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Feet Back on the Ground

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Mantis had a bad feeling.

She leaned forward in Peter’s seat and craned her neck to get a good look at the ground through the front viewers, catching a red blur just to starboard. She ran her fingers across the screen and just glanced at the team’s comm trackers.

She swiped again and hit the panel to open the main hatch. They were a little early, but that wasn’t so odd. What did bother her was that Peter hadn’t let her know he was on his way back.

Maybe the other terrans were distracting him more than she thought.

But the hatch started to open, and what she heard from two decks below changed her mind.

Mantis’ chest tightened, and she slid out of the pilot’s seat and onto the first rung of the ladder down to the crew deck in one practiced step. She dropped halfway down and ran aft, to the cargo ramp near where the pod should have been, rounding the corner with a hand on the well-worn spot on the bulkhead that everyone used to lever themselves around the tight walkway.

She tried not to think about other times, scary times when any of them had taken this turn at high speed, wearing out the wall with panicked grips as they tried to get down to the hatch as fast as they could.

“Get your fucking hands off me!”

Peter’s voice was cracked and hoarse. Mantis balled her hands up and ran down the last few steps of the ramp into the cargo bay to see the two new humans almost carrying Peter into the ship.

Tony Stark was in full armor, with only his face exposed, gripping Peter’s right arm tightly near the wrist with one hand. Peter still had a pistol--it seemed he was trying to get enough momentum to hit Stark with it, and failing. Stark had his other metal-clad hand dug into the back of Peter’s jacket, half-dragging and half-lifting him off the ground.

The younger terran, the other Peter, locked Peter’s left arm to his side, and almost behind him. He had one hand on Peter’s shoulder, both to steady him and--

The other Peter--Parker… kept looking over at Tony Stark, eyes red and uncertain.

Peter grunted and pulled his feet up, pushing them both off of a big, heavy crate and knocked the other terrans off balance just enough to jerk his left arm out of Parker’s grip, then dropped his pistol and slipped out of the looped hold Stark had on his right. He pulled his other pistol from it’s holster on his left thigh and turned on them in one motion.

“Move,” Peter said in a low voice.

Tony Stark jerked his head at Peter Parker, who frowned and hesitated, but moved to the side, as Tony’s faceplate slid back down into place. He straightened and held his hands up in what looked like a defensive posture, but Mantis knew that his hands, themselves, were weapons.

“No,” Stark replied, just as forcefully.

She looked at Parker with alarm, stepping toward him. He started to open his mouth, but didn’t seem to know what to say, nor could he seem to pull his gaze away from Tony and Peter.

“This how you do things on Terra ?” Peter snarled. “Leave people behind?” his voice rose into a hitched yell.

“There’s nothing to go back for ,” Stark yelled back, his voice distorted and metallic.

Peter’s face twisted, eyebrows pinching and jaw clenching, like he was holding something terrible inside that was trying to burst out. Mantis heard the high pitched whine of his blaster charging.

“Peter.”

Mantis could feel Parker turn his head to look at her, but nobody else moved. Peter’s jaw twitched.

“You can’t save him,” Stark said.

“You don’t get to decide that,” Peter grated out, loud but husky and dry.

“Neither do you.” Stark lowered his hands just slightly, tilting his head as Mantis slowly approached Peter and reached for his pistol.

Touching his hand, she focused on calming him… pushing a wave of serenity through her fingers and into his hand, his muscles, his heart and head, until he let her take the gun from him. She held it out to her side, waiting a second for Parker to rush over and accept it from her.

Then, Mantis let herself feel .

She took in a slow, ragged gulp of air and gripped Peter’s fingers. She looked at their hands, where the gun had been a moment ago, then lifted her face to look at his.

She felt his regret surge when he saw her face, a spiking flare above a chaotic sea of fear and anger and deep, dark, cloying grief .

And the tears started to fall. His face still showed the calm she had pushed on him, but the tears broke through… and Mantis couldn’t tell if they were his own, or if her impulse to cry was so strong that he just couldn’t help it. She raised her free hand to her face, touching her fingertips to her cheek, and trying to wipe them dry.

Peter sucked in a sniffle and did the same, swallowing hard and letting go of her hand before dropping to a crate and hiding his face in his hands. She knelt down in front of him.

“I lost him,” he said, his voice soft and muffled.

“Drax,” Mantis said. She resisted the urge to touch him.

Peter nodded, took a deep breath and ran his hands down his face, then up through his hair, before curling in on himself, elbows on his knees and head in his hands.

Mantis’ face was hot, she felt the tears straining to come back. But she lifted herself on her knees, almost coming level with Peter’s height sitting down. She gripped his arms tightly.

He looked at her, expression childlike and expectant, as if waiting for her to be angry with him.

Instead, she pulled him close, wrapping her arms around his back and holding him tightly. He hesitated, then relaxed against her, arms coming around her and forehead resting on her shoulder.

Behind her, she heard the quiet shuffle of feet and the louder sounds of metal on the deck plates. She was grateful to them for bringing Peter home… that was why she trusted Stark and Parker to take care of themselves for the moment. They were not her concern.

Mantis felt Peter’s fingers dig into her tunic and she brought a hand up to the back of his head. She controlled herself--neither pushing, nor letting his emotions steep over into her. Instead, she just ran her fingers through his hair and let her palm be a comforting weight, holding him together.

When the tranquility she’d given him crumbled, she caught him. Starting with a low humming exhale, he tried to hold it in… but suddenly he was sobbing, clutching at her. And Mantis refused to cry, taking her grief and channeling it into her arms, her hands, holding Peter more tightly, simply not knowing what else to do.

She wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that before he started to slow down, more tired out than truly growing calmer. She could faintly hear the sound of music coming from the deck above--unfamiliar songs from Parker’s phone… Peter had shown him how to plug it into the sound system like he did with the Zune.

Peter rolled his forehead on her shoulder, shaking his head. “What… how am I going to tell Groot?” he said quietly. “I promised… everything would be okay if they left…”

Mantis rubbed his back, but couldn’t find her voice to answer. She reached down and took his hand, squeezing it and letting her feelings of love for him, for their family, her trust, pour out. Peter blew out a slow breath.

“Gamora and Nebula?” Mantis was finally able to ask.

Peter lifted his head, eyes closed, but he nodded. “They’d almost made it to the other side of the fortress by the time--”

“Doctor Strange?”

“He got out… Drax was… um…” Peter took a deep breath. “Drax was defending him. He did his… magic thing, then got out just as… you know…” he trailed off.

“So there is still work to do,” Mantis said quietly, but firmly.

“Mantis, I--”

She pursed her lips and sighed, sitting back on her heels, then placed both hands flat on the sides of Peter’s face, making him look at her.

“Soon,” Mantis said. “We will all be back together. And we will go home. And we will drink and cry and say all the things that need to be said.”

Peter closed his eyes, and a few more big tears fell down his face. She caught one with her thumb and brought their foreheads together.

“It’s time to get cleaned up and go back to work, Peter.”

“Help me,” he begged, his eyes narrow and brow furrowed. “Please.” She shook her head.

“You don’t need that,” she answered softly.  

He just sat for a second, breathing carefully, slowly and rhythmically, before finally nodding.

“Gamora needs you. She’s going to be calling for extraction. You need to be ready,” Mantis encouraged.

At that, he nodded one more time, firmly, and pushed himself to stand, walking toward the ramp to the crew deck with the little bit of momentum he’d managed to build up.

He turned the corner, out of sight, and Mantis exhaled, sitting slowly down on the warm metal crate where Peter had just been.

Suddenly alone, a cold feeling radiated through her, and she clamped her hand over her mouth. It did nothing to stop the wail that tried to climb out.

Her other hand slapped over her face, dulling the sound as she cried.