It doesn’t take Peter all that long to realise that he’s way less injured than he has any right to be, after two point five spacecraft crashes, a deadly earnest brawl, getting tossed into a wall by a genocidal maniac, and nearly being torn apart by the uncontrolled power of a singularity in gemstone form, all in the same sleep-wake cycle. He has a few cuts, a few scrapes, and a few shallow burns. That’s it. That and a headache. That’s all. He’s had worse learning to operate the thruster packs on his boots.
The thing is, and this is a fairly significant sort of thing, he could have sworn he had a cracked rib, at least, and possibly more. His side had been agony during his dance-off, even though his mind had been numb with panic. Immediately after said dance-off he’d found a lot of new and distracting agony to deal with, but after that he can’t remember feeling any fractured rib pain. So he seeks out a second opinion.
“You’re a very lucky man,” the medic tells him, when he finally gets to see one. (It takes a while, since he was only a bit scraped up.) “Your ribs are fine. Stop wasting my time. There are actual injured people here.”
Peter knows his luck isn’t that good.
“Okay, guys, there’s something very weird here,” he says when he gets back to the hotel where the Nova Corps are putting them up for the meantime. It’s a fairly swanky suite, since it’s not like there are many tourists left here. They should be on edge about this – they’re still wanted criminals, after all – but nobody seems to have the energy. They’re all in shock, Gamora for achieving her escape, Drax from achieving his vengeance, and Rocket from what happened to Groot. They’re too tired even to sleep, still riding adrenaline and its aftershocks. That sleeplessness – well, that and sheer curiosity – had been what had driven Peter out of the room to get the professional check on his ribs. There’s a corpsman outside the door, probably a few more watching the hotel in general, but as long as the door stays unlocked they’re fine to stay for the moment. “Has it occurred to anyone that we should all be in a med-centre?”
“We are not injured,” Drax said. “Therefore, we should not be in a med-centre.”
“My regenerative implants – “ Gamora begins, before hesitating.
Rocket says nothing. Rocket’s hardly said anything since they gathered up the bundles of kindling that had once been Groot. Even now he’s just sitting on the floor and sorting through the sticks, looking for a living one. He’s already refused all their attempts to help with the task. The other two are slumped in nearby armchairs, almost as anxious about Groot as Rocket is, and clearly hoping for some success.
“Exactly,” Peter says. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m certain I had at least one cracked rib after Ronan blasted us into that wall back on his ship. Now I don’t.”
“Now that you mention it…” Gamora says. “I thought I had pulled a muscle more severely than my implants could immediately repair. Fighting Nebula was…demanding.”
Peter takes that to mean that though she’d won the fight (obviously), she’d been beaten to shit in the process. Yet she’d still stood to face Ronan. He would bet the daughters of Thanos were all pretty good at hiding their injuries.
“I thought I had simply overloaded them with minor injuries, and now they had caught up,” Gamora adds, confirming Peter’s suspicions about the fight, and adding to his other suspicions as well. “Are you saying that there’s something more to it?”
“I, too, am surprised at my current state of good health,” Drax adds. “Ronan hit me very hard indeed, several times.”
“Broken bones?” Peter asks.
Drax stops to think. “No. But I would have expected deep bruising and severe pain, especially from where he choked me, not to mention further consequences of the blow that knocked me unconscious. I am suffering from neither.”
“And that’s not counting whatever happened when Rocket crashed his ship into us,” Peter adds. "And when Ronan's ship crashed." A shudder goes around the room. They really shouldn’t have survived that. They really, really shouldn’t. It’s probably a good thing none of them had got the time to count the ways they were probably bleeding to death.
“My tail was broken,” Rocket says. It’s almost the first thing he’s said since the fight ended. Mostly, Peter’s glad that he’s been paying attention. “It isn’t, now. You thinking what I’m thinking, Quill?”
Peter sucks in a breath. “Yeah, probably.”
“What?” Gamora asks. “What is it?”
“He’s thinking the Infinity Stone fixed up our internal injuries,” Rocket says, discarding another dead stick. “It would pretty much have to, since we were all getting disintegrated, and I don’t see any of us leaking internal organs all over the place.”
“It doesn’t explain why it left the surface injuries,” Peter says. “I mean, we’ve all still got scratches and cuts. No bruises though, no soft tissue injures, no broken bones…maybe it knows the importance of looking heroically scuffed up after a fight.”
“Or maybe it couldn’t tell the difference between how banged up we were before and whatever damage it did itself, and just fixed up anything under the skin,” Rocket suggests. Another dead stick goes on the discard pile.
“Far be it from me to look a gift horse in the mouth –“
“We have not been presented with any of these horses, whatever they are,” Drax objects.
“ – but that’s just creepy.”
Gamora and Drax both stare at him, apparently completely perplexed. “You’re complaining about not having cracked ribs?” Gamora asks at last.
Peter shrugs, and drops to the floor near Rocket. If he did have a cracked rib, both movements would have hurt more than a little. Now that he’s sitting down, he’s not sure he’ll be able to get up again, not even to get to a bed. “Not complaining, exactly, but I don’t like the idea of that thing messing around with my insides.”
He’d felt it, when the Infinity Stone had lit up his eyes like a damned Christmas tree, a stinging so far back in his eyes it qualified as a sub-headache to go along with the omnipresent, barely controlled thrill-slash-agony of the Infinity Stone’s power. Terran eyes weren’t supposed to do that, he’s fucking glad he didn’t have a mirror handy at the time, and he still has a headache. A persistent, low-level, gnawing headache, like his brain has been scoured from the inside. And he really, really hopes it’s just because he’s exhausted.
“It is better than being disintegrated,” Drax says with finality.
Peter’s about to say something else when Rocket interrupts. “He’s alive,” Rocket says. “He’s alive!”
Rocket is holding a stick. It’s only about seven inches long and an inch around, but there’s definitely some green to its wood. Gamora leaps up, her own tiredness seemingly forgotten in yet another burst of adrenaline. Peter, who is done with movements greater than breathing for today, is in awe of her. “What do we do?” she asks Rocket.
“We need dirt,” Rocket says.
“And a large pot,” Drax says. They all turn to look at him, because he’s the last person they thought would have advice on plants. “I was a farmer once,” he adds, by way of explanation. “Groot is a cutting at present. He will need a suitable pot until he is larger.”
Gamora goes to the door and opens it. “Corpsman,” she says. “We need a flowerpot and soil. Now.”
“Please,” Peter shouts from his position on the floor. They always forget things like please. And thank you. And that stabbing people isn’t necessarily the best way to get what you want from them.
“Please,” Gamora repeats.
It takes thirty minutes. Not bad response time, given the general chaos that still reigns in Xandar. Not bad response time at all.
Rocket does the actual work, once they have their flowerpot and their dirt, under Drax’s guidance. “My wife was the expert,” he says, but works out what he thinks the optimal depth to plant Groot is anyway, and directs Rocket to give the cutting some water, but not too much, and to find some gravel tomorrow, for proper drainage.
“That’s all we can do for tonight,” Peter says. Rocket is staring at the sill where they decided to put Groot, on the basis that it’ll be the first window to get the morning sun. “We should get some rest.” That would be sensible. They might have a long day of evading the authorities tomorrow. Might. He hopes not. If the Xandarians are reasonable, not.
But none of them move. Gamora, he sees, is already asleep in her chair.
Some time later, he drops off too, still on the floor.
He dreams of infinite space, infinite power, and infinite pain. It’s a memory, but since it’s also a dream, there’s no Gamora offering her hand, no Drax reaching for his shoulder, no Rocket to tip the balance between obliteration and control. It’s just him and infinity.
He should feel lonely, but he has all that everything for company, and he’s being torn apart anyway. There’s a black hole inside his skull and a supernova inside his chest, and if he doesn’t get control soon, if he doesn’t literally pull himself together…something bad will happen. He’ll die? That’s probably it.
And the Infinity Stone is judging him. He touched it and opened himself to its power, after all, and so he knows it finds him wanting. Weak. That’s all it cares about – whether or not he is strong enough. It doesn’t care what kind of person he is, or what species he is; all it demands from him is strength.
Which he doesn’t have. He burns in an instant.
It’s still dark out. Darker than Xandar usually is, in fact, with so many of the lights outside broken. Also, he’s still slumped over on the floor. He doesn’t even have a blanket. It’s kind of cold, and his neck now has a terrible crick in it.
He stands and goes to the window, trying to slow his breathing and his heart rate. Outside, there are still some buildings lit up like usual, and a few patches of intense floodlight, and other patches of unnatural blackout darkness.
“It could have been worse,” Peter says to tiny, dormant Groot. “It could have been a lot worse.”
More than worth a few nightmares, he thinks. Still, he doesn’t try to sleep again. The Infinity Stone’s power was…well…something…enough to experience just the once; he doesn’t need any replays. Instead, he stands by the window for a long time, until the sun starts to rise, and then he goes for a run. He can’t quite outrun his own thoughts, but it makes a nice change from a treadmill, or actual fleeing from actual peril.
It also lets him test another theory. So far, so good.
When he gets back, Gamora is awake, and quietly doing some strength exercises. Drax and Rocket are still fast asleep. “I didn’t figure you for a morning person, Peter Quill,” she says, half bent over in a pose that really doesn’t look comfortable at all.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he tells her. Honestly, which he isn’t entirely used to. Somehow he finds he doesn’t particularly want to lie to any of the people in this room. “Been up for a while, actually.”
Gamora hesitates. “Nightmares?” she asks, voice a bit smaller than it usually is.
“Yeah.” He pauses. “Wait, you too?”
“Yes,” she says. Now her voice is brisk, as if to cover the moment of vulnerability when she first asked. “It made for something of a change.”
Peter knows better than to ask for details.
“What did it feel like?” Gamora asks. “To hold all of it?”
He shakes his head. He doesn’t really have the words. The Infinity Stone, all of the Infinity Stone, had blotted out everything, made him a part of it. He had been everywhere, stretched in an instant of pain so crystal-clear it almost ceased to be an actual physical sensation, caught between the Stone’s implacable demand for strength and Gamora screaming for his hand.
It had showed him his mother, reflected from his own memories, and Peter had felt its distant amusement over the pettiness of his emotional attachment right down to his constituent atoms. The Infinity Stone was aware, Peter had realised very quickly, the thing had awareness of a sort, even if it wasn’t technically alive. It had picked through his mind just as easily as it had raged through his body.
He does not like the idea of that thing messing with his head. Or his anything, but especially not his head.
Taking Gamora’s hand hadn’t stopped the part where he was dying, but it had made thought possible again. He had felt like a person again, albeit a person who was being sandblasted apart from the inside and he could definitely pass on experiencing that again. “It was killing me,” he says, which is pretty damn obvious. “I can’t explain.”
“I held half what you did, for half as long,” Gamora says. “And that was enough to change my own nightmares this night. Will you be needing tranquilizers, in future?”
He might, if the next few nights are going to be like the last. But he doesn’t want to admit it. Hell, he doesn’t even want to think about the damn Infinity Stone, which is more or less impossible since it’s right there. In the room, in his bag. “Aww,” he says. “It’s sweet that you care.”
“If you’re going to be like that, I don’t know why I bother.”
“Must be my roguish good looks,” he suggests. “I’m going to go clean up. Then I’m going to go get some breakfast. Want me to bring back anything?”
He feels better for having a shower (a real, hot water shower in a real planetside bathroom) and clean clothing (courtesy of the Nova Corps), and better still for going out and getting some food. He wears his favourite blaster openly this time, slowly upping the stakes. Going out again takes his mind off yesterday and helps distract him from the prospect of their possible re-arrest, though his theory is coming along nicely. He’ll have to scope it out a bit further and then speak with the others about what to do.
Over breakfast, of course.
He returns to the hotel with a big bag of pastries – some obscenely sugary, others filled with mysterious meat – and caffeine for all. After all the bullshit they’d been through in the last week or so, and with the bullshit that’s likely to come their way today, he thinks they deserve a treat. Peter hands a pastry at random to the corpsman on the hotel door and stops for a brief chat before heading up to the room.
Really, he’d’ve expected a fight to have broken out by now. Instead, it’s another scene of fairly quiet domesticity that meets his eyes. Drax is the one doing strength exercises now, while Gamora is carefully brushing her hair out and Rocket, on the sill next to Groot, tinkers with some light weaponry for a change.
Wait – that’s his other blaster, his second-favourite, the one he hadn’t taken with him when he went out. “Give that back!”
“Your blaster is crappy,” Rocket informs him. “I’m fixing it.”
“Can you at least wait until you have a proper toolkit to start messing with my weapons?”
Normally, Peter doesn’t let anyone touch his weapons. Not even Yondu – especially not Yondu, actually, since he likes having functioning blasters and he needs them to live. He’s known Rocket for just a few days and yet his heart rate only spikes a little to see his secondary weapon in the raccoon’s paws.
“And a whole bunch of the mechanical components are misaligned,” Rocket complains. “How many people did you hit with this? You do know what a ranged weapon is, right, Quill?”
“I hit as many people as I needed to, and only that many,” Peter says, trying for a lofty tone. He tries not to hit people with his favourite blaster for exactly that reason. Stupid mechanical components. “Anyway, if you really have to, can you please, please, please make sure it’s working before you give it back? And test fire it responsibly?”
‘Responsibly’ is not an adverb Peter thought he would ever use or even feel the need to use in relation to himself or any of his associates. Life can be strange sometimes.
“Relax,” Rocket says. “I won’t hurt your precious blaster. Especially if you brought food.”
Peter dumps his haul on the table, and that’s everyone’s cue to stop what they’re doing and retrieve food. He might not have brought enough. “So I had a chat with the corpsman outside,” Peter says, once he sees that everyone has his or her mouth full. “Word is that we’ll be having some visitors up here today, wanting to ask us some questions.”
They’re all criminals, so that phrase makes them all tense up. No spit-takes though. Unfortunate.
“Do we run?” Gamora asks, once she’s finished her mouthful, followed by Rocket asking, “Can we get a ship?”
“The Milano’s scrap,” Peter says unhappily. “If we run, we’ll have to steal something, unless any of you have the units for a new ship.” He doesn’t want to leave, not until he sees what he can salvage from the wreckage of his ship, but he wants to go back to jail even less.
It’s Drax who actually speaks the unthinkable alternative. “We were assured we would not be placed under arrest,” he says. “We could choose to stay and submit to these questions.”
“Are you nuts?” Rocket snaps. “This whole thing started when we broke out of jail. Answering any questions would incriminate ourselves straight away and boom, we’re back at the Kyln as soon as they clear up all the bodies there.” Gamora seems inclined to agree, and after what nearly happened to her in prison Peter can hardly blame her. She had been the first to say they should come back here and risk arrest to hand the Infinity Stone over. Now that it’s not such a pressing concern, what with the way Ronan had – Peter’s going to go with been destroyed and try not to think of how – she’s moved to her next priority. Staying free and away from Thanos.
On the other hand, though… “No, Drax has a point,” Peter says. “The Nova Corps know we broke out already, so we’re already on the hook for jailbreak, assault, and destruction of property. No need to hide any of that.”
“What hook? There are no hooks here, and we are certainly not on any of them.”
Peter continues. “What else could they charge us with? The orb was technically salvage, we tried to sell it outside Xandarian space – it’d be a few more counts of theft for the stuff we took from impound, some air traffic violations and probably some commerce reg violations, smuggling at worst. If they choose to charge us, which they might not. People saw the Ravagers protecting the city, they saw us fight Ronan. Under the circumstances, they might let us slide. Especially if we stay to hand over the Infinity Stone ourselves.”
Gamora and Rocket look at each other dubiously. “You’re sure this isn’t just wishful thinking?” Gamora asks.
“Diplomacy,” he tells them. “It’s why I’ve only ever had to break out of the one prison." Okay, so he's had to be bailed out a few times, but he's only ever had to escape the one. Is he proud of that? Yes he is.
“You weren’t even much help then,” Rocket mutters.
“And whose fault is that, hopalong?”
Silence reigns for a minute. If Peter pushes too hard, it’ll get their backs up – or Rocket’s back up, at least, he’s casting some very anxious glances towards Groot’s new pot – and they’ll end up running. Running from the best chance they’ve had yet to get something tangible from this whole mess.
But eventually he’s the one to break the silence anyway. “Okay, how about we answer their questions today, and if it looks like they might be heading towards arresting us, we run?”
“If we want to get away clean, we should go now,” Gamora says. She’s half-convinced to stay already. Peter knows that tone. “It’s the optimal time for escape.”
“It’s the optimal time for diplomacy, too,” Peter counters. “Greater risk, greater reward. And we have to make sure the Infinity Stone stays here, in Nova Corps custody.”
That does it. After all they’d gone through for that stupid rock, none of them can bear the idea that they might end up doing it all again next week.
“I am willing to take the risk,” Drax says. “If we are sent to prison again, we will simply have to escape again.”
“Fine,” Rocket says, surprising Peter. He’d expected Rocket to be the holdout again. “Groot can’t run by himself at the moment anyway. I’ll take the risk too.”
Gamora concedes with only a bit of visible unease. “Very well,” she says. “I’ll go along with this. And if we do end up in prison again, I will hold you all to your promises of escape.”
With that matter sorted, the breakfast meeting disbands. Peter retreats to one of the unused bedrooms. He’s still sleep-deprived after his nightmare, and that headache isn’t going away. During the conversational lulls back in the main room it’s almost like he can feel the Infinity Stone chiming in its containment sphere. Which should be impossible, because containment sphere. They probably shouldn’t have used the discount type.
Even just a room away it’s better. He opens the window to hear the comforting sounds of civilisation drifting up from below – it’s not quite as good as the hum of a spaceship’s engine, but still preferable to silence – and collapses onto a nice soft bed.
That’s much better.
He wakes some time later, when someone throws a cushion at his face. Before he even stops spluttering with outrage and confusion, his money’s on Rocket for the culprit, or Drax having been tricked into it by Rocket. He can definitely see Rocket telling Drax that a barrage of soft objects is the traditional Terran method of waking someone.
Drax, he thinks. Rocket probably couldn’t throw a cushion that large, that hard, from that angle.
“The Nova Corps are on their way, Peter,” Drax says in the half-bellow Peter’s only just getting used to now. “Gamora says you are to comb your hair before meeting with them.”
Peter groans and briefly attempts to smother himself with his extra cushion, before getting up and, yes, combing his hair.
Out in the main room, there are no Nova Corps. “They’re coming to us?” Peter asks. “They called ahead?” Both are good signs.
“Yep,” Rocket says. He’s trying to clean up gravel and discarded splinters from the carpet, another likely victim of Gamora’s insistence that everything and everyone be presentable. Peter checks Groot’s pot and sure enough, gravel. He also thinks he can see a bit more green on the Groot-stick, and the beginnings of a face. He gives the flowerpot a brief pat, which is both irrational and pointless, before sitting down again across from Drax, who is sharpening his knives. For the third time in two days.
“Where’s Gamora?” he asks Rocket.
“Getting changed,” Rocket tells him. “She didn’t want to dress up like Nova Corps, so she got herself some new clothes.”
“She went out too?”
“Unless they got more clothing stores in the lobby overnight.”
Peter breathes a sigh of relief. The Nova Corps probably don’t mean to arrest them at all, if they’re letting Gamora come and go as she pleases. It’s one thing to allow Peter to buy breakfast, even armed, him and his short record of petty theft, and another thing entirely to let a former daughter of Thanos out of their sight. There’s lulling people into a false sense of security, and there’s letting one of the galaxy’s most dangerous assassins out to replenish her wardrobe unsupervised. A tail of two corpsmen definitely counted as unsupervised.
“Here,” Rocket says, and first one containment sphere and then another land in Peter’s lap. The first one is the one with the Infinity Stone. He knows without having to check the markings on it. (He’d marked them yesterday because he definitely did not want to get the containment spheres mixed up, unless he was the one doing the mixing, but it seems that might not be a problem for him. He is not comfortable with this.) “You hang on to that.”
Two days ago it had been you had that in your purse?!; now Rocket’s casually throwing it across the room. “Why me?” Peter yelps. He’s not eager to have it close again. He’s so not eager. And it’s still a knapsack, thank you very much, Rocket.
“Just in case you need to pull that trick you did with Yondu again.” Rocket mimes a switch. Peter hadn’t thought he’d noticed. “Unless you think Drax here can do it. If we’re going to hand this thing over to the Nova Corps, we’re doing it right. Nobody but Nova Prime herself is getting it from us.”
Peter sighs and stashes both containment spheres out of sight. If the corpsmen coming to talk to them have any sense whatsoever, they’ll ask him to open it for proof it’s the Infinity Stone. He’ll have to look at it again. And once more when they hand it over to Nova Prime, most likely.
“Also,” Rocket adds, “if it falls out or anything when you open it, I reckon you’ve got the best shot at not being vaporised until we can get to you and shut it down. Worked yesterday. Why change plans now?”
“Gee, thanks,” Peter says, heart pounding in his chest at the mere thought. “Hey, Rocket. How long did I have it? Before Gamora got to me.”
Rocket thinks for a second. “Dunno. Twenty seconds? Thirty maybe?”
Gamora reappears in the doorway to the bedroom she’d claimed, once again dressed in black. She looks calm, but it’s hard to imagine anything less than an Infinity Stone or Thanos himself making Gamora look nervous. “Are we all ready?” she asks.
“As we’ll ever be,” Peter says.
“Why do they make us wait?” Drax asks. The way he’s sharpening his knives is beginning to sound…irritated.
“Standard negotiating tactic,” Peter and Gamora say in unison.
Rocket snorts. “They’re not trying to buy anything from us.”
That’s not quite right, though, Peter thinks. The Nova Corps want the Stone, and finally, finally, having the damn thing is working in his favour. Speak softly and carry a big stick, his grandpa used to say sometimes (no sooner does Peter think that than he resolves to try that metaphor on Drax later, because between Drax’s default volume and the size Groot will reach there’s no way it won’t turn out funny), and Peter has one of the biggest sticks in the universe in his jacket pocket. Sure, he can’t use it without help – but he has help. The Nova Corps have to be very, very aware that the four of them have proven they can use the Infinity Stone together.
Letting them stay together, with the Infinity Stone, must have been one hell of a nerve-wracking concession. The Nova Corps are taking a chance too. They want to buy the stone from them. No matter what happens, the Nova Corps have to get the Stone.
There have been better bargaining positions to work from. A desperate buyer is often a good thing, provided they won’t get violent, but they can’t exactly go find someone else to sell it to. They’re just as desperate to get rid of the Infinity Stone.
Nevertheless, if Peter just keeps speaking softly and not looking like he’s shit-scared to have the thing on the same planet as him, much less in his pocket, who knows what they might still get out of this?
There is a knock at the door. Drax leaps up. Rocket jumps to the sill next to Groot. Gamora stiffens. “Corpsman Dey here,” a familiar voice calls. “May we come in?”
Peter remains seated (it’s a real effort, but at least one of them has to look relaxed), and after one last glance around the room to be sure everyone’s in on this, calls back, “Sure, go ahead!” He puts his feet on the table and hears Gamora hiss with disgust. Disgusted is better than nervy.
There are only three corpsmen, including Dey. Enough to show respect, but not nearly enough to intimidate them. Dey is probably here to put them at their ease, the junior officer for show and to take notes, and the Denarian, obviously in charge, Peter doesn’t recognise. Saal, Rocket had said, died when Ronan blasted the blockade apart.
“Take a seat,” Peter says, because the corpsmen came to them, and this is their space. Kind of. It’s their hotel room, anyway, even if the Nova Corps are paying for it.
The corpsmen do as he says. Peter gets a bit of a kick out of it. “First things first,” the Denarian says, “the Infinity Stone.”
“Right here,” Peter says, and produces the appropriate containment sphere. He also manages not to drop it this time.
“You understand that we must verify that it is the genuine article.”
Without a word, Peter opens the sphere, being sure to keep his hand level and steady. Dropping the sphere would be bad; dropping the Stone itself, potentially disastrous. As soon as he sees the Stone’s light, his headache intensifies. Once he hears the gasps of the corpsmen, he replaces the containment sphere over the Stone and tucks it away again, safely out of sight.
His headache immediately subsides a bit. So it wasn’t just an exhaustion thing. Damn. “Genuine article, right there,” he says, keeping his voice light.
“So it would seem,” the Denarian says. He sounds a bit shook up, which seems a fair enough response to something that came that close to destroying the planet.
“We won’t give it to anyone but Nova Prime herself,” Gamora says. “Until then, we will keep it safe.”
The Denarian can obviously tell that none of them are going to budge on this condition, because he simply says, “Understood. We will make arrangements.”
“And what is to become of us?” Drax asks. Blunt, but serviceable. “Are we to be placed under arrest and returned to incarceration?”
The Denarian looks at Dey to answer, which he does. “No,” Dey says, and as intended, Peter trusts that answer more from Dey than he would from either of the other officers, even when the silent junior officer produces papers to that effect. “You won’t be arrested if you don’t commit any crimes while you’re here. It’s official now.”
“That would be crass,” the Denarian says primly. “We are aware of your services to this planet. We do, however, have questions about the Infinity Stone and the attack on Xandar in general.”
“Shoot,” Peter says, then, after some abrupt movement in his peripheral vision, “No, Drax, metaphor. It was a metaphor!”
The questioning, after the narrow aversion of that crisis, takes a few hours. Peter does as much of the talking as he can, since the original orb was ‘his.’ He’d picked it up first, and it had been in his possession most of the time until Ronan got it, and then he’d been the one to actually touch it. They have questions about that, and Peter dodges them as best he can.
“Any side effects?” the Denarian asks.
“Uh, painful death?” Peter replies, conveniently omitting several mysteriously healed internal injuries, nightmares, headaches and a sixth-sense certain knowledge of where the Infinity Stone is right now. (Like he could ever forget that the thing with the power to blow up planets was in his pocket. Oh, yeah, that thing. I lost it in the wash. My mistake. Now there’s a train of thought that’s never happening.) “Guys? Rapid and painful death, most noticeable side effect, only narrowly averted in our case?”
“I’d say so,” Rocket agrees.
“Definitely,” Gamora adds.
“It was most uncomfortable,” Drax says.
Peter wonders if the others are getting the headaches as well. He’ll ask later, when the Nova Corps are gone. His nightmares are his own, and he’s definitely not admitting that he can sort of sense where the Stone is, lest the Nova Corps decide that he might serve as some sort of Infinity Stone-detector.
He also does his best not to talk too much about the Ravagers, though he has to say that he promised Yondu the Stone in return for his help, and then switched containment spheres on him. He doesn’t like explaining his tricks, and he doesn’t like giving away information that Yondu might kill him for revealing. Lucky him, though – Yondu’s already going to try and kill him just for keeping the Stone, so he doesn’t have to worry that much about sparing Yondu’s pride.
Gamora has to do a lot of talking, too, as the Nova Corps are interested in Ronan’s organisation and resources, even now Ronan himself is dead. Not to mention they’re interested in Ronan’s links to Thanos. Gamora answers as best she can, in short, clipped sentences. Peter wishes it wasn’t necessary, but it’s this or she answers from a holding cell, without any of them there for her. The Nova Corps want that information as well.
Rocket and Drax are spared a lot of the questioning (he wishes Groot was awake and vocalising to lend his unique perspective to this interrogation). It must be nice to be a lone operator without any ties to problematic interplanetary criminal organisations.
Finally, it’s over. The longest conversation Peter ever hopes to have with any police ever, anywhere. “We’ll contact you for the handover,” the Denarian says, and Gamora can’t close the door behind him fast enough.
“We’re not going to get arrested,” Peter insists.
“We only admitted to half a dozen different crimes,” Rocket snarls. “Why wouldn’t they arrest us?”
“Because we saved the damn planet!” He finally gives in to the urge to rub at his temples, like he can wipe away the feel of the Infinity Stone inside his head. It’s just a buy. If he treats this like another buy, he might not start freaking out himself. He knows the reputation of the organisation he’s selling to, he knows what they want, he knows what they can concede. He can do this. “And besides, they said they wouldn’t. They’re the Nova Corps, they can’t go back on that sort of thing just for kicks.” He runs his hands through his hair. “Look. Okay. Look. I’ll show you. Drax, can you help a guy out, here?”
“Certainly, Peter,” Drax says. “Which window?”
“Do me a favour,” Peter corrects himself. He’ll remember about the metaphor thing eventually. “I need you to do me a favour.”
“Oh. Much less interesting.”
“I need you and Rocket to go out and get us all dinner.”
“We have room service,” Rocket points out. “On the Nova Corps.”
“Trust me,” Peter says, and Rocket falls silent. Trust me is another loaded phrase. “It’ll be all right, I promise. Take the biggest legal weapons you can. Just, you and Drax, you go out and buy us some dinner.” Rocket glares, but grabs Peter’s second-favourite blaster again. Peter decides not to make an issue of it.
Drax says, “I do not understand the point of this mission, but it seems harmless enough. I will go.”
Gamora stops Drax before he reaches the door. “Your knife is too long.” She hands him one of hers. “This is legal to carry openly in Xandar.”
Drax nods and they swap. Another thing Peter would never have thought he’d see, ever. “Thank you, Gamora. I shall return it in good condition when I return.” He shakes his head, perplexed by Xandarian weapons regulations.
“Whatever you do, don’t break the law,” Peter shouts at their backs as they depart.
Once they’re gone, Gamora turns to him. “What are you playing at?”
“They’re not going to get arrested,” Peter says. “I bet you they won’t even have to pay for dinner.”
“And you couldn’t just tell them?”
“Nope. Rocket wouldn’t believe me.” And speaking of things he’s not sure people would believe if just told, he says, “Catch,” and tosses the containment sphere with the Infinity Stone inside it towards Gamora.
She catches it, eyes wide. “You fool! Why are you just casually throwing this around? Don’t you appreciate how dangerous it is?”
Given that response, he’s kind of glad she didn’t see Rocket throw it at him earlier. Especially since he hadn’t caught it. But he’s about to do something even more dangerous. He takes the other containment sphere out. “What’re you talking about? I have it right here.”
“None of your tricks, Peter Quill.” Her voice is getting dangerously quiet. “The Infinity Stone is not a toy.”
“How can you be sure that I’m holding the dummy?” he asks.
Gamora realises, and then freezes. “I just know,” she says.
“Side effects,” Peter says. “You too.”
She hisses again and passes the Infinity Stone back to him as if it was going to burn her right through its sphere. “I don’t want to touch it,” she says.
“And you think I do? I can’t wait to get rid of it!” He sighs. “Is it giving you a headache too?”
Gamora shakes her head. “I had a headache last night. It’s faded.”
“So that’s just me, then.”
She rolls her eyes at him then. “If a mild headache is the worst side effect of channelling the Infinity Stone’s power, you’re lucky. And it fixed whatever internal injuries we had. We’re all lucky.”
“Yeah, I know,” Peter says. “I’m just worried if there’s anything long-term. Like, does too much Infinity Stone rot your brain?”
“Slow incineration seems more likely,” Gamora replies. “And in your case I’m not sure anyone would be able to tell. We can go elsewhere and get you a proper brain-scan, if you want to keep this away from the Nova Corps.”
Peter thinks about it. “Nah,” he says at last. “It’s just a headache. We’re getting rid of this thing in a day or two. No problems.” He hopes.
“If that’s what you wish,” Gamora says. “You better not collapse from brain rot, Quill.”
Now it’s been said, he’s more afraid. Not like brain rot. Like cancer. Are Infinity Stones like radiation? He doesn’t know about that, but he knows this: there’s no way he’ll ever be able to make himself get that scan, even if he really should.
After a while, Gamora speaks again. “All that time with Thanos, I tried so hard to stay myself inside, as much as I could, so that when I died I would still be my father’s daughter. My real father’s daughter. In the seconds I shared its power, the Stone was more successful in taking me away from myself than years with Thanos. That’s what my nightmare was.”
Peter’s not sure what to say to that, so he says nothing. He tugs her down to the couch and they sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. They sit like that for a minute, before Gamora leans away. He doesn't push it. Last time he did, she put a knife to his throat. He doesn't want to upset her any more, after that little confession.
“You think we should tell the others?” Peter asks. “We probably should tell the others.”
“I don’t want to,” Gamora says. “Not yet.”
“Then we won’t tell them. Simple. Problem solved.”
“Let’s hope that’s the worst of it.” She laughs a little. It’s a very dry sound. “Our luck may hold, and it might get better once we’re away from the Stone.”
Peter takes the containment sphere and rolls it gently into a corner. Gamora rolls her eyes at him. “Not a toy,” she reminds him, standing and moving to a table. Peter just smiles, glad to have the thing away from him at last. He takes out his headphones and listens to the Awesome Mix Vol. 1 until he hears the unmistakeable racket of Drax and Rocket returning.
“So you didn’t get arrested,” Peter says with a wide grin.
“Shut up,” Rocket says, but there’s no heat in his voice even if he does throw a roll at Peter’s head. He catches it on the rebound. “They wouldn’t even let us pay.”
Peter’s grin becomes a smirk. Rocket throws another roll at him. This one he catches. “Shut up,” Rocket repeats. “Just – shut up.”
The Nova Corps give them details of the handover mid-morning the next day. “Three days,” Gamora says, relaying the message for them all. “We’ll be picked up and escorted there.”
“Three days?” Drax growls. “What can possibly be more important than obtaining the Infinity Stone?”
“Making their own security arrangements, probably,” Rocket says. “You think they’re just going to keep it in Nova Prime’s desk drawer? No, no, no, they’ll want to build their own vault or whatever.”
As one their eyes all go to the containment sphere, which is still lying in the corner of the room where Peter rolled it last night. “A desk drawer is looking like the height of security right now,” Gamora sniffs. Problem is, none of them want to even pick it up again, much less hang onto it for safekeeping. They don’t even have to discuss that.
“What are we going to do with it in the meantime?” Peter asks. He’s feeling cranky and apprehensive, thanks to another round of nightmares. “Just leave it here?”
“One of us should be with it at all times,” Gamora says. “It’s probably safer to keep it here rather than carrying it around.”
“Whoever’s here can keep an eye on Groot, too,” Rocket adds. Groot is still a completely inanimate stick, and Peter would think there’s a hard limit to how much trouble he could get in, but still. It’s Groot. It’s not like it’s a big deal to keep an eye on a tree while they’re in the room keeping an eye on a rock. They all have two eyes. Well, except for Groot.
“Do we just draw up a roster?” Peter suggests.
It turns out none of them have ever drawn up a roster before. Peter and Drax have both worked rosters, but Rocket and Groot’s partnership was not one that required formal organisation of duties, while Gamora had mostly worked solo missions.
Still, it can’t be that hard, right? There are four of them, and three days to cover.
Immediately an argument breaks out about who takes the evening shift, ‘cause some of them want to go out drinking, and who takes the morning shift, ‘cause some of them have a hard time waking up. It takes forty minutes to resolve.
When they’re done working it out, Rocket is first up, followed by Gamora, then Drax, then Peter. Guess he’s not going out drinking tonight. He does have the entire day free, though, so he decides it’s time he went to see what he can salvage from the Milano.
To his surprise, Drax volunteers to come with him. “I am happy to lend my assistance in salvaging your ship,” he says. “I will surely be able to carry more than you.”
It’s true. “Suit yourself,” Peter says with a shrug. They’re all at a bit of a loose end – no, he’s not going to say that to Drax, he’s not up to explaining it right now – and any sort of job would probably help. Even if that job’s hauling chunks of metal away from the biggest wreck Peter’s ever seen.
Ronan’s ship is still cordoned off, unsurprisingly, and swarming with workers slowly cutting the thing apart for removal. Nobody’s quite sure how many bodies are crushed underneath, Nova Corps and civilian. Recovery is going to be a big job.
Standing in front of it, Peter has time to appreciate just how small he is compared to Ronan’s ship, as he hadn’t had the time two days ago. It’s huge. He’d thought it had looked big from the air. It’s massive from the ground.
“We were very fortunate to survive this,” Drax breathes, looking up at the dark mass above them. Even Drax looks small next to the colossal ship.
“You’re telling me,” Peter says.
“Yeah, you sure did.”
Given the size of the ship, it’s a not inconsiderable walk to where the Milano crashed. Peter was hoping that the Milano having been inside Ronan’s ship would have offered it some protection, like Groot had protected them. Most of the spaceship is in pretty good shape, all things considered, but since it had crashed through at least one apartment block and a whole bunch of shops, Peter can’t feel real good about that.
They finally get to where the Milano crashed through the hull, and Peter does indeed manage to talk their way through the cordon. They’re pretty recognisable, after all. It’s going to suck trying to work any jobs on Xandar for a while.
Unfortunately, the Milano is missing. Completely gone. “What happened to my ship?” he shouts.
This is the right place, he’s sure of it. He’s absolutely sure of it.
“I too believe this is where your ship crashed,” Drax says helpfully. “See, on the ground. Your ship has been moved.”
Peter looks. He’s a spacer, has been for the last twenty-five years or so. He wouldn’t know a crater from a hole in the ground, but now Drax has pointed it out he can see where something was dragged from the wreckage of Ronan’s ship. It has to be the Milano that was taken. It has to be.
He finds the nearest corpsman, who turns out to be a corpswoman. “Excuse me, ma’am, sorry,” he says, turning his best dewy eyes on her. She’s not really his type but that doesn’t matter; it’s his ship. His life was on that ship. “Do you know what happened to the other ship that crashed here? Right here, in this spot?”
“Yes, sir,” the corpswoman says. Peter doesn’t think he’s ever been called sir before. “The Nova Corps salvaged it yesterday morning. Pretty much the first thing they took. Picked the whole place clean.”
Peter struggles to keep his face straight. The Ravagers drilled it into him – you never lost your temper in front of a mark. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says, and retreats. He retreats right into Ronan’s ship, Drax following behind him, and hits the nearest wall.
“You will injure yourself if you continue that,” Drax says reproachfully.
But Peter is already shaking his hand out and cursing. “You think?” he says, once the pain subsides a little. “Those bastards took my ship. They took my ship!”
“Where might they have taken it?” Drax asks. “We will liberate your possessions, if need be.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where they could have taken it.” It’s possible he’s panicking a little. He clutches at his Walkman, glad he took the Awesome Mix from the tape deck after the fight with Ronan. He still has his Walkman. He still has his music. Where the hell are the impound yards?
He’s already given up his troll doll, an offering to Yondu that definitely won’t save him, but there’s also his backpack, his comics, his t-shirt to consider. His mother’s present. He might have lost his mother’s present.
It’s possible he’s panicking more than a little.
“Perhaps you should kick some grass,” Drax suggests. “That calmed Rocket when we decided to rescue you from the Ravagers. I also find tearing the limbs from my enemies and listening to their screams to be soothing.”
“Do you see any grass here?” Peter asks, now having moved on to pacing back and forth between one ugly black plinth and another. He wonders if the smear of blood around eye-level on the left-hand one belongs to any of them. “And if I tear any limbs off any Nova Corps officers, they definitely won’t give me my ship back.”
It takes a good minute before Peter can start thinking clearly again. Drax is surprisingly patient with him. “You good for a trip to the impound yards?”
“I swore I would help you salvage your vessel,” Drax says. “It seems we must go farther afield than we anticipated. It is no great difficulty, especially with no more pressing matters to attend to.”
“What say we get lunch on the way?” Peter suggests, feeling calm enough again to walk past the corpsmen outside. “You spent much time in Xandar before?”
It doesn’t take long to find the location of the impound yards, but it does take a long time to get there. Public transit is kind of messed up thanks to all the ships that crashed during the attack. It’ll probably take a while to get back to the hotel, too, which they have to keep in mind. Shift work. Peter hasn’t missed it.
On the upside, there’s more free food. Heroism apparently pays far better in rations than units.
On the downside, the impound yard is a total bust. They’re not letting anyone through, and Peter can recognise a sticking point when he sees one. He and Drax walk around the entire yard, but they can’t see an easy way in, nor can they see the Milano. Eventually they have to admit (temporary! Very temporary!) defeat.
“Rocket will know how to enter this compound,” Drax assures him. Peter’s busy panicking again. “We will liberate your ship if the Nova Corps do not return it of their own accord.”
Nevertheless, they return to the hotel considerably more dejected than they had set out. Peter doesn’t say anything, just grabs his blasters and goes to find a range. He’s going to find out what Rocket did to his secondary, and he’s going to explode a few targets into the bargain.
He’s too worried about things to shoot really well, but by the time he’s done and the targets have been shredded by a hail of poorly-aimed bolts, he has to admit that Rocket did a good job realigning the sights. And the trigger mechanism works better than new, too. It’s therapeutic.
Eventually, his turn to watch the Stone and Groot comes around. He hasn’t been looking forward to it. He looks forward to it even less when Rocket says, “I’m heading out, Quill. You don’t bother Groot, ‘kay? Back later.”
“Don’t do anything illegal,” Peter reminds him again. “On pain of arrest.”
Rocket waves him off. “Sure, mom. Sure. You’ve really put the fear of the Nova Corps into me.”
He leaves, and Peter worries. It’s a stupid feeling. He’s already sick of it. The others are all capable of looking after themselves. If anything, he’s the least physically capable of them all (not that he’s a bad fighter at all, he’s just not as good as the others are). Why is he so anxious?
“I’m not bailing you out, Ranger Rick,” he says to nobody. He looks over at Groot, hoping for a response, but gets none.
Not entirely alone, of course, there’s Groot on his sill and Drax is asleep in the next room over, but Rocket is out and Gamora is out and Peter has nobody who can hold a conversation with him. The Infinity Stone (its containment sphere is still exactly where it was this morning, completely untouched) might be capable of conversation, sort of, but there is absolutely no way Peter is going to pick it up and put that to the test.
Solitude is not a thing he’s used to.
When he’d been a Ravager, there had always been other people around, annoying as they were. In that short time between leaving and this current situation, he’d usually had women aboard the Milano. The quiet is strange. He doesn’t like it. Nor does he like having nothing to do.
He puts his Walkman on and starts singing to himself – quietly, ‘cause he figures he should let Drax get some sleep at least – loads up a novel, and tries to ignore the headache reasserting itself.
Some time later, Drax shouts in alarm. Peter bolts to his door, blaster in hand, ready for an attack, but there’s no other sound after that first shout. He thinks he might know what’s going on. “You okay, man?” he calls through the door.
“I am fine,” Drax says. He doesn’t open the door. It sounds like he hasn’t even got up. “It is nothing.”
“If you’re sure,” Peter replies. “I’m right outside if you need.”
He resumes his position in his preferred chair, picks up his novel from where he’d dropped it, and promptly drops it again. Did he seriously just assure a giant, tattooed, and frankly terrifying warrior called the Destroyer that he, Peter Quill, would be around if aforementioned terrifying warrior had any more nightmares? Was that a thing that he had just done? He’s pretty sure it is.
“This is very weird,” he says to Groot, and to the Infinity Stone, he says, “and you are way more trouble than you’re worth.”
Neither reply (a pity in Groot’s case, even though he knows the answer would be I am Groot; a relief in the Infinity Stone’s case), but Peter feels better for having spoken anyway.
Gamora returns not long afterwards, also in need of a nap before she takes her second turn watching over the Stone. “Quiet night?” she asks.
“Yep,” Peter says. “Might not be if Rocket gets back drunk.”
Rocket does come back drunk, shortly before Peter’s shift is up, but he assures Peter that he had committed no crimes during his bender. It’s not entirely a relief, but he figures even if Rocket did steal something or blow something up or set something on fire, what the Nova Corps don’t know won’t hurt them.
The other thing he isn’t looking forward to is sleeping. Two nights, two nightmares. Gamora and Drax are both suffering nightmares as well (nobody’s dared ask Rocket). Peter might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s not totally stupid either. He knows what he’s in for.
Sure enough, his dreams are full of being torn apart from the inside and the Stone’s alien power and, this time, the incredible high he’d got from using it. Better than that time the Ravagers’ medic had done a few experiments to see what painkillers Terrans could tolerate, back when he was twelve or so. The high was so good it was scary as well, in a different way. He could have kept using that power, using and using it until he died, or possibly blew up Xandar himself.
He wakes trembling, dizzy, head aching, and very aware of the Stone’s proximity.
Fucking side effects.
The next two days are mostly quiet.
Gamora gets called in to answer a few more questions about Ronan; Rocket either tinkers with guns and bombs next to Groot or goes out salvaging; Drax accidentally destroys several pieces of gym equipment; Peter finally gets his chance to have a drink. They all take their turns watching the Stone (in practice, this means being in the same room as it and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist).
“Yondu upped his bounty on you,” Rocket tells him over breakfast on the third morning, the morning they finally hand over the Infinity Stone. “Fifty thousand units now.”
“Guess he opened the sphere,” Peter says with a yawn. It’s too early to worry about being hunted down and dragged back to the Ravagers so Yondu can put that arrow through his throat. “You going to take him up on it?”
“Nah. Don’t know what sort of trouble you’d get us into on the way.”
“That’s good.” He thinks about it. “Wait, only ten thousand more after cheating him out of a four billion unit haul? He must have really liked that troll.”
“Consider yourself lucky, Quill. He even still wants you alive.”
“Sure. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a family, which is not all that close, is offering fifty thousand units for someone to kidnap me and take me back so that Yondu can perforate me as an example to the rest. Lucky me. Lucky, lucky me.”
Rocket scratches his nose. “It’s not all that lucky, is it?”
There’s a pause where they both half-expect to hear I am Groot, whatever I am Groot might be supposed to mean at that particular moment. It doesn’t come. Groot has grown a little, and is a bit more firmly rooted in his new pot, but remains as still and silent as a regular tree. Rocket, they all know, is getting worried again.
“I’ll live,” Peter says.
“No kidding. He wants you alive. Anyone kills you, they don’t get paid.”
“Yes, I know how it works. Do you have to treat me like an idiot?”
“When you react like that, yeah.” Rocket is snickering. “Hey, have you asked about the Milano yet? We getting that back?”
Peter sighs. He feels like he’s explained this half a dozen times already. “We shouldn’t ask about it until we hand over the Infinity Stone. We’re concerned citizens. We do them a favour, i.e. give them the Stone, then they offer to do us a favour in return, because they don’t want to look ungrateful.”
He’s done a few jobs like that before, where everyone’s pretending the Ravagers didn’t steal the object they’d just returned for a completely voluntary reward. This seems more or less analogous. More or less. Sort of. A bit.
Logic hasn’t stopped him from visiting the impound yard again and trying to get in. He just wants to know if his ship is repairable. Where his stuff is. Things like that. Logic hasn’t had much of a look-in.
“Seems to me like we could get screwed on this one,” Rocket says.
“With the amount of room service you’ve ordered?”
“We can always sell you back to the Ravagers if we need some extra cash.” And apparently the look on Peter’s face is hilarious, because Rocket dissolves into gales of laughter. “Don’t worry, we’d come get you after,” he gasps.
Meanwhile, Gamora is in full action mode. She’s a neat freak. And a clean freak. And a “presentable” freak. Peter’s hardly ever been presentable in his life. What’s that even supposed to mean?
It turns out Gamora is more than happy to explain, when he makes the tactical error of asking that question aloud. “You will wear your new jacket,” she orders. (Peter’s happy to do that, at least, since his new jacket doesn’t have the Ravager symbol on it.) “You will wear clean clothing, and you will comb your hair. That’s what presentable is.”
Peter can’t help but roll his eyes; as if Nova Prime’s going to be offended by any bed-head he might be suffering.
“You need to polish your boots, too,” Gamora continues. “They’re disgraceful.”
“Oh, come on!” he protests. “Now you’re just picking on me. What about Drax, huh? You going to pick on Drax next?”
“No,” Gamora says. “Drax is very tidy.”
“Drax doesn’t have a shirt.”
“He does have clean trousers. Unlike some people. What did you spill on those, honestly?” Her glare burns like a laser blast. “We are meeting with the ruler of an empire today, Peter. There are standards. You of all people should know the value of appearances.”
He does – but he’s not sure what appearances to go with. Nova Prime isn’t a real client or a factor or a fence or a thug (he hopes), she’s not a junker or a spacer or a dealer or some drunk in a bar, and he’s got no plans to flirt with her (though he can always change his mind later). That pretty much exhausts the angles he knows how to work.
He’s so out of his depth. Who’s he kidding? This isn’t just another buy, no matter how hard he tries to pretend it is. Gamora knows more about planetary big shots than he does, though her experience is probably a bit different. More in the vein of…being in the vein. With something sharp and pointy.
So he does what she says. There’s probably some sort of happy medium to be found between her knowledge of galactic big shots and his negotiations.
Boot polish is nasty stuff.
The Nova Corps call ahead again shortly after they had that conversation, ready to pick them up and deliver them to Nova Prime for the handover. They congregate in the main room, where they’d all fallen asleep that first night. The Infinity Stone is still in the corner – only now someone has to pick it up and carry it.
They know by now that they’re all suffering side effects to some degree, which nobody wants to tell the Nova Corps. None of them care to be experiments (especially not Rocket). Peter’s got it the worst, with headaches and occasional dizziness as well as the nightmares. It’s not so bad, he tries to tell himself, it’s better than broken ribs.
“Who’s carrying it?” he asks.
“You,” Rocket says.
“You,” Drax says.
“I can do it,” Gamora says.
Peter breathes out a sigh of relief. He’s not fighting her for the honour. Gamora’s more than welcome to it. Without further hesitation, Gamora steps forward and picks it up. “There,” she says. “It doesn’t bite.”
“It has no mouth,” Drax says. “And no teeth.”
Peter suppresses the urge to break into a hysterical giggle. From the looks of Rocket, he might be doing the same. It’s no big deal. They’re just responsible for the custody of a world-ending super-weapon until they can hand it over in person to Nova Prime herself. Under the circumstances, Drax’s total loss regarding metaphor sounds like the funniest thing he’s heard today.
“Are we ready to go?” Peter asks, once he’s a little more composed. Presentable clothing, check. Infinity Stone, check. Minimal weaponry, check. Potted Groot, check.
“Just waiting on the Nova Corps,” Rocket says. “If we want to run, now’s our last chance.”
Of course that’s when the Nova Corps knock on the door. Peter doesn’t jump. That would be paranoid and nervy. He’s the one who’s been pushing the we’re not getting arrested line; he shouldn’t be scared. They’re quietly escorted down to the ground level, where the most heavily armoured transport he’s ever seen in his life is waiting for them. Seriously, they got sent to the Kyln in a less secure vehicle.
“Just in case,” the corpsman says.
They all look at each other and decide not to mention the Infinity Stone’s been lying in the corner of the hotel room for days.
The building they’re taken to is also heavily guarded. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter sees Rocket sussing it all out, just in case they need to run. Old habits die hard. He’s really missing Groot right now; a giant mobile tree could come in handy for any and all escapes.
They’re not getting arrested. Stop it, Quill.
Nova Prime herself is waiting when they arrive, in the centre of a cluster of officers. Seeing her in person, with her perfect posture, perfect uniform, and not a hair out of place, Peter suddenly understands why Gamora was so insistent on best clothing and boot polish. He kind of wishes that they had the original orb to hand over, which had been quite beautiful in its way, instead of the battered-looking discount containment sphere. They probably should have polished that too, but that would have involved touching it.
“Welcome,” Nova Prime says, stepping forward. “Before anything else, may I say that on behalf of Xandar and all its inhabitants, we are grateful for your selfless actions against Ronan. We are all in your debt.”
Gratitude. That’s another thing they’re not used to. Peter likes the sound of in your debt better. That sounds like there is some sort of reward in store for them after all. He hopes it includes the Milano.
But the others are looking at him, and now Nova Prime is looking at him, and it seems some sort of response is called for. Since when did Peter get voted team spokesperson? He’s not prepared for this!
Since he’s not prepared for this, he tells the most outrageous lie he’s ever told in his life. “It was no trouble, ma’am,” he says. “Our pleasure.”
People stare. Except for Drax; Drax looks like he basically agrees with the sentiment. Drax is insane.
“We have brought the Infinity Stone,” Gamora says, straight to business and covering up that stupid lie. What was he thinking? It’s not like they just returned some missing jewellery or something like that. “We think it would be safest here with you.”
“We have made arrangements for its safekeeping,” Nova Prime says, no longer smiling. “Rest assured we will not allow it to fall into hostile hands again.”
Gamora produces the containment sphere (without dropping it, the show-off) and opens it. Peter braces himself for the inevitable spike of pain to flare behind his eyes and is not disappointed in the slightest when it does. Over the last few days he’s pretty much got used to the headaches. He’ll still be happy when they finally leave Xandar behind, and the Stone with it. Soon, he hopes. Soon.
The room is silent while everyone takes in the glow of the Infinity Stone. “Well, that certainly seems to be the Infinity Stone,” Nova Prime says at last, as Gamora reactivates the containment sphere. “Thank you.”
Gamora sets it down on the table and slides it closer to Nova Prime, who takes it and leaves it on the table in front of her. So she’s not going to let it out of her sight either, not until she can see it locked safely in whatever dark secure hole the Nova Corps have dummied up in the last few days. It’s fairly reassuring.
Suddenly Nova Prime smiles again – she’s friendlier in person than Peter would have expected, but that’s politicians for you, all chummy until you get in their way – and the serious atmosphere lightens a little. “Now, I think there are a few things Xandar can do for you…”
Soon is sooner than he thinks, thanks to the Nova Corps rush job on fixing the Milano. They go over every bit of it, looking for trackers or other tricks, but find none. The others are particularly good about looking for trackers elsewhere when Peter discovers the Nova Corps managed to salvage his mother’s last gift to him.
He could have lost it forever. By rights he should have lost it forever. So he opens it.
“If I can’t find any tracers, there aren’t any here,” Rocket declares, after Gamora came to get him and Peter totally didn’t have to dry his eyes. “Let’s get out of this dump before they change their minds.”
Looking at how the Nova Corps delivered what little luggage they had to the Milano, Peter thinks that’s the arrangement everyone will be happiest with. Drax and his comment about spines hadn’t helped their case. He just said he’d keep an eye on them.
He’s still out of his depth, but he has the Awesome Mix Vol. 2 now instead of the Infinity Stone, and Gamora says they’ll follow his lead, and Groot’s finally awake. They break atmosphere, not worried in the slightest about the planetary authorities pulling them over, because they are officially honest and upright citizens at the moment. Peter feels his headache fade just that bit more.
“You know,” Rocket says, “I don’t think we got screwed on that too badly at all.”
Peter has to agree on that one.