Ten year old Heather Douglas left the breakfast room, shoulders slumped in annoyance. Mentor had said she could have a day free of studying, and normally this would mean a day of fun, but he had also told her she had to keep Gamora company, when she finally left her room. Just the thought made Heather scowl. First, she never got to sleep in past breakfast- or, if she did, she would be woken up and told not to waste her day, so how come Gamora got away with it? Secondly, she really didn't like the slightly younger green skinned girl. She gave off an air of total indifference whenever Heather tried to include her in a game, like she didn't get why Heather wanted to have fun, and wouldn't join in. She didn't seem to like the company of anyone else, either, rarely speaking to anyone unless prompted, and even then, usually only using one-word replies. Heather's fists clenched as she rapped on Gamora's door. She was so rude. Didn't she know how lucky she was to get a new family after losing her last one? At least, that's what Heather assumed, that Gamora was an orphan, like her, though nobody had told her that outright. But why else would she have been brought here to Titan?
She thought about trying to ask Gamora again, but last time she'd asked about her previous home, the emerald skinned girl had just looked at her with a stony expression, until Eros had interrupted hastily and changed the subject. Heather's brow furrowed as she knocked on Gamora's door again, remembering how her new 'friend' had arrived here...
Eros had brought Gamora here quite late at night, several weeks ago, sound asleep in Eros' arms, and Heather had only had a split second's glimpse of her before she'd been shooed away. Eros had spent a long time talking to Mentor in his study, keeping the sleeping Gamora with him. (Heather had been spying from the stairs.)
The following day, Heather had been told she had to be welcoming to Gamora, but not to ask too many questions if she didn't want to talk. But being forbidden to ask had only whetted her curiousity. Where had Gamora come from, and why did she act so cold to everyone, like she hated them all? Mentor and Eros were very cautious round Gamora, almost like they felt scared or guilty around her... Heather scowled. She hated not being in on secrets!
Gamora's door had remained closed despite her knocking, and, fed up, Heather slid the door open. For a second, she blinked, confused- the room appeared empty. The pillow was still on the bed, but the coverlet was missing, and there was no sign of Gamora. It took a few seconds for Heather to figure out where she was- curled up in a 'nest' of the coverlet on the floor, apparently still asleep.
Why didn't she sleep in the bed? Heather wondered. Wouldn't the floor make her back and neck ache? Yet the bed was made too tidily, and the 'nest' too obviously arranged, for this peculiar arrangement to have been a accident. Wrinkling her nose, she went and nudged Gamora with her foot. "Hey, wake up, it's morning."
Gamora's eyes shot open and she got onto her feet so fast that Heather jumped back with a yelp. Had she just been lying there awake, like she needed permission to get up? That was weird. She waited to see what the other girl did next. But Gamora was just standing there, shoulders squared, head held high, like a soldier standing at attention. Her expression was as blank as always.
Heather swallowed under her intense scrutiny. "Uh..."
"I am awake. What am I meant to be doing today?" Gamora's voice was low, no trace of excitement or disappointment, no nothing. Heather shivered. Didn't Gamora have feelings, at all?
"Um, well, we have a free day, so we can go out into the city and have some fun, if you want, once you've washed and dressed..." Heather trailed off. As always, at the mention of 'fun', Gamora looked at her like she'd said something incomprehensible. Heather gulped as the unblinking eyes regarded her, as if waiting for instructions. What was she meant to do? She swallowed hard. Maybe if she actually told Gamora what to do, rather than making a suggestion? It was wrong to be bossy, but she couldn't think of anything else to try. "Go get washed and dressed, then we can get some food and go have some fun."
Gamora at least responded to a clear instruction, moving silently to her washroom, taking clean clothes with her, though she didn't speak. Heather sighed when the door closed. She'd already decided they were going to the artificial fields just below the surface of Titan. She liked it there, climbing trees, reading or drawing... Normally, if someone accompanied her, she'd take a ball or some other toy that could be used for games, but if she did, would Gamora even understand what playing meant? She'd shown no sign of it so far... but Heather had promised Mentor she'd try and include Gamora...
Heather's musings were interrupted when the green girl slipped back into the room silently, scrubbed clean and impeccably dressed, far more tidily than Heather was- Gamora looked like she'd dressed for some sort of inspection! Without being prompted, she then went and straightened her 'bed', so it lay flat and straight on the floor, this done with miltary precision. Heather stared at this performance- who'd taught Gamora to be so strict about her room and appearance?- but bit back her questions- for now. Gamora returned her gaze to Heather, again as if waiting to be told what to do. Heather gulped, uneasy once more.
"Come on." She left the room, Gamora following without a word, without showing much interest. Heather was baffled. If someone had told her they were doing something new, she'd be full of questions about where they were going and why. It was as if Gamora thought she wasn't allowed to ask questions, and just did as she was told... it was just plain bizarre by Heather's logic. What was wrong with the other girl?
About twenty minutes later, having stopped by the kitchen and taken a small picnic, Heather led Gamora into the field, feeling unnerved by this stage, as Gamora still hadn't spoken. Heather dropped the bag, and glanced around, excited at the idea of unsupervised fun, a rare occurrence here- normally, she had at least one 'minder' despite her insistence she didn't need one. She broke into a run, stopped at the base of her favorite climbing tree, and scrambled up into the branches, until she reached her favorite perch, a fork in the boughs about halfway up the massive tree, a height she was never allowed to climb to if there were adults nearby.
Glancing back down, she saw Gamora still standing woodenly beside the discarded bag of food. Heather frowned. "Come on!"
Gamora looked over, then walked to the base of the tree, with absolutely no enthusiasm in her face or posture. She stopped at the base of the tree, staring up at Heather once more.
Heather rolled her eyes. "Come on, climb up!"
Gamora shrugged, then, in what seemed like seconds compared to the time it had taken Heather to scramble to her perch, Gamora was at her side, mimicking her posture exactly.
Heather took a deep breath, really wanting some answers now. "How come you don't do anything without being told to first?"
"It's what my father taught me, to do as I am asked." Gamora replied automatically.
Heather wrinkled her nose. "So... you only ever do what you're told?"
"Of course." Gamora's tone implied this was obvious. "That way I won't need to be punished."
Something about how she said that made Heather shiver. She didn't think Gamora meant 'punishment' in the same way she did. She made herself shrug. "Well... I hope you like it here on Titan."
"...It's your home now. Don't you like it?"
Gamora frowned. "I live here now. Whether I 'like' it isn't important."
Heather blinked. "Yeah, but.... the grown-ups want you to be happy. So, if you're not... you could tell them."
Gamora turned away. "I can't."
Gamora's face went stony, her fists clenched. Her voice turned cutting. "They stole me from my father, and told me he isn't my father. But they don't listen when I tell them that, they just keep saying I'm mixed up, and I've got it wrong. They say my father doesn't love me, and that's he's cruel to me. He isn't. He loves me, he told me that. They're liars!"
Heather's jaw dropped and she froze, at a complete loss for words. What was she meant to say to that? Gamora had to be wrong, Mentor wouldn't allow a child to be stolen from a parent! But then... what was going on? She shook her head, pushing the disquieting thoughts aside for now, wracking her brains to think of a way to distract Gamora, who still looked visibly angry. "What about your mother?"
Gamora blinked. "What?"
"What was your mother like?"
Another blink. "I.... don't know." Gamora spoke hesitantly. "I never had one."
Heather bit back a giggle. "You must have had one..." Her face sobered. "Maybe she died? My parents did."
"The people here didn't steal you, then?" The sullen tone was back in Gamora's voice.
Heather resisted the urge to stamp her foot. "You weren't stolen! They wouldn't do anything like that. Probably your father was bad and you just don't know it!"
Gamora let out a noise somewhere between a scream and a roar and lunged towards Heather, alternating punching and clawing at her. Heather flung her arms up to protect her face, struggling to keep her balance in the tree. She cried out in fear when Gamora began screaming at her while attacking.
"You're a liar! Just like the others! My father's always looked after me, he's NOT bad, he loves me! He always told me that! You'll see when he comes back for me!" Tears were running down Gamora's face as she shrieked with fury.
Heather felt fistfuls of her hair being ripped from her head and screamed, hoping someone would hear and help, since Gamora's assault showed no signs of stopping- she was almost incoherent in her anger now, and blood was dripping down Heather's face. Abruptly, the blows to her face and head stopped, and Heather cautiously looked up, her whole body trembling. Eros must have heard the commotion, because he was quickly descending back to the ground, having used his levitation ability to pull Gamora from the tree. He held her facing away from him, his hands holding her arms across her chest. She was still screaming and kicking, but had no way of breaking Eros' grip, or hurting him or anyone else.
Panting, and still terrified, Heather made a wobbly climb down to the ground, looking at Eros, wanting to help but too scared to approach with Gamora in that state. Eros' face was uncharacteristically serious, but his eyes were sad as he stared down at Gamora, who was now yelling in a language Heather didn't know, and still trying to escape his restraint.
"Heather, go to my father, get yourself cleaned up. Then can you ask him to come out here?" He had to raise his voice considerably to be heard over Gamora.
Heather nodded and raced off, shaking and trying not to cry. Never in her life had anyone ever attacked her like that before!
Eros watched Heather run off, keeping a firm grip on the struggling child, his heart breaking as she called out repeatedly for 'Father', so hysterical he doubted she even knew what she wanted. Slowly, her thrashing ceased and she went limp, breathing raggedly, her gasps punctuated by sobs. He didn't release her yet though- traumatized or not, she'd lashed out at Heather, hurting her, and it could have been a lot worse if he hadn't been close enough to intervene. Clearly, a lot of work was needed to undo whatever 'teaching' Thanos had given Gamora. The thought made Eros' teeth clench. How could his brother have done this, convinced an innocent little girl that his abuse was normal? It wasn't as if Thanos' own upbringing had been bad- on the contrary, he'd been treated well, indulged... so why?
He saw Mentor approaching, lines of tiredness pronounced on his face. Meeting his father's gaze, he 'spoke' silently, into his father's mind. 'How's Heather?'
'Shaken, but not badly hurt.' The older Titan looked sadly at Gamora, who was now silent, almost sagging against Eros, as if all her energy had gone into her rage and left her with nothing.
'What are we going to do, Father? If she's a threat to Heather, they can't be allowed to interact, but...' But what else could they do? How were they meant to help this child, when she truly believed they were the villains for 'stealing' her from Thanos, and was so brainwashed that she became violent when they tried to help her?
Mentor hesitated a moment. 'Let her go.'
Cautiously, Eros relaxed his hold on Gamora. Immediately, she stepped away, retreating several steps from him and his father, the usual emotionless mask reclaiming her features. She was tenser than usual though, standing as if bracing for something. She looked from Eros, to Mentor, then down at the ground, almost holding her breath.
No-one moved for a few minutes. Gamora grew visibly agitated, shooting quick glances at the adults, her breathing picking up speed. Finally, as the air grew heavier with expectation, she spoke, addressing the ground at her feet.
"Am I to wait for my punishment for losing my temper, or will you give me the beating I earned now?" Her tone was utterly matter of fact, as if they were somehow wasting her time.
Eros' jaw dropped. He heard his father stifle a gasp of horror. Did she really assume she'd be beaten by one or two grown men for what had happened?! It had been wrong of her to assault Heather, but the girl was ten years old (at most, they weren't sure of her exact age). How could she possibly think...?
Mentor managed to gather himself enough to speak first, albeit haltingly. "Child, you aren't going to be beaten. We would never treat anyone that way, least of all a child."
"Why not?" Gamora seemed honestly baffled. "That's what happens if you behave badly. You get punished. Then you learn not to do it again."
There was a silence, then she spoke again, as if they were the ones who didn't understand. "How else would a child know how to behave? Beatings teach obedience and make a person stronger, because they can endure more pain. It makes them less weak. Scars serve as a reminder of lessons learned."
All this was delivered in a totally matter of fact tone. Eros' stomach churned and bile rose in the back of his throat. He fought not to retch. What the hell had Thanos done to this girl? Abruptly furious, and not waiting to confer with his father, he met Gamora's gaze, struggling to keep his voice as even as he could. "You really believe that?"
"Yes." Gamora's tone implied boredom, as if explaining something yet again to a stubborn toddler.
"Because Thanos told you that's how children should be treated?"
"Yes..." Gamora drew this word out, looking less sure of herself now.
Eros could feel A'lars' eyes on him, but he plowed on, determined to get through to this girl. "So you think he grew up the same way he raised you?"
Gamora blinked repeatedly. "I- I suppose.... he never said anything about..."
Eros folded his arms, deciding to take the plunge, refusing to look at his father, who probably wouldn't agree with what he was about to do. "What if I told you that Thanos grew up here, he was loved and cared for as much as any other child on this world, and no-one, especially not an adult, would ever have lifted a hand against him, for any reason. How would you justify his treatment of you then?"
Gamora's hands were shaking. Her mouth opened and closed a few times. She was clearly struggling to think of a reply. "I... I don't... he.... how would you know anyway?!" She finally shouted, determined to find a hole in his logic, still clinging to her misguided loyalty to her 'father'.
Eros took a deep breath. "Because I grew up with him." He finally looked at his father. A'lars looked wary, but he nodded slowly. Eros returned his gaze to Gamora, whose eyes shone with tears. His empathic abilities meant he could feel the frustration and utter confusion coming off her in waves- it was enough to make him wince. He took a step closer, voice softening. "Gamora, Thanos is my brother."
She took a step back, eyes wide, her green face paling to a yellowish shade as the blood drained from it. She shook her head slowly, looking as if the universe had just been pulled out from under her feet. "...What?" Her voice was a wisp, barely audible. "But... He said I was his only family..."
Eros gazed at her, his heart breaking for her pain and confusion. He caught A'lars' eye, shaking his head minutely. How could they even begin rectifying the harm Thanos had done?
Heather curled up in her favorite seat in the library, trying to concentrate on her book. It was hard though- the lotion that had been spread on her cuts to make them heal was itchy, and she'd been told not to touch it. Plus, she kept picturing Gamora's face when she'd lunged at her- she'd never seen anyone get angry like that, and physically attacking her... She shivered. She never wanted to go near Gamora again, she was horrible. Mentor and Eros had brought her back to the city a while ago, she knew, because Heather had been told, through Mentor's mind-speak-thing, to stay out of their way for a while. Heather had scowled at that- she didn't want to go near Gamora any more, but being told to 'stay out of the way' sounded like she was the one being punished, not Gamora!
But that wasn't true, Heather reflected. Gamora would be told off for what she'd done, and probably she'd have to come and apologize to her sooner or later. She smirked at the thought. Gamora might well apologize but she wasn't going to accept it, not yet! Maybe even Gamora would be sent to live somewhere else, now she'd attacked a real citizen of Titan, and Heather would never have to see her again. Yes, that was a good idea- Heather didn't like thinking she'd been attacked in her own home. Maybe she'd suggest sending Gamora away to Mentor- if it worked, that would teach her a lesson about being mean!
The library door opened, and Mentor stepped in quietly, looking straight at Heather, curled up on the window seat, as if he'd already known where she'd be. "Heather. Are you alright, child?"
She nodded, making her eyes go as big as possible (she wasn't above playing for sympathy). "I think so."
Mentor came over, taking a seat next to her, smoothing her hair with his hand. She shifted closer, snuggling next to him like she'd done when she was tiny. His arm slid round her shoulders in a paternal gesture and she sighed happily, loving how safe he always made her feel.
"Where's Gamora?" She asked quietly, not wanting to break the moment, but not wanting to risk her walking in here any second and ruining the peace and quiet. (Plus Heather didn't want to risk getting hit again if Gamora was still mad.)
"Eros is keeping an eye on her for the moment." Mentor glanced down at her. "Did you want to see her?"
Heather frowned. "No. I'll wait til she comes to say sorry to me."
Mentor sighed heavily, and, puzzled, Heather looked up at him. He looked older than he normally did, and tired. "She is going to apologize, right?"
"Soon, I hope, but not immediately-"
Heather scowled, pushing her way out of Mentor's embrace. "That's not fair! If I did something like that, I'd have to apologize right then. How come it's different for her?"
"You like her more than me! That's why she gets different rules!" Heather knew that wasn't really true, but since Gamora had come here, she'd gotten less attention from the adults she now thought of as her family, and she hadn't had a chance to voice her feelings til now. And now Gamora got away with losing her temper and lashing out physically? "It's not fair!" She stamped her foot in anger.
Mentor gazed at her steadily. "Are you quite finished?"
Heather pouted, folding her arms, but nodded. She never got angry like that, she knew it was childish, but she didn't like sharing her family either. Particularly not with someone who didn't even appreciate it, as Gamora didn't.
"Good. Now, I need you to understand something. What Gamora did was wrong, you and I both know that, but as things are at present, she does not understand that. So it would do no good to force her to apologize when she doesn't understand why it's necessary."
Heather was confused. "But... how can she not know it's wrong to..."
Mentor held her gaze, his expression sad. "You know it's wrong to act that way because your parents taught you when you were small, and because you've been taught similar things here, yes?"
"Yeah- uh, yes."
"Now imagine, if you can, that you had never been taught right and wrong, and in fact you were treated very badly by an adult, were never shown love or affection, and in fact were often hit, but it was all you knew and you thought it was normal."
Heather tried to imagine growing up like that but couldn't- her mind just pushed the idea away, it was so horrible. "But who'd do something like..." It dawned on her then. "Gamora's father was like that?"
What could have been a look of anger crossed Mentor's face, but was gone in an instant. "He was not truly her father, she just believed he was, but yes."
Heather gulped. "That's...." She didn't know what to call that, other than horrible, but that word wasn't bad enough. No wonder Gamora acted like a robot half the time, and was afraid to do anything she hadn't been told to do if she'd never been safe before! But.... Heather frowned. "But Gamora said her father loved her. Why would she say that if he was horrible to her?"
"She is very confused about him, child. Which is why I will need you to be very patient and understanding with her. It will take a long time for her to start to heal."
Heather nodded, tears springing to her eyes as she thought about what Gamora must have been through. No wonder she didn't know how to play or have fun, or show her feelings- she'd probably never been allowed to in her life! She gulped heavily. "I'll be nicer to her." She sniffled, returning to her adopted father's embrace. "I'm glad you found me when my parents died and I didn't end up with someone like Gamora's father."
She felt a shudder run through Mentor, but he didn't speak again, merely holding her close. She smiled, snuggling closer.
The old titan's expression was dark. Heather's innocent words had jarred him. It had been Thanos who killed Heather's parents on Terra. Just how close had it been to the chance of Heather's words being true? If he hadn't found the child himself, like as not Thanos would have, and Heather would have grown up in a horrific existence like poor Gamora's.
Never again, he vowed, holding his adopted daughter close. Gamora was safe now, and Thanos had never gotten near Heather, and from now on, he would keep a closer watch on his depraved firstborn. No more children would lose their innocence to Thanos' insanity.
A shuffling sound on one of the balconies above made him glance up, and he noted Eros and Gamora standing there, watching silently. He caught his son's eye, raising a brow in question, but Eros didn't respond, keeping his focus on Gamora.
Eros was well aware that his father was staring at him, but intentionally took no notice. Gamora was staring down at Mentor and Heather, head tilted to one side as if trying to make sense of what she was seeing. A slight frown puckered her face.
When they'd returned to the city, Mentor had gone to check on Heather, leaving Eros with Gamora, who was as silent as always, but no longer emotionless- her feelings were in turmoil. Eros had tried to coax her to speak, trying the approach he thought his father would have used: 'I'm sure you're very confused.' 'I would be feeling sad or hurt if I were in your position.' But Gamora hadn't responded. Eventually, he'd fallen silent, and just waited, keeping an eye on her, knowing she'd snap and say something soon- her emotions were a tsunami, to the extent it nearly hurt him to be near her without using his abilities to calm her. But that would solve nothing, so he'd refrained.
Eventually, she'd muttered "I don't know how I feel!" This spoken as if she were addressing the floor, and as if she expected a reprimand for expressing anything.
Instinctively, Eros had reached out to put a hand on her shoulder- a reassuring gesture he'd have made to anyone who was upset. Gamora had flinched away as if from a blow.
"Why did you do that?" She'd managed, once it seemed to register that he hadn't actually reached out to strike her.
Eros had frowned- to him, it was normal to give comfort physically- a hand on the shoulder, a hug- but then, he realized, Gamora had probably never known any affectionate touch in her whole life so far. He cringed inwardly at the mental image of a baby growing up without ever being held or cuddled, then had racked his brains for an explanation.
"People reach out to others to give comfort." He'd tried, speaking as if he was explaining this to an alien that didn't have physical form, not a ten year old child. "It's a way of showing you care about someone, and makes them feel better, helps them know someone cares."
"But how?" Gamora seemed genuinely baffled.
Eros had (slowly) reached out, cautiously taking her tiny hand and giving it a squeeze, letting go quickly, not wanting to push too far at first. "How did that feel?"
She'd blinked a few times. "Strange. Is that a way of showing you like someone?"
"Mm-hmm." Inspiration had struck then, and he'd beckoned her to follow, leading her to the back entrance to the library, and slipping silently up onto the balcony, cautioning her to be quiet. As he'd thought, Heather and Mentor were still there, and he and Gamora were able to overhear their conversation. Gamora's eyes had bugged when Heather had gotten angry, and he'd felt her tensing up. Clearly, she still expected anger to be met with anger. She'd looked totally lost when Mentor had stayed calm, and spoken to Heather softly til she'd calmed down, glancing up at Eros as if he'd explain what was going on. He'd whispered softly to her that this was how it was best to deal with an angry child, just speak reasonably until their anger burned away.
Gamora hadn't looked convinced, in fact, she'd looked more confused than ever, especially when Mentor had given Heather a child-friendly version of Gamora's past, and Heather had nearly cried upon hearing it.
Her expression went from confused to fascinated when she saw Mentor hugging Heather, and she stared, as if trying to burn the image into her mind.
The emotions coming off of her most strongly now were loneliness and yearning, though she was clearly struggling to suppress it, and if he weren't an empath, he'd probably never have noticed. Eros' heart ached for her until he couldn't take it any more. Still completely disregarding his father's watching them, he knelt down so he was at Gamora's height, and, infinitely slowly, reached out and put his hands on her shoulders.
"It's alright." His voice was soft, kind.
"Father never did that." Her voice was far away. Eros had to bite his tongue to keep himself from correcting her when she called Thanos 'Father'. One step at a time. He told himself firmly.
"Is it nice, to be held like that?" She sounded genuinely unsure.
Eros shifted until his arms were wrapped round her, loosely. "You tell me."
She was tense for a few minutes, then abruptly relaxed, burrowing closer until she was in his lap (he moved to a sitting position once he realized what she wanted) and snuggling like a very small child would. Eros realized she was probably using instincts that had never been indulged before, and obligingly, he held her close, wanting her to feel secure.
A warm feeling spread through him and he wondered if this was how it felt to hold your own child, this sudden fierce urge to keep them safe at all cost. On instinct, he began stroking her hair, as his late mother had once done for him, and she sighed contentedly. She was still relaxed, and slowly her breathing evened out. He realized she was on the verge of falling asleep, but couldn't bring himself to prevent it- he was thrilled she appeared to trust him enough to do so, though he wasn't sure his abilties weren't playing a subconscious role.
"If you're Father's brother, can I call you Uncle?" Gamora's voice was slurred with sleep.
Eros beamed, though tears pricked his eyes and his throat was choked with emotion. "If you like. I'd be honored." Calling him Uncle because she thought Thanos was her father was not the best reason, but at least it showed she could and did attach to people, so Thanos hadn't damaged her irreparably in that regard. Reasoning her out of the belief of being Thanos' daughter could wait, for now. She needed to settle here on Titan first.
Gamora smiled at his agreement, clearly more asleep now than awake. "Night, Abi..."
That did it. Eros gave in to his (silent) tears at hearing Gamora use the Titan derivative for 'Uncle' as she drifted off to sleep in his arms. He brushed his lips on her forehead. Whatever happened from here on out, he knew he'd never let anything bad happen to this little girl again. Ever.
The language of the Titans referred to in this chapter is not Marvel Comics canon, all credit goes to thecosmickid for letting me borrow his original language for them.
Abi- derivative word for Uncle.
Over the next few days, things fell into more of a routine. Heather resumed her studies with the Shao-Lom monks, which kept her busy most of the time. She tried to spend her free time with Gamora whenever possible, though this was no longer permitted without an adult present. Heather wanted badly to make the other girl feel better now she knew more about what she'd been through, but Gamora remained withdrawn and quiet, though she seemed less aggressive and sullen than she had before, now she just seemed introverted and confused, as if thinking a lot, like she was trying to solve a puzzle she didn't understand. This came out in some bizarre behaviors she showed, often out of nowhere.
One example of this was when they'd been allowed to do some paintings that they could keep in their rooms. Heather always liked doing this, but it was painfully obvious that Gamora had never done it before- she joined in, but was just going through the motions, not really understanding why they were doing it. Then Heather had accidentally knocked over one of the paint pots and it in turn had upset the water glass, and both had spilled all over the table and onto the floor. Heather had snatched both paintings out of harm's way, then bitten her lip, glancing at Eros, who was 'minding' them that day (she was sure that was the only reason Gamora had agreed to join in, because she seemed more willing to listen to Eros than anyone else, for some reason), but he didn't seem overly concerned about the accident, merely giving Heather a pointed look, then glancing at the pile of cloths used to clean up messes. Heather obediently went and fetched one, beginning to clean up.
She glanced at Gamora, who had frozen in her seat, eyes wide, fists clenched tightly. She didn't even appear to be breathing, looking from Eros to Heather worriedly. Heather stared at her. "Hey, are you alright?"
Gamora nodded jerkily, then stood. She visibly took a deep breath, trying not to look at Eros. He'd told her that children weren't hurt here, but it was still hard for her to grasp- in her old life, making a mess like Heather had would have meant a hard slap at the very least. Then she'd have had to clean the entire room and miss a meal doing it- if not more. So, instinctively, when Eros moved, she automatically darted between him and Heather, ingrained in the old habit of taking whatever punishment was due.
Eros, eyes softening, took a small step back, keeping his eyes on Gamora's. "It's alright." He spoke gently. "I've told you. No consequences. Especially not for accidents."
Gamora's eyes dropped to the floor. "There would've been. Before."
Heather blinked, confused. Consequences? For what? She opened her mouth to ask, but Eros shook his head at her minutely. She held her tongue, though her mind whirled with questions again.
Eros' eyes grew distant for a minute, then cleared. "Anyway, Gamora, my father wants you to come downstairs. There's a few medical checks we need to do that we haven't had a chance to do yet."
Gamora's hands shook once, then stilled with a visible effort from her. Her green face had paled to a sickly yellow. She nodded and moved to Eros' side stiffly, as if she was heading for her own execution.
Heather couldn't keep quiet any more. "There's nothing to be scared of!"
Eros shot her an annoyed glance. "Heather, can you finish cleaning up, then continue painting, quietly? Thank you." Pouting, she did as she was told. Eros moved so he was standing directly in front of Gamora. "What is it?" He was concerned now- Gamora looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilating.
"I don't like medical exams." She finally managed, in a barely audible whisper.
He put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. "I'll tell you a secret. Neither do I, but they're important. This does need to be done, for your own good."
Gamora visibly flinched but nodded. "Will you stay with me, Abi?" She sounded much younger than her nine or ten years. Eros gulped back the rush of emotion he felt and nodded.
"Of course." He offered her his hand, which she took, clinging tightly- almost too tightly for someone of her age. She was very strong...
He led her quickly down to the medical labs, already having telepathically alerted his father to her reaction. He knew A'lars would be gentle with her, though it wasn't clear just what she was so afraid of and he wasn't going to risk making it worse by asking. They reached the pristine lab, blue-silver metallic walls and equipment gleaming, as always, Mentor with a kind expression on his face, smiling warmly at the child, but Gamora only tensed further, her grip on Eros' hand becoming almost painful. She saw the raised bed used for scanning and medical treatment and began shaking.
Eros and Mentor exchanged alarmed looks. Eros assumed his father would try and coax Gamora into explaining what was wrong, but instead, A'lars gestured for him to try. He was baffled- what did he know about calming a petrified child?- but seeing Gamora so scared almost caused him physical pain, so he tried.
He defaulted to his usual approach- kneeling in front of her so their heights were similar. "Gamora?"
She looked up at him, eyes full of tears, still trembling, the look on her face fearful, resigned, and utterly defeated.
Eros' eyes stung, even though he had no idea why she was reacting like this. "What's wrong?"
"I don't like medical treatment." Her voice was small. "It always hurts."
Always? A chill ran down Eros' spine, as it began to dawn on him what she might mean. He prayed he was wrong. "It won't hurt here. I told you, we don't hurt people." He was trying not to say anything leading, wanting Gamora to explain what she meant in her own words if she could.
"You said it was for my own good. Fath-" Gamora checked herself, remembering that Eros had asked her not to call Thanos 'Father' anymore, and not wanting to displease him. "Thanos used to say that too. But then it was always cold, and sharp, and I tried to be good and not scream, but I did, because it hurt because I was weak, then I had to be punished for making a fuss about perfectly normal enhancements."
Bile rose in the back of Eros' throat and he barely heard his father's sharp intake of breath as he stared at Gamora, aghast. Enhancements?! What was she talking about? He remembered, moments ago, how unnaturally strong she'd seemed, and closed his eyes as a wave of nausea rolled over him.
A'lars' face was chalk-white. He seemed at a total loss for words, staring at the little girl in horror.
Eros thought fast, then, moving with his usual caution when making physical contact with Gamora, lifted her into his arms, clambered onto the examination table himself and settled her on his lap. She remained stiff and unresponsive this time, as like as not, she was still tangled up in memories of her past. Eros looked at his father. 'Can you do a basic scan like this?' He asked silently.
A'lars nodded, his face rigid with tension, and, moving quickly, began typing commands into ISAAC, the sentient computer that maintained and ran the city.
Eros caressed Gamora's hair, trying to ground her in the here and now as a faint blue light ran over her form. He assumed ISAAC was scanning her to discern precisely what kind of 'enhancements' Thanos had inflicted on her, but right then he didn't care. His focus was on keeping Gamora calm.
Seconds later, A'lars was poring over the results of the scan on a nearby monitor, and Gamora was still sitting rigidly, as if waiting for pain. He shifted her slightly, so she was facing him, and pulled a smile onto his face. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Gamora started, glancing around, as if surprised to see her surroundings. "That was it? But... nothing happened..." She seemed genuinely surprised.
Eros hugged her gently. "We just needed to do a basic scan, to make sure everything's alright. I told you there was nothing to be afraid of, didn't I?" He wasn't going to discuss the scan results in front of her.
"Yes, but..." She still looked confused.
"We've never had a Zen Whoberi child in our care before," A'lars spoke softly, without really looking at Gamora, keeping his tone casual. "We just need to be sure you're healthy and are getting all the nutrition you need."
Eros watched Gamora carefully, seeing if she reacted in any way to her species being mentioned, but she didn't show any recognition of the name, so either she'd never heard it before or Thanos had convinced her it was unimportant. That was another thing they'd have to deal with eventually, find out what, if anything she knew of her birth species, and ensure she understood her true origin. The Zen Whoberi might all be gone, wiped out by the cursed Universal Church of Truth, but the race should not be forgotten, least of all by its sole survivor.
A'lars, in Eros' peripheral vision, shook his head at something he'd seen in the results. Eros arched a brow. 'What is it?' He kept the conversation telepathic so Gamora wouldn't realize they were talking about her.
'Cybernetic enhancements. Extremely extensive ones, but designed to be unnoticeable. I've never seen anything like this on a child.'
Eros clenched his teeth. 'Tell me later. I don't want Gamora to see me getting angry- she'll think it's aimed at her.'
It was Mentor's turn to raise a brow, then he gave his son a knowing look as Eros continued to stroke Gamora's hair, almost habitually, and she gradually relaxed. 'Feeling a paternal streak there, son?'
Eros blinked, startled. What was his father going on about? Yes, he felt protective of Gamora, but who wouldn't, knowing what she'd been through? It didn't mean he was taking on the father's role for the child... did it? He gazed down at her, mind whirling. Did she view him as a substitute father? Did he want her to? He had no idea. Pushing the thought aside for now, he moved, jostling the little girl a bit. "Hey. Shall we go and find Heather now, and you can finish your painting if you want?"
"OK." Gamora slid off Eros' lap and dropped to the floor, not waiting for help as most children would, and landing with ease, apparently having no fear of falling.
Heather had finished her own painting- a picture of herself, Mentor and Eros, in one of the gardens- fairly quickly. Bored, she decided to finish Gamora's painting for her. She probably wasn't meant to do that, but she had nothing else to do, and she was curious about what Gamora had drawn- she hadn't been able to figure it out looking at it upside down.
Picking up the other girl's picture, she set it in front of her- and stared, her eyes widening. It was horrible.
At first glance, it looked alright. Eros had had to suggest to Gamora what to draw, when she'd clearly been stumped. He'd suggested drawing something she'd seen or had dreamed about. When she'd still looked baffled, he said she should draw an outside scene, as Heather was doing. She'd certainly done that!
The ground in Gamora's picture was grey, like it was covered in ash. Some block-like shapes that could have been buildings were also colored black, with red and orange flames licking at them. The flames reached up to the sky, which was dark too and almost clogged with what could have been (scary looking) ships. They loomed, dominating the scene.
Dotted here and there were blurred green shapes that could have been people, all spread-eagled on the ashy ground. The drawing was blurry, distorted, like Gamora was drawing a dream or something. Heather recoiled from the bleak image, wanting to tear it to shreds, wishing she'd never seen it. She blinked back tears. Had Gamora seen something like this? The dead people in the painting were green, like her...
Gamora had written something on the back- it showed through the paper. Heather flipped it over, gulping, and read the two words.
Heather frowned. What did that mean? She still wanted to destroy the horrible picture, but she needed to show Mentor, later. Maybe he'd understand what Gamora had meant, drawing this... She was still clutching the picture when she heard the door open. Folding the paper, she hid it in her tunic pocket just as Gamora and Eros came back into the room. She froze, unsure if she should tell Eros about Gamora's picture now, or continue to hide the picture and ask Gamora about it later.
Gamora eyed the empty table. "Where's my drawing?" Her tone was normal, as if there was nothing disturbing about what she'd drawn earlier.
Heather gulped. "I, um. It got soaked when I spilled the paint earlier, so it's ruined. I threw it away. I'm sorry." She prayed Eros, if he sensed her guilt, would think it was because of that, and not pick up that she was lying.
Gamora merely shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's not important anyway."
Heather's eyes nearly bugged. That grotesque image was not important? She'd be asking Gamora a lot of questions if they were ever left without an adult, so she wouldn't be told not to pry. She wanted to know everything from Gamora's past, so she could help her start to feel happier, because she was sure that deep down inside, Gamora had to be so so sad, even if she never showed it.
Eros eyed Heather shrewdly, as if letting her know he didn't fully believe her story. She made big, innocent eyes and smiled sweetly, hoping to distract him. Eros rolled his eyes in exasperation and turned to Gamora. "What did you draw, anyway?"
Another shrug. "Just what I always see when I sleep."
Heather thought of the picture she was hiding and felt sick. Gamora dreamed about stuff like that? What was wrong with her?!
Heather had worried about what to do about the drawing all day- having told Eros the picture was ruined, she couldn't show it to him now, and likewise, if she showed Mentor, it'd probably come out that she'd lied and he'd be disappointed with her. It honestly felt like the drawing was burning a hole in her tunic while she carried it around. After dinner, she'd had enough. Luckily, this coincided with Mentor suggesting she and Gamora spend a while in the library, which she knew was code for 'get the child- or children, now- as far away from their living quarters as possible so we can discuss things only adults can hear'. Normally, when this happened, Heather took offence and tried to eavesdrop. She always got caught, but it was the principle of the thing. She wasn't a baby!
This time, however, she was glad of the chance to talk to Gamora privately. Assuming she could get a word out of her, of course. She was desperate to know if Gamora really dreamed about stuff like that, and why. Where had she come from? Mentor (and Heather's teachers among the monks) would chide her and say she was being bossy and controlling, but she just liked to understand people, so she could help them. She stood up, eager to get to the library and start asking her questions. "Come on, Gamora. I'll show you where all the best books are."
"Appropriate books, thank you." Mentor held her gaze until she went red, and nodded. It wasn't her fault all the 'adults' books were easy to reach!.... Er, if climbing a ladder and stretching til her arm ached was 'easy'. Nonetheless, she nodded.
"Good. Run along, then."
Heather went to reach for Gamora's hand. This was ignored, and Gamora caught Eros' eye, as if waiting to see if he wanted her to go before leaving. He threw her a reassuring smile and nod, and she moved silently to Heather's side, following her from the room.
Heather was tempted to hover for a while, to see if she could listen in on Mentor and Eros' talk, but decided against it. Last time she'd done that, she'd heard some interesting things- something about someone called Drax, and Kronos, but then Eros had opened the door and caught her with her ear pressed to it, and she'd ended up having to help in the kitchens for a month. Needless to say, she wasn't eager to repeat that experience, and she did want to try and learn more about where Gamora had come from, so she led the other girl quickly to the library.
Once they were in there, and Heather had made sure they were mostly alone, she took a chance and pulled the now-crumpled drawing from her tunic, unfolding it. "Why did you draw this?"
Gamora's eyes narrowed. "You said you ruined that by spilling paint on it."
Heather actually felt uneasy under those intense dark eyes. "Yeah, well... I didn't know if you wanted Eros to see it or not."
"Why wouldn't I?" There was genuine surprise in Gamora's voice.
"Well... it isn't exactly a nice picture, is it?" Heather squirmed. She'd thought that was obvious!
Gamora frowned. "You think I would get into trouble if he saw it? But he told me to draw something I'd dreamed about, and something outdoors." She gestured at her painting. "This is both."
"Are you saying you actually do dream stuff like this?" Heather was aghast. "Why?"
"It's what happened to my people, when the Universal Church of Truth killed them all. I remember an image like that- smoke, fire, bodies, ships. But nothing else."
Tears pricked Heather's eyes. "So- so all your people are dead but you?"
"Yes." Gamora's voice was flat, like she didn't even care.
"Don't you miss them? Or your home, at all?"
Gamora shrugged. "I don't remember them, really." A pause. "Am I supposed to miss them?"
Heather tilted her head to one side. "I guess not, if you don't remember anything." She shivered, wrapping her arms round herself. "I still miss my parents. But I saw them die."
A peculiar expression crossed Gamora's face. It was like she was trying to show sympathy, but didn't know how it was meant to look. "I'm... sorry to hear that." She reached out and squeezed Heather's hand, looking really uncomfortable as she did it.
"Ouch! That hurt!" Heather yelped, pulling her hand away.
"Sorry. I don't know how strong I am in relation to others. Eros said holding someone's hand is a way of expressing comfort. Did I do it wrong?"
Heather, rubbing her hand, fought the urge to laugh. Gamora's tone was deadly serious, and Heather realized she really didn't know anything about physical contact or affection. "You did it right... I guess." Except for nearly crushing my hand. "A hug usually works better though."
"A what?" Gamora blinked.
Heather stared. "You don't know-" Deciding it was easier to show her than tell her, she slowly reached out and put her arms round Gamora's shoulders, ignoring how rigid the other girl had gone. "That's a hug."
Gamora visibly relaxed when she stepped back. "And that's another way of showing comfort?"
"Mm-hmm. I got a lot of hugs when Mentor first brought me here after my parents died." Heather shivered.
"What happened to them?"
Rather enjoying the straightforward question, as opposed to the tip-toeing round the subject most of the Titans did, Heather pushed a strand of her dark hair back behind her ear, closing her eyes as the memories surfaced.
"I was born on Terra. My parents and I were travelling across a desert when we saw a spaceship land. A huge purple man got out. He was wearing gold armor." She shivered again. "He saw our car- that's a land vehicle used on Terra- and I guess he didn't want anyone to know he was there, because he used some kind of energy blast and the car blew up. Everything went white for a while. I woke up on the ground, a long way from the car, covered in scratches and bruises. The car was a burned out shell and my parents were..." Heather gulped. "Mentor found me not long after. He said I must've been thrown from the car by the explosion, otherwise I'd have died too." She blinked back tears. "But that was four years ago. It feels like a different life. I live here now and I'm happy."
"I'm glad you didn't die." Gamora replied absently, but her eyes were far away, and she was incredibly tense, as if braced for a shock. "The being you described, the purple one... was he bald, with furrows in his chin?"
"Yeah, how'd you know that?"
Gamora gulped audibly. "He- he... I think you're talking about Thanos. My father."
"What?!" Heather practically screeched. Her mind whirled. Gamora's father had been the one to kill her parents? Something else occurred to her and she stared at Gamora. "You know, you already proved he isn't really your father."
"No, I didn't!" Gamora's voice rose with panic, her eyes shooting round like she expected Thanos to jump out at her for saying something like that. "I'd never... how did I?"
Heather put her hands on her hips, trying to sound matter-of-fact and teacher-like, as Mentor sometimes did. "Well, you already said that all your people- the Zen Whoberi, I'm guessing, from what you wrote on the drawing- they were all killed when you were a baby, right?"
"And Thanos told you that. But he's not one of your people, so he can't have been your father, can he? He just took you in, like Mentor did me, only from what you've said, he wasn't as nice as the Titans are."
Gamora's face was impossible to read, her words coming out strangled. "I suppose not. Funny though, isn't it?"
"What is?" Heather was confused.
"You said Thanos and Mentor are nothing alike, and I guess they're not- Eros certainly isn't like Thanos-"
"Well, no. Why would he be?"
"They're brothers. Thanos and Eros. Didn't you know that? And if Mentor is Eros' father, then he must be Thanos' too..."
Heather's head spun and she felt sick. Her legs shook and she sat down hard on the floor. "I...." Thanos, the monster who'd killed her parents and nearly killed her, who still haunted her nightmares, was Mentor's son? Eros' brother?! They'd always told her she was part of their family now. How could they never have told her something like this?! "That can't be true! Why would you say that?!"
"...Eros told me."
Heather stared in disbelief as that sank in, then began to cry. Gamora was staring at her worriedly as tears poured down her cheeks but Heather barely noticed. She dug her nails into her arms to try and make herself stop sobbing like a baby in front of Gamora, but finding out that her guardians had lied to her when they said there was nothing they could do to locate her parents' killer, knowing they'd deceived her and her trust in them had been misplaced... it hurt.
Gamora turned and ran from the room. She'd upset Heather again, though she wasn't sure exactly what she'd done, and she had no idea what to do about it. Part of her was saying run and hide, then they won't be able to punish you for hurting Heather again. They'd let her get away with it last time, but she doubted she'd get another reprieve.
And yet... She hadn't done anything to Heather, not this time, except talk. And Eros did keep telling her that she wouldn't get hurt, that she was safe here... She wanted so badly to believe him, even though she wasn't sure why. And he was good at making people feel better, he'd know how to help Heather.
Her mind made up, she ran back towards the dining room they'd been in earlier. She moved quickly, heedless of where she was going-
"Oof!" She staggered as she ran headlong into someone, and backpedalled fast, hands raised defensively. Her aggressive pose dropped (slightly) when she realised it was Eros she'd run into.
He grinned at her. "What's the rush, little one? I was just coming to check on you and Heather."
Gamora tried to explain what was happening, her breath coming faster when the words stuck in her throat, and her eyes were stinging, like she didn't really want to be telling Eros this, because he'd be... angry? No, he wouldn't, she was nearly sure, that was the wrong word, but telling him she'd hurt Heather again felt... bad. She didn't know why and it frustrated her even more. Her eyes burned and one hot tear dripped down her face. She scrubbed it away angrily- crying was for infants and she was far too old to do something like that!
But Heather had been crying just then, and she hadn't seemed ashamed to be doing it...
Eros' hand cupped her chin gently, a gesture Thanos had used once or twice to encourage her to speak. "What's wrong?"
The familiarity of the gesture helped her to open up. Words spilled from her in a rush. "Heather told me about her parents and how they died and I realized she was describing Thanos and I said you were his brother and she didn't know and I upset her again because now she's crying." She gulped audibly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do it, please don't be angry with me, Oba!" She stifled a gasp. She'd meant to say Abi, for Uncle, not Oba, which meant Father! Now Eros would be even angrier, because he probably wouldn't want her calling him that... She opened her mouth to take it back but Eros had already headed to the library. Right. He had to make sure Heather was OK. She followed, not knowing what else to do.
Eros had frozen at her use of that word for him, but firmly put it into a mental compartment of 'things to deal with later'. Mentor had, during their talk about Gamora earlier, half suggested, half warned him that this might happen, that Gamora might insert him into the role of father in Thanos' place, since she would most likely be craving someone to fulfill that role. The prospect was daunting- him, a father!- but hearing her call him Oba had made a warm feeling spread through him. He actually liked the thought...
Still, that wasn't the most pressing issue right now. Through bad luck, or foolishness on his and his father's parts, Heather now knew the whole truth about her parents' deaths and their own familial ties to Thanos. Eros was kicking himself as he raced to the library. They should have realized that Gamora might make the connection between Heather's 'monster' and her 'father' if she heard the story of Heather's being brought here. But the damage had been done now. The best he could do was contain the fallout and try to minimize the damage. After all, Heather had been six when she came to Titan- as if they could have told her the truth then! And ever since...If he was honest, they'd gotten so used to her that her birth parents were rarely thought of anymore- she was a citizen of Titan, and that was enough.
Entering the library and seeing Heather's tearstained face, though, he realized it wasn't enough. Not for this. She glowered up at him. "You and Mentor lied to me. You said you didn't know who killed my parents! When it was your brother who did it!"
Sighing, Eros went and sat beside her, Gamora trailing behind him. "Heather, you were too young to hear that at first-"
"-And we only wanted to protect you from it. Believe me, if I didn't have to know he was related to me, I-" He stopped himself, swallowing hard. Now was not the time to get into his own conflicted feelings about his only sibling. He reached out, stroking Heather's dark hair. "We didn't lie to you for no reason, Heather."
She sniffed angrily. "You still did though."
"Maybe but now you know, does it really help? Does it help you feel any better?"
Heather considered, then shook her head.
"Best you keep telling yourself it was a monster that killed your parents, Heather, because in a way, it was. Whoever Thanos is now, he is not the brother I grew up with."
Heather nodded and slowly nestled into his side. She didn't speak, but was clearly calmer now.
"I wish I didn't have to know what Fath-Thanos was like." Gamora said softly, her eyes on the ground as she sat on Eros' other side, leaning against him. "I wish someone had kept it from me, so I didn't have to think about it." She was chewing her lip. "Because he brought me up, and h-he's a killer, and he's bad, so that means I am too, doesn't it?" Her eyes were so miserable that Eros teared up. He slid an arm round her shoulders.
"Now that's just silly."
"You're saying that just by association with Thanos, you think you're bad as he is?"
"Mm-hmmm. I must be. Otherwise I'd know how to be nice, and not to upset people just by saying stuff." This followed by a glance at Heather. "I'm... sorry... Heather." The word felt strange, but Gamora knew it was what you were meant to say when you'd done something wrong.
Heather reached across Eros and took Gamora's hand. "It's OK. It wasn't your fault."
"It... wasn't?" Gamora blinked, but, Eros was pleased to see, didn't flinch away or drop Heather's hand.
"No." Heather yawned and Eros realized it must be getting near the girls' bedtime. He should take them to their rooms, but he wanted to settle something with Gamora first. He looked down at her seriously as he spoke. "Back to the 'tainted by association' idea: it's nonsense. I grew up alongside Thanos. My father raised him. Do either of us act like him?"
"No, no 'buts'. People make their own choices about who they want to be, when they're adults. Thanos chose a dark path, which ultimately led to you and Heather both being here. If you want to look for a bright side, you both have a new family, and a better chance than you would have had otherwise."
Heather smiled sleepily, having heard variants of this before- misfortune and tragedy leading to a different, better future. Her eyes were drifting shut. In minutes, she was asleep.
Eros, still focused on Gamora, barely noticed. The Zen Whoberi girl yawned again, her eyelids drooping.
"...can I call you Oba? I think you'll be a good father, and I don't want Thanos anymore..." Gamora drifted into sleep as she finished speaking.
Eros contemplated her as she and Heather slept, curled on either side of him, their little hands still joined. Assuming she meant what she said... could he do it? More to the point, should he? Taking full responsibility for Gamora, as his father did for Heather... a few weeks ago, the thought would have terrified him. Now, though, having seen that, for whatever reason, she'd decided to trust him, wanted him to be her father... could he really jeopardize her healing by rejecting her?
No. That wasn't an option. She'd been through enough and he still felt the instinctive urge to keep her safe from any further harm. Fatherhood would be a challenge, but Gamora wasn't an infant, and, he grinned to himself, when had he ever shied away from a challenge? He remained where he was, loathe to wake the children, his mind wandering, until soft footsteps roused him to full wakefulness.
"Younger maidens than you're used to entertaining, Eros." An amused female voice, full of laughter, made him start. A Titan woman with thick black hair peered down at him, brown eyes sparkling with mirth at his predicament. He grinned wryly at her words as he looked up at her.
"Very funny, Elysius. I'd get up, but..." He looked at one, then the other, of the sleeping girls. "I'd rather not disturb them."
Elysius nodded. She glanced at Heather. "Mentor's Terran ward, I presume." She turned to look at Gamora, curled up under Eros' arm. "And..."
"My new adopted daughter." He chuckled when Elysius gaped at him. "Long story. I'll tell you later. If you could take Heather," he glanced at her, indicating which child he meant. "I'll get up and we can get these two to bed."
Elysius obliged, deftly slipping the girls' hands apart, and lifting Heather as easily as she would one of her own twin children. Eros followed suit, stretching his aching legs, cradling Gamora carefully. Neither girl woke as they were carried to their rooms. He and Elysius decided, in whispers, to leave them in their day clothes, it wouldn't hurt this once, and he didn't feel comfortable changing Gamora's clothes while she slept anyway. Eros brushed his lips on Gamora's forehead as she snuggled into her bed (that he'd hastily remade one-handed after finding all her bed linen on the ground.) "Goodnight, my daughter." He whispered as softly as he could, feeling another stir of warmth when she smiled in her sleep.
Once they'd left the childrens' rooms, Eros gave Elysius a long look. "Father didn't mention you were visiting."
She sighed. "It's... complicated."
"Are Mar-Vell," he named her Kree lover, "And the children here?"
"Genis and Phyla are. They're in bed. Mar-Vell..." Another sigh. "The Kree Supreme Intelligence has conscripted him into the war with the Skrulls, pressing him back into active service. I don't want the children dragged into it, so I brought them back here, away from it all."
Eros felt resignation, sadness and determination rolling off of her. "And... you and Marv..."
"Will discuss our children's futures when he has time to come and visit them."
The children's futures. Not hers and Mar-Vell's as a couple. Eros felt a pang of sadness at that, but it wasn't his place to meddle. "Have you seen Father yet?"
"No, when the servants showed me and the children to our rooms, he was in his lab poring over something or other. I know not to disturb him in there."
"You might not want to, but I will. Father will want to see you. Come on." Taking her hand, he tugged her along with him. Clearly, they'd have a lot to discuss- so much had happened of late.
Gamora woke up slowly, mind fogged with sleep, blinking as the lights of Titan's day cycle shone through her window. Wait- she slept on the floor, the light shouldn't shine onto her face, even with the curtains open... She sat bolt upright, startled to find herself sleeping in the bed. How had that happened? She thought back to last night- she'd gone to get Eros to help Heather, they'd all talked in the library, then... she had to have fallen asleep. Maybe Eros had brought her back here? That would explain why she was in the large bed, not on the floor as she was used to. She wriggled a bit. The bed was comfortable, warm and soft, but Fath- Thanos had always said such comforts were a weakness. He'd always insisted that sleeping in a bedroll on the ground was better for her.
But obviously Eros didn't think that, since he'd put her in the bed to sleep. Gamora flushed when she remembered asking him if he'd be her father now. Had she really said that? Why had he said yes? He couldn't really want her for a daughter.... could he? Why would he? She knew, now, that she wasn't like other children, because of Thanos. There was something wrong with her. When she saw him today, she had to let him know that he didn't have to be her father if he didn't want, give him the chance to take it back. The thought made her throat and eyes hurt- she really did want Eros for her new father, but he probably didn't want her, so it would be best to just grow up and forget her childish request now.
She washed and changed out of yesterday's clothes into fresh ones quickly, wondering not for the first time since she came here why the clothing here was so nice. The sleeveless tunics that fell to her knees, and the soft leggings she wore beneath, were lovely, comfortable and soft, but they were so different from what she'd always had before- thick, tough trousers and long-sleeved shirts, that made it harder for blows and cuts to reach her skin while she was sparring with combat droids- which she'd spent a lot of time doing, aboard Thanos' Sanctuary ark. And since coming here, she hadn't had to do any martial training, and that felt odd.
Unless that was another lie, when Thanos told me that every child has to learn to defend themselves. Gamora shook her head, scrunching her face in a frown. This was so confusing. Everything she thought she knew from Thanos was (maybe) turning out to be wrong. But what did children do all day, if not learn to fight? She thought about Heather's fondness for 'playing' and 'fun'. Was that what was normal for children? They were told to go and do it a lot... even though Gamora didn't really know what it meant. She'd ask Eros later- he hadn't lied to her so far, and he was good at helping her understand things. He was really nice to her... She bit her lip, feeling sad again that she'd have to let him know he didn't have to be her father after all.
Shaking her head and harshly telling herself to grow up, she left her room, hoping to run into Heather or Eros, so she would know whether or not it was alright to go for breakfast, or if there was something else she was meant to be doing. She got half her wish- Eros was coming up the stairs, but there were two strange children with him, and they were engrossed in a conversation.
Gamora's breath hitched and she froze where she was. What was going on? Who were these two? Why were they here? Her only other experience with strangers had been when she'd been brought here, and she had a feeling her response from back then- lashing out, kicking and screaming- wasn't right. But what was she meant to do? Step closer and say something? Go back into her room and leave Eros and the other children in peace? A spike of mixed anger and longing (was this jealousy? She'd read about that...) surged through her as she saw Eros give one of the new children a hug. Biting back an annoyed growl, she wrung her hands then backed up against the wall as Eros and the children drew closer. Her arms, almost of their own accord, wrapped round her stomach defensively. She stared at the newcomers. Both were pink-skinned, but had the look of Kree, especially with their silver-blond hair. She assumed they were siblings, as they looked alike, though one (a boy?) had close-cropped hair, and the other, a girl she thought, had slightly longer hair that fell to her chin and kept flopping into her face. Both children had blue eyes. They also wore Kree garb- all-in-one bodysuits, the boy's green and white, the girl's red and black, with the yellow Star of Hala on the chest of each suit. They looked about Heather's age and Gamora desperately wished that the other girl was here so she had some idea of how to act right now.
Eros broke off his conversation with the Kree children when he saw Gamora, and smiled warmly at her. He was keeping the twins busy while Mentor talked privately with Elysius, about Mar-Vell and how things had been left between them, he assumed. Genis and Phyla had been eager to meet their new 'cousin' and he'd thought it would be better to let them meet somewhere more private, as he didn't know how Gamora would react, but now, as she seemed almost frightened, he wondered if she shouldn't have warned her first and made the twins wait- still, he'd done it now.
Gamora swallowed, then tried to smile back at Eros, but had a feeling it didn't look right. The Kree children were giving her very curious looks and she shifted, feeling uncomfortable under their obvious scrutiny. Her heart-rate picked up speed. What was she meant to do?
Eros sensed her rising panic and half-ran quickly to her side, putting a hand on her shoulder to reassure her. "It's alright," he murmured, softly enough that only she heard his words. She relaxed a tiny bit, but was clearly not at ease. He wished he could get Genis and Phyla to stop staring at her, but they'd only just learned he had a daughter now- their curiousity was natural.
"Where's Heather?" Gamora whispered, her voice tiny. He guessed she wanted another familiar face around.
"She's in her lessons. You overslept a little today."
Gamora went rigid. "I'm sorry!"
He brushed some hair from her face. "It's alright. If you're tired, you need more sleep." He took and squeezed her hand, reminding her of their now familiar refrain; "No consequences."
She nodded shakily, returning her gaze to the twins.
Phyla's natural friendliness took over and she smiled happily, stepping forward. "Hi! I'm Phyla-Vell. What's your name?"
"Gamora." It was barely muttered.
"Cool name! Nice to meet you. I'm glad we're going to be friends."
Gamora glanced at Phyla, then at Eros, her mystified face clearly saying 'We are?' Eros stifled a chuckle.
"Phyla makes friends with everyone, don't you, little bird?"
"Yeah! Oh, and this is my twin brother Genis-Vell. We're both going to live here now."
"Oh." Gamora wasn't sure what to say to that. Was she supposed to reply to her new 'friend'? "Ummm..."
"You don't talk much, do you?" Genis commented archly.
Eros held back from intervening. Gamora had to get used to the twins, and to meeting people in general, given her past isolation, and he wouldn't step in unless she became upset again.
Phyla elbowed her brother in the ribs. "Gen! You're being mean! Maybe she's shy."
Genis shrugged, still eyeing Gamora. "You don't look much like Eros. How come? He said he was your father."
Gamora froze like a deer in headlights. Eros had told these other children that he was her father when she wasn't even there?! He really did want to be her father? He really had meant it, yesterday? She pressed her free hand to her mouth to hide the huge smile spreading over her face. It took a few seconds for her to even think about what Genis had said, then her face instantly sobered. How would she explain why she didn't look like her new father? Should she tell these two about Thanos? What if she said something wrong again and upset them like she had Heather, yesterday? She glanced at Eros for help. "Oba?" Her voice wobbled, and she pinched her own arm so she'd toughen up and stop sounding foolish.
Eros slid an arm round her shoulders, throwing Genis a warning glance. "You were told earlier, Genis. Gamora was living somewhere that wasn't very nice until I found her and brought her here. As for why she doesn't look like me, not all children have to look like their parents. You should know that by your age." He hoped the child-friendly version of Gamora's story that he, Mentor and Elysius had agreed on last night would satisfy the twins' questions- and that Gamora wouldn't say anything to give the game away. Elysius knew the whole story, of course, and was as sickened as he and his father had been by what Thanos had done to Gamora, but understandably, she didn't want the twins knowing about that. Eros privately thought that parts of it would come out eventually, especially if the twins and Gamora became friends, but for now, while the children got to know each other, this was the best option.
Phyla nodded sagely. "It's like how we don't look like Uma much, Gen."
"But we look like Father." Genis frowned at Gamora. "Do you look like your mother then?"
Eros was about to step in and rebuke Genis, more firmly this time, but Gamora met Genis' gaze, her eyes hardening.
"Maybe, I don't know, since my mother died." She felt confident enough saying that, as it was the literal truth. As for the rest? If Eros wanted Genis and Phyla to believe he was her biological father, she wasn't going to argue- it made her feel kind of warm inside actually. She still wanted to know why these two Kree children were apparently now living here though. How come? She wasn't sure how to ask.
Genis and Phyla both looked horrified at hearing that Gamora's mother had died. Phyla actually had tears in her eyes and leaped forward and hugged Gamora, startling her.
"I'm sorry about your mother." Phyla sniffled, unable to imagine anything worse than losing her own mother.
Genis was blinking a lot too. (He was not crying!) "Sorry. Um... you can share our Uma if you want."
Gamora blinked. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Because you don't have one and you need one."
Gamora peered up at Eros, confused again. She knew Uma was the Titan word for Mother, but why did Genis think she needed one? She'd never needed one before...
Eros successfully contained his smile at Genis' well-intentioned 'help'. "I don't think your Uma needs any more children to worry about, Genis, you and Phyla cause her quite enough trouble. But it was nice of you to offer."
Gamora nodded, parroting Eros. "Thank you." She looked thoughtful. "Is your mother going to live here too?"
Eros cut in here, before the twins could confuse her even more, and/or before she said something about their father and risked upsetting them. "Yes, Gamora. Genis and Phyla's mother, Elysius, is a Titan, a friend of mine from childhood. She, Genis and Phyla will be staying here while the twins' father Mar-Vell is busy with work. You'll meet Elysius later, at lunch."
Genis puffed his chest up at the mention of Mar-Vell. "Father's a captain in the Kree military and I'm going to go and fight with him when I'm bigger!"
Eros again struggled not to laugh as ten year old Genis tried to look tough. He also refrained from pointing out that Elysius would never want that for her son- it would be years before Genis was old enough to consider enlisting, and he could easily change his mind.
Gamora was eyeing Genis speculatively. "You're going to be in the Kree army?"
"Yep. Someday." Genis frowned at his sister's audible mutter of 'Boring!'
"Do you know how to fight?" Gamora was clearly taking Genis' words seriously.
Genis went red. "...I'm learning."
Gamora smiled tentatively, a sparkle in her dark eyes. "I know how to fight. I could teach you." At last, something she could do around here that was useful!
"Really?" Genis' eyes widened.
"Yes- if I'm allowed to do that." Gamora glanced at Eros. "Is that alright, Oba?" Again, calling him Father made her feel warm and happy inside. She was excited at being able to teach Genis how to fight, as well- she knew she was good at that, so that was one thing she couldn't get wrong. Plus it would give her something to do besides the inexplicable 'fun' that everyone wanted her to do.
Eros frowned, then shrugged. "I don't see why not, as long as an adult supervises you- you're not to do this on your own- and you're careful." It might prove to be a step back, focusing part of Gamora's life on combat again, but this was the first time she'd shown real enthusiasm for anything, and Titan did have warriors, and trainees, though they were seldom needed. Besides, the children were only ten, and they'd be supervised. What harm could learning a few fighting moves possibly do?
"Oof!" Genis' breath whooshed out of his lungs as he was tossed, facedown, onto the soft practice mats. Again. Grimacing, he rolled over and glared up at his opponent.
Gamora stood, looking perfectly composed despite their having been sparring for nearly an hour, and it looked like she was trying not to smirk. She shook her head as Genis clambered back to his feet. "I thought you said you knew how to defend yourself?"
"I do!" Genis protested. "You just took me by surprise."
"Every time I've tossed you for the past hour?" Gamora's brows arched. "You should have seen it coming and stopped me at least once."
Genis' face contorted in a scowl and he glanced around. He'd thought, at first, agreeing to a sparring session without one of the adults breathing down their necks would be fun- he wouldn't be corrected on his form and posture the whole time- but no guidance just meant that Gamora had more time to beat him, over and over...
He clenched his fists. "Whatever. I've had enough anyway. And we really should get out of here before anyone finds out we snuck in."
Gamora shrugged, dropping her defensive stance and turning away. "Fine. This is too easy anyway."
Genis grinned, seeing a possibility. Using his ability to levitate, he hovered above the ground, then, without making a sound, abruptly shot toward Gamora, determined to overpower her at least once. He swung his arm low, knocking her legs out from under her, then dropping to the ground as she toppled, pinning her wrists to the mat and kneeling on her legs, rendering her unable to move. She lay there rigid, her face unreadable. Genis laughed. "I win- agh!"
She'd jerked her head up, smashing her face into his. The crunching sound his nose made, and the blood dripping from it, made Genis reflexively let go of Gamora to stem the nosebleed. He assumed that the sparring match would end now, as it always did if someone actually got hurt.
Apparently, no-one had told Gamora that however, as she went on to elbow him in the stomach, winding him, then shifted her whole body sideways so Genis toppled to the mats, laying on his back. Before he could even protest, she was pinning him down, a scary cold look in her eyes, one arm pressed across his throat, restricting his breathing.
Genis' eyes bugged. Blood was now running into his mouth and Gamora didn't even seem to notice, nor was she easing the pressure on his throat. "G'mora-" He managed to wheeze.
"Do you yield?" Her voice was cold as ice.
Genis nodded as best he could, heart pounding as his face reddened from lack of air. She let him go and moved away, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He stood up gingerly, dabbing blood from his nose with one hand, massaging his neck with the other, keeping a wary distance from Gamora. Once he could speak again, he snapped at her. "What was that? We were meant to be sparring, not trying to seriously hurt each other!" He tried not to voice the thought that for a second, he'd thought she might actually kill him.
Gamora blinked. "You attacked me from behind after you'd declared the match over. Was I not meant to defend myself?"
"Well.... yeah, but... not like that!" He shook his head. "Don't you realize you could've killed me, choking me like that?"
"Of course." Her voice was totally matter-of-fact. "I could have broken your neck from that position too, if I'd wanted to."
Genis paled. "H-how do you know..."
"I've had to do it before."
Gamora froze, then clapped a hand to her mouth. Idiot! She cursed herself. Oba Eros had told her not to talk about her life with Thanos in front of the other children! Now she'd been stupid and forgotten his instructions, and she'd scared Genis.
He was staring at her, wide-eyed. "Y-you've killed people? But you're just a kid! Why would...?"
Wishing she'd never mentioned this now, Gamora swallowed. "I was being trained to kill. But I don't have to do that anymore. So it doesn't matter. I shouldn't have told you." She was fighting panic, worried of what Mentor would say if she made him angry. He won't hit you, Oba promised, that doesn't happen here. But still, even after almost two months here, she found it hard to truly believe. Oba had gone off somewhere into Kree space, to help the twins' father with something, about a week ago. Gamora had been scared at the thought of him leaving, terrified he wouldn't come back. She had begged to go with him, not to be left alone. He'd held her close, promising that she'd be fine here with Mentor, and he'd be safe, and he would return, and she'd given her word she'd behave for Mentor and Elysius, the twins' mother, in the meantime. That wasn't hard though- she just stayed out of their way, going to lessons or staying in her room. Mentor hadn't done anything to suggest he wanted to see more of her, and she'd barely seen Elysius at all, except at meals, so she hoped she was behaving properly.
Genis was thinking fast. Did Mentor know that Gamora used to have to kill people? That made her dangerous.... so Genis should really make sure that someone knew. Except... that would mean admitting they'd snuck into the training room and sparred unsupervised, and then they'd both be in trouble. Anyway, he was fine, and he didn't want to get Gamora in trouble for something he'd kind of provoked her into. No, he wouldn't tell anyone. He'd just make sure they didn't spar alone again. Besides, he reflected, Gamora had said she'd been taught to kill people, not that she actually had.
They left the gymnasium in silence, both looking worried.
"Are you... alright?" Gamora ventured as they reached their schoolroom, which they'd snuck out of to go and spar.
Genis nodded, having already resolved to forget the incident- after all, she had let him go as soon as he'd yielded the fight. "Yeah. Are you?"
Her lip curled. "You didn't even come close to besting me-"
"At what?" Heather's voice came from inside the room.
Genis' face hardened. "Nothing!"
"Uh-huh." Heather came into view, leaning on the doorframe, arms folded. "So then you won't mind if I tell Mentor you two weren't here when he sent Phy and me to join you for lessons?"
"No!" Genis and Gamora half-yelled in unision.
Phyla poked her head out of the classroom. "Gen, quit yelling."
"I'm not! Heather's trying to get us in trouble for nothing."
"Am not! You two went off somewhere when you should have been studying."
Gamora watched this back-and-forth curiously, gaze shifting from Genis to Heather. They'd bickered ever since the twins came here, and although Oba had told her, weeks ago, that it was normal and didn't mean they didn't like each other, she didn't get it. They argued over the strangest things- just yesterday they'd fought over who got to sit next to Phyla at lunch- as if it mattered who you sat next to, as long as you got food! Phyla had, sensibly, ended it by sitting between them.
Gamora considered Phyla as she followed the others into the classroom. She liked her (she thought) but she didn't really understand her. She never seemed to get angry and was just... nice, to everyone, no matter what. Like last night, when Gamora had had a nightmare- not her usual one, but a dream about Thanos coming here and taking her away again, and hurting Oba...- she'd screamed in her sleep and woken Phyla, who'd come running in. Gamora had tried to send her away, apologizing for disturbing her, fighting to hide her weakness as she trembled. Instead of leaving, Phyla had sat down and hugged her as she cried, and apparently they'd both fallen asleep, because the next thing she remembered was Mentor coming in to wake her up, because she'd overslept again. She'd panicked at that, still conditioned to expect punishment for mistakes. (A small voice in her mind pointed out that just because Oba was always nice didn't mean Mentor was- Thanos had to have gotten his behavior from somewhere, didn't he?)
Phyla had left easily enough for breakfast, and seemed to have forgotten the whole thing. Gamora kept playing it over in her mind though, worrying at the memory, as it was yet another thing to confuse her. Mentor had acted like it didn't matter that she'd overslept and made Phyla do so as well, and he'd actually got her to talk about her dream, despite her determination not to, and he'd even taken the time to sit with her and reassure her it would never happen, that Thanos could never get near her again. He hadn't held her close like Oba did, but that made sense. Oba liked her. Mentor didn't have to.
Still, she shivered at her thoughts. She might be safe here on Titan, but Oba was out there all alone right now. What if Thanos went after him and hurt him for stealing her? Rescuing, not stealing, she corrected herself fiercely. Still, Thanos would be so mad... She tried to concentrate on the lessons they'd been set for the rest of the day, but it wasn't easy. What would she do if Oba Eros didn't come back? Mentor wouldn't want her here if that happened, because it would be her fault if Thanos hurt Oba, and because she'd managed to upset Genis earlier... Before she knew it, she was blinking back tears, swallowing hard, but unable to stop crying silently. She barely noticed Phyla's worried look, or when the other girl ran out of the room. The next thing she was really aware of was a hand on her shoulder, and Mentor looking at her, eyes kind but worried. Phyla must have gone and got him. Great. Now she'd be in trouble for disrupting his day again. Gamora wiped her face, struggling to stop crying and not having much luck.
A'lars peered at his new grandaughter worriedly. "Come along, child. I think we need to have a talk." He hadn't tried to push her into anything while Eros was away- it was him she'd bonded with, after all- but he had hoped she would start putting some trust in him, at the very least. Instead, since Eros' departure, she'd retreated back into herself, spending most of her free time in her room, unless one of the other children encouraged her to do something. Even this morning, when she'd finally admitted to a nightmare and let him reassure her, she'd remained tense, clearly not wanting an embrace or physical comfort from him- her body language had telegraphed 'stay away'. Elysius she treated like a completely alien creature- which, to Gamora, he supposed she was. Had the child ever been around an adult woman before, at all? Most likely not... He swallowed down a fresh wave of anger at what Thanos had done to this girl, concentrating on Gamora instead, gesturing for her to follow him.
Robotically, she stood, moving as if she was being led to her own execution. He slid an arm round Gamora's shoulders as he led her to his study, something he'd seen Eros do on numerous occasions. It seemed to relax her when Eros did it, but with him, she remained tense. Her every interaction with him to date, without Eros there, had her acting as if she expected punishment for just being there. This time was no different. He stifled a sigh as the door automatically swished closed behind them and Gamora sat rigidly in a seat. How was he even supposed to begin to get through to her if she was afraid of him? She was still fighting tears as she sat there, clearly waiting for some admonishment, judging by her dejected posture. It hurt him to see her so distressed, but if she couldn't bring herself to open up and explain what was wrong, what could he do?
He sat down opposite her, sighing once more. "I wish you could tell me what's wrong, little one."
She had her arms wrapped round herself protectively, but eventually glanced up at him.
The silence lengthened.
"What happens to me if Oba doesn't come back?" Gamora finally ventured in a small voice, eyes firmly on the ground. It should be OK to ask that, right? So she knew what her future might hold.
Why would she think... A'lars shook his head. "What do you think would happen?" he prompted. He wasn't sure what she was thinking, and wanted her to elaborate.
She swallowed hard. "If something bad happened to Oba, like if T-Thanos got him...." Just the thought had her crying again. She pinched herself hard, but couldn't stop. "If he doesn't come home..."
A'lars, uncharacteristically, did something he frequently chided Eros for, and acted without thinking it through first. Unable to bear seeing the child crying, he pulled her onto his lap, rocking her gently. Most ten year olds wouldn't want this degree of contact, but he was coming to realize that Gamora craved it, as a much younger child would, though she didn't comprehend that herself, used to hiding her feelings and acting older than her years, likely due to having been utterly starved of affection in Thanos' 'care'. He whispered, quietly, that she didn't need to be afraid, that Eros would be back, he was perfectly safe, and wouldn't get hurt, and slowly, she quieted down, though she was still crying on his shoulder.
He held her close, hoping this would prove to be a step forward in convincing her that he, like Eros and most other adults, wouldn't mock or shame her for wanting to be looked after, that it wasn't a 'weakness' as she seemed to believe. He also hoped she accepted his word that Eros would return- she needed to learn to trust people in general. As for her implication that if Eros did not return, her circumstances would somehow change... That misconception could be dealt with later. Eros in fact was due to return in a few days, but as the timeline was vague, he saw no reason to mention it just yet. Her fear of Thanos made sense, and was far better than misplaced loyalty to him (though A'lars wasn't fool enough to think that had completely vanished) but she couldn't panic herself into this state every time Eros went off world- it wasn't healthy.
Small steps. He told himself firmly. Gamora had already come a long way from the nearly-feral child that Eros had had to sedate to get away from Thanos. She was healing, and all she needed was time.
A soft snore disturbed his thoughts, and he realized she'd actually fallen asleep, tired due to her broken night, no doubt, and was now drooling on his shoulder. A'lars thanked the stars that Eros wasn't here to see this- he'd never hear the end of it!
Eros grimaced as he pushed a strand of hair from his face- he absolutely hated the layers of grime that built up while you were ship-bound alone and had few chances to bathe, but at least he was inbound for home now. He sighed as he set the autopilot to take over for the approach to Titan, his mind going back to Mar-Vell. He'd spent the entire trip home worrying about his friend. Mar-Vell had called him out to his fleet to try and locate a Skrull ship that had evaded the Kree forces. Eros had eventually tracked the Skrulls to Terra, and when Mar-Vell had reported this to his superiors (without mentioning Eros, as A'lars did not wish the Titans to become involved in other species' wars) he had been told to take a disguise, infiltrate Terra's military under the false name 'Walter Lawson'. and track down and deal with the Skrulls himself, under deep cover. Such an assignment could take years, and Mar-Vell knew nothing about Terra. Eros had told him as much, repeatedly, pointing out that the humans of Terra knew nothing of extraterrestrial life, and if he were to be discovered, there was no telling what the humans might do.
Mar-Vell had been determined to follow his orders, however, so all Eros could do now was alert his father to the situation, so they could keep an eye on Mar-Vell and intervene (hopefully) if something went wrong. Try as he might, Eros couldn't shake the feeling that it would, somehow...
Eros' ship entered Titan's atmosphere, recognized by ISAAC even from this distance, and the AI's voice echoed through the small vessel.
"Welcome home, Master Eros. I see you are not in need of medical or mechanical assistance." There was a pause, as if ISAAC was resisting saying 'For once'. "Shall I guide your ship to the docking bay?"
Eros waved a hand. "No, thank you. The autopilot is set."
"Very well. I will alert your father to your safe return. Is Miss Gamora to be informed also?"
Eros glanced out of the ship's window, discerning the sun's position, working out what time it would be right now in Titan's artificial solar cycle. Mid-morning, if he'd worked it out correctly. "Yes, go ahead." At this time of day, Gamora shouldn't be too busy- if she'd interacted with anyone at all in his absence- and it would be good for her to be treated like any other member of the family. He'd found himself more anxious about her during his trip away than he'd anticipated- normally, when he left Titan, he rarely gave his home a thought until he was on his way back, living in the present and enjoying it. This time, though, he'd barely been able to go five minutes without thinking about how upset Gamora had been when he'd left, and worrying about how she was coping. He'd nearly called home to check on her about five times- and that had just been the first day.
When they'd been alone, Mar-Vell had commented on his uncharacteristic nerves, and he'd confessed all to his friend, how he'd found Gamora under Thanos' thumb, rescued her, what had happened since, how intensely protective he now felt of his daughter, a feeling stronger than anything he'd imagined, his fears of getting something wrong, of not being good enough, not being able to help her in the way she needed, no matter how badly he wanted to, of failing at fatherhood- all feelings he had had but ignored, not wanting Gamora to pick up on the fact he was clueless, running on instinct when it came to helping her, and definitely not wanting A'lars to know any of this. He'd agreed to take on the role of Gamora's father, and if A'lars now knew he was having doubts, he might well accuse Eros of shying from commitment, not being willing to follow through now he knew what he'd let himself in for.
He would do this. Eros was determined. He didn't have a clue what the future would hold, but he was going to keep his word to Gamora. She needed a father, and had chosen him. As long as she wanted and needed him as a parent, he'd be there.
'No parent knows what they're doing all the time, Eros.' Mar-Vell's words from their discussion about his worries floated back to him. 'Not me, not your father, no-one. And you said Gamora asked you to be her father. That must have been for a reason, something in her seeing something she needs in you. And you care about her. I see that just in the way you speak about her. Do your best, show her what a normal life is, and love her as a child deserves. That will be enough.'
Eros kept that in his mind, praying that his closest friend was right. Another worry nagged at him as well- rumor, nothing more, of Thanos' forces apparently having attacked a Kree border territory, colonized by refugees from other worlds, and the possibility that a little Luphomoid girl was utterly missing, not numbered among the survivors or the dead. It's a rumor, nothing more. He told himself firmly. It might not even be true! Still, he'd alert A'lars later. Just in case his worst fear was true, and Thanos was replacing the 'daughter' he'd lost...
The ship docked, jarring him from his worried thoughts, and he prepared to disembark, grabbing his satchel of supplies, and the pack containing gifts for Genis and Phyla from Mar-Vell. He also checked that his little gift for Gamora was safely hidden- he didn't want the other children taking it and assuming (or deciding) it was for them- Gamora would probably just let them have it if that happened!
A'lars, Gamora, Heather, Elysius, Genis and Phyla were all waiting for him. His heart swelled with joy as he saw the look of happiness and relief on Gamora's face when she saw him approaching. Just knowing she was so pleased to see him pushed all his doubts and fears aside. Clearly he'd done something right, if she'd been missing him.
A'lars smiled a greeting. Eros smiled back, nodding in acknowledgement of his father and Elysius. Heather, Genis and Phyla, all practically jumping up and down with excitement, were being held back by hands on shoulders- Mentor in Heather's case, Elysius' in the twins'. Gamora, biting her lip, now looking unsure, took a few steps forward, then froze, as if waiting for permission to come closer.
Eros grinned, holding his arms out as a sudden urge to hold her close struck him. He'd take her with him next time he went off-world, he decided. That way he wouldn't have to watch her cry when he left, and wouldn't spend his entire trip wishing he was at home!
Gamora waited a few seconds longer, her heart pounding, making sure it wasn't Heather or the twins that Oba Eros was reaching out for, but he was watching her, waiting. Suddenly desperately wanting a hug, her feet took over of their own accord, and she was running, flinging herself into his arms, smiling as he swept her up so she was the same height as him, her legs round his waist, then held her close as she buried her face in his shoulder.
"I missed you, Oba." It came out muffled, so if she'd read this wrong, or if she shouldn't have done that in front of the others, he could pretend he hadn't heard her.
Eros pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "I missed you too, little one."
Gamora tensed for a second- that was what Thanos had always called her- but then forced herself to remember that Elysius called Heather that, and Mentor had called her that, a few days ago, when she'd been upset, so the name didn't exclusively belong to Thanos. It didn't. He'd probably learned it here, growing up. She forced herself to relax. Later, when she and Oba were alone, she'd ask him if being called 'little one' was just something that kind people said. Thanos hadn't been kind, she knew that now, but maybe it was just a habit with him?
She couldn't help but grin when Oba didn't put her down when the others came over- she knew she was too old to be carried like a baby, but being held like this was fun- Fun? Wait. What? Where had that come from? Forget it for now. She told herself firmly, not wanting to make a fuss- or to be put down.
She startled herself by laughing when Phyla and Genis ran over, both attempting to be picked up too. No, wait, they were trying to get hold of Oba's bags, for some reason. She wrinkled her nose, confused. What were they doing?
"What did you bring us, Uncle Eros?" Phyla was tugging at Eros' arm.
"Did Father send us anything?" Genis struggled to untie one of the bags, jumping for it when Eros smirked and held it out of his reach, giving the bag to a bemused Gamora.
Elysius and A'lars had walked over to join them now. Elysius, laughing at the twins, pulled them away. "What did I tell you about not pestering your uncle?"
"Sorry, Uma." Genis muttered (still trying to snag the bag from Gamora, who, figuring out he wasn't meant to have it yet, was now holding it above her head, out of his reach.)
"Sorry, Uncle." Phyla hung her head, then looked up at Eros, big blue eyes wide and innocent. "But did you bring us anything?"
Gamora listened to A'lars' chuckling, while Heather rolled her eyes. Elysius shook her head and swatted lightly at Phyla. "Honestly!" She was smiling, so it was clearly a joke, but Gamora went rigid, seeing, in that moment, not Elysius' slender hand barely ruffling Phyla's hair, but a larger purple fist slamming into her skull and sending her flying. She could feel the blood seeping into her hair and her head was ringing...
Eros picked up on the abrupt change in Gamora's mood just before her hand went limp and the bag she'd been holding fell to the ground. He tried to catch his father's eye, but didn't need to- A'lars had already noticed something was wrong, thankfully. Quickly, Eros took the bag from the floor, and passed it and his satchel to Elysius, while A'lars distracted the other children, shepherding them inside with promises of a sweet.
Elysius, now aware there was a problem, hovered, her eyes anxiously on Gamora, who was now unresponsive, a deadweight in Eros' arms. Eros gestured with his head for her to go inside. His best guess for the problem here was some memory being triggered when Gamora saw Elysius mock-hitting Phyla for being cheeky, so having Elysius here while he tried to calm Gamora wouldn't help matters. Elysius, head hanging, radiating guilt, showing she knew exactly what the problem was, headed indoors without a word.
Eros carried Gamora to a nearby bench, and sat. She remained limp, unmoving, but sweat was breaking out on her skin and her heart was pounding- he could feel the rapid thrumming. She was breathing far too quickly as well, but her eyes were far away, unfocused.
Worried now, Eros shook her shoulder gently. "Gamora?"
She started, blinking rapidly, then looking around, as if surprised by her surroundings. "Oba?" She sounded dazed, like she'd just woken up. Her small form began trembling. She pressed a hand to the side of her head, then peered at it, as if expecting to see something besides her own green skin. "What.... I thought...." She whimpered. "My head hurts."
Eros quickly probed her skull as gently as he could. "Did you hurt yourself earlier today?"
Gamora shook her head, biting her lip. "No. I s-saw Elysius' hand, then it was like I was b-back there, all alone, and T-Thanos punched me. It hurt." She looked terrified. "It felt like it was real."
Eros had to bite his tongue for several seconds before he could respond. Taking several deep breaths, he managed to speak normally. "Gamora, do you know what a flashback is?"
She shook her head. "No."
"It's when something happens that might remind you of something else, and you end up reliving a memory."
Gamora frowned, her nose scrunching up. "But I don't actually remember Fath- Thanos hitting me like that. Or I didn't, til just now." She shivered. "What's wrong with me, Oba?"
Eros smoothed her hair, certain now that she didn't actually have an injury- just the recalled pain of one. "Nothing's wrong with you." He paused. "Sometimes, our minds block out unhappy memories until we're ready to deal with them, or until something makes us remember."
"Oh." Gamora considered this. She began fidgeting. "Elysius looked like she was going to hit Phyla. You said you don't hit children here..."
Eros shook his hed. "No, little one. That was just-" He cut himself off, realizing that saying that mock-hitting someone was a joke wouldn't help Gamora get past her fear of being struck. "Elysius didn't mean it. She wasn't really going to hit Phyla, I promise." He cast about for a new subject. "Did you enjoy yourself while I was gone?"
"No." Gamora snuggled closer to him, biting her lip. "I missed you and I kept having bad dreams about Thanos coming after you cos you took me away from him."
Eros swallowed hard. It wasn't that the idea of Thanos retaliating hadn't occurred to him, but he should have no idea who had taken Gamora, since Eros had snuck aboard his vessel. He took his daughter's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "That isn't going to happen, I promise. Thanos has no idea where you are or who rescued you from him, and I'm always careful. There's nothing for you to be scared of. I may have to leave again, but I'll always come back home. Always."
He nodded solemnly. "Cross my heart." And now I pray something doesn't happen to make me eat my words. He brushed a strand of hair back from Gamora's face. "Are you alright now? Shall we go inside?"
She hopped off his lap, but still held his hand. "If you want."
"I do. Because I think," he winked at her, "There just may be a gift for you in one of those bags as well!"
Gamora's eyes rounded. "Really?"
"Maybe!" He laughed with pure joy at the simple uncomplicated look of anticiaption on Gamora's face- finally, a child-like reaction! "So we'd better get in there before Heather and Phyla find it first!" It wasn't much, just a book of children's stories, written in Universal Common language, but the stories themselves had originated on Zen Whoberi, something he hoped she'd appreciate when she was a bit older- and for now, she could just hear some children's stories, and hopefully regain some of her stolen childhood innocence.
Gamora was nearly bouncing with excitement as they walked indoors and Eros paused for a moment, tilting his head. "You're very excited! Have you had presents before?" He doubted it, growing up with Thanos, but she seemed very clear on what a present was and how she should react...
She nodded enthusiastically. "Mm-hmm. When I was five, Than- um, I was given a silver double-edged dagger with a ruby in it."
"A weapon." Eros' voice shook. "And that was all you ever got?"
She blinked. "I got other blades a couple of times- oh." She clapped her hand to her mouth as she saw Eros' expression. "I wasn't supposed to have them, was I?" She guessed. "I guess he shouldn't have given me knives?" She wasn't sure why, but it seemed the most likely answer.
Eros sucked in a deep breath, wishing his abilities worked on him so he could calm his own emotions. "No. Little girls are meant to play with toys and read stories. And- please understand I'm not angry with you- but you won't be allowed weapons here until you're at least sixteen. Certainly not sharpened ones, anyway."
Gamora blinked, but accepted this, or seemed to. "OK." She didn't mind- things were different here, and a lot nicer than before. "I won't tell the other children about that either then. I don't want to upset them anymore." She tugged Eros' hand. "Can we go find my present now, Oba?"
He nodded, and, grinning, Gamora ran inside, pulling him with her. "Thank you!"
He followed her, pleased to see her happy and excited- as were A'lars and Elysius, judging from their surprised and pleased expressions- and Gamora began rootling through the bag for the package with her name on it, as carefree as any other child.
Eros watched her tear it open and clutch the book against her chest, then accepted her enthusiastic 'Thank you!' and spontaneous hug with a smile on his face, his feelings bittersweet. If only we could all detach from sadness and trauma that easily...
"Genis, I really don't think we should be down here." Phyla shivered in the cooler air, gnawing her lip uneasily as her twin brother moved further into the caves below the city.
Genis scoffed at her. "Go home if you're scared, Phy! I'm going to have a look around."
Phyla glanced at Heather and Gamora, looking for support. "You told Uma and Uncle Eros we were going to the fields, Genis. If they find out we lied-"
"He lied," Heather interjected, raising her head from the map she'd been sketching. She was as eager as Genis to look round down here- the caves looked perfectly safe, there was no reason for them to be forbidden- but she had no intention of getting lost, nor would she hesitate to blame the whole thing on Genis if they got in trouble- it had been his idea.
Genis rolled his eyes. "Fine, I lied. But come on! Exploring somewhere new is way more fun than just messing around in the fields. And we'll head back long before anyone realizes we're not at the fields."
"You hope." Heather added, darkly.
Phyla wrung her hands. "But... what if we get lost down here? It could take them days to find us..."
Heather paused, giving her friend a reassuring look. "We won't get lost, Phy. That's why I'm making a map. We'll be OK."
Phyla didn't seem any more at ease. Gamora, who had, out of habit, been listening to this exchange silently, met her gaze. "I can take you back to the surface if you want, Phyla. I remember the way."
Phyla looked tempted. Genis turned to stare at Gamora. "You remember the whole way back?"
"How?!" Heather was as stunned as Genis was. "We've been down here nearly half an hour. There's no way you can remember the entire route we took without a map."
Gamora looked at her, puzzled. "That's why you're drawing the map?"
"Duh! Why else would I be drawing it, if we didn't need it?"
"For other people to use..." Gamora blinked. "I always remember the things I've seen or places I've been to. It's important to keep track of your surroundings and have good recall. I thought everyone..." She trailed off at the dumbfounded looks the others were giving her. She'd always been taught by Thanos that noticing tiny details of where you were at all times was crucial, so you could get out of danger if needed. For as long as she could remember, he'd had her practicing that in holo-creations of other worlds aboard his Sanctuary ship, and a couple of times on actual planets, walking her through streets or forests, then leaving her there, telling her to trace back the route they'd used without being noticed. Being 'noticed' in a holo-world meant triggering a trap or being attacked by combat droids. When planetside it meant, obviously, being noticed by real people that she then had to run from and fight off if needed, then evade until she lost them. Then she'd still had to find her way back to Thanos, and be punished for failing... She shook her head to clear the memories, thinking fast for a way to change the subject. She decided to ask something she'd been thinking about for a while.
"Oba said it's your birthday in a few days, Heather."
Heather grinned, stretching to make herself look taller. "Yep! I'm going to be 11."
"And.... you're going to get gifts from everyone, you get a day with no studying or chores, and you'll get all your favorite foods at dinner?" Gamora repeated what her Oba had told her, because to her, it sounded like a fairy story- too good to be true.
"Well, obviousl-" Heather wrinkled her nose, realizing that Gamora had probably never had a birthday like that before. "Um, yeah, that's what we do here on Titan."
Genis (and Phyla) looked confused. "That's what happens on everyone's birthday."
Gamora looked at the ground. "Not mine."
"Well, what did you used to do on your birthday, before Abi Eros brought you home?" Phyla's expression was kind- maybe they'd done something else to mark birthdays where Gamora used to live.
Gamora could only reply with a shrug. "Nothing."
Genis' jaw dropped. "You can't have never done anything on your birthday, ever- OW!" He glared at Heather, who'd just stood on his foot. She shushed him quickly, not wanting Gamora upset. She knew it was more than likely that Gamora was telling the truth, but the twins didn't know where she'd come from, or that Eros was her (second) adopted father.
Phyla was blinking back tears. "So you've never had presents from your family, or had a birthday dinner, or anything?" She couldn't imagine anything like that- hadn't anyone cared about Gamora enough to celebrate her birthday before? How horrible!
"No." Gamora's voice was low. Her own eyes stung, but she clenched her fists. She would not cry! "I don't even have a birthday."
Genis shook his head. "Even if you never did anything to mark it, you must HAVE-"
"I don't know when it is!" She snapped at Genis. "No-one ever told me." (She did NOT sniffle like a child.)
"So you don't even know how old you are?" Heather was truly gobsmacked now. Not having a birthday celebration ever was one (nasty) thing, but not even knowing when it was...
"Of course I do. I'm ten, like you." Gamora swallowed back the tears- no need to cry- "It's just that Than- before I came here, I never had a special day to mark when I was a year older." It occurred to her then, that Thanos might not have even known her actual birthday, as he'd stolen her from her homeworld. "It doesn't matter though." She tried to smile, not wanting Phyla to cry, as she looked like she might, any second. "I don't mind. What you've never had, you don't miss." (OK, that wasn't true, she was dying to know what it was like to have a real birthday, but she didn't have one, so it didn't matter.)
Phyla sniffled. "You should choose a birthday. Then there can be a big celebration for you, to make up all the birthdays you've missed."
"Yeah!" Genis cheered. "And then you'll get ten years worth of presents!"
Gamora was baffled. Why would she want so many presents? What sort of things were considered presents for birthdays, anyway? Why did there have to be so much she didn't know, that Thanos hadn't told her? Uncomfortable, she glanced round the cave again, tensing as something skittered between two boulders, not far from where they stood. "Hey, what's that?"
The other three children followed her gaze- Genis excited, Heather curious and Phyla uneasy. A large lizard, about the length of one of their arms, with ridged spines on its back, stepped into view, tongue flickering out, staring at them. Its green tail, easily as long as its body, banded with darker stripes, lashed around as it tasted the air, examining the intruders.
Heather narrowed her eyes. "I think that's a green-tail. I've read about them. There used to be loads on Titan, but a long time ago, there was some sort of bombing attack that caused a lot of damage to the ecosystem, so there aren't many left now."
The green-tail stepped closer, making a hissing sound. Phyla backed up, so she stood behind the others. "I-it doesn't sound happy..."
"Don't worry," Heather assured her, though her own heart was beating a bit faster. "They aren't aggressive, and they scavenge for their food, so it won't hurt us."
The green-tail hissed again, and three more darted into view.
"Can we go now?" Phyla's voice was higher-pitched from fright.
Genis nodded, glad to have his sister as an excuse to get out of here- he hadn't planned on the cave having occupants, and didn't like the look of these green-tails. "Yeah, let's just go."
A faint slithering noise on the wall behind them made Gamora turn- to see a much bigger green-tail climbing down the cave wall right behind Heather. It hissed and jumped at her, too fast for her to dodge. Heather yelped in shock, instinctively raising her hands to fend it off. Its claws tangled into Heather's map, shredding it.
Gamora, without even hesitating, grabbed the lizard by its thrashing tail, keeping it at arms' length from her, yanked it away from Heather, and, straining, tossed it towards the opposite wall (the map going with it, now in pieces.) Gamora ignored it from then on. Her heart was beating faster, but things seemed to slow down as she focused on the attacking lizards and assessed her surroundings for potential weapons. Survive. The very first lesson she'd ever been taught echoed in her mind. Deflecting the other three green-tails with kicks, then a well-aimed rock, she cleared a space around them. Now she- they- had to get out of here. She grabbed Phyla's hand. "Come on!" She took off running, dragging Phyla, listening to Genis and Heather following, watching for any more green-tails, though the racket they were making, running, should keep the lizards at bay (hopefully). Effortlessly recalling the rock formations and crevices in the caves they'd come through earlier, Gamora kept running, leading them out of the dim caves.
They emerged back in the city, Gamora feeling a warm burn in her limbs from running, the other three gasping for breath. Once they were clear of the cave entrance, Genis collapsed dramatically on the ground. Heather and Phyla flopped down next to him, trying to catch their breath.
Gamora watched them, head tilted to one side. Were they really tired? They'd only been running for about fifteen minutes! She shook her head, looking round to get her bearings- then tensing as she saw the twins' mother, Elysius, approaching them. She backed up a bit as the Titan woman drew level with them. Were they going to be in trouble? Did Elysius know they hadn't been at the fields like Genis had said?
Noticing Elysius' approach, the twins, and then Heather, struggled to their feet, all red-faced from exertion.
Elysius surveyed them, a slight smile curving her lips. "Let me guess: you all got bored in the fields so went looking round the market for ideas for Heather's birthday?" It was a guess, but it made sense- they weren't far from the market, and had clearly been running. She presumed that was so they were home before anyone missed them.
"Yes." Heather did a good impression of looking guilty. "I'm sorry, Elysius, it was my idea." She bit the inside of her cheek, hoping the others would keep quiet about where they'd actually been- sneaking off to the market was nowhere near as bad as admitting they'd gone into the off-limits caves and nearly been eaten.
"Mm-hmm." Elysius eyed them all for a long minute, now almost sure that her assumption had been wrong- Genis and Phyla had guilt written all over their faces, Heather wouldn't make eye contact and had scratches on her hands, and there was rock dust on Gamora's shoes. Still, none of them were injured, and stars only knew children did get into mischief- she and Eros certainly had, centuries ago! "Anyway, it's about time for dinner, so you two," she put an arm around each twin's shoulder, "Are coming home, and you," she eyed Gamora and Heather, "Straight home! And don't think I won't be checking with Eros and Mentor later," Once I've gotten the whole story of this little escapade out of my two and we can decide if punishment is needed. She honestly hoped not, as Heather's birthday was pending, and it would be a shame to have anything spoiling it. "Go on." She nodded towards the path that led back to the palace where the girls lived.
Heather and Gamora darted off, Gamora apparently questioning Heather about something, because they were soon deep in conversation. Elysius began walking home to the small apartment located near the palace of the royal family that she and the twins had only recently moved into, arms still round her childrens' shoulders.
"So..." She took a guess, remembering the dust she'd seen on Gamora's boots. "Did you see anything of interest in the caves?"
Genis and Phyla exchanged looks, wide-eyed. "What-"
"How did you know-"
She shook her head at them. "It's the only place on Titan that is utterly off limits. Do you really think you're the first children to venture in there?"
"I'm sorry, Uma." Phyla's lip quivered.
"We won't do it again. Promise!" The earnestness of Genis' tone, and the pallor of his face, made Elysius stare hard at him. Her little would-be Kree soldier rarely showed fear.
"Genis. What happened?"
"We.... sort of ran into some green-tails. One jumped at Heather." Genis muttered. "I would've fought it off, but Gamora was faster. She got rid of them for me, then we ran out." He certainly wasn't admitting that Gamora had done all the work, seeing off the green-tails and getting them out of the caves. It was humiliating enough being rescued by a girl- he wasn't going to tell his mother about it!
Elysius shuddered at the mention of the lizards, that had, at one time, been rumored to consume the flesh of some children that were lost in the caves. That had been long ago, in her childhood, before Thanos turned on them all... Burying the memories, she hugged both her children tightly, tears in her eyes. "Thank the gods you're both safe. I won't tell Eros or Mentor about this- this time- as long as you swear you won't persuade the others to go there again." This was particularly pointed toward Genis, as she knew the idea would have come from him.
"We promise, Uma." Two young voices chorused.
"Good, then we needn't discuss it again. Let's go inside." She shepherded both children into their apartment. "Are you two looking forward to Heather's birthday celebration?"
Phyla beamed. "Yeah! She's going to love what we got her, right, Genis?"
He shrugged, less interested in a present for a girl than his sister was. "I hope so."
Phyla slipped her hand into Elysius'. "Uma?"
She stroked her daughter's hair. "Yes?"
"Gamora said she's never ever had a birthday before, and doesn't even know when hers is. Isn't that awful?"
Elysius' teeth clenched. "Yes, it is." But no more than I'd expected, given who brought her up until now.
"Can we maybe choose one for her? And make it extra special, so she won't be sad anymore about missing out?"
Elysius smiled warmly at her little girl, loving how kind Phyla always tried to be. "It'll be up to Abi Eros to decide something like that, little one, but that's a very sweet idea. We can certainly spoil Gamora when she does have a birthday."
Phyla smiled, satisfied with that, and dropped her hand, racing Genis to the dining room, to set the table. Elysius' brow furrowed as she listened to her children playing (and bickering) so naturally, painfully aware of the contrast between them and Gamora. Her mind drifted back to Thanos' childhood, so long ago. He'd grown up with her and Eros, had always been more withdrawn and pensive, and obviously he'd looked different from them, but try as she might, she couldn't and never would be able to fathom what triggered his becoming a monster. She pushed the thought aside. He was long past help, everyone knew that.
Thank the stars that Eros was able to get Gamora away from him before it was too late. The girl would, unfortunately, bear the mental scars of her early years for the rest of her life, but at least now she was safe, and hopefully with time, she'd heal enough that her past wouldn't destroy her future. At present, Gamora only really showed signs of bonding with Eros- it was clear, to Elysius' eyes at least, that she parroted the actions of the other children without grasping why, because she wanted to please the adults, and (Elysius thought) she only listened to Mentor because she thought she had to. Gamora hadn't tried to interact with Elysius at all so far, and she'd been giving her space, hoping the child would come to her, meeting her halfway, but that had not happened. Maybe if I arranged a day just to spend with the girls, I'd get somewhere with her, she mused, hating the thought of Gamora being afraid of her- although Eros had suggested it was more that Gamora had no idea what a mother's role was, so shied away, not knowing what was expected of her, Elysius wasn't convinced. Mothering children had always come easily to her, and it hurt to see her tentative efforts towards Gamora rebuffed, every time, when the girl simply cried out for affection, though she probably didn't know it. Elysius frowned. Eros had said he'd managed to get through to Gamora initially by essentially startling her into seeing the truth and speaking plainly and bluntly. Would something like that work, just telling the child that she wanted to take care of her, and seeing how she responded?
Elysius shook her head. She shouldn't be hypothesizing all this without Eros' input- Gamora was his daughter after all. She walked into the dining room, easily falling into the routine of serving dinner and talking with the twins about their day. Tomorrow, she decided, she would raise the issue of Gamora's birthday with Eros, and from there see if he had any ideas to try and stop Gamora keeping her at arm's length. All she wanted was to see the little girl flourishing and being happy...
What if Thanos discovers she's here? The thought came out of nowhere. Elysius ignored the chill those words sent down her spine, refusing to think of it. There was no reason why that should happen. Thanos hadn't looked to Titan for decades. His tyranny still threatened distant regions of space, but, selfishly, Elysius forced that from her mind. It was horrific and he had to be stopped, but her biggest concern for now was the safety of her home, her children and extended family- adopted or otherwise. Everyone knew that Titan, at present, simply didn't have the numbers or the resources to deal with Thanos.
Elysius ignored the stabbings of guilt as she pictured the devastation she knew he had wreaked on countless innocent worlds that they couldn't save. Thanos would get what he deserved. Someday. For now, all they could do was take care of themselves and try to clean up what they could of the messes he left in his wake.
Another chilling thought came to her, one she was ashamed to even think, but couldn't be rid of. What would you do if it came down to saving Gamora, or Phyla and Genis? Looking at her own two children, then remembering the catastrophic damage Thanos had unleashed, so long ago, when he had firebombed Titan, and picturing her own childrens' bodies in that wreckage, she closed her eyes. Because she felt sickened with herself for not having the 'right' answer. She didn't know what she would do if it ever did come to that.
Please, Kronos, father of Titans, never let it come to that.
The green-tails in this chapter are a native species on Titan, seen in the 2013 Thanos Rising series. And yes, they did eat children at one point, horrible as that is.
Dinner had been fairly quiet that night, neither Heather nor Gamora talking much. While this wasn't uncommon for Gamora, Heather was usually bursting full of information about her day. The lack of chatter from her had A'lars and Eros exchanging looks- clearly, the girls were hiding something, but as neither seemed guilty or hurt, for now, they would wait and see- eventually, one of them would give something away.
When dinner was over, Heather retreated to her room to do some reading before bed. Mentor had gone to his lab, as per usual, though he'd be back to bid Heather goodnight later.
Eros found himself smiling as he was left alone with Gamora. This private time between him and his daughter had become a routine and was his favorite part of the day. Gamora snuggled under his arm as they sat on the sofa and his smile widened as he looked down at her, loving the way she relaxed around him, more than she did for anyone else.
"So do you want me to tell you a story tonight, or is there anything you want to talk about?" That was how this evening routine had started- sitting down with Gamora for a while and encouraging her to talk about anything she didn't understand, helping her make sense of things that should have been normal for a child, but weren't for her.
Gamora fidgeted a bit, nestling closer, leaning her head on his shoulder. "It's Heather's birthday next week, Oba."
"Mm-hm." Eros waited for her to elaborate on why she'd mentioned it.
"Phyla said she and Genis got her a present. Should I have got her one too?" She bit her lip. "I don't even know what sort of presents normal children get."
By now, Eros was used to concealing his rage at what his daughter had missed out on in her life before now. He dropped a kiss on her head. "No worries. I've already thought of this. I bought her two gifts- a new book she wanted and a new holo computer device- and one of them can be from you."
"OK. I'll give her the book, if that's alright."
Eros nodded. Gamora fidgeted with her hands. "Oba-" She closed her mouth and cut herself off.
He peered down at her. "What is it?"
She shrugged. He shifted positions so she was looking up, meeting his eyes. "Come on, I've talked to you about this. I don't want you to worry yourself about anything. You can tell me anything, remember?"
"Yeah." Gamora's voice was smaller than usual.
"The twins asked about my birthday. And I don't even know when it is, so I'll never get to have one, will I?" Her eyes were sad, but resigned, as if this was a foregone conclusion.
Eros pulled her back into his arms, shaking his head. "Silly girl," he chided fondly. "Of course you're going to have a birthday now you have a real home."
"But... how? No-one knows when I was born..."
"No, I know, so what we're going to do is make your birthday the day you came to live here."
Her dark eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yes. Which means you have several months to think about what you want for your birthday. The twins' will be just after yours, so you might all end up having a celebration together."
Gamora flung her arms round his neck. "Thank you, Oba! I thought I'd never get to have a birthday of my own." She grinned, hardly believing her luck. Oba thought of everything. She didn't have any idea what she should want for her birthday, but maybe after seeing Heather's she'd have a better idea?
Eros returned the hug, swallowing a lump in his throat as emotion overwhelmed him. Gamora was doing this more often now- spontaneously hugging him or initiating physical contact rather than waiting for it, and it always sent a wave of pride through him, to see her acting more like a child, not the withdrawn undersized adult she'd emulated months ago when he'd first brought her here. There was still an issue of this only really applying with him- he knew she still wasn't at ease with anyone else, but A'lars had, not two days ago, commented on how much improved Gamora was, crediting Eros with almost all of it. Eros wasn't sure he bought that- surely he hadn't done that much except try and be there when Gamora needed him, and anyone could have done the same thing... His father could have done just as well if it had been him Gamora had latched onto first. So could Elysius, or anyone else.... Right?
He found himself clutching Gamora closer without even realizing, and she happily snuggled up to him. A wave of possessiveness came out of nowhere and flooded Eros' mind at the mere thought of anyone else taking charge of his daughter. A powerful, savage urge to hurt anyone who tried to take her from him filled him and he closed his eyes, pushing it away. This was all theory. No-one was taking his little girl away from him.
"Are you alright, Oba?" Gamora was staring at him, her brow furrowed.
He managed a smile. "I'm fine. Just thinking."
"About how proud I am of my daughter and how much I love her." He smiled warmly, stroking her hair. That had come out without warning, but he meant every word.
Gamora's eyes were wide. She searched his face, her expression stunned. "Really? You mean it?" Hope warred with the tears in her eyes. He could tell she wanted to believe him, but something was causing doubt.
He moved so he was kneeling in front of the sofa, looking up at her. "I mean it. You know I don't say things I don't mean- unless I'm telling jokes, of course."
Gamora stifled a giggle. He continued, keeping his eyes on her, his words utterly earnest.
"Now listen. Before I brought you here, I spent most of my time away from home. I'd only call my father about once every two weeks, if that. I just kept exploring world after world, having fun, for no real reason. I don't even know what I was looking for."
Gamora blinked. "You didn't live here?"
"No. I didn't live anywhere. I couldn't settle down, no matter what I did." And, despite all the friends he'd made, all the lovers he'd had, he'd felt... empty, missing something, though he'd had no idea why, and never admitted that to himself. Since adopting Gamora, that loneliness had made itself scarce. She'd filled a void in him he hadn't even acknowledged was there.
Gamora's lip wobbled. "So it's my fault that you can't do that anymore?"
"No, it's not your fault. And my being settled down isn't a bad thing, sweetheart." He reached out, wiping a tear from her face. "When I found you, and when you said you wanted me to be your father, I was scared at first, because I didn't know if I was good enough to be a parent." He watched her intently, hoping she understood. "But I decided to try, for your sake. I don't know if I'm doing well at being a father, but one thing I do know is since I adopted you, I've felt more at peace than I have for a very long time. The only time I've left Titan since I brought you here, I spent the entire time wishing I was back here with you, where I belonged." He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Having you has helped Titan feel like my home again." Something I thought would never happen after losing Mother, and Thanos... "So yes, I love you. I always will. And I am so proud of how much you've learned since you came here. You play with the other children now, you're starting to trust other people, and- I hope- you're beginning to understand that what Thanos did to you wasn't and never will be your fault." He took a breath, surprised that his own eyes were stinging.
Gamora was smiling and crying at the same time, trembling with the weight of her emotions. "And I can stay with you forever, Oba? Even if Thanos wants me back? You'll keep me safe? I don't want to go back there ever. It's nicer here. Sanctuary was always so cold, and I was alone, and Thanos hurt me so much. He'd say he loved me, and cry afterwards, say I shouldn't make him angry by failing, but I didn't mean to, I tried so hard but he always got so mad... And he told me so many lies... I hated it. I hate him!" She clapped her hands to her mouth, as if she couldn't believe what she'd just said, and expected some punishment for it.
He held out his arms to her and she flung herself at him with a sob, burying her face in his shoulder. He rubbed her back as she cried, relieved beyond words that she'd finally voiced what he- and everyone else- had been trying to get her to understand these past few months, that Thanos, far from caring about her, had in fact been cruel and abusive towards her. He whispered reassurances that she was safe, that Thanos would never hurt her again, as she wept, not trying to stop her, knowing these tears would be cathartic for her and she needed to get this out.
Eventually, she calmed, still clinging to him, but raising her head. Her little face was swollen and tear-stained as she sniffled. "Sorry." She felt... lighter now, as if saying she hated Thanos and crying like that had taken some weight from her, which was weird, but still, she wasn't physically hurt, so there was no need for her to have cried like that.
Eros kissed her forehead again. "No need to be sorry. We all need to cry sometimes." He chucked under her chin to make her smile. "I think of it as a 'clearing-up shower'- washing away all the hurt so you can feel better." His heart ached- that had been one of his mother's phrases, and he hadn't heard it since Sui-San died. But it felt right to be saying it now- this was certainly a situation where it applied!
Gamora smiled weakly. "Clearing-up shower," she repeated, as if making a note of the phrase. "I do feel a bit better now..." She gnawed her lip, heart pounding, wondering if she should say what she was thinking, right now? Oba had said he loved her, but did that mean he wanted her to say it as well? Thanos had never wanted her to tell him she loved him, he'd said it was a weakness... That decided her. Thanos had been wrong or lying about nearly everything he'd ever said to her.
She gave Oba a kiss on the cheek the way she'd seen Heather do to Mentor a few times, then hugged him tighter. "I love you, Oba."
There was a choked noise, like Oba might cry, then he was hugging her so tight it made breathing a bit harder, his cheek resting on her head. It felt nice, warm and cosy, so she snuggled closer.
"I love you too, baby girl." Oba's voice was thick, but he sounded happy, so Gamora smiled, just enjoying his hug and the warm feeling that was filling her up inside. Loving someone felt really nice...
Eros was beaming, tears of joy dripping into Gamora's hair, his heart fit to burst upon hearing her say those words. He held her like he'd never let her go. He hadn't planned on revealing as much of his emotions as he had, earlier, for fear of unnerving her, but given that this was the result... It cemented in his heart then. His life had changed irrevocably. It didn't matter how they'd come into each other's lives, Gamora was his daughter now, and he knew he would die a thousand times before letting anyone take that away from him.
A'lars finished inputting commands into ISAAC for the night and stepped away from the console, ready to retire to his apartments for the night. Naturally, that would be the exact moment that he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, and he turned to see the ghost-like visage of his disincorporated father Kronos materialize before him. Stifling a sigh- these conversations rarely went happily-, he inclined his head respectfully. "Father."
"A'lars." Kronos regarded him silently for a long moment. "Would you care to tell me why there is another stray child now in your household?"
So he had already been looking around. A'lars decided to lie by omission, thereby reducing the chances of an argument with Kronos. "Gamora is an orphan that Eros came across a few months ago. They took quite a shine to one another, so he has now adopted her."
Kronos stared blankly for a moment, then scoffed derisively. "Eros. The boy who wouldn't know what responsibility was if it struck him over the head, who cannot remain on one world for more than a month without getting bored, has adopted a child. And you allowed this?!"
A'lars bristled at the insult to his son, though he hid his reaction- after all, not long ago, he would have said the same things of Eros. "Eros is an adult, Father, and able to make his own decisions. I do not dictate what he may and may not do-"
"No, but if you did, he wouldn't be nearly as foolish as he is."
A'lars' fists clenched. He took a deep breath and continued as if Kronos had never interrupted him. "Since taking Gamora in, he has settled down. He is not as flighty as he once was and he has matured a lot."
"Hmph. For now. We'll see how long it lasts once the novelty wears off. You do realize this is probably only because you took in that Terran girl? Eros just wants to prove he can do the same, like a child playing at being his father."
A'lars counted to ten slowly in his mind to quell his rising annoyance. "Believe what you will, Father. Stars know nothing I say will change your mind until you see the proof of it for yourself."
Kronos folded his arms. "Fine. I give it a month until the boy is fed up and finds a way to be rid of the child. Where did she come from, anyway?"
A'lars cursed silently. That question would be harder to answer without outright lying. And honestly, why should he try to appease his father with falsehoods? Kronos had already decided that Eros- his own grandson!- was bound to fail at the responsibility he had taken on, without even giving him the benefit of the doubt. And yes, fine, before Gamora had come into their lives, Eros had driven A'lars to distraction with his constant gallivanting about, but he had changed and matured since taking on the mantle of fatherhood- moreso than even he realized, A'lars was sure. The way he'd taken charge of Gamora, become so protective and caring, it seemed so natural to him, as if she really were his child. He glared at Kronos, suddenly unwilling to tread softly around him.
"If you must know, Father, Gamora spent her life until several months ago on Thanos' Sanctuary ark. He'd kept her since infancy, putting her through stars only know what sort of abuse. Eros rescued her from there, and she is starting to recover and settle into her home here now."
There was a long silence.
"HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?!" Kronos' roar echoed through the lab.
A'lars was very glad the room was soundproof. "Father, there is no need to shout."
"Your idiotic son brought a potential spy into Titan-"
A'lars rolled his eyes. "The child is ten years old. Do not be ridiculous."
"And Thanos hasn't retaliated at all since this girl was stolen from him?"
"This is a trap! Don't you see?! He let Eros take her away so he has an excuse to attack Titan again."
"I do not think-"
"No. I am well aware of that!" Kronos shook his head. "You entreated me to create Drax the Destroyer from that deceased Terran male to kill Thanos because you claimed you didn't have the strength to stop him. And yet now you harbor someone taken from him, that he no doubt views as his? Are you that naive that you cannot see that by keeping this girl, you're inviting an attack?!" He glared down at A'lars. "You need to be rid of her, as fast as possible, before Thanos tracks her down here."
A'lars went cold with anger. His gaze was stony as he met his father's eyes. "You expect me to cast out an innocent child, who is at peace and learning to be happy, with a parent she trusts for the first time in her life, and throw her fate to the winds, breaking my son's heart in the process, just for fear of something that might happen?"
Kronos made a sound somewhere between a groan and a growl. "A'lars, you know what Thanos is like- or you certainly should by now! He holds grudges and he will not give up. If he finds out Eros took this girl-"
"Gamora. Her name is Gamora." A'lars spoke succinctly, determined to make Kronos listen. "She's the lone survivor of the Zen-Whoberi people. She is Eros' daughter and my grandaughter-"
"She is not-"
"And regardless of what you believe, I will not send her away from Titan. What do you think would become of her then, if I did? She has barely started to recover from the damage Thanos wrought on her, but she is healing. Sending her away now would undo everything, destroy any chance she has at a normal life. If you know me, and Eros at all, then you know we cannot do that." A'lars sighed. "I don't want to argue with you, Father. Would it help if I told you that I have been keeping track of Thanos since Eros rescued Gamora? His forces have been scouring the worlds closest to his Sanctuary ark. Thanos thinks she escaped somehow. According to my contacts, they now search for a body, not a survivor." A'lars' eyes bored into Kronos'. "He does not know we have her. So there is no reason to worry."
"Yet." Kronos muttered darkly.
"And if you say anything of this to Gamora, or to Eros, if you hurt or frighten them like that, then rest assured, I will never forgive you, and I will find a way to make sure you never manifest on Titan again. Is that clear?"
Kronos nodded tersely, beginning to fade from view. "You always think you know best. I hope for your sake, and your people's, that you aren't wrong, A'lars." With that, he was gone.
A'lars grimaced. He was sick of his father's dark attitude and paranoia. Every talk they had ended in a disagreement of some kind. Sometimes he wondered how they were related at all, they were so different in temperament. Quickly finishing up his work, he tried to push the conversation from his mind. If, someday, Thanos did discover that Gamora still lived, then they would find a way to deal with it. But looking for trouble where none existed was of no help to anyone. Why didn't Kronos see that?
He walked back to his apartment, shoulders bowed under the weight he always felt after dealing with Kronos. Hearing Eros' and Gamora's voices, he paused in the doorway, not wanting to interrupt.
".... as a clearing-up shower, washing away all the hurt so you can feel better." Eros was telling Gamora.
A'lars' eyes smarted. He remembered Sui-San using that phrase when Eros had been small and had been crying. He blinked rapidly, suppressing tears, so he missed what Gamora said in reply. He nearly broke down however, when he saw Gamora kiss Eros' cheek and heard the 'I love yous' exchanged between father and daughter. Unable to help himself, he used the miniature computer on his wrist to take a photograph of their embrace. Moments like this needed to be remembered, and (if he was honest) he loved keeping mementos of his family. They helped keep his heart light when things threatened to be too much to bear.
Smiling tearfully at the recorded image, he went to his study to make a print of it straight away- he'd been privileged to see this moment between his son and granddaughter, he did not need to interrupt it.
(He couldn't help but wonder how long it would be before Gamora called him 'Grandfather'. Soon, he hoped.)
Gamora leaned forward eagerly as Mentor handed Heather a small box. Was that her gift from him? She bubbled with anticipation, barely able to sit still, despite Oba's hand on her shoulder to keep her still. This was so exciting!
They were all gathered in the dining room, Heather seated at the head of the table, with Mentor standing next to her. Gamora herself, Genis and Phyla were seated at either side of the table, Elysius behind the twins, Oba standing behind her. All eyes were on Heather and everyone seemed to be smiling. Gamora couldn't help but join in, clutching the gift she had for Heather on her lap, as the twins held theirs. There was a gift from Elysius as well, that the black-haired woman held, and of course Oba had his own gift for Heather, as he'd said. There was also a small brightly wrapped parcel on the table, from Heather's tutors among the Shao-Lom monks, who apparently would not be attending this birthday celebration and the feast.
Gamora made a mental note to ask Oba why that was, later, if she got a chance. For now, she watched with bated breath as Heather opened the gift from Mentor, not wanting to miss any part of the first birthday she'd ever seen.
Heather opened the box, revealing a large leather-bound book with silver swirls on the cover, and a matching pen. Inside, it was blank. Mentor smiled at her fondly as she beamed and jumped up to give him a hug.
He pressed a kiss to her brow. "You're welcome, little one. When I was young, I used to keep a journal. It is a good way of making sure we remember the best parts of our lives, and that good memories aren't forgotten."
Heather placed the journal and pen carefully on the table, stroking the intricate designs on the cover carefully, before looking around eagerly, her eyes fixing on Eros, knowing from previous birthdays that he was usually the next to give her a present.
Eros grinned and handed the wrapped gift over. Heather practically squealed with delight when she realized she finally had her own Holo device- only grown-ups were allowed them usually, and she'd been asking for one for ages.
Eros accepted Heather's thanks and embrace, hiding his amusement- she had no idea that the device had restricted content, so she wouldn't have free access to everything- only things that were suitable for an eleven year old. Still, it was heart-warming to see her so pleased. He turned his attention back to his own daughter- Heather was looking at her now. He gave Gamora a little nudge to encourage her. Slowly, biting her lip, she handed Heather the book she'd wrapped herself. She managed a smile. "Happy Birthday, Heather."
There was more of an air of expectation among them all now- as simple a thing as this birthday party was, it was a first for Gamora, and Eros knew she was still very wary of getting things 'wrong' and upsetting people. It would take very little to undermine her confidence, and he prayed that Heather actually liked the book he'd chosen for Gamora to give her, or, at least, that she'd be polite enough to pretend if not- never a guarantee with her.
Heather pored over the cover, then grinned once more. "'Sise ena geces sac mien', The Song of the Stars!" She hugged Gamora tightly. "Thank you! How did you know this was my favorite bedtime story when I first came to Titan?"
Gamora blinked. She hadn't known that- the book had been Oba's choice, but maybe she wasn't meant to say that? Heather thought the book was from her, and she was really pleased. Gamora decided to keep quiet and just return the hug (hugs were fast becoming her favorite thing). "I'm glad you like it. Maybe we can read it together sometime? I've never read that story..." She trailed off. Was it wrong to ask Heather to share a birthday present with her? She retreated back to her seat, reassured when Oba placed a hand on her shoulder again. She always felt safer with him close by. No-one else seemed to think anything was amiss, so she let the tension leave her shoulders, breathing out. Elysius offered Heather a gift next, and excitement surged through Gamora again- she'd never seen so many presents. Heather was so lucky!
The present from Elysius was a new dress, floor-length, made of a shiny deep green material, with amazing patterns that resembled the constellations visible from Titan stitched on, in iridescent blue and silver thread, with a matching pair of soft slippers in inky blue.
Gamora stared at the exquisite clothes with awe. The things they wore here every day were pretty and comfortable, but this... she'd never seen anything so beautiful! She felt a bitter urge to snatch the garments for herself, but forced it down. They were Heather's new clothes, and the other girl deserved them. But maybe if she asked, she could have something like that someday? It would be nice to own clothes like that, and actually feel like she was pretty, like Heather and Phyla, even though she knew she wasn't.
Genis' gift was a board game, a strategy game for up to four people, called 'Warfare'. It looked like you could choose an army, and had to strategize your way through a battle, against up to three other armies. Gamora had a feeling that Genis was as eager to play the game as Heather was- so maybe it was OK to share birthday presents? Phyla had given Heather a lovely assorted set of jeweled hair clasps and silk ribbons. The colors matched the outfit from Elysius, so maybe, Gamora mused, Elysius had helped Phyla with the present, as Oba had with her? She'd ask Oba later- she had thought that people were meant to choose their own gifts for the person having a birthday, that was how it worked in a story she'd read, but maybe it was different for children, like one rule for grown ups, and another for children? But then how old did you have to be before you started doing things for yourself, not relying on a parent? She shut her eyes for a second, clearing her thoughts. This was so confusing...
The present from Heather's tutors among the monks of Shao-Lom was a pad of thick, expensive drawing paper and a collection of charcoal sticks in hundreds of different colors. Heather immediately announced that this would be saved for 'special' drawings, whatever that meant- drawing was one of Heather's favorite hobbies, and Gamora was puzzled again- which of her drawings was 'special' and how did she know that before drawing it?
She forgot about that, however, as she and the twins had to help Heather carry her presents to her room and then amuse themselves- Indoors, Mentor had specified- while the birthday feast was prepared.
They ended up playing the Warfare game Genis had given Heather, and after some time of bickering over the rules, and who got to claim which army and which territory, they managed a full round (which Heather won.) They set up another game, and Gamora thought she might win this time, though she hesitated- should she let Heather win? It was her birthday after all- when a soft knock on the door came, and Elysius stepped inside, wearing a stunning red and gold gown.
"You all need to go get ready for the feast now." She was smiling, and Phyla and Heather jumped to their feet, grinning. Genis stood, grumbling under his breath. "Do we have to wear the fancy clothes you picked, Uma? Dressing up is for girls!"
Elysius gave him a sideways glance. "Genis, you wouldn't be saying that if it was your birthday feast, would you? Go on, go get washed and changed. I'll check on you after I've helped the girls."
Genis stomped off, pouting. Gamora was on her feet now, shifting her weight from foot to foot anxiously. Oba had said something about them dressing up for the party, but she hadn't really registered that it applied to her as well- she'd assumed that only the birthday girl had to dress up. What was she meant to wear?
Elysius saw her expression and went over to her. "Heather, Phyla, you two go and get cleaned up. Phyla, I laid your dress out in Heather's room. Heather, I assume you want to wear your new clothes. Run along, I'll come and help with your hair soon."
Heather and Phyla left hand in hand, chattering excitedly about Phyla's dress and something about hairstyles. Gamora stared at the floor, not knowing what to say now she was alone with Elysius.
The female Titan took a deep breath, remembering what Eros had said earlier when she'd offered to help ready Gamora for the feast and they'd discussed how to keep the girl at ease- 'Gamora co-operates best when she knows what's expected of her. Don't overwhelm her with choices or ask for her opinion- she'll be afraid of the 'wrong' answer. Tell her what you want her to do, be firm but kind, and you'll be alright.'
"Gamora, I chose a dress for you to wear to the party. Come with me and get washed up, then I'll help you dress." She offered her hand on instinct, like she would to Phyla. To her surprise, Gamora took it, following her meekly. Elysius was surprised by the child's easy acquiescence, but hid it. It seems Eros really does know what he's talking about where she's concerned.
Once they were in Gamora's room (Eros was readying himself in his own room, giving the females privacy), Gamora let out a gasp as she saw the dress laid on her bed. It was the palest shade of blue satin, sleeveless but high-necked, falling in a simple straight line to the floor, with a slender ribbon at the waist, and a tiny bow at the back. Silver slip-on shoes lay next to it, along with a blue decorative hair clasp shaped like a flower. Gamora moved forward as if she thought it would vanish, reaching out a hand then stopping before she actually touched the gown. "Can I really wear this tonight?"
"Ot course, sweetheart. It's yours to keep as well."
Gamora's eyes bulged. Was Elysius serious? "I get to keep this?" Something this beautiful was hers forever? No, this had to be wrong. This dress couldn't be meant for her. She drew back, wrapping her arms round herself, head hanging.
Elysius' brow furrowed. "What's wrong?"
Gamora shrugged, then remembered that talking about things helped (sometimes). "Only pretty girls deserve dresses like that. I'm too plain to wear it."
A swirl of anger rose in Elysius' gut. I can guess where she's gotten that from. "Gamora, you're not plain. You're just as pretty as Heather and Phyla. And I want to see you in the dress. I picked it out specially for you to wear tonight." She could see Gamora's urge to obey adults warring with her ridiculous pronouncement about her being 'plain', no doubt one of Thanos' teachings.
Gamora fidgeted, but honestly, she really did want to wear the dress and see if she did look pretty in it. Wordlessly, without looking at Elysius, she went to her bathing room to wash. She was back remarkably quickly (compared to Elysius' own children anyway) and remained quiet as she let Elysius help her into the gown. As soon as it was fastened and the shoes were on, Gamora ran to her vanity mirror and peered in. A grin grew on her face and she spun just as Phyla would have with a new dress. Elysius smiled fondly as she moved to stand behind her, picking up a hairbrush.
"I'm going to style your hair now. Is there any particular style you want to try?"
Gamora shrugged. "I don't know."
Elysius saw an opening to ask something that had puzzled her for a while. She lifted a strand of Gamora's inky-green hair. "Your hair's very short, shorter than Phyla's almost." It barely passed her ears, and the ends were jagged, and uneven. "Did you try to cut it yourself once?"
Gamora looked puzzled. "No, I always have to have it cropped short so it doesn't get in the way." She eyed her own reflection in the mirror. "It's never gotten this long before. I thought I'd have to have it cut again soon."
Elysius ground her teeth, guessing that the unflattering boyish haircut had been another thing Thanos insisted on- why, she had no idea. "Do you want to cut it that short?"
Gamora blinked a few times. "No?" She didn't know what she was meant to say here. She'd always had her hair cropped before, and Oba had never mentioned her hairstyle- why did it matter?
Elysius took a deep breath and began brushing the girl's hair gently. "I think you'd look even more beautiful with long hair like Heather's, don't you?"
Gamora squinted, knowing she wasn't beautiful, but wishing she could be. She tried to imagine herself with long hair. "I guess... but I wouldn't know how to look after it, so it'd be a nuisance and get all tangled."
Elysius combed the uneven mass of hair as best she could, trying to get it all to flow one way, and slipping the hair clasp in so it looked like the flower was tucked behind Gamora's ear. "If you wanted to let it grow, I could help you." She leaned a little closer and whispered conspiratorially. "I would like Phyla to grow hers but she wants to keep it short."
Gamora giggled, then, hesitantly, "Really? You'd help me? Could my hair get as long as yours?"
Elysius' hair fell to her mid-back. "You could, but that might take a long time. And yes, I'd love to help, if you wanted me to."
Gamora stood, wringing her hands. Long hair, like a princess in a fairy story? And Elysius would help her keep it looking nice? She bit her lip, half-reached out to hug Elysius, then faltered, in case Elysius didn't want her hugging her. But she'd offered to help Gamora, had already helped her tonight. Gamora thought a minute, then offered Elysius her hand for a squeeze instead.
Elysius had seen the aborted gesture, however, and held her arms out. To her surprise and delight, Gamora went to her willingly, returning the hug.
"Thank you.... Aunt." Her words were muffled, but understandable. "I'm sorry I haven't been very nice to you until now. I didn't think you liked me." Gamora felt a prickle of unease at calling Elysius 'Aunt' but Phyla and Genis had both said it was alright, as they called her Oba 'Uncle'.
A lump rose in Elysius' throat at Gamora's words. "I do like you, child. I think we just needed time to get to know each other."
A foot scuffling nearby made them both look up, and then there was a soft knock on the bedroom door.
Gamora stepped away from Elysius as Eros entered the room, head hanging slightly, shoulders slumping just a little, folding in on herself as if she didn't want to be noticed.
Eros walked straight over to her, cupping his hand under her chin, taking almost no notice of Elysius for the moment. When Gamora met his eyes, he smiled comfortingly. "Eyes up, remember? We look the world in the eye." His tone was quiet.
"Yes, Oba." Gamora replied, her voice as soft as his, looking more at ease, as she always did in his presence. Elysius' eyes welled up, seeing the bond between them, so strong now, and how easily Eros brought Gamora out of her shell.
Eros' hand slid into Gamora's, but then he took a step back, staring at her. He grinned at Elysius, winking quickly, then shook his head. "No, this can't be right. I thought I was talking to my daughter, but looks like someone put an beautiful angel in her place."
Gamora laughed nervously, like she wasn't sure if he was serious or not. "Oba! It's me!"
Eros cradled her face in one hand. His eyes widened in feigned shock. "It is you!" He offered his arm. "We'd better get down to the feast. I want to have all of Titan wondering why I have the most beautiful girl in the whole universe with me. They'll all be so jealous."
Gamora, blinking, looked at Elysius for a moment, clearly thinking Eros was referring to her.
Elysius gestured for Gamora to take Eros' arm, smiling encouragingly. "I'd best go and help Heather and Phyla. You two go. But Eros, make sure your daughter doesn't turn all the boys' heads just yet!" She slipped from the room, laughing softly at the look of horror that had flashed over Eros' face at her teasing words.
Eros forced a laugh at that, but inwardly, he shuddered. Boys. Eyeing his daughter, he minutely shook his head. Obviously that wouldn't be an issue for a few years yet, but still... Never would be good. However, he wasn't naive. Mortal lives passed quickly. All too soon, Gamora would start growing up. (He'd just have to work on his skill at terrifying young men into staying far, far away before that happened.)
Gamora took Eros' arm, then suddenly giggled. "Oba, did you mean I'm the most beautiful girl in the universe?"
"Of course, silly. Who did you think I meant?"
"Aunt Elysius." Gamora replied, the 'aunt' slipping in without her realizing. "She really is beautiful."
"Just you wait, I'll bet you'll be even prettier than her when you're grown up."
Gamora ducked her head, her green cheeks darkening with a blush. "You have to say that, though. You're my Oba."
Eros smirked. "I'll bet you a piece of cake that at least one boy asks you to sit with him tonight- and no, I don't mean Genis."
Gamora's lip curled and her eyes gleamed with some mischief- Eros was all too familiar with such looks, from Heather. Gamora must have learned it from her. "Does that mean I can actually go and sit with a boy if I'm asked?" Not that anyone would really ask her, she knew that, she just wanted to tease Oba.
In about forty years from now, maybe. "Hmm. Only once this theoretical boy has asked me first, and I'm convinced he's suitable because he's completed an epic quest throughout the galaxy to earn the right to be near my daughter."
Gamora burst into peals of laughter, though she felt a bit worried that Oba might have thought she didn't want to sit near him. She did- always and forever. "It's OK, Oba. I want to sit with you and Grandfather anyway."
Eros nearly stumbled- did she know she'd just referred to Mentor as Grandfather? He was fairly certain it was the first time, as well. His heart swelled with joy as they re-entered the dining room, which was now filling with guests and had been elaborately decorated for Heather's birthday feast. They took their seats at the high table. Elysius brought in Genis, clad in the Titan style of tunic and breeches, but in the green and white colors of the Kree, and Phyla, looking pretty as a picture in a light, floating, pink gown. They joined the rest of the family, waiting for A'lars to lead the birthday girl in, so the feast could start.
As Heather and Mentor entered the hall, the obligatory cheer went up. Heather waved her hand, used to this by now, smiling as Mentor guided her to her seat and the feast began.
Gamora had been a bit unnerved by the noise and shrank closer to Oba, only relaxing when he whispered this was normal- the people of Titan passing on their best wishes to the child having a birthday. She nodded, taking it in. It was... fun, if Heather's reaction was anything to go by. Would she get this sort of reaction on her birthday as well, when it happened? It wouldn't be her real birthday, after all, so would that make a difference? She lost that train of thought when she saw the sheer amount and variety of foods being placed on the table. Meats, fruits, breads, cheeses, sweets, cakes... She wanted to try everything!
The cheerful buzz of conversation filled the hall as people socialized and ate, and almost everyone found an excuse to walk up and greet Heather personally at one point or another. Eros kept an eye on Gamora in case this became too much for her. She was tense with all the eyes on her- she was attracting more than a few curious stares- but she was eating well and not obviously panicking. She wasn't speaking much, either, but then, Eros reminded himself, she wasn't used to large gatherings. He whispered in her ear once how well she was behaving, and how proud he was, and slowly, he saw her begin to calm and (hopefully) enjoy herself.
At one point, while Eros was speaking to Emlot, an old friend of his, (still keeping half an eye on his daughter, something he now did out of habit) Gamora was drawn into a dispute of some kind between Genis and Heather, which became a little loud. Mentor corrected them (quietly) and all three mumbled apologies.
Eros froze upon hearing that come from Gamora, then quickly forced his face into a normal expression, though he was stunned. His eyes darted to meet his father's, gauging his reaction. Mentor's face was as neutral as Eros' own, but a single tear shone on his face and the pure happiness he was radiating nearly had Eros tearing up too.
The children continued chattering excitedly, oblivious to the importance of what had happened. Gamora applying familial names to others besides Eros (calling Elysius 'Aunt', and now this) was a huge step forward, especially as she was doing so unconsciously, proving she wasn't doing it because she felt she had to, but because she truly viewed them as her family now.
Father and son held one another's gazes, both brimming with joy and pride- Eros solely for how far Gamora had come, and A'lars for that reason, and also for the compassionate, caring father his once utterly carefree and yes, reckless, son was growing into before his eyes.
Gamora looked around curiously at the different landscape she now stood upon. Until now, she'd lived in the artificial city and gardens, maintained beneath the surface of Titan, but today Aunt Elysius had brought the twins, Heather and Gamora to the actual surface of the moon, all clad in bodysuits designed to combat the lower temperatures of the moon and preserve their body heat. Gamora wasn't sure of the point- she felt no difference in temperature, but didn't argue. They must have to wear these suits for a reason, even if Aunt Elysius didn't. Maybe only children needed them? She would have to ask Oba later.
Technically, they were only here because they were meant to be gathering samples of the moon's rock as part of their science studies, but Aunt Elysius had allowed them to go exploring for a while, as long as they stayed in pairs, were sensible, and came back straight away when she called their coms. Phyla had, to Gamora's surprise, immediately come over and announced that she would be Gamora's partner- normally, Phyla chose Heather for this sort of thing, and Gamora just tagged along with Genis.
Genis and Heather had paired up, and were bickering within five minutes, as per usual. Gamora had considered going over and switching partners, to keep the peace, but Phyla had caught her hand and tugged her away, to 'go have a look around' before she could.
It wasn't until after they'd wandered into a small valley that Gamora registered Phyla was still leading her, holding her hand. Huh. When had that stopped feeling weird? At that moment, though, Phyla let go of her, dropping to examine a purple plant that was sprouting in a small crevice.
"What do you think this is?"
Gamora shrugged. "Don't know." She didn't see what was so interesting about a plant, and resumed scanning the terrain. The atmosphere here gave everything a yellow-orange glow, and the ground was mostly rocks and sand, though a lake glimmered in the distance. No immediate threats, Gamora noted out of habit, then shook her head. You don't have to do that anymore, remember? She was safe here, she didn't have to keep checking for threats or danger. She trusted Oba and Grandfather when they told her that, she did. It was just hard to stop herself checking for danger sometimes.
Trying to distract herself, she glanced up at the sky. Beyond the yellowish haze, she could see the ringed planet Saturn. It was huge compared to Titan, she could see that. "Hey, Phyla?"
"Do you think we'll ever get to explore Saturn?"
Phyla joined her in staring at the planet. "Maybe. Uma said she's been there before. But I think only adults get to go. And you have to have some means of flying, or someone with you who can carry you with them."
"Because Saturn isn't actually solid." Gamora remembered that much. "I wonder if anything lives there?"
"Don't know." Phyla wandered away, losing interest in the conversation. "Hey, look at this!"
Gamora moved to her side, near a steep outcropping of rocks, more than three times as tall as them. "What?"
Phyla pointed through a crack in the rock wall, and Gamora leaned forward to peek through. The rocks rose steeply on all four sides, but there was a large enclosed space in the middle, that gleamed and sometimes rippled- another lake. This one was a lot closer than the one Gamora had seen earlier.
Phyla stared at it for a long minute, then eyed the rocks that encased it. Her shoulders slumped. "I want to get a rock from the water to study, if I can, so we're not all working on the exact same thing, but there's no way to get there and get one. We can't climb through those rocks."
Gamora stared at her, bemused. Then she looked up at the rock face- jagged, uneven, far from sheer... "We don't have to go through them."
"What?" Phyla sounded honestly confused. "But..."
Gamora took Phyla's hand. "We can climb. Look! There's loads of hand and footholds. It'll be easy."
Phyla stared up at the looming rockface and gulped. "But... we don't have any ropes, or anything!"
"Why would we need ropes?" Gamora was baffled. "When I was taught to climb, Fath- Than-" She clapped her hand over her mouth, remembering almost too late she wasn't meant to talk about Thanos to Phyla. "Um, I mean, so you're not very good at climbing?"
"I'm OK at it." Phyla bit her lip, staring up at the cliff face again. "But that...."
"I can help you, if you really want to go fetch a rock from the lake." Gamora offered. They could go to the other lake, but that was at least a mile away and might take them out of com range. She didn't want to disobey Aunt Elysius and get into trouble...
Phyla looked uneasy, fidgeting with a strand of her silver-white hair. "Well... if you really think you can do it, and help me..."
"Of course! I've known how to rock-climb for years. Come on." Gamora darted to the base of the cliff, jumping a little to grab a handhold and sinking her foot into a narrow crevice, hauling herself off the ground with ease. "Just put your hands and feet where I do. We'll be at the top in no time." She continued climbing, a lot more slowly than she would have if she'd been alone, continually listening out for and looking down to check on Phyla. The shorter girl was keeping up fairly well, but she was a bit red from exertion, and the un-flushed parts of her face went pale as she accidentally looked down. "Um, G-Gamora... this is very high up." Her voice wobbled.
Gamora glanced down, not getting it. They'd barely gotten halfway to the top. "Don't you want to go get your rock now then?"
Phyla hunched in on herself, gripping the outcropping of rock she was clinging to so hard that her knuckles turned white. "N-no. I don't."
"OK, we won't. Let's just climb down." Gamora didn't really mind either way, she'd only suggested this to help Phyla get the sort of rock she wanted, but she could see the other girl was scared for some reason and didn't want to upset her further.
Phyla clung where she was, not moving.
"Phy? You're beneath me, I can't climb down til you do."
Phyla raised her head to look at Gamora. "I c-can't."
"What do you mean, you can't? Just stretch down until you find your last handhold, then drop down to it. Then keep doing that til you're back on the ground." Really, Gamora thought, I thought Phyla said she knew how to climb!
There were tears on Phyla's face now, she was trembling, and she still hadn't moved an inch. "I can't. It's too far! I'll fall." She choked on a sob. "I'm stuck."
"You won't fall. Just reach down and-"
"No!" The word was nearly a shriek.
Gamora bit her lip. OK, clearly she'd done something wrong again if Phyla was this scared. Normally she'd go and ask Oba how to fix something if she didn't understand, but right now, Oba wasn't here to explain. She thought fast- no matter what, they had to get back to the ground- then, leaning sideways, she reached for a different handhold. Moving quickly, she descended the cliff so she was next to Phyla.
"Don't cry. I can get us both down to the ground." Gamora tried to smile. "Just put your hand on my shoulder first."
Tentatively, Phyla did as she asked, still hiccupping from her tears.
"Now put that hand on my left shoulder, and climb onto my back. I'll climb down. You just hold onto me and close your eyes."
Phyla's eyes widened. "What if you fall?!"
"I won't. I never do. Come on, quickly." Gamora had just spotted Aunt Elysius approaching. It had to be time to return to the city.
Gulping, Phyla climbed onto Gamora's back, clinging like a limpet, eyes shut tightly. Gamora paused a second, adjusting to the additional weight, like she had when she'd been forced to carry huge packs, before- She pushed the image of her training with Thanos and his servants out of her mind and swiftly climbed back down to the floor, barely affected by Phyla's weight.
Phyla jumped, startled, when her feet reached the ground, letting go of Gamora reflexively. Her blue eyes were wide. "How'd you do that so fast?"
Gamora shrugged. "I've had lots of practice." She didn't have a chance to say anything further, because Elysius had reached them, her face taut and pale. Gamora blinked. Were they late going home or something? Or were they not meant to have gone out of sight?
Elysius was glowering down at both of them, anger plain in her eyes. Her mouth was pursed in a tight line. "Don't... ever... let me see either of you doing something that stupid again." Her voice was cool, and firm. Phyla, all too familiar with her mother's 'You're in trouble' face, squirmed.
"Uma, it was my idea-"
"I don't care whose idea it was. You'll both be punished for this." Elysius stepped closer, so she towered over them. Her heart was still pounding from the fear she'd felt, seeing the girls climbing those rocks, then watching, horror-struck, as Gamora had actually taken Phyla on her back to climb down, moving far too quickly to have really been safe. "Neither of you had any way of knowing if those rocks were stable enough to climb, you have no safety equipment, and you should not have done it. What would you do if you had fallen? What if the both of you had broken your necks?!" Her voice was rising. "I'd expect five-year-olds to have more sense than this!"
Phyla was cringing. "Sorry, Uma..."
Gamora had frozen the minute Elysius said the word 'punishment'. Memories of whips, of punches and kicks, of red-hot brands assailed her mind. No, no, that doesn't happen here, you know that, Oba promised. But Aunt Elysius was angry, because she had scared Phyla, and she had never promised not to hurt Gamora... But no-one here does that!
Gamora felt like her mind was splitting in two, one half arguing with the other. There was a faint roaring in her ears, drowning out Aunt Elysius' words as the dark haired woman's eyes widened, and she clapped a hand to her mouth. She shook her head, her eyes softer now- or was Gamora imagining that? Her heart was thumping and she was breathing fast- she hated having to stand and wait for punishment, never knowing what was coming, what, exactly, she deserved this time...
Aunt Elysius' hand moved towards Gamora's face, and she ducked instinctively, raising her arms to protect her head. Then she froze utterly, hardly daring to breathe. Now she'd done it.
Never try to protect yourself from a punishment you deserve. That had been one of the earliest lessons Gamora had ever learned. The few times she'd failed at that, it had always been so much worse...
Hyper-alert now, she saw Aunt Elysius take another step towards her, coming within reach, and she snapped. Flinging her arms out to push her aunt away, she bolted, heedless of where she was going, or of the voices calling after her. She just had to run and hide, until Aunt Elysius forgot that she wanted to punish her, or until Oba came and found her, so she'd be safe. She raced through the rocks that dotted Titan's landscape, ducking round every corner she could find, clambering over obstacles, squeezing through narrow gaps in cliff walls, just running, running, running, until she was sure she was safe, concealed in a cave that she barely fitted into. Then she dropped to her knees, breathing heavily. She shouldn't have run, she knew that, but she didn't want to be punished again!
Gamora wrapped her arms round herself, rocking back and forth in the cramped space, silent tears pouring down her face. "I want my Oba." She whimpered softly.
But no-one answered.
Gamora curled up, crying, calling out softly for her Oba, to no avail. Had she gone too far, now? Had Oba had enough of her as well? He kept saying he loved her, but she still kept thinking that there might be a line she shouldn't cross, that there was a limit to how much trouble she could cause... And now she'd made Aunt Elysius hate her too. Gamora had had fun last week, when her aunt had made her look pretty for Heather's birthday party, but she'd repaid her by scaring Phyla today (somehow, though she still wasn't clear on why.) What would happen to her now, if she really had done too much damage and Oba didn't want her anymore?
Her teeth began to chatter. She clenched them, curling up into a ball as she realized how cold it was now. How long had she been here in this cave? The light in here was poor so it was hard to tell. It hadn't been this cold earlier, had it? Her hands and feet were numb. She curled up more tightly, trying to get warm. Maybe I should just go home, and apologize? At least it would be warm there...
She was so cold. She would get up and go and look for Oba. In a minute. Really. As soon as she could feel her arms and legs...
Gamora's eyes drifted shut.
Elysius' heart was pounding, her hand shaking as she held her com in her hand. She felt sick, remembering the look of primal fear on little Gamora's face, before she'd bolted from Elysius' anger. She'd quickly gathered Heather, Phyla and Genis, and they'd searched for Gamora for a while, but it was getting late, and it was becoming too cold out here. The children were huddled together now, all valiantly trying not to shiver as the surface temperature of Titan lowered. She had to get them back into the city where it was warm, but she couldn't just leave Gamora out here! The girl had raced out of sight so quickly, ignoring Elysius' and Phyla's calls, and Elysius had been torn- follow her, or stay with the other three children?
Phyla shivered violently, and Heather sneezed. Her face was red from the cold, but her fingers were turning blue. Genis' teeth were chattering. That decided Elysius- the children couldn't stay out here. She urged them to their feet, shepherding them back to the subterranean city. "Come along, we're going back inside. The temperature is too low out here now."
Phyla stared. "B-but what about G-Gamora? S-she'll be j-just as c-cold as us."
"I'm calling Uncle Eros," Elysius smiled reassuringly. "He'll come and find her, and she'll be safe until then. I'm sure she'll have found shelter." She keyed in the code to call Eros as she pushed the children back towards the city's entrance, unable to stop herself scanning the moon's surface once more. What if Gamora was still running, heedless, lost in her fear? How long would the child survive this cold?
Her com beeped as they re-entered the city. Eros was his usual cheerful self as his image appeared and he greeted her.
"Elysius! You all took a long time on a school project." He chuckled. "Did you get lost out there?"
Elysius winced, Eros' words being closer to the mark than he'd realized. Walking a short distance from Heather, Phyla and Genis, so they couldn't hear her words, she took a deep breath. "Eros-"
His eyes had narrowed a little, apparently hearing something in her voice. "Let me have a word with Gamora. How'd she get on, alone with you, anyway?"
Elysius looked away, unable to continue holding his gaze. Steeling herself, she forced the words out. "Eros- Gamora isn't with us right now-"
"What?!" The com image distorted, then cleared. Eros must have leaped to his feet. His face was now tense- and angry. "What happened? Where is she?"
Elysius gulped, her words spilling out in a rush. "She and Phyla were climbing one of the cliffs with no rope. I spotted them and told them off. I raised my voice, I didn't think, and Gamora panicked. When I saw that, I stepped forward, I reached for her, I only meant to smooth her hair, but she got the wrong idea and fled. She just ran off, I couldn't follow. I didn't realize..." Her voice was shaking.
"YOU LEFT HER OUT THERE?! You stupid-" There was a dull thud and the call cut off. Eros must have dropped the com. Elysius blinked back tears. In all their years of friendship, Eros had never once got angry with her, not like that. But then, how would she be reacting if this situation were reversed? If he'd left one of her children alone on Titan's surface as night fell?
She'd only taken a few steps towards the other three children when a red blur sent a swift breeze through the room they were in, and Eros was standing beside her, his face grim.
Elysius flinched at his expression. "Eros, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten her-"
"I should never have left Gamora with you. I should have known you'd forget how fragile she is." Eros' voice was icy, and he didn't look at Elysius as he spoke. "Take Heather home to my father, tell him what your stupidity has done, then see to the twins. I'm going to find my daughter." He sent one thought directly into Elysius' mind- If anything has happened to my little girl, I will never, ever forgive you for this- before disappearing in an even faster blur, flying for the surface.
Elysius was fighting back tears as she led the other (scared) children home, reassuring them that Gamora would be fine, and Eros was just worried, not truly angry, as best she could. She prayed silently as they walked. Father Kronos, please, please let little Gamora be alright...
Eros tore through the landscape of Titan, scouring the ground for any sign of Gamora's passing. The speed he was flying at was causing icicles to shatter in his wake and fear was clawing at him- cybernetically enhanced or not, Gamora would not have survived for long out in the open. He prayed she'd found some sort of cover, which might give him enough time to find her, but if she'd been caught in a flashback, it might not have occurred to her to do so. Eros' fists clenched. How could Elysius have been so stupid, raising her voice in anger at Gamora? She knew what the child had been through with Thanos! And reaching for Gamora without warning while she was panicking? That was the one thing Eros had cautioned her not to do while he wasn't there, given Gamora's wariness of physical contact from most adults. Not to mention that Elysius' one idiotic lapse of judgement had almost certainly shattered Gamora's faith that she wouldn't be hurt here. He'd have to start over almost from square one, gaining her trust all over again.
That's even if she's still alive. A cold, sick feeling spread through him. Gamora wasn't dead, she wasn't. He'd know, somehow, if that had happened. She was out there somewhere, scared, and cold, and hiding. He just had to find her, calm her and get her home in the warm. His baby girl would be fine.
She had to be. He didn't know how he'd live with himself if she wasn't.
I never should have let her come out here alone with Elysius. I should have come along too. Eros' eyes stung with tears. The worst part was, Gamora had asked him to come on the outing, and he'd said no, actually encouraging her to go with Elysius, promising that everything would be alright, wanting to encourage her to spend time with another adult, building her trust. Now she'd think he had lied, that he'd failed her... but why, for stars sake, hadn't Elysius just stayed calm?!
Eros was so lost in his recriminating thoughts that he nearly missed the scuffed footprints and broken moss near a rock formation. Child-sized footprints. His heart-rate sped up and he dived, landing close enough to examine the tracks and surrounding area. Once he had a trail, leading over the rocks and zig-zagging haphazardly, he took to the air again, this time more slowly, keeping a close eye on the trail, terrified of missing something. His little girl must have been running blindly, not thinking about where she was going at all. Dark, frozen liquid splattered the ground in one place. Blood. Gamora had hurt herself somehow.
"I'm coming, Gamora, I'm coming." The words came out choked. He doubted she could hear him, but he needed to say it, reassuring himself. He would find her.
Ice crystals were forming on his skin and hair now. He brushed them off as a mere annoyance but new urgency flooded his veins. Just how long had Gamora been alone out here? How long could she last?
The trail ended abruptly in front of what looked like a narrow crack in a rock wall. Eros came to a stop before it, heart pounding, looking up. The cliff was almost sheer, slick with ice and massive. If Gamora had attempted to climb that... He shuddered, and scanned the ground nearby, looking for any signs he might have missed. It was then he noticed something odd. The entire cliff was coated in ice, smooth and unbroken, save for the narrow crevice where the trail stopped. There, the rock was damp, sparkling as if with dew. He watched, puzzled, as one drop fell, impossibly slowly, like a time-lapsed recording. It didn't freeze immediately either. Narrowing his eyes, he could see that it was freezing, but at a ridiculously slow rate, almost as if... some entity had decided to slow time in this one small area...
"Kronos? Grandfather?" Eros' voice was barely audible. He had rarely seen his father's father, not since he was a child himself, and if he was honest, he was wary of the disincorporated being. But Kronos was the only being on Titan who could manipulate time. As for why... Eros edged towards the crevice, his heart in his throat, hardly daring to look.
The crevice was actually a small, narrow cave. The interior was dry, only the very roof wet, drops falling in the same slow motion as outside, and only the tiniest margin of ice, creeping outward infinitesimally. The tiny cave was practically warm compared to outside, and, huddled on the floor, unmoving...
Eros choked back a sob. "Gamora!" He lurched forward, all thoughts of Kronos forgotten, forcing himself into the too-small space and snatching his daughter into his arms. She was icy-cold, her skin a dull grey instead of its usual vibrant green, but she was breathing steadily. He clutched her as close as he could, sharing his body heat and using his cosmic energy abilities to channel warmth into her, not even daring to exhale until she stirred.
"Oba? I'm cold." Her little half-asleep voice nearly made him break down crying with relief as she snuggled closer to him. "Can we go home now?"
He nodded. "Yes, sweetheart." He kissed the crown of her head as he sent another pulse of cosmic energy into her, to keep her as warm as possible until they were safely back in the city. "We're going home now." A rush of emotion cut him off. "Don't ever scare me like that again, OK?"
"OK. Won't. M'sorry. Love you, Oba." She looked around. "Where'd the ghost go? He made it warmer..." Gamora's eyes slid shut again, but she clung to him in her sleep. Eros realized she was probably in some sort of delirium from exposure to the elements, and flew from the ground as soon as they squeezed out of the cave- flight was the fastest way home. He glanced back at the cave- and jumped, startled.
The cave entrance was now frozen as solid as the rest of the cliff. No evidence remained of it having been dry, or of the strange time-lapse. Eros frowned, remembering Gamora's mumbling about a 'ghost'. To a child, that was how Kronos might appear...
Eros looked skyward, unsurprised to see the star-studded semi-transparent form of his grandfather, watching them. He bowed his head respectfully, heart swelling with gratitude. "Thank you, Grandfather," his voice shook with emotion. "Thank you for saving my daughter."
"Bah!" Kronos' voice was scornful. "I was merely refining my skill at slowing time in one isolated area, without affecting others. It is nothing but coincidence that your girl happened to benefit from it. Now I suggest you get that child inside, boy, before she does succumb to the cold. And not one word of this to your father. Understood?" Kronos loomed ominously, then vanished without another word.
Eros suppressed a grin as he flew like a bullet back for the city, keeping Gamora as sheltered as possible. Had Kronos forgotten that he was an empath and could read people like books? The ancient Titan of Time had been keeping Gamora as warm as he could until help came for her. Eros had no idea why his grandfather would pretend otherwise, but decided it didn't matter. Kronos had saved Gamora, and for that Eros would be forever grateful.
A'lars and Heather were waiting when Eros got Gamora back to their apartment. They quickly helped him get Gamora changed into warmer garments, settled in bed and wrapped in blankets. The scratches on her legs and arms- the source of the blood splatters Eros had seen earlier, no doubt gained during Gamora's frantic run across Titan- were gently bathed and lightly bandaged once it was determined they weren't too deep. Eros then coaxed Gamora into a half-awake state so she could drink some medicinal tea. Gamora pulled a face but drank meekly- possibly because she wasn't fully aware. Her color slowly turned from grey to her usual green as she warmed up, and, finally, Eros heaved a sigh of relief.
He settled on the chair next to his daughter's bed, fully intending to remain here all night. He'd left her with Elysius and look what had happened! Granted, this wasn't the same situation, but he was staying with Gamora tonight, (thanking Kronos and whatever other higher power was out there that he hadn't lost her today) and then he'd be at her side at least until they'd talked over today's events and sorted things out between her and Elysius. (Eros supposed he needed to apologize to Elysius too, for his earlier anger, but she'd taken the twins home for the night, so that would have to wait until tomorrow now.) A'lars had taken a long look at his son's expression and decided not to waste his time arguing the point that Gamora was sound asleep and wouldn't know if her father was there or not, instead simply bidding them goodnight, kissing his sleeping granddaughter's brow and squeezing Eros' shoulder before taking Heather to her room.
Eros watched Gamora sleep for a long time, memorizing her face, holding her hand gently so as to keep reminding himself that she was really there, she wasn't lying out on Titan frozen to death... Every time his eyes slipped closed, he saw his daughter's lifeless, ice-covered body, and jerked awake again, heart pounding, eyes checking Gamora frantically, until he saw she was fine, and still asleep. After the fifth or sixth time this happened, he gave up sitting in the chair and climbed onto the bed next to her, his arm going over her protectively. Even sound asleep and cocooned in blankets, Gamora seemed aware of him, as she rolled over, snuggling closer, a smile on her face.
"Night Oba, love you."
"Love you too, baby girl." Eros whispered, laying his head on the pillow, staring down at her. He'd come so close to losing her today, and- given what had caused it- they had a long way to go still, before Gamora was healed from the wounds of her past. But she was with him, safe and sound. That was all that mattered for now.
Gamora woke up, feeling warmer than she knew she ought to be. She'd been cold when she fell asleep in the cave. She was in bed, in her room, Oba asleep next to her. Blinking, she tried to sit up, finding herself cocooned in blankets. Her shifting around to get free must have made noise, because Oba jerked awake. Unsure of how she'd got here, or if she was in trouble or not, Gamora gave a watery smile.
"Good afternoon, sleepyhead." Oba hugged her close for a second, then drew back, eyeing her. "Are you feeling alright?"
Gamora frowned, wriggling her arms free of the constricting blankets. "I think so. I'm too hot though." She stared at her father. "How did I get here? I thought..." Dream-like memories of a hovering ghostly figure and everything moving slower than it should have done resurfaced and she shook her head. "I was outside..." She shivered and bit her lip. "I made Aunt Elysius angry..."
Eros shook his head. "Elysius wasn't really angry, sweetheart. She told me what happened. You and Phyla were doing something dangerous. She was scared you might have gotten hurt, and told you both off without thinking how it might scare you." He stared into Gamora's eyes intently. "She would never have hurt you. Ever." He prayed Gamora heard and believed this- she couldn't keep reacting that way to anger. Last night had been too close- if it hadn't been for Kronos, Gamora would be dead. He suppressed a shudder at the thought, determined to find a way to make sure that never happened again.
Gamora's expression looked both unsure and thoughtful. She spoke slowly. "So.... sometimes, if people yell, they're just worried about you?"
Eros smoothed her hair. "That's right. And we're going to have to talk about why Aunt Elysius was worried about you and Phyla. She wants to come and see how you are."
Gamora nodded absently, only half listening, tilting her head to one side. "But does that mean that when Thanos used to shout, he wasn't really mad?"
Eros' fists clenched. "No, Gamora, that's different."
"Why?" Her dark eyes stared up at him innocently. He had to remind himself that she really couldn't tell the difference between Elysius raising her voice, and Thanos' abuse, but struggled to find the words to explain what was, to him, perfectly obvious.
"Because, when I got angry, it was because I was very worried about you or Phyla getting hurt, and I know I shouldn't have shouted." Elysius' voice was soft as she hovered in the hall outside Gamora's room. "I never meant to frighten you." She stepped inside, her gaze on Gamora. "I'm guessing when Thanos shouted at you, it was because he'd asked you to do something and you couldn't do it?"
Gamora's eyes widened. "Yeah.... but... how did you know?"
Elysius came and sat on Gamora's bed, beside Eros. "And that's why you're so skilled at climbing and fighting?"
Gamora nodded shakily. "He always said that I needed to be good at things like that, to defend myself, because the universe is a dangerous place and I'd get hurt if I couldn't look after myself- oh." Her eyes dropped. "That's not true either, is it? That's why Genis, Phyla and Heather aren't good at gymnastics and combat like me." Tears brimmed in her eyes. "Why did he do that? Make me fight, make me kill? Why couldn't he just let me be normal?"
Eros and Elysius both hid their reactions to Gamora's admitting having killed before, at Thanos' command. They'd both suspected, but hearing it voiced... it was sickening. Elysius turned away, fussing with the blankets as she swiped tears away.
"I don't pretend to understand why Thanos does anything." Eros managed at last. "I wish I could explain, or go back and change things so you wouldn't have had to go through this." But I can't, and chances are you'll bear the scars of his abuse for the rest of your life. The thought made his heart ache.
Gamora sniffled, then, registering the look on Oba's face, leaned over and hugged him. "I didn't mean to make you sad, Oba." Biting her lip, she glanced over at Elysius. "And I'm sorry for making you worried yesterday, Aunt, and for running off." Another sniff. "Is Phyla alright? I didn't mean for her to get scared. And I wouldn't have let her get hurt while we were climbing, I promise!" she added quickly, in case this helped.
"It's not just that Phyla might have gotten hurt," Elysius spoke gently. "Did you stop to think that you might have, and that I might have been afraid for you as well?"
Gamora looked baffled. "No. But I-"
"It doesn't matter if you didn't think you would fall, Gamora." Eros added. "No-one can predict the future, and you could have gotten hurt." He cupped her chin in his hand so she had to look up at him and Elysius. "I want you to promise me- us- that you won't do anything that could get you hurt unless an adult has given you permission, alright? You need to trust that we know what's safe and what isn't." And that, he reflected, was one of the biggest problems Gamora still had- she had no sense of danger and took risks no child should because that was what Thanos had taught her to do. Undoing that mentality, while still encouraging her to be independent and think for herself, giving her freedom to be herself, was going to be a tremendous balancing act, never going too far one way or the other. He shook the daunting thought off. "Gamora, do you promise?"
She nodded, frowning in concentration, trying to make sense of her father's words. "I'll ask a grown up before I try something new next time. Promise."
That wasn't exactly what Eros had meant, but he supposed it would do for now. Gamora would learn, in time, what was actually an acceptable and safe way of having fun, and what wasn't. He smiled at her. "Good girl. Also, please don't run off like that again. I nearly didn't find you in time. I-" He cut himself off, not wanting to overwhelm her with too much emotion. "If you're scared, I want you to try and remember that you won't be hurt here, alright? Even if I'm not there, if something scares you, you can talk to Aunt Elysius, or Grandfather. Running away isn't going to help you sort anything out, is it?"
"No." Gamora's voice was barely audible. "I didn't mean to run off that far though, I just..." She shrugged. "Habit? Next time I won't run." Her big dark eyes flickered to Elysius. "I'm sorry."
Elysius held out her arms tentatively, offering a hug to reassure the little girl. Gamora went to her easily enough, after a brief hesitation, and she soon snuggled into her aunt's arms. Elysius smiled, relieved that this had, more or less, been settled. She'd keep a closer guard on her temper around Gamora in future, but hopefully Eros' half-lecture to his daughter about not taking risks would prevent further misadventures of this kind. As long as I can keep Genis out of mischief, anyway. The thought of that losing battle nearly made the Titan woman laugh. She drew back, smiling at Gamora. "Shall we go find Heather and your cousins now? I'm sure they're looking forward to making sure you're well."
"OK." Gamora obediently slipped out of bed. "I'll go wash-"
Eros' com beeped, the tone indicating a private call, from someone not on Titan. He tilted his head, aware that it wasn't the tone he got when Mar-Vell called, and answered it automatically, ignoring Elysius' and Gamora's curious looks. For whatever reason, the caller had disabled the holo-image, so only a female voice came through.
"Hello?" Eros frowned as he listened to the speaker. "Heater?! What.... slow down a minute."
Elysius arched a brow. Heater Delight had been one of Eros' paramours, over a decade ago. She was also a former slave, sold for her body. But Eros had, as far as Elysius knew, lost contact with the woman nearly fourteen years ago. Why in blazes would she contact him now?
"Who's Heater?" Gamora's voice broke into Elysius' thoughts, and she shook off her curiousity. Judging by the look on Eros' face now, this perhaps wasn't a conversation his daughter should be hearing.
"Excuse me? That was my daughter you just heard, Heater, though I don't see how it concerns you..."
Heater gave a girlish laugh. "Another conquest gave you a present, did she? Couldn't be bothered to raise your child herself?"
"Pardon me? What did you say?" Eros' face hardened. "I seriously hope that was meant to be a joke. My daughter isn't any of your business!"
"I'd like to meet this child of yours." Heater's voice sounded dryly amused now- at what, Eros had no idea. "Bring her with you, come and visit."
His jaw tightened, eyes darkening with anger, voice rising. "You're serious? You expect me to just come see you, drop everything, because you've asked-"
"Oba?" Gamora's voice wobbled as she looked up at Eros, wide-eyed, no doubt wondering why he sounded angry. Eros covered the com and gave Gamora a reassuring smile. "Everything's alright, sweetheart. I just need to talk to... my old friend for a few minutes. You go with Aunt Elysius and get washed and changed in Heather's room, then go get something to eat. Save me some food too. I'll be along in a while."
Elysius took the hint and shepherded Gamora out of the room. "Come on. You can help me cook something if you like. I'll teach you."
"Really? Can we make cakes?" Gamora beamed at the thought, successfully distracted. "I always wanted to-" Her words were cut off as the door hissed closed.
Eros whipped the com back to his ear. "Heater? Yes, I'm still here." He was practically snapping at her now Gamora wasn't in earshot. "And you better have a damn good explanation for why you're calling me like this, out of the blue.. it's been well over a decade since we spoke."
Heater's voice changed, becoming more serious. "Just come out here. I need to talk to you. Bring your child if you must. Please, it's urgent. We- I'm in trouble."
Eros rolled his eyes. "What do you mean, you're in trouble? What sort of 'trouble' would make you ask me to bring my daughter out to see you?"
"Please, Eros." Heater sounded desperate now. "I really need to talk to you in person. I wouldn't ask if it weren't important. I should have reached out to you before now, but... please, just come. Bring your child if you must. I'm on Lamentis, the Kree border world. Please!"
Eros groaned. "Fine. But, Heater, why-"
"Get here as soon as you can." There was a pause. "And try to forgive me when you understand."
"Forgive you? What-"
Heater hung up abruptly, leaving Eros staring at the com, puzzled- and wary. What in the name of the Celestials had that been about? He'd have to go and find out- if Heater really was in some sort of danger, he couldn't leave her- but she'd asked him to bring Gamora, so she couldn't be in that bad of a situation...
He would go to Lamentis. He had to. (And by now, he was as curious as he was concerned about what was going on.) He just couldn't shake the sudden feeling that Heater was hiding something, and the nagging feeling of dread in his stomach told him that said 'something' was going to implode his entire life....
Gamora stared excitedly out of the ship's cockpit as Oba guided them into a spaceport and they landed. They'd been travelling for about a week, as Oba had been asked to visit an old friend, named Heater, to help her with something. Gamora didn't know what, but it sort of seemed that Oba didn't know exactly what he was going to help with either, as he hadn't answered when she'd asked. It didn't really matter anyway- Oba would help his friend, and then he would have lots of time to show Gamora around this new place, just the two of them. She'd been looking forward to that ever since Oba had said she was coming on this trip too. Her grandfather hadn't been pleased about her coming here, but Oba had said he didn't want to leave her behind again. (They'd talked about it when they thought Gamora was asleep. It sounded like Grandfather didn't like Oba's old friend Heater, though Gamora wasn't sure why.)
The spaceport they'd landed in was an open air one, so there was a good view of the city. Gamora's nose wrinkled. "This isn't as pretty as home. What's this world called again, Oba?"
"Lamentis." Eros replied, smiling indulgently at her. "It's part of the Kree Empire, but on the very edge. It's mostly occupied by refugees and sla- people who aren't very well off."
"Oh." She nodded. "So there won't be a lot of Kree here?"
"There shouldn't be, no. Just a few officials. And they shouldn't bother us. Travel here isn't restricted, there's no reason why we shouldn't visit." Eros powered down the ship's controls and stood. "That said, we're in a strange place, so I want you to promise you'll stay close to me- no running off and getting lost, and no talking to strangers."
"Yes, Oba. I know, you told me this earlier." Gamora sighed.
He suppressed a grin at her put-upon tone, and took his daughter's hand as they left the ship. "Just making sure you remembered. If we got separated, it might take me days to find you!" He'd meant it as a joke, but Gamora flinched slightly and stuck close to his side as they walked onto the street. He squeezed her hand reassuringly, trying not to think of what might happen if one of Thanos' spies caught sight of them. Rumor suggested his brother had contacts in every single black market of the universe- No, he told himself firmly. They were light-years from Thanos' domain, there was no reason to be paranoid, and the last thing he needed was Gamora picking up on his unease and becoming frightened.
He pushed his thoughts in another direction, keeping an eye on passers-by as he tried to think how to locate Heater. He'd tried to call her again, but the com signal she'd called him from had been blocked, which meant he'd just had to turn up here and hope he could track her down- and fast, because, Kree-controlled world or not, this wasn't really a suitable place to wander around with a child. Again he wondered if Mentor had been right, and he should have left Gamora at home on Titan. Heater might have asked to see her, for some reason, but the company she usually kept..... On the other hand, he had no idea what Heater wanted from him, or how long he'd be here. He hadn't been able to bring himself to leave Gamora indefinitely, especially not so soon after almost losing her.
"Oba? Where does your friend live?" Gamora was peering curiously into a one-storey building with broken windows, floor lined with torn or stained mattresses, most of them occupied by sorry-looking people, too thin, visibly ill, or both. Eros quickly tugged her away from there.
"I don't know, sweetheart. We'll have to see if we can find out."
Good question, Eros thought wryly. "I suppose we'll have to go and see if we can find out where she's been staying. Someone has to keep records of housing around here." He winked. "Kree officials are very good at keeping records- it's boring, so lots of them enjoy it."
Gamora giggled, then shrank closer to him as a heavily made-up yellow skinned female staggered over to them, wearing a skin-tight low-cut dress. She completely disregarded Gamora, stepping in front of her, right in Eros' personal space, near enough for him to smell strong perfume, and alcohol on her breath. He edged back, putting distance between them.
"Are you Heater's man?" The woman asked, her voice tipsy from drink. "She said he'd be stoppin' by soon, and you fit her description. Tall, handsome, red hair..." She peered up at him through her lashes, batting them seductively, placing a hand on his chest.
Eros took another step back, eyes narrowed. Gamora was staring up at the woman, looking uncomfortable. He moved so Gamora was behind him, and stared down at the woman, face like stone. "Yes, I am Heater's friend. I don't suppose you can tell me where to find her?" He spoke sternly, making it as clear as he could that he didn't want his time wasted.
The woman huffed, then gestured towards an apartment block, visible due to its height, a few streets away. "Last time I checked, Heater had a place there. Third floor. I dunno the apartment number though." Her eyes drifted to Gamora, and a patently false smile spread over her face. "What a cute kid!" She winked suggestively at Eros. "You're a virile kind of guy, ain't ya? After your fling with Heater... and now you've got this little one as well..."
"Thank you." Eros' reply was curt, and he turned to leave immediately, not looking back at her, wanting to get out of this situation as soon as possible. Had he really encouraged women like this, less than a year ago? Things certainly had changed... Now, he just wanted to get away, as fast as possible, before Gamora asked any questions he didn't know how to answer. And really, he fumed silently, the woman should know better than to act like that in front of a little girl!
He led Gamora away quickly, heading for the apartment block. Once they got there, he'd just go to the third floor, knock on the first door, and simply ask about Heater. At least she wasn't living in the run-down houses and slums of this area...
"That lady was weird." Gamora remarked as they walked. "And she smelled funny." She hesitated. "Is your friend Heater like that, too?"
"No." Eros stated with certainty. "Heater's a nice person, Gamora. That lady..... wasn't." Although, it had been fourteen years since he'd seen Heater.... she hadn't acted that brazenly back then, but who knew what she was like now? Suddenly, bringing Gamora here to meet Heater didn't seem like the smartest move- what was he exposing her to, really?
"Then how come Heater knows her?" Gamora was frowning, puzzled.
"Uh..." He thought fast. "Maybe they lived in the same place for a while, before Heater moved here?" Eros gestured at the apartment block, now only a few minutes walk away.
Gamora nodded, accepting that, though Eros braced himself for more awkward questions later. And just why had the woman linked his old affair with Heater to Gamora? A cold finger of unease ran down his spine. Just what am I missing here?
Entering the building, they took the elevator to the third floor. The corridor was dimly lit, and the bland off-white paint peeled off the walls. The uncarpeted floor was stained and cracked in some places. The doors were all uniformly black, all identical, with one tiny window into each apartment. Eros noted with some relief that the names of the occupants were on the apartment doors. As long as Heater was using the same surname she had when he'd known her.... There. The name 'Delight' was on the third apartment in.
Taking a deep breath, fighting his growing sense of trepidation, he knocked on the door.
It hissed open almost immediately, revealing Heater, looking older and more worn than when Eros had known her. She had an almost rehearsed scowl on her face, hands on hips. "Finally!" She snapped before the door was even fully open. "It's about time you-" Her jaw dropped with surprise when she recognized Eros, as if she'd been expecting someone else, her words cutting off abruptly. He quirked a brow in question.
"Nice to see you as well, Heater."
She pressed a hand to her foreheard, grimacing. "No, Eros, that wasn't aimed at you, I thought..." She swallowed hard. "Come in. I don't want to have this conversation with all the neighbors eavesdropping." She stepped back into the apartment without another word, clearly expecting them to follow.
Frowning, and now more worried than ever, Eros threw Gamora a smile, squeezing her hand again, before leading her inside.
Gamora was chewing the inside of her cheek as they entered the small apartment. Oba had said Heater was nice, but she'd sounded really mad a minute ago- and, just like the other lady, she hadn't even seemed to notice her, just Oba. Maybe people here just didn't like children? She watched Heater curiously as the pale-blue skinned woman bustled around, picking up piles of clothing that were dotted all over the place, clearing up a stack of dirty plates from the tiny kitchen table, tidying up as fast as she could. Gamora wrinkled her nose. This place was a mess. At home, she had to keep her own room tidy, and servants, or ISAAC, did the rest. Before Titan, she'd always had to clean up after herself... The memory made her shiver, and she pushed it away. She took another look around, finding it hard to believe anyone could live in such an untidy place. And it was so small! The kitchen table was in the living room, near the tatty sofa, because it didn't fit in the kitchen area, which only held a stove, a refrigerator and two cupboards.
The sofa itself was clearly also a bed, because there were blankets and a pillow on it. The corner of the room was partitioned off by a blanket hung from a clothes-line, and behind it was a small, narrow bed, surrounded by more stacks of clothes. There was one door off the main apartment, hanging open- it was a box-sized bathroom, the toilet and shower stall taking up all the space. Gamora's nose wrinkled. It looked like two people lived here, because there were two beds, but this place wasn't big enough for one person, was it? She looked up at Oba quizzically, unsure if it would be rude to ask Heater why she lived in such a cramped place, and why she'd let it get so messy.
Oba was scanning the apartment too, so Gamora kept quiet. Maybe he would mention it and she wouldn't have to? When he finally spoke, though, his question was random, at least to Gamora.
"Is it you or your roommate who you expect me to get out of trouble this time, Heater?" His voice was casual, but Gamora could see he was frowning. She blinked. Hadn't they only come here to help Heater with something? Why was that annoying Oba now?
Heater almost flinched at his words, pushing strands of her blonde hair out of her face, looking quickly at Oba before her eyes darted to Gamora. "I'll explain in a minute, Eros..." She shifted from foot to foot, obviously nervous. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your daughter first?"
Gamora gave Heater the most unimpressed look she could. Even she could tell that Heater was acting guilty. Had she done something to get Oba into trouble?
Eros smothered a laugh at the scornful look on Gamora's face- an expression she'd clearly copied from little Heather. He took another rapid look around the apartment, puzzled by the clear evidence of someone considerably younger than Heater living here- a pair of shoes barely bigger than those Gamora wore, an old rag doll, clearly much loved, just visible in the corner sectioned off by the hanging blanket, a pile of what looked like educational texts in the same area... and there was guilt and remorse coming off of Heater in waves. He folded his arms. Fine, he'd play this her way- for a few minutes. "Heater, this is my daughter, Gamora. Gamora, this is Oba's old friend Heater."
"Hello." Gamora spoke quietly. "It's nice to meet you."
"You too." Heater scrutinized Gamora closely, making Eros bristle. "How old are you, darling?"
Heater very clearly forced a smile. "Very grown up!" She eyed her again, then looked at Eros. "I suppose you take after your mother..."
Gamora blinked. "What?"
"Well, you don't really look like your-"
"Heater!" Eros cut in, not wanting to get into a conversation about just how Gamora came to be his daughter. His former lover didn't need to know that Gamora was adopted. "You were going to explain why you asked us to come and visit." His tone was as pointed as he could make it.
Heater nodded, then ducked her head, avoiding his eyes. The guilt he felt emenating from her spiked as she wrung her hands. "Alright." Her voice was shaky, suddenly. "I.... you'd better sit down for this."
"I'll stand, thank you." Eros folded his arms. Whatever this was all about, he wanted to know now.
Heater took a deep breath. "First, I need to say I'm sorry. I know I should have told you years ago, but.... well, the way you lived then- you weren't ready. I wasn't either, but..." She inhaled again. "Things have changed over the past few months, it's... difficult. I can't keep on like this. It's good you have a little girl now, it'll make things easier..."
Eros shook his head, bemused. "Heater, just spit it out. You're not making any sense." The cold uneasiness he'd felt earlier had redoubled. Something drastic was about to be revealed, he just knew it. Gamora had sidled closer to him, and out of habit he slipped an arm round her, but kept his focus on Heater.
Heater visibly trembled, as if fearing his reaction. She gulped hard before speaking again. "I- we have-"
The apartment door hissed open again, making them all start, and a girl came stomping in, scowling. "Mom, I'm back! Thanks for the million messages you left that totally ruined my evening-" She stopped talking abruptly when she realized Heater wasn't alone, staring wide eyed at Eros and Gamora. "Uh, hi. I'm Phoebe. Who're you?" Her tone was curious, but the body language she was giving off was hostile and belligerent.
Eros could do nothing but stare. Heater had a daughter?! The belongings of a child dotted around the room had hinted at this, but he had thought it ridiculous- Heater wasn't the maternal sort. He studied the girl in a daze, noting details absently, his brain refusing to put the whole picture together. Phoebe looked like she was about 13 years old. Heater, his ex-lover from fourteen years ago, who had been radiating guilt and shame, and had said there was something she should have told him years ago, was now looking anywhere but at him- or this girl. Eros' mind shut down, refusing to accept the obvious conclusion. Does. Not. Compute. Can't be.
"He-lo? Who are you and why are you in our house?" The girl- Phoebe- glanced from him to Gamora, her sharp green eyes flashing in challenge.
"Phoebe! Don't speak to my guests like that." Heater snapped.
"Guests." Phoebe scoffed, tossing her long stark-red hair back off her shoulder. "Sure, Mom. Another new client, more like!" She rolled her eyes, then turned to look at Gamora. "And if you think I'm babysitting some kid while you 'work', forget it!"
Gamora stepped forward bravely. She still wanted to recoil and hide when someone showed anger, but this Phoebe was just a kid, not really much older than her, and Oba wanted her to try not to run away when she was scared of something. "Don't you know it's rude to talk to people like that?" She put her hands on her hips.
"Gamora." Oba's voice was quiet, and his face was pale, but he spoke firmly. "Enough. Come here."
Obediently, she went back to his side, sliding her hand into his. "Are you OK, Oba? You're all white..."
"I'm fine." He squeezed her hand, like he always did, but he was looking hard at Phoebe. Then, slowly, he turned to look at Heater. "I take it this is what you wanted to tell me?" His voice was icy.
Heater cringed, nodding, refusing to look up, tears running silently down her face. Eros stared at her, his jaw clenched, as if he were struggling to think of what to say- or to keep calm.
Gamora looked from one to the other, baffled about what was going on. She looked at Phoebe, to see if maybe she had any idea. Then she blinked a few times. Phoebe had fair skin, deep red hair, and green eyes, and she was beautiful...
"What are you staring at?" The older girl snapped.
Gamora looked at her again, then back at Oba. "....How come you look just like my father?"
Phoebe's face tightened, her eyes shooting to Eros. Her fists clenched, and she backed up, shaking her head. "Mom?" Her words were nearly a growl. "Tell me this isn't..."
Heater swallowed hard, taking a step closer to her daughter. "I tried to get you to come home earlier, I wanted to explain-"
"Forget this!" Phoebe snapped, turning and striding out of the apartment again. "I haven't needed a father for thirteen years and I don't need one now!" She was running before she got out of the door.
"Phoebe!" Heater ran after her, reaching for her. The door closed behind them both, leaving Eros and Gamora standing there, stunned.
Gamora felt sick. Oba already had a daughter, before her? But no-one had told her... Unless they hadn't known, if that had been what Heater called Oba here for, to tell him... But Oba doesn't need a daughter, he's got me! A small voice in her mind complained. She blinked back tears. What would this mean? If Phoebe was Oba's daughter, what if knowing about her meant he didn't want Gamora anymore?
Eros' mind was a jumbled mess- remembering Gamora's innocently saying Phoebe resembled him, which she did- she could have been his twin sister when he'd been young, working out what that had to mean- the shock and rising anger at finding out Heater had had his child and kept her from him for thirteen years, shame at himself for not taking enough care to prevent this, pity and disgust for how this child of his had been raised- if this apartment was anything to go by, Phoebe had had far less than her due as a Titan royal, feeling hurt and confused by Phobe's apparent immediate rejection of him...
Eros' head snapped round, and he wondered just how many times Gamora had called him before he'd heard her, because she was openly crying, and his heart clenched. Idiot. He chided himself. He pulled her into a hug, stroking her hair until she was calm enough to speak. "Ssh, it's alright. I didn't mean to ignore you."
Gamora sniffled. "Is that girl really your daughter?"
"Yes-" Eros caught her (probably intentional) error immediately, and corrected it. "Yes, it seems Phoebe really is your sister." Reeling and in shock as he was, he wanted to make it clear to Gamora that nothing would change how he felt about her.
Gamora bit her lip, knowing Phoebe wasn't really her sister, but feeling happier that Oba had called her that. She didn't say that though. "You didn't know about her?"
"No, not until now."
"That's not very nice, that Heater lied, not telling you."
Eros tweaked her nose, making her giggle. "That's for us grown-ups to sort out, alright? It doesn't need to bother you."
"OK." Gamora fidgeted a bit. "How come Phoebe doesn't like us? She was rude."
"She just doesn't know us yet, sweetheart. When she's calmed down, she'll be a lot nicer." Eros smoothed Gamora's hair, smiling a little as she relaxed, snuggling up to him. That was one upset daughter he'd successfully dealt with, at least.
Shouting echoed from outside, carrying up from the ground. Female voices. Heater and Phoebe. Eros shifted, 'accidentally' covering Gamora's ears so she wouldn't hear this- hopefully- and listened.
"....talk to me like that, I'm your mother! And if you'd come home when I'd asked, I would have told you you'd be meeting your father soon!" Heater's voice lowered, so Eros had to strain to hear. "Now stop acting like a child and come back inside and meet your father and sister properly."
"No!" Phoebe's reply was almost a shriek. "I don't want to meet them! I meant what I said, I never needed a father and I don't want one. And I especially don't want some little brat for a sister! I'm going out. See you in a few days, Mother. When they've gone!"
"Phoebe, you are coming back inside right now, young lady. If you think I'm letting you run off who knows where, again, when your father's here-"
"No! Get off of me!"
There was a searing flash of light, then a cry of pain from Heater. Phoebe gave a half-scream of shock. "Mom! I didn't mean... why does this keep happening?"
Upstairs, Eros closed his eyes, realising what had probably happened. Cosmic energy. Of course. At thirteen, Phoebe would just be coming into the powers she'd inherited as a Titan hybrid. Little wonder Heater had contacted him now- she'd have no idea what to do, how to teach Phoebe control. It was clear that he would have to stay here for longer than he'd planned, to help Phoebe- controlling cosmic energy was never simple, and it could manifest in any number of different ways. Not to mention, as a hybrid, Phoebe's power would be unstable. But how could he give Phoebe the time she needed without neglecting Gamora, the one thing he'd sworn never to do?
Footsteps sounded outside, and Heater stepped back inside, cradling a burnt hand. Phoebe stomped in after her, her face contrite, but refusing to look at anyone as she stalked into her blanketed-off 'bedroom'.
Heater set about tending her hand with an ease that suggested this wasn't the first time this had happened. "Sorry about that." She took a deep breath. "Look, I know you're probably angry with me for not telling you about Phoebe, Eros-"
"Probably?" He almost hissed at her, then remembered he was still cradling Gamora, who was on the verge of dozing off, her sleep cycle having been messed up by the week on a spaceship, and also aware that, in this limited space, Phoebe could hear every word. "We'll discuss it later, when both the children are asleep."
She nodded. "But..." She lifted her injured hand. "I think you can guess why I need your help."
It was his turn to nod. "Just out of interest, if it hadn't been for.... that issue, just when would you have told me?" His tone was perfectly pleasant, but his eyes bored into her. Heater's flinch told him everything he needed to know.
If Phoebe hadn't developed powers, he might never have known she existed. That made him fume inwardly all over again, but with effort, he hid it. For now, his priority had to be getting to know Phoebe, getting her to let her guard down, (and from what he'd seen so far, teaching her a few manners) and teaching her the basics of controlling her powers before someone got seriously hurt.
How he was meant to do all that and make sure Gamora didn't feel left out or replaced, he didn't know!
Eros was leaning against the wall in Heater's tiny apartment (due to the lack of chairs), keeping an eye on Phoebe and Gamora, both of whom were on the sofa. Phoebe was half-heartedly working at a textbook, making a point of keeping a sizeable distance between herself and her younger sister, while Gamora amused herself watching a movie on Eros' holo. Heater had gone out just over an hour ago, saying that she had to 'work' and telling Phoebe that Eros was in charge. That had only earned a derisive look from the adolescent girl, and Eros was far from convinced it was wise- he'd been here nearly two days (he and Gamora had had to share a makeshift bed on the floor due to lack of space, and he'd paid for all the meals since he'd arrived) and so far hadn't managed a full conversation with his elder daughter, despite his best efforts at being friendly. She was hostile towards him and Gamora both, spending most of her time in her makeshift room behind the hanging blanket that served as a screen and barely speaking at all, unless it was to insult someone (usually Heater), and Heater's feeble attempts at chastising her daughter for rudeness had had no effect. Phoebe was often crueler to her than she was to Eros. It made no sense to him- how could any child have so little regard for their mother, especially when Heater was the only parent Phoebe had known until now?
A rustle of movement jarred him from his thoughts, and he looked up, frowning, as Phoebe glanced out of the window, observed the sun setting, carelessly set her book aside and stood, heading for the apartment door.
Eros blinked at her. "Where are you going?"
Phoebe rolled her eyes skyward. "Out." The terse response was par for the course so far. He had told Phoebe she could use his name for now, or call him Father if that was what she wanted, but so far, when she did deign to address him, he didn't get a name at all.
Oh, really? "Your mother didn't tell me you had plans to go anywhere." Eros said pointedly.
Phoebe sighed in a put-upon fashion. "She doesn't know. She's not here, is she?" Her young face was defiant. "As always."
Eros mentally filed that away to discuss later, when Heater returned- just how often had Phoebe been left to fend for herself? For now, he focused on the girl, giving her a friendly smile. "Why don't Gamora and I walk with you wherever you're going? It'll be safer than you being on your own."
Phoebe's jaw set. "You don't need to do that."
"We don't mind. You could show us what there is to do for fun around here."
Phoebe snorted, then looked at Gamora, still engrossed in the movie. "She's not old enough to meet my friends."
The hairs on the back of Eros' neck rose in warning. "Why not?" He deliberately kept his tone light, trying not to assume the worst.
Phoebe shrugged. "You know. We go to parties and stuff, have a few drinks, hook up sometimes. She's a kid, she can't do that." She didn't seem to see anything wrong with what she had said.
Horrified, but trying to hide it, Eros folded his arms. "And that's what you normally do in the evenings? And your mother allows it?" Although, if Heater was out so often, she might not actually know about this. He hoped that was all it was, Phoebe sneaking around, not being actively encouraged to behave this way.
Phoebe narrowed her eyes. "Yeah? So what? I suppose you're going to tell me that you never did stuff like that?" Her lip curled, her whole posture radiating challenge.
Eros took a deep breath. "Not when I was thirteen years old, no. I didn't. And I'm sorry, but parties of that sort aren't safe for a young girl. Your mother left me in charge, and I'm afraid I won't allow you to go anywhere like that."
Phoebe's jaw dropped. "I'm not a child! You can't stop me!" She was nearly shouting, clearly astounded- and outraged- to be forbidden to do something.
Eros moved so he was between her and the door, and braced himself, not about to back down. Gamora, still on the sofa, was watching them warily. He didn't want to have this showdown in front of her, but the apartment was too small to allow privacy. He spoke firmly. "I am stopping you, Phoebe. I'm your father, and those kinds of parties are not suitable for girls of your age."
"All my friends go to the parties!" She stamped her foot, clearly seething.
"That's as may be, but you're not. Not as long as I'm here." Eros strode over and code-locked the door, removing the one keycard he had- Heater had her own for when she returned, she'd assured him.
Phoebe glared at him and a staring contest ensued. Eros held firm, ignoring what he supposed was meant to be a withering glower from Phoebe. Eventually, she threw her hands in the air and stomped off behind the blanket/screen that separated her 'room' from the rest of the apartment, muttering obscenities under her breath.
Seeing Gamora's eyes widen as she picked up some of Phoebe's words, Eros called out again. "Language, please, Phoebe." He kept his voice calm, as he had the whole time, inserting a lighter tone into the conversation. "Your little sister's ears are flapping." He winked at Gamora, who giggled.
"I don't give a damn!" Phoebe raged. "I'll say what I flarking well want! And she's not my sister!" A loud thud suggested something- a book, probably- had been thrown, hitting the wall. The shouting and noise had Gamora flinching, though she was clearly trying to hide it.
Eros didn't respond to Phoebe's outburst- there seemed little point with her in that mood, and rising to the bait and continuing the argument would only encourage Phoebe to keep it up. He simply went and joined Gamora on the sofa, restarting the movie and slipping his arm round her, smiling as she relaxed and snuggled up to him as usual. He could hear Phoebe breathing heavily, either still angry or trying not to cry, or both. He stifled a sigh, looking at the screen that blocked her from view. Two days of knowing her and I'm already in the role of harsh disciplinarian. A'lars, the other night, (once he'd gotten over his shock and anger at Eros' news of Phoebe's existence) had warned him this might be the case, that Phoebe would have had little or no authority in her life and would require firm boundaries, and quickly. That didn't mean he liked setting and enforcing them!
Gamora looked worriedly at him, then over at Phoebe's 'room'. "You can come and watch the movie with us if you want, Phoebe." Her little voice called out, wavering a little with nerves.
Eros hugged her closer, thrilled. Here she'd just heard Phoebe yelling and denying her place in the family, but she was still trying to be friendly to her sister! Again, he marvelled at how far Gamora had come.
"I don't! Shut up and leave me alone!"
Gamora shrank back in on herself, head lowered. "OK." She sniffed. "Sorry."
Eros felt a stab of anger at Phoebe, for upsetting Gamora, but crushed it, reminding himself that Phoebe was still reeling from recent events and that it would take time for her to get used to them both. He kissed Gamora's head, then chucked her under the chin, re-directing her attention to the movie. She was soon smiling, then laughing at the silly children's cartoon. Eros chuckled along at the funny parts, and, after some time, Phoebe slunk out from her 'room'- moving slowly, trying her hardest to look as bored as possible. Eros kept Gamora's focus on the movie, and kept his own eyes down, though he was listening and was aware when Phoebe grudgingly flopped down on the sofa. The movie continued, and, gradually, she edged close enough to see it. A few minutes later, Eros risked a quick glance at her, pleased to see her fighting a smile. She felt his gaze and immediately scowled again, but this time it looked fake. He turned back to the holo, acting as if he'd noticed nothing. At least the prickly attitude Phoebe used appeared to be just an act and there was a happy young girl in there somewhere. It would just take time, patience and firm boundaries to bring that girl out.
The movie ended soon after and Eros glanced at both girls. "Shall we go and find some dinner?"
Gamora nodded eagerly, grinning. Phoebe had reverted to type and was staring moodily ahead, not looking at either of them.
"Why don't you choose what we have today, Phoebe?" Eros tried to jolly her along a bit. "We can order something in if you like."
A shrug. She still didn't look at them. Her expression was almost a sneer. Eros sighed, counting to ten in his head, willing himself to be patient in the face of Phoebe's blatant antagonism.
"Can I choose dinner then, Oba?" Gamora looked thrilled at the idea.
Eros glanced at Phoebe again, but still got no response. It looked like she was sulking again. The idea had been to try and include Phoebe, but she wouldn't engage, and he couldn't ignore Gamora. He smiled at his younger daughter. "Come on then, we'll go and order. But you can't just have cakes!" He tapped her on the nose.
"OK. Cakes and sweets then!" Gamora was giggling as they stood, then she abruptly froze, clapping her hand to her mouth. "Oh! I forgot." She pulled a folded note out of her tunic pocket. "Heater asked me to give this to you and Phoebe, Oba. I forgot about it til now." She looked guilty, gnawing her lip.
Eros took the note, frowning. "It's alright," he reassured her automatically, slowly unfolding the note. It was handwritten, and as he unfolded it, something fell to the floor.
It was the other keycard to get into the apartment, the one Heater had supposedly taken with her earlier.
A chill trickled down Eros' spine. Whatever this note said, he had a feeling he wouldn't like it. Phoebe was at his side now, trying to read the note over his shoulder. Realizing there was no point trying to stop her, since- according to Gamora- the note was for both of them, he quickly read it himself. The page was splattered with smears that could have been tearstains, making it hard to read.
~ I've gone. By the time you read this, I will be off-world, travelling to someplace new. I'm sorry I couldn't work up the courage to tell either of you face to face. Phoebe, my beautiful daughter, my lifestyle isn't good enough for you, and you deserve so much more than I can give you. I love you too much to see you turn out like me. Eros, I know you'll take good care of her. I'm sorry I kept her from you for so long, I was a selfish fool. I hope you'll both forgive me, someday. I'll never forget either of you. Heater. ~
Eros and Phoebe finished reading at the same time, both their faces blank with shock as Heater's message sank in. She'd gone off-world, really didn't intend to come back and they had no way of tracing her. What in blazes were they meant to do now?!
Just to clear this up: when Phoebe, who is 13, refers to 'hooking up' at parties she goes to with friends, this only means making out/groping. It does not mean anything more adult. In case this got interpreted the wrong way, I'm sorry. I'm British and that phrase isn't used much here lol. ;)
Short chapter is short.
Eros covered Gamora's ears, hoping to spare her from the string of profanities that Phoebe shouted at him. His patience was quickly wearing thin. Why did she refuse to just accept that she couldn't stay here on her own? He took a deep breath, meeting his older daughter's eyes. It had been well over two weeks since Heater had vanished, and, until now, he'd been willing to remain on Lamentis, giving Phoebe time to adjust to the new situation, (while continually preventing her from going to parties every evening, with explosive results). Over the last few days, he'd begun hinting gently at their needing to leave soon, but now they really needed to start the journey home. As it was, allowing for the week's journey back to Titan, over a month would have passed since he and Gamora had left. This particular eruption from Phoebe had begun when Eros had asked her to go through her things, deciding what she wanted to bring with her. (In his opinion, none of her belongings were really worth salvaging, but they were a part of her life until now, and shouldn't be forgotten.)
Phoebe was almost shaking with rage by the time she paused for breath, face reddening with frustration as- again- Eros refused to match her anger with his own. The look she gave him could have curdled milk. He forced himself to speak calmly.
"Phoebe, I've told you before- repeatedly- about using language like that. It's not acceptable at your age, particularly not in front of your sister."
Phoebe shrugged, scowling, but at least she didn't use her normal retort of claiming Gamora wasn't her sister. She seemed to have accepted having a father and younger sister now, at least, though very little in her behavior so far suggested she liked them. Since she appeared to have calmed- a little- Eros continued. "Right, now, I'm giving you two options; you can go through your things and choose what you want to bring with you, or I will go through your belongings and pack for you. Which is it?"
"Neither." Phoebe snapped, almost as a reflex. "I'm not going anywhere, so there's no need to pack anything."
Eros rolled his eyes to the ceiling, counting to ten very slowly in his mind. Gamora wriggled out of his grasp, looking earnestly at Phoebe. "It's alright. Titan's a nice place. Adults don't hurt you there. And Oba wil never hit you." Maybe if Phoebe understood that right now, she wouldn't be as worried about going to Titan?
Phoebe blinked, the defiant expression fading, a look of astonishment on her face. Gamora nodded, thinking that this information surprised Phoebe as much as it had shocked her, months ago, and continued. "Really. It's a lovely place to live. There's plenty of food, so you don't ever go hungry. We have two cousins, Phyla and Genis, and an aunt, their mother, Elysius, and another friend, Heather, that Grandfather adopted. And nobody ever beats you! You'll like it there. Really!"
Phoebe's eyes flickered with interest, though she ducked her head to hide it. Eros held his breath. Would Gamora's well-meant (if not fully appropriate) words actually get through to her, convince her to leave for Titan willingly? He couldn't spend who-knew how many days here arguing with her about going home...
When Phoebe finally spoke though, it was on a different subject altogether. Her eyes were on Gamora, her brow furrowed. Her voice was faint when she spoke. "Where did you live before Titan? Who treats kids like that?"
Gamora's eyes widened, and she took a step back, shrinking closer to Oba, putting a hand over her mouth. She knew she wasn't meant to tell Phyla and Genis things like that, at home, but Oba had never said she couldn't tell Phoebe... "Um..." She looked up at Oba for guidance- what should she say now?
Eros remained silent, using his powers to 'listen' to Phoebe's emotions. She was in the least aggressive mood he'd seen so far, and he was loathe to break the moment.
Pity shone in Phoebe's eyes as she surveyed the smaller girl. Sympathy, and no small amount of shame, ran through her, detectable only to Eros' empathic abilities. Perhaps, he mused, Phoebe was comparing her own life to Gamora's and realizing that her complaints and attitude were foolish, when held up to the tapestry of her sister's past? Abruptly, she turned away, heading for her room, shoulders hunched. "You can help me choose some stuff to pack, if you want, Gamora."
Baffled by Phoebe's total attitude adjustment, but pleased that she'd convinced her new big sister that Titan was a nice place and Phoebe wasn't yelling anymore, Gamora darted into Phoebe's 'room' to help her sort through her things.
Less than two hours later, Eros' and Gamora's supplies re-packed and Phoebe's pitiful collection of (ill-fitting) clothing, tattered books and one old soft toy stowed away with their belongings, the little family were aboard Eros' ship, heading back into space, after Eros had given Phoebe his word that if Heater could be located, she would be found, so that at the very least, they would know where she was and that she was safe. Phoebe had reverted to her usual sarcastic defensiveness when addressing Eros, but he did notice she was now a lot gentler, and more talkative, with Gamora. It was a start. Better than outright hostility towards everyone, at any rate, Eros mused, as he sent a message to his father that they were finally heading home. Phoebe had a long way to go in her attitude towards him and the rules he set, but once they were home on Titan, hopefully she would settle down and grow used to her new life.
As the ship soared into the spaceways, Eros glanced into the rear of the ship, and he fought the urge to smile. Phoebe and Gamora were seated side by side, heads together, deep in conversation, Phoebe's 'mask' of an arrogant sneer nowhere to be seen, leaving her looking like the young girl she actually was, listening eagerly to her little sister, who- Eros listened hard to make out their conversation over the sound of the ship's engines- was telling her about the palace on Titan. Gamora was talking nineteen to the dozen, grinning and gesticulating with her hands to punctuate her words.
Eros' heart swelled to see his daughters bonding at last. For now, he would let that be enough. Phoebe seemed to be responding to Gamora, better than she had to him to date, and there would be time for him to get closer to Phoebe once they were home and settled. Satisfied that the girls were happy enough, he returned his gaze to the ship's controls as he navigated their journey home to Titan.
Eros sat down- or rather, collapsed- on a chair in his father's study, exhausted, emotionally and physically, from the journey. A'lars placed a hand on his shoulder, his expression not unkind. "Whenever you're ready."
Eros resisted the urge to groan. They had arrived home on Titan an hour ago, and after an awkward meeting where he'd introduced Phoebe to his father, Heather, Elysius and the twins, and the teenager had looked sullen and disdainful, and barely spoken or responded to anything that had been said (an act, Eros' empathic abilities had told him, Phoebe's true feelings were fear, confusion and misery) but the mask she hid behind had made that first meeting with her extended family a disaster.
The journey home in itself hadn't been a picnic either- Phoebe continued to give him the cold shoulder, if she spoke to him at all, and questioned every single thing he'd asked of her. She also utterly refused to call him Father, despite his explaining that it would be expected on Titan. The only positive that had come from the experience was that Phoebe did seem willing to interact with Gamora- some of the time. If she wasn't in the mood to deal with her younger sister, then Gamora was shut out as much as Eros was.
After the tense first meetings in the docking bay were over with, A'lars had suggested (read: told) Elysius to take the children and show Phoebe her room, then give her a tour of her new home, while he spoke to Eros privately. They'd come here to the study, and A'lars had asked for more detail about what had actually happened on Lamentis, and where Heater was now.
A'lars waited patiently as Eros thought of what he should actually say. Sighing, he revealed all he knew, knowing that his father would find out anyway. How he and Gamora had tracked Heater down, finding out Phoebe existed and that Heater had kept her a secret all her life until now, just why Heater had revealed her existence now- Phoebe's emerging Titan powers- the conditions she and Phoebe had lived in, the way Phoebe acted towards her mother, and to Eros (unco-operative, rude and defiant) and how Heater had simply up and left, leaving nothing but a note for Eros and Phoebe.
A'lars shook his head slowly when Eros had finished. "What a mess..." His eyes narrowed slightly. "And you genuinely had no idea that Phoebe existed?"
Eros winced, knowing it was a fair question- once, he might have willingly walked away from that sort of responsibility- but shook his head. "I assumed things were..... safe.... back then." Having this sort of talk with his father made his face redden. "Heater never even suggested there was a risk."
A'lars folded his hands. "And you've no idea where the woman- Heater- may have gone?"
Eros shook his head silently.
"Hmm. It may be for the best anyway. It doesn't sound as if she is in any position to provide a suitable home environment for a young girl, even if the detail of Phoebe's powers is set aside."
Eros nodded slightly in agreement. "I know, but I don't want Phoebe to hear that, at least not yet. She is struggling with having to come here at all, and hearing her mother being demonized will not help."
"True. But have you given any thought to how growing up as she has will have affected her, and the possible harm she could do to Gamora and the other children? If they begin to view her attitude as the norm-"
"I know, Father, I know, but what would you have had me do, leave a thirteen year old girl on her own?" Eros grimaced. "I bear half the responsibility for this situation, Phoebe's my daughter as much as Gamora is, and I'll have to figure out a way to make this work now." He slumped further into the chair. "I just wish I had a clue how to do that, without letting one or the other of the girls down."
A'lars stood and came over, standing beside the chair. He placed a hand on his son's shoulder again, giving a reassuring squeeze. "We'll work it out. Phoebe will soon settle down once she's become used to us. She simply needs time to grow used to being part of a real family."
Eros managed a small smile, hoping his father was right. He hauled himself off the chair. "Their tour should be done by now. I'd better go and make sure they're all alright."
A'lars glanced at the screen linked to ISAAC that was built into his desk, locating everyone. "Eros, it would be better if you got some rest, and gave young Phoebe a little space. You've been in close quarters with her for nearly a month. Ease off a little."
"You are exhausted, and the children are fine. The younger ones are in the fields. Elysius is keeping an eye on them. Phoebe appears to be in her room. Go. Get some sleep."
Eros sighed but acquiesced- he knew his father was right. As he left the study, stifling a yawn, and made his way to his room for a brief sleep before Gamora returned, needing attention, he hoped Phoebe was alright, that she was in a (rare) non-aggressive mood and hadn't been too difficult as Elysius and the children showed her round her new home.
Phoebe made a point of keeping a scowl on her face as she was shown around the subterranean city of Titan, refusing to show excitement or awe at any of it, despite the fact that it was probably the most beautiful, majestic place she'd ever seen. It didn't matter how grand it was, it wasn't her home and never would be, no matter what her so-called father said. Likewise, she had only given cursory glances to the dark haired woman, Elysius, and the three kids that apparently also lived here- Genis, Phyla and Heather. They, along with Gamora, had tagged along on the tour, pointing out places they liked, but Phoebe refused to respond to any of them. Eventually, Elysius had finished the tour (or just given up on engaging Phoebe) and led them back to the palace. Gamora and the other kids had gone out to the fields to play. Gamora had invited her, but Phoebe had refused, stalking off to 'her' room instead.
The room was huge, and luxurious, with a huge bed, massive windows, a beautiful carved dressing table and vanity mirror, a walk-in closet and its own en-suite bathroom, but it wasn't hers, not really. She'd never had a room as grand as this, so she wouldn't get too attached. She wouldn't be here for long. Her mom would figure out she'd made a mistake, that she missed Phoebe too much, and come back for her. She was WAY better than the loser who hadn't even bothered to come and meet her til she was thirteen, who, as far as she was concerned, just happened to share DNA with her. He might be her biological father, but she was convinced he'd only brought her here because he felt he had to. He didn't really want her, he had a daughter that he absolutely doted on, Gamora, and Phoebe was just a nuisance who wouldn't fit into his life. That was why he'd set all those stupid rules and stopped her going out with her friends, back on Lamentis. He didn't even want her to like him, so why had he insisted on dragging her back here to his home, when he didn't really want her around?
At least he's still here. He didn't just walk out and leave you with nothing but a note. An annoying small voice in the back of Phoebe's mind pointed out. She scowled, her eyes smarting, not wanting to think about what Mom had done- it hurt too much. Besides, Heater would come back. She had to. She was the only family that Phoebe really had!
What if she doesn't? The thought chilled Phoebe. If her mom really meant what she'd said, if she never came back, leaving her with people who were all but strangers, who Phoebe didn't even want to live with.... what would she do then?
Tears burned in her eyes at the thought of never being with her mom again, and she clenched her fists to keep from crying. A thought occurred to her and she ground her teeth. She only had Eros' and Gamora's word that Heater had written the goodbye note willingly. What if Eros had made her do it, then forced her to leave? Phoebe scowled at her reflection in the vanity mirror. That made a lot more sense, if he'd just wanted to get her away from her mom, to bring her here, of course he'd have lied about coercing Heater into it.
Why would he make Mom leave if he doesn't want you? The annoying voice of reason pointed out the flaw in her logic, and was again squashed. Mom hadn't wanted to abandon her, Eros had made her do it! Phoebe nodded, convincing herself that this had to be the answer. So she'd stay here until she'd found proof, or tracked Mom down somehow, then she'd find a way to leave and never look back.
She stared at her reflection for a long minute, already certain she that she now disliked her looks, since she now knew she was the image of her father. She wished she looked more like Mom, then maybe she might not have left her... As she gazed into the mirror, she saw the door slide open behind her, and Gamora slipped into the room. "I got bored in the fields, and I thought you might be lonely by yourself..."
Phoebe whirled, seething, not wanting to deal with the little girl and her earnest, nervous attitude right now. "Don't you knock?!" She snarled, swiping tears from her face- only to realize she was addressing an empty room. What the...? She blinked repeatedly, then pinched herself. As she stared for quite some time, glancing round the room, trying to work out what had happened- was she seeing things?- the door did open and, just like ten minutes ago, Gamora moved silently into the room. Exactly like Phoebe had seen before... She suppressed a shiver.
"I got bored in the fields, and-"
"You thought I might be lonely by myself?" Phoebe was able to say the words at the exact same time as Gamora.
Gamora's eyes widened. "That was weird. How'd you know what I was going to say?" She grinned. "Can you read minds?"
Phoebe shivered, suddenly icy cold. This seemed almost as if she'd somehow known what would happen before it did, so not mind reading (which Gamora seemed fine with the idea of, for some reason) but more like, what was the word, precognition.... But no-one could do stuff like that! Right....?
What was happening to her?!
"Come on, it'll be fun!" Gamora tugged at Phoebe's arm, trying to pull her from the chair she was sitting in. Heather, Genis and Phyla were hovering nearby as well, all with excited grins on their faces.
"No." Phoebe ground out. "I do not want to play hide and seek with you four."
"Pleeease?" Phyla wheedled, her blue eyes wide and imploring. "It'll be more fun with someone new playing."
"There are loads of good hiding places around here," Heather offered. "I could show you, if you want."
"Or you can be It," Genis suggested. "and be the one to come find us."
"Look, I said n-" Phoebe considered for a minute, then made a show of sighing and nodded. "Fine. You all go hide. I'll come find you."
The four younger children ran off, giggling. "Don't forget, you have to count to a hundred before you come find us!" Gamora called back to her sister as they ran up the hallway, then split up.
Phoebe's lip curled and she relaxed back into her chair. Alone at last. She stifled a snort, wondering how long it would take Gamora and the others to realize she wasn't even looking for them. Her conscience pricked, reminding her that they'd be upset, and chances were they'd tell the adults when they figured it out, but she told herself she didn't care- Eros might have told her to keep an eye on the children for a few hours, while he helped A'lars in the lab, and the twins' mother, Elysius, was seeing to... something in the botanical gardens, but none of the brats (except maybe Gamora) were her responsibility, and she wasn't going to babysit, thank you very much. They'd hovered around Phoebe all morning, chattering, laughing, and generally being a nuisance, getting under her feet. At least now, she'd have peace and quiet for a bit. Time to do some real exploring around this place...
As soon as the sounds of the children's laughter and footsteps faded, Phoebe slipped out of the sitting room into the hallway and moved to the wall console, biting her lip, as she tried to figure out how to work it. It couldn't be that complicated...
'Good morning, Miss Phoebe. May I assist you with anything?' The console asked, the moment Phoebe touched it.
She let out a shriek and stumbled backwards. "What the-?!"
'My apologies, Miss Phoebe. I am ISAAC. I suppose you could call me a 'living computer' in simplified terms. I help maintain this dwelling on Titan.' It sounded mildly reproachful, somehow. 'I assumed your father or grandfather would have explained.'
Phoebe scowled. Eros had said something about an AI maintaining the city, and Elysius and Gamora had both mentioned ISAAC, when they'd given her a tour, two days ago, but she hadn't taken much notice. Still, she wasn't about to admit that. "I know what- er, who you are," she bluffed. "You just caught me off guard."
There was a pause, as if ISAAC was expressing scepticism. 'Of course, Miss Phoebe. Did you require assistance?'
"I, um..." Phoebe hesitated. She had been about to try and do research, to see if any other Titans had weird powers, like the light blasts that burst from her hands when she got really mad, or the freaky possible-vision-of-the-future thing that had happened the night before last. But doing something like that, when the computer was aware, and would almost certainly tell one of the adults about it... "I just wanted to know more about Titan, and its history. Are there records you can show me?"
There was a longer pause.
"Well?" Phoebe snapped.
ISAAC spoke haltingly. 'Such records will require redacting before they are fit for a child's eyes. I would have to consult with your father and grandfather first, to decide what it is fitting for you to see, before granting you access. If you wish to learn more of your new home, however, I would advise asking your father first. He will know better than I what you do and do not need to know.'
Phoebe rolled her eyes. Of course, even the stupid computer was in on the plot to force her to try and make friends. She'd been here for two days, and hadn't spoken to anyone unless she absolutely had to. She'd only left her bedroom for meals, and that was only because Eros wouldn't let her eat in her room. She'd tried to ignore the growling of her stomach, but hunger had forced her into the dining room eventually. However, she'd made a point of eating in silence, then going back and shutting herself in her room as soon as she could. She could tell Eros was getting annoyed with her, and even his father, Mentor, was giving her disapproving looks now when she wouldn't be drawn into conversation. Well, tough! She didn't want to be here, but she was stuck. She wasn't going to play nice and pretend to be happy about it. The only reason she'd come out of her room today was because Eros had told her she had to watch the children, then, when she'd only glared at the wall in reply, all four of them came into her room and Eros had simply left them to it. Which was why she'd eventually huffed and relocated to this sitting room. Whereupon the children had started demanding she play dumb games with them...
'Anyway,' ISAAC continued. 'Your sister and her friends are under the impression that you are searching for them as they hide. Would you like guidance on where to begin?'
"No!" She snapped, turning away from the monitor and folding her arms, scowling.
'Am I to inform them that the game is aborted, then?'
"NO! Just shut up!" Phoebe half yelled, stomping away from the hall and barging into the first room she saw.
'Miss Phoebe, that room is off limits-' There was a certain urgency in the AI's voice now.
"Shut UP!" Phoebe screamed, sick to death of being told what to do. She slammed the door of the room she'd entered, as if that would somehow silence ISAAC. Her hands throbbed, inexplicably, and grew hotter. She flexed her hands, then cracked her knuckles, trying to ease the ache. The pain only worsened as she massaged her hands, until a faint glow surrounded them. Phoebe tensed, realizing this was that weird energy thing again. She stretched her arms out, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to will the energy to go somewhere else...
There was a bright flash, then an earsplitting crash as something heavy fell to the ground and shattered. Phoebe, her heart pounding, glanced round frantically to see what had happened. She barely saw the chaise-lounge and ornate desk in the room, or the soft red carpet, all of which were coated in dust, as if no-one had entered this room for years. Her gaze was fixed on the relatively dust-free square shape on the wall. Something had clearly been hanging there... Her eyes dropped to the floor below the space, and her heart dropped into her stomach.
A portrait that had once hung on the now-empty patch on the wall lay on the ground, a large black mark scorched into it, the smell of charred canvas making her eyes smart. The picture frame was shattered to pieces, broken glass littering the carpet all around it. Phoebe approached slowly, eyes darting round. Maybe she could hide it somehow, until she found a way to fix it, so no-one would find out? She peered at the woman in the image. Even distorted by broken glass, and the fresh burn mark, she could see that the woman was beautiful- a heart shaped face, hair a deep shade of red that could almost be black, and intelligent green eyes. Like Phoebe's own eyes.... she frowned. Was this another relative? In the picture, the woman was cradling a baby with a fluff of red hair. Phoebe squinted. Could that be Eros as a baby? Did that mean this woman was her grandmother? Why hadn't Phoebe been introduced to her yet?
Reaching out to touch the picture, she noticed that a black ribbon had been affixed to the now-broken frame, near the woman's face. What did that mean?
Running footsteps sounded outside, and Phoebe jumped, horrified. Someone must have heard the noise and come to investigate. She'd meant to hide the ruined portrait before anyone saw! Please don't come in here, please don't come in here... she begged silently. Part of her scoffed at her own thoughts- what did she care if anyone here was angry with her?- but it didn't stop cold sweat breaking out on her skin as a figure appeared in the doorway. She gulped heavily before forcing herself to look up.
Mentor stood in the doorway, his face inscrutable as he took in the scene. Phoebe realized how bad this looked- she was in a room ISAAC had told her was off limits, and Mentor had found her with her hands on a picture that was all but destroyed. He probably thought she'd deliberately thrown it, or something... She kept her gaze on the floor. She felt his gaze boring into her, accusingly, before he walked straight past her, picked the broken portrait up with incredible care, as if it were irreplaceable, ignoring the glass he was treading in. He set the picture gently against another wall, then, without a word, came to Phoebe's side, and placed a hand on her shoulder, steering her firmly from the room. She heard beeps and a clanking noise as the door shut behind them, and presumed the door had been locked. Mentor now walked ahead of her, not looking back, but plainly expecting her to follow. Phoebe, nervous at his prolonged silence, went after him meekly.
He held a hand up to silence her, but still didn't look back. He took her to the family quarters and gestured for her to enter her room, still without looking at her directly.
Phoebe's hands shook. As disappointed as Mentor had seemed with her sulks so far, she hadn't thought he could get angry, but the way he was acting now... Her gut twisted with unease. Why wouldn't he even let her apologize? Fine, she'd gone into a room she shouldn't have, but it wasn't like she'd damaged the picture on purpose... Or was he also mad because he knew she'd had the kids go play hide and seek, then not done the seeking part, just so they'd leave her alone? She stepped into her room, her head down.
Mentor regarded her coldly for a long minute, then simply shook his head. "Stay in your room." His voice was tightly controlled. "Your father can deal with you later."
Another head-shake, and he simply turned and left.
Phoebe sat on her bed, fists clenched, nails digging into her palms. She sniffled back a few tears at first, because she could tell that she really had angered her grandfath- Mentor, she would not think of him as anything else-, but as she was left to her own company, she began to fume. It hadn't been her fault! She didn't ask for that energy burst to happen, and she hadn't planned to do any damage. And she hadn't even been given a chance to explain!
"Well, flark him, then." She muttered to herself. "And Eros, too. I don't give a damn what they think of me. They can just go to hell." She exhaled heavily. "I'm running away the first chance I get. Anywhere's better than here, where I'm not even wanted, and treated like dirt."
Gamora squirmed, uncomfortable in her hiding place inside a curtained alcove. Phoebe was taking a really long time to find her, and she hadn't heard any yells or protests from Heather, Genis and Phyla, meaning they hadn't been found yet either. She frowned. Phoebe hadn't called 'Ready or not, here I come!', either.... Did her big sister not know how to play hide and seek, or was she just really bad at finding people?
Footsteps approached, and Gamora edged back into her hiding place, in case it was Phoebe, come looking at last. Two voices got closer and closer, and Gamora relaxed a little- it was Oba and Grandfather. She stifled a giggle, thinking about jumping out at them when they got close enough- their faces would be funny if she scared them!- but they both looked very serious, so she decided to stay quiet.
"-might have been an accident, Father. I told you, Phoebe has trouble controlling her powers. She may just have been exploring, and if she were feeling some strong emotion, or if your approach startled her, cosmic energy may have flared. I really don't think she would have destroyed that portrait deliberately."
Grandfather sighed. "You may be right. To be fair, I didn't truly give her a chance to explain. I just saw her in that room, and the portrait damaged, and assumed the worst."
Gamora peeked one eye out the edge of the curtain, wondering what they were talking about. Phoebe had broken something, one of the portraits? Her brow furrowed. Maybe Phoebe had accidentally gone into one of the off-limits rooms while looking for her and the others, and done some damage by mistake? If that was true, and Phoebe was in trouble, Gamora figured she should maybe take the blame, since hide-and-seek had been her idea, and Phoebe might not know for sure which rooms they weren't allowed in...
Oba sighed. "I'll talk to her, calm her down. And I'll explain why you got the wrong idea."
Grandfather nodded. "Thank you. Tell her I apologize, and then perhaps we can just forget about this and move on."
"Of course." Oba smiled, but it looked strained as he walked off towards their wing of the palace, to go and talk to Phoebe. Gamora bit her lip, stepping back a little. Grandfather was still there, should she come out and admit it was partly her fault that... whatever had happened, happened? She was still trying to decide, when she heard Grandfather chuckling softly.
"I have no idea what small creature might have taken up residence behind that curtain, but I suggest it reveals itself before those curtains decide to devour it." His voice sounded scary, but in a silly way.
Gamora burst into giggles at the image he'd just put in her mind. She stumbled out from behind the curtain, nearly doubled over laughing. "Curtains don't eat people!"
Grandfather winked at her. "Don't tell your cousins that, I don't think they've worked it out yet."
Gamora creased up laughing again, til tears streamed down her face. Eventually, it subsided into giggly hiccups. Her face sobered as she remembered what she'd overheard. "Is Phoebe in trouble? It was my idea to play hide and seek, she was just looking for us..."
Grandfather put his hand on her shoulder. "No, Gamora, your sister isn't really in trouble. Your father and I were talking about something else, not your game. Phoebe... did some damage to a picture that is very special to me, and I got the wrong idea. It will be alright once your father has spoken to her."
Gamora nodded, accepting that. "Was it her powers again? Phoebe told me, when we were coming here from Lamentis, that sometimes she burns stuff or blasts it by mistake." She tilted her head to one side, not really noticing her grandfather's thoughtful expression. "Did Oba do stuff like that when he was a kid and just learning about his powers?"
That brought a smile to Grandfather's face. He gave her a sly look. "Oh, there are quite a few stories I could tell you about that...."
Gamora let out another giggle. "Tell me!" She tried to look serious, taking her grandfather's hand. "It might make Phoebe feel better to know it happens to other Titans as well..."
"You mean you want to be able to tease your father about it later." Grandfather shook his head at her, his eyes twinkling. Gamora's shoulders slumped. It would have been fun to tease Oba a bit...
Grandfather was walking towards his study now, Gamora happy enough to tag along, glad to have his undivided attention, which didn't happen too often.
Grandfather was grinning now. "I'll tell you what, this evening, you ask your father about the incident with the bathtub and the bookshelving unit."
Gamora frowned, trying to figure out what one of those things had to do with the other- none of the rooms had bookshelving units anywhere near the bathing suites... "Can't you tell me now?"
Grandfather stifled a laugh. "It started when Eros decided to use his cosmic energy to heat water in his bath..."
Eros took a deep breath, steeling himself to face his older daughter, who would no doubt be in a foul mood after being confined to her room, not having been allowed to explain what Eros was ninety-seven percent sure had been a complete accident. He'd seen, on Lamentis, how quickly Phoebe's cosmic energy blasts could flare up- she'd accidentally burned her own mother in a fit of rage, not long after meeting him and Gamora! A'lars' reaction upon seeing the picture of Sui-San damaged, was understandable- the loss of his mother still hurt Eros to this day, and he'd only been twelve when she had died- how much worse must it be for his father? All Sui-San's belongings, and the rooms she had used, were sacrosanct now, never to be disturbed. Phoebe, of course, had no way of knowing why certain rooms were off-limits. The destruction of Sui-San's portrait was painful, but it could be restored. Eros' job now was to smooth things over between A'lars and Phoebe. To that end, he knocked on Phoebe's door.
"Go away!" The yell was instant.
"Phoebe, can I come in? I need to talk to you." Eros tried to keep his voice even- he didn't want her to think he was angry with her, and he certainly wasn't about to let any pleading into his tone.
"Talk through the d'ast door then!"
Eros counted to ten in his head. "I don't want to have this whole conversation shouting through a closed door."
She didn't reply, though he could hear her breathing heavily. Still angry then. He sighed. "Phoebe, you're not in trouble, and I'm not angry with you. I know you didn't mean to do any harm." He paused. "Your grandfather isn't really angry either. He just overreacted."
He heard Phoebe snort derisively, but didn't react- it would do no-one any good if he let his daughter provoke him into an argument now. Soft footsteps sounded and the door hissed open. Phoebe stood in the doorway, arms folded, glowering. "So he sent you to talk to me instead of coming to apologize himself? I guess it's too much effort to admit he was wrong to my face." Her tone was sullen and petulant, as if she was determined to find fault, no matter what was said.
"No, he and I just decided it would be better if you both had time to calm down before you talked about this." Eros looked down at Phoebe, sadness welling in him as he remembered just how young she was, barely tall enough to reach his shoulder, yet so determined to be independent, sure she needed no-one. At that age, heading into adolescence, he knew, the opposite was true, no matter how mature the young person felt. He let his typical straight posture relax a little. "May I come in?"
Phoebe shrugged as if she didn't care either way, but she stepped back from the door. Eros took that as assent and stepped into her room. Glancing around, he frowned. The small bag of belongings she had brought from Lamentis sat at the foot of Phoebe's bed, and clearly hadn't been opened. "You haven't unpacked yet..." He let the sentence trail off, hoping Phoebe would reveal why she hadn't.
Another shrug was her only response. Eros held her gaze steadily, then sighed. "Alright. They're your things, you can do what you like with them. You would feel more at home if you unpacked though, surely?" He had a feeling that her refusal to do so was deliberate- if she didn't unpack her things, then she didn't have to accept that Titan would be her home for the time being. But mentioning that might well set off another fit of temper. Resisting the urge to sigh again- Gamora was never this difficult to deal with!- he went and sat on one of the soft chairs. "Can we at least talk about what happened earlier, with the portrait?"
Phoebe's fists clenched. "Why? I bet you already think I did it on purpose! So there's no point in me trying to explain, is there?" Again, she was challenging him, but, this close to her, Eros' empathic abilities were giving him an edge- he could tell that she felt guilt, and unease.
"Phoebe, I already told you, I don't think that." He paused. "When I was your age, my own abilities began to grow stronger, and the amount of damage I did, before I learned control..."
Phoebe had turned slightly towards him, her body language suddenly communicating interest, even eagerness- wanting to know that someone else understood, most likely.
"I'm right, aren't I?" He continued. "Your abilities just surged, and you couldn't stop it. The picture was simply where it ended up being directed- I assume you gestured with your hands?"
Phoebe hesitated, then nodded, coming to sit on the chair opposite his. "I can never stop it," she muttered, speaking as if she were addressing the carpet.
"And no-one expects you to be able to, at your age." He inched a little closer to her, wanting to put his hand on hers, but too wary of destroying the fragile balance they'd achieved. "It takes years of meditation and training for a Titan to gain full mastery of their abilities- and, I should let you know, because you're only half Titan, it can make things... unpredictable."
Eros side-stepped that question, not sure how to answer. His father would be the one to ask about how a Titan hybrid's powers might work. He decided to compromise, by giving a broad view of what Titans could do. "The absorption and manipulation of cosmic energy is a gift all our kind have. So is enhanced physical strength, and an ability to heal. Many of us also gain the ability to fly. Beyond that, though, other gifts may develop. In my case, I have some empathic ability- I sense the emotions of others." He deliberately omitted that he could control emotions as well- no need to open that can of worms too soon, and potentially make Phoebe think she should be even warier of him.
"Will I be able to do that, the empathy thing?" Phoebe actually looked intrigued now.
"It's hard to say. But, honestly, I doubt it. Specific gifts do not usually tend to pass from parent to child. And I'm not sure how your mixed heritage will affect you."
Phoebe bit her lip, wringing her hands, clearly steeling herself to say something.
"What?" Eros prompted gently.
"Is there.... do any Titans have... the power to see the future?"
He eyed Phoebe shrewdly. "Not precisely, though my grandfather has some limited control over time." No need to go into exactly what Kronos was right now- explaining his disincorporation and reformation into a partial embodiment of time was too complicated a conversation. "That's an oddly specific question though. What made you ask?"
Her face shuttered, all openess gone. "No reason. I was just wondering."
He could tell she wasn't being truthful, but didn't call her on it. "Alright. As long as you know you can talk to me whenever you want."
"Whatever!" She got up, moving away, making it clear that the bonding was over for now. "You can tell Grandf- your father I'm sorry about the picture, though. I'll try not to let it happen again."
"Alright. We should talk about some actual training at some point though." Eros waited, but Phoebe ignored that. Suspecting he'd gotten as far as he would today, he stood, waiting to see if she wanted him to stay and talk, or leave.
"Who was the woman in the picture, anyway?" Phoebe asked, her eyes suddenly piercing into him.
He swallowed hard, but Phoebe deserved to know. And maybe knowing the truth would help her understand A'lars' reaction. "It was my mother. The room you went into was hers, too."
"Well, where is she?"
Eros hid a wince at the innocent question, asked so bluntly. "She.... died. When I was about your age."
Phoebe stepped back, her hand going to her mouth. "I- I'm sorry-"
He blinked back tears, ones that always sprung to his eyes when he spoke of Sui-San. "It's alright. You had no way of knowing."
"How- sorry. That's none of my business." Phoebe found something very interesting to look at on the floor. Abruptly, she laughed bitterly. Eros arched a brow quizzically.
"At least your mom didn't choose to leave you behind." Phoebe's tone was acidic.
Eros turned, went back towards her, heart breaking for the pain she was trying hard to hide. He reached for her. "Phoebe-"
"Phoebe! You didn't come and find us! Does that mean we won hide-and-seek?" Phyla and Heather burst into the room, hands joined, Genis trailing behind them, looking sulky. "Where's Gamora?"
Eros fought the urge to grimace as Phoebe stepped back from him, her face a blank mask once again. He would have liked to have longer to talk to her in private, but the moment had gone as the little ones filled the room with their chatter. Phoebe was focused on the younger children now. forcing a smile.
"Yeah, you guys win. But I couldn't find Gamora at all. Want to help me look for her?" Phoebe left out that she hadn't actually looked, not wanting to get in any more trouble, let the kids shepherd her out of her-the bedroom, and avoided looking back at Eros, afraid of saying more than she meant to, again. He was easy to talk to, that was for sure, but she didn't want him knowing things about her- she wasn't staying here, after all. She'd keep her guard up from now on. How she felt, about anything, was none of Eros' business!
(Even if it had made her feel better, to voice some of her feelings. It didn't matter. Her problems were her own, nobody else's, and she didn't need help dealing with them.)
Phoebe glared at the floor, but Eros could tell, from the way she chewed her lip, that she was still feeling somewhat guilty. He thought that having her there when they restored the portrait of Sui-San would be helpful, showing her that mistakes like that were easily rectified and no grudges would be held. It took less than ten minutes for ISAAC to restore the painting to its original condition, then A'lars carefully replaced it on the wall. Phoebe took half a step forward, as if to get a better look, then hesitated. Gamora, who had been standing at Eros' side, stepped closer to Phoebe, taking her hand, gazing up at the portrait. "Grandmother was pretty, wasn't she? Like you, Phoebe."
Phoebe managed one of the smiles that only her little sister ever saw as Eros led them from Sui-San's room, leaving A'lars in there, in privacy. "You might look more like her, too, when you get older, Gamora. You're only ten."
"Yes, but-" Gamora stopped talking abruptly, biting her lip, glancing from Phoebe to Eros. "Umm..." She wasn't sure if she was allowed to tell Phoebe that Oba had only adopted her, that he wasn't her real father like he was Phoebe's. Genis and Phyla weren't allowed to know where she came from, though Heather knew. Was she allowed to tell Phoebe?
Phoebe arched a brow. "Yes but what?"
Gamora gulped visibly, dropping Phoebe's hand and retreating to Eros' side, looking up at him imploringly, unsure what to do. Eros took a deep breath, shepherding both girls back to their family quarters, knowing that this really did need to be explained, and praying that learning about Gamora's adoption didn't send Phoebe into another fit of temper. In their sitting room, he sat in the middle of the couch, Gamora, as was her habit, snuggling up on his left, and Phoebe, looking both curious and annoyed, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of them, as per usual keeping some distance between herself and Eros.
Gamora peered up at him. "Can I tell Phoebe, Oba? About... before?"
He wrapped his arm round her, giving her a reassuring squeeze. "If you want to. It's up to you." But he was glad he was here to supervise this, to make sure Gamora didn't go into too much detail regarding Thanos and the horror of her past, and also so he could calm things if Phoebe took this revelation badly.
"Before? Before what?" Phoebe looked baffled now.
Gamora shivered, before sitting up straighter and meeting Phoebe's gaze. "Before I lived here. Where I used to live... it was bad."
Phoebe blinked, her head tilted to one side curiously. "You said something like that back when we met. Like you used to get hit or something?" She scowled. "No-one should treat kids like that. Especially not your mom." She figured it must've been something like that- Gamora had lived with her mother, but got badly treated, so Eros had come and taken her away, bringing her here.
It was Gamora's turn to blink. "It wasn't my mother who hit me. I never even had a mother. It was Tha- the father I used to have, before Oba, and his servants, who were horrible to me."
Phoebe looked from Gamora to Eros, slack-jawed. "What?! But..." Eros wasn't Gamora's father? Was that what she was saying? But, Eros obviously loved Gamora to bits, and vice versa, so... "I don't get it..."
Gamora swallowed hard. "I got stolen from my homeworld when I was a baby, after my people all died, stolen by... a monster, and I grew up with him, being taught to fight and k- do bad things, before Oba rescued me." She snuggled closer to him, hoping she hadn't said anything wrong. Phoebe didn't seem to be upset, so maybe she'd told the story right?
Phoebe's mind whirled. So Gamora wasn't really her sister. The only member of this new family that she sort of liked- sometimes- and they weren't even really related! From what Gamora had said, Phoebe figured she was an orphan, and Eros had taken her in after rescuing her from... wherever. He had chosen to make Gamora his daughter, not like with her, when he'd just gotten stuck with her when Mom cleared off. Phoebe had no idea how she was meant to feel about that. She felt Eros' gaze on her, watching her carefully, and shifted, trying to hide her face from him- though, as she now knew he was an empath, it hardly mattered if he couldn't see her expression, he'd know how confused she was feeling right now. She focused on Gamora. "So, how long have you actually lived here?"
"It's been seven and a half months- I think. Is that right, Oba?"
Eros nodded, pressing a kiss to her hair, making her smile. "Mm-hmm."
"It feels like a lot longer though." Gamora nodded emphatically. "I feel like I've lived here for years, and I love it!"
Phoebe managed a weak smile. "And... the... person, who had you before. He won't come looking?" She'd meant it as an honest question, believing that Eros had taken Gamora through some agreement, not thinking how it might sound to Gamora if she was wrong. She could've kicked herself for it two seconds later as the little girl recoiled, trembling, her green skin paling to a washed out grey, curling in on herself. "No! He can't, not ever! Oba promised."
"Ssh, ssh." Eros pulled Gamora onto his lap, holding her close, soothing her as she began to cry. "You know that won't happen, you're safe here with me."
Gamora twisted so she couldn't see Phoebe, burying her face in Eros' shoulder, her body shaking with sobs. Eros looked at Phoebe sternly, a reprimand for her thoughtless words in his eyes, though it was hardly necessary- she had tears in her own eyes and he could see that she knew she'd stepped in it. Cautiously, she stepped closer, putting a tentative hand on Gamora's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." Phoebe's voice was barely audible. "That was stupid of me, I know we're all safe here, nothing bad is going to happen."
Gamora's crying turned to sniffles, but she didn't reply, or turn around. She was still visibly trembling. Guilty tears now ran down Phoebe's face, her heart twisting at having scared Gamora so badly. Adopted or not, she had come to accept, over the past two and a half weeks, that this was her little sister, and (secretly) quite liked being the big sister, but now she'd gone and terrified her by speaking without thinking. She sat next to Eros on the sofa, trying to catch Gamora's eye. Thinking fast, she spoke, pretending to be talking to Eros, though she was really talking for Gamora's benefit.
"You know, I was going to ask if I could go to the fields, and get some exercise, but I guess it'd be pretty boring to go on my own, and Heather, Genis and Phyla are all busy helping in the gardens..."
Eros blinked at her, then caught on to her meaning. He shifted slightly so Gamora's (tear-stained) face was visible. She was still hiccuping with sobs, but she was a lot calmer, and had stopped trembling.
Phoebe smiled at her. "I wondered if there are any animals in the fields, birds or deer or anything. Have you ever seen any?"
Gamora frowned, shaking her head. "Don't think so. I think it's cos the fields are artifical- artificial," she corrected herself. "So there's no animals. I wish there were, though, sometimes."
Out of the corner of her eye, Phoebe caught a glimpse of what looked like Gamora, crouched down, petting a huge brown-and-white dog. She blinked hard, and the blurry image vanished. Gamora, sitting in front of her on Eros' lap, had just said there were no animals here. Could that have been another vision, like when she'd seen Gamora come into her room a few minutes before it happened, several days ago? She would have to tell someone if it happened again, if only to prove she wasn't going crazy... She re-focused on the here and now. "Oh. Well, how about we go and have a look anyway? We could pick pretty flowers or something." Phoebe was just taking a wild guess here, at something she thought Gamora might like to do. When she'd been ten, she loved picking flowers to bring home to Mom- she crushed that thought.
Gamora managed a watery smile. "We can give them to Aunt Elysius."
"Yeah. So come on, cheer up and let's go get some." Phoebe hopped off the sofa and offered Gamora her hand, shoving all unwelcome thoughts of possible visions/hallucinations, and of her mom, from her mind.
Gamora, falling back into an old habit due to feeling insecure, looked to Eros for guidance, waiting for his nod before following Phoebe. He gave her an encouraging smile, pleased to see the girls bonding more, despite this upset being the reason for it. He'd have to talk to Phoebe later, go into a bit more depth about Gamora's past, when the younger girl wasn't in earshot- maybe after Gamora had gone to bed?- to make sure that Phoebe spoke more carefully in future. This hadn't been her fault, she hadn't known about Gamora's fears, and that was an oversight he had to correct. For now, though, he would just breathe a sigh of relief that Phoebe hadn't rejected Gamora upon learning that her sister was adopted, and in fact, knowing that seemed, so far, to have only made her kinder towards the younger girl. One less problem to worry about.
He could hear them both chattering, their voices receding, as they walked towards the upper levels of the city where the fields were housed. He could have gone with them, but he wanted Phoebe to know he trusted her with her little sister, so he'd give them some time before 'randomly' making his way to the fields to check on them. Remembering some of the mischief he and Elysius had gotten into as children, he chuckled. Hopefully, the girls wouldn't cause that level of chaos... Mind you, if they did, no doubt A'lars would just say that Eros was getting a taste of his own medicine!
Phoebe grumbled as she carried her bag (full of brand-new clothing) aboard Eros' ship. "Why do I have to come with you again?"
Eros glanced around to make sure Gamora wasn't hiding and eavesdropping before replying. "I told you, I need to pick up something for your sister's birthday."
"Yeah, I know. Still don't get why I have to come with you." Phoebe folded her arms, staring Eros down, clearly wanting a reply.
He didn't give her one- he could hardly say that he was insisting she come along in the hopes of bridging the gap between them, could he? That would somewhat defeat the purpose of the ploy.
Phoebe huffed in exasperation. "Wouldn't it be better if I stayed here and helped look after Gamora?" Truth be told, she'd rather do that than have to travel with Eros, alone, for however long this trip took. Last time they'd been on a ship together, Gamora had been a buffer between them. She wasn't looking forward to being totally alone with Eros, thank you very much!
Eros' lips twitched in suppressed amusement. "I think your grandfather and Elysius are more than capable of minding Gamora without your help, Phoebe. Besides, I thought you'd like to help arrange Gamora's surprise. You might even find something that you can give her for her birthday while we're there, as well."
"Well, that might be a bit easier to decide if I knew where we were going." Phoebe retorted.
Eros narrowed his eyes. "Less of the attitude, thank you. I'll tell you our destination when we're on our way. That way, there's no chance of anyone hearing something they shouldn't..." He abruptly reached under the ship, hefting a squirming Gamora in his arms, tickling her. "Isn't that right, Gamora?"
Gamora was giggling, trying (not very hard) to pull away as Eros tickled her ribs. She eventually managed to wriggle to the ground, and darted over to Phoebe, clinging to her hand, giving her big puppy-dog eyes. "Please can I come too? Oba might say yes if you ask." She whispered.
Phoebe shook her head, ignoring the pang of guilt she felt as Gamora's face fell. Obviously, they wouldn't be able to sort out anything for Gamora's birthday if she was with them, so she'd have to stay here on Titan. She looked at Eros, but he'd just gone inside the ship, to stow their supplies, so she'd have to deal with this on her own. She chucked Gamora under the chin, then made herself smile. "Come on, you'll be alright here, won't you? You'll have Grandfather, and Aunt Elysius, and Heather and Genis and Phyla to keep you company..."
"I want to come with you and Oba." Gamora pouted.
Phoebe took a deep breath. "Gamora, you've had seven months with just you and Oba. Don't you think it's fair that I get a little time on my own with him as well?" She could hardly believe she'd said that, given that it was the last thing she wanted (probably), but she couldn't think of anything else to say.
Gamora's face turned sullen, even as tears brimmed in her eyes. She muttered something Phoebe didn't catch. Leaning closer, she stared into the younger girl's eyes. "What'd you say?"
Gamora sniffed. "Oba might like you more than me when you get home. He might forget about me."
Phoebe flinched, not having thought that Gamora might see things that way. But of course she would, Eros was the only real parent she'd ever had, and sharing him with Phoebe had to be as big an adjustment for her as it was for Phoebe herself. "Silly. Of course he won't forget about you!"
Gamora did not look convinced. Pushing away another wave of guilt, Phoebe glanced around, making sure Eros was still aboard the ship, then beckoned Gamora nearer, so she could whisper in her ear.
"Don't tell anybody, but Oba said we're going to get you a surprise for your birthday. So you can't come, or it won't be a surprise, will it?"
Gamora stepped back, eyes wide, a look of wonder on her face. "Really?"
"Mm-hmm." Phoebe nodded. "But," she put a finger to her lips, "I shouldn't have told you that, so let's pretend I didn't, OK?"
Gamora nodded emphatically. "I won't tell anyone."
"Good girl." Phoebe hugged her spontaneously, suddenly realizing she was going to miss her. "Now ssh. I didn't tell you!" She smiled, and Gamora followed suit, as Eros rejoined them, probably to say goodbye to Gamora before they left. "And remember, we'll be back in time for your birthday. And," Phoebe winked. "I'm going to get you the best present ever!" Now all I have to do is work out what that present will be...
As Eros picked Gamora up for a hug goodbye, and sent her off to go back to her lessons with the other children, Phoebe mulled over her sister's words. She probably should tell Eros that Gamora was worried about being forgotten, if he didn't already know... She would, she decided, if she got the chance to bring it up without it sounding stupid.
It wasn't until well after takeoff (and three hyperspace jumps) that either of them spoke. Phoebe had a sneaking suspicion that Eros was just waiting for her to say something first, but she gave in because she hadn't recognized any of the co-ordinates he'd put into the autopilot. "So where are we going, anyway? And what's this big surprise you're getting for Gamora's birthday?"
Eros grinned. "Well, she'll be getting armfuls of the usual sorts of presents back home, but where we're heading now... You remember Gamora telling you that her homeworld is no longer habitable?"
"Yeah, though she didn't say why..."
"No, and neither will I. The point is, it shouldn't all be forgotten, especially not as Gamora is the sole survivor of her species."
Phoebe started in shock. She hadn't known that. "Seriously? She's the only one left of her whole species?"
Eros nodded, his eyes sad. He blinked, shaking it off. "Anyway, so the surprise is that a large portion of Titan's gardens are being renovated to resemble Zen-Whoberi, so she can have something to show her what her homeworld was like, before the tragedy."
A lightbulb went on in Phoebe's head. "That's why everyone but us has been working in the garden so much lately!"
"Yes. The physical remodelling- arranging a stream, a waterfall- that's nearly complete. What we are going to do, is visit an... acquaintance, and acquire some of the plants and trees that would have grown on Zen-Whoberi, the native species that we haven't been able to produce ourselves."
Phoebe's eyes were shining, bright with intrigue. "That's amazing!" She couldn't imagine anyone doing something that huge, that extravagant, for her birthday- no-one ever had before. She racked her brains, sure she'd read something about Zen-Whoberi before, somewhere. "It was tropical, wasn't it? The planet?"
Eros arched a brow. "Tropical rainforest, for the most part, yes."
Phoebe grinned. "Having that in the gardens is going to be awesome. Gamora will love it, and we can all play- er, spend time there. If she lets us." She added quickly, remembering this was Gamora's surprise. She bit her lip, but spoke her next thought anyway, quietly. "You're a good father." She didn't look at Eros as she spoke, unsure how he'd take her words, and not even sure if they were entirely true- he was a good father, to Gamora. But to her? She wasn't really sure, not yet. She cleared her throat. "So, who's this acquaintance who will have these trees and stuff?"
Eros' voice was rough with some emotion for a second when he replied. "Just an.... old friend, who makes it his life's goal to collect anything and everything he finds interesting to fill his museums. We're on good terms, so it shouldn't be hard to get what we need."
Phoebe wrinkled her nose. "So, he's what, a hunter/gatherer?"
"Not exactly. More of... a Collector." Eros gestured at something visible ahead of them, closing fast. Phoebe stood up and stared, blinking rapidly. A massive vessel, many times the size of their ship, hovered in space in front of them. A strange flat triangular shape, it was black, decorated with golden writing of some kind, indecipherable to Phoebe's eyes. "That's a museum?"
"In a way." Eros input commands into their ship, so it would hover in place. "That's the ship he uses to locate and transport his collections. Each time it fills, he takes the artifacts to one of his permanent museums. I think there are... ten planets full, so far, give or take."
"Ten... planets... just full of artifacts." Phoebe blinked. "I think this guy has way too much time on his hands."
Eros laughed, as did an unfamiliar voice, over their hailing channel.
"That I do, my dear." The smooth voice was smug, amused. "But, as an Elder of the Universe, I must fill the endless eons with something worthwhile."
Eros rolled his eyes. "Yes, Tivan. We know how vital your collection is."
Phoebe smothered a laugh. Eros' tone was perfectly cordial, but if 'sarcasm' was a facial expression, Eros' face right now would be it.
"But we have a deal to negotiate. So if you'd kindly allow my daughter and I to board..."
"Of course, of course, my dear friend!" The man's- Tivan's- voice replied. "And you and your lovely daughter can have an extensive tour of the specimens I have with me, as well!"
Eros did not look thrilled about that, Phoebe noticed, wondering why. Hadn't he said this Tivan was a friend?
Their ship lurched violently, and Phoebe stumbled, nearly falling before Eros caught her arm and steadied her, as a tractor beam of some kind caught them and their ship was drawn into the museum-ship. Eros stood as their ship was deposited inside what looked like a hangar, keeping a firm grip on Phoebe's arm as their ship's hatch opened- apparently being controlled from outside.
A figure waited outside- Tivan, presumably- and Phoebe stared as Eros led her towards him. She considered throwing his hand off, but this place felt kind of eerie, as even in the hangar, the walls were lined with glass display cases of varying sizes, though she couldn't make out from here what was in any of them.... better to stay close to the person she knew.
Tivan, white-haired, and clad in a thick fur cloak and a red-brown tunic and black pants, smiled broadly as they came close, spreading his arms to either side and bowing low. "Eros of Titan. Always a pleasure to be in your company." His eyes shifted to Phoebe, who instinctively moved closer to Eros. Tivan took her hand, drew it to his lips, and kissed it. "And I'd know this to be your daughter at first glance, she resembles you so. An honor to meet you, my dear...?"
"Phoebe." She stated, drawing her hand back and resisting the urge to wipe off the impression his lips had left- she didn't know if that might be thought of as rude, but seriously, this guy was strange. Suddenly, Phoebe was very glad Gamora wasn't here, and also that she wasn't alone with this weirdo.
"A beautiful name for a charming young lady." Tivan grinned, standing straight. "Come, come! I have so much to show you both, and so little time. My assistant will provide refreshments later, if you wish. But let us begin by showing you my newest addition, a supply of weapons from the Kronan society..."
Phoebe tuned out Tivan's words as he led them into a different room. She stayed close to Eros, but let him remain between her and Tivan as she looked around. She could see displays of clothing, fabric, weapons, utensils, trees, fish, birds... was there anything this guy didn't keep? She shuddered, hoping he didn't keep people in this 'collection' of his...
A faint whine reached her ears, and she turned slightly, seeing a shape move in a corner. Was that a dog? She took a step towards the fluffy brown and white animal, reaching out, smiling when its ears pricked up and its tail wagged, pink tongue lolling, but then she hesitated. It was chained up, which might mean it was dangerous or something... but it looked so pitiful, just lying there... She jumped slightly. That was the same dog she'd had the maybe-vision of, seeing Gamora petting it. She was sure of it, but...
"Phoebe, come on. I don't want you getting lost." Eros called. Turning, she realized that Tivan had gone into the next room, and Eros was just waiting for her to catch up. Deciding she really didn't want to be alone in this creepy place, she ran to join him. She could ask Tivan about the dog later, see if it was safe to go near it or not. If it was friendly.... well, Phoebe had said she'd get Gamora the best birthday present ever. Back when she'd been ten, she would have loved to have a dog (and she still kind of wanted one.)
The dog howled miserably as it was left alone again. Phoebe cringed at the despairing sound, the heart-wrenching noise somehow reminding her of the miserable look that had been on Gamora's face when she'd worried about Eros forgetting her, and she vowed silently that she would come back and rescue the dog, one way or another. It was going to be a pet and companion for Gamora, no matter what Tivan thought.
The Collector's ship, and the ten planets' worth of museum exhibits, is information gathered from the Marvel Database website. The idea of Zen-Whoberi having been a tropical world is an idea I've seen in other fanfiction, and not my own creation.
Phoebe didn't want to admit it, but she'd kind of enjoyed helping Eros choose a selection of plants from Zen Whoberi, Gamora's now-barren homeworld, to be added to Gamora's 'garden' back at home- back on Titan. Eros, after a long, long time bargaining a price with Tivan, was now loading the last of the plants and sapling trees back on their ship, while Phoebe explored what she could see of Tivan's collection, without going too far from their vessel. Tivan was watching her intently, she could tell, even when she had her back turned. She was willing him to go away, for whatever reason, so she could go and grab the dog she'd seen when they arrived here earlier, but with him so close, she didn't even dare go near it, despite hearing its plaintive whines. She dug her nails into her palms as the poor animal howled, sounding like the loneliest creature in the universe. She had to take it with her when they left, (she still wanted it for Gamora's birthday gift, but even if she couldn't do that, the poor animal couldn't stay here). She ignored the small voice that said she would be stealing the dog, it was a rescue, not a theft- if only Tivan would leave the room!
A chime echoed through the room and Tivan looked up, his face tense. Phoebe had half-turned towards the sound, and blinked at his expression. "What's that?"
Tivan froze, as if he had forgotten she was there, then his face cleared, becoming friendly and reassuring again in a split second. "Just another ship hailing mine. Nothing to concern you, my dear." He turned on his heel and strode from the hangar, fast, his cloak swishing behind him fast enough to create a breeze, the door automatically closing and locking behind him. A chill ran down Phoebe's spine. This didn't feel right, his running off so quickly, after he'd spent their entire visit breathing down their necks... She glanced at the sealed door, then at their ship, where Eros was- presumably- still stowing their purchases in the hold.
The dog let out another mournful howl, and Phoebe decided to throw caution to the wind, running to where it was chained, and quickly pressing the button that would make the chain retract into the wall. The dog leaped at her, yipping and wriggling excitedly, its sheer size almost knocking her over as its tongue bathed her face, tail wagging nineteen to the dozen.
"Ugh, yuck. You're welcome-" Its tongue ended up in her mouth as she spoke. "Gross. OK, stop, be quiet, we have to-"
"Phoebe?" Eros' voice echoed from the ship, sounding more strained than she'd heard so far. She looked up, but he wasn't in the hangar- he must be in the cockpit, and have called her over the ship's comm. "Get on board. We have to leave- now."
He'd never spoken to her in that tone before- stern, determined, but also worried. Remembering how quickly Tivan had left- while locking them in- Phoebe decided not to argue. Clutching the dog tightly, she ran and boarded the ship. She'd barely cleared the ramp when it closed, and the engines fired up seconds later, drowning out any noise the dog was making, for which she was relieved- she wouldn't have to explain right now if Eros couldn't hear the dog. They were airborne and heading for the hangar doors almost immediately, and Phoebe blinked when she heard the ship's onboard computer confirm that the ship's cloaking technology was engaged. Leaving so rapidly without warning, cloaking the ship so they wouldn't be seen.. She guessed it had something to do with the other ship that hailed Tivan's, but this rush to get away.... it was almost like Eros was running from something or someone...
The dog she was still holding yipped and squirmed to get down. Deciding to hide him/her away first, before confronting Eros about what was going on, she went to her bunk (struggling somewhat to climb down a ladder while still holding the dog) and was relieved when she could put the heavy animal down on her bed, arms aching from carrying it. She shook her head as it chased its tail a few times, before settling down on her blankets, head on its paws, tongue lolling. "You weigh a ton! After all this, I hope my sister likes you, when you meet her." Phoebe tilted her head to one side, looking at the size of the dog's paws in relation to its body- they looked huge. "And you're only a puppy...." Just how big was this thing going to get? She could barely hold it in her arms as it was!
The ship jerked as its speed rapidly increased, and Phoebe cursed as she stumbled. Eros was definitely in a hurry to get away from something, but what? Leaving her room, and closing the door to keep the dog in for a while- she'd worry about food and water for it later-, she hurried back to the main deck and peered out of the window, glancing around until she spotted Tivan's vessel, getting smaller in the distance, and closer to them than it, another ship. Black, with no markings she recognized, but heavily armed, it gave off an ominous air, and was far bigger than their ship. She couldn't tell if it was following them or not, but given the rate it was receding from her view, she assumed not. Deciding she wanted an explanation, she squared her shoulders and headed for the cockpit.
"What was that all about then?" She demanded, hands on her hips as she just barged in.
Eros jumped at the sound of her voice, then relaxed. His face was pale and drawn, frown lines etched into his forehead, and he looked more stressed than she'd ever seen him so far. He scanned the screens once more, then sighed softly, like he was relieved, before actually looking at her. "Nothing, really. It's just.... Tivan had a visitor I'd rather not speak to." His expression was so reassuring, and his voice so soothing, that Phoebe just knew it was faked- he was trying really hard to pretend everything was fine, when it wasn't.
"Yeah, right." She folded her arms. "Don't talk to me like I'm Gamora's age. What's going on?"
Eros frowned at Phoebe's tone, but didn't answer straight away. What should he tell her? He wasn't even sure what had happened himself- had it been mere coincidence that Thanos' henchmen, the Black Order, had showed up while he was dealing with Tivan? Or had Tivan betrayed him, intending to hand him over? Or could it be that Thanos had somehow learned of Eros' speaking with Tivan, some time ago, and he was suspicious about why, and wanted answers? Thanos did tend to interpret everything with paranoia, after all, seeing plots against him where (most of the time) none existed. In any case, they appeared to have gotten away, so the issue now was- how much would Tivan tell the Black Order about Eros' visit? He should never have taken Phoebe there with him, because now, whatever happened next, Thanos would almost certainly learn of Phoebe's existence, and if he got it into his head to come after her, and if he actually succeeded, he'd probably find out about Gamora as well...
Phoebe waved her hand in front of his face. "Hello? I'm waiting for an answer here!"
He barely noticed the hostility in her voice, his mind still thinking through possibilities, while he input co-ordinates into the ship for the fastest route back to Titan. "Phoebe, it's.... complicated, and this isn't the time or place to discuss it." Hearing her huff of annoyance, he finally looked at her, and whatever she saw in his eyes cut her retort dead in its tracks. He exhaled heavily, trying to calm himself. We got away in time. Phoebe's fine. We'll get home safely. Everything will be fine. The ship, now on autopilot, made the jump to hyperspace, and Eros finally relaxed. Now, there was (hopefully) no way for anyone to track them. Phoebe still stood by his chair, looking sullen. Sighing, he stood and put a hand on her shoulder. "All I'm going to tell you- at the moment- is that my father and I have... an enemy, and the ship that showed up near Tivan's belongs to.... associates of his. I got us out of there fast because I don't want people like that anywhere near you, alright?" He squeezed her shoulder. "When we get home, I'll explain more, I promise. For now, though, I need to be able to concentrate on getting us there safely, so I'll need you to be patient." He looked at her earnestly. "Can you do that?"
Phoebe's mind was brimming with questions of how, who and why, but she kept her mouth shut. Something was telling her this secret, this 'enemy', whoever it was, was bad news, and maybe she really didn't want to know. "OK." But she was determined that she would find real answers as soon as they got back to Titan. A noise echoing from the lower half of the ship made her cringe. The dog! It was howling again, and now she'd have to explain how it got on their ship...
Eros all but leaped in front of her at the strange noise, then blinked repeatedly as he realized what it was. "A dog? But...." His eyes darted to Phoebe and narrowed suspiciously. Her face reddened and she found something fascinating to look at on the floor. Eros folded his arms. "Phoebe. Why, exactly, does there appear to be a dog on our ship?"
"Um..." Think, Phoebe! "It's your fault really," Phoebe's mouth stated without consulting her brain. "I found the dog at Tivan's, and I'd just picked it up when you told me to get on board the ship, so I just brought it with me, and then you took off..." She faltered at the look on Eros' face- like he was trying to look stern, but the corners of his lips were turning up, as if he was fighting a smile. "And you did say I could get something for Gamora's birthday at Tivan's, and.... now I have." She bit her lip. Should she maybe tell him about what she thought she'd seen, the possible vision of Gamora with the dog? Or would he just think she was making it up, or that she was losing it? No, she wouldn't tell him, not yet. She still didn't know him that well, and these visions, or whatever they were, still freaked her out. Better to wait a while longer.
Eros shook his head in exasperation, still trying not to laugh. "You really are like me... that's exactly the sort of excuse I would have used on my father when I was your age and getting caught doing things I shouldn't."
Phoebe's own lips almost quirked into a smile, but she bit the inside of her cheek to hide it. Still, it made a warm feeling swell inside her, to know that she did have something in common with Eros besides her looks. He gestured for her to head down to the bunks. "Let's go rescue your new companion before it decides to tear your room apart."
"It's for Gamora's birthday," Phoebe commented absently as she headed below. Then his words sank in. "Wait, we can keep it?!"
He nodded wryly. "By the time we're home, it will be the day before Gamora's birthday, so we have no time to stop and find the dog another home. And I'm not going to be cruel enough to let her see it, then say it has to be given away." He stifled a sigh. "I pity the furniture in our apartments though..."
Phoebe couldn't stop grinning as she opened the door to her bunk and the puppy all but leaped out, barking excitedly. She froze, however, when she saw the utter mess of fabric, foam and feathers that had been her blanket and pillow. Apparently, the puppy thought they were toys. How could it have made this much mess in so short a time?! She scooped the puppy up, plucking feathers from its mouth, peering worriedly at Eros. "You already said we were keeping it. You can't go back on it!"
Eros rolled his eyes. "I won't. But you're the one who's cleaning this mess up." He gently took the puppy from her, examining it carefully. "Hmm. A Terran breed, from a cold climate. Malamutes, I believe they're called. This one's male, about three months old. I wonder how Tivan got it..."
Phoebe shrugged. "He needs a name."
Eros arched a brow. "That's for your sister to decide." He nodded towards Phoebe's bunk. "And you have cleaning up to do, while I find this little fellow some food." He turned and left. Phoebe remained where she was, debating whether she could leave the mess and just move to a different bunk...
"Now!" Eros called back, voice echoing down the ladder.
It was Phoebe's turn to roll her eyes, but she went and found supplies and began clearing up the mess. She had a feeling she'd end up doing it, one way or another, so might as well get it over with. (Besides, she had to admit, she sort of deserved it, for pretty much stealing the dog.) It would be worth it, though, when Gamora saw her birthday present. And, picturing her little sister's happy face when she met her new dog put all thoughts of what they'd fled from, running from Tivan's ship so fast, right out of her mind.
Thanos sat broodingly on his throne, chin resting on his hand, as his servants led a screaming Nebula away for yet another enhancement, caused by another failure in combat with a droid. He sighed. The Luphomoid child was a poor replacement for Gamora, gods rest his daughter's soul. Ten years he had worked, honing her into the finest weapon, then through sheer ill fortune, she'd wandered from his ship and vanished. Seven months later, and no trace of her had been found. He'd chosen Nebula, an orphan pickpocket, plucked from the streets of some Kree refugee world that he didn't care to recall the name of, to become his new daughter, but, he was learning, training a child who already had so many bad habits and weaknesses, was a very different task than raising an infant who could be shaped into whatever he had wished. He shook his head. If only Gamora had lived...
He hardened his expression and straightened his posture as approaching footsteps sounded. The doors to his throne room were flung open, and he spoke immediately, without even glancing in the direction of the doors, knowing only one group of people would simply march in here without waiting. His voice boomed across the cavernous room like thunder.
"What did you learn of the reasons for my brother's visit to Taneleer Tivan?"
The Black Order- Corvus Glaive, Proxima Midnight, Ebony Maw, and Cull Obsidian, deadly, elite warriors, all heavily armed- all sank into bows at their master's feet. Maw was the first to speak.
"My lord, your brother made himself scarce, rapidly departing before we even docked aboard Tivan's vessel."
Thanos frowned, eyes darkening. "That suggests he had something to hide."
"Perhaps, my lord, but I do not believe it to be a matter that poses any threat to you."
Thanos stood, towering over Ebony Maw. "Be careful how you speak, Maw. Tell me what you learned from Tivan, and I will decide if there is a threat, or not."
Ebony Maw ducked his head, looking utterly submissive. "Of course, my lord. I apologize for my presumption. Tivan revealed that Eros' visit was for a trifling enough matter- obtaining a birthday gift for his daughter, who travelled with him, it seems."
Thanos blinked. "Eros has no children that he ever claimed. Not as far as I knew."
"We observed Tivan's security recordings, Master." Corvus spoke up, his voice its usual low rasp. "There was a child with him. The girl appears to be in early adolescence, and bears an uncanny resemblance to your brother. If we are to presume to trust the evidence of our eyes, the girl must be his child."
Thanos resumed his throne, taken aback. This was the last thing he had expected to hear. Eros, a father?! "My niece's name?"
"Phoebe," Proxima replied, keeping her eyes downcast. "If we're to assume Tivan spoke the truth."
"He wouldn't think not to. Not over a matter as inconsequential to him as this." A slow grin spread over Thanos' face. "So that's why Eros fled so quickly. It seems he doesn't want his daughter to know her uncle's associates..." He steepled his fingers. This wasn't worth challenging Titan over, not at this stage, but.... "Let all my informants know. The next time my brother or any of the family are sighted off Titan, I want to know immediately. After all..." He laughed softly, the sound making all the servants nearby avert their eyes from him. "Someday, I might like to meet my young niece..."
Gamora rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn as she headed into the breakfast room. She hadn't slept well since Oba and Phoebe left, not because of her usual nightmares about Thanos, but an even scarier dream, always the same- Oba coming home, his arm round Phoebe the way he always put his arm round Gamora herself, and when Gamora had run to greet him, wanting a hug, he only turned cold eyes to her, and walked away, still talking and laughing with Phoebe. She called out to him, again and again, but he never turned to look back at her. The dream happened several times a night, and she always woke up crying, her hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs so she didn't disturb anyone. It was a silly thing to be worried about, Oba wouldn't forget her, she knew that, so there was no need to make a fuss. She was nearly eleven, after all- her birthday was tomorrow, so she shouldn't act like a baby, demanding comfort because of a dumb dream.
Besides, she had a nagging feeling she might be in trouble anyway, or that her family might be getting tired of her- everyone seemed very busy in the botanical gardens these days, since Oba and Phoebe had left, over a week ago, but when she'd offered to help with whatever they were doing, they'd all told her no. She thought maybe it was because they didn't think she'd be good at helping plants and things grow and flourish, since she'd been a killer before.... But she wanted to help, and had tried to be extra good, so they'd let her, but not even Genis, Phyla and Heather would tell her what they were even working on, and Aunt Elysius and Grandfather just said it was a surprise. What if they were lying, and just didn't want her help? And then if Oba really had decided he liked Phoebe more than her when he got home... Pushing that thought aside, she managed a wobbly smile for Grandfather and Heather, waiting at the breakfast table, but Grandfather peered at her worriedly, so it must not have worked very well. She sat down and filled her plate, as she always did, not making eye contact with him. She heard him sigh, but didn't look up- if he and the others were keeping secrets from her, she wasn't going to be nice.
Heather spoke, breaking the silence. “Are you excited about your birthday tomorrow, Gamora?”
She shrugged. She had been, before Oba and Phoebe left and everyone else started keeping stuff from her, but now.... “I guess.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Heather look at Grandfather. He spoke next, watching Gamora intently, his voice gentle. “Is something bothering you, little one?”
“No,” she mumbled unconvincingly, her words practically being spoken to her plate. Those words again, what Thanos had always called her... 'But at least he didn't replace me with another child within a year!' A small, petulant voice in her head muttered. He had always said she was his favorite, no matter what else was going on...
“Your father and sister will be back today.” Grandfather continued, sounding cheerful, probably trying to get her to respond. “Eros told me in his last message he rushed back as fast as he could, to make sure he and Phoebe were here for your special day.”
“If he was that worried, he could've stayed here, not gone off with Phoebe.” Gamora wasn't sure where those words came from, but she felt a bit better as she said them, for some reason. A little bit of the hurt and fear she'd been feeling went away. She shoved her plate away, scowling, not hungry anymore. “He left me.” She stormed from the table, her eyes and throat burning, ignoring Grandfather's calling after her. She ran back to her room first, before realizing that this was the first place they'd come looking for her, and slipping out again, moving silently as she'd been trained to do, for years before coming to Titan. She broke into a run, making as little noise as she could, trying to think of where she could go that nobody would find her- she didn't want to see anyone, anyway!
She stopped when she spotted an open window, darting over and clambering out. Grandfather would think she was hiding in the palace somewhere, so leaving was the smart thing. She moved quickly down the street, thankful that the few residents of Titan who lived near here would be rising for the day or having their own breakfasts at this time of day, so there was no-one around to see her. She walked aimlessly, not really caring where she was going, until she found herself in an place she hadn't seen before- a large, grassy area, not really big enough to be called a field, with polished stone slabs jutting out of the grass every few inches, all with writing on them. There had to be hundreds of slabs... Gamora wandered along the first row, reading the names and dates. She frowned. None of the names were familiar to her, but all the stones bore the same date, from over a century ago. She shuddered- was this a graveyard? The Titans were immortal, she knew that much, so- if these were graves- then there had to have been some kind of accident. But... Gamora peered along the numerous rows again. There were so many graves. What had happened here, all those years ago?
She kept looking at the gravestones, wondering if one of them might provide some sort of answer- was it some sort of plague that had done this, an illness? But all the inscriptions were the same- the person's name, the date, and the words 'Beloved citizen of Titan'. Until she got to the end of the graveyard. Here, the stones were formed into two lines, like half of a square, and in the middle of that, stood another stone, this one larger, and carved of white stone, not grey. Curious, Gamora examined the two lines of graves first- more names she'd never heard, but the date on these was several years before the date on the other grave markers. And the white stone, at the center... Gamora read it, and gulped, stepping back. 'Sui-San. Wife. Mother. Most beautiful of Titans.' Again, a different date to either of the previous ones she'd seen, later than the date on the gravestones that surrounded it, but years before the year on all the other headstones, further back in the graveyard. Gamora reached out to the white stone tentatively, tracing the letters with her fingers. This was Oba's and Thanos' mother- her (and Phoebe's) grandmother. Gamora knew that she had died when Oba was a child, but not how, and no-one ever talked about it.
Not wanting to keep walking anymore, she wandered round Sui-San's grave and sat down cross-legged behind the stone, leaning against it. Its size alone would keep her from being seen. She began feeling sick, and her eyes burned again as she thought about what she'd said to Grandfather, about Oba. It might be true, but she still felt bad about upsetting him- it wasn't his fault Oba had chosen to go off somewhere with Phoebe and leave Gamora behind, was it? And if Grandfather had been telling the truth, and Oba and Phoebe did get home today, just in time for her birthday... She crossed her arms, breathing heavily. It didn't matter, did it? She'd been horrible now, so probably wouldn't get a birthday anyway. She didn't deserve one. Maybe she should go back and tell them that, that she didn't care? If it was her decision to cancel her birthday, then it wouldn't be so bad. That would probably upset the adults, and Heather and Phyla and Genis, who'd been going on about her party for days, but why should she care if they were upset? They'd been hiding things from her lately, about whatever they were doing in the gardens, so she should be mean too, and show them how it felt.
'Wound your opponent before they have a chance to wound you.' Thanos' deep, melancholy voice echoed in her mind, an old memory. He'd always said that was the best way to survive- hurt others before they could hurt you. Gamora buried her face in her knees. Maybe he'd been right after all...
A'lars sighed heavily as he trudged through the streets to the oldest part of Titan that still remained- the graveyard, monuments to the lives his older son had butchered... He was getting too old to roam the city like this, particularly at such an early hour, but ISAAC had reported that Gamora had come this way after her outburst, and he didn't want to make matters worse by sending a servant to fetch her home when she was clearly upset. Of course, he had no guarantee she would listen to him either- to date, the only person she really responded to when she was feeling angry or sad was Eros. He shook his head. Gamora had lived here for over seven and a half months. How was it that she'd made so little progress, only truly bonding to one person? While Eros was present, Gamora seemed, more or less, like any other child, if a little more withdrawn. But this was the second time he had left Titan without her, and, as before, Gamora had lost a lot of confidence, becoming almost silent, barely engaging with anyone. It made him wonder: did she only act as a child should when her father was here because she knew that was what he wanted, not because she had actually adopted any childlike behaviour? If that were the case, if she was only behaving how she thought Eros wanted her to, and ceased doing so when he was gone, or she felt insecure in his affections.... had she made any progress at all? Would she ever? Or had Thanos' damage run deeper than they'd imagined, and a warm loving home simply wouldn't be enough to heal her, if anything ever could...
A'lars brushed off his brooding thoughts as he spotted the top of Gamora's head, just visible over the top of Sui-San's memorial. She had to be sitting on the ground behind it. His eyes lingered on his wife's grave for a moment, before he walked around the stone and looked pensively down at Gamora, who sat with her arms wrapped around her knees. Her eyes were swollen from crying, but no tears were visible on her face. She glanced his way for a split second, but didn't maintain eye contact. “I'm in trouble, aren't I?” Her voice was flat.
Slowly (and somewhat awkwardly) he lowered himself so he was sitting beside her, rather than towering over her. “Why would you think that?”
“Because I said mean things earlier.” She sounded so despondent that A'lars' heart ached. He wished there was some way to undo all the scarring on her psyche, but damage done during a child's formative years usually stayed with them for life- buried in the past, but never fully disappearing. Knowing that didn't help him in the here and now, however.
“Do you want to tell me why you were upset, why you said what you did?” He spoke gently, though chances were even she wouldn't be able to put into words what was troubling her- she was far too young to really understand the deeper workings of her own mind.
Her only response was a sullen shrug. A'lars inhaled quietly. “You mentioned your father's trip with your sister. Has that been bothering you, them being away?” He could hazard a guess about why, given her words earlier about Eros leaving her, but he wanted to hear it from her.
Eventually, her gaze not leaving the floor, she muttered, “I want Oba to be here with me. I don't like being alone.”
He regarded her for a long minute. “Heather and I are still here, so are your aunt and cousins...”
Gamora pouted, her eyes filling. “It's not the same. You've all been busy lately, not letting me join in with the work in the gardens. You wouldn't let me help. And... I liked it when it was just me and Oba, and now he's got Phoebe, and she's really his daughter, not an orphan, not like me.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, even as she tried to wipe them away. “And she's normal, and she's a nice person. She's not bad like me, she never killed anyone. Oba will like her better than me, and then no-one will want me any more, except....”
Thanos. She didn't say it, but A'lars guessed that was who she had meant. He fought the urge to grimace. Her words were nonsense, of course, but how could he convince her of that, when she clearly believed what she was saying? An old, boiling rage uncoiled in his veins, one that often surfaced, only to be suppressed, when he thought of Thanos. If his lunatic of a son stood before him now, he would shout himself hoarse, beat him half to death, do something to try to make him understand the harm he had done to this girl, raising her to be nothing but a weapon. He leashed his temper firmly though- showing it would not help, not at present. He reached for his youngest granddaughter and gently wiped the tears from her face. “No more crying.”
She sniffled, but stopped crying, staring up at him, her eyes empty and haunted, looking far older than her brief years.
“Now, listen. Nothing has, or ever will, change how much your father loves you, do you understand? Phoebe might be his daughter by blood, but he chose you. He loves you, Gamora, anyone who sees you two together can see that, and he always will.”
“Is your sister, and will take some of his time from you. I understand that might be hard, learning to share your father, but no-one is trying to replace you. You're part of this family, Gamora, and we all care about you.” He swallowed. “I love you, as much as I love Heather, Genis and Phyla, and Phoebe.” He flushed slightly, not used to making such bold statements concerning his own emotions. Gamora was staring at him, wide-eyed. He held her gaze. “Seeing you upset like this upsets me too.”
A blink. “Why?”
“Because you've been through far too much in your life already, and all I want- all everyone here wants- is for you to be happy.”
“But what if I don't deserve it?” Her reply was barely audible. “Oba says that all the bad stuff I did was Thanos' fault, but I still did it... not him.”
Wincing at that, knowing that this was the true root of her fears about losing Eros, and aware that nothing but time would help that misconception correct itself, A'lars didn't reply out loud. Instead, he shifted closer to Gamora, and tentatively put an arm round her, hoping she would accept the comfort, and not push him away.
She swallowed hard before speaking again. “I don't want to be a bad person... but what if that's all I am?” Her eyes met his once more, imploring for some sort of answer, or reassurance.
He caressed her hair, smoothing it back. “There's no such thing as a bad perso-” He cut himself off, thinking of Thanos- an example of a bad person if ever there was one. “A bad child. Sometimes, children and young people made choices that aren't the best ones, because they don't know any better or don't have a choice at the time. The important thing is that they learn to do better, and not make those same mistakes again. Most of them don't, and you won't.”
“What if you're wrong?” Her little voice shook, but she wasn't crying anymore, and there was a faint look of hope in her eyes.
He kissed the crown of her head, then drew back a little and smiled. “I am never wrong. It comes from over five thousand years of life experience.” To his relief, Gamora giggled at his words, her bleak mood averted, even if the reasons behind it couldn't be entirely gone. He had a feeling she would need this reassurance again, and more than once before she fully accepted and assimilated it. He chucked her under the chin. “There's your smile. I wondered where it had been lately.” He got to his feet, stretching, then offered Gamora his hand. She took it without protest. “Now come along. I don't know about you, but I intend to have some breakfast before your father and sister get home. Even if you aren't hungry, would you keep me company?” He hid his smile as Gamora nodded vehemently. (He could also hear her stomach growling, but didn't mention it.) They began the slow walk back to the palace.
“What time will Oba and Phoebe be back?” Gamora asked quietly.
“In a few hours, not long.” A'lars waited, sensing she had more to say.
“Are... are you going to tell Oba I was bad, Grandfather?”
He squeezed her hand to reassure her. “No. You were upset, but it's over with and forgotten now. We all have days when we need to let off steam.” He wanted to rid her of this conviction that she was 'bad' but trying to force that now, when she was likely already feeling vulnerable from voicing her fears, wouldn't be wise. At least she was talking to him, instead of bottling everything inside. Eros would have to be told about this, but not yet. Better to get Gamora's first birthday with them out of the way, ensuring it was a happy occasion for her, before dealing with her unease around Phoebe, and her place in the family.
Two ideas did solidify in his mind as they had breakfast together though- one, that Eros set apart some time each day to spend with each of his daughters, alone, special time just for him and Gamora, and him and Phoebe, separately, so (hopefully) Gamora would accept that she could share her father without losing any of his affection. And the other, that something similar be arranged, for him and for Elysius, separately, and less often, to have their own 'special time' with Gamora, in the hope that she would trust and rely on them, not pinning all her faith on Eros- it may have been what Gamora needed at first, but it was far from healthy, for either of them. Hopefully, A'lars mused, Eros would see the sense in these plans, and implement them, for Gamora's sake. His lip curled in a wry grin. I just hope he's in the mood to listen to anything, after a journey alone with Phoebe. Unless his older granddaughter's attitude had undergone a radical change since she and Eros had departed, like as not, the first thing Eros would want upon getting home would be a strong drink!
Eros disembarked the ship, his hand on Phoebe's shoulder, and finally let himself relax, releasing the tension he'd held since the near-encounter with Thanos' Black Order. They had made it home safely, without being followed or tracked. Phoebe was struggling to hold on to the very excited puppy, no doubt overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a new place. Eros scouted the hangar carefully, glad to see that A'lars had listened to his message and ensured Gamora wasn't present when he and Phoebe arrived- that would somewhat spoil the point of the puppy being a surprise for her birthday tomorrow. Only his father stood waiting for them, smiling in welcome, but with a look of worry in his eyes. Eros had seen that expression enough times to know something was wrong. He arched his own brows in a silent question, receiving a minute head-shake in reply, before A'lars glanced at Phoebe. Eros nodded slightly- whatever the problem was, A'lars clearly didn't want to discuss it with a child in earshot. His heart stuttered. What if the run-in with the Black Order had been a precursor to some other plot of Thanos'? If something had happened here on Titan while he was away-
Eros' rising panic was checked by A'lars closing the distance between them, greeting Eros with an embrace and Phoebe with a smile, before scrutinizing the still-wriggling dog, raising a brow as he noted its size.
Eros grinned, gesturing at the dog. “Phoebe's gift for Gamora's birthday tomorrow.” He said by way of explanation. “And the main reason I asked for her not to be here when we got back. This little fellow needs to be hidden until tomorrow. Somehow.”
A'lars frowned thoughtfully. “I think the best thing would be for Elysius to mind him at her home until tomorrow. Provided Genis and Phyla are kept quiet. Phoebe, perhaps you could take the dog there now and stay with it until Elysius and the twins are home? They're at the library with Heather and Gamora right now. But I need to speak with your father in private.”
Phoebe nodded, apparently having picked up on some of the 'we have a problem' silent conversation between her father and grandfather. Eros caught at her arm as she turned to go. “Stop by our apartments if you can, and take something of Gamora's, something she won't miss that can be left with the dog.” He stroked the puppy's head. “He'll need to get to know her scent before they meet.”
Phoebe nodded, departing with her typical silence, her usual sullen attitude returning now they were safe on Titan once more. As soon as she had gone, Eros turned to his father, his expression now grim. The look on A'lars' face matched his own, making Eros' heart sink.
“We need to talk.” Father and son spoke simultaneously. They exchanged looks, blinking. Eros gestured with his hand for his father to go first, an icy chill running down his spine. If Thanos had issued some new threat, after finding out Eros had visited the Collector, he wanted to know now.
A'lars sighed heavily before speaking. “It's about Gamora.” Here he paused, as if collecting his thoughts.
Eros' heart skipped a beat. “What? What's happened-”
“Nothing, really, she's fine. It's just.... her behaviour while you were gone caused some concern.”
Eros frowned, his thoughts distracted from Thanos and possible threats- for now. “What has she done?”
“Essentially the same things she did last time you left Titan: become exceedingly withdrawn, not interacting with anyone unless she had to, and... yesterday, she had an outburst. More of her comments about her being 'bad' and 'not normal', and she still blames herself for whatever she did while Thanos controlled her. I tried to reassure her on that front, but... She's worried about you preferring Phoebe to her and even said that...” He trailed off, looking at Eros' face.
“What?” Eros' heart had sunk further as A'lars spoke- he had really believed Gamora had gotten past this self-loathing, and insecurity about being put aside- hadn't he done everything he could to make her feel safe and loved? He had expected minor trouble in this regard when Phoebe had joined the family, but Gamora had seemed fine with accepting Phoebe while he was there...
A'lars sighed heavily. “She was worried that if she lost you, only Thanos would still want her.”
Eros stared in disbelief for a long minute, then groaned and stared at the floor, scrubbing his hands over his face. Over half a year, and somehow Gamora still couldn't shake thoughts of Thanos. He looked up at his father helplessly. “I've done everything I know how to do to help her, what else can I...” He shook his head.
A'lars' regarded him carefully, as if gauging his mood. “It did occur to me that perhaps part of the problem is that all the guidance she has had does come from you.” He hesitated. “Perhaps if she were to spend more time alone with myself, Elysius and others, on a regular basis, then, given enough time, she might begin trusting people more.”
Objections leaped to Eros' mouth, and he nearly voiced them- Gamora was still fragile, he was the only adult she fully trusted, she wasn't ready to accept anyone else- but then he realized, perhaps his protectiveness was part of the problem- he hated letting anyone other than himself take charge of Gamora, so afraid of someone upsetting her, and maybe his attitude was actually hampering her progress and healing? As that sank in, something else crossed his mind; he'd always tended to keep his friends and family close, out of a fear of losing them, but.... was that selfish, not liking the idea of sharing people he cared about? Especially in the case of someone like Gamora, who'd already spent ten years being starved of normal familial interaction... Not liking the view of himself that this revelation painted, Eros avoided eye contact with his father as he nodded. “That will probably help. It isn't good for Gamora to be entirely reliant on me.” Even if I want to keep her to myself, to prove that I can take care of her on my own... He firmly squashed that thought. He couldn't keep Gamora entirely to himself, it would do neither of them any good in the long run. “Just... can this arrangement wait until after her birthday? I really don't want her to feel unsettled on a day when she's meant to be enjoying herself...”
“Of course.” A'lars nodded, looking relieved- probably because he'd expected more of an argument from him, no doubt. “Anyway, on a happier note, were you able to procure the plants and saplings we wanted from Tivan?”
Eros' face darkened as he remembered how that visit had ended, and his concerns about Thanos now being aware of Phoebe returned tenfold. “Yes, we got everything, they're safely stowed in my ship, but that leads me to what I was going to say a few minutes ago...” He quickly outlined the arrival of the Black Order at Tivan's ship, how he and Phoebe had gotten out of there unnoticed (he thought) but the likelihood that Thanos now knew of Phoebe's existence. He closed his eyes when he'd finished. “I shouldn't have taken Phoebe out there. Risking her like that...”
“Like what?” A'lars interrupted reasonably. “Eros, you could not have known that Thanos'.... associates were in contact with Tivan, and none of us can spend our entire lives on this world.” His eyes hardened. “We still have rights to travel as we wish, no matter what Thanos believes, and I have said before, I will not allow fear of him to dictate what we may or may not do. He may know of Phoebe now, so we might need to be cautious for a while, but we cannot let fear of him rule us.”
Eros nodded. “I know, Father.”
“As for Tivan, he is about to find out that several of his contacts will not deal with someone who is a known associate of Thanos' servants.” A'lars' expression was steely. “Perhaps that will convince him to be more careful who he interacts with in the future.”
Eros hid a smirk at that- he knew his father meant it, and with the sheer number of contacts A'lars had, across the galaxy... Tivan might well lose a lot of the people he called friends over this. He took a deep breath, willing any dark and depressing thoughts from his mind. “Should I begin moving the plants to the gardens?”
“No, we can take care of that this evening, when the children are asleep. Don't worry, the new Zen Whoberi section of the garden will be ready for the birthday girl in the morning.” A'lars smiled as he spoke. Eros returned the gesture, already picturing Gamora's amazed face when he showed her round the new tropical section of the gardens, explained what it was, and that it had all been made especially for her... He laughed suddenly.
A'lars arched a brow quizzically.
Eros half shook his head. “I'm just wondering which gift will be Gamora's favourite- her very own garden, or that dog.”
“Hmm. With most children, it would be the animal, but then again, the garden based on her homeworld is a gift from you. Given that you're her favourite person...” A'lars shrugged. “We will have to wait and see.” He smiled wryly. “I am half afraid to find out what she will decide to name the dog.”
Eros blinked. “She's ten. She surely won't choose anything that bad.”
“I seem to recall a certain small boy who came across a flerken kitten once and insisted on calling it Fluffy, even when it nearly destroyed everything in his room...”
Eros' face went as red as his hair. “I am going to leave this room and join the others in the library while I still have some dignity remaining,” he announced as if he was addressing thin air, and made himself scarce, ignoring his father's chuckling behind him.
For any readers who don't know what a flerken is: http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Flerken
Gamora woke abruptly, jerking upright in bed, automatically scanning her room for danger before she even fully processed what had woken her- an odd scratching, scrabbling noise and weird, heavy breathing. It took her a few seconds to realize the sound was coming from the hall outside her door, and she tensed as the scratching increased... right outside her door. Her heart began to beat faster as she glanced around for something she could use as a weapon if needed. She knew there weren't supposed to be threats here, but.... she had no idea what was making that noise. It could be Phoebe or Heather playing a joke on her, she realized, but she grabbed her hairbrush (to hit something with) just in case, as she inched closer to the door. She waited silently for a few seconds, holding her breath, before leaping forward and pressing the button that would make her door slide open.
Something brown and white and fluffy bowled into her legs, knocking her off balance and making her drop the hairbrush as she toppled to the floor. She flung her hands out to catch herself, and had just rolled onto her back when the creature- whatever it was- jumped onto her stomach, knocking the wind out of her, and forcing her to lie flat. She felt two paws on her shoulders, pinning her down, and something swishing rapidly against her legs- a tail? The next thing she was aware of was a furry muzzle pressing against her nose, as a pink tongue proceeded to rigorously lather her face, mixed with the creature making lots of excited-sounding high-pitched whines.
A dog. Gamora's mind figured out as she tried to stop the animal bathing her face in its drool. But why was there suddenly a dog here, in her room, and why was it acting like she was its long-lost best friend? She managed to shove it backwards just enough that she could sit up, but it continued its enthusiastic greeting of her, tail still wagging like mad as she got a good look at it. She couldn't stifle a gasp of amazement.
“You're so cute!” It was all pudgy and cuddly, its brown-and-white fur was fluffy enough to bury her hands in, and it had incredible bright brown eyes. She couldn't resist the urge to pet its head, then ruffle the fur around its chest and neck. “Where did you come from?”
It jumped up, front paws on her shoulders- which nearly overbalanced her again, and made the dog, on two legs, taller than she was sitting down. It licked her ear, as if it was answering, which made her giggle.
Footsteps outside her room made both her and the dog jump, but obviously Gamora couldn't get up right now. Phoebe appeared in the open doorway, peered at the scene, and looked as if she wasn't sure if she should smile or sigh. She glanced back over her shoulder and called out. “Dad! Found him!”
Gamora blinked. Him- the dog? But how had Phoebe known it-he was here?
Phoebe was smiling now at the dog, which seemed perfectly content on Gamora's lap. “Happy Birthday, Gamora.”
“Um... thanks.” Gamora hadn't forgotten, exactly, but there was a dog in her room, for no reason. Wasn't Phoebe going to explain?
“Do you like your present?” Phoebe stepped further into the room. “I was going to give him to you after breakfast. I didn't think he'd come and find you himself.”
My present... Gamora's jaw dropped. She stared at Phoebe, then at the dog, which had now moved into a lying-down position, pinning her legs. “Wait. He's for me? I get to keep him?”
“Of course!” Phoebe's voice was almost surprised. “Do you like him?” She was biting her lip, looking almost nervous.
Gamora's eyes bugged as she looked at the dog- her dog!- again. She leaned forward, giving him a big hug (getting licked from chin to forehead for her trouble), then heaved him from her lap, leaping to her feet and giving Phoebe an equally huge hug. “I love him! I always used to want an animal friend when I was little but Tha- I was never allowed. Any pet I brought home was kil-” She stopped speaking, realizing she probably shouldn't say that. Besides, it made her sad. She shoved the memories of limp, dead furry creatures with broken necks right out of her mind, concentrating on the here and now, and that she had her very own dog. “Thank you thank you thank you! You're the best big sister I ever had!”
“I'm the only big sister you ever had,” Phoebe laughed, hugging her back tightly. “I'm glad you like him.”
Whines sounded from about the level of Gamora's knees, and she broke the hug to see the dog staring up at her, before lying down, and rolling over to expose his belly. She stared, a bit confused, before looking at Phoebe for help.
“I think he wants a tummy rub.” Phoebe grinned.
Obediently, Gamora knelt and began rubbing the dog's stomach. It panted, tongue lolling out and tail wagging again, so she must be doing it right.
“I see your present idea was worth the mess he made on the ship getting him here, Phoebe.” Oba's voice made Gamora glance up to see him leaning against the wall just inside her room. She was on her feet straight away, wanting a hug from him, but she hung back, afraid he would still be upset with her because of what she'd done wrong while he was away. He'd said it was forgotten last night, after they'd talked about it, but she still wasn't sure he'd want to hug her, birthday or not. She stayed where she was until he stretched his arms out for her. She ran forward then, clinging as close to him as she always did as he lifted her from the floor, glad that he really had forgiven her. She laid her head on his shoulder, smiling, as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
“Happy Birthday, princess.” Oba's voice was thick, but when she looked up at him, he was smiling, his eyes bright. She grinned back.
He shook his head a little. “Eleven already. You'll be a grown up before I know it!”
Gamora thought about pointing out that they didn't know whether or not she really was eleven now, since this birthday had been chosen because it was the day when she came to live on Titan, but decided it didn't matter. “I'm not grown up yet, Oba. Phoebe will be a grown up before me.”
Oba muttered something she didn't hear, but Phoebe smothered a laugh. Gamora opened her mouth to ask what was funny, but the dog chose that moment to jump at Oba, whining again. Gamora squirmed, and dropped to the floor, petting the dog again, rubbing his chin this time.
“He likes being stroked,” She explained. He was being quiet now, and his tail was wagging again.
“I can see that.” Oba replied. “But be careful not to do what he wants every time he cries, or he'll never be able to be left alone.”
Gamora hugged the dog again. “Why would I leave him alone? He's my dog!” She'd already decided he would be going everywhere with her.
“He needs a name.” Phoebe interrupted before Oba could speak again.
Gamora tilted her head to one side as she looked at the dog, thinking. They'd been learning about stars and novae in science lessons lately, and Heather had told her, Genis and Phyla that Terrans had special names for stars and constellations. In the book she'd shown them, there had been one called the Dog Star, Serus, Sirrus... no, Sirius, that was it. Gamora nodded decisively, ruffling the fur on the dog's head. “His name is Sirius.”
The dog let out a high-pitched yelp, as if saying he liked his name, making Gamora and Phoebe giggle.
Oba was grinning broadly. “Alright. That's an excellent name for him.”
Gamora nodded proudly, glad she hadn't chosen a silly name for her dog.
“But we need to get down to breakfast, so it's time to get washed and dressed.”
Gamora looked at the clock built into her bedroom wall. “It's early, Oba, we've got ages.”
“Yes, but there just might be another surprise for a certain someone after breakfast, so maybe we should go and get started, hmm?” Oba winked at her, and Gamora's eyes widened as she realized what he meant- another surprise for her?
She grabbed her clothes for today, then ran into the bathroom to get washed up, already wanting breakfast over so she could see the surprise. “I'll be ready in two minutes!” She called through the closed door.
Oba and Phoebe were laughing, but not in a mean way, as Sirius padded over to the bathroom door, whined a few times, then sat down with a thud, like he was waiting for her.
“Where are we going?” Gamora sidled up to Genis, making her eyes wide as they walked through the streets lined with apartments. He was the last option for getting a hint out of someone about this surprise. She'd raced down the stairs earlier, gotten birthday greetings from Grandfather and Heather, and had introduced Sirius happily enough as they sat down to eat. But breakfast had gone so slowly, even though she'd gobbled her food (and sneakily fed Sirius under the table.) She'd already tried to learn more about her surprise from Oba, Phoebe, Grandfather and Heather (while still at the breakfast table) but all they'd said was that she'd have to be patient. When breakfast was finally over, Aunt Elysius had arrived, with Genis and Phyla, and after yet more birthday hugs, which Gamora did kind of like, then Grandfather had said they were all going for a walk. Gamora had been confused, thinking he'd forgotten her surprise, but Phyla and Genis kept whispering and looking at her excitedly, until Aunt Elysius shushed them. So she'd kept quiet as they set off, stroking Sirius absent-mindedly as he trotted at her heels, seeming happy just to be with her. But they'd been walking for a while, and she had already tried to get Aunt Elysius and Phyla to tell her something, with no luck. She kept her eyes on Genis, hoping he'd tell her something about this surprise- this was really exciting, but she wanted to know what it was now.
He went a bit red, then looked away from her. “I'm not allowed to say.” He then went and walked next to Aunt Elysius, so Gamora knew she wouldn't be able to ask any more questions, and she pouted a bit. How did everyone know she'd like the surprise if no-one would tell her what it was?
Sirius licked her hand, and she giggled, patting his head. “You're so friendly.”
Sirius yipped in reply, then Oba came over to Gamora, speaking in a deep, silly voice. “For this part of the magnificent birthday surprise quest, our princess must be blindfolded.” He held a strip of cloth in his hands. “We are to venture into a whole other world, and the first sight must be a surprise.”
Gamora blinked, baffled, and looked around. Most of the others were smiling- though Phoebe was rolling her eyes. Still, it didn't look like she would get her surprise if she didn't let Oba blindfold her, so she stepped closer and stood still obediently as he tied the cloth over her eyes, then took her hand in his, to lead her. She couldn't see a thing, so she listened hard instead. She heard footsteps then a whine- someone must have picked up Sirius. She knew they wouldn't literally be going to another world, but pretending they were was fun, she reflected as she let Oba lead her. She could hear Genis, Phyla and Heather whispering again, and this time, she clearly heard 'Do you think she'll like it?' before they were shushed again.
Gamora felt the air grow warmer, and the sound of footsteps surrounding her changed, echoing differently, and the ground under her feet was softer, like packed soil instead of stone, so she guessed they were in the botanical gardens. Maybe this surprise, whatever it was, was what had kept everyone so busy here lately? But if that was true, then she'd been totally wrong in thinking she was being ignored, or not good enough to help.... She shoved that aside to think about later. Oba had stopped walking, and the sudden halt made her stumble too. She heard him walk round so he stood behind her, where the others had also stopped. No-one was speaking, and she felt the blindfold being untied. She held her breath as it was removed, mind churning with what she might see.
Green. That was the first thing her eyes registered. Bright, vivid green, from the (false) ceiling of the gardens to the floor. She gazed around, eyes wide. There were tall, straight dark trees, stretching to the roof, filling the space, with long, slender leaves draping down. Ferns and beautiful bright flowers covered most of the ground, but a narrow path made of dry packed soil wound its way through the beautiful scenery. Brown and grey rocks were dotted here and there, and she could wear water gurgling not far away- a stream or pond of some kind. The bright solar light making this beautiful place glow, and the warm, humid atmosphere, had to be artificial, (she could see the roof of the botanical gardens, high above) but the effect was of being in a whole different place- there was nowhere else on Titan like it. Gamora turned, slowly, trying to take in everything at once, already in love with this amazing place, before she looked at Oba, hardly daring to speak above a whisper. “It's magic. What is it?”
He came and stood next to her, his hand on her shoulder. “I had the idea, but... We all made this, especially for your birthday.”
Gamora jerked in shock. All this incredible place was for her? “Really?”
Oba took a deep breath. “Yes. Gamora, these plants, this landscape... it's based on what Zen Whoberi would have been like if...”
“It is a way to honor and acknowledge your homeworld as it was, even as life continues elsewhere.” Grandfather spoke softly.
Gamora felt a lump in her throat as she stared around once again. Her only recollections of Zen Whoberi, the world she had been born on, and subsequently stolen from by Thanos, were nightmares, half-formed images of fire devouring buildings and people, as the Universal Church of Truth bombed them. (The name of her people's killers was something she only knew from Thanos' teachings, and he had told her nothing else of her native world.) She blinked back tears. Zen Whoberi would have been beautiful, if it was once all like this. But something occurred to her, and she was smiling as she turned back to face her family.
“I, um,” She fidgeted with her hands, not wanting to sound dumb. She just wanted to say how amazed she was that they'd all gone to all this trouble to make this- for her- so her first home wouldn't be forgotten forever. “Thank you. All of you.” She bit her lip. “Thank you for giving me part of my first home in my new one.” She didn't think she'd said enough, but couldn't think of any more words, so instead, her heart feeling like it would burst, she went and hugged and kissed the cheek of her grandfather and Aunt Elysius, moving fast before she lost her nerve, and then hugged Phoebe, Heather, Genis and Phyla, whispering 'thank you and I love you' to all of them, before giving the biggest hug of all to Oba, because he'd said this all had been his idea. “You're the best father in the whole universe.” She told him quietly.
She thought she heard stifled sobs from more than one person, but she was almost crying herself, which was kind of weird, because she was happy. She could see that Grandfather was close enough to reach, so she put her arm round him, drawing him into the hug too, loving how cozy it felt. Oba tugged Phoebe in to join the embrace, which she did after carefully setting Sirius down, then Heather followed, pulling Phyla with her. Genis joined in, and, not wanting Aunt Elysius to feel left out of this strange group hug, Gamora smiled and tried to gesture with her head for her aunt to join in, which she did, smiling and crying at the same time.
Everyone in Gamora's family was now hugging everyone else, with her at the centre, and she realized she actually enjoyed being hugged by everybody. It felt... nice. Safe and warm, and like maybe Oba wasn't the only grown up who really loved her....
The hug was prolonged until Sirius, who had been sniffing around, exploring, saw his own tail and began spinning in circles, trying to catch it. He started barking, high pitched yips that had everyone looking at him. The group hug turned into group laughter as Sirius toppled over sideways, then successfully caught his tail in his mouth.
And even though it was probably only because of it being her birthday that this was happening, Gamora decided she would always remember this moment of happiness with her whole family. It was perfect, a birthday like she'd never even dreamed of.
This is how I picture the Zen Whoberi section of the gardens seen at the end of this chapter:
And here's an example of what Sirius looks like:
Phoebe tossed and turned, trying to relax enough to fall asleep. She'd had another one of the weird 'flashes-that-might-be-visions' earlier that evening, of an unfamiliar man, a Pink Kree, she'd thought, on Titan, speaking to a teenaged boy and girl with platinum blond hair (Genis and Phyla, grown up?) The Kree man had been pale, and he'd looked exhausted, and far too thin. Genis had been angry, and shaking his head in denial; Phyla had been crying. That was all Phoebe had 'seen', just that brief flash of an image, but this was the first time she'd had a vision that took place years from now. She'd been struggling with whether or not she should tell her father the truth now- the other visions that she'd had had come true, after all. But if she told him, and he didn't believe her... Besides, how did you even start that kind of conversation; 'Hi, so, um, I kind of sometimes see things that haven't happened yet.' And even if Eros believed her, he'd want to know why she'd hidden it until now...
Phoebe turned over again and punched her pillow in frustration. She needed to figure these visions out, get answers from someone, but was asking Eros really the best idea? But then again, who else was there? Sighing, she climbed out of bed. Maybe getting a book to read would settle her thoughts enough for her to sleep, and she could figure this out tomorrow... She pulled a book at random from the shelf that ran along the wall next to her bedroom door, and turned to go back to bed.
“No!” A faint voice echoed from somewhere outside her room. Frowning, Phoebe turned again, listening.
“No, please, stop!”
This was followed by terrified sounding whimpering. Phoebe squinted, listening harder. Was that Gamora? Letting the book fall to the ground, she quickly opened her door and darted down the hall to her sister's room.
Gamora was tangled up in her sheets, thrashing, tears running down her face as she pleaded with whatever she was seeing in her nightmare. “No.... stop.... no, not Oba, it was my fault, don't hurt him. Please, Thanos!”
Sirius, who'd been inseparable from Gamora since they'd met, was whining softly, tugging at the bedcovers as if they were the cause of Gamora's distress. Phoebe, trying not to cry herself, had been halfway to the bed to try and wake her up, but she froze utterly when she heard that name. Thanos. Some of her old friends, before she moved here to Titan, had told scary stories about him, horrific enough to terrify almost anyone. That had been the point of course, for the thrill, but Phoebe had honestly never pictured the monster from the tales as a real being. How had Gamora, barely eleven years old, heard that name? The Mad Titan... Phoebe started, her eyes widening. Titan. Was it a coincidence that the most abhorred warlord in the universe bore the name of Phoebe's current home, the name shared by the species of beings that dwelled on it, including Eros? She had to push the chilling thought aside when Gamora's pleas and moans turned into a barely-audible constant whimper, and she curled up in a fetal position, shaking like a leaf, flinching as if she was feeling physical blows. Phoebe was at her side in seconds, shaking her shoulder gently.
“Gamora,” she whispered, not wanting to startle her awake. “Hey. Gamora, it's OK, wake up. You're just dreaming.” Her last shake of her sister's shoulder had Gamora rolling onto her back, which led to the younger girl's eyes shooting open, pure fear in them, and, seeing Phoebe leaning over her, sat bolt upright, her fist flying towards Phoebe's face.
Phoebe just managed to duck in time to avoid a broken nose. “Hey, whoa! Gamora, it's me, Phoebe.” She whispered.
The wild look in Gamora's eyes faded and she blinked a few times, as if remembering where she was. Breathing heavily, she clenched her jaw and scrubbed the tears from her face. Phoebe moved to sit beside her on the bed, but kept her distance, to give the little girl time to calm down.
“I'm sorry I almost hit you. And for waking you up.” Gamora's voice was flat when she finally spoke.
“It's OK. We all have bad dreams sometimes.” And from what you and Dad have told me about your past, it's no wonder you have nightmares! Phoebe smoothed sweaty strands of hair from her little sister's face. “Do you want me to get Oba or Grandfather for you?”
Gamora shook her head. “No, you shouldn't disturb them for something as silly as a dream. Dreams aren't a threat, so being afraid of them is a weakness.” She sounded like she was repeating a lesson she'd learned by rote, and her voice was slurring, like she was only half-awake.
Phoebe stared at her. “Where'd you hear that rubbish?”
“From Tha- um, the man who raised me before Oba.”
Phoebe shivered. Biting her lip, she took a chance, hoping she was wrong. “Thanos, you mean?”
Gamora's eyes widened. “Who told you that? I don't know if you're meant to know...”
“You said his name, in your sleep.” Phoebe felt physically sick. “Are you actually saying he was the one who brought you up before Dad rescued you?”
Staring at her own clenched fists, Gamora gave the tiniest nod possible. Sirius, who'd been trying to clamber onto the bed since Gamora woke, finally accomplished his goal, and scrambled over to his small mistress, yelping softly and laying down on her lap, licking at her hands, as if he was trying to comfort her.
Phoebe's head was spinning. No wonder Dad was so protective of Gamora, if that was the start she'd had in life, alone with someone like Thanos! Suddenly, Phoene's own issues with Dad and her mom didn't seem so important anymore. But, thinking back on all the stories she'd heard of the Mad Titan- about his commanding armies, decimating planets, committing genocide on a whim, she couldn't help but ask, “What would Thanos want with a kid?”
“He taught me to fight, to kill. He said I'd be the greatest weapon ever.” Gamora's voice was emotionless.
Bile crept up Phoebe's throat, and she honestly thought she might be sick. “Kill?! Gamora, you're a child!”
“He didn't care.” Gamora's voice was as small as Phoebe had ever heard. “He saved me, so I was his to do with as he wanted, and if I didn't learn as well as I should have, or got upset or ill when executing a mark, I had to be punished, and improved, to make me stronger.” She was stroking Sirius' fur as she spoke, almost robotically, her eyes blank.
Phoebe clamped her hand over her mouth. I will not throw up, I will not throw up... Freaking out about this didn't seem smart, either- it wouldn't help Gamora calm down. She sucked in several deep breaths. “You sure you don't want me to get Dad for you?” It was late at night, and Gamora should be asleep, but something was telling Phoebe she shouldn't be left alone- she was acting like a robot, and that wasn't normal.
“No. I'm fine.” Again, Gamora's words sounded like she'd been trained to say them.
“OK, well...” Phoebe thought fast. “Want to know a secret of mine?”
“I always wanted to have a sleepover with a sister, when I was younger.”
There was a flicker of reaction in Gamora's eyes. “What's that?”
“It's when we sleep in the same room, and talk, telling each other secrets and funny stories until we fall asleep. Do you want to?” Phoebe managed a smile.
“Umm... yes?” Gamora sounded unsure. “But... where will you sleep?”
Phoebe grinned, pulling Gamora's blankets back and climbing into bed with her, lying down on the pillows. “Here, silly. Your bed's easily big enough for both of us.”
Hesitantly, Gamora lay down next to her. “I'm not going to be good at a sleepover though. I don't have any nice secrets or funny stories. Only bad ones.” She sniffled.
“It's OK.” Phoebe put an arm round Gamora. “We can make up a story. Hmm...” She eyed the dog, who was now wedging himself in between Phoebe and Gamora's bodies. “Shall we make it about Sirius?”
Gamora giggled weakly. “Yeah.”
“I'll start. Once upon a time, there was a very curious dog, who wanted to know everything that was going on, all the time...”
Phoebe stroked Gamora's hair as they continued adding to the silly story, silently vowing there and then that nobody was going to hurt her kid sister again, while she was around. Not ever. Gradually, the younger girl's tension ebbed away and she drifted into sleep, snuggling up to her. Phoebe considered going back to her own room for the rest of the night, but Sirius was now asleep, lying across their legs. Besides, she was really too comfortable to move... Her last thoughts that night, as her eyes drifted shut, were that, as well as finding a way to tell Dad about her visions somehow, she also wanted to know what had made him brave (or crazy) enough to rescue someone from under Thanos' nose... and why had Eros even been near enough to Thanos to discover Gamora anyway? Why would anyone go that close to someone as dangerous as that? It didn't make sense...
So this chapter is mostly just Phoebe and Gamora bonding, but I wanted to show more of them being older and younger sisters to each other, as that hasn't really been seen so far. Hope it makes sense and both girls are in character!
Phoebe sighed heavily as she leaned against a tree, already somewhat bored, as this was the day of the week when lessons weren't held, but there wasn't really a lot to do for a thirteen year old. She kept half an eye on her sister and the other kids as they played some weird mix of 'Hide and Seek' and 'Tag', running around in the gardens styled after Zen-Whoberi- Gamora's favorite haunt now whenever she had free time. Elysius, who was tending the plants a few feet away, had encouraged Phoebe to join in, but she preferred to watch, wanting time to think. Her mind was whirling- she still couldn't figure out how to tell Eros about the precognitive visions she had, or even if she wanted to tell him, really. On top of that, the chilling things Gamora had told her, a few nights ago, about growing up with Thanos, still worried her. If it was true- and why would Gamora have made that up- then what happened if, someday, Thanos found out where she was? Phoebe knew she should just question Eros about this, but how did you even start that conversation- 'Hey, Dad, Gamora told me you rescued her from the most feared being in the universe. What are you going to do when he finds out?' She stifled a snort. Yeah, that would really go down well...
The shouts and laughter from the kids got louder, and Phoebe glanced over to figure out why, then stifled a laugh herself. Sirius had apparently decided to join in the game, and was running round everyone's feet, a moving trip hazard that made the children resort to bizarre looking jumps and acrobatics to keep on their feet, while trying to shoo the dog away, which only set him barking and excited him into running round faster. Laughing, Phoebe went to try and pull Sirius from the fray, but not fast enough.
Heather had just stopped in her tracks to avoid running into Genis, who was 'It', and twisted to run away. Sirius had just danced into exactly the wrong place, right behind her, and she tripped, her feet flying out from under her, with a shriek. She threw her hands out to break her fall, and she let out a screech as her left hand struck the ground at an odd angle.
Heather curled in on herself, cradling her wrist, her face white, as the other children, now abruptly silent, clustered round her. Phoebe, heart pounding now, grabbed Sirius' collar and kept him still while looking up to catch Elysius' eye, beckoning to her frantically. She hardly needed to- the black haired woman had run towards them the moment Heather had screamed. Phoebe followed, tugging the exuberant Sirius with her, but not letting go of him- he'd caused enough trouble! She peered anxiously at Heather, who had now uncurled enough to let Elysius examine her arm, though she winced whenever the rapidly swelling wrist was touched. Genis, Phyla and Gamora were huddled nearby, all watching Heather anxiously.
Gamora edged forward, her face earnest. “Do you need any help, Aunt Elysius? I know how to splint a broken bone...”
There was a moment of silence, then Elysius shook her head. “Thank you, Gamora, but it's only a sprain, and it's best if we take Heather to an actual healer, to make sure this is tended to properly.” Standing, she lifted Heather into her arms with ease, jostling her as little as possible, and headed towards the infirmary, beckoning with her head for the other children to follow her. Genis and Phyla did so obediently, no doubt eager to know that Heather would be alright. Phoebe released Sirius, who had now calmed, and trailed behind them. It took her quite a few minutes to notice that Gamora was dawdling, dragging her feet, and scowling a bit. Phoebe stopped and turned. “Don't you want to go to the infirmary?”
Gamora shrugged. “Not really. I don't like it there.” Her expression and voice turned sullen. “And Heather wouldn't have to bother the healers if Aunt Elysius had let me help.”
“Gamora, it's nice that you wanted to help look after Heather, but taking care of injuries is the healers' job, not yours.”
Gamora was frowning now. “But I always had to treat myself when I was hurt... before...” She trailed off, probably seeing something in Phoebe's eyes that silenced her. “Doesn't everyone have to set their own broken bones and stitch up gashes?”
Phoebe felt the color leave her face, and was trying desperately to think of an answer that wasn't going to reveal her revulsion, when to her relief, she saw their father jogging towards them. Phew. Uncomfortable and possibly disturbing conversation averted.
Eros gave a reassuring smile when he reached them. “Are you two alright? I ran into Elysius and the others heading to the infirmary. I wondered why you weren't with them.”
Phoebe shrugged, not wanting to blurt out what Gamora had just said, in case she didn't want Dad to know. Her little sister's totally sincere words- 'Doesn't everyone have to set their own broken bones and stitch up gashes?' were making her feel sick. Maybe she should tell Dad- but not in front of Gamora. Potentially upsetting her by telling her she believed something that was wrong was not what Phoebe wanted to do. “We, uh, didn't think we should take Sirius in the infirmary, that's all. Anyway,” She darted her eyes to one side, thinking fast. “I think he needs feeding soon. Gamora, why don't you take him home and get him some food?”
Eros arched a brow, ever so slightly, and Phoebe caught his eye, hoping to silently telegraph that she needed to talk to him alone. It must have worked, because he nodded. “Good idea. Gamora, can you take Sirius and feed him while I talk to Phoebe? We'll come and join you in a few minutes, then we can all go check on Heather.”
“OK. Come on, Sirius!” Gamora ran off, Sirius, his tail wagging, at her heels, excited as always to spend time looking after her pet, and utterly unaware of any disturbing undertones in what she'd been saying. Once she was safely out of earshot, Eros turned to Phoebe.
“Alright. What is it?” He folded his arms. “Something's been bothering you for over a week now. I can tell you're really worried. I've been waiting for you to speak to me, so come on. Out with it.”
Part of Phoebe bristled at his tone, but she had wanted to talk to him... should she start this by asking about the visions she had, and if that was normal? No. She shut that idea down again. Right now, she could dismiss what she saw. If she told her dad, he'd insist on tests, and talking about it, and it would be real, impossible to ignore. Better to stick to talking about Gamora. She sighed. “A few nights ago, I heard Gamora having a bad dream, and woke her up. She told me some things... about her life before you adopted her.”
It was Eros' turn to sigh. “What exactly did she say?”
“Was she really brought up by Thanos, and made to kill people?” Phoebe blurted, unable to keep silent about it any longer. Part of her hoped desperately that it wasn't true.
Eros' face became unreadable. “If I tell you yes, she was, would it affect how you treat your sister?”
Phoebe gaped. “No, of course not!” Though, it did unnerve her a bit, (OK, a lot), to think of a child as young as Gamora with blood on her hands, it didn't matter. “She's just a kid, it's not her fault she didn't know any better!” She inhaled shakily. “It's just... I don't understand, why would you risk provoking Thanos like that? Unless you already knew about Gamora, and went specially to rescue her...”
Eros closed his eyes for a long minute, his brow furrowing, as if deep in thought. “She hasn't told you everything, then.”
His grim tone sent a shiver down Phoebe's spine. “Everything? There's more to this story?” Her thoughts from a few days ago, connecting her new home's name, Titan, to Thanos, often known as the Mad Titan, resurfaced, and she shivered. “Do I want to know?”
“Probably not, but... I think you'll have to. Though I doubt it'll help you feel safe here.” Eros hesitated for a long minute. “I discovered Gamora because I often try to surveil what Thanos is up to, to try and minimize damage where possible, though it rarely works.”
“But why would you...” Phoebe stopped talking. Gazing up at her father, at the look on his face, she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer to that.
Eros took a deep breath, and tensed, as if bracing himself. His face was blank, but his eyes were full of sadness. “Because, Phoebe... Thanos is our people's responsibility. He was once one of us, though he is no longer considered such. We do what we can to protect others from him, though we cannot engage him directly.”
Phoebe tried not to react visibly to having her suspicions confirmed. “OK, but why you? You're the heir to this place, why would your father let you take risks like that, just to deal with some lunatic exile?” She knew there was something she was missing here.
Eros winced a little at her words. He seemed to age a thousand years as he regarded her. “Because, Phoebe, that 'lunatic' is mine and my father's responsibility, more than anyone else's. I'm sorry, there's no easy way of saying this. Thanos is my older brother. And your uncle.”
Phoebe just stared, mouth hanging open. She couldn't think of a single reply to that. Was she meant to say 'Liar', and refuse to believe it? Say 'Sorry' to her dad for being related to someone like that? “That... can't be true.” Was all she managed, in a half-whisper.
Eros put his hand on her shoulder. “I'm sorry. You don't know how many times I've wished it weren't the truth. But it is.”
Phoebe thought about it all for a long minute, then stepped forward, giving her father a (quick) embrace. “It's good in a way. Where would Gamora be now without you?” She swallowed, afraid this would sound lame, or like she didn't mean it, but she wanted him to hear it. “You must be one of the bravest people in the universe, to have to deal with a brother like that, and still want to be a good man, and see the best in everyone you meet, no matter how badly they behave." Like I did when I first met you. She realized with no small amount of shame. "Gamora's lucky to have you as a father. And so am I.” Phoebe blushed as red as her hair when she saw a tear in Eros' eye, then ducked her head as she walked away, sharpish, embarrassed to have said all that. But, she realized, she'd meant every word of it.
Wrote and published this chapter a bit earlier than planned, so it would be ready in time. Merry Christmas, Iviana! ;D Hope you enjoy your present.
Phoebe struggled not to groan as Eros read through the nearly-finished genetics assignment she'd struggled with on the data-pad. Her face was still a bit red, because she was embarrassed about having to ask for help with schoolwork, but she hadn't been able to continue it by herself, and the last thing she wanted was to hand it in incomplete, or have part of it be wrong- the younger children had this exact same assignment and it didn't seem to be difficult for them. Phyla and Genis had actually been excited when they ran off home to get started, and Heather had begun her homework before they'd even left class! Resisting the urge to glare at Gamora, who was sitting cross-legged nearby, smiling and typing rapidly on her own data-pad, clearly finding this subject easy, Phoebe tried to remember as much as she could of the genetics lessons, hoping she hadn't made too many errors in her assignment, but not holding out much hope- the reference texts they used were so complicated. But she was not going to hand in a piece of work that was worse than those done by the ten and eleven year olds, thank you very much. Asking her dad for help was better than being humiliated by looking stupid in class.
Eros' eyes were still skimming the document. Phoebe slumped against the wall, dreading how many errors he was going to have to correct for her. I bet he never had trouble with lessons like this, growing up. Unfortunately, that thought led to thoughts of Thanos, and what it must've been like growing up with him, both for Eros, and for Gamora. Phoebe shut her eyes, trying to will those thoughts away, but when she opened them again, she nearly jumped out of her skin- she was in a totally different place! Glancing around wildly, she found herself standing on an asteroid, the sky above a murky black, with red clouds. A few feet in front of her, a gargantuan throne levitated, its back facing Phoebe. She knew somehow, it was occupied, but couldn't see who sat in it.
Slow footsteps sounded behind her, and she whirled, her heart pounding. A tall, skeletally thin figure with pasty grey skin and overlong fingers, dressed in black and gold robes, approached the throne, a small wrapped bundle cradled in his arms. He didn't seem to see Phoebe, in fact walking straight through her, and she relaxed a tiny bit, realizing this must be another vision, though this was the first time she'd been completely immersed like this, actually believing she'd been taken somewhere else.
The being's head was lowered as he spoke softly, his voice melancholy, addressing the person on the throne, despite the throne still facing away from him. “My lord, I am afraid I bear sorrowful tidings. Your fears for your first daughter's fate, were, unfortunately, true.” He set the bundle on the ground, gently, as if it were precious.
The throne turned, slowly, to face the speaker (and Phoebe, who was apparently invisible to them). She nearly yelped in fear. The throne's occupant was huge. Far bigger than any normal man, one hand alone large enough to crush an adult's skull, clad in golden armor, he also had purple skin, with deep furrows like gouges in his chin. He stood, and stepped to the ground, walking towards them, his sheer size making Phoebe jump back- invisible to these beings or not, she couldn't help but react- this guy was scary, and she shuddered to think what it would be like to meet him face to face.
The thin grey-skinned speaker kept his head lowered and backed away as the purple man approached the wrapped bundle and knelt before it, gingerly reaching out a hand to tug some of the fabric concealing it loose. Only then did it dawn on Phoebe what the 'bundle' could be- a wrapped body. Her stomach churned, but a sickening dread rose in her, and for some reason, she found herself edging forward, holding her breath.
The purple man had uncovered a face, partly decomposed. Phoebe retched and recoiled, but she did see the purple man's face contort- with grief? With pain? As he brushed a strand of inky green hair away from the person's face. Person? Phoebe squinted- no, it was a child, judging from the size, with green skin. Her heart stopped. Gamora? She clapped her hands to her mouth, nearly screaming in horror at seeing what looked like her little sister's body.
But, no... Gamora's hair was longer than that now, and she wasn't that short, and Phoebe had never seen her wearing dark green leather clothes like that...
The grey-skinned male spoke again, his voice sorrowful. “My Lord Thanos, I grieve your loss. Gamora was-”
Phoebe nearly jumped out of her skin. Thanos?! This was the Mad Titan, Eros' brother, Phoebe's uncle? Nobody had told her he looked like a monster, as well as being one. She backed up, fast. Petrified didn't cover how she was feeling now- did this vision mean Gamora was going to die, and her body be reclaimed by Thanos? “No.” She managed a hoarse whisper.
“Leave us, Ebony Maw.” Thanos' voice was thick, and to Phoebe's shock, he almost appeared to be crying.
“Phoebe!” Someone shook her shoulder, hard, and she jumped, nearly screaming. It took a few seconds for her to realize that it was Eros who had spoken, and he was standing in front of her, eyes wide with concern. Phoebe's thoughts were so jumbled that one of the first things that occurred to her was how Eros and Thanos didn't even look like the same species, never mind being brothers...
Gamora stood a few feet away, pale, her hands bunched at her mouth. Slowly, Phoebe's pounding heart slowed down as she remembered where she was- in their sitting room on Titan. She sucked in a deep breath, eyes raking over her little sister carefully. Yes, Gamora was definitely taller now, with longer hair than she'd just seen in that vision.... but her visions so far had always been of the future, so what did that mean?
“Phoebe!” Eros' voice was sharp with concern, and belatedly, Phoebe realized he'd been trying to get her attention. She flicked her gaze back to him, repressing the chill running down her spine from what she'd seen. “I've been trying to get your attention for the past twenty minutes. What's wrong?”
Phoebe swallowed hard. “Umm... it's complicated.” She knew she'd have to explain these visions to her father now, especially considering what she'd just seen. That didn't mean she wanted to talk about it- what if he didn't believe her, thought she was making it up for attention? She glanced at Gamora again, who was still watching them worriedly. Biting her lip, knowing her next words might upset Gamora, but definitely not wanting to talk about this in front of her, she fished for the first excuse she could find. “Er, Gamora, do you want to go see how Heather's doing with her assignment? She might need help typing with her arm still in a sling...” She caught Eros' eye as she spoke, hoping he got that she wanted to speak to him in private.
He held her gaze for a long minute, as if trying to read in her eyes what she was up to, but eventually, he nodded. “Go on, Gamora. Take your data-pad. You and Heather can work together while I talk to Phoebe.”
Gamora obediently tucked her data-pad under her arm and whistled for Sirius (because she rarely went anywhere without him anymore), but then hesitated, wringing her hands and glancing worriedly from Eros to Phoebe. “Phoebe's not going to be in trouble for not listening, is she, Oba? She won't be p-punished...”
Eros quickly went and slipped an arm round Gamora, a reassuring smile on his face. “Of course not. I just need to speak to her, alright?” He chucked her under the chin, making her grin. “Run along and keep Heather company. I'll come find you in a while.” He kept the warm smile on his face until Gamora, reassured, was out of sight, before turning back to Phoebe, his face now somewhat sterner.
“Alright. What's going on?” He folded his arms. “Your gaze went totally out of focus, you didn't seem able to hear me, and from what I sensed of your emotions, you were scared to death. There was no danger in this room, and you know it. You really worried me, and your sister. So what is it? And has anything like this ever happened before? If it's some sort of seizure, it can be checked out.”
Phoebe gulped. “No, it's not...” She took a deep breath. “Do you remember, a few weeks ago, I asked if any of your- our kind could see the future?”
Eros' eyes narrowed. “Vaguely. Why?”
“Um, well...” She hesitated. “This is going to sound crazy.”
I might as well get it over with. “Well, not long after I moved here, I started having weird... flashes, of things that hadn't happened yet. At first, it was just out of the corner of my eye- I saw Gamora come into my room a few minutes before she did, then a few days later, I saw her playing with a dog, right before you and I went to the Collector's and I found Sirius...” Phoebe paused, trying to determine her father's reaction. His brow was furrowed, but he didn't look angry, or like he was about to call her a liar. “I've only had a couple more visions or whatever since then, but they're getting more realistic. One time I think I saw Genis and Phyla, a lot older than they are now, here with a blond-haired Kree man in a red and blue suit that I don't even know-”
“Mar-Vell,” Eros murmured softly.
Phoebe hardly heard him, as she continued talking and the sheer terror of this latest vision flooded her mind again. “And just now, I had another one, but it was... more intense than the others. Up til now, I've seen images like holograms, overlapping what's really going on, but this time it was like I actually was in another place, I couldn't see home, or you or Gamora, at all. All I could see or hear was the vision, til you snapped me out of it.”
“So the ability is growing more powerful.” Eros still sounded concerned, but his voice was also musing now. “It could be that the longer you live with your own kind, the more powerful the Titan attributes become.”
“That's fascinating, but if so, I wish it'd stop.” Phoebe wrapped her arms round herself. “Because what I saw this time...” She trailed off, not wanting to relive it.
Eros moved to her side, placing his hands on her shoulders. She looked up at him. “Phoebe, psychic abilities like this are rare, but not unheard of. I know it can be overwhelming, but what you see in your mind can't hurt you. It might be real in the future, but visions such as this cannot harm you, no matter how frightening they are.”
“It's not something hurting me that I'm scared of.” Phoebe's mouth was dry as she spoke. “I.... I think I saw Thanos, and one of his servants.”
Eros' hands tightened on her shoulders. “What happened?”
“That's the thing that makes no sense. The servant- a creepy grey skinned guy with way too long fingers, in black robes-”
“Ebony Maw.” Eros' face was tight with strain.
“Whatever. Anyway, it looked like he was presenting Gamora's body to Thanos, and it was... well, it looked like it had been dead and buried for a while.” Phoebe shuddered, and felt her father do the same. She forced herself to keep talking. “But it doesn't make sense, because she-it- whatever, wasn't as tall as she is now, her- the hair was cropped nearly to her head, and sh- the clothes were tough green leather or hide, stuff I've never seen Gamora in.”
Eros, still looking faintly horrified, was also blinking rapidly. “That sounds like Gamora when I first found her, long before you met her. But that doesn't make sense...”
“No, because, so far, I've seen the future, so how does that fit?”
“I don't know.... unless...” Eros glanced back at Phoebe's data-pad, currently displaying the section of her work she'd been stuck on, concerning cloning, cellular reproduction and necrosis, then his head snapped up as if he'd just thought of something.
“What?” Phoebe demanded. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” He barely looked at her, his eyes a million miles away now. “You've just given me an idea, that's all.”
“About what?” Phoebe was confused.
“About how to make sure Thanos never learns that we have Gamora, a way to make him give up his search for good.” Eros nodded decisively. “I need to speak to Father.” He turned to stride from the room, then turned back to hug Phoebe, who was too startled to recoil. “I'm glad you've trusted me with this, and believe me when I say I am not disregarding this matter, but I need to find out if my idea will work.”
Phoebe was still a bit baffled, but she thought she understood what he meant, and could have cried with relief- he'd figured out a way to make sure Gamora would be safe. “You've thought of a way to make sure this vision doesn't come true?”
“No, not exactly. If my plan works, we'll make this vision come true, but it doesn't mean what you think it does. But please don't say a word of this to Gamora, or any of the other children, I don't want them frightened.”
Phoebe scowled. “Well, obviously I'm not going to tell any of the kids what I saw, but what do you-”
“Good. I've gone through your assignment, and added some suggestions where you had trouble. You should be able to get it finished now. And I'll be back soon. Don't get into any mischief while I'm not here. Keep an eye on your sister and Heather, won't you?” And Eros was gone, leaving Phoebe feeling utterly confused. What?! What exactly was he planning, and what did he mean 'make her vision come to pass'? Gamora had been dead in that vision, and Dad wanted to make it happen?! Stop it, she told herself firmly. Dad would never let anything happen to Gamora, you know that. He had to have a plan of some kind. Phoebe just wished it was a plan that wasn't totally incomprehensible, so she wouldn't be driven mad trying to work it out.
Chattering and giggling reached her ears, and Phoebe forced a smile as Gamora, Heather and the ever-present Sirius came running into the sitting room.
"Phoebe!" Heather half shouted. "We've done our assignments, and Sirius needs a walk. Will you take us to Gamora's garden? Please? I've been cooped up for days and I'm bored, and the grown-ups are all busy."
Gamora slipped her hand into Phoebe's, her big brown eyes gazing up at Phoebe's sharp green ones. "Please? We've been good, and it's important for Sirius to get lots of exercise."
Phoebe glanced over at her own data-pad, knowing she still needed to finish her own work. Then looked up again to find Gamora, Heather and Sirius all giving her puppy-dog eyes and hopeful expressions. Aw, it can wait. She reached for Heather's good hand with her free one. "OK, we'll go. But Heather, no climbing or doing anything stupid. Your arm's still healing, alright?" She looked pointedly at the sling the dark haired girl still wore. Heather pouted but nodded as they set off.
"By the way, Gamora," Heather said, a grin curling her lips. "I found out that Malamutes- dogs like Sirius- are used to pull sleighs and sledges on Terra. They're supposed to be really strong. They love pulling, and people actually ride on the sledges."
Gamora's eyes widened. "Do you think we could teach Sirius to do that?"
Phoebe grimaced. "Not while he's still a puppy. You wouldn't want to hurt him."
Gamora gasped and shook her head vehemently. "No!"
"Of course not!" Heather sniffed, looking superior. "But when he's fully grown, we can teach him to do it, sure."
"If he can learn that, when he's big enough... It'll be so much fun!" Gamora's eyes were gleaming, her grin nearly splitting her face. The younger girls ran ahead of Phoebe, planning and laughing.
"I don't need visions to foresee more broken bones in the future." Phoebe muttered, shaking her head as she trailed after them. Still, she couldn't repress a slight smile at the girls' antics, and the horror of the vision loosened its grip on her mind as they headed to the gardens to play.
Eros had to hold back a shudder as he stared down at the artificial clone, lying enshrouded in a cryogenic pod, ready to be transported to Levet, the swampy world where he had first glimpsed Gamora, over a year ago now. He forced himself to examine the unmoving clone again, then looked away, flinching. The simulacra had never drawn breath, never had true life, yet it looked so like Gamora that just seeing it unmoving, utterly lifeless, made chills run down his spine. A'lars stood beside him, clearly not as disquieted at the sight as his son was, but then again, A'lars had worked on this for nearly a month, wanting to be certain it would stand up to whatever tests Thanos decided to put 'Gamora's body' through when his servants discovered it, as- if all went as planned- they soon would.
Unable to continue looking at the thing, Eros stepped away, shifting his gaze to his father. “And you're certain that when the bod- it is exposed to a breathable atmosphere, it will soon look as it should if it had been decomposing for over a year?” Referring to the cloned form as 'it' rather than 'she' made it easier, somehow- it was a collection of inert cells and false cybernetic enhancements meant to resemble Gamora, clad in the rough hide garments that Thanos had always had Gamora wear, while she was his captive, made only to convince Thanos once and for all that she was gone, that he no longer needed to have his people search for her. It would mean Gamora's freedom.
That didn't mean he particularly liked being near it.
A'lars nodded solemnly. “Yes. As soon as Levet's atmosphere makes contact with... the cadaver, cellular breakdown resembling necrosis will set in. And, hopefully, once an unidentified 'drowned' child's body is discovered in the quadrant where Thanos' Black Order still search for Gamora, they will take the bait, present the body to Thanos-”
“And one of our biggest worries will end, at least for a while.” Eros sighed. “It's a good plan, I just wish it hadn't taken a vision from Phoebe, that terrified her, to make us think of this.”
A'lars frowned. The revelation of his eldest granddaughter having some precognitive ability had been a shock, to say the least. It was an incredibly rare gift, and one that even he, with all his millennia of experience, wasn't certain how to handle. All he had been able to advise Phoebe to do, so far, was make detailed notes of any and all visions she had, and where and when such things took place, to determine if there was a pattern or a trigger to the visions, and how long they generally lasted. Wrenching his mind back to the present, he quickly keyed in the necessary co-ordinates to the cryogenic pod, which had enough power for one interstellar flight, and the engines began to hum. He checked the preprogrammed commands of the pod's rudimentary AI one last time: it was programmed to make its way to Levet, descend into a deep swamp, then scan for nearby humanoid lifeforms on the closest shore. Once a heat signature got within range, the pod was to eject its cargo, allowing the 'corpse' to float to the surface, hopefully soon to be discovered, while the pod, still submerged, would split into its component atoms, never to be found.
Satisfied that everything was in order, he keyed in the exit command, and the pod, now humming like a swarm of bees, erupted from the spaceport, building momentum quickly, and within minutes, it was out of sight and out of Titan's atmosphere.
“And now we wait.” Eros folded his arms. The only true flaw with this plan was that it would take about five days for the pod to reach Levet, and then they would have to keep checking the prison planet's outward transmissions, to find out whether the 'body' had been found, and whether- as they hoped- it had then been stolen.
A'lars inclined his head. “Either this will work, or it won't. There is nothing to be gained from fretting over it now.”
“I know.” Eros' shoulders slumped. Patience was not, and never had been, one of his virtues. Particularly not when they waited for news as important as this. Remember who this is for. He told himself firmly. Gamora's future freedom hinges on this, one way or another. If this worked, it could mean that, as she grew older, Gamora could have more freedom to leave Titan and explore other worlds, as most youngsters eventually did, without fear of being discovered. Exhaling, he said as much to his father, expecting him to agree. A'lars, however, looked troubled.
Eros blinked. “Don't you agree?”
“In theory, yes, but.... if a young woman fitting the exact description of Thanos' 'dead' daughter is seen by one of his spies, in the company of our family, even years from now...”
Eros grimaced. He didn't want to admit it, but A'lars had a point. “But, then, you're saying all this was for nothing? If all we plan to do is keep Gamora corralled on Titan for the rest of her life, then was there any point to providing a body to throw Thanos off the scent?”
“No, that is not what I'm saying, but...” A'lars trailed off, knowing there was no immediate solution to this.
Eros' expression turned thoughtful. “Hmm... you know, when I explained this plan to Phoebe, so she wouldn't keep worrying about what she foresaw... before that, she suggested we alter Gamora's appearance somehow, so she's harder to recognize. Obviously, Phoebe was still thinking of averting her vision, but maybe...”
A'lars' eyes narrowed. “Alter her appearance how? Eros, she's the last of her kind. If her physical form is drastically changed, her people will essentially be extinct.”
“I don't mean to change Gamora enough that her species is unrecognizable, just something to make her harder to recognize...” Eros stopped speaking abruptly. “I have an idea, but before we go making a decision like that, I am going to explain- no, ask Gamora first, if she minds. She's been forced into enough in her life already. I won't do anything unless she understands and agrees.” Without explaining any further what he meant, he turned and left the docking area, heading for the schoolroom, where Elysius should just now be finishing up the day's lessons.
Gamora was giggling softly as she input tonight's homework assignment into her data-pad. A minute ago, Genis had sent her a rough sketch for a sled he wanted to make, for Sirius to pull them on when he finally got big enough. He'd been excited about the idea since Heather had told them that dogs like Sirius were bred to pull sleds on Terra. Gamora knew Sirius wasn't nearly big enough for that yet, though he was already quite a bit bigger than he had been when she'd gotten him, but the idea of building a sled so it was ready when he was finally full grown, was fun. And if they could build it all themselves, without the grown-ups helping...
“What are you laughing about?” Aunt Elysius asked, one eyebrow arched, smiling down at Gamora.
“Um.... nothing.” Gamora clutched her data-pad closer to her chest out of habit- what if she got Genis in trouble for sending a note during a lesson? But she had been trying to trust her aunt a bit more lately, as Oba kept encouraging her to, and Aunt Elysius hadn't really gotten mad, not since the wall-climbing thing, months ago. She swallowed, then managed a smile. “Um... Genis just had an idea for a new game with Sirius, and he was telling me about it, that's all.”
“Mm-hmm.” Elysius, still smiling, glanced from Gamora to Genis. “As long as you keep your cousin from doing anything too silly.” She winked at Gamora. “I'm trusting you to be the sensible one, since stars know this one isn't.” She flung an arm round Genis' shoulders as she spoke, holding him close and ruffling his hair.
Genis pulled a face, protesting as he tried to get away. “Uma! Let go!”
Gamora couldn't help but laugh at Genis' expression. She still thought hugs were amazing, and something special, but lately Genis had been acting like hugs (from Aunt Elysius and Phyla, at least) were embarrassing.
Aunt Elysius pulled a pretend-sad face. “You still think you're too big for hugs, I suppose.”
“I am.” Genis insisted.
“You are what?” Phoebe asked, as she, Heather and Phyla joined them near the classroom door.
“Nothing.” Genis finally pulled away from his mother and made a show of smoothing his hair and straightening his clothes.
“Genis says he's too big for hugs now.” Gamora told her sister earnestly. A silly idea occurred to her and she grinned, lowering her voice to a whisper, so Genis wouldn't hear. “Maybe if we all give him one, he'll remember how nice they are.”
Phyla giggled quietly. Heather was now smirking. Phoebe just shook her head and went to put the textbooks away (while watching out of the corner of her eye.) Elysius rolled her eyes to the ceiling as the three girls jumped at Genis, smothering him in a group hug, laughing at him as he squirmed and yelled in protest.
“No! Not girl hugs! Get off!”
“Don't let him escape!” Heather pronounced dramatically. “He's being hugged until we say otherwise!”
“Phoebe, Uma, help!” Genis begged as Heather, Phyla and Gamora all linked hands, so there was no way he could escape them. They were all laughing, even Genis a bit, though Gamora could see he was trying hard not to. Remembering something funny she'd figured out the last time they'd sparred, she let go of her hold on Heather's hand- and promptly began tickling Genis' ribs, making him double over with laughter. He managed to retaliate by tickling the inner crease of Gamora's elbow, which always made her start laughing, for some odd reason. Then, for some reason, Heather and Phyla joined in, tickling each other, and the group hug somehow descended into a tickling war, and all of them ended up in a giggling heap on the ground, tears of laughter streaming down their faces.
Sirius, who had been banned from the schoolroom after a certain incident involving his teething, old data-pads, and a lack of chew toys, usually sat in the hall outside, waiting for Gamora. Today, seeing her 'trapped' on the floor, he bounded in and attempted to rescue her from the heap of bodies. His frantic 'digging' attempts finally paid off, when the hysterical laughter subsided and they managed to get to their feet, still snorting and laughing. Only then did anyone notice Eros in the doorway, clearly trying hard not to laugh himself. Struggling to keep a straight face, he turned to Elysius and Phoebe. “I have no idea what game this was. Do we know who won?”
Elysius shook her head. “I've no idea.”
“Sirius.” Phoebe quipped, her voice deadpan. That only led to more gales of laughter, which eventually subsided. Gamora, as was her habit, accepted a hug from her father, but this time, he held her close for longer than usual, running a hand over her hair. She thought he might be looking at Aunt Elysius, but couldn't be certain.
Quietly, Elysius, reading Eros' unspoken suggestion, shepherded Genis, Phyla and Heather from the room. Phoebe remained, leaning against the wall. Sirius sat, panting, at Gamora's feet.
Gamora, beginning to get the feeling something was wrong, because Oba was still holding her, but not speaking, stepped back and tilted her head to look up at him. “What's going on?”
She heard Phoebe take a sudden deep breath. “You've done it, haven't you?”
Oba nodded. Gamora twisted to look at Phoebe, then back at him. “Done what?” Were they keeping secrets from her?
“Nothing you need to worry about, sweetheart. Grandfather and I just did something that should mean that Tha- nobody is looking for you any more.”
“Really?” Gamora's heart thudded. “You mean he'll never look for me ever again?”
“Hopefully not.” Oba's hands came up to frame her face. “But, just in case, I- and Phoebe too, really- have had another idea, to help keep you safe.”
Gamora blinked. “What?”
“Well, you know you're the only one left who looks like you, because your people are... gone.” Oba trailed off, but Gamora knew this and nodded.
“No other species has green skin and green hair, so I'm the only one alive who still does.”
“Mm-hmm. Well, I was thinking, if some part of that changed, then, someday, even if someone that you used to know did see you, they wouldn't know who you are.”
Gamora nodded. That made sense. “You want to dye my hair?” That wasn't so bad...
Oba hugged her a bit tighter. “In a way. Using chemical solutions to alter your hair color is impermanent though. It would need re-doing every month or so.” He paused. “There are ways, through genetic alteration, to change your hair for good, so it would grow a different color, but it's a big change, and... it will hurt, to have it done. Grandfather has ways of doing it, but I won't make you go through with it if you don't agree.”
Gamora bit her lip. “Will you hold my hand, if it hurts?” Her voice wavered. “You and Phoebe? You won't leave me alone?”
Eros pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “Of course we won't.”
“We'll be right there with you.” Phoebe added, taking Gamora's hand.
Gamora lifted a strand of her inky-green hair in her hand, frowning at it. Changing her hair might hurt, but she didn't care that much. Grandfather wouldn't hurt her more than he had to, Oba and Phoebe would take care of her, and pain wouldn't be so bad when you had family who loved you to help you get through it, surely? And if it meant that Thanos and his servants might never recognize her again, she'd do it. She squinted at her hair, then looked at Oba and Phoebe. A slow smile spread over her face. “...Can I have red hair, so I look like you both?” It would be awesome, to have red hair like her Oba and her big sister. She'd really look like one of the family then!
Gamora, up early again to take Sirius for a run, paused in front of a portrait, squinting at her reflection in the glass, smiling at her dark red hair, that she liked, but was still getting used to. It was darker than Oba and Phoebe's hair, but Grandfather had said it would look more natural on her- bright red hair wouldn't look genuine with her green skin. She rubbed at her scalp, which was still tender from the multiple injections needed to permanently alter her hair follicles. It had hurt a little, but nowhere near as badly as some of Thanos' treatments, so she'd been a bit surprised when Grandfather apologized for hurting her- it hadn't hurt, not that badly.
Sirius whined, nosing at her hand, then lowered his head and shoved at her legs, eager to be off. Gamora grinned. “Alright, let's go.” These early morning walks had started a few days ago, when she'd woken early from a bad dream, and found Sirius tearing around their apartment, bored. She'd taken him outside before he woke Oba or Phoebe, and, feeling out of sorts herself because of her dream, but not wanting to be a baby and wake her father or sister again just because she'd had bad dreams, had taken him for a run round the still dark city. The nightmare had faded from her mind before she got home, and she'd felt very relaxed all that day.
The next day, she'd woken early again, feeling restless and unable to sleep, so she'd woken Sirius herself. He'd been very excited for another early walk, and again, they'd crept out. Gamora found herself enjoying being the only one up and about while the city slept, so, since then, she'd programmed ISAAC to wake her early, so she could take Sirius out and use up some of his energy, and hers, before breakfast.
They usually just went up to the fields, and she let Sirius explore and run around. She joined in running round with him, then, when he tired of that, but she was still restless, she found herself carrying out the old exercise routine that she used to do every morning, with Th- before she came to Titan. She knew she didn't need to do things like that now, she wasn't going to be spending entire days sparring here, just the odd session here and there with Genis, but... exercising, especially after a nightmare, calmed her down, weird as that was. She hadn't told anyone she was picking up her old routine- she wasn't hurting anyone in doing it, and Oba would just say she didn't need to, she was safe here. Gamora already knew that, but... physical training, even just exercising, made her feel safer, though she didn't know why. Not doing her morning training hadn't bothered her that much until she'd started doing it again. Now, it felt like the right thing to do, and she didn't want to be forbidden to do it.
When she'd finished her usual stretches, she ran a few laps of the field, Sirius at her heels until he gave up and collapsed, lying down with his tongue lolling out. Feeling limber now she'd warmed up, Gamora began running through all the kicks and punches she knew, fighting an imaginary opponent, before grabbing a fallen tree branch she'd found yesterday morning, and using it as a makeshift sword, practicing all the sword work she knew, switching arms every few repetitions, over and over until her arms ached and she was breathing heavily. By then, Titan's day cycle had just begun and she hid her 'sword' and whistled for Sirius, heading back inside. Time for her- and him- to have breakfast, and start the day properly.
She slipped back into her room, pretending to have just gotten up and got dressed, to avoid questions being asked when Oba or Phoebe came to tell her it was time for breakfast. Of course, it didn't really matter if they realized she wasn't in her room earlier- she'd just say she'd been out walking Sirius, which she had. It just wasn't all she'd been doing.
Breakfast was fairly quiet, as always, though Gamora was hungrier than usual, since she'd worked up an appetite. She must've been eating a lot more than normal, because Heather stared as she loaded her plate.
“Are you trying to eat breakfast and lunch in one go?”
“Heather!” Grandfather chided.
She ducked her head immediately. “Sorry.”
Oba was looking at Gamora now, looking thoughtful. “I think someone's getting ready for a growth spurt, with all that food.”
Gamora kept her eyes on her plate, her face heating, though thankfully, blushing didn't show on her skin. Still, the idea of lying to Oba, after everything he'd done, rescuing her and giving her a home, made her stomach knot up. “Maybe. Though I'm probably just hungry cos I took Sirius for a walk this morning and we ran around a lot.”
Oba frowned. “So it was you I heard over the last few days, slipping out before the day cycle started?”
“Umm... yeah. Sorry.” She added quickly, in case she'd upset him.
He shook his head, exchanging a look with Grandfather. “No need to apologize. I'm glad to see you're being responsible, and taking good care of Sirius.”
Gamora grinned shyly at the praise, sitting up a bit straighter. “So I can walk him every morning?”
“Yes- but you must let me, or Phoebe, know when you're leaving, alright? It's important that someone knows where you are if you're not at home. And maybe we could come with you sometime.” Oba smiled at Gamora, who nodded, though she knew she (probably) wouldn't be able to run through her whole exercise routine- using a stick for sword practice, shadow-sparring- if Oba was there. At least she could still do her laps of the fields, if that happened.
Phoebe, still looking half-asleep, stifled a yawn. “I'll pass on the pre-daylight walks, thanks. Breakfast time is plenty early enough to be getting up.” She picked up her glass of juice, then tensed. Her eyes flickered side to side rapidly and she quickly set her glass down, sitting back in her chair, bracing herself.
Gamora had seen this a couple of times now- Phoebe setting down whatever she was holding, after her eyes moved on their own. Phoebe had said it was how she knew she was going to See something. That had confused Gamora- people saw things all the time- until Oba had explained to her about Phoebe's ability, to see things that hadn't happened yet, but he also said the visions were private, and she shouldn't pester Phoebe if she didn't want to talk about what she saw.
Phoebe blinked a few times, then grabbed the notebook she always kept close by now, scribbling madly, before locking the small book shut and returning it to her pocket. She caught Oba's eye, smiled a bit, then resumed eating like nothing had happened. Gamora did the same- Phoebe couldn't have seen anything bad, or she'd have told Oba or Grandfather straight away.
Heather, however, was staring intently at Phoebe, her eyes narrowed. “Was that one of your visions?”
“Yes.” Phoebe replied without looking at her.
“What did you see?”
“Heather.” Grandfather interrupted her firmly. “That sort of thing is private. If Phoebe wants to tell anyone, she will.”
“But it could be important, and it'd be good to know what's going to happen-” Heather caught the warning look Grandfather was giving her, and stopped talking, though she was pouting as she stared down at her plate. Gamora, hoping to cheer her up, slipped one of her own breakfast pastries- Heather's favorite- onto the other girl's plate. The dark haired girl took it with a barely noticeable nod. “I still think it's important for Phoebe to tell us what she saw.” She muttered sullenly.
Grandfather stood up. “Heather, I just told you that Phoebe's gifts are a private matter for her. Leave the subject alone.” His voice was stern, but even, not a hint of anger, even as he scolded Heather.
“But I'm not doing anything! I just wanted to know what she saw!”
“Do not argue with me, young lady. If you aren't going to be polite to Phoebe, and allow her her privacy, then you can return to your room, and one of your tutors among the monks can bring your breakfast there.”
Gamora still felt amazed at this sort of thing- seeing misbehavior dealt with calmly, no beatings involved. It stunned her every time it actually worked, too.
“Fine.” Heather pushed her plate away, got up from the table and stomped off, sulking.
Gamora peered anxiously after her for a minute, but Grandfather had sat back down as if nothing had happened at all. As if he knew she was confused again, Oba slid an arm round her, giving her a quick hug. “Don't worry. Heather will be fine when she calms down. You know she snaps sometimes.”
“But she doesn't normally argue back.” Gamora spoke tentatively, looking at Grandfather. “How come she did this time?”
Grandfather smiled wryly. “It's all part of growing up. All children argue and test their limits as they get older. It's nothing to worry about. I doubt this will be the last time we have to deal with something like this.”
“No. It's not the first time, either.” Oba said quietly, one side of his mouth curled in a grin. Gamora blinked up at him, but he was looking at Phoebe pointedly. She bit her lip and ducked her head, blushing.
Gamora looked from one to the other, still not quite getting it, but no-one said anything else. She set her jaw. “Well, I'm not ever going to be rude like that. Everyone here is nice to me, so I'm never going to get mad at the people who love me for no reason. Not ever.”
Grandfather chuckled and murmured something that sounded a bit like 'Famous last words', but Gamora meant every word of it, snuggling closer to her father, and smiling back at her grandfather and sister. She had a home now, and a family who loved her. No way was she ever going to risk that by snapping and being mean to her family, no matter how old she got. She would never do anything to make them mad at her, not on purpose. Having a family that loved her made her happy, and she'd do anything she had to, so they'd be happy too.
Thanos, seated with his back to any who might approach, was gazing out at the fathomless stars, praying, for the first time in eons, to whatever higher power might be out there, to look favorably on him for once. Against all odds, even given the year that had lapsed since Gamora, his precious gift, his child, had disappeared, he couldn't help but cling to a shred of hope that she might still be alive, and be returned to him.
Quiet footsteps approached his throne, and he tensed, his hands gripping the arms of the gilded, floating chair. He knew that tread- Ebony Maw had returned from the final search of Levet, the planet where Gamora had vanished. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears. For a moment, Thanos doubted that it was Ebony Maw who had entered the room- his typically loquacious servant was being uncharacteristically silent. A chill ran down Thanos' spine, and whereas normally he would have turned to face Maw, now he found he could not bring himself to move, dreading what he would see.
Maw finally spoke, hesitantly. “My lord, I am afraid I bear sorrowful tidings. Your fears for your first daughter's fate, were, unfortunately, true.” There was the sound of fabric rustling as Maw set something down on the ground.
Bracing himself for what, deep down, he had known to be true, Thanos slowly turned his seat around, to see Maw kneeling, head bowed, and laying on the ground before him...
Thanos' eyes filled as he left his chair and walked, slowly, towards the pitifully small bundle, wrapped in rags. Reaching it, he knelt, feeling what was left of his heart dying within him as he gently moved the makeshift shroud, staring into his lost little girl's face one last time. He gently tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear, unable to look away, racked with guilt and sorrow- if he had trained her better, made her stronger, would she have been able to survive? Had he not taught her enough?
Maw said something, expressing condolences, no doubt, but Thanos barely heard him. He struggled to remain composed as he instructed Maw to leave him in peace with Gamora- with her body. He gave in fully to his tears once he was alone, and pressed a final kiss to Gamora's brow, seeing not the bloated and rotting face before him, but the child she had been in life, so full of potential, taken from him far too soon.
He stood, pressing a hand to his armored chest and lowering his head, in a gesture of respect for the dead. He whispered a final farewell to the daughter he had chosen, and loved, and ultimately failed. She would be buried here, and given a fitting memorial, and never forgotten.
But also, he would learn from this. Whatever had ended Gamora's young life, he would make certain that he did not lose her replacement, Nebula, the same way. He would improve her body to survive without air, without food, for extended periods of time. He would ensure she could self-repair from any injury that wasn't instantly fatal. It would be an intensive, lengthy process, replacing huge amounts of Nebula's biological body with technological ones, but she would come to understand that it was necessary, to ensure her survival in this cruel universe.
Thanos nodded decisively. Yes. He would do what he had to, to ensure Nebula lived. And in the end, when she was capable of surviving anything, she would thank him for it.
He would not fail the only daughter he had left. No matter what it took. He'd make her strong, and she would live, to serve his will.
In case anyone is wondering, this is what Gamora's hair color is now: https://www.styleinterest.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/37150916-dark-red-hair-.jpg
And I have a question: should the sequel to this story focus mainly on the adolescence of Heather, or of Genis and Phyla? Let me know in the comments!