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What’s left of Teivan’s collection has been abandoned. Glass crunches under even the careful tread of Gamora’s boots, and the room echoes with a sense of emptiness, lending credence to the rumours that Teivan has fled here, at least, if not Knowhere altogether. (Though Gamora doubts the ones that have him accompanied by some kind of…duck.) What little he did not take with him, the looters have claimed for their own.

Gamora is on one knee, trying to balance amidst the debris and gain a better view of something tucked just under one of the exhibits’ bases, when she hears it. Footsteps. Booted feet like hers, aiming for the same quiet she had. Heavier than Quill’s gait, though the occasional metallic clink would imply it is not permanent. Armour.

Her sword meets another with a clang, jarring and shuddering in her grip, and Gamora rolls with her opponent’s movement rather than be forced on her back. Glass bites along her shoulders, down her arms, and it does not hurt – she removed herself from such slight pains long ago – but it is bloody inconvenient. The breath she hisses out is frustration, nothing more.

She looks up to pale skin and eyes that are not quite brown – and yes, that is armour. Gamora knows the style of it well, the curve of the plates and the fine designs engraved into the metal. Her lips curl in a snarl; her last Asgardian encounter did not end well.

“Who are you?” the Asgardian demands. Gamora bares her teeth.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

The Asgardian pauses for such a brief second, Gamora wouldn’t have been aware of it if they hadn’t been so close. Then she bears her weight down against their swords, metal screeching and edging closer to Gamora’s face, until she growls low in her throat, pushing herself up and away. Two strides towards the door before she turns back. Gamora is on her feet the instant her back is turned, though it almost seems like the Asgardian no longer sees her; her eyes flicker over the destruction, searching, and Gamora would almost swear there is something desperate in the wide of her eyes.

“I left something with him,” she murmurs, and it is not entirely for Gamora’s ears, but neither of them have lowered their swords, and she blocks Gamora’s only route to the door, something that prickles along Gamora’s skin.

So she tilts her head, thinking of Nebula’s sharp tongue, and says, “You should find yourself better storage options in future.”

The look the Asgardian gives her is flat, unimpressed. Gamora grins back at her, dares her. “Just stay out of my way,” she says. It sounds like it is supposed to be a warning, and Gamora has to force down the sound in her throat she thinks may have been laughter. Instead, she meets the Asgardian’s look with one of her own, and for just a moment, she thinks she sees the corners of the Asgardian’s mouth quirk.

Of course that’s when Quill decides to arrive, timing impeccable as ever, his “Yo!” insanely loud in the silence. The Asgardian flinches and spins on her heel, shoving past him and out the door. Gamora breathes deep while Quill turns to her, eyes wide and thumb hooked over his shoulder. “Who the hell was that?”

She feels what’s left of her smile slip away. “Asgardian,” she says, more of a hiss, and Quill’s eyes grow wider still, something like awe shining.

“No shit? You mean like – like him, the guy with the – ” He makes a whirling motion above his head, complete with sound effects, and Gamora has had more than enough. She grabs him by his jacket, ignoring his protests, and drags him outside. The air of Knowhere is forever foul, but it clears her head, allows her to shake off the clinging thickness of Teivan’s shop. Even if Quill still won’t shut up. (But that is nothing new, and Gamora is becoming rather adept at tuning him out.)

***

“How did it go?” Rocket asks, when they finally make it back to the Milano (Quill is the very worst to take through the markets, always so curious). He never looks up from the device in his lap, reduced to a mass of wires and connections even Gamora can’t make sense of, and only grunts when she says, “Waste of time.” They both knew it would be, but Quill had an unerring – annoying – tendency to be right – they couldn’t take the risk.

“Hey, no, wait, we ran into that – that Asgardian, right?” Quill drops himself into one of the recliners he bought with his share of their last wage and snaps his fingers at Gamora. She barely glares at him before he lifts both hands in surrender, mouthing an apology. “With the old-timey armour, like that guy. She was fun.”

“How would you know?” Gamora snaps. “You only saw her for a moment.”

Quill’s eyes become unfocused, distant, and he leans back in his chair. “Yeah, but what a moment.” Gamora kicks him, just to watch him flail.

Rocket’s paws still, slowly and deliberately, and he looks up. “What guy?” Because of course that’s what he focuses on.

Quill has managed to right himself, still rubbing his knee and glowering somewhere in Gamora’s direction (she didn’t kick him that hard). “Y’know, the guy with the…” He makes the whirling motion again.

“The lasso?” Rocket frowns, and Gamora feels that sound trapped in her throat again.

“The hammer!”

“How the fuck is that a hammer? What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s what he does!”

Rocket growls softly, the way that means he would be rolling his eyes if they weren’t back on the mess in his lap. “That’ll be Sif. Leader of the Warriors Three – don’t look at me, I didn’t name them. We ran into them when Thor – the guy with the fucking hammer, you dipshit – was trying to put the Realms back together.” And Gamora knows this story, saw the memories dragged out in pain and glorious, dazzling colour; she has no wish to hear it again. She ducks into the corridor, leaving them to their informative bickering, and pulls herself up into the cockpit where Groot is occupying the pilot’s chair, swaying happily in his pot to the music Rocket must have left on. Gamora would never admit it, but she finds it endearing that Groot shares Quill’s music taste.

“They’re ridiculous,” she tells him, sinking into one of the other seats they managed to squeeze in. Groot opens his eyes and squeaks at her. She likes to think he agrees. Even more so when she reaches out and he curls himself around her finger, chittering away, and Gamora lets herself smile.

***

Gamora’s bunk is small and cramped, barely enough room for herself and a small handful of belongings on a ledge she installed herself. (Not that she has very much. A toy given to her by a child on Xandar, so shy she couldn’t look Gamora in the eye, and run back into the crowd too quickly for Gamora to give her it back. A tiny vial of brilliant blue sand, because that beach had been the first place Quill insisted they go after leaving Xandar, and the colour reminded her of Nebula. Her spare gun, and the sharpening kit for her sword. What clothes she has hang in a bag over the end of her bunk.) Quill complains constantly about the loss of his bedchamber and what they’re going to do when Groot reaches full height again, but he was careful to give them all equal space, and the mattress is the most amazing thing Gamora has ever slept on in her life.

Which is why, when Rocket hisses up, “Psst, you awake?” from the bunk below, Gamora pulls her pillow over her head and says, “No. Go away.”

There’s a squeak, and Rocket’s, “I’m asking her, I’m asking!” Then nothing for almost five whole minutes, and Gamora thinks she may be allowed to continue to sleep.

No such luck. “This place we’re dockin’ at tomorrow, they’ve got this bar we like,” Rocket says, rushed, low enough that she can barely hear him over Quill’s snoring. “Never given us any funny looks or shit, and the food’s all right.” He coughs, spits, and Gamora would tell him how disgusting that is, but she can’t seem to get the words out. (Besides, it sounds like Groot has beaten her to it, from the sound of Rocket’s grumbling.) “Anyway,” he continues, pointedly, “we were wonderin’ if you wanted to come with us, while the others sort their shit out.”

She can feel her heart pounding against her ribs, they must be able to hear it through the mattress. “I would like that,” she forces out, because she would. She would, and it is almost a shock to realise.

“Awesome,” Rocket says over what sounds like a small, high-pitched cheer, and this time, Gamora’s smile is entirely outwith her control.

***

Their second meeting is not quite a meeting, a bar fight that isn’t entirely Quill’s fault. (And Gamora is so thankful, suddenly, that Groot had been left to mind the ship, despite his protests. “He’s gonna be walking soon,” Rocket said, proud and fearful all at once, and Gamora has to look away from the hope, the desperation on his face when he watches Groot.) Part of her starts at the sight of Sif, which is…a surprise. But most of her is too busy beating back a couple of Ravagers with rather menacing maces to be much of anything.

At one point, she feels a hand on her head pushing her down and a body covering hers, hard edges digging into her back. Gamora screams, rage burning through her, wrenching herself free, but Sif is already gone, disappeared into the fray. A Taurian lies unconscious on the floor behind her, a clump of long black hair clenched in his fist.

After, when the owner is making noises about damages and the authorities, and Quill is trying to prove how little of the situation is actually his fault (she seems entirely unimpressed by his repertoire, and Gamora can’t help but find herself amused, even if only slightly), Gamora feels the need to…to thank her. It is a confusing urge, unfamiliar and heavy inside her chest.

It worries her, too. Thanos would never have encouraged such a thing; goosebumps break over her skin at even the thought of what he would do to eradicate it. She doesn’t know where such notions could have come from. Perhaps she has been spending too much time with Quill. (She worries it is something that was instilled in her before her memory, and that – that idea terrifies her more than Thanos’ reaction ever could.)

So instead she sits on one of the few tables left intact with Rocket and Drax, watches Sif help clear the bar of broken glass, until one of her comrades (the dashing one, Quill says appreciatively when he rejoins them) touches her elbow, head dipped to murmur in her ear.

“Dashing,” Rocket snorts into his beer. “You wouldn’t know dashing if it bit you on the ass.”

“That is so not true.” Quill points at Rocket, accusing, and Rocket merely curls his lip in a silent laugh. “Okay, one, I totally know dashing, I’m an expert, just because I don’t go in for the whole…doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the aesthetic, and two, it already did, so ha.” He turns to join Gamora in watching Sif and her men leave the bar, arms crossed and almost pouting. “Not in this particular instance, though,” he mutters, almost to himself. “Not yet.”

“Stop talking,” Gamora orders. For once, he does as told, though there is a mulish set to his mouth.

“I don’t understand,” Drax says, slowly. Gamora would worry he’s been hit on the head too often, this time, but she suspects it has more to do with the beer.

Rocket covers his eyes with a paw. “These two,” and even his words are slurred, “have the hots for those two,” jerking his head in the direction of the door.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Gamora says, but Quill drowns her out with a loud, “Sure do,” shoving himself away from the table. He claps his hands together once, enough to draw dirty looks from those at nearby tables suffering their own injuries. “Okay, we’re outta here.”

Drax squints up at him. “We are?”

“Yup. Three thousand units, c’mon, let’s move. The lady was insistent.”

“Are we paying for his mess again?” Rocket grumbles, but he’s already easing himself out of the booth; he only stumbles once, catching himself on Gamora’s boot. She gives him time to right himself before sliding off the table.

“It would appear so,” she mutters, enough so Rocket can only just hear her. She’s rewarded with a lopsided smirk and the hint of fang, and looks away. “You can’t fly,” she reminds Quill. With the ease of the practiced drunk (or at least tipsy; he’d had three beers before the altercation), Quill spins on his heel and continues walking backwards, tossing her the ancient keys he insists on carrying. (“It’s an Earth tradition,” he claims, on multiple occasions, normally accompanied by, “My ship, my rules.”) Gamora catches them despite the terrible aim, and the grin Quill gives her isn’t even slightly surprised.

“That’s why you’re doing it.”

***

The job Quill and Rocket find them takes near to no time at all; the kidnappers take one look at Drax and Gamora and all but hand over their hostage, a slick businessman who leaves a bad taste in Gamora’s mouth, and is so thankful he adds another thousand to their reward, which improves Rocket’s mood, at least. Gamora thinks she would feel better if she’d gotten to hit someone.

Instead, she sits at the bar, waiting for Quill to finish trying to charm the owner and pay the damages. The bartender keeps her in sight at all times, as if she expects Gamora to start something. Gamora doesn’t look at her; she looks too much like Teivan’s assistant.

She stiffens when a body brushes against hers before dropping on to the seat beside her, and when she looks up, Sif is watching her with those almost-brown eyes. “I know who you are,” Sif says, almost cheerfully. Her armour glints in the dull of the bar, gloomy even in daylight.

“A lot of people do,” Gamora mutters. It’s true; since the incident on Xandar, the word Guardians follows them, whispered in corners with wide eyes. She suspects Quill and Rocket rather enjoy it. She keeps her eyes firmly fixed on her drink in front of her, ignoring the voice in her mind that sounds disturbingly like Nebula, hissing at her cowardice.

Sif does not appear to have been deterred. She orders a drink of her own, and waits until the bartender backs away. “I wanted to apologise. I was…preoccupied during our last meeting, though it is no excuse for my behaviour.”

And that…that Gamora did not expect. She lifts her glass for something to do, to cover, to think. Sif merely continues to watch her, and under her gaze Gamora feels that urge rise again, thick and insistent in her throat. She manages a fairly steady, “I accept your apology,” and takes a long drink.

After a moment, when it is clear nothing else is forthcoming, Sif makes a noise somewhere between laughter and affront, and when Gamora glances over, she’s turned back to the bar, leaning on folded arms. There’s a curve to what little of her mouth Gamora can see.

“I’ve shocked you.”

“Oh no.” Sif shakes her head, hair sliding over her shoulders. She almost sounds amused. “No, I have dealt with many contrary individuals.” She tilts her head, and Gamora feels her gaze linger even after Gamora looks away. “I’m the king’s right hand while Thor deals with his duties on Earth. It’s my job.”

Gamora has the distinct impression she is being mocked, though it does not feel malicious. She does not look up from her drink, just in case; she has no wish to see any cruel twist to Sif’s mouth. “Yet you do not tell me this to impress me.” She does not let it be a question.

“No,” Sif agrees from behind her glass. Gamora risks another glance at her, and if she were given to such fanciful thoughts, she might think Sif’s eyes dance as they meet. This time, Gamora only looks away when she becomes aware she is staring. Her mouth is dry – it is much too hot in here – and as she gulps at her drink she is aware of Sif turning to face her again. “If I wanted to impress you,” she continues, soft and low, almost casual, “I would tell you of the time I led my first charge against an enemy, and how we achieved victory with my sword against their leader’s throat. Or perhaps when I slayed a Hel-beast.” She pauses, taking a sip. “That one is a much more dramatic story.”

Gamora doesn’t choke, but the bottom seems to drop out from her stomach, because suddenly, she thinks she may understand. Her skin feels tight, flushed, and when she turns to Sif, she is sure that is a smirk behind the glass she still holds to her mouth. In this moment, Gamora wants nothing more than to see it unhindered. She opens her own mouth, though she has no idea what she might say; she is very aware that she has lost all control over this conversation, if she ever had any – it’s strange, that the idea does not worry her –

“Green one!” Drax calls from the doorway, and in that moment, Gamora thinks she could happily murder him. “Our business is concluded.” Gamora looks to him, and he gives one of those ridiculous little waves, as if she could ever miss him. She feels Sif draw back to a more respectable distance, leaving her side strangely chilled in the heat of the place.

“I must go.” She knocks back what little is left of her drink, and doesn’t look at Sif when she says, “Next time.”

“You mean there to be a next time, then?” And there it is, that sense of amusement again, warm, inviting; Gamora almost returns to her seat.

“I do.” She’s halfway to the door, Drax waiting with what he thinks is a patient expression, before she calls, “And then you can let me see that sword.” She doesn’t wait for a reply, pushing past Drax into the sunlight, but she would swear she hears laughter. Whoever it may be, they sound utterly delighted.

***

There is a next time – the galaxy isn’t as big as Quill seems convinced it is (or perhaps Gamora just remembers a time when it was bigger) – but it is nowhere near as pleasant: the aftermath of battle, when Gamora is sore and beyond exhaustion with blood not her own drying in her hair and on her skin. Rocket is limping, fur matted in places, and even Quill seems to be favouring his left side. In truth, Drax appears to be the only one who hasn’t suffered, but there is a look in his eye that suggests he feels similarly stretched.

This is how Sif finds them, and Gamora finds herself wishing they did not look so…beaten. They won, she reminds herself, even if the ache in her bones does not feel like victory. She nudges Rocket carefully with her toe, and he bolts upright, hackles rising at the sight of an intruder.

“Guardians,” Sif greets them, almost cautious. (She is not unaffected herself; there is blood at her hairline and claw marks over the bare skin of her arm.) She looks to each of them in turn, and Gamora lifts her chin to ignore the quiver in her belly.

Quill salutes her with two fingers to his temple. “That’s us.”

Sif’s mouth quirks, as if she cannot decide whether or not to laugh. “Asgard thanks you for your assistance,” she says instead. She meets Gamora’s eyes again and lifts an eyebrow, as if to say, Really? Gamora shrugs. Quill’s flair is often beyond her understanding.

“Yeah, our pleasure, we gotta do it again sometime, can we go?” Rocket snaps, rubbing at one arm. “I got a sapling that’s goin’ to do nothing but bitch me out for this, I’d rather not add to it.”

The confusion doesn’t leave Sif’s face (Gamora supposes it doesn’t make much sense, really, from the outside), but she nods to Rocket. “Of course. My apologies.” She steps back, and says, almost entirely to Gamora, “Till next time.”

There’s a moment of silence after she leaves, a single beat of time, until Quill’s, “Did she just – ”

“No,” Gamora says, at the same time as Rocket’s, “I don’t care.” Quill’s eyebrows shoot up, but Gamora cannot tell who it is in response to, and Rocket is already stomping as best he can in the direction of the Milano. Gamora catches up to him in mere steps, and when she looks up, Quill and Drax have joined them on Rocket’s other side.

(Groot does complain, all night long, in squeaks that are beginning to sound more and more like his name. At one point Gamora wakes to hear Rocket muttering low apologies. She rolls over and does her very best to forget them.)

The time after that is much more acceptable, a few escaped prisonmates from the Kyln (though Gamora fails to understand why the Nova Corps requested Asgard’s presence; Quill is still muttering about it days later). Gamora takes particular pleasure in slamming her fist into one of their faces perhaps a few more times than is necessary (“How pretty am I now?” she hisses in his ear, and when he only stares at her, she tightens her fingers in the neck of his shirt, in order not to wrap them around his throat), as Sif knocks the feet out from under another and presses the point of her sword to the soft hollow of his throat.

“It would not be wise to annoy me today,” she warns him, more of a growl, and when Gamora looks up, she seems to glow.

***

There are other instances, coincidences and joint ventures, the occasional marketplace run-in. They know the Warriors Three by sight if not by name (though Gamora suspects Quill knows his dashing one much better than that), and Sif – Sif always makes it a point to join them, if only for a moment, if only to confer quickly on the current state of affairs. She is always, somehow, at Gamora’s side (her left, she notices, giving them both room to draw their swords should they need to), and Gamora finds herself…growing accustomed to her presence. To her visits and the sharp, vicious edge of her smirk, her muttered asides that make laughter crawl inside Gamora’s throat.

She finds herself looking forward to these moments, ridiculously so, only just noticing when her eyes catch on Sif for too long.

***

It is generally understood, through an almost entirely unspoken agreement, that the engine room is Rocket’s domain (and Groot’s, when he can stand the heat), and, since he had so ungraciously given up the bedroom for communal use, the cockpit is Quill’s space (which he is more willing to share with Groot, though possibly only due to a combination of their common interests and Groot’s big eyes). It does not leave much room for Gamora to call her own, on a ship the size of the Milano.

Which is why she does not hesitate to throw a spare part at Quill’s head when he puts his head around the door of her cupboard. (He’s quick, as he always is, and it misses him. Just.) “Get out,” she tells him, flat. She is already in position; her body knows this, settling into place automatically, without complaint, and she will not disrupt that to satisfy Peter Quill’s curiosity. Her hands return to her knees even as she waits.

Quill stares at her, rubbing his head. (The part may have grazed him, but as Gamora initially aimed for his eye, she doesn’t think he has much to complain about.) “Um. Drax was looking for you.”

“He can wait.” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and still, Quill does not leave. “Go.” The door eases closed, and she feels herself begin to unwind from the familiarity of the position, of the space that is all her own.

She is not even a third of the way through her first set of exercises when the door clatters open again, and Gamora spits out, “Quill, I swear – ” before she opens her eyes and sees Drax before her, blocking her exit and frowning down at her. What little good her mediation has already done flees, leaving her tense and on edge. “Drax.”

“Peter said you are busy.” The frown deepens. “You do not look busy.”

Of course not. Not to him. “I’m meditating,” she says, as patiently as she can manage. She will not be the one to ruin this. (She could probably make it out between his legs and the door, she thinks. Especially with a well-placed kick to his knee, sending him crashing into the cupboard and giving her enough time to get away, get to the bathroom and its lockable door.)

If she expects that to deter him, she is mistaken. “May I join you?” he asks, and some part of Gamora recognises that this is progress, that is not just demanding, but mostly, she is trying to hold back the noise of pure frustration that is trying to tear its way free. This is her time.

“There isn’t room for both of us,” she grits out instead, and Drax inclines his head, agreeing.

“I will sit here,” he says, and opens even more of the door in order to sit directly in front of her, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knees, watching her expectantly. Gamora squeezes her eyes shut.

“Do not disturb me,” she warns, and does her very best to ignore his presence. When she opens her eyes at the end of her exercises, he is still there, but at least she feels calmer. More capable of dealing with him.

He returns the next day, and the next, and Gamora finds herself becoming… accustomed to his presence (aided, she suspects, by the fact he never tries to enter the cupboard, remaining entirely outside the door). It becomes a routine. An entirely silent routine.

***

The concept of an afterlife was not one Gamora was raised with. Death was either a punishment or a relief; if they were extremely unlucky, Thanos would bring them back from the brink just to torture them more. (She thinks of Nebula and shudders, swallows back what she has no right to cry over.) But she has become more than familiar with Quill’s ancestral theology over the last year, and if any place could bring to life her image of a Christian Hell, this would be it.

The music is loud, beating against her chest and at her temples, and she can’t decide if it is that or the continuous flashing lights which disorientate her. People crush together as if any space between them would a crime, sweaty and slick and just as loud as the music itself, hands everywhere; Gamora has had to break three fingers already. Right now, she truly envies Rocket and Groot, sat with their feet up back on the ship. (Groot likes to swing his new legs back and forth whenever he can; Rocket spends most of the time grumbling he’d make better use of them by actually walking, but Gamora has seen the smile he tries to hide under his whiskers whenever he thinks someone might be looking.)

There is a hand on her shoulder, turning her in the tight space, and Gamora is already moving to break their arm when she recognises the press of armour against her. Sif grins at her, brilliant even amongst the multi-coloured lights, and Gamora’s greeting dies on her tongue, her breath stuttering in her lungs.

Because tonight Sif wears her hair tied back from her face, bound tight and high, highlighting her cheekbones and lending her face a sharper, if somewhat younger edge. Her eyes seem greener, too, although Gamora can’t tell if that has to do with the insane lighting choice.

When she finally breathes out, it is sharp, almost painful.

“I did not expect to see you here,” Sif shouts, and when Gamora lowers her head, she takes it as invitation to put her mouth to Gamora’s ear. Her breath is hot against Gamora’s skin. “I did not think it your kind of place.”

“You thought right.” Gamora cannot help the twist of her lips, and she thinks Sif laughs, just a little, under the noise. “Quill’s contact is a regular patron, however.” Her skin tingles, not dissimilar to their first meeting, and she feels almost dizzy, as if with a head wound. It is far, far too hot in this place.

“Still chasing the Collector?”

Gamora inclines her head, angling ever so slightly away, and Sif moves back, though the hand that migrated from Gamora’s shoulder to her waist seems content to stay there. “Amongst others. You?”

Sif pulls a face. “Official matters. We have…” She hesitates, and for the first time, Gamora notices the Warriors waiting by the stairs to the second level. “Her name is Amora,” Sif continues. “We apprehended her accomplice some weeks ago, and we believe she seeks new companionship.”

“Here,” Gamora says, and lets her doubt show in her face.

“The king is convinced.” She looks back at the others, and one of them, the tallest, makes a gesture Gamora interprets as hurry up. Sif glares. “Amora is dangerous,” she says in a rush. “She is – powerful, and she will not come easily. She is not a fan of captivity,” she finishes drily, even over the music.

It is Gamora’s turn to hesitate. “Do you – ” she offers, slow, but Sif is already shaking her head, hair whipping behind her.

“It is best that we do this alone. We’re very well aware of what she is capable of.”

“I hope that isn’t supposed to reassure me,” Gamora says, throat suddenly too tight, and this time Sif definitely does laugh.

***

Amora is blonde and shorter than Gamora has come to think of Asgardians, wearing a short, sparkly dress in a shade of green that screams poison and bound by shackles that glow. Her eyes burn hatred at anyone stupid enough to meet them, as Quill discovers.

“That,” he declares, leaning back against the bar, “is one seriously crazy chick.”

“I did warn you,” Gamora says, watching Sif drag Amora back after she lunges at the crowd. Quill merely whistles between his teeth and orders another drink.

***

Gamora rests her head against metal that was once cool and waits for her stomach to settle. She feels – disgustingly weak, unable to stop shaking. She doubts there can be much more left in her, but then, she had thought the same after the first, second, third time her stomach had come up through her mouth.

She can hear the others outside the door, a low, constant murmur with the occasional raised voice and immediate shushing. She doesn’t need to hear their words to know what they are discussing; she ate the same food as them, and none of them have been taken violently ill. She doesn’t doubt the word “poison” has already been uttered, though Gamora suspects it has more to do with her own constitution than any vicious methods. (There was a similar incident when she was a child, no more than a few years in Thanos’ custody. It was the only food they would receive that day, and still Nebula made herself throw her own meal back up, claiming spoiled ingredients. She held Gamora’s hand all through their shared punishment, when shivers still wracked Gamora’s body, and Gamora closes her eyes against the memory.)

The voices outside rise in protest – she doesn’t have the energy to wonder, but it’s most likely Rocket’s fault – and then the door is opening, Quill’s voice, loud, “I really wouldn’t do that – ” cut off by the click of the lock, and Gamora scrabbles for her sword with fingers that don’t quite work right. She can’t make herself lift her head, but she holds her sword steady as she can. “Go away,” she tells the intruder, “before I gut you.”

“I believe you would,” Sif says, and Gamora starts, her grip slipping minutely (but still too much, still a failure, always a failure), “if you had any aim to speak of.”

She is already hot, burning, and still she feels heat rise in her cheeks. She lowers her arm, lets her sword drop (cannot keep her fingers closed around it), and Sif catches it, laying it on the floor as she crouches down in the space between Gamora and the sink. “How did this happen?”

Gamora snorts, a harsh sound that scrapes against her raw throat. “It does, sometimes. Rarely.” She spits, even as her stomach begins to roil. Please, please no more, she thinks. “Not all food agrees with me.”

“I can see that.” There is laughter in her voice, but it is soft, and Gamora closes her eyes.

She senses the touch before she feels it, flinches away, eyes snapping open. Sif lifts both her hands, palms open and placating. Her hair is loose again, and for once she wears no armour, only a deep red tunic. “I’m sorry,” she says, holding Gamora’s eyes with her own. “Your hair is sticking to your face, I only meant to hold it back.”

“You’re unarmed,” Gamora says, and it makes no sense, but she’s sure it’s important somehow. Sif smiles, ducking her head and lowering her hands.

“Not quite.” There’s the clink of metal as she moves – chainmail, Gamora realises – and shows Gamora the knife tucked down the side of her boot.

“Good,” Gamora mutters, because she wants to see Sif smile again. She wants – but then her stomach clenches, heaves, and it’s nothing but bile this time, but it burns, and she thinks she might whimper. She’s vaguely aware of Sif moving, telling her she’s going to do something to her hair, and then cool hands are on her face, smoothing back the strands stuck to her cheeks, her forehead, holding it back without pulling (twisting, yanking, dragging, and Gamora can do nothing but kick out as she is jerked back).

Sif holds her when she finally drops back, rubbing her back, and Gamora still can’t stop shaking. “Shh, shh, I know,” Sif hushes; Gamora has no idea what she might have said. She squeezes her eyes tight and sees Nebula’s determined little face, jaw set even as the whip cuts across her back.

***

“How did you know?” she asks later, when her body has finally stopped trying to reject itself and Sif has all but carried her to her bunk. She has no energy to be embarrassed; it feels like hours since she first ran to the bathroom, and she is so exhausted, she can barely keep her eyes open.

She thinks Sif smiles, but lighting had never been a priority for this part of the ship. “My brother,” she says. “He is…all-seeing.” That is very definitely a laugh, fond and somewhat bittersweet. “It can make for some awkward situations.”

Gamora lets her eyes close again. She does not pull away from Sif’s touch this time, the back of her hand pressed to Gamora’s forehead. “Tell me about him?” It is said almost entirely into her pillow, but Sif’s hand stills.

“Heimdall?” Another one of those laughs, smaller now. “He is a great warrior. One of Asgard’s most loyal defenders.” There is a pause, and what sounds like a curse. “He does not suffer fools, or tricks, which used to drive us all insane as children.” Fingers stroke through Gamora’s hair, pushing it back from her face, and still she can’t bring herself to open her eyes. “He has always been my champion, should I ever have need of him.”

“But you don’t,” Gamora means to say, because Sif is her own champion, Gamora has seen her decapitate fighters more than twice her size, but she is never sure if the words make it out her mouth.

When she awakes, Sif is gone, but Quill starts to his feet as she pushes herself up. “Hey, no, no, you’ve to – I don’t know why they thought you’d listen to me, but you’ve to stay.” His hand hovers over her shoulder, as if to push her down, and Gamora snaps, “I am not a dog, Quill.”

His face falls, and she feels bad almost immediately, but honestly. She knows her own limits. Instead of apologising, she swings her legs off the edge of her bunk. “How long was I asleep?”

“Ten hours, near enough.” Quill shrugs, eyeing her warily. “She stayed the first hour, said she had to get back to her duties. Said you weren’t to have anything solid, stick to soups and shit for a while.”

“Soup,” Gamora repeats, frowning. She and Nebula had been given nothing but gruel until Thanos deemed them sufficiently punished.

“Yeah, I’ve got – me and Groot, we made this broth. My aunt used to make it, when my mom was sick, and it’s not going to be the same – do you know how hard it is to find fucking carrots in space? – but it doesn’t look too bad, and it’s stuff you’ve eaten before, so – ”

“All right.” She holds up a hand; better to stop him now before he settles into his babble. “All right, I’ll be there in a – ”

“I’ve to bring it – ”

“I’ll be there in a minute.” She eases herself down, using Rocket’s mattress as a stepping stone. Everything aches, her throat, her eyes, her head, her very bones. She feels empty, scraped out and hollow, and what’s worse, she stinks.

Quill curses under his breath, makes it to the door before her (not exactly difficult, with her careful steps) and yanks it open, muttering. “Knew she wouldn’t listen to me, told them – ”

“Quill.” She stops him with a hand on his wrist, and when he looks up, squeezes. “Thank you.” His jaw drops, and Gamora pushes past before he regains his senses.

Both Rocket and Groot tell her off for being out of bed, repeatedly, and Drax frowns at her from across the table, but while Gamora eats her broth (and Quill was right, it doesn’t look bad, and tastes even better) Rocket sits close enough that his fur brushes her arm, and Groot runs across the table for her second helping.

***

Sif is absent from their next encounter with the Asgardians, a rampaging beast with tusks they are apparently very acquainted with. Gamora’s chest feels tight, even after Hogun’s, “The king required her presence.” They watch her, and she resists the temptation to bare her teeth. She still can’t remember everything she said, before, and she can’t quite decide which is worse: the idea that Sif is being punished for her absence from court, or that she is avoiding them, her, because of something Gamora never should have said.

(Rocket takes one look at her as they duck behind a hillock, and snorts. “You worry too much,” he tells her, and vaults the rise of grass before she can argue.)

The Warriors Three are…different, without Sif. Less cohesive, perhaps, and certainly more inclined to bicker, although Gamora admits she may not be in the best position to judge. (Not when their own basic strategy is, “Just shoot the damn thing till Rocket can blow it up,” which she and Quill spend half the attack arguing about.) They are particularly impressed when one of Rocket’s devices manages to burn a hole straight through the creature’s chest, laying it flat and leaving Rocket looking incredible smug, Groot cheering from his harness, strapped to Rocket’s chest.

For that matter, they almost seem more impressed with Groot than the kill. “Bloodthirsty little thing, isn’t he?” Fandral – Quill’s favourite, the dashing one – says, kneeling to meet both their eyes. (Gamora must admit, that endears him to her slightly.)

Rocket grins, broad and sharp in a way that’s just as proud as it is feral. “You have no idea, pal.”

The Warriors insist on celebratory drinks, to commemorate the occasion, and never let it be said they were ones to turn down free drinks. (In all honesty, the locals look a little…shell-shocked at their entrance, Volstagg all but breaking down the door, but Gamora can’t decide if that has to do with them, or their encounters with the creature itself.)

She watches them from her seat at the bar – Drax has apparently discovered a local drinking game to entertain himself, Volstagg and Hogun with, and Quill…he and Fandral seem to have provided their own entertainment, tucked in a dark corner together. Gamora swallows too-frothy beer and tries not to think.

“Told you,” Rocket says, appearing at her side. “You think too much.”

“I thought it was worry.”

Rocket pauses, tankard halfway to his mouth, as if to think, then shrugs. “Yeah, that too.” He glances over at her. Between them, Groot pulls himself up on to the bar. “Seriously. Relax. Their boss is an asshole, you know that.” He shrugs again. “S’why I like riding with you guys. No one to tell us what to do.”

Gamora lets a slow smile curl around her mouth. “You like riding with us?”

He hesitates, and Groot makes a cheerfully high-pitched noise, almost like laughter. “Shut up,” Rocket growls at them both. Gamora doesn’t stop smiling.

***

Gamora cannot quite make herself stop thinking. (“Worrying,” Rocket repeats. She’s taken to throwing things at him.) She spars with Quill – his hand-to-hand is truly atrocious, based on schoolyard scraps, and his point and shoot methods will only last him so long – and mediates with Drax, where they both still remain utterly silent, and still she thinks of Sif’s hands, gentle as they held back her hair, pressed a wet cloth to her throat, her face, the back of her neck. Of the weight of her touch at her waist. Of the set of her jaw as she dragged Amora back, the flex of her arms in battle, the lethal swing of her sword.

Of the green in her eyes, so elusive. Of her laugh.

Quill finds her at the table, staring into her tea. “Trying to read your future?” He peers over her shoulder, and Gamora shakes herself free of her reverie, pulls her cup closer. In truth, her thoughts were miles away, though she is somewhat loathe to admit to being so unguarded.

“What?”

“Yeah, always thought that was a crock of shit.” He pulls back and fetches himself one of Rocket’s latest smoothie concoctions, settling on to the seat beside her. Gamora glares at him, and he grins, kicking his feet up on to the edge of the table. One of his socks is wearing dangerously thin at the heel. “Rocket says you’re moping over your girlfriend.”

She curses silently, because of course it would be Rocket who sent him. “Do I look like the moping type to you, Quill?”

“Nope.” His smile gains an almost gleeful edge. “But you didn’t deny the girlfriend thing.”

Fuck. Gamora shoves to her feet, spilling her tea and sending the table scraping back a few inches. Quill loses his balance and chokes on the mouthful he has just taken. “What do you want me to say?” Gamora demands. She hates how her voice sounds – raw, wavering. Desperate. Her hands curl into fists; she will not ruin this, she will not destroy this – this home, fractured and squabbling as it can be.

Quill stares at her with wide eyes. “Holy shit.” He clears his throat, says, louder, “Hey, I – I fucking suck at this, but c’mon – sit down, yeah?” And Gamora allows herself be cajoled back into her seat, hands resting in her lap, still clenched tight. She lowers her head, lets her hair shield her from Quill’s knowing look – she is not hiding, but she needs – she needs space. She needs to think.

“Hey,” Quill says, so gentle Gamora’s eyes begin to sting. “I gotta tell you, if this is some kind of sexuality crisis – I’ve been there, man.” She hears the creak of leather as he leans forward, but he is wise enough not to try and touch her. “It fucking sucks.”

“I am not having a crisis,” she forces out. She tries very, very hard to keep her words level, because she does understand that he just divulged a matter of great importance to her. It speaks to a level of trust she was not sure they had, and does not help the situation with her eyes.

“Okay…” He draws it out, searching, and Gamora can hear the question he doesn’t voice.

She takes a breath, lifts her head to face one of those ridiculous smiles he thinks is calming. “I am…unsure,” she says, slowly, “of any relationship’s chances of success.” It is the first time she been able to sound out her thoughts, and still it doesn’t quite fit. She frowns.

Quill sits back in his seat. “Aw hell, that’s half the fun of relationships, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Gamora mutters, and yes, that sounds better. She is distinctly aware of Quill’s jaw hanging. “What?”

He swallows. “So you’ve never…” There’s a complicated gesture where he swirls his finger through the air, and Gamora rolls her eyes.

“I’ve had sex, you idiot,” and it is such pointless information, but she would give it all over again to see him flush like that, “I have simply…never been in a position to continue it beyond a night or two.” She breathes out as the tightness in her chest eases ever so slightly and she finally feels able to relax her hands. That seems much more fitting.

Quill scrubs at the back of his neck, one eye squinted the way it does when he tries to read star maps. “I dunno what to tell you,” he says eventually. “I’m not great at them myself – don’t laugh – ” as Gamora snorts “ – but the way she looks at you when you’re not looking. It’s like you hung that damn rainbow bridge of theirs.”

“I doubt that.” And still the feeling eases further. Quill shrugs.

“Calling it like I see it. You’d make a cute couple.” He pauses. “A fucking terrifyingly badass couple, but still. Cute.”

“I’m sure Asgard would feel the same way.” And perhaps there is still more. She braces her elbows on her knees. “Could you see people like us together there?”

“Uhh, have you not been paying attention to the very Asgardian guy I’ve been hooking up with?”

“I try to pay as little attention to your activities as possible,” she says, but her mouth is dry, her stomach twisting, but she’s barely eaten today, nothing she hasn’t had before – “Look at me, Quill.” He opens his mouth, and she sucks in a breath. “And Drax – ”

For a moment, she thinks he might shove at the table himself. He looks angry, she realises, his face a dark twist of a frown she assumes means either “fuck Drax” or “fuck you”. Then, “Fuck Drax,” he spits. “He was so fucking way out of line that time, and he knows it.”

“Does he really,” Gamora murmurs, thinking of their silent mediation, but Quill has not finished.

“I should’ve – I should have called him out, backed you up – ”

Gamora shakes her head, because honestly. “You were concerned with Ronan, as we all should have been. And I handled it.”

After a moment, Quill smiles at her, lop-sided and soft. “Yeah, you did. Just like you’ll handle this. Hey, no,” as Gamora shakes her head again, gets to her feet. “Like I said. She never takes her fucking eyes off you. She’s always got your back, even when we’re too slow.” The words spill out of him as if he has kept them bottled up for so long, a flood. Gamora can only listen. “You’re the first one she finds, the last one she says bye to. She drinks with you, and I’m telling you right now, I’ve heard stories. The Lady Sif never turns down a good drinking challenge, not even for a pretty face.”

“Call me that one more time and I’ll tear yours off,” Gamora says, because it’s all she can say. Quill beams, waiting. Fuck him. Fuck him, and everyone else. “We need to turn around.” She makes for the ladder to the cockpit, and Quill whoops, yelling, “Go get her, tiger!” just as Drax walks in. Gamora pulls herself up to the sound of Drax protesting that she is very much not a tiger, and Quill despairing, because it’s an expression, how has he not figured this out by now?

***

She finds Sif at that first bar (it seems so long ago now, barely a year), alone at the bar; the slump of her shoulders hurts something deep in Gamora’s chest, something she can’t identify, not yet. The owner gives her a pointed look, flickering over to where the others wait outside. Gamora nods to her (they have all been warned, they can find something else to entertain themselves with tonight) and continues on.

Sif doesn’t even seem to hear her approach. She looks…numb. Completely blank, and it is one of the most terrifying sights Gamora has ever encountered.

“Sif?” Her throat feels tight, her pulse too loud in her ears. Sif starts, reaching for her sword, and Gamora lifts her hands, echoing one of the few moments she remembers clearly from their last encounter. “I did not mean to startle you.”

“No.” Finally, Sif seems to register her presence, shaking her head as her hand leaves her sword. “No, you – my own fault,” she murmurs. Her lips twitch as she faces Gamora properly, as if she cannot quite bring herself to smile. Her eyes are almost entirely brown, the green all but consumed. None of it does anything to soothe the ache in Gamora’s chest, at the idea that something has happened, something has hurt Sif, and she was not there.

Her hand hovers by Sif’s elbow; she doesn’t touch, not yet, not without Sif’s permission. (“Take my hand…”) “Are you…” The words will not come, and this is more than Quill could ever have imagined. “Are you okay?” she finishes uselessly, her hand dropping away. She fears she knows the answer to such a ridiculous question.

Sif looks away and reaches for her glass. “Just old ghosts come back to haunt me,” she says, still in that vague, detached tone that worries Gamora more than anything she might have said. She knocks back the rest of her drink before Gamora can react. “How did you find me?” she asks, and she will not look up, but she is trying, aiming for a lightness she clearly does not feel.

“I have a sixth sense.” After all, it is only fair Gamora responds in kind.

After all this time, finally, she has shocked her. Sif jerks her head up, curls flying and eyes wide as she searches Gamora’s face. Whatever it is she finds (and Gamora doesn’t know, has no possible idea, her heart feels as if it is about to burst free of her body), it makes her smile. A real smile, small, but bright enough to light the entire room, to dazzle, and Gamora kisses her.

For once, the voices of her memories are silent, and they remain so, long after Sif pulls her in close between her legs as she kisses her back.