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five years later

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In retrospect, it was stupid to think that things would just go back to normal.

It had been five years. That was half a decade, spent believing that Rocket’s friends —  his family —  were dead, spent angry and defeated and bitter all the time, but still getting up every morning because if he didn’t protect the galaxy, no one else would.

It would’ve been easier, he thinks, to have been one of the folks who disappeared — to come back five years later instead of living through it. But then he thinks about it some more and realizes how lost the Avengers would’ve been without him. Like he’d told Stark, he was only a genius on Earth, and who knows? Without Rocket, maybe no one would have been brought back at all. He was the one that’d built Lang’s time machine, after all.

And anyway, if he’d died in the Snap, someone would’ve had to survive in his place — likely Groot, Quill, Drax, or Mantis. And he wouldn’t wish those five years on anyone. Especially not them.

Although, honestly, Rocket’s not sure that’s how it works. He’s seen the stats, obviously, so he knows it was an even split. When Thanos snapped his fingers, he wiped out half of all living things, and he knows that , but he’s not sure if he believes it, because out of the six of them, Rocket was the only one that survived, and that’s not half. Not by a long shot.

It sounds petulant to say it wasn’t fair, but it wasn’t. Being the only surviving member of the Guardians felt a lot like just another item on the long list of cruel jokes the universe has played on him. He wasn’t completely alone; he’d had Nebula, which was better than nothing. Way better than nothing, if he’s being honest; it’s easier to grieve over people with someone who at least knew the people you’re grieving over. But at the end of the day, Nebula had merely tolerated the other Guardians, and while Rocket missed Gamora, too, his relationship with her had been a lot different than Nebula’s.

Privately, Rocket sometimes thought to himself that Nebula had it worse than he did. Sure, he lost everything, but he’d at least had something to begin with. Nebula lost her sister right when they were starting to become a family again; she’d lost everything before she’d even had it to begin with.

Though they grieved over different things, Nebula was really the only person who remotely understood what it felt like to lose everyone you loved. No one else really got it, though some of them seemed like they thought they did, which was almost worse than no one getting it at all. The Avengers had no shortage of losses among them: Rogers lost his best friend, Stark lost the spider kid, and Thor lost just about everyone he knew. But at the end of the day, they still had each other. They still had their family. Rocket had lost his.

The best word Rocket could use to describe the five years on the Benatar without them was lonely. Sometimes it helped, to be surrounded by the mementos of the people he’d lost: Gamora’s godslayer, Groot’s game, Quill’s old scarf that Rocket tried to subtly incorporate into his outfit and that Nebula graciously never commented on. Other times, though, living in a place that used to be their home as much as his felt wrong. For four years, life on the Benatar was cramped and loud, and you could never avoid being up in someone else’s personal business, even if you tried. He never thought that would be something he missed, but the Benatar felt impossibly bigger when he and Nebula were the only people who lived in it. That was when he realized how accustomed he was to being constantly surrounded by others, how comforting it was to know that there was always someone nearby to help lend a hand while he repaired the ship, laugh at his jokes at Quill’s expense, or just keep him company.

He thought maybe living at the Avengers compound would help replicate that feeling, but it didn’t, not really. Despite all of the people residing there in those last couple of weeks, the compound always felt cold, and big, and empty to Rocket. The only thing that really helped was knowing that at the end of this —  assuming that everything didn’t go horribly wrong — his family would be back and everything would go back to normal.

And that’s what happened. Sort of.

They get everyone back — Groot, Quill, Drax, and Mantis. And they get Thor, too, which was kind of unexpected but not an outcome Rocket is directly opposed to. His rivalry with Quill is growing real old real fast, but what Thor needs is to be with people who embrace his flaws and are willing to overlook the past and provide a second chance, and they may be a bunch of ass-holes, but that’s what the Guardians have always been about.

And so the seven of them are packed into the cramped yet comfortable Benatar, kicking names and taking ass — Mantis’ words, not his —  and it should be just like old times, but it’s not.

For one thing, Gamora is gone. Rocket knows she’s not gone gone, technically — her past self from 2014 is out there, somewhere, if the database’s search history that Quill keeps forgetting to erase is any indication. He clearly hasn’t found her yet, and Rocket’s not sure what they’ll do if he does, because Gamora from 2014 isn’t Gamora. Or at least, she’s not the Gamora who fell in love with Quill, who rebuilt her relationship with Nebula, and who is the only one responsible enough to keep all these morons in check. That Gamora was lost with the soul stone, and she isn’t coming back. The Benatar doesn’t feel right without her, not really, and Rocket misses her more than anything, but he’s not sure they should chase after a Gamora who maybe doesn’t want to be chased after.

And the other thing is that it’s been five years. That’s one year longer than the time he spent with his family, which means he’s technically spent more time with the Avengers than he has with his own family. And to know you’ve spent more time apart from the people you care about most in the galaxy than you have spent together with them is, well...weird. And maybe kind of scary.

The others know how many years have passed since the decimation. Or at least, Rocket assumes the wizard mentioned it to them. But he doesn’t think knowing is the same thing as understanding. He spent half a decade without the only people who have ever accepted him and understood him and made him feel like he had a home. And now they’re back, and he should be happy and relieved, and he is, but he also can’t stop worrying about the possibility of losing them again.

He worries about it in moments where they could be in danger: checks on them in the middle of missions, volunteers for the more riskier tasks in case something goes wrong, tries not to grow frantic when it takes someone longer than usual to respond via the comms. But what’s worse is that he worries about it even when he maybe doesn’t have to: peeks into Groot’s quarters periodically, looks up sharply every time Mantis stops speaking mid-sentence, wakes up every morning hesitant to leave his quarters because he’s almost convinced himself that getting everyone back was all some cruel dream.

And that’s why, almost three weeks after Stark’s funeral, he’s lying in bed, unable to get to sleep because he can’t stop wondering if they’ll really all still be there when he wakes up.

Getting out of bed and peeking in everyone’s room won’t help, not in the long run. It’ll become a habit, another thing to add to Rocket’s long line of obsessive tendencies. But it’ll also give him the relief he needs to finally go to sleep, and that’s what makes him decide to roll out of bed and slowly pad out of his quarters.

But before he can even poke his head in Groot’s room, he’s stopped by the sight of Nebula sitting at the table in the main part of the ship, drinking from her designated mug — the green one with the Scooby-Doo logo on it — and staring out the main window. When she hears Rocket come in, she turns to him and, after slightly raising an eyebrow, nods a hello.

“What are you doing up?” Rocket asks.

Nebula purses her lips. “Drax snores loudly.”

“That’s an understatement,” Rocket snorts, and then nods towards her mug. “What are you drinking?”

Nebula slyly sips from her mug. “Some of Thor’s beer supply.”

“Well don’t go drinking all of it,” Rocket says. “Save some for the rest of us to break in and steal.”

“Make some yourself, if you're so worried about it,” Nebula says shortly, and the interaction is so routine and familiar that all the anxious parts of his mind seem to settle on their own accord. So Rocket grabs some of the beer stored in the lower cupboard and pours some into his own designated mug — the big one with the small handle that’s more comfortable for his hands to grip.

“Anyway. Why are you checking Groot’s quarters?” Nebula asks when Rocket slides into the seat across from her. “Afraid he is going to disappear again?”

She says it half-jokingly — or at least, as jokingly as Nebula can manage — but when Rocket doesn’t immediately answer, she says, in her typical somber monotone, “Oh. Is that what you are doing?”

Rocket makes a face and turns to look out the main window, too. One of his favorite things about being on the Benatar is that stars are always brighter in space than they are when you’re on the ground. Lately, they’ve looked even dimmer from the ground than usual, which Rocket suddenly realizes is because of the population increase. With half the universe gone, there was less light pollution, and for five years the stars were brighter than they had been.

Then Rocket decides that this line of thinking sounds like something Rogers would say to emphasize the bright side of things or some other bullshit, and decides to stop thinking about it.

Sighing, Rocket finally turns back to Nebula. “I spent so long thinking about bringing them back that I never really imagined what it’d be like when they actually came back.”

Nebula muses on this for a few seconds. “What is it like?”

Rocket thinks. “Weird?” He finally decides. Nebula doesn’t answer. “They were gone for five years. We were gone for five minutes. And I don’t know if they’ll ever understand what those five years were like.”

“They won’t,” Nebula agrees immediately, and Rocket looks over at her. She just shrugs. “They can’t.”

Rocket tries to imagine that he was one of the people that was dusted. He tries to imagine dying and coming back five minutes later only to discover that everyone he’s ever known is five years older, and they’ve spent half a decade thinking he was dead and trying to move on, only for him to be not dead, after all. It’s almost impossible to imagine, and Rocket decides maybe the grass isn’t as greener on the other side of fence as he’s assumed.

“Those five years,” Nebula says. “They were — ”

“Shitty?” Rocket suggests.

“Yes,” Nebula agrees readily, and cuts him a look. “You were pretty insufferable.”

Rocket rolls his eyes. “It’s not like you were a joy to be around either, Smurfette.”

“Still,” Nebula continues. “They could have been worse than they were.” Rocket stares at her in disbelief. “What?”

Rocket shakes his head. “Nah. They were pretty shitty.”

“Yes, but…” Nebula stops and then looks down at her mug, sighing. “Little of my experiences in life have been easy. But losing Gamora is one of the hardest things I have endured. She died because she wanted to protect me, and I should have — ”

“No, that’s bullshit,” Rocket snarls, cutting her off. “It wasn’t your fault what happened to Gamora. The only person you should blame is that purple ballsack.”

Nebula’s mouth twitches in what might look like a muscle spasm to others, but what Rocket knows to be her best approximation of a smile. “Regardless. Living day after day, trying to move on after she was gone when it felt like the world had been ripped out of my fingers -- it was no easy task. But knowing Gamora at all is what made losing her tolerable.”

Rocket squints at Nebula for a while and then shakes his head. “Yeah, no, I don’t follow.”

Nebula sighs again. “When Gamora died, she and I were just becoming sisters. It’s hard to know what she would have wanted for me — for us. Especially because we cannot exactly ask her. But I think she would have wanted me to move on. To do the right thing.” She’s quiet for a moment and then looks away from Rocket’s gaze. “Knowing what she would have wanted has made doing the right thing easier than it has been in the past. Does that make sense?”

“Maybe,” Rocket says, thinking about it. Nebula had every right to be angry and bitter after losing her sister, and she was, at times. But at other times, she was also even-keeled, and resourceful, and surprisingly kind — God knows she gave Rocket more slack than he deserved in the past five years. And even though protecting the galaxy was hard and dangerous and not at all as glamorous as you’d imagine, Nebula did it anyway. And when Romanoff had called, trying to get a gang together for the time heist, Nebula hadn’t even hesitated before agreeing. Neither had Rocket, obviously, but Rocket agreed to do it because he wanted his family back. Saving the world was just an added bonus. Nebula, on the other hand, said yes knowing that there was no guarantee Gamora would come back. She said yes to a mission so crazy and impossible that it might just kill them in the process, not because she had anything to gain from it, but because it was the right thing to do.

He’d probably never say it out loud, because he doesn’t want her blue head getting too big, but Rocket thinks Nebula is probably the strongest person he knows.

“Yeah,” Rocket says finally. “It does make sense.”

“It’s the same for you, I presume,” Nebula says, and Rocket frowns.

“I didn’t do anything special,” he grumbles. “Saved the galaxy a few times, I guess, but that’s nothing I ain’t done before.”

“But you did it without them,” Nebula points out. “Years before this...before the snap, before anything...could you have done the same?”

Years before this, Rocket was an angry and bitter thief who had balked at the idea of helping Quill and the others save the universe because it would’ve been easier to run and hide than take down Ronan. Years before this, Rocket thought so little of life and his own well-being that whether he lived or died didn’t make much of a difference to him.

But sometime in the last nine years, all of that had changed. The Guardians hadn’t just given him a home or a family — they’d given him a purpose. They made him feel like it was easy to be braver, to be more vulnerable, to do the right thing without thinking about the consequences. And even when they were gone, when he could’ve retreated into himself and pushed everyone away, gone back to all his old tendencies, he didn’t. He protected the galaxy as an unofficial Avenger for five years without anyone telling him to do it, he volunteered to risk his life and bring back half the universe without a moment of hesitation, and when the Avengers compound had come crashing down and he’d thought for a minute that he was going to drown, he’d been genuinely terrified he was going to die.

The Guardians made him want to be better, even after they were gone.

“No,” Rocket answers finally. “I couldn’t have done it.”

“Then you should give yourself more credit,” Nebula says. “You’re not as much of an asshole as you think you are.”

“You know, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Savor it. It won’t happen again.”

Rocket snorts. “Sure, ya big softie,” he says, and Nebula glares daggers at him. If he were anyone else, it would’ve been terrifying, but Rocket knows that if Nebula wanted to kill him, she’d have done it a long time ago. There was once a time where Nebula would’ve killed him, he realizes —  even tried to do it — and now, she’s one of the people he’s closest to.

Life is so fucking weird, he thinks as he takes a long sip from his mug.

“I think it will get easier,” Nebula says suddenly. Rocket raises his eyebrows at her. “Trying to remember that they’re back and they’re back to stay.”

“Kind of like it got easier trying to remember that they were gone and they were never coming back?” Rocket asks, deadpan.

“Kind of,” Nebula answers, surprisingly serious, and maybe she’s right. As previously stated, most days during those five years were shitty. But maybe Rogers’ positive-bright-side bullshit wasn’t so off-base, because there were also times where it felt like every day got easier.

“Hey,” Rocket says. “Can I ask you something?”

“If you must,” Nebula says with an eye-roll.

“After Thor killed Thanos and we got back to the compound, and I said I was getting the hell off of Earth and I asked if you wanted to come with...why did you say yes?”

Nebula looks at him for a long time. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “Why did you ask?”

“I don’t know,” Rocket echoes, although that’s not true. There are a lot of reasons why he asked, and he knows them all, but he’s not sure which to say. Because the rest of the Avengers were all strangers to us? Because I knew you had no place else to go? Because you’re Gamora’s sister? Because it was the right thing to do?

“Because you’re family,” is what Rocket finally settles on. “Y’know. Leave nobody behind, and all that crap.”

Nebula’s mouth twitches again, only the twitch is longer this time — long enough that maybe someone other than Rocket would recognize it as a smile, too.

“That’s why I said yes,” she says, and Rocket smiles back.