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The Hard Way

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Honestly, it’s not easy.

Of course, Peter’s life is a long list of things that are far from easy. Having a single mom, scraping to get by had been something of a challenge he’d never fully appreciated, though in retrospect, he knows how little they had. He’d been content, though, and when his mom had gotten sick, things had gone from placidly uncertain to downright chaotic. There had been trips to the hospital, and helping his mom through the worst of, well, everything. He’d been a kid, but his mom couldn’t work -- she couldn’t even get up to cook dinner half the time -- and Peter had done what he could while she wasted away.

Then, she’d gone and died on him, and Peter had tried to run away from that just to run face to face with something much, much harder.

The first few years with Yondu are bit of a blur to him, but what Peter remembers is that none of that had been easy either. He’d been scared and lonely; he’d been tired and hungry. He’d been forced to learn things -- lots of things, horrible things, hard things -- and by the time Peter was a teenager, he took the easy way out whenever he could because everything else was just so damn hard.

Since then, Peter’s lived a life of crime. Truthfully, he’s never had strong objections to that part of the life. Sure, there’s probably part of him that wouldn’t have minded being reputable, but it’s not such a bad thing to take what you want when you want it. Besides, doing the wrong thing is hard enough, the idea of actually trying to do the right thing...

Well, after a couple of decades of that sort of thing, some habits die hard. Like, really hard. The right thing has been thrust in his face, and he’d be an idiot not to take it.

Or, a bigger idiot.

Peter still feels like an asshole most of the time, but he’s trying. This whole redemption thing was pretty hard won -- since he literally almost came apart at the seams -- so he’s set to making the most of this second chance.

Of course, then there’s the issue of his crew.

At first glance, Peter might have thought that having a crew would make things easier. It always seemed easy for Yondu, ordering people around and taking the biggest cut of everything when it suited him. Yondu’s life had been downright peachy compared to what Peter lived through, with a private toilet and money to burn.

Peter’s finding, though, that the grass may be somewhat greener. Or maybe Yondu just knew enough not to take on the likes of Peter’s so-called crew.

Gamora’s an assassin. Rocket’s a thug. Drax is basically a maniac. And Groot -- well, nobody knows what the hell Groot really is. But the point is -- and this point matters, Peter thinks -- that they’re not the easiest bunch to keep in line. Gamora thinks the best solution is killing. Rocket seems to blow things up just because it’s fun. Drax, while sometimes entirely reasonable, will become singlemindedly obsessed to the point of sheer stupidity. And Groot will start sprouting crap out his head at the worst possible times.

The Guardians of the Galaxy.

The name has stuck -- finally, there’s one thing that’s gone right -- but sometimes Peter’s not sure about the team itself. Peter’s trying -- he’s really, really trying -- but they’re all square pegs and round holes, and each of them has a backstory that’s just as crazy as Peter’s.

All of which is to say that it’s not easy.

It’s hard enough controlling his own impulses.

Taking care of a team? A crew?

That kind of crap is harder than it looks. Not that he thinks Yondu’s approach of eating problems is really the best one, but he has a bit more respect of the man after a few months together.

Which isn’t hard since he didn’t have any before that.

All of which is irrelevant to the task at hand: completing a mission without getting killed.

Peter’s learned to keep his expectations low in life. Now, he feels probably more than ever.

“Okay,” he says, looking as seriously as he can from one teammate to the next. “Do we have any questions?”

“Yes,” Drax says readily. “Will there be a place to purchase rare collectibles during our time on the planet?”

Peter furrows his brow. “Um, maybe?”

“There’s a nice market there,” Gamora tells him.

“Overpriced,” Rocket adds. “But if you tell me what you’re looking for, I’m sure I can take care of it--”

“Yeah, that would be stealing,” Peter reminds them.

“Oh, and you’re one to talk?” Rocket sasses back.

“You are the known thief,” Gamora agrees.

“My record is expunged,” Peter says.

“You’re a self righteous hypocrite, Quill,” Rocket says dourly. “You totally stole those electric candy pops a few stops back.”

Peter’s mouth drops open. “I did not,” he says. “I left money behind because I was in a hurry--”

“I am Groot,” the tree adds.

Rocket snaps his fingers with a nod. “That’s right, I forgot about the underwear,” he says.

“That was an emergency,” Peter replies, matter of fact.

“I believe my need for a quality market could qualify as an emergency,” Drax supplies.

Peter shakes his head indignantly. “I’m a little uncertain what this has to do with the mission. You know, the paying job we all have here.”

“Oh,” Drax says. “It is not relevant to the mission at all, but I was thinking about buying decor. I find the ship to be somewhat lacking in taste.”

“Taste?” Rocket asks. “This piece of junk is barely a step up from a garbage heap.”

“Hey,” Peter says. “With the upgrades from the Nova Corps, it’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad,” Gamora says. “When compared to living in squalor.”

“I am Groot,” Groot says.

Peter rolls his eyes. “Fine, fine,” he says. “Take their side.”

“He’s a tree, but he’s not blind,” Rocket says. “We have standards, Quill. Standards.

“I should very much like to make our environment more pleasing for all of us,” Drax says.

Peter sighs. “Okay, sure, fine, but that still isn’t the point.”

Drax looks somewhat vexed. “What is the point, then?”

“The mission!” Peter says, gesturing wildly at the screen in front of them. “Do any of you have any questions about the mission?

Drax is nonplussed. Gamora is bored. Groot is smiling complacently.

Rocket huffs in annoyance. “We go in, steal some intel for your guy in the Nova Corps, get the hell out, make the transfer, get paid,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. And I would know rocket science. And this -- this is a few notches below my intelligence level, thank you very much.”

“The plan is rather simplistic,” Gamora says.

“Well, when you put it like that, sure,” Peter says. “But you’re forgetting the part about the rotating guard squadrons and the booby trapped forest and the defense system that hasn’t been penetrated in five years…”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Rocket says. “They’re bad guys; we get it. Come on, Quill. We’ve been doing this for almost a year, I think we get it by now.”

“Then why does every other mission ends with someone almost dying?” Peter says, voice starting to pitch. “Like, seriously. You guys can get really violent sometimes. And explosions. We have explosions all the time.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” Gamora says.

“And, for the record, I don’t count explosions as a bad thing,” Rocket says.

“We have had great success,” Drax says. “And we have gotten paid. I see no problems.”

“That’s because you guys don’t look at the details,” Peter says in exasperation. “I mean, I’m trying to make sure we all get out in one piece. And with all the killing and exploding, you guys make that really hard.”

“We can take care of ourselves,” Gamora reminds him.

“I am Groot,” Groot says.

“You said it, buddy,” Rocket says, nudging the wooden arm. “We’ve been doing this long before we met you, our fearless Star Idiot.”

“Indeed,” Drax says. “I am a fully capable warrior. Your concern is unduly sentimental.”

“What we’re trying to say is, trust us,” Gamora tells him, a bit more gently. “Just like we trust you.”

That’s a nice sentiment, and Peter almost buys it.

Almost.

But Peter’s working his ass off, and every mission seems like they’re all a step away from coming apart at the seams. If this is the best thing Peter’s had since his mother died, then he’s not going to lose it. He’s not going to be a marauder. He’s not going to be a loner. He’s going to work harder, he’s going to work smarter, he’s going to make this work.

“You guys never trust me,” he objects. “You ignore all my plans.”

“You are a known liar and thief,” Drax reminds him.

“And it’s not like you’re the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Rocket points out. “I’ve heard better plans from Groot, and he’s got wood for a brain.”

Groot scratches at a new branch protruding from his leg.

“See?” Gamora asks. “I think you’re overreacting. We know the plan.”

“It’s not exactly a difficult one,” Rocket says.

Drax is quite intent, in the way only Drax can be. “Indeed, Quill, this job seems relatively easy--”

“You know what, fine, whatever,” Peter says, closing his view screen in frustration. “Just...try not to die, okay?”

“That is your most coherent plan yet!” Drax says with far too much enthusiasm.

Rocket snickers. “For once, score a point for the big guy.”

Peter groans. “I’m going to go fly the ship,” he mutters crossly. “Since one of us has to be a responsible person from time to time.”

-o-

At the controls, Peter sulks.

Responsible person, he thinks.

That’s a bit ironic, coming from him. Peter’s a perennial screw up. He doesn’t take things seriously, and he’s been in and out of trouble his whole life. It’s easy to blame the whole mother-dying-space-abduction-raised-by-marauders thing, but Peter knows better. He’s been on this path of malfeasance since well before he was taken from Earth, even before his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Maybe that’s why he wants to do this right.

Because for the first time, he thinks he can.

Maybe.

He feels restless sometimes, and he knows the rest of the team does, too. They all have to wonder from time to time, if this Guardians thing is a fluke. They’ve pulled out their share of missions over the last year, but it’s all been by the seat of their pants. Peter has to wonder if they had their moment of glory, and that’s it. Maybe they really are destined to a life of crime and shadows. Maybe he’s trying too hard.

But, the problem is, Peter wants more.

They all do, even if they don’t know how to go about it all the time.

They have to keep taking real jobs. They have to keep it together. They have to keep each other together. Peter’s not great at delegation, and he’s certainly not great at teamwork, but he’s trying.

He’s trying so damn hard for the first time in his life.

Chewing his lip, he turns on the music and turns up the volume.

Peter just hopes the effort counts for something.

-o-

When they’ve landed, Peter feels a little more optimistic. He’s made it all the way through Awesome Mix 1 and started the second, and with no one in the cockpit, he lets himself sing as loud as he wants.

Not that he wouldn’t sing as loud as he wants otherwise, but still.

Still.

They’ve saved the galaxy. They’re heroes.

They can do this.

“Okay,” he says, corralling them one last time before they take off. “So we’ll infiltrate on the south end of the compound. There’s an access road there, and we’ll stay to it as much as possible. Gamora and Drax, you two need to take care of the guards. Rocket, focus on the electronics system. I want it down ASAP. We can’t avoid raising the alarm, but we need them working blind. I’ll lead the way to the central control room and we’ll need about five minutes to make the data transfer. We need a fast exit back the way we came. The forest would give us cover, but the thing is full of booby traps. Everyone good? I think we’re good. Right?”

They stare at him.

Peter’s optimism flags.

Badly.

“What?” Peter finally asks.

“I liked you better when you only had 12 percent of your plans,” Rocket says.

“Indeed, your current plans are quite detail oriented,” Drax says.

“I am Groot,” Groot tells him.

Gamora nods. “He’s right, we’re not amateurs.”

“But we’re criminals,” Peter says. “And I sort of don’t want us to do things like criminals.”

“Criminals get things done,” Gamora tells him.

“And then they end up in jail,” Peter says.

“But crime is way more fun,” Rocket says.

“Until you wind up in jail,” Peter says again.

“I sometimes find the moral differential of criminal activity difficult to articulate,” Drax says.

Peter blinks at them. “You know what,” he says. “Never mind. Just follow me and don’t do anything stupid.”

Gamora holds out her hand mockingly. “After you, then,” she says. “Our fearless leader.”

“More like our fearless idiot,” Rocket says.

Peter shakes his head and starts walking.

-o-

It goes wrong basically immediately.

Drax inexplicably yells on their approach, and by the time they arrive, there’s twice as many guards as Peter anticipated. Gamora nearly decapitates several, and Rocket half electrocutes himself while using his teeth to bite through the power lines. Groot gets distracted by a broken tree in the woods and ends up setting off a chain of landmines that gets the attention of every bad guy in the vicinity.

And then some.

It’s entirely probable that they’ve managed to tip off every unit on the damn planet, which means, in short, the plan is shot to hell.

And they’re probably going to be shot to hell pretty soon, too, because everything is so damn hard.

“Go on!” Gamora yells at him in the heat of the conflict as they approach the facility. “We’ll hold them off!”

Peter looks around at the chaos, taking out a few more bad guys before they have a chance to fire at Gamora. “That’s not exactly reassuring!”

“You gave us jobs to do,” she yells back, swinging around to take out a guard coming up on Peter’s flank. “Trust us to do ours, and we’ll trust you to do yours.”

Trust, Peter thinks. Now that’s a crazy idea.

Funny thing, it may just be the hardest thing yet.

But he doesn’t have much choice as he dodges another bullet and takes the next opening he sees to sprint through the hallways of the compound.

-o-

Peter’s got the route memorized. He also has the access codes, and he’s memorized the exact file paths. This is the sort of crap Peter’s good at, though no one would guess it by looking at him. He’s survived as a thief, though, and he plays it fast and loose, but that takes certain skill. He can’t remember the names of half the girls he sleeps with, but he damn well knows the in and out of every job he’s ever taken because his life has always depended on it.

Trust, Gamora says.

Peter blows out a hot breath accessing the computer files. He can still hear the fighting going on outside, and he tries his best not to get too tense.

Trust.

It’s not that he doesn’t trust them. He knows most people still run from Gamora when they recognize her. He knows that Drax is blacklisted from more than a handful of bars across the galaxy due to his unruly antics. He knows that Rocket still blows up things in his free time. And Groot -- well, he’s a tree, and he does things that probably make sense to trees but defy all logic to Peter.

He knows that’s what other people see. But he knows they’ve been there for him, and he knows they’ve made the choice to stay. They were willing to die for him once, and it’s been sort of an open ended promise they’ve been willing to keep to each other ever since. He knows that they faced the edge of disaster with him, and though they’ve complained and made a fuss from time to time, they’ve never flinched, not once.

They’ve found strength in each other; they’ve found purpose in each other.

Peter trusts his team.

Except Peter doesn’t trust anyone.

He doesn’t even know how. It’s possibly downright impossible in Peter’s world.

Peter grew up thinking he was going to be eaten for five years. He had to fight for everything he’s ever gotten, and everything good has always been taken from him. He’s always had to take care of himself, because there’s never been anyone to give a shit about him otherwise. Walking away from Yondu wasn’t just about getting the biggest payday. It was because he knew someday the man would grow weary of him, and Peter didn’t like being depended on anyway.

People hurt you. People let you down.

You can’t trust people.

It’s one thing to take someone’s hand when the universe is about to be destroyed.

It’s entirely another to take it, day after day, with every little thing.

Trust.

That’s the hardest part of all. Hands down, flat out, the most difficult, unrelentingly impossible part of his job.

Suddenly, the door swings open with a clatter, and Peter lifts his gun, ready to fire when he sees Gamora running toward him. Rocket appears behind her, still facing out with his gun toted high, blasting out into the corridor where distant gunfire still echoes loudly.

“We need to leave,” Gamora tells him as she approaches.

Peter frowns. “I thought you said you had it under control.”

“I told you we’d do our job,” Gamora says tautly. “Now have you done yours?”

“I need a minute--”

There’s an explosion and more gunfire, closer than before.

“We don’t have a moment,” Gamora tells him emphatically.

“If I don’t get all the data, we won’t get paid,” Peter hisses.

“If we don’t go now, we’re all going to be dead,” Gamora says. “And then we really won’t get paid. Ever.

Peter grumbles, reaching over to take out his drive. “Do we still have our exit?”

“We have an exit,” Gamora corrects, moving back toward the door with Peter not far behind.

“Wait, my exit plan was pretty important,” he says.

“And so is ours,” she says, shoving him past Rocket into the hallway.

“And what is it?” Peter asks, leveling his gun at an oncoming wave of guards.

Gamora darts past him, taking position at his front to head off a few more combatants.

Rocket snarls, charging up next to them. “Run!”

It lacks finesse, but as the squadron convenes around them, Peter thinks it’ll have to do for now.

As with most things in Peter’s life, it’s not like there’s really another choice.

Since he doesn’t want to die, he runs.

-o-

For what his team lacks in finesse, they certainly make up for with fire power and general mayhem. Gamora clears a path, and Rocket takes up their rear. They find Drax positioned at the exit of the compound, and Groot is shedding leaves wildly as he hurls guards through the air at the exterior checkpoint.

“We need to get back to the ship!” Peter yells.

“We need to get out of the line of fire!” Gamora yells back.

“We just need to get out!” Rocket all but growls, flinging himself forward as Peter sprays another round of ammo behind him.

“Quickly!” Drax calls out, lumbering toward the side of the road where Groot is whipping one long arm against another wave of men. “We must make a hasty retreat!”

“The road!” Peter yells.

“No, it’s too risky,” Gamora pants, pausing long enough to disable a charging man with quick hand to hand.

“I thought we agreed our plan was to run, not to argue,” Rocket hisses, loading a fresh clip.

“Come on,” Gamora grunts, kicking another man unconscious as she leaps toward the treeline.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Rocket says, dashing after her.

Frustrated, Peter, ducks a fresh volley of gunfire before following after them, catching up with Drax as Groot rallies the treeline to close behind them.

They sprint for several more minutes, passing through the trees with the speed of the very desperate. Peter finds himself at point, and he’s the one that pulls them to a skidding stop even while his heart hammers in his chest.

“What? What are we doing?” Rocket asks through clenched teeth.

Gamora’s speed tapers off, and even she looks winded. “They won’t be far behind.”

“I concur,” Drax says. “This is no time to loiter.”

“I am Groot,” the tree pronounces.

“I get all that,” Peter tells them, still trying to catch his breath. “But I think you’re all forgetting something.”

“What?” Gamora asks. “That we don’t want to die?”

“That your plans suck?” Rocket asks.

“That I should have brought more knives?” Drax wonders.

“No!” Peter says. “That we were never supposed to go into the forest!”

He pauses, a little for effect, a little because he can hardly breathe.

They don’t seem to find it nearly as dramatic as Peter hopes.

He groans, throwing his arms out. “This entire thing is rigged,” he says. “One wrong move and we’re all toast. Honestly, I don’t even know how we made it this far--”

Drax frowns.

Peter rolls his eyes. “Not literal toast,” he says. “But, like, blown up. Burnt. Dead from numerous explosions.”

“Ah,” Drax says with a contented nod.

“The plan didn’t account for that many guards,” Gamora tells him.

“Because you guys didn’t follow the plan!” Peter says.

“It wasn’t practical,” Rocket begins.

“Oh, and this is better?” Peter asks.

“I believe it could be worse,” Drax says.

“I am Groot,” Groot adds sagely.

Peter sighs. “Just...everyone be quiet,” he says, rubbing a hand to his head. “And don’t move!”

“Let me guess, you have a plan,” Rocket asks sarcastically.

“I’m working on it!” Peter snaps back.

“I recommend working faster,” Gamora says, sounding more than a little impatient. “Because we’re running out of time.”

“Yeah, I think we’re running out of a lot of things,” Peter mutters, running a hand through his hair. “You’re all just lucky I don’t know when to quit.”

“Lucky?” Rocket asks incredulous. “You call this lucky?”

“I’m not sure I’d be bragging about that anyway,” Gamora says.

Peter closes his eyes and turns away.

He has to think.

Shit, he really has to think.

Because it’s not just him anymore. It’s a mission that matters, and an employer that counts on him and an actual team.

Peter needs luck. He needs all the luck he doesn’t have, and a whole hell of a lot more.

Mostly, though, he needs a plan to get them out of this alive.

Because they’re the damn Guardians of the Galaxy.

And it’s up to Peter to make sure they stay in one piece.

Figuratively.

And very, very literally.

-o-

It’s not easy.

Nothing’s been easy, Peter knows that, but this--

This is really, really, really hard.

He’s not cut out for this. Maybe this Guardians thing really is a fluke. Peter Quill wanted to be a legendary outlaw, and he wasn’t even very good at that. What ever made him think that this would work? That he could take these four idiots and turn them into a crew doing more good than bad? Peter’s no kind of leader. Peter’s no kind of noble crusader.

Hell, Peter’s a screw up. He’s some idiot kid who never grew. He did one good thing, and that’s it. He’s not all that different. He’s still the same moron he’s always been. He’s running around pretending like things can be different, but things are probably never going to be different and Peter’s going to get them all killed for his abject failure.

He got them this job. He’s the one who suggested they work together. He’s the one who kept them together. It’s his ship, his crew, his leadership.

It’s all on him.

He mutters a curse. If he gets them out of this, something’s going to have to give. A lot of things are going to have to give, because Peter’s in over his head and he doesn’t know what the hell he’s going to do.

“Okay,” he says, starting to pace. “Okay, okay, okay.”

“Yeah, you said that already,” Rocket says, sounding bored.

“Your repetition does not help our need for haste,” Drax says.

“Okay,” Peter says, turning to pace again. “Okay, okay.”

“Peter!” Gamora snaps.

He startles, looking up at her blankly.

“If you have an idea, now’s the time,” she says.

“I’d probably settle for 12 percent of an idea,” Rocket says.

Groot inclines his head. “I am Groot.”

“Yeah, yeah, even eleven percent,” Rocket agrees.

Peter blinks a few more times. “I’ve got maybe five percent,” he rambles. “I mean, give or take--”

Gamora’s eyes narrow. “Peter,” she says with more than a hint of warning.

“Right!” Peter says, trying to get himself back on track. “The plan is that we need to get out of here.”

Rocket scoffs. “That’s not even five percent--”

“I said give or take,” Peter says.

“That’s not even worth calling a plan!” Rocket protests.

“Well that’s what we need to do!” Peter yells back. He grows somber, starting to pace again. “We need to get out of the forest as soon as possible. If I remember correctly, there should be an access road to the north.”

“They’ve probably blocked it off,” Gamora says.

“Yeah, well, that’s why we have guns,” Peter says. “And explosives. You guys like killing and blowing stuff up, so this is my plan to kill and blow stuff up.”

Rocket nods in approval. “I’m starting to like this plan a little more.”

“That still doesn’t help us get through the forest,” Gamora says.

“Well, there’s basically nothing we can do about that,” Peter says. He shrugs, cutting another path across the ground as he tries -- and mostly fails -- to think. “No one survives in here long enough to chart it, and I don’t have enough information about their technology to know the triggers. I think it’s safe to say that the traps are pretty far apart, just given that we haven’t encountered any yet, but it’s not going to be easy.”

“It sounds exceedingly dangerous,” Drax says. “I am uncertain if I find the prospect unsettling or invigorating.”

“Yeah, and I’m liking the plan less again,” Rocket says.

“Well, the plan was to never go here in the first place,” Peter snipes. “We were supposed to be in and out, with as little gunplay as possible.”

“To be honest, the plan was a little boring,” Rocket says.

“I, too, lost interest in it,” Drax says.

“And now look at us!” Peter objects. He rubs his hand over his face. “We’ll just have to be careful. If we stick close, single file, each person watching the ground. If anyone sees something, we all stop before something bad happens. A mile to the road, then we get back to the ship, and maybe we can pull this one out.”

“Unless they’ve disabled the ship,” Gamora says.

“Then we’ll fix it,” Peter replies.

Rocket grunts. “Like it’s that easy.”

“We could also be under extreme duress,” Drax says. “If I were one of these soldiers, I would be most set on preventing us from leaving this planet with all of our limbs intact. I would dismember each of us slowly and with great physical force.”

Peter makes a face. “Well, we’ll deal with dismemberment if it comes up,” he says.

“That’s your plan,” Gamora says. “To walk really carefully and hope for the best.”

“Unless you have a better one,” Peter says.

“Are we even sure this forest is actually rigged?” Gamora says. “You said it yourself, we haven’t encountered anything.”

“It’d be a hell of a bluff,” Rocket says. “Clever bastards.”

Peter glowered, pausing for a moment. “I’ve read the reports.”

“Reports can be exaggerated for effect,” Gamora says.

“They could be lies!” Drax says, sounding dismayed.

“No, look,” Peter says. “I know guys who’ve been here.”

“I thought you said no one survived,” Gamora says.

“Well, barely,” Peter relents. “But I mean, I didn’t have time to verify the story.”

“So it could all be BS,” Rocket concludes. “Great, we’re basing a plan on second hand BS.”

“Uh uh,” Peter argues petulantly. “One of them gave me his prosthetic leg in the Kyln.”

Rocket looks a little impressed by that. “He told you that?”

“I had to listen to the whole story to get the damn thing,” Peter says hotly. “And let me tell you, he didn’t hold back the details. Like, at all. His actual leg was blown clear off, and the only reason he lived was because the heat of the explosion instantly cauterized the wound.”

“That sounds horrible,” Gamora says.

Rocket’s face contorts. “That is horrible,” he says. “Why the hell did you lead us into this death trap?”

Peter throws his arms wide. “I didn’t!” he almost yells. “I told you, explicitly and repeatedly, not to come in here. Which you would have known, if you’d ever listened to the plan the ten times I told it to you.”

“Well, there’s your problem,” Rocket says, crossing his arms over his chest. “You talk too much. We sort of stop listening.”

“I sometimes never listen from the beginning,” Drax confesses unapologetically. “Your words often seem superfluous.”

“They’re an effort to keep you alive,” Peter says. He makes broad gestures with his hands. “To keep all of us alive.”

Of them all, only Groot looks sheepish. “I am Groot,” he says mournfully.

“I know,” Peter says. “But you got to say no to your impulses sometimes. The plan.

“Hey, you’re the moron who thinks we need a plan,” Rocket says.

“Yeah, and I’m not sure your plans are always the best,” Gamora points out.

“Oh, and you think you guys can do better?” Peter asks indignantly.

“Well, I never said I wanted any of this in the first place,” Rocket mutters. “All this do-good bullshit, Guardians of the Galaxy -- come on.”

“I, too, found it to be less difficult when I was on my own,” Drax says.

“Well, you were on a rampage across the galaxy,” Peter reminds him. “A rampage you would have failed if not for us, thank you very much. And you, you little furry bastard. You’d still be running from animal control.”

Rocket hisses at him. “I was wanted by every major police force in the quadrant,” he says. “On major charges, thank you very much.”

“All I’m saying is that your plans got you nowhere,” he says. “All of you, nowhere. We need each other, and we need a plan if we’re going to make it work. And since all of you are too busy being difficult, that leaves the planning to me.

“Your most successful plan involved a dance off,” Gamora says.

“Crazy, unexpected, sure. Ridiculous and stupid, possibly,” Peter says. He holds up a finger. “But most successful.

“Yeah, but you don’t have much room to talk,” Gamora says. “I mean, your plans aren’t any less improvised than ours.”

“But don’t you get it?” Peter asks, starting to pace again. “This was my idea. This was my plan. This is my ship, these are my contacts, they’re my decisions. I don’t know how it happened, but I’m the one in charge. I’m the one making these calls. I’m responsible. It’s on me. It’s all on me, and I’m trying to make this work, okay? I’m trying, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and really, I’m terrible at this stuff and no one’s ever listened to me, but you guys haven’t made this any easier, okay? Running off and doing exactly what I tell you not to do.”

Gamora sighs. “It’s not that we’re ignoring you.”

“I ignore him sometimes,” Drax says.

“I listen selectively,” Rocket says. “A skill I’ve picked and honed acutely since joining this charade.”

Groot nods. “I am Groot.”

“But we’re going to get yourselves killed,” Peter rambles, taking longer paces than before. His adrenaline is spiking, and his anxiety is starting to hitch. “Is that what you want? This is our chance, our only chance, and you literally are trying to blow it up. We can be something; we can have something; and you’re all being reckless and too fast and--”

He takes another step and stops.

His voice gets caught in his throat.

His heart skips a beat.

He closes his eyes.

Reckless and fast, he thinks in a rush. Literally trying to blow it up.

He’s not talking about them.

Shit, shit, shit.

No, he’s talking about himself.

“Peter?” Gamora is asking.

“One second you’re all, plan, plan, plan,” Rocket seethes. “And now you shut up?”

Peter blows out a breath. He’d known this was probably his last chance.

He just didn’t expect…

He survived his mother; he survived Yondu and his crew. He survived the power of the galaxy running through him.

He survived.

“Peter,” Gamora says, more strongly now. “What’s wrong?”

He opens his eyes, looking at his team. At Gamora and Rocket and Drax and Groot.

There’s no avoiding it now. There’s no sense in denying it. Peter’s a perennial screw up. He doesn’t take things seriously, and he’s been in and out of trouble his whole life. It’s easy to blame the whole mother-dying-space-abduction-raised-by-marauders thing, but Peter knows better. He’s been on this path of malfeasance since well before he was taken from Earth, even before his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Maybe that’s why he wanted to do this right.

Because for the first time, he thought he could.

Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

“Quill, what the hell,” Rocket says, starting to approach.

Peter holds up his hand, throat tight. “Don’t move,” he says.

“I thought we had to get the hell out of here,” Rocket continues.

Peter nods a few times, swallowing hard before he manages to control his breathing. “You do,” he says.

“So why aren’t you going to lead us,” Rocket says. “You, with your speeches and posturing and--”

“Well,” Peter says, voice threatening to break. “You guys said it, there’s a time to improvise.”

Gamora strides closer, reaching closer to him. “Peter--”

Peter jerks his arm back but holds himself painfully still. “Don’t,” he says, the word choked off.

“Quill, if something is the matter--” Drax begins.

“It’s okay,” Peter says, forcing himself to breath. “New plan, okay? New plan.”

“And that is?” Rocket asks.

Peter looks at them each, holding their gazes in turn because this is important. This is maybe the most important thing yet, and if they’ve never listened to the rest, he needs them to listen to this. “You run, one right after another, watching every step, straight to the road.”

“How is that different from the other plan?” Rocket asks, brow furrowed.

“Wait, Peter,” Gamora says, because of course she’s the one who noticed. Nuance is her kind of thing. “What about you?”

Peter blinks rapidly, not sure if he wants to laugh or cry. At this point, he might well do both. “Well, I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” he says.

Groot inches forward, broad face turned toward him in concern. “I am Groot?”

“Because,” Peter says, a sweat breaking out on his brow now. He takes a breath and tries to keep breathing. He wants to hurl instead. “I’m pretty sure I just stepped on a landmine.”

Rocket goes still, and Gamora’s eyes widen. Groot looks alarmed, and Drax frowns.

Peter wets his lips, feeling himself start to shake. “And whatever my next move is,” he says, keeping his weight precisely balanced where his foot has gone down. “It’s probably going to be my last.”

-o-

As far as Peter is concerned, he figures that’s pretty much that.

He’s going to die because he’s stupid, and his team is going to live because they’re not as stupid, and at least Peter’s stupidity will deter them from future stupidity.

There’s no way around that.

When you step on a landmine, something’s going to go boom.

His team, of course, would pick now to pay attention to the details.

They make everything so damn hard.

Rocket scampers forward first, pulling the brush apart to get a better look at the device. Gamora starts eyeing the surrounding area, looking for any other indication of mines in the area. Drax seems like he wants to rip something apart, and Groot may be crying.

Or he’s just seeping sap.

At this point, Peter’s not sure it matters.

He’s about to die, the only thing that matters is that no one else joins him.

“Um, I’m serious, guys,” he says, because he feels like his point should be a little more clearer than it seems to be at the moment. “You need to run. Now.”

No one seems interested in obeying that order, though.

They really are a bunch of assholes.

“Definitely a mine,” Rocket says. “Nothing too fancy, but it’s got some firepower behind it. That dude back on Kyln is lucky that he only lost his leg.”

“Yeah, if you ever find him, you can be sure to tell him,” Peter says. “But, I got to say--”

“Here,” Gamora calls from a short distance away. “I found another one.”

“Um, I don’t know if you should be poking around the woods!” Peter says in an attempt to keep his team from being as stupid as he is.

It doesn’t work.

Why would it work?

That would be easy.

Rocket steps back, squinting through the tree toward her.

Drax steps forward with a careful nod. “If I were to set up such traps, I would probably want to create a very specific pattern in order to maximize the potential damage and minimize unintended accidents.”

Gamora is scouting in the other direction.

Rocket considers this. “Landmines require the element of surprise, but you only want to surprise the right people, if you know what I mean.”

“I am uncertain that I do,” Drax says. “The right people are the ones we want to live, yes?”

“No, the right people have to die,” Rocket says with exasperation.

“But then they would be wrong,” Drax replies.

“Oh, come on,” Peter says, trying desperately to ignore the ache start to build in his calf. This is going from bad to worse to death, and Peter doesn’t want his last moments to be quite so…frustrating.

Rocket scowls up at Drax. “You really are giving Quill a run for the money on the stupidest person alive award.”

“If there is an award, I would like to win it,” Drax says, a little too eager.

“Well, I think you will! Because I’ll be dead,” Peter reminds them all emphatically. “I’m standing on a landmine! Hello!”

“And another,” Gamora calls, as if Peter’s distress is not even happening. “I definitely think it’s a system. If they train guards on the spacing, then they can reduce internal casualties.”

“And no one on the outside lives long enough to squeal,” Rocket says. “Not bad, as far as sadistic and homicidal defense systems go.”

“Good,” Peter says, growing impatient now. The terror has reached a surreal level and it seems to be tapering off to complete and total incredulity. He has the insane urge to tap his foot, which is stupid since he doesn’t tap his foot as a general rule, but he’s the kind of person who wants to do the one thing that he can’t do, and tapping his foot is just an impulse he doesn’t know what to do with anymore. “So now you know what to look for. Now you can get the hell out of here without getting killed.”

Gamora has circled back toward them. She looks at Rocket.

Rocket looks at Drax.

Drax looks at Groot.

Groot looks at Peter. “I am Groot,” he says.

Peter blinks at him. “Okay, yeah, I’m drawing a blank this time, big guy.”

Gamora sighs, as if she’s the one being put out this time. “We’re not going.”

“But -- I’m--” he tries but he falters. He’s this close to falling apart, and he’s trying to do the right thing here, but they’re making it so damn hard.

Peter can’t even die nice and easy.

“Seriously,” he says, feeling the sweat start to drip down his back and chest. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this thing in check. You have to go.”

“Shut the hell up,” Rocket says. “You led us into this shit storm. You better believe we’re not letting you out of the rest so easily.”

“Guys,” Peter says, and he may actually be crying now. His leg is killing him, and his heart is hammering and he’s going to die, he’s going to die, he’s going to die. “Please.”

“I would do anything for you,” Drax says. “But I cannot leave you when you are in your hour of need.”

Groot nods, stepping closer. “I am Groot.”

Peter’s heart breaks, just a little.

This is his team.

They’re willing to die for him.

They’re willing to die with him.

They’re willing to die.

He shakes his head. “There’s no point in everyone dying,” he says. “Just...finish the job. Get paid. Take care of the ship.”

“We will,” Gamora says. “After we get you out of here.”

Peter gapes, gesturing at his foot. “Landmine!” he says, because at this point he doesn’t know what to say, and really, that about sums it up.

“Don’t worry,” Rocket says with a smirk. “We have a plan.”

“No offense,” Peter says, willing himself to stay calm. “But your plans suck.”

“Oh, and yours are somehow better?” Rocket asks.

“I am inclined to agree with Rocket,” Drax says. “This current plan has gone poorly.”

“This was never part of the plan!” Peter all but yells.

“Which is why it’s our turn, smart ass!” Rocket yells back.

Peter throws up his hands, his foot slipping just a little. He rubs a hand over his face. “You have a plan.”

“We have a plan,” Rocket says. He glances up at Gamora. “We have a plan?”

“Sure,” Gamora says. “The plan is to get you off that mine without blowing up.”

Peter stares. “You got to have more than that.”

“It’s a work in progress,” Gamora admits. “And it’s not like you have any room to judge, Mr. 12 Percent.”

“I am Groot,” Groot interjects.

“See, even Groot thinks our plan is better than yours,” Rocket says smugly.

Peter groans because really, he doesn’t have time for this. He doesn’t have time for anything because he’s going to die. “You guys are all neglecting the fact that I’m actually about to explode at any moment!”

“No, we’re the ones addressing that issue,” Gamora says. “You’re the one all set on dying.”

“Self sacrifice isn’t a trait you should be trying to develop,” Rocket reminds him.

“It does not lend itself to longevity,” Drax supplies.

“This isn’t -- I mean, it is,” Peter says, cheeks burning red now. “And I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but this is stupid. This whole thing, it’s just stupid. This mine is going off one way or another, and you guys don’t need to be here for that. This isn’t self sacrifice. It’s just…the easy way out.”

Gamora lifts her eyebrows. “You’re more of a hero than you like to admit.”

Peter blushes. “I’ve been trying, anyway--”

Her face darkens. “Stop,” she says. “It doesn’t suit you.”

Peter’s face darkens.

“She’s right,” Rocket says. “It just makes you more of a dick. Besides, I told you, this thing isn’t all that sophisticated. If the trigger had any nuance, it would have killed you by now.”

“I’m not sure that actually makes me feel better,” Peter starts.

“Point being,” Rocket interjects forcefully. “I should be able to disarm it or disable it long enough to get us clear.”

All of us,” Gamora adds.

Gamora looks like she might kill him. Rocket clearly wants to make the entire forest explode. Drax may try to destroy trees before they leave, and Groot -- well, Peter has no idea what’s going on in his head.

His team.

His second chance.

Damn it, his last chance.

He shakes his head with resignation. “It’s too risky.”

“We know the risks,” Gamora replies.

“All you’ve asked of us are risks,” Rocket says. “And you want us to stop now.”

“I have never been afraid of risk,” Drax says.

Peter is going to cry now. He’s really, really going to cry. His leg is throbbing, and he’s sweating through his jacket, and this is quite possibly the worst way to die. “There’s a bright side, though,” he says. “I mean, this is the last plan of mine you’ll ever have to listen to.”

“We don’t listen to your plans now, moron,” Rocket says.

“See,” Peter says with a shrug. “You don’t even need me?”

“Oh please,” Gamora says. “You make things easier.”

“No kidding,” Rocket says. “I sure as hell don’t want your job.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Peter says cajolingly. Because this is what it’s come to. He has to beg them to let him die. “You just need to take care of my ship. And you know, play my music from time to time. At least once a week. Twice a week. Daily, really, but you know, whatever--”

“This prattling is without reason!” Drax says gruffly. “Rocket, are you able to disable the device?”

“We should move,” Gamora agrees.

“No!” Peter yells, flinching badly as he falters, his leg slipping noticeably. “Get back!”

The air goes electric for a moment, and Peter holds his breath, fearing the worst. His team ducks back to a safer distance as they all wait for the boom.

It never comes.

Peter looks down. His foot is still on the mine, though askew now. The weight of standing is almost insurmountable now, and he’s losing control.

He’s probably never had control, but it’s slipping well beyond his reach now, and at least, he can’t deny it any more.

Decided, he takes a deep breath. “I’ve made up my mind,” he says, low and certain because Peter doesn’t like to make these kind of decisions, but this is one he’s made. And he’s sticking to it, no matter what. “You’re leaving without me.”

“Peter,” Gamora says.

“It’s too risky,” Peter insists, shaking his head. “I can’t let you -- you can’t--”

“Peter,” Gamora says, a little louder now, inching forward.

“I’m pulling my leg off this thing,” he warns. “Whether you like it or not, so if you don’t want to die--”

“Quill,” Rocket growls.

“It’s been fun, guys,” he says, babbling now. “A good ride, and I haven’t got regrets. I mean, I have a few, but nothing about this. Nothing about us.”

“Quill, if you would cease your talking--”

“I am Groot,” the tree begs.

“Please,” Gamora says. “Just trust us.

Trust.

That’s the hardest part of all. Hands down, flat out, the most difficult, unrelentingly impossible part of his job.

He trusts his team.

But Peter Quill doesn’t trust anyone.

Eyes burning, he shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Gamora tenses; Rocket swears; Drax braces himself and Groot all but howls.

Peter closes his eyes and moves his foot.

It’s his only move.

It’s his last move.

And everything explodes.

-o-

Peter’s willing to die, but he’s not actually suicidal. He’s not even a hero or self sacrificial or any of that. He doesn’t want his team to end up barbecued, and if he has his choice, he’d like to avoid it for himself, too.

See, Peter’s not great with plans, but he’s pretty damn good at thinking on his feet.

Literally.

On his one foot, pressed on a landmine, ready to blow.

Once he moves, it’s going to go off.

So the best possible solution is to be as far away as possible.

Most people wouldn’t be able to get clear fast enough to make a difference.

Peter Quill, however, is not most people.

He’s Star Lord.

Legendary Outlaw.

Which, really isn’t relevant, but it does mean he has rocket boosters.

Pitching forward, he blasts himself toward his team, and the force of the rockets blows the mine in the opposite direction as it detonates. Peter hurtles forward graceless, losing control of his boosters as the explosion catches him and sends him hard into a tree.

He slams into another tree before the ground rushes up to meet him.

His last thought is for his team.

And how much he hopes they’re still alive.

Even if he’s not.

-o-

Except he is.

Alive.

Holy crap, he’s alive.

For a moment, Peter has a moment of giddy elation.

He’s alive.

He’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.

He’d been so sure that he was going to die -- he’d been standing on a landmine -- but he’s alive.

That’s definitely the best news he’s had all day. All week. Maybe all month.

Of course, the way he knows that he’s alive is the pain.

Lots and lots and lots of pain.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes pop open. His body feels like it’s on fire, and the intensity is diffuse but unrelenting. He’s chest feels tight, and his breathing is stunted. His body is heavy, and his face is pressed disconcertingly against the mud and leaves.

He groans, trying to shift. He’s flopped onto his side, and it’s all his effort to roll onto his back. He falls heavily, and regrets it as fresh agony washes over him. All of his muscles protests, and he swears, he can feel a yawning ache all the way in his gall bladder.

It’s not clear how he knows it’s his gall bladder, but some internal organ is in total misery. His arm feels like it’s been twisted, and there’s something weeping blood down the side of his face as he feels his face start to swell from the bruising.

Being blown up, it turns out, hurts like a son of a bitch.

Gritting his teeth, he tries to sit up. The moment he gets his head off the ground, he’s overcome with a sense of vertigo so violent that he nearly flops back. He’s too stupid to let that happen, though, and he blinks dazedly a few times while the nausea presses up the back of his throat and his heart hammers between his ears.

He lets out a breath.

He frowns.

At first, he can’t see much besides his six legs, which doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t have six legs. Especially ones that are twisted and--

He shifts again, moving his legs this time, and that’s when the agony ratchets up another notch. This time, he does black out, dropping limply back to the ground while he chokes on a cry. He’s trying to breathe through his nose while hot tears collect in his eyes, and he’s so focused on not sobbing like a baby that he can’t open his eyes when something heavy goes to the ground next to him.

“Peter?”

“Oh, what the hell.”

“Quill, are you injured?”

“What kind of question is that? Just look.

“I am being polite.”

“Peter, open your eyes. Peter.

Something soft touches his face, and he startles. His breath catches on a curse, and he blinks rapidly as he looks up into Gamora’s face.

“So, that plan needed some work,” Peter manages to say between halting exhalations. He’s trembling now, and a sense of cold washes over him as his strength starts to falter.

“You should have listened to us,” Gamora says.

Peter laughs, a little hysterical. “I told you, I never learn.”

“But you should trust--

Peter shakes his head, tilting his head wildly to the side. He sees Rocket and Drax and Groot’s legs. They look like stumps. He’s not full grown, but he’s still massive. Peter’s got a tree for a teammate, and it strikes him now that it’s taken almost a year for that to actually seem odd.

Gamora is pulling his jacket away, and Rocket busies himself ripping through Peter’s pantleg with his teeth.

“Wait,” Peter protests, but the word is slurred and almost unintelligible. “I -- you should--”

Rocket merely grunts, and Gamora’s fingers are running up his ribcage.

Moaning, Peter fists his fingers into the ground. Rocket jars his leg, and he can’t stop the cry of pain.

This time, though, it’s Rocket who curses.

Peter lifts his head. “What the hell are you doing? That hurts--

His voice stops, and he blinks watery eyes as he sees his legs. With the pant leg torn open, Peter can see the distended shin, his foot turned unnaturally to the side.

With a shock of white bone poking through the skin.

He gapes.

He swears.

He hyperventilates.

“Peter,” Gamora starts to say, but Peter’s too busy freaking out. Because his leg is broken, and it’s not just broken, but it’s been snapped in two and the pieces are sticking out of his skin like damn human toothpicks. Peter’s seen worse before, but he’s never felt worse, and his vision starts to dim as he realizes that he very well could still die.

Or he’s going to lose his leg.

Shit, he’s going to be the guy with a prosthetic in jail, and Rocket will steal it just for kicks because it’s so damn funny--

His sobs break on a laugh, and he’s hysterical again. This time, however, he can’t pull it back in.

“Peter, I need you to relax,” Gamora says, more sternly now.

Peter sobs again, shaking his head. “My leg is broken.”

“We know,” she says evenly. “It could be worse.”

He laughs at her. “I’m not sure how this could possibly be worse!”

“Well,” Gamora says. “You could be dead.”

She should be joking, but she’s not. Of course she’s not, because they’re the Guardians of the Galaxy and they set the bar kind of low sometimes.

His head drops back to the ground, and he lets it loll. “I really don’t want to die.”

“Could have fooled us,” Rocket says. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I didn’t want you to die more!” Peter yells back. He squeezes his eyes shut, unable to stop the tears. “I just didn’t think you all had to die. Just, don’t die, okay? Don’t die.”

“Hey,” Gamora says, her hand clasping his shoulder.

He opens his eyes.

She almost smiles. “We could say the same for you,” she says. “Don’t die.”

He holds her gaze. He’s trembling, and he’s fading, and he’s hurting, and he’s scared. He wants to say no, but he doesn’t have the energy.

She squeezes his shoulder again. “Just trust us this time,” she says. “We’ll take care of this.”

Peter Quill doesn’t trust anyone.

Except, this time, it seems he doesn’t have a choice.

-o-

For a second, he passes out.

It’s a glorious, beautiful second.

Then, he wakes up.

He’s been moved, arranged flat on his back in an open spot between the trees. Gamora is by his foot, and Drax is crouched above him. He smiles. “I apologize in advance,” the larger man says. “This is for your own good, however.”

Peter frowns, confused.

He’s even more confused when Drax sits over him, straddling over his hips.

“Whoa,” Peter slurs. “I don’t know if I feel that way about you--”

“Please, Quill,” Drax says, leaning forward and pressing his hands into Peter’s shoulders. “Hold still.”

“This is going to hurt,” Gamora warns.

“Yeah, you may want to shut him the hell up,” Rocket says. “I mean, we’re a ways from the road, but we already saw what happened when we lost the element of surprise.”

Peter shakes his head, because he doesn’t understand.

“Groot,” Gamora says. “Can you?”

There’s a rustling, and then Groot is sitting behind his head. His large flat face is benign, and he smiles, lifting a wooden finger and running it along Peter’s face. It’s oddly comforting, and Peter’s about to ask if this is some kind of sadistic sex ritual they’re about to embark on when Groot’s finger presses against his lips.

Peter tries to pull away, but Groot’s insistent.

“I am Groot,” he says, nodding eagerly.

Peter tries to turn again, but Drax’s frame is too heavy and Groot’s finger is, too, well, wooden. It wedges its way between his teeth, and Peter presses his tongue in futility against the gritty texture, struggling in vain against it all.

This doesn’t make sense.

This isn’t a plan.

This is torture.

“Rocket, are we clear?” Gamora asks.

“As we’ll ever be,” Rocket reports.

“Groot, keep him quiet,” Gamora orders. “Drax, he can’t move.”

Peter struggles to talk, mumbling nonsense against the wood in his mouth.

Gamora peeks her head around Drax’s massive shoulder. She looks at Peter. “Peter,” she says. “I really am sorry.”

She’s apologizing.

Why is she apologizing?

What’s going on?

What the hell is going on?

One second, he’s planning a mission. The next, it’s all going wrong. He’s stepping on landmines and blowing himself up and breaking his legs and almost dying and--

He feels Gamora touch his leg, and he tenses. Her fingers wrap tight around his ankle, and Peter sucks in hard against the pain.

Then, she pulls.

And Peter’s world explodes again.

-o-

This time, he doesn’t pass out.

No, because Peter’s life can always get worse. Because the universe well and truly hates him. Because just when Peter’s endured as much as he can handle, he’s forced to deal with more.

He thrashes, his body bucking desperately against the pain, but Drax’s grip is unyielding, pressing Peter down to the ground with a force that Peter simply can’t fight.

He opens his mouth to scream, but there’s no sound. The wood threatens to choke him, and he has no choice but to bite down as he sobs and begs around Groot’s finger.

It’s mere seconds as Gamora yanks his foot and rotates it mercilessly to the side.

The longest seconds of his entire life.

When she’s done, he’s still crying, teeth digging grooves into Groot’s finger. Drax’s brow is furrowed as he looks down in concern, but Peter’s not fighting him anymore.

No, Peter’s spent, and he’s sweating and trembling, prone on the ground. Gamora comes into view on one side, and Rocket on the other.

The racoon swears. “Damn it, Quill,” he mutters softly.

Gamora touches Drax on the shoulder, and the larger man shifts his weight off Peter, getting delicately to his feet. Groot is the last to move, gently wiggling his finger to unclench Peter’s teeth.

“Easy now,” Gamora soothes, her fingers lightly pressing against Peter’s sweat-soaked brow. “We’ll take it from here.”

When the wooden finger is pulled free, Peter doesn’t even have the energy to moan. His head rolls to the side, and all the fight is drained out of him.

He’s got nothing left.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

He still has two thugs, an assassin and a maniac.

To some, that may not seem like much.

To Peter, though, it has never seemed like more.

-o-

Peter sleeps.

Sort of.

He’s not sure it technically is sleep. In reality, it seems more like varied stages of consciousness, ranging from almost lucid to downright spaced out. It could be the pain, or it could be the fever, but Peter’s trapped between consciousness and blissful unawareness by just a few degrees in either direction.

For the record, that sucks about as much as one might expect, but Peter’s never had particularly high standards for things like this.

Sometimes, when he’s almost coherent, he sees Drax tending a fire and Rocket ripping strips of cloth with his teeth. Gamora removes bloody bandages as Groot fills his arms with branches to make a canopy over them all.

Sometimes, when he’s less coherent, he dreams of the Infinity Stone pressed into the palm of his hand, burning through him hotter and hotter. He dreams of Ronan stalking toward him, treading Peter beneath his feet while planets fall before him. He dreams of Yondu, forcing Peter to sleep in the engine room when he screws up a job, where it got so hot that he ran out of tears to cry. He dreams of his mother in a hospital bed, and the sound of her heart monitor when it beeped that one last time.

It’s easier, though, if Peter’s just asleep.

-o-

“Peter,” a voice calls. “Wake up.”

He’s ready to ignore that request when soft fingers brush against his face. The feminine touch is more than a little compelling, and Peter’s eyes are open before the rest of his body knows what’s happening.

It hurts like a son of a bitch, pain coursing through him, radiating from his leg and encompassing his entire body. He makes a mental note not to go getting himself blown up again any time soon. It’s not worth it.

Except Gamora.

She seated above him, smiling slightly. “Good to see you up.”

She looks amazing. Truly, amazing. Her skin is almost glowing, and her eyes are bright, and Peter’s starting to have a thing for green.

He swallows, trying to get some saliva back in his mouth. “Gamora,” he says, and his voice sounds scratchy and awkward. He swallows again with a wince. “I’ve got to say, I’ve totally had dreams about this.”

She raises her eyebrows. “You’ve had dreams about getting an open fracture while on the run from heavily armed guards who want to kill us?”

He blinks. Her skin is glowing...with sweat. Her eyes are bright...with worry. Peter might have a thing for green, but Gamora’s more likely to throttle him than sleep with him.

Which just makes her even sexier.

But that’s not the point.

No, Peter remembers.

His eyes widen and he tries to sit up. “The landmine--”

He doesn’t get very far. Gamora has a hand on his shoulder, but she’s too late to stop him from jostling his leg. The pain is blinding, and he’s breathing through tears as she presses him not quite gently back to the ground.

“You only partially blew yourself up,” Gamora informs him tersely. “Not for a lack of trying.”

Peter takes a few ragged breaths, and his vision almost clears. “You’re okay?” he asks. He looks around at what appears to be a makeshift campsite. Drax is sharpening his knives by the edge of the clearing, but Rocket is curled up and asleep on Groot’s lap. “We’re okay?”

“We’re fine,” Gamora tells him. “You, on the other hand--”

Peter winces, looking down at his leg. It’s been splinted, and there is a bulky layer of bandages to hide the damage, but it still feels pretty much like the worst thing ever. “How bad is it?”

“Well, it’s not good,” Gamora says. “An open fracture leaves you wide open to infection. And I have no way of knowing for sure if it’s set correctly, and if there are bone fragments--”

Peter’s eyes are wide. His leg has been snapped in half, like a twig, and Gamora is talking about the ways in which things can actually get worse.

She stops herself, looking almost guilty. “You have good circulation,” she amends, softer now. “And you have a fever, but there’s no sign of blood poisoning or anything more severe yet. As long as we get you out of here soon, I think you’ll be fine.”

Peter nods, because that’s the way it is. Shit happens, and he turns out okay. Somehow, against the odds, he’s okay.

He tells himself that, then tells himself that again, because he really needs to believe it right now.

With a grunt, he levers himself up more slowly this time. His head spins for a moment, but he gets himself under control. Licking his lips, he nods again. “How long have we been here?”

“A full day,” Gamora reports. “You were in no shape to travel.”

Peter makes a face. He’s lost a day -- a full day. That’s not good. Not on any level. “But we have a deadline--”

“Which we can still make,” Gamora says.

“And the Milano--”

“Is easy enough to take back,” she says. “Assuming they decided to impound it at all. I think you’re giving them too much credit.”

Peter furrows his brow, ignoring the impulse to remind her how they got in this mess, and scoots a little further upright. “We need a plan,” he says, because a plan is good, a plan is very good. “We need to get out of here--”

“You need to rest,” she says.

“I’ve been resting for a day,” Peter protests as he feebly tries to get up. “If we don’t start planning--”

“Hey,” Gamora says, putting a hand on his arm to keep him in place. “We have a plan.”

“Well, does it involve getting out of here?” he asks, hoping he doesn’t sound as petulant as he thinks he does. Not that he doesn’t have an excuse this time. “And getting the ship? We need to get the ship, man. That’s my ship.”

“It’s our ship,” she tells him tiredly. “And as a matter of fact, yes.”

“But we’re still in a forest with landmines,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding trees. “And armed soldiers--”

“Have probably stopped looking for us, assuming that we’re dead,” Gamora says. “We’ve been charting a clear path. We’re going to head out before twilight so we’re traveling with some light but will be at the road when it’s dark enough for the element of surprise.”

Peter opens his mouth, because he should have something to say to that. The problem is, of course, that he’s been blown up and his leg has been snapped in half. The exhaustion is a factor; the pain is another one; and there’s just the general stress of knowing everything is screwed the hell up.

Defeated before he start, Peter slumps back down. “That’s a pretty good plan, actually.”

Gamora smirks. “You think?”

Peter shrugs sheepishly, sinking all the way back down as his energy leaves him completely. “I just, I mean, if you need me--”

“We need you to get better,” she tells him emphatically. “For now, that’s your only job.”

He nods, trying to be reassured. He looks at her. “And you guys have got this?”

“Peter,” she says. “We’ve had this all along.”

He wants to ask if they’ve considered breaking up into teams, if they’ve thought about another route, if they’ve considered how to breach the air defenses, if they’ve thought about just leaving him behind, but then he looks at Gamora again.

She’s right.

It’s just taken him almost getting his leg blown off to see it.

His team hasn’t let him down.

And they’re sure as hell not going to start now.

-o-

Things, naturally, get worse. The fever rises, burning through his leg and leaving him shivering and cold. His breathing grows stunted and garbled, and when he’s awake, he’s not sure he’s awake at all. His eyes can’t quite focus, and he can’t quite draw a deep breath, and when Gamora holds water to his mouth, most of it just spills down his chin.

Rocket tells him what an idiot he is.

Drax promises to exact revenge.

Gamora tells him to hold on, just a little longer.

Groot smiles fondly as he murmurs, “I am Groot.”

If only it were that easy.

-o-

He wakes when Gamora sits him upright, and Drax holds him by the shoulder.

“Don’t drop him, you lumbering oaf,” Rocket says.

“He is quite unwieldy,” Drax tells him, adjusting his grip on Peter’s shoulders while Gamora moves around to his legs.

“He’s burning up, moron,” Rocket says. “He’s probably hallucinating.”

“He’s probably not even remotely coherent,” Gamora says, shifting Peter’s good leg.

He rolls his head, trying to prop it up. “Guys?” he asks. “Are we going?”

“Son of a bitch,” Rocket says.

“Quill,” Drax says. “You should be very still or this process could be excessively painful.”

Peter shakes his head, letting it loll back until he can see his team. “The plan…”

“The plan is to get you out of here before you die,” Rocket tells him.

“That’s not even...twelve percent,” he slurs.

“Eh, close enough,” Rocket says. “Groot, you ready?”

Peter shakes his head again, flailing his arms in protest. “But I need to--”

“Quill!” Drax says, sounding alarmed. “You will injure yourself further!”

Peter thrashes. “But I’ve got to--”

“That’s enough,” Gamora says, cutting them all off. “Peter, if you’re ever going to trust us, now is the time to start.”

Peter frowns, shaking his head. “But, I have to--”

Gamora sighs, rolling her eyes. “Fine,” she mutters. “We do this the easy way.”

Peter is thoroughly confounded now. “But it’s hard--”

“No,” Gamora says, fingers around the ankle on his injured leg. “It’s actually really, very easy.”

Before he can say anything, she starts to lift him up. Drax takes him under the armpits, and Gamora steadies his leg, jarring the injured one just enough to send a bolt of pain all the way up his spine. He wants to cry, but he doesn’t have the energy. Hell, he barely has the coherency to recognize the pain as anything but soul sucking agony that threatens to consume him. It spikes once more, and then everything starts to go blessedly dim.

The easy way, Peter decides as he passes out, may not be so bad after all.

-o-

This time, Peter sleeps.

Sometimes he hears voices.

Sometimes he feels pain.

Mostly, though, he feels safe. Whatever else there is to do, it can wait, he decides.

This time, Peter just sleeps.

-o-

He wakes up on the Milano.

He knows that much immediately. The smells, the movement, the sounds -- it’s as much of home as Peter remembers, and he doesn’t have any doubt.

He tries to sit up and promptly knows the rest.

He’s on the Milano, laid out on his bunk. He’s pumped full of painkillers and antibiotics with a full cast around his leg.

All things considered, this is an improvement.

Of course, Peter doesn’t like to consider all things. Really, this still sort of sucks. His head is fuzzy, his mouth is dry and he generally feels like crap. If the alternative is death, then it’s not so bad, but Peter’s not even sure how he got here.

“We made the meet,” Gamora says.

Peter startles, jerking his head to the side where Gamora is propped up on a chair by the door.

She tilts her head at him with a small, knowing smile. “And got paid in full.”

Peter is actually surprised by that. “No more problems in the forest?”

“After you tried to blow yourself?” she asks. “No.”

“And the guards,” he says. “Did you run into any guards.”

“A small squadron on the road, but they were unconscious before they could sound any additional alarms,” Gamora explains.

“Well, the ship,” Peter says. “Surely they had the ship.”

“They had it, yes,” Gamora says. “But then we took it.”

Peter wrinkles his brow “And you made the meet?”

“And got paid,” Gamora tells him.

“So, the job’s done,” Peter concludes.

Gamora nods. “The job’s done.”

Peter nods, trying to believe it. “It’s done.”

“And you’re fine, by the way,” Gamora says. “You spiked a bad fever before we left the surface, but your friends at the Nova Corps were generous with their medical aid. The infection has been dealt with, and they set your leg correctly.”

Peter looks down at his leg. “Still sort of feels like crap,” he admits.

Gamora sighs, dropping her feet down to sit up and look at Peter more closely. “That’s because you almost killed yourself,” she says. “You realize that, right? You almost killed yourself.”

Peter knows this, but hearing it spelled out so plainly is still a little numbing. Part of him likes to think the rest was a dream, but with a team, he knows he’s not so lucky. What happens to him actually happens now, and he can’t run from the repercussions. “Yeah,” he says with a sigh.

“What were you thinking?” Gamora asks.

Peter shrugs. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I don’t think I was. I just knew that I couldn’t let you guys down.”

“So you thought dying was the best answer?” she asks.

“I thought you not dying was the best answer,” he says.

“We had a plan,” she says. “You just had to trust us.”

“Well, that’s not so easy,” he says.

“And it is for us?” she returns. “I trusted my own skill. Drax trusted his strengths. Rocket and Groot trusted each other, but you convinced us to trust you, and here we are. We’re still trusting you.”

“That’s the thing,” Peter says. “It was my idea. It was my plan. It’s on me. I can’t let you down.”

“You’re not going to,” Gamora says. She sighs, settling her lips into a line. “Peter, you’re trying too hard.”

“I’ve never done the straight and narrow,” he says. “I’ve never had anyone follow me. I’ve never been responsible for anyone other than myself. I can’t let you down.”

“That’s not the problem,” she says.

He groans. “Then what is the problem?”

“The problem,” she continues. “Is that you need to trust us like we trust you. If you want to lead, then you need to believe we’ll follow. If you’re willing to die for us, then trust that we are willing to die with you. You can trust us.”

“But you want to kill everyone,” Peter says. “And Rocket wants to blow crap up, and Drax, man. Drax is crazy, and Groot’s sprouting stuff all over the place.”

“And that’s why you’re the leader,” she says. “We know you’ll do your part, and you can trust us to do ours.”

That makes sense, it really does, and Peter knows it. He wants to believe. He sighs again, shoulders falling. “I just…,” he starts and falters. “It’s not just that I’ve never been responsible for people. I’ve never had anyone be responsible for me. There’s never been anyone watching my back. If I wanted something, I had to do it myself. If I was going to survive, I had to take care of myself. This is new crap for me.”

Her face softens. “It’s new for all of us,” she says. “We just have to learn.”

He snorts. “I told you, I don’t learn,” he says. “One of my issues.”

She smirks, sitting back again. “I think you already have.”

She’s right.

She’s always right.

Peter sees no point in fighting that now. He smiles, nodding his head sheepishly. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I just had to figure it out the hard way.”

Grunting, she gets to her feet. “Would you like to get up?” she asks. “I could help you get to the cockpit--”

He shakes his head, settling himself more comfortably on the pillows. “Nah, I think I’m good.”

“I don’t mind,” she says. “Rocket’s got a new course--”

He makes a face, shrugging one shoulder. “You guys have got it under control right?”

She pauses, then nods. “Of course.”

“Then if it’s all the same to you,” Peter says. “I’m going to get some more rest.”

She lingers, not quite smiling, but there’s a brightness in her eyes. “I’ll have someone check on you soon,” she says. “Maybe Drax can bring you some food.”

“Sounds great,” Peter says. “I am kind of hungry.”

“I’ll let Drax know.”

“I really am craving salt,” he says. “Something meaty, if we have it.”

“I’ll have to see what we can do,” Gamora says.

“And oh,” Peter says, snapping his fingers. “Do we have any of that ale still?”

“I’m not sure alcohol is the best--”

Peter flits his hand in the air. “Then the flavored water, maybe? Or oh! The juice!”

Gamora visibly steels herself even as her eyes narrow.

He grins at her. “I’m just saying,” he says. “This whole trust thing -- it’s a little hard, but I got to start somewhere, right?”

She rolls his eyes, making her way out.

He’s still grinning when the door closes behind her.

Sighing, he looks up at the ceiling. All jokes aside, it’s a little strange, really. The idea that there are people out there looking out for him, taking care of him. People who will put his own well being ahead of their own, even when there’s not a single thing to be gained.

It’s weird, and it’ll take some getting used to.

But, Peter reflects as he settles back into sleep, maybe it’s not that hard after all.