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be all my sins remembered and more

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 Time moves more or less according to Ego’s whim on his planet, but she thinks that she has come out of her cocoon for four rotations around the sun when Ego claps a universal translator behind her ear, and the first child arrives.

“Calm her down, will you Mantis?” Ego says, depositing the blue, crying child at her side and walking away.

So she touches the girl, and the Luphomoid’s sadness flow into her (Where’smymommyWhyamIhereWhatisthisplaceWhoareyou) until she is bawling too (is it the girl or her asking at this point where her family is?), and they’re both crying and holding onto each other when Ego returns.

He shakes his head sorrowfully, “Oh Mantis. This won’t do.”

She looks up at him and struggles to get her breathing under control and frantically wipes at her face (although all that really accomplishes is smearing tears and snot all over the place), “I’m sorry, but—can’t we just take her home?”

(She doesn’t ask him to take her home.

She’s never known anywhere but here, but this girl does; the sparkling city shines in the girl’s memory almost as much as the warmth of her mother’s embrace does)

“Mantis, I am elevating her,” Ego said, raising an eyebrow, “I am doing her a favor. And besides, wouldn’t you like a friend to play with?”

She lowers her eyes and nods hesitantly.

(She’s never had a friend before.

It would be nice to have someone her own age to talk to and explore with, and the girl, Carith, seems nice.)

“Now, if you would calm her down?” Ego gestures toward the still sobbing girl.

She’s still holding onto her, hands clenched into the fabric of her robe and with fear thrumming through her veins, but now she lowers her head, seeks out that feeling that is right before sleep (the first she ever learned because it was what Ego wished) and whispers (calmcalmcalm), and her fingers loosen, and Carith stops crying and looks up at Ego placidly.

Ego smiles, “Good.”

He takes them to see the dioramas he’s set up about his great love with Carith’s mother and Carith’s destiny, and she can feel the gradual excitement that builds in Carith’s mind and wipes the sadness away.

There are four glorious days where she gets to show Carith around the planet when Ego isn’t busy training her, and they laugh together at popping the beautifully iridescent bubbles and running through the gardens.

Carith has a lovely smile and a bubbling giggle, and tries to teach her how to smile like her.

“Like this!” she says, grinning and pointing at her own face.

She never does get the hang of it before Carith disappears on the fourth day.

“Where’s Carith?” she asks Ego after she has searched all of the gleaming rooms in the palace and the gardens.

“Unfortunately, you will no longer be seeing Carith,” Ego says, looking in the mirror and starting to shift forms again, “She can’t control the light.”

“Did she go back home to her mother?” she asks, looking up at him.

(Carith had been excited by the planet, but at night she would look out of the windows and cry, and Mantis would hug her and tell her that surely once Ego has finished teaching her everything she needs to know, Carith could see her mother again?

Carith had nodded and had eagerly invited her to come visit her.)

“You could say that,” Ego replies as his limbs stretch out into tentacles.

“Oh. Will she come visit again?” she asks hopefully.

“I doubt it, Mantis,” Ego said gently, patting her on the head absentmindedly as he crouchs down, “Now if you would let me sleep?”

It is about two turns around the sun (full of lonely days wondering if Carith remembers her) before another child arrives, this time a boy with the tentacles and teeth to match the form that Ego has shifted into.

Instead of crying like Carith, this boy is tense, baring his teeth when she tries to smile at him, and shrinks away from Ego’s touch.

Ego sighs, glancing at her, “Mantis, if you will.”

She manages to grab one of the boy’s tentacles and (WhoarethesepeopleWhatdotheywantWhyareyoutouchingme) this time she lets his fear and anger flow over her but manages to keep enough of her own purpose to grab at the feeling of (calmcalmcalm) while frowning.

He (K’affa) stops struggling to get away but glares at both of them, “Who are you?” he demands.

Ego smiles, “I’m your father, K’affa.”

And she’s not sure about K’affa (his anger feels like the pinprick of thorns against her skin), but when Ego pulls out the same diorama but with different figures, she speaks up, “Wait, isn’t that—”

“Mantis, you’re interrupting,” Ego said with a hard stare.

(When she was first learning how to put him to sleep, she hadn’t been very good at it yet, and Ego had had the same look before making her go into the caves.

She hates the caves.

She doesn’t know where all the skeletons came from, but she doesn’t want to become one of them.)

She shuts her mouth, and listens to the same story with slight differences from Ego.

(Maybe he loved both Carith and K’affa’s mothers?)

Ego takes K’affa to train, and she only sees him at night, but even though he scares her with his sharp teeth and glowering face, she still tries to talk to him.

It takes two nights, but on the third night he is tired enough from training to talk to her.

“Do you miss your mother?” she asks, sitting next to him.

“I miss my brood,” he corrects her, staring out the window, “It’s so empty here. Is there anyone besides you and him and me?”

“Ego says inviting other people here would be like a dog inviting fleas,” she repeats, also peering out the window and the lights twinkling across the plains.

K’affa grimaces, “Pleasant,” he comments, tentacles shifting around, “Doesn’t it get lonely?”

(That’s the first emotion she ever identified.)

“Yes,” she admits, “But you’re here now!”

“Right,” K’affa says, wrapping his tentacles around himself, “I guess.”

The next night he’s gone.

She comforts herself with at least the fact that now K’affa gets to see his brood again (his affection for them had been buried beneath all his fears of this strange new place, but it had been the beating center of his self.

She would have liked to meet them.)

It’s another three turns around the sun (where for one turn, Ego goes on an extended trip, and she spends time trying to build what she thinks a brood would look like out of the vines and plants and rocks. If she happens to place some of the glowing flowers on top of the mounds to look like antennae, well, she could have come from a brood too, couldn’t she have?

Ego makes her tear it down when he gets back.

“You’re no good at that, Mantis,” he says, towering over her in his new lanky form, “Besides your family didn’t want you, need I remind you?”) before another child arrives.

This time it’s a tall, older girl, thin as a reed, with a confident stride and a sharp smile.

She requires no calming, but Mantis still reaches out to touch her, and (playalongplayalongplayalong) Sillat Fent’s wariness and suspicion coils inside her. She watches Ego’s dioramas with a cold eye, although she flashes a smile when Ego turns to look at her.

When she gets back from training, Sillat wastes no time finding her.

“So what’s the deal here?” the Hraxian girl asks, sitting down on the window ledge and kicking her feet out, “Why are we actually here?”

“What do you mean?” she asks, looking up at Sillat.

“It’s an impressive display, I’ll give you that,” Sillat said, nodding at the gorgeously verdant garden outside the window, “But in my experience, anyone who’s trying this hard to sell something has got to be hiding something. Good things don’t just fall out of the sky, so why did those pirates really bring me here?”

“No, Ego really does want you to help him!” she says (it is what she always feels when she touches Ego: his iron, unbending, undying determination to find his children and achieve his purpose).

“With what? What is this ‘expansion’ he keeps talking about?” Sillat asks, doing air-quotes with her fingers.

Mantis shook her head, “I don’t know,” she replies.

“He never told you?” Sillat asks, narrowing her eyes at Mantis.

“I’m not part of it,” she says honestly, spreading her hands out.

“You’re not one of his kids?” Sillat asks, raising her eyebrows.

She laughs, quickly covering her mouth with her hand, “Oh no.”

“Then why are you here?” Sillat asks, peering down at her.

She shrugs, “I help him sleep,” she says raising her hand and gesturing toward her antennae, “It’s my only useful power.”

“What else can you do?” Sillat asks, sliding down to sit on the floor next to her.

She touches Sillat and feels the girl’s boundless curiosity (nevermetsomeoneglowybefore) and tells her what she’s feeling and also that she can kind of change it, and also feels Sillat’s glimmering delight (ohwowsocool).

Sillat grins and claps her hands together, “That is so cool!”

“Really?” she asks, her mouth slowly drawing upwards (Sillat’s delight is infectious; it feels like bubbles under her skin).

“Yeah! Who told you that stuff was lame? It’s really cool!” Sillat said, patting her on the back, “We could make a killing, off-planet.”

“Off-planet?” she asks, looking at Sillat wide-eyed, “Me? With you on Hrax?”

Sillat snorts, “Definitely not Hrax. You’ve never been to Hrax, have you?”

She flushes and looks down, “I’ve never been anywhere,” she admits quietly.

“Seriously? Well, we’ll have to change that whenever daddy dearest is done training me or whatever,” Sillat says, leaning back with a wide grin.

 (Even after Sillat leaves to go train with Ego, she’s still smiling.

She really hopes Sillat will get to stay.)

Ego keeps Sillat for most of the daylight hours, but every time he lets her go, Sillat seeks Mantis out. The Hraxian girl is a never-ending stream of questions about the planet that Mantis can only sort-of answer, not that Sillat seems to mind. Mantis also gets to ask questions about Sillat’s life, and she obliges with stories about running through the seamy streets of Hrax, lifting what she could, and fighting her way to the top of the pack of street kids she ran with.

“But where was your mother?” she asks.

Sillat shrugs, “Never knew her. I mean I know I had one, but I mostly grew up on the streets.”

“You don’t miss it then?” she asks, rubbing her hands together anxiously.

Sillat lets out a short bark of laughter, “Hell no. On Hrax there’s really only four options: join the Nova-pigs, try to join up with the Ravagers, join one of the street gangs, or sell yourself. This is weird, but I’ll take it. I kind of miss my gang, but you’re fun.”

Mantis beams and reaches to take Sillat’s hand for reassurance (Sillat’s confidence flows through like sunlight on skin), and Sillat takes Mantis’ hand easily.

But of course it’s on the fifth day that Mantis messes everything up by blurting out that she’s so glad that Sillat will be staying, unlike Ego’s other children.

“What other children?” Sillat asks, brow furrowing and unease rising like liquid staining cloth at Mantis’ touch.

“Ego’s other kids,” she explains, gesturing at the sky, “I’ve only met two of them, and they were really nice, but they went home when they couldn’t control the light.”

“So what, Ego just called up a ship for them?” Sillat asks, sitting cross-legged and leaning forward.

Mantis shakes her head, “No; they were just gone one day.”

“And you never saw them again?” Sillat asks, brown eyes narrowing.

“No,” Mantis replies, twisting her hands together.

“Never got any messages, anything like that from them?” Sillat persists.

Mantis gestures around, at the endless fields and smooth structures, “Where would I get messages from?”

“But you’ve never heard from them again?” Sillat asks, looking around them, chewing her lip.

“No,” Mantis replies, looking down.

Sillat draws in a sharp breath and asks, “Did Ego tell you that they went home?”

Mantis nods and then bites her lip, “I—yes, I think so.”

Sillat shakes her head, standing up, “I don’t like this.”

“What do you mean?” Mantis asks, reaching out to touch Sillat’s hand (the unease has now been joined by a rising fear, like insects crawling up her back).

Sillat lets out a small breath, “Things haven’t been going so well,” she admits, crossing her arms, “I can get the light to flicker in Ego’s hands, but I can’t manifest it, and I can tell he’s getting impatient.”

(It feels as though something is falling away with those words. She has had never had many hopes, but she was stupid enough to hope for this, that someone would stay and—

And she’s scrambling for calm, but she can barely breathe, and she’s going to be all alone again, and those endless days stretch before her and—)

Sillat grabs her hand and clasps it between both of her own, “Hey, come on Mantis. It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,” she says softly (her emotions swirl between waves of worry and planning).

Mantis shakes her head frantically, “No—you’re going back, and I’m going to be stuck here, and we’re never going to see each other again—”

“No,” Sillat interrupts, still holding her hand and looking at her intently, “Help me get off of this planet, Mantis. Come with me!”

“What? No—where would we go?” Mantis asks, looking at her with shock.

(Leave?

That was an option?)

“We can join up with the Ravagers or something; they’re always looking for new recruits, and I’m good with a knife,” Sillat replies, her confidence flowing through Mantis like a coil of live energy.

“But I’m not?” she points out.

“I’ll look out for you,” Sillat promises (determination like a craggy mountain rock), “I swear. Let’s get out of here, okay?”

“But Ego—”

“Fuck Ego,” Sillat says, glaring around, “I knew this was shady from the beginning, and I don’t know what happened to the other kids, but we need to get out of here.”

“I don’t understand,” Mantis said, gripping Sillat’s hand tighter.

“Look, good things usually don’t happen to random kids who get picked up by space pirates and dropped off on planets, okay?” Sillat said, looking down (regret sings mournfully through her), “And I’m still not sure exactly what is going on here, but the sooner we’re off this planet, the better.”

“I’m not sure about this…” Mantis says, scuffing the floor with her shoe.

(Is she anything without Ego? He saved her and took her in when no one else wanted her, so doesn’t she owe it to him to stay?)

“Do you trust me?” Sillat asks, looking Mantis in the eye, voice wavering a bit at the end (and insecurity trembling like weeds in the wind).

(She wouldn’t be alone anymore, and Sillat—she has never seen Sillat’s confidence waver until now.

Sillat needs her more.)

“Yes,” Mantis answers, nodding and straightening up, “Yes, I do.”

Sillat’s mouth relaxes into a smile, “Great, good. Now, how do we get out of here?”

“Ego has a ship—”

And then a tendril of light punches through Sillat’s chest, and her hands go limp, and all the light goes out of her brown eyes.

“Sillat?” she asks, shaking her friend’s hand (nononononono), “Sillat? Sillat!”

She’s still shaking Sillat and trying to dislodge the light from her (nononono), ignoring the tears running down her face (wakeupwakeupwakeup) when Ego’s voice breaks through.

“This is all your fault Mantis. Look at what you made me do.”

“What—What do you mean?” she asks, turning around, not letting go of Sillat’s (cold) hand.

Ego sighs, “Sillat had some promise, but ultimately she’s better off like this,” he said, gesturing at Sillat(‘s still body), “Especially with all those ideas of running away.”

“You—you killed her!” she yells, her voice unrecognizable to herself.

“No, Mantis. You did,” Ego replies calmly, “I was going to give her a few more days to see if she could ultimately control the light, but this disobedience…no, she’s better off drained. Your fault, of course.”

“No—I—”

Ego shakes his head, “Such ingratitude, Mantis. I saved you from being abandoned, and now not only do you want to abandon me, you wish to steal my own child from me?”

“I didn’t—you killed her,” she repeats, covering her mouth with trembling hands, “She’s—she’s—”

“Better off,” Ego says, flicking some dirt off of his sleeve, “I’ve extracted everything I need from her, and I think since it is your fault, you should be the one to dispose of her with the others.”

“The others?”

Ego gives her a flat look, “The caves Mantis, pay attention.”

“The caves—” her eyes widen.

(Had she known but managed to block it out? That they have been down there this whole time, down in the dark?

That they are more than just gone, that they are no more, Carith who had been scared of the night, and K’affa who had looked at everything with such trepidation?)

She can’t seem to stop shaking her head, or the tears dripping down her cheeks, or her entire body from shaking, “You killed all of them—You said they went back home!”

“I never said that,” Ego snapped, irritation seeping into his voice, “You assumed.”

(Had she?

She doesn’t—she doesn’t know, it’s all a confused swirl of images right now, and she thought she had known sadness but this—

She thinks she’s drowning.)

“What are you waiting for, Mantis?” Ego said, waving a dismissive hand at Sillat, “Chop, chop.”

“Why?” she asks, looking up at him, “Why?”

Ego rolls his eyes, “I told you, none of them can access the light. They’re better off this way.”

“But—they didn’t try to run away—”

“Yes, you sped up Sillat’s fate. Who do you think knows better, Mantis?” he asks sharply, “You or me? You are a girl that no one except me wanted, and I am their father.”

(And he is the only father she has ever known, from her own life and Carith’s, K’affa’s, Sillat’s.

What does she know?

She is only Mantis)

“Clean this up,” Ego says, pointing at Sillat, “And I think…five days down in the caves surrounded by your mistakes, should do, shouldn’t it?”

 She barely manages to nod (Sillat looks like a wax replica of herself, all the life, laughter, and cocksure grin gone).

“And Mantis? I don’t need to tell you what will happen if you open your mouth around one of my children again,” Ego says, jerking her arm so that she will have to look him in the eye.

And so she doesn’t.

She doesn’t say a word, not during the five days in the caves (surrounded by all of Ego’s children, but she can’t find Carith or K’affa, no matter how much she plucks up the tatters of her courage to dig through the bones. Or maybe she found them, but she can’t recognize them, and all she can do is try to bury Sillat and cry and cry and cry when Ego’s voice rings out in the dark to tell her to stop), nor to the next few children that arrive (Rhee-Var, a confused Sakaraan girl; Ysril, a wary Frost giant boy; Jarael, a curious Centaurian boy).

Every single one, she simply does her job of calming their emotions under Ego’s watchful eye, and she watches each one disappear in a matter of days.

Ego tells her to smile, and she somehow dredges up something that can pass for one (it still feels like a slap in Carith’s and Sillat’s faces), and he tells her to make the children feel welcome so she gives them food and toys and listens to them prattle on (Rhee-Var had never seen so many colors before, Ysril couldn’t stop reaching out at the bubbles, Jarquel climbed every tree he could see), but she doesn’t say a word.

She does reach out, triggering every shred of determination and persistence these children have, and she hopes and prays (to the stars that gleam overhead freely) that one of them, any of them can succeed, but none of them do.

(She wants to lay flowers on their graves, but any flowers on this planet are part of Ego, and it seems obscene to add that to their bodies.)

Haran, a Vanir girl with a quiet confidence that seems a close complement of Sillat’s (she’s quiet where Sillat was loud, and a small smile to Sillat’s smirks, but she thinks they would have gotten along well) is the one who breaks her silence, who asks her why she doesn’t speak, and continues to talk to her patiently, despite the lack of response.

Haran is telling her about trying to move the light and how hard it is, and muses about how she misses her village, when Mantis shakes her head and turns to her.

(Who knows if Ego is listening?

Who knows if Ego will take that as Haran wanting to run?)

“Please,” she says, her voice rusty with disuse, “Try.”

Haran blinks and then smiles, “So you can talk! Don’t worry, I’ll try harder; I don’t want to leave just yet. Besides, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.”

She manages to smile back and grabs her hand to send more determination (rocks on a cliff, clattering down) to her, but it doesn’t help.

Three days later, Haran is gone as well.

It doesn’t matter how much she begs or pleads, Ego at best ignores her and at worst has her carry the body to the caves and stay there.

She wonders if this is what it will be like forever, always meeting children (Malkor, a silent dark elf boy, Cyra, a shifty Chitauri boy), always giving them a false sense of hope, and always losing them, when Ego suddenly bounds up to her one day, beaming in a Terran form, and announces, “I found him!”

“Who?” she asks, warily watching him.

(She has never seen Ego so pleased.)

“My boy! My river lily’s child: Peter,” he says, misty-eyed, “All these years I’ve wondered where he could be, and now there’s a Terran who can hold an Infinity Stone!”

(This is the first time she’s ever heard him even speak of a child before one arrives.)

“We will go fetch him,” Ego said, turning around and gesturing for her to follow.

She blinks, “We’re—we’re going off-planet?”

Ego shrugs, “Considering the last time I sent pirates to fetch him, I lost him, I think it best I fetch him myself this time.”

“And—you want me to—come with you?” she asks slowly.

“It’ll be a long journey, and I would like to sleep for most of it. Also, Peter is older; I might need you to set him at ease,” Ego mused, straightening out his clothes.

And she thinks that maybe at least she will be able to see the stars up close before everything comes crashing down again, and she does, except this time—

This time is so much better and worse than all of the other times.

She gains a family of sorts, but loses every remnant she has of the children that now only she remembers.

(She has wondered sometimes if the mothers still lived and grieved for their lost children, but she also knows what Ego does to those he deems to have served out their purpose.

It’s probably only her now, who still grieves.)

The ship is noisy, full of people bustling around at all hours. If it isn’t Rocket tinkering away in a corner, then it’s Groot (so adorable and steadily growing larger) running around trailing vines, or Kraglin whistling and practicing with the arrow (she learns to duck quickly), or Peter blasting music away at all hours.

Although for the most part, she doesn’t see Peter much.

He mostly keeps out of her way, and she keeps out of his because it is quite painful to look at him sometimes.

His loping walk puts her in mind of Sillat’s confident stride, his grins to his friends makes her think of Carith’s lovely smiles, his snarling squabbles with Rocket and Kraglin reminds her of K’affa, his care around Groot has traces of Haran’s quiet focus, his constant movements seem a lot like Jarquel’s boundless energy, and—

And if she doesn’t stop, she’ll drown in the fragments she sees.

Instead, she walks the halls of the ship (an actual Ravager ship!), exploring the winding hallways, tapping bio-locks, and running a hand over the names of the dead etched prominently by Kraglin and Peter on the wall right before the door to the command center. It’s true that it’s somewhat grimier and smellier than what she had imagined (the less said about the showers, the better), but here she stands, also freer than she could have ever imagined.

(But it isn’t even her dream, is it? It’s Sillat’s.

It should have been Sillat standing here.)

And for the most part it’s fine; she spends her time with Drax and Gamora. She trusts Drax’s steadfast love for his family, both alive and dead, and she finds Gamora helpful, despite the fact that she still avoids Mantis’ touch, since she will patiently answer any questions Mantis has.

And it probably could have gone on like that longer since it is a large ship with hours as irregular as the disparate crew, if it hadn’t been for her wandering into the wrong part of the ship during one of the Guardians’ jobs and nearly getting shot.

Drax declares that it is unacceptable that she does not know how to defend herself (she points out that she did manage to duck behind the crates fast enough but to no avail) and that must be remedied immediately.

“You need someone as weak and frail as you to train you. Peter will do,” he said, crossing his arms.

“What? First off, just because I can’t crash into fifty trees and be fine doesn’t mean I’m frail! Second, why can’t Kraglin do it?” Peter demands, holstering his blasters.

Drax gives Peter a look, “Kraglin can barely whistle that arrow in a straight line. He has enough training troubles.”

“I don’t see why—”

“Aren’t you the captain, Peter?” Gamora calls out, climbing down one of the ladders, “Is it not the captain’s responsibility to see that his crew is sufficiently prepared?”

Peter’s face has a stormy look (like Ysril), so Mantis quickly spoke up, “He doesn’t need to—I’ll be fine—”

“No,” Peter cut in, with a sigh, “You’re right. It’s a rough galaxy out there. Plus, if you could use a blaster, you wouldn’t even need that good of an aim to just make people leave you alone.”

“You really don’t have to—”

“Nope, blaster range before dinner,” Peter said, walking down the hall, “See you then!”

She doesn’t want to go (won’t it just be another thing for her to fail at?), but both Drax and Gamora shoo her off when the appointed hour arrives, and Kraglin distractedly points out the way while whistling the arrow in a slow spiral, so she walks into the blaster range and is alone with Peter for the first time.

She’s not sure what she’s expecting, but it definitely wasn’t Peter disassembling a blaster in front of her and earnestly explaining to her what each part does as he slowly reassembles it in front of her. He then disassembles the parts again and gestures for her to pick up the pieces.

She’s slow, dropping pieces and biting her lip when she can’t remember how to proceed or what a certain piece does, but Peter never rolls his eyes or throws his hands up in disgust or walks away; he simply nudges certain pieces toward her and simply repeats his explanation of what every piece does.

By the time she finally reassembles the blaster, she hears the blast of music (“Come a little bit closer”) that signals that it’s time for dinner.

Peter claps her on the shoulder, “Good work,” he says, turning to leave.

“That’s it?” she asks, looking down at the blaster in her hands.

“A Ravager ain’t worth the flame if he doesn’t know his weapon in and out,” Peter says, nodding at the blaster, “We’ll do this a couple of times until you get the hang of it, and then we can start shooting.”

She’s not really sure about any of this, but she nods, and she expects him to make fun of her in front of the others during dinner, but he just says that lessons went well and proceeds to pile his plate with some sort of disgusting looking fiber mash (he calls it “mashed potatoes and gravy” and claims it’s a Terran delicacy, but she feels like this is one of Peter’s odd jokes).

Rocket scoffs, “What are you teaching her to use those puny things for? Should get her a real gun.”

“We are not blowing holes in the side of the ship again, Rocket” Peter says, pointing a loaded fork at him.

Rocket shakes his head, “You just want to suck the joy out of everything.”

As Peter and Rocket bicker, and Groot happily crawls around the table, Gamora looks at her.

“So it went okay?” she asks, neatly arranging the tubers on her plate.

Mantis nods quickly, “Oh yes,” she replies, looking down at her leafy salad and grubs.

Gamora frowns and lowers her voice, “Hey. If Peter is making you uncomfortable—”

“No,” Mantis cut in, shaking her head, “It’s just—it’s weird, holding a weapon.”

(And it’s absolutely bizarre for Ego’s son to be the one patiently teaching her.)

“In the best case, you’ll only have to fire warning shots,” Gamora says, glancing at Peter who looked like he was on the verge of dumping his protein mash on Rocket, “But if any point you want to stop, just let me know.”

“But Drax—”

“I’ll deal with Drax,” Gamora says, with a slight wave of her hand, “You should be able to choose what you learn, after all.”

(And she’s never thought about learning anything in the way of weapons, but the lesson today had been okay, and who knows, maybe it will make her stop thinking that Ego is just hiding around the next corner.

It is hard to believe even now that he is gone.)

“I want to continue learning with Peter,” she replies finally, looking Gamora in the eye.

Gamora nods, digging into her tubers, “Alright, but just know that my offer will always stand.”

And so the lessons continue much as Peter had described the first day, with her getting the hang of all the blaster parts after a few days (it’s a little like placing back the tiles in Ego’s palace after she had gotten in trouble for moving them around), and then, when he had decided she was ready, he looked up some coordinates on the nav-screen that made him grin and took the ship to a heavily forested planet.

(The woods grow wildly and erratically all over this planet, with no neat lines or intricate patterns. They tromp through hedges and brambles and bushes that Peter carelessly pushes away or shoots through until they reach a clearing that has weeds growing all over it and branches littering the field. There is an odd musty smell to the place, something organic with a flash of plasma.

She finds it lovely.)

She fires off a shot at a well-worn target painted onto one of the trees, but not only does she widely miss, the ricochet grazes Peter, singing his coat.

She cringes, glancing over her shoulder, apologies ready to tumble from her mouth, expecting Peter to have that expression of terrible disapproval that was the same no matter what form Ego took on whenever she messed up again, but instead he laughs (loud and full of life; too much like Sillat).

“Do you know I did nearly the exact same thing the first time Yondu took me here?” he says happily, brushing at the singed hole on his coat, “Except I hit Horuz.”

“And he didn’t get mad at you?” she asks, lowering the blaster.

“Oh, Horuz was mad. I’m pretty sure it’s the main reason he never liked me,” Peter replies blithely, gesturing at the blaster, “I think it’s the kick-back. Just know that there’s going to be some recoil after you shoot.”

She shook her head, “No, I meant Yondu?”

“Oh hell, he cussed up a storm at me; I probably learned some new curse words that day. Then he threatened to let Horuz eat me, but after Kraglin took Horuz to the medic, he let me start practicing again, laughed, and said that sometimes Horuz needed to be shot at anyway,” Peter replied, voice still light, but he looked down and started fiddling with his own blasters.

(The first time she had put Ego to sleep, she had only managed for an hour instead of the week he had wanted.

He had dropped her down a sinkhole all the way into one of the caves on the other side of the planet.

She had screamed her throat raw trying to get away from the skeletons crowded in the caves, but she couldn’t find a way out. She had had to make do with a small crevice she had found that didn’t have any bones in it.

It had been a week before Ego had let her out. She never let him wake up before he specified ever again.)

“He treated you well,” she said quietly.

“Yeah, he did,” Peter said heavily, looking at the target, “He tried—and he did.”

She doesn’t know what to say, so she reaches out and places a hand on his shoulder like she has seen both Drax and Gamora do, and the wave of grief that overwhelms her is so similar to Carith’s (waves that pull you in, that sink, that drown), that for a second she could almost swear that she could see the small Luphomoid girl standing there.

She grabs her hand away, and tries to breath.

(Carith is gone; even her bones are lost now.

Nothing remains of any of them except the man mourning his true father, standing before her now.)

“I’m glad,” she finally chokes out while wiping at her face with her hands, “I’m glad. You were lucky.”

“How many of my—my half-siblings I guess, did you know?” Peter asks, not looking at her.

She draws in a deep breath (well. She supposes it should be a surprise that he hadn’t asked earlier), “Nine,” she replies.

“Nine,” he repeats, rubbing at his mouth, “And they were what—Xandarian? Krylorian?”

“Luphomoid, As’Kavarian, Hraxian, Sakaraan, Frost Giant, Centaurian, Vanir, dark elf, and Chitauri,” she recites.

(Cairth, K’affa, Sillat, Rhee-Var, Ysril, Jarquel, Haran, Malkor, Cyra, she repeats in her head to herself.

Sometimes she’s afraid she’ll forget their names.)

“Jesus, Ego really got around,” Peter says, with a small dark chuckle, “I thought dark elves were just one of the stories the crew used to tell me to scare me into hiding in the storage room.”

He pauses and then looks at her, “Were you close to any of them?”

“Sillat,” she whispers.

“Which one was she? The Centaurian?” he asks.

“The Hraxian,” she corrects him

“And she lasted the longest?”

“No,” she shook her head, “That was Haran. She was Vanir.”

(Haran, so sure she could control the light, and lasting so long that Mantis had started to feel stirrings of hope, until once again everything ended.)

“But you were closest to Sillat?”

She gives him a smile that as soon as it inches up her face she knows is closer to a grimace, “Before Sillat, I didn’t know what was happening to the children. I thought he let them go home.”

“And after?” he asks carefully.

She looks away, “And after—after, I did what I was told,” she said tonelessly, staring at the ground, “If he said to calm them down, I did. I—I tried to help them gain control of the light. But it didn’t work—there was nothing I did that helped—there was no way out—I was useless.”

(Couldn’t save them in life, and couldn’t give them a proper burial in death.)

“How old were you in all of this? Actually, how old are you in general?” Peter asks, frowning.

“I don’t know,” she says miserably, “I think it was four turns around the sun before Carith came. Sillat was a little older than me when she arrived.”

“I was eight when Yondu was supposed to bring me to him; were the others all around the same age?” he asks.

“Most of them; Sillat, Haran, Ysril, and Melkor were older I think. Carith and Jarael were younger,” she answers.

Peter lets out a slow breath, “Tell me about them?” he asks.

So she does. She tells him about Carith laughing and racing through the fields of the planet with her, about Jarquel climbing trees and tossing jewels down to her, about K’affa giving her the idea of a brood, about Haran coaxing out her words and telling her she would stay and try, about Ysril drawing patterns of ice out of thin air but not the light, about Rhee-Var standing speechless at the bounty of the palace, about Cyra changing his face and trying to get away, about Malkor wandering through the gardens for hours at a time, and about Sillat.

Confident, brave Sillat who had headed street gangs and could have led fleets if only she had not tried to help Mantis.

She expects Peter to interrupt her as she jumps from story to story to story (Jarquel reminds her of Carith, Carith reminds her of Rhee-Var, Rhee-Var reminds her of Haran, and Haran will always remind her of Sillat), but he never does, so by the time she stops her flood of words, it’s already getting dark, and Peter is still listening.

“You really loved them then, huh?” he finally says.

(Is it love if it is useless and still leaves still bodies at the end of it all?)

“I’m the only one left to remember them,” she replies quietly, staring out into the looming trees, “Even their bones are lost now.”

“Do you know how many kids there were? In total?” he asks.

She shakes her head, “Every cave there was filled with their bones. I couldn’t even find Carith’s or K’affa’s when he had me bury Sillat.”

For a long time they just stand there looking into the trees, the targets lightly glowing from she assumes the paint, until Peter says slowly, “You know, Thanos kidnapped Gamora when she was little too. Trained her and made her kill a lot of people. We don’t hold that against her; we—I can’t hold Ego’s shit against you.”

“Even if I killed your siblings?” she asks, looking him in the eye.

(Let it be out in the open then; she tires of hiding in shadows.)

“You didn’t kill them,” he says, grabbing her hand so she can feel his sincerity (warm brilliant sunlight mixed with prickles of righteous anger) flow through, “Ego was a jackass, and—you remember everything about these kids. You were as much a victim as any of them.”

She shakes her head quickly, “No. I’m not dead.”

“You survived—”

“There is no honor in survival,” she snaps, wrapping her arms around herself, but not letting go of his hand.

“Fuck that noise,” Peter said (righteous anger bubbling through like steam), “You know what Yondu told me once? He said honor was for people all high and mighty and hoity-toity with no idea what the real world is like. That wasn’t me, and that wasn’t you.”

“I couldn’t save them,” she says.

(Couldn’t or didn’t? She can’t figure out the distinction.)

“You helped save us,” he points out.

“That doesn’t make up for everyone who is dead.”

“Maybe not, but—you got to start somewhere, right?” he asks, with a slight quirk of the mouth.

She looks down at their joined hands (and gets a flash of Sillat’s rough fingers intertwined with her own), and she doesn’t believe him, but—

(Sillat asked once if she had trusted her, and maybe if she had faster, maybe somehow they could have beaten the odds and escaped.)

“Let’s go home,” he says gently, “We can do practice again tomorrow.”

She nods, and they go hand in hand back to the ship, Peter’s presence like a warm blanket at the back of her mind, and when Groot runs up to them in the ship, Peter grins and gestures for her to scoop him up and leaves her cooing at Groot while the small tree grows flowers in her hair.

Things don’t change too much after that. Peter continues giving her shooting lessons (she manages to hit close to the target after a few days and Peter’s steady stream of stories of his own disastrous early shooting training), and she still wanders on her own through the ship’s twisty corridors, but—

But now during mealtimes, Peter leans over and steals some of her roots and grubs from her plate like he does with the others while Gamora urges her to stab him with her fork (she doesn’t since Peter’s face every time he actually tries her food is an amusing, scrunched-up sight to behold).

Now whenever anyone asks how practice is going, he embellishes her performance to the point that she usually has to break into his story about how she managed to fight off a whole pack of wild beasts and stammer out that actually she just managed to hit close to the center of a target, and Peter just grins.

Now he actually asks her if she has any song requests, and when she hesistantly asks for the song with a fox on the run (she likes the beats and the shouting), he plays it on loop for days until the others are begging her to pick something else.

And then about a month after their first shooting lesson in the woods, Drax urges her toward the command center of the ship with an enigmatic smile, and when she gets there, she sees new names engraved next to those of the other dead Ravagers.

Cairth, K’affa, Sillat, Rhee-Var, Ysril, Jarquel, Haran, Malkor, Cyra.

 She is still brushing trembling fingers over the names (here, finally, a marker, a reminder that they had lived) when Peter pops his head out of the control center.

“Did it turn out okay?” he asks, brow furrowed in worry, “Wasn’t too sure about the spelling, but Gamora helped me out, and Rocket’s got this awesome translator chip he whipped up—and if you don’t think the names are big enough, or you want to reorder them, or put them somewhere else—”

“You did this?” she asks, turning to face him, hand still on the wall.

He nods, “Yeah. You like it?”

Yes,” she says, fingers still tracing the names (SillatSillatSillat we finally made it onto a ship), “But—why?”

“You said there was nothing left of them, and I know it’s not the same, but I thought—well, they were kind of like your family, and now we are, so that kind of makes us all family, so now all of us can remember them as well?” he says, with a hand on the back of his neck.

(No one has ever wanted to remember them before.

Just her.)

She leaps at him and wraps her arms around him right before she breaks down in long, shuddering sobs, and Peter hugs her back and awkwardly pats her on the head.

“So—is that good? Is that okay?”

She manages to nod into his shoulder while still crying, and his worried confusion (a damp cold fog) shifts to cheer (warm sunlight on a clear day).

“Oh thank god, or else Gamora would gut me,” he says.

“Thank you,” she says, looking up at him.

“Anything for a fellow Guardian of the Galaxy,” he says with a grin.

(And it isn’t perfect because they’re all still dead when they should be standing here at her side, but—

She’s here, she’s still alive, and she has a chance to make sure nothing like this happens to any other children again, to try to atone.

And at long last, she has a brood of arguing, noisy, affectionate friends as family at her side to help her along the way.

She has to make a start somewhere, right?)