A shadow moved beyond the dark rim of the ridgeline and breached the field of Peter Quill’s vision. He was rushing towards it before the thought finished processing in his mind, and he heard Ghost Rider emit a hellish gurgle, startled by Quill’s sudden departure from the plateau, that slow-paced, Where are you going? he didn’t get to ask because Star-Lord had already shouted, “Be right back! Try not to miss me!”
He scaled the rocks to the ridge and leapt up across the deep chasm that cleaved the island in near-perfect two. The entity of his fascination appeared again, filling his sight with a palette of sunset oranges rendered mute by the crepuscular light that came in from all sides and fell upon everything, violating all those natural hues with something else much worse. Then his eyes were met with the cold kiss of a rifle’s polished nose, and he skid to a halt, grinding obsidian dirt beneath his heavy boots and throwing up his arms in immediate surrender.
“Whoa, jeez, lady! It’s Quill!”
“You let your guard down, luv,” Elsa Bloodstone said to him, swinging the rifle over her shoulders and canting her hip, all casual-like. “You are a formidable fighter, so I expected quite a bit more from your self-preservation stratagems.”
Quill brought his shoulders up into a nonchalant shrug, hands out. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m danger prone.”
He noted the length of space and time between them, their close proximity made distant in the absence of the weapon previously pointed in his face. This place was messing with his perception of just about everything. If he wanted to, he could reach out and touch her, but there was no telling how long it would take.
“How did you know it was me and not one of those dreadful mind-beasts?”
He furrowed his brow. “What?”
“I asked you a question—or are you as absent in mind as you are in wit?” She gave him a coy smile, raising her unoccupied hand to her waist. “How did you know it was me?”
“What does it matter?” he asked, perhaps sounding a bit more hostile than he had intended. She raised an eyebrow at him. “We’ve been wandering this goddamned wasteland for what feels like days since that Dormammu prick sent us flying into the flarkin’ abyss with a previously possessed monk and a walking pyrotechnics show! So, honestly? What does it even matter?”
Elsa seemed to consider his words for a minute, before she blew a flyaway strand of red hair from her face and said, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. This whole place is constantly trying to kill us, yeah? Golems that fire lasers from their faces, walkways to nowhere and everywhere, ice and fire and thunder strikes, and not an exit in sight! You shouldn’t be running around when it’s so easy to get offed.”
“Even if it’s just you?”
Her forefinger stroked her rifle trigger. “We don’t know what else is out here. Had encounters in the past with monsters that change shape. It could look like me and aim like me, yeah? Unless you’re one of those tossers who enjoys getting shot.”
“Look, I’m not—can you just drop it, please? I’m not in the mood.”
He meant it. There was an edge to his tone, the unfathomable exhaustion of someone who had been doing this for far too long and in all the wrong ways, the unsettling fragility of glass. He was certain Elsa could understand that. They had been out here for such a terribly long time, doing a relatively sane equivalent of helplessly flailing in the dark, with no path in or out or away.
She said, “You mustn’t be so serious all the time, dear.”
“Yeah, well, forgive me for being strung out when I’m trapped in a parallel dimension a million lightyears from my friends with a guy who’s threatening to damn my soul for all eternity.”
Elsa scoffed out what could pass for a laugh. “Oh, posh. He’s on our side, remember?”
She fidgeted with her rifle, hooking it back into its holster on the rear of her hunter’s coat, and with both hands now freed, she undid her ponytail. Quill almost snorted at the sight. Lost in space and time with total strangers, and she was worried about her hair—perhaps, he figured, to retain that ounce of normality. It was a little relieving.
“Besides, luv,” she continued, “if I had to choose between the flaming skull-and-crossbones and the mysterious man who can render all of reality apart, I’d choose the one I can hit.”
“I’d choose the wizard,” Quill shot back. “He at least knows how to get us out of this mess.”
“Oh, is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
“I am,” he said honestly. “It’s my mess. You haven’t been around long enough to know, I suppose, but that’s all I’m good for.”
Elsa pulled her hair up and tied it back in place, prim and proper, as if it had never been undone at all. Quill’s hands itched. He wondered if she’d let him touch a lock or two, just to sedate his curiosity, the inner debate of whether it was as soft as it looked—but he balled his fists to silence the urge, digging his blunt nails into the meat of his palms.
Her eyes darted to his hands. He felt inadequate in her presence, as if nothing he could ever do would go unnoticed by such a keen eye. Maybe if he had been half as sharp as she was, neither of them would be here. Then her look was back up to his face, studying the little blemishes in his cheeks, smudges of dust and the dark depressions under his eyes, the utter debilitation that had culminated within him long before he teleported back to Earth.
She asked him, “Why did you want to know if it was me?”
Many reasons, Quill wanted to say. That, and, You have pretty eyes, and a nice face, and big guns. Instead he told her, “I wanted to know if you were okay. You took a nasty blow before, when those Mindless swarmed us—and, see? That’s my bad, too. I got sloppy and didn’t check my flank—but I’m glad you had my back. You got hurt, though. That shouldn’t have happened.”
“I’m fine,” she said thinly. “If those monsters had wanted to kill me, they would have succeeded. You’ll find I’m quite durable.”
He became acutely aware of the vast dimension that surrounded them from every angle. It was nothing like Earth, no correct way up or down, and yet it was nothing like space, voided of matter except where happenstance deemed it necessary to forge a star and make it matter to a handful of carbon-based specks of dust. No, this place was situated somewhere in-between, its deepness adjacent to its lack of emptiness, too much of everything unwanted and not enough of anything that made coherent sense. It was jarring, how the two of them occupied so much space and yet so little of it, depending on where this plane started and where it ended, which seemed to be nowhere and everywhere. Christ, he was losing his flarkin’ mind.
“Quill?” Elsa said. “Stay with me, yeah?”
He exhaled softly. “Sorry, I’m—I’m here.”
“Whatever are you apologizing for, darling? This so-called mess?” She gave him smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Certainly, I’d much rather be home, feet up on the couch, a nice, hot cup of tea in my hands—” Her fingers stretched out in front of her, pantomiming how she would hold her beverage close as if she hadn’t had a decent drink in months. “But, I’m having quite a blast, eradicating laser-faced rock monsters and—Quill, do you know how so few get the opportunity to put a bullet in a real god?”
“Really?” he said as more of a fact than a question, placing his hands on his hips. “Cause’ I was there, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t hit him once.”
Elsa’s gaze narrowed at him. “I beg your pardon? I am a skilled marksman. I do not miss—”
“Sure you don’t, darlin’.”
“Are you… Are you mocking me, Peter Quill?”
Quill threw back his head and laughed. It rumbled through him, the deep vibrations reverberating along his ribs and throat, and it felt wonderful to let it all out. “Sorry,” he said, reeling back in. “I spend all my time with a bunch of misfits who get totally riled up if you so much as lightly brush against their delicate constitution. I forgot it’s not really funny to anyone but me.”
“With a sense of humor like that, I find it astonishing you’re still alive.”
“You think? I figure I must be doing something right if I’ve made it this far.” He glanced around at the deep indigo and crimson skies, at the islands and mountains that floated precariously through a dimension of incoherency, at the plateau he had climbed away from. Ghost Rider was standing at the edge of the platform, gazing out to the distance, thinking about the souls he couldn’t wait to condemn to Hell, most likely. Dr. Strange folded his legs and levitated above the ground, and honestly, may not have even been spiritually on the plane anymore. “Ah, not that that says much, right?”
Elsa closed the distance between them. She put her hands on his shoulders, then one palm dared to caress his exhausted face. “You can’t shoulder this much blame, darling,” she said, offering him a reassuring smile that made it to her eyes this time. “Now come. We won’t be fixing anything if we continue to stand around and chat.”
“I dunno, I kind of like it. It’s a nice change of pace to talk to someone relatively normal.”
“There you go again with the banter, luv. Haven’t you read the memo? We aren’t in the business of normalcy.”
“Yeah,” Quill said, leaning into her touch. “That’s not the kind of life we were born to live.” He meant a lot by that statement, and there were multitudes of different paths the conversation could have gone in that moment; instead, he forced himself to break contact to begin his trek down the ridge. “Anyway, we should get back before we piss the spirit off. Or worse, the other guy.”
“I’m with you,” Elsa said to him, coming up to his side as if she had been there all along.
Together, they descended the plateau.
Maybe it was day, maybe it was night. It was becoming progressively more difficult not to be introspective in the adversity of deep space, that unwilling desire to know absorbed from the chaotic cosmos and reflected two-fold, when it all felt like one continuous singularity. Strange informed them that the meticulous threnody of time worked differently here, which Quill had come to suspect but never wanted to hear articulated into complete sentences. They could have wandered the Dark Dimension for days, weeks, months, unable to feel thirst or hunger, and elsewhere, their friends would experience it all in mere minutes, or mere seconds, and the Earth may have only revolved once, or a thousand times or maybe only a few hundred but in the other direction. Everything was wrong. Reality was enraptured in chaos.
“Think we’ll ever make it home?” Quill asked when he felt it was safe to talk. They took a short break in a cavern that hollowed out a mountain face, with Ghost Rider at the maw of it, gazing out into the distance. The whole island had been a nightmarish maze of Mindless Ones and winged demons and ice, lots and lots of ice.
“I believe we are on the right track,” Strange answered. He crossed his legs and levitated precariously above the ground, and Quill shifted his weight to the other foot. It made him uneasy, that tempered channeling of someone with too much power, finely tuned like guitar strings—the potential to snap. “I can sense our companions, faint, but in the direction we have been pursuing.”
“And what direction is that?” Quill said bitterly. “Ain’t exactly got a map.”
Except they sort of did. Strange’s sense of time was akin to that of a compass always pointing north. He could find where the veil was thinnest and measure their progress to that of Earth’s rotation. “Forward,” Strange said. “Every one week for us is a mere second for Earth, and a single minute for our friends—”
“Whoa, whoa! Hold up!” Quill threw his hands skyward. “How long have we been out here for?”
“A little less than five weeks now.”
Star-Lord slapped his hands over his face and felt an exasperated scream building in his chest. “Can’t you just, use your wizard powers and move us faster, or something?”
“That is not how my powers work,” Strange shot back, “not with Dormammu’s influence amplified so vastly by the Reality Stone. Maybe, if you had learned to leave well-enough alone, we would not be in this situation to begin with—but you took this path, made this reality and dragged everyone into it, so you can live with a little corporeal punishment.”
“You don’t have to be such a prick about it,” Quill hissed between grit teeth.
Elsa had been quietly leaning against the rugged cave wall, observing the men trade words, but she spoke up the instant she sensed the sudden, tilted hostility. “There’s no need to blame him for what’s happening, Doctor,” she said matter-of-factly, trying to keep her tone leveled. “That much guilt can change a man.”
Quill wanted to ask her what she meant by that, or at least, why it sounded like she spoke from a distant memory.
Strange looked at her apprehensively, and then said to Quill, “It was not my intention. You are taking responsibility for this as best you can. It means you care, and I am happy to lend my abilities to your alliance.”
Quill scratched the back of his head. “But I still deserve that corporate punishment, right?”
“Corporeal,” Strange amended, “and, very much so.”
“I can’t help but wonder,” Elsa said to them, “how long we’ll continue to wander in this forsaken place. What if we run out of things to talk about?”
“As long as you don’t run out of bullets,” Quill told her.
“I always come prepared, darling. You’ll find my coat has very deep pockets.”
“Besides, we can totally find stuff to do in a completely barren wasteland. Like, did I ever tell you out of all the Guardians, I’m the best dancer?”
Strange sighed, rubbing at a slight throb in his temple. “That can’t possibly say much about you. Your friends don’t seem like the dancing type.”
“Yeah, right? I try to drag Gamora into it because Drax threatens to snap my spine and Groot always steps on my feet.” Quill looked conspiratorially at Elsa, her arms crossed, eyes gleaming blue in the murky light. “She’ll be leaning against the wall like you, looking grouchy ‘cause no one taught her to smile, and I’ll do a little—” He snapped his fingers and spun, shimmying closer. “And I’ll sing: oh, so we started to dance—”
His arms went out, beckoning Elsa closer with the tantalizing wafts of his wrists and melodic lyrics. The hunter laughed, short, tired; still, she accepted. He pulled her to him, maintaining a respectable distance, but she allowed him to swing her in a circle, leading with his feet. “In my arms, she felt so inviting—”
“That song is older than I am,” Ghost Rider said. He was leaning against the jowls of the cavern now, watching them dance.
“It’s a classic,” Quill replied, because that was how things had been back then, the last time he left Earth. It was about good tunes and grabbing a girl by her hips and making her think the song was written in tribute. Nothing about intergalactic rock monsters or gems of infinite power or sociopathic space titans. “Ain’t nothing better than the classics.”
“Shooting Dormammu,” Elsa challenged, spinning under his arm.
He relived the memories his parents might have experienced before it all came to an end, put his hand on Elsa’s waist, held her other wrist to guide her with his motions, and she hummed in tune with him as they twirled around again. “And I couldn’t resist, just one little kiss, so exciting—”
Something screamed in the distance. Ghost Rider went to the edge of the cliff and watched a swarm of demons amassing on a high plateau, snapping at each other for space and screeching valiantly into the wayward sky. “We should move,” he said upon his swift return. “The beasts are accumulating much too close for comfort.”
Strange followed him outside to assess the threat, leaving Quill and Elsa to the silence of the cavern. “And we were getting so into it,” he said to her, reluctantly parting. He held her hand in his still. It was a weird feeling, being here with her and nowhere else to go, the stalemated moment of what he gave and what he chose. “When this over, I want to take you dancing for real. Somewhere nice.”
“Promise me it will be a place with crisps,” she said, offering him her usual smirk.
“I don’t think I know what those are, but they sound delicious.”
He squeezed her hand. When they parted, a coldness ran through him, and the lyrics of an old song clung stubbornly to the back of his mind.
It was cold here, under the craggy ribcage of a stone empire, the old stomping grounds of demons and rock monsters—the chasm went under an impossible army of Mindless Ones of improbable merit, which mulled about the plateau of the island range, awaiting the sight of something that deviated from the norm enough to warrant an overly-aggravated death. The crevice pass stretched for days and days. In a hollowed cove, the only source of heat was Ghost Rider, whose flames filled the inlet with enough torrid energy to sustain them until the army had passed.
“I’m forgetting what birds sound like,” Elsa said, pulling her legs to her chest. Exhaustion was weighing on her previous perky features. Eyes, dull as morning mist on the surface of a lake, and it was the only reminder that something awaited them at the end of the journey nowhere. “The doves used to sit in the birch outside my window, just after dawn, and sing. They were quaint little things.” She put her chin on her arm. “The only time they didn’t bother me was when it rained—but it rains a lot, back home.”
“Sounds unpleasant,” Ghost Rider said, considering the texture of water. Conversely, he rotated his wrists and splayed open skeletal hands, trying to imagine the last time he had felt it on his mortal flesh, whether it was as cool as he remembered, or if it pillared up as steam the moment it met his unholy skin.
The Dark Dimension had changed them. They talked so frequently of the outside world, but their opinions were narrowed to a fine point, a precise tip of trying-and-failing to recall the lives they lived before falling into the abyss. Missing home, wherever and whatever that was defined as.
“Hey, Doc?” Quill started, resting his head back against the rugged cave wall. “Is this my fault, too?”
“No,” Strange replied. He wasn’t levitating, instead quite decidedly seated on the uneven cavern floor like the rest of them, bearing the same burden of loss and being lost. “No more guilt, dear Guardian. There are strings to the universe, those visible but more-so unseen. What you consider a fundamental failure of your own hands could be little more than a twist of fortune and fate.”
Strange gave him a small smile. “You will find that I am quite realistic, Peter Quill.”
Quill flinched. He hadn’t heard his name in so long, and it undid the progress of the façade he spent years building over himself like a temple. Star-Lord: Leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Quill: Interstellar bounty hunter. The self-worship, the egotistical need to never fail because that meant there was a crack in his structure, and where he was from, error meant death. (Peter: Dead on impact.)
“Maybe we should try sleeping,” he suggested, “kill some time, or something. Got plenty of that out here, right?”
“This reality Dormammu has created prevents our aging,” Strange reiterated for the umpteenth time since they first began walking. “Our bodies are frozen in a stasis, so to speak. Sleep will not restore a constant energy that has neither means to grow nor means to expend.”
“Then we could theoretically wander this wasteland for years,” Elsa said assumptively. Always so readable, she became blank and hollowed-out, a locked keyhole to an empty room.
Strange nodded solemnly. “Years. Decades. Centuries. A living nightmare.”
“Ah. Then we’re in for a long bit of fun, yeah? Three nutters and a dame causing headaches for an ancient demon-god on the long road home.”
“Sounds like an old movie I watched once,” Quill said. “Not that I remember which one.”
“We haven’t been out here that long, darling.”
“Five hundred and sixteen days,” Strange uttered. Silence draped over them; it reminded Quill of a thin blue sheet, spread high over the bed he slept on as a child like a great tidal wave. His mother’s hands were the goddess to an imagination of such severe consequence. Maybe he would dream of her again.
Quill sprawled out on his side, face to the cavern wall so he didn’t have to look at anyone else. “Wake me when we’re leaving, will ya?”
“Sure, luv,” Elsa said. Her hand went to his hair and tousled it. That was a nice feeling, the nearness of another person in this void, just enough to suppress the unsettling realization of just how close they had all been to dropping to another part of the abyss, completely alone. Quill didn’t think he’d want to be alone again.
“Quill,” Elsa said distantly, and though there was nothing in her voice to indicate otherwise, he bolted upright and wildly gestured his guns about the cavern to address the danger, trying to assess the situation in a place that would have killed them if they weren’t so improbably skilled. Ghost Rider was missing, as was Strange, and Elsa brought her hands to his to ease the tremors. “Easy on the trigger finger, luv! It’s just me.”
“Asleep,” he stuttered out, “how long was I—?”
“Does it matter?”
The question hung thick in the tepid air, and that same coolness reflected in her eyes, bringing him quite impossibly to a level of complete stillness he had only experienced in sleep. “Yes,” he said. “Maybe not now, not in this reality, but—it will, if we’re not careful. You know?” He holstered his guns. “Anyway. Where’s the doc and Skeletor?”
“Right outside. Stephen has been working on a theory of his for the last few months.”
Quill laid out again, folding his arms under his head and noting that the ground had already become impossibly cold in his momentary absence. “Months.”
“Three, maybe—got a bit dull without your sparkling personality. The Phantom isn’t exactly the bantering type, yeah?”
She wedged herself between him and the length of her rifles, set aside to be meticulously cleaned and pampered. An arm tucked under her head to serve as a pillow. It was the most comfortable they could get, and something about how unnaturally easy it became to adapt spoke of the survivability of this place and them. The culmination of information in the last minute made Quill wonder if any of them had childhoods while the part of his mouth behind his teeth tasted like metal, and resentment. He tried to imagine it was Gamora telling him with her drawn out consonants and quirked expression, as if suddenly remembering that things weren’t so serious all the time: See? Like I always tell you. It isn’t all that bad, just because it used to be.
Elsa scooted closer to him until she was pressed against his side. Without Ghost Rider’s presence in the cave, everything was frigid. “Did you dream?” she asked, her body too near to his, radiating heat.
“No,” he said, “or if I did, not that I remember. Why?”
“You were talking in your sleep, a bit ago—about a cat, I think.”
“Oh. Kitty, you mean.”
Elsa said, “Not a cat, then.”
“Hey, Elsa?” he started, voice barely above a mutter but she was listening to him. She’d listened to him as he listened to her, across every mountain and barren gorge, voices that filled the silence and filled the silence. “You ever lose something—someone—on purpose? Because you had to?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. She pushed herself inwards, into him. Her head was on his shoulder, folded against his body like a furled sail, waiting to take the sunlight in. He didn’t dislike the sensation of their closeness even though it had been such a long time.
“I’m sorry, luv.”
He rolled his neck, kissed her forehead. “Doesn’t matter much now,” he said. “I just hope she’s happy, doing whatever it is she’s taken on the task of doing, listening to her favorite song about the rain in Athens. She always felt the need to love everyone else.”
“She sounds lovely.” Elsa was flush up against him, her hand on his stomach, feeling his diaphragm rise and fall with steady breaths. They both had to adjust to the idea that they were no longer strangers. None of them were. “You’ve been to space, yeah? Must have quite a few stories.”
“Do you want me to keep talking?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
So, he did. He told her of his troubles on marooned planets, of Yandu, of Gamora, of Drax and Rocket and Groot—he spoke as if there was a delicate balance to storytelling, supporting the weight of wonder with the weight of fulfillment, careful of the pinpoint moment in which one might tip the other and jolt her awake. He thought this would make a good story too. The tale of four unlikely souls wandering an abyss, and two travelers side-by-side, lost to the momentum of another time and place.
Strange’s plan was simple to only him, but they had trusted him throughout all the vast unknowingness of the Dark Dimension, so they were certainly going to listen when he spoke, even if it was in absolutely batshit incoherent soliloquy. The Sorcerer levitated above the plateau as he rambled, talking about—the thinness of the veil, an incantation of time, uttered spells, distance. Telling them everything. Everything. His monologue brought a renewed hope that they were finally going to return to their reality.
He chanted, and tore the world in two.
When the rift opened, it did so above the fully collected alliance, who had little time to react to the sudden portal that rendered the sky apart and dropped Quill and Ghost Rider to the ground. They landed with an impact that hurt, but Elsa fell only a moment after they did and collided with Quill, breaking her fall and potentially his rib by the resounding pop in his back. Strange characteristically lowered himself from the abyss without worry.
“Quill!” Beast exclaimed, rushing over to help him to his feet. “My goodness, thank heavens and all the splendid seraphim above! We’ve been searching for you for hours!”
Quill laughed, feeling hollowed out, and waving the mutant away. “Well, then you’ve had it better than us.”
“Where did you go?” Gamora demanded to know. “We saw Dormammu blast you off the island’s edge!”
“I am Groot!”
“Yeah,” Rocket said, “but we couldn’t have a funeral for you without the password to your credit account.”
“We placed bets!” Deadpool added. He gestured wildly to the last Guardian, who rolled his eyes and looked damn near ready to pounce. “Fork it over, Drax!”
The commotion was jarring, Quill realized; his head spun, he felt tilted. It occurred to him that he didn’t recall the names of his friends, the man with the red birdwings or the mutant with the devil’s tail, the woman with the starburst on her chest or the big green guy, and that made him think—about how two years was such a terribly long time to get to know someone, especially when it seemed like there was nothing else but them. About how two years was such a tragically long time to forget someone. Things felt different there and they felt different now. His friends felt six worlds away.
“Quill,” Gamora tried, and as he gazed up at a distorted sky, he realized that this place was forever doomed to the subjugated incoherency of parallel existence. “Are you all right?”
He was nearly seated on the ground, trying to catch his breath. His body ached. He didn’t remember falling to his knees. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t breathe.”
“He might feel heavy for a while,” Strange told them, his voice sounding too loud and too far off, the echo of a noise down a long, long hallway. “We’ve been wandering a different reality for 18,633 hours—”
“That’s absurd!” Beast exclaimed. “That’s two whole years!”
“What matters is that you’re back,” Cap said, kneeling beside Quill. “Easy, son. We’re right here.”
Quill sucked in deep breaths. Each intake hurt worse than the last, shards of glass filling his lungs, the synergy of his body kicking up to normal again. Maybe he was dying.
“You’ll be okay, luv,” he heard Elsa say from several paces away, and then the sound of her rifle butt striking the ground. The acute noise slammed through him like a gunshot of caliber equal only to hers. “We’re going to kick Dormammu’s arse and then visit my favorite restaurant by the bayside, yeah? Bring your team. First round’s on me.”
“They got karaoke?” Quill asked, turning his eyes over, wondering how the distance between them was so much closer than from him to Gamora, who stood directly over him, looking at Elsa like a foreign entity in the body of its next host. Something that came from elsewhere. That didn’t belong.
Elsa grinned. “Brimming with all your favorite classics.”
“Don’t you know?” Rocket said coyly, gesturing to their team’s unofficial leader. “Every classic is his favorite. He puts that garbage on repeat for hours!”
“You don’t know shit about the classics, Rocket,” Quill shot back, and then he rocked forward, waiting for the nausea to pass him by. He thought he heard a familiar voice in the back of mind singing a nice tune, something older than childhood but so distant that it couldn’t have been anything more than a dream.
Attilan was nothing and everything like the Dark Dimension, vast and awing, the kind of appalling gigantism of too much space with not enough anything to fill it. Quill had almost forgotten what it was like to be somewhere that wasn’t all rock and ruin, though, and for a moment he became sick with the knowing of how he was once again in a place he had never been for a reason entirely disparate to the first. The technology that surrounded him pulsed with energy like punctuation at the end of a sentence. To the point. Systematic. It was supposed to feel like everything else, this being in space routine, surrounded by friends and situated amongst so much activity. It should have brought comfort; instead he wanted to vomit. He wanted to return to the rock and the ragged pathways and the endless hours. He wanted to curl up in the cold crevice of a cave somewhere and sleep.
The present didn’t feel real. Quill didn’t know if it would ever feel real again.
When Medusa finished her winded speech about the delicate political balance of the Inhuman population, starting with a thesis on the lack of commitment to the universe and everything in it and concluding with a reluctant agreement to a temporary alliance acquired by bequest from saving a few Inhuman lives, Quill didn’t feel any better than he had when they first arrived. Thane’s presence in the city only managed to amplify the sensation, the absolute terror and dread that had sat like concrete in Quill’s stomach through all his nightmarish breadth in another reality. He kept it together as best he could, but he began to shake apart, and when he was sure they were distracted by Thane’s healing of Gorgon he slipped around the back of the group and out the door.
He located a far corner of a long hall, one side paneled by tall windows, and gazed out into the abyss. This void was a different kind of emptiness. Too much of everything but without enough justification for it, like an experiment accosted by deities who sought only to make it more filled simply because they could—because there was plenty of time and plenty of space to ensure it worked. That felt better. More alive and thriving.
“Quill?” Elsa said from the other side of the corridor, and he flinched. He wasn’t supposed to flinch like that. It meant he had to stop thinking about the consistency of danger. “Dormammu’s gone, yeah? We kicked his flaming arse back into the end of the world, but you seem convinced he’s around every corner in this forsaken place.”
“Can you blame me?”
She said, “No. I suppose I can’t.” Then, quite decidedly, she approached him, chin up, the sharp click of her heeled boots like drops of bullet casings on the floor, ringing clear as bells. Her arms stretched out to him. “Come here, luv. I want you to sing me a song.”
“I’m sorry, I just—I can’t.”
Elsa canted her hip, tilted her head at him and gave him a smug little smile. A look he would know anywhere. “The classics are what make you happy, darling. Don’t let a cross-dimensional monster take that from you.”
Quill exhaled and took her hands in his. Their fingers slid against each other with perfect rhythm, interlacing, and he began, faintly, “Still— I think of you, baby—”
Elsa slipped one hand free and up his shoulder, encouraging a proper dancing stride, and he obliged, putting his empty palm against her hip. They were closer than before, distance made a stranger by time, by circumstance, by a mistake that was his burden yet the weight of it was spread thin across his allies.
“And how,” he sang, “I grew old with you then.”
“I like this one,” she said to him, and her smile widened reactively when his returned to his face. “There you are.”
He reaffirmed his grip on her waist and twirled her in slow circles. “And this summer—you’ll call, maybe—” He lifted his hand from her waist to her face, to her cheek where he caressed her and felt how warm and alive she was here. “And act as if we were old friends.”
“Is this a classic, too?”
“It doesn’t always have to be about the classics,” he said, thinking about a time when he had done this before, so long ago it might have been a phantom that once haunted him, or something else entirely that didn't exist now. “You’d say—how are you, baby?”
He leaned in, touching his mouth to hers. He’d thought about this moment for months. She reciprocated the kiss, deepening it, tilting her jaw up to slide her tongue between his lips and feel the damp heat of him. It was slow, deliberate; when they parted, Quill wondered if another lifetime had passed them by when they weren't looking, but the cold floors of Attilan rumbled beneath his feet, saying, This is it, this is all you are now.
Elsa tucked her head into the valley of his shoulder and swayed with him, two souls with nowhere to go, not yet.
“I’d say,” he sang, “it’s raining in Athens…”
When it was all over, they stood in the midst of Knowhere, winded and exasperated, strained of energy, and every hero who had been renewed as such or ascended to that level of regard split the stones evenly amongst each other to be scattered across the universe. That was what they were now. Heroes.
“Such a title doesn’t suit me,” Ghost Rider admitted to Quill. They had somehow managed to gravitate towards each other in the aftermath, shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the Avengers and X-Men, at the guidance of Doctor Strange, discuss the proper division of the remaining gems. “Heroes do not condemn the guilty to Hell,” he added. “The fiery one, at least.”
“Sounds like you’re a hero to me,” Quill replied.
“You think too generously about the company you keep. Especially the green ones. Since you have earned my respect, I will reward our unfortunate companionship by sparing their lives.”
“I’m going to miss you, you terrifying hell-beast,” Quill said, and Ghost Rider laughed devilishly.
“So that’s it, then?” a voice asked from behind them. “Leaving before the hour’s done?”
They turned to Elsa, who swung her rifle over her shoulders and gave them a pensive look. Quill knew instantly she was peeved, the reflexiveness of his detail-orientated brain trained acutely from being abandoned in the deep ravines of another reality with the same three other people for years. Hours. Minutes. Just like that, in descending order of relevancy. Out here, in the center of everything, the Dark Dimension felt out of reach yet ever closer.
“Hey, Elsa,” he said, though her expression didn’t change.
A statement, not a question.
Ghost Rider glanced at Quill, raised his skeletal hands, and backed away. It left the two of them in a familiar situation. A void, some rocks that all looked the same but were rearranged with visitors in mind, and a distance that could be crossed, albeit dangerously. He thought of the first time he had tried skating on a half-frozen river, all that deceptively soft ice spread thin and blue across the water, waiting for a misstep.
“I have to,” he told her. “It isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just—it’s my job.”
Seeing her at the end of this alliance unbent a soreness in him. She had a legitimacy about her that came as a prerequisite to that of entitlement, the precipice of falling in love all over again but in a different way because he could, not because he wanted to. It meant acknowledging what he had done to get here. Strange would have badgered them on the calculated probabilities of outcome, the definition of choice, the strain of freewill, and Quill couldn’t say he wouldn’t miss that tidbit of existential crisis the good doctor injected so reverently into him.
He said, “I’m coming back, not soon but I will.”
Elsa scoffed. “That’s all fine and dandy for you, yeah? You win a dame’s heart and disappear across the universe, promising to send flowers—”
“I can send flowers, if you want.”
“That’s not the point.”
He didn’t miss the pang of bitterness in her voice, as if she had forgotten that this inevitability could be course corrected by slow dancing under the stars or the red, barren sky of a parallel dimension. This had been decided the moment they met. Though for the life of him, Quill couldn’t figure out where it went from here—the swerve, the adjacency of their lips unlike the parallel motion of their lives, something important to him inconsequential to her, and how it would eventually be all in the past no matter what.
“I’m going to come back,” he said firmly, “to you. Once the stone is safe. I’m sure my crew will understand a slight detour to Earth when so many of our friends are on it, you know?”
He reached out with his hand and took her fingers in his palm, the prelude to a dance. That was all he knew how to do, besides shoot, of course. The practiced skill of muscle memory, stepping in time, not at all a push like fighting and instead the pulling of one to another, heart-to-heart. There would be another dance. There would always be another dance.
“Besides,” he added, “I promised you a night out.”
Elsa finally met his gaze. “You know what happens when you don’t keep a promise?”
“I get shot?”
“Of course not,” she said, with a cant of her hip and a smile that sucked the breath from his chest. “For you, Peter Quill, I’ve got my knife.”
Quill awoke in his bunk. He might have dreamed about a place with red skies and rugged mountains, but a familiar song quickly filled his head, lulling him back to sleep before he could realize the extent of the damage it caused; in the heart of a city he had only been to in his mind's eye, he slow-danced with a woman who knew him best and lamented with him on the forgotten tragedy of the classics.
Elsewhere, it began to rain.