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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.”

 

Chapter Text

0600 hours. The solars were supposed to wind up slowly, mimicking natural sunrise. Instead, they flared to life, flooding the cabin with a harsh white light.

 

Kraglin had defeated the stain after a long and arduous battle. He suffered casualties though – namely a stiff elbow, along with several lacking hours of sleep. He'd kinda hoped for a lie-in. It wasn't to be.

 

The rude wake-up jolted him from his dreamworld, where he and Yondu had hijacked the train and flown off on their own adventures, no Terran to interrupt as they glutted themselves on wine and used their hostages as boot-rests.

 

He groaned. The colony where he spent his formative years had housed numerous Xandrian munitions factories. At the height of the war, when little things like health and safety protocol and environmental legislation got swept aside, the skies had been black as tar at midnight and midday. Kraglin’s eyes could adjust to the brightness – but they sure didn't enjoy it. His headache barked at him as he rolled his aching bones facedown.

 

Peter burst in before he could burrow under the cushions. “What's going on? Is it the police? Have they caught up with us?”

 

Yondu tossed something at him – Kraglin didn't see what. A wadded sock, most likely, judging by the splat. “They will if ya keep talking like that.”

 

The weight on the mattress shifted, dragging Kraglin down. He nudged Yondu's bare side; had time to think warm, smooth, smells like home, before Yondu barged him away.

 

“Move, dumbass. They've found the body, an'...”

 

Set into the ceiling, blinking from a matrix of tessellated solar-light triangles, the speaker crackled to life. “Our esteemed guests are requested to make their way to the observation deck." It spoke in a nauseating wheedle that made Kraglin want to disobey on principle. “Lady Calliope begs that you excuse the early hour – this is a matter of public safety. Of course, seating and wine will be provided.”

 

“Seating and wine, seating and wine,” muttered Yondu, rolling out of bed. “S'all these people do. Miracle they ain't all blobs.” He adjusted his pyjama pants, calling dibs on the bathroom.

 

Pyjamas. Rich folks kept a whole other outfit just for napping in. Yeah, it creeped Kraglin out too.

 

 


 

 

 

Kraglin, Yondu and Peter were first onto the corridor. They glanced along it, up then down. Every fifty feet or so, another shiny door receded back from the corridor, their alcoves decorated with filigree and stylised constellation maps.

 

Silence.

 

“Should we wait?” asked Peter. The patter of his nails on the Walkthing already itched at Kraglin's patience. The boy had neglected to comb his hair – it frizzed around his head, a shade darker than his headphones. It had grown back well from when Yondu shaved him when he first arrived in a bid to minimize Terran lice. “We don't wanna be first there, right?”

 

Yondu rubbed his goatee. “Five minutes,” he said.

 

Five minutes became ten, and ten fifteen, until finally the residents of their carriage began their exodus, some still fiddling with their holobeads to hide a scar here, a double-chin there. All, regardless of species or state of dress, complained heartily.

 

Kraglin and Yondu watched, learned, and joined in.

 

“Right shitty service, huh?”

 

The lady blinked at Kraglin's haggard face. “I suppose,” she said, tentative. She kept glancing around, hoping to make eye contact with someone who could extricate her from the conversation. Kraglin sighed and left her to it.

 

He sloped over to Yondu, who regaled a posse of fuchsia Krylorians with greatly exaggerated woes. Peter stood beside him, scowling whenever someone complimented his cuteness and Yondu invited them to ruffle his hair.

 

"Hi," Kraglin grunted. Yondu turned to him, grin shockingly white.

 

"Aw, Pookums. You not makin' friends?"

 

Kraglin didn't need more friends than them he had on the Eclector. Oblo, Tullk, Half-nut (when he weren't busy torturing orloni) Ravik, Muld, Gef and Cobber. Those were the men he’d fought beside since signing name and soul to the flame.

 

And cap'n too, of course. Kraglin grimaced at Yondu's hangers-on and tried not to overthink the warm blue arm that squeezed his waist.

 

 


 

 

 

They spilled into the observatory. Calliope stood facing away, lit by the star-spangled backdrop. She studied the reflection of the crowd: a chattering hubbub that swilled around the circular room and mingled in the middle.

 

“We are gathered here today,” she said, once the doors swung closed behind them, all five hundred guests squabbling over the divans and sipping sulkily at their promised wine, “because a terrible crime has been committed.”

 

Gasps spread outwards in a ripple. By the time that ripple reached the observatory's walls, Calliope had everyone's attention. Conversations died; the only sound remaining was the tinkle of wine against the glasses, as waiters glided among the nobles, pouring out one after the next.

 

Kraglin held his hand up when they reached him, shaking his head. He took the chance to discretely glance around.

 

Yondu wasn't the only blue face, but he was definitely among the minority. The surviving members of the Kree embassy stood in the shadows under the great window, eyes painted in the ceremonial blacks of mourning.

 

Kraglin elbowed his captain, tilting his chin at the somber figures.

 

Yondu swallowed hard. He shuffled rearwards, using his Kymellian beau for cover. Kraglin tried not to hold it against him. Skinny as he was, he didn't make for the best hiding place.

 

“What crime?” someone asked. That was a rotund Hogolith, a male judging by the ring through his upturned nose. He waddled forwards, porky belly straining at his bathrobe. A tiny nightcap listed atop his mane. “We haven’t been robbed, have we?”

 

Shocked murmurs. Nervous fidgets, women touching their jewellery and men their cufflinks and chronometers.

 

Calliope shook her head. “Worse. Kree Minister Xaravu is dead.”

 

Mumbles of relief. The fidgeting ceased. Then, as realization spread, it restarted again; every guest turning to their neighbor with sudden suspicion.

 

“Dead,” croaked the Hogolith, saying what they were all thinking. “You said it was a crime. Which means…”

 

Calliope’s brat spoke for the first time in Kraglin’s memory: “He was murdered!”

 

A beat of silence. Then the panic broke out.

 

“But no one could’ve gotten onto the train,” wailed one being, an elegant mantis whose mandibles chittered around every word. “We’re travelling at forty-Tian!”

 

“Which means,” said the Hogolith, fanning his sweaty neck, “that the killer could be among us right here in this room.

 

Flurries of boas and nighties; a mass gulping of wine. Men turned to women, women turned to their lovers, parents clutched their children and their yapping lil' pups. Reminded Kraglin of a moomba herd ready to stampede. As soon as one fled, the rest would surely follow. They’d trample anyone who got in the way.

 

Calliope twisted a ringlet behind her ear. “Thank you, Vania,” she said coldly.

 

The child drooped, retreating into herself. But Peter pulled a face at her that looked even more stupid than usual, and Kraglin could’ve sworn he saw her mouth twitch, just a little.

 

Calliope returned her attention to the guests. “Do not panic,” she said. “Everything is under control.”

 

“Under control!” The Hogolith shook from his jowls to his trotters. “A man is dead!”

 

“Indeed. The embassy will send an emergency broadcast to their government…”

 

“What? Are you quite mad?” That was a Xandarian; she tossed her head so the long pinion feathers of her headdress fluttered down her back. She must’ve partied through the night – that or her spangly ballgown was bedroom attire. “The treaty has only just been signed! An incident like this could respark the war!”

 

One of the Kree stepped forwards. Yondu stooped in an effort to squash more of himself into the Kymellian’s shadow. The Kree man was of a size suited to wrestling Asgardians and bilgesnipe. When he bowed his head, Kraglin saw the tendons bulging in his neck, the effort it cost him to constrain his anger.

 

“This is an offence against the entire Kree race.” His deep voice resounded off the observatory’s dome. “If war is what your people desire, war is what you shall receive–"

 

“Please! Please.” Calliope stepped between them. Kraglin had to admire her spunk. Either this chick poked bears for fun, or she was packing serious heat somewhere under that skin-tight dress. She addressed the Xandarian first: “Dear Krennik here is understandably upset, but he means no offence."

 

"Actually," Krennik started, but another Kree made a sharp noise. Krennik swallowed his retort. Judging by his grimace, it didn't taste all that pleasant. "I mean, of course. My apologies."

 

Calliope turned to him next, her eyes beseeching. "You must understand, Krennik. None of us know what to think. This train houses five hundred guests from at least three hundred races, most of which are unaffiliated with our latest inter-system conflict. And that does not even begin to cover the staff!” She rested a dainty, bejewelled hand on his chest. “We must do this properly. Which means no jumping to conclusions, no vigilantism, and no accusations that are not backed up with solid, verifiable evidence.”

 

Krennik breathed like a bull, each swell of his pectorals threatening to burst the seams of his robes. His huge fists tightened. Kraglin imagined them crunching through skulls on the blood-spattered battlefields, deadly as a war-hammer.

 

But then the other Kree clicked his tongue off his teeth, and Krennik stepped back.

 

“We are still compiling our report of this incident,” he announced. His heavy glare fell on the Xandarian."Your people had better pray that my government is as merciful as I.” He stormed from the room, shouldering aside anyone who didn’t scramble from his path.

 

Yondu stayed behind the Kymellian, as best he could. He was breathing fast, Kraglin noticed. Real fast, like he’d just broken from a sprint. Sweat clung to his cheeks, sparkling ever-so-slightly under the lights.

 

Kraglin frowned. He leaned in. “Cheerful guy, huh?”

 

The tongue-clicking Kree had paused on the threshold. He faced them, hands steepled so each fingertip touched its twin. “I apologize for my companion," he said. His voice was emollient, light. "This is an... an emotional moment. I will do my best to ensure that no decisions are made rashly.”

 

That reintroduced some of the blood to Calliope’s cheeks. “Thank you, Vimar. Your diplomacy in this matter is, as ever, highly valued.”

 

Vimar inclined his head, his torso remaining upright. Kraglin knew little of Kree, but he recognized that motion as a mark of respect.

 

“Well?” Once Vimar had left, the Xandarian assumed her previous imperious demeanor, folding her arms. “Can we go back to our cabins now, too?”

 

“No.” Calliope gestured to one of the waiters, who brandished a souped-up chip-scanner with an apologetic smile. “We must scan everyone first.”

 

The general consensus was irritation, with a few disbelieving groans thrown in. “Are you serious? That will take hours!

 

“This is not just a holiday, ma’am! Some of us are in charge of firms – we have duties, responsibilities to attend to!”

 

“Your father will hear of this!”

 

Calliope waited them out. “It’s just protocol,” she said. “There could be a Skrull sleeper agent on this train – none of you would desire that, I presume? Think of your families. Your children. We want this to be over as fast as possible.”

 

More exchanged glances, more cleared throats and nods of agreement. Kraglin and Yondu shared a grimace. This wasn’t good.

 

Thankfully, the Hogolith spoke up so they didn’t have to. “Hogwash!” he blustered, walrus-moustache bristling. The ring in his nose shone bright as Yondu’s holographic teeth. “The most likely scenario is that one of our esteemed company took out a personal grudge against the Kree in the most despicable manner. No sleeper agent need be involved!”

 

“Even so,” tried Calliope. “This is protocol. For the same reason, we are decreasing velocity away from Tian, so that a Nova cruiser may intercept us and the investigation be continued by professionals.”

 

The rumblings grew louder, and more malcontent. “We’re stopping in No Man’s Space?

 

“Slowing down,” Calliope insisted.

 

Behind her hung the ever-modulating backdrop of far-flung constellations, scintillating quasars, and froths of luminous gas. That was the problem with cruise trains. If you travelled for business, you took the Jump Network. Bam, bam, straight to your destination. No chance of being ambushed by space pirates on the way.

 

But how were you supposed to marvel at the beauty of an unfurling nebula if you were hopping about the quadrant through rifts in space time? Thus, the wealthiest engineers in the Shi’ar high-speed tech labs clonked some cash together and developed the Tian-drive series: engines capable of travelling at various degrees and multiples of light speed.

 

Forty-Tian was favourable for sightseeing. However, no galaxy-trotter wanted to gaze upon their own backyard. Empire territory had been documented so extensively that it was all old hat. These young cosmopolitans wanted to cross new horizons, explore where no one dared. They wanted to see what was forbidden, taboo, barred to their kind by pirates and scavengers and other assorted scum.

 

They wanted to see No Man’s Space.

 

Tian-drives were bad for Ravager business. No more cruise ships prodding their noses past the patrolled star-routes. But adaptation was necessary for survival, and survival was something that Yondu excelled at.

 

“Ma’am,” he said, before Kraglin could stop him. His confidence had returned now the Kree had gone. “Do y'know the ETD?”

 

Calliope’s brow wrinkled. “ET…?”

 

“Estimated Time of Death.” Yondu jerked his thumb at Kraglin, who sunk another inch into his collar. “Got that one from mister soldier.”

 

Calliope seemed to accept that. “The doctor is examining the cadaver. We’ll know soon enough. Ah.” She gestured to her blinking watch. “That will be him now. Please remain in the observatory. The waiters will begin scanning. I shall return to my esteemed guests shortly, with a further course of action.”

 

The esteemed guests groused and grumbled, some stamping while others donned ridiculous pouts. Kraglin could hardly believe their behavior. He hadn't seen such a flagrant display of immaturity since the day he and a few other urchins stood one atop the other's shoulders to peep into the window of a private nursery and see how the other half lived.

 

Peter stuck his tongue out slowly at Vania and waggled it from side to side. Kraglin reassessed. Maybe not since then after all.

 

“What about the gala?” asked a mantis-faced creature. Another member of their species joined them, two grubs bundled in their arms, both swaddled in silk. “Won't we be late? What about the charity – all those poor children!”

 

Throw them silks on the streets of Knowhere, thought Kraglin contemptuously, watching the larvae wiggle. Let 'em soak up all the grime an' the pus an' the rot an' the blood. Then we can talk about charity.

 

“My father has been notified,” Calliope hastened to reassure them. “He won’t expect us to be punctual. He will postpone the gala and the auction until we arrive.”

 

That was received to a generally approving consensus. “Good,” Kraglin heard the Hogolith mutter, turning to his thin bird of a Shi'ar travelling companion. “I've had my eye on Lot 48 since before we got on this blasted train.”

 

Calliope shot them all an enigmatic smile. She glided for the doors. The wealthy denizens parted before her, despite the overcrowded room, which was already beginning to smell uncomfortably barn-like.

 

It didn't matter how rich you were, Kraglin supposed. Sweat was still sweat.

 

Calliope touched the shoulder of the waiter armed with the scanner. He bowed to the nearest socialite – a woman whose great stacked beehive was of a size with Peter, riddled through with jadeite beads and plaques of mother-of-pearl. She exhaled in an irate torrent, but after a little cajoling and a promise of more wine, turned so that the scanner might be swept back and forth over her nape.

 

Yondu elbowed Kraglin, nabbing Peter by the ear. "Let's split."

 

They might've gotten away with it, had the kid not yelped loud enough to draw attention. Yondu changed tactics, pretending he'd trodden on his foot. “Oh sweetheart! Darling baby pet! I'm so sorry!”

 

Peter rubbed his smarting ear. “That's creepy.”

 

Didn't Kraglin know it. “We need to get to the back of the queue,” he said, from the corner of his mouth.

 

Yondu huffed. “Where d'you think I was tryin' to take us? C'mon Peter – an' if ya squawk like that again, I'll really give ya somethin' to yell about.”

 

They traipsed for the far side of the dome. The Hogolith had built up a posse of dissidents, all nodding along to his complaints. Before Kraglin could dissuade him, Yondu joined it.

 

“S'all a bit much, ain't it?” he asked, his drawl slithering beneath their perfectly enunciated voices. “D'you reckon she's gonna make us all go through this? What if the ETD gives us an alibi?”

 

Hogolith snorted. “We all know how much Lady Calliope likes her protocol.

 

Kraglin cleared his throat. Yondu glanced back. “Pookie-poo, what's wrong?”

 

So creepy,” Peter whispered.

 

Kraglin nodded at the doors. Calliope had finished her conversation with the coroner, and her face was grimmer than before. She strode in, a storm front compressed into a slim body, and glared at Vania when she tried to take her hand.

 

“Not now, dear. Please, ladies and gentlemen, grant me your ears. Thank you - yes, quiet now. Thank you. The good news is that anyone who was in the observatory from 1900-2000 hours last solar-cycle can be exempted from the checks.”

 

"What's the bad news?" the Hogolith wondered.

 

Kraglin chewed his cheek. “That's damn near all of us.”

 

Calliope imparted much the same message. She waited for the susurrus to die, nobles swapping theories as they tapped nervous arias on the rims of their wine flutes.

 

“There is one more detail,” she said, shooing Vania to one side. “The Kree ambassador was poisoned.”

 

Those wine flutes were hastily discarded. They shattered on the floor, erupting in geysers of red-stained glass.

 

Calliope waited out the tinkles. “By injection,” she said, waving irritably for the waiters to attend to the mess. “Now, please. If everybody could remain calm. We are approaching the Shivaxi Quadrangle, where we shall slow down enough to allow the Nova Corpsmen to board.”

 

Peter, tucked closer to Kraglin’s side than he liked, shivered. “Poisonous injections,” he whispered. “Who could’ve done something like that?”

 

Kraglin’s eyes narrowed. He thought back to the observation deck, about who he’d seen, what had been done. Yondu’d made his poorly-received joke about the Kree, Calliope had rebuked him. And Yondu had gone that horrible periwinkle color, because he hadn’t realized there were Kree aboard the train because…

 

Because none of them had been there.

 

Kraglin rubbed his prickly moustache. “Hell if I know, brat.”

 

 


 

 

 

Calliope waved the three of them away with a scowl that said 'I don't have the patience to deal with you at the moment'. Mortifying though it seemed at the time, Kraglin supposed his stunt with the waitress at least made him memorable. No one could argue with his alibi.

 

They followed the crowds, heading for one of the centrifuge wheels that revolved around the train's long spoke. Overhead, the intercom blooped.

 

“Decreasing from Tian at fifty gravities,” it announced. “Stasis systems are at optimum functionality. Corollary on mammalian life-forms: negligible.”

 

That meant, in layman’s terms, that the train’s gravity dampeners were stopping ‘em all being smushed against the wall like bugs on a windshield. The fact that they were decelerating fast enough to crush their brains out of their nostrils didn’t seem to bother the guests. This was a Nova-sanctioned, state-of-the-art ship. They had mandatory monthly health-and-safety inspections and all.

 

Kraglin weren’t worried about the dampeners failing. He was far more concerned with what he’d seen ahead.

 

“Cap – uh, I mean, cuddle-muffin. Twelve o’clock.”

 

The surviving members of the Kree embassy bobbed a solid foot above everyone else – with the Kymellian’s exception. Two of them (Krennik and a woman, whose name Kraglin hadn’t caught) were embroiled in a hushed and heated debate. Vimar, however… His gaze swept the crowd – back, forth, back again.

 

Scanning – for what? Another needle loaded with deadly, fast-acting nerve agent? A familiar blue face, glimpsed from the corner of his eye?

 

Yondu swore under his breath. He dropped to one knee, grabbing Peter's shoe along the way. Peter waggled it. “Uh, what’re you doing?”

 

“Checkin' yer laces, pookie-pie."

 

Peter shook his foot again. “I'm not wearing lace-ups! And I'm eight, not five!” He said it as though there was much difference.

 

Kraglin watched Vimar as keenly as he could without making eye-contact. This involved feigning immense attraction to a woman standing by the Kree's left shoulder, much to her displeasure.

 

Eventually, Vimar satisfied himself that if any assassins were lurking in the throng, they had the decency to be subtle about it. He touched Krennik’s shoulder, disintegrating the whispered argument. After an inaudible exchange, they entered the centrifuge deck in a tattered formation, the Ambassador conspicuously absent at their head.

 

Kraglin rapped Yondu’s implant (lightly, he wasn’t suicidal). “Coast’s clear.”

 

Yondu stood. He looked far more like a hunted thing than any renowned-and-reviled Ravager captain should. His holster had been doctored into an over-the-shoulder harness, worn under his shirt so the arrow rested flush to his spine. He touched the straps repeatedly, as if assuring himself they were still there.

 

“I ain’t goin’ in there,” he hissed.

 

Kraglin grimaced. “Fraid you might not have much choice.”

 

The pedestrians flowed on every side, jostling them along like a river pulling its contents towards the edge of a cliff. The gates to the centrifuge deck reared ahead. They were great, glazed things, made of a vast hollowed geode, of the sort mined from asteroids around the Kalipor belt at Galaxy’s Edge. Beyond them gleamed jet-black floors, polished to a mirror. Dancers minced and flamencoed as the ring swung around the ship, revolving fast enough that centrifugal force generated gravity.

 

A waterfall really was a good metaphor - only in Kraglin’s experience, few of those fell upwards.

 

Yondu glanced wistfully behind them, along the jampacked corridor. Kraglin interlaced their fingers before he got any bright ideas about sprinting back to their cabin. He didn’t say anything about how sweaty they felt.

 

“C’mon,” he said quietly. “All we gotta do’s eat some snacks, compliment some posh chick’s dress. For our cover story, y’know? Then we split.” And work out what the hell they did next. Kraglin certainly had no bright ideas.

 

Yondu let himself be led, although he didn’t look happy about it. “They can’t see me,” he repeated.

 

“I know sir – uh, sugarpie. But it's like that job in the A’askavar bank, remember? When the 'bots were comin’ down the service pipe behind us. No retreat.”

 

The memory won a grin. That had been a good job. The two of them racing against time, automated security systems, and droids licensed to kill.

 

Kraglin didn't remember much of it, truth be told. He'd been distracted, watching his captain grin around his whistle, surrounding the pair of them in a whirlwind funnel of deadly red light. Unfortunately, this job required a little more subtlety.

 

“No retreat,” Yondu repeated. He gripped Peter's collar, hustling the kid ahead of them, towards the drop.

 

Ten steps to go. Nine. Eight.

 

“They’re flying,” whispered Peter, fulfilling his official crewman position as Announcer of the Obvious. “That’s so cool."

 

The group of dandies ahead lifted from the doorway, carried up and away like a flock of flamboyant crested birds migrating for the winter. Their conversation continued without a hitch. Evidently accustomed to this sort of thing, they’d kicked off with a calculated twist. By the time their feet met the floor – or the ceiling, from where Kraglin stood – they were upright.

 

Kraglin doubted he’d be so graceful.

 

Yondu wiggled his fingers, reminding Kraglin that his own were threaded between them. He hastily released him, shoving his hand into his pocket. He was inevitably going to land on his face; no point in dragging the captain down too.

 

“Ready?” he asked Peter. The kid nodded, grin so big it looked ready to fall off his cheeks. Without waiting for Yondu’s permission, he dived into the centrifuge, whooping at the top of his lungs.

 

In case that hadn’t caught everyone’s attention, he proceeded to use his nose as a friction brake. So much for a low profile.

 

Kraglin and Yondu watched long enough to see several nobles clustering around the kid to coo. Then they were gone, the centrifuge deck spinning away, taking Peter with it.

 

"Idiot," Kraglin said. He jumped when Yondu's hand closed on his once more. "Uh, sweetheart? What’chu doin’?”

 

“Don’t wanna get split up,” Yondu told him. Then, flashing Kraglin a bright-toothed grin, he stepped backwards onto the ledge and let himself fall.

 

Their joined arms pulled taut. Kraglin had time to squeak. Then he was yanked out, tumbling ass-over-ears into space.

 

Timeless. Weightless. Around and around they span, and the world span too.

 

Dizzying, disorientating, a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Kraglin smelt perfume, fruity liquor. The sour rake of Captain’s breath.

 

His feet found the ground. In an alternate universe, he remained upright and looked really cool while doing it. In this one, his body decided he was still rotating. His chin met the floor.

 

Smack.

 

Thank the stars his teeth were already metallic, else he might've lost a few. Kraglin pushed himself up, groaning. Yondu lay beside him, twisted, his side having borne the brunt of the landing. Their fingers were still tangled.

 

Kraglin cleared his throat. He was ready to pull away, but Yondu didn’t seem inclined to release him. He stared ahead, to where the Kree delegation stood among the glittering masses, looking as out-of-place for their dour black mourning robes as for their bright blue skin.

 

Shit. The centrifuge must’ve rotated the whole way around.

 

They only had a moment to think. A single, shaved second before one of the Kree glanced their way, their eyes snagging on the only other nearby blue face.

 

Kraglin acted on instinct - or, more accurately, on old fantasies. For almost a decade, he’d been imagining the noise Cap’n Udonta might make when you surprised him with a kiss.

 

Growls, his dreams supplied. Raspy-warm and rumbling, vibrating through them both. He’d get over the shock in seconds. Then the kiss would be returned, Yondu panting hot and low-lidded, sucking on his tongue. He'd ram Kraglin against the nearest wall, brutalize him with teeth and nails and wicked, deadly lips…

 

In actuality, Yondu made a noise like a rupturing engine valve and kneed him in the nuts.

 

The world span again – from agony, this time. Pain lanced through Kraglin from the groin up, like he’d sat on a spike.

 

He forgot the Kree. He forgot about the murder, the killer in their midst. He forgot it all. Everything but the blaze between his legs.

 

Dimly, through the nauseous haze, his captain’s voice swum back. “Fuck, Krags. Surprised me, ya dumb lanky piss-streak. Don’t got no one to blame but yerself, an’ – fuck, they’re looking this way.”

 

A mouth locked on his. ‘Mashed’ would be more accurate. Kraglin, slack with pain, let himself be moved. Yondu squirmed under him, wiggling like a beastie-worm, locking his calves over Kraglin’s back to pin him in place.

 

Calves over his back. That meant there were thighs – Yondu’s thighs; warm and plush and so blue they made Kraglin’s eyes look grey and watery in comparison – around his waist. Fuck. If the throb in his dick was of a different kind, this could be a perfect enactment of Fantasy 34-D, his favorite to jerk himself to after getting chewed out on deck. Cap’n under him, spread out all beautiful, whimpering in time to the roll of Kraglin’s hips…

 

His hips weren’t doing much rolling right now. They were quivering in agony. His pulsating, burning crotch didn’t want to grind; it wanted an ice pack, an apology, and a solemn-sworn oath that no future abuse would occur.

 

Yondu’s crossed legs pulled on Kraglin’s back, weighing him down. “Just play along,” he mumbled, spit sticking their lips together. “We got this.”

 

“Mgaaaargggh,” said Kraglin, and did his best not to cry.

 

Peter decided now would be an excellent time to flounder through the wall of gasping dancers that had formed between them and the Kree. “Guys, I found the snacks! This stuff is crazy good, you gotta try it. And – oh my god. Ew! You’re in public!”

 

Yondu ceased his attempt to crush Kraglin’s ribs, legs dropping off to either side. “Hey, coast’s clear. They've moved on." He patted Kraglin's shoulder. "You got a sharp brain in that head of yours, Kraggles – seems like that were a good plan after all.”

 

Kraglin whimpered. He crumpled slowly onto his side and remained there as Yondu brushed himself off and stood. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he told their audience. “Young love, y’know? Me an’ my man got a lil’ carried away.”

 

“Not that young,” said Peter. He dodged the smack.

 

Kraglin shut his eyes. There was a floor close by, so he rested his cheek on it, waiting out the fire.

 

All-too-soon, Yondu’s hands hooked under his armpits. “Walk it off,” he muttered in Kraglin’s ear. “Kid’s got food. That means we can split.”

 

Kraglin didn’t want to split. Kraglin wanted to lay very still and very quiet for a very long time. But, as usual, his needs came second to the captain’s.

 

He couldn’t tell you how he made it up the escalator, back to the train's main corridor. It went by in a blur, like he was watching the world through liquor goggles. All he knew was that he stood – ‘stood’ being a generous term for it – propped against Yondu’s side. Yondu squeezed his hip when the end of the stairs lined up with a gate. That was his cue to painfully shuffle onto the balcony, stiff-legged as a marionette.

 

The walk back to the cabin was one of the most gruelling of his life. Kraglin had trudged through muddy trenches, filled with the Orloni-picked corpses of his friends. He’d scampered around the dingy bazaar on his homeplanet with the other poxy urchins, snatching food and bottles of scrubbed drink-safe water from the stalls. But he’d never had to do it with a bruise the size and shape of Yondu’s knee stamped onto his dick.

 

A palm smacked him between the shoulderblades. “Quit hunchin’,” said his captain. “Ya want bad posture? Set a good example for our little Petey-pie.”

 

Their lil’ Petey-pie scoffed, his tongue and teeth stained candy-pink. He held a handful of sweet-lace, a sticky treat spun from the crust of a planet in the Galaxy’s central cluster, where sugar fell from the clouds in scalding strings and the rocks were made of hardened candy. Damn brat better not get addicted to the stuff – this shit was expensive, and he wouldn’t be seeing it again.

 

“I don’t need a good example. Especially not from homies. I can’t believe you actually kissed him.”

 

Yondu grinned. “Weren’t it ‘homos’?”

 

“I’m the Terran,” came the lofty reply. “I know best.”

 

All this freedom was really going to the kid’s head. They’d have to double down on him when they got back to the Eclector. Back-to-back shifts unclogging the sewage pipes would do it. Kraglin forced himself to stand a little straighter. The pain was fading, although he could still taste his last meal on the back of his throat.

 

“Yeah, well,” he muttered. “This homie wants to go back to bed.”

 

“No can do.” Yondu flashed him another of his stupid, brilliant grins. “We gotta strip this whole flarkin’ ship and send word for the Eclector to jump to our trajectory coordinates for extraction.”

 

Kraglin might have regained the capacity for speech, but he hadn’t yet regained all higher brain functions. “Um,” he said. “What?”

 

“I said…”

 

“No, I heard. You just lost me. Why we robbing everyone?”

 

“Because,” said Yondu patiently, “We ain’t getting’ to that gala. After this whole hullaballoo with the Ambassador, there’ll be all sorts of press awaitin' us. They'll want to interview every sod on board." He raised a fair point.

 

“Shouldn’t we split then?” Kraglin wanted to know. “The train’s slowin’. The Nova will’ve sent a convoy out for protection. We’ll lose a lotta men if we have to go through a Corps squad.”

 

Yondu shook his head. “Only folks who know we’re slowin’ from Tian are on this train or in the Nova office. As this’s an issue of a sensy-tive nature, the Nova are only gonna dispatch the one ship. Easy for us to pick off. We ain’t gonna make mint on this job, Krags, not unless we take matters into our own hands.”

 

The only thing Kraglin wanted to take into his own hands was a smarting piece of his anatomy, which instinct urged him to protect from future attack. “You realize that means seein’ them Kree folks?” he asked. “If we’s robbin’ ‘em face-to-face.”

 

Yondu’s jaw tensed. “I ain’t stupid, Krags.”

 

“I know, I know. Jus’…” He floundered for words. “You don’t seem to like ‘em much.”

 

Yondu’s laugh rang hollow as their footsteps along the deserted corridor. “Yer an observant one.”

 

“Why not?” Peter wanted to know. “They’re blue, like you are. Grandpa says people of the same color should stick together.”

 

Kraglin scratched his nose. “Didn’t yer grandpa also tell ya you can die from herpes?”

 

“No, from aid. Aren’t harpies those things from the Greek stories? We learned about them in school. Mom bought me a book for Christmas, and…” Peter stopped. His whole body drooped like an air-scrubber plant that hadn’t been watered, and he twiddled at the ear-pads of his Walkthing, squishing the dense orange foam. “I left that book at home. I ain’t never gonna see it again. I ain’t never gonna see any of it again.”

 

“Boo hoo hoo,” Yondu interrupted, flicking Peter's nearest ear while Kraglin tackled the opposite side. They shared an eye roll over his head. “Leave Terra where it belongs. All yer dumb I-dee-oligies too. Ain’t no one dyin’ – not of aid, nor herpes neither. Now shake a leg, kiddo – we gotta ship to rob.”

 

Peter rubbed under his nose, but didn't seem inclined to start bawling. That was for the best. Last time he cried in front of Kraglin, Kraglin had tried his three usual methods of making problems go away - ignore them, threaten them, hurt them - and found the first two wholly useless while the latter only made things worse. “Do we really have to? Vania’s funny. I don’t wanna rob her.”

 

“You ain’t never spoken to her,” Kraglin tried to point out, but Yondu was too busy snickering to care.

 

“Aw. Does our widdle pumpkin got a crush?”

 

“No, I – quit laughing, you big blueberry! Look. We still haven’t figured out who killed the guy!”

 

Yondu shrugged. “Ain’t like it’s our business.”

 

“It’s a mystery! Someone’s gotta solve it.”

 

“Them someones,” said Kraglin, “can be the Nova corps.”

 

“But who do you think did it?”

 

Kraglin growled under his breath. Wasn't it obvious? "Kree folks had themselves a tiff," he said, talking slow, like he was explaining basic gun-maintenance to Gef. "Things got heated, the Ambassador got dead.”

 

That Vimar guy, Kraglin was willing to bet. Something about him rubbed him the wrong way. Kree were supposed to be haughty fuckers, not polite.

 

Yondu shook his head. “You don’t make up a needle of poison unless you wanna kill someone,” he said. “This here was pre-mediated.”

 

“Still not our business,” Kraglin pointed out. Yondu tried the first of his make-problems-go-away-tactics on him instead.

 

“You don’t do that much forwards-plannin’ unless you’ve planned disposal. And there’s far better ways to get rid of a corpse on a Tian-speed train than flushing it down the bog.”

 

Kraglin groaned. “Can we go back to the robbery plan?”

 

“Which means,” Yondu continued, stroking his upper lip in a way that he probably thought made him look clever, “whoever killed the fucker purposefully made it look like they was amateur. Them door locks – they’re easy to jimmy, right, Krags?”

 

Kraglin didn't want to get drawn into this - he wanted to concentrate on what was important. I.e., making money, and getting off this ship. But still, he couldn’t deny it. “Just gotta smack ‘em hard enough. They’ll pop right open.”

 

Yondu slammed his fist into his palm. “Right! So the killler, they want the body to be found. And, more’n that, they want it to be recognisable. They want us to look at that big blue cunt and see the Kree ambassador. The one damn person on this train whose death could start a war.”

 

Peter snapped his fingers. “Like the shooting of the Arch-duck!”

 

Yondu’s flow stopped; his eyebrows quirked up. “Arch… duck?”

 

“Weird Terran thing,” said Kraglin. That, he hoped, would be that. But as they entered the carriage compartment that housed their suite, Yondu was still brooding, mulling the question over.

 

Kraglin opened their door, trying not to look too outwardly annoyed. Why couldn’t Yondu let this go? They needed focus right now, especially if they really meant to alter their plan this late in the game. Why should the identity of the murderer matter to them? If they hustled, they could be off this train before the Nova reinforcements arrived.

 

But no, Yondu insisted on solving the mystery. Indulging his pet Terran. As usual.

 

He paced up and down the narrow strip along his side of the bed, hands clasped behind him. “I don’t like this,” he said. “Something don’t add up.”

 

Kraglin introduced his bony ass to his side of the bed. “If it weren’t the Kree, it were the Xandarians. But so what! That don’t change anything. We’s still gonna rob the suckers, right?”

 

Yondu nodded, though his gaze had wandered far away and didn’t plan on returning any time soon. “Kree were the only ones who weren’t on the observation deck. They wouldn’t have nothin’ to gain by killin’ the Ambassador…”

 

“Except taking his job?” Kraglin suggested, but Yondu was already shaking his head.

 

“No, no. The gala’s more important to ‘em – they got serious money put aside for some of those lots. No way would they bring the whole damn train to a halt in the middle of the Shivaxi Quadrangle.” A small smile crept onto Yondu’s face. It was cold, dead, utterly unfeeling. “Anyway, that ain’t how Kree think; it ain’t how they work. They wouldn’t let no suspicion fall on themselves. They’d have sat on the observation deck in full view of everyone and paid someone else to do it.”

 

Sly fuckers – Kraglin could respect that. Still, he didn’t like the way that whenever Yondu said the word Kree, more of the light left his eyes.

 

Luckily, Peter interrupted. “I still can’t believe they used poison,” he said. “Like the Russians in the spy movies! I didn’t think people actually poisoned each other in real life.”

 

“Ain’t you never seen a spider?” asked Kraglin sourly.

 

It was at that moment that Yondu stopped breathing.

 

Kraglin frowned. He crossed to the bed, where Yondu had folded slowly to sit. “Sir? You okay?”

 

Whatever eureka had struck, it was severe enough that Yondu didn't correct him on the 'sir'. Kraglin soon found out why.

 

“Y'know who hunts in the Shivaxi Quadrangle?" Yondu hissed. "An' y'know who knows more about poison than a venemous skrank?”

 

Oh. Oh hell. Kraglin did. Kraglin knew all too well. Once upon a time, he'd sat at a table opposite her, at his captain's right-hand side.

 

“Shit,” he said, simple and to the point. Yondu nodded his agreement.

 

Shit indeed. Everything made sense, the pieces clicking together one after the next. This weren’t no murder. It was a smokescreen – a distraction, designed to pit them against each other, build on old grudges, keep tempers frothing on the edge of a broil as the train trundled slower and slower…

 

Slow enough for a Ravager Armada to catch them. Not Yondu’s though – oh no. Each and every thread of this web was pulled taut by none other than Aleta Ogord: the Spider herself.

 

Chapter Text

Kraglin’d never actually worked with the Spider. By the time he joined up, she’d already split from Ogord’s clan, citing marital disagreements, roaring off to blaze her own trail across the black.

 

Yondu was more familiar with her MO. Hell, once upon a time – so rumor had it – they’d even been drinking buddies. Friends.

 

“So what now,” Kraglin hissed. “You still wanna rob everyone?”

 

Yondu shook his head. “We don’t got time to wait for back-up. Us two –“

 

“Three,” said Peter.

 

Two, go up against the whole damn crew? We get dead.”

 

“Weren’t that your original plan?”

 

“No, the original plan was to wait for fucking back-up. We don’t got time for that now.”

 

Peter cleared his throat for their attention. “Have you guys ever met a bully?” he asked.

 

Kraglin rolled his eyes. More nonsense. Just what they needed. “Shaddup, brat.”

 

Peter held his ground. “I said,” he repeated, glaring into Yondu’s eyes, “have you ever been bullied?”

 

Yondu frowned. “Do we look like we get bullied?”

 

“Look. There was this one kid at school called Wade – he was a real dickbutt! He used to smush frogs in the wood, and he pushed me in the pond when I tried to stop him. His mom was a druggie, so my mom always said I should be sorry for him, because he didn’t have a good life at home. But at least he had a mom, and she wasn’t dying, so I don’t know what he was so pissy about.”

 

“S’better to have a mom what gives a shit about ya than one that doesn’t,” said Yondu, with a surprising amount of sincerity. “Even if only for a lil’ while.”

 

Peter looked unconvinced. “Anyway – one time he got caught stealin’ a load of candy from the shop. Policeman took him home, and his mommy whupped him good. So next time, rather than robbing the store, he waited for all of us with pocket money to buy candy, and then he robbed us instead. Because that way he wouldn’t get arrested, y’know?”

 

Yondu nodded. “Smart kid. He’d make a better Ravager than you, thas for sure.”

 

“That’s not the point! All I’m saying is… Why do the robbing when we can rob the robbers?”

 

Realization dawned. Kraglin stood up straight, ignoring the twinges in his groin. “You fuckin’ crazy, brat? Ravagers don’t steal from each other. Right, sir?”

 

Yondu, to his consternation, didn’t agree straight away. He combed his pointy nails through his goatee, his eyes thin slices of ruby.

 

“They ain’t my Ravagers,” he said quietly. “Not anymore.”

 

Peter frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Rather than answering him, Yondu started moving again, pacing along the corridor towards their suite. “Means we wouldn’t have to fight every damn asshole on this train. The gala might not let private security in, but ya can taste all them tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians on board. Half these rich fuckers’ll have their own plasma blasters, and the rest’ll start carrying them after today.”

 

Kraglin strode to catch him up, walking bow-legged in an effort to dispel the throb. “Like the Spider’s girls ain’t more dangerous! There’s only three of us, sir. And Quill don't hardly count” -

 

“Hey!”

 

Yondu’s grin grew slowly. Thanks to the holobead, it was a harsh, fluoride white, bright enough to induce snow-blindness.

 

Kraglin's stomach sank. This didn't bode well.

 

Exactly,” his cap'n said, and Kraglin resigned himself to the madness soon to come.

 

 


 

 

“Decelerating from Tian at one hundred and fifty gravities. Anti-compression at full power. Corollary on mammalian species: three gravities.”

 

The harder they applied the brakes, the heavier everything became. Five gravities was the maximum the basic biotic-composite body could safely withstand. Above that, you hit the black-out zone. Death followed a few gravities later, and you mulched into fleshy soup rather rapidly after that.

 

Even with his Celestial genealogy, Peter struggled to scamper about and be his usual hellion of a self. Calliope had activated the intercom an hour back, politely requesting that all of her father's esteemed guests retire to their cabins to wait out the emergency stop.

 

Yondu had already dissolved into a limp blue puddle on the bed. The anti-grav straps swaddled him in a dense black harness. He clutched the unbitten pillow, moaning like he was being railed by life itself.

 

Kraglin made the wise decision of emptying his bladder before the extreme pressure did it for him.

 

He wobbled into the bathroom, thanking the stars that Xandarian bones grew denser than most. He’d religiously downed osteos every morning since he blasted off for No Man’s Space – if you discounted that fun time when the client with the pliers and a thing for amateur dentistry ambushed him after Yondu flunked a smuggler’s gauntlet and spilled half his precious contraband throughout a quantum meteorite field. But that had only been for three days, and Yondu came and fetched him personally in the end.

 

Chewed him out something rotten for not escaping and saving him the legwork, but he’d paid for Kraglin’s new teeth out of his own pocket, which was the closest he got to a sorry for getting you caught up in my shit.

 

Kraglin ran his tongue over them now, as he unzipped over the matter converter and did his best not to think about headless Kree ambassador. He watered the pan, watching the piss stream streak to the back before the high-powered vacuum-deconstructor caught it in its event horizon and slurped it down, down, down.

 

Peter knocked on the door.

 

“Come in!” Kraglin yelled. The door creaked open. Peter peeked around it – then hastily ducked out again. As hastily as a eight-cycle old brat could, in triple-gravity.

 

“What the hell? You’re pissing!”

 

Kraglin shrugged, zipping up. The kid was something of a mystery to him, what with his extreme aversion to seeing everyone else’s body parts. From the way he bitched about it, you’d think he’d never shared a communal bogblock before his adoption-slash-pressganging into space piracy.

 

“What d’you want?”

 

Peter kept the door open a crack, dramatically cowering behind it, although Kraglin was decent again even by the standards of their prissy fellow passengers. That, or he’d just collapsed under the increased gravity. Kinda hard to tell.

 

“I think Yondu’s deflating,” he puffed.

 

Kraglin shook his head. “Nah. His species is just stretchier than ours.” Which explained the Kymellian. Kraglin’s own party piece, long and rangy as the rest of him, suddenly seemed woefully inadequate. “He’s gonna compress a bit as the gravity increases, but it won’t hurt him.”

 

Yondu issued a low, miserable gurgle, which seemed to suggest otherwise.

 

“Perhaps,” Kraglin added, raising his voice with the certainty that if he couldn’t manage comebacks, Yondu definitely couldn’t whistle, “it wouldn’t be so bad if he remembered to take his osteos every mornin’, like he’s supposed to.”

 

This time, the gurgle had a distinctly sulky tone. Kraglin smirked to himself. He headed for the door, only to find his way blocked by one small, tow-haired Terran.

 

“Uh, where’re you going?”

 

Kraglin jerked his chin over Peter’s head, to Yondu’s miserable pool. “To bed. With cap’n.”

 

Peter glowered up at him. “You didn’t wash your hands! Do you want to give him aid?”

 

“Herpes don’t work like that. An’ I never wash my hands.”

 

Peter contorted his expression in a way that promised to give him premature wrinkles. Or not, considering who his daddy was. Immortality, and all.

 

Best not mention that though. Yondu had been very, very clear on that point – and while he couldn’t whistle yet, he’d be able to soon enough, and no matter of squashing would squeeze a grudge from his memory.

 

Gross!" Peter whined. "Look – we actually have clean water here! And we don’t got to ration it! Why not make the most of this?”

 

Kraglin considered his options. As usual, he decided on the path of least resistance, and stuck his hand in Peter’s face.

 

The kid lost his grip on the doorframe, pretending to retch. It cost him; he stumbled against the fore wall and stuck there. Kraglin sauntered out, staggering slightly from the force of the ever-increasing deceleration.

 

“Count yerself lucky,” he told Peter. “Any other Terran’d be like a bug under a boot by now.”

 

Quill stopped thrashing. “Any other Terran? What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Yondu managed to thud his fist into Kraglin’s thigh. He glowered up at him, face a little puttyish, as if they’d shot through multiple jump portals in a row.

 

Oh yeah. Secrets. The gravity must be wringing Kraglin’s brain, letting everything he usually kept buttoned up tight ooze out in a sludgy river. Best he shut his mouth now, before he started saying dumb shit like ‘annoyin’ though the brat is, ship’d sure be quiet without him’, or, worse, ‘y’know sir, you an’ me’ve been fightin’ and sleepin’ and drinkin’ side by side for the better part of ten years, but we ain’t never fucked. Why is that again?’

 

Thankfully, he was crushed into the mattress before he got the chance.

 

“Decelerating from Tian at eight hundred gravities. Anti-compression at full power. Corollary on mammalian species: four gravities.”

 

Peter moaned. He slumped down the wall, curling in a ball with his hands wrapped over his head. Kraglin didn’t blame him. His own skull felt disconcertingly egg-like, as if it would shatter with a tap. He wrapped an arm over his captain’s waist – just for stabilization, that was all – and pulled the straps from his side of the mattress.

 

They were attached to the bedframe, long retractable strips of synth-weave, super-durable, designed to crisscross over a prone body and stop them being tossed to join Peter against the wall.

 

Peter himself would have to suffer. But hell, he was a Celestial. They couldn’t kill him if they wanted to.

 

Yondu snuffled against the pillow. Sounded like he was struggling to draw breath. Kraglin ran his hand along his back, up, down, up again, past the slim shaft of the arrow and across both broad shoulders. It was a battle to move, but he did his best.

 

“Don’t worry, sir,” he mumbled, as the corollary-gravities increased to five, and gray static fizzed at the edges of his vision. The words didn’t come out right: somewhere between a squeak and a wheeze.

 

Most likely, Yondu couldn’t hear them. But Kraglin said them anyway, as he rubbed his lower back, shirt riding up under the straps, fingers splaying over warm blue flesh.

 

“Don’tchu worry. We got us a plan, remember? We got us a plan. It’s all gonna be just fine.”

 

 


 

 

 

All just gonna be fine. Those sounded like famous last words. Kraglin rectified that, soon as he could.

 

“You alive, sir?”

 

The high-G part of the manouever lasted agonizingly long, although Kraglin’s chronometer insisted it had been under a minute. They levelled out at quarter-Tian, the maximum speed a regular fusion engine could accelerate to.

 

Aleta’s fleet had been tinkered with and taken apart and welded back together in every conceivable way. Half their profits fed straight back into the fleet. As a result, for all the patchwork jets lacked in aesthetics, they were nippy little shits. They could crack half-Tian, at a push.

 

The belts retracted automatically, sensing a return to regular atmospheric pressure. Yondu rolled – flowed, would be more accurate – onto his side.

 

“Did ya know,” he slurred, in answer to Kraglin’s question, “that the Kree used to think lightspeed an’ nirvana were one an’ the same?”

 

Peter peeled himself from the wainscoting. “I thought nirvana was what Hindi’s worshipped?”

 

Yondu flapped a hand in his general direction. “Translators… They’re weird. Kree scientists are the cult leaders, y’know. They’re the ones what used to think lightspeed was how fast yer essence travelled out yer body when ya died.”

 

Kraglin nibbled his lip. “That’s all very interesting sir. Maybe you oughta stay lying down for a bit?”

 

“Stupid,” Yondu mumbled, settling as he was told. “Killed loads of Kree, I did. Never once saw ‘em glow.”

 

Peter staggered to the bed. He turned up his nose at actually hopping on it, but seemed content to perch on the bedside table, besides the lamp-ball which, like every other furnishing in their grand suite, was magnetized to stop it bowling about and braining a guest in turbulence. “Why’d you kill Kree?”

 

Good question. But also one that Yondu might not thank the kid for asking, once his skull bounced back to its usual shape. Kraglin patted Yondu’s shoulder.

 

“Don’t talk. Just stay there. You gotta recover fast, cap’n – remember our plan?”

 

Yondu nodded, still dozy. “Arrow,” he said, floundering across the sheets. “Honeypie…”

 

“Don’t gotta call me dumb names when there ain’t no one to hear ‘em, sir.” Kraglin plucked one of his harness buckles. “Yer wearin’ yer arrow under yer shirt.”

 

Yondu relaxed. “You’re real good to me, honeypie.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Reeeeeeeal good.”

 

Kraglin knew better than to get his hopes up. Cap’n was just a little stupid from all that squishing, that was all. The more elastic the species, the less likely they were to incur serious bone-damage, but the pay-off was a dizzy five minutes spent returning to their own head. Right now, those were five minutes they couldn't afford to waste.

 

Kuh-chnk.

 

Kraglin’s response died on his lips. Most likely, the other guests would be too busy to notice, checking themselves for bruises, muttering about refunds, complaining about the godawful quality of service. But Kraglin would know it anywhere, even muffled by several thousand tons of plasma-enforced steel. The thump of an activating mag-lock.

 

They were here.

 

“Guests!” Calliope’s panicked voice frittered out from the coms, accompanied by a noisy blare of feedback. “A terrible thing has happ” –

 

Screech-screech. The feedback screamed harsh and metallic, like a chrome finish being scratched off by claws. When Calliope’s voice cut back in, it was more harried than Kraglin had ever heard it.

 

“We are under attack! The Nova ships lie scattered, splintered, torn asunder in hard-vac! They knew we were coming! The pirates, they knew we were coming, they” –

 

This time, it wasn’t feedback that interrupted the transmission. Kraglin winced at the report of a half-charged tase-gun. Much as he didn’t like the pompous bitch, something still grated on him, hearing her teeth chatter as she juddered over her control console.

 

Mommy,” wailed a familiar voice. Peter bolted upright.

 

“Vania,” he said.

 

Kraglin spared him a sneer, then went back to glaring at the comm dome. The buzz of the taser died, and with it, any of Calliope’s hopes for escape.

 

“Thanks for gettin’ ‘em warmed up for me,” growled a husky woman's voice, low and crackling like she smoked twenty huffer sticks a day. “You can sleep there, Miss Future-Duchess, until yer daddy pays the ransom.”

 

Yondu giggled – a singularly disturbing sound. “Hi Aleta. Bye Quill.”

 

Kraglin didn’t turn around. He concentrated on the comm dome – the blink of the activation light, the speaker grill. He imagined Aleta’s greedy, grubby fingers prowling over Calliope’s dress, creeping into her bodice to unhook the star-diamond.

 

Ravagers didn’t part with their booty easily. There’d be consequences for this, no matter how they played it. But they’d all agreed on this plan. So long as the three of them stuck to it, nothing could possibly go wrong.

 

He, Yondu and Peter would let the stampede for the emergency escape pods at the train’s far end pass them by. It was futile, of course – if Aleta’s armada could catch up to a solar train at quarter-Tian, she could outrun a few measly single-cell fusion engines at a leisurely chug.

 

But Aleta wouldn’t want to waste half a cycle rounding them up. A bust Nova ship sent out an automatic distress beacon – they were working on a limited timeframe before reinforcements arrived. If the captain of the second-strongest (and by far the most ruthless) band of Ravagers to wear the Ogord flame was smart – and Kraglin knew she was – she’d have discharged a stealth-EMP under the escape pod bay, frying every launch circuit. She wanted her fish in one barrel, her Orloni in one ventilation pipe. Then she could shake ‘em down for cash and jewellery and select prime hostages along the way.

 

Mommy,” wailed Vania again. “Mommy, wake up! Wake up, mommy!”

 

Aleta snickered, making hairs spring to attention from Kraglin’s nape to his furry crack. “Don’tchu worry, littlun. I won’t get paid nearly so much for a corpse.”

 

“No! Mommy, no!”

 

Aleta’s teeth met with a sharp snap. “Might rip your scalp off though, if ya keep makin’ noise.”

 

“God,” said Peter. “You’re just as bad as Yondu.”

 

“No I ain’t,” said Kraglin and Aleta, automatically and at the exact same time.

 

Oh. That didn't bode well.

 

Kraglin turned around. There lay Yondu, slack cheek pillowed on a slacker bicep. Beside him was Kraglin’s empty weapons harness, and the open door.

 

Yondu perked at the sound of that stupid, high-pitched Terran squawk. “Quill?”

 

Kraglin slowly, slowly, let his face slide to rest on his hands. Hell. This was turning into a Very Bad Day. When he raised it, it was ready for battle, eyes and teeth the color of slate.

 

“You best wake up quick sir,” he snarled, as the puffs of blaster reports reverberated from the comm, accompanied by Quill’s cusses – kid was a shitty shot – and Aleta’s incredulous “How the fuck d’you know Yondu?”

 

Kraglin stood, his shadow stretching out the door ahead of him. He methodically tapped each and every one of his twelve stashed knives and lashed on the gunbelt for good measure.

 

Damn brat best not deplete his plasma cartridge, or Kraglin’d whup him around the head with it. Several times for good measure, for daring to run off and play the hero. On his watch too! Did the kid want to get him in shit?

 

Kraglin was cap’n’s second. He was supposed to fill in the gaps; take charge when cap’n was laid low by booze or blaster bolts or the occasional too-rough fuck he passed off as indigestion. And, most importantly of all, he was supposed to keep an eye on Peter.

 

Kid always had to ruin everything, didn’t he? From pseudo-romantic getaways with the cap’n to that kiss, which Kraglin might’ve actually gotten time to enjoy, if Peter’d only waited for his groin to stop burning before he interrupted.

 

It ached now, just a bit. Kraglin told himself the pain would keep him sharp. He hauled Yondu to his feet.

 

“You with me, sir?”

 

Yondu nodded, with more assuredness than five minutes ago. Still not good enough – but Kraglin would have to make do.

 

Over the comms, Peter Quill cried out – in pain, this time.

 

“That’ll teach ya,” growled Aleta. “Who the fuck d’you think you are, boy? An’ I’ll ask you again – how the fuck d’you know Yondu?”

 

Kraglin dug his nails into his captain’s stubble. He watched his gaze sharpen with the pain, fixing on him rather than a spot an inch to his left and several kliks rearwards. “You’re with me,” he said. “Let’s go.”

 

 


 

 

 

They went. They didn’t get very far.

 

Outside, one family after another risked the sprint. They clumped together like a pack of panicked orloni, scrabbling at the fringed carpet when they tripped, crawling desperately onwards, clawing at each other and the walls.

 

Aleta’s girls bayed like feral dogs. They chased them, nipping ankles with knives and blaster-fire. They strafed the crowd with taser-bolts and converged on the fallen, vulturous magpies with greedy beaks. Silks ripped and necklaces snapped. Pearls bounced like handfuls of dropped marbles.

 

In short, it was chaos. Pandemonium, panic, mayhem. Exactly where Ravagers thrived.

 

Shame Yondu’s Ravagers weren’t the ones causing it.

 

The Spider’s girls were a torrent of filthy green leather. Their hair smacked their backs like the tails on a cat-o’nine, clumpy with grease and unwashed blood. They eddied around the corridor, cackling madly whenever an idiot was dumb enough to return fire, busting open the suite doors with their portable EMPs to ravage any family who'd hoped to stay hidden.

 

Until very recently, the Kree embassy had been housed in the grand suite opposite Calliope’s. For a charity gala designed to bring together members of disparate and warring species, this wasn’t going very well. They fought through the crowds towards Yondu and Kraglin, large enough to displace anyone up to a Kymellian. The Kymellians scattered too, when they saw the scowl on Krennik’s heavyset face.

 

“These pirates are the peasants who orchestrated the Ambassador’s death,” he growled. “We should be fighting back! Avenging his death, for the pride of the Empire!”

 

“We’re outnumbered,” pointed out Vimar. “What is important is that you survive, sir. In our last report, we told the Accuser Autocracy that the Ambassador had been murdered, most likely by Xandarian hand. You need to lend credulity to our new report, so that this blasted war does not restart.”

 

Krennik's teeth champed like a bilgesnipe getting ready to charge. “I would gladly restart the war,” he said, shoving an orange-skinned Xandarian from his path. The man stumbled, twisted, and fell directly onto a blaster bolt. He grasped the slippery gash in his guts, mouth working in bloodless horror. Then slowly, majestically, he keeled.

 

The Kree didn't notice.

 

“I would smite them all,” Krennik continued, wading over the electrocuted and the cowering. His vast shoulders eclipsed the lights. “Perhaps this is what my brother would've wanted. For his death to be the torch that rekindles the embers.”

 

Vimar morosely shook his head. “You're going to make a terrible diplomat.” Then, while Krennik was sputtering at the insubordination, he turned to Yondu with a warm smile. “Hello there, Udonta. I thought I recognized you earlier. My, we have come up in the world, haven't we? I hardly recognize you from the skinny little brat who used to hide from his whippings under my bed.”

 

Yondu's eyes were perfect glass circles. He stood stock still, so tense he was trembling. If Vimar noticed the shiver, he obviously couldn't care less.

 

“I wonder if you still remember your training.” One slim blue finger extended, levelling at Krennik's head. “Kill that man for me. Kill him now.”

 

Yondu twitched like a gnat had bitten him somewhere sensitive. Yep. That must be it. They might've left their Ravager leathers behind them, but they hadn't shaved Kraglin or Peter before swaggering into the ticket office. That meant there were plenty of chances for lice to stow away.

 

That was the only possible option. The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

 

Captains didn't flinch.

 

“Vimar,” he whispered.

 

Vimar impatiently rolled his eyes, while Krennik made sputtery noises of disbelief. “Hurry up. Do you want the war to restart? So long as his death wounds can be blamed on a Ravager – or a disgruntled ex-slave – both he and the Ambassador can pass on from here without causing incalculable damage to the lives of everyone else.”

 

“Ex-excuse me?” Krennik span to appraise his fellow dignitaries. “What do the rest of you have to say about this foul assassination plot?”

 

Kraglin had never seen Kree shuffle their feet and not make eye-contact until now.

 

“My apologies,” said Vimar, drooping in a demure bow. “I've already had a thorough discussion with our fellows. We've agreed that, rather than letting a radical step up to play the part of Ambassador, it would be beneficial for everyone if someone more measured assumed the post.”

 

Krennik laughed: an ugly bark. “Someone like you.”

 

“My, aren't you smart.” Vimar's sly smile turned back to Yondu. He reached out, running the backs of his nails tenderly under his jaw. “Come on now, child. Do as you're told.”

 

Captain ain't a child, Kraglin wanted to scream. Kraglin wanted to scream a lot of things, like why haven't you killed them all, and hurry up, somebody make a decision, we're sitting ducks for taser-bolts here.

 

But he didn't, because Vimar rolled up one bell-shaped sleeve, revealing the slim-fit necro-canon fitted to his wrist. He rested the barrel over Kraglin's thundering heart.

 

“Perhaps you need a little persuasion?”

 

Yondu inhaled shakily. His fists squeezed tight at his sides, and that gore-red ruby glittered on the lobe of his ear, brighter than his dulling eyes.

 

“Master,” he said, soft and small and so-very not-him.

 

Vimar's smirk split wide enough to show off his teeth. “Good boy,” he purred.

 

Kraglin gulped. Whatever the fuck was going on, it wasn't good. The necro-canon didn't waver, a hard cold jab that dug into his ribs with every breath. Vimar hadn't looked at him once. All his concentration was on Yondu: his pursing lips, his lifeless gaze.

 

Not his hands. Kraglin glanced down, and saw five spread fingers become four, three, two, one.

 

Now.

 

He wrenched to one side, catching Vimar's forearm so the glob of nectrotizing goo discharged harmlessly against the wall. And Yondu whistled through Vimar and Krennik, and the rest of the Kree for good measure.

 

The shrill note cut over the battle – if a fight this one-sided was worthy of the name.

 

Aleta's girls paused in the act of stuffing their pockets. They twisted around, hissing, scenting the air.

 

They'd draped their ill-gotten prizes around themselves: long sautoirs of coral and oyster-shell, farmed from the teeming Shrigla seas; golden torques; the occasional diamond-studded chronometer and grindioles of black opals, threaded through with iridescence. Rather than making them look wealthier, the girls' dirty leathers had the opposite effect. They tarnished everything they touched, making precious gems look like bits of glint stolen from dead whores.

 

“Udonta,” they muttered to themselves, wiping dirty noses on dirtier sleeves, charging and depowering their tasers as if they couldn't decide whether to turn them on him. “The hell's he doing here?”

 

The answer, currently, was not much. Yondu stood over Vimar's corpse. The arrow hole bored through his left eye and out the back of his skull, two neat cauterized holes. They steamed, just a little. The smell reminded Kraglin of the mystery meat from the Eclector canteen.

 

“There,” said his captain gruffly, adding a gobbit of spit to the mess in his eye-socket. It dripped through his head, joining the growing puddle of maroon. “Stopped yer stupid war, didn't I?”

 

Kraglin struggled to process everything that'd just been revealed. He'd need a tankard of moonshine and an hour to himself to even begin to accept the fact that Yondu had once been a slave.

 

He had neither. There was only him and his captain and the enemy Ravagers, and the ascorbic, ozone tang of electric on the air.

 

Vimar called him good boy. Touched his face gentle as a lover. And Yondu put an arrow through his skull.

 

Kraglin gave his body a kick for good measure, as he crossed to Yondu and squeezed his arm. “Let's go,” he said, as Aleta's girls watched them from hooded, bloodshot eyes.

 

Should we shoot him?

 

Nah. Y'all know cap'n's got a soft spot for the traitor.

 

But what if he gets in our way?

 

He better not find out.

 

Yondu was built like a pint-sized brick shithouse, and he could be as immobile as one too, when he wanted to be. Kraglin's tugs were about as effective as a stiff breeze. His captain seemed content to stand over the dead relics of his past until Aleta issued the kill order.

 

Kraglin couldn't have that. Thankfully, Peter's little voice piped over the intercom before he had to hit the pressure point in Yondu's neck and bodily haul him away.

 

“Over here, you old bat!”

 

“Hell,” growled Aleta. “You've sure got Udonta's mouth on you, boy.”

 

There was a short, sharp gasp. The sounds of a scuffle, the victor of which was quickly determined. Kraglin picture Peter, darting from his cover and running smack-bang into a green-gloved fist.

 

Idiot. An eight-year-old couldn't fight a Ravager captain. Or at the very least, they couldn't hope to win.

 

He pushed his mouth close to Yondu's ear, whiskers tickling the ruby stud. “Sir, Quill needs ya.”

 

As usual, that was all it took.

 

Chapter Text

The control room buzzed and beeped at the opposite end of the corridor to the escape pods. Kraglin and Yondu watched the girls warily as they skirted past, but no electricity jolted their minds into white-out and no necro-blasts sizzled through their backs.

 

So long as Kraglin and Yondu didn’t interrupt their mission – to rob the gala-goers for everything they owned – Aleta’s faction would return them courtesy.

 

The pair halted outside the door. It was barricade-thick, the EMP scorch marks hardly visible against PVD-coated steel. Yondu took one side of the jamb and Kraglin the other. Kraglin slipped a knife from his sleeve, and surreptitiously peeked at his captain.

 

Was the man rattled? Absolutely. Pissed that Kraglin knew his secret? Most likely. But for now, he just looked focused. Scarily so.

 

Kraglin thought of the frontlines; of the soldiers whose minds cracked under the constant hail of plasma-fire. Every few decacycles, there’d be one poor sod who stood up from the trenches, marching straight towards the shimmer of white-hot plasma death. Right now, Yondu had that same crazy look in his eye.

 

Kraglin didn’t like it. “You ain’t gonna kill her,” he whispered. “Are ya?”

 

Ogord and Aleta might have one of the most infamously hot-and-cold relationships in space pirate history, but just because they were in an off-period, it didn’t mean he wouldn’t retaliate for her death. Yondu’s rogue Ravager faction struggled to keep their hull airtight as it was. They didn’t have spare cash for extra gun ports. If Stakar ever truly put his mind to wiping them out…

 

Kraglin shuddered. He didn’t fancy space-death. It looked far too cold.

 

“Depends,” came Yondu’s low reply. Kraglin didn’t need to ask ‘on what’? He already knew.

 

The kid. It was always the flarkin’ kid.

 

…The same kid who’d just been unceremoniously shoved out the door, dragging a weepy little princess behind him.

 

“Hi,” said Peter. “Aleta says she doesn’t deal in kids. Something about setting a good example for you two?”

 

Yondu’s smile stretched painfully tight. “Glad she ain’t lost her sense of humor. Hey, ‘Leta!”

 

“I’m ain’t allowed to see ya,” came Aleta’s cheery growl from the other side of the door.

 

“C’mon. I ain’t that ugly.”

 

“Debatable. But if I see ya, I gotta tell Stakar y'all are trespassin’ in my territory.”

 

“It was an accident,” Yondu tried. “Weren’t like we wanted to stop the train.”

 

“Still a breach of the Terms of Exile. Y’know how tied Stakar’s hands are – if it weren’t for me, Charlie, Marty and the others, the other ninety-two captains would’ve seen you roast above the fusion core for what you did.”

 

“Who’s Charlie? That’s a Terran name. Marty too. Yondu, what did you do?”

 

“Shaddup, Quill. So what yer sayin’ is, if the captains find out I’ve crossed the Shivaxi Quadrangle line, even when it’s yer own damn fault I’m here in the first place…”

 

“Woah there, you krutarkin’ slagger. I didn’t ask you to crash my job.”

 

“I didn’t ask you to crash mine!”

 

“But yeah,” continued Aleta before the argument could get out of hand. “They could order a bounty on your head. We’ve used our senior positions to overrule the majority once for you, Udonta. It won’t fly the second time.”

 

Yondu exhaled. He rested his forehead, just briefly, on the metal doorframe.

 

Kraglin scratched his temple with the dull side of his knife. Cap’n better not be getting second-thoughts about this gig. Harboring sentiment for the Terran was one thing, but if he turned down a prize for the sake of the ninety-ninth who cast him out, there’d be trouble. Maybe even from Kraglin himself.

 

Not a mutiny, of course – Kraglin would never. But glares. Lots of glares. He could handle those.

 

The door gusted open. There stood Aleta, whippet-thin and smirking, her hair a tangled cobweb. Kraglin’s pistol dangled from her finger.

 

“Here," she said, as he reached out and snatched it, shoving it back in the holster. "Yer brat forgot this.”

 

Yondu straightened. “Thought you weren’t supposed to see me.”

 

“Yeah well. I’m a damn good liar.” Her smile vanished quick as a magic trick; Kraglin had to blink several times to reassure himself he hadn’t hallucinated it. “Yondu, that boy…”

 

Peter pushed Vania behind him. He bristled up at her, baring his blunt little teeth. “I can take you with or without a gun!”

 

“I’d like to see you try. Yondu, the kid.”

 

“I ain’t no kid! I’m eight!”

 

“Mm-hm. Yondu, I need to know. Tell me he isn’t…”

 

Yondu wet his lips like he was preparing to whistle. Kraglin gripped his knife a little tighter, just in case, but the arrow remained in the holster, visible through the crispy hole in Yondu’s shirt. “It ain’t what you think.”

 

Aleta crossed her arms. “I’m gonna need more than that. Why’d you pick him up?”

 

“Because I’m small,” muttered Peter, still holding the shell-shocked Vania’s wrist. “Good for thievin’.”

 

Aleta’s eyes narrowed, sharp as the blade in Kraglin’s fist, and the other eleven that tickled him through the lining of his fancy jacket. “Yondu…”

 

“Because he didn’t have no one else,” Yondu said quietly. He ruffled Quill’s messy blond hair.

 

“Liar. I had my grandpa!”

 

Yondu continued like he couldn’t hear. “No one else who knew what was comin’. No one else who could keep the damn brat safe.”

 

Peter snorted. “You’re the only one who’s ever put me in danger, you dumb old blueberry!”

 

Yondu didn’t argue. “He’s my boy,” he told Aleta. That hand stayed right where it was, cupping Peter’s curly crown, thumb painting slow circles on the whorl. Daring Aleta to disagree.

 

Kraglin cleared his throat. “I dunno if my word means shit to you anymore. But he’s tellin’ the truth.”

 

“Obfonteri.” Aleta gave him a once-over, predatory but casual, like a well-fed bilgesnipe sizing up a gazelle. Like if she was going to kill him, it would only be for sport. “I’ve heard you’ve got good qualities going for you. Loyalty among ‘em.” She smacked Yondu’s arm. The clap loud against the receding buzz of tasers and the moans of the downed. “You watch out for this idiot,” she told Kraglin, leaning close enough for him to see the caked smears of old eye-make up and smell the spirits on her breath. “Cause there ain’t no one else who’s gonna. And as for you…” Her grip tightened, pinching into the meat of Yondu’s shoulder. “If anything happens to that kid, Udonta, I’ll kill you myself.”

 

Yondu gulped. Earlier, his strange reaction to the Kree unsettled Kraglin, but at least this time, he had an excuse for showing fear. This chick was terrifying. Kraglin scratched his nose, feeling a rare burst of sympathy for Stakar.

 

“Sure,” his captain said. “Sounds fair.” And he thumped his chest twice, Ravager to the core.

 

Aleta didn’t return the salute. But her dead smile twitched on her lips, as she jerked her thumb at the smashed observation deck. “There’s a spare ship docked out there. You assholes can take it. It’s old and doddery and fell apart last time we breached atmosphere – only good for ferryin’ booty back to berth. But it’ll get ya off this train.”

 

Peter worried his lip. “We can’t stay here?”

 

“Enough people’ve seen ya chattin’ to me all friendly, kid. Trust me, soon as we decouple, they’ll be out for yer blood.”

 

“I wasn’t friendly. I tried to shoot you.”

 

“And ya didn’t make a very good job of it! You might wanna get on that, Udonta.”

 

Yondu shrugged. “S’next on my list.”

 

Peter’s little face lit up. “Really? But…” He glanced along the line of his outstretched arm. Vania stood at its far end, lacklustre and tear-stained. “What about her?”

 

Aleta flapped a careless hand. “No harm’ll come to her. Ravagers got Code ‘bout kids.”

 

“You threatened to scalp me.”

 

“Aw.” Aleta flashed her teeth. “That were banter.”

 

“Bein’ funny,” Yondu agreed.

 

Kraglin let ‘em talk. He turned towards the observation deck. The ships had shattered the dome. The forcefield held firm, keeping the air where it belonged. If you wanted to breach a train this fancy, you’d really have to work on it. For now, the oxygen would filter out, but it wouldn’t be explosive – instead a slow and lingering drain on their reserves. While the machines in the control room might pick up on it, biotic lifeforms wouldn’t notice the decline until hypoxia set in, by which point they wouldn’t really care.

 

Of course, by then Aleta intended to be long gone. Streaking for her mothership, where it lurked in the quadrangle’s treacherous asteroid belt.

 

The M-ships roosted in the wreckage. Glass shards turned cartwheels around rust-rouged wings, caught in the liminal space between the artificial gravity field and the streak of space at quarter-Tian. They looked vacant. Ugly welded-on mag-clamps prevented them from being sloughed off, wrenched back out the breach. Their pilots were nowhere in sight – must’ve joined the charge. By all counts, they were unprotected. Ripe for the picking.

 

Yondu licked his lips. “Furthest on the left, right?”

 

“You’ve got a good eye for rustbuckets. Run along then. If you’re lucky, it won’t break during take-off.” Yondu and Kraglin exchanged glances. Aleta’s eyes narrowed, and she circled her thumb over the butt of her pistol. “Don’t make me chase you, boys. Spider’s hungry today.”

 

You didn’t get much more of an ultimatum than that. Yondu jerked out a nod. He marched off, leading the way, leaving Kraglin to slink behind.

 

“Obviously,” he muttered in Yondu’s ruby-sporting ear, “we’re gonna blast that ship off on autopilot and sneak into one of the others. Ain’t we, sir?”

 

From then on, it’d be simple. They’d oust the pilot, put on a falsetto voice when the Ravagers tramped back laden with loot, and gun out the hangar the instant their cargo holds were full.

 

Yondu didn’t answer him. Not directly. But he kept striding for their allocated ship, which kinda spoke for itself.

 

Kraglin scoffed. At they left now, they'd be operating at a net loss. Oh sure, no one’d say shit to Yondu’s face. But Kraglin had no whistle-controlled arrow to keep the men in line. He’d bear the brunt of their grumblings.

 

“Sir,” he said, lengthening his stride. Yondu might be bulky, but when it came down to a race, Kraglin had the longer legs. Unless Yondu wanted to all-out sprint, he couldn’t outpace him.

 

Kraglin still got more than he bargained for when he stepped in front of his captain. Yondu didn’t stop until their chests bumped. “Yer in my way.”

 

“And you’re makin’ a mistake. With all due respect, darling. Uh. I mean, sir.”

 

Yondu’s lips drew up his teeth. “Move, pookie.”

 

Kraglin weighed facing Yondu and facing the crew one against the other and found both options equally dismal. Still, he was here now, and he had a chance to change things. To make Yondu see what an opportunity they were missing out on. To make him realize it was one they couldn’t afford to waste.

 

“Look,” he said, gingerly dropping his hands on Yondu’s shoulders. Yondu arched a brow, but as his implant had yet to glow, Kraglin was in the clear. “We spent how much scrip on these fancy threads? We can’t jus’ walk away empty-handed.”

 

Yondu sneered, making to step around him. Kraglin shook his head, moving to block him once more.

 

Strike two. The only person who’d pissed Yondu off more times in a row and survived was Quill, who’d long-since vanished into the M-ship while they were arguing. Where his lil' girlfriend had gone, Kraglin didn't know. But he couldn’t stop now.

 

“We gotta steal from them,” he hissed. “I know it ain’t Code, but they ain’t our Ravagers. So that means it don’t count, right?”

 

Yondu shrugged off his grip. “Ya don’t know shit bout what Code means to me, boy.”

 

“I know well enough! I was there, remember! I was there when you took that call, when ya picked up that first brat. An’ I didn’t once call you out. Didn’t once stop ya, even though it were my job as mate.” Kraglin breathed out. “We’re in this together,” he said, quieter. “And sir? I’m bein’ a good mate now.”

 

Yondu’s mouth opened, but sound didn’t come out. He must be considering Kraglin’s proposition. That was something – better than Kraglin expected, to be frank. He’d kinda expected to walk away from this conversation with a windhole that whistled almost as much as Yondu’s did.

 

It’d be nice if boss actually looked at him though. Kraglin weren’t expecting no serenades, no long-winded thank yous or apologies. But eye contact wouldn’t go amiss.

 

“Boss?” he asked. “Y’alright?”

 

Yondu dived him to the ground.

 

Not a moment too soon. The necroblast whizzed past Kraglin’s temple, singing his mutton chops. He hollered – a wordless yowl of pain and hot and huh, cap’n’s on my lap.

 

The first two were of significantly higher concern. The necromatter blazed away, eating the thin coating of flesh on his skull.

 

Shit. This was bad. It hadn’t been a direct hit – Kraglin’d be dead otherwise. But necromatter could gobble meat faster than a ravenous pirate-pack, and unlike them, it tore straight through the bones as well. Kraglin had a minute, tops.

 

“Antiplas,” he burbled, smacking Yondu’s thighs. “Need some fuckin’ antiplas, now sir…” He couldn’t open his left eye. Just from the sting, that was all. Not because the blast had caught it. Totally not. Right?

 

Yondu crouched over him. He glowered up at one of the gallery boxes, where the glint of a rifle had caught his eye.

 

“C’mon out!” he roared. “Or I send my arrow huntin’!”

 

Kraglin’s working eye leaked, filming the world in a blur. But he still recognized the figure that unfolded, posing proud with one boot on the rampart, a green jacket slung over her waitress’s pinny. One sleeve hung limp, the arm within it lashed over her chest by a sling.

 

“Break my arm, would ya?” she sneered. “I can take that. I can deal with it. Didn’t blow my cover once, did I? Y’all actually gave me an excuse to get out the room, follow that Kree bastard to the bogs an’ do him in.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Kraglin gasped. He didn’t dare touch the broiling burn on his face. Last thing he wanted was for the necromatter to burn his hands as well.

 

“But,” the girl continued, lips curling up diseased gums, “stealin’ from me? From my sisters? From my cap’n? That – that I can’t ignore.”

 

Speaking of ignoring, Yondu had yet to acknowledge Kraglin’s scrabbling at his sleeve. “Sir, antiplas, please…”

 

“Pants pocket,” Yondu snapped. Kraglin gratefully dived for it.

 

This was a very poor time to become hyperaware of how his cap’n was straddling him, glowering up at the shooter, his arrow hovering at his shoulder and making menacing little feints. Kraglin concentrated on the task at hand.

 

He dug into Yondu’s pocket. The satin-thin material was stretched tight by the girth of his thighs. Warm, firm, plump thighs, currently spread around Kraglin’s waist, and -

 

Stoppit. Ya don’t got time for this.

 

The bottle kissed his palm, blissfully cool. It felt even cooler when he uncorked it and drenched the left half of his face. The chill chased the burn from his nerve endings, replacing it with ice. Kraglin sagged.

 

“Oh, fuck that’s good.”

 

Yondu’s fangs dimpled his top lip. “Back away,” he said, addressing the sniper. “This ain’t a fight you’ll win.”

 

She laughed, sounding mad as the Spider herself. “Oh, I bet ya can shoot me. But not before I shoot one of you.” She propped her rifle on the banister beside her boot, crawling over it like a spider. Her right hand flexed in its sling, miming a trigger pull. “Boom. Pop. Which’ll it be?”

 

Damn. She had a point. With her finger in the trigger guard and Yondu’s lips pursed, the pair of them stood at a stalemate. And Kraglin – prone beneath his cap’n, leaking pus from his blistered temple – felt more useless than usual.

 

“Now would be a very good time for a distraction,” he said.

 

Peter’s head popped over the dashboard of their doddery M-ship. “How about this?” And with that, he wheeled the ship about on her magnetic traction-lock, so her thrusters faced all three of them.

 

Hell. Kraglin knew that damn Terran was more dangerous than he looked.

 

That innocent act, all them dumb questions about aid? All a ruse. Quill was playing the long game. Lying in wait, like a hoarbeast lurking under a drift of loose fresh snow. Now he’d roast them all in a brassy report of thruster-fire and blaze off for his precious Earth.

 

“Sir,” he yelled. “Get down!” And he surged up, wrapping his arms around Yondu’s neck and pulling him firmly down on top of him.

 

“Whoops.” Quill swung the ship in the opposite direction. “Sorry. I’m not too good at driving this thing yet.”

 

“Piloting,” said Yondu, from where his nose was mashed into Kraglin’s armpit – an unpleasant experience for them both. “Don’t drive spaceships.”

 

Quill perked. “Does that mean you’ll teach me?”

 

“Didn’t say that…”

 

“But you will, right? Like you told that freaky green-leather lady that you’d teach me to shoot?”

 

Yondu groaned. He sat up again, hips keeping Kraglin crushed into the glass-carpeted floor. “Maybe when ya don’t need no booster seat.”

 

“I’ll hold you to that! Now lady – you really oughta drop that.”

 

Kraglin raised his head, saw the triumvirate barrels of a rail gun winking at him, and hastily laid it back down again. “If he can’t aim a pistol, no way can he aim a cannon.”

 

Yondu shot the girl a bright beam. “You hear that? You shoot one of us, kid blasts us all to pieces. Then nobody lives to tell the tale.”

 

In actuality, Kraglin highly doubted Quill would blast anyone. The kid spewed just from seeing a dead body; stars knew how he’d react if he were the one to make it that way. Yondu was calling her bluff. But just because Quill wouldn’t purposefully redecorate the observation deck in their brains, it didn’t mean the same thing wouldn’t happen if his tiny hands poked the wrong button. Best get this over with quick-like.

 

Luckily, the Ravager chick wasn’t so revved up on vengeance that it turned her stupid. She scowled at the pair of them, muzzle twitching from one to the other.

 

“You’ll get straight on that ship and leave,” she said. “You won’t steal shit. Not one fuckin’ ruby.” Yondu discretely covered his earring. “Udonta, you an’ yer men walk with nothin’.”

 

Yondu rose slowly, dismounting Kraglin and raising his hands. He whistled his arrow back to holster. “Sure thing, girlie. Krags – up an’ at ‘em.”

 

Kraglin glanced at the rifle’s watchful, telescopic eye. He glanced at the hand Yondu held out for him.

 

Shame. Damn shame.

 

They'd come so close. Two more days at forty-Tian and they’d be at the far side of the quadrant, ready to alight on the Gravarian Duke’s moon, as it orbited the central supermassive, matter streaming from the suns on all sides. The men weren’t gonna like this. But between a mutiny tomorrow and certain death today, Kraglin knew which he’d choose.

 

He took Yondu’s hand. Callus rubbed callus, pink on blue. Kraglin let himself be hauled to his feet and told himself the light-headedness was residual daze from the plasma shot.

 

Yondu’s other hand rested, just briefly, on the back of Kraglin’s neck. It flattened the hairs, warm and heavy, damp with their mingling sweat.

 

“Let’s go,” he said, and so they did.

 

 


 

 

 

After the rushing, gloopy light-columns of Tian-speed, space at regular-time looked still as a glacier, clear as fresh-blown glass. Kraglin imagined the view through the windscreen shattering as he ousted Peter from the cockpit and steered them from the hangar. Fracturing as the observation deck had, the bubble popping to reveal whatever lay beyond.

 

Off they went. Away from it all – from the fancy canapes that Peter liked to stuff his cheeks with until his face was round as a baby's; from the smoky, oaken curl of wine fumes. From that well-hung Kymellian fellow, and from a corridor littered with unconscious partygoers and executed Kree. They left it all behind them, shedding it like a bilgesnipe's winter coat.

 

Thank flark. Their silky clothing had been a novelty at first, but Kraglin longed for the stink of well-lived leathers. Not long now. Then everything would go back to normal, this chapter of their life closed. He wouldn't miss it at all.

 

“Kraglin,” said Yondu.

 

Not pookie. Not darling. Kraglin told himself he wouldn’t miss that, either.

 

“Yessir?”

 

“We ain't got shit.” Yondu crossed his boots on the dash, slouching low in his chair. That would be fine and dandy if they weren't flying an antique. Kraglin swatted them off before he broke something.

 

“Yeah, sir. We don't got shit.”

 

“Boys're gonna be pissed.”

 

“Most likely.” It was what Kraglin had been telling him, yet somehow, hearing Yondu acknowledge it didn't sit comfortably. “We can always pawn this old biddy,” he tried, patting the nearest thruster-stick. It wobbled in a way that failed to instil confidence. “Uh. Not that we'll get much. There's our fancy togs too, I guess?”

 

“Sellin' the clothes off our backs.” Yondu snorted. “This's what we've come to. Damn 'Leta. Who the hell does she think she is, musclin' in on my con?”

 

Kraglin kept silent. He still wasn't entirely sure of the complexities of Yondu and Aleta's relationship, but he suspected Yondu wouldn't tolerate anyone insulting the rival captain who wasn't himself. He concentrated on scouting for the nearest jump portal, and wondered how long the crew would take to mutiny, once they chugged home empty-handed.

 

One of the old navigational compass arrays had come loose from the dashboard last time this ship performed a high-G manoeuvre (which, judging by its general state of repair, was probably half a century back). Yondu rolled it between his palms, the gyroscope keeping the needle facing up. It swung as he twizzled it, always pointing towards the gravity well at the galaxy's core, where the supermassive squatted like an obese, lightless toad, gobbling down all the matter and growing year by year.

 

Kraglin took note of the needle's direction, and steered their M-ship in the opposite one.

 

 


 

 

 

But, you see, this is the story of Yondu's greatest heist, not his greatest failure. And that means there has to be a twist.

 

 


 

 

 

“Um,” said Peter from the cockpit trapdoor. His head and shoulders poked up from the ladder shaft, and he tapped his forefingers together as he spoke. “Before we head home, can we please drop off Vania?”

 

Kraglin veered the ship to a violent halt. Quill hurtled forwards, catching himself on the lip of the cockpit just in time to avoid brain damage. More's the pity.

 

What?

 

For once, Yondu looked equally pissed with the brat. “The hell, Quill? We told ya to leave her! Aleta don't hurt kids!”

 

Peter stuck out his lower lip, face darkening. “She just watched her mom get electrocuted! She's real scared and alone, and she needs our help!”

 

No! Dammit, brat – this ain't a flarkin' taxi service! And we ain't no heroes! Oh, you are gonna be scrubbin' the whole darn matter converter once we get home...”

 

The ladder was broad enough that Vania could wiggle onto Peter's rung. She was a touch taller than him, as was usual for brats their age, her eyes huge and shiny in her lilac face. Her little hands kneaded pitifully at the front of her dress.

 

“Please,” she lisped, shrinking under Yondu's glare. “Please. I just want to go home to my grandpa. He'll pay you well. I'm sure he will. Please, just take me home.”

 

“No way, lil' missy! I ain't in that business! And anyway, y'saw what happened on that train? With them arrow-holes in the Kree, they's all gonna think me and Aleta were in cahoots! Ain't that right, Kraglin?”

 

Kraglin wasn't listening. Kraglin was sifting through Vania's miserable speech, fishing out his favorite words: pay, and well.

 

“Sir,” he said.

 

Yondu shook his head at him. “Don'tchu side with her! You go soft on me an' yer out, boy, y'hear? Out! I don't need no soft first mate!”

 

And first mates didn't need soft captains. Kraglin decided saying that wouldn't be in his best interests. He was no longer protected by high society's hoity-toity views on spousal abuse, after all.

 

“Ain't soft,” he tried to explain, steering around the asteroids that bumbled across their course. A regular ship could withstand a little pounding, but if this old tin can cracked, the lot of 'em would be exposed to hard-vac, and Kraglin hadn't packed his emergency space-mask. “Look. Think about it. We need money, right? An' here we got a lil' rich girl. Imagine what her pops'd pay to keep her safe.”

 

Yondu's features scrunched together, creasing like a drawstring bag. “That ain't the Code, that ain't...”

 

“Kid's with us, whether we like it or not. We can either dump her with grandpa pro bono, or... Quill, cover the brat's ears.”

 

Quill frowned. “Why?”

 

“Just do it. An' put yer headphones on.”

 

“You're being weird...” Quill did as he was told, watching Kraglin through bird-quick eyes, bright with suspicion.

 

“Music on,” said Kraglin patiently. “Volume up. Thassit. Now sir – look at it this way. Ya said it yerself, right? We ain't no taxi service. But we can't just dump the kid on Knowhere and leave her to fend for herself. Y'know what sorta trouble lil' girls get into out here. Prostition rings. Slavery.”

 

He put a little too much emphasis on the last word. Either Yondu didn't react, or he hid it very well. He raised his eyebrows, nodding to the duo in the ladder shaft.

 

“That why ya made 'em cover their ears? Aw, poppet. Didn't realize you was so carin' of what little ears heard.”

 

Poppet. For some reason, the petname made warmth curl in Kraglin's chest.

 

He cleared his throat. “Ain't that. Point is, it's better for her to come with us. I know ya don't like stuff what involves kids, but I'm willin' to bet ya wouldn't wanna just leave her where anything can happen to her. Right?”

 

Yondu, with a last warning sneer at Peter – keep them damn headphones on – leaned in. “You mean do like she says? Collect the reward money?”

 

“We could,” Kraglin agreed. He licked his lips, pasting down the chaps. “Or.”

 

Those hairless brows rose higher. “'Or'?”

 

Or, we can. Y'know. Send him a holovid of her. An' ask him how much he'd like for her to come back.”

 

“Stars.” Yondu sank onto the threadbare cushions. A wad of stuffing oozed out the seat, displaced by his weight. “Kraglin...”

 

Kraglin hurried along. If he let Yondu talk himself out of this, he'd never get the chance to make his pitch. “And then, we say he's gotta come collect her in person, yeah? We wait for him to transfer the money. Kiddo goes free. Then we. Uh. Shoot-grandpa-in-the-head-and-claim-the-initial-bounty-like-we-was-s'pposed-to?

 

Spoken all in a rush, as Kraglin swerved them around the next meteorite. He focused on the view from the windscreen, feigning intense concentration as they closed on the wormhole. He couldn't look his captain in the eye.

 

Yondu exhaled. Long, slow, measured. “Fuckin' devious shit,” he said.

 

Kraglin shrunk. “Sorry, sir.”

 

“That's outright sadistic, that's what that is, Obfonteri.

 

Kraglin gnawed a hole in his cheek. “Sorry.”

 

A hand clapped his back, hard enough to punch out his air. “Don't be,” said Yondu cheerfully, while Kraglin wheezed. “I'm impressed. Didn't think ya had it in ya.”

 

Kraglin scarcely dared believe it. He kept his hands locked on the steering column until he could refill his lungs without choking. “S-sir?”

 

“I mean, it'll suck for the kiddo.” Yondu looked at her, stroking his beard. Her little head was sandwiched between Peter's hands, her eyes roving the cockpit, taking in the rust lodes, the leaking chairs, the dubious patch of pin-mold growing under Kraglin's chair. “She just watched her momma get tased. Assuming Aleta ransoms her too, between us her grandpa'll be milked for all he's worth. Probably have to remortgage his moon an' all.”

 

What a tragedy that would be.

 

“She ain't gonna have much of an inheritance,” Yondu continued. “And we're gonna kill her grandpops in front of her.”

 

Kraglin didn't care about that. Childhood trauma built character – he and Yondu certainly had their fair share. And look at 'em now! Cap'n and mate of a whole flarkin' faction. But if they wanted to keep their whole flarkin' faction, they needed to earn scrip, and they needed to earn it quick.

 

He did have one trepidation though, one lil' note of concern. Best voice it now, so it wouldn't come back and bite him in the ass.

 

“This chick's gonna be the next Gravarian Duchess,” he said. “Ya don't think she's gonna hold a grudge?”

 

Yondu shrugged. “She's just a brat. She'll get over it.” He glanced at Kraglin from the corner of his eye. “Y'know, Obfonteri. This whole business has got me thinkin'.”

 

“Don’t let nothin’ catch fire up there, sir. I don’t think this ship’s got extinguisher protocols.”

 

“Ha. Yer funny. But thing is, our boys've got a lotta ideas 'bout favoritism. Silly things like that.”

 

“Favoritism, sir?”

 

Yondu nodded sagely. “Favoritism. Now, you an' me, we just made like we was honeymoonin' for the money. Right?”

 

Kraglin's heart began its dismal plod towards his liver. “S'right, sir.”

 

“No sentiment involved.”

 

“Mm-hm. Sir, I won't say nothin' about the kiss. Swear it.”

 

“Good.” Yondu sat back.

 

Was that it? A veiled threat to keep that moment, as they curled together on the floor of the centrifuge-deck, Kraglin's groin burning for all the wrong reasons, to themselves? To let it fade like it had never been?

 

That was okay. Kraglin could do that. He might still think about it occasionally – Yondu beneath him, rolling sweetly up, letting Kraglin trace the swell of his thighs.

 

Naked.

 

Sweaty.

 

Whining his name...

 

“You hear me, boy?”

 

Kraglin jolted. Considering the M-ship's busted suspension and the mass of springs poking through the stuffing of his seat, it weren't the most pleasant experience. “Sir, yessir!”

 

Yondu was scowling at him. Why was Yondu scowling? Shit – what had he missed? What had he done? 

 

“I was askin',” said his cap'n, knee barging his, “whether if you’re so good at keepin' that secret, you wouldn't mind keepin' a few more?”

 

Kraglin’s pulse beat hard at the insides of his skull. Was Yondu really saying… What Kraglin thought he was saying?

 

“Course,” he said thickly, barely daring to believe it. “For you.”

 

“Good lad.” Yondu patted his knee. His hand lingered longer than strictly professional – at which point Peter wrenched off his earphones and declared he and Vania would be spending the trip in the low-hold, away from all the aid, and Kraglin awkwardly rubbed his lips to make sure no sores were open.

 

At least if this job paid off, he could afford them venereal vacs.

 

The brat sure had a lotta strange hang-ups about herpes. He and Yondu would have to sit him down at some point, give him a good long talk about puberty and safe sex and preventable diseases, and how when they said shit from yer planet stays on yer planet, they meant it. Or rather, Kraglin would – while Yondu cackled in the background and snapped holo-pics of Quill's horrified face.

 

But that could wait. For now, they were Ravagers, and they had a job to do.