I did fix it!”
“– and you buy spare parts for cheap from some back-alley junker –”
“Okay, hang on –”
“– instead of investing in high quality stabilizers like I have told you to do thousands of times –”
“They’re not cheap,” Peter cuts in, shoving his own weapons back into his belt now that they have been cleaned and checked to a standard of satisfaction and crossing his arms over his chest. “They’re inexpensive, and I’m saving us units, I don’t get what’s so difficult to understand about –”
“They’re cheap and every time they collapse again we have to shell out units for new ones and in the long-term you are actually spending more on the suspension systems than you would have if you just invested in the higher quality parts.”
She turns, finally, slamming the handgun down onto the nearest flat surface and planting her hands and feet on her hips and the ground, respectively. It’s been a long enough goddamn time that Gamora looking like she’s going to stab something isn’t enough to make him take a wary step back anymore, but Peter has to take a minute and acknowledge that objectively, if she was looking like that at some poor schmuck on the street, he wouldn’t blame them for pissing their pants.
“Which are more expensive,” he says.
“Did you not understand anything that I just said, Peter,” she says, “basic math –”
“Okay, okay –”
“Don’t okay okay –”
“I’ll fix it!”
“With the same cheap parts!”
“Oh, my God,” he groans – acknowledges to himself that it’s a groan and now is really not the time to groan – and lets his head fall back and hang there. “No, okay, I’ll invest in some goddamn fancy-ass expensive parts, and then it won’t frickin’ break again but we’ll be broke as hell. Are you happy?”
She’s silent, and he stops hanging his head to look back up, snippy comment on the tip of his tongue.
He swallows it back. Uncrosses his arms.
“Yes – no.”
“Gamora,” he says again, quieter this time, softer, because no matter what Rocket says sometimes, he is not a complete moron.
She’s turned her glare away from him, is aiming it at the poor and undeserving piece of crap they call a couch, and her arms are stiff and held in close to her sides. The edges of her expression are frozen, as though it’s liable to break at any moment. The common room is artificially lit and messy as always and Peter is almost grateful for the familiarity, the known-ness of their surroundings when everything else right now is so unknown.
He thinks: Gamora doesn’t break. He’s not sure what he would do if she did, and he’s also not sure what she would do if she did. She is soft and warm and harsh and cold and fierce and strong and many other things, but. She doesn’t break.
He thinks: the line of her jaw is sharp and angled and beautiful in the way it contrasts with the soft waves of her colourful hair, falling over her covered shoulder and somehow catching the shitty cabin light and blending into the shadows all at once.
He thinks that he loves her, and moves forward the three steps needed to close the distance and gently run his thumb along the curve of her shoulder.
“Hey,” he says.
She looks up and there is a flicker in her breathing, so minute that he thinks even he would have difficulty catching it were he not so close, and she looks away again, once, briefly. He thinks about Earth and Xandar and panic, about the word allies and the bitter press of childhood trauma cold and hard against a spine. He thinks about the rough bruise of her kiss the night before, the heat of her hands against him.
From somewhere within the ship, there’s a muffled clang and a string of swear words, as though this is just any normal day.
She looks back. Presses her lips together. Reaches forwards and slips her arms under his, pulls him into a crushing embrace, which he reciprocates, roughened hands caught in soft hair and pressing gently into the pliable fabric of the combat suit covering her back.
“I’ll fix it,” he says. “You know – before.”
He can hear the very slight shift in her breathing against his shoulder that signifies a huff of a laugh.
“You’d better,” mumbled, into his shoulder; begrudging and nearly petulant in all its muffled glory. He laughs, this time, and almost tugs playfully at the ends of her hair. Almost – he doesn’t do it. The mood isn’t quite right.
“If you need –”
He takes a long, deep breath, and pats her back twice, an awkward up and down rub.
“Okay. Yeah – just. Okay.”
He thinks about where he’s going to get the new parts so that he doesn’t think about other things, and wonders if Stark might have something he can use. Or even that girl, the Asgardian – Valkyrie. Her ship seemed closer in tech. If he gets Rocket to help – and Rocket usually inserts his help unsolicited, so that won’t be too hard – they can probably rig together the stupid suspension systems before the world ends.
Gamora’s fingers curl into the leather covering his back and Peter finds himself suddenly, desperately hoping that the world does not end, or that even if it does, it doesn’t take Gamora with it. It’s a white-hot thought, licking at the inside of his chest cavity with a force that surprises him.
There is admittedly always something exhilarating about crashing a speeder, and Peter’s come to realize in the past ten minutes that the same goes for bikes. If you do it right and it’s not because some asshole shot out your thrusters, you can rig it so that the split second you have flying through the air isn’t all that terrifying. Triumphant, instead.
Yondu used to give him shit for what he called joyrides, but Peter always gave him shit right back. He always fixed up the ride afterwards, anyway, so what was the big deal?
This bike, though, he thinks – it might be past fixing.
He’s stumbling to his feet, Gamora beside him with a hand on his arm to pull him upright. He can feel the soot from the crash on his neck and in his hair when he deactivates his mask, can see it smudged all over Gamora, her long hair thick with debris and tangled from the ride. He turns and sees the trail of crashes and fires behind them, patterning the way they came, and the corner of his mouth tugs upwards into an unstoppable grin.
Holy shit, but they caused a damn good distraction.
“That was so cool,” comes Parker’s voice through his earpiece, the kid himself safely tucked away all the way up on the Milano with Rocket and Groot and that Widow chick, in the moon’s thin atmosphere. His voice is cracking with teenage excitement, and for some reason that makes Peter’s grin grown wider. “You guys, that was so – that was the coolest thing I’ve ever –”
“Gotta hand it to you a-holes, that was a helluva distraction,” says Rocket, and Peter can hear the grin in his annoying voice.
“Did you fish the coordinates?”
“You bet yer ass I did. Now we just gotta figure ‘em out.”
Peter feels Gamora’s hand on his upper arm again and turns, catches her matching, lopsided grin. He hasn’t seen her smile in nearly a week; his chest swells, almost like courage. Conviction.
That triumph stuff he was talking about earlier.
“You hear that?” he hears himself say, breathless. “We got ‘em. So now we can take the fight to them, give ourselves the advantage.”
It’s the Black Order, he’s almost waiting for her to say, they could have tricked us. We might be wrong. This isn’t going to be a fair fight either way.
She doesn’t say any of this; instead, her smile flickers very slightly and she reaches up with her free hand to tap at her comm piece.
“I think it was damaged in the crash,” she says, her mouth twisting wryly in a silent tease of his piloting skills.
Well, first of all, that was a bike; he’s never ridden a bike before, so he did pretty well, if he may say so himself.
“It’ll be fine,” he says, and later he’ll think back and wonder how he didn’t realize that everything was seconds away from collapse, how he didn’t get some kind of premonition of doom in that millisecond, how – “You’re with me, Rocket can get us both.”
She smiles again, a bit fuller this time, like her reasons for smiling are finally settling in. There’s a small gash on her cheek, dark against her bright green skin, and it pulls with the smile.
And then there’s a boom, loud and echoing and shaking Peter from the soles of his feet to the tips of his hair, so strong that he nearly stumbles – spreads his arms out foolishly to steady himself.
“What the d’ast –”
Beside him, Gamora has gone completely still, the pupils of her eyes shrunk to pinpricks.
“What the hell,” Peter manages, straightening himself, patting down the dirt on his coat on instinct and reaching for his gun. It’s familiar and heavy against his leg and his fingers have almost covered it completely when something grabs his other arm, so hard and abrupt that Peter can feel the bruise already grow, can feel it imprinted against his bicep in the shape of fingers.
“Gamora, what –”
Her face is completely devoid of colour.
Peter can say with honesty that nothing that has happened in his in his life so far has left ice in his bones like what she says next.
“Hide,” she says again, her other hand coming up to grab the material of his jacket lapel, “hide, Peter, now –”
If someone asks later – if some jerk one day comes up to him and asks to document all of Peter’s different crazy experiences for whatever godforsaken reason, if someone asks, he’d have to say that he’d always thought that with big baddies like The Titan Lord Thanos, the guy himself was probably a lot less intimidating in person, upon first impression, than his actions suggested. Sure, he’s an irredeemable monster who deserves to be obliterated, no question. Theoretically, he’s horrifying. But, like, face to face? Peter knows – usually, the Big Baddies are just normal guys up close. Maybe a little bigger than average, maybe a somewhat rarer breed than the average alien species, but seriously; at first glance, Drax is bigger than some of the villains Peter has known.
Peter’s been wrong many, many times in his life.
Where Gamora’s voice leaves ice in his bones, Thanos’s sucks all of the feeling right out of him, a kind of cold fear clenching his stomach like he hasn’t known for a while. It’s big. Loud. Booming. And it shows that any dream of pulling the wool over this particular monster’s eyes was hopeless from its very inception.
It echoes, reverberates through the moon’s rocky outcroppings. There is a split second of utter silence before the reality of exactly what is happening right now slams into Peter full force.
This wasn’t part of any plan. He’s not supposed to be here. They’re not prepared for him to be here.
He whirls around, mouth open.
“Go,” Gamora says, like the words are ripping themselves from her throat. “Peter, go, go, you need to hide –”
“I’m not le –”
“You need to go right now,” she says, her grip on his arm and shoulder vice-like as she pushes him towards the other side of the outcropping. “You need to get away – away from here – from me –”
“Like hell, I ain’t goin’ anywhere witho –”
“Gamora, no –”
“Hide!” she’s saying, her voice something like a hoarse yell, her eyes wide and terrified and leaving Peter’s chest tight, fighting for air. “Now!”
“Hide now or I swear to God I will kill you myself!”
He doesn’t freeze. Freezing would imply a lag in his next movement, some kind of stop button. He doesn’t freeze, but his vehement protests, the immediate, innate knowledge that he would never leave her alone like this, die a sudden and final death in his throat.
He’s known her long enough – it’s been long enough that he can tell. He can tell when she is bluffing, when she is frustrated. When she is deadly serious.
Something in his heart breaks.
“Gamora,” he whispers.
“Please.” Her words hitch, right there at the end, with a sob that speaks of a kind of fear that he’s not sure how to describe. “Go.”
His hand fumbles with hers, for a second, as he pulls away. Her fingers are still dirty from the crash debris. There is another boom, the beginning of another, echoing call.
Peter turns and runs.
“Rocket, call reinforcements now, you have to – he’s here, Gamora’s there and you need to –”
He’ll never say this to the freaking raccoon’s goddamn face, but Rocket is some kind of miracle working genius. He is. Peter has to admit that in the privacy of his own thoughts, a kind of hot, molten relief following that admission, because he’s pretty sure whatever the hell Rocket pulled back there was something right out of that old show his mom used to like – Star whatever the heck.
Caught her in some kind of energy field and the next thing Peter knew Gamora was materializing in the middle of the Milano’s cargo bay, clutching her side and out of breath.
Rocket’s in the next room with the others right now, the hatches all keyed shut behind him; something about how Groot shouldn’t hear this kind of blow-out fight.
“– hell was that!”
“What the hell was what! You weren’t listening to me, I had to –”
“To what, Gamora, threaten me into leaving you to your death?”
“That is not what happened!”
“That is exactly what happened, that is exactly – oh, so now you’re turning around –”
“No I’m not going to freaking stop, you can’t do that, you are not allowed to just do that kind of –”
“Do what, Peter, I’m not allowed to do what? What am I not allowed to do?”
“You know exactly what –”
“I don’t, I don’t know!”
“Like hell you don’t! Like fucking hell you don’t, Gamora!”
She wasn’t injured, he knows now – just out of breath. Rocket had gotten her before Thanos could.
Out of breath and trembling, looking like she’d seen a ghost.
Jesus Christ, but they haven’t had a fight like this in years. Not since they screamed at each other about Cheers on that hellscape of a planet.
“You would’ve done the same –”
“Don’t give me that.”
“And you can’t bullshit me!” she snaps, her voice more hoarse now than it ever has been before, grating against his heart. “You are just as willing to –”
“How could you expect me to just leave you?” He cuts in, speaks over her, shocking himself with the way his own voice breaks clean across, with the way his fists tremble at his sides. “How could you – how many times – Rocket told me, on Ego’s planet, you were going to risk your life to get me, how can you even think –”
“Thanos is my –”
“And that shithead was mine!” Once again surprising himself with the force of his yell, with how scared and upset and betrayed and angry he is. “We do this together, Gamora, we’ve always done this to-freaking-gether and you don’t have the right to –”
“Ego,” and she spits the name like it’s a bitter bile, poisonous and worth disdain (she is not wrong), “never targeted any of us specifically, he never came for me directly –”
“He murdered my mother,” yells Peter, “I had to watch her die, so maybe you can think before you –”
“And Thanos is fifty times worse!” she screams, like whiplash, and for the second time in twenty four hours his voice dies in his throats, his fingers numbing, “you don’t know him! You don’t know him, you have no idea what he can do, what he does, what he’s made me watch –”
Peter’s tongue feels like lead in his mouth.
“ – he’s not what you think, he –”
“We can’t! We can’t because it’s what he does, he takes from you, he takes everything, everything you care for piece by piece and – and he mutilates it in front of your eyes and I can’t do it again, I cannot endure that again, I can’t, I can’t, I –”
Vaguely, it registers in the back of his mind that he has never before seen Gamora cry.
In four years – in all four years that he’s known her. The common room lights are on full power; they’re docked, after all, and it’s nighttime. The lines of her face are harsh in the artificial lamps.
He can see the tears well up and start to spill.
“I can’t,” she says again, and it’s like some invisible force is pulling at her shoulders and neck and arms and legs, because she’s crumpling, collapsing in on herself. “I can’t –”
He reaches her before he registers that his legs are moving, wraps himself around her and gasps into her temple, his own tears starting hot and sharp and traitorous. He doesn’t catch her, exactly, because she isn’t falling so much as folding in on herself – but she lets herself fold against him, trembling fingers twisting into the thin material covering his shoulders, mouth open and wet against his neck as she silently sobs.
“I can’t lose you,” she says, barely audible. He thinks of her parents, lost, and her homeworld, gone, and her sister, ripped limb from limb and put back together in a facsimile of the child Gamora had met and made promises to, no amount of emotional rehabilitation changing the scars left haphazard across every inch of Nebula’s slight frame. He squeezes his eyes shut, wills himself not to tremble. He loves her, and it is unbelievable how much such a simple word can hurt sometimes.
“I can’t lose you too,” she says.
They weren’t prepared, he thinks, and then wonders if they could have ever dreamt of being prepared for this.
“I can’t lose you either,” he whispers, the words clogged in his throat. The dirty strands of her hair stick to his wet cheeks. “I can’t – I can’t – you have to understand that.”
They are prepared, the next time. It’s not enough.
Peter wonders, for what feels like the hundredth time since Yondu died, how many times a person’s heart can break as he locks eyes with Gamora across the destroyed platform and watches her face twist with anguish before the world around him folds and fades into nothingness.
Peter wakes up.
The first thing he registers is that his mouth feels like it’s full of sand, which is not his favorite feeling in the world. On his Top Ten List of worst feelings, it comes close to eight; he’s been a hungover piece of shit enough times for that ranking to be earned.
The second thing he notices is that there’s something sharp digging into his back, against his ribs. It’s uncomfortable, like he fell asleep on a pile of rocks. Which – if he is hungover again – isn’t entirely unlikely.
Most probably, Peter guesses, this is Rocket’s fault. Or Drax’s. Or, come to think of it – that Asgardian guy, Thor, he could really slam away the drinks, and Peter’s always been fool enough to be roped into –
Oh. Thor. Avengers. End of the world.
Son of a –
The thing about opening your eyes after being dead, Peter thinks, is that the natural light of the living world is a bitch to deal with. It’s very bright, and painful, and nearly blinding. The entire point of being alive is almost negated within the first few seconds of waking up, just because of the severe sun-induced headache. Or in this case – some star, that Peter never got the chance to learn the name of.
Yondu would have kicked his ass for that, he thinks. He always made sure Peter knew his star clusters backwards and forwards in case he ever got himself into a bind.
His eyes adjust, slowly, shapes and colours morphing and sharpening above him. The sky is no longer purplish red like he remembered it but a pale, clean blue. He can breath, the air somehow feeling lighter now so filled with dust and dirt than it did before, before –
He shoots into a sitting position, hands scraping against the jagged ground as he goes, fear rather than the half-anticipated pain shooting through his muscles. All the spots that hurt so much before have faded to a dull and muted full-body ache, nothing more than the average morning after sleeping on a lumpy couch. He looks down; the tear in his shirt where his ribs had broken is still open and stained but the wound itself smoothed over, disappeared. He can taste dried blood when he licks his lips but doesn’t feel the split where his face had slammed into the hard ground, and the jagged cut on his leg is all but gone.
Thanos – Thanos is gone.
Peter thinks, holy shit.
Peter thinks, Gamora.
He’d left her, he thinks – for a second time, he’d left her after all, no freaking clue what was going to happen or if she’d be alright. They were losing, he thinks. They were falling one by one, all of them, he saw Stark’s suit crack under pressure and that poor kid Parker – they were losing.
They were losing and he doesn’t know where she is or where he is and suddenly the air is too sharp to breath in, like its slicing through his unprepared lungs and collapsing his chest.
“‘Mora.” His voice rasps and he coughs, hard and hacking, like he hasn’t spoken in weeks. “G’mora! Gam – fuck – Ga-mora!”
He scrambles, rubble digging into the palms of his hands.
His hand comes down on something soft, something familiar, something warm.
“Shit,” he says, and doesn’t even realize that he’s crying, that the dirt and blood on his cheeks are streaked through with his own salty tears. “Shit, shit, shit,” he repeats, fumbling, falling to his knees and grappling at the dust-caked, bloodied body on the ground; the body that had apparently fallen right beside his, hand outstretched to lie mere inches away from his.
“Shit shit shit shit shit –”
Peter gasps, because he’s run out of breath and his hands find her face in tandem, trembling as they feel for a pulse.
The world stops, momentarily, like he’d never really woken up.
And then –
And then –)
It starts again.
Her groan is soft, prolonged, as gradual as are her eyes opening. He feels her hand come up, slim fingers bracket his wrist where he’s still holding his hand against her dirtied cheek.
“Shit,” manages Peter again, half sobbing, letting his head fall down so that his forehead presses against her. He can feel the grit between their skin, can taste it on his tongue. They both need a shower, the thinks, and then laughs.
He’s laughing. And he’s sobbing. So much sentiment all at once that he’s not sure what the hell to do with it, but that’s okay, Peter figures. He’s always been like that.
And anyway, he can see the tears streaking down the sides of Gamora’s cheeks and into her hair.
She opens her mouth, the lines of her face tightening, and Peter says,
“He’s gone.” And again: “He’s gone, Gamora. He’s gone.”
Gamora’s eyes are rimmed red, and are bright, and are brown and beautiful like he knows so well. Gamora’s eyes are open.
Gamora’s inhale, the gasping, sharp thing, is the feeling of flying through the air after successfully crashing a bike.
Something like triumph.
They get up. Dust themselves off.
Stumble, hand in hand through the rubble, screaming for their family. For their newfound friends.
(They’re a resilient, unkillable bunch, Peter thinks. A little like cockroaches, but then, where would they be if that wasn’t the case?)
“Ah – you don’t have any other shirts?”
“Your shirt,” she says, slipping easily into the space in front of him and fingering at the collar of the long-sleeve tee he just tugged over his head. “It has dried blood on the collar.”
“You’re kidding,” says Peter, looking down, face falling. He loves this shirt. “I love this shirt.”
The corner of her mouth quirks with amusement. “I know.”
“It’s my best shirt,” he insists. “And anyway, how do you have an item of clothing without blood on it but I don’t?”
“I begged one off of Natasha,” she says, slipping easily back out under his arm and perching on the corner of the bed to zip up her boots. That explains why the hem of the soft cotton dress rests so high on her thighs; Natasha is a good few inches shorter than Gamora is.
It’s not like Peter’s complaining, either way.
“Unfair,” he says anyway. “I don’t have anyone to ask.”
“No,” says Gamora, finishing one boot and moving to the next, “you’re too proud to ask. There is a difference.”
“I’m being attacked,” he says, moving over to shrug on his best jacket (in slightly better shape than the shirt). “I’m being attacked in my own home, in my own room. Unbelievable.”
“Ask Captain Rogers. You’re roughly the same size.”
“Are you kidding?”
She raises an elegant silver eyebrow at him from her place on the bed, as though to say, case in point. She’s not wrong, but Peter’s not about to leave the docked ship and go halfway across the Avengers facility on a shirt run now, of all times. And anyway, the Captain is – an interesting kind of character.
Peter thinks he’d probably be a great guy to get to know when the world wasn’t ending, but Peter also thinks that Peter himself is not the sort of person Captain America would wholeheartedly take to.
“He appreciates honour,” says Gamora, as though reading his thoughts, rising from the bed and catching his hands in hers, pressing a square of thin plastic into his palm. “You are an honourable man. Comb your hair before we go though, please.”
“I’m – sure, you know that –” She rolls his eyes as he begins to run the comb through his curling bangs – “But I’m still not askin’ for a d’ast clean shirt.”
She settles back on the edge of the bed and scoops the Zune into her hand, thumb flicking over the controls. Soft music filters into their shared cabin space, and Peter sways to it on instinct as he tries vainly to flatten down one errant curl at the very top of his head.
It’s been a week. A week – long enough, apparently, for some kind of celebration. And they’re on Earth, but. But – somehow, things haven’t imploded yet.
And he can swear – he can swear the way she places her feet is lighter. That he hasn’t heard her laugh this quickly or this freely in all the years he’s known her. That it’s like a piece of her that he didn’t even know existed has been restored, even if sometimes he catches her staring into space like she’s been displaced in time, lost until Rocket nudges her leg or Groot lays his hand over hers or Mantis touches her arm. He saw her talking to Nebula the other day, and it was somehow – soft.
The song switches, the light opening piano of Queen filtering up tinny through the Zune’s speakers, and Peter turns to ask her if she’s ready to go. Stark’s hosting something – something fun, he’d said. Everyone’s gotta come. There’s going to be booze.
Peter turns. Gamora is sitting silent on the bed, his scratched up music device cradled in her hands. Her hair falls, waving and clean and shiny as always, framing her cheekbones softly, not quite covering the faded scratch along her temple from two weeks before, or the glittering silver scars that she’s always going to carry. Her dress is thin and clinging and looks comfortable, Terran cotton that’s close enough to the fabrics she favors for her to wear with ease. She’s frowning gently at a spot on their metallic floor, lips silently singing along to the song.
For one absurd second, Peter almost starts crying.
Instead, he sets his comb down on top of one of the old, cracked storage boxes they’ve got stacked against the wall and moves, slipping just as easily as she did into the space beside her.
She looks up when he rests his hand on her leg; not startled, never startled, but clearly caught deep in thought.
“Mm – ready? We have to corral the others before we go.”
“Yeah,” he says. And then, “Hey. “We can – we can hang back, if you want.”
“Hang back,” she repeats, softly. The words come out awkward and hesitant on her tongue.
“Stay here,” he confirms. His other hand comes up to thumb at her chin, a light press. “If it’s not –”
He hesitates, holds her gaze.
“It’s your call,” he says, simply.
Her expression shifts, morphs, softens and then solidifies into something bright.
Brilliant. Fiercely beautiful. The music plays, muted in the background.
She’s so beautiful sometimes, it’s almost hard to breathe.
“I want to go,” she says, just as simply. She smiles, leans in so they’re eye to eye. “I want to dance with you.”
Okay is a relative term, Peter thinks, and slides his hand along her thigh.
“In front of all those people, huh?”
“Death gives one a certain perspective on life,” Gamora says, a flicker of truth behind her mock-serious tone, caught behind the quirk of her lips.
Peter thinks that he loves her and stands, pulling her to her feet.
The world did end, momentarily. But he never lost her.