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we'll make amends along the road

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It is on a very ordinary day cycle that Gamora starts thinking about the word like. They are busy hauling building materials, synthetic pieces of Nova-built equipment, contracted to help with the rebuilding of a Xandarian peace outpost on N’ma Two. It’s a simple job, an easy job, a job for people who are still just barely holding together at the seams. Gamora takes a moment late in the afternoon to still, take a deep breath of the moon’s air, and be thankful. The air smells floral, fresh rather than cloying. It fills her lungs rapidly and eases out as swiftly as it came in.

She turns back to the Nova officers passing up energy packs to the people perched on the higher scaffolding and pauses, hand caught against the crates she was about to pick up, watching as Peter exchanges a warm, full-bodied grin with one of the officers he’s working alongside. It’s been a day filled with the simple labour of heavy lifting and fielding cargo and keeping a lazy eye out for unlikely signs of trouble, and she could see the goodness of it earlier, in Rocket’s laughter and Groot’s energy, Drax’s good humor and the way Mantis held her shoulders. Gamora watches, eyes skating over the dust prints on the hem of his shirt and the grease streaking through clumped locks of his hair where he’d inevitably ran a hand through it at some point during the day. Peter’s characteristic, casual affection is evident in the slope of his torso and the tilt of his head, and in the familiar offer of friendship in his laugh. The officer alongside him smiles, equally at ease, and grips his shoulder before moving on to help someone else with some other straightforward task.

Gamora swallows, hands curling around her crates fully before she realizes that she herself is smiling, and starts thinking about the word like. There is a lingering exhaustion to all of their movements, yes, but somehow over the course of the day it has morphed from a painful, dragging weight to a well-earned, warm sort of tiredness. She’s not wholly familiar with it, but she carries the three crates and thinks about offering friendship in laughs. Peter’s eyes are shining with it when he turns his smile to her as she walks by.

She can see the affection in Peter so easily, but it takes her a moment to identify whatever is bubbling in her own chest. It’s when a guy and a girl like each other, playing on stuttering, muted loop in the back of her mind, pushes forward again. It lodges there, and doesn’t go away for months to come.

**

It’s been long enough, and they are poor enough, that taking on higher risk, dangerous jobs is a warranted act. She scans the job listings herself, and suggests that they take extra care, be on high alert; it’s not that they’re inexperienced, it’s just that they’re still finding their feet again. Trauma can be a strange and fickle thing.

(Gamora doesn’t say this – she doesn’t use the word trauma. She’s not sure she entirely knows how.)

Peter grimaces, as expected, mouth pulled back comically and nose scrunched the way he does when he knows she’s right but is annoyed about it. Rocket groans, loudly and with far too much inflection. Drax scowls.

“Our feet are still attached to our legs, as they’ve always been,” he says.

“No,” says Gamora, “I meant –”

“Perhaps someone here has lost a foot once,” Mantis offers, tentative.

“I am Groot!” says Groot.

“Ugh, God, Jesus,” says Peter, dragging a hand over his face and using the other to wave a finger at Rocket, like he’s threatening to poke him. Gamora hopes he doesn’t; Rocket definitely has no qualms about biting, and she feels like Peter might be unnecessarily off his game if he’s recently had an appendage reattached. But she appreciates his effort. “You all know what she means, assholes. It’s a tricky job. We just gotta be careful.”

Thank you,” says Gamora, and somehow there is more warmth than force in her voice. Oddly, she doesn’t mind, something that’s become more and more obvious to her as the days go by. She keeps finding openings to be soft, and warm, and pliant, as opposed to hard and cold and unyielding – and she keeps taking them.

But – the job.

They’re careful, but it’s a shitshow anyway.

At least they’re successful, Gamora keeps telling herself, over and over as the evening spills into the night cycle and even that comes to an end, the ship’s monitor showing that the new cycle has started. At least they got what they came for. At least the information chip is in the right hands, and nobody died, and only one minor thing exploded. At least they got paid.

“Ah – ow, ow ow, Gamora –”

“It’s just an anti-inflammatory cream,” she says, trying hard to roll her eyes but only frowning, fingers brittle as she applies it.

“Yeah, but – shit, that lady had teeth. They usually – I mean, you’re not supposed to have teeth when you do that kind of thing!”

Gamora doesn’t say anything, because she suddenly finds that she has nothing to say, and so Peter keeps talking.

“Next time we pull a honey trap, Drax gets to be the honey.”

“Noted,” she says.

“And when he starts making totally dignified squeaking noises over the comms, know that the crazy Aakon lady with the encrypted weapons information in her rich person vault is getting too handsy and you need to, like, intervene.”

“Also noted,” says Gamora, willing the press of her fingers to be gentle, ignoring the tightness in her jaw. She didn’t used to be gentle. She still isn’t always gentle. It’s an on-and-off thing. She wants to say that Drax would never squeak, because she’s sure that’s a physically impossible noise for his vocal chords to produce, and almost smiles despite herself.

Peter hisses again, a very slight sucking of air through his teeth, and Gamora’s smile doesn’t come. She thinks about how their plan required three acts and two parts and how they’d been over it over four times, which was really an all-time record for them, and she thinks about prying open the upstairs vault for Rocket to slip through, listening to Peter through the comms the entire time.

Gamora’s thumb stills against the love bites that are raised against his neck, right at the crease, and up a bit further along the side. They’re purplish-red with Terran blood and Gamora thinks about the difference between the charming, guarded smile he’d offered their mark, and the sincere, open things she sees every day.

There are many things she has come to trust Peter Quill with in the time she has known him. Her life, for one. Others’ lives, for another.

Somehow, the sort of trust that Gamora is identifying right now in the dimly-lit galley, two steps away from their whirring, ancient cooling unit, her fingers sticky with anti-inflammatory cream – somehow, this is more.

She’s not sure more what. Just – more.

“I mean,” says Peter, “at least she offered to buy me a drink first. Free drinks are great.”

“You’re ridiculous,” says Gamora.

“I know, I know, insane evil person – oh, hey.” Because she has reached over and pulled him into a hug, hands flat against his back.

They sleep in the same bed, which Gamora really thinks is more for practical purposes than anything else that this point, because sleep is a rare commodity amongst their motley crew and they’d be foolish not to seize any opportunity that made it easier. She’s used to the shape of his limbs, his warmth, the weight of him against her. She has held him before, even, on occasions far more somber than this, this cursory tending to wounds that are ultimately nothing more than irritating, in the aftermath of a successful heist where Gamora wrenched doors open with her bare hands and Peter flirted shamelessly with a middle-aged Aakon billionaire.

She thinks again about the solidness of that trust and the simultaneous pull in her gut at his voice over the comms, and this impulsive, almost selfish need to suddenly put her arms around him.

It’s when a guy and a girl like each other, says his voice in her head, ever present. She doesn’t like to think about that day, that place, that fight. But she thinks about the word like, now and every other day.

Peter hums against her hair, sounding tired. She can feel his smile against her ear.

“You should get some rest,” she says.

“So should you.”

“I know. I want to get a few things done, first.” Breathe a little. Catalogue their job as complete and move on. Maybe stab something, one of those sacks of flour in the cargo bay by their peeling exercise mats. And she’s hungry; Rocket had complained earlier about the lack of any decent leftovers in the cooler, saying that heists always made him ravenous.

“Okay,” says Peter, pulling away, his hand pressing gently against her shoulder before dropping. “Thanks for – patchin’ me up.”

She does roll her eyes, this time, successfully. He takes the cream bottle with him and Gamora spends another ten minutes in the kitchen, utterly still and staring at the ceiling, until the patter of Groot’s tiny feet can be heard in the hallway outside and she needs to rouse herself enough to smile at him.

**

The word like is not enough, not it, not more.

If Gamora is categorizing her feelings as “things that are” and “things that are more”, the word like is not an apt descriptor. It just is, digging under her skin every time he says something that makes her laugh aloud.

Gamora likes tortar fruit. She likes comfortable clothing. She likes sleeping curled over on her side, and she likes sparring with a worthy opponent.

This – whatever it is – is not the same as those.

There is blood on Gamora’s hands, literally, as she stands in the wreckage of the small backwater village that was until two hours ago overrun with a rogue group of Kree fanatics. The occupants are – were – are some derivative of Rajak, perhaps an ethnic group within the wider species that live more rurally. Nova officers are already arriving, touching down as backup and civilian aide, and Gamora turns to fill in whichever Denarian is in charge. When she arrives at the foot of the Milano’s ramp, Peter is holding a baby in his arms.

Well – not a baby. A small child, of maybe four or five years, who is clinging to his neck and outright refusing to be gently transferred into the arms of the nice Xandarian Nova officer who is speaking in a low, coaxing voice. The girl’s bright pink skintone clashes terribly with the red of Peter’s jacket. Just as Gamora nearly misses a step along the rubbled ground, Peter catches her eye, relief flooding into his own.

“I found her in one of the houses,” he says, tone low and meant only for her, as she approaches. “Her parents are –”

“Yes,” says Gamora, something numb to her words. He doesn’t need to finish. She doesn’t want him to finish.

The girl sniffs against his neck, the kind of tiny, broken sob that only children are capable of making. Gamora drives her fist into the side of her leg and swallows back the absurd urge to cry. The girl trembles a little and Peter softens, immediately, head dropping down to speak directly to the child.

“Hey – hey. You’re safe now, okay? You’re safe. See – this is my friend Gamora. She’s like, super strong and brave, and she’s gonna make sure no one ever hurts you again. Right?”

“Right,” Gamora says, her throat dry and tight and filled with something all at once.

She can’t remember, she suddenly realizes. She can’t remember how old she was, when she – when they –

She clears her throat, deliberate, and steps closer, reaches out to still the well-meaning Nova officer before she touches the girl. Gamora doesn’t touch the girl, but lays her hand on Peter’s arm instead, over where he’s holding her against him.

“I will,” she says again, more forceful, deliberate. “Yes.”

Her touch is gentle, vastly different from its sure, driving force when she cut down three militants who had been dragging villagers through the street.

“She needs to be moved to the transport ships,” says the Nova officer quietly. Her voice is sympathetic in the way voices are when people are trying to be kind while doing a job that does not allow much room for kindness, and Gamora’s hand fists tightly in the leather of Peter’s sleeve. “There are organizations on Xandar that can –”

“We’ll take her there,” says Peter, just as immediate as before, surety in his voice that Gamora knows will likely desert him later on in the evening, when he realizes that they have nothing onboard their ship to comfort a small child who is not a tree, and that her parents are dead, and his parents are dead, and all these wounds are still fresh after all these years.

But that is what will happen later, and right now, that surety sucks the numb feeling out of Gamora’s limbs, through the ends of her blood stained fingertips. She catches his eye, managing just barely to swallow back her gasp of relief, her chest flooded with a surge of sharp affection. It’s white hot and clogging the pit of her throat, and Gamora inhales, fist loosening, almost giddy with how grateful she is in that moment.

They’re taking the child. She’s not going to be alone. For that twelve hour jump back to Xandar, she’s not going to be alone. She’s going to be safe. She’s going to be cared for.

It’s absurd, but Gamora smiles as the Nova officer nods hesitantly and leaves, her lips pulled outwards as though by something else even as they stand among death and tragedy. The relief that she didn’t know she was anticipating pulls at her bones and she drops her forehead against Peter’s shoulder without a word, standing there unmoving until Rocket and Drax return from herding people towards the Nova ships and picking off remaining Kree. Groot is with Mantis on the ship, safe and probably wondering why they’re taking so long, so Gamora straightens. The girl has fallen asleep from exhaustion, pink cheek pressed against the collar of Peter’s shirt such that Gamora’s sure she will wake with an uncomfortable print against her skin. Their friends’ voices start clamouring behind her, asking about the child, and Peter offers her a small, grim smile before answering. His eyes are knowing, like they understand, like she knew he’d understood.

More, she thinks.

**

“Okay, so you’re a cultured art guru and I’m your super hot bodyguard –”

“Ironic, as it should really be the other way around, but continue.”

“Hey,” says Peter, putting his hands up and causing the anti-bacterial cleaning foam to drip haphazardly onto the floor, “this is primarily Rocket’s plan, he’s the jerk who knows these guys.”

Gamora only tilts her head, eyebrows raised, before going back to her methodic drying of their cracked assortment of plates and bowls. She’s smiling, though. She seems to be smiling a lot these days, which is surprising in the way you are surprised when the dull ache of an old wound is no longer present. There are still bruises under Peter’s eyes some nights, but they’re doing far better than they were before. They do jobs with Kraglin, who has his own ship now, and Rocket’s gone back to building bombs at the kitchen table every afternoon, and Mantis’s smiles don’t look as agonized.

She no longer thinks of Ego, but Nebula had contacted her very briefly two cycles ago and now, instead, she thinks of Thanos.

Still – she smiles.

“Anyway,” Peter is saying, swaying close to the sink again to grab some dishes, his hips angling towards her in a casual, easy way that makes her think it is done without forethought or intention, “mission info says the dealer’s an idiot with no balls, so you can probably scare the crap out of him just by glaring. Should be an easy in and out.”

He says it with the tone of someone delivering a compliment, something like pride colouring his voice, and Gamora reaches into the pool of soapy water to scoop some into her hand and flick it at him.

“Ah – hey!”

“It’s never just an easy in and out,” she says, through her laughter, “never, Peter Quill – don’t you dare –”

But he’s already grabbed her elbow with his wet soapy hands and is making to smear the rest of the foam over her face. They grapple for barely a moment – she can feel the cording of the muscles in his shoulders as he starts laughing, hard, and tries to move his arm, finally pulling himself loose by throwing his whole weight into it. She’s faster than he is, though, always has been; it’s easy to dodge his attack and grab him by the middle, hauling him onto the countertop before he can get any important parts of her wet.

“You’re banished over there,” she says, stepping back and straightening her shirt. “I’m finishing these dishes myself.”

“You started it!” he says, childish teasing evident in his voice, but his eyes are bright and happy and there is colour in his cheeks. He doesn’t look tired today, and Gamora thinks, good. He looks down, then, and pulls a face, squinting at the large stain of soapy water down his front. “Ugh, man, now I gotta change.”

She’s about to tell him that he would have likely gotten water all over himself anyway, he has in the past, his technique for washing dishes is so haphazard, when he reaches down easily and tugs the shirt over his head and off. Gamora swallows back whatever she was going to say and dries the second last plate, thinking about how there’s still their big communal pot left and that’s been burned at the bottom so it’ll need some soaking – that’s what Drax always says, she has no experience in these things – and –

“Be right back, just gonna –”

“Wait,” she says, her mouth moving before she can process and regulate the words. “You’re going to get wet again anyway, you always do. Leave it until we’re done.”

“Damn, you’re right,” he says, pulling a characteristically comical face and hopping back down from the counter to grab the big pot and fill it with the anti-bacterial foam. He always uses too much, she thinks. There’s always foam floating everywhere when it’s Peter’s turn to do the dishes.

He’s focused on the blackened bottom of the pot, now, and Gamora wipes the chipped plate in her hands down a third time. She can hear Rocket yelling something from somewhere on the other side of the ship, and Drax’s booming laughter. They should probably go check on them sometime soon, make sure Groot hasn’t eaten anything he’s not supposed to and Rocket hasn’t blown up the cockpit. Peter’s humming, she suddenly realizes, and then belatedly notices that she is, too. The song is familiar, its tune and notes coming easily and naturally to the back of her throat. He hums all the time, she knows. She did not – used to hum.

“Anyway,” says Peter, scrubbing at the bottom of the pot. She does not look at the way his arm moves. She does not. “You know what I think?”

“What do you think?”

I think,” says Peter, “we’re gonna have to do some dancing to blend in for this job.”

“Is that so,” says Gamora, running her rag over Groot’s favorite cracked orange bowl, belatedly noticing the ache in her cheeks from her grin.

“That is definitely so,” Peter parrots back at her, his voice comically serious. “I mean, if we’re gonna pass as high society, or whatever.”

Gamora does not mention that they are the antithesis of high society, especially right now; elbows deep in scrubbing at broken galleyware with cheap foam in an old, rusty ship that smells, devoid of certain articles of clothing. Maybe he’s right – dancing will give them credibility.

“Alright,” she says, and leans over to pluck the pot from him, ignoring his protests, continuing the scrubbing with more force. “We’ll dance, then. We can practice later.”

He grins at her, pulling himself up to sit on the counter again. Her eyes catch stubbornly on an old faded scar running along his collarbone and she outright refuses to think about how broad his shoulders are.

This is ridiculous. Ridiculous. It’s not like modesty exists aboard the Milano, not like she hasn’t seen him in various rumpled states of undress hundreds of times before. They’re not exactly high society, as they’ve established, and she figures it took about three months for old, comfortable, lazy habits to crawl back into their new hodge-podge group. Drax never wears a shirt. Sometimes Rocket forgets to close the bathroom door. Peter has been known to stumble around in his underwear before, still half asleep.

She finishes the pot, letting half-clean water run over it and upturning it on the counter to dry. Peter’s hand finds hers before she can turn to leave, roughened fingers lacing through hers and tugging at them. He would never have done it so easily three months ago, she thinks. He would have waited for her to do it first, and she probably wouldn’t have. They wouldn’t have done dishes filled with easy back-and-forth conversation, either, nor wrestled without prompting half-covered in dishwater.

His fingers are pruned from being in the water so long, a peculiar Terran quirk of his, but his hand is warm, just like the rest of him. She’s close enough for her hip to bump against his knee.

“We’re entering from the side alley,” she reminds him, straightening her shoulders slightly, “and there will be four guards standing on the far side balcony.”

“Right – specs for the front entrance?”

“Two guards only, but they’ve got implants. You have foam on your nose,” she adds, hand automatically reaching forward to wipe it away. His nose scrunches, adorably. Gamora almost frowns at herself for that, fingers tightening around his before she pulls her hands away.

She’s not some starry-eyed waif, though he has never expected her to be, perhaps not even in that first encounter. But it’s profoundly difficult to identify reactions and emotions and feelings when you have never before in your life felt them.

It’s when a guy and a girl like each other, says his voice again, and she knows that like is not enough but cannot think of another word to replace it and instead grins at him and tells him he needs a shower, that she won’t dance with him until he stops smelling like the ship.

Later, with the Zune playing on the table and Mantis and Groot playing the role of delighted audience to their dance practice, Peter’s face suddenly softens and he says, “Hey, my mom loved this song,” tossed easily out into the room.

And Gamora thinks, oh.

**

There is a brief stretch of time where Gamora does not really have the luxury to think about the word like.

Before, perhaps a little over a year ago, Gamora would have blamed what had happened on herself. On her own lack of forethought, her own lack of vigilance, her own weakness. Now, she’s wiser, more experienced. Now, she knows that it is undoubtedly because of some misalignment of stars, some force out there that views their lives as some enormous, cosmic joke.

Apparently, Yondu thinks so too, which is why he’s bent over double, nearly in tears from laughing so hard. His cackle is a wheezing, full-bodied thing; it’s oddly similar to Peter’s, she is just noticing now, but lacks the same warmth. Everything about Peter is warm, including his hand, which she is gripping so hard right now she’s vaguely worried that she might break something. He doesn’t seem to notice though, his face pale but his expression determinedly a natural, non-agonized thing, and anyway, he seems to be squeezing her hand back just as hard.

Fell through a blackhole,” Yondu manages, mockery clear in his voice even as he sounds very much like he isn’t surprised, “and travelled back in fuckin’ time. Shit, boy, of all the scrapes I’ve seen you get yerself into, this takes the whole damn cake.”

“Yeah,” Peter grinds out, looking faintly like he wants another black hole to open up and swallow them whole. Gamora hopes he doesn’t do anything so foolish as cry, and then immediately feels her gut tighten with guilt at the thought. It’s been over a year since – since. Yondu doesn’t look any different, doesn’t sound any different, save for perhaps the finn on his head and the colour of his shirt. Also, he is alive, and breathing, and laughing at the two of them standing here desperate in front of him. Because they really are desperate, and if they were not quite as desperate Gamora would be outright scowling right now.

They are desperate, though, so she doesn’t, and hopes that Yondu doesn’t ask too many questions. So far he hasn’t – he even sounds like he believes them, and a part of her pauses to wonder how many different absurd situations the older man has had to rescue Peter from in the past.

She catches Peter’s eye very briefly and he grimaces, just slightly, as though he knows what she’s thinking about. Gamora purses her lips.

She wishes she could say that their predicament was more complicated than that, that there had been more to it than “fell through a black hole by accident and ended up somewhere in the past”, but it wasn’t, and there wasn’t. They were stealing back a stolen artifact from some small-time collector with an overblown ego and an equally overblown elite guard, and it had just been their inimitable luck that orchestrated the asteroid they were on to be orbiting parallel to a hole in space.

They’re in the captain’s cabin of what Gamora assumes is the Eclector, its innards similar enough to the Quadrant that it is, at least, a little familiar. Familiar like the man standing in front of them, not much younger than what she knew him as, but perhaps slightly less honorable. Gamora bites back a grimace; she had never liked Yondu, not since the very first time she had met him. She had honoured his sacrifice, of course, and was grateful for it. But –

“And you jus’ show up here askin’ me for help, like what, I’m jus’ gonna give you it?” He straightens up to his full height – Peter is still taller than him – and his posture eases, lazy and casual but with a note of well-practiced menace underneath it nonetheless. Gamora does her best not to stiffen. She trusts Peter, and Peter apparently trusts Yondu enough to come here, so –

“You and this young lady over here – an’ now don’t think I don’t recognize you, sweetheart,” he adds, looking more amused than anything, but the question is still there, slipping out invisible from between his mangled teeth. “You got quite the reputation.”

Gamora says nothing, only angles her chin slightly upwards. Peter’s hand is still warm in hers, his – her – grip still bruising.

“Yondu, c’mon – please.” He sounds scared, and Gamora suddenly thinks, what if. It’s a traitorous what if, the sort of what if she’s only ever indulged practically in the past, thinking of Thanos and loss and things being gone, thinking of weakness. This, whatever this is, isn’t weakness. It’s just plain bad luck. Her chest tightens and she knows that if they were alone, if there was nobody else around and they had a moment to breathe, should would draw Peter close to her and press her forehead against hers, press a kiss to his mouth, just to make sure that he was not going to disappear. She would. She would. She can’t. “We wouldn’t be here if we had any other option, you’ve seen more shit than I could ever hope to. D’you know anything at all about black holes that might help us.”

Yondu considers them, four long moments where Gamora refuses to admit she holds her breath, before slowly breaking out into a large, crooked grin.

Which is how Gamora finds herself in a seedy, over-loud club, slipping into a booth across from Peter and watching the pained, nervous expression on his face intently. He keeps impulsively bringing his arm up to block the view of his face, and even though a part of her knows that they are so incredibly screwed right now, that one small thing could take away everything that she has found herself holding onto, it’s a little endearing. It’s becoming easier to shove the terrifying what if to the very pit of her stomach, letting it be replaced by sharp adrenaline and precise confidence, which is perhaps foolish but also better than being completely immobilized by the thought that they are trapped. That she could lose

Gamora takes only a few seconds to fight herself before she breaks out into a smile.

“Okay,” Peter’s saying. “Okay – Yondu said if I can bribe a ship to get us to the Quaotar nebula, there’s been reports of holes out there. All we need to do is make sure nobody at the shipyard catches sight of two of me, so the moron that’s here needs to stay here.”

He looks uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, the way he does when he’s unsure about himself and too out of his element to hide it. She knows that none of them are particularly proud of their pasts, but she also knows that of all of them, Peter’s is perhaps the most forgivable. So maybe it’s just the lighting, or the fact that the club is irritatingly warm, so much so that even Gamora’s mods are delayed in regulating her body temperature.

(It’s not; she knows he’s scared, probably as much as she is. The pit of her stomach fills with something foreign and she wants once more to kiss him. She can’t.)

“Fine,” she says. “You do the bribing. Negotiation is not my speciality.”

He laughs, a half-exhausted, half-panicked thing, before she reaches across the table to grab his arm grip tight and hard.

“Peter, listen to me. It’s going to be fine.”

“Right,” he says, “right. Fine, you’re right.” And then his eyes widen, and narrow, in increments, and he sucks air in between his teeth. “God, there – that’s me, over there. We need to distract him.”

She can make out the familiar figure rising from a corner table and moving through the crow, her own eyes narrowing. She pulls the corners of her hood down on impulse, but there is something strangely unreal about the whole situation, something that makes her pulse beat in time to the suffocatingly loud, alien music that pounds through the club.

“Why are you smiling?” asks Peter, her Peter, frowning, and Gamora flicks her eyes back towards him.

“Sorry,” says Gamora quickly, biting on her cheek to stop her smile from growing. “Please go on.”

“That’s it,” he says, a little stupidly, looking back out towards – himself. “Distract him. Make sure he stays here. Or like, in a place where I’m not.”

Perhaps it is the general chaos of their situation that prompts her, or the strange displacement of it – like this is not really them, and she is not really herself – or even the what if that she has so effectively pressed down to the very pit of her stomach, but she squeezes his arm one more time and in one graceful movement rises to her feet, pulling her hair out of its tie and undoing the topmost clasp of her vest.

“Distract him, got it,” she says, smiling, amusement building despite everything she has ever known insisting that this is not amusing, that they are in particularly dire straits. “Good luck with the ship.”

She watches as Peter’s mouth drops open, and doesn’t wait to catch the sharp darkening of his cheeks before turning to leave.

There are three things that happen, in the length of time it takes Peter to bribe them passage on a broken-down mining ship. They are not terrible things, because the sudden, coiling thought in her head is that had they not conveniently fallen through a black hole, she would have probably done something similar anyway.

Something similar, she makes sure to note, and not wholly equal. But – things, nonetheless. Three things.

One: the club is overloud and the fear is hot in her belly along with something else, and she puts her hand on his leg, over his thigh, fingers pressing like she might do with his arm. It’s warm and he’s warm and Gamora wishes he weren’t as drunk as he is and were also the Peter she knows, but keeps her hand there nonetheless.

Two: he scoops her up into his arms, because she is terrible at pretending to be drunk when she is not (can’t get drunk), so terrible that her exaggerated excuses amount to a half-hearted attempt at losing her footing on the way to the Milano and so he scoops her up without preamble, stumbling only slightly with the alcohol, surprisingly sure-footed as he grins drunkenly at her. She pretends that she is not a surgically modified deadly assassin with an infamous reputation from the future, because she needs to be distracting him, and slides her arms around his neck, sticky with sweat. He is distracted.

Three: he doesn’t kiss her. He almost does, warm and close and with a familiar dopey smile on his face, but he doesn’t kiss her, despite the fact that this is the first time over the course of the night that she has not dodged him or pulled away. He doesn’t kiss her because apparently bribing another ship involved also coming to his own ship and he is there punching himself and Gamora stares at Peter, her Peter, who has a sour expression on his face and a set of bruised knuckles.

“Are you kidding me!” she says, and he has the good grace to look sheepish, but – he’s right, without having said anything. He won’t remember it, her, in the morning. Which is not the point, but it’s something she thinks about and dislikes, that too-sharp fear of losing clawing its way to the surface for the first time in this whole ridiculous ordeal, a fear that’s reflected on Peter’s face, the one that is not pressed into the ground right now, unconscious.

But that is what will happen, not what is happening right now.

Intercepting him is simple, even under the flashing blue lights of the club, his red Ravager colours clearly identifiable. She has a moment to second-guess herself, and that same moment to scoff at the thought of second-guessing herself, before sliding in front of him in the far corner of the club, a darkened niche. Her hand closes over his arm in a familiar gesture that she’s done hundreds of times, assured and fluid. He’s already relatively drunk, flush high on his cheeks and his eyes not entirely as sharp as they usually are, which surprises her. But the familiarity is there, slamming into her in the split second before she smiles; he’s barely younger than he is now – scruffier, maybe, and a little more unkempt, his grin marginally less well-intentioned. But his eyes are the same bright green, and the lines of his face carry the same peculiar kindness, and – she curls her fingers against her own hip – his mouth still parts very slightly when he sees her, a moment of awe before she gathers herself and speaks.

(She hesitates for a fraction of a second, and then smiles.)

“Star-Lord, right? Legendary outlaw?”

**

Rocket’s look of utter disbelief when they explain what happened is absurdly the most relieving thing Gamora has ever seen, if only because she realizes suddenly and with extreme clarity that they did not lose anything.

They made it back. It’s fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing changed.

God.

She finds that the team’s clamour, usually so chaotic and grating, is somehow grounding her as she pads down the hallway to the living quarters. Her movements are jerky and hurried, as though she’s still running from something, and she pauses, fist clenching at her side and fingers pressing against the doorframe, angry with herself.

Nothing happened. They’re fine. They are alive, and in good health, and she has not lost.

(She may still lose. She knows this, knows that Thanos is still out there, that their job is dangerous, that she can’t control everything. She knows that now more than ever. She still is not sure exactly how to define what she will be losing.)

Peter’s sprawled on the bunk, his earbuds stuffed hard into his ears and the back of his head pressing against the cabin wall. His eyes are open, but glazed over, wet. Gamora swallows and slips into the room, graceful despite her previous jerkiness, letting her weight sink into the edge of the bed. It’s colder in here than it was in the kitchen, and her bare arms feel it for a fraction of a moment before her body adjusts its temperature.

“Hey,” she says, quiet. She can hear the faint buzz of the music through the earbuds, and she wants to be annoyed, but he pulls them out before the annoyance can take root in her chest.

“Hey – hey,” says Peter, leaning towards her like something invisible is pulling him, voice rough in a familiar, aching way. The thin fabric of his t-shirt pulls at his shoulders and his curls are messy, unkempt. She tries not to think of the younger version of him, grinning at her in the blue-lit club. “Are you – okay?”

Her hand is on his cheek before she can think about it, the press gentle.

“Are you?”

She is avoiding, but it is done in good faith. He seems to need it more than she does, anyway.

“It was just,” he shrugs, awkward against the wall, “weird seeing him – seeing him ali – just. To see him again. It was weird.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, and means it. She is sorry, for many things.

He shrugs again, and when he smiles his eyes crinkle and she can see the tears spill, a few errant streaks, down his cheeks. He doesn’t stop smiling, though, and ignores them, eyes soft despite their overbrightness.

“It’s okay,” he says. “Really – I’ll be okay. Gamora.”

Her name comes out a gentle reprimand. She swallows, and turns her head.

“I was – scared.”

“Gamora,” he says again, much softer. She’s close enough that if she looks, she can count all of his eyelashes, can file away the minute cuts and curves and flaws of his face. Can identify weaknesses, as though she doesn’t already know them.

Too trusting. Too kind. Too warm.

She thinks again: It’s when a guy and a girl like each other. It had been unspoken and she supposes now it is not, if that makes sense – it feels right, despite no concrete words having been spoken, not since they stood together, watching the fireworks.

Lots of other things – no words. There have been lots of other things. She can trace a deep scratch on the wall where she thinks Drax must have once accidentally driven his knife with her eyes.

“That I would – I couldn’t bare to – what I have, now, I –” She feels the warmth of his hand close over hers, still held against his cheek, and she inhales, willing her words to come more coherently. “But that’s not important. We’re fine, nothing happened. We’ll just be more careful in the future.” She shifts her thumb; his cheek is rough with the coarse gingery hair of his beard.

She looks back at him, and says, “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I love you.”

And it’s like something slides into place and clicks.

Gamora spends a minute trying to pull up a memory of the shape of those words and fails; they’re foreign in a way that makes them rushingly welcome, that makes them benign and healing and soft around the edges. Unfamiliar but comfortable. She realizes her mouth has parted, foolishly, and Peter looks like he’s surprised even himself, but in the muted, natural way of people telling the complete truth. He clears his throat.

“That’s – yeah. Yeah.”

She doesn’t say anything. She can’t remember – can’t remember the last time – and Mantis didn’t count, when she’d said –

“But that’s – I mean, I just. Thought you should know. It ain’t like you gotta tell it b –”

“Yes,” says Gamora, the word bursting from her mouth a moment too late, and her shoulders push forward, the curtain of her hair swinging over her arm and her free hand tangling in the discarding earbuds as she presses her mouth against his. She can hear his gasp, can feel the lingering wetness on his cheeks. Peter’s mouth is warm and solid and joyful, like the rest of him, pulling open in a grin even as she presses harder. She can taste the weird soup Drax had made for dinner and she resists the absurd urge to laugh, to start laughing and never stop.

“Yes,” she gasps, pulling away, forehead pressed against his. “Yes, I – me too.”

His own laugh is choked, still-watery, mouth open and smiling hard against hers. “You too.”

“Me too,” she manages again, and presses her forehead against his with more force, like if she does it hard enough she will never be confused about this again, like she will never be scared again. She knows that’s not going to be true, isn’t true. She is a warrior and an assassin, and she is practical and calculating and does not entertain weakness.

She also loves, deeply.

Something warm and full bubbles in her chest again, and her cheeks ache with her smile, because she knows.

“Ow – hey, ow.” He laughs again, still half-breathless. “Your head’s real hard, you know that?”

“You’re ridiculous,” she says, a reflex, and then pulls him into an embrace. Her fingers are tight against the fabric of his shirt; she can feel his heartbeat through his back. She hears Groot exclaiming loudly over something from the galley, two halls away, Drax’s booming laugh once again layered over it. Something falls and crashes, the sound muffled, and somebody swears.

Gamora focuses on the tinny sound of music still filtering through the abandoned earbuds and thinks about the word love