The smugglers had phase cannons, of course. Denarian Dey and his backup arrived in the nick of time, and even then the bounty he paid barely covered the damage to the Milano. “Why’d we even bother? We’re practically in the hole, and those jerks singed my fur.” Rocket craned his neck over his shoulder to scowl at the blackened strip along his haunch.
“It’s fine,” Peter said. “It’s all good.”
“How is it all good? Look at me!”
“I am Groot,” Groot said from pouch on Rocket’s back.
“I know you leave bits of yourself everywhere, but it is not the freaking same with us mammals.”
“I am Groot.”
“I do not!”
“It’s fine,” Peter said loudly, “because we got a bonus.”
“A bonus?” Gamora said, suspicious. Suspicion was a beneficial default when it came to Peter, she’d found. “Does Dey know about this bonus?”
Peter glanced to the sky, as though Dey’s squadron, rapidly disappearing to nothing, might overhear. He opened his coat, and out of an inside pocket he pulled a box. It was a hand’s breadth wide and twice as long, brightly painted, with an autoscreen at the center that flashed glyphs Gamora didn’t recognize. Maybe A’askavariian glyphs, given the smugglers they’d stolen it from, but maybe not.
“Is it jewels?” Rocket asked, standing on tiptoe to see better.
“A weapon?” Drax offered.
The colorful patterns on the box made Gamora’s mouth water, somehow. “It’s something to eat.”
Peter’s eyebrows flew up. “Do you recognize it? Have you seen these before?”
“It was a guess,” Gamora said.
“What kind of something?” Rocket asked.
Peter reached forward and unhooked the catch. Slowly he opened the lid, grinning like a very smug maniac. Inside were orange-yellow cylinders, spongy. Gamora could believe they were edible, but she could as easily have believed they were plant fertilizer or an organic bomb or genital nutrients.
“So what are they?” Rocket asked.
“They’re Twinkies,” Peter said in awe, like a priest before a holy artifact. “We used to have them all the time when I was a kid. Go ahead, take one.”
Cautiously Gamora lifted one of the Twinkies from the box and bit the end off. It was soft and very sweet, and it had a white filling inside that was even sweeter. Gamora swallowed the bite and smacked her lips, wishing her water canteen was handy. The aftertaste was vicious.
“They’re the best, right?” Peter said, through a full mouth. “They were my favorite when I was a kid. We should stock up, have ‘em around all the time.”
“Yeah, if you want to drop two thousand units a box,” Rocket said, peering up at the underside of the box.
“What?” Peter said.
“It’s what it says.”
“The smugglers were no doubt importing a rare Earth delicacy,” Drax said. The Twinkie looked smaller when held between his enormous fingers. He took a bite and nodded thoughtfully.
“I am Groot.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure none of it goes to waste,” Rocket said.
And he was right; he and Peter finished the box off between them a half-hour after launch and spent several hours after that groaning through matching stomachaches. Even then, Peter looked almost blissful.
Drax had promised them a surprise. Peter kept getting distracted by pretty faces on the street: a woman with serpents winding restlessly in her hair, a man in a short skirt and streaks of face paint that accentuated his eyes. Rocket kept getting distracted by things made of metal and machined carbon. But somehow Gamora and Groot – striding on his own now, if slowly – towed them to the building Drax had directed them to. It was built of scrap, as so many were in this ruin of a metalworking city. It rose two stories, and the scent of something sharp and warm and delicious wafted through the open doorway.
“Hello?” Gamora said.
“Come in,” came Drax’s voice, a confident rumble.
The inside was like the outside, a patchwork of metal soldered into a dwelling but softened with cushions and curtains wherever sharp edges threatened to poke out. The effect was one of red silk on blackened steel.
Gamora followed the odors to the back, where she found Drax and a woman, presumably the member of his cohort that he’d told the Milano crew about. She was the same color as Drax with the same red tattoos and pale eyes. Her dark hair was pulled tightly behind her head, where it fell long and straight to her waistline.
“The meal is almost done,” Drax said. Food was scattered in dishes all around the room, on tables and makeshift counters and a stove, one burner still hot.
“He is welcome to use my kitchen if it means spreads like this,” the woman said.
“He has found the food on our ship… lacking,” Gamora told her.
Drax slid a tray of bite-sized food onto the counter with more force than Gamora really thought necessary. “It is all things from cans and boxes. Some of it is powder.”
“Hey, you don’t like it, leaves more for us,” Rocket said absently. He crawled up onto the counter and sniffed at the tray. His whiskers bent forward, twitchy with interest.
Drax sat them all down around his friend’s – Mara’s – table. Mara’s son Ajer joined them, too. He was slightly taller than Groot. Drax pointed out each dish and its contents, although after the soup with the fish eyes, Peter asked him to stop.
“Did you always cook?” Gamora asked.
“For my wife and daughter,” Drax said. “Every night.”
“They’re fish chips,” Rocket said. They were little slabs of fish meat, dried like jerky, and they lay in a pile in the center of a cloth handkerchief, now untied and balanced on Rocket’s paws. He wasn’t quite holding it out to Peter, but he wasn’t quite not, either. “Believe me, if you losers don’t want ‘em, it will not hurt my feelings.”
Gamora reached past Peter, took a chip, and put it in her mouth. It was chewy like jerky, too, and it was rich with some sharp, piquant spice she couldn’t identify. After a moment, her nose began to run. She and Nebula had played games like this, years ago: who could eat a Kree night-pepper in one bite. Who could eat the most solar flower petals without crying. Nebula usually won; she had a taste for pain Gamora had never quite acquired.
Gamora chewed until she’d chewed the flavor out or her tongue had gone numb to it; it was hard to tell. Then she swallowed. “It’s very good,” she said. She lifted her hand, watching for Rocket’s nod, and then she took another.
“They were the first thing I ate, after,” Rocket said later, while Gamora was drowsing in her bunk. “I don’t really remember what they fed me in that place, but I remember it was so freaking bland. And I got out, and there was this.”
Drax cooked more now. He had a tiny grill unit he plugged into the Milano, and on it he grilled vegetables and cuts of meat. He bought dozens and dozens of tiny cahcah eggs and poured their contents onto the grill, swirling them and sprinkling in herbs and eyebulb until he had omelettes.
Sometimes Gamora slept until she could sleep no more, and Rocket chased her out of his workspace, and Peter told so many Earth stories, lined up one after the other, that she wanted to put a stick up his butt. At those times, she leaned into a bulkhead near Drax and his grill, and she watched him. He didn’t talk nearly as much as Peter, wasn’t nearly as touchy as Rocket about people touching his tools, and usually gave her samples if she waited long enough.
Today it was a kind of pastry, cooked on the grill because the grill was what they had. There was meat inside, which Gamora burned her tongue on . She blew on the pastry, and vapor wafted up from it in swirls, visible against the Milano’s dark walls.
“What did you eat when you were a child?” Drax asked.
Gamora blew on the pastry again. “Whatever our keepers fed us. High-protein diet. A gardener grew vegetables for us.” And not a one that couldn’t be improvised into a weapon at need. “A sweet sometimes, if we won something or impressed Thanos somehow.
“But before that. With your parents.”
Gamora gave him a sharp look. With a spatula he prodded another pastry, still sizzling on the grill. Sighing, Gamora said, “I don’t remember.” Drax twisted to stare at her, looked vaguely horrified. Gamora didn’t know how to tell him to stop. “It was a long time ago. I probably wouldn’t even recognize the kind of thing my mother cooked if I had it again.”
Drax kept on looking horrified until Gamora thought to tell him about her and Nebula’s games with the night-peppers, and that pacified him somewhat.
They couldn’t be eating home-cooked meals or planetary delicacies all the time. Peter’s shallow cupboard was stocked with boxes and cans and powders for a reason: because that’s what fit and didn’t need any special cooking apparatus. Apply hot water and serve.
That was good, because Drax lost interest in making meals for the crew. His cooking took on an experimental air. He went on expeditions of his own when the Milano was planetside, and he didn’t show anyone what he found – anyone except Gamora, who was still allowed to linger by his grill and taste things Drax claimed to be unable to pronounce. His pale eyes watched her keenly, and he listened to her critiques with sober deliberation.
Today they were halfway to Crescent, where Peter swore there was a quick, easy job. Gamora doubted. She dealt with this by drowsing in her bunk.
The drowsing shifted into a dream: a dwelling built of white stone and draped with plant life everywhere, overflowing from hanging baskets and creeping up rope trellises. On the roof, Gamora played a game of marks and countermarks with a set of polished pebbles.
A delicious odor wafted to the roof. She crept down stone stairs, grooved to help keep feet from slipping. She reached the ground floor, and through the next doorway she knew there was a woman as green as Gamora herself, and if Gamora asked the woman nicely, the woman would give her a taste, even though it was still a half hour until dinner.
Gamora woke. The mattress underneath was thin and the bulkhead lights shone dully yellow, but one thing from her dream remained. She inhaled deeply, expected the dream to dissipate to nothing, but still she could smell what it was that had drawn her dream child-self down from the roof of her parents’ house.
She got up and followed the smell, feeling like she was still dreaming. She followed it all the way to Drax’s grill. “Gamora, good. I want you to try this. It’s a kind of fish.” Drax gently scraped something off the grill, dropped it into a bowl, and held the bowl out to Gamora. Mindlessly she took it. Spices stained the flesh a pale yellow, and a leafy blue-green vegetable was laid across it in strips.
She might have eaten something like it before, once. But she’d eaten so many meals over the years, on so many planets and out-of-the-way stations.
She drew her short knife, stabbed a chunk of fish, and put it in her mouth. “Oh,” she said, around the mouthful. The vegetable was seaweed, she’s sure of it, and its flavor was salty-sour, and it transported her again to that white stone dwelling, overhung with green and built just out of sight of the sea. Gamora chewed, afraid with every taste that with the next one the illusion of familiarity would be gone. But when she swallowed and opened her eyes, her mother’s kitchen was still just barely out of her view, as though she’d see it there behind her if she just looked over her shoulder. “Where did you get this recipe?”
“On Germaine, a collector of recipes sold this one to me. He said it was from a city on the coast of the smallest continent on Zehoberi.”
Gamora took a sharp breath. “I’m from Zehoberi.”
“All these experiments you’ve been doing—were they all recipes from Zehoberi?”
“It was a large planet,” Drax said, as though the fact offended him. “It had many cuisines.”
“Why Zehoberi?” Gamora asked. The answer seemed obvious and yet too absurd to believe.
“Because you are my friend,” Drax said simply.
Gamora blinked fiercely at her fish and seaweed. Her mother had made it many times, Gamora was sure of it. She couldn’t remember its name. “Thank you,” she said.
The job on Crescent was neither quick nor easy, but the payoff was good – enough to earn them a few days’ vacation. After much haggling and many suggestions, somehow it was Groot that won out.
“It ain’t his home planet,” Rocket said. “He won’t tell me where that is. But he likes this one, I guess. Even though it’s full of freaking plants and fresh air. Weirdo,” Rocket said fondly.
Groot directed Peter where to land – in a meadow, near a stream. Enormous leafy trees reached for the sky on all sides, ending in a canopy hundreds of bules above their heads. It was morning local time, and the air was cool. Groot immediately marched from the hatch and across the meadow to stand in the middle of the stream.
“We should have a picnic,” Drax said thoughtfully.
Gamora helped Drax this time. She mixed the spices as he directed, and she watched the solution simmer until it thickened into a sauce. When everything was finished, they divided it into four bowls and carried them outside to where Peter and Rocket lay sleeping. Drax put a set of prongs in each – no knifing it with whatever was handy, this time.
Groot had moved from the center of the stream to a little pool near the bank. The water came up just below his knees. He watched the place-setting with interest, and finally he said, “I am Groot.”
Rocket stirred from where he was wedged against Peter’s side – for body heat, he’d no doubt say if anyone dared to ask. He sat up and blinked at the bowl Gamora handed him.
“I am Groot.”
Rocket sniffed cautiously, and then he looked over his shoulder and said, “You know that’s not always a great idea for us mammals, just drinking whatever comes out of the ground.”
“I am Groot,” Groot said complacently. He stepped out the stream, dripping.
Gamora settled on the bank, her bowl in her hands. It was still too hot to eat. Drax came and sat next to her.
“If we all fall over dead, it’s going to be your fault,” Rocket said, but he put the bowl aside anyway and strode off into the Milano. Groot followed him up the ramp. Peter stood up and stretched, careful not to kick the bowl Drax had set next to him.
Rocket came back with everyone’s canteens looped over his shoulder, and he filled them all in the stream while Groot looked on.
“He wanted to contribute,” Rocket said, though no one had asked. “Extra special magic mountain water.”
“So what are we having?” Peter said, settled cross-legged on the grass.
“My mother used to make it,” Gamora said.
“Oh, awesome,” Peter said. He picked up the bowl and balanced it on his ankles. “Thanks, Gamora.”
“And thanks to Groot, for the water,” Drax added. “I’m sure it will be very beneficial.”
“I am Groot,” Groot said. He looked like he’d gained a few microbules in height since they’d arrived, but it might have been Gamora’s imagination.
“Let’s eat,” Rocket said.
And they did.