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They run into the strangers in a seedy dive in Knowhere. Well, by “run into” Peter means “Rocket deliberately bumps into, hoping for unsecured valuables and/or a fight”, and by “seedy dive” he means “literally any bar”.

“Oh, sorry!” says the girl. She’s pretty and wide-eyed in a way that would have Peter buying her a drink and inviting her back to the Milano as much for her own sake as his. She’s too good for a place like this.

“You talkin’ to me?” says Rocket, probably by reflex, which is apparently all the time the beefy guy with wolfy ears needs to realize Rocket’s now holding his gun.

He snarls, and a huge black wing unfurls sharply to catch Rocket in the chest.

Legionnaire! Peter’s mind blares in warning, followed by Ohshitohshitohshit—

Rocket flies backwards. Unfortunately, he doesn’t just drop the blaster and run; he has to roll to his feet and spring onto Groot, scrambling up onto his shoulders.

“Caine!” shouts the girl, but the Legionnaire’s already leaping into the air, a jump that with a flap of his wings brings him level with Groot’s head.

Rocket fires; the energy beam deflects off Wolfy McFly’s shield. Groot barely gets an arm up in time and catches the guy’s face.

“I am Groot!” he says.

McFly flaps his wings again and lunges for Rocket. Groot’s arm grows just enough that he comes up short, and for a second Peter just has to appreciate the cartoon glory of watching the Legionnaire flails at his target just out of reach.

Another flap of his wings and he somersaults over Groot’s head. He lands in a crouch and snarls. Rocket swears and hisses back, and now Peter can practically hear his Grandpa's drawl in his head, talking about that time his hound dog treed a raccoon.

“Stop!” says the girl, running to McFly’s side.

Peter almost has a heart attack when a gun suddenly appears over his shoulder and Gamora says, “You should really listen to her, Legionnaire.”

McFly’s moving before she’s even done the first word; he draws another sidearm, grabs the girl, and throws up his shield, which, dumb: his whole side is still vulnerable to Gamora’s fire. The only one safe is the girl, and she – oh.

“I don’t listen to assassins,” he snarls.

“Okay, fair enough,” says Peter. He puts his hands up and tries to look reasonable and non-threatening and not a target, which would probably be easier if Gamora still didn’t have her gun level with his ears. “But I think your girlfriend there is on the right track, and we’re not getting anywhere right now, so why don’t we all calm down and just… take a minute, okay? I don’t want to get shot. Or kicked out. I like this bar.”

“You hate this bar,” says Gamora. "You said it was a terrible hive of scum and evil."

"It's 'a wretched hive of scum and villainy', c'mon!" protests Peter. He's glad his friends are taking an interest in the finest stories of Earth culture, but he wishes they were better at quoting them.

He can see the girl making some kind of face at him, distorted through the shield. Maybe a family member owns the bar.

McFly glowers. “I want my gun,” he says.

“You’ve already got one,” says Gamora.

“Yeah, can’t you be happy?” says Rocket.

“I am Groot.”

“Aw, come on!” says Rocket. “He can’t want it that much, or else it wouldn’t have been so easy to pick up.”

Groot reaches back and picks up Rocket by the back of his tac vest, then carefully swings him around until he’s hanging in front of Groot’s face.

“I am Groot,” says Groot.

“You are no fun,” says Rocket, crossing his arms like a petulant kindergartener. A petulant kindergartener with a gun under one arm. Peter didn’t get to handle firearms until he was at least in the equivalent of the fourth grade.

“Alright, here’s a plan,” says Peter. “Why doesn’t everyone put their guns down? That seems fair.”

“You think I’m dropping my weapon in front of a Legionnaire?” says Gamora.

“Well, it’s not like he’s going to shoot you,” says Peter. “We’ve talked about using me as a human shield, Gamora.”

“I am Groot.”

Thank you, Groot,” says Peter. “What do you say?”

Wolfy McFly narrows his eyes. Peter tenses, because he is totally going to get shot by a Legionnaire, and he doesn’t even deserve it.

Well, not in this specific instance, anyway.

“Do you have a ship?” asks the girl.

Peter twitches; he almost forgot she was there.

“Do I have a ship?” he repeats. “Do I have a ship. She might not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.”

“Perfect,” says the girl. “Alright, everyone put away their guns – slowly – on the count of three. One, two—”

There’s something about her voice that rings oddly in Peter’s translator circuit. Maybe she’s got some mental juju or something, because on her “Three!” Groot puts down Rocket, and Rocket puts down the Legionnaire’s gun with a sigh, and the Legionnaire puts down his other gun with a scowl, and even Gamora crouches and places her gun on the ground, though she’s still using Peter for cover. He’s really glad the girl has one of those voices you want to listen to, because if anyone fires at Gamora he’s going to get shot in the junk.

“Now what,” says Rocket.

“You’re going to give Caine his gun back and buy us drinks as an apology,” says the girl. “Then you’re going to listen to a business proposition.”

~*~*~*~

But first, they take a few minutes to get kicked out of the bar. It’s fine, Peter hated that place anyway.

~*~*~*~

There’s definitely something weird going on with Peter’s translation circuits, or maybe they’re feeling nostalgic, because they deliver the girl’s name as “Jupiter Jones”.

“Funny, you don’t look like one of the Three Investigators,” he says. She gives him a blank look. She actually looks like an off-duty member of the Aegis, which Peter is fine with: the real people to worry about in that sector are the Abrasax Security Forces. And, of course, the Legion.

Wolfy McFly’s name is Caine Wise. He doesn’t give a rank, which makes Peter relax a little. Ex-Legionnaires are probably less likely to bite him to death.

Or they would be if Gamora wasn’t deliberately antagonizing him. Technically she’s not really doing anything but looking at him, but Peter is the master of the obnoxious look. He can look at people and annoy them so much they get distracted and he can escape. (Admittedly they usually get distracted because they’re trying to punch him in the face, but whatever, it works.) He knows when someone is Looking with Intent, and Gamora is totally doing it. Caine is glowering back at her and has his arm around Jupiter’s shoulders so possessively he looks like he’s going to climb onto her lap and start barking.

“Oh my God, Caine, just stop,” says Jupiter. “She’s not going to do anything. You look like you’re about three seconds from peeing on me!”

“There are waste disposal facilities on the other side of the bar,” says Drax. Peter’s currently thanking anything that’ll listen that Drax was back on the Milano during the standoff. Drax doesn’t really do standoffs and the name makes him angry.

“So let me get this straight,” says Peter, before any of his friends can jump in with unfortunate commentary. “You want to hire us to fly you to Cerise and just… drop you off.”

“Yep,” says Jupiter.

“And you’ll pay us half upfront.”

“Yep,” says Jupiter.

And you’ll cover the cost of refueling,” says Peter.

“That’s the deal,” says Jupiter.

Peter leans forward. “What’s the catch?” he asks.

“Catch?”

“C’mon, it's far, but we both know you could get a commercial flight to Cerise for half what I’m charging,” says Peter. “Even if you wanted to sneak in there illegally, there are smugglers that specialize in that sort of thing who are still cheaper. So what’s the catch?”

“Once we’re there, I want to hire you for another job,” says Jupiter.

Gamora finally abandons her staring match with Caine. “What job?” she asks.

“I’ll tell you when we get there,” says Jupiter. “I want to make sure you guys are right for it.”

Peter squints at her. He has the sneaking suspicion that her eyes are so wide because they’re genetically designed to make her look like a cute fluffy animal you just want to make happy. Or it's more mental juju. This isn't the double-cross you're looking for.

“Team huddle,” he announces. “No, Drax, sit up straight, you don’t have to – look, just get over here.”

“I am Groot.”

“Groot, you’re excused.”

“I am Groot,” he says, satisfied. He holds out one of his arms and stares at it, apparently in concentration.

“What do you think?” Peter asks, in a quiet voice. Over Rocket’s head, he watches Groot sprout a delicate purple flower and feels vaguely proud that his recovery is going so well.

“I like this Jupiter Jones,” says Drax. “She will pay us lots of money for an easy job.”

“I mean, we won’t even have to steal from them to make a profit,” says Rocket. “We’re basically Kevin Bacon!”

Groot hands the flower to Jupiter, and she smiles with what looks like genuine delight. “Wow, thank you!” she says. She tucks it behind her ear.

“I am Groot,” says Groot.

“I don’t like it,” says Gamora. “It could be a set-up. We need to find out what that other job is, whether or not we decide to take it.”

Caine is staring at the side of Jupiter’s head suspiciously, like the flower is going to leap out of her hair and start eating her face.

“I am Groot,” says Groot. Obviously misinterpreting his look, he hands Caine a flower too.

Caine takes it like it’s going to explode, but when he thinks no one’s looking, he sniffs it.

“Agreed,” says Peter. “Team huddle over.” He turns to Jupiter. “What’s the other job?” he asks.

“She told you,” says Caine. He’d probably look more badass if he dropped the flower, although Peter would also think less of him as a person. “You’ll find out when we get to Cerise.”

Peter crosses his arms. “Then no deal,” he says.

Jupiter puts a restraining hand on Caine’s arm. “You have no objection to the first job, right? Flying us to Cerise?”

Peter doesn't really like the Abrasax Sector. It's boring and there are too many rules and the Entitled swan around like they own the galaxy. Which, okay, they kind of do, but they don't have to act like... like... like dicks.

He looks at the team. Gamora's frowning, but not at anything in particular. Drax looks stoic, surprise surprise. Rocket mouths "Easy money!"

"I am Groot," says Groot.

“No,” Peter admits.

“Then let’s wager for it,” says Jupiter. “A drinking contest.”

Caine groans and covers his face with his hands.

“We win, you take us to Cerise and we tell you about the second job,” says Jupiter. “You can take it or leave it. You win, we tell you about the second job now, but you still agree to carry us whether or not you want to continue on.”

“Easiest bet ever,” says Rocket. “We’ll do it, but you’re buying. And Drax isn’t drinking for us. I refuse to get banned from two bars in one day if I don’t even get to make anything explode.”

“That… is probably wise,” says Drax.

“None of us are drinking against a splice,” says Gamora.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” says Jupiter. She looks at Peter. “You have mostly human DNA, right?”

“Yeah,” he says, a little taken aback. He knows she doesn’t mean Terran, but most people don’t throw around the h-word so casually in this sector.

“Me too,” says Jupiter. “Seem fair?”

Peter is almost twice as big as she is. “Sure thing,” he says with a grin.

~*~*~*~

Peter hasn’t had the spins this bad since he was a teenager. Or maybe it’s because Gamora’s flying the ship. He can’t even tell.

“You should never have taken that bet,” says Rocket.

“I was listening to you!” says Peter, and almost throws up at the effort. “You’re a dick. A whole bag of dicks. I hate everything.”

“I am Groot,” says Groot.

“No,” says Peter. He buries his face in his pillow. “Never again.”

“Can we give you anything to relieve your unmanly suffering?” asks Drax.

“Sweet, sweet death,” moans Peter.

Drax nods. “I’ll get Gamora,” he says.

There’s a knock at the door of his quarters. It’s Caine, carrying Jupiter on his back. She’s giggling.

“Third down the hall, right?” he asks.

“Fourth!” shouts Rocket. “You better not have touched my stuff!”

“I am Groot.”

“Or Groot’s stuff!”

“Shhhhhhhh,” says Jupiter, nowhere near quietly. “Peter’s sleeping! He’s even worse at this than Vladie, Caine.”

“Hate,” mumbles Peter. “Everything.”

“One for the road!” shouts Jupiter. He can hear her cackling all the way down the hall.

~*~*~*~

"I thought you said there weren't any Abrasax patrols out this far!" Jupiter hisses.

"There aren't!" Peter hisses back. "Or there weren't. It's not my fault!"

"You need to run," says Caine, threateningly. Well, he says everything threateningly, but Peter is pretty sure he means it this time.

"We won't have time to get up to speed before they box us in with their fancy mine field crap," says Peter.

"Xandarian ship, please respond," comes over the comm.

Peter shares a glance with Gamora. They don't need trouble with the House of Abrasax. You never know when you might have to flee to another sector. And if Jupiter and Caine are wanted fugitives, turning them in would be a great way to ingratiate themselves.

But... they did pay them half upfront.

Gamora stares out the front of the cockpit and mutters something under her breath. Either she wants a BLT or she's appealed to a higher power.

Peter switches to the ship's comms. "Rocket!" he says. "Plan M!"

"Plan M? Are you sure?"

"Just do it," says Peter.

There's a distant boom and the ship shudders. Peter flips back to the outside frequency just in time to hear, "Xandarian ship, if you do not respond we will be forced to—"

"This is Corpsman Rhomann Dey of the Milano," says Peter. "Sorry about the delay."

"We're reading unusually high amounts of particle activity. Are you in distress?"

"We had a... slight... weapons malfunction," says Peter. "But everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here, now. Thank you."

Jupiter is staring at him like he's grown another head. He gives her a thumbs up and can't resist adding a final, "How are you?"

The voice on the comm sighs audibly. "Do you need a repair squad?"

"No, we've got it under control."

"Please beam us your manifest and itinerary, Corpsman."

Peter obeys. Well, it's not their itinerary, exactly, but, you know. It's within a couple hundred light-years. If there are any problems, they can take it up with the real Rhomann Dey. He loves filling out paperwork.

It takes the Abrasax security ship several minutes to respond. The tension grows so thick that Drax would slice awkwardly at the air with a knife.

"Do you have an EVA suit?" asks Caine.

Gamora snorts. "Do you plan on flying over there and punching their cruiser in the face?"

"Yes," says Caine.

"No," says Jupiter. "I told you, Caine. I'm not going anywhere without you."

"I won't let them take you!"

They stare into each other’s eyes, then throw themselves in each other’s arms.

"Corpsman, you're cleared for this sector. Please proceed to the Ores gate."

"Excellent timing, Officer," says Peter. If anyone is going to have desperate makeouts on this ship, it should be with him. "Milano out!"

"Thanks," says Jupiter, once they're definitely clear of the security sweep.

"I assure you, ma'am," he says in his most Abrasax-y voice. "We may be a-holes, but we're not total dicks."

She laughs. It's a nice laugh.

~*~*~*~

Their potentially final meeting with Caine and Jupiter is in almost as seedy a dive as the ones on Knowhere. Peter tells himself it's so they can afford the most booze – well, so the rest of the team can enjoy the most booze; he's never drinking again, for at least a whole week – and not because he's feeling a little nostalgic. Jupiter and Caine have been model passengers: he doesn't say anything and will spar with Drax and Gamora without complaining and is bad at cards, she laughs at Peter's and Rocket's jokes whenever they're actually funny and likes to hang out in the cockpit with Peter during everyone else’s sleep cycle so she can read star charts, they both get along well with Groot, and they paid the amount they owed in unmarked, nonsequential credits.

They’re dressed to blend in with the Abrasax Sector, which basically means taking random pieces of clothing or equipment and covering them in glitter. Drax chose a belt, Rocket picked his least-favorite gun, and Groot seemed game but then ate most of his decorations while licking the glue. Peter feels kind of like Elvis, but he pops his collar, spools up Awesome Mix Vol. 2, and struts along to “A Little Less Conversation.” Jupiter sports a flower crown courtesy of Groot and a braided updo that Peter is particularly proud of, if he does say so himself.

Gamora wouldn’t let him touch her hair and refused the sparkles, but so did Caine, so at least she matches someone. The two of them jostle for the bench in the corner, with its back to the wall and a full view of the room. They come to some sort of agreement and perch one on each end, wearing matching scowls. It's kind of cute. It's probably the equivalent of friendship bracelets for genetically modified and cybernetically-enhanced taciturn violent people.

...Not that anyone is friends. Clients. It's just business.

“So,” says Peter, when they all settle down with a round of drinks, one glass of juice for him, and a bowl of water for Groot. “What’s this second job that you dragged us halfway across the galaxy and destroyed my liver for?”

Jupiter shares a glance with Caine, then says, “There’s been a lot of turmoil in this sector. Titus and Kalique Abraxas are disputing the terms of Balem Abraxas’ will in court while their security forces work against each other. It’s a good time to go around and… get a close look at their operations from the ground up.”

“Spying?” says Peter skeptically. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re not really good at ‘subtle’.”

“Can you repeat that?” says Jupiter. “I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your jacket.”

He gives her a high-five, because she’s not wrong. Gamora and Caine roll their eyes simultaneously.

“But seriously,” Jupiter continues. “That part’s my responsibility. I need to understand the system before I – I need to see what they’re doing and how it affects everyone.

“At the moment, the Aegis has their hands full with enforcing the peacekeeping clauses of Seraphi Abraxas’ inheritance,” Caine rumbles. “So they’re giving smuggling operations a slap on the wrist as long as they aren’t too disruptive. And I’ll get word if that changes. You’ll be our cover: all you need to do is take jobs in the ports we need to go to, and get us out if things go wrong.”

“You know, I’m a little hurt you assume we’re smugglers,” says Peter.

The entire table gives him an incredulous look.

“Well, yeah, we have been known to smuggle,” says Peter. “But that’s not who we are. We’re more than our vices.”

“I am Groot,” says Groot.

“Exactly,” says Peter.

“What’s in it for us?” asks Drax.

“I’m rich,” says Jupiter.

“Rich,” says Gamora skeptically.

Jupiter pulls up her sleeve. There's a seal on her arm, and while being Entitled doesn't necessarily mean you're rich... it certainly helps. “And powerful. If you help me, the reward would be…” She smirks a little. “Well, more wealth than you can imagine.”

Drax frowns. “I’m imagining a cargo ship full of expensive iridium alloys.”

“Fine. If I’m successful, you’ll have a rich, powerful contact in this sector,” says Jupiter. “Until then, I’ll give you the same rate for each leg of the trip and a twenty percent bonus at the end.”

“Fifty,” says Rocket.

“Thirty,” says Jupiter.

“Forty.”

“Thirty-five.”

“Done!” says Rocket. “And we can take side-jobs.”

“As long as you can get me where I need to go,” says Jupiter. “That’s all. What do you say?”

“Why did you go all the way to Knowhere to hire someone?” asks Gamora.

“Too many people are for sale here,” says Jupiter. “And I’m about to... seriously disrupt the marketplace. I need people who don’t care either way.”

“We are good at not caring,” says Rocket. "Especially if you're paying us."

Gamora leans forward. “But you came looking for us, didn’t you?”

Caine stiffens. He really needs to work on his poker – well, his poker everything.

Jupiter meets her eyes. “I did.”

“Why?”

“You saved the galaxy,” says Jupiter. “That’s a pretty good job reference, right?"

“Jupe, you’re not a very good liar,” says Peter.

“Well, it is,” she says. “But…” She takes a deep breath. “I looked you up, all of you. If I'm going to change anything, I can't think like them. I'm going to have to think around them."

She stares at them expectantly.

"I have a question," says Drax.

"You want to think like us?" says Gamora slowly. She looks... concerned. Peter is concerned, but he's also kinda thrilled. Someone out there examined his life – his whole life, not just the parts fit for news-bites on Xandar – and went, "This person will be a good influence."

His mom would be so proud.

"None of you were born to be heroes," says Jupiter. "Neither was I. It's about making the right decision when it counts. So – what do you say?”

Caine's staring at her like she's Gladys Knight and he's the Pips and she just told him he's the wind beneath her wings, which c'mon, man, that inspirational speech wasn't even for him. But Jupiter's looking at them with her wide eyes, and she was asking them nicely in her odd and earnest voice, and she’s waiting for an answer and Peter knows that if they turn it down, she won’t be mad, she’ll just be disappointed.

He stares back at her. Information about the Abraxas Sector, bits and pieces of things she said, the way she acts, it’s all coming together.

It’s not her voice, or the translators. They’re not even working, because she’s speaking English. Which means—

“I knew it,” says Peter. “You’ve seen Star Wars!”

~*~*~*~

Later on – usually whenever they’re in the middle of a firefight or hiding from security forces in the ventilation ducts of a Regenex plant or challenging Titus Abraxas to a dance-off – Peter kicks himself for not thinking a little harder about the way life reflects art, because they accidentally began helping space royalty start the rebellion and he did not sign on for this job.

(He ended up volunteering. He's still not sure how that happened, but even though she claims she can’t do Jedi mind tricks, it’s still absolutely Jupiter Jones’ fault.)

But even though Jupe’s boot jets are faster than his, she always makes sure they’re fleeing the scene together. And she always pays on time, even when her weirdo space family tries to freeze her accounts. That’s true friendship, right there.

~*~*~*~

There’s a big award ceremony after the dust settles. Earth shines big and blue through the windows of someone’s huge-ass stone temple of a spaceship. Jupe wears white and makes Caine howl at the appropriate moments and gives each of them a big gold medal.

They all say “#1 A-HOLE” on the back.