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Stand and Deliver!

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This is the story of how Yondu Udonta landed the biggest score of his life.

 

If you asked him how it all went down, you would get a tale, recited between shanties and chuckles and noisy guzzles of moonshine. But it would be very different to the one you’re about to read, and not a word of it true.

 

Oh, he’d tell it well – Yondu always did spin a pretty yarn. He’d have you on the edge of your chair, drink forgotten, as he transported you from the dingy bar to a train, glitzy and glamorous, stuffed with the wine-sipping, canape-popping, perfume-squirting children of the war-era Elite.

 

You’d blush as he described, in explicit detail, exactly what he did to make that perky lil’ Nubellian give him her earring, and shudder at the Kree’s ugly fate. And somehow, by the end, you’d wind up rooting for Yondu, just a little, as he tied up all the loose ends and flew that little girl safely home. And on the peeling bar stool beside him, Kraglin Obfonteri would nod and slurp his booze, and smirk at every lie.

 

So, as the captain can’t be trusted – everything went according to plan, he’d insist, as Kraglin rolled his eyes to the cosmos – we’d best take a different approach.

 

 


 

 

 

The solar train zoomed through space at forty times Tian speed, 12 000 000 kliks per second.

 

They shot past starshine, liquid streams of it splintering from the copper vent ducts, the porthole windows, the great glass dome of the observation platform, the centrifuge decks that rolled around each carriage, offering spectacular views of the Gabathrux Nebula and a range of hot and cold snacks.

 

Yondu plucked a canape off a passing tray. He snuck a grope of a passing tit and pressed the former against Kraglin's mouth.

 

“Hi, diddums,” he said. “Fancy seein’ you here.”

 

Kraglin bit down. Flaky pastry crumbled between his teeth. There was some sort of jelly inside; it squirted over his tongue, tasting of trust funds and musty tea leaves.

 

“Diddums,” he repeated, once sure he wasn't going to choke.

 

Yondu nodded. Kraglin associated that smile with the immanent death of everyone around them. However, right now, surrounded by the mega-rich attendees of their target’s charity gala, Yondu couldn't act on those urges.

 

His sadism needed another outlet. Kraglin just happened to be closest.

 

No choice but to play along. Kraglin swallowed his canape, and heaved an internal sigh. “Did ya want somethin', honeypie?”

 

Yondu fluttered his lashes. “Aw, nothin'. Just wanted to look at yer purdy face.”

 

Peter pulled a face of his own. Why had they brought him again? Oh yes; Yondu claimed it was a vital part of our cover story, Krags. Kraglin suspected it was just to torture him.

 

“Blegh!” their juvenile accomplice pronounced. “You guys are gross!

 

Yondu couldn't cuff his ear. Hoity-toity high society had weird rules about child abuse. Hell, Yondu had weird rules about child abuse. Were discipline left up to Kraglin, the brat would spend all hours out the airlock, mask on and harness lashed around his waist, batting against the Eclector's flanks as they weaved between gravity wells, jumping from one star to the next.

 

But Yondu always went soft on the boy. He made do with hurling a cushion at him. “Mind yer mouth, young man, or I turn this train around!”

 

Kraglin let them get on with it. He opened his datadex and pretended he could read.

 

Their happy family – daddy, daddy, and a poor wee Terran boy rescued from pirate poachers, who'd seen too much of the galaxy to be released to the wild – sat on a selection of ottomans and longues at the center of the train’s swish observation platform. The Xandarian jet set flowed around them, rubbing elbows and exchanging veiled insults.

 

Mingling, Yondu assured Kraglin, was also part of the job. Kraglin had his doubts about that, too. Why couldn't they just lurk in their cabin until the train docked, then sneak out and stick Yondu's arrow through the target's skull?

 

Apparently, people found that sort of behaviour suspicious. Which meant Kraglin had to stay here, in a public space, no corners to skulk in, surrounded by potential enemies.

 

Pretending to be married to his captain.

 

It was, in short, very almost his personal description of hell. And then, as things tended to, everything got worse.

 

The attack came from the rear.

 

Crap - he’d been so busy watching Yondu’s back that he forgot to watch his own! Stupid; rookie mistake.

 

Kraglin reacted as was natural. He rolled off the ottoman, shoved his assailant face-first over it, and twisted their arm behind them until their knuckles brushed their neck and their shoulder made a satisfying crunch.

 

“Who sent you,” he growled.

 

The girl wiggled, whey-white and clammy with pain. “Th-the maître d’hôtel, sir! H-he wanted me to offer you and your hu-husband more wine, oh god, please let go of me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...”

 

Kraglin tuned her out. His narrowed eyes swept the scene.

 

Cap'n lounged on his longue, smirking like a well-fed feline. Their fellow passengers, disturbed from their peaceful admiration of the aurora nebulalis, uttered various gasps and exclamations of horror. Peter's mouth formed a perfect 'o'. And, of course, wine plipped from the freshly-uncorked, ice-crusted bottle in the waitress's other hand.

 

Dammit.

 

Kraglin stepped back.

 

“Refill'd be nice,” he said gruffly, and held out his empty glass.

 

The waitress snivelled. Her shoulder protruded at a boxy angle; her arm hung limp as an unstroked cock. She raised the bottle to pitter-patter on the lip of Kraglin's glass. They jangled together, a high chime that made Kraglin's teeth grit.

 

Cap'n took it upon himself to address their audience. "I’m mighty sorry for my husband’s manners," he said. "Y'see, he served on the front durin’ the war. Ain’t never been the same since, poor soldier.”

 

True enough. What remained need-to-know was that Kraglin had been a grunt, shanghaied into service along with a dozen other street rats, their only purpose to serve as fodder for the war machine. Kraglin felt no great urge to die for his Empire. Not one week into the battle – by which time all his childhood friends were dead or missing, presumed as – he stole a dogfighter and went to test his luck in No Man's Space. Hadn't looked back since - or at least, never with fondness.

 

“We got him in therapy,” Yondu continued, with a loving squeeze of Kraglin’s arm that cut off his blood circulation. “Best our fortunes can buy. But he still lashes out occasionally. Can’t help himself; poor thing. Ain’t that right, dumpling?”

 

Kraglin coaxed his scowl up at the edges. “Yes, pookie,” he said.

 

“Hm.” A particularly snooty-looking Gravarian detached from the gawpers. Crystals threaded her purple hair like dew beads on a spiderweb. She held the paw of a child Peter’s age. It peeped at them from around its mother’s voluminous skirt. “How unorthodox, to send one of our standing to the front. Unless, of course, you hail from a less… advantaged background.”

 

She said the word like it was dirty. Yondu flashed her a smile. It was far more winning than usual, thanks to the projection capsule tucked behind his ear, which overlaid his metal teeth in white enamel.

 

Noo-voo richy. Yup, thas us. Made our names in the weapons business – y’all got us to thank that you ain't up to your necks in Kree.”

 

The thing about rich people was that they kept their upper lip so stiff you could dance a conga line across it. Kraglin concentrated on the woman’s nostrils instead. Those provided a far more accurate read on her temperament. “I would implore you not to speak so rudely of our Kree brethren.” Flare, twitch, twitch. “The Hala embassy have been invited to this gala, at my father’s request.”

 

Yondu’s smile went plastic at the mention of the embassy. Kraglin stepped in. “Your father, huh?”

 

The nostrils formed twin apostrophes. “Yes. Duke Amirithus Gaius of House Amirith. I am Amiritha Calliope, heir to the Duchy of Gravaria, and this is my daughter, Amiritha Vania.”

 

Peter waved enthusiastically from under his pile of cushions. The other sproglet retreated behind Calliope's bustle, watching with wide purple eyes.

 

Kraglin gave the future Duchess a once-over. He sneered at her slender shoulders, her full lips, the star-diamond glittering in her cleavage. Ain’t never seen someone so clean-lookin’, he thought. Not who I ain’t allowed to rob.

 

Calliope rearranged her boa with a pointed sniff. Kraglin crossed his arms. Why'd she stick a diamond between her tits if she didn’t want folks to stare at it?

 

“How very prudent of daddy, to invite magnates such as yourselves. The war hasn’t been kind to the nobility.” She arranged a diplomatic smile, nostrils flattening to match.

 

Oh, boo hoo. They downsized from a personal planet to a private moon. What a frutarkin’ tragedy.

 

A splash hit Kraglin’s wrist. They waitress was still pouring. She quivered, shoulder spasming, her arm locked out with pain. 

 

“Hell!” Kraglin downed the overflowing glass. He yanked the bottle from the girl's lax grip before she could ruin the carpet, which Kraglin didn’t care about, or waste more booze, which he did. “Give it here, ya frazkin’ schlanger.”

 

More gasps.

 

“He got his mouth on the front lines too,” Yondu confided with the guests. “If you know what I mean.”

 

The Gravarian stuck her nose in the air. Her nostrils opened wide enough to prove her hair grew naturally pink.

 

“And it appears it’s contagious. Come on now, Vania dear. Let’s see if we can find you a baby star to name for your birthday.”

 

She swayed away from them: Quill buried to his nose in pillows; Kraglin glowering at his victim; Yondu absorbing the scene with the glee of a child who'd hurled a firecracker into a crowded room, just to see what would happen.

 

Kraglin was used to being looked down on. A scrawny delinquent didn't rise through the ranks of one of the most notorious outlaw Ravager factions, not without thickening his skin. He'd learnt early to give no shits about what other people thought. Calliope's approval meant no more to him than that of Nova Prime herself.

 

He patted the waitress on her wounded shoulder and loped to top up Yondu's glass. “Pompous bitch,” he said, conversationally.

 

Yondu feigned horror. “Pumpkin, we're tryin' to make a good impression!”

 

“I waited for her to walk away, cap” –

 

A hand fastened across his mouth. More wine slopped. The red stain spread over Yondu’s fancy white shirt as if he’d taken a shot to the heart. He didn’t say a word. But his nails scratched Kraglin’s stubble, and his smile edged into danger-territory.

 

Kraglin gulped. He and Yondu actually washed up for this job, each of them spending a good hour sudsing and sluicing in the shower block. The galley loaned them a pot descaler to scrape off the worst of the grime. But Yondu’s hand still smelt faintly.

 

Engine fumes.

 

Leather.

 

Cock.

 

Kraglin mumbled something into the core of his palm. Yondu drew back. “Whassat?”

 

“I said ‘cuddlywuddly’.”

 

“Course you did.” Yondu dabbed at his wine-sodden front. “Dang. Quill, you an’ Krags go find the nearest bog – uh, I mean, lavy-tory. Place posh as this, it’s gotta stash a bunch of multi-clean wipes.”

 

Kraglin sighed. Being the center of attention didn’t suit him, and after his stunt with the waitress, he might as well have stood on the table and belted a Skrull loyalist anthem. Last thing he wanted was to wiggle through a crowd of strangers, most of whom were staring at him rather than the stars. But orders were orders. Even if cap’n didn’t want to be called cap’n right now, cap’n he was, and as cap’n, he would be obeyed.

 

“C’mon,” he muttered, selecting a lock of Quill’s overgrown mop to tug. “Ya dumb brat – uh, I mean Cheeky scamp.”

 

“Better.” Yondu twirled his wine glass, narrowly avoiding adding to the mess. He caught the eye of a passing socialite and dipped her a wink. “I’mma change in our room. Maybe invite some friends back there; work on our cover." Kraglin snorted. Yondu’s wicked grin only got wickeder. “Jealous?”

 

This is an act, Kraglin reminded himself, not for the first time, as Yondu propped his feet on the ottoman, sizing him up like a snake working out whether Kraglin would fit through its dislocated jaw. It’s all about the job. The scrip. Ain’t no sense gettin’ attached to what can never be.

 

“Course I am,” he said, and – on a whim – cupped his captain’s cheek. Stubble prickled like he'd grabbed a handful of pins. “I’m yer husband, ain’t I?”

 

Quill blew a raspberry. “Gross,” he announced, in a voice that reminded Kraglin of the mosquitoes that bred in the Ravager shower blocks. “You’re men. You can’t be husbands. One of you has to be the wife.”

 

Damn Terrans.

 

“Don’t work like that,” Kraglin said.

 

“But how're you supposed to make babies? Only men and women can make babies.”

 

“Ya don't even know how baby-makin' works.

 

Although to be fair, that business got more complicated the further you travelled from the galactic centre. Birds, bees, ambulant flora, A'askavarians, Klyntar, Sovereign – it was a grab-bag of genitals, spores, ovipositors, clone sacs and worse. As telling Quill this would be about as successful as teaching a moomba advanced astrophysics, Kraglin didn't bother.

 

Yondu snickered, flapping his wet shirt to stop it sticking. “Ain’t they curious at this age? Off ya go, darlin’ – take good care of our poppet, now.”

 

No sense complaining. If Kraglin threw a fit, Yondu’d stick him on babysitting duty for the rest of his life. (Or the rest of Quill’s. That was due to end first, what with the brat’s knack for pissing people off. Kraglin had laid his own bet on him expiring before he hit double-digits.)

 

“Sir, yessir,” he grumbled.

 

Yondu’s eyebrows formed a steep-sided valley, pointing at the bridge of his nose. “’Sir’…?”

 

“I was bein’ sarcastic, muffin. I ain’t in the army no more.”

 

“Awright, cupcake. Awright.” Yondu waved them away. He glanced around for his socialite – and just like that, Kraglin was forgotten. A tool that had been used, part of the scenery.

 

Wine-soaked silk clung to Yondu's broad chest, red on white on blue. Kraglin turned away before his stare got stuck.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“So how does it work?”

 

Kraglin knew the brat lacked an attention span, but he could at least wait for them to clear the stargazers before he started peppering him with questions like grapeshot from a pre-Plas Era canon. Kraglin sloped between men in smart sava-silk tunics, each of which cost more than a year’s worth of lodgings on Knowhere. He circumnavigated women draped in holographic dresses spun from tamed light, and beings of less obvious sex clad in their own wafting tentacles.

 

Perfume scented the air in cloying bands. Kraglin smelt hair oil, wine, the raw-hay musk of a Kymellian nearing rut, each new aroma more pungent than the last.

 

“What,” he grunted, covering his nose. Perhaps Quill was asking a sensible question about the train’s whisper-silent solar-fusion engines, or the technicalities of Tian-travel. Kid had only ever used the jump portal network before. Must be quite the experience, watching light recede behind them in lumbering waves.

 

Quill, as usual, disappointed him.

 

“You and Yondu,” he stage-whispered, dodging a busty Vacche, her udders bound in a sari. He almost got lost in a cluster of giggling Nubellians, but floundered out the far side and latched onto Kraglin’s sleeve, much to his misery. “That’s… that’s homo, right?”

 

Kraglin ground his teeth. He hustled the kid through the waitresses who milled around the aft of the observatory, trays balanced on pristine white gloves. They scattered from his path. Seemed dislocated arms were bad for business.

 

Kraglin ignored them. He bundled Quill through the sliding glass doors and gave him – finally – the smack he deserved.

 

“Dumbass! Y’know me and the cap’n ain’t actually together? This's all make-believe!”

 

Quill rubbed sulkily at his glowing ear. “You keep touching each other. And calling each other dumb names, even though you’re both men. So. Homo.”

 

Kraglin cuffed him again, just for the hell of it. “I dunno what that word means!”

 

The prospect of knowing something more than a Ravager – an adult, at that! - distracted Quill from the sting. “Means you’re queer and god hates you. Oh yeah – and you’re gonna die of aid.” His forehead crumpled. “Man. Who’s gonna stop Taserface cooking me if Yondu dies? You can’t give him aid, Kraglin. You mustn’t. Promise me, yeah?”

 

The more the Terran talked, the less sense he made. Kraglin screwed his pinky through the wax in his ear.

 

“How’m I supposed to die from aid?”

 

“I don’t know!” Peter wailed. “Grandpa said he’d tell me when I was older!”

 

Kraglin shook his head. He was being distracted again. Damn Terran hysterics. “Look,” he said, trying to be reasonable. “First rule of spacin’ – stuff from yer planet stays on yer planet. Same with this homo crap, I figure.”

 

Quill wrung his hands. “You mean aid can’t get you and Yondu up here? Even if you kiss?”

 

Ah. ‘Aid’ must be what Terrans called herpes. Stars knew why, but Kraglin didn’t have the patience to dive down that wormhole. Asking Quill anything about his homeworld led to weepy sermons about his mother and music looping on repeat. Sometimes he even sang.

 

“I don’t got no open sores at the moment,” he said, opening his mouth to prove it. “Down below neither. Only tends to flare up in a solar storm – an’ I’m savin’ for a full venereal vac sesh next Lunar.”

 

Not that this mattered, seeing as Ravagers didn’t fuck each other. This was all a sham – a big pantomime, performed for the sake of scrip. Wasn’t like Kraglin's warty bits would ever come into contact with Yondu’s.

 

Kraglin tried not to dwell on how much that disappointed him. 

 

“Down below?” Quill frowned at Kraglin’s boots. “You get aid on your feet? What’s a van-ear-eel?”

 

“Let’s hope ya don’t never find out. C’mon brat.”

 

Kraglin had sealed the door to the observation deck. Beyond it traipsed the glitterati, trailing chiffon, swapping their gossip, mouths flapping in blissful silence. Only one guest followed them out, teetering about on her pinpoint heels. She tottered past them, aiming for the bathroom. Then, at the last minute, she veered away.

 

They watched her ricochet off the curved frames of the emergency airlocks, the hovering spherical lights, the nacre panels carved from the giant oysters that had been fished from lakes in the Shrigla system, where salt crystals frosted your face after a minute of breathing the briny air. Finally, after several near-snaps of her ankles, she found a functioning shitter.

 

Kraglin shook his head. Rich people were fuckin’ crazy. They even calligraphed the Out of Order sign.

 

“You can’t go in there.” Quill grabbed his wrist. “Look, can’t you read?”

 

“Nah." But that didn’t make him stupid; far from it. Weren’t many other reasons why the woman would haul her punch-bloated belly to empty in another stall. Kraglin could add two and two, and unlike the majority of the Ravagers, he made four, not five. “I ain’t gonna be droppin’ no deuces, kid. Just need to grab some wipes for cap’n’s shirt.” Buying a whole new wardrobe for every day of their stay would put a dent in their bounty prize. They didn’t exactly have clothing to spare.

 

Quill released him. “Okay,” he said, like Kraglin had asked for his permission. “Let’s just be quick.”

 

Kraglin didn’t plan on dawdling. He didn’t like this place; he didn’t like these people. At least Ravagers announced their mutinies, roaring as they bludgeoned you about the face with a moonshine bottle. These a-holes smiled at you while their servants pushed a knife into your spine.

 

Plus, there were Kree here. That was a problem.

 

Why? Well, Kraglin didn’t get to his rank by asking stupid questions. He just looked at the facts, which were, in order:

 

  1. Yondu had some sorta long-standing grudge against Kree-folk, to the extent where one rookie blurted ‘but I thought you were one!’ and got fed to the nearest extractor fan.

  2. Their target had invited a Kree ambassador and his envoys to this jamboree.

  3. If Yondu were to meet that ambassador, things were likely to spill that stained worse than wine.

 

And Kraglin had just left his captain unattended. Shkrangskit. They needed to hurry.

 

The lock pad didn’t work – one of the maintenance staff must’ve set it to engaged, in case any of the esteemed guests were too blotto to read. Kraglin glanced down the corridor, but the next bog along was occupied, and the third out of sight. He shrugged and set to jimmying it. Ten seconds and one fritzing circuit later, he was in.

 

Kuh-chunk. He eased the door back on its roller, ushering Quill ahead of him, into the dark.

 

“Ugh,” was Quill’s first comment. “What’s that smell?”

 

“Blocked deconstructor, most likely. Some posh fuck ate somethin’ what disagreed.”

 

The solars hummed on their lowest setting. When they registered movement, they fizzled to life and proved Kraglin wrong. The atomic deconstructor was blocked. Very, very blocked – by the head and shoulders of the man crammed down the pan.

 

Judging by the slurps, the deconstructor was still draining his essence, one atom at a time. It tugged chunks of him into the centrifuge, flipped them and rearranged them and divided them into their base elements to harvest their latent energy.

 

Quill puked quietly in the basin. Kraglin didn't interrupt.

 

Wet wipes forgotten, he sidled to the corpse and squatted beside it. He examined the insignia stitched onto his ornate sleeve, the pallid blue tone of his skin.

 

Shkrangskit. This weren’t good. This weren’t good at all.

 

The retches slowed. Then Quill made the mistake of glancing at Kraglin and the corpse in the mirror. He had to clutch his belly to keep himself from adding yesterday's dinner to the mix.

 

“Who is he?” he whimpered.

 

Kraglin’s mouth was as bloodless as the dead guy’s fingertips. “The flarkin’ Kree ambassador.”

 


 

Thing was, an atomic deconstructor of this size weren't designed to handle nothing larger than a Kymellian’s morning shit. Admittedly, that was quite the load, but it sill couldn’t chow down on a body – not all at once. The murderer would need to return periodically and wedge more of the victim into the pan. Thus, judging by the state of the Ambassador’s corpse – intact from the neck down – he hadn’t been here long.

 

Kraglin gnawed on his knuckle. This was an action he repeated every third day or so, whenever Yondu contrived a new money-making scheme that was as likely to make them rich as dead. The skin split easily. A navy stripe welled up to meet his tongue, tasting of penny-units and salt.

 

“Kraglin,” Peter whimpered. He crouched in the far stall, facing away from the corpse, head tucked between his bony eight-year-old knees. Squat and brace, as if he was in a crashing ship. Just like Yondu taught him. “What do we do?”

 

Kraglin chewed a little longer. Then he spat out his finger, blue blood filming his teeth.

 

“We gotta get out of here.” He hooked Peter under the armpits, hauling him to his feet. When he let go, the kid flumped right back down again. “Seriously?”

 

Big blue eyes gazed beseechingly up at him. “He’s dead.

 

"Well, shkrangskit, brat. What’chu want me to do about it?”

 

“I don’t know!” Peter heaved himself up, strangulating the rim of the sink in a tremulous grip. He glared at his knees until they solidified. Weren't all that successful; his chin started quivering in their stead and his stare kept drifting back to the body, no matter how often he dragged it away. “Shouldn’t we call someone? The cops? You've got cops in space, right?”

 

Kraglin snorted. He glanced at Peter’s basin. Chunks of undigested protein-cake bobbed on the surface, buoys in a mealy sea.

 

“Turn on the faucet," he ordered. "We gotta drain this mess.”

 

Get him into a state of shock and the brat did what he was told without bitching. Kinda refreshing, actually. Perhaps they oughta show him a fresh corpse at the start of each day; get him nice and traumatized so he’d do his chores without fuss.

 

Water beat opal-threaded marble. The swish of the emptying sink accompanied the disquieting chomping sounds from the deconstructor and Peter’s ragged breath.

 

“The cops,” he said again. “We can’t just leave him here.”

 

“We can,” Kraglin corrected him. “And we will. Ain’t our business, this.”

 

They’d been contracted to assassinate the Duke of Gravaria. No more, no less. Distractions got you dead in their line of work, and dead was something Kraglin didn’t fancy being. It didn’t matter how many fireworks you shone over a Ravager’s grave; fact of the matter was, you were meat, and meat burned like everything else.

 

Peter held the sink so tight his knuckles stood out white. “But – but he’s dead!”

 

“You already said that. Look, whoever killed him’s gonna be back soon to finish off the disposal. Chop him into pieces and push 'em through the matter converter one at a time, most likely. You really wanna hang around?”

 

Peter shook his head. “Yondu’d know what to do,” he whispered. Sounded all sure about it and everything.

 

Kraglin might look to his cap’n for orders, but he made a fine first mate - capable of individual thoughts and everything. He crossed his arms.

 

know what to do. We’re gonna walk outta here, activate the lock panel and pretend none of this ever happened.”

 

Quill looked unconvinced. Kraglin weighed up his options. He could twist the kid’s ear into submission, or…

 

Or he could try to explain. Explain that when the Ambassador was deemed missing rather than just indisposed, probably fucking the wait staff; this train would grind to a halt. Every man, woman and other such sentient being aboard would fall under suspicion.

 

That meant bad news for the resident Ravagers. Their forged ID chips might have conned them through the ticket office, but they wouldn’t withstand close scrutiny. Then it was off to the Kyln for the lot of ‘em, a gag in Yondu’s gob so he couldn’t whistle while Quill was entered into the competition for Prison's Softest Mouth.

 

Eh. Option One took less time.

 

“Ow! Ow-ow-ow-ow! Okay! Okay, sheesh. Let’s go already!”

 

And so they left the Kree Ambassador to his decomposition, and went to ruin Yondu’s day.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Yondu had made good on his promise to network. Kraglin smirked at the pretty slip of a Nubellian who flustered out their cabin, one earring missing, pinning up the tatters of her dress. It looked like Yondu’d given up on all them fiddly hooks and eyes and opened her bodice with his teeth.

 

The Storxiax gentleman received an eyebrow raise. He met Kraglin’s gaze, blushed deep purple, and scurried after the Nubellian, patting his lips dry with a handkerchief.

 

“Forgot yer fly,” called Kraglin after him. Let it never be said he wasn’t helpful.

 

He made to press the biolock. The door whooshed open before he could reach it. A Kymellian swaggered out, all seven-going-on-eight foot of him.

 

Kraglin looked him up.

 

Kraglin looked him down.

 

Kraglin sure hoped Yondu was able to walk, because they might soon need to start running.

 

The Kymellian whickered. Hot horsey air rumpled Kraglin’s mohawk. He politely waited for Kraglin to step aside before lumbering down the corridor, velvety ears brushing the casements of the solar lights.

 

A Kymellian, a Storxiax and a Nubellian walk out of a Ravager’s cabin. Sounded like the set-up of a joke. If so, the joke was at Kraglin’s expense – because he would never be more than a boring old Xandarian, and the captain clearly had exotic taste.

 

“Have fun?” he asked, booting open the door. No sense rapping and requesting entry – manners only meant shit to folks with modesty, and that was something Yondu lacked.

 

He lolled across the blankets, a depraved blue puddle. Steamy air oozed into the corridor. It rubbed Kraglin’s face like a lukewarm flannel.

 

“You wanna throw on clothes?” he asked, scratching at the scruff round his jaw. “Kid’ll get an eyeful.”

 

Peter, wisely, stayed outside. Throwing up once a day was enough.

 

“You’re gonna get aid,” he called. “And die.

 

Yondu mumbled something inarticulate. Or perhaps he just inhaled some of the cushion stuffing – kinda hard to tell. Kraglin stooped, bringing his head closer to his captain’s ear  (which, he couldn’t help but notice, sported a new stud, pretty and ruby-red, which would have complemented the Nubellian’s ruined dress).

 

“Sorry, sir," he said, swallowing his sigh. Only thing Yondu'd take off him with his teeth would be his fingers, if he ever left 'em close enough to bite. "Missed that."

 

“Mm-mmrf-mmgh?”

 

“Still nothin'. Ya might wanna sit up a bit.”

 

Yondu extracted his face from the pillow. It bore several bite marks. While his holobead masked the worst of his dental damage, Kraglin found himself smiling at the crooked indents, the slashes where Yondu had gnawed clean through the silk.

 

“Th’ fuck’d the kid say?” he burbled, eyes glassy.

 

“You’re gonna get aiiiiiid.

 

Kraglin shrugged. “Hell if I know, sir.”

 

Yondu's eyes bugged. “Sshtp!”

 

“Okay! Okay. No ‘sir.’ We’re undercover. I got ya.”

 

Despite everything – the dead Ambassador in the bathroom, the fact they weren’t the only murderers on this train, and the residual stench of horse hair – Kraglin still suffered an unprofessional wave of fondness as he arranged the covers to hide the scars on Yondu’s back. His skin felt rough in comparison to the satin sheets. Not fuzzy, like Kraglin’s, but irregular, as if each inch was made up of a thousand scales, too small for the eye to see.

 

Kraglin backed away before he was tempted to keep stroking. “Coast’s clear,” he announced to the door. Quill edged in, covering his nose.

 

“Phwoar. It stinks.”

 

He had a point. Kraglin could taste the Storxiax’s cologne on the back of his tongue, and as for the essence de Kymellian seeping into the mattress – well. The less said about that the better.

 

“Fans?” Kraglin asked Yondu as Quill escaped to his room. Their section of the carriage was a multifunctional suite, compact without being crowded. A bathroom and a minor bedroom conjoined onto the master.

 

Yondu nodded to the interface panel beside the door. When Kraglin pressed his hand over the glowing print, a hologram popped up. It unfolded into a basic blueprint of the room, speckled with color-coded text.

 

Kraglin rubbed his beard again. It felt oddly sleek, thanks to the grooming wax Oblo helped him massage into it before they set off on The Gravarian Job (which, at this rate, might yet be renamed 'Operation Trainwreck').

 

“Y'know what?" he said. "This’d be real helpful if I could read.”

 

Yondu made an exasperated noise. He wriggled to the edge of the bed, feet poking from the bottom of his burrito. When untangling his legs proved to be too much of a chore, he discarded the sheet entirely and padded over, yawning, naked as the day he’d been born (or the day he popped from his papa’s pouch; Kraglin wasn’t quite sure how that worked.)

 

Reading took Yondu painstakingly long. Alpha Centauri's school system must be as shit as that of the Xandar-governed sink-planet where Kraglin spent the first sixteen miserable years of his life.

 

Kraglin could still learn – the latest Nova literacy initiative ran courses aimed at Disadvantaged Populations, and some even gave you a discount if you could prove you grew up as an urchin, no documentation beside your arrest record. But Ravagers didn’t have much spare time for edumacationing. And anyway, if Kraglin could read, he wouldn’t need cap’n to help him, would he?

 

“This ‘un,” said Yondu eventually. He stood behind Kraglin, close enough that his lil’ paunch brushed his back when he breathed.

 

He poked one of the many interactive dots, labelled in turquoise. It beeped twice to confirm, then the steady whirr began.

 

“Fans’re quieter than on the galleon,” Kraglin noted. His breathing had picked up, though he couldn’t tell you why.

 

Yondu grunted his agreement. He yawned again, blasting Kraglin with hot, sticky carnivore-breath. Then he ambled back to bed, bending to scoop up the blanket half-way.

 

Kraglin turned at the wrong moment.

 

He became very engrossed with the overhead fan. Round and round it span, gathering speed, the blades blurring into a wheel.

 

The air tasted fresher already. On the bed, Yondu rolled onto his back, spreading in an indolent starfish, dragging the covers over his waist as an afterthought. Kraglin could just about squeeze one bony buttock onto the mattress without touching the wet patch (more a lake, to be honest; scented strongly of horse).

 

“We gotta problem,” he said. The silence from the other side of the door suggested the Terran had his ear pressed to it. Kraglin lowered his voice, just to piss him off. “Y’know that Kree ambassador?”

 

Just like that, Yondu was sober again. “He can’t see me.”

 

Whatever beef he had with the Kree, he served it up rare: raw and bloody. Kraglin nodded along. “Don’t think thas gonna be a problem, boss.”

 

“Hell.” Yondu shuffled to sit. There was something frantic in his eyes. “This’s serious, Krags.”

 

Didn’t he know it? “Look boss. You don’t gotta worry.”

 

Yondu reared back. “Worry? I ain’t worried. Jus’ don’t want him to see me, is all.”

 

“Mm-hm.” Kraglin didn’t need to know why Yondu never took jobs from the Kree. Or why he steered clear of Hala territories, even that time their scanners picked up on a Code-8.99 ship, full-evac, abandoned due to a fuel fault, which had lost power and lay in wait of the salvage team, easy pickings for any enterprising scavenger.

 

Thing was Aster-class, full Tian engine and all. They could’ve made a sexy five mil’ out of that.

 

Okay, so maybe Kraglin was intrigued. But boss’s business was boss’s business. Right now? Not the time to pry.

 

Kraglin cut to the chase. “He’s dead,” he said.

 

Yondu’s eyebrows performed a brief polka. They settled on surprise. “What?”

 

“He’s dead. The Kree ambassador is dead. We found the body mid-disposal. But even if the guy who ganked him gets rid of it, he’s still gone missin’ on a train travellin’ Tian speed.”

 

Yondu nodded. He knew what that meant – they all did. Even in a vacsuit, being ejected at forty-Tian would wrench flesh from bones and organs from every available orifice. Meat sacks just weren’t made to handle that sort of pressure, not without G-dampeners.

 

“We got alibis?” he asked.

 

“ETD’s an hour back, by my reckoning. Means the three of us was in the Observatory. But…”

 

“But that don’t matter much if they don’t find the body. Shit.” Yondu champed his teeth. “Hell, Kraglin. Ya didn’t do nothin’ wrong when ya found the guy – just lookin’ for some fuckin’ napkins. Ya could’ve called it in and we’d be in the clear.”

 

“Told you so,” piped Quill through the door. Kraglin shrunk, the shoulders of his fancy gray suit standing out larger than he was.

 

“Ain’t used to doin’ shit the right way,” he muttered.

 

Yondu snorted. “Yeah, well. We ain’t in Canned Ass anymore.”

 

“Kansas!” Quill corrected, which made about as much sense as anything else that came out of his mouth. Yondu and Kraglin shared an eye-roll.

 

“Awright,” said the captain. “If they don’t find the body, this ain’t gonna look good for us. I might as well’ve told Missy Calliope back there that I kill Kree for a day-job, and she ain’t been won over by my charm. We gotta make sure someone spots that stiff." He cracked his knuckles. "Awright. Kraglin, you’re with me. Quill, you’re distracting.”

 

Quill quit drumming his heels on the doorframe. “Sorry.”

 

“No – as in, I need ya to be bait.”

 

The door opened a crack. Quill’s suspicious face filled it. “I’m always bait.”

 

“Cause ya look so tasty. See Kraglin here? Not a pinch o’meat on him.” Yondu nipped Kraglin’s arm in demonstration, gathering a roll of skin between his nails.

 

Kraglin shot a foot off the bed. “Ow!”

 

“Shame,” Yondu said. His black-painted claws glinted under the solars, almost as sharp as his grin. He wore that wicked smile again, the one that said life’s a freewheelin’ spaceship an’ I’m sleepin’ in the pilot’s seat. “I don’t like ‘em skinny.”

 

Shame indeed. Kraglin scoffed, because obviously he didn’t give a damn that cap’n liked to be picked up and hammered against the nearest wall: a feat Kraglin would struggle to achieve in zero gravity. “Can we get on with the mission?”

 

Yondu purred. “Knew you was jealous.”

 

No, I’m just worried ‘bout the dead body bein’ sucked into a matter converter. And the other killer aboard what we don’t know shit about.

 

Kraglin would very much like to say all that, but logic rarely won arguments against his captain. He restrained himself.

 

“I’m yer husband,” he pointed out, in case Yondu had forgotten. “Course I'm jealous. Uh, that's a point. Do I need to act pissed at them other folks – the Nubellian and the Storx and the…” He mimicked a whinny.

 

Yondu sniggered. “Nah. Told ‘em we was open. You oughta bang a couple too, while we’re here.”

 

Peter shuddered almost hard enough to wear a hole in the floor. As usual, it fell to Kraglin to steer them back onto business.

 

“What do we do about our ID chips?” he wanted to know. “If we find the guy, they’s gonna want to scan us. Our patches mighta fooled the ticket guard, but they won’t get past security tech.”

 

“Good thing we ain’t gonna be the ones who find him.” Yondu peeled himself from the mattress and swaggered for the bathroom, sheet around his waist, holding it with one hand while the other excavated the furrow between his asscheeks, which must be getting rather itchy by now. “Pass that shirt, Krags. Gotta get presentable.”

 

Kraglin did so. The wine stain had dried, but the thin fabric still clung to his hands like it didn’t want to let him go. Kraglin held onto it a moment longer than he should, the shirt sliding coolly over his fingers, until Yondu tugged it free, rescued his sagging sheet (to Peter’s vocal relief) and shut the door behind him.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Ten minutes later, the out of order sign had been pushed into the next atomic deconstructor along. Kraglin sat slouched on the cabin floor, rubbing vigorously at the wine stain with a multi-clean wipe, while Yondu reclined on the unbitten pillow.

 

Its shredded partner leaked stuffing across Kraglin’s place. Which also happened to be on the damper side. Of course.

 

Still, the scrubbing gave him something to focus on while the mattress aired. Something other than the fact that the Ambassador had been missing a leg by the time he and Yondu arrived, meaning that the murderer must’ve returned to reposition him over the cistern.

 

And the fact that ever since they saw the corpse, Yondu hadn’t said shit.

 

“Boss,” said Kraglin tentatively, cutting through the fog of silence that had settled on the room. “I don’t think this is comin’ out.”

 

Quill had performed his bait duties with diligence and verve. He’d walked to the front of the observation deck and tearfully asked anyone who’d listen whether they’d seen his dads (and whether aid really wasn’t a thing in space, because he needed to be sure). This gave Yondu and Kraglin ample time to enter the crime scene, snatch the wipes and head out again, taking the out-of-order sign with them.

 

It had been like cracking a crypt. They'd done that a fair few times over the years. Neither of them gave two whits about vengeful spirits – although Yondu usually insisted on the Rites, leaving an open bottle of moonshine in exchange for liberated goods.

 

Not this time. Whatever his grudge against the dead kree dude, cap'n didn’t want him to rest peacefully.

 

Sat in his doorway (having deemed the bed 'full of aid') Peter yawned, tipping back his head to show off his blunt Terran fangs. Hard to believe they were the apex predator on their exoplanet, squishy and bald as they were. Barely had enough fur to survive a summer on Kraglin's home world, let alone the winter months.

 

“Are we gonna be okay now?” he asked. “We won't be thrown off the train?”

 

Kraglin took it upon himself to reply, as Yondu didn’t seem inclined to. “Not unless ya really annoy me.”