There’s a recurring dream Mantis has, or maybe it’s a memory.
She’s a wriggly worm, only a little grub, and there’s dry red dust gritty between her undulating segments as she scrapes along the rocky ground. Someone she loves who loves her has put her there but not by choice. And she’s scared. She’s scared that person won’t come back, and when He puts his hands on her, she feels his grave disappointment plain as day, and underneath, his quiet rage simmers, washing over her in roiling waves, like needles prickling over tender flesh when her sleeping limbs shake awake. He squeezes, she screams, and He is no more.
Mantis startles into consciousness, joints aching and head pounding. From falling debris, she remembers, from Ego. Groaning, she stirs, sitting up, hand searching tenderly for the bump on her head, feeling along the borders of the firm swell. Pressing lightly, she hisses at the pulsing pain.
Drax offers her an icepack to numb the area. “Welcome back.”
“Did we do it?” she asks, groggy from the possible concussion as she accepts and holds it against her head. “Is Ego dead?”
Mantis drops the icepack.
She doesn’t know why, but she cries then, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks, her shaky shoulders rack with sobs. It’s the wrong reaction. She knows it, deep down in her bones. As usual, her facial expression is entirely inappropriate for the happy occasion. They won, the Guardians and her, so why are her eyes leaking and her mouth so insistent in its downturned frown? She can’t let her new friends think their victory is not cause for celebration, so she curls up to hide her wrong face and her resultant shame, concealing both behind cupped palms and bent knees.
“Can you sense his death as well? Quill and his foul-smelling comrade are devastated. He was a bastard, but he did save him at the expense of his own life,” Drax commiserates, awkwardly patting her on the back in comfort. “Captain Yondu Udonta truly has my gratitude.”
“Udonta?” Her voice is a strangled cry forced through a grief-constricted throat.
“Yes, is that not why you are crying?” Drax’s brows lift in what Mantis has recently learned signifies confusion before lowering as his face alights with understanding. “Perhaps you can only empathize with our sorrow but did not know the cause of it.”
No, that is incorrect, Mantis doesn’t say, but it made for a nice story.
Ego’s son, Peter Quill, delivers the eulogy.
“…I guess David Hasselhoff did kind of end up being my dad after all. Only it was you, Yondu… I had a pretty cool dad.”
They feed him into the blue flames of the engines, his essence dissipating into the void, as each retreats to their own private grief. However, when the 99 Ravager clans come to pay their respects with a colorful display lighting up the rather bleak affair in bursts of rainbows, the Guardians all gather around to say their last goodbye to Peter’s dad, none mentioning they stand where his real father had crumbled to ashes, unmourned, only hours before.
Mantis has to admit it is a beautiful service.
It is a beautiful lie.
Mantis should know; she had learned early on how to dress up lies to make them palatable.
“Let me go!” Anomie is hysterical, zir tentacles flailing, zir gelatinous face squished with distress. “I wanna go home!”
“You are home,” Ego replies painfully gripping the squishy tentacles as the child wails. He grimaces when Anomie starts to sting him, his arm bulging with injected irritants, but he doesn’t release zim. “Why don’t you and Mantis go play?”
Anomie turns zir quivering face towards the grown woman standing ahead of Ego, waiting to greet zim. “I don’t wanna play with her! She’s old like you! I want my Carer!”
Ego frowns. It was not too long ago that the presence of another child had soothed his own children’s fears. However, Mantis seems to have outgrown her usefulness in that respect, as mortals tend to do all too quickly. He would have long discarded her if not for her other advantages.
He pushes Anomie into Mantis, who grasps one tentacle with her bare hand.
“Calm down,” Mantis orders gently. “Everything is all right. No harm will come to you here,” she says, her command a quiet whisper that reverberates through Anomie’s very being, until zie believes it to be true. Zir mind is as fragile as zir flesh, and Mantis has little difficulty forcing immediate compliance.
“That’s better,” Ego pats the child on the shoulder approvingly. “I want to show you something…” He says as he leads zim away.
Mantis watches them go. She knows what comes next. She doesn’t see Anomie again, and when she enters Ego’s chambers later that night to help him sleep, his disappointment is so palpable she can almost taste it bitter like bile.
It’s not too long after that that Ego comes to her, uncharacteristically giddy.
“There was a man who passed through Xandar recently. A Ravager from Earth who held an Infinity Stone in his hand without dying.” He expands his star map, which he used to keep track of the various women he had seduced and their progeny. “I passed through Earth for the first time not too long ago… must have been only 35 years back.”
He locks in on a planet at the outskirts of civilized space. “It’s a young planet. Not much going for it in terms of technology, but their music is quite wonderful, as is often the case amongst primitives… Oh yes, Meredith Quill. I remember her, lovely girl… and our son… Peter, is it? Peter Quill,” he reads off the fine print.
Mantis doesn’t respond. “Earth” is as meaningless to her as the name “Peter Quill.” She knows Ego isn’t really talking to her anyway. Low is the day he’d desire true conversation with one so insignificant.
He frowns. “Interesting… I did put in a retrieval order on this one through Captain Udonta. Remember him? That distasteful blue Ravager with the gold teeth who used to bring you those small plastic toys when he dropped off the children. I always had to sanitize the place after he left. He claimed Peter died upon collection, as mortals often do. I should have known that was false. That bastard kept him after all.”
He’s silent, contemplating his options. “No matter. Mantis, we shall prepare for young Peter’s arrival. I have a good feeling about this one.”
Ego spends the next two months altering his surface. He tears down his barren landscapes, rebuilding grand palaces and sprawling fields in a more-Earthen style (or at least what he had remembered it to be), and grows monuments to the boy’s mother, Meredith Quill, as well as dioramas to lend weight to his carefully-constructed half-truth.
“You will be courteous, Mantis,” he commands her. “Study the social niceties. Learn them well. Your behavior is a reflection on myself, and I will not have Peter think ill of me.”
Having little experience interacting with others, Mantis reads up on friendly social interactions and watches her collection of holo-vids that Ego’s children had had programmed into their personal possessions at the time of their abduction. Smiles are good. Laughter is better. She practices with her reflection, contorting her mouth into the approximate desirable shapes. There’s too much teeth and her forehead is too wrinkled from exertion, but it looks fairly close in the opinion of someone who is unfamiliar with normal facial expressions.
When he is done, Ego takes Mantis on a tour of his new world, familiarizing her with his creation designed to entice his true son, a fellow immortal, to stay and willingly contribute to his ultimate dream.
It is the perfect trap.
And all Mantis can do is stand by and let it happen all over again.
It has been several weeks since she joined the Guardians, and Mantis is blending in nicely, as far as she can tell.
“Can you open this can of beasties for me? I am much too weak to operate the lid,” Mantis requests, handing Drax the tin.
Drax easily unscrews the top to open it, startling at the spring-loaded fake worms hurtling towards his face.
Mantis laughs, high and clear as a bell. “It’s a practical joke! Do you like it?”
Still holding the tin, Drax calmly turns over it over on its side to silently read the label before delivering his verdict. “…This is ingenious. We must show Rocket.”
Rocket is not nearly as impressed when they place it next to his work station for him to discover during a very delicate repair on a bomb with the potential to blast a hole in the Milano’s hull and suck all of them out into the void. When Drax’s hearty laughter joins Mantis’s from their hiding place of standing very still off to one side, Rocket chucks the can at Drax’s fat head, cursing the big lug for almost giving him a heart attack… and blowing up the Milano. Again. But the heart attack affected Rocket personally and individually, so that is clearly the more grievous insult.
“It was Mantis’s idea!” Drax exclaims.
After Rocket hurls the springy worms at her head in retaliation, Mantis is hurt he no longer likes her, but Drax assures her that it is Rocket’s way of congratulating them both for the excellent joke. She’s skeptical of his analysis of the situation, but he does have more experience with friendship than she, so she decides he must be correct despite her own misgivings.
Groot disagrees. “I am Groot.” Papa Rocket is not happy. He says when Mantis explains the prank to him later. It’s not that she doesn’t trust Drax, but perhaps she could use a second opinion.
“Oh…” Mantis positively droops. “How can I make it up to him? Do you have any ideas?”
“I am Groot.” Candy. Give him lots of candy, and he will be happy, Groot replies. However, when Mantis follows his advice, Rocket rejects the peace offering, saying it will rot his teeth. Fortunately, it doesn’t go to waste. Groot snatches up the discarded treats, scampering off to hide his sizeable stash from Peter.
Mantis has never been around so many people at one time, and it can be overwhelming managing their needs and feelings towards her, especially when she has to interact with more than one fellow Guardian at a time.
Some are easier than others.
Groot is uncomplicated. He’s a tiny ball of rage and happiness whose primary drives center around candy and avoiding naps. Rocket is a bit rougher. Especially after the can-of-worms incident, Mantis believes he doesn’t much like her, but then again, he doesn’t seem to like anybody, so she tries not to take it too personally. Gamora is warming up to her, albeit slowly. She sneaks around with Peter when the others aren’t paying attention, which worries Mantis. Gamora is tough, but for a moment when she had touched her forearm on Ego’s planet, Mantis had sensed a certain fragility threatening to crack. Mantis thinks she likes Drax best of all. She knows it’s not nice to have favorites, but Drax is an open book. He always says what he means, making him the easiest one for her to read. There are no deeper layers, no angles or secrets she has to struggle to ascertain. For better or worse, he’s honest, and his few deceptions are mostly harmless ‘practical jokes.’
Then there’s Peter Quill.
It’s not that she doesn’t understand the man any less than the others, what with his nonsensical tangents into unfamiliar topics about bacon and riders of the night. Truth told, his constant declarations of love for Gamora, his insistence on playing his favorite songs on repeat ad nauseam, and even his dancing are all bearable. She finds it kind of charming in fact.
And that’s the problem.
Mantis had spent years, decades even, in the presence of one man, Peter Quill’s father, Ego. She watched as he seduced a small city’s worth of various women and sweet-talked the progeny of those encounters, coaxing them into a false sense of security before they were tested and unceremoniously culled. She eventually came to understand how he had used her presence on his planet to calm the children’s fears, to turn them compliant. As a general rule, Ego rarely said what he meant, and it had been necessary for her survival to learn how to read him. Only him. And she did, to the exclusion of all others. His anger. His motivations. His methods. She learned all the warning signs, because she knew underneath that charming façade was a calculating god, an unstoppable cold-blooded narcissistic serial killer whose sole purpose was to remake the entire universe in his own image.
And Peter is his son, his flesh and blood made man.
Peter would claim it didn’t mean much. Ego didn’t raise him. He wasn’t his real father. His real dad was the deceased bloodthirsty pirate captain who beat and threatened to eat him on a near daily basis, not the monster his biological father had been.
Peter wishes that were the case.
But he can’t fool Mantis. Peter has the same tells, the same habits. His legendary promiscuity. The way he flirts with and flatters everyone around him, manipulating them into doing what he wants. It’s not just Gamora but their clients as well. Even his strong affinity for Terran music is suspect.
No, Peter came by his baser instincts honestly.
The others are blind to it, but Mantis knows better. She just has to watch and wait for him to slip up, to show his true nature.
And this time, unlike countless others, she won’t fail to act.
Mantis watches Rocket show Groot his collection of wires and widgets when Peter enters the common room, heading towards the water dispenser, only to trip over a heavy metal contraption covered in a tangle cables.
“Ow!” Peter exclaims, sucking in a breath while leaning on the hull to examine the damage to his foot. “Damn it, Rocket! I stubbed my toe on this… this… What the hell even is this?”
“Gravitational modulator. Why aren’t you wearing your boots? Walking around without adequate protection, that’s how you get tetanus,” Rocket tut-tuts over his shoulder. “You’re setting a bad example for Groot.”
Peter gingerly puts his foot down, rubbing it into his other leg to stem the pain. “What are you talking about? Groot doesn’t wear boots. You don’t even wear boots!”
Rocket turns to face him. “See! It’s spreading! All because the captain set a bad example.”
“I am Groot.” I will not wear foot prisons. My feet have done nothing wrong.
“Unlike Quill’s,” Rocket says. He points to the device still lying at Peter’s feet. “Look at what he did! His fat foot almost broke my gravitational modulator!”
“I am not the one at fault in this!” Peter shouts back. He sucks in a long-suffering breath and closes his eyes as his fingers steeple against his forehead in exasperation.
Unbeknownst to the other three, Mantis observes the vein slowly pulsing in Peter’s neck, a clear sign of irritation. How many times had she seen Ego suffer the same tell shortly before he dissolved the source of his annoyance in a flash of blue light? Peter has his same temper, if not the light, but his modus operandi need not be the same to produce a fatal result. If Rocket does not take great pains to diffuse the situation and grovel sufficiently for forgiveness, he may end up a fur throw adorning Peter’s headboard.
Mantis flinches when Rocket instead raises the pitch of his voice to produce a very poor imitation of Peter. “Officer, I was driving, minding my own business when that parked M-ship came out of nowhere!” Dropping down to his regular timber, he continues, “That thing was stationary, and you hit it, so it’s your own damn fault.”
“I do not sound like that, and no one expects to come across a gravity whats-it just lying around on the floor. Why do you leave your crap everywhere, anyway? Can’t you just put it all in a box?”
“It’s organized! I know exactly where everything is, so don’t touch anything. If everything’s thrown into one box, how will I find my grimery wrench to fasten these bolts, huh?” He points to a haphazard pile of bolts to the left and then to additional random locations around the room where he had squirreled away pockets of similarly-sized bolts. “If you can think of a better organizational system, then fuck you, because I like mine better.”
Mantis takes a step back. She doesn’t want to get splashed by arterial spray when Peter rips into Rocket, but when all Peter does is continue to squabble with Rocket, she’s relieved yet confused. Why would Peter allow Rocket to talk back to him like that?
The answer becomes clear to her soon after and is, as usual, a woman.
She should have known.
“Gamorrrraaa!” Peter calls out plaintively from the other room.
“What is it, Peter?” Gamora answers, slightly annoyed.
“Groot overdosed on some hidden candy, and he’s practically bouncing off the walls. Can you help me corner him so I can strap him down, and he can ride out the sugar high without damaging himself or others?”
Gamora sighs. “Why did you give him so much?”
“I didn’t this time! It was probably Rocket,” he shouts back as Gamora gets up to help him.
“And where would I get that much candy? I’m not the one with the sweet tooth,” Rocket chims in.
“Well, it wasn’t me!”
Mantis keeps mum, not wanting to anger the others, especially Peter.
Of course Peter wouldn’t murder Rocket when he is trying to convince Gamora to bear his children. He needs to come across as nurturing, paternally-inclined, and unlikely to murder any potential offspring for personal gain. In truth, it is a cunning move on his part.
Well-played, Peter Quill, but Mantis has a few tricks up her sleeve.
“Would you like to borrow my holo-vid recording of natural remedies?” Mantis catches up with Gamora when she is alone later. “There’s a chapter on herbal contraceptives that I find fascinating.”
“Herbal contraceptives?” Gamora repeats.
Mantis has her attention now, away from Peter. She best not waste this opportunity. “Did you know that common kilp leaves when brewed into a daily tea are effective against pregnancy?”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
“Are you sure? I can make it for you. It’s really no trouble at all,” Mantis insists. She is not about to stand by and let another child be born at the selfish whims of a monster. Gamora deserves better than what had happened to the other mothers bearing Ego’s lineage.
Gamora gives her an odd sympathetic look. “Mantis… you don’t have to do that anymore,” she says delicately. The poor bug must be severely traumatized having grown up with Ego as her sole companion for a number of years. There is no telling what he did to her in the privacy of his planet, what sick urges he had indulged in with the naïve child grown into woman. “You’re safe here. None of the guys will touch you if you do not want them to.”
Mantis is perplexed. The purpose of the tea is to prevent Peter’s instinctual drive to plant his seed in Gamora. What did her lack of a sex life have to do with anyth–
Mantis blushes. “It’s not… I mean… it wasn’t like that.”
“There’s no shame in what happened. It is not your fault, Mantis. It was never your fault, and if you need someone to talk to about it, then any one of us is here to listen, okay?”
The truth was Ego had never touched her, had never even thought of her in that light.
She had a different purpose altogether.
Mantis is five years old, having just undergone her second molt. She burrows down under the earth of Ego’s skin, deep into a high-vaulted cavern, to play amongst the bones.
Stepping light-footed to prevent an avalanche, she carefully selects her favorites from the slipshod mountain of mixed remains. Mantis likes people, when she has an opportunity to meet any. She likes their hands and their legs chasing after her in games of tag or hide and seek, but she prefers their silly faces when the skin bunches up around their eyes and mouths to form varying expressions: wary, sad, happy. She’s partial to noses, but mostly because she rarely sees them. Those soft protrusions never last after the light.
She arranges the chosen skulls in an ever-widening circle around a turtleshell table before taking a seat at the head next to her favorite.
“Hi Zun, I brought us some new friends,” she whispers to the small skull. Zun is shy, delicate, and she doesn’t want to draw too much attention to him. “Would you like to say hello?” she says, glancing across the table at her assembled friends.
Their empty eyes gaze back at her, their yawning jaws silent.
She waves to a new addition. “Well, this is Polly. She’s from a big city. There’s lots of people there, like this many,” she holds up all ten tiny fingers to Zun, “and they all live on top of each other in tall houses, and–” she chatters away. She doesn’t know the provenance of the skulls, even Zun. She barely remembers the particulars of the numerous friends who have come for play dates, only to disappear days later, but she keeps their names for her games. Byrul, Ganimeade, Lyra, Wreny, Roniq, Polly, among so many others. They may have long gone home, but they are immortalized in Mantis’s macabre tea party.
Ego is waiting for her later in the navigation hall. As her only consistent companion, Mantis loves Ego. He keeps her fed and watered. Sometimes, he even splays a gloved hand, warm and large, across her entire back and tells her she’s a good girl and gives her candy. It happens more often when he brings her friends to play with, and stops shortly after they’ve gone home. She always likes the extra attention when they have company.
“I really like Polly,” Mantis tells him, pushing her bitter greens to one side of her plate. “Can she come over and play again?”
“No, Poliot had to go away. She’s not coming back,” Ego says smoothly. The half-lie barely registers anymore.
“Oh…” Mantis is used to this particular disappointment, but that doesn’t stop her from trying, hoping one day the answer will be different.
Ego returns to his star-map, speckled with various dates and names across the galaxy, as he selects different planets, adding them to his retrieval list.
“Eat your greens,” Ego orders without turning around. Mantis makes a face at them, but she does as she is told, as always.
“You know… Polly said families live together. She said you are her daddy,” Mantis says brightly. Ego’s back stiffens ever so slightly, but she fails to notice. “If you’re her daddy, can she come live with us?”
“Her mother wanted her back,” he answers simply, expecting that to be the end of her questions.
“Oh.” Having finished her bitter greens, Mantis still sits at the table, watching Ego. When he doesn’t acknowledge her any further, she hesitates to ask. “May I be excused… Daddy?”
He is momentarily stunned into silence before answering, “I’m not your father.” His tone is unnecessarily harsh.
“You’re not?” Mantis is genuinely confused. “Then, why do I live here?” She was certain she had figured out his secret, the one licking at the corner of his mind when she makes him sleep. It feels anxious, frustrated… disappointed, and while mostly directed towards the children, his children, who visit them, Mantis has also felt it towards her on occasions when he felt anything for her at all.
“You already know. You’re an orphan, remember? That means you don’t have a family, so when I found you on your homeworld, I took you in, raised you by hand, kept you as my own. Aren’t you grateful for my benevolence?” Ego says, the quiet fury building behind his words.
Mantis ignores the warning.
“But why?” She persists. “Wreny didn’t have a family, neither, and you still sent him away.”
Ego has suffered her insolence for too long. “I am a god, the planet you live on. I clothe you, feed you, protect you. I do all this because you, Mantis, are useful to me. Ewren had no use to me, and he was dismissed. Do you understand?”
Mantis bobs her head in the affirmative, her eyes brimming with unshed fearful tears.
“Good,” Ego says dismissively, returning to the star map. “Just remember: A dog would not invite a flea to live on his back for no reason.”
The Milano is approached by a familiar M-ship, and when the radio crackles to life, it’s Peter’s old Ravager buddy, Kraglin, on the other side.
“Permission to board.”
“Since when do you ask for permission, Kraglin?” Peter responds into the comm. “I thought Ravagers always took whatever they wanted.”
“It’s common courtesy to ask ‘fore ya enter ‘nother man’s inner sanctum. Thought Yondu taught chu that ‘round puberty?” is the snarky reply.
“I’m tempted to deny your request.”
“Awww, don’t be like that, Petey. Promise I’ll be gentle.” There’s sputtering laughter on the other end before Peter cuts in.
“You know I like it rough.”
Kraglin affects an offended tone. “Whoa. Too far, Pete, way too far. The li’l Missy’s goin’a have ta spank ya later fer that.”
Tiring of their game, Peter tells him, “Just board, you asshole.”
Rocket rubs the line of his closed eyes with one paw. “Do you guys have to make it weird every time?”
“Hey! I don’t tell you how to relate to your old friends,” Peter says, as he activates the bridge to interface with Kraglin’s M-ship.
“What old friends?”
“An’ look it this one… Cap’n was right ‘bout one thing. Petey was a cute li’l bugger, but only that one night ‘bout two months after we got ‘im, and he weren’t awake durin’ that time,” Kraglin tells Gamora, pausing on a picture of a sleeping 8-year-old Peter, his mouth gaping open in a snore while a grinning Kraglin had crouched down next to him to put his fingers in a bowl of warm grey water. “Vorker snapped it fer me to capture the moment, an’ in the mornin’, li’l Petey had pissed hisself.”
Rocket is nearly in tears, having doubled over in laughter.
“Did you have to bring the pictures?” Peter asks, exasperated. If he had known this would happen, he would have never let Kraglin step foot on his ship.
“I promised Gamora I’d bring ‘em. This is me keepin’ my word, livin’ on the straight an’ narrow… Mostly,” he replies.
Peter thins his eyes at the other man. “Since when has your word meant anything?”
“Since it would right embarrass ya,” Kraglin quips, moving on to the next picture. “An’ this one was when he got a case of space lice, an’ we had’a shave off all his hair. He cried. It was the best.”
“I have no idea why you are so upset,” Drax says, staring at child-Peter’s shorn head. “You have never looked better.”
Mantis looks through the pictures, swiping through Peter’s childhood as he grows from young child to grown adult. It had never occurred to her that people would want to document their offspring’s childhood, though she can see the appeal. Perhaps they should start taking pictures of Groot as well.
“An’ this is li’l Pete in the brig, plottin’ his revenge,” Kraglin drones on. “This one I had’a git from the security cameras.”
Peter and Kraglin sit side-by-side in the common room later, passing a bottle between them and sharing the Zune through split earbuds. Kraglin had wanted to listen to Alice Cooper, and Peter had humored him for one song before setting it to shuffle.
“’Member the time ya near got yerself killed takin’ that M-ship fer a joyride an’ almost crashin’ inta dockin’ bay? Yondu near tore yer head off, he was so mad. Was sure you’d end up in the stew that night.” Kraglin takes a deep pull of booze before passing it to Peter and wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his grubby leathers.
Peter rolls the neck of the bottle between his fingers. “Me too. I was always surprised when I survived his temper. I was so certain he was always two minutes away from whistling me through most days, and the only reason he didn’t was because I was small enough to squeeze into places for thieving.”
“If he didn’t kill ya fer almost tearin’ a hole in the Eclector an’ suckin’ the dockin’ bay crew out into the void, then he wouldn’t’a done shit,” Kraglin states. “Hey, pass that back o’er if yer not drinkin’, ya lightweight.”
Peter acquiesces. “Well yeah, I know that now. I just wish I knew while he was still alive so we…” could have had a better relationship, like what he remembered of father-son relationships from old TV shows back on Earth. “But now, it’s too late, you know?”
Kraglin lets the arm holding the bottle fall to his side while he scratches the scruff of his chin with his other hand. “Cap’n was never good with that sentimental shit, you know that.”
Peter sighs. It was true, even if he had known, it wouldn’t have changed their basic dynamic in life. Yondu would have still been the same emotionally-constipated abusive asshole, and Peter would have still been resentful and left in the end. Still–
“I never got a chance to thank him… for everything.”
Kraglin pats him on the shoulder. “That’s bein’ a dad, Pete. Ya don’t do it fer the gratitude.”
In the morning, Kraglin will leave, but for now, they sit quietly, the only sounds being the soft tempo emitting from the Zune and the sloshing of the bottle as Kraglin takes another swig.
It’s funny, the things Mantis doesn’t remember, those experiences underlying her hard-earned lessons.
Mantis is not Mantis yet, and she has a family. Her first word had been “Dada,” much to her doting father’s delight and her mother’s feigned annoyance. She’s a Daddy’s girl, her mother had jokingly complained on the occasion, at least I’ll always have Zung. Her partner had laughed at that. I’m working on that one, he had declared.
Presently, Mantis toddles after her older half-brother on her many proto-legs.
“Zun Zun!” She calls out. Giggling, she trips on her nubby feet to roll about onto her side.
“Mom! Chie is following me again,” the boy complains. Chie is a baby, not like her brother, who is nine and has long shed his infant form, discarding his own proto-legs and fat grub body.
His mother picks up his baby sister. “She only wants to play,” she explains gently.
“But she’s so boring. She can’t catch or play pirates. She can’t even run!”
“She’s your sister, and she loves you,” she says, cooing over Chie’s chubby baby face.
“Do I really gotta play with with her? She’s sooooo slow,” Zung complains, rubbing his face in frustration. She’s holding him back. It’s just not fair.
“You should watch out for her some times.” It had been the two of them for so long, and his mother sometimes worried that he would never get used to their larger family.
Zung groans, “Do I hafta?”
“I suppose not today,” she says, as she blows a raspberry in Chie’s upper belly to her lilting gurgle.
Zung doesn’t have to be told twice. As he runs to chase the fat papibirds from their ground perch, a man he doesn’t recognize approaches the boy.
“Hello there, Zung,” he says, crouching down eye-to-eye to greet the boy. “Do you like chasing birds?”
“How do you know my name?” His mother told him never to talk to strangers, and they didn’t get any stranger than this outworlder. The knowledge disparity makes him nervous, so he is relieved when his mother approaches them both, pulling Zung close with one arm while holding his baby sister in the other.
“What are you doing here, Ego?” She asks the stranger. Zung can feel her anxiety and anger transmitted from her hand to his shoulder.
“Hello Lin, long time no see,” the stranger replies. His easy smile belies the danger he presents.
Lin pushes her son behind her, handing Chie to his care. “Zung, why don’t you take Chie to play in the fields, okay baby?”
“You said I didn’t have to watch her today,” Zung protests. He doesn’t want to leave his mother.
“Just for a little bit, okay? Mommy just wants to talk to an old friend, and then I’ll come back and get you,” Zung hears her say, but her touch tells a different story. This man is no friend.
He hides in the bush, getting down on Chie’s level to track large crickets, trying to drown out the shouting in the background. He hates confrontation, but even more than that, he fears the subsequent silence followed by the rustling of tall grasses. Ego emerges alone; his mother nowhere in sight.
“Your mother says you can spend the week with me, and we’ll come back later,”
“Mom said I shouldn’t go anywhere with strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger; I’m your dad.” Ego places a hand lightly on Zung’s arm so he can feel the truth of it. “I apologize for being away for so long, but I’m here now to make up for lost time.”
Zung steps back to look around the man. “Mom!” He calls out, voice raised but not yet panicked.
“She’s busy packing up the picnic. She’s going to take your sister and go back home now, so we should get going,” Ego urges, his grip becoming more firm.
“No!” The boy breaks away before sweeping Chie up and trying to run in a wide arc to circumvent Ego, to reach his mother and safety. Ego sweeps him up, causing Zung to drop the baby. Chie begins to bawl on the ground.
“Let me go!” The boy screams as he struggles, trying to kick himself loose from his abductor. “Let me go!”
Picking up his children is always the difficult part. It’s harder still when they are so attached to their mothers. Ego contemplates the problem, shelving it away for later consideration. For the time being, his current target is much too agitated for the trip home. He best administer the test here, to see if it was worth the trouble carting the boy back.
Silence falls as Zung’s flesh dissolves in a blue light, leaving behind a small pile of bleached white bones. He hadn’t felt a thing; Ego had made sure of it. The child had been his son, after all, and deserved a painless end to his mortality. 10 years or 100 years, it was all the same to an immortal such as Ego: pointlessly brief.
Still, the boy had been a disappointment.
He sighs. No matter how many times he had gone through this, his hope for a true heir springs eternal. He supposes that’s the masochist in him.
Chie’s cries are an annoying backdrop to the regrettable failure of his Celestial genes to propagate. With her brother and mother gone, he should put the girl out of her misery. It is the merciful thing to do, and Ego is nothing if not merciful.
He advances on Chie, the unwanted child who is not his. But when he touches her, she feels his homicidal intent and with a forceful cry, his mind blanks, and he knows no more for a short span of time. When he wakes, groggy and confused, the girl child has crawled a good ten feet away from him towards an unknown, undetermined destination. He dons gloves then scoops up the child, who titters back at him unhappily.
This child may yet serve some purpose, he decides, but his irritation with her deceased elder brother (half-brother, he reminds himself) grows. How had this girl, born of nothing, born to die, been stronger than his own demi-god offspring? It made no sense, just a peculiarity of genetics, he supposes, as he bundles her up tightly into a constricting cocoon of cloth to hamper her struggling.
He names her “Mantis,” after the carnivorous bug from a planet he had recently visited for the second time. It’s a less-obvious moniker than the more-ubiquitous “Worm” he had considered before. Besides, it is his understanding that mantises are clever little bugs. Seemingly innocuous, they sway like delicate flowers in a breeze to lure desirable prey to their deaths.
She will grow into the name.
Sometimes, Groot gets an idea in his head he couldn’t shake. He just has to see it through, even if it appeared silly or stupid to others… or maybe even a little suicidal. It got him in trouble occasionally.
Like right now.
Rocket carefully wheels Groot back into the cargo hold of the Milano where the other Guardians wait.
“Groot!” Peter roars, scooping up the baby tree when he gets in range.
Mantis freezes. She is still learning the intricacies of different expressions, but Peter’s is unmistakable. His furrowed brow and twisted mouth radiate anger.
“I am Groot!” Let go! Groot grumbles defiantly, his tiny legs flailing in the air, kicking Peter’s wrist as hard as he can manage as he struggles to escape his grasp. “I am GROOT!” Let me go!
Groot’s pleas echo in her memory, recalling earlier times when other children, small and defenseless, fought against their father. That same man cut short their young lives all too soon, while she stood by, powerless to stop him.
“Not this time, little guy!” Peter shouts back. “What the hell were you thinking, commandeering an aero-rig to go outside by yourself! You could have slammed into a passing asteroid and been crushed into splinters! Well, guess what? You’re grounded! How does that sound, huh?” he declares, further clarifying, “That means no candy, no spacewalks even when supervised, no video games!”
Or had she just always told herself that she was powerless.
No video games? Groot is on the verge of angry tears. “I am Groot!” No, Papa Quill, No!
The children… they had cried, hadn’t they? And she had soothed them, made them complacent as lambs led to the slaughter. It was a kindness, she had told herself, to make sure they went without fear to their inevitable fates. They had been her friends, her companions, at least at first, when they had been the same age, before she understood what was happening. But then, she grew older, while they never did.
“I AM GROOT!” LET ME GO!
Mantis charges forward, touching her fingers to the forehead of Ego’s son. His face shifts to surprise, but all Mantis can see is a memory of Ego’s wrath etched in those all-too-familiar features.
Peter’s eyes roll back as he crumples to the ground. Groot lands on his belly. After recovering from the initial shock, he scrambles up to Peter’s face. He lightly pats him across the cheek.
“I am Groot?” Papa Quill? he whispers then slaps him harder when Peter fails to stir, his concern transforming to panic.
He turns his tearful anger on Mantis. “I am Groot!” You killed him! You killed Papa Quill! He screams, as he launches himself at her face.
Drax catches the baby tree mid-air, wrangling him to prevent him from causing any damage to Mantis.
“I am Groot!” Let me at her! I can take her!
Gamora checks on Peter. To her relief, he’s still breathing. “He’s alive. She only knocked him out.” She lifts Peter over her shoulder and carries him to their room to let him sleep it off. Rocket sighs, covering his face with one paw, then gathers his medical supplies and follows after.
“So…” Drax begins to say.
Mantis doesn’t wait to hear the rest. She rushes past him towards her room, shutting the door after her and activating the deadbolt mechanism with her palm. Shaking with residual adrenaline, she sinks to the floor just inside the threshold, curling up small to rest her forehead on arms crossed over bent knees. She tries to stay silent but emits a high keening sound she muffles by biting the leather straps on her arm.
Ego is angry, she feels.
Ego is dead, she thinks.
Peter is out for three days.
In the interim, Mantis doesn’t talk to anyone, choosing to stay in her room despite the others’ attempts to coax her out. She leaves only for brief periods in the night to use the restroom and grab a ration bar on the way back.
By the second day, Mantis notices that the bars she likes best are left on top for easy access.
By the third, Gamora is waiting for her, sitting at the table in the galley.
“Peter woke up,” she says. She pulls out the chair next to her, its legs screeching across the metal floor. “There is no lasting damage.”
After a moment of indecision, Mantis takes the proffered seat. “I’m glad.” Her reply is stiff, uncertain.
“He doesn’t blame you,” Gamora continues.
Gamora is silent, then: “Are you going to do it again?”
Mantis can’t avoid him forever.
She’s hiding in the cargo hold, curled up next to the rack of aero-rigs and makeshift space cannons, away from the others, when Peter approaches from the left.
“Hey,” Peter greets her as he slides down the hull to sit beside her. He kicks out his legs, leaving one bent to casually rest an elbow across.
“Hello,” Mantis acknowledges him. It’s the least she can do, all considering.
“So… you have quite a kick there. Gamora says I was out for days. I usually have an iron constitution, so… pretty impressive,” he begins, staring straight ahead at the various loops and rigging on the opposite wall.
Mantis sighs, resigned to her fate. Having a place to belong was nice while it lasted. “You can drop me off at any habitable planet. I can adapt. I like new people and new situations. It’ll be a whole new adventure, a fresh start,” she chirps, optimistic as always in the face of unfavorable circumstance. She’ll miss the Guardians, but she did it before; she can do it again.
Peter whips his head around to face her, his hands held up in a pacifying motion. “Whoa whoa, hey now… I didn’t say you had to go. If I kicked out everyone who laid me out flat, then I’d still be flying the Milano solo. Hell, Gamora did it twice since breakfast, albeit one of those times was...” he coughs, not wanting to corrupt the innocent. “A very good game of Parcheesi. The point is you aren’t getting rid of us that easy.”
Mantis is intrigued. “What is this ‘Parcheesi’ of which you speak? Do you think you could teach me?”
Peter nearly chokes on his next breath. “…No.”
“Oh.” She sounds disappointed. Perhaps she can ask Drax to show her later.
“So… about what happened… Do you want to talk about it?” Peter asks, changing the subject to the problem at hand.
“Because between that and your general skittishness, I’m really beginning to think you don’t like me, and I’d like to know why,” Peter interrupts her, oblivious to her discomfort. “I mean, you’re not the first woman who’s had a grudge against me, but usually, the reason is obvious. I’ve skipped out on my fair share of one-night stands before dawn, and I might have been a bit more flirtatious than prior partners would have liked, but all that’s in the past, and–“
“You don’t listen for one thing,” Mantis says quietly before he gets too far in his monologue. He clams up immediately to encourage her to continue. “It’s the way you are with Gamora and our female clients, women in general actually…”
“Yeah, I’m working on that–“ he interjects. Gamora wasn’t a fan of that behavior either.
Mantis ignores him. “And how you just play the same songs over and over and insist it’s the highest artform–“
“Hey! ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by Redbone is a classic–”
“It’s everything… Everything you do, even what you’re trying to do right now. You just try too hard to be charming, to ingratiate yourself to everyone…” Mantis looks him directly in the eye. “Sometimes, you remind me of him.”
She doesn’t specify who “him” is. She doesn’t have to.
That surprises Peter, but he decides to take the rather-unfair criticism in good humor. “Really? I think I’m more handsome, but then again, he was a giant bag of dicks, so I might be biased.”
Mantis purses her lips in thought, breathing in sharply before she continues, “When I was a girl, Ego used to bring a new child every couple weeks to play with me. They’d stay for a day or two, and he’d be nicer, more attentive, but then they’d disappear. Every time. When I first found out what was happening, he told me he was searching for his true child. The blood will tell, he’d say. All the ones before had fallen short. They were mortal. They would die. It was mercy to let them go so painlessly, without suffering, without disease. Then… he heard about you, and he was so happy to finally have found someone like him.”
“I am not like Ego,” Peter states flatly.
“But you are like him… sometimes,” she insists. “Sometimes, I look at you, and I see him looking back at me. It’s how you can be easy going until you’re not. Your temper, the way your eyes crinkle when you’re mad, the way you were yelling at Groot, and you couldn’t see how upset he was becoming.”
Peter exhales audibly, ruffling his fingers through his hair. That hadn’t been his finest hour. “Yeah… That’s more Yondu’s style right there. It’s my greatest fear, turning into my dad. Well… second greatest fear. He’s a far cry better than… Anyways, I know I should be better than Yondu, but he did raise me, for better or… better, I guess. I have no idea what would have happened had he actually delivered the goods. The universe would’ve probably ended a long time ago.”
“Not right away. Ego would have kept you for a few years, to nurture the light, until you got bigger and strong enough to help him carry out the Expansion,” Mantis explains sensibly. “If he didn’t dispose of me immediately after finding his real son, we would have grown up together. Who knows? Maybe you would have been my only friend.”
“Or your brother.”
Mantis considers it, this alternate reality where they would have grown up siblings. “…That would have been nice, until the entire galaxy became Ego, that is.”
Peter laughs at that. “You know, I’ve never had a sister before. I grew up with a bunch of Ravagers,” Peter sweeps an open hand across in a flourish. “All men. Can you imagine? It would have been nice to have someone around who appreciated the odd stick of deodorant.” He scrunches his nose at the pungent olfactory memory. He missed it sometimes, the leathers mixed with sour body odors, the smell he most associated with Yondu.
“…Deodorant? Is that a food snack? I am quite fond of the cured meat sticks you call ‘space pepperoni,’” Mantis inquires excitedly. She loved weird space food. It was much better than the stuff Ego had provided, which had been nutritious, functional, but fully devoid of good flavor.
Peter makes a chopping motion with the blade of one hand against his palm. “All I’m saying is that you slice that sucker up and put it on flatbread covered in tinned cheese, and it tastes just like home.”
For Peter that meant Terra or possibly the Eclector if he was feeling particularly nostalgic, but for her that meant…
“Hey now, why the glum face? Do you want some space pepperoni?” Peter offers. “Drax couldn’t possibly have eaten all of it. I can go get you some from the galley–“
“No, it’s just that…” Her home had been the planet Ego, and Ego coats her like a fine dust, infecting her very soul. Perhaps all this time, she had resisted acknowledging that Yondu, not Ego, had been Peter’s real father, because that would mean she is Ego’s true daughter, raised by that monster. Did any of his personality quirks, his habits, live on in her? “…I’m just now realizing I don’t have a home to go back to. I probably never did.”
Peter turns to face her, awkwardly patting her on the back before resting his warm hand between her shoulder blades. “Well… it doesn’t matter where you come from, because you’re home now, with us.”
Mantis touches his other arm, and feels the sincerity in that offer.
Using the hull to roll up to a standing position, Peter holds his hand out to help her up. “Now, about that space pepperoni…”
The next time Groot fucks up, he manages to deadlock himself in the pantry. By the time Rocket hacks open the lock, Groot had eaten all the sweet ration bars and promptly thrown them up in a sticky sappy mess all over their other food. He freezes when he locks eyes with Peter on the other side, trying to sink deeper into the depths of the cupboard.
“Ugh! That’s disgusting, Groot!” Rocket says, making a face at the vomit covering nearly every surface. Groot looks on the verge of tears as he clutches his sick stomach. “Now, we’re going to have to clean it out.“ He collects the little tree, wiping the majority of the mess off the front of his wooden body with a spare cloth.
Peter takes a deep breath, exhaling as he mentally counts.
1… 2… 3…
“Groot, Rocket’s right. You shouldn’t have locked yourself in the pantry,” Peter finally says.
“I am Groot.” But that’s where all the good treats are.
“For one, those were all our rations, and what you did was very inconsiderate and leaves the rest of us with no food. We’re lucky we’re near a waystation so we can stock up again,” he starts off calmly enough. “And two… and this is the far more important issue… We were worried about you running out of air in there. We’re all glad you’re okay…”
Groot looks moderately ashamed. “I am Groot.” I’m sorry...
“You’re going to apologize to everyone on the team, and you’re on dish duty for two weeks.”
Groot frowns at the extra chores. It’s just so unfair. “I am Groot.” I said I was sorry.
“You’re still on dish duty,” Rocket confirms, backing up his fellow co-parent. “And you’re lucky you got off that light, Groot.” He takes him over to the sink to scrub him up while Peter gets the bucket, rubber gloves, disinfectant, and washcloths from the janitorial closet in the next room.
“What do you have there?” Mantis asks as Peter opens a rarely-used side-door to extract the cleaning instruments.
“Groot threw up all over the pantry. I’m going to clean it up,” he says, resigned to the task. He hates cleaning.
“Oh… need help?” she offers brightly.
“You know how to get tree sap and bile off surfaces?”
Peter is surprised by the confidence in her answer. “How do you…”
“I had a Floral Colossus friend once who got a little sick during... his test. Ego made me clean up after.”
“…Right.” Sometimes Peter forgot that at least 80% of Mantis’s childhood stories were horrifying, and he should not ask for too many clarifying details.
“I’ll help. It’ll go faster.” Mantis hops to her feet, walking past Peter towards another supply closet in the galley to retrieve an extra tube of toothpaste. She then slips on a pair of rubber gloves and pulls out a trash bag, while he loads it up with their ruined rations.
“I’m trying, you know. I’m trying to be better with Groot,” he says.
And Mantis sees that. Peter is trying… to be better than Ego, to be better than Yondu. He’s not perfect. He still slips up, but he makes an effort.
“Yeah… you’re a good dad, Peter.”