It was when the Celestial said that no molecule of Ego would continue existing intact that Peter got the warm, trusting feeling in his gut. Sure, she’d pulled herself together out of thin air and bright light to appear on board the Quadrant with no warning, and had happened to scare the pants off Mantis while doing so, but this was obviously a lady of sound judgement. An excellent sense of scale, too. Completely admirable levels of commitment.
He put her offer to a vote among the crew, though - they should get a say about whether or not to buy into something this big. Groot was already swinging off her braids before Peter called the group huddle, which was good to see. Not that Groot was a fantastic judge of character, but 1) aawww, and 2) it was reassuring that the Celestial only looked startled when he’d asked permission, then curious, and made her hair less luminescent, more solid, in reaction.
“Groot, you can keep swinging – and hey, thanks for playing with him like this,” he said, shooting the Celestial his best grin, “but do you want to come have a team talk instead? Okay, cool. Up you get, big guy.” Peter put him on the shoulder that was not close to Gamora, or he’d probably try and use her hair as a swing too. Oof, kid was getting heavy. Peter closed the circle and lowered his voice, for whatever discretion was worth when someone who could tap into the raw firmament of the cosmos was involved.
“Our Celestial sort-of-guest made me an offer,” he said. “In repayment for her ‘brother’s’ crimes, apparently, and as punishment for what’s left of Ego. I think it’s an afterlife thing? Not really feeling like I want to get into the cosmic mysteries of it all, but I know I like the sound of punishment. And she says I get dibs. I explained you guys helped blow him up, but it’s the killing him plus the blood relative thing…” He thought he did admirably at controlling the twist of his mouth. “So I can make a choice about how the … remnants of Ego - those stupid blobs clogging up the pipes of the known universe, you know, and all his light that’s still zipping round space – that can all get remade.”
“Remade? What, like into units?” Kraglin gave him a considering look. “Actually, I’m kinda surprised we don’t got a new stack of Ego toilet paper in storage already.”
“I am Groot!”
“How would you know that would be a waste of energy?” Rocket asked him, and Peter did a double-take.
“Uh, Groot’s right. Weren’t you still two floors down when I was talking to her about that?” he asked Groot, but then shook his head and got back on track. “She said it’s a lot of energy we’re talking about, even now. The Celestials want every last bit of Ego used up, chewed over, and turned into something else. She was saying that there are options to do stuff like bend space-time. Once again, there’s a real opportunity here to think about how to make some weird shit. It does not sound like the safest thing, so we can drop it if you guys want. But, I gotta say, I’m finding it tempting.”
“Quill! Your Walkman!” Rocket said, as if this was as natural a conclusion to him as it had been to Peter, who’d had ‘ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka’ chanting in his mind since the implications of the Celestial’s offer sank in. Gamora brightened and made a ‘go on’ gesture, and on his shoulder, Groot swayed as he put one hand to the side of his head like someone wearing earphones. Drax sighed, but smiled, and Kraglin did the reverse. Belatedly Mantis started beaming, her antennae glowing without any particular touch involved – wow, they really were all happy for him.
“And Awesome Mix Vol. 2!” Peter said, hands flying up in excitement. He turned to go to the Celestial, quickly passing Groot to Drax before approaching her.
“I can ask for sort of a two-in-one, right? A device that plays music plus one containing the music that it played? Ego broke it, to pieces, and then I lost most of it down there with him. If you can just get me one, then, ugh, one’s got the handwriting but the other one she had for so long … okay. If it’s gotta be one of them, I would love, you have no idea, to have my mom’s Walkman put back to how it was. So, I mean, in the same functioning order it was in before being smushed, and back in my possession as soon as is possible and safe.” It was a weird deal, and he figured he’d better word it as well as he could, just in case. “But if you can manage it, the tape inside it too, on the same specifications? That would be so great, I would be immensely grateful.”
Her eyes followed things he couldn’t perceive, darting in sharp, calm assessment that didn’t seem nearly as weird as it should, and then she looked at him. Possibly at every molecule of him, sheesh.
“On this plane, at this intersection of moments, with this energy to use…” the Celestial said, musing, but growing ever surer in those murmurs. “You’ll have what you want.”
There was a lightshow, not unexpected, and his friends stepped closer to watch it with him. It was surprisingly sharp in form – he’d have expected something like the firefly specks Groot could release, or the fluid responsiveness of Ego’s internal light, but these were leaflike blades of light that cut into each other, forming a fence around an obscured centre. Maybe it helped to keep the power contained, because while there was nothing that looked like it was going to reach out and melt everything within a couple hundred thousand lightyears, something in him felt that the possibility was on the table. He let himself think, properly, for the first time since it became clear what kind of person Ego truly was, of the light that had welled up into his hands ... of the cosmos being shaped through him. Yeah, there was room for worry.
If it weren’t for appearing to be a little nervous – probably also some primal-screaming fragments of self, bouncing around inside of them in warning - Peter was sure his friends would have wandered off for snack or toilet breaks. The whole thing was taking quite a while, but who was he to critique technique when it came to divine power? The Pacman had been amazing, but he was an amateur. So he leaned against a wall, watched everyone watching the show alongside him, and, hopeful, waited.
“That should be--” the Celestial murmured, then interrupted herself with “Ah! of course!” as if something had just occurred to her. Another few sharp looks at something hidden from ordinary sight, a fractional cool sharpness of the leaf-lights … and then they disappeared in ones and twos, and the little screaming voices in Peter finally lay back and took a breather. He fought himself not to literally hold his thumbs, did it anyway, and squinted at the space being revealed as the lights folded in on themselves.
His mother lay on the ground.
The lights kept disappearing. That right there kept being his mother, sprawled on the ground.
Her drip. For giving her food without her having to move too much, that’s what they’d said, eating made her tired - that was the thing attached to her by the arm, a drip. It lay toppled right beside her. And its bag of water-looking stuff didn’t look all that full, either. That couldn’t be good, she was already too thin. For months before dying, months and months, autumn to spring.
Had been. She had been too thin, but wasn’t now, despite lying there. She’d been that like she’d been his mother, a whole lot of years ago before she had to go. Not now. It couldn’t be, not… She started to disappear from his sight, a black haze around her, and Peter thought he fell as he fought back against that.
“That medical equipment, it seems, will help keep her in ‘functioning order’ for a while, until she recovers from my brother’s actions.” That was the Celestial, sounding pre-occupied. “You’ll need plugs, are there…? Hm? That’s her, music and love and all the rest. But, I’m serious, plugs...” The Celestial must be speaking to somebody, but her voice was the only clear one. “No, three-point... I suppose that could work.”
… Beep. Beep. Beep.
It was exactly the same.
It was real.
So Peter got up and ran, thudded to his knees and grabbed to take one of her hands from where it lay limp over her stomach.
It was exactly what he’d hated the thought of.
Except that, cold and unfamiliar as it was, she opened her eyes.
The heart monitor kept beeping, and doing it steadily, too. Peter made introductions, despite a frantic yelling in one part of his mind that his mother had closed her eyes again. It’s okay, come on, man, the leader side of him said, that’s blinking. They’re open again, see! She’s a little slow about it, because she’s dead, she was, she isn’t…
Later, Mantis said she’d put him to sleep for his own good, which he accepted. Even the fact that she’d knocked him out another three times that he could bring to mind, and that there might have been a couple more times between bouts of hysterical laughter, tears, and trying to sing.
There came a point where Peter lay on his bunk alone, looked at his hands, and only let slip a few more tears. She’d felt cold and wrong, bony and limp, right here across his palms and the inner curl of his fingers, but she’d felt real, and she was alive.
“Pete!” Kraglin said through the door. “Still passed out?”
“Come on in.” Then he sat up fast and had to resist the urge to start running and get out before Kraglin could even jiggle the handle right to open the door. Here Peter was, grown and capable, and his mother was recovering – he had to go help her. Except that he wouldn’t be much use. Seeing her again… Okay, time for more tears.
Footsteps stopped in front of him while he was knuckling his eyes. “You guys took care of her,” he not quite stated, not quite asked.
Kraglin, still having a lot of first-mate habits, reported thoroughly: After Peter had been subdued so as to stop yelling things along the lines of “Guys, this is Mom! Mom, this is …” they’d taken her vitals as best they could, the Celestial helping to assess the machinery that had been brought with her, and had finally been satisfied to get her a bed and move her to the closest room with a toilet attached. Then, at Gamora’s insistence, to the closest clean room with a toilet attached, though she’d settled for cleaner and putting a mask over ‘Momma Quill’s’ face as they scoured and vacuumed and worked at growing a flower for the bedside.
“Meredith,” Peter whispered. A memory came to him of a time when he’d been surprised to put together that ‘Meredith’ was Mom, staring at his grandfather in kiddie confusion for calling her the ‘wrong’ thing. “You guys can call her Meredith. God, it’s a nice name, isn’t it? I just want to say it. Oh man, I probably shouldn’t, what’s that thing, use the Lord’s name in vain anymore. Oh, dang, I can’t swear at all. But you know, I’m not sure I’ve even called her by name myself? Why would I, right? Meredith. It’s so beautiful.”
Kraglin snorted. He was looking thoughtful in the way he did when blocking off other expressions, the frown a touch deeper than if he’d been contemplating something like why first mates had to put up with knuckle-dragging dumbasses all the time. “Everybody’s kind of been orbiting that Celestial lady asking questions, but, as it turns out, nobody else can be brought back. Would put too many holes in the continuum and all. That energy of Ego’s has been used up now, so it’s not going to be able to patch up anything else.”
“How’s everyone doing?” Peter hid behind a hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. He couldn’t stand to imagine how opposite to him they had to feel, and looking at Kraglin made him think about Yondu, and just the start of that thought needed smothering. “Bet Mantis is still okay, and Groot’s only mad for no reason, just like before.”
“Mood out there could be better. But your people are being your people – there ain’t gonna be a ruckus from them. Or from me,” Kraglin muttered, that overly-thoughtful frown growing deeper until he looked plain sad, but he scaled back again. “Tell you what. Kinda glad I’m gonna get to meet this lady. Been needing to yell at her about her taste in music for a few decades.”
Even knowing the kind of pain that had been brought to the surface for nearly everyone else on board, Peter was helpless to do anything but smile. “You should absolutely do that. It’ll make her feel right at home.”
“It’s ludicrous if taken at face value. Ludicrous! How could they not have had a conversation about such simple things - so many easily achievable things they both loved? I have to believe that there was a deliberate attempt at subterfuge. And it went far too deep for far too long. It would have been better to let at least a few of those things out over time, to create a better cover.”
“You’re green and you got an awesome dye job and two voices and there’s metal under your skin. I think,” Meredith whispered.
The green, and probably, almost definitely alien, woman jumped where she sat, and then her eyes went to the medical equipment around the bed. “Yes to the first two. The enhancements are more like plastic, for comparison’s sake,” she said, businesslike as any nurse with a full schedule, and picked up a glass of water with a straw in, from a side table … or a crate? It was grey and metal-looking, like the rest of the room. The colour was all in the other woman, a slightly wilted, odd-but-pretty orange flower in a glass, and landscape pictures all over the wall that lay at the foot-end side of the bed. The set-up was really far from looking like the hospital room it should have been.
The woman offered the glass of water, holding the straw level to her mouth so she hardly had to move. As Meredith drank, the muscles in her mouth and throat aching but thirst making them work on, the woman apparently found time to grow embarrassed, shifting her feet. “I had to keep talking, as it would help that instrument over your ear to process my language into a form you can understand. That’s why it sounds like I’ve got two voices – that kind of translator doesn’t suppress the original voice as well as the internal kind. I’ve heard the Awesome Mixes a lot, so it was natural that my topic … drifted to that.”
“Are there piña coladas in outer space? Oh, hey, my God,” Meredith said and moved the arm that was free from the drip. She pressed her cold fingers to her temple, to the side of her neck where she ought to be feeling flares and aches. “I actually figured out what you were talking about. I think I can think straight!”
Which meant that next she said, “You’ve been listening to both the Mixes? A lot? Peter opened the new one? Is he here?” Oh, please, she didn’t know where she was, he had to be here…
“Close by,” the woman said as she put the water back down. “My name is Gamora, and he and I are friends. I’m here instead of him – and he’s been by your bedside a lot, while you’ve been sleeping for most of these past two days - because Peter asked me to prepare you for the idea that he’s very different. A miracle, essentially, has happened to save your life. It’s not without qualifications, though, and--” Her voice became gentle. “It’s been many years since you last saw him. Your child is now much older than you know him.”
She wasn’t lying. She didn’t act like she was. There had to be something to say to that. “Is he your age?” Meredith whispered like her throat had gone dry again.
“We are at roughly equivalent levels of physical development, considering the difference in our species.”
“Gamora…” she said softly, because it was alien. Well, maybe it was a name somewhere on Earth, but she hadn’t managed to run across it while reading or when talking to out-of-towners. So, Gamora might be older or younger than Peter or working on a different system of time, but to look at her meant that it was necessary to think that Peter was tall like her, must have burned off his puppy fat, must be old enough to be her friend, an adult. Three months ago, Peter had turned eight years old.
“Meredith,” Gamora responded. It sounded a tiny bit odd, heavy on the last syllable. Maybe she had needed to practice saying it, because it was alien to her too. “He said that we can call you that?”
She nodded a fraction, then with certainty, because she wasn’t about to be rude to someone who’d been nothing but helpful and considerate. Gamora had an air of relief when she said thanks. Suppose meeting a friend’s parent could be awkward.
“I feel a lot different,” Meredith said haltingly. “There’s no more pressure in my head, and that’s been there for months. Like I said, I can think clearly, there’s no more light all the time whether I’m awake or asleep … Everything is different, more than should be possible. I think the tumour is …” She was brave enough to believe it and say so. “Gone. Gone right outta my head!”
“You … While you were sick, you … saw light?” Gamora’s face was strange for the colour and the little markings, but really, it was still human-looking. Not quite now, though: Everything shifted, a narrowing of the whole structure as if to make her a sharper thing. Meredith thought of a praying mantis.
“I’ll get Peter for you.” Gamora’s icy stillness smoothed into a lope across the metal floor, her boots making no sound audible above the background noise of the machines.
The next thing Meredith heard was what sounded a lot like Gamora trying to whisper while she yelled, with rumbles of indistinct words from someone else in-between. “Light! … always seeing light! Does that mean … Oh, Peter.” Her voice deepened, sympathetic and pained.
Her child had a man’s low, roughened voice now. And his friend was talking to him about how sick she was – had been! But it still hurt him.
“Peter,” she croaked as loudly as she could. Hadn’t raised her voice in ages. “Baby.” You been fighting? she remembered, but the thought fell away as the door opened.
“I know this is bizarre for you. You don’t have to act like you recognise me, or anything,” the man said. He took the seat Gamora had used, and he spoke with forethought and a conscious kind of charm. “Don’t worry about being kind, react like you have to. I mean, I had to practise my English so I could be sure I can speak to you if that translation rig didn’t work, and it’s supposed to be my first language. If I start speaking in rhyme, it’s because I mostly had to practise by using songs. Oh my g-gosh,” and his measured tone wavered, “wait, you have to check this out, I’ve got this thing called a Zune…”
“Perhaps this isn’t quite the right time,” Gamora said dryly from the door, and Meredith was so surprised to realise that she was still there - leaning against the doorframe, looking less alien again - that she felt her heart race. “Sit down, keep talking.”
He sat back down, and Meredith turned her gaze slowly back to him, finding that panic was still keeping her heart on high. “You will love it,” he assured her. “It’s this music player, brand new, a whole new type. I’ve got copies of the Awesome Mixes on there too, but I’m pretty sure it has songs you haven’t heard, or even had a chance to hear of! I’ll show you soon.
“And. Yeah, I’m Peter. Jason Quill.” He lost track of looking at her, instead watching his entwined hands, thumbs taking turns to brush over his knuckles. “Called after absolutely no one in the family, except for the surname, obviously, but when you and Grandpa started talking again, he said he didn’t--” He put his hands over his ears and made his voice gruff and a little indistinct. “—give a little greasy grey rat’s ass about that or anything else he or the rest of the family had ever picked to complain about, now come on, get in the car and come home, it’s Christmas.” Then he spoke in his normal voice – but it was a little different anyhow. “Now, I was real young then, so it might be you’d think I wouldn’t remember, but I was laughin’ to myself about that for days after.”
“You were talking city,” she said. “You thought it was weird how your Aunt Joanna and all of them switched accents between ‘home’ and ‘city’ and just now you were doing it! Lord sweet God, you’re my age, never mind anybody else! Peter?” She pushed up on her elbow and grabbed for him, his shoulder, then cupping his face – with some beard on it! – and then his hand, when he offered it. Her hand disappeared into it, enfolded almost completely from the wrist up.
“Oh my God, Mom, you’re stronger already, look at you.”
“I am! I can breathe so easy and I can think and I can move, it doesn’t ache so bad anymore!”
“Sorry for swearing, I mean, the ‘oh my…’ but I shouldn’t, I know—“
“You can say ‘oh my God’, Peter, what the hell, what the fuck, my baby boy and I think you are older than me!”
“I can’t believe you died so young.”
He tried to disappear the whole of her into him, it seemed like, climbing into the bed and curling over her, and she ended up with her head resting on his arm. He told her the story like that, about a sort of god who’d done him a favour and turned out to do him a much bigger favour than he’d realised could be possible. Nothing about him was familiar, though everything about how he treated her was very, very warm. She interrupted before he’d got more than a few words in, saying his name with a tremble in her voice, and immediately he told her that he still hadn’t learned to ride a bike properly, and always had to ride as a passenger with one of his friends or he wobbled all over the place, just like before. Interruptions wove into the story – she’d squeeze his hand tight or say his name, and he’d break off with a memory. It could only be him.
“Looks like Gamora’s gone,” she said when the story was done, and they’d reminded each other of the names of seven of their personally-identified constellations, although this time Meredith had done most of the reminding. “Didn’t see her leave.”
“I’ll have to thank her for hanging around when she did. Can’t believe I was actually going to freak out and run for a second there.” He pulled a face … frustrated, disappointed in himself, sure that he’d let her down real hard.
Meredith shot up, jerking out of his arms. “Peter!” she said, pointing at his big, adorable bearded face with both hands. “That’s you, that face, I know that one you just pulled, like you got in trouble at school, and this one! That’s how you look confused and when you’ve been put on the spot, it’s the exact same surprise party face!”
It melted into a grin of pure glee. This expression also didn’t bear any helpful understanding, and it wasn’t full of careful yet utterly intimate warmth. It was a whole lot more like her boy’s. Her baby, her child, her world.
All of the rest of what he’d shown to her came back when she realised that the drip was pinching at her wrist, and the translation thing had jigged heavily on her ear as she moved, bringing up an ache just a little like what the pressure from the tumour had caused. The tiny hurts registered distractedly, but once she put a hand to the tape that held the IV needle still, and then more gingerly to the thing hanging off her ear, he fussed real firmly and nicely as he made sure it was all sitting right and her vitals were fine. She might have felt fed up of being told what to do for her health, but he was too considerate to take offence at and she was busy being awed. My little Star-Lord, she’d called her boy, in that letter, and when they’d played Space Invaders all around the sitting room furniture and fields around town. He had grown and matured as much as he’d shot up in height.
He asked to climb up on the bed again, and Meredith felt like it was out of the question when her eyes once again saw a stranger, but only for a moment. Peter looked guilty, and if that wasn’t familiar, nothing was; she blinked away tears that came strangely late and moved to make space.
“This is a nice big bed,” she observed as her child settled beside her, stretching down to her toes and still not reaching to the edge of the mattress. And not reaching all that far past the soles of his feet, either.
“I still hate hospitals,” Peter said. “And I took an educated guess that by now, you do too, so I thought you could be comfy, and also in a bed that’s the least like a hospital one that I could manage setting up in here.”
“I might be making full use of it soon. Even if I’m stronger, I’m exhausted already. And I’ve been awake for less than an hour, surely.”
Like he couldn’t stand her frown, he rushed to reassure her. “Hey, hey, me too! I haven’t had a sleep schedule of any kind these past couple days, I could fall asleep any minute. Are you sure I can stay?”
Big bed though it was, they occupied a narrow section of it; she figured that what he wanted to know was whether or not he could stay right in his spot.
Meredith turned her gaze to where his feet lay denting the covers, and looked over him. Big boots, scuffed to heck. Trousers – were they leather? Legs like tree trunks, as people said, thick and strong. The sweater was fluffy and comfortable, as she’d felt when it had been tucked under her cheek. It sat tight enough to show that Peter was a broad-built man. Could stand a trim to tidy up that scruff on his face, her daddy would have had something to say about that … and he was hopeful, but it didn’t look quite so familiar on a face that must have seen a whole lot of life. Looking at him was like an MC Escher trick in living colour, now one thing and then the other.
But she wanted so, so bad for Peter to be here with her.
“I want to be sure I didn’t leave you behind.” She put a hand to his face, and his gaze locked to hers. “I didn’t have my baby boy go and disappear from where I thought he was and make him do all the work of growin’ up himself.”
“Same here, can’t have you disappearing again.” He swallowed hard a few times before he could speak again. “I did leave you behind and you didn’t want to leave me at all, so there’s a lot I got to make up for and I mean to get a start on it. And I don’t want to be scared you’re not going to be here when I look again.”
A little later, he left to get her more water, and she thought she heard new voices through the half-open door. When he came back in, he was carrying his boots in one hand, and dropped them by the bedside as he got under the covers this time. She drank while leaning into his side to stay upright, and when they lay down, she stayed in his embrace.
Peter kissed her forehead and said a prayer, like he always used to, before he closed his eyes. Meredith stayed awake longer than she thought she would, fighting sleep to keep looking at him. The lights in the room seemed to be on a timer, and when they dimmed, she listened to and felt his breathing with a hand resting lightly against him, like when he’d been very small, and went to sleep.
Next day came the reveal. Peter jumped out of bed like it was Christmas morning, even though it was to get her to the toilet. “The space toilet! Don’t be scared! Good luck!” he said as he helped her over to the electric blue contraption, and then clomped off banging the door shut behind him.
The space toilet.
She’d been hoping so bad.
“Hurry up!” Peter yelled, still clomping all over. Could they put carpets down around here? On their space ship! “Please!” he added, and then sang more quietly to a tune she didn’t know, “Mom,” seemingly to please himself.
When she came out, he’d taken down some of the pictures that had been plastered over the wall opposite her bed, revealing a window. Or did you call them portholes?
It looked out on deep black, and a sea of stars going by, both too large and familiarly distant. Christmas morning, and he’d placed her present in her hands. And this version of Peter could carry her back to bed when her legs wouldn’t respond properly, and he was so thoughtful he angled himself so that she didn’t have to take her eyes off the view for a second.
They lay in bed and looked out on the universe. It was a narrow porthole, a lengthwise elliptical shape, but maybe it was just as well if she started small. Couldn’t recover from cancer, from actually dying of cancer and being magicked back to life a split second and twenty-six years later, and then go and have a heart attack at her first outer space panorama.
“Next thing I’m going to do is introduce you to the crew.” For the last while, Peter had been looking at her looking at space, and his voice was soft and full of wonder. “Me and my team, we’re a family, basically, and we live on this ship now. It’s too big for us, but even if it makes upkeep tougher, it’s nice having more room. We got a lot of big personalities here.”
“Oh, I bet.” She grinned at him. “Did you drive Gamora crazy, wherever you lived before? Lazy about your dishes, weren’t you, baby?”
“Pretty much!” he said cheerfully. “And oh, you don’t even know yet about being driven crazy. Wait until you meet Drax.”
He told her what to expect from each of the others, fond and funny stories, teasing them when they weren’t even there. Aside from clearly enjoying talking about these people he loved, Meredith got the impression that Peter was trying to ensure that everything new came step-by-step and didn’t tax her. A protective man, her boy. Sometimes she had thought she ought to be more like that, when she’d found how much he mimicked her tendency to go in fast and worry about having been hurt later. He was lucky he had the good stuff to keep her distracted with, or she’d be doing something unhealthy right this second. In outer space.
“Okay, also. Rocket’s going to hate you, but it won’t be personal. It’ll be a little personal, he’ll basically do his best to make it that way.” That’s where Peter stopped smiling and turned worried. “He hates everyone, so it’s not a you thing. You don’t have to like him and you really don’t have to put up with his shit, but if you’re mean back to him … make it not too mean? Please? Until you get to know him better, then you can let rip.”
“Or maybe I won’t be mean to him at all?” Meredith gave him a dubious look, and wondered if she wasn’t coming over stern, too, because that’s what eight-year-old Peter would’ve got. “If I actually get to know someone then they’re gonna be worth knowing, or I wouldn’t bother.”
“He’s worth knowing! Just … maybe take it on a three strikes basis.”
“I’m not exactly going to be able to say ‘you’re out’ when the guy’s living here. Can I call him a guy? But anyway, it’s not like I don’t have practise ignoring members of the family.”
Peter’s eyes searched the ceiling until a memory clicked in place. “Oh, Cousin Eddie was not that bad.”
“He didn’t give you a helmet! If anybody’s going to take my baby on a motorbike he’s going to make for damn sure that my baby’s safe as can be!”
This time when Peter kissed her forehead, it was startling. That dumb kid Eddie had taken Peter for a ride at the last big family gathering before Meredith had gone to the hospital, and it didn’t feel like it was that long ago, and now … A too-pleased smile from this man, she could handle, but the proximity was shocking like it was sudden, instead of how they’d been all along. He was big, they were on a bed together, he’d carried her here! – it was another of those moments where she was with a stranger.
“Speaking of being safe - we’re going to have to talk serious stuff soon,” he said, mature side returning to the forefront. “Medical stuff, and getting you a translation implant, which will be way better than having that obvious target hanging off you. And is there anything you want? I could ask Gamora to help you shower, and between us and Mantis we ought to be able to give you a start on a wardrobe.”
It wasn’t like her little boy, either, but it was a kind of intimacy that was easier to deal with. “The wardrobe’s sounding a little interesting. Can’t meet your people in a hospital gown. The translation implant – I’m gonna trust that space medical tech is almost as awesome as getting a demi-god interested in reviving me, so that sounds good. I feel better every time I take another breath, and if you’re not worrying about my health, then I know I’ve got to be doing great.”
“You caught me. Woke up three times last night to check your status.” Peter looked bashful. “You trust me like that?”
Could she tell a grown man that he loved her, and she knew it? Of course she could tell her son that… Meredith said, “You’re a good man, and very genuine. You were just telling me I orobably oughta yell at one of your best friends only up until right before he cries, instead of continuing ’til after. Somebody like you isn’t going to let me think I’m fine when everything’s about to go wrong in a second.”
Peter looked at her like the world’s happiest puppy dog. “I’m really glad I can take care of you now. I am genuinely responsible and capable!”
She laughed at him. “Think that’s how I used to feel when I made us a really nice meal, or I could take you out someplace where you had fun.”
“I always had fun with you.”
“Library,” Meredith shot back.
He was thwarted, but the starry-eyed look came back. “Then they got in some comic books, remember? That was awesome. And I loved Peter Pan as much as you did!”
“Probably because it gave so many excuses to jump on the furniture right from the beginning part.”
“It was … the ideas in it. How they made sense and were strange at the same time.” He searched for memories again, blinking slowly. “Huh, wish I could read that book again. Haven’t thought about it in years.”
“Hold on, we’re getting side-tracked. You forgot the most important serious thing we have to discuss,” Meredith said. “Peter, you promised to show me your brand new space-age music player!”
He flew out of the room. When he came back it was with food and drink too, plain gruel and water - and he brought Groot. Kids didn’t tend to get a kick out of being called adorable, so Meredith kept that in, but holy frick, that was the cutest, weirdest little baby. He was all suspicious of her, and demanded one teeny tiny Zune earphone all to himself with a stomp on the bedspread, so that she and Peter had to hold the other one between them, but she was prepared to forgive her third alien a whole lot.
The three of them listened for a long time, song after song, Meredith absorbed even with having to listen to the flattened blare from the one earphone. Groot got bored and slipped away, hugging Peter’s hand and giving her a teensy squinch of a dark-eyed glare – but she stayed strong and only gave him a proper goodbye, no cooing. The sound on the Zune was way better when she could situate it properly in her ear. She and Peter kept listening to the familiar and the unfamiliar, and oh, she was going to have so many things to listen to over and over, if she could beg this off him.
Out of nowhere, Peter said, “Remember me telling you about Mantis? Sweet and still learning just about everything? She knew my father. Your, I guess, your boyfriend.” He took a deep breath, and something about it made her close her mouth on all the yelling that had started to bubble up in her. “I didn’t know him, really, at all. And I think it’s best if you talk to her about him, sometime, ’cause I don’t have much of anything to say.”
“You two met?” she said softly in answer to the grimness in his voice.
“Only recently. It was … I regret it. Everything about it.”
Meredith yanked her earphone out and rolled away. He moved after her, lined up right near her, tense with waiting. Couldn’t say she hadn’t thought… “Damn your love, damn your lies…” she said into her fist, which tightened. This moment was the strongest she’d felt in months and months, physically.
Peter touched her arm, at the elbow, warmth nudging her. She turned back to burrow into him, nearly the most familiar thing in her new life, if it weren’t for some of the songs that had played on the little space-age gadget. Familiarity wasn’t the only thing she was after, though, but also the way that, without hesitation, he wrapped around her once again – she knew already, sure in the nature of this man her son had grown into, that he wouldn’t let her down.
“I love you, that is real,” Peter said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s gone.”
“I’m sorry that I lied to you. I thought, just, I had to think he’d be good to you. It helped to have that hope, and when he was with me, he was wonderful, and he talked about the future like a man who would love to have kids. And there I went and told you he was an angel, and he hurt you, I can tell.”
“If anyone’s the angel, it’s you.”
“You have to understand, he—“
“He was a huge dick and I don’t want to talk about him.”
It was getting to be habit, cupping Peter’s face – or, it was an old habit that felt new with the change in circumstances. Beard, after all. “Maybe we ought to re-discuss that thing about you not swearing,” Meredith murmured, tucking her face against his chest. His lips brushed her palm.
There was a lot that changed once Meredith was well enough to meet visitors, but one thing didn’t: Peter slept with her every night.
All right, two things didn’t change: it still wasn’t possible to see him as one thing or the other – her boy, or a stranger.
She wasn’t really all that surprised when her body started waking up in respect to him – she’d been dreading it. Was this like what they called the seven-year itch? It was just her body running away with her. She’d kick him out tonight and take care of it … but he’d know exactly what she was taking care of, he was a grown man and had enough imagination to fill in the blanks. He was her son. Her grown son, who she didn’t completely know anymore, except for when she knew him precisely, inside-out.
“Peter,” she said that night, and instead of kicking him out, she asked him, “How will I get home?”
It was one of the things he’d lined up to tell her about carefully, from the resigned look on his face and how he cuddled up. “Earth’s off-limits, Mom. There are machines we can use to sneak past restrictions, but they are insanely expensive, and I don’t give up easily when it comes to drop cash on what I need. And with this ship, we have options on how to make a good amount of money – but it is really, really illegal, too. If we go back to Earth, we’re going to have to work up to it. Build up goodwill for a few years, and it probably won’t be that few.”
“Well, if that doesn’t work, I guess I can always settle down somewhere else and find my feet. That Xandar place where everybody loves you sounds like a good bet.”
Before, he’d been companionable at worst – now he held her like she was dying in front of him again, denials shuddering out of him. “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t leave. You can’t. I’d go with you, and leaving the others is really - please don’t make me.”
“Are you trying to squash me as a punishment?”
“Panicking. I’m panicking.”
“I wish I could reassure you ... Peter, I gotta get off this ship.”
“You’re not even healthy yet!”
“But when I am. And … it should be on my own. I don’t think it’s good for me here, exactly … You’ve been incredible to me, and… It’s too much.”
“You always gave me everything! Now I can give back as much as possible!”
He wouldn’t be convinced, refusing her no matter how she stuck to it, not even noticing that he kept having to give the same denial even as she felt how transparently thin her excuses were. Meredith gave in. It was a strange, strange situation, from the start to this bodily confusion, and perhaps it was best for her to tell the truth.
“I’m almost getting too much better,” she mumbled. “Peter, I can’t be around you anymore, because it’s … I’m getting the wrong feelings out of it. Especially when we’re like this.”
He looked down at how they lay as if noticing it for the first time, and didn’t even hesitate for a moment more of thought. “You know. People have said things like that to me before. Things with implications. That ... seem to head in a certain direction. And you haven't been calling me stuff like sweetheart, and honey, and all that kind of thing lately, and that little change now seems notable.”
“I can’t … it sounds too much like I’m saying something else, something I can’t mean.”
“Did I do something wrong? So you don’t think of me as yours, anymore?”
“No, you have to understand, you’re so big now it can’t feel the same, and gorgeous, that smile, and God does it sound really different when you’re singing about being a rock ‘n rolling bitch…”
“You always used to laugh so hard at that bit.”
Meredith dared to look up when it sounded like he might find that funny to remember, and then her heart broke. “Honey,” she said, because that lost look was her little boy’s, those months when she was sick or the times the kids at school got him down, and held his face to stroke her thumbs over his cheeks. Didn’t have to kneel down to do that anymore, but she still felt like she could pour out her whole soul to try and make him feel better.
He cast his eyes down. “You don’t have to say things like that, if you don’t mean – if it doesn’t feel ri—“
“I mean it! Peter, you’re not a stranger, I love you, still love you.” He nuzzled into her hands and his arms cinched tight around her. “But there’s all this stuff I loved in a different package, now, and new stuff piled on top of that. You have a damn spaceship!”
“It’s really cool,” he agreed, fundamentally understanding.
“So I’m the one being weird about everything, I’m so sorry, sweetheart. It’s wrong.”
Before she knew what was what, Peter had his mouth on hers, and she had to turn her head sharply away to stop him trying to coax her into a real kiss. “I can do anything for you. Anything to take care of you, or just to make you feel a little better. You’re beautiful, I love you, it’s the best thing ever when you’re happy.”
“I can go back to Earth. That way you know I’ll be fine. I’ll be where I belong.”
“Without, you know, a passport. Or any kinds of documents. Where they all thought you were dead, and you won’t be able to explain or they’ll think you’re crazy again.
“Are you crazy? You don’t look exactly like my boy anymore, but I still look just like you remember … and bald, and like a damn skeleton…”
“Mom,” he said, shaking her. “It’s you and me. It always used to be. I don’t care what you think, it’s not like it hurts me. I care about what makes you happy, that’s it. Don’t feel guilty. I just want to show you how much you don’t need to feel guilty.”
Every night that he came to bed when she was still awake, a kiss on the lips to say goodnight. Every morning, a hand brushing over the bump of her hipbone, or over the span of her stomach, and Peter pressing close to her with morning wood and all.
Usually he left it at that, but one day he went to get her breakfast and then came back still all worked up, hidden all right behind his closed, long red coat, but evident as could be once he discarded it and crept back in beside her. “Been going crazy,” he said. “See? See? Not just you. You’re not alone in this. Or anything.”
“I’m at least getting out of this room tomorrow,” she said. “And you’ve got your own room, right? This ship’s plenty big enough for it, and you must keep your change of clothes someplace.”
She inched over to him. He put an arm around her shoulders, and she sealed them together from the waist down.
“Just this once. Out of our systems,” Peter mumbled.
“Love you, honey,” she said, and he rolled her onto her back and ground down until her knees shifted apart.
It was giving in, but it was another moment when she felt at her strongest.