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Even though his family has come back to him, things aren’t quite the same.

In his head, he knows it’ll never be the same again.

In his head, they’re still gone. They’ve been gone for the past five years, and they’ll still be gone when he wakes up.

Rocket throws himself into work. They were the Guardians of the Galaxy, for crying out loud, and it wasn’t like they could stay on Earth forever.

He builds a new mask for Quill, giving the helmet a red and gold trim surrounding the modified Ravager flame that served as the Guardians’ insignia.

Stark’s engineering prowess was comparable to his own, even if he was only a genius on Earth. They had exchanged entire volumes worth of notes on how their respective technologies worked, and he appreciated the extra set of hands while tinkering.

He fashions new blades for Drax, forged from vibranium and intended to be as balanced and aerodynamic as possible.

It isn’t the same alloy used in Rogers’ shield, but he figures that it’s close enough. That shield didn’t obey any laws of physics, but the super-soldier did have the longest acting steroid known to exist coursing through his veins. That probably had something to do with it.

For Gamora (now that she’s only kinda gone), he carefully lays a set of tasers into the ornate hilt of the Godslayer, knowing that the ex-assassin preferred to incapacitate rather than kill unless absolutely necessary.

He had only seen Romanoff use her Widow’s Bites once—on him, during a sparring session. He had secretly been thankful for the week-long bout of unconsciousness that followed as his implants rebooted.

They all get several sets of new clothes, Nebula and Thor included. Groot accepts his with only a passing mention about how rarely he wears clothes.

They say nothing about how the uniforms mostly matched the blue and red of Rocket’s newer jumpsuit, except for the EVA suits—those were white, with black trim and clear face masks for easy communication. They weren’t just a family, after all—they were a team, and they needed to look like it.

During the day, he argues with Quill and Thor over who the captain is. He laughs with Mantis and Drax as they pull pranks on Nebula, and banters with Groot while playing one of the new games he had ‘found’ on Terra.

At night, Rocket fidgets restlessly in his bunk, or goes to the bridge to keep watch, but he doesn’t go to sleep.

He rarely goes to sleep now.

He’ll look out of the viewport one night and see stars drift past like ashes, and the next he’ll be seeing galaxies and nebulas swirl together like ripples in a lake.

Just like that, Groot is gone, and he doesn’t know about the others—.

They had done it. The Avengers had reversed the snap, he’ll see them again—but the building is collapsing on top of him. He’s pinned, and the water is rising—he can’t breathe—.

Rocket can’t breathe.

After five years, he has his family back, but it isn’t quite the same.

In his head, he knows it’ll never be the same.

Chapter Text

Even though she has found a real family to call her own, things aren’t quite the same.

It is her sister who convinces her it’ll never be the same again.

Gamora is her sister, but at the same time, she is not—her sister was sacrificed for a stone. This sister came from a time before that, before them.

Nebula watches her silently leave after the battle is won, and she feels her heart grow heavy.

She knows they won’t be seeing each other again for a long time.

She finds a place, though, among their (her) Gamora’s family. For five years, it had been just her and Rocket. Now her life felt...crowded, in a way she couldn't explain.

Drax listens as she explains the rules of the game to him and patiently helps him understand to not throw the bits of folded paper like he would his knives, but to flick them.

Stark had been patient with her, as she told him about her sister’s (her) family. He in turn told her stories about the Avengers, the team he had left behind to fight the Mad Titan on his home planet. They may have run out of food and water, but they hadn’t run out of words.

She guides Mantis during a sparring session, feeling a mixture of pride and sorrow when the empath knocks her to the floor with a move she recognised as one of Gamora’s.

Romanoff reminded her of her sister in more ways than one. Nebula liked her the most out of all of the Avengers. It only felt natural to report back to Nat after a mission well done during those five years. More natural than reporting to Thanos ever had.

Nebula joins Quill in his quarters on the anniversary of his first meeting with Gamora, and she listens to him quietly sing along to music she now knows by heart.

She knows the look in his eyes. She had seen it in Rogers’ eyes, every time he looked at the pocket watch he carried around with him. In her own eyes when she looked in the mirror of the Benatar after patching Stark up. She hadn’t properly mourned then. She still hasn’t.

For Thor, she offers little but her silent company—he is still unsure of his place here, and she feels the same.

She soothes Groot to sleep when he wakes with nightmares, and joins Rocket in his workshop to help him repair his aging cybernetics.

Gamora often did the same for her, during their time with Thanos. She wonders when she had started to replace her sister.

It hurts to think like that.

So, she doesn’t. Nebula wears a brave face (not brave. Carefully neutral) and works hard to earn her place on a family that is more her sister’s than her own.

It’s Rocket who tells her that she doesn’t have to, that she had been a part of their family since Ego (since five years ago, she hears in his words). She lets herself believe him.

A few months after, Gamora (not hers) contacts them, and her world is turned on its head once more.

She assures Nebula that she is alright, but she will not say if she will join them (join her). She still needs time to process her new reality—here, Gamora had spent four years free from Thanos. For this Gamora, though, it has only been four months.

They all accept this with varying degrees of reluctance (Quill excuses himself to his quarters near the end of the call, and doesn’t come out for two days). Nebula is just thankful for the chance to speak to her again, despite the strange feeling it leaves in her gut.

Even though she has a family of her own now, it isn’t quite the same.

It is her sister who convinces her it’ll never be the same.

Chapter Text

Even though he has won—they have won, life has won—things aren’t quite the same.

The voices in his dreams tell him it’ll never be the same again.

He sees his brother, dying—his mother, dying—his father, dying. His kingdom reduced to atoms, his people to ashes.

I assure you, brother, the sun will shine on us again.

For the first time in a thousand years, he has no path. He does have a ride, though, and he is forever grateful when the rabbit (Rocket) pushes him up the steps into the Benatar, waving a farewell to New Asgard—to Earth. The Guardians have a memorial wall of sorts near the bridge, marked with the names of valued teammates and friends who are now lost (Groot. Yondu. Gamora). Quill and Drax join him as he inscribes the names of his Asgardian family. Rocket and Nebula join him to place the names of the fallen Avengers.

He tells Quill that they all know who the captain is, and Thor knows it is not him.

Thor also knows that for the past five years, Nebula and Rocket were in command of this ship—not Quill, but not himself, either. He has not commanded a ship since—.

He is (was) a king with few people and no home, or claim to any leadership now.

He listens as Drax tells stories of his wife and daughter, over bites of their favourite dish he made on his homeworld, before Ronan the Accuser (Thanos) took that from him.

Thor does not think about his home. He does not think about his mother’s favourite meal, or the stories his father told him as a child, of lands with vast riches and beauty, and how Asgard was at the centre of it all. He thinks instead of Stark, of the wife and daughter he left behind.

Mantis sits with him in his bunk, black eyes shining in awe as he regales her with tales of victories long past. She does not touch him to share his pain. She does not need to.

He and Rogers shared stories once. There were times, in the three or four weeks before Thor’s second failure, when the super-soldier asked him what happened to Loki, to Asgard. Eventually he stopped asking, seeming to understand that he had lost more than words could say.

Of course, he shows Groot the Stormbreaker and thanks the young Colossus properly for his help in making it. For his help in saving him as he lay dying under the light of Niðavellir.

He sometimes thinks he should have died in that forge, that it might have ended differently if he hadn’t been there to fail time and time again. Then he remembers Natasha, who died under the light of a sun that was not her own, and he is filled with remorse—.

—the sun will shine on us again.

He feels that he does not quite belong with the Guardians, but Nebula curtly informs him that none of them quite belong, and that’s what makes them a family.

Thor begins to clean himself up, starting with a shave and a haircut. He drinks less (though still heavier than he ever did before Thanos), and works out more often. Rocket grumbles about how he’s had to replace the equipment in the training room several times, but every time that Thor breaks another set of weights or damages the virtual target range, they are repaired and upgraded.

After a few months, he looks more like he did just before Thanos took everything from him. It is only right to try to start anew, he thinks, considering that he has been given a new lease on life with the Guardians of the Galaxy.

He sees Loki’s name on the memorial, and hears his brother’s words repeat in his head as he settles down at night.

I assure you, brother, the sun will shine on us again.

Even though he has won, it isn't quite the same.

The voices in his dreams tell him it’ll never the same.

Chapter Text

It had been eight months since they had heard anything from Gamora.

(She might join them, she needed time, that was all—)

“Get some rest, Pete. I’ll take over.”

Rocket didn’t have to look over Quill’s shoulder to know what he was looking at. It was the same screen he had been looking at every free moment for the past year.

Quill…”

“In a minute, Rocky, I’ll—I’ll call it quits in a minute…”

The raccoonoid pulled a face at the nickname and sniffed at the air in disgust. Peter only called him that when he was drinking. Heavily.

“You said that twenty minutes and four shots ago. Come on, man. It don’t do none o’ us any favours for you to be wasted at the wheel. Stick. Whatever.”

His only response was a quite belch and the sound of a beer bottle clinking against the controls. Rocket sighed and padded over to the seat, snatching away the alcohol before the human could open the cap. That seemed to get his attention, and Rocket shook his head to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.

Peter looked awful, which compared to a typical human wouldn’t be saying much (if you asked Rocket), but compared to the regular... Quill-ness that their self-proclaimed captain exuded, it left the raccoonoid more than a little shook. The look in his eyes reminded him of Thor when he was at his worst, and the stench of beer and sadness wafted off of the man.

“Quill, when’s the last time you slept? And—ugh—showered?”

The Terran went cross-eyed for a moment while trying to focus on him. “You—hic—you’re one to talk.”

“I don’t sweat as much as you bald bodies do, an’ for your information, I showered this morning. Twice. Wanna know why? ‘Cause I spilt some highly toxic machine oil in my fur when you sped off to another dead-end stop on this dead-end search before I had closed up the engine.”

Rocket knew he should stop talking right there, and he could hear the irritated growl in the back of his throat before he let it out—flark, Quill, why are you doin’ this to yourself—?

“—What’s your excuse, jackass? Unless you think beer is an appropriate liquid to bathe in now?”

Peter’s eyes darkened and he started to half-stand, half-stagger out of the seat. “It wasn’ a dead-end, Rocky, we f—urp—found a-another lead, someone—someone saw her—.”

Rocket met his eyes and d’ast it all he tried not to look at him with pity, but—.

“Pete, buddy. I get it. We all miss her. But you know as well as I do that if she don’t want to be found, then we ain’t gonna find her—.”

“—oh, what do—what do you know, R-rock... raccoon?  You—you don’t know wh-what I…”

The raccoonoid didn’t flinch as Quill stumbled over and leaned down to look him in the eye.

“You left us, man. If we—if we had been together, she’d still be here...and—and now you want me to stop—stop lookin’ for her...”

“I-I never said that, Peter. I just—you gotta to take a break, please—I wanna find her as much as you do, but—.”

“No, no you don’t—this is jus’ like you, Rocket, you—you wanna split the team, to—to run away from us, again...from your—hic —family!”

Rocket waited as Quill’s fist sailed towards him and missed by a considerable distance, striking the back of the co-pilot’s seat. Not that it would’ve hurt him—Peter’s hand-to-hand skills amounted to “floppy and useless” while drunk, and the words he said were painful enough to hear.

“I...I know you don’t mean that, Pete. Go on, then. I—I’ll see you in the mornin’.”

The man snorted and walked out of the bridge, leaving the raccoonoid alone with his thoughts.

Alone.

It’s during the bad nights, the nights like these that he wonders if he would be happier if he was alone again, and he hates himself for thinking that.

When Nebula comes to take the next watch shift, she says nothing about the tear streaks lining the fur of his face, or the shards of glass from a long-empty, long-broken beer bottle dusting his paws. She looks at the screen with her sister’s face and the same words that have been there for a year, and switches it off. She knows it'll be back on in the morning.

It always is.

Chapter Text

One Year Post-Return

"Okay, so, first of all I can’t believe it’s taking this long for you jerks to get caught up—."

"Huuuurrrk!"

"It’s been a year, I even gave each of you recordings of mine and Nebula’s data dumps—."

"—oh God—urrrrk!"

"Quill! Be hungover a little quieter, would ya?! I’m tryin’ to brief the team here!"

"Fu—ohhhhh, no, no, no—ugh!"

Rocket sighed in defeat and rubbed his brows anxiously. “Fine. Let’s wait until Beer-Lord in there is done vomiting up almost a month’s worth of hard liquor. Thor, don’t give him no more o’ that New Asgardian brew, yeah?”

An hour later, the team was once again gathered into the common area of the ship. A holographic view of a large structure built into an asteroid hovered over them. Rocket blinked once, then turned to Groot. The Flora colossus had grown rapidly since returning to life, and was almost a full adult now.

“Groot, I said to pull up the Rock.”

“I am Groot?”

“No—that’s the Kyln, kid. I meant the Rock.”

A few taps on a tablet later, and an image of a large, well-built Terran man appeared on the display. Rocket sighed and rubbed his eyes in exasperation.

“The other Rock!”

“I am Groot!

“Look, just—just give Nebula the tablet—and watch your fuckin’ language! Who taught you that word?!”

The Luphomoid took the tablet from the colossus as the latter gave his father-figure a withering glare and spread his arms towards him accusingly.

Oh. Ahem. Anyway, this—”

Another asteroid-embedded structure appeared on the screen, this time populated with a few dozen ships and emblazoned with a Nova Corps symbol. Rocket smirked a little as the rest of the Guardians leaned in slightly to get a closer look.

“—is the Rock. After Thanos...well, y’know, destroyed Xandar...the Nova Officers and civilians that remained fled to a nearby asteroid field, where they established a mining facility slash colony in an effort to maintain some degree of control over their space. After the Decimation, not many of those were left, so they had to reach out to old enemies, including—.”

The raccoonoid swiped a claw across his own tablet, and a cluster of planets took the Rock’s place. Quill’s eyes widened slightly and he turned to face Nebula, who had continued where Rocket left off.

“The Sovereign. After Thanos, two-thirds of their colonies’ populations disappeared, including the High Priestess Ayesha and other top leaders. Those who were left were quick to establish relations with Nova, and through them, the new Sovereign leadership conveyed a desire to make amends with the Guardians for all perceived and actual offences committed against them. We—Rocket and I—accepted, and for the next two years we aided the Sovereign and Nova Corps in rebuilding this sector of our galaxy.”

Nebula fell silent as Rocket cleared his throat, and tapped a code onto his wristband. A nanite mesh began to flow outwards, coating his suit and forming into a white, red and black shell with a stylised ‘A’ on the left side of his chest.

“‘Course, we weren’t exactly representin’ just the Guardians back then. Me, Neb and this half-Kree lady—Carol Danvers, she’s really awesome—we acted as intergalactic ops for the Avengers. We cleaned up areas where the Terrans couldn’t or wouldn’t reach. Meanwhile, a few loyalists to our old friend Ayesha broke away from the Sovereign and went around recruiting folks. Started calling themselves the Universal Church of Truth. They knew what the Avengers—what we were hopin’ to accomplish, and hoo boy, they hate our flarking guts for it! Loonies practically worshipped that purple bastard—.

“Anyway, fast forwards to one year ago when everybody came back. That included Ayesha, and the Sovereign that vanished with her. They almost all joined up with the Universal Church, and the—I can’t believe I’m saying this—the half-decent Sovereign were their first targets. Church waited until they had built up a false sense o’ security, and then destroyed their entire planetary cluster last week. The remnants have fled to Nova, who are asking us to provide security at the Rock while they help them resettle because they still don’t have the manpower that they used to. Any questions?”

There was a long stretch of silence as the team processed this. Then Groot raised a hand tentatively.

"I am Groot. I am Groot...I am Groot?"

"Huh. Whatcha mean, 'what's the catch?' Why does there have to be a catch?"

Mantis looked at Rocket, a small frown flashing across her face before it reverted to a more neutral, wide-eyed expression. "You are agitated. Are they not offering us payment?"

"What? I dunno. Does it matter if they are? Are there any questions about the mission—?"

"Uh, just one—who died and made you captain all of a sudden?"

The raccoonoid flinched, ears flattening against his head and he bared his teeth at Quill. The Terran had stood up and circled the table, not quite face to face with Rocket but still too close for his comfort.

Nebula and Thor shared a glance. They could practically see the gears in Rocket's head turning as he processed what was said.

"Wha—really, Quill? That’s what you took away from this discussion?"

"Oh, that was a discussion, was it? It sounded more like you telling the rest of the team what we'd be getting involved in, possibly risking our lives for! We don't just take missions without telling each other! Not even for Nova—"

"Star-Lord, are you not the one who answered my ship's distress call for no expectation of payment—." Thor rose to stand behind Rocket, hands curled into fists and eyes flickering bright blue as he looked at Quill.

"Thor, pal, that's different, that was a distress signal and we just happened to be nearby! Rocket is just doing what he wants because he thinks he's captain—when we have other priorities—!"

Nebula stood next, not hesitating to get in Peter's face. "You have been absent as this team's captain for the better part of the last year! Drowning yourself in alcohol, spending every waking moment in some fantasy thinking Gamora will come crawling back to you—."

"Don't you dare talk about her! When the hell did you become so altruistic, Nebula?!"

"Since all of you were dead for five years!"

The look Nebula gave him silenced any retort building in Quill's throat. The looks on Rocket and Thor's faces silenced the rest of the Guardians. The cyborg swallowed once before continuing, never breaking eye contact with Star-Lord.

"Almost all of what I have known is what Thanos gave me. What he made me into. What he took from me. But you, Quill? Drax, Mantis, Groot—you were something different. My sister's family, not of blood, but hers nonetheless—and mine through her. Then Thanos took you from me. For five years Rocket and I kept your memories alive. For five years I watched him barely sleep while keeping this ship running, not once cleaning your cabins for fear of forgetting your scents. For five years we mourned together, and yelled at each other, but every time my arm was destroyed on a mission he always made me another, better than the last. Every time Rocket’s cybernetics failed because there was no one left to repair them, I was there helping him bear the pain he felt being forced to relive his entire life—relive losing you—as his memory drives rebooted. For five years I worked to become more than the monster that my father made me into, by helping those who could not help themselves, and asking nothing in return but for them to do the same. For five years we guarded what was left of the galaxy—without you. And you have the gall to question our motives now, after you have spent the past year wasting your life?"

There was an uncomfortable bout of silence as the Luphomoid pushed past Peter, the lock to her cabin clicking shut. When it became clear that nobody was going to speak, Rocket shook his head and started to walk towards his own cabin.

"Twenty-four hours, guys. Me and Neb will take the pod. If any of ya wanna come with, fine. Please, just—give us twenty-four hours. If we ain't back by then, Pete, then leave us behind. You're the captain. You gotta look out for your team."

There was no noise when Rocket’s door locked—his cabin and his alone was almost completely soundproofed. It had been for six years.

One by one the Guardians dispersed, and the Benatar continued to drift idly through the cosmos, as though nothing had changed.