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Steel Heart, Sister Stone

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1

Each time they refueled, Gamora sent up an epistle for her sister.

Mostly they were brief.

Nebula.  We’re on Finity, in the eastern hemisphere.  Gamora.

Nebula.  We’re on Juma-Ki, near the capital.  Gamora.

She posted them on any available network.  It was a risk, putting her name and location out on unsecured, unencrypted channels—he could sniff her out, she always lived with that chance as a blade against her throat—but she did it.

Peter said, “It’s the whole routine.  We land, Rocket looks for grenades, I look for a Walkman, Gamora looks for her sister, Mantis—Mantis, what do you look for?”

“Puppies,” Mantis said brightly.  She still had not gotten over her disappointment about Rocket.  Gamora had grim visions of a cargo hold full of yappy dogs, all of them with Mantis’s guileless, expressive eyes.

“And that’s cool,” Peter said, “because puppies never tried to kill us.”

“Most of us have tried to kill each other,” Gamora said.

“I just say that when you find her,” Rocket said, “she’s on dish duty for a few months.  Minimum.”

“But I enjoy doing dishes,” Drax said.  “I like the feeling of the soap bubbles popping on my hands.”

“I am Groot.”

“It is not a sex thing.”

“It’s maybe a little bit of a sex thing,” Rocket said.  “Anytime you have to explain that something’s not a sex thing, it’s probably a sex thing.”

“But I could say that with anything.  Ladders are not a sex thing.  Mantis is not a sex thing.”

“Mantis is not a thing period,” Gamora said.

She stopped at the hub, sent out her bulletin, and then kept walking.  Another day, another planet, another near escape from adopting a litter of puppies.  That was usually how it went.  Except sometimes:

Nebula.  We’re on Piram and I was remembering the time you and I came here together.  You had a cold and your nose wouldn’t stop running, but you wouldn’t say anything about it and I didn’t either.  But I bought you that Arrinian bee-wasp honey tea and you drank it.  I had a cup about an hour ago and it tasted like watered-down piss.  With slime in it.  I can’t believe you liked that.  This is Gamora again.  Come find us.

2

“You need to change your refueling route,” Nebula said the next time Gamora saw her.

“Well, hello to you too,” Peter said.

Nebula ignored him.  “You only have two dozen worlds you land on.  And you have a pattern.  If I could work out that you’d be here, so could our father.”

Gamora knew the pattern Nebula meant—she had worked it out herself and weighed whether or not the risk was worth guarantee of regular resupply and ports where none of them had any unexpurgated criminal records.  She’d let it happen because friendship had softened her, made it harder for her to tell survival instincts from paranoia.  But she hadn’t gotten so innocent that she hadn't built in a considerable window of time for flexibility and safety, hadn't gotten so innocent that she didn’t know exactly how long Nebula must have been waiting here to tell them off for their carelessness.

“If he had the patience to lean against a station wall for ten days,” Gamora said.

Nebula scowled.  “I need a ride.”

“I am Groot,” Groot said.

“I don’t speak tree.”

Rocket translated: “He said you should put your thumb out and see who picks you up.  Or, you know, ask a little more politely.”

“Warriors are not courteous,” Drax said, eyeing Nebula with a certain respect.  “Gamora’s strange blue sister is entitled to our help.”

“Slow your roll there, big guy,” Peter said.  “I’m the captain here and I don’t know that anybody’s entitled to our anything.”

“We’ll give you a ride,” Gamora said.

“I mean, or that,” Peter said.  “If everybody’s in favor of it or whatever.”

“And I didn’t like the tea,” Nebula said, in her growl of a voice.  It was only now that Gamora thought to wonder whether or not the full range of her vocal cords was something else their father had taken from her, snip by snip or knot by knot, mechanical substitution by substitution, because—why?  Because she had once screamed for help or begged for mercy?  “I just drank it anyway.”

“Why?” Gamora said.

Nebula just looked at her, hard-eyed.

Gamora thought, Because I gave it to you.

“Where are you going?” Mantis said, when the silence lasted a little too long.

“To find a weapon that will scatter Thanos’s remains the very edges of the cosmos.”

Mantis blinked.  “Oh.  But… where on a map?”

Nebula evaluated her, clearly trying to decide whether or not Mantis was fucking with her, and then said, “Hellgate.”

“Yeah,” Rocket said, “that doesn’t sound ominous at all.”

3

Hellgate.

It had been Ebony Maw’s home before Thanos had ground half its population to dust beneath his boot and taken Ebony Maw with him, a gifted, precocious child, a favored son.  A fucking know-it-all, to Nebula’s mind.  No brother of hers.  Always talk-talk-talking, his words frilled with a raw-hearted allegiance to all their father’s tenets.  Sniveling little weasel with his music box voice and his stories, always saying to them to sit and listen, always answering their inattention with hard slaps.

When Thanos had replaced the nerve endings on the left side of her face, Nebula had smiled through each and every open-handed, insulting blow from her would-be brother and never told him why.  She had liked that, not being able to feel things.  She had even gone to her father and gotten down on her knees and asked him to take all her pain receptors away.  He’d been displeased, convinced she was coddling herself; he had strung her nerves into agony for a year and a half and made her learn to think around every feeling she could possibly have.  The range was narrow: every possible feeling was pain.

Her mind wandered.

Ebony Maw had told them of his home just like he had told them of his every thought and his every shit and his every Thanos-praising poem.

He had told them that on Hellgate there was a ruined pavilion with a world-killer at its heart.  He had called it the silence at the end of the world.

“Silence sounds good right about now,” Gamora had said to Nebula under her breath, her lips just slightly curved in an allusion to a smile, the closest she ever came in those days, the most Nebula ever got from her, and for years that was what Nebula had remembered.  Not the silence at the end of the world but her sister joking about it.

But their false brother had said some interesting things in all his ceaseless bragging.  And gradually, while killing and fucking and stalking her way through the galaxy, trained toward Thanos in her wandering way, Nebula had come to remember that.

“So it’s a house,” the tattooed man said.

“It’s not a house,” Nebula said.  “It’s a pavilion.”

“What’s a pavilion?”

She didn’t entirely know but didn’t want to admit it.  “It’s bigger.”

“And no one has ever lived in it unless they’re squatting there,” Gamora said, because of course she knew, of course she’d been told at some point.  “And Drax, the weapon isn’t the pavilion, it’s inside the pavilion.  But it’s a myth.”

“Hey,” the boyfriend said.  He was an ally Nebula had never expected.  “If it’s a myth, then we’ve just road-tripped out to see the world’s largest ball of string or a Hell House or whatever, that could be fun.  I vote yes.”

“I am Groot.”

The overgrown cat said, “That means he votes yes too.  Now personally, I don’t really care, except if there is a Thanos-killing super-weapon, I want a chance to cuddle it real lovingly before Stabby over here runs off with it.”

Nebula couldn’t stand these circular conversations, the need to eke out a yes from each and every person, even the new bug woman they’d acquired who kept blinking at her with those huge oil-black eyes.  She counted grievances in her head.  Reasons she would kill her father.  Reasons she should not gravitate toward her sister.  Each as numerous as the veins in her old left arm, before its flesh and bone were stripped away; as numerous as neurons firing and misfiring across her brain before there was circuity to redirect them and insulators to stifle them.  Nebula did not dream anymore.  She hadn’t dreamed since she was fifteen and she had lost that fight with Gamora, the two of them bare-handed in a ring together.

“Your tactics are lacking,” Thanos said.  “I think your concentration gets interrupted.  But I can fix that.”

She would kill him slowly.  She would count each drop of blood until his repayment to her outnumbered his transgressions, but she would not be satisfied with mere retribution, no.  She was his daughter, after all.  She had been made for destruction.

Their endless bickering and bantering resolved itself and she had her ride.  A clean, quiet berth.  The mattress was so soft it was like trying to lie on pudding.  She was stretched out across the floor when Gamora walked by.  Nebula had left her door open—she would rather be aware than protected.  She needed to hear the night-noises, the alarums, the whispers.

Gamora said, “I needed time before I could sleep on the bed, too.”

“It’s too soft.”

“You get used to it.”

“And then you get weak.”

Gamora sighed but all she said in answer was, “I’m glad you found us.  Even if it was just for your ride.”  Her gaze was—Nebula knew her, even if Gamora didn’t know her back—calculatedly dispassionate.  Nebula knew how it really looked when Gamora felt nothing.  She had seen the blank mirrors of those eyes almost all their lives.  Damn her.  Damn her for coming so late and giving so little and taking away Nebula’s rage against her with the merest effort.  For winning that fight as easily as she had won all the others.

And now she pretended not to care.  Gamora couldn’t be the one who wanted something.  Couldn’t admit to so much as a spark, when all Nebula did was burn.

Nebula said, “I can’t believe you drank that fucking tea when you weren’t even sick.”

“I was thinking of you.”  There was the slightest flash of anger in her—a straightening of her spine.  “In case you didn’t notice, I’ve been trying to contact you for months now.”

“I already said I noticed.  I tracked you, remember?”

“Well, you could have just answered me.  Even once.”

“This isn’t a family reunion,” Nebula said.  “I didn’t come here to talk to you.  I came for a ride.”

“Right.  Because there’s no other way you could have gotten a ride.  No other ship.  Just this one.”

“Leave me alone,” Nebula said, lying back down.  Her spine rearranged itself against the floor, a series of locking and unlocking joints.  Hard surfaces were best because it meant her bones didn’t move on their own during the night.  “I’m sleeping.”

“I’m down the hall,” Gamora said.  “The third door on the left.  I’ll leave it open, even though that’s a huge mistake, for what it’s worth.  Groot’s having some seed-pod drift lately and you’re going to wake up covered in it if you’re not careful.”

“And now you will too,” Nebula said.

“That’s right,” Gamora said.  “And now I will too.”

4

Gamora was awake when Nebula finally, quietly came into her room.  Her sleep had been thin—whatever Nebula thought of her so-called softness, she hadn’t yet become someone who could sleep through footsteps in the corridor.  She could barely sleep through the rumble of the engines or the hum of the air recirculator.

But she kept her breathing even to feign sleep, hoping that Nebula wouldn’t be able to see that she had opened her eyes just a little.  The room was dark enough to hide the details.

Nebula settled down against the wall opposite Gamora’s bunk, sitting on the floor with her legs stretched out straight and her back rigid, her shoulders loose, her arms slack at her sides.  She looked like a doll that someone had gotten tired of playing with.

Gamora had owned dolls, before.  She had played.  Enough, at least, to understand the concept.

Nebula had been very young when she’d become their father’s daughter.  Gamora didn’t know that she had ever played at all, with anything.  Gamora didn’t know what she did and didn’t understand.

It was only when she had lost, when she had most given in, that Gamora had called Thanos father.  She had thought once, looking around at their horrible family dinners, with the least-favored down at the foot of the table, fed on scraps—herself always at his right hand—that only a fool would swallow this lie.  Would buy the sugar he sprinkled over his poison.  That they were a family, brothers and sisters and a stern but benevolent father.  That this was normal.  She had always thought, I will give them nothing.  Had always held her mother at her heart.

Except for when you showed him your drawings in the hopes that he would praise you.

Except for when you brought him the heads of his enemies.

Except for when his disappointment shook you to the core.

Nebula—and Gamora still didn’t know how—had loved her.  In the midst of all that, even as she had never risen above the middle ranks of Thanos’s table.  Nebula, who’d never had so much as a doll, had wanted a sister.

Gamora wanted to salvage her.  It was rich—she, the part-time pirate, the Guardian who guarded by slaughter, wanted to preserve this… this strange, awful beauty that had been buried under all the mud and blood and shit of her life before her friends.

“You’re awake,” Nebula said.

“Yes.”

“You used to do that when we were children.  Pretend to be asleep.”

“It was hard to know what was worth being awake for.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m just tired,” she said, not entirely honestly.  She could remember Nebula as a child, too, Nebula doing this, waiting until the dead of night to disclose something, whispering in her ear, Sometimes I hate him.  She wanted to know what Nebula had come to say, and she had thought Nebula wouldn’t say it if she knew Gamora could hear her.

Nebula said, “I can’t sleep,” and there was a strange openness at the end of that admission, like a gap where something else should have been said.  Should have been asked.

Gamora shifted in bed, moving her back against the wall, freeing up a narrow bar of space.  “You can sleep here if you want.”  The offer felt dangerous: to have Nebula, who had loved and hated her, lying against her in the darkness.  The intimacy of a stranger, the strangeness of someone she had known so long and so well and so incompletely.

Nebula’s eyes in the dark.  “All right.”

She lay down with her back to Gamora.  There was a strange, almost insectile clicking sound, like mandibles moving.

The closeness was stifling.  Hot.  Nebula’s smell against Gamora’s nose was odd, half-artificial: sweat and harsh soap and machine oil and silver polish.  The faintly scorched scent of bad wiring; the cleaner lightning smell of connections that hadn’t yet failed.  No hair.  Gamora could remember now when she had lost it, when Gamora had used Nebula’s braid to pull her down to the ground.  What color had it been?  Black?

I hurt you, she thought, putting one arm very carefully across Nebula’s stomach.  I don’t want to hurt you again.

Nebula half-stirred and moved back against her, fitting their bodies together more closely.  The chittering sound returned, just for a moment.

In Gamora’s arms, she was warm, however stiff, however unnaturally settled.  Alive.

Gamora had killed enough things for life itself to seem like both promise and threat.

5

“Well, this place is a shithole,” Rocket said, spitting off to one side.

“It is not appealing-looking,” Mantis agreed.

Peter was double-checking his handheld locator—the terrain closest to the pavilion was supposed to be too swampy for any ship to land there and too dangerous for all of them to cross.  Nebula wanted to go alone, which they all knew because she hadn’t stopped saying it.  Peter still wanted to know where she’d be—“In case we need to come get you,” he said, as if this responsibility to rescue her were self-evident.

He tapped the device hard against the heel of his hand until whatever change he saw on the screen seemed to make him happy, and only then did he look up.  “It does kind of look like where you’d expect to find a big-ass weapon, though.”

“I am Groot.”

Gamora shook her head.  “No, the smell is not the weapon.”

“Do we have to keep talking?” Nebula said.  “Quill.  What direction is it?”

Peter pointed.  Nebula took off immediately.  Gamora swore under her breath, said, “Stay here,” to her friends, and went after her, catching up and matching her pace.

“You are being difficult.”

“I asked for transportation,” Nebula said.  “Not assistance.  And not company.”

“When you came into my bed last night, you were certainly asking for company.”

There was a sudden frost over Nebula’s face, obscuring whatever might have been underneath it.  “It’s not last night.  It’s now.  And I told you, I couldn’t sleep.”

They walked in silence for a while, their boots making soft squelching noises as the marshy ground sucked on them.  It was leech-mud, its viscosity made up of a nearly infinite number of close-packed, dully green-colored sucker-worms, any one of which could have drained the blood from an ox in under a minute.  But their mouths were delicate, thin-lipped; they couldn’t make their way through cured leather, let alone the triple-reinforced synth the two of them wore.  Safe enough, then, so long as neither of them tripped.  So long as the swamp never rose above the tops of their boots.

“I said I could do this on my own,” Nebula said.

“Yes.  I remember that.  I came anyway.”

“Why?”

The fetid leech-mud sloshed up a little higher.  “At the moment, I’m having a hard time remembering.”

Nebula made a gruff little sound that it took Gamora a second to identify as a laugh.

It awoke something in her, a craving as distinct as hunger, but too imprecisely located for Gamora to know how to satisfy it.

Nebula wrinkled her nose a little.  “Your tree had a point about the stench, too.”

“Groot.  His name is Groot.”

“Yes, I’m not stupid.  Or deaf.  Three hundred times of him saying it gave the secret away.  He’s still a tree.”

Gamora wondered if she knew everyone else’s names now, too.  She’d known Peter’s, though she had only said it when she had snapped from impatience.

“The mud level’s going down,” Nebula said, and then she stopped walking, just stood there in the gently shifting, bubbling swamp.  One leech began to crawl her leg and she swatted it lazily away with her metal hand: it found no joy there.  “Look.  You can see it through the fog.”  She had lowered her voice, defaulting to the volume of any reconnaissance mission.

It was a tone that immediately snapped Gamora back to their childhood, a place she had no wish to go.  But all the same, she looked; followed Nebula’s gaze.

The fog was thick and yellow-white, but yes, she could see it.  It made her feel cold; nauseated.

If she turned her head, just taking it in as a panorama, it was a pavilion.  Circular.  Tall gray walls.  One or two arches.  Nothing remarkable.

But if she looked directly at it, if she concentrated on it as a landmark in the shifting morass of fog and water and mud and leeches, then it struck her with a vertigo that made her knees weak.  There was something wrong with it.

“For fuck’s sake.”  Nebula grabbed her elbow hard, her fingers pressing in so tightly Gamora knew she would see bruises there later.  “You’re swaying.  Don’t fall.”

She bit down on her lip to cut through the haze.  Averted her eyes until her surroundings stabilized.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You can’t feel it?  When you look?”

Nebula hesitated and then shook her head.

“But your right eye’s fine, shouldn’t you still—”

“My right eye’s organic,” Nebula said, as if she’d long since lost the notion of any part of her being fine or natural or even her own.  “But the processing in my brain—there’s interference.”

I’m sorry, Gamora almost said before she realized how horrifyingly inadequate that would be.  She pressed her lips together to trap the words, as if they’d otherwise come out with her next breath, stupidity swarming out into the air on its own.  Very carefully, she said, “Looking at it head-on, it has something about it that induces vertigo, nausea.  Unease.  Someone’s rigged the geometry.  We’re not meant to get close to it.  If I were headed there alone, I’d be dead right now, sucked dry and buried in the swamp.  There must be hundreds of bodies underneath our feet.”

“Good,” Nebula said shortly.

Gamora had gained just enough of a moral edge to raise her eyebrows.  “Good?”

“It means they’re not there,” Nebula said.  “It means I’m going to get what I came for.  Now come on.  And keep your eyes on me.  I don’t want to be slowed down on the way back dragging your body through a pit of leeches.”

Gamora smiled, fixing her gaze between Nebula’s shoulder blades.  “But you’d take me back.  For a decent burial.”

It had been one of the things they had promised each other, once.  If you die, I won’t let him come near your grave.

“You’re my sister,” Nebula said.

6

The leech-mud thinned still further as they neared the pavilion and the last half-mile of ground was a kind of damp, silty dirt dense with cattails and mosses and insects that buzzed and hummed and bit.  Nebula killed three, splattering them to bursts of blood on her skin, before she gave up.

For the last stretch of the leech-pit, Gamora had held onto her arm, held her closer and closer until their elbows were locked and their shoulders were rubbing together with each step.  She was on Nebula’s right-hand side, where Nebula could still feel her.  Even on the solid ground, she didn’t let go.  She was just a hot, constant weight.  Grounding.  Drowning.

They had never shared a bed before the way they had the other night.  Nebula couldn’t shake it.  The memory was like a brand on her mind.

This could kill her if she let it.  Gamora had always held Nebula’s life in her hands and she had never once fucking cared what she did with it.  Except now, for who knew what reason.  Now when she was queasy and half-blind because she couldn’t look straight at what was now ninety percent of her field of vision.  Those people had sapped her wits away.

“I don’t understand you,” Nebula said.  “Why are you doing this?”

“I didn’t want you to be alone.”

“I have to go in alone anyway.  You can’t even look at it.”

“I didn’t know that when we started, did I?”  She had finally closed her eyes, but she turned her head to Nebula as she spoke.  “At least I can be here waiting for you.  I’ll know when you’re done.”

“I won’t be done until our father is dead.”

Gamora suddenly touched her cheek.  “When you’re done, will you come with us?”

Us, always us.  As if Nebula had any use at all for that whining, squabbling crew of hers, as if she could ever belong with people who played strange music and raised infant trees and were admired.  “Maybe.”

Gamora smiled.  Nebula had never seen anyone smile like that—like it took no effort, like it would have taken effort to stop it.  She wanted to kiss her.  She was the ugly, squalid complication, the bad sister, the imperfect daughter, the wrong one, the fuck-up.  The squalling ball of emotions and incompetence and then, somehow, the hard-eyed killer, right when killing was no longer a virtue her sister was willing to value.  Always the wrong thing.  She had spent years wanting a sister and now Gamora wanted to be that, and she

“I have to go,” she said.

Gamora gripped her hand.  “Promise me that if it comes to you either getting the weapon or getting out alive, you’ll choose the second option.”

Nebula would have promised her so many things, if she were stupid enough to open her mouth.  Right then, she could have found herself saying anything at all.  She let go of her sister’s hand and entered the pavilion.

7

There were motes of dust floating slowly through the air.  They caught what little light there was and made a glitter that filled up the huge space.

From inside, the angles seemed slightly different, the circle of the pavilion so large that any given stretch of wall would look straight at first glance.

Ebony Maw had always said the weapon was buried at the heart of the pavilion, in a great silence which none could disturb.  No footstep, no speech, no cry, no scream, no breath.  Nebula was willing to plunge herself into vacuum if it meant she could get what she wanted.  She was prepared.  She had made no promises otherwise.

It was no maze.  As bewildering as its dimensions were, its directions were easy to tell.  She could see the path she would take to its center.

She had no experience with what this kind of structure was used for in an ordinary way.  Public executions.  Gladiatorial combat.  Concerts.  It could have been any of those things or more, but she didn’t think so.  It was a scar on the landscape, but if it had been death that had scored it in, Nebula, who'd spattered so much blood across her body over the years, would have recognized it: no executions, no combat, not here.  Though maybe it could still be music.  She’d barely heard a note of it except for what Quill played endlessly; what notes caught in her sister’s throat in a hum.

You know I’ll always be your slave

‘til I’m buried, buried in my grave

Oh, honey, bring it to me

Bring your sweet loving

Bring it on home to me.

She should rend him limb from limb for putting that garbage in her head.  Love.  Home.  She sang under her breath, the noise a ghost in the dark, the sound a rope between her and Gamora outside.

The ceilings were lowering as she went on; the floors rising up in unsteady humps like waves.  The waves always crested where the ceiling was lowest, so she kept having to duck her head as she went on.  Then she had an abrasion on her scalp, a bloody scrape, that she didn’t remember getting.  Her thighs ached as if she’d been walking for days.

Gamora had said whoever made this place had booby-trapped it so that no ordinary lifeform could ever come close to it and live.  How stupid Nebula had been to think that that meant the maker of the pavilion hadn’t counted on her.  Oh, they had.  They had just waited until she was inside to lay the snares that would catch her.  Something was happening to her, she had no doubt about that.  She couldn’t even distract herself by trying to tell how they’d done it—what trick of electricity or magic or air-diffused poison.  It took all her concentration now to remain upright and bound for her destination.

It didn’t matter anyway.  She could still tell where she was going.  It hadn’t stripped her of that.

Even the walls were singing that idiotic song.

Her father fell in beside her.  With each step, he pulled slightly ahead of her, always forcing her to catch up, to battle the stitch in her side and the stiffness of her muscles, always claiming he only wanted the best for her.

He said contemplatively, “This place was built with the Reality Stone, millennia and millennia ago.”

“You’re not here,” Nebula said.  Her voice was a rasp, like she’d gone days without water.  Had she?

“That’s why it meddles with even your mutt of a mind,” her father said.  “It isn’t magic or science.  The very underpinnings of the universe made this place.”

“I don’t care.”  She dragged herself on.

“Go any further and it will unspool your sinews from your bones.”

“So?  I’ve had it done before.”

“Yes.”  He chuckled.  “You have.  But aren’t you grateful, in the end?  You’ve come so far, daughter, so much further than anyone would have ever expected of you.  Maybe those alloy-plated bones are one of the reasons why.  Maybe I had you sliced and rearranged and tailored for your own good, did you ever think of that?  Children are so ungrateful.”

“Fuck you.  And you aren’t here.  If you were here—”  She hated to admit this, but it was true.  “If you were here, you wouldn’t be in here with me, you’d be out there with her.”

“Am I not allowed to change my mind?”

“No.  You don’t change, except to grow worse.  Madder.  More dangerous.”

“Lie down here,” Thanos said, “here on the floor.  It won’t hurt your back, daughter.  Lie down and give up and I will stay with you through the end.  It’s what you’ve always hoped for—my hand against your head, coaxing you down into sleep.  My favorite daughter.”

Nebula spat at him.  It left no mark.  Not real.  Her mind playing a shadow-show against the walls, maybe, or—if anything he’d told her was true—the Reality Stone’s legacy, the gummed-up and tricked-out mechanics of natural law itself.

The pavilion wanted to keep her from the weapon.  It would not.  She would die with it in her hands if she had to—then at least she would know that she’d laid claim to it.

Gamora was the survivor.  Nebula was the martyr.  Endlessly.

Thanos said, “Another step, daughter, and I take your heart from your chest.  At the center of yourself, for all the rest of your life, what little I grant you, you’ll feel a machine at your core, pumping your blood, synthesizing that cheap, dirty thing you call love.  Stop now.”

But it was a used-up threat.  She didn’t think it proved he wasn’t himself—she believed that already—but she thought it proved that wherever he was, he thought of her so little that he didn’t even remember all the things he’d done.

“You took my heart ages ago,” Nebula said.  “Now I’m just a fucking ghost.  Like you.”

She kept walking.

8

Outside, Gamora waited.

And waited.

When she put her back to the pavilion, she could stand to open her eyes at least a little to check the sun’s progress across the sky, but she knew nothing of Hellgate’s rotation; had no frame of reference for the length of its days.  They hadn’t been prepared for this.  Idiotic.  Her rush to do a favor for her sister—to make some kind of paltry amends—had set Nebula up to walk into a danger Gamora couldn’t protect her from, a danger she couldn’t even adequately gauge.  If Nebula died today…

Nebula.  Her opponent, her would-be killer.  Her occasional ally.  Her fellow survivor.  Her sister.  Her—

I held her in my arms.  Her back against me.  The hard plane of her stomach under my palm.  So little softness on her, on either of us, except—

Except she would have to leave those thoughts unfinished.  Nebula wanted a sister.

Gamora could not demand the right, again, to dictate the terms by which they collided.  It was time to let Nebula decide and to abide by that, if she could.

Except she had never counted on this waiting, dammit.  She was good at watchful waiting, the stalk before the snipe, or good enough at it—in truth, she had always been at her best in close combat, hand-to-hand and blade-to-blade, always at her best when she could just for once in her life let go.  Become a whirlwind.  But yes, she could lie on her belly in the tall grass and wait for a target.  She was an assassin.  She had done that a hundred times if she’d done it once.

But to sit out a fight?  To sit with her back to death and decline to face it?  To trace the path of the sun as it beat down upon her and fear going into the shade?

Nebula could need her help.  Too much time had passed while she sat here dawdling, her eyes half-closed.  She had turned away and turned aside for so long, had chosen her own safety over her sister.  She was better than that now.  Wasn’t she?

No, not better.  Stronger.  Strong enough, maybe, to hold onto this one part of her history.  Strong enough to make a life and drag Nebula into it, acknowledge their past, share her present, build a future, a life.  To grow.

A garden of the galaxy.

Gamora stood.

“Fuck it,” she said, and, her eyes closed and her hands out, walked into the pavilion.

At least the leeches were gone.  If she fell here, the worst that would happen was a bruise.

“Nebula?”

The voice that answered was not the one she’d expected.

“Hello, little one.”

Don’t open your eyes.  He wants you to fall and never rise again except to your knees.  He wanted you to live kneeling to him, always, so don’t give it to him.  Don’t fall.  You have no father, and you are on your way to your sister.

“You can’t see where you’re going,” Thanos said.  His voice sounded almost kind.

“I don’t care.”  She hadn’t meant to answer him.  “When I get closer, either I’ll hear her or she’ll hear me.”

“Ah.”  His voice was rich with knowledge, rich with certainty.  It was how he always sounded: so serene.  He knew that it was everyone else who had made a grave error, and although he was burdened with fixing it, he was at least paid for it in that placid, bone-deep confidence.  “Then she’ll know you’re coming.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Gamora.  She already knows.”

Why say it that way?  As if it were his sad duty to break her heart?

He isn’t real.  He isn’t here.  She swept her hands out to either side and felt nothing.  He was nothing.

“What do you mean?”  There was a tremor in her voice and she felt a bitter, hot lash of contempt for herself.  How dare she be this weak?

“Your little sister thinks to kill me.”  The barest rumble of amusement there.  “She thinks whatever is here will help her, but Gamora, there’s nothing here.  There’s been nothing here for millions of years.  Once the Reality Stone built this place, once it housed a fraction of infinity, but no more.  All that’s left is a corpse—and your fool of a sister, a crow come to pick its bones.  Though she’s not without her streak of cunning.”

“You say nothing,” Gamora said.

“An epistle,” Thanos said.  “Sent not so long ago.  Telling me where to find her—a thing I didn’t care about.  But where to find you…”

“No.  You’re lying.”

“She thought I wouldn’t know what this place was, thought she could lure me here, defenseless, and strike me down.  As though Maw hasn’t told me every thought and scrap of thought inside his head.  He’s a good son.  A good soldier.  Like you.”

I’m nothing like him, she wanted to say, except she could remember her youngest days in Thanos’s keeping, when she had wanted Ebony Maw’s attention, when she had cared for his stories, when he had been what had, in that place, passed for kind.  It was unavoidable: the family resemblance.

But Nebula—

Gamora shook her head.  “You’re not here.”

“Open your eyes and see for yourself.”

“I’m not going to open my eyes and get dizzy and helpless.  I’m not going to pass out, or whatever this place wants.  I’m going to go find her, and I’m going to help her get what she needs, and when it’s done, we will destroy you.  And if there’s nothing here, we’ll destroy you all the same.  But she sent you no message, and you are not here.”

“How can you be so sure?”

She could almost imagine the slight coolness that came from being in his massive shadow.

Gamora said, “Because she loves me.  She loves me even more than she hates you.  Now go.  I’m busy.”

9

At the center of the pavilion, in the silence at the end of the world, there was Gamora.

The roof had fallen in a long time ago, and there must have been some kind of flood or burst pipe, because the whole chamber, even as vast as it was, was carpeted with a shimmering three inches of water, as clean and clear as any Nebula had ever seen.  She could see her sister’s reflection in it.

Nebula drew a knife.  “Are you real?”  There was a tremor in her voice.

“Real enough,” Gamora said.

“Your eyes are open.”

Gamora looked around at the clean white walls.  “This place—this far in, it’s not guarded.  You fought your way through reality and unreality and now you’re here.  And I can see you.  My sister.”

Nebula didn’t trust that gentleness.  She kept her blade in her hand.  “Where is the weapon?”

“I jumped,” Gamora said.

“What?”

There was a slight wrinkle between Gamora’s eyebrows, as if what she was saying were only just now coming into view, as if she had to squint at it to make it out.  “The path to the Soul Stone goes through Vormir, but it doesn’t end there.  It ends here, with us.  And I jumped… and I knew I would fall to you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nebula said.  Her eyes watered pointlessly and she blinked the tears away.  “What do you mean, you jumped?”

“I jumped,” Gamora said, “before he could push me.  I claimed my death before he could.”

“Gamora—”

“A soul for a soul.  So it’s mine now, to do with as I would.”  She opened up her hand and Nebula saw a polished chunk of amber at the center of her palm.  “An infinite soul.  Not bound by time, not bound by space.  It’s yours.”  She held out the stone.  “You can touch it.  It’s only here in the same way that I am—it’s still months away from you.  But I have to give it to you somehow, and you can't just carry it and live.  I have to put it somewhere where it won’t hurt you when it’s real.  I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You aren’t a lie,” Nebula said.  She put her knife away.  “You’re just a dream.  Fine.  Do what you want.”

Gamora stepped closer.  She said, “Is that what you always tell me in your dreams?” with her head tilted just a little.

There was no sense in denying it.  “Yes.”

Gamora placed her hand on Nebula’s breast.  The sensitivity was dull there through layers of cloth and leather, but Nebula’s whole body twanged toward her touch anyway, toward the mere knowledge of it.  “Let me take this off you.”

“I can undress myself,” Nebula said.  This was only strategy, the business of deciding where to stow a weapon.  This was only a dream, and she had dreamed of Gamora before.  She unbuckled her light armor, letting it fall to the floor, and peeled her shirt up over her head.  She stood there, bare-breasted, cold now.  She knew how she looked.  A patchwork of metal and synth-skin and scar tissue.  With tits.  She resisted the urge to fold her arms across her body.  She could take off everything if she wanted.  This wasn’t real, no matter how cold she was.  This wasn’t Gamora.  If this were really Gamora, Nebula would have some idea what the fuck she was talking about.  This was just… the voice of the pavilion, giving her what she had asked for, and using her body the way her body had always been used.

But Gamora stroked her breast, where her hand had been before; Gamora’s fingers closed lightly, then tightly, around her nipple.

Gamora said, “You’re beautiful.”

“Shut up.”

Gamora shook her head.  “You’re beautiful.”  She ran her hand down the length of Nebula’s side, a touch that tickled slightly where there was skin to feel it; she made no distinction, and never changed her expression, when her hand moved over metal rather than flesh.  “I thought I would hurt you if I thought that.  But I’m not hurting you.  You want this.  You want me.”  She drew her thumb once more across the stiffened point of Nebula's nipple.

“Yes.”

Gamora kissed her.

Gamora’s mouth was hot, her kiss urgent.  She kissed like she fought, knowing there was no way for them both to win, and only gradually did civilization and gentleness creep back into her; only gradually did she seem at all willing to let Nebula have her share.  That was what convinced her.  Somehow this was real.  Somehow this was Gamora.  Only her sister could take the longest, most hopeless dream she’d had and wake her into it in a way that pissed her off.

Nebula pressed her mouth back hard.  Their teeth clicked together.  Gamora smiled against her lips and Nebula heard own laugh, like the startled, croaking cry of some raven.

“Take what you want,” Gamora whispered.

Nebula pushed at her clothes, almost pawing at them, until Gamora stood there naked.

Nebula almost couldn’t stand to look at her.  She dropped down and slid her thumb up roughly against the lips of Gamora’s cunt, parting her open, following her thumb with her tongue until Gamora gasped.  The noise was raw, even desperate.  Yes, let her take something from Gamora at last.  Let her win.  She teased Gamora’s clit with her tongue, with her lips.  Her metal cheekbone brushed against Gamora’s thigh, became slippery with Gamora’s wetness.

Let me serve you.  Let me take you apart.

Gamora was shaking.  She kept opening and closing her fingers against Nebula's scalp, probably looking to grasp hair that hadn’t been there in years, and Nebula slammed her head back, butting Gamora’s palm away.  Only then did she lean again, return to what she was doing; Gamora put her hand back but this time didn't seem to think that Nebula was anyone she wasn't.  She just put firm, steady pressure on the back of Nebula's skull, forcing Nebula's face even closer to her, fucking Nebula's mouth.  Yes, that was better.  That was good.  She had her left hand braced against Gamora’s hip, but with her right, she reached down between her own legs, reached inside of her pants.  The band of them cut into wrist, compressing her circulation, what there was of it, making the fingers she used on herself a little rubbery and distant.  Unreal.

She was never as real as Gamora.  As the hot, sweet taste of Gamora’s cunt.

Gamora cried out suddenly, the little muscles in her thighs jumping, her cunt pulsing underneath Nebula’s lips and tongue.  But Nebula stayed down, her hand working furiously between her legs.  She had outlasted the moment.  She had always found this hard.

Come on.  Come on.

“Let me touch you,” Gamora said.  Her fingers curving under Nebula’s chin.  “Please.”

“I’m ugly.”

“No.  Please.  I want to feel you.”

So they lay down in the water, Nebula giving up, giving in, losing, winning.  She could no longer tell the difference.  She took off the rest of her clothes.  Gamora’s hand moved between Nebula’s legs.  Her eyes flickered down there and she smiled.

“Your hair is black.  I couldn’t remember before.”

With Gamora’s fingers inside her, Nebula’s climax came quickly.  She tried to hold off—she wanted this moment to go on forever, just the two of them in this nowhere place—but she couldn’t.  She came helplessly, bucking against Gamora, her teeth sinking into Gamora’s shoulder.  Gamora stroked the back of Nebula's neck.

In the chill of the water, Gamora’s body was warm.  Real.

All the unreality of the pavilion built around this one room.  The Reality Stone protecting its sister.

Gamora lowered her head against Nebula’s shoulder.  She said, “You have to go.”

“I don’t.  I can stay here with you.”

“No, I’m outside.  I’m looking for you, and I can’t see, and I’m scared.  You rescue me.”  She touched the middle of Nebula’s lower lip with her thumb.  “Like you’re rescuing me now.  You leave without the weapon, but it’ll come to you, once our timelines meet.  It will stay where I’m putting it.”

Gamora had shifted the stone to her other hand the whole while they’d fucked, and now she held it up again.  Its golden light drowned out the sun.

“I love you,” Gamora said.  “My death for your Soul Stone.  That’s how it works.”

Nebula shook her head.  She was either starting to cry again or had never stopped crying, and she didn't know which thought she hated more.  “No.  Please.”

Gamora kissed her once more.  This time it was soft.  A goodbye, and one firm enough to brook no argument: in this, too, she would win.  The light poured between her fingers.

Gamora said, “Where can I put it?”

Nebula said, “My heart," and cut open her chest where she knew no blood would come.

10

“Nebula!”

It was the seventh time Gamora had called out for her, and she was beginning to feel the slimy, coppery taste of panic; beginning to feel the calls pitching themselves up into screams.

Then, out of the darkness, two hands grabbed hers: one flesh, one metal.

“You can stop yelling,” Nebula said.  Her voice was harsh, but underneath that there was something strange, something Gamora couldn’t identify at all.  “I’m right here.  Let’s go.”

Gamora risked opening her eyes to look, just for a second.  The flash of Nebula she saw looked—darker-eyed.  Somehow more at ease.  There was a bruised-looking mark on her neck.  Gamora had been trained to see much in a single glance, but she had never been trained to understand it.  Killers didn’t have to understand things perfectly.  It was only now, at this point in her life, that she found herself wishing she knew how to do this.  Talk.  Look.  Find out what she wanted to know.

“I’ve been seeing things,” she said.

“So have I.  Come on.”

Nebula wasn’t guiding her out so much as pushing her.  Their departure was easier than their arrival had been; Gamora heard nothing, saw nothing.  It was as if the whole pavilion had somehow been powered down, its purpose spent.

Gamora said, “Did you get it?  The weapon?”

“Yes.  No.”

“That’s illuminating.”

“I got a promise,” Nebula said.  “The weapon comes later.  If I let something happen.”

“What?”

Nebula didn’t answer her.  “It doesn’t matter.  It’s not going to happen.  None of it’s going to happen.  I will find him, and I will slaughter my path to him, and I will destroy him.  I will not leave so much as a scrap of bone for his burial.”

“Nebula—”

“I think you can open your eyes,” Nebula said.  “It’s all over now.”

She was right.  But she would say nothing more—the whole rest of their trip back to the Milano, Nebula was silent, only sometimes reaching up, strangely, to claw restlessly at her chest, as if there were some unbearable itch just underneath her breastbone.  Whatever time the two of them might have had to talk—even if it was only in a field of leeches and thickly clotted mud, even if they were both exhausted—they wasted it.

Finally,” Peter said when they came back into view.

“I can’t help but notice the absence of a big fricking gun,” Rocket said.

“I am Groot.”

“Right, or even a little gun.”

“Maybe it’s a slingshot,” Drax said.

“Why would it be a slingshot?” Gamora said.

“Slingshots can be formidable in the right hands.”  He nodded.  “Your sister is a fierce warrior, even if she has terrible luck.  I’m sure she could kill many, many people with a slingshot.”

“Thank you,” Nebula said.  She didn’t sound like she was joking, but then again, Gamora had never heard her joke.

11

Gamora lost her again on Xandar.

That night, she jerked herself off in her bunk, biting down on her lower lip, frantic, disgusted with herself.  She tasted blood in her mouth when she came.

What was it you found? she thought afterwards, falling into sleep to escape herself and the slick-sided pit of her own mind.  What did you find there?  What promise did you get?

It wasn’t until Vormir that she understood.  Standing there on the cliff, her knife dissolved into soap bubbles and her hope gone, she looked down.

You do not destroy me.  I destroy you.  We destroy you.

If I let something happen, Nebula had said.

You must lose that which you love, the Stonekeeper had said.  A soul for a soul.

Gamora looked at the ground so far beneath her and began to laugh.  In the gray emptiness of Vormir, a world without color or joy, she sounded entirely mad.  Mad to believe that love would ever take her where she needed to go, to believe that it would be enough.

She ran to the edge, and kept running.

She belonged to the Soul Stone the moment her feet cleared the edge of the cliff.  She felt it ask her a question.

Who loves you most?  For whom is your sacrifice?

My sister, Gamora thought.

And fell.

12

In the cool, clear water beneath the pavilion's open sky, there was nothing but peace.  Gamora sometimes grew bored with peace, impatient and edgy and waiting for something to happen, but now she did not: now she knew there was something she was waiting for.  She curled and uncurled her fingers around the Soul Stone.  It was heavier than she had expected, but then it was her soul now too, and her soul had always been heavy.

And then there was Nebula, coming through the door and walking to her.  Drawing a knife.  It looked like a natural extension of her arm and Gamora thought, in a disconnected way, that she should be surprised it wasn’t, that their father had not gone that far.

Nebula said, “Are you real?”

“Real enough,” Gamora said.

13

When her sister’s soul—and the prize it had bought—crystallized inside her chest, in the metal casing of her heart, Nebula wanted to scream.

She had tried to kill him before he could lead Gamora to her death, and she had failed.  She had tried to not give up her memory of the map, and he had wrenched it from her brain and cast it out onto the floor in a pattern of light and shadow.  The memory of a robot, not a person.  She had tried to tell Gamora not to give in for her sake, but Gamora had.  And she had tried to escape Thanos’s keeping before he and Gamora could go to Vormir, but she had been too late.

Now all she was was a walking weapon.  Gamora had finished with their father had started.  Nebula couldn’t even hate her for it—this was why she had gone to Hellgate at all, wasn’t it?  She had sought this out.  This was what she had wanted.

She killed their father on Titan.  Or “killed” might not be the right word, might be imprecise.  She blasted his soul from his body, which continued to breathe and even blink; Peter Quill took care of those dumb mechanical movements and did it more mercifully than she ever would have done.

She could feel his spirit hovering near them, unwilling to go.

Fuck off, she thought.  You don’t have to go wherever souls go, but you have to leave.  I want you to be as lonely as I am.  She circled one finger around the Infinity Stone in her chest, its light shimmering; a threat to obliterate him entirely.  She hadn't tried it only because she wasn't sure it would work and she couldn't stand to fail again, couldn't stand the idea of him having the last laugh after all.

He left.  Good riddance.

Nebula sat down upon the hard, rocky ground of Titan while the wizard and the others argued about what was to be done, how they were to return home.  Her only home had fallen from the cliffs of Vormir.  Her eyes burned.

Home is where the heart is.

“You’re my teammate.”

Nebula looked up.  It was the dark-haired man, the Terran.

“Yeah,” he said, speaking rapidly.  “Yeah, I know you don’t know it, but we’re two of the only members of team ‘glowstick through the heart, and you’re to blame.’  It’s weird, right?  If you ask me, it’s weird.”

“She has not asked you.”

That was Drax.  Nebula could no longer see the point in pretending she didn’t know his name.  She could no longer see the point in anything.

“And I didn’t ask you, Stone Cold.”

“Leave her alone,” Drax said.  “She grieves.”

“Who, Thanos?”

“Her sister,” Mantis said, joining them.  She got down on her knees near Nebula, careless of the dirt.  Her huge eyes regarded her with what even Nebula, inexperienced at it as she was, had to recognize as kindness.  “Will you let me help?”

“There is no help.”

“I won’t take your sadness away,” Mantis said.  “I won’t take anything that you want to hold onto.  Just—just while I’m touching you, I can make it a little better.  It’s like aspirin.”

“How is that like aspirin?” the other man said.  Stark, Nebula remembered now.  Something Stark.

“It’s like aspirin in the way that you’re like a dick,” Quill said.

And to think she’d thought that by walking away from them and sitting down alone on the ground, she would be granted some peace.  She should kill them all.  If she didn’t grind their souls to dust, their ghosts, at least, could still stand around and complain amongst themselves, could impress each other with their wit.

Stark gave her a stiff piece of plastic with his name and picture on it.  “Look,” he said, “I’m not saying it’s a normal thing to hand over to someone, you know, but Happy’s always onto me about driving myself places anyway, so I don’t use it a lot, and I was jogging, before, so I didn’t have any business cards on me.  You know what, it’s not important.  Just—you saved the galaxy.  Which I personally admire.  Look me up when you’re on Earth and I can introduce you to some people.  Oh, and we can get drunk.  Team Glowstick.”

“Stark!” someone yelled.

“Yeah, gotta go.  The wizard’s the kid’s and my ride home.  But it’s been something.”

He extended his hand and for some reason, she shook it, and then he was gone.  Nebula ran her thumb over the edges of the hard, laminated card, as if it would grow sharp enough to cut her.

“Can you take away my annoyance?” Nebula said to Mantis.

“Yes!  I am very good at that.”

“Then fine.”

Just for a moment.  As a child, she’d begged often for relief that had never come, but it had been a long time since she had asked for any help at all.  This felt like the first time she had been freely given it.  Mantis smiled and gently laid her hand across Nebula’s brow.

“Oh,” she said, surprised.  “You’re all crowded.”

Crowded.

In the silence at the end of her world, Nebula suddenly had hope.  She looked at Quill.

“I need a ride again,” she said.  “It’s about Gamora.”

“Cool,” he said without hesitation, though tears were bright in his eyes.  “Let’s go.”

14

This time, Nebula walked through the field of leeches alone.  She made quick, steady progress.

The pavilion waited for her.  It recognized her.  The Soul Stone in her chest flared a brilliant gold as she stepped inside.

Even with no distortions to its reality, the pavilion, she saw clearly now, was odd-angled.  Incomplete.  No wonder it knew her.

She made her way to the heart, to the silence, to the water.  To the place where the Soul Stone had once lived in the house built by its sister, had once been cradled in the hand of her sister.

The room was empty, but it was like some icy calm had lingered with her even after Mantis’s touch had faded away.  She put her hand against what remained of her heart.

The boundaries between worlds, the boundaries between times—they were thin here in this place, and in this room especially.  She knew she could do it.

You rescued me, Gamora had said here.  And, I love you.

Her sister was her heart.

Nebula exhaled.  She closed her eyes.

With everything that was in her damaged, shredded, filthy soul, she wished, and the wish turned the Soul Stone in her chest like a lock flipping sideways.  The light that came then was so bright that even with her eyes closed she could hardly stand it.

“Gamora?” she whispered.

Footsteps in the water.

Nebula opened her eyes.  She said, shakily, “If you’re a ghost—if you’re an illusion—”

“No,” Gamora said, and kissed her.  Hard, like before.  Almost unbearable, like before.  There was something wild in her eyes, some combination of pain and confusion and memory and love and hunger that was, Nebula thought, only there in the living.  She felt it too.

This was the only victory she needed.