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Peter loved his team. No really, he did. He couldn’t imagine where he would be if he hadn’t gotten arrested and sent to prison and ended up meeting all these weirdoes. Well actually, that was a lie. He knew exactly where he would be. He’d still be stumbling around the universe, no real goal in mind, living for the day to day and the things he stole and the sexy women and men he coaxed into his bed. Either that, or he’d be dead at the hands of his biological father. He was much better off now.

That’s what he was telling himself, anyway. On mornings like this, when the ship felt suffocatingly small and he couldn’t turn around without tripping over someone, it was a little harder to believe. He looked at Mantis, who had her hands over her ears to block out the sound of Gamora’s and Nebula’s squabbling, and then he looked at Rocket, who was ranting about something, and decided he was out.

“I’m gonna go do one last run for supplies okay bye!” Peter yelled over the sound of everything. He made a dash for the door just as the sound of Groot’s music rose up over everything, turning it all into a mess of confusion and sound. It was a relief to let the door of the Milano slide shut behind him and leave him standing in blissful silence on the other side.

Truthfully, he really didn’t want to go for a walk. Peter did not like this planet. They hadn’t had a choice in landing here, as the Milano had been damaged in a freak asteroid accident (or at least, Rocket claimed it was an accident. Peter had his doubts.) and Rocket had needed some spare parts. But this particular planet had some… policies that Peter did not agree with. Gamora had noticed his discomfort while they were walking through the marketplace, though she hadn’t pressed him on it.

He meandered slowly towards the marketplace, telling himself that it would do no good to throw a fit over it. There were hundreds of planets in the galaxy and all of them operated a little differently. Just because Earth had moved beyond the concept of slavery didn’t mean Peter had a right to throw a fit about it. It curdled his stomach just to think about it, but he had no standing here. He was a passing visitor on a planet that had functioned this way for, according to Nebula, thousands of years.

“Keep it cool, Starlord,” he muttered to himself, deliberately looking away from where the slaves were kept. But that didn’t really work: apparently a lot of people came to the marketplace purely for slaves, because they were front and center. You literally had to walk through them to get to the rest of the market. Looking away from some just left him looking at more. He steeled himself against the urge to run away. The sooner he got the supplies, the soon they could leave this hell hole.

He picked up the pace a little, dodging around two aliens that had stopped to examine a slave, and nearly tripped over another cage. Peter caught himself at the last minute, biting his tongue against the automatic apology that wanted to slip out, and straightened up. Amongst the myriad of colors surrounding him, his eyes caught a glimpse of pale, flesh colored skin.

His heart stopped.

It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. Peter repeated the words over and over even as he stepped closer, mesmermized with horror. But as he got closer, he could see that it was true.

The human was clearly an adult male, though he was much smaller than Peter. It was hard to tell how tall he was, since he was curled up inside of a cage. His knees were pulled up against his chest, arms wrapped around his legs, face buried in his knees. All Peter could see was his dark hair, falling down around his shoulders. Then the alien, noticing Peter’s interest, slapped the top of the cage hard enough to make it rattle.

The slave had evidently been well-trained; his head shot up and he uncurled, shifting around until he was on his knees, hands clasped against his back, head up but eyes lowered submissively. He was probably around Peter’s age, maybe a few years younger. There was evidence of what might once been muscle on his body, but he looked so thin it was hard to tell. His face was bare of hair, which made him look younger still, and he had brown eyes over a pert nose and full lips.

He was wearing a sheer loincloth, but no other clothing aside from the black collar that all the slaves wore. The temperature was cool for a human’s tastes, so his skin was pebbeled with goosebumps. And as Peter approached, he saw that the collar was too tight. Red, raw skin peeked out above and below the collar when the slave lifted his head higher, arching his back slightly.

But most unusual of all was the blue light that shone from the middle of the slave’s chest. Whatever it was, was set deep into the slave’s chest cavity and looked like a circular disc of metal with a blue triangle of light. There was scar tissue around it. Peter wondered, a little horrified, if that was something that the slave traders had done. Some way of keeping track of the slave, maybe?

“You interested?” the alien asked in All-Speak, showing off a wide smile full of teeth.

Peter kept quiet for a moment, unwilling to show any interest. His instincts were at war with themselves. Should he just walk away? That was probably what Rocket and Gamora would tell him to do: another person meant another mouth to feed. But this was the first time in a very long time he’d come across a human in space, and he didn’t know if he could bring himself to leave the man there.

The alien smiled wider. “He’s not good for much, I’ll be honest. Muscles are weak and puny. But he doesn’t make much noise, and I’m told he’s pretty good at giving pleasure if that’s your thing.”

“How much?” Peter asked. The slave hadn’t even flinched when the alien said that.

“200 credits and he’s yours.”

200 credits was an appallingly low amount for a slave. Even Peter, unfamiliar with the practice as a whole, knew that. He also knew that it meant the slave would most likely go to someone who was scraping the bottom of the barrel, looking for cheap slaves that they could work to the bone. He put a hand to his wallet, mentally calculating how many credits he’d have after the supply run, and finally nodded.

“Done.” Peter handed over the money without any more hesitation. The slave hadn’t looked at him once during the whole conversation. He wondered if the slave was thinking that Peter would be just one more master.

“Excellent choice. I’ll throw in the cage for another 50 credits,” the alien said, fat hand open.

“Not necessary,” Peter said.

“If he runs away, I don’t give refunds,” the alien warned.

“Open the cage.” Peter didn’t mean to growl, but it may have come out the way anyway. The alien stiffened, all of its eyes flashing green, but didn’t argue further. It did something to the top of the cage and the door fell open. The slave didn’t move.

“He’s yours now,” the alien huffed. It stomped away, but not so far away that it couldn’t watch Peter just in case Peter tried to make off with the cage. Peter rolled his eyes and crouched down.

“Hey.” He kept his voice soft. “Hey, can you look at me?”

The slave obeyed, but his eyes wouldn’t meet Peter’s. No matter which angle Peter moved to, the slave was always a step ahead so that their eyes never met. Peter sighed in frustration and saw the slave tense. It was subtle, but enough to make Peter wonder how many owners had taken their frustration or anger out on this slave. He sat back on his heels, realizing that he was in way over his head here.

“Do you speak English?” he asked, switching away from All-Speak. The English was smoother on his tongue, even after years. “Sweetheart?”

Finally, the slave looked at him in shock. Their eyes connected for a few seconds before the slave remembered himself and hastily dropped his head, bracing for a blow.

“Okay, I’m gonna take that as a yes. Here’s the deal. I need you to come out of that cage so I can take you away from that asshole over there. I’m pretty sure you never want to see him again,” Peter said. He paused, then dared to hold out a hand.

The slave hesitated, eyes darting from Peter’s hand to the ground and back. His hand was trembling badly when he dared to take Peter’s hand. Peter kept his grip loose, letting the slave crawl out of the cage on his own terms. He had to remind himself not to clench his fists in rage when he glimpsed the slave’s back. Red, angry whip marks, some bloody and raw, covered the slave’s back from his shoulders down to his thighs. Some were fresh, but others were old and scarred.

“Sweetheart,” Peter breathed, fury rendering him otherwise speechless. He swallowed hard, knowing that he’d made the right decision in not leaving the slave here.

He stood without thinking, and the slave seemed to take that as an unspoken order to stand as well. Standing, the slave was probably about 5’6, though he hunched his shoulders to make himself seem smaller. It occurred to Peter, somewhat belatedly, that it had to be painful to stand after spending hours hunched over in a cage, but the slave showed no outward signs of pain.

“Okay,” Peter said when he could speak again. And then, “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do.” He slipped his jacket off and draped it around the slave’s shoulders. The slave jolted in shock as the fabric slid around him. It was far too large, looking comical in how it hung off his shoulders, but Peter didn’t care. He zipped the coat up, covering the blue light.

“We’re going back to my ship. My friends are there. They’ll help us,” he said. “Can you walk?”

The slave nodded.

“Good. Don’t let go of my hand.” He dreaded the thought of the slave being stolen away. Yondu had always kept an eye on him in places like this. Traders were always wandering, looking for easy prey.

It was a short walk back to the ship, but it took longer because Peter could tell the slave fatigued easily. What should have been a ten minute walk took almost forty minutes, and the slave was visibly sweating and shaking by the time they got to the Milano. Peter ground his teeth, trying to swallow his anger, and was grateful that the Milano had a ramp instead of stairs.

“’Bout time you came back!” Rocket bellowed as soon as Peter entered. “Where the fuck is my –” He cut himself off abruptly. “Who the hell is that?”

“He’s – he’s mine,” Peter said, a little stunned. The truth of it hit him all over again. He’d purchased a slave.

“You bought a slave? I thought your kind hated that,” Rocket said.

“They do. The good ones do. I –” Peter shook his head. “They were abusing him.”

“So?” Rocket said. He sounded kind of bewildered.

“It’s not right!” Peter said.

“Weren’t you the one who gave us the big lecture on not interfering with local culture and economy?” Rocket asked.

“This is different,” Peter muttered. He couldn’t say how. None of the slaves there had caught his eye until he saw another human, at which point his protective isntincts had gone into overdrive – but he hadn’t really cared before that, aside from a distaste for the activity as a whole. What did that say about him?

Rocket shrugged. “Well, whatever. Gamora ain’t gonna be happy.”

“I’ll talk to her. She’ll understand. Come on,” he said to the slave, leading him past Rocket and down the hall. He could see the slave was taking furtive looks around, eyes tracking the weapon Rocket was holding. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

Inside Peter’s bedroom, he directed the slave to sit on his bed and then had a silent freak-out. He had no idea what he was doing. He was probably the person least equipped to handle this ever. He paced around for a bit, until the nervous energy buzzing through him had tempered somewhat, before he turned to face the slave again. The slave was sitting perfectly still, eyes downcast.

“The first thing you should know is that no one will ever hurt you again, and that includes me,” Peter said. “My friends won’t hurt you, and I’ll kill anyone else who tries.”

The slave didn’t react. Peter hoped he was listening.

“My name is Peter Quill. I’m a human, like you. Well, part-human. But my biological father was a dick, so I don’t really talk about him. Anyway. I’m guessing you’re from Earth?”

Very slowly, the slave gave the slightest nod.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

So fast that he would’ve missed it had he not been watching so carefully, the slave’s eyes flicked up to Peter’s face and then away. He remained quiet. Maybe, Peter thought, he couldn’t speak at all. Or maybe it had been trained out of him. Peter had been around plenty of aliens, even some on Yondu’s crew, who had criticized the sound of his voice. Apparently the way humans talked was grating or painful to a lot of aliens.

“Can you talk?” he asked instead. “You can talk. No one is going to tell you not to. Honest.”

The slave swallowed. The collar was so tightly fastened that it bobbed. Peter took a careful step forward. He lifted a hand, ready to pull away if the slave flinched or tried to escape. But the slave didn’t move, just tensed up a bit, so Peter leaned over him to examine the collar. He was expecting something high tech, maybe something that would need to be cut off, but instead it was a simple clasp.

Only then did it occur to him that they probably didn’t consider the slave valuable enough to bother with anything else. In the beginning, maybe, which could account for the contraption in his chest. But humans were weak. They needed food and water and shelter and sleep. Their spirits could be broken. They got sick and tired and cold. For 200 credits, the aliens who had owned him probably did not care if this slave escaped and ran off to die.

“I’m going to take this off. Try to stay still,” Peter said as calmly as he could. His hands were shaking from anger as he carefully unbuckled the clasp. The slave made a quiet, pained sound as Peter pulled it away, revealing flesh that was raw and ugly to look at, and put both hands to his throat in what may have been wonder or pain.

Peter pulled back, looking the collar over. It was a material he wasn’t familiar with, firm and cold to the touch. On the inside, he found letters pressed roughly into the material. They were faded, but he could still feel them. He traced the letters, closing his eyes to better imagine them. When he thought he had a rough translation of what they said, he looked back at the slave.

“Tony?”

The slave’s head snapped up. He stared at Peter.

“Tony,” Peter repeated. It was obviously a name from Earth. “Is that your name?”

The slave – Tony – exhaled harshly. His breath sounded like it was scraping over his throat.

“Tony,” Peter murmured for the third time. No last name, but Peter was shocked just to have found a first name. He wondered how many people had been missing this Tony.

He set the collar aside and looked again at Tony. The coat was hanging open, revealing that blue light. There were no new wounds around it, but it still looked very painful. Peter frowned at it. “I don’t know how to remove that.”

Tony lurched backwards at that, scrambling away. He clasped his hands over the light and stared at Peter in terror, visibly trembling. Peter froze.

“Tony?” he asked in a careful voice. “If you don’t want it taken out, we don’t have to. I won’t touch it. I thought maybe it was hurting you, like the collar was.”

Tony shook his head rapidly.

“Did the slave traders do that to you?”

Again, Tony shook his head.

“You had it beforehand,” Peter surmised, wondering why.

Tony nodded. He lifted a shaking hand and tapped the light with one finger, then drew that finger across his throat. Peter recoiled, stunned. He hadn’t been on Earth in years, but it was pretty hard to forget what that meant. There was only one thing that Tony could mean.

“You’ll die if it’s removed?!” he said, horrified.

Looking a little relieved, Tony nodded. He pressed his hand back over the light, eyeing Peter warily.

“That’s… oh my god.” It was Peter’s turn to shake his head. Would the light poison Tony if it was removed? Electrocute him? The possibilities were endless, but that certainly explained why Tony had reacted so strongly to the suggestion that the light be removed. Peter regretted asking, even though he’d just been trying to help.

“Peter?”

Gamora’s voice, so close to the bedroom, sent Tony into a panic. He immediately slid off the bed and went to his knees, assuming the same submissive pose as before. She walked into the room and stopped short, looking over the two of them. Her eyes narrowed at Tony, examining him critically – for what? Signs of danger? Peter couldn’t tell. But whatever she was looking for, she didn’t find it because she didn’t draw her sword.

“Rocket said you’d brought someone back.”

“He’s mine,” Peter said defensively. He didn’t have the words to accurately explain all the emotions roiling through him, but he wasn’t letting anyone take Tony away. If they left Tony on this planet, he would either be captured by the slave traders again or he’d die.

Gamora looked at him for a long moment before she sighed. “Humans. You get attached to things so easily.”

“We do not!” Peter said.

“Yes, you do,” Gamora said, leaving no room for argument. “Did you do the supply run?”

“Uh, no. Got distracted.”

“Give me the credits. I’ll do it. Then we’re leaving.” She held out a hand. Peter fished his card out and handed it over. “Drax says we got a communication from someone who could use our help, and they’re offering a nice reward.”

“Awesome,” Peter said. The Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t work exlusively for rewards, but they never turned down a reward if it was offered. They couldn’t afford to. No one was paying them to do what they did, and some days would’ve been pretty lean otherwise.

“Be ready by water-down,” Gamora said as she turned to leave.

Water-down, which was when the torrential rains that served as this planet’s version of nightfall began. Peter did some quick calculations. That meant they had about four hours, give or take. He closed the door behind Gamora and grabbed what served as his first aid kit from under the bed. He was easily the flimsiest out of all the guardians, though that had improved significantly after the bullshit with Ego. Peter hadn’t touched the kit in weeks. But it would help Tony.

“Can you sit back on the bed? I’m gonna bandage your wounds,” he said to Tony. “If something hurts too bad, punch me in the stomach.”

Tony moved slowly and warily, sitting back on the bed. Peter knelt behind him and pulled the coat away, smearing some of the goop that Gamora had gotten for him across Tony’s back. It smelled vile and was hot to the touch, but it worked miracles on open wounds. Tony winced but remained still, hands clasped on his stomach. Peter tried to be gentle as he moved up to Tony’s neck, but he knew it had to hurt.

“Maybe someday you can tell me what happened to you. How you came to be with those traders,” Peter whispered, setting the goop aside. He really hoped that was the case. How was he supposed to know how to deal with this when he was walking blind? He had no idea what Tony had been through. Physical abuse for certain. Probably emotional abuse. Most likely sexual abuse as well. But it was like trying to fly through an asteorid belt with his eyes shut: at some point, he was gonna blunder into something big.

He sighed, looking at Tony’s back. The rest of him was surprisingly devoid of whip marks; Tony had bruises around his wrists and ankles, evidence of more restraints, but that was it. Either his owners had been restrained, or they tried to keep Tony in good condition. Peter couldn’t decide which was the worst case scenario, but both of them made his blood boil.

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” he said impulsively.

Tony turned around. His eyes were wide and frightened and wet.

“I mean it. And I’ll do whatever I can to help you, okay? I won’t leave you behind or let anyone hurt you. I’ll take care of you. I promise.” He held his hand out. He didn’t know why. How many times had Tony been offered hope only for it to be cruelly ripped away? Probably countless.

Much to his surprise, Tony hesitated for only a few seconds before he took Peter’s hand. He held on with surprising force, like Peter’s hand was the only thing tethering him to life. Maybe it was. Tears formed in Tony’s eyes and began running down his face. All Peter could do was sit there and squeeze his hand. It didn’t feel like nearly enough, but he thought that maybe, hopefully, it was a start.