Fandom: MCU/Guardians of the Galaxy
Rating: General (some language, some violence, some creepy stuff)
Wordcount: This part, 2757
Summary: Peter's been invited to...another part of Stark Tower!
Disclaimer: The matter of who actually owns these characters and this world is getting pretty complicated, but I can say with confidence that it's not me.
Yeah there's a Douglas Adams reference in there, what of it?
“Don’t feel like you have to answer this,” said Steve, and Peter flinched, not yet comfortable with Captain America showing him even so small a kindness as allowing him to back out of a question. “But you don’t know where Rocket is either, do you?”
They were sitting together at a table against the wall, in the same general area as the lounge where everyone else was congregating but set apart enough to be out of earshot, especially after Tony had set up his record player. They were also a few steps higher, giving Peter the odd sensation that he was overseeing his friends like a lifeguard.
He shook his head in answer to Steve. “How can you tell?”
“Well, you made it clear you wouldn’t let anything hold you down, but you haven’t said anything about when you plan to leave Earth. Seems like you’d be getting ready to check out by now if you had your whole team together.”
Peter crumbled up a paper napkin in his hand. “Yeah. We’ve been searching, but there’s not much we can do without blowing either his cover or ours, and that could be dangerous. Plus he’s sneaky, and he’s probably in a hell of a mood, so it’s the kind of thing where…”
“You’ll find him when he wants to be found?” Steve suggested.
He nodded. “Funny, isn’t it. First trip back to the planet in twenty-six years, and all I’m doing here is sitting around waiting for everyone to meet me back at the parking lot so we can leave.”
“First?” Steve sounded surprised. “You never returned after you were adopted?”
An involuntary guffaw shook Peter. “Adopted, that’s one way to put it. I call it an alien abduction. Used to make jokes about it, but honestly, that’s what happened: I was abducted by aliens. Once I got old enough to come to grips with it, I always kind of told myself that I could go home whenever I wanted. I don’t think I ever really meant to do it, the important thing was that I could if I wanted to. Does that make sense?”
“It does.” Whether it was something in his voice or in his eyes, Steve somehow conveyed the feeling that he understood completely. “So now that you’re home, how are you finding it?”
“Heh.” Peter forced his reply out of a throat that had tightened with shame. “I hate it here,” he confessed. “All I can think about is getting my people back on my ship and taking it out of this stupid orbit and going...going home. Somewhere we belong. Where I can at least know I won’t make things worse, if I can’t make them better.”
The record from the lower level filled in the silence that would have followed, and Peter found he couldn’t recognize the song or artist. He sighed. Music should have been the one thing he still had in common with Earth, but he was too far behind with too many limits.
Steve waited to speak until the record reached its end and the background noise turned into a many-voiced conversation about what to play next. Then he said, “That’s a pretty harsh judgment you’re passing on yourself.”
“Tally up the evidence, Captain. You know this hands-across-the-starscape deal is going to work best if we have as little contact as possible.” He toyed restlessly with his empty glass, wishing that he wanted it filled up again. “I was bluffing back there. Not just about Rocket. I played leader because someone had to, but once we’re out of here I have to break it to them. I can’t do this. I’d say I’m throwing in the towel, but I don’t even know where the towel is.”
The music started up again, and Peter was faintly gratified to be able to identify the voice of David Bowie. Steve was giving him a long look across the table, difficult to read. Finally he pushed his chair out and stood up. “Can I show you something?”
Without asking for any further information, Peter shrugged and followed him back down through the lounge, past the knot of people that had formed near the bar. Avengers, Guardians, a few SHIELD agents, and Pepper were there, socializing freely, deftly avoiding any serious topics. Peter saw Tony gesturing at the walls, saying he wanted to put up some art since there weren’t windows on this floor, and heard Drax’s response: “Paintings in such a place must depict the glory of the warriors who hail from it. Have your victories not yet been illustrated?”
Gamora touched him lightly on the arm. “Perhaps the Avengers prefer a different kind of art,” she suggested.
His brow furrowed deeply. “What else would they illustrate? Failures?”
Peter smothered a laugh and caught Gamora’s eye so that he could wave to show her he was leaving the room, then turned back to Steve. Together they made their exit into a quieter part of the tower, which could have been the same corridors and empty rooms that Peter had already explored, or could have been a new set of identical ones. Their path seemed aimless except that Steve was bringing them steadily higher, and eventually they took an elevator to a floor that was above even the Arc Reactor lab and the landing pad.
The walls of the little room that they entered now were glass, and there was no construction, no equipment, and no furniture except for a handrail that lined the full circle. The only thing to do in here, apparently, was stand and face the pre-twilight sky, so that was what Peter did. Steve stood beside him, eyes outward, fingers on the rail.
“What are we looking at?” Peter asked. He recognized some landmarks from movies and postcards of his childhood, but the view was so expansive that it was hard to pick out any one thing as a focal point.
“Earth,” Steve replied simply. “I thought you could use a different perspective on it. You don’t have to call this your home, Quill, but you’re not a stranger here. Think about what your eyes are telling you.”
Unsure if he could successfully follow that advice, Peter scanned the horizon and tried to leave himself open to whatever impression it might make on him. This was probably the best view of Manhattan that anyone could get, but he didn’t think that was all he was supposed to take from this experience. He had been in buildings taller than this, cities bigger than New York, worlds that were far more advanced than Earth. The only thing that felt unique about what he was seeing now was the dreamlike sense of familiarity it gave him.
“Is that the Empire State Building?” he ventured after a moment’s hesitation.
“It’s the Chrysler Building,” Steve said patiently. “That one’s the Empire State. This area over here is Hell’s Kitchen, and if you follow the waterline you can see right across to New Jersey.”
Peter nodded, making a sincere effort to remember it all and link it to those few vague memories he already had. “What about the Twin Towers? I thought they were right around there.”
“I’m told they should be.” He followed the cryptic words with a deep sigh. “Not every attack on this city has been extraterrestrial.”
Peter wasn’t sure he wanted to ask, if Captain America wasn’t volunteering the details himself. What varieties of shock, Peter wondered, had Steve experienced when he had found himself in his own world’s future? Was he ever insecure about it, or was it enough just to know that he had done what needed to be done, and that his sacrifice would mean something? The sprawl below them was taking on a new kind of beauty as its lights began to twinkle against the fading sun, but to Peter, there was an immense loneliness woven into it. “How do you not feel like a stranger?” he said. “We leave, and the whole place just chugs along without us.”
Steve turned away from the view to look Peter in the eye. “Yeah. If it’s lucky, that’s what it does.” His tone took on a harder edge. “Sometimes, when there’s a crisis, you can’t do anything about it. Because you’re halfway across the universe when it happens, or you’re frozen in a block of ice, or you just couldn’t have known until it was too late. Sometimes there’s someone else who steps in, and everything turns out okay. Sometimes there isn’t, and people die.” He gestured at the cityscape again. “People like these. I don’t know who they are, but I know they want to live and they deserve to live, and if they need some help with that, I want to give it to them.”
Peter remembered Xandar: the fear coming from the civilians during the attack, the certainty that Ronan would obliterate them if he could, Rhomann Dey’s gratitude when he didn’t. “So do I,” he said softly. “Believe me, I do. But I dodged my usual pattern and learned something from this, and…” He shook his head. “I’m not your guy. Whatever cosmic forces aligned to let us save the day once, it’s not gonna happen again, and I’m afraid to see how things turn out if we keep trying anyway.”
“Aren’t you at all afraid of how things turn out if you don’t?” He put a hand on Peter’s shoulder, a movement made no less paternal by Peter’s sudden realization that the living legend was shorter than he was. “Whatever mistakes you make along the way, there are also going to be times when you’re exactly what the situation needs. When you’re the only one who can help. How are you going to be ready for that if you quit now?”
Frustrated beyond his ability to verbalize, Peter slipped out from under Steve’s hand and took a few steps around the confines of the observatory. “There is no situation that needs me. I’m not a superhero. I’m not even really good at anything legal, unless you count seducing volatile women. The only thing I have going for me is my team, and they’re…”
“They’re what?” Steve urged. He was looking at him disapprovingly, which might have ruined Peter’s life if it had been in regard to any other subject. He didn’t know why Captain America wanted him to be Star-Lord, but his mind was already made up, and there were reasons behind it that he couldn’t explain to this faultless warrior.
“They’re amazing,” he replied. “And they’re broken. They’ve been hurt and abused and betrayed in ways I can’t begin to describe, and it fucking matters. Look at Rocket - he’s got the most insanely brilliant mind of anyone I’ve ever met, but put him back in a cage for a day and he turns brilliantly insane instead. Who’s gonna snap next? How am I gonna be ready for that? We’ve all been acting like we can just forget the past now we’ve got each other, but goddammit, we can’t.”
“Can’t, and shouldn’t.” Steve crossed his arms beneath the star on his chest and leaned back against the rail, in an unconscious show of confidence in the stability of the glass wall behind him. “The past makes us who we are.”
Peter nodded, unhappy. “It made us into thieves. Thugs. One really good assassin.”
The response took him off guard: “So you’re giving up on them?”
“No!” Peter retraced their conversation mentally, trying to remember what he had said that Steve could interpret that way. “I would never do that. They don’t even have homes outside of the Milano.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re grateful to have a place to crash. That’s a new slang phrase I picked up, ‘place to crash’. In my case it’s an uncomfortable reminder of going to sleep the hard way, but it suits the lifestyle around here, too.” There was no internal lighting in the observatory, so he looked now like a patriotic shadow framed by the light of the city below. “Your living arrangements are your own business. What I’m wondering, Quill, is what’s going to happen when it’s time for us to fight again.”
Peter chuckled mirthlessly. “Hey, if you’re looking for artillery, you won’t find two people who want Thanos dead more than Gamora and Drax. If anything you’ll have to hold them back.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “And that worked out so well with Rocket.”
Peter’s mouth fell open, and he snapped it shut quickly, hoping Steve hadn’t noticed. He had meant to say only that the Avengers would have a pair of enthusiastic allies for the battle, but the full implications of what that would really mean hit him now like a ton of bricks. Without his interference, Tony and the others might very well have subjected Rocket to a lifetime of confinement, or worse. How would they deal with someone like Drax, who had a history of drunk-dialing his enemies? Could they ever make Gamora feel enough at ease to divulge her connection with Thanos, and what kind of gamble would she be taking if she didn’t?
He gripped the rail with both hands. All around the observatory, New York sparkled with a promise that he knew better than to trust. “Why did I come back here?” he asked, more to the far-off Statue of Liberty than to Steve.
Steve answered anyway. “Because there’s going to be a crisis,” he said with iron certainty, “and you’re the only one who can help.”
Peter felt solemn as he parted company with Captain America back down in the lounge. It must have shown on his face, because he saw Gamora’s smile appear when she saw him, and then fade within seconds. Before greeting her, he turned to say goodbye to Steve and found that he was already headed to a table where Natasha was seated with Clint and Thor, but their eyes met for an instant. Following a wild impulse, Peter threw him a salute. He immediately felt stupid about it, but the Captain merely returned the salute with true military style and nodded crisply before taking his seat.
“What did he say to you?” Gamora asked Peter.
Drax had just come up behind her, exiting a conversation he had been holding with Tony and Bruce. As far as Peter could see, everyone seemed calm enough with each other, but he hoped that personal boundaries had been established or intuited. Tony was clearly the type to play with fire, and Drax, once he recognized a disrespectful attitude, was a very big fire. Somehow, Peter found he was more bothered by the idea of someone subtly poking fun at Drax than he was by the idea of Drax retaliating.
Gamora raised her eyebrows at Peter to reinforce her question. Nobody else, for the moment, was in the range to overhear them, and Peter decided he couldn’t wait until they were truly alone. “Drax, you need to start talking about your family,” he said.
Neither of them spoke. They didn’t even look capable of it. “Not just about how they died,” Peter continued. “I mean where you met your wife. What kinds of traditions you had in your house. How you felt the day your daughter was born.”
Without giving them a chance to recover, he turned to Gamora and went on without a pause. “Gamora, you need to start having fun. Your own kind of fun. Figure out something you love doing that doesn’t have anything to do with what other people made you learn to do, and let us be the ones who make it possible.”
This time, Gamora managed to respond. “Peter…”
“I’ll tell you what Captain America talked about later. I just had to say this. The Guardians are all I’ve got, all any of us have got, and we need to know that this isn’t going away. We just signed up for a war, guys. Being awesome badasses won’t cut it anymore.”
His chest shuddered a little as he exhaled. “We just had Rocket going mental and throwing his life away because he didn’t think anyone was coming to rescue him. If we don’t start living like we can count on each other, I don’t think we’re going to make it.” He met their eyes one after the other, ignoring the curious faces throughout the room that he knew were beginning to turn toward them. “I don’t know if we’ll even survive.”