There were times when the Surface seemed more real to Peter than the faintly mushroom-scented darkness around him. Times when he looked up and expected to see blue skies instead of the gloom of the Neath; times when the urge to draw a breath of fresh air overwhelmed him until he thought he could go Neath-mad, like those poor souls who ran and ran until they found their way to the dark river and then back to the world they could never leave.
And then he turned back to the real world, and refastened his scrap of black ribbon and went back to planning the next big heist while charming devils and Empresses and everyone in between.
Except his charming didn't always go as planned, which was how one tended to end up in ...
"The Tomb-Colonies, Quill? Really?"
"Gamora! Did you get my letters?"
Standing casually in the door of his chambers, she cocked a hip and raised an eyebrow, striking as always in the flowing dark clothing of a Neath-captain (and whether she was also a Neath-pirate and an assassin was a matter of some debate in both the Court and the docks). Peter would have been delighted to see her at almost any time, but right at this exact moment he could easily have fallen at her feet with sheer delight.
"Letters? Perhaps the bats went astray or were eaten by something." She raised the other eyebrow. "I suppose you're going to attempt to talk me into taking you with me."
"... Yes? That was what the letters were all about?" As well as letters to everyone he'd ever known or even vaguely met back home, from the Flit to Mrs. Plenty's Carnival, but she didn't need to know that.
"I'm here to sell my cargo to the Tomb-Colonists," Gamora said, "not to provide removal for people who got themselves exiled of their own free will."
"I didn't do it," Peter said promptly.
"Oh, so you didn't steal an entire cartload of antiques from the Shuttered Palace and attempt to fence them to that lowlife the Cheery Man --"
"His name is Yondu, actually, and he's not really that cheerful --"
"-- and then when the criminal element of the Neath decided that stolen goods from the Palace were too hot for them, you decided to sell them to the Brass Embassy? Peter."
"For someone who didn't know I was in the Tomb-Colonies, you seem to be well informed." Peter swiped his Walkman and a small pile of loose sheets of paper (that might be concealing a pilfered, if flawed, diamond or two, and a rare venom-ruby), and tried to look swashbuckling and bold instead of vaguely pallid after months of dealing with people whose idea of an exciting evening was playing a game of "hunt the fallen knucklebone, and we don't mean that metaphorically."
"Ready to go?" he asked hopefully.
Just then the door slammed open, followed by the skittering, dry hand of the person who had flung it. "Bollocks," the Tomb-Colonist declared in a creaky voice, "not again," followed by a rasping cry of "Thief!" and then, with surprising accuracy for a one-handed representative of the undead, he flung a dagger.
Peter wasn't sure what possessed him to step in front of Gamora, but he did it, even as he was aware of Gamora ducking out of the way, and realized there was no reason to do this in the first place. But the dagger, flung with unerring accuracy, was already headed for the hollow of his throat.
Peter's first view was of the glimmering false stars overhead, his first impression (other than pain) the slow rolling and creaking of the floor.
"Don't move," said a hissing voice from a pointed snout thrust in his face from about six inches away. It was the sort of order, given in the sort of voice, that tends to be followed by "... and give me all your valuables."
Peter stared at that whiskered snout and the narrowed eyes above it, and finally he rasped out, "Rocket?" There couldn't possibly be two talking raccoons running around the Neath. Well, maybe there could; it was the Neath after all. But this one looked vaguely familiar, inasmuch as a raccoon could look familiar.
The animal-face staring at him developed new overtones of baleful suspicion, and the furry snout wrinkled in a hint of a snarl. "Who the hell are you?"
"Peter! Peter Quill! Neath-Lord! We ran into each other last year robbing the --"
"Don't know you, never met you. Gamora!" he yelled over his shoulder. "He's awake, and delirious! Don't listen to anything he says!"
A moment later, Gamora appeared, looking down at him with her arms crossed. Peter propped himself up on his elbows, because it made him feel a little more ... dignified, or something. He found that he was lying on rough burlap on the rolling, creaking deck of a ship. And also, his neck hurt viciously, and sparks danced in his vision when he moved.
"Hi," he whispered, with the best grin he could manage. Based on the looks on both Gamora's and Rocket's faces, he didn't think it was much of a grin. "Did I ... er --" He had a momentary vision of another boat, on a far darker river -- of a chess piece being nudged by a too-thin hand, in a game he'd begun long ago, and didn't seem likely to win. "... die?"
"Yes," Gamora said flatly. "We patched you up enough to get you back, and I hope you appreciate the sacrifice of the bottle of Tincture of Vigour I was saving for a special occasion, not for the self-inflicted death of a fool."
"I was saving your life!" Peter rasped out indignantly and with maybe a little bit more force than he'd intended, because the pain in his throat spiked and he put up a hand, touching it, finding a rough-tied bandage. What was under the bandage was best not contemplated; those might be bits of windpipe he could feel.
"You're going to end up a Tomb-Colonist at this rate," Gamora sighed. "Drax, take him below."
"Wargh," Peter managed, as he was lifted in a pair of powerful arms. He looked up weakly at a craggy gray chin, an overhanging brow, the clefts and cracks in a pair of clay cheeks. There were chips and fractures, a piece was missing from the misshapen ear, and slowly, as the apparition marched him across the deck toward the hold, Peter came to an inescapable conclusion. He tried to twist around without completely unscrewing his throat.
"Er ... Gamora ... Gamora, is one of your crewmen an Unfinished Man -- Gamora!"
"He's proved himself better than you have so far," was the all too unsympathetic reply.
It was perhaps a day, perhaps two, before he could venture up to the deck again. In the meantime, all he could manage was stumbling on wobbly legs to the head and back again, sometimes assisted by a visibly amused Drax.
He hadn't realized that Clay Men had a sense of humor. Maybe the lack of a sense of humor was one of the things this one was missing? No ... that would be absurd. But then again, people said they were missing a conscience, and if you could cut that out and put it in, couldn't you cut out or put in whatever you wanted?
"What is that?" Drax asked, sitting with Peter by the light of a gently swaying lantern after bringing him a bowl of soup and a cracked cup of water. Peter hadn't asked him to stay, in fact didn't particularly want him to stay, but he'd apparently decided to do it, and it was more trouble than it was worth to move a Clay Man once he'd decided to sit somewhere.
Drax was pointing to Peter's Walkman.
"It's from the Surface," Peter said. He swallowed hard enough to make his healing throat ache. They said, when you died the first time, that you were free. The Surface would no longer call you back.
He'd died for the first time at the age of nine, wriggling through a ventilation shaft as part of Yondu's crew. The shaft unexpectedly led to a pit of venomous snakes. He'd died, all right, but he'd never felt free.
"Is it alive?" the Clay Man asked, poking it with a thick finger. There were runes all over his hand, carved into the clay.
"What? No! Of course not. It's a Walkman." Peter pulled it back, putting a protective hand over it. "They're more advanced up there than you guys are down here. Time's moved on."
And down here, time never seemed to move at all. Something he wouldn't expect any of them to comprehend -- least of all a Clay Man.
But Drax only nodded slowly, as if he understood.
When Peter was finally able to make it up to the deck, his throat having healed well enough that he no longer felt in danger of having his head fall off when he moved too suddenly, he found Gamora standing at the, er ... foredeck? Point? Apex? Boatmost? He really needed to learn nautical terminology.
Whatever it was called, he joined her there. Gamora looked around at him with a faint grin, her long coat snapping in the wind.
"You look better," she said.
"He couldn't really look worse," was Rocket's sarcastic comment, and Peter looked down at knee level.
"Gamora, would it upset you if I kick your ... uh, mascot ... into the --"
"First mate!" Rocket said in a voice rising into a snarl. "Gamora, would you mind if I rip the 'nads off this --"
"Yes," Gamora said. "On both counts ..." She paused, and raised a hand to the black nonsky. Peter hadn't seen anything up there, but a small furry body dropped out of the air, out of the darkness, onto her leather wrist guard.
Peter waited for her to take a message tube from the bat's leg, but it didn't seem to carry one. Instead she knelt quickly and spread a sheet of parchment on the deck. The bat leaped from her wrist to the chart and scratched something on the parchment, then flopped in a limp little heap, panting wearily.
"Poor tired thing." She scooped it up and handed it up to Drax's big cupped clay hands. "Take the bat below and make sure it's watered and fed."
Drax dipped its -- er, his head and stomped off toward the hold.
"The bat told you where we are," Peter said, kneeling beside the chart.
"Do you know nothing of Zee-navigation? How else would one do it?"
"Er .. yes," Peter said. "How else indeed." He looked down at the map, which was scrawled with a network of barely visible claw-scratchings. Honestly, what did you expect when you outsourced your navigation to a workforce with the brain of a very small marble.
But Gamora seemed to be able to understand it. She straightened at last, and stared out at the dark horizon, which had changed not at all since Peter had been on deck. "We're close," she said.
"Close to what?" Peter asked nervously. Hell? The edge of the world?
"Polythreme," Gamora said quietly.
"Polythreme? Polythreme, the creepiest place in the Neath? Why on Ear -- er -- Neath would you want to go there?"
"Because we haven't a choice." Gamora's voice was oddly gentle, and she looked down at Rocket, standing by her leg. He looked back with a viciously defiant expression, but slowly he turned his body, revealing a small pot that he was holding.
The pot contained nothing but a small upright splinter of wood. Peter's first (or second, or third) reaction was to make a joke, but something in the expression on Rocket's face stopped him. He might be a total a-hole, in fact he was sure of it, but he wasn't that much of a dick.
"Because of this," Gamora said quietly, and she looked back out at the dark ocean, lit only by the ship's lanterns. "We sail to Polythreme because it is the only place where our friend might live again."
"Yay," Peter said. "Er. What?"
"This was a terrible idea!"
Peter stumbled and fell, but somehow managed to hold onto the pot, where what had been a stick six hours ago was now a small and very mobile tree that was earnestly trying to extract its roots from the soil and toddle around. Meanwhile, the rocks nipped at Peter's legs and his trousers were trying to bite something far closer to home.
"But it worked!" Gamora panted, and took a tumble next to him when her boots tripped her.
"Our clothing is in full revolt," Peter ground out, flat on the rocks.
"But it worked!" she said again, through her efforts to stop her leather blouse from stealing her knives, and flashed Peter a quick smile. And in spite of himself -- with all his clothes trying to make a concerted getaway, and his hands curled around a tiny tree that was now biting him, and his Walkman's headphones squirming up his arm like some kind of demented snake -- he smiled back.