It all begins when their hands touch. This time, Nebula never lets go.
"Help me up?" Gamora asks, from the floor, her legs swept from beneath her.
Nebula complies, hauling Gamora to her feet. Gamora has to crane her neck to look up at her, and their eyes meet. Nebula lets her hand linger for a little bit longer, before releasing Gamora's palm. Her blue skin suddenly feels slightly colder, just for a moment. She gives Gamora a faint but sincere smile, and receives a close-lipped upturn of her sister's lips. "Good match."
They rarely have time for this, anymore. Thanos sends them out for singular, high-ranking, useless politicians; they are usually poorly guarded and arrogant, and it is not very much trouble at all. Thanos calls it 'practice'- Nebula can barely remember who she killed for the first time, except the amethyst blood over her hands, her legs barely shaking. Her head was held high when she returned with stained hands, the head of her victim held in her metal hand. Gamora returned with ashes and dirt-free hands and Thanos laughed and called her the better daughter.
Nebula has had enough practice, and Thanos promises a mission- a real one. Soon.
Thanos's voice reverberates throughout the dingy training room, calling out for the two of them. Nebula takes a step back from Gamora before turning around and walking down the hallway. Each steps that she takes brings her closer to Thanos, and her feet feel heavier by the second.
In another universe, this is when it all changes.
In another universe, this is where Nebula lets go. Jealousy is a rotten, rotten thing, and she yanks herself as far away from Gamora as possible. It had been bubbling up for a while now, an eruption of lava and ashes, solidifying into hard stone and burying everything that was once there.
Sister becomes a mocking word. When Gamora returns from her first 'mission', they never look at each other the same way again.
Nebula's pitch eyes flicker to the unforgiving gray floor for a second, the words 'favorite daughter' ringing in her head. Gamora glances to her, apologetic. Nebula pretends not to see. It doesn't matter, she tells herself. It doesn’t. Her metal arm feels freezing against the scarred skin of her shoulder. She should be used to it by now, the bitter taste in her mouth. She does not need Thanos's approval, but it stings all the same.
Gamora has always been everyone's favorite. Gamora is Nebula's favorite.
Still, Gamora's favorite has always been Nebula, and later, when Gamora's warmth is pressed up behind her back in a manner meant to be comforting, Nebula will look down at light blue and silver against green and white, and decides it doesn't matter.
There are many things she would never do for Thanos that she would do for her sister, and if she had no choice, she would make Gamora's death painless. Nebula doesn't know what love is. She wonders if this was it.
Love is for children, but she never got the chance to be a child.
(I hated you the least.)
Gamora's eyes are blazing with a fierce intensity. "I'll come back for you. I promise. All you have to do is wait for me. After I sell the Power Gem, we will be free."
"And leave the world to burn? Your buyer..." Nebula says. The world could blaze for all she cared,but she was one of the people in it, and so was Gamora. "Nothing can escape Thanos, either way."
"He will not. And not if we obtain the Space Gem," her sister says, stubbornly. "Thanos will never find us."
Nebula can do nothing but nod.
In another universe, Gamora leaves.
In another universe, Gamora offers a second chance, but Nebula lets go. She steals a ship, going to the edges of the galaxy.
In another universe, Thanos finds Nebula, eventually. He makes sure she doesn't leave again. Amidst the pain and heat and prying claws, she wonders if Gamora got away. Nothing can escape Thanos. Not even Nebula.
Then again, Gamora is the best. (better, Ronan says contemptuously. Favorite, Thanos snarls derisively.)
Nebula doesn't scream when the heat gets too much to bear, but she doesn't think of Gamora again.
"Just give me the Infinity Gem," Nebula pleads. "Once Ronan destroys Xandar, we can leave. He will be too drunk on power to notice."
"We cannot doom innocent billions to die!"
"We've done it before," Nebula says, desperate. "Give me the orb."
"I know," Gamora's voice is faint. "And I do not want to do it again. Sister, please." Her voice is pleading, and Nebula suddenly remembers the times where she would sneak off to the dried food storage and get the least repulsive food she could find, all because Gamora asked. Nebula wishes this was the one thing she could do, something as simple as stealing candy or snack bars.
Nebula closes her eyes as her finger twitches on the finger. The blast hits the strongest, sturdiest of the blue and orange pod; the lowest part of the spine, furthest away from the power source. She opens her eyes just in time to see Gamora fly out, unshielded, into the deadly emptiness of space. Nebula's knuckles turn white on the control while she turns away.
Later, when she looks back, she sees Peter Quill place his mask over her sister's face. They are pulled up by a multicolored tractor beam, and she releases a breath she did not know she had been holding before shooting back into the entrance of Knowhere.
(behold your guardians of the galaxy)
"Gamor-" Nebula says, shocked, before she's blasted in the full force in face with a portable plasma cannon.
It is not pleasant. She sits up, her bones snapping back into place with gruesome clicks. Her jaw is the last to recover, and when she can speak again, she sits up, scowling. Gamora is the only one standing there now. She's endured worse, but burns take longer to heal.
"You didn't tell them," her voice is flat. It is not a question.
Gamora looks faintly guilty, but does not apologize. They have never said the word out loud, and it is not not going to change now. "They did not need to know."
It was true. Nebula pushes down whatever disappointment she feels, and stands up. "Why did you come back? Ronan is near unstoppable now..." and it's my fault, she does not add.
"You shot my pod," Gamora says, with hard eyes but a real smile. Nebula swallows the guilt- it is a strange feeling, to be still capable of it after all she has done. It feels strangely novel. "I needed to come back for you, and to stop Ronan. I kn- " Her sister cuts off abruptly, just as Nebula hears faint voices from what is presumably Gamora's earpiece.
The ground tilts slightly beneath their feet, and an explosion sounds off in the far distance. Her sister hurries over to the power source, smashing it with feeling in a spray of bright green glass. The heavy, 'impenetrable' doors to Ronan slide open in the next corridor, and the ship starts shaking again.
"Ronan is unstoppable- he has an Infinity Gem, Gamora."
"When has the impossible ever stopped us?"
Gamora holds out her hand, and Nebula takes it.
When Gamora joins the mismatched team, they all draw their weapons on Nebula. Gamora stops them, standing in front of her. "I will explain later," she says, unmoving.
Quill opens his mouth to comment, but is silenced with a quick glare.
When they reach the bridge, Ronan is waiting for them. He is formidable, carved out of marble. Nebula and Gamora, together, have brought down kings and rulers and planets, one by one. The power of an Infinity Stone, though, they have never faced. Thanos and Asgard possess them all, and they have never fought against either. Until now.
Predictably, the cannon does not work.
Even before the Orb, Ronan could have easily withstood a blast this strong- Krees were resilient, and Ronan was one of the strongest. He might not be half machine like Nebula was, or infused with a mix of the strongest alien cells like Gamora, but he had will and ambition and magic, and now, an Infinity Gem.
Xandar stood as his Accused, and they were the only thing standing in between a planet and its destroyer.
(The cannon doesn't work, and the next moment, a ship comes flying into the bridge, smashing pillars and pilots and flooring alike.)
Nebula wakes up a few moments later, feeling the bones in her left knee pop into place. She hauls herself to her feet as quick as possible, looking over to Gamora, who is dragging the dense, muscular form of her unconscious team member back to the others. Nebula hurries over, and grabs his other arm, pulling him back towards the others.
When she is enveloped in a cocoon of branches and leaves, despite the fact that she's not (one of them), small fireflies gleaming in the confined space, she looks at the kind, smiling face over weathered bark and eyes the same shade as hers (but much softer than hers will ever be), she thinks, that maybe she sees it. What makes them so special. She wonders if she would be able to fit in. If Gamora needed her sister anymore.
She does not get much time to think about it before they collide with the ground at full speed.
The grounds are littered with twigs and leaves and the acrid smell of burning floats in the air. The shreds of bark are all that remains of the Flora Colossus. Looking around at the distraught faces- particularly the small animal's, she wonders what could have been. Who was ze? What kind of person was ze, who made even Gamora mourn for hir?
Ronan emerges fully unscathed from the flaming wreckage, having survived without the sacrifice of one of his own. When he speaks, his voice is deep with malice and mocking.
"Citizens of Xandar, behold your guardians of the galaxy!" he raises his arms in a derisive gesture. "What fruit have they wrought?" He raises his hammer, ready to strike it to the ground and burn everything beneath. Nebula has destroyed planets from the inside, destroying the government and letting the citizens burn themselves into nonexistence, and so has Gamora. This, though, is utterly final and devastating, with no chance of failure. She has a horrifying vision of burnt ground and ashes, glowing a lethal, royal purple, and barely has time to half turn towards the person she gives a remote iota about before Quill steps forward.
Nebula can only stare in bizarre confusion as he sings a tune she does not recognize, the most notable lyrics being "ooh child". He offers a hand up to Gamora, who looks as shocked as Nebula feels, shaking her head silently. It seems to work, though, distracting even her, as she fails to notice the two others leaping for the hammer in her peripheral vision.
Then the Power Gem is in Quill's hand, and everything explodes in a vortex of swirling ash and purple dust.
(She takes Gamora's hand.)