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Let Me Grow Young

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Once Gamora had loathed the life of a traveler. Every trip, every thrust outward into unfeeling space was a reminder that she had no place to call home. She used to hate the rumble of interstellar crafts and the disorientation of stepping onto alien earth having to assess, reconfigure and compensate for every new situation. Sometimes, in her most private of day dreams, she’d imagined settling somewhere quiet and living out her days in one place with no one to tell her to move on to the next assignment.

The Milano had no such grumble to her ears. Remade and refitted, it hummed along the infinite skein of black wool dotted with stars. Her berth was small, but it belonged to no one else. Here was her bed, her own blankets and pillow that no one stole or changed out to teach her unlearnable lessons. Inspired by Peter’s recordings, she searched the cybernet to find recordings of her people. She found a series of lullabies from the southern continent, different than the ones she was raised with, but still familiar. For the first time in decades, she fell asleep to the sounds of her native tongue.

“What’s that?” Peter asked from her doorway the first time he heard the slide of antohorn coming from her space.

“My music,” she smiled at him and he beamed back bemusedly.

“It’s pretty,” he tapped a finger against her door and then danced away, doing a softshoe to make her laugh. It worked.

Liking Peter didn’t take her off guard. He was, in his own peculiar way, easy to like. He wanted to impress people and even make them comfortable in a con man sort of way. Sometimes he still side eyed her in a way that made her uncomfortable, but he never tried anything again and kept his ogling to polite minimum.

But there were the others and they did make her revaluate.

“Would you like to see something?” Drax asked her, a week into their new voyage. He looked almost shy.

“Depends on what it is,” but she was already setting aside the news scroll she’d been reading.

“I found this among Quill’s hoard,” he led her to common area where Groot was experimenting with leaf growth on the table. “We were attempting to organize it.”

“I know. That’s why I was in my room.”

They’d picked up one of Peter’s caches when he discovered how much of his ‘treasure’ had been lost in the reconstruction of his ship. For a thief, Peter kept a lot of what he found. Things he couldn’t find a buyer for or didn’t have any inherent worth or that struck some unknowable fancy with him. The sheer density of useless items overwhelmed Gamora. She was used to only keeping the few possessions that mattered on her person. None of them were sentimental.

“I also tried to avoid it, but there is not much to do and some if it is interesting. Quill gave me this when I explained what it was,” Drax picked up a flat board off the table and showed it to her. It was wooden, she realized. There were random raised lines on the surface painted in reds and greens. “It’s considered a children’s game on my world, but it is deceptively difficult. It requires two people to work together to move a metal ball through the maze.”

“How do you move it?”

“See, the dowels fit along the bottom,” He traced along two slots. “The ends are balanced on fingertips. It’s surprisingly sensitive.”

“Do you have the dowels?”

“Yes, but no ball.”

“How big?” Rocket emerged from under the table, a tangle of cords sparking in one hand.

“Small,” Drax bent down to show him the board. “It should fit along these grooves.”

“That’s easy,” Rocket shuffled through his pockets and produced a small metal sphere. “Ball bearing.”

“Thank you,” Drax took it gravely then turned to Gamora, “Would you be interested in a game?”

The table proved too broad to work properly, so they sat on the floor with their legs folded up and the board balanced on their finger tips. It was difficult, requiring stillness and small gentle movements to guide the ball down the aisles.

“Ach,” Drax sighed as the ball bearing tipped away again. “I never was very good at this. My daughter...this was her favorite.”

“I am Groot?” The current incarnation of Groot’s voice reminded Gamora a little of wind rifling through leaves.

“Would you like to try, my friend?” Drax lifted the pot gently and set it down in his stead. Groot held out his branch arms and after some testing, rested the dowel tips over them.

Groot was more patient and he seemed to enjoy the meditative intent of the game. He and Gamora sank into a shared relax state, guiding the ball with slow ease. She lost a sense of time passing, her focus narrowed to the goal. Her breath slowed and evened out. When at last the ball dropped through the hole in the middle of the board, her satisfaction nearly overwhelmed her.

The applause shook her loose. Rocket was still under the table, but he had dropped whatever project had occupied him. His arms were folded over a crossbar, his head resting in them as he watched. Groot preened as his friend clapped.

“Would you like to try?” She offered.

“No, thanks. Not my speed,” Rocket dropped backwards into a pile of parts. “I’m more of a puzzle kind of guy.”

Drax had gone, perhaps to mourn in private, so Gamora set the game carefully on the table for him to retrieve later. Groot held onto the ball bearing, apparently fascinated with the smooth surface.

“You hungry?” Peter ducked his head into the common area. His clothes were dusty and there was a smear of something on his forehead.

“Yes!” Rocket shouted from under the table.

“Yes,” Gamora agreed.

“I made pasta,” Peter ducked back into the galley then reappeared with a frown. “Everyone can digest gluten right?

“I can eat metal if required,” Gamore said gravely.

“Really?” Peter’s eyebrows shot up.

“Well. Certain alloys,” she shrugged.

“I once ate aluminum,” Rocket contributed. “Didn’t agree with me in the long run though.”

“Noted,” Peter disappeared again.

Pasta meant long stringy noodles and an acidic sauce that Peter sighed over and pronounced ‘close enough’. Drax appeared and took a plate, sprinkling a protein booster over it. Rocket sat on the table and forewent utensils, twining the noodles around sharp nails and somehow avoiding getting any of the sauce in his fur.

“We should head to a market,” Peter said around a mouthful of food.

“Chew with your mouth closed,” Drax tsked. “Why a market?”

“We’re running low on food,” Gamora realized, the pasta making more sense. None of them had bothered to cook before, content to live off ration packs.

“Water too,” Peter agreed after swallowing. “A job wouldn’t go wrong either.”

“What about Trenton?” Rocket licked a dot of sauce off his nose. “We’re only a day or two out. Still in Nova territory, but too far out to step on any toes. I’ve got a contact there.”

“I thought the market there burned down?” Peter frowned.

“They rebuilt it a few klicks over. Still stinks like sewage, but some of the shops got running water out of the deal.”

“Sounds scenic,” Gamora said and Rocket laughed, rusty and low.

Trenton was everything it promised to be: a dirty market that stretched in all directions with streets marked by handwritten signs. Some of the shops were little more than tables while others were elaborate multi-story buildings with flashing billboards. Rocket stayed on the ship, reaching out to his contact to set up a meeting while Peter and Drax went forth to restock the food supply. On her own, Gamora wandered the streets without agenda.

“Sample a perfume?” A vendor called after her, “Try a bite of this sausage!’ cried another. No one seemed to recognize her or if they did, were far more eager to sell their wares than make a scene. She was absorbed into the crowd, guided by the press of their bodies from one place to another. When she needed relief, she drifted into a shop and browsed the trinkets for sale. A junker’s wide windows drew her in and she lost a few minutes puzzling over the broken bits for sale.

An unusual shine caught her eye and she picked up what look like a telescope without a lens. The metal was unusual, the iridescent gleam looked like spilled oil, but was dry to the touch. Peering down the tube, she saw a network of dense circuits. A sticker called it ten credits.

“I’ll give you seven,” she told the shopkeeper. He was more a mountain of rags than a person and his eyes were dull.

“Nine,” he husked.

“Eight.”

“Eight,” he agreed and wrapped it in ragged piece of brown paper.

The Milano was waiting when she decided she’d had enough of aimlessness. Rocket was still sitting at the comm, but he had his feet up on the arm of the chair and a holographic interface hovering a few inches from his face that he was manipulating.

“Any luck?” She sat in the other pilot’s seat. The view through the windows had been opaqued.

“Depends. You ever done a bank heist?”

“I’ve stolen from government vaults. Is it similar?”

“Close enough,” he decided. “There’s a stash of old Imperial paintings at a bank on the Jot Collective. They were stolen in the Youth Wars from the Enedictines. So it’s stealing, but for monks that run orphanages. Sounded like it was in our line of work.”

“Perfect,” she agreed. “How’s the money?”

“Ten thousand up front, fifty thousand on completion. Enedictines are frugal bastards.”

“Nothing to say we can’t lift a few other things once we’re in,” she mused.

“I knew I liked you for a reason,” Rocket wiggled his toes in her direction. “Exactly what I was thinking.”

“Oh, I found this,” she pulled out the brown wrapped package. It wasn’t until she saw him that she realized she’d bought it with him in mind. A gift, she thought. When was the last time she’d given someone a gift? “I didn’t recognize the material. What do you think?”

He unwrapped it nimbly, then turned it over and over in his hands.

“It’s a plastic,” he decided, tapping it. “Some kind of conductor? Where’d you get it?”

“Junker shop. Doubt he knew what it was,” she shrugged. “I thought it looked interesting.”

“Weird sheen,” he held it up the light then offered it back to her.

“You keep it.”

He froze, staring at her. She kept her expression neutral. Slowly, he brought it back down then held it close to his chest. Feeling awkward about it all, she looked away, turning her attention to the dash readouts.

“Thanks,” he finally said gruffly.

“You’re welcome,” she replied with a shrug.

The bank heist was messy, but effective. More of a smash and grab then an advanced plan, her part was kept to disarming a handful of guards while the boys tinkered with the vault. They left behind a mildly spectacular flash explosion that should wipe out any surveillance. The Imperial paintings were slightly singed in the process, but they aired them out and told the Enedictines that that’s how they looked when they found them.

“We thank you,” the lead monk said solemnly, bowing low to them. Gamora mimicked the bow, returning it and got a smile for her troubles. “Would you take a meal with us? We know our money is meager, but our larders are quite full.”

“Yes,” Peter agreed before anyone could argue. “I’m starving.”

“Fool, they could do anything to our food,” she hissed once the monk was out of earshot.

“Well, yeah, but they probably won’t. What good would it do them?” Peter ambled after the monk.

The food was simple, bread, cheese and slices of fruit. She smelled everything first and even then only took very small bites while keeping an eye on Peter. He ate voraciously. Drax, who had apparently even fewer reservations, drank their ale. Only Rocket showed similar wariness, but eventually even he gave into the temptation of fruit slices. Though he dipped each one in water from his own canteen first.

“Will that purify it?” She whispered.

“Huh?” Rocket looked down at the fruit slice, water dripping through his fingers. “No?”

“Oh,” she frowned. “Then why?”

“Enhances touch. I’ve got sensitive hands,” he shrugged and went on munching. “Good sense of touch will save you over eyesight in a pinch.”

No ill effects came from the food, so when the monks offered some leftovers, she took them and ate the slightly stale bread and cheese for breakfast the next morning. As she ate, she turned the bread over and over in her fingers and tried to imagine what Rocket could feel in the grain.

“I am Groot,” Groot told her, watering himself with the pitcher they’d left beside him.

“I am Groot,” she agreed out of sheer curiosity. He rustled his leaves at her and swayed a little.

“You could be dirty talking him for all you know,” Peter ambled into the communal area, t-shirt riding up as he yawned.

“What’s does that mean to him?” She took her food to the table. They’d eat together. That was good. “I’d guess his people don’t have much use for what we think of as reproducing.”

“Point,” Peter punched in the code for the hot bean water he was fond of and held out his mug to the dispenser.

“Anyway, he’s sort of a baby now, isn’t he?”

“I am Groot!”

She didn’t need a translator for that level of indignation.

“My apologies,” she hid her smile in the remains of her breakfast.

They went over their ill gotten gains from the bank vault once everyone had made it to the table. Rocket produced a pocket full of high quality gemstones, Peter blueprints to what looked like a few high end homes in the Jot collective and Drax sheepishly handed over a handful of miniature statues.

“They were the only thing small enough to grab,” he sighed. “I’m not sure they have any worth.”

“Oh hey,” Peter grabbed up one intricate replication of a girl’s face, “no man. This is great! I know this artist.”

“You do?” Gamora narrowed her eyes.

“Hey! Ravagers need culture too. How else would we know what to keep and what to toss?”

“You don’t seem to have learned much then,” she teased.

“Ha ha,” he rolled his eyes. “These are from Tan Minor. Javob Fenrir designed them. They were for noble children.”

“Toys,” Rocket guessed and plucked one up, rolling it around much as he had his fruit the night before. Now that she had observed it, she realized it was something he did nearly constantly.

“And decoration. They’re collectibles on some worlds. Considering they were in a vault, I’d guess these were rare ones which jacks their value up. We can move these. Get the best price on Tan Minor itself. I can set up a buyer for the gems there too.”

“I’m keeping this one,” Rocket took a deep red stone from the pile.

“Why?” Peter wrinkled his brow. “It’s just a garnet.”

“Because I want it. Problem?’

“Nope,” Peter shrugged. “Not exactly going to cut into our profit margin.”

“How long is it to Tan Minor?” Drax looked happier for having discovered his prize wasn’t worthless.

“Ten days? Maybe eleven. We can make a pit stop in the middle if anyone gets itchy.”

They found new ways to pass the time. By unspoken agreement, they sat in the common area if they wanted company and retreated to their berths when they wanted to be alone. More and more, Gamora gravitated to the common area.

“How long can you balance this on your nose?” Peter would ask when she walked in, a spoon already tucked over the tip of his nose. Rocket had one on too, looking wholly unconcerned about it. Groot had one balanced on top of his head.

Just a few weeks ago, she would have scoffed at such a juvenile concept, but now she just grabbed up one of her own and huffed a breath over the metal before hooking it on.

Or Drax would ask for context in a news story he was reading. Or she would hum to Groot, who seemed to enjoy music of all kinds and could be persuaded to hum back if she hit the proper notes. Or Rocket would ask her to hold something still while he drilled, cut and wired.

Eventually, she asked for their help too. She sparred with Drax to keep herself in shape. It was different working against a slower moving, but harder hitting opponent. It forced her to modulate her usual style and each bout left her invigorated. Peter taught her the ins and outs of the Milano’s controls until she was sure she could pilot it through an asteroid belt laden with mines.

They’d been in the air for over a week when Rocket handed her the bracelet. They had been talking about realigning some of the navigation controls when he produced it from one of his pockets.

“The plastic you found on Trenton responds to biofeedback. So,” he handed her a thin band of the iridescent plastic. The garnet he’d taken from the heist gleamed at the joint. “If you wear it, it’ll turn red when the oxygen levels in your blood drop. Do it before you notice too. Or should anyway.”

“That’s amazing. Where do you think it came from?” She strapped the band around her wrist. He’d taken his time fashioning it. There was nothing to snag on her skin and it fit perfectly without interfering with any of her mods.

“No idea. I tried to track it, but no luck.”

“It’s beautiful,” she ran a thumb over it. “Thank you.”

“Whatever,” he slumped back in his chair, but couldn’t hide his pleased expression.

Without quite intending it, they started a tradition right there and then. Afterwards, every planet they landed on Gamora would keep her eye out for unusual mechanical bits and bobs. She never spent too much on them and sometimes they did turn out to just be junk. She would carry these things back to Rocket and he’d give his evaluation with blunt joy. They’d disappear into the recesses of his berth and reappear days or weeks later reconfigured into something useful or decorative for her.

“How come you don’t bring me presents?” Peter whined.

“Because you suck,” Rocket pronounced gravely as he showed her how to operate the electrified whip.

“I give you the heads of your enemies,” she pointed out mildly.

“You do not. I do not have a single head.”

“Would you like one?” She gestured to the nose of the ship. “Might make for an interesting table decoration.”

“No,” Peter heaved a sigh. “Knowing our luck it’d be some species that can survive decapitation and will try to gnaw me to death in my sleep.”

“That’s why you don’t get nice things,” Rocket said and turned on the whip. It glowed a menacing green and she approved of it immediately.

“Stop making her more deadly!” Peter threw his hands in the air. “At this rate, she won’t need the rest of us to be a goddamn superhero.”

“Of course I need you,” she soothed. “Every hero needs a sidekick.”

Rocket laughed so hard at Peter’s betrayed face that he fell off the table.

It wasn’t always so raucous or happy. They were still all the walking wounded and their scars were tender to touch. A careless word or unthinking motion could set one of them off and bring everyone to a boil. It never came to blows though, for which she was grateful. Drawing blood had been Thanos’ way of controlling his family. This new configuration would not withstand it. Instead, they threw around sharp words and occasionally took out their rage on the furniture.

After one such bangup, she retreated to her berth and lay on her bed. There was a mobile hanging above it now, fragments of colored glass that danced when she flicked on a soundless motor. The shards threw their brightness around the space, playing blues and purples over her skin.

She tried to will herself to sleep, but her mind was having none of it. She lay there, frustrated and shaking with it for far too long. Eventually, she gave it up and decided to get something warm to drink that might settle her stomach. She crept down the hall, ears pricked for any movement from the others. Apologies and fumbled forgiveness would only exacerbate her nerves at the moment.

There was as sharp stiff cry, just in her range of hearing. She froze, heart rate accelerating. The cry came again and she pinpointed it to Rocket’s berth. The door was uncharacteristically ajar as if he’d been too angry to properly slam it closed. One hand on her knife, she peeked around the door.

He wasn’t being attacked. His small body was curled up impossibly tight under a blanket, twitching and protesting some unseen force. Groot’s pot was beside the bed and his branches danced nervously over Rocket’s prone form.

A nightmare. Gamora had nightmares. She went in before she could think too hard about it. Groot pulled back in silent permission. With care, she laid her hand on Rocket’s head.

“You aren’t there,” she said quietly. “Rocket, you aren’t there. You’re with me and Groot. Safe.”

He woke slowly, not fully surfacing as she went on murmuring.

“Gamora?” He asked, drowsy and disconnected.

“You’re safe,” she told him. “I promise.”

“Oh,” he reached out, put his hand on top of hers. Then he seemed to fall back asleep.

She didn’t want to leave him like that, so she settled against the bed as best she could without disturbing him. Her head rested on the mattress and it was nearly comfortable. She figured she would wait a few minutes more.

When she woke up it was with a crick in her neck and a very furry hat. Rocket had wrapped himself around her head in his sleep. Beside them, Groot was humming.

“So. This is awkward,” Rocket grumbled after a few minutes.

“Just a little,” she agreed.

“How about we never speak of this again?”

“Done.”

They didn’t talk about it. Yet, the next time Gamora’s sleep was troubled with ugly memories, she woke up with a furry hat and her door still mysteriously locked. The next time, she’d been sleeping just fine, but there was Rocket the next morning anyway. This time he’d brought Groot with him.

“Good morning,” she said with a resigned sigh.

“I am Groot!” He waved a jaunty good morning to her from his place on the shelf next to Rocket’s handmade treasures.

It wasn’t every night, not even most nights, but apparently Rocket had designated her head as an occasional rest spot. Sometimes after battles, he’d even clamor up her back and sit on her shoulder. Peter took in the pose with lifted eyebrows.

“She smells better than you,” Rocket said loftily and that was the end of that.

It wasn’t like he weighed much. Adjusting her gait didn’t take much effort and it led to a game where he’d whisper outrageous comments to her while she tried to keep a straight face. So far she was winning, but he was getting a better grasp on what set her off and tailoring his attacks. One day, she’d crack and what an embarrassment that would probably wind up being.

Peter was the one who put a name to the whole thing. They were walking through a desert at the time, thrown out by the local gentry with just enough water to get them back to the Milano. It was a long story and mostly Peter’s fault.

“Oh hey, look,” Peter leaned down and worked something loose from the sand. He flipped it at her. In a show of trust, she caught it. “For your bestie.”

“Bestie?” It proved to be an antique cog with curved spokes.

“You know, best friends forever?” He sing-songed. “Platonic soulmates.”

“Rocket is not my soulmate,” she said firmly. “Even if such a thing existed.”

“Okay, sure, but you guys are like...peanut butter and jelly.”

“What’s a peanut again?”

It derailed him, but she took his point. Frankly, the idea of bothering to rank friends had never occurred to her. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t had any at all. Her affection for Peter, Drax, Groot and Rocket had grown in stunted waves as she figured out what her own boundries were and then theirs.

But she did spend more time with Rocket, she realized. She confided in him in a way that she could not imagine doing with the others. Tucking the cog in a pocket, she smiled to herself. A best friend! What a frivolous luxury. It reminded her of a long ago faded childhood.

“So you don’t believe in soulmates?” Peter asked as the sun started to sink and take the warmth of the day with it.

“Do you?”

“No...well. No, I guess not. It’s just a nice thought. Someone out there who’s tailormade for you.”

“I think that sounds terrifying,” she looked to the painted sky. “Being created as someone’s companion is worse than being a weapon. At least a weapon is useful in any hand.”

“Never thought of it that way,” Peter swallowed hard. “Wow. Way to take the romance out of it.”

“If you’re looking for romance, Quill, then you are circling the wrong planetary body.”

“I’m looking for my damn ship,” he complained. “We’ve been walking for-fucking-ever.”

They crested the next dune and there she was. Drax was waiting for them, arms crossed, like a mother bird waiting for her nestlings to come back in for a landing. He even clucked over Peter’s sunburn while Gamora hid a laugh.

About a year into their travels, Gamora lost half the skin and the pinkie of her right hand to a particularly nasty explosive device that she had been in the process of tossing back at mad scientist. Her healing modifications meant that the finger and skin would grow back, but rebuilding tissue took time.

“It looks badass,” Peter accessed as he painted the wound in antibiotic creams. “Badge of awesome.”

“Thank you, doctor,” she said dryly.

The Milano needed repairs too, so they limped into the closest drydock and settled in. The planet was a pleasant one with wide open skies, filtered air and most importantly: abundant water. They hooked into the water system after landing and Gamora took the longest, hottest shower of her life. Under Thanos, severe injury was a time of great testing. Any show of pain or weakness would be exploited.

On the Milano, it meant that Drax checked her bandages, Peter made sweet foods that she’d never admitted to enjoying and Rocket kept gleefully asking if she’d need a bionic finger. It meant she could take hours to sleep and then take a shower that sluiced all the dirt and blood of the fight away instead of keeping them close to her skin as a badge of honor.

That she had to leave her hair wet and only partially brushed out was a small price to pay. It was nice enough outside, so she swathed herself in floor length robe with plans to air dry.

“I am Groot?” He asked plaintively when she padded through the kitchen area.

“Guess you could use a little sun too, huh?” She tucked his pot under her armpit and carried them both topside. After some deliberation, she settled on a wing where she’d only be visible to ships taking off.

It was pleasant to turn her face up to the sun. Her hand throbbed, but she shunted the sensation aside in favor of watching the port workers bustle on the ground below.

“I am Groot!”

“I wasn’t sneaking up on anyone!” Rocket popped his head up. “I was wondering where you went, Mr. Sessile.”

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

Rocket clamored over, plopping down on the edge of the wing, his feet dangling over the edge. He had a bundle of wires in hand that he started untangling.

“What are you wearing?” She leaned back on her elbows to examine the garment.

“Like it?” He rolled his shoulders, showing off the black zippers that crisscrossed his back and shoulders. “Double the pocket space, emergency parachute, an added gun holster and it covers the knives. I watched some courses on the net about tailoring.”

“I do like it,” she decided. “Useful. The color is good camouflage too.”

“Exactly.”

“I am Groot.”

“You don’t need clothes,” Rocket sighed. “You just want another fanny pack.”

“I am Groot.”

“I wish I could understand him,” Gamora admitted, reaching out to delicately stroke one of Groot’s leaves.

“It takes a long time,” Rocket shrugged.

“How long did it take you?”

“Months,” he took a deep breath and let it out raggedly. “The people that...you know. They left me in a cage in between the processes. Why would you bother with making an intelligent being and then never talk to it?”

“Cruelty and logic don’t got hand in hand,” she did him the courtesy of not looking directly at him.

“You got that right. Anyway, they stuck Groot in the cage next to me. He never told me how they got him. And you know, it was all this “I am Groot” business all day and night, but he was there. He was there and he could reach between the cages with those long arms of his,” Rocket wrapped a hand around Groot’s pot now, grounding himself. “I started talking to him because fuck, I gotta talk to someone and he’s all I have. But there’s only so much to say, you know? Hadn’t done much yet. Hadn’t seen much. So sometimes I just listened. He talked to me and at first...at first I thought I was going crazy reading into what he said.”

“I am Groot,” branches reached out now, patting one of Rocket’s ears.

“Exactly,” Rocket leaned into the touch. “But I wasn’t. I mean, we planned a jailbreak together by the end and it worked, so I was definitely understanding something. It’s like he’s speaking our language, just...sort of under or between the Is and the Ams.”

“What does he think about how we talk?” She asked, more to guide the conversation away from painful things than actual curiosity.

“No idea,” Rocket tapped the pot lightly.

“I am Groot,” Groot said serenely.

“He says that ‘you manage’. Which doesn’t sound like much of a compliment.”

“We do though. Manage.”

The sun slowly shifted above them, warming the metal. Peter popped his head up from the ladder, holding on with one hand and presenting a clear container with another.

“I come with snacks. Can I join in the reindeer games?”

“What kind of snacks?” Rocket ears perked.

“The frozen kind. Local fruit treat on a stick. I tested it and everything, so it’s safe for consumption.”

“Acceptable,” Gamora decided.

Peter launched himself upward and handed out his prize. The frozen part was in a compact circle held aloft on a thin piece of plastic. She licked it tentatively and found it pleasant, a clean fresh flavor to contrast with the hot day.

“What happened to your hair?” Peter asked, looming above her.

“It got wet,” she said dryly.

“Huh,” he bit into the frozen ball and then made a face. Too cold for him, probably. Rocket had stuck the stick into Groot’s pot, taking occasional licks as he returned his attention to untangling his coils.

“How long will repairs take?”

“Five or six days. Depends how big a bribe we give to the contractor.”

“Six then. I should be healed by then.”

Peter nodded, his eyes still tracking over her hair. She frowned up at him until he shifted uncomfortably.

“Uh, I could braid it for you. If you want,” he said all in a rush. “I’m good at it, promise!”

Rocket’s quick hands posed in his work and as one, he and Groot turned up to look at Peter.

“What?” Peter growled. “It’s a perfectly normal skill.”

“Go ahead,” Gamora turned back around. “But if you give me knots then you’re my practice dummy for my next sparring session.”

“Good thing I work well under pressure. Let me just get a brush.”

She started to tell him where hers was, but he was gone before the words left her lips.

“You’re gonna look like you slept in bush,” Rocket declared.

“He brought me food,” she gestured at her iced treat. “That earns a little good will.”

The brush Peter returned with wasn’t much different from her own. She’d guess that one of his conquests had left it behind, but decided not to ask. What difference did it make? He settled at her back and instead of tensing, she eased into the sensation. Peter had had her back in far more dangerous situations.

The brush swept from her crown to the ends of her hair with a disarming amount of tenderness. Sunlight poured over her, Rocket’s nails clicked through wires, Groot’s leaves shuffled, Drax paced through the belly of the ship below them with a familiar heavy tread and Peter sang under his breath.

Soon they’d lift away from this place, off to another and then another. The vastness of the galaxy would swallow up their small ship. They were wanderers.

But they did not wander alone. Gamora licked melting sweetness off her fingers and relished the feeling of home.