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The first time it happened, they were in a firefight in an asteroid belt with a bunch of Zri'chek mercenaries (which, admittedly, they'd kind of started, by stealing the experimental power source the mercs had been hired to guard). Gamora saw the Zri'chek fighter closing on the tail of her own fast little ship, but she was too busy blowing away the ones who had clustered around Peter's ship, which was a relatively slow cargo hauler carrying their prize. If she could jink left, before it could lock onto her --

And then the ship targeting her went up in a cloud of silent flames, and an unfamiliar ship dropped into the fight along with them.

"Who the fucknuggets is that?" Rocket demanded over the radio.

"Beats the hell out of me," was Peter's response, "but it looks like they're on our side."

"Nobody's ever on our side! Not without a whole fashion show's worth of strings attached!"

"I am Groot!"

Gamora tuned out the radio chatter, focusing on her own fight, but she was watching the strange ship. It had fallen into a flanking position with her own ship, keeping the rest of the mercs off her so she was free to defend Peter's cargo hauler, and though it didn't respond to radio hails, she knew who was flying it. She knew the pilot's moves, knew them as well as she knew her own.

In the flurry of action, she lost sight of the ship, and by the time they were clear of both the asteroids and the mercenaries, it was gone.

 

***

 

The second time was during their hasty retreat after being hired to rescue a princess from a mafia-run ice planet. Turned out the princess had run off to escape an arranged marriage and was living happily with her new wife, whose orders to her goon army were to shoot on sight any would-be "rescuers."

"Let's rescue a princess, you said!" Rocket yelled at Peter from the shoulder of a teenage-sized Groot as they struggled across a seemingly endless ice field, with a blizzard swirling around them. "It'll be fun, you said! We'll make a lot of money, you said!"

"I aM GrOOt."

"Yeah, what he said!"

"We all voted for it," Peter said between his (chattering) teeth, huddling into his parka. They were dressed for cold weather, but this was beyond anything they'd prepared for. Gamora could feel the wind cutting straight through her inadequate coat; only her body-mods kept her fully functional. She made a mental note to stop by the merchant who had sold them this gear and have a small chat with him about his "good to eighty standard units below zero!" sales patter.

"Put your helmet on," she told Peter. "You're turning blue."

"None of the rest of you have helmets," Peter protested.

"i AM gROOt."

"Like he said, some of us have fur, ya doof. Put your damn helmet on so I can yell at you proper-like."

Mantis stumbled. Drax, who wasn't even wearing a coat and whose teeth were chattering worse than Peter's, caught her and slung her arm over his shoulder. "She is not doing well. Her people are not cold-weather people like mine are."

"You look like you are about to collapse, you fool," Gamora snapped at him. It was easier to be angry than afraid.

"Here." Peter dropped back to Drax's side. Stripping off his gloves, he held them in his teeth and reached behind his ear. He put his hands into the hood of Mantis's parka, and an instant later the helmet's face mask covered her half-closed eyes and blue-tinted lips. Peter wrapped a hand around each of her antennae for a moment, warming them skin-to-skin, before tucking them under her hood.

"How far to the town on your map?" Gamora asked Rocket as quietly as she could over the shriek of the wind.

Rocket's ears flattened. "Don't skin me for sayin' this, tall, green, and scary, but I ain't even sure we're going the right way." He frowned at the blue glitter of the compass in his hand, projecting a tiny display above his palm, and smacked it with his other paw. The fur around his eyes and mouth was frosting up; impatiently he wiped at it. "The weather's messing with my gear. I keep trying to calibrate it ... But it just ain't working. I can't make it work." He spat the last words viciously.

"It's all right. Keep trying." Gamora knew his thoughts were probably running along similar lines to her own. Of the group of them, she and Rocket were in the best shape to survive long enough to reach shelter, Gamora with her modifications and Rocket with his fur. Groot seemed to be barely unaffected as well ... yet. Their teammates were in increasingly bad shape, however, and it wouldn't be too much longer before they would start to succumb as well.

Groot is probably capable of carrying one more, even at his relatively small size. Can I handle two of them myself? She was not sure. The alternative, however, was leaving even one of them behind, and that was unthinkable. Not even worth considering.

"Perhaps if we make camp," she began.

"With what?" Rocket's voice cracked in desperation. "Ain't nothin' here!"

"We could build a snow cave, use our coats for shelter and share body heat --" But even as she said it, she knew it wouldn't work. These coats were simply not warm enough.

Suddenly Mantis raised her head from Drax's shoulder with a gasp. "Peter, your helmet is showing me a thing."

Peter, swaying where he stood, looked up at her. "What kind of thing?"

"A glowing thing?"

"That doesn't narrow it down --"

Around them, the gloom of the blizzard brightened. Instinctively they moved closer together, stumbling to put their backs together and form a small circle facing outward. Gamora reached under her coat, one hand on her knife, the other on her gun.

The ship was on them suddenly, looming out of the storm as a hatch swung open in the side. It was impossible to see inside, between the ship's blinding lights and the white-out. The little knot of Guardians pressed against each other.

"Whaddya think, guys?" Peter shouted over the wind. "Doesn't look like cops, but we're on Mobworld; pretty sure they don't even have police here. Anybody could be here to kill us."

"I don't see that we have a choice," Gamora shouted back.

Also ... she knew that ship. With the lousy visibility, she couldn't be positive, but she was fairly sure it was the same ship that had helped them in the fight against the Zri'chek mercenaries.

Besides, she wasn't lying. It was true that they had no other options.

With Groot and Gamora helping the weaker members of their party, they stumbled into the ship's cargo hold and collapsed in a heap, shedding melting snow all over the floor. The hatch slammed shut and the engines whined as the ship bucked in the storm's grasp.

It wasn't a large vessel; the cockpit was open to the cargo hold. Gamora stumbled to her feet and lurched her way up front. She already knew who she'd see in the pilot's seat, and she was not wrong.

"Sit down, idiot!" Nebula snapped, fighting the controls as the ship rocked and tilted in the wind.

A number of different responses fought their way up Gamora's throat, but didn't make it past her lips. Instead, clinging to the back of Nebula's seat, she said, "I need to turn up the heat in the back. Some of my teammates are badly chilled."

"Do it, just don't distract me!"

As Gamora leaned past her to dial up the heat, they broke free of the storm at last and burst into still air. The ship leveled out. Above them, the stars were clear, sharp and chill.

"Where is your ship?" Nebula demanded. She still hadn't looked at Gamora.

"In orbit above the planet. How did you know that we were here?"

"Yeah, are you following us?" Peter's slightly hoarse voice asked.

Gamora looked over her shoulder and saw that he'd followed her into the cockpit, hanging onto the wall while he dripped all over the floor. Gamora scowled at him and cut her eyes sideways at Nebula; Peter looked baffled. Gamora emoted as much as she could, looked at Nebula again, and finally saw his lips shape a silent "oh". "Uh, I mean, thanks for rescuing us. But seriously, why are you here?"

Nebula looked like she wanted to spit. "My being here had absolutely nothing to do with you. It is pure chance that I noticed an anomalous cluster of life signs while leaving the planet and decided to see if they had anything I could steal."

It was the least convincing possible explanation, but Gamora was distracted from following up on it by a muffled noise and a thump from near her feet. Startled, she looked down to see the missing princess, bound and gagged and tethered to the wall, lying on the floor near Nebula's seat. The princess glared daggers at them above the tape securing her mouth.

Peter looked too, and did a double take. "Er ..." he began awkwardly.

"Don't give me any self-righteous bullshit, Quill. You were here to steal her too."

"Well, yeah, but we decided to leave her there."

"To be accurate, we were chased out of the city by many angry warriors who were shooting at us," Drax said from behind Peter.

"Thanks buddy. That's a help."

"In any case, I haven't time for useless sentiment. Do you know how many weapons I can buy with the reward on her to use against Thanos? What she does after that," Nebula said smugly, "is her own business. Ah, here is your ship."

She maneuvered expertly to dock her airlock with theirs. "Well? Go and stop leaving me puddles to clean up!"

Gamora gave brief thought to the idea of snatching the princess, but Nebula was right: there was little point in the Guardians returning her to her chosen home since she had proven herself capable of escaping easily from her family on her own, and Nebula had earned her reward.

"Be well, sister," she said, turning back before following her team through the airlock. "Thank you for helping us."

Nebula's only reply was a dismissive snort.

 

***

 

The next time, they were in prison on a back-end-of-the-galaxy planet called Trumath, attempting to figure out an escape plan while arguing about whose fault it was that they got caught in the first place. (Gamora was sitting out the argument and working on the door's hinges with the tiny knife their guards hadn't found in its hiding place in her boot, but for the record, it was absolutely Drax's fault.)

Suddenly, in a tremendous shower of sparks and blue fire, the door burst out of its frame and exploded across the room, slamming into the wall inches from Mantis. The knife, wrenched painfully from Gamora's fingers, clattered to the floor.

Gamora had vaulted automatically backwards and was now halfway across the room. Coming out of her crouch, she stared at Nebula framed in the doorway, an enormous gun slung across her back and another muzzle-down at her side, smoking gently.

"Are you idiots going to stand there all day with your mouths hanging open, or do you want to leave?" Nebula snapped at them.

"I am Groot."

"Yeah, like he said, one of us could'a been behind that door, sister," Rocket pointed out acridly as they all spilled out into the hallway.

"No one would have been killed with body mods to protect them," was Nebula's tart response.

"Sooooo ... you know most of us don't have body mods, right?" Peter said.

Nebula didn't bother dignifying that with a response.

As she settled in to run beside her sister, automatically falling into step (her body remembering the habits her conscious mind had nearly forgotten), Gamora murmured, "Let me guess. You just happened to be in the same prison as the rest of us and decided you needed our extra firepower for your own escape?"

Nebula grunted and, with a series of rapid-fire, well-aimed shots, neatly picked off a cluster of robot drones that had just swarmed into the far end of the hallway. "Where's your gear?" she demanded.

"The impound level is the third floor, I think."

With their weapons restored to them (and Peter's Zune; he was sporting a black eye from his scuffle with the guard who'd taken it), they broke out onto the top of the prison, where Nebula's ship turned out to be. It was a different ship than the last time, sleek and fast-looking. Gamora noticed both Peter and Rocket giving it appreciative and, in Rocket's case, covetous looks as they ran on board under a hail of gunfire.

"If either of you even considers stealing my ship," Nebula snapped as she flung herself into the pilot's seat, "I will kill you. Slowly."

"Nobody's stealin' nothin', lady. Chill down."

"It's 'chill out,'" Peter muttered, belting himself into the copilot's seat.

"That one too!"

Gamora hung onto the back of Nebula's seat as they took off, dodging fire from the prison's laser cannons. "It seems, sister," she murmured, leaning over the back of the seat so her voice was pitched for Nebula's ears only, "that you are developing a bad habit of rescuing us."

"Go make yourself useful in the weapons turret and stop saying stupid things!"

One brief firefight later, they dropped out of hyperspace into a quiet orbit around a planet that appeared uninhabited. Gamora leaped down from the weapons turret, only to have a curious Rocket swarm up her, using her as a ladder over her startled protests, and jump off her head into the turret.

Brushing down her hair, she went into the cockpit, where the rest of her team were arguing over the best way to break into the impound lot where their ship was currently being held. Nebula looked like she was regretting rescuing them already.

"You do not need to help us any further," Gamora said, leaning on the back of her chair.

"Good, because I wasn't planning on it." Nebula stood up abruptly. "We should not encounter any danger here, but if anything happens, kindly stop these morons from breaking my ship."

Although Nebula clearly meant her to stay in the cockpit, Gamora instead followed her into the back of the ship. The ship was not large; there was a single small cabin with an attached galley. The bed had been ripped out of the cabin -- Gamora recalled that, as per Thanos's modifications, her sister did not need to sleep. Instead there was a worktable and a weapons locker. Nebula opened a case of tools and unbuckled her vest. A sharp smell of scorched electronics filled the air.

"You're hurt?" Gamora asked quietly, stepping into the room.

Nebula's shoulders tensed. She kept her back to the door, snatching up a tool from the case as if it had offended her. "I can't be hurt." With sharp, angry movements, she stabbed at her front, twisting and tinkering. "I do not feel pain. I can survive almost anything. It is not the same thing as injuring a flesh-and-blood body."

"I know, but you're still hurt." Gamora moved slowly, coming around the worktable to face her. With her vest undone, the scorched damage to the front of her body was clearly visible. "May I help?"

"Unless you have picked up advanced mechanical skills since we last saw each other, I would really rather not." Nebula's mouth twisted in an angry mockery of a smile. "It may be a hideous monstrosity of a body, but it is my body. I'd rather not have it ruined."

"You aren't hideous, nor are you a monstrosity," Gamora said gently. "I have had some practice at assisting Rocket in his workshop --"

"Oh, the raccoon? Wonderful."

"-- and I could hand you tools," she went on. "Or hold things for you, so you can use both hands."

Nebula's only answer was an irritated noise. After a moment, she said in a low voice, her attention fixed on the rift in her middle rather than on Gamora, "Do you know what a #2 connector clamp looks like?"

"I believe I can identify it."

Nebula jerked her chin to indicate a stack of boxes on the other side of the room. "Bring me one."

They worked without speaking for a while, Gamora handing her tools and parts, Nebula working on herself in grim silence. At one point Peter stuck his head in, his entire face a question. Gamora shook her head at him, and he withdrew.

It was only after Nebula fastened up her vest again that the silence became awkward. Gamora could think of nothing to say that wouldn't risk chasing her off. She didn't even know what she wanted to say, not really. It wasn't as if Nebula would join them, wasn't as if she could join them, even if she wanted to. She had her own quest to pursue.

"So you idiots are off to steal a ship now, I guess."

"We are off to repossess our own ship," Gamora corrected.

"Semantics."

"We can tell you a place to drop us off. That being said," Gamora added, "if you'd like to come along, you would be welcome to."

"Ha. And get shot at with the rest of you losers. No thank you. I should also warn you, if you're stupid enough to get caught again, I'm not doing anything about it."

"Of course not." Gamora hesitated. She'd done this before; why was it so hard? Before she could second-guess herself, she hugged her sister quickly.

The last time, Nebula had stood woodenly, stiff with shock. This time, one hand touched Gamora's back: not an answering embrace, not quite, but something that might almost be one, eventually, given time.

"Before we go," Gamora said as she pulled back, "I'd like to give you something, if I may." She took the small item from her pocket and dropped it into Nebula's hand.

"What's this?" Nebula asked, turning it over in her hand.

"It is a custom distress beacon, set to a private, scrambled frequency meant for our ship alone. Rocket made one for each of us. I'll have him make me another. If you are in trouble, set it off and we will come."

Nebula's face went briefly still; then she said scornfully, "Given your team's level of competency, it is hard for me to imagine ever being in that much trouble."

But she put the beacon in her pocket.