It’s not the greatest situation Peter’s ever been in, that’s for sure. To be fair, it’s also not the worst, but considering that the worst involved being literally disintegrated by a cosmic relic of unspeakable power, that’s setting the bar pretty low.
The others are chained up in the hold, but Peter, like a genius, identified himself as captain, which means that he got dragged up to the mess hall to negotiate their release.
At least, he hopes that’s what he’s here to do. The way some of the pirates are licking their knives has him a little worried. “Look, I think this is really all just a big misunderstanding--”
“Doesn’t strike me that way,” says the guy who Peter has identified as the captain, on account of the fact that he’s bigger and uglier and talks more than the rest of them. “Strikes me we understand the situation just fine. We was hoping for a ship, or some kinda loot worth taking, but, well, in this line of work you take what you can get.”
Peter sends up a brief prayer of gratitude that the Milano, tucked into a crater on the tiny satellite they’re currently perched on, has yet to be discovered. Their gear, such as it is, is piled on the long, battered table that takes up most of the mess. He can see his Walkman, and his fingers itch to grab it up, but realistically, Rocket’s gun is the only thing that’s even remotely worth the effort of selling. They were traveling light. He’s not sure yet whether or not that’s to their advantage. “We were just checking the place out,” he lies easily. “Our ship is circling back for us.”
“Are they, now,” chuckles the pirate. “Shame you won’t be here for them to pick up, ain’t it?”
“Oh, come on, you’re going to keep us? What for? I guarantee you we’re more trouble than we’re worth.”
“Maybe we could use a little trouble,” the captain says. “Ain’t none of you worth much at the slave market but my boys get lonesome out here in the black and it’s a long way to the nearest pleasure planet. And that woman of yours is--” He licks his lips. His tongue is thick and blue and slightly too long for his mouth. Peter suppresses a shudder. “Well, she’s a pretty little bite to eat, ain’t she?”
Gamora. They’re talking about--
It’s not like the concept has never occurred to Peter. It’s not even like he’s never been threatened with it, the Ravagers being less than half a step up from pirates like these, morally speaking. But Yondu, for all that he was a world-class asshole most of the time, ran a tight ship and there were a few things even he wouldn’t tolerate.
“She’s a daughter of Thanos,” Peter says quickly. Gamora would kill him for this, but, well, Gamora’s not here. And she’s not going to be here if he has anything to say about it. “You think she can’t kick all your asses with both hands tied behind her back?”
The captain leers at him. “You offering to take her place? You ain’t quite as pretty, but you’re pretty enough and my boys ain’t too picky.”
Peter closes his eyes and runs through his short list of options. No credits. No weapons. Between the two of them, Gamora and Rocket can probably figure out a way to get loose, but it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be able to manage it before the pirates get bored and decide to just shoot all four of them. Except Gamora, and Peter has his doubts about whether even she can take on an entire shipful of pirates in handcuffs. It’s not something he’s gonna risk, either way.
Well, shit. “Sure, as long as you let us go afterward.”
The pirate narrows his eyes. “You ain’t exactly in a position to negotiate.”
“I’m just trying to be reasonable,” Peter says. He almost can’t believe the words that are coming out of his mouth, but really, that’s kind of par for the course with him. He does some of his best work flying by the seat of his pants. “You know it’s going to be a pain in the neck to keep us on ship this size. If you kill us, our people will be on your ass in no time. You ever hear of the Ravagers?”
“You ain’t a Ravager,” the captain laughs, but there’s a little bit of nervousness in his expression. Good. Peter zeroes in on it.
“You really want to take that bet? For, what, a couple of skinny outlaws and fifty credits worth of gear? Come on.”
“If you ain’t worth anything, what makes you think they’ll bother coming after us?”
“Everybody knows it’s not worth the trouble to go after Ravagers. Why do you think that is? We got a reputation to keep up.” He bares his teeth in a grin, channelling Yondu with all his might.
The captain stares at him consideringly. The other pirates are shifting impatiently, but Peter doesn’t dare look around, even though he’s expecting to feel the bite of a knife any second now. “What you suggesting?” he asks finally.
“I’m suggesting I show your boys a good time, and you give us our gear and let us go. That should hold you to the next pleasure planet, you don’t have the trouble of transporting prisoners or having the Ravagers after you. No harm, no foul, everybody goes away happy.”
Except him, but what the hell. It’s not like he’s never been involved in an orgy before. How bad can it be?
For another several seconds, the captain just stares at him. Then, finally, he laughs. “What the hell, boy, looks like you got yourself a deal.”
Peter lets out his breath. “Okay,” he says. How the fuck does he end up in these situations? “Great. How do you want to do this?”
The answer to how bad can it be turns out to be pretty fucking bad, actually.
His bare knees are grinding into the metal floor and there are fingers tangled in his hair, gripping tight enough that it’s actually pretty painful, and he’s focusing on that as hard as he can. Fucker doesn’t have to yank like that, it’s not--
His jaw aches. His jaw and his ass and everything in between. They’re not actively trying to hurt him, but they’re sure as hell not going out of their way to be gentle, either, and there are a lot of them.
This is nothing at all like that time he got thoroughly buzzed on Xanderian moonshine and hooked up with a creche of lovely orange-skinned creatures of ambiguous gender. The one, hir name was Xanthe--
He gags and tries to turn his head aside--he’s not even trying to struggle, he’s not trying to stop this, he just needs a second to breathe--and fingers like iron dig into his jaw, forcing his mouth open.
Asphyxiation by dick, he thinks, and there’s a hysterical bubble building in his chest. What a way to go.
--Xanthe had laughed when he kissed hir, said the creche had never had a human before, binary-sex races were so fascinating--
The big pirate, who probably has some Guna blood in his family tree, to go by the look of him, grunts as he comes, sour-tasting and thick enough to gag, and finally, finally lets go of Peter’s face. He keels forward, coughing and spitting, and dark spots crowd his vision. He can hear the pirates laughing but he’s too busy trying to suck some air into his lungs to even care.
He agreed to this. Hell, he suggested this. He’s fine, he’s absolutely fucking fine, he didn’t have much in the way of dignity to begin with and if it wasn’t him it would be Gamora in here, cool, beautiful, untouchable Gamora, and the thought of that is actually worse than the idea of choking to death on some skeevy pirate’s dick. Which is not going to happen, he’s had weirder sexual experiences than this and survived just fine.
There are hands on him, six-fingered hands that end in sharpened claws. They stroke lines of fire down his sides, and he can feel blood welling in their wake. He drops his head and closes his eyes, doesn’t even try to turn around. He really doesn’t need to add a visual component to this experience.
The first few, he tried to get into it, play along, but at this point it’s all he can do to keep himself from struggling. They don’t seem to care, anyway, although he’s pretty sure that would change in a hurry if he tried to fight back. Tempting to try it anyway, but Peter’s sense of self-preservation always did outweigh his pride by at least a little bit, and this ain’t worth dying over.
He doesn’t fight back as the pirate behind him hauls him up by the hips and starts thrusting. It doesn’t even hurt that much, all the slick they used, and at least this way he can breathe.
He keeps his eyes closed, tries to call up Xanthe’s face, the faces of hir five pretty creche-mates, but they won’t come. He tries to think of his Walkman, his music, but there’s just the darkness behind his eyelids and the thundering sound of his own pulse in his ears. Even the sound of the pirates jeering seems to be coming from very far away.
It seems to go on forever.
Until eventually, finally, it’s over.
They toss his clothes at him afterward, and he doesn’t allow his hands to shake as he pulls them back on. “Our gear, too,” he says, and is pleased that his voice comes out even.
The captain waves an expansive hand at the table. “All yours.”
Peter takes a step and stumbles, to raucous laughter. He catches himself, neck burning, before he can fall, makes it to the table with no further issue. It doesn’t even hurt that bad. He’s had worse from bar-fights, and if he won’t be sitting comfortably for a couple of days, well--
His hands find the Walkman, carefully untangling the snarled cord. He clips it at his waist, slips the headphones over his ears, and immediately feels slightly better.
He’s fine. “And my people?”
“I’ll send one of my boys to let them out.”
“No,” Peter says shortly. He knows he should be conciliatory here--they’re not out of the woods yet--but he can’t quite find it in his voice just yet. And he can’t stand to have any of these assholes any closer to his team than they already are. “You give me the keys, I’ll let them out. Just set our gear down on the surface.”
“Suit yourself,” the captain says, chuckling, and tosses him a set of keys. Peter manages to catch it without fumbling. He turns and walks out of the room without another word. He can hear laughter in his wake, but once he makes the doorway he hits the ‘play’ button, and his ears are filled with the dulcet strains of David Bowie, drowning out everything else.
He’s good. He’s fine.
Gamora is methodically testing her bonds, link by link, for the fifteenth time when the door swings open. Her head jerks up, heart pounding, to see--
Peter. He has his headphones on, but he slides them off as he steps into the room.
“We’re good,” he says.
“What?” Drax asks, standing up. Chains clink from his wrists and ankles.
“I said we’re good,” Peter repeats. He tosses Drax a set of keys. His face is starting to bruise, Gamora realizes suddenly, and he isn’t meeting anyone’s eyes. “They’re letting us go, and if it’s all the same to you I’d really like to get out of here before they change their minds.”
“Your words are wise,” Drax concludes, busying himself with the locks. When he’s free, he tosses the keys to Rocket, who catches them neatly.
“I thought for sure we were completely screwed. What, did you offer to blow them or something?”
Peter looks up, and for a brief instant he looks like he’s been slapped. Then he shakes his head, and the expression slides away like water, replaced by a familiar devil-may-care smile. “What do you think I am? I negotiated, Rock, it’s kind of my specialty. Not like we don’t have enough money lying around.”
“I hope you took it out of your accounts,” Rocket grumbles. He stands, shakes himself out, and walks stiffly over to where Groot is strapped to the floor. Normally, Gamora would be itching to be out of her bonds, but she feels barely a twinge of impatience. Something cold has settled into the pit of her stomach.
Peter didn’t have his datapad on him when they were grabbed. There’s no way he could have accessed his accounts, and no way their captors would simply trust his word. This evidently hasn’t occurred to any of the others, but she will not be the one to bring it up.
Peter has the keys now, and he begins unlocking her wrists. She can smell him, this close. Enhanced scent was one of the many modifications Thanos forced upon her, but he really does reek--sweat and blood and something else, a flat saltwater stink that it takes her a moment to identify. The bruises on his jaw are in the shape of fingers, as though a rough hand gripped--
There are thirteen men on this ship, and when she gets her weapons back she will slaughter them all, and paint the sands below with their blood.
The last shackle falls to the floor; she’s barely been paying any attention. Peter steps back, eyes on her, expression wary.
“Thank you,” Gamora says softly, meeting his gaze. He looks away.
“Alright, ladies, gents, and criminals, let’s hit the road.”
“There is no road,” Drax rumbles, “and if there were, I cannot see how striking it would serve us.”
“Also, who you calling criminal, Starlord,” Rocket adds, pushing past him. “I got a clean record. Unlike some people who got arrested for gambling on Altair V.”
“I am Groot.”
It’s nothing out of the ordinary, their customary sniping, but Gamora has a sudden strong urge to tell Rocket to shut up. She falls in behind him instead, cataloging from this angle the stiffness in Peter’s stride, the restless way his fingers tap on his little music machine.
His voice is light when he answers, though. “Hey, that was a perfectly legitimate negotiating tactic. And we got the job, didn’t we?”
“I’m just saying, your negotiating leaves something to be desired.”
“Says the guy who’s currently on his way off a pirate ship with all his limbs attached thanks to my negotiating.”
“They weren’t going to cut my limbs off. What would they want with my limbs?”
“I don’t know, but Drax seems to think your species is quite delicious.”
“Rocket is my friend,” Drax interjects, sounding offended. “I wouldn’t eat him.”
“That was way below the belt,” Rocket adds.
“You started it.” They’re approaching the cargo bay now. The hatch is open, thin light spilling in. Beside it stands the tall, gray-skinned captain, wearing an unpleasant grin.
When his eyes land on Gamora, he licks his lips ostentatiously. “Hi, pretty.”
“Shut up,” Peter snaps, before she can even think to respond. “Don’t talk to her.”
Gamora raises her eyebrows at him, startled; Peter has a temper, but he’s usually better at controlling it than this--and then it hits her. It should have been obvious from the very beginning, of course, but she is unused to thinking of herself as a creature of flesh and blood. Thanos had no use for such venial matters as sexual exploitation, and none of his minions would have dared.
It wasn’t him they wanted in the first place. It was her. And he--
You stupid, self-sacrificing idiot, she thinks. Aloud, she says, as firmly as she can, “Peter, let’s go.”
“Listen to the pretty girl,” says the captain, laughing. “Before we change our minds. It’s still a long, lonely trip back.”
Rocket has already hopped down to the surface and is picking through the pile of their possessions, but he looks up at that, ears perked. Behind Peter’s back, Gamora shakes her head at him. Groot and Drax, at least, seem oblivious.
Peter pulls himself together with a visible effort, stretches his mouth into a grin. “Well,” he says, “I wish I could say it’s been fun.”
“For us, it has,” chuckles the captain, and out of the corner of her eye she sees Rocket go very still. Then he reaches for his gun.
“Peter,” she says, “let’s go. Now.”
Peter glances at her, then at Rocket, then nods. He hops down through the hatch to the soft, glittering sand, and Gamora follows. The hatch closes, and the pirate’s ship lifts, hovers for a moment against the aubergine sky, and disappears up into the black.
Rocket is still holding his gun. “Quill,” he says, in a voice that promises mayhem, “something you care to explain?”
“No, not really,” Peter says shortly, and hits the button on his mask. Drax and even Groot look up at that--the atmosphere is perfectly breathable, and Peter rarely uses his mask when he doesn’t need to--but Gamora understands perfectly. There have been many times she wished she had a metal shell to hide her weakness behind. As it is, she is left with the imperfect framework of flesh and skin.
The first thing Peter when they get back to the Milano is key in the coordinates for the nearest occupied base he knows of that has something resembling a functioning government. That means more oversight and fewer opportunities to relieve drunk tourists of both their cash and their dignity, but Rocket is just going to have to live with that.
The second thing he does is assign pilot duty to Drax, on the grounds that he’s the only person who is both capable and unlikely to ask too many questions. He gives Peter a concerned look--or what passes for a concerned look from Drax, which is just barely distinguishable from the look that means he’s seriously considering dismembering you and performing a victory dance on your twitching corpse--but doesn’t say anything.
The third thing he does is lock himself in his quarters and brush his teeth until his gums are raw. His reflection in the mirror looks pale and shocky, and it’s really no wonder that the others have been acting like he’s one of Rocket’s less-than-stable explosive experiments.
He runs a hand through his hair, which is stiff and unpleasantly sticky, then starts stripping. The bruises on his face go all the way down and there’s crusted blood where the clawed pirate gouged him. Peter pokes at the gashes, winces, and decides that while they probably don’t need stitches, he’ll definitely have some fresh scars to add to his Sexual Misadventures Gallery.
He turns the shower on as hot as it will go and stands under it until he feels like a boiled lobster. Gamora doesn’t pound on the door to threaten him with grievous bodily harm for using up all the hot water, and for some bizarre reason that actually makes him feel worse.
Eventually, he climbs out, towels off, and gets dressed. He checks himself in the mirror, and it’s a definite improvement--without come in his hair, the bruises mostly just look like he got on the wrong end of a bar-fight, and not like--
He’s feeling pretty okay, at least until he opens the door and there’s Gamora and Rocket, standing in the passage with identical disapproving expressions that are actually a little disturbing in their synchroneity. It’s very, very unusual for the two of them to disapprove of the same thing at the same time. Peter, in an act of instinctive self-preservation, puts his hands up and takes a long step back.
“So I was just gonna--”
“Don’t even think about it,” Rocket says, stepping forward. It’s really pretty amazing how much aggression he can pack into a body that basically looks like it should belong to a stuffed animal. “You ain’t spending the rest of the trip hiding out in there, and if you try--”
“Peter, we just want to know you’re okay,” Gamora interjects.
“I’m fine,” Peter lies immediately.
“Uh huh.” Rocket stomps past him into his cramped quarters. He kicks at the pile of clothes still lying just outside the shower. Peter doesn’t actually know how sensitive his species’ sense of smell is, but given that the underwear lying on top of the pile is visibly encrusted with semen stains, it’s probably a moot point.
If I had a blacklight, he thinks, and bites down hard on the inside of his mouth before he can let out a completely inappropriate snort of laughter.
“Why are you guys in my room?” he asks instead, out loud. “I thought we talked about this. Several times, in fact.”
“Peter--” Gamora begins.
“I have a couple of long-range explosives that can track specific chemical and heat signatures,” Rocket interrupts. He’s still looking down at the disgusting pile of clothes, and his fur is bristling. “If we go back to that rock, there should be enough residue left in the atmosphere to analyze.”
“Thats,” Peter says, actually kind of touched. “Thanks, Rocket, but I don’t think--”
“I’m just saying, if you want to blow those fuckers to fingernail-sized chunks, the offer’s open.” Rocket gives him another hard look, then pushes back out of the room. At the doorway, he pauses. “Groot is on laundry duty, by the way.”
He stalks off. Peter blinks after him, then looks at Gamora.
She’s regarding him with a steady look. “Do you want to talk?”
“I really don’t,” Peter says.
“All right.” She slips past him into the passageway, passing close enough that he can smell the warm, spicy soap she uses in her hair. “If you change your mind, come find me.”
“Sure,” Peter says, meaning it not at all.
After she’s gone, he slips Awesome Mix Vol. 2 into the player and cranks the system as loud as it goes.
Of course, he has to come out eventually, if only so Rocket doesn’t get the idea to try out improvised explosives on his door, and it’s not exactly a big ship. Drax and Gamora are sharing the larger room, Rocket has claimed what used to be a storage closet as his own and Groot, who doesn’t seem to feel the need for privacy, mostly hangs out in the mess hall, or wherever Rocket happens to be.
The point is, there aren’t a lot of places to hide. There’s not much Peter misses about the Ravagers, but Yondu’s ship was a giant old rat’s warren of twisty air vents and piping that went to nowhere in particular. He spent the first five years more or less living in the ducts, before Yondu got around to giving him a room of his own, and while it wasn’t exactly comfortable, it had distinct advantages. Like being able to avoid people.
He dumped his soiled clothing in the laundry chute at some point between the fourth and the twentieth repetition of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, and when he opens the door, it’s there in the passage outside. Neatly folded, even. Groot is the only one who bothers to fold clothes.
Peter picks up the bundle and turns it over in his hands. He was seriously considering tossing it all into the incinerator, but that kind of seems rude now. He shoves it under the bed instead, well out of sight behind a box of spare blaster parts and a stack of porn holos, then steels himself and heads out into the common areas.
There’s an argument going on in the cockpit, with Rocket on one side, Drax and Gamora on the other, and Groot standing well out of the way with his head going back and forth like a puppy at a ping-pong tournament as they shout at each other.
“--do not understand why we cannot simply go ashore--” Drax is saying.
“Because we need to chase those fuckers down while the residual signature is still fresh or we’ll never find them again,” Rocket snarls, “and why are you arguing with me about this? I thought you were all about bloody revenge!”
“That is not your decision to make,” Gamora says coolly.
“Well, since the bossman don’t seem to have the sack--”
“Hey,” Peter says mildly, slipping into the cockpit.
Rocket, to his credit, looks slightly abashed. Only slightly. “Quill, explain to my friend Drax why we need to hunt those bastards down.”
“Um,” Peter says. “No?”
“As I said,” Drax says calmly from the pilot’s chair. “It is a waste of resources to spend time attempting to eradicate such paltry vermin. We have all escaped unscathed--”
“Not all of us,” Rocket mutters.
“Rocket,” Gamora says warningly.
Drax is looking between them. “I do not take your meaning. I am uninjured, as are you, as are Gamora and Groot; Peter Quill is unhappy, but that is only because thieves find it hard to part with money.”
Peter makes a face. It’s not like Drax is wrong, exactly. As general statements of character go, that one is actually pretty accurate.
Rocket, on the other hand, looks heavenward--or in the direction that would be heavenward if there wasn’t a metal bulkhead in the way--and says, “Why are you so stupid? He didn’t pay them, you idiot.”
“I do not take your meaning,” Drax says again, brow furrowed.
“Rocket,” says Gamora, even more sternly.
“Quill decided to fuck the pirates to get them to let us go,” Rocket announces. “Or, more accurately, let them fuck him.”
Peter stares at him. “Seriously?”
“What?” Rocket asks. “You did.”
“That’s not the point--”
“I am Groot?”
“No, he’s not attracted to them, you dumb twig,” Rocket says, rounding on Groot. “He did it because he’s a self-sacrificing moron.”
“I did it because it was the only way I could think of to get all of us out alive,” Peter snaps. “Okay?”
“I see,” says Drax. His mouth is pulled down at the corners, but he doesn’t ask for clarification, so that’s at least one bullet dodged.
“And because they threatened to take me instead,” Gamora says calmly. Peter blinks at her, then looks away.
“Why would you--”
“It was obvious.” She comes to stand next to him and, after a hesitation, touches his arm. “It was also foolish. I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can,” Peter mutters. “That’s not why I did it.”
“Oh, for the love of--” Rocket throws his paws up in the air. “Now he’s trying to be chivalrous.”
“You are not helping,” Drax rumbles sternly.
“I offered to blow their ship to kingdom come, what more do you want?”
Drax cocks his head, then nods. “I see the wisdom of this plan now.”
“I am Groot.”
Drax’s big hands dance lightly across the controls. “If we chart a course for the next rotational cycle--”
“What?” Peter says, diving toward the control panel. “No! I just told you no! What the hell?”
Drax peers up at him, looking perplexed. “The pirates have committed a dishonorable assault upon your person. They must die, of course.”
“It wasn’t an assault! I offered!”
“Why did you offer?” Gamora asks from behind him. Her voice is unreadable.
Peter turns to look at her. “You just said--they said they were going to--you know--with you. Also, you know, the threat of imminent violent death--”
“Then it was not a consensual encounter.”
“Okay, maybe not consensual in the strictest sense of the word, but it’s not like--”
“Then it was an assault.”
“I thought you were on my side!”
“I am,” she says. Her mouth is a firm, tense line and her eyes--Jesus. Her eyes are wet. Deadliest assassin in the galaxy, and she’s about to cry over Peter Quill, intergalactic manwhore extraordinare, getting his dumb ass pounded. He should probably be flattered, but it actually kind of makes him want to cry too. “Peter, I am on your side.”
“What, do you want to go hunt these guys down, too?” he asks. He means it to sound snide, but his voice isn’t working right, and it comes out wobbly and uneven instead.
“Of course I do,” Gamora says. “But it should be your decision. I’ll support you either way. As will we all.”
“Hey,” Rocket protests, “I never agreed--” he trails off when Gamora gives him a hard stare. “Yeah, okay, fine. What she said.”
Groot inclines his head. “I am Groot.”
“Friend Gamora makes a fair point,” Drax concedes. “The decision is yours, Peter Quill.”
Peter looks around the cramped cockpit at them, then drops into the spare seat and scrubs a hand over his face. “We can’t just go blow them up,” he says after a long moment, when he’s sure his voice won’t shake and he’s not about to, like, burst into tears or start hugging them all, or something equally embarrassing. “We’re the good guys now, remember?”
“But--” Rocket begins.
“But,” Peter continues. “They are operating in Nova space. I know that style of vessel--Yondu used to use them for transporting unstable chemical cargo, before we got out of that line of work.” He grins, a hard, savage grin that he doesn’t wear often these days--a Ravager grin.
Rocket is the first to catch on. “They’ll end up in the Kyln,” he says slowly. He grin mirrors Peter’s. “If they’re lucky. The sellers will not be happy if Nova gets involved.”
“I don’t understand,” Gamora says slowly.
“They’re freelance runners,” Peter says. “A ship that size, without a fleet--only thing they could be. That means they’re accountable to their sellers. And that means that if Nova Corps should happen to get a tip from some anonymous do-gooders and impound all their cargo--”
“The seller will go after them without us having to lift a finger,” she finishes, beginning to smile. “Plus, Nova Corps will be indebted to us. Very neat.”
“And we don’t get arrested for murder,” Peter says. “Bonus.”
“I would prefer to crush their skulls beneath my boots,” Drax says. “But I will do as you wish.”
“I am Groot,” Groot adds solemnly.
“Excellent.” Peter cracks his knuckles together. “Set a course for Nova space, we got us some bad guys to fuck with.”
Dey looks at Peter, then at Drax, who is standing with his arms crossed, then at Groot, who appears to be making the acquaintance of a large and potentially toxic potted plant outside Nova Prime’s office, then back at Peter. It’s just the three of them here. Gamora had some mysterious assassin errands to run, and Rocket claims that standing too close to law enforcement officers makes him break out in hives.
When no explanation is forthcoming, Dey squints at Peter in a suspicious manner that is entirely undeserved and asks, “Why are you telling us this?”
“Because they’re breaking the law? And going after illegal arms dealers is kind of your stock in trade, especially when they’re dealing in unstable chemical weaponry?”
“Yes, it is,” Dey says. “Since when is it yours?”
Peter pats his chest, right over the heart. “See, now, that is just hurtful.”
“I’ve arrested you half a dozen times in the past five years, Quill,” Dey says mildly. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I owe you my life and the lives of my wife and daughter and I’ll never forget that--but I know you, and this isn’t you. These guys are small time--from the sounds of it, they’d have gotten picked up eventually. Why stick your nose into it?”
Peter opens his mouth, then shuts it again. Sometimes he forgets that Dey isn’t actually stupid. “I--”
“Conflict of interest?” Dey asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Not--exactly,” Peter admits, finally. “We crossed paths over on an old mining satellite a couple of days ago. It didn’t really go well.”
“They committed violence against him,” Drax rumbles, and Peter squeezes his eyes shut, bracing himself. If Drax blurts out the whole story, well, Peter knows Dey as well as Dey knows him. He’ll be horrified, and he’ll offer discreet counseling services, and his face will get droopy and sad and Peter’s days of roguish notoriety amongst Nova Corps will be over.
Drax, however, does not elaborate, and Dey’s expression remains comfortingly judgmental. “I see,” he says. “I’ll inform my superiors, but that definitely sounds like something worth checking out.”
Peter blinks at him. “It does?”
“Like I said,” Dey says. “My wife and daughter are alive because of you, and what you’re asking me to do is basically my job. I’ll check it out, and I’ll let you know.”
“I, um--” he can almost hear his brain trying to switch gears at high speed, but if there’s one thing Peter is and has always been good at, it’s running his mouth. “Thank you, Corpsman Dey. Thank you very much. I just couldn’t bear to think of these pirates at large, looting, and pillaging, and, and--”
“Don’t push it,” Dey says, but he’s smiling.
Peter smiles back and sticks out his hand. Let it never be said that Peter Quill, aka Starlord, aka leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy and/or professional assassin wrangler, is incapable of working amicably with law enforcement. It would be true, at least up until the last couple of months, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be said. “Pleasure working with you, Corpsman Dey, as always.”
“Anytime,” Dey says, shaking his hand. “Now you’d better get out of here before I have to arrest one of your crew.”
Peter nods. “Noted. Let’s go, guys.”
Drax nods sharply and turns on his heel. Groot looks up from where he is--oh for fuck’s sake--nuzzling Nova Prime’s large, flowering plant and pulls a long face. “I am Groot?”
“Yeah, yeah, she’s a lovely lady--flower--whatever--but we gotta get going.”
Groot nods sadly and sniffs the flower again, then lumbers to his feet and follows Drax out of the room.
This is seriously Peter’s life right now. The sad thing is, it’s better than anything he can remember having since his mom died.
Gamora and Rocket return from their shopping trip looking smug, well-armed, and out of breath and carrying several large bags, the contents of which they won’t display. Peter considers the likelihood that they have just mugged a group of arms dealers, then re-calculates their flight plan to make sure they are out of here, like, yesterday.
They make it off of Xandar before any more well-armed mooks come after them, and Rocket is cackling gleefully from inside his closet, from which emanates a worrying chemical odor, and Peter is actually feeling pretty okay, at least until Rhomann Dey’s face pops up on the viewscreen.
Rhomann spends the better part of the day trying to ignore the niggling sense that something is very wrong. He does his due diligence--it’s not that he actually thinks Quill is making the story up out of whole cloth, but he can’t fully discount the possibility either--and everything seems to check out. The intel looks good. Given the routes and that particular ship class, he’s able to narrow it down pretty quickly to the Yendi, a low-end transport clipper captained by a character named Pennek Dar.
The sense of unease only increases as he scrolls through Dar’s extensive criminal record. Smuggling, arms dealing, assault and possession of illegal weaponry--all expected, all routine. There’s a good bit of extraneous nastiness in there, too, though. Slave dealing and procurement. Kidnapping. Rape.
“Looks like Quill’s intel was good,” remarks Corpsman Gunner, beside him. “Will wonders never cease.”
“I think he’s turned over a new leaf,” Rhomann says absently, still scanning the arrest records.
Gunner snorts. “You’re too trusting.”
“Maybe,” Rhomann says, and shrugs. He supposes it’s just barely possible that the entire thing is some sort of elaborate set-up, but Dar’s arrest record is legitimate, and if Quill was trying to use extra-legal means of exacting revenge, there are more efficient ways of doing that. “This looks like the real deal, though.”
“Great,” says Gunner. “Let’s do this, then.”
They’re able to intercept the Yendi at a fuelling station, and the sting is textbook, beautiful, like something straight out of a training holo. Dar’s crew piles out at the station, cackling about prostitutes and intoxicants and other similar pastimes, Rhomann drops five corpsmen in stealth gear into the rear access port, they have Dar and his second in a force net before either of them have time to blink. Neat as a pin. For some reason, it doesn’t do a thing to help the uneasy feeling in his gut.
Dar is a big man, bigger than he looked in his mugshot. Bigger than Quill, even, which is something of an accomplishment, and Rhomann doesn’t recognize his race by sight. His second is Orshenni, with six long claws on each hand and a basilisk stare, but Dar is at least human enough to look righteously pissed.
“Who gave you our coordinates?” he snarls at Rhomann. “Was it that pissant Helbron? Those Kree bastards? Who?”
“Let’s just say that you pissed off the wrong people,” Rhomann says mildly, scrolling through the flight computers. There’s plenty in there to put Dar and the rest of his crew away for a good long time. He’s almost tempted to feel proud of Quill. Grudge report or no, there are some dangerous criminals going away because of him.
“We ain’t been late on any of our drops, we ain’t given nobody cause to do us wrong,” Dar says, and Rhomann nods absently, filing away the information but keeping his face as disinterested as he can. Some guys, they’ll say almost anything to get a reaction, and it looks like Dar is one of those idiots. That, or he’s just too angry to keep his mouth shut. Either way, they can use it. “You think we’re the kinda damn fools to fuck with Kree, ‘specially with their weapons on the line? No siree.”
“You think the Kree gave us your location?” he asks, still in his disinterested voice. “Interesting.”
“Well, if it wasn’t them, who the hell was it? That little Aaskvarian sonuvabitch on Hebron 3--?” he trails off, as though his brain has finally caught up with him, and glowers at Rhomann. “You can’t prove anything, anyway. Ship’s clean.”
“At the moment,” Rhomann says agreeably. “But the kind of weaponry you’re carrying leaves trace chemicals, and I somehow doubt that your conscientious crew thought to clean up before they ran off for shore leave. My men are rounding them up now, by the way.”
Dar’s mouth works silently. It’s utterly petty, but Rhomann never gets tired of this part. “You--”
“You ever hear of a man called Starlord?” Rhomann asks, plugging into the camera mainframe. These ships are all rigged for surveillance. Smart criminals disable them--Peter Quill, the one time Rhomann got a chance to look at that floating deathtrap he calls a ship, had replaced them all with a pretty impressive and extensive speaker system--but it doesn’t look like these guys were all that smart.
“Starlord. Legendary outlaw.” Rhomann pulls up the files, and sure enough, there they are, months worth of video evidence all tied up in a pretty little package. Rhomann chooses a recent clip at random, just to make sure it’s not corrupted or trapped, and lets it play. “He and his people saved Xandar a while back. We’re all pretty grateful. You should be a little more careful who you kick the crap out of on mining satellites.”
Dar stares at him for another long moment, and then, incredibly, starts to laugh. “Him?”
“I don’t see what’s so funny--”
“Listen, little man, you got me fair and square, and I’ll grant you that,” Dar says, still grinning to show pointed teeth, “but we didn’t do a damn thing to that boy that he didn’t ask for. Went down on his knees for me without so much as a love-tap, and you can put that on record.”
Rhomann’s face is getting hot, he can feel it, and he isn’t actually confused at all but he hopes like hell he’s mis-hearing. “What are you--”
His gaze falls on the video clip, still playing out beneath his fingers. It’s of the mess hall, it looks like. The timestamp marks it as about a week ago, and in it--
His stomach twists. In it, Peter Quill is on his knees--it’s him, the camera had a close angle and there’s no mistaking his face--and he’s--
Rhomann slaps the video off before he can see any more.
Behind him, Dar is still laughing.
Gunner chooses that moment to come back into the cockpit, and Rhomann, with some effort, manages to reassert control over his face. “Get them out of here,” he says shortly, jerking a thumb at the two pirates.
“Now,” Rhomann adds. “Gag him if he keeps mouthing off, I’ll finish up in here.”
Gunner raises his eyebrows at that--sweeping the camera mainframe is grunt work, below Rhomann’s paygrade, and they both know it--but he’s too well-trained to comment. “Yes, sir.”
“Be seeing you, lawman,” Dar laughs, as Gunner rigs the transporter up. His second doesn’t say a word, but there’s an unsettling smile on his reptilian face.
“I meant it about the gag,” Rhomann says to Gunner, and turns back to the controls. “I’ll meet you back at the ship in half an hour.”
He keeps his back turned until he’s sure they’re all gone, then runs a hand over his face. It’s not like he hasn’t seen some ugly scenes in his time with the Corps, but it’s different when it’s someone he knows, someone he--however grudgingly--respects. Peter Quill is far from an innocent, but nobody deserves this.
He opens the file again. Doesn’t press play, just scans through the video, trying not to see any detail, until it’s over. Then he checks all the other videos with the same date-stamp. There are the rest of Quill’s crew chained up in the hold, which explains plenty, a tense exchange planetside, but that’s it--the video in the mess hall is the only real evidence of--of what they did. The pirates will talk, and there’s nothing Rhomann can do about that, but without corroborating evidence, that’s all it’ll be. Just talk.
He pauses, fingers still on the controls, suddenly staggered by the decision he made almost without thinking about it. This isn’t just following up a tip from a mostly friendly, somewhat former outlaw--this is directly tampering with evidence. It’s not just his job on the line here. If he gets caught, he could wind up in the Kyln himself.
He thinks of Duranna, of the class trip she just got back from, burbling gleefully about xenobiology and skybuses and how she’s going to be a pilot when she grows up, or maybe a scientist, or maybe both. Of the sweet curve of Karman’s smile as she met his eyes over a glass of wine, biting her lip so their daughter wouldn’t think she was laughing at her. He thinks of Peter Quill lunging for the Orb with no thought for his own safety, of the defiant jut of his chin- when he lied to Rhomann’s face yesterday, and his hands are moving almost of their own accord, separating out the mess hall video from the stream and excising it like a diseased organ.
When it’s done, he lets out a long, slow breath.
Then he downloads the rest of the videos and gets the hell out of there.
It’s late by the time they’ve finished processing Dar and his crew, and Rhomann can feel a headache building behind his eyes. They did eventually have to gag the pirate captain--it was that, or risk one of the junior corpsmen punching him in the mouth, and as tempting as that is, he’s already breached professionalism and proper conduct on Peter Quill’s behalf plenty today.
“Did you hear,” hisses Corpsman Yidwar, after Rhomann has steered him forcefully out of the interrogation room. “Did you hear what he said about the Starlord? You should have let me--”
“Ruin your entire professional career over some mouthy criminal?” Rhomann asks. Yidwar is young, new enough that he’s never had to drag Peter Quill naked out of a bar-fight, and thoroughly star-struck. “Have some common sense. He’s going to the Kyln. He’ll catch plenty of hell there.”
Privately, he thinks there’s a good chance that neither Dar nor his crew will survive long in the Kyln, at least not without some quick maneuvering that they are definitely not bright enough to pull off, which in retrospect is probably exactly what Quill had in mind. He can’t bring himself to feel all that bad about it.
He gets the pirates on a transport to the Kyln, shrugs off Gunner’s offer of a quick drink, and heads back to his office. All he really wants to do is go home, crawl into bed, bury his face in Karman’s hair and forget about this whole damn day, but there’s something he has to do first.
Quill has installed a subroutine that blocks his coordinates, but his ship still takes incoming calls. He’s sitting in his cluttered mess hall when he picks up, alone as far as Rhomann can see. “Corpsman Dey, what a pleasant surprise.”
“Quill,” Rhomann acknowledges. “I just wanted to update you on the situation. We’ve arrested the pirate known as Pennek Dar, and there is evidence that his ship was storing some highly illegal and highly dangerous cargo. On behalf of Nova Corps, I want to thank you for the information.”
“Awesome,” Quill says, grinning. He immediately tries to arrange his expression into something more sober, without much success. “I mean, it’s great that you caught those guys. Who knows what kind of damage they could have done, right?”
“Right,” Rhomann says, and hesitates. He could--maybe should--just leave it at that. Quill clearly didn’t want him knowing the particulars of his encounter with Dar and his crew. That awful video put paid to that in the worst possible way, but the video doesn’t exist anymore. If any of this blows up, though-- “Peter.”
Quill pauses in the act of reaching for the controls, face going still. Rhomann has never addressed him by his given name before. “What?”
“Pennek Dar never disabled his ship’s cameras,” Rhomann says.
Peter Quill is anything but stupid, and he catches Rhomann’s meaning almost instantly. His expression begins to crumple, and then he presses his lips together, closes his eyes. “Right. Great. That’s--thanks for the heads up.”
“Unfortunately,” Rhomann continues, “some fumble-fingered Nova officer accidentally deleted some video while he was compiling it.”
Quill opens his eyes. “He did, did he?”
“He did. You know, people get overworked, they get tired, they make stupid mistakes. It shouldn’t have much of an impact on the investigation, though. I’m sure there wasn’t anything important on any of that video.”
For a long moment, Quill just stares at him. Then he shakes his head, lets out a huff of laughter. “You know, you’re probably right. You see that officer, you thank him for me, all right?”
“I will,” Rhomann says. “See you around, Quill.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Quill says, “but I hope not.”
He cuts the connection. Rhomann folds up his screen, pushes his chair back, stretches. It’s been a long, long day, and he’s more than ready to go home.
It’s after the Corpsman Dey’s call, after Peter has reported the pirates’ arrests, smiled like a conman, and promptly disappeared into his quarters for five hours, after they’re back in outlaw space, when Gamora finds him sitting alone in the cockpit with his hands laced together behind his head, staring out at the starry sky. She watches him from the shadows for some time before he rolls his head back to look at her.
“You gonna come in and sit down, or are we just sticking with creepy staring for this evening’s program?”
“I’m sorry,” Gamora says. “I didn’t mean--”
Peter smiles. It’s tired and strained and makes him look older than he usually does. “I was kidding. But I wouldn’t mind the company.”
Gamora comes in and sits down. Their chairs are close enough that if she swung hers toward him, their knees would bump, but she doesn’t. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” he asks.
“For--all this.” He would prefer to pretend to be unaffected, and she will not deprive him of that small measure of dignity, but she wishes that she could tell him that he is a good man, that what was done to him was an abomination, that he should not be ashamed. Words of comfort are foreign to her, though, and she doesn’t think Peter will accept them. She wishes, not for the first time, for the pirates’ throats against her blade. The language of blood is one she speaks well enough. “I’m sorry you felt you had to take my place.”
“Better me than you,” he says, and there’s nothing but blunt honesty in his voice. He really does believe that. Still.
“I’m not going to thank you for it.” Some part of her wishes that she could, if only to honor his sacrifice, but there is no room amidst her rage for gratitude.
“Wouldn’t expect you to.”
“Peter,” she says, and he looks up at her. His expression is so wary that it’s almost like looking into a mirror--they are neither of them good at this sort of thing. She’s not sure if he’s afraid of her pity or of some other amorphous, unnameable thing--some reflection of the awful expression he probably didn’t even know he was wearing when he came to free them from the hold.
“It’s not because of what Rocket said earlier, you know, about chivalry,” he says, all in a rush.
“It’s just, I mean--” He looks away. “You’ve had enough bad shit in your life. You didn’t need one more thing.”
“So you took it.”
“Yeah,” Peter says. He sounds subdued. “You can be mad at me about it if you want.”
Gamora swings her seat around until their knees bump. Peter looks up, blinking. His skin is warm through two thick layers of cloth, and his scruffy human face is sweetly familiar, and when she takes one of his big hands between both of hers and squeezes, he squeezes back. Gently, like they don’t both know that she could break every bone in his body if she wanted to. “I’m not mad,” she says.
“Thanks.” He looks down at their joined hands. “Are you gonna tell me what you and Rocket are planning, or am I better off not knowing?”
“You’re better off not knowing,” Gamora says. “Don’t worry. We won’t get caught.”
“I should tell you not to, whatever it is.”
“We wouldn’t listen to you,” she tells him. It’s too late, anyway. Rocket smuggled his improvised explosives through Kyln security with an associate four hours ago, while Peter was brooding in his quarters over whatever Corpsman Dey told him. He still keeps up on his old criminal connections, and he has enough favors racked up to ensure that none of the pirates will be walking out in one piece. “It’s security,” he told Gamora, when she gave a halfhearted protest.
Peter nods. “They had video going,” he says, without looking up. “In the mess hall. And probably the rest of the ship, but--”
“Bastards,” Gamora breathes. There’s only one way Peter could know that, and she winces to think of it. “Do we--”
“Dey took care of it,” Peter interrupts.
“He could lose his job,” Gamora says.
“Yeah.” He extricates his hand from hers, and she lets it go. He rubs his palms against his thighs, then pushes them through his hair. It’s an uncharacteristically nervous gesture, for Peter. His mouth opens, but he shuts it without saying anything, looks out at the starry darkness surrounding them. His silence is unnerving.
“You asked Rocket earlier what he thought you were,” Gamora says after a little while, breaking the fragile quiet. Peter lifts his head to look at her. She can’t read his expression. “I believe you are a man who would use any tool at his disposal to keep his friends from harm.”
“There is no shame in it,” she says, and her voice is fierce, because he must believe this. “In using whatever tools come to hand.”
He looks at her for a long moment, then finally, tiredly, smiles. “Does this mean you’re coming around to my point of view about poker?”