Nebula leaves gifts for Gamora to find.
The first is a bomb, the big, impressive kind of bomb that Nebula tends to favour, slick polished metal, beautiful in the way that Nebula is beautiful. It is sitting obtrusively in the prison cell with the Selenian diplomat that she and Quill and the others are trying to rescue, wired so that they will have to disarm it in order to free hir.
"What the fuck," Rocket says, delving into the machinery. "I don't even know what this is."
Gamora glances down, but only for a moment; she's charged herself with keeping watch over Rocket while he works, and it's a responsibility she takes seriously. She's never known anyone except Nebula who built explosives like this, and if Nebula is trying to kill them, there may yet be more to her plan.
"Don't touch it," she hisses, right before Rocket's wicked little claw comes in contact with the glass. He freezes, listening to instructions for once. "It's vibration-sensitive, it'll set the whole bomb off."
"Your sister's a real prize, you know that?"
"I do," Gamora says. It's not an untrue statement, in its way.
There is no more to Nebula's plan; just the bomb in the way of their rescue and their payoff. It's not really meant to kill them, though Nebula would undoubtedly not have cried if they had. It's simply a reminder of her presence, of her eyes watching them as they travel.
Gamora accepts the token for what it is, and when Rocket has finished disassembling the bomb, she keeps the detonator: a small, twisted curve of shining silver metal. Without the explosive material, it's harmless, a trigger without a gun.
The second is a note sitting in a locked, guarded vault, in lieu of the merchandise they have been contracted to retrieve. It is a small clay tablet inscribed with nothing more than Gamora's name.
"This journey has been a waste of our time," Drax growls.
"Yeah, Gamora, this is kind of a bummer," Quill agrees.
"I am Groot," Groot offers, placatingly, from his place in Rocket's knapsack. He's not big enough to run around on his own yet.
Gamora picks up the clay tablet. She remembers the planet where they used such tablets for communication and record-keeping; she and Nebula trained there, once, fighting their way through the hostile terrain, ravaged by the local wildlife, struggling even to draw enough breath in the strange atmosphere to go on running.
The nights there had been cold, and she and Nebula had shared their sleeping rolls, bodies pressed together and shivering. In the mornings she had woken up covered in Nebula's blood and internal fluids, and Nebula had woken up covered in hers, their wounds having opened up against one another.
"Thank you, Groot," Gamora says, though she has not yet mastered Rocket's ability to understand the nuance of what he is saying. "Nebula is not my problem alone, though if it is what the group desires I will leave you and deal with her myself."
She's no longer sure that she would be able to kill Nebula. Often, she wants to, but increasingly, she's not sure she could.
"Shut up, it's fine. What's one more asshole gunning for us," Rocket says, and offers her a sharp-toothed smile.
Gamora nods, as if it is really this simple. But that night, aboard ship, she takes the clay tablet out of her pocket and rubs it with her thumb, as if contact with the object will decipher the meaning behind it.
The third gift is a severed head.
"Uh, I think that's . . . yeah, that's Bleent," Quill says, when they've opened the eyelids and wiped some of the blood off of the face. "Yondu used to send him to, like, kill people."
"An assassin," Drax spits. "But why is he dead, and who would dare to send a challenge to warriors such as us?"
"It's not a challenge," Gamora says. She opens Bleent's mouth and reaches inside, already expecting to find the small object resting on his tongue.
"Eww," Quill says, "ew, what are you – oh god – what is that?"
Gamora sighs before placing the little metal box into the airlock and flushing it out into space.
"Rewna eggs," she explains. Rocket and Groot both shudder, while Drax and Quill look confused. "They would've hatched, eaten the head, and then eaten the entire ship and everyone on it."
"So, what kind of freak would kill the assassin that was probably gunning for us, then use his head in an attempt to assassinate us? That doesn't make any . . . sense . . . " Rocket slows down and his eyes narrow. "This is your weird bald sister again, isn't it."
"It does seem like something she would do," Gamora agrees. In fact, it is something that Gamora has seen her do, many times before. She crouches again next to Bleent's head and combs carefully through the hair, looks up the nostrils, pulls the earlobes up so that she can look behind them. Eventually she finds a small silver spike, pressed into the flesh at the back of the head. She pulls it out. She remembers the first one of these she ever received, when she and Nebula were both still young, made of flesh and bone and pleasure and grief, desperate for Thanos's approval, desperate for each other. It had taken her through a maze of hidden passageways, from her sleeping place to Nebula's without ever tripping a single alarm.
"What is that?" Drax asks. "More flesh-eating creatures to devour us in our sleep?"
Gamora presses her thumb to the end of the spike, and ignores the others as they jump back from it instinctively. The tip of the spike lights up and projects a holographic display: planets, stars, ships, space stations.
"It's a map," Gamora says.
They find Nebula sitting atop a rocky outcropping on a desolate world, a cold, dry place where gusts of sand eat at the exposed rock of the cliffs. She looks like a vengeful queen, sitting calmly in a high place, waiting for their supplication.
Just out of sight behind various boulders, dug into the ground, hovering cloaked in the air, are enough armed drones to kill them all in an instant. Nebula probably knows that they can detect them, but that doesn't make them any less deadly.
"I will speak only to my sister," Nebula calls. "The rest of you come no further."
"You were right before, you know. This isn't just your fight," Quill says, softly, in her ear. "We can come with you. You don't have to do this alone."
"It isn't a fight," Gamora says, though she has precious little evidence of that. "And I am never alone."
She climbs quickly up the sheer side of the rock, warning the others to stay back, to watch, and to wait. When she reaches the top Nebula is there, leaning over her, a mirror image of their positions the last time they saw each other.
"I don't suppose you want to give me a hand up," Gamora says.
"The last time I did that, when we were training on Dervani, you threw me to the rocks below us rather than accept my help."
"And the last time I offered you my hand, on Nova Prime, you cut off your arm rather than accept it. What if you simply pulled me up the ledge?"
Gamora doesn't need help getting herself to the top. Nebula knows it.
Nebula extends her hand. It's her left, and it's new, brighter than the rest of her parts and a little off-colour. Gamora wonders what underground market she had to deal in to secure it, now that she's cut herself off from Thanos.
Gamora takes it, and then lets go of the ledge entirely, trusting her entire weight to Nebula's new arm.
Nebula pulls her up effortlessly and sets her on her feet.
"Thank you, sister," Gamora says.
"You need not call me that," Nebula says, turning away, pacing to the center of the ledge. Gamora doesn't miss the three seconds in which she could've attacked Nebula from behind. "We are no longer bound together by Thanos's regard."
"Then why do you leave me gifts?"
Nebula laughs. "Bombs and deadly insects?"
"You killed the assassin that was sent to kill us."
Turning, Nebula's gaze narrows. "I killed the assassin sent to kill you. Your death should not belong to some greasy ravager scum. I don't care about the rest of your crew."
Gamora takes a few steps to close the gap between them; then, as quickly as she can, she darts her hand out to catch Nebula's arm in her grasp. "To whom should my death belong?"
Nebula doesn't flinch, or try to wrench her arm away. Her black eyes are unblinking. "To no one. To Thanos. Or perhaps to me."
"You could have my death now, if you wanted it. Give the word and your drones will kill me. Make it a sure thing."
Now Nebula does move, cocking her head suddenly and smiling her small, deadly smile. "But what is the value of a sure thing?" she asks.
She takes one step further forward, pushing their bodies flush together. In the cold wind it is a relief to share her heat, just as it was all those years ago when they trained together. Gamora knows that she should not let herself be seduced by this, that Nebula is intentionally playing on those memories, on the seed of affection that Gamora has always kept for her.
It is, after all, the only language they know.
"Sister," Gamora murmurs, ignoring her own best judgment, and kisses her softly. Up close she can hear the clicks and whirrs of Nebula's cybernetic parts, feel the soft wet warmth of her mouth, smell the metallic salt tang of her sweat. It is everything Gamora has missed, since she ran from Thanos and from Ronan: Nebula's open mouth willing against hers, Nebula's heat seeping into her skin. The illusion, at least, of Nebula's trust.
Perhaps there was a time, long ago, when they trusted one another. Gamora can't remember anymore.
Nebula's hand lands in Gamora's hair, sliding down to cup her neck, sliding down again to trail over her breast. She pinches the nipple, twisting hard, exactly the way Gamora likes it. Nebula has always known just how to handle Gamora's body, with the same instinctive certainty that she has with every other weapon she's ever touched. Gamora groans into her mouth.
Pulling back, Nebula laughs softly. "Still so eager," she says, not unkindly. "Always so desperate for my touch, even with so many of my weapons pointed at you. Even when I could order your death in an instant."
"You could try," Gamora says. It comes out low and menacing. There's a flash of fear in Nebula's eyes, so Gamora takes her head in her hands and holds her still and kisses her again, hard and biting this time. She kisses her for a long time, drinking in the heat and wet of her, a perfect contrast to the cold, dry air. Nebula laughs again, and it lingers on Gamora's lips.
"Come with me," Gamora says, when she pulls away again. "Come with me, come with us. We can work together again."
"No," Nebula says.
Gamora tamps down the urge to bare her teeth in frustration. "Then why call me here, to this deserted rock? Why all the little gifts?"
Nebula's gaze turns downward, but only for a moment before she lifts her head again to look Gamora in the eyes. "Because I missed you, sister." Her voice is as soft as Gamora's ever heard it, and it makes her ache inside.
There's a sudden whirring hum, a big piece of machinery flying towards them; Gamora lets go of Nebula and backs up a step, drawing her gun, looking up to see her potential target.
It's a personal rocket suit. Nebula steps into it and it closes up around her like a coffin, like a carapace.
"This time you chase me," she says, her voice translated through the speakers of the suit, tinny and robotic. Then she blasts off into the atmosphere, her army of drones abandoning their hiding places and soaring into the sky after her.
"Wowwww," Quill says, when she reaches the ground again.
She rolls her eyes. "I do not wish to talk about it."
Drax catches her arm. She stares at his grip, then glares up at him.
"Will your sister cease her interference in our affairs?" he asks.
She shakes him off, and he lets her go. "Probably," she says, striding towards the ship, leaving the rest of them behind. They rush to catch up with her.
"Probably?" Rocket asks. "What, you're not sure?"
Where the others can't see, Gamora smiles. "What is the value of a sure thing?"