Nebula finds a message in the datastream one day, hidden in plain sight at a forgotten intersection of the paths, impossible to reach unless you know the way.
She knows the way. She’s only shown it to another once.
The message says
Nebula almost deletes it, then remembers that would acknowledge to Gamora that she saw it. She slams out of the datastream with a snarl of rage instead. Robbing her of her ally, stealing her vengeance, and now imagining she can have Nebula for a trash piece of sentimentality, a call on presumed trust: how dare she.
Several days later, she connects again.
It’s so quiet here in the mornings.
She starts every morning with a systems check, a habit as ingrained as it’s hateful. Lungs, joints, muscles, complex machinery of digestive tract (because if you dismantle a living person and fill her with clockwork pieces, you still want her new body to need food, water, sleep; exactly the sort of joke Father loved to play). Connections and wires and gears, coolant liquid running softly through her veins.
Easy as breathing, people say sometimes, and Nebula sneers. Easy as killing, as unmaking something made, maybe; that’s what she knows. Breathing is - complicated.
Sometimes she wakes up and can’t recognize the shape of herself, the form.
Wasn’t the worst of it that he never took our will? Hope, and warmth, and all we held, but never enough mercy to pretend it wasn’t us, doing his bidding?
She was taught to fight and kill, but not to blend in; to lead, but only with armies obliged to follow. She always knew she was a weapon, but only running made her realize that she was a weapon meant to be held.
She swears to herself, the first day of terrifying, enraged freedom on a stolen ship, that she will never be wielded by another’s hand again.
She runs, and runs, and runs, and can’t stop herself from listening to Gamora’s voice whispering in her head.
I’m trying to find things for your room and can’t decide what to settle on. Will you be swayed by elegance? Amused by crudeness? Peter is laughing at me, but he keeps bringing me his silly treasures to tempt you with. Drax calls it a courtship with a solemnity that both amuses and terrifies me. Rocket, of course, offers weapons as the surest way to your heart and he might be the closest of us all.
Won’t you come decide for yourself?
She learns to haggle for food and supplies, teaches herself to talk rather than intimidate. She gives herself preferences, forcing her way through them at random. A meaningless exercise, but apparently needed to pass for real. Do I like this color? Do I hate this taste? She decides red is beautiful, green is unpleasant, black is appealing, sweet is satisfying, sour is abhorrent. There’s a terrifying amount of tiny insignificant choices in the universe that don’t have anything to do with the color of blood spreading on the floor.
She dances at a festival on a planet so unimportant it doesn’t have a name, makes her body twirl and turn in movements that don’t end with a thrust, twist, silence. She promised Ronan to destroy thousands of planets, small insignificant places like this one, full of lives she’d spill without thinking twice for the sake of her retribution. She still seethes with her rage, gliding from one figure to the next, but the music plays - and she dances.
I’m sorry that I have no regrets. What Ronan offered you, I couldn’t: what sense was there in our vengeance if we remained exactly what Father made us to exact it? I couldn’t, not for me, not for you. But I am sorry I couldn’t choose you.
When Thanos’ dogs start breathing down her neck a bit too close, Nebula crashes her ship in a canyon on a rocky, inhospitable planet that hasn’t figured out space travel yet, and watches them circle above the remains, trying to sniff out her corpse. She gambles on them not being able to get down, and doesn’t lose.
She’s battered, but she’s taken worse punishments and survived. The ship is battered, too, but she knows she can make it come back to life. She spends five nights shivering and starving in the shadows of the canyon, waiting for her pursuers to clear out for sure, and then coaxes the ship out into a last weaving flight up.
It lasts long enough for her to get it into a more convenient cave, and then shuts down for good. She knows she’ll have to settle down for quite some time, wait for her death to steady in her father’s mind. But meanwhile the night is closing in, and the wind is howling, and her body is this close to shutting down.
This far from every galactic road, there’s no way for her to access the datastream; no way to hear dear sister whispered into her ear. She’s glad, so glad.
She finds the house on the third day of wandering through the maze of canyon walls, stumbling and unsteady, barely able to see. All her auxiliary systems are shut down, just enough left for movement, for survival, and when she sees it, gleaming in the merciless sun, she’s happy her brain is not able to hallucinate.
The last hundred feet, she has to crawl.
She spends several months with two women living in the house. Gamora would probably spin some mushy tale out of it, Nebula thinks with derision, but their languages are too far apart for the translator to work. They don’t even ask for her name, and she doesn’t bother with theirs. She never learns a word of their fluttery, sterling silver speech.
But they don’t balk at her blue skin and her clockwork insides, and they share their food and their water with her by day, their bed by night, when the wind is moaning through the canyons like a dying beast. Sometimes, when all the implants in Nebula’s body sing in discordant rage, the older woman will touch her head or shoulder briefly, in something more of a benediction than a caress, and Nebula, who once disemboweled a man for daring to slap her shoulder, stays still under her hand.
One night she returns from her daily trip to the ship, tired from a day of coaxing it slowly back to life, pleased with having almost finished. She finds the house ransacked, the older woman sprawled over the threshold, the younger in the hallway, hands still outstretched in a plea. The silence hums around them, somewhat obscene, and Nebula stares, stares.
Nebula catches up to the killer five hours later: a dirty, reedy thing with blood still drying on his clothes, who wails and and keens and writhes as she kills him. She has no way of knowing whether he’s an opportunistic robber, a spurned lover, a business rival, an avenging victim: in this story, she’s but a footnote.
She does come back to wash the bodies, put them together in their bed for the last time. She takes the food, the water, the clothes, and she says “thank you” to the empty house as she leaves it.
Nebula walks back to her ship, and behind her, the house burns.
When the stars swallow her again, Gamora whispers
We almost lost Peter and Drax today. I won’t bore you with the details: wrong place, wrong time, too many explosives. We’re so high and mighty nowadays, I’ve forgotten how easily we bleed. And I did everything right, I didn’t hesitate for a second, my hands were steady. They’re asleep now and all is well. But I’m looking at the lake now, and I’m shaking with rage, because they’re mine, and they’re not allowed to be lost. Mine, mine, mine, mine.
What I’ve learned, in the end, is greed.
She overhears a stray Shi’ar mercenary in a bar, boasting of the commission she’s accepted, of knowing where the Guardians’ secret base is, of how to infiltrate and destroy. She takes some time to ascertain what her feelings register as, scalding hot in her belly: anger? joy?
She considers joining in.
When the Shi’ar stumbles out to return to her ship, Nebula follows her into the maze of the spaceport’s back alleys, silent and still. She takes a long, quiet time to die, and by the time Nebula’s through she knows all the mercenary did, and where the information came from.
She takes the time to clean the command chain straight to the top, and tells herself it’s just for the sake of being thorough.
I’m choosing to believe that I can’t find you because you’re lying low, being careful, so careful. You’ve always been better than me at so many things; may you be better than me at hiding.
She’s no longer able to count the messages. No matter how many times she connects, there’s a new bit of sound waiting for her, with news she doesn’t want, feelings she can’t accept. She knows that Drax’ flowers started overwhelming the greenhouse; she knows that Gamora’s an atrocious dancer; that Peter snores and sprawls over any available surface and sleeps like he’s never been shot at in his life; that Rocket sleeps curled up in Groot’s branches and makes bombs like they’re toys and toys like they’re bombs. How Gamora laughs, how Gamora cries. How Gamora says, please.
You must be destroying these messages without reading them, if you've ever bothered to find them at all. But he took everything from me, everything: why should he get to take you as well?
Dear sister, I’m greedy.
The hounds are on her trail again, and this time she might be losing the race. She crashes another ship, steals a third one, loses it in a firefight over a spaceport and spends three days hiding in the sewers, planning her next move. She’s unable to deny where her projected route is taking her.
She’s tired of running.
Nebula recognizes the ship and knows she shouldn’t even try, but she’s out of options, time and luck, with pursuit hot on her heels. She cheats the lock and slips inside, hoping against hope that her intrusion will escape notice.
It doesn’t. She handles the crew easily enough, even hampered as she is by trying not to kill, but then there’s a whistle and a flash of blue and the hull against her back, and the arrow humming in the air a millimeter from her right eye.
“Well, well, well,” Yondu Udonta says, “if it isn’t our ship stealer. Any last words, Nebula of Thanos?”
She was so close. Almost indestructible, but not immortal, and well and truly trapped.
She imagines Gamora’s voice swallowed by the silence, words falling into the void for years and years and then running dry, inevitably, when even her greedy, selfish, hateful sister gets tired of calling.
She feels her lips move almost against her will, shaping the words that Gamora gave her once.
“The Terran you stole killed a man on your ship when he was a child, and that’s when you made him one of yours, Yondu Udonta.”
The pause stretches, resonates, and she has time to curse Gamora just before Yondu throws his head back and laughs. The arrow falls back to his belt, and Nebula takes a first deep breath in eternity.
“Decided to play house with the rest of them after all, haven’t you? Back to work, you lazy fucks, nothing to see here! We’re giving the lady a lift.”
The Ravagers disperse, taking their wounded and growling at her like beaten dogs, and Yondu smirks in their wake.
“You’d better stick by me until we drop you off, Crazy Blue. I ain’t likely to adopt you if you kill anybody on my crew.”
She leaves the ship two days later, not less bewildered but unharassed, and Yondu personally sees her off the ramp.
He says, "You tell my boy he owes me, and owes me big. One of these days, I come to collect."
Please come home
The golden cocoon of the force field blinks out before her. They have to know who she is, now, and if any of them had a shred of good sense left, they’d kill her and dump her body and lie to Gamora about it. She almost hopes they’ll try.
The house is resting by the lake, windows aglow, and there’s something in its softly gleaming lines that calls her forward.
The door slides open. Gamora’s Terran is standing in the doorway, framed in warm light, grinning at her in the same sharp predatory way Yondu had.
She forcibly slows herself, keeps her hands loose and open by her sides. Her entire body is thrumming with violence. She won’t - she will - she won’t - she will - she will not fight, but her mind is calculating angles, approaches, speed, the way her left hand would snap out and crush his larynx before he even tries to move, the way her right will drive the cartilage of his nose into his brain, the way she’ll pick up his weapon and…
He says, “Huh, you made it! Well, come in then,” and moves aside. She makes her body move, muscle by screaming muscle, to take this last step over the threshold.
The Terran - Peter, his name is Peter - closes the door behind her, and shouts down the hallway.
“Hey, Gamora! Your sister’s home.”