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Probable Cause

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I.

Nova Millennian Garthan Saal was not a Xandarian often moved by sentiment, but the burnished sense of warm avarice that he felt whenever a bowl of Errin Vaaestro's famous fletchern stew was pushed over the counter towards him was probably what love was meant to feel like.

Garthan had a ritual for this. First the reverent rubbing of thumbs along the rim of the cheap pastewood bowl. Then the small sniff, taking in the rich, oil-and-aashan aroma, spicy enough to make his mouth water. The first dip of a spoon, taking in just a taste of the thick drennfish broth. Then a dip of the crusty, reconstituted yeast bread.

Life in the Nova Corps meant odd hours and often random meal times, but this suited Garthan, most days. It meant that Errin's stall was quiet whenever he swung by, save for the odd tourist or two, and Errin knew better than to try small talk on an off-hours Corpsman trying to have a good meal in a bit of peace before going back on the beat.

Today, Garthan made it midway through the bowl before his perfect daily moment of peace was ruined by a tourist. Offworlders were common on Xandar: the planet was an interstellar trading hub, after all, with free trade agreements signed with most intergalactic civs, but years in the Corps had given Garthan a healthy understanding of trouble, and this tourist positively reeked of it.

Young. Seemingly Xandarian, but probably not: there were tells that any Xandarian could recognise - the clothes, for one, clearly some sort of offworlder style, the hair, the unfamiliar config of the blaster stock visible from the holster at the stranger's hip. Not Asgardian, not with those clothes, not with the subtle imperfections in the skin and poise. Valar?

"Hey," the offworlder drawled, and Garthan's allspeak implant hesitated a fraction of a second longer than it should have.

Now the offworlder had Garthan's full attention. The Nova Corps were equipped with the best allspeak implants that Asgard could make, certified seamless with all intergalactic dialects from Xandar to Knowhere and a hell of a lot of obscure krutack in between, including the chittering vowelless speech that passed for language among the Brood. For the implant to skip like that before a translation meant that the offworlder either hailed from rim space, or-

"You're an Earther," Garthan deduced, and the offworlder's eyebrows jump.

"Wow. Good guess." The Earther grinned, apparently genuinely pleased. "You Corpsmen have got to be regular Sherlock Holmeses."

"Who?"

"Nevermind." The Earther swiped one hand back and forth, in a dismissive signing gesture, common to offworlders who didn't spend a lot of time down a gravity well: facial expressions tended to cede the field to gestures for people who were just at home in full g as they were in an environment suit.

A spacer, then, but one who had grown at least part of his life in down a gravity well: he didn't have the elongated bone structure that a life in low g would have given him. Young, with curly, dirty blonde hair that had obviously been hacked short with a knife, a handsome boy verging on becoming an adult, gangly and tall, in a rumpled white tunic and prefabbed dust-gray breeches. Nothing fancy: however the Earther had managed to get offworld, he was probably working haulers or freight.

"What do you want?" Garthan settled for asking brusquely. His bowl was getting cold, and he was still technically off-duty. "If you have an official matter to report, the closest Nova Precinct is half a klick south, past the skannar tracks."

"Hasn't anyone just come over to say hello before?" the Earther seemed amused again. "Or is that against your Corpsman rulebook?"

That was such a patently ridiculous question that Garthan tried a withering glare, but the Earther's grin merely widened, and he extended a hand over, palm held perpendicular to the table. "The name's Star-Lord."

The Earther waited, as though expecting some sort of response. Some sort of minor celebrity, perhaps? Garthan wasn't usually one to follow the gossip tabs. He raised an eyebrow. After an awkward pause, he prompts, "And...?"

'Star-Lord' deflated visibly. "But you can call me Peter."

Garthan stared at the outstretched hand warily, and Peter dropped it back to his side after an awkward moment. "And?"

"And what?"

"And do you have an official matter to report?"

"No! No." Peter hesitated, looking a little lost, then he start to grin again, slow and mischievous, as though he'd finally seen the punchline of a convoluted joke. "Oh man. You haven't been hit on before, have you?"

Again the allspeak implant hesitated. It wasn't always great with slang. Furrowing his brow, Garthan said slowly, "Violence is an occupational hazard."

"I didn't mean that! I meant," Peter hesitated, opened his mouth, then hesitated some more, then he shrugged. "You're kinda really good looking, Corpsman," Peter said, and grinned his mischievous, irritating grin. "Can I buy you a drink?"

Oh.

Garthan's stare now was probably part puzzlement, part disbelief: whatever it was, Peter seemed to find it hilarious - he started to chuckle, eyes crinkling in mirth, and Garthan's best scowl didn't seem to put a damper in the Earther's mood: chuckles turned into hearty, gasping laughter. Annoyed, Garthan took in a deep breath, then another, and pointedly turned back to his stew. Unfortunately, Nova Prime had a zero-tolerance policy about using the Nova Force against the merely irritating.

By the time Garthan finished his stew, Peter had thankfully grown bored of his laughable attempts at flirtation and had slunk out of the stall, much to Errin's and Garthan's relief. Garthan paid up, and then the day promptly went to hell, what with an all-out brawl in subsector 5/c and three homicide vics found in a recycling plant by the janitor.

The triple vics, thankfully, belonged to one of the local scumbag crime outfits, and had been on the suspect list for a string of felonies running from extortion to burglary to trafficking, and as such less paperwork was involved, but they still got a place up on the board, if only because the possibility of a local gang war was bad news for everyone.

He stumbled home late, bleary and profoundly disillusioned about civilisation in general, which was not a particularly unusual end-of-the-day Corpsman sentiment, and while dragging himself over to the aerosonic cleanser, nearly walked right into Peter.

They stared at each other for a long moment: Garthan with utterly blank astonishment, Peter with grin that started to falter when a minute dragged by in silence, then Garthan asked, very precisely, very slowly, "Did you break into my apartment?"

"Xandarian security locks aren't the greatest," Peter admitted, and then has the grace to look slightly embarrassed when Garthan shot him a level stare.

"Why did you break in?"

"We're establishing action and intent here?" Peter tried another grin, but Garthan merely rubbed a palm slowly over his face.

"I'm too tired to deal with you, Earther. Get out."

"Aww, don't be like that. When was the last time you had any fun?"

"If you haven't left the apartment by the time I'm done with the cleanser," Garthan said flatly, "I'm going to arrest you for trespass. Out."

Peter put up his hands in a placating gesture. "All right. All right. I'm getting out." He started to back towards the entrance, but then Garthan's tired brain finally caught up to the rest of him, and he shot another slower, longer look at the kid. Peter's left hand was fine, but his right was wavering slightly, a nervous tremor, his wrists and elbows held stiffly up.

Frowning, Garthan strode back over, ignoring Peter's flinch as he grabbed his right wrist, shoving up the tunic sleeve. A field dressing - one of Garthan's, by the look of it - had been applied rather haphazardly high up on Peter's arm, and it was fresh. Glancing back over his shoulder, Garthan noted, again belatedly, that his field kit was out over the narrow dining table, as well as the bottle of kaardas burn gel.

"Blaster fire?" Garthan asked dryly. Low-amp, not meant to be fatal, but enough to be severely uncomfortable, by the looks of it.

Peter's playfulness was gone: he nodded warily, still and tense like an animal, and Garthan rejected his original hypothesis of Peter being part of some freighter crew. There were really only one breed of spacer that liked risk, was familiar with blaster fire field treatment, and liked outlandish nicknames.

"You're a pirate."

"I kinda prefer the term 'independent contractor'," Peter countered quickly.

"Why in the Worldmind's name would you even approach me?"

"Eh," Peter grinned, blatantly looking Garthan up and down, but he sobered at Garthan's narrowing eyes. "Uh. The people looking for me wouldn't be looking too closely at anyone talking to a Corpsman, let alone a Millennian. And they wouldn't check for me in a Corpsman's home. Which would also usually have a med kit. Sorry about the kit. I was going to clean up."

"What people looking for you?"

"My boss kinda failed to mention that he once ticked off the Razorbacks when he sent me to settle up an account with them. Or maybe he failed to mention it on purpose." Peter shrugged. "He's a deep end of the pool sort of guy. They had long memories."

Razorbacks. Garthan closed his eyes briefly, tamping down on his instinctive exasperation, chasing the ping of recognition that the Corpsman part of his brain had supplied. "Did you shoot three persons in a recycling plant?"

"They shot at me first," Peter protested, then hesitated, and bit down on his lower lip.

Worldmind, but the Earther was younger than Garthan had thought. Seventeen cycles old, perhaps. Maybe older, but not by much. He couldn't really tell, not with Earthers: all he knew about that species were a few Asgardian docovids that he'd seen in passing on the public holovids when on the beat.

Maybe he was tired, or maybe because Garthan couldn't quite stand sloppy jobs: he found himself marching Peter back to the dining table and pushing him back on the chair, then rewrapping the field dressing more neatly. He put two meal cards in the replicator, used the cleanser, changed in his small bedchamber to civvies and returned to the kitchen, in time to see Peter rather sheepishly and meekly setting out cutlery.

"You're nicer than you look," Peter suggested, when Garthan deposited a bowl of reconstituted faux-heergal stew and ritt grains in front of the kid.

"You're a probable suspect in a case," Garthan retorted, sitting down to eat, then had to add, "Slow down, or you'll choke yourself."

Peter paused in the middle of shovelling spoonfuls of grain into his mouth, grinning again, a genuine grin this time: it lit up his eyes, and Worldmind, but Earthers had beautiful eyes: pale green, vibrant with humour. Garthan found himself staring at a bowl for the second time in Peter's company, eating mechanically and forcing himself to take slow, even breaths.

"So I'm not under arrest?" Peter asked, when he ends up helping Garthan to stack the bowls and cutlery into the washer.

"Depends."

"Depends on?"

"On whether you're still here when I wake up," Garthan said. Peter's face visibly fell, and a nudge of uncharacteristic guilt pressed at Garthan's battered conscience. Irritably, he added, "But you can sleep on the divan. Just make sure that you're gone in the morning. Understand?"

"On the divan?"

"Or you can sleep on the floor for all I care."

"I meant, really the divan?" Peter grinned again, slyly this time, pressing a hand over Garthan's wrist, and for a moment his heart rate picked up, to Garthan's total puzzlement. Sure, Peter was pretty, but he was an offworlder. A pirate. And he had just killed three Razorback bruisers with nothing to show for it other than minor blaster nerve damage. Even if Garthan hadn't had the benefit of years of experience in law enforcement, he would've known that the kid was trouble.

Still. Rational or not, Garthan felt a hot anticipatory tension coil up within him, but he took a breath, gritted his teeth and set his jaw. "Divan or floor. Or get out now and take your chances. The Razorbacks are doing a level by level sweep of the subfloors, anywhere that they think a shooter might be hiding out. Which is why you broke in here, as you said."

"Okay, okay. Geez." Peter took a step back, his hands raised in another placating gesture. "Message received, loud and clear."

"Good."

"Just..." Peter hesitated, then he nibbled on his lower lip again. "Um. Thank you. Officer."

Young. Beautiful. Completely inappropriate. Gruffly, Garthan muttered, "Stay out of trouble, boy," and dragged himself off to his bedchamber.

II.

Peter was gone in the morning, which was a bit of a relief and a bit of a disappointment. Garthan had a quick mealcard breakfast, his first cup of black for the day, then it was off to the precinct, nerves starting to buzz from the stims. On the board, the names of the three vics winked accusingly at him from where they had been pushed into the third-tier column, but he ignored them as he headed over to his desk. An offworlder shooting some Razorback boys wasn't exactly something high on the Nova Corps' scale of attention, not when they had three planets and a couple of asteroid stations to police.

An Earther. By the Worldmind.

Midway through filing his morning paperwork, Garthan found himself pinging port control for any records of an Earther arrival. Unsurprisingly, there weren't any: there wasn't even a category for 'Earther' in the port records database: but then Earthers looked physiologically like Xandarians to the untrained observer, and Garthan didn't think that the kid would advertise his species. A few checks of the docking manifests over the past few days didn't throw up any red flags, but that wasn't unusual either. Xandar was a free port, and a busy one. For all that it was also the homeworld of the Nova Corps, port controls tended to be purposefully forgiving, in the name of free trade and profits.

This was ridiculous. Garthan had real work to do, and he was wasting his time chasing up a curiosity. He tried to tell himself that it was because it was a mystery, and he hated mysteries, but it didn't feel convincing, especially when he opened up the Nova Corps file on the Razorbacks to look through any past citations of Razorback-offworlder conflicts.

There was one. Three cycles back, a neat file by the forensics team: a gang deal gone sour, by the looks of it. The offworlder presence hadn't been confirmed: only that security feeds had shown that the Razorbacks had been killed by a single perp, in a coat, with a strange weapon that nobody had ever seen: slender, thin, and sound-controlled, somehow. A yaka arrow.

Which meant, in the duty officer's opinion, that the perp was, in all likelihood, Yondu Udonta of the infamous Ravagers.

A pirate king.

The damned kid was a Ravager.

With a sigh, Garthan brought up the triple vic file, stared at it for a long moment, and hesitated again. He could put out an APB for the kid, get Peter called in for questioning. Putting out an APB with Peter's description would slot him neatly into the general face-rec system. Lots of bounty hunters freelanced out of Xandar, due to its relaxed taxation laws. Peter would probably be found in a heartbeat.

But he might not end up being sent to a Nova Corps precinct for processing. The Razorbacks kept their ear to the ground - all the criminal outfits had to, to stay sufficiently off radar in Corps-heavy Xandar. An APB could quite possibly mean Peter's death.

Peter was a Ravager.

Young. Beautiful. Dangerous. Possibly not dangerous enough.

Garthan frowned at a screen for a moment longer, then he scowled and closed the file.

Lunch was a sparan wrap, recently popular in Xandar due to the influx of Kree refugees and most probably reconstituted, but life in the Nova Corps had long inured Garthan's taste buds to disappointment, and it was all he could get in between cases, catching downtime outdoors in one of the open parks, sitting beside a fountain. Watching the crowd, because he was technically still on duty. He got partway through the bland wrap with his brain on autopilot, and as such actually flinched when Peter said, softly, "Hey."

He hadn't seen the kid sneak up to him, and Garthan covered his surprise and annoyance with a gruff, "Still here?"

Peter shrugged, sitting down next to him. He looked a little worn, and Garthan had started off his Nova Corpsman career in Vice. He knew what that pinched look meant. Wordlessly, he passed the wrap over to Peter, who looked surprised for a moment, then awkward, then a little guilty as hunger took over.

"Have you been following me?" Garthan asked, when the wrap was history and Peter was wiping crumbs off his lap.

"Not really. Okay. Maybe."

Despite himself, Garthan was a little impressed. He hadn't noticed being tailed. Nor had his link to the Nova Force picked up anything untoward. "Why?"

"I was thinking," Peter began, paused, then blurted out in a rush, "Maybe we could help each other."

"Kid," Garthan said dryly, "You owe me for two meals and boarding so far."

"Yeah. And I can pay that back," Peter offered a winning grin, but when Garthan kept his expression neutral, he wilted a little. "Okay. Right. I didn't mean that. I meant, maybe you can help me with my business, and I'll help you score a bust. It'll be one for the books, too. Maybe it'll get you a promotion."

"Do you know how promotion works in the Nova Corps?" Garthan asked.

"Uh-"

"Everyone in the Nova Corps has a link to the Nova Force. Produced by the Worldmind. The better the link, the higher the rank. We get assessed when we apply to join the Nova Corps. If we're successful, the Worldmind decides our access to the Nova Force. The stronger the link, the higher the rank."

"... That's weird," Peter blinked. "What if a total idiot gets named into high command?"

"It's happened before. But rarely. The Xandarian Worldmind is a good judge of character."

"Then what's the point of working hard?" Peter asked earnestly. "If you're gonna be pulling the same salary forever?"

"It's an honour to be named to the Nova Corps," Garthan said stiffly. "Regardless of rank."

"The Worldmind, it's a living computer, isn't it?" Peter looked thoughtful. "Don't computers sometimes reassess stuff?"

"It does. But it's rare."

"Do you know why you were stuck being a Millennian?" Peter pointed at the bar of rank set over Garthan's chestplate.

"No. And there's nothing wrong with being a Millennian," Garthan scowled. "I'm happy with my position."

"... okay." Peter chewed on his lower lip for a moment, and Garthan averted his eyes, taking in a slow breath and clenching his hands. This was ridiculous. He really should be getting back to work- "Maybe no promotion. But you could still get brownie points for this bust. I'm serious."

"If you have a crime to report, there's always the duty Corpsman at the precinct."

"God, you're such a hardass," Peter grumbled. "I need your help, okay? Please. Pretty please."

"Why would I help a Ravager?"

Garthan had been watching Peter carefully through his peripheral vision, and to his credit, although Peter tensed up instantly, he didn't deny it. "Wow. You're good."

"Flattery won't get you anywhere."

"I mean, what tripped me up? I'm not in the gear. I'm not using their weaps, and I took two transits to get here on civvie freight."

"The Ravagers have twenty-five outstanding felony warrants against them in Xandarian space. Thirteen of them writ against Yondu Udonta himself. We have an extensive file," Garthan said, a little evasively, but Peter didn't seem to notice.

"Yeah, he's a charming guy, isn't he?" Peter noted, and exhaled. "That's why they sent in the newbie."

"To negotiate with the Razorbacks."

"That's the one."

"Yondu wants you dead, boy."

"Easier ways to do that if it was the case," Peter countered, and that was true. Yondu wasn't renowned for convoluted solutions. If he had wanted one of his own dead, he would simply have chucked the vic out of the nearest airlock.

"Then what is it?"

"What is what?"

"Why are you here," Garthan grit out, "Begging a Corpsman for help against the Razorbacks?"

Peter picked a little nervously at his sleeve. "We've all got to prove ourselves if we want a ship."

Garthan snorted. "Yondu is ruthless, but he's not vicious. If he set impossible tasks for any Ravager who wanted to get his own M-class, he'll have half the fleet that he does now."

"Got to prove ourselves if we want a ship early," Peter clarified, and grinned, young and reckless and beautiful, and... fine, Garthan could believe that. It didn't feel like the entirety of the truth of it, but that was a matter for another time, perhaps.

"So why would I help a Ravager?"

"Because if you don't, I'll probably end up dead?"

"You knew the risks when you took up this ridiculous venture to impress Yondu."

"Okay, okay," Peter held up his hands, again in that placating gesture. No tremor to his right hand now, though. "This bust I was talking about? It's a kraka manufacturing lab." At Garthan's blank look, Peter snorted. "You guys don't know about kraka? Man, it's famous out over in the free zones. It's the only thing that ever came close to being outlawed in Knowhere. Look it up."

"And what sort of 'help' do you need from me?"

"Well, I was thinking," Peter tried another grin, "When you guys run the bust, it'll probably be noise and chaos everywhere, right? Maybe I could nip in behind the Nova Corps and remove a small item from a side room. Then I can head offworld, you'll be covered in glory, or whatever it is that passes as career advancement in Xandar, and we'll be even."

"Or," Garthan pointed out, "I could haul you over to the port and get you deported to Vegat. You could hail the Ravagers from there."

"Or you could look up kraka, and call me back," Peter countered. "I'll ping you my number. It won't hurt. Just think about it for a few hours. Then if you really don't want to help me, I'll head over to the port myself. Deal?"

"I don't make deals with 'independent contractors'," Garthan noted, and checked his wristfeed. "You have three hours to get offworld."

"Nope, I'm a totally legit tourist right now," Peter grinned. "You can't make me."

"You've also committed three felony murders."

"Self-defence. Also, you can't prove it."

That was true. "I'll look up the term," Garthan gave up, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "But you're coming with me to the precinct."

"What? Why?"

"So that I can keep an eye on you. Think of it as extending me an expression of good will." Garthan allowed himself a thin, sharp smile.

"You're such a hardass," Peter muttered. "Fine."