Sometimes Mantis wonders how any of her companions function. While she lacks their understanding of social nuances, she sees clearly the ways in which they fall over themselves to deflect and conceal painfully obvious emotions.
Well. Perhaps they are only obvious to her.
Peter and Gamora are the worst. Actually, that’s not true; Gamora is worse than Peter. For all that Mantis admires Gamora’s strength and beauty, she does not understand why she fights her feelings so intensely.
It makes her wonder what this Thanos has done to her.
“Pay attention,” grunts Nebula without looking up.
Mantis peers at her, then looks down at the gun in front of her. She’s learning to take it apart and reassemble it, because according to Nebula (and Kraglin, and Peter, and Rocket), this knowledge can save her life.
“You were saying to check the safety again,” she dutifully echoes. She’s very good at recalling orders.
Nebula raises her head then, dark eyes narrowed. “Most people can’t daydream and learn at the same time.”
“We all have to be good at something,” says Mantis brightly. “Isn’t that what Peter says?”
“Quill says that about stupid people.” Nebula nods at the gun. “After you’ve checked the safety, what do you do?”
“Unload it.” Mantis has gone over this in theory before with Rocket.
“So do it.”
Mantis carefully points the weapon away from herself and Nebula and unloads it the way she’s been shown.
All she gets is a nod for her to go on.
“Now I release the magazine,” she recites under her breath, pressing with her thumb. She sets it aside and pushes at the lever to open the slide. Perhaps she can impress Nebula if she does it correctly without more instructions.
Nebula seems to appreciate competence. Mantis has spent a great deal of time watching from the sidelines while Nebula practices with Kraglin in the gym of the Starhawk, the two of them moving together easily with flashing knives. They both know so much, and their easy grace is delightful to watch.
Mantis doubts she will ever be so beautiful. Looks aside (because Kraglin is not handsome, not like Peter, but he is beautiful when he fights), Mantis lacks the confidence in her body to do what Nebula does. She is too afraid to lean into a knife thrust instead of away from it.
That is why they’re teaching her about guns.
“Your mind is wandering again.”
When she looks up from the gun, Nebula is staring at her.
Mantis flushes and ducks her head, her antennae drooping. “I can’t focus when you watch me.”
That manages to irritate her. She looks up with a scowl. “I do nothing but learn. You are making me nervous!”
Nebula seems taken aback. Mantis would love to touch her and see what she’s feeling under that unreadable expression. Sometimes Nebula’s eyes show all her emotions, but never when Mantis most wants to see them.
But, surprisingly, Nebula looks away.
And something inside Mantis whispers, oh.
She isn’t sure when she started wanting Nebula. There was no single moment like Peter’s music describes, just a gradual awareness that Nebula is deadly and powerful and that Mantis would like to put her hands all over her.
“Kraglin,” she asks while she hands him tools in the Quadrant’s engine room, “how is someone supposed to let another person know that they want to have sex with them?”
There’s a silence. Then Kraglin pulls his head out from under the console and peers at her. “Um.”
Mantis looks at him expectantly.
“Ya wanna give me some context?” he asks, and Mantis supposes that’s fair.
“Only if you promise not to tell,” she says. She doesn’t think he will, but she is learning that it’s important to keep her feelings secret and safe.
“‘Course I won’t tell,” says Kraglin. “It ain’t Rocket, is it?”
Mantis wrinkles her nose. “I am not attracted to Rocket! I just like to pet him because his fur is so soft.”
Kraglin’s eyes narrow suspiciously, but all he says is, “so who is it then?”
“Nebula,” she whispers, and she knows her cheeks are flushed.
Kraglin blinks, then grins. “Nice.”
“Nice?” Mantis echoes, smiling tentatively.
“Yep. Nebula’s hot, if ya like ‘em scary.” Kraglin’s lips curl into a smile, and Mantis wonders if he’s thinking about his own lovers.
“She’s not scary, though,” she feels the need to point out. “If you were scared of her, you would never let her put her knives so close to your face.”
Kraglin snorts. “She’s on our side now. Don’t mean she an’ her sister ain’t scary.”
“If she’s scary then we are all scary. Rocket built a bomb capable of destroying a planet.”
“He sure did,” says Kraglin proudly. “But Gamora an’ Nebula got a reputation. Whole galaxy knows not to fuck with them.”
Mantis frowns. “But I do want to fuck with her. That is why I’m asking you!”
She’s a little annoyed at the shocked look he gives her. It’s not like she’s innocent, in spite of what she lets Drax believe. He wants so badly to see his daughter in her, and she won’t take that from him.
But she doesn’t want everyone else thinking about her like that. So she narrows her eyes like she’s seen Yondu do. Maybe it will work better for her than when he does it to Peter.
It doesn’t. “I ain’t the best person t’ talk to about this,” says Kraglin.
Mantis crosses her arms. “And who would be better? I’m not going to tell Gamora that I want her sister.”
Kraglin sighs. “Bug, everything I did would get you stabbed.”
Now she’s intrigued. “Like what?”
“Nope.” He shakes his head. “I won’t be responsible for givin’ you bad ideas. Just figure out if she likes girls. You can work everything else out after that. An’ don’t listen to anything Pete tries t’ tell ya.”
That seems sensible. Mantis nods, already wondering how to go about determining if Nebula is interested in women.
It’s harder than it looks. Mantis has been watching for days now, and from what she can see Nebula’s world revolves around combat, her sister, and her plans for vengeance against her father.
Mantis can actually relate to that last one. She still remembers the vicious thrill that had coursed through her when she’d put Ego to sleep on her terms.
It was the first time she’d ever felt powerful. She thinks she might be addicted.
She tries to harness that feeling as she squares her shoulders and marches up to Nebula. “Teach me to shoot. I’m ready.”
Nebula looks her over appraisingly, and Mantis feels her whole body flush. “Fine,” she says.
They go to the shooting range, and Mantis clenches her fists at the sheer number of people around. There are Ravagers checking their magazines in the shooting gallery or laughing in groups in the common areas, and Mantis still gets dizzy in large crowds. Her antennae perk up, instinctively ready to pick out emotions in the throngs of people whether she wants to or not.
Nebula’s hand clamps around her wrist, not skin to skin but just as good. She strides through the crowd and it parts for her like water, and Mantis happily allows herself to be dragged along in the current.
They get everything they need, and then Mantis is looking downrange at the target, a holographic projection in the vague shape of a humanoid.
“Two-handed grips are the easiest to learn,” Nebula pronounces. “That’s what I’ll teach you today.”
Mantis nods, her hair swinging a little at the motion. She raises the blaster and aims it at the target.
“No.” Nebula’s voice cuts through her.
She frowns and looks over, startled at how close Nebula is. Part of her wilts at the criticism, but she doesn’t sense any cruelty in Nebula’s words.
“Like this.” And Nebula steps in even closer, smoothing her hands over Mantis’s arms. “If you lock your elbows, the recoil will ruin your shot.”
Mantis nods faintly. Nebula has strong hands; the metallic one is finely made and curls over Mantis’s where she’s gripping the gun. “Like this?” she asks after she’s adjusted.
Nebula’s other hand, not flesh either but covered with skin that almost feels like it, rests on Mantis’s wrist. The delicate touch is enough to make Mantis tremble. “Like this,” Nebula agrees quietly. “Plant your feet.”
Mantis feels Nebula’s foot nudge hers into position, and briefly loses herself in the fantasy of that foot sliding up the inside of her leg. She shivers.
“Are you cold?” Nebula demands.
“What? No,” says Mantis quickly. Her cheeks go hot, but she looks determinedly ahead at the target and takes a shot.
It goes wide, missing the target entirely.
“Try again,” Nebula tells her.
She tries again. And misses. And she misses the time after that, too, and she keeps missing until the clip is empty and her arms are shaking with the strain.
Nebula hands her another clip and nods at the target.
Mantis looks at her, then at the clip. Her arms ache. Her hand aches where it’s holding the gun. Her trigger finger is stiff and sore.
She takes the clip and reloads.
Later, she sits soaking her hand in warm water infused with some restorative elements while Drax sharpens his knives next to her.
She likes spending time in his room, away from the crowds and the noise. He’s quiet while he goes through his ritual. Mantis can sense the faint calm coming off him in waves, even though they are not touching.
“How was Xandar?” she asks, breaking the silence.
“Much nicer than the first time I was there,” he answers. “The food is good.”
Mantis is still learning what kinds of food she likes. Ego always provided her with the same thing to eat. Like a pet, she now thinks bitterly. “What is your favorite food?”
“Roasted meat,” he tells her with no hesitation. “On my planet, during celebrations we would slaughter several kinds of animals and roast them over a communal fire. Sharing the flesh was the best part of the evening.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Mantis smiles a little as she imagines it.
“It was.” Drax’s voice goes soft like it does when he remembers his family.
“We should do something similar,” she says, struck by inspiration. “When the Quadrant is finished. We should celebrate like that.”
Drax looks up at her. His piercing eyes roam over her face for a moment, and then a broad smile stretches his mouth. “That is an excellent idea. I’ll tell Quill.”
Mantis preens under the praise; she’s weak for it and always has been. “So what did you eat on Xandar that was good?”
“Oh. Yondu wanted to eat at a noodle restaurant. We had soup with noodles and roasted meat and some leafy vegetables. I don’t know what it was called.”
Mantis is getting hungry. “You should take me there when we go together.” The idea of noodle soup that isn’t from Kraglin’s rehydrated packets is novel.
Drax nods absently. He seems distracted.
“What’s wrong?” Mantis asks.
“Nothing.” Drax gets to his feet. “It’s not my place to say. Shall we go eat? This talk of food has made me famished!”
Mantis pulls her hand out of the water. It feels better, although Nebula told her it will ache until she develops calluses on her palms.
She holds up her hand for a moment and savors the thought that she will be able to use it for something important.
Weeks pass in a blur. Mantis spends her time on the gun range, practicing until her arms shake, or working on the simple items Rocket gives her to repair, once he has stopped hiding and snarling at everyone.
She thinks about it, what Rocket asked her. How she would feel if Ego returned and she had to face him again. She wants to think she would do things differently now that she has the Guardians of the Galaxy surrounding her. But maybe she would not. Just the memory of Ego’s anger is enough to make her curl into herself.
Rocket is very strong, to go kill the monster that haunted him.
Kraglin seems reluctant to leave the Quadrant’s repairs and upgrades to Stakar Ogord’s people, so Mantis follows him while he stalks around the ship to inspect their work. She likes that he stops to explain things when she doesn’t understand them.
“You think they should change the layout so everyone has a private bathroom?” she asks him one day while they look over the latest blueprints.
“Yeah. I spent too many years walkin’ in on Pete showering, an’ If I never have to see his pasty ass again it’ll be too soon. Reckon he feels the same ‘bout me.”
She giggles. “You’re right. Seeing Drax naked would be disgusting.”
Kraglin stops, cocks his head, and then shrugs. “He ain’t bad to look at.”
“Maybe you don’t think so.” Mantis wrinkles her nose.
Kraglin snorts. “I forget ya only like girls. I ain’t picky about gender.”
“I do like girls,” sighs Mantis. “But I still don’t know if Nebula does.”
“Wish I could help,” he tells her. “But I don’t—”
“Do you mean it?” asks Mantis. “You’ll help me figure out if she likes girls?”
Kraglin’s face twists up a little. “Me an’ Nebula don’t really talk about that stuff,” he says haltingly.
Mantis does her best to look winning; she’s watched Peter make this face for months now and it usually works on Yondu.
“You do it better ‘n Pete, I’ll give ya that,” Kraglin mutters.
“Do what?” asks Mantis innocently.
He gives her a look. “Don’t push it, Bug. I’ll see what I can do. No promises.”
She beams at him and pretends she can’t hear his grumbling.
“Okay,” says Peter loudly. “Let’s talk about the plan.” He’s gathered them all in the Milano to have what he calls a family meeting.
Mantis sits up to listen. Beside her, Yondu cheerfully ignores Peter and keeps talking to Rocket.
“Dad, seriously?” Peter puts his hands on his hips. “I’m trying to talk strategy here.”
Yondu sighs and looks at Peter. “Go on, then. Let’s hear this plan.” He’s stopped correcting Peter when he calls him dad, which Mantis thinks is sweet.
Peter stops. “Well, okay, it’s not exactly a plan. More like a general idea for where we are in our lives and where we want to go next.”
Even Gamora looks less than impressed. “Nebula,” she says, and Nebula flinches from her spot in the far corner, “the process to have your record expunged is going slowly. There’s resistance from about three legislators that Nova Prime is worried will influence the rest.”
Nebula looks away and doesn’t respond.
“You’re safe as long as you stay here on the Starhawk,” says Peter. “No one’s gonna mess with the Ravagers to get to you. So it’s not like you’re facing arrest.”
“I’m just a prisoner on this ship,” says Nebula flatly. “That’s so much better.”
Mantis clenches her hands on her knees.
“We’re going to think of something,” Gamora says quietly. There is steel in her voice.
“I don’t need your protection.” Nebula turns her head away from her sister.
“Maybe not, Blue, but the Quadrant’s gonna be done in a couple months and we’d sorta like to have you ship out with us,” says Rocket.
Nebula looks at him, lips parting before she purses them. “Fine,” she mutters. “Try if you must. I’m not getting my hopes up.” She pushes off the wall and stalks off.
They all watch her go with varying worried looks.
“There is no way to convince these people that she’s not a psychopath when left to her own devices?” asks Drax.
“They’re having a hearing in two weeks, followed by a vote,” says Gamora, chewing her lip. “We’re all expected to testify.”
“I am Groot?”
“No, not you.” Rocket rolls his eyes.
“I am Groot!”
Kraglin looks down. “We got testimony from the mutiny,” he says unhappily. “She stopped what killin’ she could.”
Yondu and Rocket both nod grimly, and Mantis shivers at the horror that rolls off them like smoke.
Peter clenches his jaw. “That won’t hurt her case,” he says with a weak smile.
“Yeah, so long as we lie about half of it, like how she was the one who shot Yondu in the first place.” Rocket scowls. “There were plenty of fuckups to go around there. Shouldn’t be too hard to make Nebula look good.”
“Try to stick to the truth where you can,” Gamora says.
“Please, girl.” Yondu grins at her. “I can bullshit with th’ best of ‘em. Li’l sister ain’t gonna have any trouble on our account.”
Gamora does not look totally reassured by this.
“What will we do if they do not pardon her?” Mantis asks.
“It isn’t that hard to sneak out of Nova space even with a bounty on your head,” says Peter. “I figure we tell the Nova Corps we won’t work with them anymore if they don’t pardon Nebula, and they can pay full price plus extra for us saving the galaxy, and then we pick her up outside Xandarian territory where she’s safer.”
Yondu snorts. “An’ then we send her off every time th’ Nova Corps come callin’, issat it?”
“It’s what we’ll have to do.” Peter shrugs and looks at Gamora.
She purses her lips, unhappiness radiating from her. It’s impressive; Mantis hasn’t felt Gamora emote so strongly since Peter and Yondu were both pulled from space.
“Hey,” Peter says to her softly, and Gamora looks at him. “There’s an old Earth saying: it’s not over til it’s over.”
Everyone is silent for a beat.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Gamora finally says.
Peter sighs heavily. “Yeah, well, the point is we’re not giving up. We can deal with it as it comes.” He squeezes her shoulder gently, and Mantis can see her lean slightly into his touch.
The truth is, Mantis is still not entirely sure how to feel about Peter. He’s the leader of the Guardians, and he wants her here, but aside from that, in the time she’s known him he has mostly concerned himself with Gamora and Yondu.
She studies him while he works on the Quadrant’s bridge, considering. She has met many of Ego’s children, but none like Peter. He takes after his mother, or he must, because Meredith Quill was the only woman Ego ever spoke of. Mantis grew up on stories of her. Though she will never tell Peter, she almost feels like his mother is hers too.
She loves Meredith’s music, just like she is hoping to grow to love her son.
“Wanna hand me the spanner?” Peter asks. He makes a grabby motion with his hand.
Mantis thinks, and carefully selects the right tool out of the box. “Here.”
“Thanks.” He leans forward to concentrate. “How you doing around here, Mantis?”
“Hm?” She blinks.
“You know, with all the people and stuff going on. You hanging in there?”
He is checking on her wellbeing. It warms her inside. “I am doing very well. Thanks to all of you, I am learning to be useful. I can actually hit the target with my blaster now!”
Peter pauses. “You know you don’t have to be useful, right?” he asks quietly.
Her antennae droop. “Now you are troubled. Something I said upset you.”
“What? No. Mantis, you’re fine.” But he’s looking away.
Mantis feels terrible. She wishes she knew which of her words made his face fall like that.
Peter stares into middle distance for a moment and then says, “I know he only kept you around as long as you served his purpose, but we’re not like that. You don’t have to be a fighter if you don’t want to be. Not on our account.”
Mantis tilts her head. “What if I want to learn to fight?”
He turns back to her. “Do you?”
“Yes. I don’t want to spend my entire life dependent on others.”
Peter snorts. “You can make gods sleep, Mantis. You’re not exactly helpless.”
She goes quiet, thinking this over. It’s an intensely appealing thought, that Peter sees her as powerful.
Peter studies her for a long moment before a slow smile spreads over his face. “Well, that’s different then.”
Mantis tilts her head. “Did you think I was worried that you would stop caring for me if I did not learn to be useful?”
“I don’t know.” He looks away. “I just—” he breaks of and sighs heavily. “Do I remind you of him?” he asks in a small voice.
“No.” Mantis doesn’t hesitate. “You are nothing like him.”
Peter looks so relieved that it nearly makes her cry. “Okay,” he mutters.
She’s not sure how Peter could possibly worry about becoming like Ego when he cares so deeply about others. Still, she reaches out and touches his shoulder like she’s seen Yondu do. She doesn’t grip hard and shake, merely rests her hand there until the tension drains out of his body and he’s smiling again.
“Peter,” she asks after the sadness has left him, “how do you flirt with girls?”
“Huh?” He whips back around, gaping at her. “Why do you wanna know that?”
She stares back at him. “Because I want to know how to flirt with girls?”
“Oh.” He scratches his head. “Huh. Wow. Okay. Yeah, I can help you out.” And he gives her a roguish grin. “You gotta be smooth. That might take some practice, so we can work on that.”
Mantis nods. “Kraglin says the first step is determining if she likes girls.”
Peter makes a face. “Okay, don’t ever listen to Kraglin. His idea of flirting is to go around marking his territory by fucking everyone Yondu fucked the night before. So I’m just gonna stop you right there.”
“Oh.” No wonder he wouldn’t give her advice. “So I shouldn’t worry about whether she likes girls?”
“I’m saying you can figure that out. Like, while you’re flirting.” Peter smirks.
Mantis leans forward eagerly. “How?”
“Well, if she totally brushes all your compliments off like you’re just being a girl, she’s probably not into girls.”
She has no idea what that means, so she focuses on the practical. “What sort of compliments?”
Peter thinks about it. “Well, keep them sincere. You’re a girl. What would you like to get complimented on?”
Mantis thinks about the satisfied look on Nebula’s face when she’d told her she was improving. “I think I see what you mean.”
“See? And make sure you tell her she’s pretty. Everyone likes to feel pretty.”
She nods. “Compliment her and tell her she’s pretty. That does not sound difficult.”
“It’s not.” Peter smiles at her. “You’re cute, so it’s not like you’re gonna have a hard time picking up girls.”
Mantis looks down, her cheeks heating up. “Drax says I’m ugly.”
“Dude, Drax’s idea of a hot woman is a little bit different from everyone else’s. Don’t listen to him.”
Apparently she shouldn’t be listening to anybody for advice. Mantis shrugs and gets to her feet. “Thank you, Peter. I’m going to go flirt now.”
“Go get ‘em!” he calls after her.
She finds Nebula in the gym, where she always is. There is a spot in one of the corners that she’s claimed for herself, and none of the Ravagers seem eager to challenge her for it.
Mantis loves that about Nebula, the way she’s willing to take up space like she has the right to it. That, and her confident stride when she walks, which makes her hips sway distractingly.
Nebula is working through a series of moves with her two swords, body moving gracefully. She kicks a foot up above her head and Mantis goes hot all over.
“That was amazing,” she says after Nebula finishes and sheathes her swords.
“It’s a standard form,” grunts Nebula. She grabs her water bottle and takes a long drink.
Mantis’s mouth goes dry at the long stretch of her throat, so smooth and blue. Her skin would taste like salt under Mantis’s tongue.
Nebula closes the bottle and looks at her expectantly.
She wrings her hands nervously. “I-I wanted to ask you—”
“Not out here.” Nebula looks around the crowded gym. “Not if it’s important. Come with me.”
Mantis follows Nebula to the showers.
“Get out,” Nebula snarls, and all the Ravagers hastily rinse off and flee. A few of them give her resentful looks, but no one says anything.
When they’re alone, Nebula turns back to Mantis. “Well?”
“It really was not that important,” murmurs Mantis. She twists her hands together. “That is—you did not have to make them all leave. Now there will be even more people on this ship who smell bad.”
Nebula snorts. “Ravagers are known for being disgusting. What did you want?”
“I—” Mantis can’t do it. Not here, in the echoing showers where the only sounds are the drips of water onto the wet floors.
Nebula frowns. “Did someone attempt to hurt you?” she asks menacingly. “If one of the Ravagers tried anything, I can kill them and make it look like an accident.”
That probably shouldn’t be charming, but Mantis is charmed. “No,” she says shyly. “Besides, I am not such an easy target for that kind of violence.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can alter emotions, you know.” Mantis looks at her. “I could make someone lose interest if they attempted to assault me. Or make them sleep. I can make a stubborn person compliant, if I choose. I just don’t like to do it.”
Nebula stares at her. “You’ve been asking me to teach you how to shoot a blaster when you already have access to a weapon like that?”
Mantis smiles wryly. “It is a defensive weapon at best. And it requires me to touch someone.”
“It’s more than just defense.” Nebula eyes her with a new sort of appreciation. “If you’re ever captured, you could convince them to release you.”
“You could steal anything you wanted to.”
Mantis frowns. “I suppose.”
“You could make anyone do anything you wanted,” Nebula says softly. “All you have to do is touch them.”
Mantis’s breath catches. What she wants is to touch Nebula, to peel off her suit and have her here under the hot water, to listen to her moans echo off the tiled walls.
If she touched Nebula now, she would want it too.
Mantis breathes in quickly, horrified at herself. She clenches her hands together and takes a step back. “I don’t want that.”
Oblivious, Nebula just tilts her head. “You deliberately make yourself weak. Why?”
Mantis’s back hits the wet wall. “Is it weak to choose not to exploit others?”
“My father would say so.” Nebula’s jaw clenches.
“Ego would have too. I don’t want to be like them.”
“I can respect that,” says Nebula softly.
They look at each other.
“Nebula,” Mantis begins, and then falls silent when those dark eyes pin her in place.
She wants her. Something must show in her face because Nebula takes her own step back.
“I have to shower. Did you need anything else?”
“Have you talked to Kraglin at all?” asks Mantis a little desperately.
Nebula tenses. “I see Kraglin every day. Of course we’ve talked.”
“I mean, has he talked to you about—” Mantis screws up her courage. “Nebula, I—”
Someone pounds on the shower door.
“Hey! Pick a slow time to fuck in there! We gotta get ready to go on shift!”
Mantis wants to die.
Nebula strides over and wrenches open the door with a snarl. “Go dirty,” she growls into the man’s face.
His eyes widen. “Shit.” He nearly trips over himself to get away.
Helplessly, Mantis starts to giggle. She claps her hands over her mouth when Nebula gives her a sharp look, but she can’t stop laughing.
“I think he peed himself,” she gasps between giggles.
Nebula’s lips quirk upward, and she snorts a giggle of her own. It’s a horribly unattractive sound, and it makes Mantis laugh harder.
“Shut up,” mutters Nebula. But she’s smiling, and the sight of it makes Mantis bold.
“It isn’t a terrible idea, though,” she says.
“Fucking in the showers.”
Silence stretches between them. Nebula stares at her, shocked, and Mantis raises her chin in what she hopes is an inviting way.
“You’re joking.” Nebula looks wary, dark eyes darting between Mantis’s face and the rest of the room as though there could be an unseen threat.
Mantis swallows. “No.”
“It isn’t funny.”
“It is not supposed to be.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Nebula growls.
Now Mantis is confused. “Who?”
“Kraglin. You asked if I talked to him, so it stands to reason he’s the one who told you I—” The blush that spreads over Nebula’s cheeks is lovely.
Mantis’s eyes widen. “You told Kraglin you like me?”
Nebula doesn’t answer.
“When?” demands Mantis. “What happened? You like me?” All her questions tumble together, but that last one stands out.
Nebula crosses her arms defensively. “I don’t know what I like,” she growls.
Mantis knows that her introduction to the daughters of Thanos was unusual, but she’s not sure how anyone could miss the vulnerability behind Nebula’s snarling.
“I know I like you,” she offers into the silence, and holds her breath.
“Why?” Nebula’s dark eyes flash. “Do you have some kind of fetish?”
“I don’t understand,” Mantis whispers. The anger isn’t what she expected, and she’s not sure how to diffuse it.
“There are hundreds of women on this ship. If this is some—some experimentation, then get out.”
Ah. Mantis holds out her hand. “If you doubt my intentions, I am happy to show you.”
Nebula stares at her hand like it’s a weapon, and Mantis bites her lip. This is not the kind of power she wants.
“You could have anyone,” says Nebula blankly. “Who wouldn’t want you?”
“Well, Drax thinks I’m ugly.”
Nebula blinks at her, nonplussed.
Mantis shrugs. “I don’t mind. I think he’s ugly too.”
Nebula opens her mouth, but then changes her mind and closes it again.
“But you,” Mantis continues, “you are beautiful.”
Nebula looks away. “I would prefer if you didn’t lie to me.”
Mantis bristles. “When have you ever seen me lie? Why would I? Am I cruel, Nebula? Do you think I am cruel?”
“No.” Nebula whispers it, hugging herself tightly around the middle.
“Do you think I am a liar?”
Nebula shakes her head.
Mantis softens her voice. “You do not believe you are beautiful.”
“I know what I look like,” whispers Nebula harshly.
“Then believe that I find you beautiful. Beauty is subjective, after all.” Mantis smiles, hand still held out.
Nebula stares at her, wary like the little birds on Berhert. Mantis supposes a loving touch is as foreign to Nebula as it was to them.
“I don’t understand you,” Nebula says. “I don’t understand anything about you.”
Mantis knows Nebula wouldn’t want her pity, but she cannot help that she feels it. “I think feelings are difficult for you to understand.” When Nebula glares at her, she elaborates, “you have never had anyone to show you how to process them.”
Nebula gives her a look of pure death.
Mantis smiles hopefully. “Do you want to learn?”
“Learn.” The way Nebula says it doesn’t make it seem like a question.
“Yes. I am good at this and you are not.” Mantis pauses. “I think this is the only thing I am good at that you are not.”
“I’m not—” Nebula clears her throat. “I’m not good at a lot of things.”
“The same can be said of me.” Mantis feels a little stupid with her hand still held out in front of her. “I think we could make each other better.”
“You want to teach me,” says Nebula slowly. “About feelings.”
“Some of them,” Mantis corrects. “And only if you want me to.”
Nebula’s eyes flicker between Mantis’s face and her hand. “You mean sex. You want to teach me about sex?”
The moment she says it, Mantis imagines it. Imagines all the ways she can please Nebula, how surprised by her own feelings she would be. It makes her face go hot. “Sexuality is often connected with intense emotions. Or so I am told.”
“So you’ve been told? You mean you have no experience either?”
“Not with another person,” answers Mantis demurely. “I know myself.”
Nebula’s cheeks look darker than normal. Mantis hopes she’s thinking about it.
“I want to touch you,” Mantis says softly. “I think about it whenever I see you.”
“I can’t imagine why.” Nebula keeps glancing at her and then quickly away.
“Do you want to touch me?”
That seems to surprise Nebula. “I—” She turns away from Mantis to pace across the tiled floor. She moves like a caged predator, and it should probably frighten Mantis.
She watches Nebula struggle to find an answer for her question, and wishes she could help. She can’t, of course; this is a choice Nebula must make alone. Still, it pains her to watch Nebula flounder through the implications of her offer.
“If you do not want to, I will understand,” Mantis offers softly. It’s all she can give Nebula. “I would only want you to come to me willingly.”
Nebula laughs bitterly. “You would be fine if I rejected you? Or would Quill develop reasons to throw me out of your little family? What about Drax? Would I have to battle him for your honor? He already dislikes me. I have nowhere to go if this goes badly.”
“The same could be said for me. I am more of an outsider than you are.” Mantis tries to catch her eye, but Nebula paces away again.
“They love you,” says Nebula bitterly. “You’re easy to love.”
Mantis’s heart pounds. She has had so many arguments with herself over the years that she recognizes one when she sees it. “They like me,” she points out gently. “Gamora loves you.”
Nebula looks at her, stricken.
“And Rocket feels very affectionate toward you. As does Kraglin,” Mantis continues, trying to soften the impact. She knows Nebula and Gamora have very complicated feelings for one another, even if she’s only touched Gamora twice. Love is often complicated, she’s learning.
Nebula’s lips part, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s stopped pacing and is watching Mantis intently.
The weight of her gaze makes Mantis shiver. “What I am trying to say,” she whispers, “is that you do not have to fear my reaction if you say no. But I hope you will say yes.”
Nebula takes a step toward her, eyes narrowed. “You want to have sex with me.”
Mantis thought they’d established this. “Very much.”
Nebula stares at her, telegraphing nothing but suspicion. Then she says, “alright,” and begins peeling off her red jumpsuit.
Mantis’s mouth drops open. “You mean here?”
“You were the one who said fucking in the showers sounded fun.” Nebula gives her a look as she steps out of her suit.
She’s more lovely than Mantis imagined. Sleek and powerful, she’s all long legs and broad shoulders. From what Mantis can see, all her limbs are prosthetic; her shoulder has scarring from where her less obviously robotic arm didn’t heal neatly. The internal wiring around her eye glints off the overhead lights as she raises her chin, and her hands twitch at her sides.
“You are beautiful,” Mantis breathes. She wants to run her hands all over the scarred blue skin of Nebula’s torso, savoring the contrast of smooth and rough. She wants to map Nebula’s scars with her tongue until pain is nothing but a distant memory.
Nebula looks embarrassed. “Shouldn’t both of us be naked?”
“Oh!” Mantis nods. “Yes, probably. I got distracted.”
“Distracted?” Nebula scowls.
“Yes.” Mantis reaches behind her for the zipper on her tunic. “I was looking at you and imagining things.”
Nebula’s eyes widen and she flushes a deep navy. “Oh.”
Mantis shrugs her tunic off and hangs it on a nearby hook. When she turns back, Nebula is staring at her with her lips parted. Her gaze skitters over Mantis’s body before she looks away guiltily.
“You can look at me,” says Mantis gently. “I would like you to.”
Nebula breathes in sharply and looks at her again. Though Mantis is still wearing her boots and leggings, there’s something piercing in Nebula’s look that makes her feel naked.
She takes a step closer. “You can do more than look, even. If you want.”
Nebula swallows, fear and longing warring on her face. “I don’t—”
Mantis raises her hand again. “Will you let me, then?”
Nebula meets her eyes. Her breath is coming faster, and she clenches her fists. “Yes,” she says harshly.
Mantis touches the tips of her fingers to Nebula’s lips, tracing the shape of them. They’re thin and shapely, and Mantis shivers as she feels the storm inside Nebula as though it’s her own.
She’s so afraid, suddenly. Suffocatingly, mind-numbingly terrified, and eager, and so lonely she wants to curl up and cry.
It makes her gasp, and Nebula grabs her hand to pull it from her mouth. “Mantis—”
Mantis kisses her.
Through the maelstrom of terror and shock, she feels desire, which blooms like a flower when she touches her tongue to Nebula’s lower lip. Mantis moans, unsure whether it’s because of Nebula’s pleasure or her own.
Nebula’s hands hover near her waist, unsure, but Mantis grabs one and pulls it around her tightly.
“Like that,” she whispers. “I want your hands all over me.”
That makes Nebula moan, and she tugs Mantis in close so Mantis can kiss her again.
Mantis gasps at the press of their bodies together; she’s dreamed about it for weeks, but the feel of Nebula’s hot skin and the softness of her breasts against Mantis’s are better than she could have dreamed. Nebula’s hands are roaming all over her bare back, greedy now that she has permission.
“Yes,” Mantis breathes against Nebula’s mouth. “This is how I feel around you.” She licks across Nebula’s lips and cheek, unable to help herself. Between her own desire and Nebula’s, she can’t restrain herself. “I want to devour you. I want everything.”
Nebula trembles, and Mantis noses under her chin to kiss her neck. The skin here is natural, and so soft that Mantis could spend hours kissing it. She says so, which makes Nebula moan shakily. Her hands convulse on Mantis’s waist.
“Yes, squeeze me like that. It feels good.” Mantis slides her hands up Nebula’s arms, feeling the gentle hum of her cybernetics. “You can still feel here,” she marvels as the sensations echo inside her.
“Yes,” gasps Nebula, and she makes a soft noise as Mantis moves to her breasts. “Wait—”
“Should I stop?” Mantis takes her hands away, though Nebula’s desire spiked just a moment before.
Nebula shudders, closing her eyes. When she opens them, she looks determined. “Don’t stop.”
Mantis smiles. “Good,” she says softly as she runs delicate fingers over Nebula’s breasts. “I know you are enjoying this.”
Nebula swallows loudly. “If you can feel what I’m feeling then why ask if I wanted to stop?”
Mantis smirks. “I did not want to take the choice from you.” She leans close to whisper in Nebula’s ear. “If I overwhelm you, I want it to be because you choose to let me.”
Nebula shakes under her hands. Mantis cups her breasts gently, feeling Nebula’s feelings and following what makes her pleasure spike. She likes delicate touches. Her body responds beautifully to soft caresses; Mantis circles her nipples softly with her thumbs until Nebula cries out.
Mantis lays her cheek against Nebula’s and licks her ear. “It feels so good you don’t know whether you want me to continue,” she whispers. “That is why you are nervous, isn’t it.”
“God,” Nebula moans. “You’re in my head.”
“Only a little.” Mantis bites her earlobe. “I have to guess what is prompting your emotions.” She catches Nebula’s nipple with her thumbnail and shivers at the pleasure that it brings her through Nebula. “But I can feel your pleasure as well as my own.”
“You can?” Nebula sounds faint; Mantis isn’t sure why she keeps repeating everything she says.
“Yes. I want more.” Mantis lets her hand trail down Nebula’s belly suggestively. “Let me give you more.”
Nebula whines, arching her back into Mantis’s touch, and this, this is the kind of power Mantis wants to wield. It’s dizzying, the idea of taking Nebula apart only to put her back together again, better and more whole than anyone else has left her.
She steps forward, and Nebula gives ground until her back presses against the wall. Mantis strokes the back of her hand low on Nebula’s belly, torn between watching her face and watching her abdomen quiver. Pleasure and anxiety threaten to overwhelm her, so she kisses Nebula’s mouth again.
Nebula likes to be kissed; it makes her melt into Mantis’s caresses and chase her mouth when she pulls away. It’s lovely, the way she tilts her face after Mantis with her lips parted invitingly. She doesn’t even realize she’s doing it.
Mantis touches the inside of Nebula’s thigh, gently encouraging Nebula to spread those long legs. Triumph burns through her when Nebula obeys. She trails a single finger up Nebula’s thigh until she can stroke between her legs.
Her own legs almost go out from under her as Nebula’s pleasure hits her like a shock wave. Mantis gives in and sinks to her knees, resting her forehead against Nebula’s hip. Puddled water soaks the knees of her leggings, but she’s not sure she could stand if she wanted to.
She looks up at Nebula to find her staring back with wide eyes.
“I want to lick you here,” she whispers, embarrassed by her own daring.
Nebula’s mouth opens, but she doesn’t speak. But she parts her legs, just a little, and it’s enough.
Mantis leans forward, nosing at her. She struggles to find a suitable name for this part of a woman, although she’s already in love with Nebula’s. Her skin here is a deep, rich blue, like the water on Xandar’s surface that Mantis can see from orbit, and the folds seem like lovely little mysteries for her to discover.
Pussy sounds demure, slinky and dirty like the girls in elaborate lingerie when Mantis watches pornography. It doesn’t quite suit. Cunt is a strong word, and Nebula is strong, but she’s also too tender for the word to fit. Mantis supposes she could ask which word Nebula likes better.
Mantis spreads Nebula’s lips and licks her own. She’s so wet, shiny and slick and Mantis wants to taste her. “This is beautiful too,” she whispers. Her breath teases Nebula’s skin and makes her shiver.
“Why are you waiting?” Nebula asks shakily, so Mantis licks her.
She tastes salty like the ocean, Mantis decides as she rides Nebula’s pleasure. It’s mixed with surprise, which makes it sweeter to Mantis. A contrast to the tart, tangy taste of her.
Mantis indulges herself, tracing the folds with her tongue before giving in and lapping at Nebula’s clit. It’s bigger than her own, and it twitches under her tongue. Perfect for capturing between her lips and sucking.
Nebula clutches at her shoulders, panting. This is good for her; Mantis spreads her knees wider to let herself feel it secondhand and moans around Nebula’s clit. It feels exactly like she’s touching herself. Her clit throbs in time with Nebula’s.
They’re trapped in a feedback loop of sensation and Mantis never wants it to stop. In all her fantasies, it’s never been like this; she can feel Nebula’s pleasure, her desire, her shame, and her fear even as they both hurl toward orgasm.
It’s almost too much when Nebula starts to come. Nebula gets loud, and then very quiet as it overtakes her and she locks her knees to stay upright. The echoes of it are enough to get Mantis there too; her hips buck against nothing as she moans helplessly.
When she calms down, she rests her cheek on Nebula’s thigh and realizes her face is very wet. She licks her lips, tasting nothing but Nebula.
She has to back away as Nebula slides slowly down the wall to slump next to her. Her chest is heaving and she looks dazed.
“Did you come too?” she asks faintly.
Mantis nods. She isn’t sure she can speak yet.
Nebula nods too, staring vacantly at the opposite wall. They sit there catching their breath while a leaky faucet drips in the background.
“I still need a shower,” says Nebula into the silence.
Mantis wipes her face. “Me too.”
Nebula glances at her. “I wouldn’t mind. If you chose to join me, that is.” She looks embarrassed.
“That would be nice.” Mantis smiles. She gets to her feet, a little wobbly from being on her knees, and takes off her boots and socks. Her leggings are soaked from the knee down, and there will be no question what they were doing in here. The thought makes her blush, but also pleases her.
Nebula turns the shower on and steps under the water. She’s breathtaking with water streaming over her skin, and she gives Mantis a hesitant smile when she catches her looking.
Mantis smiles back broadly and joins her under the spray. She is suddenly filled with affection, and she lays her hand on Nebula’s cheek so that she can feel it as well.
Nebula stills, her eyes rising to Mantis’s face. “You...feel this? For me?”
Nebula’s emotions threaten to overwhelm her again. For such a stoic woman, she feels so deeply. A metallic hand comes up to cover Mantis’s own.
“You feel like you do not deserve love,” whispers Mantis, “because you have done terrible things. But I have done terrible things as well.”
The wave of self-loathing that catches her could be from either of them; between them they have enough blood on their hands to fill oceans. Mantis wraps her arms around Nebula and holds her through the worst of it. They stay that way a long time as the water washes over them.
Mantis only wishes it could wash them both clean.
She’s reluctant to leave Nebula’s side for the rest of the day, and she would worry about being clingy if not for the way Nebula reaches for her when she goes too far. A strong grip on her wrist will reel her back in and a disgruntled look will remind her not to go far.
She’s never felt ecstasy like this before.
The love she feels from the others is usually layered with other things; Gamora’s with fear, Drax’s with sadness so profound it moves her to tears, and Kraglin’s with resentment and remorse. Nebula’s is greedy and all-consuming.
This kind of pure joy is something to be cherished for its rarity.
Nebula has apparently chosen to believe Mantis’s regard for her is genuine. It pleases Mantis to no end, being allowed to twine their fingers together under the table at dinner while their legs brush. Every touch is electric, and Mantis isn’t sure how no one else can feel it.
Her happiness only dims when Peter and Gamora join them after dinner with matching somber expressions. She knows they’ve been discussing Nebula’s criminal record with Nova Prime, and they’ve clearly got bad news.
Beside her, Nebula tenses and lets go of her hand. Mantis misses it as soon as it’s gone.
“Bad news,” says Peter. “They’ve moved up the hearing.”
Everyone goes quiet.
“When?” asks Rocket coldly.
“Three days.” Gamora is all tightly coiled rage, pacing the length of the room. It reminds Mantis of Nebula earlier.
Nebula gets up and walks out.
Mantis stares after her, hating the resignation she’d felt just before Nebula had pulled away. “She doesn’t believe it will go in her favor,” she says softly.
“It probably won’t,” says Peter. He doesn’t sound happy about it.
The misery coming off of Gamora is more than Mantis can stand right now. She gets up and goes to follow Nebula.
Unfortunately, the Starhawk is a big ship, and Nebula is far better at avoiding people than Mantis is at tracking them. She wanders the halls for over an hour before she gives up and goes back to her own room.
Part of her hopes against reason that Nebula will be waiting outside her door like the heroine of the Xandarian dramas she likes so much, but life is rarely so obliging. The corridor is empty, and Mantis goes to bed alone.
She doesn’t see much of Nebula the next day either. Her only consolation is that neither does anyone else.
She understands, but it still hurts. Things were beautiful for a few sweet hours.
Suddenly she hates these people who would dare to take Nebula’s redemption away from her. Gamora has done as many terrible things as Nebula, and so has Mantis. Can they not see that given half a chance they would all be different?
Mantis clenches her fists. Nebula may be helpless to stop this, but Mantis is not.
It takes her some time to track down Gamora. When she finds her, she’s sitting in the Milano alone.
“We need to talk,” Mantis tells her.
Gamora raises an eyebrow. “About what?”
“About Nebula’s hearing.” Mantis sits down opposite her, keeping well out of touching distance. She knows her abilities scare Gamora, even if neither of them acknowledge it out loud.
“What about it?”
Mantis looks her in the eye. “I can make sure she gets her pardon.”
Gamora straightens up. “What do you mean?”
“Do you remember when we first met, when I told you that I can alter emotions?” asks Mantis. “I can make the three people who are opposed to pardoning her change their minds.”
Gamora stares at her. “You can?”
“Why?” Gamora narrows her eyes.
“I know you still do not trust me,” says Mantis evenly. “I know I made a poor first impression on you and that you find my abilities abhorrent. But I want to be part of this family.” Her hands clench into fists despite herself. “I care about her.”
That brings Gamora up short. “I don’t—”
“Don’t try to lie,” says Mantis, not unkindly. “I am not as naive as I appear.”
Gamora doesn’t have anything to say to that.
“Take me with you tomorrow when you go to Xandar. I can find the ones who will give us trouble and make them cooperate.”
“I didn’t realize you could do that,” says Gamora softly.
“I do not like to. But this is a special circumstance.” Mantis swallows. “Nebula deserves this.”
Gamora’s looking at her like she’s never quite seen her before. “You said you care about her.”
Gamora looks away, jaw clenching and unclenching. She doesn’t say anything.
And Mantis feels a spark of righteous anger ignite.
“You don’t approve.”
“It’s not my place to say anything,” says Gamora, a little too casually.
Mantis scoffs. “Very well. Then don’t say anything. But take me with you tomorrow.” She gets to her feet, suppressing a smirk when she sees the shock on Gamora’s face.
Gamora rallies, though. “We leave at 0900,” she manages.
Mantis nods and exits the Milano.
Nebula is sitting outside her door when she gets back to her room, looking for all the world like a stray puppy.
Mantis feels a missing piece of herself slide into place at the sight of her. “I hope you did not wait long.”
She looks up, a little guiltily. “No, I—”
Mantis nods gently and steps around her to open the door. “Come inside.”
Nebula follows her in, standing awkwardly while Mantis sits down to take her boots off. She tries not to be obvious about looking around the room, which Mantis thinks is charming.
“You are worried about the hearing tomorrow,” Mantis says gently.
Nebula grunts and crosses her arms tightly. “I will deal with whatever comes.”
“I know you will. There is not a prison that could keep you locked away from us.”
Nebula looks at her, wide-eyed.
Mantis smiles and stretches out a hand. “Come here.”
It takes a moment of Nebula arguing with herself, but she steps forward to take Mantis’s hand. Their fingers slide together like the pieces of the puzzles Groot likes so much, and Mantis pulls until Nebula sits down beside her.
“I will not let anything happen to you,” she whispers.
“That’s not a promise you can keep.” Nebula turns her head away.
“But it is.” Mantis touches her cheek and guides her back. “You know what I can do. If they will not give you your pardon of their own free will, then I will take it for you.”
Nebula’s breath catches. “Oh my god.”
Mantis kisses her, and it is only partly in reaction to the violence of Nebula’s affection. This ferocity is new to her, something she’s heard in Peter’s music but never felt for herself.
Nebula’s hand hovers in the air, so Mantis places it on her waist. Nebula squeezes, and it pains Mantis that she still needs permission to touch.
She breaks the kiss and rests her forehead against Nebula’s. “Why did you follow Ronan the Accuser?” she asks softly.
“I—” Nebula tries to pull away, but Mantis stops her with a caress. She swallows. “You know the story, don’t you?”
“I know Gamora left to betray Ronan. I do not know why she didn’t take you with her.”
Nebula’s laugh cuts like glass, as does the bitter misery that brings tears to Mantis’s eyes. “She didn’t trust me. It never occurred to her that I felt just as trapped as she did.”
Mantis strokes her cheek and tries to pour all her ferocious tenderness back into Nebula. “So she left you with Ronan.”
“Yes. It’s funny. Ronan first ordered me to go to Xandar. It could have been me that met Quill and Rocket, if things were different.” Nebula sighs wistfully. “I probably would have killed Quill.”
“Because it never occurred to me to betray Thanos. He was too strong.” Nebula shakes her head. “He still is.”
“But you still plan to kill him,” says Mantis softly.
“Yes.” Nebula looks at her with steely determination. “I will be damned if I let other children suffer as I did.”
Mantis looks down, thinking of all the children she allowed to suffer so that she could survive. “When the time comes, I will be with you.”
“I haven’t even bought you dinner,” says Nebula wryly. “Isn’t it a little early for you to promise that?”
“Maybe. But nevertheless.” Mantis squares her shoulders. “So you remained loyal to Ronan?”
Nebula scowls. “Once we obtained the Infinity Stone, he took its power for himself and said he was going to kill my father. I believed he could do it.” She glances at Mantis from the corner of her eye. “I would have done anything—allied myself with anyone—to get away from Thanos. Gamora was all I had, and when she left there was no reason for me to stay.”
“He made you feel safe for the first time,” Mantis realizes.
Nebula looks away. “Saying he was better than Thanos is hardly a ringing endorsement. But it was all I had.”
Mantis strokes her hands up and down Nebula’s arms. “You are filled with doubt. Is it because of him?”
Nebula grumbles. “You’re nosy.”
“I am trying to understand. You know I cannot know why you feel what you do.”
“Yes, it’s because of him.” Nebula’s grip on Mantis’s waist tightens. “Every choice I made on my own was a mistake. I chose Ronan. I rebuffed Gamora’s offer to join her. I shot Yondu and chose the idiots who rebelled against him.”
“But then you chose us,” says Mantis.
Nebula blinks, and her confusion is cute enough that Mantis kisses her again. “You have done good things too. Don’t forget that,” she whispers against Nebula’s mouth.
“Nothing I do will make up for what I’ve already done.” Nebula closes her eyes and sags against Mantis. She’s surprisingly heavy, but Mantis likes the solidity of her.
She wraps her arms around Nebula and lets her rest her head on Mantis’s shoulder. The puffs of her breath tickle her neck, making her smile. “We’ve both spent our lives in the service of evil men. I think we deserve to be judged on how we choose to live on our own terms.”
Nebula doesn’t answer, just nuzzles her nose against the tender skin of Mantis’s neck.
Mantis strokes the back of Nebula’s head, marveling at the delicate curve of her skull. It’s partly artificial; the thought of what Nebula must have gone through as a child is too painful for Mantis to contemplate. Instead she thinks about how lovely the purple alloy looks against Nebula’s blue skin, and the delicious contrast of her metallic hand with the synthskin one where they both rest on Mantis’s body.
Nebula might have been built from pain, but she’s turned the horror into something beautiful.
“Come,” murmurs Mantis. “Take your boots off. You can stay with me tonight, if you want.”
Nebula looks far too grateful for such a meager offer. Mantis kisses her forehead and stands up to change into her sleep clothes.
The first night she spent on the Quadrant, Peter gave her an old t-shirt that he’d dug out of Yondu’s room. He’s never asked for it back, and Mantis hasn’t offered. It’s the first thing that’s ever really been hers.
Now she hands it to Nebula. She has more clothes now, after all.
“Why do I want a t-shirt advertising off-brand Kronan ale?” asks Nebula.
“To sleep in. It will be more comfortable than what you’re wearing.” Mantis waits until Nebula takes it.
They change quickly; Mantis knows this is not the time to linger on one another’s bodies. Nebula needs comfort right now. They can seduce each other later.
The sight of Nebula in her t-shirt is Mantis’s new favorite thing, she decides; it sparks something warm in Mantis’s chest that tells her this woman is hers.
She settles into bed with a bright smile and pats the empty spot next to her. They squeeze in together, the bed too small for two tall women to fit comfortably. Mantis solves this by tangling her bare legs together with Nebula’s and scooting closer.
Nebula looks down, but Mantis can see her smiling. “This is ridiculous,” she mumbles.
“It’s not. It’s perfect.” Mantis touches Nebula’s cheek again and kisses the tip of her nose.
Nebula peers at her uncertainly. “Mantis...”
She wants to be touched, Mantis realizes. There’s a grasping, desperate emptiness inside her that Mantis pushes down with a hard kiss.
Their teeth clack and Nebula’s nose jams her cheek, but at least it distracts Nebula from her misery.
“What the hell was that?” demands Nebula, rearing back.
“Sorry,” whispers Mantis. “You were sad and I wanted to kiss you so hard.”
That shuts Nebula up, and she goes a very pretty navy. “Oh.”
Mantis goes slower this time, kissing Nebula’s chin, her cheeks, and finally her mouth. She loves how Nebula opens for her, like she’s sharing a secret. Their tongues touch briefly before Mantis pulls back to kiss down her neck.
Nebula throws her head back and bares her throat. It’s the ultimate display of trust, and Mantis makes sure Nebula can feel how honored she is to be allowed this.
“Just you,” Nebula whispers in response to her unspoken affection. “It’s only for you.”
“I know.” Mantis licks a line up the tendon of her neck, feeling Nebula quiver under her. “You’re beautiful like this.”
Nebula’s eyes are squeezed shut, and she grips the sheets instead of Mantis’s body like she wants to.
“Touch me,” Mantis tells her. “I want you to touch me.”
Nebula stares at her with wide, dark eyes. “How?”
“However you want. You will know what I like.” Mantis smiles. It fades as soon as Nebula’s crippling uncertainty hits her. A new tactic, then. “Push my shirt up,” she instructs, taking Nebula’s hand and guiding it up to her breast. “Touch me here.”
Nebula swallows. Careful fingers map the curve of her breast, and Mantis can feel how turned on Nebula gets just from touching her.
So she moans her appreciation when Nebula’s fingertip grazes her nipple, and hides her face in Nebula’s neck when she gets brave enough to do it again.
“Yes,” she whispers. “Just like that.”
Emboldened, Nebula teases her nipple, rolling it between her fingers until it peaks. Mantis is panting, pushing her hips against Nebula’s thigh, and they’re both feeling the same sensations together.
It’s so good Mantis wants to die.
Little jolts of pleasure flare between her nipple and her groin; Mantis kisses Nebula desperately to muffle the sounds she is making. She grabs Nebula’s thigh and guides it to wrap around her waist, slotting their groins together.
Nebula makes a soft noise at that, letting her head fall back. Mantis kisses hotly over her throat, tasting her pulse and grinding against her. She can feel the dampness through the underwear Nebula’s wearing.
“I want to make you come,” she whispers. “Do you think you could from this?”
Nebula whines and jerks her hips. “Maybe,” she whispers back.
Mantis nods, determined. She reaches down to grip Nebula’s hip, encouraging her in a steady rocking motion. It takes some trial and error, but they both moan when Mantis finds the right angle for Nebula’s clit to grind on her pubic bone. After that they move quickly, Nebula’s soft gasps and strangled moans driving Mantis to go faster, harder. Anything to keep the wave building between them. Nebula is digging her nails into Mantis’s back, and she will have bruises tomorrow that she will wear with pride, because it means Nebula is getting close and she’s going to pull Mantis over the edge with her.
Nebula bites back a low groan when she comes, head thrown back and back arched. It’s not a powerful orgasm, but it’s enough that Mantis echoes it, shoving her face into Nebula’s neck with a cry of her own.
Mantis noses affectionately at the tender spot just below Nebula’s ear. They’re both sweaty and breathing hard, and the bed is too small, and Mantis’s t-shirt has twisted uncomfortably.
She never wants to move.
Nebula’s stroking up and down her back, tracing the bruises she’s left on Mantis’s skin. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.
“I’m not.” Mantis looks at her. Her voice sounds loud in the quiet room. “I am not delicate. You do not have to be gentle with me.”
Nebula looks down. “I don’t really know how to be gentle. It wasn’t a skill that was encouraged by my father.”
Mantis trails the backs of her fingers over Nebula’s cheek. “Gentle and loving are not the same thing. Too many people confuse the two, but Ego was very gentle when he pulled the life from his children.”
Nebula shudders, grabbing her wrist. “Mantis—”
“I want you,” Mantis tells her firmly. “Not some softer version of you that you think I would prefer. And if that means bruises, then I will be glad for them.”
Nebula doesn’t say anything to that.
Mantis kisses her cheek and sighs. “We should sleep.” She’s only been down to Xandar once before, and the crush of people overwhelmed her. She struggles in crowds, even on the Starhawk. Tomorrow is going to be difficult.
“I don’t know if I can,” Nebula mutters.
Mantis curls her hand into the fabric of Nebula’s t-shirt. “I can help with that, if you want.”
Nebula grunts. “Ask me again in an hour.”
“Okay.” Mantis kisses Nebula’s exposed collarbone and settles her head on her shoulder. She smells like sweat and metal, and Mantis decides that it’s her new favorite scent.
Nebula hesitantly pets the back of Mantis’s head, threading her fingers so carefully through her hair. The gentle, repetitive motions—and Nebula is wrong when she says she isn’t good at gentleness—lull Mantis to sleep.
“What’re you doin’ here, Bug?” Kraglin peers at her when she strides aboard the Milano with her head held high. “Didn’t think Xandar agreed with ya.”
“I am here for Nebula,” she says firmly, and sits down.
Kraglin blinks. “That’s sweet of ya. Hey, speakin’ of—”
“I know she likes girls,” says Mantis with a smile. “We had sex in the showers the other day.”
There is a long pause. “Congratulations?” asks Kraglin. He’s looking at her strangely.
“Thank you,” says Mantis, choosing to believe he is genuine. He should not be so surprised that she told him about the sex, considering she’s always been forward about what she wanted from Nebula.
“Okay, last call! Tell me everyone’s here,” Peter calls down from the cockpit.
“All aboard,” Kraglin calls back, and the hatch begins to close.
Mantis can see Nebula standing just behind the vacuum shields as they lift away. She watches her until the Milano is completely free of the Starhawk’s hangar and they’re on course for the planet below.
She finds Rocket and Gamora in the cockpit, along with Yondu and Peter. Gamora glances at her, but looks away quickly.
“How much time will we have to talk with the legislators before the hearing?” Mantis asks.
“Not sure.” Peter shoots a worried look in Gamora’s direction. “Hopefully a few minutes.”
“The three who are actively speaking out against Nebula are Varan Kel, Dothan Miir, and Elari Baan,” says Gamora quietly. She turns to Mantis with a hard look. “I’ll point them out to you.”
Mantis nods, knowing without being told that Gamora has decided to keep this between them.
Yondu gives her a curious look, but doesn’t comment.
The sunlight on Xandar is too bright for Mantis’s eyes; Ego’s planet always had pleasantly ambient golden light, and until a few months ago, she’d never known anything else. She steps bravely out onto the platform nonetheless, shoulders squared. Perhaps this is not the same as when they destroyed Ego, but it is still a battle, and she’s prepared.
Mantis did not meet Nova Prime the last time she visited Xandar, but she cuts an imposing figure at the edge of the platform, flanked by her Nova guards. Her warmth toward Peter and Gamora is genuine, which surprises Mantis. Yondu always says politicians lie through their teeth.
“Come this way,” Nova Prime says. “We have a few minutes before we have to get started.”
Kraglin is stiff and awkward at Mantis’s side; he hangs back as much as possible and refuses to look at the assembled Nova Corps. Rocket bumps into his legs in what looks like an accident but is probably not from the grateful look Kraglin gives him.
Mantis strides forward as they enter the airy government building. She falls into step beside Gamora, catching her eye. A slight tilt of the head is all Mantis gets; she follows Gamora’s gaze to where a short, balding Xandarian man is conversing with a few others outside the courtroom where the hearing is to be held.
“Miir,” Gamora murmurs.
Mantis breaks away from her and makes her way over to the group. “Councilor Miir?” she asks demurely.
He turns from his conversation and blinks at her. “You’re one of the new ones they picked up, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am Mantis. I wanted to extend my gratitude to your people. You see, I was also raised by an evil man, and I would hate to have my chance for a new start ripped away from me.” It is a breach of Xandarian custom to touch another without permission, but after all, she is only an ignorant girl. Her hands grip his tightly as she whispers, “give her a chance.”
He caves; she can feel it like a seam ripping. He pulls his hand away and nods, looking dazed. “Oh, I—I certainly will,” he mutters. He blinks at Mantis again and walks into the courtroom.
Mantis looks to Gamora, who tilts her head in the direction of a tall woman with light hair styled in spirals atop her head. She has an upturned nose and a pinched mouth that seems set in a disapproving twist. Fortunately for Mantis, she is alone.
“Councilor Baan,” she introduces herself, more confident now, “I am Mantis. I recently joined the Guardians of—”
“I know who you are,” Baan cuts her off. Contempt rolls off her. “I have to say, I’m less than impressed with Nova Prime’s decision to allow a pack of pardoned criminals to grow their ranks. Peter Quill I understand pardoning, and Gamora was a strategic move, but the rest of you?” She shakes her head. “You all should have been shipped back to the Kyln to see just what your friend Nebula did to the prisoners there.”
Mantis clenches her jaw. She does not know what Nebula did at the Kyln, but she knows the guilt that plagues her in her sleep. “Nebula was not acting under her own power, as I’m sure our testimony will show you.” She shoots her hand out and grabs Baan’s wrist before she can pull away. “Pardon her.”
Baan puts up a better struggle than Miir did, trying to yank her wrist back. But Mantis holds on, keeping her expression pleasant as she slowly, inexorably, bends her to her will.
She lets go.
Two is enough. Baan is forceful and her vote will sway others.
Mantis backs away. Her tunic sticks to her underarms and lower back, soaked with sweat. She is shaking from the effort of turning two people’s minds so thoroughly in so little time.
But it is done.
Yondu catches her by the elbow and lets her sag against him. “You did good, Bug,” he says quietly, and Mantis doesn’t want to know how he knows. Yondu has been a criminal for a very long time.
“We will see,” she murmurs.
She doesn’t really consider the morality of her actions as they take their seats, waiting for the formalities to finish so they can all give their testimony over Nebula’s newfound goodness. It is a matter of weighing the cost. To violate another person’s free will is a bad thing, she knows, but to lock a person away for choosing to survive under a sadistic tyrant is not necessarily better.
Then the list of Nebula’s crimes is read, and Mantis understands for the first time why the Ravagers flee before the daughters of Thanos.
Murder. Torture. Genocide. Survivors who cannot speak because they were not left with tongues. Dead children. Now Mantis knows the things that haunt Nebula’s dreams.
Her hands are shaking; all the horror Ego inflicted on her was done through callousness, but this...
What she is seeing here is evidence of the most wanton cruelty, and she cannot stop the tears that begin to fall when she thinks of two young girls trapped in that hell with nothing but each other.
There is a grim silence that falls over the room as Varan Kel, the one councilor that Mantis did not reach, sits down. He does not look smug or self-satisfied, which is the only reason Mantis does not want to hurt him. He looks resigned. It makes her wonder what he has lost to Thanos’s cruelty.
Then Gamora pushes to her feet. She holds her head high and walks with the dignity of a queen to the seat in the front of the room.
“Everyone in this room has heard me described as a living weapon,” she says in a clear voice. “I would ask you to consider what, exactly, was done to me to make me into one.”
Mantis can feel the discomfort descend on the room, oppressive as the fog that rolled in during the nights on Berhert.
She feels Peter shift in his seat next to her, aching to reach out and comfort Gamora.
“I was a child when I watched Thanos kill my parents. Nebula was even younger when Luphom fell. He renamed her, took her heritage and took her when she was too young to remember where she came from.” Gamora looks down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. “None of this crossed my mind when I was a little girl. I was concerned with staying alive, because I had seen him slaughter our other siblings when they disappointed him. I had slaughtered our siblings when I was ordered to. He kept us in constant competition with each other, over his regard, over resources like food and medical care. I looked out for Nebula when she was smaller than me, but as she got older, she became more competition. And I got better at surviving.”
Gamora looks out at the gathered Xandarians, her expression daring them to judge her. “When I made up my mind to betray Ronan, I could have taken Nebula with me. I will always regret that I didn’t. But I didn’t realize how much she still considered me family, not until we met again on Ego’s planet. All she is trying to do is live her life free of Thanos. She helped us defeat Ego, and that act prevented Xandar’s destruction. If you can forgive me for my crimes against your people, then you must forgive my sister as well. She’s as deserving of a second chance as I am.”
The silence is ringing, and it lasts a long time before Nova Prime clears her throat.
“Who else wishes to offer evidence for our consideration?” she asks.
Rocket stands up. “Uh, I got some evidence.”
The mutterings around the room make his ears flatten back to his head, but he holds his ground until they subside.
“Here’s the thing,” he says loudly. “Every last one of you people think you know what’s going on in our heads. You don’t know what we’ve been through. You don’t know how it feels to be torn apart and put back together over and over and over again. That’s what that freak did to Nebula. She did what she did so he wouldn’t take more pieces off her. Let me ask you, how many of you would do anything different?”
He looks around, but no one seems willing to meet his eyes. “That’s what I thought. You wanna get a real picture of what Nebula’s like? Take a look at the stuff she’s done since she got away from that whack job. When Yondu’s crew pulled a mutiny, she stepped in an’ kept—” he breaks off with a snicker.
Yondu elbows him.
“—Okay, sorry. She kept Taserface from killin’ me or Yondu.”
Kraglin buries his head in his hands as the crowd breaks into murmurs and a few giggles.
“It bought Kraglin and Groot enough time to come up with a plan to get us outta there an’ get to Quill,” Rocket continues, more seriously. “Bunch of us wouldn’t be here without her, so...” He scratches the back of his neck awkwardly. “Just...think about it, okay?”
He sits back down.
Kraglin wipes sweaty hands on his thighs and stands up. “I was there for that mutiny too,” he says, voice wavering. “Rocket’s tellin’ the truth. They killed a lot o’ people—friends o’ mine—but she talked ‘em outta killin’ as many as she could.” He sits down and hunches his shoulders, keeping his head down.
Peter’s voice is clear when he says, “every one of us started out trying to kill each other. But we’ve become a family, and Nebula’s part of it. The Guardians of the Galaxy stick together. You want us to keep helping the Nova Corps, you have to give us Nebula.”
Mantis looks around the room, then closes her eyes and lets herself feel the currents of emotion. She senses fear, and anger, but mostly she senses sadness.
“If that is all the evidence, then I will propose a vote,” says Nova Prime after a moment.
“I second the proposal,” calls another voice.
Mantis opens her eyes.
“All in favor of pardoning Nebula and expunging her criminal record so that she can live peaceably within Nova space?”
The tension that had been winding itself tighter and tighter inside Mantis’s chest eases when she sees green lights tally on the vote counter beside Nova Prime.
“All opposed?” Nova Prime asks.
There are a few red lights, but Mantis has done her work well.
Gamora lets out a long breath and hangs her head. Her relief is palpable. Mantis looks past her to see Rocket nodding, his expression fierce. Peter reaches over to lay his hand on Gamora’s clenched fists.
“Very well,” says Nova Prime. “Then the Council moves to pardon Nebula.”
A gong sounds, and the Xandarians begin to slip out of the room in orderly lines.
Nova Prime steps toward where they are sitting. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she says.
“We do,” Gamora tells her firmly.
Nova Prime nods. “I’ll call the Records office now.”
Gamora watches her leave, and then turns her head to catch Mantis looking at her. She inclines her head once and turns back to Peter.
Perhaps it will take more time for her and Gamora to become close, but Mantis cannot help but feel this is a start.
Nebula is waiting in the hangar when they return to the Starhawk, her head held high and her jaw thrust out defiantly. Beside her stands the crystalline first mate, whose name Mantis cannot remember but whose love and regret are so thick they nearly choke her.
She lets Gamora step off the ship first. It is only right that she be the one to break the good news to Nebula. But she is not far behind her, and she catches the surprised part of Nebula’s lips when she hears.
“So it was a success,” says the first mate. He’s looking everywhere but at Yondu.
“Got our pardon, yeah.” Rocket takes a casual step to put himself between them. Mantis can’t tell if he’s trying to be subtle, but if so he is failing.
She looks up at the sound of her name to see Nebula barreling toward her with her jaw clenched. The others tense, but they are not able to sense the affection that Mantis does. She holds out her arms and Nebula steps into them, fitting like she’s always belonged there. Mantis presses a kiss to the side of her head and smiles a little at the shocked look on the others’ faces.
“Good thing I didn’t take that bet, Krags,” says Yondu into the silence, and Kraglin snorts.
“When did this happen?” Drax demands.
“Couple days ago.” Kraglin is smirking when Mantis lets Nebula go. “Least that’s what Bug told me.”
Mantis keeps her arm around Nebula’s waist and looks around. She doesn’t sense any outright disapproval, although Drax and Gamora are not as pleased as the others.
They will get used to it.
Nebula leans, ever so slightly, into Mantis and whispers, “thank you.”
Mantis kisses the side of her head again. “You’re welcome.”
She isn’t so worried anymore about fitting in; the adoration she feels pouring off of Nebula is enough for her. They both have a place here. And, she thinks as she glances down at her hand, it feels very good to know she’s able to contribute in her own way. She may never be the fighter that the daughters of Thanos are, or the pilot Peter is, and she may never be able to do more than basic repairs, but she can alter fate with the touch of a hand.
She is powerful. And for the first time in her life, she’s no longer afraid to own that power.
It feels good.