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Collect Your Feelings

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“But what use is he to me?” Taneleer Tivan drawled, his smokey eyelids concealing an acquisitive gleam.

En Dwi Gast rolled his eyes, gesturing through his voluminous sleeves as his voice rose and fell impressively, “Well he’s a marvel of engineering, combined with the physique of an I-don’t even-know-what. He’s delicious! Don’t think I don’t see you drooling over the arm alone. Genuine titanium. Yes I said it! How cute is that? Fully integrated, too. It boosts his strength so he doesn’t tip over. Added bonus: The baseline organism is purebred sol-three humanoid. You know how flexible their genetomemetic structure is for grafting if you decide to customize.”

Tivan ran a white glove through his white hair, “Hmm, not bad.”

“Not bad, he says. I haven’t even told you the best part yet! He comes with two distinct modes. One is the mild-mannered synthetic killing machine at parade-rest before you; mindless, soulless, brutally efficient. The other’s a fully organic soldier personality from a class that’s all but extinct now, the Wowie Commandos!” his voice dropped to a confidential stage-murmur, “Not real sure what that means, something to do with underpants if all we read be true. Certainly there are no other live specimens in this kind of shape. Such a bargain, and you get two different beings for the price of one.”

Taneleer moved around to the back of the container again. The creature certainly was nice to look at. Healthy. Mostly symmetrical.  But Gast had that sound in his voice like he thought he was getting away with something, “What’s the price of one?”

“Seventy thousand. And a cutting of one of your Slabot Nervarium. The latest iteration of my obedience discs plays havoc with my champions’ nervous systems and eyesight after a while, I need to keep the ones I have healthy while I rebuild my roster, modify the electrolytic ultravenin to something gentler. So?”

“Seventy. Thousand?” Tivan squinted, “Why? What’s wrong with him?”

Gast folded his arms, “Nothing! Why would you say that, there’s nothing wrong with him.”

“If he’s everything you say,” he gestured slowly up and down the creature’s body, “he’s perfect for your tournament. If you’re rebuilding your roster why sell one to me?”

En Dwi Gast smiled, giggling, “Ok ok you got me, sly boots. Can’t get anything past you, my brother,” he gave a wide shrug and a punchline-delivery smile, “I can’t control him! My obedience discs do nothing, isn’t that a scream? Like he’s built up some kind of resistance to neurotoxins and electrical shocks used together. And he debilitates opponents way too fast, too, when he’s in that-” he flapped a hand indignantly at the stone-faced soldier, “-mode. No muss, no fuss, no foreplay, no cuddling. Audiences hit the toilets when he comes up on the card and don’t always make it back to their seats before he’s already hit the showers. I can’t use him. But I just bet you’ve got something stashed around here that would make an oddity of this caliber useful to you.”

Tivan stroked his chin thoughtfully, speaking with a near-narcotic slowness, “Maybe I have,” he said nothing more, watching his manic brother wriggle on the hook.

“Tell you what! I’ll tell. You. What.” Gast punched the air between them with one long finger, “How about I lend him to you. Testflight, just for a cycle or two, see if he works out for you. If not, I take charge of disposing of him personally. But if he does, if you do find a way to push his buttons,” he chuckled knowingly, “my price doesn’t change. And if you make him into a contender worth watching, you can name yours. What do you say?”

Tivan nodded thoughtfully. En Dwi Gast had always been thoughtless with money, but something about the deal smelled rotten, and it wasn’t just the victim-slime on the hem of his brother’s long robe, “Is there a bounty on him? Someone looking?”

That seemed to cut right to the heart of matters, and Gast pursed his lips uncomfortably, “Maybe a small one. My former champion, Beta Ray. He broke away, freed everyone, stole half my stable of gladiators after getting the other half killed,” he shrugged helplessly, “They were friends, I think. This one took a debilitating hit for the sake of getting the others away, very dramatic, I was moved. Anyway Beta Ray is a tenacious little Korbinite number, honorable guardian type. And the thought that he’s likely to return for his buddy is making me nervous.”

“But not enough to just let him go.”

Gast spread his elegant fingertips against his chest, “Perish the thought. No I just need him hidden.”

Tivan blinked at him, pale and placid as a glacier.

Gast gave a fussy huff, “Tell you what, I’ll give you ten thousand, for security, but that’s a deposit if I decide to buy him back. Deal?”

Taneleer Tivan nodded slowly, and when En Dwi Gast was actually able to let ten seconds of silence pass without flapping his mouth further, he knew it was the best deal he was likely to get, “Alright. I’ll tame your problem soldier. Make him a workable commodity. If I do and you want him back, it’s going to be five hundred thousand.”

Gast’s smile spread across his face as he backed out of the room, “I knew I could count on you, bro. You’re not going to regret this, I think he’s a real special find. You’re gonna feel like you owe me for this when all is said and done, I bet,” he crossed the threshold and turned, calling back over his shoulder, “Oh by the way, he shifts between modes at random now, no idea why. Bye fam!”

As if on cue, the louring statue reeled on his feet and slid down the side of the containment cube, shaking with probable dehydration and hunger. Taneleer Tivan grimaced. At least Gast had remembered to cut air holes for once.

***

Mantis sat in the box, quietly petting Snuggles as he snored in her lap. He needed his rest. He got so lonely and would stop sleeping, which made him sick so he’d stop eating. That was bad. As the last black rhinoceros in the universe, he needed his rest and comfort. Everything in the collection did. Everything got lonely there.

Everything but Mantis.

She had only learned what loneliness was by coming to the collection and learning what it was not. Ego had wanted to borrow something that the Taneleertivan had. So he had swapped her for it, and she belonged to the Taneleertivan until Ego came back. He would come back. And perhaps when he did, and she was lonely again on the planet made of only him, she would understand loneliness better for what it was and be able to really feel it. That would be wonderful.

Until then, she had very many friends that she could feel with, with the stated goal that they wouldn’t die afterwards, even. She liked that part a great deal. And so many new feelings. She never had thought there could be so many. Ego was set in his sensible patterns. Assurance. Self pity. Despair. Then anger. Then he would wish to sleep and awake refreshed. She had sometimes felt his progeny when he kept them for an hour, a day. Their feelings were so rich and beautiful and all so different from one another. All but the one at the end, anyway. That one did not vary much from victim to victim, in her experience.

She’d become very sensible and unselfish about progeny visits, though, because Ego did not like her to enjoy them. If he thought she liked something better than him, he would show her how that made him feel until he was satisfied that she understood. Sometimes it took time to find her voice to say she was sorry afterwards, because the thought of her mean happiness choked him and tore at him and beat him severely, but after he had satisfied himself that she understood he could be very patient as she recovered. He was generous. He taught her how to serve her purpose and not to be mean to him, so that was nice.

The collection was nice too. So different but so nice. She could be in her box by herself, and the box did not have feelings. The box was not part of Ego. She had never touched anything without his feelings in it before. The quiet of it had been eerie at first, but her powers were much stronger after they’d rested so completely. She could find such deep clear feelings for her friends, even though they could not talk.

Snuggles had beautiful feelings about warm sun and cool water and open spaces. She could not give him those things, but she could learn his feel of them and amplify it back to him until the missing-them was gone and only the feeling-them remained. And he would eat and rest, and she would pat his giant horn and tiny ears and see him get well.

There were a dozen others that she’d been granted responsibility for keeping calm, helping sleep. Restless, difficult ones, like Gerd, the very last valkyrie-horse, who’d never be allowed to fly again, or even turn around inside her box, but her longing to fly Mantis could feel, and give it back better until it was almost like flying. Almost. She had to be sensible and pull back from actually flying with Gerd’s feelings. If she knew such a feeling she might not be able to forget it, it might be too strong to kill, and Ego would know. Somehow he would know. And he would be hurt.

There was a commotion from the freight levitator. Someone new was being brought to her level. She pushed Snuggles deep-deep so he would not wake as she moved his head from her lap. It was silly to do. She could not go far. Just another foot toward the noise, touching the glass, but she wanted to see. It might just be a thing. But it might be a new friend. The thought was so nice.

***

Longing…

He awoke with a wild flail and attempted to swat the word away from his ear. He only struck impenetrable glass, but the voice fled back into sleep as he roused. The crushing words never used to come without being called out by a handler...as far as he could remember. But since the Grandmaster’s obedience disc had sunk its chemical talons into his brain the first time, old triggers crept around in his head like rats waiting for a nibble. He knew what they were for, and had a pretty good idea what he was for, if he had words like that in his head. But they were his only real memory of earth that never shifted or faded, so he abided with them.

Most earth memories tangled and blurred and washed out like shadow puppets in the soupy stir of his mind. He remembered Brooklyn like a place made of pictures of Brooklyn, displaced sepia smiles and fusty poses on anonymous street corners, people like baseball cards with worn names, folded faces, random critical stats, their images as unspeaking as pressed flowers. The war, in his memory, was like a newsreel about war, bloodless black and white, silent but sometimes narrated. His memory of dying...was mostly just like dying, every time. Everything else he remembered from earth was even more like a dream, erratic snatches of horror strung together with the barest association of ice...recoil...impact...crimson...his mouth tasting…

Rusted…

He flailed, and the word scuttled away like an interrupted scavenger. He’d drifted off. He was probably starving. Or drugged maybe. Or hypothermic. Or just catatonic again. Hard to tell which. They all brought that same detached muzzy calm, almost euphoric, but cold and low to the ground like a rolling mist. Unreal. Indifferent. Waiting for the electrochemical sun to rise and burn him away...

Furnace…

Daybreak…

“No!” he bent in half and forced himself up, roaring to frighten the dreams off.

It definitely didn’t work.

He was definitely still dreaming, because otherwise he was in a floating glass box mounted on a metal plinth rising through an industrial warehouse of oddities.

At least Bill and the rest had gotten away. He remembered that. In fact, except for a few blessed gaps when he’d had to fight, he remembered his entire stay on the planet called Sakaar. He remembered thawing out, sold to a creepy guy named Grandmaster by a blue guy named Yondu who had stolen his cryopod accidentally in a big artifact theft from some guy named Hydra. He’d been in soldier-head at the time, ready to comply, and went willingly to the gladiator pits. That was where Bill had befriended him. Bill recognized his cybernetics and conditioning somehow, and helped him to come back from being the soldier the first time, and every time after. It had been difficult. Good thing that Bill was tough.

In the sarcastic throes of intense culture shock, he’d introduced himself as John Carter when Bill asked his name. Once everyone knew him by that, it had seemed rude to explain a joke that wasn’t even that funny. He hadn’t run into any other Edgar Rice Burroughs fans, but the pseudonym helped him keep his sanity and live like an alien. No kid from Brooklyn should have ever been where he’d been and done the things he’d done. He couldn’t find a sane way to be Sergeant Barnes, the brainwashed alien-abducted sleeper-agent howling-commando science-experiment soviet-mandroid space-hostage gladiator. But he could be John Carter of Mars.

When Bill decided it was time to save everyone and get back to his people, they made a plan that went just wrong enough that one of them had to stay behind to short circuit the port’s docking clamps until the escape-ship was clear.

Bill’s weird earnest face had clouded with uneasy gratitude as he accepted Barnes’ risky offer as the only way. They’d already established between them that Bill had his race to defend...and Barnes had no one. He still smiled impishly as he recalled how Bill had said, “Thank you, John Carter,” as they’d parted. It was the most like himself he’d felt in a long time.

John Carter probably would have made that jump, though. Bucky Barnes was the one that was always falling to his death.

He’d jumped for the ship as it took off, but his obedience disc fired full-strength as he crossed the invisible security barrier. It had never been able to stop him, but it still hurt enough to make him miss his grip and fall into the swarming guards. Bill had reached after him as he fell. Deja vu all over again. The ship had turned to make a jump just as he’d hit the ground.

So he was in...jail? That didn’t make sense. The tournament of champions was already jail.

His box floated past a box that held a bright blue plant. Why would he be in plant jail? In a glass box that was scummy on the outside, surrounded by industrial architecture and grimy platforms that told him he was definitely still in outer space. Or possibly New Jersey. The only other things he could see were rank upon rank of glass boxes like his own, holding...stuff. There was no other commonality for the things on display, not size or shape or aesthetic appeal or even state of matter. No help on wheres or whys there.

Finally the box stopped rising and slid forward onto a solid floor with an unoiled shriek. A young woman with bright pink skin, pigtails and a white frock minced up to his box with her hands folded together, pressed a few mobilizing buttons, and began to shove him down the aisle like a shopping cart.

He tried to sit up straighter, to address her, but he was clearly too weak, for any of a dozen possible reasons, and she was studiously avoiding eye contact anyway. He tried to count how many rows he passed, but his eyes drifted closed again in the low teens.

Seventeen…

He sat up with a shout, swatting at sounds and chilled with sweat.

The box was still. All was quiet. The cutie with the pink skin had parked him and gone.

As his eyes focused through the blurry glass, they fixed on some kind of disney animal with enormous black eyes, squatting on the floor of a box similar to his. It was baring its teeth at him oddly.

He leaned against the furthest wall and gave it a perfunctory wave and a weak smile. Might as well be cordial with his neighbors.

It returned an awkward scratching motion in the air, its silent snarl growing wilder.

His shoulders slumped in resignation. Better not to antagonize the poor thing. No knowing how long it had been there, or whether it had ever been fed. Or whether he would ever be.

“Hallo!” a sweetly smooth voice chirped from the creature’s cage, “My name is Mantis. My master tells me that you are feeling poorly. It is my job to help you.”

It sounded like a girl with an odd overly-rounded accent that he’d never heard before. Bill had explained to him about Allspeak, a magical language that enabled Bill to unite all the prisoners by translating between any of them, and to sound to Barnes like he was speaking colloquial American English despite having no lips. It was apparently a fairly common thing on Sakaar and among people that were basically gods. Who knew?

But if the creature had used Allspeak, he wouldn’t have been able to hear an accent. It was speaking to him in actual learned-English. In plant jail on an alien world...or possibly New Jersey.

“Um...Hello. I…” his voice sounded parched and weak, resonating oddly in the hard chamber.

“What is your name, please?”

He felt his sense of reality getting unworkable, shaky, and sighed, “John Carter.”

Chapter Text

“I am happy to meet you Jonkarter,” Mantis tried to think of what she was meant to say next, but her enthusiasm at having a friend who could also speak a familiar language was crowding up her thoughts. She wanted so much to know what their feelings were like, and it took all her compassion to sit still and not immediately habitrail to them between boxes. The big ones became frightened so easily, and they had such a sad fuzzy face.

Jonkarter pushed their oddly segmented body up with an effort, “What is this place?”

She knew the answer! Her stomach wiggled with excitement and she patted her knees, “This is the Collection. A tiny part of it. This part is called Knowhere, and is the home of The Collector. He protects precious species and treasures against cosmic disasters. Many worlds are filled with the Collection. If you are here it is because you must be preserved,” she beamed.

Jonkarter’s face pinched, “Preserved?”

Mantis nodded, “I do not understand all nuances of the process, but once you are well your metabolism will be suspended and your chronal imperative disarranged. You will dream until such time as your race is devastated and needs to be renewed. Then you will be reactivated and bred in captivity.”

Their eyes pinched tighter, but their mouth opened loosely a moment and closed again.

Mantis wiped at the glass, hoping to get a better view, but most of the haze was stuck to the outside. She didn’t understand, and felt very worried, “You are upset?”

“No I-” the shaggy head wagged from side to side, mouth bobbing open and shut as though lacking sufficient air, “I’ve...I’ve certainly had worse offers lately. But I don’t have time to play Eden at the end of the universe, and I have no intention of going back on ice, no way. I’ve been under enemy control for months, perhaps, maybe years. I need to get home to my own people, find out what’s been happening.”

Her antennae drooped, “Oh,” was all she could think to say. There was no ice involved that she knew of, only gas and sometimes a few fluids, but that did not seem to be the real complaint. She recognized Jonkarter's attitude with sorrow. Resistance always reminded her of things that were about to die. But she would help before it came to that, “Were you born on your home?”

They nodded and smiled at her. They seemed very tired, but kind, “Yeah. We’re all born on our home where I come from. We don’t travel to different planets much,” their big soulful eyes roved over the contours of the containment box with a rumpled smile, “I’m just lucky, apparently.”

Mantis smiled as wide as she could, elated. It was so awkward trying to make her feelings known when she could not touch, “I am so pleased you think so! I too am lucky to be away from-” before she finished saying such an awful thing she covered up her mouth. She cringed down in her container, glancing up, “I did not mean that,” she murmured between her fingers, “I sometimes get confused by new things,” Slowly she sat up and smoothed her face, “I meant that I am glad that you are here, too. It is nice to talk. I love it,” she grinned wide, “I get too excited and happy.”

They smiled crookedly, with sad eyes, “What is your home like, Mantis?”

She nodded, to show extra sincerity, “He is Ego. He is very kind to me. He is a whole planet made of anything he wants to be. He raised me and he will come back for me.”

“You aren’t here to be...preserved?”

She shook her head, “Oh no. I am not precious to anyone but Ego. I am just here to help.”

Jonkarter looked at their box, then at hers, “Then why do they have you locked up?”

“Well,” she blinked, looking down, “I am also collateral, while my master borrows from the Collector. Knowhere is a dangerous place, and this is the easiest way to keep me safe.”

“How long have you been here alone?”

She had never been asked so many questions about herself and it was making her giddy, “Oh I am never here alone! I am allowed to visit my friends!” she gestured down the row, her chest aching with pride, “I help all of them.”

They looked at the bright row of boxes across the dim aisle; at Gerd, at Snuggles, at the giant nameless gravity slug whose emotions were indistinguishable from humidity. Jonkarter’s head leaned back and their eyes closed.

She did not understand why they would withdraw. She tried not to be anxious, “Jonkarter are you comfortable?”

They considered the question a long time, and tested their limbs in sequence, their worn mismatched carapace creaking. They had a very nice smile. Even withdrawn, they wanted to be liked, “I’m not in agony. That’s always a good day. I’m exhausted, but if you’re not making me move anywhere I don’t mind that. I’m cold but I think that’s just my body shutting down due to starvation.”

Mantis’ happiness crushed down into a sharp little ball of anxiety and she covered her mouth, emitting a high wailing sound that she hoped would bring Carina.

Jonkarter sighed, head tilting back again, “That came out wrong.”

----

Carina had silently nurtured the hope that Mantis’ newest broken toy would blunt the empath’s voracious need for company, but the thin keening that filtered down through six levels of grates dashed that after less than ten toks. She peeled out of the long elastile gloves and heavy apron, leaving the solvent and scraper by the barnacula tank. Maybe the creepy cyborg had died. Maybe Mantis had gotten her hair caught in a habitrail. Whatever the cause, that sound she made annoyed the master, and master’s annoyance always managed to come down on Carina. She set down her face shield, smoothed her dress, and stalked towards the lift.

-----

Bucky pulled himself to his knees and to the nearest wall between them. It took way too much effort, but after months bunking with monsters and killers and the absolute worst version of himself, he couldn’t bear to hear a sweet kid cry. He put his right hand, his gloved human hand, on the glass and tried to sound hearty, “Mantis. Hey, Mantis. Look, I’m ok. Look at me. I’m fine. I’m not dying. I didn’t mean it like that. My mouth gets all stupid when I’m tired. Don’t cry.”

The wide dark eyes had never actually left him, but the button nose came up from behind cupped hands and the thin wailing trailed off with a sharp sniffle, “I am not crying, and you do not look fine. Carina needs to feed you right now!”

Bucky chose discretion over valor and carefully lowered himself onto one hip before he could fall, resting his back into the near corner, “It’s not a bad thing, honestly. When I’m hungry, I’m weaker. Docile, I guess you could say. It’s better, easier.”

“Easier than what?”

“Than trying to fight myself when I’m strong.”

“To fight-?” Mantis looked away as the lightlift discharged the pink girl in the white frock onto their level.

She minced to Mantis’ cage with a plastic smile, hands folded, “What is the matter?”

“Jonkarter. Carina, you have to feed them.” Mantis pointed indignantly.

Carina shook her head, “Feeding is tomorrow.”

Mantis leaned on the front glass with both hands, sounding like a young child pleading on her own behalf, “They are starving! Look at their hide! They are dehydrated and moulting!”

Carina crossed to Bucky’s cage and tilted her head at him, standing still, “He is wearing armor.”

Mantis blinked, sitting back a little, “Oh,” her face drooped and she looked like she might start not-crying again.

Carina’s synthetic placidity cracked and she frowned, irritated, and turned back to him without looking him in the face, “Jonkarter, do you see the panel on the floor by your hand? Please open it.”

The proud army man in him did as he was told, flipping up a small brass panel and finding a couple of translucent tubes folded inside, attached to the box by mysterious valves.

“Please pick up the thin tube, take a deep breath, and blow into it as hard as you can.”

He studied the dubiously opaque cannula, regretting that there was no surface on him clean enough to improve it with rubbing. He pinched the end between his lips as gingerly as he could, blew, and tried not to think about why it might taste like earwax.

Carina was studying some panel on his metal plinth below where he could see. Her eyebrows shot up and she glanced from the panel to him and back again. She swallowed hard, “Please pick up the thicker tube and affix the appropriate mouthpiece for your nutritional orifice.”

Bucky had to paw through a separate hatch full of disturbingly evocative objects before he found a familiar one that sent a chill down his back: a rubbery black mouthguard with a hole and a stem, and he knew the seizure was coming only a second before it hit.

His neck threw his head back involuntarily at the sight, shaking like the echo of footsteps on concrete, muttered russian, opening his mouth, lowering back, the snowblind pain biting chunks out of his mind, screaming so hard it felt like his ribcage might crush itself, the agony and the relief of everything going away. His brain burned brighter and brighter until the blackness at the center of the light bloomed outward to envelop him.

He came around slow. His throat was sore. His eyes were burning, blurry. He felt sweaty and chafed all over and vaguely nauseous.

And his stomach was full.

He was lying on his side. The only thing in his field of vision was a damp mouth guard attached to a thick milky tube.

A small voice spoke from close by, “Jonkarter?”

He lifted his head. Mantis was sitting by his feet in the corner of the glass box, holding her knees and peering at him. Something  was moving past behind her. As his eyes focused he realized it was the entire room. She was in his box, and they were moving. He turned his head and saw Carina shoving them along. The glass between her and them was spiderwebbed with cracks around a fist-sized focal point. He swished his mouth and swallowed a residue that tasted like sweet oatmeal mixed with burnt grass clippings and sour beer.

He looked back at Mantis, watching how she responded when he moved, to try and get a sense of how bad he’d frightened her before he’d blacked out. She lowered her knees and leaned towards him a little. So maybe not so bad.

He scrubbed at his eyes with his gloved hand. His blood already felt warmer, stronger, “I take it I got fed.”

Mantis smiled and nodded, “Your brain became clasped and flung you about, so I put you to sleep and helped you. How do you feel?”

He pushed himself up with his soldier arm, tested his neck in a circle, and shrugged, “Like I got hit in the mouth by a fastball of fermented pancake batter,” he swatted the tube back towards its storage space and tried too hard not to think too hard about it.

Mantis’ shoulders rose with the corners of her mouth, “I do not know what that means.” She seemed delighted.

“Where are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“What’s downstairs?”

“Stronger boxes.”

Bucky glanced at Carina. She met his eyes defiantly as she pushed them towards the platform’s edge. She did not look amused. She looked like she was the kind of angry that came from being afraid. So maybe he’d been worse than Mantis was letting on. She wouldn't be the first skinny kid he'd ever met with more courage than sense.

He dropped his gaze to Carina’s hands where they pushed him along, “I’m sorry if I scared you.”

Carina shook her head, feigning indifference as she pushed them over the edge into the column of levitation.

Chapter Text

Down was, apparently, a long way down.

After six levels of morose specimens and jugged oddities, the box slid into a dark shaft that allowed no sense of distance or speed, the lights inside doing nothing to illuminate the walls outside. The way the dingy window became a mirror in the dark tunnel reminded Bucky briefly of the subway, though the memory slid away even faster than the train could have.

He shifted, wincing at re-awakened pain. His steadily rising blood sugar upset the layers of malaise that sheltered him from the bites and scrapes of reality. His head hurt. His neck hurt. His dark leather armor felt like sandstone slabs against skin that was scabbed and sweaty and raw. But in the back of his mind, he knew the discomfort was its own kind of shelter, protecting him from thinking too hard about where he was.

His new friend, the lady bug whose dad was apparently a planet, had stopped her study of him and gazed around at the blank walls like a kid at a carnival. He knew he ought to be wary, to assume she was there to manipulate him into compliance. Heck she’d admitted as much. But he just couldn’t believe there was an ounce of harm in her. There was just no way. He knew all about evil, indifference, and guile, and he wasn’t looking at any of them.

His own face was another story. He hadn’t seen a mirror in...functionally ever, and the thing looking back at him from his reflection didn’t look much like a John Carter of Mars, or anything like a James Buchanan Barnes. Although his scalp had been buzzed to fuzz on his first day in the arena, it had been left to grow wild since, and to his own eyes he looked like a half-caterpillar half-sasquatch dog-demon that had fallen on hard times.

He pulled off a glove and tried to comb his shaggy hair out with his fingers, catching at tangles. As he managed to pull a lock straight, a realization turned his stomach. His hair was over four inches long. He flinched away from considering how much time that had to represent, and how much was missing.

His beard, too, had grown in coarse and full. Like my dad’s, he thought. It didn’t inspire any real memory of his father’s face, just the association, the feeling: his beard was like his dad’s. Maybe if he looked long enough at his own face he could work backwards to some idea of his father, or remember if he had his mom’s eyes, but he turned away from that image, too. Thinking about earth, about the past, about sanity, only highlighted how far away they all were.

Mantis laid a hand on the dim mirror by her face, “It is so amazing.”

He smiled in spite of himself, trying not to scoff, “What is?”

She closed her eyes and the tips of her antennae glowed softly, her smile broadening, “This place. Everything here. It is not alive. It does not have any feelings. It did not grow. Someone made all of it from something else, and it does not change,” she nodded past him at the cracked glass, “unless someone does it on purpose, with tools. That is amazing to think about. Big buildings. Small devices. Even the tiny machines in the nanoglass. Someone had to touch them, has to touch all of them, and to mean something by it for it to change.”

“That’s amazing?”

She nodded brightly, “On my home, whatever my master wants simply happens, and nothing happens that he does not want. Nothing stays once he is done with it,” she patted the floor with an affectionate reverence, “But this will be here until it matters enough that someone changes it.”

He nodded ruefully at the contours of their shared cage, “Yeah. Walls are like that.”

“Is your- oh!” Mantis turned suddenly as the shaft around them opened up on one side to a dark and glittering cityscape. Buildings and star ships and twisted metal structures lined a bowl-shaped cavern on all sides like crystals in a geode, jutting and massive and haphazardly dazzling, and yet wholly unable to completely obscure or outshine the star-strewn expanse of open space beyond the cavern’s mouth.

Mantis knelt up as Bucky gaped. She pointed around the cave’s rim, miles and miles wide, “We must be in one of the eye sockets.”

Bucky couldn’t quite catch his breath, staring out into the impossibly clear slashes of starlight and lazy galactic swirls,  “Eye...I…”

Mantis nodded, “Knowhere was built in the head of a dead celestial, at the edge of the universe,” she shook her head in wonder, “Everything is so strange here. And it is all real,” her voice dropped to a whisper as she tipped her fingers against the glass, “Every life here is happening. Separate but touching.”

Bucky gulped, wishing he weren’t feeling so well fed. Their box was moving quite fast, only serving to highlight the immense distances between forms that seemed not to move at all by comparison. Mantis continued cheerfully, “The upper gallery is for pieces of the collection that are being prepared for preservation but are still suitable to display. Other items are handled down in the other facility, deeper in the craniofacial superstructure. I have not been down there before.”

The box changed direction sharply on some invisible track around the curved cavern, and they were pressed sideways. Bucky was steadied by the wall at his back, while Mantis was flung flat on her front across the floor towards him. Bucky reflexively held out his right hand to help her up, “Oh, easy there. You ok?”

She pressed herself up, spitting some dark hair out of the corner of her mouth, “Yes, I am unhurt, it was a surprise,” she lifted her hand a fraction to take his, but her expression clouded and she seemed to think better of it, withdrawing into her own corner again.

Bucky frowned at his rough grimy mitt, wondering not for the first time where half the scars had come from. He didn’t even know the back of his own hand anymore.

“It is not you,” Mantis said quietly.

He looked up, distracted, covering his strange human hand with his strange metal one.

“It is rude to touch when I am not supposed to," she offered, "Intrusive. I know you were being friendly, but I am very upsetting to people.”

She said it with such protective earnestness that he was, ironically, touched, “Mantis, I promise, you’re the only thing in this fever dream so far that isn’t upsetting me.”

She nodded, “Which is why I do not want to start,” she hung her head, “When I got here, I did not ask before I touched Carina. It was wrong.”

Bucky shrugged, “It’s ok, I’ll keep my hands to myself, scout’s honor.” He held up three fingers on his right hand. Another familiar gesture that he couldn’t place much additional context around. Boy Scout. Eagle Scout. Except for knowing what that meant it didn’t mean anything, didn’t connect.

The box changed direction again, dropping straight down, and Mantis bounced slightly, pitching over halfway before she caught herself.

Bucky tightened his metal hand around his human wrist to stifle his gallantry, “You ok?”

A slightly ruffled Mantis pulled herself over to rest against the wall beside him, apparently noticing he’d lucked into the better spot, “I am unhurt. I think we are going down into the well of tiers.”

---

Mantis had mixed emotions about the well of tiers, and that embarrassed her. She had asked Ego what it meant when she had two emotions at the same time, and he had confirmed her fears that it meant she was weak, lacking in judgement, and couldn’t make decisions for herself. She had tried to get stronger, to only have one emotion at a time like he did, but she was just a talking flea. Even the creatures in her care that could not talk had apparently learned how to have sole, solid, decisive emotions that attached to clear simple feelings, and yet she was always having to push away conflicts. The well made her curious, and also afraid. She didn’t know which was right, and neither was giving any ground.

Carina had told her, haltingly, about the Collector’s other holdings on Knowhere. Not because she’d wanted to, or had been expected to, but because Mantis had had so many questions.

A deep pit on one side of the ocular cavern, the well of tiers was the first section prospected and secured against the vacuum, millennia before the advent of the fields and shields that would make the entire skull habitable and workable. It had been an easy structure to make airtight, the tissues relatively simple to remove. The first miners had separated it into home spaces, later refitted to house and secure the necessary slaves for expanding operations. Several managerial epochs later, it had finally settled into being an auxiliary water purification plant, and the Collector had snapped up rights to the abandoned chambers.

The box thudded onto an old-fashioned mechanical lift, where Carina, having lightlifted down, awaited them impatiently. She cranked a lever and their descent continued shakily into a semi-circular shaft. Mantis felt her fear begin to press its point. There was a heavy greyness and a finality to the place that made her think of Ego’s cave.

They sank past tier after unevenly-spaced tier of stone-slab balconies and thick square doorless entrances on the shaft’s flat side. None of the spaces within seemed inhabited at a glance. Gerd or Snuggles could have easily turned around in those rooms. That would make them happy. Or perhaps the dim and the grey would make them sad. She had to push away another messy, doubtful contradiction.

Jonkarter was counting levels quietly, but stopped at nine, breath catching.

She resisted the urge to pet them, “Are you well?”

They nodded uneasily, “Fine.”

The lift went down as far as it could go, and Mantis heard water rushing loudly below them. She noted with some interest that the entrance to that tier was almost exactly the size of Jonkarter’s box, the bare stone wall as thick as her forearm was long.

In answer to her thought, Carina shoved the box onto the balcony and wedged it into the tight fit of the doorway space, pushing until the front glass was even with the door’s inner edge. She jabbed a few buttons on the outer panel, “Alright. Debark.”

Mantis blinked at her, “There is not another box.”

Carina rolled her eyes, “The doorway is the box, it’s nanoprogrammed. Just do it.”

Mantis put her hand on the glass facing into the room and hoped for a habitrail, letting her touch communicate a simple idea to the tiny machines in the glass. A small hole expanded around her palm, the edges flowing open to where the box met the door, creating a hard seal.

Mantis stepped into the room. Like the shaft down, it was roughly semicircular, maybe ten paces along the flat side by five wide at its widest point, the ceiling no higher than the doorway. It was cool, but not cold; dim, but not dark; damp, but not dank. The curved wall rippled and shimmered with a continuous curtain of water that came from levels above and fell straight through, the floor’s curved edge lined with the same ubiquitous grating as the Collector’s upper gallery. A scarce grey-blue light came up from below, glinting through the glassy waterfall and weaving dreamily along the ceiling. The stone floor was markedly uneven, though it was hard to see the precise contours in the low light.

Jonkarter unfolded their legs and prowled around, wary but steady. They weren't quite as tall as she’d thought when they had reared up. Nor were theyt quite as massive, though their tense, coiled stance seemed intended to make them look bigger. They were still scared. She stifled the urge to lure them to her lap and pet them.

Carina hissed to get her attention, and she crossed back to the box as Jonkarter stalked the perimeter.

She spoke testily as she sprayed the cracked wall with nanite fixative, wiping away the cracks like fog, “According to the readout, he’s bio-compatible with the rest of the city, so the water should be fine to let him drink, and the lysozymes from the purifier should clean his skin without attacking his healthy cells.”

“Will you be bringing the rest of my friends down here?” she asked, anxious and hopeful.

Carina glared at her, “He’s your priority. Get him stabilized and strong. And don’t let him hurt himself any worse.”

“How long will that take?”

Carina rechecked the panel, “Scans say he’s got broken ribs, numerous infected lesions, malnutrition wasting, dehydration toxicity, extensive cortisol scarring, and probably mites in his mane,” she regarded Mantis dryly, “not to mention that he’s a demented killing machine.”

Mantis shook her head, trying out Carina’s pronoun to be more agreeable, hoping that they weren’t just both being presumptuous, “He was just afraid.”

Carina’s lips and tone were stiff, “What a relief. But for now you’re the only thing that can stop him if you’re wrong, and that gladiator personality still might tear itself to pieces for no reason. So just watch him. Make him give a breath sample if you think something’s wrong. The box will notify me if you actually need anything,” her tone grew pointed, “so there should be no reason to page me. I’ve got too much to do. I’ll check in as soon as I can.”

Mantis nodded, understanding more in Carina’s high-keyed agitation than was said, “I am sorry that I upset you. So is he. He told you that.”

Carina closed her eyes and took a shaking breath before smoothing her frock, “You have no idea what…” her voice closed off.

“I know that I do not. And I know what I said. But I am not going to tell on you. Ever. I promise.” She thought about invoking the vow-form Jonkarter had used, the scowd zonar. It had filled her with a sense of assurance when he'd said it, but Carina might not understand.

Carina opened her eyes and frowned, “Just make him better,” she pressed a few final keys and some compartments in the plinth hissed, revealing seams, “There are no blades but there’s a laser comb for the mites that could give him pause in a pinch. Good luck.”

As the lift juddered out of sight Mantis sat on the open rim of the box, legs folded, watching Jonkarter as they, or he, walked the brief perimeter of the room, the gloom seeming to grow heavier under the unbroken shush of falling water. He did one circuit just studying the floor, and another just studying the ceiling. She pursed her lips, “You are trying to think of a way to escape?”

He smiled wryly but did not pause, “You’re a psychic?”

She folded her hands in the well of her folded legs, “No. Just an empath. I can feel what others feel, and change it sometimes. But only when I touch them.”

“You can read emotions?”

“I do not read them, I have to feel them. Emotions and feelings, too. Sometimes sensations.”

He reached up and put one palm against the ceiling, pushing experimentally, “What’s the difference?”

“An emotion is how your inner self reacts. A feeling is how your body experiences thoughts and emotions. Sensations happen when you touch the world. With time and care, I am finding that there are other things, too, that I can feel. The way sound can create a kind of sight, feeling intense feelings can sometimes uncover the shape of thoughts, sensations. A feeling about a person can show the shape of their face or the sound of their name. A feeling of contentment can describe a flavor of food or a toy in a hand. I am discovering that many parts of life are not directly beholden to thoughts to be experienced.”

“So that’s why you think it’s rude for you to touch people?”

“It feels wrong to force things on people, or to see things about them unoffered.”

He glanced at his metal hand, “Did you see anything about me when you dropped me before?”

She shook her head, “Not very much. When I am making people feel what I need them to, it is harder to listen. I only felt that you were afraid, because I had to overcome that to make you sleep. And I-” she looked down, “-and when you were asleep I helped to make sure you would swallow and not choke. I am sorry. It seemed necessary.”

He scuffed his boot into the floor, smiling, “Does that mean you had to taste that awful stuff as you made me swallow it?”

She made a face and nodded.

He shrugged, “At least I got to sleep through that part. I expect that makes us even.”

It was a huge relief to feel forgiven, and she laughed giddily, “You had let your nutritional needs become very extreme!”

He glanced at her, assessing, “So are you going to help me escape or are you going to try to make me comply with what Carina and the Collector want?”

She blinked in perplexity, “They want me to help you become strong. You need your strength to escape. I think that right now your goals and theirs demand the same actions from me.”

“And if they didn’t?”

It troubled her. She had never had two people who were not Ego want contradictory things from her before. She had only begun to know enough people closely enough to even make such a problem possible. She swallowed, “In that case, I would try to do what felt right. Or caused the least pain.”

“Well, you should know that I don’t want to be made strong.”

“What? Why not?”

“Because apparently it means being put on ice again. Or worse.”

She felt a thrill of dread at the weight in his voice, “What is worse?”

“Worse like before, maybe. When I get stronger, so does that...thing inside me. The soldat.

Mantis shook her head, “But you almost escaped. Is that not what you want?”

He frowned and looked down, “Trust me, that's not a means of escape, it’s just one cage after another. And there’s always a worse. It’s generally better to take that on faith than to insist on finding out.”

She was getting irritated with him, “Keeping yourself weak and in pain will keep you from becoming violent, or from being used? You are somehow that different from every other creature I have ever met?”

“What all twelve of them?”

She closed her mouth, not because he was right but because he was wrong. She had met more creatures than that. Felt them. Thousands, and their feelings as they became helpless and afraid and tried to escape. It was the last thing she would ever want her new friend to know about her, even to help him. She did her best not to know it about herself. She said nothing. He would not understand.

“Listen,” he said softly, “I understand.”

She looked at him, perplexed.

“I get that you’re a prisoner, like me. And you have to do what you have to do. I think you want to make me healthy, not just because Carina told you to but because you’re kind and you don’t like to see big ugly critters like me suffer. But when you’re done helping me, and I'm ready to be preserved, and they come to take me away, will you go along with that too?  Or if by some miracle I’m on the verge of escaping this place, and they tell you to stop me, would you?”

A lump of contradictory things crowded up her throat, “I do not know.”

He held up both hands soothingly, “And that’s ok. It’s not your fault. Nothing about being a prisoner is fair. None of it is really a choice, believe me, I know. But you should know that I don’t want to go back on ice. Ever. What you do with the crappy choices you’ve been dealt is still up to you, and I won’t even pretend to take it personal. If it comes down to it, I’ll take my own lumps before letting someone else take them for me. But I believe you care what I want, so I’m telling you. I don’t want you to do to me what they’ve told you to do. I don’t want you to make me strong. If it’s a choice between going on ice until humanity’s extinct, or ending up back at the arena, I’d rather you just kill me outright.”

She blinked, folding her hands around the other way, unable to understand her own feelings, “Then I think we are going to be here a long time.”

Chapter Text

Bucky didn’t have a response. His situation was too untenable and her earnestness was too disarming. He wanted to feel pissed off, resolute, self-contained, but she kept kicking the legs out from under that plan, drawing out scraps of memory that recentered his attention on his tattered humanity, the scope of his weariness, and the prospect of sleep. And the hell of it was, part of him wanted nothing more than to lay down at her feet and let the alien fairy princess take away the castaway earth-man’s pain. But he wasn't the only one who was clearly suffering, and that pretty fantasy ended with him on ice and her still a brainwashed slave. He knew he couldn’t let that happen, but that wasn’t the same as having a plan.

He walked back to the grate along the curved wall, trying to estimate if he could wriggle through the gap if he got a section loose. The pool below had to lead somewhere if the falls never stopped and the cell never flooded. Given the amount of water pouring down (and any luck) the drain would have to be pretty big. The tyrannical circuitry threaded through his body made it hard for him to lose muscle mass no matter how badly he treated himself, but maybe if he shucked out of his armor...assuming the water wasn’t poisoned or electrified or otherwise treacherous.

He touched the swiftly sheeting waterfall. Cold. He tasted it. Clean. Flavorless.

Benign…

He growled and shook his head, the soldier testing him even though he was lucid. The icy feel of the water in the dark was giving it an advantage. He grunted again and paced, letting his armor chafe over his wounds, letting pain push anger in and fear out, making his brain inhospitable to ruminations that ate away at his defenses.

Mantis offered quietly, “If you will not intentionally injure yourself, and will feed yourself enough to keep from starving, I can perhaps make Carina put me back upstairs.”

The gentle proposal hit him right in the chest, and he stopped, stunned.

On the one hand, yeah. If she stayed he would only scare her, or worse. Getting her away from him was the right call.

And on the other hand...there was no other hand. Not really. He should have been the one to suggest it, if his brain weren’t just a bowl of tepid cyrillic alphabet soup. It was the right call. The only call. Even if the earnest alien’s presence had already made him feel more human than he’d been in recent memory. Even if the thought of sending her away, after knowing her for an hour, felt like voluntarily drowning himself when he’d just been thrown a line. It was the only call if his humanity or his life were still worth a damn in the first place.

Maybe it even made sense tactically. Maybe he could call that hope. He pressed down the thought of alone , and focused on the possibility of escape , “If you were up there, could you look for a way to free us both?”

Her wide eyes were unreadable, scrupulously passive, “I have no access. They would put me back in my box like before, alone.”

“But you can open the glass, can’t you?”

“Only between boxes. The glass is not programmed to let anything out. It only lets me make connections.”

“But you can talk to it? Convince it maybe?” He tried to keep desperation out of his voice.

Her reluctance was as evident to him as his own, “It is not alive. I can only make it do what it is able to do. I do not think there is any way I can help you. But at least if they put me back upstairs you will be safe from me.”

He stifled a laugh, mostly at himself. She wasn’t scared of him. What kind of arrogant hick would keep expecting her to be? Her dad was some kind of planetary god-emperor and her best friend was a full-grown rhinoceros. But he’d given her a big speech about how he’d rather die than let her do her job. She was no big tough soldier, but she was willing to take the hit for his sake while he wallowed in self-pity like a giant jerk. Neither of them wanted to be alone again, but he felt like he deserved to be. Maybe she didn’t understand how dangerous he was, but he did, “When is Carina coming back?”

Mantis shrugged, a little embarrassed, “She is forced to work very hard. It might be a while.”

He began stalking the perimeter again, pretending to think but mostly just upset. He wished the nearest wall wasn’t covered with water so he could bang his head against it, kick his own ass into telling her that he didn’t want a friend. Easy as kicking a puppy. He ground the heel of his hand against his forehead.

“But I could find a way to call her,” she offered, her tone soothing, “If you want me to go.”

He opened his mouth and balked, burnt out by too many emotions at once. The problem with keeping himself so weak was that it left him so weak, “I suppose you could just make me want what you want me to want. That might be easier.”

He’d been joking, mostly, but she shook her head gravely, “I can not. The origin of wanting is more of an emotion than a feeling. I can only affect feelings. And in any case I-” she hung her head, “I seldom have an emotion I can focus on well enough to share it. Most of the time I have too many.”

He couldn’t help smiling, “Well, you’re only human. Close enough, I mean,” it had sounded better in his soupy head.

She peered at him, confused.

He gave a shrug of contrived nonchalance, “Emotions are messy...is all I meant. I know how that feels.” he rubbed the back of his neck and shut his mouth.

“You do?”

“Yeah, I mean, I think so. Where I come from, I think just about everyone gets mixed up in too many emotions sometimes. Heck, for some of us it’s pretty much all the time. It’s not a bad thing, it just means you care.”

The part of him that loved pulp novels appreciated how the lovely alien slave princess stared at him like she didn’t understand the earth man’s funny jabber. He held out his hand to her, palm down, “Take a look if you don’t believe me. It’s a mess in here.”

She cocked one wrist up, tentatively, “You are not worried?”

He crossed close to her, “Yeah, I mean, I’m worried. For you. My head is a pretty awful place sometimes. But I trust you. Just promise if anything weird happens, you’ll drop me like a sack of rocks, like you did before. No hesitation, no apology. You got me?”

She nodded solemnly, holding her hand up with three fingers out, “I got you. Scowzonar.”

He grinned, “Scout’s honor. You got it. Where I come from it’s kind of a boy thing, but you seem pretty trustworthy to me,” he looked at his hand as he held it out to her, something stirring in his brain, “and loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, so,” his smile pressed his cheeks up so hard that they ached, “I can’t believe I remembered all that.”

She mirrored him, “So I have scout’s honor?”

He feigned a reluctant shrug, babbling as she folded a warm and unnervingly real hand over his, “Yeah. We’re at the end of the universe. I think I can deputize you in extremis, or something. It’s a big handbook, I’m sure that’s in there.”

She stood up and closed her eyes and he noticed that she wasn’t quite as small as he’d thought. She was slight, but she was maybe only a handspan shorter, and only if he didn’t count the feelers that began to glow warmly in the dark. Silence fell between them as suddenly as her expression. Her brow crumpled and her neck bent, like she had to feel his raw skin and smarting bones as well as his emotions, but they didn’t stop her, “You are more than lost. You are alien. There is no way home inside you, no direction that calls you except escape.”

He cleared his throat and nodded, aware of the vast darkness and the two of them under her tiny lights.

“You are afraid that no place will ever be home to you again, and that soon the lack-of-place will claim you.”

He swallowed. It seemed superfluous to respond. Her voice had his pain in it.

Her hand tightened on his, her wince tightening as well, “You are in pain, and awaiting pain. And shame, like a hook in your throat, sliding further down with every swallow,” her antennae pricked up slightly, a tiny smile following, “but also hope. You despair, and yet are...happy...grateful...just to be alive, in spite of everything. You feel betrayed, and you feel compassion, all at once.”

His jaw tightened and he looked down, not quite a nod, not needing to be.

She withdrew her hand but let it hover in the space between them, “I understand these things. I know them,” she tilted her gaze towards her own shoulder, “not just because you feel them.”

His own voice was softer, “Well, like I said, it’s not that unusual on my planet. People just feel a lot of things. It’s always complicated,” he smiled, “It’s as if even our feelings don’t like to be alone.”

Her hand moved towards his face but he caught and lowered it in his metal one, suddenly self conscious. He didn’t want her to feel the things he was about to think of.

“This place. There’s technology here that’s way beyond the things my programmers did to me. Just the side effects of the Grandmaster’s obedience disks did something to the program in my brain. I know we should both be trying harder to be noble, but if you reject me, or I reject you, they’ll just find something else to make me strong, to make me comply,” he turned to sit beside her on the rim of the box, and she sat with him, resting their hands between. He huffed a small laugh, “Something a lot worse than you.”

She folded her hands in her lap, “You are my friend. But I know what I am for. And I do not want to hurt you.”

He nodded, “Yeah. I understand. But I’m not afraid of you. I’m afraid of hurting you.”

She was quiet for a long time, and her breath caught in several hesitant half-starts. Finally she said, “No one has ever...been afraid of hurting me.”

The weight in her voice shot him through with visceral memories of bullies. The ones with tanks and armies and nothing to fear; brimful with glee as they spilled blood like champagne. The ones with black straps, white coats, and burning needles; their smiles crisp as clipboards as he screamed. The ones with broad shoulders and jackass laughs in back alleys, confident that privacy and a victim made them gods. And a little guy getting up again, and again, and again. A busted lip, a swollen eye, and a heart that could power a star. No one's ever been afraid of hurting me...

He gripped the edge of the box, nodding heavily, “Yeah, maybe not. But they should’ve been...”

The urge to make some big heroic boast, to go find this Ego guy and pound him into pink taffy gnawed at the base of his throat and tickled between his shoulders, but he knew better. He could hit bullies back all day. Give them someone their own size to try to pick on, and scatter their teeth around the alley like yesterday’s newspapers. And maybe that made him the good guy, but it never made him the hero. He just knew a hero when he saw one.

He patted her on the shoulder, “...because you’re stronger than them.”

---

To Carina, the near-instantaneous return to level six seemed to take forever. She began every day hopelessly behind, and Mantis had wasted toks of the time she didn’t have, prodding her towards panic with tiny swats. The Collector’s priorities were as capricious as they were absolute, and imperfection noted anywhere in his impossible list of kaleidoscoping goals could condemn her instantly.

It was a job just trying to keep her own hands clean in the free-floating industrial squallor of Knowhere. Her efforts to keep the master’s sprawling collection gleaming was an unending exercise in madness. The fuel waste and biological effluvia that smogged the entire facility seemed to have a special affinity for nanoglass. True, most sections went unvisited by anyone but her for whole cycles, but the master could, and did, visit anyplace he liked on blandly sadistic fault-finding missions without pattern or notice.

She’d re-spaced the entire extinct/enhanced cholesterol-mediated intelligences section to accommodate Mantis a few cycletts ago, then again just that shift for the creepy gladiator, and suddenly had to re-space everything yet again because the animals were apparently running the zoo. She had already begun to sweat at the knowledge that she had to make everything perfect before Tivan decided to wander through, which she knew could happen at literally any moment. It was always the foremost concern in her mind.

And yet she hadn’t actually expect to find him there, staring meditatively at Mantis’ empty cage with his fingers steepled. The glass was grimy and the absence of the soldier’s cage leered at her like a gapped smile under his scrutiny. Carina’s blood turned to ice.

“Cah-ree-naaah…” he intoned slowly.

“Yes master?”

“Where is my brother’s contender?”

Don’t plead. Don’t simper. Useless. Save my strength, her mind stuttered. She kept her voice melodic and even, “He became too violent for the box. The sedi-steam was ineffective. I transferred him to the well.”

“Ah.” He paused.

Don’t fidget. Stay still. Don’t move. He knows you’re afraid. That might satisfy him if you don’t make it worse.

“And where,” he drawled to his fingertips, “is Ego’s collateral?”

Don’t blame. Don’t defend. Tell the truth. Somehow he always knows anyway. “She was able to neutralize him. She asked to stay with him.”

“Asked?”

He always knew, “Begged.”

He turned to her, “And surely,” his unchanging lour was unreadable, “you told her it was not your place to allow it.”

“I did.”

He waited a long moment and raised an eyebrow.

“Master, she would not leave him. Said she would wake him if I forced her. I told her that he would probably kill them both if she did that. His adrenals were untenable. She said that if I did not let her stay with him, he was as good as dead anyway,” she swallowed, at a loss to describe the placid little waif’s weighty glare, the fitful monster in her lap, that unprecedented tremble of wrath in her flutey voice, “and that I was, too.”

His eyelids actually raised a tiny measure, “She...threatened you?”

“Yes, master.”

Half to himself, “Mantid hybrids are notoriously docile.”

“I was more surprised than frightened.” She had been terrified, but it was still technically true.

Tivan squinted incredulously, “So you put the mad celestial’s fragile pledge of good faith into a deep dark pit. With my brother’s most unpredictable, rebellious, and violent contender,”

“Only until-”

He raised a finger sharply and she corrected herself, “Yes, master. I did.”

He nodded slowly, “Very good.”

He was serious. Sweet Mother he was serious. She dared not move a muscle as he strolled past her towards the lift.

“Clean up this mess,” he added blandly over his shoulder.

Relief swept through her, but just before the lift whisked him from her immediate misery, he added three words she dreaded, “Keep me apprised.”

Chapter Text

Mantis felt weariness. She felt alien. She felt hope. She’d always felt them, but in isolation, without any understanding of their innate purpose or proper context, the way Gerd might not have known that her wings were wings if she had been born in a box.

It was not the first time she’d wondered what she was, and why she experienced things that were useless to her master, but it was the first time (since that first time) that she let the questions linger.

Ego had raised her for his purposes, after all. He’d cultivated her senses to appreciate his creations, and enhanced her abilities to serve his needs. Her feelings, like all the languages he had pressed upon her, were to let her understand what she was shown, to hear him when he preferred to speak, and to help when he wanted to practice. He treated her like just another appendage, and his progeny tended to regarded her as such. For that matter, so did she, most of the time. So it made sense that she knew contentment, and curiosity, and dread. But her deeper emotions had always been like stars in the sky; as numerous and constant as they were nameless and irrelevant.

Jonkarter’s emotions had names, and contexts, and constellational interconnections with other feelings, other people, like a key to a code. Things his thoughts were too fractured to remember, his emotions still knew, clear and yet complicated, distinct and yet wonderfully tangled. He said he came from a place where everyone’s emotions were like that.

It made her curious. It made her afraid. And something else besides, something hot and uneasy that clung to the path of her breath in her chest. Something he might help her identify, if she could figure out how to ask.

But she couldn’t focus on her feelings, even with so much that was new to think about. Touching his feelings while he was lucid had also confirmed her fears for him. Between the metal in his flesh and the poisons in his brain, his body was riddled with a repeating subliminal imperative: escape enemy captivity, or die. Not a warning or a threat. An order. Apparently his masters had decided that if they could not have him, no one would.

That imperative was the only thing he’d felt when his brain had collapsed into chaos upstairs, a driving terror that had to be obeyed, though he could not hear it when he was lucid. That wasn’t unusual. In her experience, most creatures were as unaware of the ever-present sensation of death as they were of the constant growth of their skin, though it was as universal as Mantis’ experience of it was extensive. He had stated his preference for death over compliance, unaware that his program meant to enforce that exact choice. It made trying to help him even more complicated.

She knew he was brave, and he did truly feel defiant, but that was no guarantee that he wasn’t unconsciously applying all his strength toward returning to the ones that had maimed him. It wasn’t his fault. The metal talons insisting the choice upon him on pain of death meant that he had to try, if his life meant anything to him. But as he was he was also fragile, and telling him that he could not even trust his own defiance might break both his will to escape and his will to live at once.

She did not want her friends to die anymore. She wanted her time to be different at Knowhere. She needed a plan, “Jonkarter.”

He sounded drowsy, but willing, “Yeah?”

“The things in your head. The ones that were put there. What is their purpose?”

He heaved a long sigh, and it did not take an empath to hear his willingness wane, “To make me kill. To make me obey. To make me forget.”

“I did not feel those things in you. Are they thoughts?”

He closed his eyes, his head bowed, “Not my thoughts. I don’t like to talk about it.”

She nodded, “I know. But I want to help. Or at least not to make it worse by accident.”

He leaned his head back without opening his eyes, “I don’t-” his face scrunched and bristled and he gave a frustrated growl, “I don’t feel safe letting you know how it works. If someone wanted to control me,” he shook his head, “but you do have some right to know, to keep you safe. So ok.”

He slowed his breathing and spoke clinically, “You saw that I have seizures, usually triggered by sense memories of the program that made me, but not always. Sometimes a serious threat is enough. My friend Bill diagnosed it as a form of combat fatigue that reacts badly with my damaged programming’s failsafes or something. All I know is my perceptions go haywire. Sometimes, like upstairs, I just blackout. Sometimes I hallucinate the soldat’s supposedly wiped memories. Sometimes it’s all in my head, sometimes my body acts it out,” his head hung down, “It’s like my brain catches fire and everything goes into overdrive. I’m still me, but I can’t tell what’s in front of me. Sometimes things can get through and bring me back down, but it’s not reliable, or fast, or safe. What you did, dropping me, was smart. It was the right thing, believe me.”

She nodded, “You were very afraid. You wanted to stop.”

He rubbed his eyes brusquely with the back of his biological wrist, “But that’s just the malfunction. My actual purpose is worse. If the programs fire in the right sequence, they numb my mind and fill it with...something else. And I..." he huffed and set his jaw, "I watch it, and I help it. I feel it thinking with my brain, planning, calculating, and I do every last awful thing it’s supposed to do, because I can’t even tell that that’s not what I am,” he looked at her earnestly, “And I’m not me underneath, not human. I kill without mercy or hesitation or regret. You have to understand that. There’s no breaking through to me, no talking it down, because I’m completely lucid when it’s happening. I will look right at you, see you, hear you, and I just won’t care. If that thing is ever pointed at you, anything you have to do to get away, shut me down, end me, do it. Because at that point I’m a monster.”

She tried the new word quietly in her mouth as he watched her, “Monster.”

He nodded.

Monster. She tried not to feel it. She tried to focus, to ignore the uncomfortable and useless emotions, but the word meant too much. Someone who does every terrible thing they are told, and knows it. Who does not know what they are. A thing that looks through its friends, and kills them on command. She looked down quietly, nodding. He did not know about the cave. He did not know that she was a monster. She had always known, but it was good to have the word. That was good. Still, she would not tell him. Her newly-christened hope was still burning in her throat, “Maybe here you do not have to be a monster. Maybe here, away from the ones that would give you orders…”

He sighed ruefully, “They engineered me to a purpose, and I don’t think it’s ever going to let me go. Even a million-million miles from my handlers, I still was apparently sold as a killing machine. Whether it’s the lunatic who has me now or the lunatic who has me next, someone will always find a way to use me for my purpose.”

She nodded again, trying to listen but lost in her own anxiety, “I have decided several times to be different here than I am at home.” She would not tell him how much it frightened her.

He nodded and rubbed his facial mane with his metal fingers, a kind smile struggling to bear up under his own anxious lour, “Sounds like an ok plan,” and like her, he slowly withdrew into himself. They sat in silence as he idly found and crushed the mites infesting his fur, a slow rhythm of tiny crisp pops, and he frowned at each one before flicking it away. It was oddly soothing as they shared the weary quiet of his confessions and her secrets.

She still wanted to tell him things. She still wanted him to tell her more things. But so many complicated feelings in such an unaccustomed rush made her long to share simpler things first. She wanted to cuddle him. To find out if he liked his ears scratched or his tummy rubbed, though his body was so hashed with wounds she dared not. Even if she could, it would be selfish to pretend that he was just like the others. He needed her help. She needed a plan. But they both needed a rest. There would be a little time. She rested her hand on his metal shoulder, above the odd red spikey shape, and rested her cheek against her hand.

He brought his bare fingers up to touch the tips of hers. They were warm. He was real. It was so strange, yet felt so safe in that strange place. He wasn’t going to change until it mattered.

He cleared his throat, “Careful.”

She didn’t move, her head and eyes feeling heavy, “What do you mean?”

He sighed, “I...I’ve got some kind of fleas. In my hair. They were really ubiquitous in the gladiator pits. I don’t want to get them on you.”

She nodded, feeling no motivation to move away from him, “I will be careful.”

They sat. Every time she drifted off, she nodded hard and woke herself.

He cleared his throat quietly, “How much do you know about the Collector’s standards? For what would make me healthy enough to preserve?”

She yawned, “Skeleton intact, tissues unwounded or fully healed, disease free, nutritional equilibrium, many other things the boxes test for. Why?”

He scrubbed his scalp with his fingers, “I don’t know. In terms of keeping myself weak and unsuitable, I think I'm way past the point of diminishing returns for the current situation. Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I tried to fix myself up a little.”

----

Bucky felt a little sad when Mantis sat up away from him, rubbing her eyes. She had an adorably robust snore when she nodded off that kept making him shake with suppressed laughter.

She nodded, carefully neutral, not looking at him, “You are in much more pain than many other creatures which are not ready. You are correct that you could be in much less pain than you are now without being in any more danger.”

“I figure if I’m not going to be alone down here, I should take steps not to infest you,” he felt a slight blush threaten, “and I could probably smell better.”

Mantis nodded agreeably, “You smell like something died in your face.”

A laugh surprised him and it made his ribs hurt, “So if I were going to try to wash myself off a little, I don’t suppose I could get you to look out the back of the box or something while I do?”

She nodded blithely, “I can stand guard, certainly,” she reached down the side of the box and pulled open a compartment he hadn’t even suspected was there, “There is one towel and one cloth. You should perhaps get the mites out of your mane first, to prevent spreading them to fabrics.”

He could be a proud guy, but the possibility of a real shave, and an end to the constant itching, made him tear up a little, “Is there something in there that can cut hair or shave skin?”

She held up a blaze of purple light that hummed and sparked, “Only this.”

He jumped aside, suddenly much more awake, “JesusMaryandJoseph! What is that?”

“A laser comb, Carina said. For the mites.”

He took a step back towards her, not moving to take it, ‘How does it work?”

She shrugged, “Maybe it scares them to death.”

He couldn’t tell if she was joking on purpose, “Turn it off. What else is in there?”

They went through a strange back and forth of him asking for something and her trying to find an acceptable equivalent. He explained about soap, bandages, and peroxide. She managed a tube of emulsifier gel, strips of bio-adhesive plastic, and an increasingly horrified look. There was also a square-ish pan with a funnel out one end and two handles underneath. He had no idea what its actual purpose was, but it made a passable mirror.

While he shaved with extreme care, Mantis found a mat in another drawer and unfolded it near the flat wall. It was only about the size of a twin mattress, and only expanded to be about a finger-length thick, with a hump at one end that suggested a pillow.

He tilted his head to one side, “We can take turns sleeping.”

Mantis nodded earnestly, “Yes, that will be fun.”

He sighed. She clearly had no idea why anything would be at all awkward to him. Just two scouts at sleepaway camp. It probably made more sense to think of her as Le Petit Prince than A Princess of Mars. All for the best, too. Things were going to be complicated enough.

It took him a few painful flubs with the lavender nightmare laser to realize that there was a helpful comb attachment inside the handle to guide the cut very close without taking his ears off. He did the best he could to give himself a military cut, but the result was more of a sloppy buzz. He hated it. Even without a proper mirror he could tell it didn’t suit the shape of his head at all. But at least it didn’t burn and sting anymore, and he was resolved to let go of the idea of trying to impress Le Petit Dungeon-Scout one way or the other.  

He carefully rolled and sealed all the discarded hair into a wide adhesive bandage, and shuddered at how lively the pile was. As he spread the thick emulsifier gel into his greasy stubble, he fantasized that any mites remaining in the scrub died horrible suffocating deaths.

Next order of business, his armor needed to come off before he rinsed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken it off, but he probably hadn’t been conscious for it. He wondered grimly if trench-torso was a thing. He reached for the first buckle low at his side and got ice picks through his chest as his ribs shifted. He swallowed his yelp of pain with a pride chaser, groaning, “Hey, Mantis, could you give me some help with my buckles, please?”

She stood up from adjusting a covering for the mat and came over, stopping in her tracks when she saw his face. He smirked and rubbed his neck self consciously, “Yeah, I know. I look like a thumb covered in eyebrows. It’s the best I could do. It’ll probably grow back. Hopefully.”

She smiled and reached to touch his patchy cheek, but he pulled back, “No, hey, come on, I would never want you to feel this mortified.”

“You are embarrassed?” she seemed more fascinated than amused.

“Yeah. Kinda. I’m pretty vain,” to his horror, his mouth kept moving, “Where I come from, I’m a good looking guy. Or I was, once upon a time. Look, nevermind, I’ve got buckles that I can’t undo with my ribs all bound up.”

He lifted his elbow as high as he dared, and she began pulling at his armor, ragging the skin underneath back and forth like a cheese grater. He gasped, and a couple of tears dropped down his face as his wince ratcheted tighter and tighter.

“I am sorry.”

He glanced at her, “Are the buckles coming loose?”

“I cannot tell which part is the buckles.”

He grimaced, “The buckles. The little silver squares with the perforated straps through them. You pull the loose end of the perforated strap free from the center of the square, then get the little bar out of its hole so you can separate the strap from the square completely.”

“Oh.”

He closed his eyes tight, “Yeah, ‘oh’. How do you know how to operate intelligent glass but not how to undo a buckle?”

“I only know the words Ego brings back from his travels. I learn them very fast if someone knows them, but words for objects are harder. And you would not let me touch you to feel what the thing you meant felt like.”

“Oh.”

She dropped her voice to imitate his briefly, sounding like a big doofus, “Yeah, ‘oh’,” she brightened, “But I know now. And I already know what buttons are. And zippers. And velcro.”

“Vel-what?”

“To fasten shoes. Sometimes wallets.”

The word echoed strangely in his head. He shrugged, “Must be a Canadian thing. Can we get back to the buckles?”

She frowned, “If it is hurting you-”

“-then we’ll fix it. If I were gonna die of pain I’d have done it long ago, I promise,” he reached out and gripped the edge of the box all the same, clamping his eyes shut, “And if I use more words you don’t understand you can just tell me that next time. I’m sure there’s plenty you know that I don’t.”

A lot of manful tears and a couple words Mantis definitely hadn't known later, the stiff leather peeled off like a scab, and the septic smell along with the sound Mantis made told him he really didn’t want to look.

“How bad is it?”

“Bad.”

“Any blood?”

“What color is your blood?”

“Red. Dark red.”

“A little.”

“How about the bandage, around my chest?”

“What color is it supposed to be?”

“White.”

“Oh…it...it is...not.”

“Super. If I soak it it might stick less, coming off,” he felt along the wall towards the waterfall’s edge, not wanting to let his arms touch his sides. Even the motion of the cool air stung. He tried to cup water in his hands, but the metal one was no good for it.

Mantis brightened, “I have an idea.”

She brought the odd pan he’d used as a mirror, dipping one corner into the falls, directing a small accessible stream of water out the funneled end.

“Heh, clever,” he tried to sidle his bandage into it with a modicum of grace, without getting water all over his pants. The first slash of contact felt brutally cold, and he sucked in a breath that hurt his ribs. He bit down. He could do this. He was not going to keep smelling like a plague ward.

“Put your hand onto my shoulder,” Mantis helped to guide him, and gradually they soaked his bindings and not too much else, but the chill of the water against the air bit deep. He tried to bear it, tried to think of any other meaning for cold, but his physical memories were intense. He’d managed to dodge it longer than normal, but he could feel the seizure coming.

“S-stop,” his throat felt tight. He took his hands off her hastily and leaned against the flat wall on his metal arm. It scraped the stone with a hiss like a cryo chamber closing. He fought it. It was stronger. He was nothing. It began to push him down.

“Jonkarter?”

“C-cold…s-seizure...” His legs folded and he knelt against the flat wall, forehead to the stone. His joints were freezing solid, crackling, the burn and then the numb. The dark wasn’t far behind, swallowing his world. He would rather die. Oh God, he would rather die. Escape or die. He couldn’t make himself move.

An impossible hand from somewhere above covered his cheek and ear, reaching into the cryo chamber to pull him out. A soft voice like lilac light said, “Warm.”

And the universe obeyed.

Summer sunshine slid down his back, digging in deep under his shoulder blades and wrapping around his spine. His bones began to glow with heat, pushing out the pain and the chill and the filth and the gore that had been rooting into him, festering. His toes sank in bright white sand, his heart pumped liquid glass, his breath was like a bread oven, his joints sloshed with simmering oils. Even the phantom sensations from his prosthesis joined in the sunbath. He sank slowly, melting away through the fear’s icy grip.

Chapter Text

Something pulled gently at his back, around his front and back again.

The light dimmed as his eyes opened. Mantis crouched beside him with a handful of reeking, rust-colored fabric, and his chest ached as he breathed deeply. The warmth faded more gently than it had come, but the raw pain reasserted itself as aggressively, and the brief exception worked to highlight the intensity and ubiquity of its rule.

He pushed himself up and gave her a hand up as well, which his chest protested, “That was impressive.”

She smiled, “Really? You are alright?”

He shifted and winced, “No, but for a minute there I felt like I was. Which is really something.”

Mantis frowned, “So we must clean you without letting you feel too cold. I can make cool air feel like warm air, but cold water is very different. A waking body can be picky about its illusions.”

He looked at the sheeting water and nodded, “I could jump in with the assumption that you’ll knock me out the second I’m rinsed.”

She shook her head, “You would hit the floor, I can not catch you. You might inhale water. It could easily do you more harm than good.”

He scrubbed his freshly shorn scalp with his hand, forgetting and touching one of his eyes with the sticky soap substitute, “Ow, dang it," he sighed bitterly, "what I wouldn’t give for a hot shower right now.”

Mantis blinked at him, “What does a hot shower feel like?”

He actually had to think for a second. He’d spoken without thinking, but the necessary details volunteered themselves as freely as old friends, “Just hot water, from above. Soap. Kind of an echo-y room.”

She brightened, “Do you want it so much you can almost feel it?”

He nodded. He could practically taste the metallic water at his uncle’s gym. He- he remembered he had an uncle that owned a gym. For boxing. He’d worked there. Trained there. He remembered-

Mantis interjected, “If you can let me feel it, I can put the feeling onto you.”

She held up a hand tentatively and tentatively he took it, to bring it back to his cheek.

“Tell me how much you wish you could have a hot shower. The feelings. When I have the sensations for you, I will help rinse off your head, and you will not feel the cold.”

He frowned, “Will this be difficult for you?”

“Oh no, it is very easy, for pleasant things, if the illusion is close enough. Find the sensations.”

He closed his eyes, assuring himself that the worst that could happen was that he would end up unconscious on the floor.

The pleasant sense-memories congregated eagerly and brought words like gifts, “Well, it’s a relief after a good boxing match, when you’re sweaty and a little beat to hell. The hot water helps to wipe every other sensation away. Or on a Friday evening, and you’re cleaning up to go out on the town, it perks you up, lets you wash off the week.”

He remembered, he imagined, and slowly he began to smell the soap and steam and towels fresh off the line, “Wow, that’s…” he heard his voice echo. A few steamy droplets hit his face and front like sparkling butterfly kisses.

“Oh!” Mantis exclaimed. The illusion faded, leaving behind only yearning.

He looked at her, “What’s wrong? Are you ok?”

“You have all your clothes off for a hot shower. You do not just rinse your head.”

“Oh,” he gulped, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to think about that part. I mean I wasn’t, even, really. Thinking about it. But I’ll try to keep my remembering above the waist. Sorry.”

“What?” she seemed baffled.

Suddenly anxious, he stepped back reflexively, “What?”

She tilted her head to one side, “It will be better if you wash all over, to agree with the memory. You should take your pants off,” she studied his dumbfounded expression and added slowly, “So they do not get wet?”

“Oh. Ah, no, it’s fine,” maybe if she didn’t have to be right there touching him, but there were limits-

“But we should keep your clothing dry, to help get you warm afterward. Understand, the heat is only in your mind. Your body will get cold.”

He swallowed, “No. Mantis, I get that part. But I can’t just take my clothes off around-” don’t say girls, don’t say girls, “-other people.”

“But we took your armor-”

He sighed, “No. I mean, yeah, I know, I can see where you’re getting confused. Just where I come from, it’s considered rude, really rude, and personal to, um…” he figured if he’d had any pores left he’d have been sweating. How could he possibly explain-

“To reveal genitals?” she hazarded.

He grimaced, managing to keep his voice even as his mouth went embarrassingly dry, “Yeah, that.”

“I can keep my eyes closed.”

“Yeah, but if you see what I see-”

“You can keep your eyes closed.”

He cleared his throat, “That's really not…”

She looked at him, concerned, “Can I-”  She lifted her hand, and he tensed skittishly to step further away if she tried to grab, but she didn’t, "I want to understand," she didn’t move her hand until he relented and met it with his.

She closed her eyes and her little lights glowed. He admitted to himself that it was silly that he couldn’t just explain about social modesty and the basics of gentlemanly behavior that had been drummed into him at home and at school. Still, if she could get the feel of them without words, that would likely suffice.

He was being even sillier than that, he thought, as he watched her gentle features shift from concern, to consideration, to comprehension without a trace of scorn. He had no reason to doubt her benevolent indifference to his body. Sure, she had the silhouette of a pretty girl, but with as weird and gross as he probably seemed to her, and as innocent and self-possessed as she was, seeing him shower would be about as scandalous as a kid washing a dog anyway. He could probably handle that. He wasn’t sure why he was so jumpy.

After a long lingering examination of his residual middle-class protestant feelings, she let go of his hand and gave him a calming smile, “I am sorry I was rude. I did not understand. I upset you.”

He shrugged, “You didn’t, it’s ok. The suggestion just caught me off guard. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

She nodded, beaming, “I am glad you think so. I think you are very beautiful. You are quite pleasing to be near, and I am sure your genitals are not ugly, if that helps.”

The earnest affirmation caught him like a right-cross, “Whoa, wait, what?”

She frowned apologetically, “I am sorry to have made you feel ashamed of your body by not showing you approval. I do not always say what I should, but I am certain your kind find you virile and appealing. You very much are, despite being so ill. I expect you are shown much enthusiasm and deference by all genders with regards to mating.”

His jaw resisted closing and his throat struggled with sound, “Um, thanks. I-” he backed away, gut-shot with anxiety again, “Look, I’ve- I don’t really need a hot shower.”

Her expression dropped, more startled than unhappy, “I have upset you again. I am not lying,” she held up three fingers.

He sighed, “No, I know you’re trying to help. And, yeah, I’m feeling shame about-” he gritted his teeth, “about the idea that my body might upset you but-” he could feel the pressure of all the blood in his body crowding into his facial capillaries. He took a rib-paining deep breath, “Where I come from, we have rules about stuff like nakedness and touching to try to keep each other from getting confused or embarrassed, I guess you could say.”

She nodded, clearly confused, “Does that work, where you are from?” seeing his brow furrow she held up an assuring hand, “You do not need to defend it. I will respect your customs and not interfere with your pants. But I am-” her voice quavered slightly, “so curious about your home. These customs prevent confusion for you?”

A completely different flavor of shame jabbed him. She’d been alone her whole life, taken from an empathic species that was probably intensely social. She was hungry to understand what it meant to live among others. He shrugged, “More or less, I suppose. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never lived with a lot of people who all want different things. It sounds kind of silly even if you have, to be honest.”

She smiled gently and took a step towards him, vigilant for signs of distress as she lifted a curled hand, “Do not be worried. I understand that the idea does not suit you,” she stroked his cheek with the backs of her fingers, so attentively slow that it was a communication entirely its own, “we will think of something else.”

It was such an odd, chaste, openly loving little gesture that his impulse was to curl up in her lap like a charmed fawn and gaze adoringly like she was Snow White. He wanted her to say it again, as easy as if it were nothing, that nothing was going to be done to him that did not suit him. He wanted to understand why he believed it, because believing it ached so fiercely in the center of his chest that he could hardly feel his tender ribs.

Something in the back of his mind slapped him sharply across the back of the head to alert him that he was just goggling at her like a goon. “It was a good idea, though,” he offered hastily, “Is. Is a good idea. You’re clever. It’s not your fault that I’m from where I’m from. I mean, it’s not you. I trust you. I know you wouldn’t look or-” shut up, Barnes. Shut up shut up shut up, “-but it would still be wrong for me to...to be-” holy fuck, man, stop talking, “-ah...naked. At you.”

Her smile was calm and genuine, bearing the utter absolution of vague uncomprehending amusement. She nodded, gave him a final pat, and went back to the box to root through drawers again.

He took a deep breath. It was crazy. He was being crazy. He wasn’t going to do anything to her, or her to him. It would just be to prevent seizures and get his wounds clean, wounds he’d gotten while fighting for his life on an alien world. Seen that way, she’d just be acting as a kind of nurse specialist. Was he really going to be such a baby about getting a sponge-bath? She was in the same crummy bind he was, and he was being a complete goofus, rejecting her help and throwing her lack of socialization in her face like she’d had a choice about it.

And frankly the thought of a hot shower, and the thought of not taking it, was threatening to make him emotional. And why? Because it would involve trusting someone that he did basically trust, who meant him no harm and wasn’t bothered at all by the idea?

He sighed loudly, rubbing the back of his neck, “Clean.”

“What?”

“Clean is on the list. Of stuff a good scout is. If I’m going to have scout’s honor, I need to get clean. And your idea is the best idea.”

She sounded doubtful, “Are you sure?”

“You’ll keep your eyes closed?” he smirked at himself, “You won’t be corrupted by my dazzling beauty and fiendish masculine wiles?”

She nodded solemnly, holding up three fingers.

“Well, if you’re being trustworthy and helpful, the least I can do is be brave and clean.”

Chapter Text

Her idea hadn’t quite been the best. They’d agreed on an additional refinement.

She stood with her back to the water, pan in one hand, cloth in the other, and both eyes closed, “I am ready.”

She heard some rustling and a few grunts from the mat. She’d helped with his boots, but he’d insisted about the pants.

She’d observed the worst lesions on his shoulders and back, over the bony places, with some rashy sores from the bandage around his chest and several vicious infected cuts leaking pus. He had enough emulsifier on his head to rinse down and clean the places that could stand to be rubbed with a cloth, and the lysozymes in the water would likely take care of much of the rest of what was causing him pain if he got good and soaked. The ribs would take time, but that meant they had time. As for the cortisol scarring in his brain...

His bare feet had been silent on the stone, and so she startled when he took the pan from her hand, his oddly warm metal fingers guiding her touch to a secure angle on his neck. Despite all his flustered stammering before, he didn’t make a sound, resting his elbows gingerly on her shoulders for support as he got a good grip on the pan. He was tense, but his motions were smooth, if characteristically careful.

He had nothing to fear. She did like him, and his body, very much. Even his face was much more appealing than she had expected, much more so than he seemed to think. She was curious to touch his soft mouth and the funny dent in his chin, but he had stopped her once, so she knew not to try again. She would not shame or upset him.

“Do not worry,” she said, “Try to stay with one set of sensations at a time, or you might get dizzy.”

She felt him nod.

The sensations came back very quickly when she began to feel with him, layered in a flickering collage. A clean white tiled box. The chipped soap ledge, the door that rattled, the steamy handles, the water falling down to mat his hair and dapple his shoulders. Friday evening ritual. Habit and expectation. There would be a clean towel on the shelf to dry him. A comb to fix his hair. A sharp razor and aftershave. Supper with his folks. A walk down the street as the city cooled and the lights came on, down to music and dancing and flirtatious smiles.

But first, just the heat, and the wet, and a moment’s peaceful privacy, getting clean.

Mantis smiled. He had the hang of it, letting his mind swirl gently around an anchoring moment, elaborations sketched at the edges. He was even remembering more than he had, and it gratified him. Mantis eased him the half-step toward her to dip the pan above her head into the falls. A few chilly drops flecked her face as the funneled stream came down to drench him. He groaned with pleasure and his forehead tipped against hers, his elbows bearing down on her shoulders as his actual-self faded from his awareness, replaced by his feeling-self, the illusion of the past. With her eyes closed, she rubbed some emulsifier into the patch of oily scent glands under his biological arm, sluicing cold water down his side.

The slick percussiveness on his skin released more dimension into memories that were already more elaborate than she had expected and more extensive than he'd thought. Relief. Luxuriance. Steam in his throat and lungs. Thick silky soap skating down his body. Sweet anticipation. Ritualistic recall of impossibly clear voices.

He was replaying advice about women. That was part of the routine.

Every woman, every girl, his dad admonished, no matter who she is or where you meet her, should have her presence treated like a gift. Make your presence a gift in return, and you’ll be a happy man. Be a gentleman. A real gentleman, not one of those fancy gombeens that’s learned to comb its hair. You treat every woman you meet like she’s beautiful, like she deserves your protection and respect. Because you’re never gonna get so big that I won’t drag you out back for a belting if you give your mother a reason to cry over you.

Always let them come to you. His uncle’s voice was rough and warm like tree bark, his breath like beer, his advice as earthy. You’re a good lookin’ kid, you don’t have to make girls like you, you just have to let them. So keep your head but don’t play coy. Don’t play dumb. They know they’re beautiful. Acting like you don’t notice just makes you seem like an idiot or a queer.

If you want her on your arm, you offer her your arm. If you want to dance, you ask her to dance. If you want to kiss her, you lean in close. But you let her touch you first, always. You leave her a space. If she don’t wanna kiss you, her company is still a gift, and don’t you forget it. Don’t get all prissy if she ain’t made her mind up about you yet, or, trust me, she’ll make it up faster than you want, and so will every girl watching.

Some guys think its funny to get their face slapped. Lemme tell ya, gettin’ kissed is way better, and if you kiss ’em right, there’s a whole lot better than that. But always take care of business before a date. You don’t want your bone sniffing up her skirt like a hungry dog the second she’s close. No surprises. It ain’t a boxing match. You take care of yourself, you take care of your business, you take care of your girl. You get me?

His uncle had been right about the kissing. His dad had been right about kindness, and not just for girls. With people in general, he didn’t have to make friends, he just had to let them. And maybe it was just because he had a build like Johnny Weissmuller and eyes like Valentino, but a lot of other guys from the gym had that sort of thing going for them, along with more pocket money and guaranteed moves they swore by, and they still wanted to know his secret. There was no secret. Girls liked to be kissed, they liked to dance. They sometimes even liked a little more than that, if you treated them like a partner in your arms and not an adversary on the ropes. Kissing was easy.

Taking care of business was trickier. It was a small house for a family with four kids, and he still shared a bedroom with his little brother, even though he was about to graduate. With one bathroom and two teenage sisters, his evening shower was his only privacy.

Taking care of business, Mantis slowly realized, meant caressing his own genitals to simulate mating

It had been his own thoughtful innovation, when he took care of business, to move his hips and not his hand. Just like when he would bob and weave around the heavy bag, he figured it helped to get his whole body knowing what to do. He wasn’t going to be one of those guys who didn’t know how to move their first time, and the summer was only a few weeks away.

He had his forearm and forehead against the shower wall and was slowly pushing himself through his other hand, in and out, smooth and easy. He was daydreaming in the shower about a girl with red hair.

He was at the movies kissing a girl with red hair and soft, confident hands, remembering how she had touched him, gradually, and let him close each gap, let him move into everything she offered. He’d been nervous, but she went slow, didn’t make him feel ashamed. She was caressing him inside his pants in the dark. What she was doing was called being fast, not something a nice girl would do, but she went so slow, and it felt so much more than nice. For almost half the movie, Tarzan and his Mate, she’d slid her hand down on him, slow and easy, and she’d kissed him to help him stay quiet through the grand finale.

He was daydreaming about their plan to go camping after graduation. He was pushing himself through his hand, in and out, imagining it. He pressed his forehead against the tiled wall and imagined her lips on his, letting her close the distance.

Mantis longed to kiss him, his mouth hovering by hers, feeling his memories of hot water and deep, rising pressure, wondering what touching his soft slightly-bluish lips might unlock. The emulsifier was rinsed from his head and eyes, his body was soaked. His lips would be cold if he kissed her, she imagined, and resonant with his quiet groans. The thought of it made a nervous flutter in her stomach, anticipation and warning.  

Ego would not like that. She needed to stop feeling that, wanting it.

She pressed him back to stop the fall of water, her body nudging into his before he would move. She took the wet pan from his hands and tossed it aside.

There was a clatter outside the bathroom door that disrupted his daydream. Dammit, they could wait until he was finished. The summer was only a few weeks away. It was coming, but it was taking forever. The water poured down over his whole, healthy, aching body. Slow felt so good but God, it was taking forever. He moaned. Take it slow. Like dancing, not boxing. Back and forth, rock and sway, lead and follow, not unpredictable jabs. No surprises.

It was good for him to move, to let his body warm. If she let him go he would certainly seize up. She wanted to press her whole body against his to make him warm. But he had rules about touching that she didn’t understand, though his uncle’s rule had sounded like it might be alright. She wouldn’t look. It seemed like it was alright if it happened in the dark.

She gently eased his right arm off her shoulder, careful not to jar his ribs, bringing his own hand close to where he longed to be touched, to let him close the distance. She knew it was a selfish hope. She wanted the feeling, to see if it was different from the way Snuggles felt when he dreamed of making baby rhinoceroses, or when Gerd’s feathers trembled at the edge of flight.

He pressed himself into his palm, and dreamed of being wanted, sharing a sleeping bag, all of her skin, a soft mouth that whispered for more, harder. The real frisson of his skin in the moment exploded the sensation of pleasure in his memory. Mantis gasped. His carnality reached the same physical maximum as any animal, but it was shot through with feelings that broadened and deepened it immeasurably, sweeping her off her guard. Pride and excitement and tenderness and fear and wonder. He rocked into it, steadily building, Her whole body trembled with newness and recognition, emotions absorbing names and visceral context from his in flares and billows, the facts becoming muddled and wordless though the feelings stayed achingly clear. Desire. Communion. Anticipation. Impatience. Her mouth slacked open and tilted towards his with a sharp surge of-

Longing…

Something hard struck her between the eyes and she reeled back, her hands going nerveless and limp for a moment, her sense of position in space losing cohesion. The hot water disappeared, the white tile, the spring city evening.

What had she been holding? She had dropped something she had meant to hold. Soap? Comb? It was dangerous. Razor? She had to pick it up off the floor...or else...

Her eyes slowly focused on a pale mottled shape squatting against the dark floor, Jonkarter’s back, his mismatched arms crossed to grasp opposite sides of his head.

His voice was strange, strained, “No…”

He flailed a hand in the air, swatting at something unseen, “Stop…”

His hands shook as they flattened on the floor and pushed him up to standing, his shoulders hunched in that massive way, his voice fading as his head rocked in an aborted shake, “Please…”

Standing, still dripping, his fists closed, and he became calm. It was not a seizure. Not a malfunction. Her breath caught. His head turned. The bladed light in the corner of his eye froze her. Jonkarter was gone.

She had upset him, sent him away, her burst of panic insisted over and over. She had let herself feel happy. She had let herself fly. Had wanted. It had done something loathsome to him, and he was going to make her know how that made him feel. He was going to make her understand.

As he turned around, she closed her eyes. She wouldn’t look, even if it meant she couldn’t run. She had promised. Her long-cultivated panic instincts took over instead: Don’t move. Don’t fight. It finds you anyway, angrier. Show attention. Show respect. You were cruel. You should pay.

She whispered into her sightless sense of him, the hole he made in the air, “Hello, Soldat.”

His barefoot steps managed to thud heavily. He stopped close to her face, the intense cold of his skin changing the air she breathed to winter.

A deep, alien voice grated out words she did not know.

She shook. She did not understand. He was cold. He needed to get warm. Maybe he needed help. With minimal movement, she pointed toward the bed, “Your pants.”

He turned sharply and moved away.

After a long silence she opened her eyes. The panic was not gone, but she was managing to register oddities. He stood by the mat, half dressed, back turned, fists closed. Not moving.

Jonkarter had called it a program.

With a will she unfroze her feet from the stone and moved towards him, careful to make sound enough not to startle him. She reached her left hand towards his shoulder. Her hand were fragile, but she could afford it if that one got injured. It was always worse when it was the right. He felt so cold.

She gave the kind of empathic language-push she used to trigger the nanites, voicing her command as well, Tell me what you want.

That voice, muttering language, the associated sensations only barely translating, ASSESSING. MISSION: ESCAPE. RETURN.

Soldat is weak. Body damaged. Escape step one is sleep. Recovery.

Long pause. A slow stir of confusion. Conflict. He turned to face her, his shoulder sliding under her fingers, PARAMETERS UNDEFINED.

Those eyes fixed on her accusatively, bitter cold, and it shook her. Even nanites could react defensively if told to do things they did not understand. She had been warned on intake that too many bad attempts could cause them to reject her access, exclude her as an intruder for security’s sake. Soldat’s program was much more hostile. The ones that made it would see him destroyed to prevent him being repurposed, and he was valuable to them. Anyone perceived as trying to repurpose him was unlikely to last long. Still, if the thing began exerting Jonkarter’s hopelessly torn and cracked body trying to escape the well, he wouldn’t last long either.

She swallowed. State your required parameters.

LOCATION. DURATION. PROTOCOL.

She pointed to the mat. Location here, flat. Duration… her words for time were not in the language he was speaking. She hastily cobbled together an impression of half a day cycle. Protocol permit body to sleep.

He stared at her a long time, and her insides seemed to wrestle with each other, trying to escape.

TWELVE HOURS. CONFIRM?

She nodded, Yes.

He turned to the mat and lowered himself stiffly, awkwardly. He was unaccustomed to lying down, though his body softened once it was supported.

He said something new while she retrieved the blanket. She knelt to cover him and touched his shoulder, Repeat?

COLD.

Her heart twisted. Her every impulse was to try to help the thing that looked like her friend, but she couldn’t risk a bad command.

She nodded, Correct, it is cold here, and lay her hand on his forehead, sleep. The hard eyes closed and the face softened.

Mantis ran to the far corner and knelt down as her stomach upended itself into the falls. She drank, washed her mouth, and repeated the process as the second wave hit her. When she could hold her insides down, she went to him to see if he was dreaming, her lights only flaring briefly before she retracted her hand in shock.

He did not dream. He did not feel. His body breathed and slowly warmed, but was like an empty box. She moved away from him, trembling, and climbed up on the metal plinth, huddling into a glass corner, full of useless emotions.

Chapter Text

Longing…

The word struck him, spun him like a right-cross to the jaw, and he clawed at his skull. He had to pull the needle off the record that it set playing in his head. Not a memory or a dream. It wasn’t from his brain, but it was in his head, blasted on all frequencies. He could knock himself unconscious, but it would still play, and he would still dance.

Underneath the resonant Russian, a separate recording started playback. The doctor’s voice spoke in terse accented English, “I will count back from twenty, and when I say your name…”

Rusted…

The recordings pushed dissonance overtop one another. He could neither dream nor wake to escape them, and he couldn’t hold his head together in the noise. The reverberations of the second word shook him, and his mind subsided into scabby flecks of brown metallic dust, collapsing like a hillside in a quake. Amid the chaos the doctor intoned calmly, “Nineteen, eighteen…”

Seventeen…

The numbers crashed against him and his nerves shivered apart like old scaffolding, cutting off his access to motion and pain. Sleek wires embedded just under his skin constricted his muscles, yanking him to the floor in a puppetry of penitence. The countdown cracked him in the head over and over. But he could take a hit. He could fight it. Maybe he couldn’t remember why but- “Sixteen, fifteen…”

Daybreak…

“At daybreak,” a new voice whispered in his ear, a hiss that sliced through the cacophony, “you returned to the allied camp, thinking you’d escaped, thinking he had saved you...” who the fuck was that?!

The gleaming nerves pried opened his lids, and he watched his eyes drink-in the darkness. Adrenal triggers and cortical imagers enhanced his night vision to a high-contrast black and white field, but he saw no one beside him, the records still spinning, “Thirteen, twelve…”

Furnace....

“...but your brain was still burning,” he clamped his hands over his ears, but the new voice played just as loud as the others, licking around inside his skull, “still strapped in at the compound you’d left in flames. He came out the other side of the fire, but not you. You lied. You pretended to escape,” it grated, gloating and bitter, “You never escape. You only ever fall.”

“Eleven, ten…”

Nine…

The shining wires prompted his hands to the floor to push him up, the countdown still throbbing away at him, “Eight, seven…” cracking at his skull to remind him not to struggle. The tasks were simple. He should let the tasks be simple. His body flowed like a rapids around him, steady and powerful and dragging him along. He couldn't breathe. He couldn’t drown. He should let the tasks be simple.

Benign…

“Anyone else could have gotten on that train with him, but you knew it had to be you. You thought it was for revenge. You thought you would be strong. You thought you thought...”

“Six, five, four…” It was hard to listen and impossible to remember, to pan through his collapsed mind for memories. Why had he gotten on that train? Had it been to protect-

Homecoming…

He felt the numbers counting him out, striking him down, grinding him down to zero and urging him to stay down .

“You knew you would fail, you knew it was your mission,” the voice whispered, “you couldn’t stay away from home, out in the cold. Not if we could again make you the stronger -”

One.

The accusation seemed to multiply the force of the relentless crushing blows. It was a lie, but the voice whispered, “You wanted this. Let go, and I won’t make you think about it,” the gentle whisper grated shrilly at the back of his neck like the unoiled shriek of a braking train.

He had no memories to defend him, but he knew it was a lie, and that certitude would save him. Even without his mind, something deeper knew that someone, somewhere, loved him. Someone worth fighting for, and it didn’t matter what he had to fight or for how long.

When the doctor spoke his name he wouldn’t comply.

He would think. He would fight back.

He had fought back, that day and every day...

He’d gone because he knew…

He couldn’t let them...

He picked up the shield…to defend his...home...his fixed bright star...

He’d tried to protect...tried to…

He couldn’t remember.

The voice slammed him with retributive viciousness, closing the dead-end trap and crushing his scrabbling resistance, flooding him with memories of the-

Freight car

No...please...

He’d died. His team was captured and killed along with the star that guided them. The mission failed. Had that been his purpose? The sleeper commando? The first to fall? The Allies fell soon after that, and then his world. He’d watched it happen in black and white, soldier sight.

He turned away from remembering any more. He just wanted to sleep. It hurt and hurt and there was no use for it, no end. He wanted to forget.

The countdown finished, he heard his name. Hello Soldat.

He was ready to be gone.

He was ready to comply.

---

On a flickering screen in the dark, black and white, an alien princess came into focus. Soldat approached, ominous breathing, the movie monster’s point of view. He knew this film.

Her eyes were closed as if in sleep, but her antennae moved, alert to approach. She spoke in a secondary language. Questionable.

She indicated necessary supplies. Pants. Benign request. Mission compatible. Comply. Observe.

Something in his mind was itching as the camera turned away and the monster busied itself with clothing. He recognized the actress. The theater was cold, air conditioned, which was the only reason they had decided to go see Phantom of the Opera-

Something stung him hard and he stopped thinking .

When he turned at her touch her eyes were wide and darkly luminous, and she looked at the monster with pity.

It was her voice that had known the keyword, her touch that had delivered the trigger. He was ready to comply.

But he knew her. The way her face stung his eyes and made the edges of the screen tremble.

Something stung him hard and he stopped knowing.

The lines she spoke were wrong. That usually meant the character was going to die. Predictable. Acceptable.

Exemption protocol . Correction. New operators will be permitted clarification. Second attempt requested.

Parameters questionable. Acceptable . Correction. Compatible. Comply.

In the dark, he shivered. The theater was so... I’m cold.

A word escaped that Soldat and standard protocol had not triggered, “Cold.”

Warning. Protocol breach. Query: Action’s origin. Identify.

Her touch again, meltingly warm, want, requesting repeat.

The unauthorized voice responded unchecked, “Cold.”

RED WARNING. QUERY: ACTION’S ORIGIN. QUERY: PROGRAM SOURCE. IDENTIFY. PURGE. Secondary: Suspect handler protocol. Tertiary: Chair prot-

Her touch. Thank you. The body collapsed into darkness.

---

She slept fitfully, waking every few hours to glance around the corner of the box at him. Aside from breathing, he didn’t move. She knew she ought to turn him, to take pressure off his back occasionally, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch him. She had already broken him. Driven him so deep he was almost dead, and was possibly gone forever.

It was the sadness as much as the weariness that kept her drifting back to sleep.

She woke with a start when she heard him sit up, sharp scuffling and a deep groan as he got quickly to his feet.

Mantis cringed into the corner, slow and bleary and achy. Just like him, as he charged to the edge of the box, she was disheveled and wild-eyed. Like him she had a hand raised, but her palm was flat, warding.

His was clenched into a gleaming silver fist.

He dropped it immediately, shock and relief evident at the sight of her, “Mantis, oh god I thought you were- that I had- Are you-” his face fell as she lowered her hand, trembling. He squeezed his metal hand fitfully, curling it back hard, trying to make it smaller, “I’m so sorry, I thought you were gone. I was thinking I'd break the box open. I’m so sorry. Oh god did I-”

Relief and gratitude washed over her. It was him. Her eyes welled with tears and she had to wrap her arms around her own waist to keep from reaching for him. She was never going to touch him again. Ever. She couldn’t be trusted.

He swallowed, glancing away but returning to look her in the eyes sadly, seriously, “-what did I do?”

She shook her head, but made no move towards him. Ego asked questions like that, asking what he could possibly have done to deserve her thoughtlessness and ingratitude. She was so ashamed, “I am sorry.”

He rested his hip experimentally on the edge of the box, putting his hands flat on the floor where she could see them, speaking carefully, “Look, look at me. I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m not gonna move until you tell me I can, ok? Scout's honor.”

Her heart soared with the strange joy his regard sent billowing up inside her. But she tamped that pleasure down, wrapping her arms tighter around her waist and leaning into the furthest corner from him, “I am glad you are here.”

His head hung down, “Please, tell me what happened. My brain gets fresh scrambled every time, and I just barely remember it looking at you. I watched it see you and think about...” he swallowed, shuddered with revulsion, "Please. I don't want to have to remember, if you can tell me."

She pressed herself up with a solemn courage and lifted her head, "It was my fault. I should not have done what I did. I was so afraid.”

He sighed and his shoulders sagged, “It’s not your fault. Nothing about the soldat is your fault. You don’t have to tell me what I did if you’re upset, but I want to know. Please.”

She tried to stay still, not let the confusion panic her, “I do not know what you mean. You disappeared. The soldat put on your pants and went to sleep when I told him to.”

He seemed to relax a fraction, “But you’re scared. Of me?”

She shook her head, unable to keep her eyes from welling up, “I am so sorry.”

He swallowed, helpless, “I can’t understand what you’re scared of, Mantis. I wasn’t there. You need to tell me.”

A shiver slid down her back, and she nodded, “You were not there.”

“No. I know it seemed like me but-”

She shook her head, “It did not feel like you. It did not move like you or sound like you. It scared me that you were not there. And that I,” she could not keep a pair of giant tears from rolling down her cheeks, “I thought I had destroyed you.”

He peered at her, emphatic, “You didn’t. I’m not destroyed. It’s not a trick.”

She nodded, “Yes. And I will never hurt you like that again, I promise,” she squeezed, wishing she could crush her urge to touch him.

He shook his head, his shoulders shaking gently, “You-” he bowed his head over a broad smile, “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry I don’t mean to laugh, I-” he inhaled a very wet sound through his nose, and let out a brisk huff, “I was so afraid I had hurt you, you have no idea.”

She nodded glumly, “I do, though. We share that idea,” she struggled to understand his continued hunch before remembering, “And you...you can move. If you want.”

He sat back, tapping his head against the glass couple times, and rubbed his hand through his clean stubble, “Can you? Move, I mean? If you want?”

She nodded, not moving, “I think so.”

“Would you mind if I wanted to hug you? Just to-” he cleared his throat, looking down, “Where I come from, when you’ve been through something harrowing with your friends, you express gratitude for your lives by- WHUF!”

Mantis threw herself at him as gently as she could manage, but had forgotten about the ribs. She meant to look up and apologize but with her ear against his heartbeat and his hand smoothing down her mussed hair, she seemed to lose all sense of urgency.

But she kept her hands closed, and her lights dark.

Chapter Text

“Here, don’t hold tight, keep your hand relaxed. You only have to pull gently,” he’d had his doubts when Mantis had shyly asked him to explain about the sense-memories she’d experienced during his shower, but it felt entirely comfortable and familiar to him once they’d begun.

“Like this?” her palm fitted to him, pressing as lightly as a first kiss.

He smiled, “Good, you’re a natural. Now pull me towards you. Easy, keep your hand relaxed. You don’t have to force me.”

“But you are so-” she sucked at her bottom lip, perplexed, “How will I pull you if-” She looked doubtfully at her slender hand on his dense trunk, right at the dip of his waist and just above his hip as they stood facing each other, the tips of her fingers just reaching the curved transition of his side to his back.

He’d taught lots of harder cases than her how to dance, and the calm authority of that certainty filled his voice, “You’ve got hold of my center of gravity, trust me, I’m going to follow where you lead. Just keep your arm fixed, stay square with me, and take a step back with your right foot.”

Mantis wobbled an awkward step that curved sidewards, pivoting around the place where she touched him.  

He grinned and scooped her into starting position again with a hand on her shoulder, “Here, try again. You’re assuming I won’t move, or that you’re not allowed to pull, but you are, and I will. Now, stand up straight,” he put his metal hand over hers on his hip, resting his other wrist on her shoulder to help keep her square.

He’d taught dozens of guys how to lead in open position, or at least what passed for it down at the local hall, mostly stuff he’d taught himself watching pictures, until he was a regular Bucktown Arthur Murray. She was a quicker study than most, once she’d stopped worrying that she might murder him by accident if she touched him, “You’re doing fine. This time, don’t think about my weight at all. Yeah, I’m a big ox,” he patted her hand, “but you’ve got me by the handle. You pull here, I’m gonna move. Here, bend your knees.”

Mantis bobbed.

“You feel your weight there, in your hips? That’s where you should pull from, with the strength in your legs, not your arm. So face me square, keep your back stacked up tall, keep your fingertips around my waist, and move your weigh straight back a step, right foot, and my left foot will follow you,” he raised three fingers by her ear, “Scout’s honor.”

“I- oh!” Mantis gasped in delight as her step back cued him forward with less force than it took to beckon, “I barely pulled you!”

He nodded, beaming, “Yeah, that’s dancing. The first part, anyway. Told you you’re a natural. You already got the second hardest part, leading someone taller than you.”

Her antennae stayed scrupulously dark, but she seemed to glow with pleasure regardless, “What’s the hardest part?”

“Asking girls to dance," he quipped quickly, "Ok, next part, put your left hand up here,” he held his right hand out to the side and she met it, “this is open position, so you keep about this much space between us the whole time, no matter how we move. You keep your arms locked to start with. The one at my hip is to pull me, the one in my hand is to turn me. Step with your left.”

“Where am I supposed to lead you to?”

He shrugged, smiling, “Doesn’t really matter. We’ve got the whole floor. The point of dancing is going there together. It makes more sense with music, but I think we’re doing alright. We’ll start with the box-step. The trick is not to look down.”

“But I will step on you.”

“Probably at first. Then you’ll learn how not to. So our box is here,” he traced towards the floor with his left hand, “and you want to move me along those lines with one step each, moving your outside foot-  hey, good, just right!”

She grinned, guiding him back towards her around the imaginary corner, “This feels so silly.”

“Yeah, it’s called ‘fun’. Keep going with the box step, show me where we’re going.”

“How do I know if I am doing it right?”

He shrugged, his lips remembering the patter, “If you’re keeping me with you, you’re not doing it wrong. You can tell in my face and my shoulders if I understand where you want me to go. You can feel in your hands if I’m moving with you lightly and easily. And if I’m not, you can slow down, or give me more eye contact, give me more warning.”

Mantis nodded solemnly, studying him with her entire posture. When they’d completed a couple choppy boxes, slowly growing synced and smoother, she asked, “What happens next?”

“Now that your feet know the pattern, you can stop following the straight lines and start moving us around in curves.”

She took him up on the suggestion, wincing and smiling whenever she caught his bare toes under hers. As that became less common she beamed at him eagerly, “What now?”

He shook his head, having gotten just a little lost in watching her smile as he followed her, wondering at how painlessly his best memories seemed to surface for her sake, “Well, I could teach you how to do a spin, but I doubt my ribs will let me go under my own arm. Mind if I take lead for a second?”

There was a stilted semaphore as she got mixed up reversing her hands. Everyone did that their first time switching up.

Intense sensory memory stunned him speechless as he slid his hand reverently down her waist to the first hint of an outward curve. Holding that spot on a partner was the closest thing he’d had to a romantic secret: not quite the side, not quite the back, not entirely waist or hip. High enough to give a partner some assurance he wasn’t going to get fresh, but so soft and rounded and full of motion it sort of felt like he already had. Even through Mantis’ thick leather smock, he felt like he could gauge her entire physical distribution, like he could follow the line of her back right to her heart, just holding her by the waist.

If a girl’s presence was a gift, a dance partner was an embarrassment of riches. He remembered all of it. The slide of cotton dresses over silk slips, cigarette smoke and party streamers. The first time he’d detected the texture of a garter belt under the waist of a girl’s dress, and the tenth time, and the hundredth time. Laughing and sweating after a fast swing and that little crackle of recognition at the first strains of a slow song that they might as well stay on the floor for. ... It seems...that I’ve heard this song before...it was an old familiar score…

God, he wanted to go home. Back to almost-eighteen, or twenty one, or twenty five; to a Brooklyn that was just starting to get back on its feet; to being vain and overconfident as anything, and still completely uncomprehending of just how beautiful and powerful and lucky he was...

If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme… a cricket’s affecting falsetto, plaintive and assured all at once, echoed down the corridors of his head. He’d given Steve hell for buying that record, but it was so goddamn Steve that he’d eventually given up and just let him play it, because it wasn’t like he’d ever managed to rib Steve out of anything he believed before, when you wish upon a star ... He’d taught Steve to dance... as dreamers do...

A light touch on his cheek startled him, “Jonkarter.”

It still took him a moment to remember where he was, “Um, yeah…”

“It is alright if you do not want to dance anymore,” her eyes were so serious. She hadn’t even felt him to understand how far he’d wandered, and it made him wonder about the state of his face.

He shook his head and smiled, “I’m fine, I just got a little lost trying to remember music to dance to. That can help, the tempo of music, with moving together.”

She smiled, hopeful, “I know some of your music.”

“Oh yeah?”

She nodded happily to see him perk up, “Ego liked it very much, when he visited your planet,” she started not-quite-singing a bouncy recitation about a waitress, waiting for one faithless sailor while she tended bar for others. He listened and tried to remember it, but nothing in him moved. The guy frankly sounded like an asshole. A fecking gombeen man . Maybe after the war people had found a taste for songs about intentionally not coming home, but he definitely hadn’t. He pushed away the urge to wonder what kind of a world he had allowed to happen, if that sort of chintzy freedom sounded good to them.

He shrugged, “I don’t know that one. But I’ve been away for a little while.”

She blinked at him uneasily.

“I like the way you sing it though,” he added hurriedly, and smiled, “I might remember enough Bing Crosby to mumble out a beat,” he ba-da ba-dapped along with echoes of an old radio on mild rainy day in camp, somewhere in France, Would you like to swing on a star...carry moonbeams home in a jar...and be better off than you are...

She squeaked a small laugh as he took a step back and brought her with him, pulling just to see if she would follow. She wavered, but she held, even when he lifted their extended arms and pushed her hip with his pulling hand, turning her underneath in a twirl out to the end of his inhuman arm. He felt a disoriented stab of need before he pulled her back, under and around, as if he’d been at the edge of losing her just then.

She was smiling as he caught her, but she looked at his face and stopped, the open stance between them having closed, her chest against his.

She leaned in close and waited, her hand on his shoulder, creeping to his neck, touching gently, beckoning. Her hands and her pursed lips tucked closed and she swallowed, “What are you feeling?”

It was dark and there was no music. He was lost and had a metal arm and a head that didn’t work, “I- I feel you. I feel like I don’t know how to-” he swallowed, “how to say that I want to kiss you, when you don’t know what it means.”

Her lips pursed apart again, a tiny abyss budding at their center, her expression lacking any of the puzzlement or repulsion he’d expected, calm and open and steady, “What does it mean?”

He shook his head, shrugging, “I don’t know. Happiness. Fascination. Pleasant deception.”

“Deception?”

“Because it makes you think you know something. Like something passes between you, the way it does with your lights, but it’s,” he shrugged, his lips so close his breath kissed hers, “it’s safe. It’s for fun. But your first one-”

He wasn’t sure if she was aware that her lights flickered slightly, as if fidgeting, her hands closing tighter, “I want to know.”

He nodded, his heart rumbling and yearning towards her, “What are you feeling?”

She shook her head, “I do not know. I want to know. I feel sad. For myself. For you. I do not want to feel sad. Does kissing help with that?”

He nodded, “Yeah. But,” he sighed, “Mantis I’m so...ugly. You don’t understand but I can’t...I’m not…” his metal hand fell to his side, flexing closed. I’m not good enough to be the person I was anymore, he thought, I’m no kind of gift.

She touched his lips, his chin, with her fingertips, sending little shivers of thirst across his tongue, “I do not understand what is ugly.”

His hand tightened on not-quite-her-hip as reflexively as a swallow, “That’s why it isn’t fair. To let you kiss me.”

“I do not know what is fair,” she put that loving touch on his cheek again.

It undid him, his forehead falling forward, “I know that wanting to kiss you, given what I am, means that I probably shouldn’t.”

“Do you know what I am?”

He shook his head against hers.

She pushed her chin forward, “I want to kiss you.”

She pulled, and he moved, and the distance slid closed.

Chapter Text

Carina should have been asleep. There was little to see, going over the visual recordings of the gladiator's box, and no audio. The image transmitters were fixed in the ceiling, and couldn’t see more than a handspan beyond the edge of the plinth. She noted, as she reviewed the choppy footage, that after a fairly brief exchange the gladiator had shaved his head, and allowed Mantis to peel his armor off.

Maybe The Collector’s approval of the two of them left alone was more straightforward, and more perceptive, than Carina had thought. Mantis certainly wasted no time in getting him to comply. But she didn’t make him blow into the analizer again, which was troubling if she’d really believed he was terminally ill. What was she up to?

Then there was a skip of several toks due to no observable motion happening in the box’s recording radius, though the remote vitals readout had noted a dangerous drop in the soldier’s body temperature in the middle.

It could have been a glitch. The boxes weren’t well designed for remote surveillance. The sensor discs were designed for fully contained subjects.

Mantis had slept for two whole work cycles after that, curled up in the box, and not a peep from either of them. The soldier had awakened her with some kind of strange attack, but Mantis had apparently talked him down.

And they had hugged.

Carina had watched it several times, trying to think what she would say to her master when it was time to “keep him apprised”. She had no idea if it was what he had hoped for. Watching Mantis repeatedly pile herself into the soldier’s mismatched arms wouldn’t tell her.

She watched it again anyway. It was the last bit of footage available for over a tok. The soldier lifting his hands, leaning back, Mantis lunging. And the connection, the way his head tilted back until his whole face was pointed to the ceiling. The way his face crumpled with pain and anxiety and resolve, and his big ugly hand went through her hair with a tenderness, made Carina's breath catch.

She knew Mantis could inflict intense emotions with a touch, so she watched carefully. But the mantid's antennae never glowed.

Carina’s shook her head, pulling her own hair down out of its stupid pigtails to brush it out for bed, reiterating to herself the folly of dwelling on the pair. She never had enough time to sleep. There was no way to know what would please or anger Tivan where the two loaners were concerned, or how they might possibly factor in to her own mission, besides needing to keep Mantis quiet.

She was still lingering over her hair when the video feed chirped quietly to announce that it was recording. It took a second, after flipping the viewer on, to notice the motion that had started it up again.

Just at the edge of the recording radius, Mantis’ right hand was holding onto the corner where the box met he wall. The distinct metallic curve of the soldier’s left shoulder, with it’s red radiance symbol, was pressed there beside it. She had him against the wall. The box registered that their pulses and body temperatures were rather high and climbing. The visible fingers tightened. The visible shoulder shifted

Were they…

Suddenly Mantis’ heartbeat began strobing irregularly on the readout, and a massive quake shook the entire outpost of Knowhere.

---

Kissing. It wasn’t the purest or most intense sensation Mantis had ever felt. After all, she’d been raised on the self-regard of an ageless god and the last hopes of a thousand fading lives. Just in the last several cycles she had felt and soothed dozens of new fears by channeling hundreds of new pleasures that confounded and dazzled her.

It was far from the only kiss she had ever felt. Ego didn’t often bother to share his sensory exploits with her whenever he returned to the light, but his occasional boasts had accreted into a sizable fund of second-hand sensory experience, and Mantis understood many styles and permutations of pressing soft and supple and sensitive tissues together to produce arousal for mating.  

It wasn’t even the only kiss from Jonkarter that she had ever felt, from a certain remove.

But it was the first kiss that was hers, and that made it altogether different.

It didn’t gradually titrate down her body from the small box at the front of her mind, escorted through the foyer where she welcomed the feelings of others. It touched her lips first and her mind last, flowing right from her mouth to her spine and out to the tip of every nerve before words or thoughts got any chance with it. It was almost like pain, but it was nothing like pain.

Kissing made all her feelings sit up at attention and display like courting birds. She wanted to know what made it feel so good, like a soft rain of starlight down her center, and if she made it feel the same to him. The temptation to simply open her hand against his skin and find out was strong, but she would not risk him again. He needed her protection. His mouth was so soft, and a little sour, and hers was so sensitive. The temptation to stop kissing him long enough to ask questions never got enough traction to demand notice. For those first long moments even breathing didn’t get much of a say.

Fortunately kissing was like dancing. She could feel, in the ways their bodies touched, whether their expectations aligned. Like when she leaned into him and he slid his hand a little further around her waist. Or when she stroked the line of his neck under his ear with the back of her fingers, and his neck bent to scoop his lips a little deeper, a little harder, against hers. Or when he parted his lips to take hers lightly between them, and it felt right to respond in kind.

It made wanting easier than thinking. Without the need to actively empathize her way through them, the feel of his kisses, their kisses, pitched up ideas and wants in a free and unreasoning jumble. She wanted to walk down a street full of people, like Jonkarter’s people, and touch them, all of them. She wanted people who wore cotton dresses and uniform coats and shiny shoes with noisy soles, who had messy emotions, feelings that tangled them up with each other. She wanted rich confusions and abundant embarrassments. She wanted to watch the sun go down someplace where the night would be different from the day. She wanted to ask a girl to dance, to feel why it was difficult. She wanted to dance to music.

And she wanted kissing. She definitely wanted kissing. Every day. She wanted to kiss everyone on a city street from a house to a dance hall. She never wanted to go back to not-kissing ever again.

Mantis never wanted to go home. Not from the dance hall in her imagination, and not to Ego. That thought tripped an alarm somewhere inside her, but she let it drown in what she imagined real music sounded like. For the first time in her life, she was sure she would know music if she ever heard it, would know the difference between sounds that were music and sounds that were not. Any sound might make her think, but music would go right into her, like kissing. She was sure of it, as she was sure that she had never heard music, and that someday she would.

She crossed her wrists behind his neck and he held onto the low curve of her backbone. They turned, like dancing, three steps towards him until his back was against the wall. She stopped just for a moment and looked at him, and found him looking at her, right at the edge of the box where the light dimly lined half his face in arid yellow, the other half swimming in wavering blue. She suddenly didn’t remember any of her questions.

He squeezed her tight against him before letting his grip recede, allowing her an option to move away that she did not take. He made such soft, sad noises when her lips took fresh hold of his. She wanted to touch him, to feel with him. Her fingertips ached and tingled more dangerously the further into sweet emotional pique she slipped, the further into wanting and not thinking.

With a will to be responsible, she gripped the corner of the box with one hand and pressed the other flat against the cold wall. She was grateful that Knowhere was a place where there were things with no feelings, letting the chill seep into her overheated fingertips, letting the aggressive curiosity at the front of her mind writhe as it would in its box.

He slid one hand down her hip. It was just the width of a few fingers, but it filled her with suspense. Her urge to know his feelings, to discern and predict his intentions, surged reflexively. Her whole body froze, breathless and listening...and then she was someplace else, as if a door had been slammed between them.

All her senses dove into a dark place. She didn’t recognize it, but it gave her a sick thrill of familiarity all the same. It was a deep place, massive, full of pain and death and frustrated rage. And the unmistakable feel of Ego was there, as if her refusal to hear him had summoned him directly into her head.

Ego was watching her, reaching for her, a gaping black silhouette against the starry dark beyond the walls. He could tell that she was happy, and the rushing of the water was just a muffled echo of his roar of outrage.

She stayed frozen, listening carefully, excitement crystalizing into dread. The sooner she understood his bloody-minded fury, the sooner it would stop. But there were no words. None of his posturing, lecturing, frothing righteousness. Nothing simple. Nothing clear. He was simply howling, charging towards her from the darkness, his shadowy form sprouting legs from every side to gallop faster. She couldn’t tell how far away he’d been when he began, he just got bigger and bigger and louder and louder, swallowing up darkness with darkness. The room was shaking.

She tried to break away from her mind, back to reason, back to physical reality, but it only got muddled.

Jonkarter was the only thing between her and the charging god, holding her and petting her and being kind to her, making her never want to go home. He was in her arms, his back to the rushing wrath. He didn’t see.

Ego was going to kill him. To fix her selfish happiness. And so before he could, she would have to- no no no no no...

She tried not to scream. She knew it was wrong to raise her voice, but that thin wail started that she never could keep in when she was too sad.

Jonkarter was saying her name, soft and concerned. She could see his face, lit by the glow of her lights. She was shaking. Everything was shaking.

He didn’t even know. She hadn’t even warned him about what she was. She had thought she would be smart, keep him from making her too happy.

He had told her so much, despite how sad it made him to do it. She hadn’t even warned him.

He was saying her name.

It wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair.

She tightened her fingers against the stone, her throat tight around her squeak, “Stop…”

A heave of emotional pressure threw itself down her arms, pressing into the dark towards the charging squall of hunger.

Everything went dark, and her legs folded.

“Mantis? Oh god, Mantis? Mantis I’m so sorry, what did I do?”

---

The dark was absolute. The water still flowed, but the blue fairy-light from underneath had gone out, as had the dry glare of the box. He tried, gingerly, to tap into his night vision enhancements, but they couldn’t manipulate and enhance light that simply wasn’t there. He was locked in a cave a million light years from the sun.

Mantis’ lights were out as well, in every sense. Her antennae had flared bright, and then faded as she collapsed. The last image he’d seen of her face had been terror, staring but unseeing, mouth agape but only a thin wail escaping.

He’d sunk with her to the ground, cradling her and futilely smoothing her hair. She’d said “stop.” If she’d meant him holding her, he didn’t think he could.

The long grinding tremor that had run through the entire area had stopped, though. He hoped the power would come back soon.

She was panting raggedly, her pulse panicky.

“Breathe, Mantis,” he whispered, futilely, “don’t punk out on me here. You’re ok. Whatever it is we’ll figure it out.”

He tried to follow his own advice. She wasn’t wheezing, she was just winded. It wasn’t like one of Steve’s athsma attacks. She wasn’t going to die. He had to keep his stupid broken head on straight. He wasn’t at home.

He picked her up and shuffled towards the water, careful not to let the uneven floor trip him up. He knelt down and brought a cold palmful to the back of her neck. Her breathing changed and she jerked, her hands reaching out suddenly and catching him on the nose.

“Gah!”

“Jonkarter?” her hands fluttered around his jaw, “Are you alive?”

“Ah, hah, yeah, I’m fine,” he prodded his face gently, grateful that nothing grated.

“I- I cannot see.”

“The lights all went out. There was an earthquake. You passed out. Shh, hey, shh, it’s ok. We’re ok.”

She shook her head, gulping a sob, “Ego knows I am here.”

He squinted, “What do you mean? He left you here, of course he-”

She nodded, then shook her head, “He knows I am here with you, that I was thinking selfish things. He is angry. I saw him. Felt him. He is coming.”

He wiped her cheeks gently and his hand came away wet, “Like a flashback? Like a memory of being hurt, but it feels like it’s happening again for real?”

She shook her head, “No, not a memory. He was different than I have ever seen him. He did not speak he was just charging. He was going to make me-” she shook and he hugged her against him, wishing he could make it stop, “-he was going to kill you.”

He shook his head, willing to say just about anything, “I won’t let him.” Yeah, sure. I’ll fistfight a god for ten rounds. Why not? He was grateful for the dark that concealed his doubtful smirk.

She pushed away, her hand staying on his cheek, “No-” she sighed, sitting up straight, “There is something you have to know. Right now. I am stupid.”

There was an electrical whine in the air all around them, more felt than heard. The box flickered to life, and the wavering blue light began dancing across the ceiling again.

Mantis’ expression was solemn and mournful.

He sighed, “Ego punishes you whenever you feel happy.”

She shook her head, “Only when I am mean. When I am too happy. When I am not thinking of anything but myself.”

“And he kills whatever helps you feel happy.”

Mantis looked at her folded hands, “He would, except I-” she took a shuddering breath, “I do it.”

“You-”

She nodded, “I kill them. Because I can. Without pain.”

“He-”

“It is my job. I help him to sleep, and I dispose of his progeny. I take them down to the cave, and I push them deep until they die,” she nodded.

It sort of felt like the room was shaking again, “He makes you-”

She shrugged, “He promised Yondu not to hurt the children. I feel them die, so I can make sure it does not hurt.”

He clutched at a floating notion that might carry him out of the vortex, “Yondu. Why do I know that name.”

She shrugged, “He has been to earth. He is a ravager. He steals things and sells them.”

His eyebrows went up, “Blue guy? Creepy jagged teeth? Red stripe on his head? Voice like a rusty egg beater?”

Mantis nodded, “He is Kree.”

“That’s the guy that sold me to the Grandmaster.”

“It is very possible. He used to bring Ego’s progeny to him from around the galaxy. It is against the ravager code to take children, but they were Ego’s children, and Ego offered him wealth. But Ego would not pay Yondu to take them back when they failed him. So then it was my job. To deal with them.”

“His own kids?”

She nodded.

“He has a whole planet, he couldn’t just...keep them?”

She shook her head, “He has work to do. I tried once to keep them, to try and have...a collection, I suppose, but better. To give them more time to find the qualities he wanted them to have. But Ego said it was a waste, a distraction, too much noise, too much need. After that it was just easier,” tears rolled down her cheeks, “to be a monster.”

There was nothing he could think to say, so he just reached for her, gathering her up when she didn’t resist, wishing he could fight her fears hand-to-hand, “You think he’ll make you kill me, if he knows you have a friend.”

Mantis nodded, petting his forearm as if soothing a kitten, “If I cannot kill my feelings, he will insist. If I am distracted I am no use to him. It takes a lot of concentration to make him sleep. He is powerful,” she sat up, wiping her eyes.

He put his hands on her shoulders, “Look around, though. He’s not here.”

“I felt him. He felt so much more anger than I have ever known from him. Emotional. He was beyond words,” more fat tears dropped into her lap, “He was in my head.”

His heart shook, wanting to insist that it wasn’t her fault, that she was a prisoner, that she was doing the best she could, that it wasn’t a crime to be brainwashed, to want to survive, but after so long refusing to let himself off that hook he couldn’t quite say the words. He set his mouth, “But do you still feel him?”

She glanced around, and down at her hands, blue light dancing over her pale features, “I do not.”

He stroked her cheek with his thumb, beckoning at her mood with a hooked smile that, in another life, had always worked like a charm, “You feel me?”

She smiled and nodded, and it felt like the only thing he wanted.

Her expression grew grim, “But I felt him. I do not know why or how. But he is already here,” she took his face in her hands and put her forehead to his solemnly, “I am going to get you out of here.”

He squeezed the back of her neck, “We are getting out of here,” he shook his head, “and we’re never going to kill so much as a flea ever again, for anyone,” he extended three fingers without letting her go, smiling at his own giddy, impossible sincerity, “Scout’s honor.”

Something about the relief in her sigh even made him believe it.

She edged her lips towards his, but before they could connect, there was a loud slam from above and a mechanical groan. The lift was moving. Someone was coming down.

Chapter Text

Jonkarter jumped to his feet, offering her a hand up. The grind of the lift made the whole room buzz uncomfortably, and he scanned the joins and seams of the room again.

She put a hand on his shoulder, “What is wrong?”

“During the quake I thought I heard-” his eyes settled on the box, “Yeah, look.”

At one edge of the door the glass seal was silting away with the vibrations in the room. She gaped, “The nanites must have shut down.”

Jonkarter nodded, crossing to it, “When you ordered them to stop,” he dug at the crumbled glass, opening a long crack to the other side.

Mantis shook her head, “That isn’t supposed to happen. I don’t have the autho-”

Jonkarter didn’t seem to hear her. In one brutal fluid motion he took a step back and kicked the edge of the box with so much force that the impact hurt her ears. Nothing shifted significantly but there was a sharp squeak of metal that made her stomach cringed down with an irrational wince, like he might kick the box open and somehow send them both flying into empty space.

“Stop, what are you doing?” she grabbed his metal wrist with both hands as he brought it back to throw a punch.

There was a wintery glint in his eye, “We’re getting out of here.”

“But think! Knowhere is at the edge of what is known. If we are ever to get you home we will need a ship, with a pilot that knows how to get there. If it is Carina coming down, she can contact help for us.”

Confusion seemed to cut through his focus, “But why would she?”

Mantis glanced away, “For the same reason she let me stay with you in the first place. And if it is not her coming down, or even if it is, better no one realize that the seam is broken until we are prepared to leave,” her voice dropped involuntarily, “We can not expect a second chance if we are caught, or expect that we will be kept together if we are.”

He winced and nodded deeply, rubbing his forehead, “But if they’re coming to separate us anyway, I don’t want to let them. I think our chances are better together, ready or not.”

She tried to speak soothing words, “I agree. But our best chance of staying together is to leave Knowhere as quickly as we can once we are out. I do not know how to hide here.”

He grimaced, distracted, “I might have some applicable skills in that area, but you’re right,” he rubbed his forehead harder, “Just feels like the sound is grinding at my brain though. Like it’s in my fillings. The tremors must have shifted the lift’s rails offkilter.”

She stepped closer and stroked his back sympathetically, not needing to feel him to recognize that his brain was punishing him for listening to her.

---

“Carina!” Tivan’s amplified rasp echoed through the complex. She was already on her way, her work boots kanking on the grate as she navigated by the red glow of the emergency backup lights.

“Yes master,” she huffed, skidding to a stop around a corner before him.

“Are the security systems intact?”

She nodded, “Yes master. Backup systems are undamaged. All boxes on the upper level are functional.”

His eyes narrowed, “And below?”

She swallowed, “The soldier’s box lost power. I need to go reboot the scanners to reestablish monitoring their discs.”

Tivan gave a thoughtful scowl, then nodded, “The tremors originated from that area. Take a weapon. And bring Mantis back up with you. I want to have a word with her.”

“Yes master.”

The emergency routes were tortuously inconvenient and unsanitary, but the lightlift didn’t operate on emergency power. Per her usual bitter luck, the instant she emerged from the final musty chute down to the corridor that lead to the top of the well, the complex’s main power came back on with a solicitous hum. She thought about lightlifting up to get a proper energy weapon as well, but the projectile gun was enough for her needs.

---

The lift was slow, the grinding sound biting into his brain. It sounded like...Siberia. He shook his head. He had to be doing something. His captors were coming. They were going to use him. His every instinct was screaming at him to get away.

Longing…

“Don’t you dare,” he muttered, pacing. One feeding, one decent rest, and the thing thought it could have an opinion.

He picked up his armor, the leather smelling rank and musty as he slid his arm and neck through their holes, and was grateful that Mantis came over to do-up his buckles for him without him needing to ask. He didn’t like the sound of his own voice, or the things he felt like saying. Things about strategic use of violence, and requesting tools for it. He stretched his back. He felt weak. He felt cornered. His metal arm itched.

Rusted…

He growled at himself. No. It was just the scuttling toothless hallucinations, trying to panic him. The real triggers had other voices as well, in other languages. Ones he didn’t want to trick himself into trying to remember.

The bottom of the lift shuddered down into view. Large boots and a heavy apron, thick gloves holding a heavy piece of equipment with a nozzle and a trigger. A pair of thick goggles pushing sweaty magenta-brown hair back from a familiar, pink, and impassive face.

The lift stopped. He breathed a sigh of relief as Carina studiously ignored him, reaching to punch a couple buttons on the box’s front readout.

He was just about to ask a question, ask what the hell had happened, when Carina raised the gun, pointed it right at him, and fired.

He spun his left side towards her, throwing out his arm to catch the bullet and shield Mantis with his body, but the first shot didn’t even break the glass. The second one did, but only barely, the pane holding together with a syrupy tenacity that dropped the slug to the floor of the box..

He rushed her, seeing red, grabbing and ripping the eerily oozing glass before it could repair itself, struggling to wrench it out of the uprights.

Carina aimed the third shot well above his head and blew a hole that let the fourth go into the ceiling of the box. There was a loud crack and a shower of sparks, and Carina dropped the gun.

“What are you doing?!” Mantis raised her voice almost to a yell.

Carina backed away, her hands up. Her eyes were fixed on him, flared with fear and defiance, “You’re leaving. Now. Get anything you want to take, incapacitate me, and go.”

Her words sank in just as he got the last of the struggling glass out of its frame and onto the floor in an eerily fitful ball. He stopped himself before he started at her, but his heart was hammering, his brain only mostly his own, and he put both hands down on the brass floor until he could pick them up again safely. She was helping them escape. That thought seemed to help. He slowed his breathing with it. The attack on them was to help them escape.

Mantis hurried through the box, climbing past him, “Go where?”

Carina shook her head, “It matters not at all to me. Away from here. Tivan sent me to collect you, and I don’t want you trading information to him for your own ambitions, so go. Just make it look good.”

Mantis shook her head, “There is no place we can go. We have no ship.”

Carina rolled her eyes, peeling off her gloves and shaking out her hands, “Figure something out. There are several ports, freighters in and out every day. Stow away.”

He looked between them, “Do any of them go to earth?”

Carina took the goggles off and shook her head, wildly disbelieving, “How in the flaming froth of Foritha would I know? Where you go is not my problem, just go!”

Mantis stepped up, “Carina, we do not know how to hide here. We will get caught. And then questioned. Call Yondu Udonta, the ravager. We can escape with him, and he knows how to get to Jonkarter’s planet. He is Kree.”

Carina scowled, “You could hire any ship with the kind of units a ravager would charge just to not kill you.”

Mantis took a deep, uncertain breath, “I have no units. But tell him that Ego’s minion knows he has been paid enough for his live cargo, even if the other ravagers do not. Tell him that and he will come.”

Carina boggled at her, “What does that mean? Are you- you’re going to blackmail a ravager?”

Mantis glanced back at the box, at him, her eyes uncertain, “It is our best chance...that I can think of,” she turned back to Carina, folding her hands back and forth in a subtle fret, “Where would be a safe place to hide where we could meet him?”

Carina shook her head and gritted her teeth, “There’s a brothel, called Hemianopsia. It’s also a hotel. By the occipital port. Ravagers frequent it. I’ll tell him to meet you there. It might take several work cycles for me to contact your ravager without Tivan knowing, and they could be ninety jumps away or more when I do. If you tell Putty you’re meeting a buyer they might give you credit.”

Mantis blinked, “A buyer for what?”

She shot a glance, “Him. You’re stealing him from The Collector, that should earn you some grace. But once you’ve skipped out on the bill you better never come back. There are no regulations here, and no penalty for murder.”

Mantis nodded without a word and climbed back through the box, rummaging for supplies.

The soldier boy from Brooklyn looked back and forth between the two alien women who were apparently running his foreseeable future, settling on Carina. He stepped down and towards her, “How do we get out of here?”

Carina gave a rasping, put-upon sigh, “Take the lift up once I’m unconscious. It will let you out in the right ocular bowl. Private security and freelance opportunists can be a little thick in that neighborhood, but they won’t know to look for you until after I’m found, and I’ll do what little I can to confuse matters and slow down any outside bounties. If. You. Will. Just. Go!”

He pondered her for a long moment, “Why are you helping us?”

She scowled, “I’m not. I’m helping Mantis. If that happens to be what you want then good for you. Feel free to get her as far from here as you want. But watch your back. Mantids are voracious and subtle traitors.”

He thought for a second, trying not to laugh, and glanced sideways, “Where does the well go?”

“The water?” Carina gave the swirling blue-lit pool a grim speculative glance over the edge of the lift, “It drains down into the provisioning station in the main shipping port. Loud and busy.”

“Is the drainage passable?”

She nodded, glancing as Mantis came to stand beside him, “It used to be a mining transport route. But it’s freezing cold, you’d lose consciousness.”

He nodded as Mantis reached to touch Carina’s hand.

As the pink woman collapsed, he caught her, nodding, “Probably.”

---

After tucking Carina in on the mat and making sure she was sleeping soundly, Mantis compressed all the useful supplies she could pull from the box into a couple of flattened packs, even adding the powdered nano-glass in the hopes of studying it later.

Jonkarter had smirked at her from where he’d stood studying the lift controls as she gathered the powder into a vial, “If we manage to bring that powder to my home, it might teach our scientists a thing or two. It might even help the cause of rebuilding the world, after the war. Howard Stark could have a...Howard…” his voice faded, his eyes winced shut, and he shook his head, “We have to get moving. Is that the last of it?”

She nodded, “We should feed before we go. The effects last several days, but I do not know when we will get another chance. I can help you again. If you like.”

He nodded soberly. He took a deep breath and a step back from the lift’s panel, pivoting suddenly and driving an ear-splitting kick to the edge of the controls. The console shook and sparks flew.

She blinked at him from the edge of the box, focusing on comprehension and keeping her voice even despite a spike of fear, “We...are not taking the lift.”

He shook his head, “Nope.”

She kept very still, her mind suddenly needing to grapple with the idea of trying to get him down through the well without breaking his mind, “Do you have any pleasant memories of trying not to breathe?”

He seemed like he wasn’t understanding her, but he offered up a surprising, and surprised, grin, “Yeah...yeah actually I think I do. Why?”

“If you have decided that we are going through the water, I will need to keep you unconscious so you do not panic, but I will also need a way to convince you not to try to breathe.”

He shook his head, “We’re not going down the well. I only asked about that to make her think we would. She's not doing this out of the goodness of her heart, she just wants you out of the way without being blamed for it, so the less she knows for sure the better. When they see we broke the lift in the hopes of slowing her down, they’ll assume we had to have gone by water.”

“So what do we do?”

“We climb.”

Mantis bent down and picked up Carina’s goggles, looking dubiously up the length of the shaft, “Oh.”

He nodded, smiling as he hefted one of the packs for weight, “Yeah, ‘oh’.”

She pondered, and agreed slowly, “I suppose that is better than swimming on a full stomach. Come feed.”

He frowned, “Eat. People eat. Animals feed.”

“Alright,” she made the note agreeably, unsure why it should matter, “Would you rather eat while you are unconscious?”

He shook his head, pulling his legs up and leaning back against the side of the box, “I think as long as I keep my eyes closed, and you keep talking to me to help me not think about it, I can keep my brain on track. I think. But if I’m wrong, you know what to do.”

She held out the thin cannula to him, watching the readout as he took a deep breath and blew into it, swallowing her reaction as the lights told a dire, but improving, story, “What should I talk about?”

He shrugged as she climbed across him and rifled for the mouthpiece, “How about telling me why Carina doesn’t want you talking to The Collector?”

She nodded, trying to sound very sincere, “I do not know. Close your eyes, open your mouth.”

He blinked at her blankly. She could not read his expression, but it was definitely not belief. After a long beat, he obeyed her, but he did not seem happy.

She knelt beside him, mouthpiece in hand, pushing the flashing button that allowed the box to set up an additional feeding in override of the usual protocol, given his continuing detected deficiencies. She put a hand on his cheek to cue him that he would soon feel the mouthguard, and for lack of anything she could think to talk about, she started singing a bouncy little lullabye she knew from his planet, “Don’t, stop, thinking about tomorrow. Don’t, stop, it’ll soon be here. It will be, better than before. Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone…” she didn’t know if there was any more to it than that, but that part repeated easily enough.

His respiration rate increased as she touched the rubber to his mouth, but he accepted it, putting his hand over hers once it was fixed in place. He nodded.

She pressed another button and the tube filled, pushing nutriment into his mouth in long, slow, gooey pulses. He stiffened, trying to adjust, and she petted his other cheek, moving to straddle his legs and steady him. He’d objected to the word “feed” and apparently did not want her to think of him as an animal, but she couldn’t help it. It was what he was. It was what everyone was, if they weren’t a plant or a fungus...and sometimes even then, in her experience. And everyone was people, too. Their well being relied on food and rest and comfort, just like anything. She spoke gently for him, like she tried to do for everything, “Shh, easy, you are all right. I know it is strange. But you are safe.”

She didn’t even do it on purpose, it was just habit. She felt the feeling of assurance burn the tips of her fingers, her lights briefly illuminating his nose and cheeks and brow and feeding tube. The tension between his eyebrows eased as the mechanical feeding slowed and stopped.

Chastising herself silently she put a hand on the tube and cued him to let her take it out of his mouth, keeping one hand on his cheek, letting him keep his eyes closed until the fixture was out of sight.

He swished his mouth, smirking, “Mmm pancake batter. Just like mom used to overhand-pitch.”

“You can open your eyes. You did well. You should drink some water. Do you feel well?”

He opened his eyes and tightened his hand over hers, “Yeah, I do,” he reached his free hand for her waist, giving it a little tug towards him.

She frowned, wiping the corners of his blushing mouth with her thumb, “I gave you a feeling. To calm you. I did not mean to. I am sorry.”

He shook his head, giving her another little tug, “I don’t mind. It didn’t hurt. C’mere.”

She shook her head, “You should not give me kisses for it. It is not what I should have done.”

He smirked at her, clearly feeling enormously safe and relaxed when they ought to have been moving, “Don’t worry, you can give them right back.”

She leaned into him guiltily, trying not to wonder how many more things she was going to do that she knew she shouldn’t.

Chapter Text

He felt himself sweating, holding onto Mantis as she shuddered, her eyes squeezed tight shut.

He murmured in her ear, “We’re almost there. Look at me. Just a little more. We can’t stop now, right? Not when it’s just starting to get fun,” he laughed nervously, trying not to let her hear the pleading strain in his voice, trying to inspire genuine confidence with feigned confidence, “You’re coming with me, right?”

She nodded, but her legs clenched tighter around him and a desperate squeak thinned each breath, “I can not move...”

“I know,” he gritted his teeth, laboring hard at patience, trying not to lose his grip, “I know you think you can't, but I won’t let you fall,” a small grunt escaped unbidden as his muscles began to lock up, “We've come this far, so you know you can do this. We’re almost there. Can you see how close we are? We can get there, like we got here, but I can't do it without you, and I wouldn't if I could. So you have to move. Grab the hold above my head. You'll feel that it's solid, and your body will remember what to do.”

She took a deep breath, and put a hand to the wall, trying to find a grip of her own, but scrabbling blind. She whimpered, overwhelmed, but kept trying.

He adjusted his grip, cursing inwardly. They’d worked their way steadily upward for over an hour, taking short breaks when a balcony was convenient. His ribs made it hard for him to reach too far above shoulder height, so they’d spiralled and zig-zagged their way up the shaft, with occasional significant shortcuts when the machine fittings were passable to a superhuman grip. She was an agile climber, and a good judge of what he could reach that would hold him. The main difficulty for both of them was that nothing about the shaft or the lift hardware was uniform. The naturally irregular surfaces and been refitted, piecemeal, a few dozen times at least. Some parts were strong and slippery, others were coarse but prone to crumbling. Some parts of the rock had been sheared smooth, other parts had regular holes where massive bolts had rusted away. No single part was grueling work once they figured it out, and even though every meter they gained needed active scouting and solving, they made a good team, and it was heartening.

They had even taken turns talking to break up the sound of rushing water. He’d explained about dinner tables and bathtubs and siblings and public school as each image had filtered through his brain. He’d explained being twelve when the stock market had crashed, his family needing to spend his college savings to keep the house, and still losing the car. He’d had to backtrack a little to explain that a mortgage was not literally a hungry creature that ate houses if you didn’t pay it not to...though he’d had the same impression as a child.

She had described the things Ego made, how he would cover the whole world in his fanciful buildings, sculpture gardens, and fountains. How it all crumbled to brown dunes and tepid puddles when he left to go exploring. How she waited, drawing pictures on the flat ground, making sculptures by hand, things she imagined or remembered. Things she felt. She described trying to guess Ego’s mood and the sort of guest he might be bringing whenever he returned within range, because new things would rise from the sand, wiping out her labors unseen with things more elaborate and seductive.

They'd been making good time.

Just two tiers from the top, both of them were tired and pressed too eagerly towards the finish. They’d agreed to try going straight up the rock, thinking he could follow her feet with his hands if the reaches were short enough. Directly above him for the first time, Mantis had made the mistake of looking down to say something. She had frozen, and hyperventilated so quietly that he didn’t even realize there was a problem until she’d started to fall. He’d caught her, barely, wrenching his right shoulder as he hung from the wall with his left, gradually finding his footing as she came around, still panicked and exhausted.

And still, she tried to find a way to keep going.

A stab of guilt finally felled his impatience as she floundered, her brain unable to engage the problem, “Shh, hey, we’re ok. It’s too much. We’ll take a break. We don’t have to get there now. We’ll take a rest. I need one too, if I’m honest.”

She swallowed a sob, “But you are right. We cannot stop now. We must go.”

He sighed, “I know we said that, but we were wrong. Neither of us has done this before, right? What do we know?  Nothing worth getting hurt over. There’s time. We’ll get there, but not right now. Not if we can’t both to get over the top in one piece. We’ll take a break and figure it out. The balcony’s just an easy climb to your left.”

She nodded, her grip losing some of its rigidity, “I am sorry.”

He shook his head, bracing with his legs and easing her away, “Not your fault. We’d never have made it this far alone, right? We stay together, nothing can stop us for long. Reach for the ledge with your left foot. You lead. I’ll be right behind you. Easy as dancing, right?” Despite the anger and impatience biting between his eyes at the circumstance, he knew Carina wouldn’t wake for hours. There was time enough to be smart, at least. He’d almost lost her for nothing.

She laughed nervously, but slid herself slowly off him along the stone, her hands finding their strength like magic once they stopped pushing themselves. She landed on the tier and quietly called, “It is the same as the last one. The lateral holds are regularly spaced. No weak ones.”

Once he was slumped safely against the wall, their packages hauled up and checked, she touched his arm in the dark.

“But I am sorry.”

He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, “Nah, we should have stopped a while ago. You almost got hurt,” he shifted his shoulder carefully, finding it sore but whole.

She shook her head, “I wanted to keep going. Maybe more than you. I have never felt this before, in myself. Wanting to be someplace else. I…” she sounded shocked, “...am discontented.”

He nodded, “That gets worse when you’re tired. Go get a drink. We’ll catch our breaths and you’ll feel better. The top is in sight. We’ll get it on the next attempt for sure.”

She tugged at his hand, “Come in with me. I want to be away from the edge. I am uneasy.”

He couldn’t blame her. He’d grown up among the tallest buildings in the world, and been to the top of most of them, and he was still starting to get a little jittery as the gaping distance below them lengthened and the handholds got harder to see. The watery blue light far below wasn’t well replaced by the occasional traveling shafts of reflected headlights filtering down from above, and the watery feel in his joints every time they rested told him a lot about how hard he was leaning into adrenaline to suppress his fears. 

She filled Carina’s goggles with water, and shared with him as they sat against the wall, “It is your turn.”

He sighed, “Ok,” after a long moment he sighed again, “I can’t think of anything more to talk about.”

She stretched out her legs, “You said you have a happy memory of trying not to breathe. What is that?”

He grinned, “Oh, that. Yeah. That was my friend Steve.”

“Tell me?”

He nodded. The more he gathered it together into words, the more he realized it was kind of a stupid and embarrassing story, but the shape of Steve’s dopey smile in his mind pulled the tension out of him like a magician whipping a tablecloth off a set table, and he grinned in the dark. He wanted to tell her.

“Me and Steve met when we were still in diapers. Our moms went to the same church. And Steve’s mom, Mrs. Rogers, was a war widow.”

“A warwidow?”

He nodded, “His dad died in the Great...the First World War. So my mom and the other women of the neighborhood were always trying to help out. His mom could be proud, a little standoffish. But my mom wore her down with kindness. She said being a woman alone with a child was hard, and that losing a husband had to be hard. She said good neighbors should help out, like we learned about in Sunday school,” he balked at bringing up religion, unsure how to convincingly explain an ephemeral christian God to an alien whose jealous god was also her jailer and de facto parent.

Mantis had been nodding slowly in thought, “Is that like scout’s honor?”

He sighed, relieved, “Yeah, a lot like that. Just being the best person you can, even when it’s not easy, you know? We lived one street over. My mom would take over some food, or some clothes she’d made for Steve while she’d been making some for me, and me and Steve would play while they chatted.”

He looked through the ceiling, starry-eyed, clearing his throat and shaking his head, “We were peas in a pod, my mom always said. Instant friends. Steve was a shy and fretful baby, and I was a busy little fussbudget, but they could put us together and we would just play. For hours. He’d sit over with us when his mom was at work late. He had dinner at our place more often than not. And his mom was always around to help out when there was a new baby in our house. Mrs. Rogers was a nurse.”

“A nurse?”

“A person who takes care of sick people. Doctors figure out what’s wrong, and nurses provide the care to make it better. She’d been a nurse in the war, which...well, wars make a lot of people sick. After she came home to have Steve, she worked at the hospital with guys who had been sent home, too. Guys that lost entire limbs due to modern weaponry, and survived due to modern medicine. Parts missing, their minds half...gone...” he flexed his metal hand involuntarily and shook his head.

Mantis offered, “You must have been very proud to know her.”

He shrugged, “To me she was just Steve’s quiet, strict mom who worked a lot and took me to the hospital without a scolding when I fell off her front balcony. I didn’t really know anything about her life until she died,” he shook his head, memories rushing back as fast as he could speak them, “but at her funeral the whole church was packed with old guys who’d had a chance to get old because of her,” he grinned, “The minister joked that there were probably only three times as many limbs as people at the funeral of the indomitable Sarah Rogers, the little Irish woman who put herself between death and injured boys, and told death to move along,” he smiled, “and Steve was just like her. Small and bright as a star, and twice as fixed in his path if there was a principle at stake. And I just,” he smiled, looking down, “he was my best friend, my whole life.”

Mantis put her hand on his hand and her head on his shoulder, “Tell me about him. About breathing.”

He huffed a laugh, “Well, Steve had asthma. His mom told my mom and my mom told me, since I was with him pretty much all the time, all about making sure he took his medicine and drank room-temperature water if he started coughing. Sometimes cold air or car exhaust would set him off, so if it got real bad or we were far from home, mouth-to-mouth breathing was something to do to try to help. In theory it would warm and dampen and filter the air a little before putting it in his lungs, my mom said, give extra pressure to help him diffuse more oxygen into his blood. It was supposed to be a really serious emergency measure, but, I mean, we were kids, so it became a game. We didn’t even think about how we weren’t supposed to...y’know.”

Mantis blinked, shaking her head, “Supposed to what?”

He grinned, blushing, “Well, guys aren’t supposed to kiss each other. And we weren’t. I mean, it was just a game. Like, Steve always wanted to play soldiers, and we’d get hit with mustard gas, or have to pull each other out of a burning plane with smoke inhalation, or we’d drown in an emergency water landing. We’d drag each other to safety, take a pulse, splash water on each other’s face, and as a last resort, we’d resuscitate each other, for authenticity. It was just...I mean, we had big imaginations, big adventures. When you grow up with someone, and you share everything, there’s stuff that’s just normal that would look weird to anyone else. You know?”

Mantis shook her head.

He shrugged, “Well, there is. Anyway, he never had an attack that bad when we were kids. Most of taking care of him involved reminding him to slow down if he felt bad, sitting home and reading books together when the weather was bad for him, walking slower so he didn’t have to walk alone, going to the movies instead of playing baseball on hazy days,” he felt like he was babbling. He wanted to smooth the discomfort in his gut under a drift of words,  “And I liked doing all that stuff. We could just talk about stuff, for hours. And sometimes we would still pretend to stop breathing, like a private joke, to change the subject or get each others’ attention if we were bored, you know? I think I did it more than he did, if I’m honest. I mean,” his inner voice started prodding him, stop talking, seriously, stop, “I think he was smarter than me, so when I knew he had me in an argument I would literally roll over and die on him. And I knew if I could keep from breathing,” he was glad the dark kept his expression invisible, “If I didn’t breathe when he tried to call my bluff, or tried to pinch or tickle me into reacting, I knew he would…”

“Kiss you.”

“No! I mean, not really. It was just for fun. I mean we weren’t...like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like guys that kiss guys. We weren’t like that. We were kids, we weren’t queer.”

“What is queer?”

He sighed. It was frustrating trying to explain such basic stuff from nothing, especially with a headache starting, “Guys that kiss guys. We didn’t even joke about that stuff. Not even when our moms weren’t around. I mean, guys always call each other names, on the playground and at the gym; queer, fairy, fag. They're just things you say,” he cleared his throat, his voice refusing to stay light, “But it wasn’t funny when guys said it about Steve at school. If it were just that his growth spurt had kinda left him standing on the platform, or that he got sick all the time, he probably could have shaken it off, but it was more than that.”

“More than…”

He shrugged, “Steve was sensitive. Not a wimp, but he cared about things. It was like he actively refused to be cool. He refused to pretend that he didn’t like to read books and draw pictures and ask big philosophical questions and do the extra credit. He was funny and intense and weird. And I was, too, I guess. Inside. I mean, I had a lot of friends but he was my best friend. I could be myself around him, it didn’t take any work. Like we were attuned to each other. We could always talk. We always had each others’ back.

“But if you’re the welterweight boxing champ of the YMCA, and you’re a little weird and bookish, you jokingly get called “professor”, and you’re given a chance to take it like a joke. A little guy who gets nervous around girls and isn’t always spoiling to fight every time someone breathes in his direction gets called a fag, and it’s not a joke.”

Mantis sounded lost, “Why would it be a joke?”

He tapped the back of his head against the wall. Something was itching in the back of his skull, chuckling at him as his discomfort built. He did his best to talk over it, “I don’t think I can explain it. It’s like with animals, right? Boys don’t mate with boys, or a species would just die off. It’s not natural. You have to wonder what else is wrong in a guy’s head if he...you know. It grosses people out. So if people think a guy is...like that...I mean...most of the time if a big guy beats up a little guy, he’s a coward and a bully. But if that little guy is a fag and catches hell, well, people say that’s just boys being boys. If guys think you’re a fag and you don’t do everything you can to duck that title, then it’s like you’ve always started the trouble. It’s always your fault.”

“That does not seem fair.”

He sighed bitterly, “It’s not. It’s really not. I mean, whose to say if a guy is actually like that? I think it was their own gross imaginations running away with them, like my dad said.” He cleared his throat roughly, “But Steve would never back down once somebody crossed that line trying to needle him. If someone was rude or mean or pushy and tried to make him blink...it’s not like he was competitive, you know? He never thought about putting anyone down. He just had this ability to attract bullies like a magnet and he just...” he shook his head.

That taunting little voice was muttering louder, lithe and throatily feminine, Can you imagine what they’d have done to him...

“What did you do?”

He shrugged, sounding irritable, “I did what I could. I stood up with him. We patched each other up, stuck together. I took him for boxing lessons. I wanted to do more but-”

If they ever caught the whiff of it on you...

He scrubbed his face, “I asked him once, in high school, once it had started getting really bad, to let me fix it for him so guys would leave him alone. Get him a girl, get him the rumor of a reputation,” that grin returned, rallying, “He actually got mad at me. You know what he said to me? He said ‘You really don’t get it. Guys that take a swing at me thinking I’m a fag, I don’t stop them if I stop them thinking it, I just push them off on the next little guy that likes to read and doesn’t pester girls. Some guy who doesn’t have a friend like you to pick him back up. That hardly seems fair’.” Bucky smiled, “He was nuts, but he was right. So it just went on like that. When I shipped out in forty-three, America had been at war for two years, but Steve Rogers had been at war for twenty. Every day, it seemed like. Every damn day, someone was trying to...” his figurative nostalgia lost momentum and his voice hitched, “trying to hurt him. And for what? For nothing,” he gritted his teeth, tasting bitter venom, "boys being boys."

Mantis spoke very carefully, “You cared for him.”

She can tell.

He shrugged, “I did my best. I felt like it was what he would do for me, you know? What he would do for anybody. I just tried to keep up. I was always the strong one, but I was never really the strong one, you know? I always wished there’d been a way...” he cut himself off.

Mantis shrugged and ventured to change the subject, “It is not true everywhere, what you said about animals.”

“Animals?”

“That they only mate in binary heterotype arrangements. And only to reproduce. Among many species it is not so.”

He snorted, dismissive, “Well, yeah, bees and flowers, maybe, but for higher animals, ones that can tell the difference, or species that have to fight for survival it’s only logical...”

“Them too.”

“What do you mean ‘them too’?”

She shrugged, “I mean especially them. It is good for their survival. Many higher animals, social animals, mate for pleasure, or to express feelings of comfort and trust and kinship. Like yours for Steve, or your mother for his mother.”

He wasn’t aware that he was getting up until he was up and pacing.

He heard her stand up, despite how quietly she moved, “You are upset.”

He crammed his eyelids together, “Look, I know you don’t understand this stuff, but don’t say a thing like that about a person’s mother, ok? Ever.”

She was quiet for a lot longer than it should have taken to come up with, “Why?”

Can you imagine?

“Because it’s an ugly thing to say, ok? It’s gross. It’s an ugly image,” the volume of his voice was getting away from him, “I don’t know what your creepy planet-god taught you, but maybe you should think about whether his thoughts on what’s right and acceptable are worth listening to, you know,” ok, that’s enough, count to ten, “I mean that’s just stupid. That’s just gullible. Why would you even listen to that?”

They all see right through you.

Her voice was small, but deceptively light and pleasant, “Because I have seen it. From the creatures themselves. And things Ego learned that made him angry, genders and practices that confounded his goal of dominant recombination. Many many kinds. For example, there is a very advanced species of bipedal exotherms that require two A types to mate with one another, and two B types to mate with one another to generate viable gametes, before those gametes can be recombined for gestation within a C type. The bonding is very elaborate. There are civilizations of picene egg-layers that only stimulate one another to lay, and fertilizers that pleasure one another exclusively in their wake. There are-”

He’d been holding his tongue out of shame for his sharp words, but that was wearing off fast.

If you can’t stop these ugly thoughts someone is going to know.

“Mantis, if you don’t stop I’m going to get angry.”

Someone is going to get hurt.

“But why.” It sounded more like an accusation than a question, grating over his brain, demanding that he explain.

Nobody can know.

“Just stop, alright? If you ever want me to tell you anything about my planet again, just stop!” he felt nauseous.

She padded over to him, “I am sorry,” she hovered her hand near his, waiting for him to take it, her antennae kindling slightly, “I will understand.”

He seized her wrist in a burst of genuine fear, a need for absolute privacy throbbing in him like an exposed nerve that she was about to sink her claws into, “Don’t fucking touch me! Christ! What the fuck is wrong with you?! How am I being unclear?!”

She nodded, her voice weak but steady, “I will understand.”

You’re going to get him killed. You can’t control it.

His brain felt blurry. He threw her hand away hard enough to turn her. She recoiled from him silently, retreating towards the water and kneeling down, wrapping her whole body soundlessly around her hands. He waited for her to start sobbing, like she hadn’t pushed him and pushed him until...really... He waited. She would cry, and he would apologize, probably for the rest of the day, but at least she’d understand to just let it go .

She didn’t make a sound. She didn’t move. It was eerie.

He took a few steps towards her and she reached out one hand towards him, resting it on the floor, her face turned away. The air was thick with dire anticipation, like she expected him to step on her.

He closed his eyes, counting to ten. He’d let his feelings get away from him. And...he took a deep breath...it wasn’t a seizure. It wasn’t the soldat. That was just him, putting his hands on someone smaller, his friend, in anger. To the point that she was playing dead. Or something.

“Mantis?”

Her voice was soft and mechanical, “Yes.”

“What are you doing?”

“I do not understand how I hurt you.”

“Yeah. I know. I get that. It’s a lot to take in, and I was pushing you too hard again. Both of us. Maybe we can talk it over later. I got upset, but you didn’t hurt me. Did I hurt your hand?”

She sat up very slowly, moving her arm and palpating her wrist, “No.”

“Well I’m kinda tired of all this rest and relaxation, if you think you’re ok to climb some more. We’re almost out of this stupid pit, and I wouldn’t want to get out of here without you, even if I could,” she didn’t say anything for a beat and he added, “and I can’t.”

She picked herself up slowly, her posture compact,  “I can climb. We can go. You can make me understand later.”

He sighed, “I don’t think I can. I don’t even want you to. It doesn’t matter if you ever understand it. It’s not like I understand it well enough to explain, clearly. I got worked up, but I shouldn’t have put a hand on you like that. I’m glad you’re not hurt, but I’m sorry I scared you. It scares me too.”

Her antennae glowed fitfully as he spoke, showing her face, blankly uncomprehending, eyes shining, “You do not want me to understand?”

He shook his head. “I’d like to just forget the whole thing. If it's ok with you.”

Her antennae went dark, and she thanked him, quietly, on the edge of tears.

Chapter Text

Mantis pulled herself over the final edge, reaching down to take their makeshift rope of tubes, wires, and fabric strips from Jonkarter’s metal shoulder and haul their supplies up while he gained the top.

The top of the shaft opened into a wide square corridor off the ocular cavern they’d seen on their way down. The corridor cut straight through the stone into total darkness, heading towards, presumably, the other eye socket. The floor was painted with once-bright yellow chevrons pointing that direction, which all the passing mining drones seemed inclined to obey.

The robotic drones were the only traffic along the corridor; large heavily-weathered spheroids in industrial-hazard colors that whizzed weightlessly along, hugging the low ceiling. They carried underslung nets of mined materials in spindly pneumatic appendages, down the dark corridor to someplace else. The drones ignored them with a metropolitan indifference that suited the city noise filtering down from the cavern behind them. Their grimy headlights never even flicked towards the odd pair worming their way up from the dark shaft.

With the water noise of the well dampened by the edge, Mantis could hear the echoing bustle of Knowhere’s population. It was a slurry of machine noise, propulsion roars, and intermittent electrical whistles and whoops that seemed to pierce long distances. Underlying it all was a web of sound she hadn’t heard any hint of when she’d first arrived: a variety of claxons and sirens at all angles and distances.

For an irrational moment, she assumed their escape had been discovered and was about to be foiled, but quickly realized it was far more likely the city’s reaction to the earthquake and power outage. Jonkarter grunted as he finally put his metal hand over the top of the pit.

“Do not use the railing,” she warned, “It is loose.”

He planted both hands on the edge and pressed himself up, pitching over and collapsing on his back with a wet cough and a long groan, legs still dangling over the edge.

She did not ask if he was well. Solicitousness had seemed to stale in the last exhausting push, which had felt as long as the rest of the climb combined, the surfaces more deteriorated by frequent refits. Her concern for him had not lessened, but it had become evident that asking and answering were, under the circumstances, unnecessary expenditures, and a grim mutual determination had ruled their exchanges.

She reached over and rubbed his sweaty, stubbly scalp, relieved, and he squeezed her wrist appreciatively.

“What do we do now?”

He gave a fatalistic chuckle, “Give me a minute to think of something. I was so sure the climb would kill us I wasn't really thinking ahead.”

She pressed her lips together, opting not to remind him whose idea that had been or wonder whether his directives were affecting his judgement, “I think that we should try to make our way to the occipital port and this ‘hemianopsia’.”

Jonkarter nodded, not sitting up, “Or find a way to make our own arrangements, yeah,” he coughed again, turning his head away from her to spit.

“We should find you medical attention as well.”

He sighed, “Eventually. First thing, I guess, we need to figure out how we’re getting around. And we need disguises,” he glanced at her antennae and flexed his metal arm, “Tone down our defining traits. And if we’re trying to transact any business, we’ll need cover identities.”

“Cover identities?”

He nodded, “Easiest way to get caught when you’re on the run, besides looking too much like yourself, is for someone to overhear your name. If they set out a bounty, they’ll be looking for a girl with antennae named Mantis and a guy with a metal arm named Jonkarter, so we need something else to call each other,” he stirred with a groan, rolling to his side to push himself up, “but we might want to walk away from this spot a little before we settle in to brainstorm-”

Mantis nodded, “I think I saw someplace on our way down here. It should only be-”

Jonkarter’s breathing had shortened to tight swampy gasps. She left the packs and went to where he sat at the well’s edge, touching his arm lightly, “What is wrong? Is it your chest?”

He shook his head, his eyes fixed downwards, “Cliff...F-fall. S-seiz-” his voice clenched shut in his nose, his windpipe jerking against the apnea.

She pressed her fingers against his tense shoulder, “Lay back,” but he had already begun to tremble.  “No, you cannot pass out, I cannot carry you,” she put her hand on his forehead, drawing him back but feeling nothing helpful in her own emotions that she could give him, no calm, no safety, no certainty in anything, except perhaps…

She pressed his hand against the floor, pressing her other hand against his forehead, “You are on the ground. You are here with me,” she was pressing against a feeling of falling, wind whistling past and roaring like water, a cliff face whizzing by. She pressed his hand down as hard as she could, “You are holding on, with everything that you have,” she tried to hold the image of the fall, of white snow squalling around them, and crush it with everything she felt around her, the dark, the stone, the stillness, “You are here with me,” the image slowed but didn’t stop, she needed a larger feeling, but all she had was, “I need your help.”

Something in him responded, lashing out along the sinews of his arm like a thrown punch. His hand tightened under hers, sinking into the cliff-face in his mind, anchoring himself and rending it at the same time. The fear didn’t fade, but he fought back despite it, and slowly the image of falling lost its cohesion.

He slumped over groggily, and she did her best to haul him away from the edge, rolling him onto his side with his back to the pit. He pressed himself up with another wet, shallow cough and an easy smile, “Thanks.”

She felt giddy in her chest but scowled, “Do not be handsome at me. We need to go. Come on.”

He laughed, disobeying her first direction, but picked himself off the ground to follow the second. He carried the packs as she led the way.

The corridor opened from total dark into diffuse shadow at the lowest quarter of the ocular bowl. A walkway that attached to the tunnel’s end skirted the curved wall away in both directions, suspended just above an open wastewater aqueduct that was significantly wider. The duct received constant drainage from pipes that ran down the wall from above, and emptied just as constantly into the top of the well they’d just climbed.

She picked the direction against the flow of the pathway’s chevrons, towards the back of the bowl, as more mining drones sped the opposite direction above them. It felt like the walkway angled slightly uphill that way, but walking up a gentle incline felt like a kind of triumph after so much time spent fighting for every vertical inch.

Several stories above the flow of drones, platforms of buildings jutted into the open space like slanted metal overhangs, sheltering them from the vehicle traffic that could be heard even further above. Everything was as grey and loud as the pit they’d just climbed out of, and smelled metallic and greasy rather than clean; but somehow the strange city lights, evident life, and massive vista of stars just beyond them made the dark less oppressive.

Still, she began to get worried as the hike lengthened, the density of buildings and platforms jutting out above them at that depth making it hard to see too far along the bowed cavern wall. But she finally caught a glimpse of what she sought high above them, the massive circular opening at the back of the bowl, too large to entirely see from where they stood. It was large enough to let whole colony ships pass, and fountained white light into the cavern from inside the skull.

Mismatched layers of gracefully precarious rings braced a hole; mechanical mountings for old gates and defunct barriers, as well as sensor arrays and structural supports. And off to one side, hidden in plain sight by all the visual noise, one ring retained a sort of control-booth structure, well up the bowl’s slope from the aqueduct and seemingly unconnected to anything else. It barely seemed to exist among the larger-scale scaffolding, camouflaged by slashes of shadow from the bright lights angling through the irregular metal bands. It was just what they needed: easy to see but hard to notice. Forgotten.

When she had been much younger, she had sometimes gotten lost when Ego was distracted, and had slowly come to understand that he created blind spots, little afterthoughts, whenever he remade his world. Crevices where she, when she was not needed, could hide for a moment, where she could feel lost. Where she could pretend that she might not answer when called-for, even though she always did  She had developed such an eye for that sort of niche that they actually stood out to her.

She put her head close by Jonkarter’s to point it out to him, and he sighed, but nodded approval, “Yeah, that’s fair. You noticed that on the trip down here? Good eye.”

She smiled inwardly.

“I suppose the slope will make the climb a little easier than the last one,” he still sounded intensely weary, and clearly tried not to sound doubtful or pained.

But as she studied the floor and the curved wall littered with old marks and symbols and structural touches, several disparate ideas suddenly clicked into place, “Perhaps even easier than that. Look.”

He stared and squinted and shook his head, “What do you mean?”

“Well,” she pointed at a passing drone, “these machines are not using their propulsion engines to fight the gravity. Look,” she reached and grabbed hold of a passing net full of dark rocks. Instead of pulling her along the bulbous droid simply angled away from her, firing tiny blue jets at its sides to keep it level. The next drone bounced off it like a bumble-bee, correcting its own course carefully as the first droid bobbled to the floor.

Jonkarter moved and picked it up as easily as if it were made of paper, “It’s so light,” he rapped the hull with his metal knuckles, producing a dense clank, “But it’s got a solid metal shell. How-”

She took the drone and lofted it gently into the air, letting it float away like a balloon in a draft, sack of rocks and all.

He blinked at her blankly, “Sorry, I don’t-” he looked from the drones to the higher structures towards the top of the cavern, massive platforms jutting out at angles that seemed insupportable under towers that leaned like champagne glasses on a falling tray, suspended and sparkling securely, “Wait, gravity?” he looked at the pathway and the water, “That’s...why would there be…”

She beamed, “I think that they make gravity selectively, the same way Ego does, at least out here, and on a synthetic gradient somehow, indicated by the arrows, to make the water flow coherently. This facility processes many of the dead celestial’s fluids for sale, but lacks a centralized gravitational mass. I believe the walkways secure the water and, consequently, creatures composed mostly of water in a selective gravity-like force.”

He blinked slowly as she waited for him to catch up, “So...the drones aren’t flying, they’re floating. Because they're just metal.”

Mantis nodded, “They must have just enough fluid in them to keep them following the established gradient downstream. This pathway feels like it angles uphill because the fluids in our ears and joints tell us it is so, but I think there is no standardized gravity here,” she looked up through the dense forest of buildings, marveling, “Perhaps each platform provides its own. Perhaps in varying degrees to accommodate various bioforms,” she bit her lip. She wanted to go see, the reality of various bioforms fanning her curiosity.

“But if it’s artificial gravity, why didn’t we become weightless when the power went out?”

“I expect it is structural. An effect created passively by substances embedded in the stone. That is how Ego maintains a normative gravity on his small planet, by forming platforms of special minerals that affect gravity so that he need not concentrate so hard on reverse-levitating everything.”

Jonkarter nodded very slowly, “I guess it makes sense to run things as passively as possible on a remote place like this. Save fuel, save burning your atmosphere,” he shook his head, “But I don’t think I can throw you upwards hard enough to break you out of this walkway’s not-quite gravity. And even if I could, how would you steer?”

She pointed to a wide drain pipe that ran along the bow of the wall in shadow, its path hashed with faded downward chevrons. It passed maybe three body-lengths from the gateway’s scaffolding and their goal, “I think if we can get to that, we can walk up the wall.”

---

He eyed the eight-foot gap between the edge of the walkway and the wall, across the cold aqueduct and a span of open space, distrusting what Mantis claimed he was looking at. He’d read a lot of sci-fi, and had recently lived a fair bit, but he couldn’t quite get himself to believe that the narrow pipe made a usable pathway that would turn the world on its ear. His brain kept insisting that gravity was gravity, and that where he was standing was up and down, and across that jump was sideways. Mantis was insisting that, if they could jump far enough, that narrow strip of wall would behave like its own downwards. Maybe.

He wondered if they could risk interfering with another mining drone, stealing a couple sturdy nets, knowing he’d feel a lot better about taking the risk if they had better rope, “The rocks these things are hauling, do you suppose they’re valuable, or are they just mining waste?”

She shrugged, “I do not know much about what is valued. I could not guess. Why?”

He reached and plucked rock out of its net, hefting it near-weightlessly in his metal hand. A sudden realization made him laugh.

She smiled, “What is it?”

“I just realized. One of the reasons I feel so weak...my metal arm doesn’t weigh hardly anything here.”

She shook her head, puzzled.

“There are wires, all through my body, that monitor and stimulate my muscles to handle the weight of my arm. The thing is ridiculously heavy, but it’s wired into my sense of equilibrium and helps me correct for that automatically. Now, instead, my body is basically compensating for having no left arm at all, but keeping me balanced so I don’t notice the actual difference in weight, even though I’m passively weaker. That’s just-” he shrugged, “kind of funny. But then,” he squinted, “why isn’t your hair floating?”

“Most hair is at least one tenth water. Mine is more than that. And I expect most of the supplies have been designed or treated to function in the facility.”

“But then why didn’t my hair feel nearly weightless when I shaved it off?”

She cocked her head to one side, “Well-fed fleas are made of a lot of water.”

She smiled. He sighed, “But at least it makes more sense why someone would use the well as a prison, if it’s got structural gravity that works on creatures regardless of power supply. Like Alcatraz or something,” he caught her look, “A prison, where I’m from, surrounded by water with a dangerous undertow to prevent escape,” he grinned a little proudly, “but we made it.”

Mantis looked around doubtfully, “We have not escaped yet.”

He nodded, squeezing the rock in his metal hand until it crumbled, “Well, the rocks don’t seem to have anything unusual about them. It’s the same kind of rock as the corridor and the well, and I didn’t see any evidence of attempts to mine out the walls of those. I’m gonna bet that nobody carefully counts the slag output, and we might be able to steal a couple of these nets without them being missed. We could really use some better rope.”

Mantis looked doubtful, “I think that we can get by with what we have.”

He huffed, frowning, “Mantis, if you’re wrong about anything about the gravity and don’t have a safety line, you could fall a long way. If you end up dangling by that mess of rags and wire we used to haul the gear up, it’s gonna cut your hand open, at best.”

She winced and massaged her hand unconsciously, but she controlled her voice, “And if you are wrong and someone notices missing rocks our misdirection could be discovered and we will have climbed that pit for nothing.”

He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, “I don’t think I’m wrong.”

“Neither do I. But I think we should risk my hand before risking capture,” she glanced furtively away, “It is our best chance to escape.”

The words reverberated in his head. Escape. Yes. That was the most important thing. But he noticed her still fidgeting with her hands and sighed, “Well at least let me be the one to try the jump first,” he shrugged, “split the difference.”

She blinked, “How is that-”

He held up his hand, “I don’t think you’re wrong. The last terrible idea was mine, and you didn’t complain once, so, I owe you this. I believe you.”

She frowned, “It can be disorienting, when gravity changes.”

He nodded, “Well, I’ve gotta learn sometime,” It was what John Carter would do, after all.

He backed up as far as the walkway would let him, checking to make sure no drones were coming along to brain him with a sack of rocks. Mantis stood aside. He got two good running step and planted his foot on the low railing for a strong push-off. Whatever hold the walkway had on him began to pull him down without being able to pull him back, so even though he escaped the pull’s radius, he ended up vectoring weightlessly towards the wall at a much further “down” angle, just as “down” stopped seeming to mean anything in particular to his inner ear.

About five feet from where the drain pipe continued along the wall, “down” kicked back in, and he landed hard across the pipe with his sore chest, feeling something sharp jab into something soft in his side. He waited for a few breaths, carefully trying to determine if it was an emergency or not. When he didn’t begin suffocating on his own blood, he picked himself up carefully, looked “up”, at an angle, at the underside of the aqueduct.

His brain slipped sideways a little when he realized the underside of the aqueduct was an aqueduct as well, water coursing merrily in its assigned channel that just happened to be upside-down and above him. The chevrons under his feet and his inner ear insisted that walking up the curved wall back towards the level of the aqueduct was actually walking gently downhill.

The path itself wasn’t much of a path, with barely enough gravitational field width on either side of the pipe to let him put an awkward foot down. He was almost able to see the top of the aqueduct again when the sound of heavy boots froze him in his tracks. He trotted carefully back the way he’d come into deeper shadow.

He felt his brain slip sideways again as Mantis slid herself carefully over the edge of the aqueduct and pull herself “up” onto the upside-down edge to hide. He was a little gratified that as she stood up she glanced at the water and did a slight double-take before looking around and meeting his eyes, each of them looking “up” at the other.

There were rough, heavy voices he didn’t understand and couldn’t distinguish. Mantis pointed at her feet and held up three fingers, holding a hand over her head, palm towards herself, indicating that the three whatever-they-were were very large. She held her hands at hip level, palms curled up slightly, implying large weapons. He nodded and covered his mouth. She nodded back.

Whatever they were, they only paused for a moment before moving on. By the time they’d gotten the supplies flung across the gap, and Mantis had made the leap without injury, he was just about getting his head around the concept of selective gravity. It was still a good thing that the entire route was safely shrouded in shadows of buildings and scaffolds. He could accept the pipe’s path as a walkway, his brain insisting that the skull had rolled over on its side. But looking overhead, out across the city as they climbed the wall, with numerous bright ships and vehicles seeming to dive and ascend like barnstormers made him dizzy. It was good that he didn’t have to look out for anyone noticing them, because he doubted he could manage.

Preparing the leap from the pipe’s path to the much-larger-than-it-seemed-at-a-distance booth was a little more fraught. There were no gravity indicators visible to either of them, and no way to guess what kind of gravity might be involved, if any. Mantis had tried to give him a primer on all the possible types she knew about, but it wasn’t sticking very well. All they could see was that the booth was a simple box about the size of his living room growing up, with one square unglassed window facing towards them.

“Let me try this one first,” she put a hand on his arm, “your breath is sounding rough.”

“Hang on,” he coughed a couple times as quietly as he could, and spat as hard as he could toward the open hole. The glob floated straight until it crossed the opening, then turned and zipped towards the side closest to the center of the gate.

Mantis beamed at him like no girl ever had for spitting, “You are clever.”

He blushed, “I do ok sometimes. Don't want you making a blind leap.” Not that you haven't already, several times over, he thought.

Chapter Text

The defunct control room was an encouraging shambles. Anything useful to the inhabitants of Knowhere had been scavenged ages ago, and everything else had an even covering of dust, grit, and shadow. The hollow metallic shell of what had once been a standing bank of readout screens took up the center of the floor like a switchboard, with fixed bench seats and a narrow work surface for twelve. There was another stripped console built in under the window, and a door in the opposite wall.

Everything was bare metal and hard angles, offering no place to safely or gainfully sleep, but it was good enough for a chance to rest and take stock. Sharing an optimistic glance, they each took a place along a bench and began unwrapping their packs, laying things out to get organized and make a plan.

He did his best to concentrate, but the view, the only source of light, almost stopped his heart every time it caught his attention. With gravity re-adjusted towards the center of the gate, it felt like they were positioned at the top of the massive opening, looking over and through the tilted city and out into the cosmos. The alien starlight seemed to stare into him, to spotlight his feverish and cowardly homesickness for the life he’d had when home had meant one street, and the world had meant one city. It cut to the night he’d volunteered himself to be lost, to spare his men. Staring out a high grimy window at the stars, he’d mumbled his name, rank, and serial number even after the white-masked scientists had stopped pretending to question him while they filled his body with drugs and pain. He'd gone on mumbling it even after they'd stopped pretending he was present, and then even after he had stopped pretending that he was. James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. Three-two-five-five-seven-zero-three-eight.

He’d lost the number of the nights he’d spent that way since, the number of places he’d been shipped to, the number of unrelated rooms where he’d left breadcrumbs of his brain, blank rooms that globbed together into a sprawling mansion of nightmares, miles and miles of meandering distance in his dreams, parceled into sunless boxes. He’d been lost for so much longer than he’d been stranded in outer space. But looking out into it...

High edges sometimes gave him flashbacks of his own death; but those clouds of stars and darkly pearlescent gasses imposed an entirely different, and somehow more fearsome, kind of edge. He felt far too close to accepting that nothing belonged anywhere. In a space that size, nothing ever could. For all his searching there was no distance, no door, that would ever bring him home. Everything, everyone, everywhere was lost.

“Can you see your home?”

“Sorry, what?” It disturbed him how easily she could startle him when he was distracted, and doubted she even tried to.

Her face absorbed some of his concern, “I asked if you can see your home. Are you feeling unwell?”

He shook his head, backpedaling from his moment of emotional agoraphobia in an aimless babble, rubbing his eyes, “Yeah, no, yeah, I mean, I’m okay. But my home, no. I don’t think so. There are a lot of stars out there. More than I think I’ve ever seen in my life. So maybe. But I wouldn’t recognize it. I mean, we learned the night sky in scouts. The names of the stars,” he grinned sadly at whatever he was holding in his hand, not seeing it, “but if they’re out there, I don’t recognize them from behind.”

Mantis didn’t reply, looking out beside him.

He shook it off. He had to concentrate on the things they’d taken, figure out what they could use for trade or disguises. He tried to get into the work, “So you said Ego changes the gravity on his planet?”

She nodded, placing a handful of brightly colored marbles on a bunch in the cloth where they wouldn’t roll, “His planet is too small to retain a breathable atmosphere otherwise.”

“But if he does it structurally, does it go away when he leaves? Like all his other structures?”

Mantis nodded, giving a little shrug without looking at him, “It used to. He would shut me in before going away so I would not suffocate accidentally or become stranded away from the ground. But as the planet matured, gathered more materials, he learned to make some foundational things durable. He made himself a protective core, and a vaulted cave, and eventually a gravity platform, so I became able to stay on part of the surface, if I wanted.”

He frowned at a roll of plastic, “Why doesn’t he just take you with him? It seems like you would really enjoy…” he cut himself off, remembering how Mantis feared Ego knowing she had enjoyed anything, “like you could be a big help to him. You’re so clever.”

She shrugged, not seeming to have noticed either the slip or the compliment, “It is not my purpose. I cannot blend-in the way he does, cannot change my shape. I would only hinder his mission.”

She said it with the rote dispassion of a thing learned through unyielding repetition, a carefully curated lack of interest. Name. Rank. Serial number. He sighed, “Well, speaking of blending-in here, what have we got?”

She rubbed the unfolded sheeting of the packs between her fingertips, “I think that if we can consolidate everything into a single pack, we can use the rest of the fabric to make you a shirt and a hood. Carina’s heavy gloves ought to fit you. That should take care of your arm. As for me,” she looked up at her antennae, the feathery tips quivering, “I think that I can-” she took Carina’s goggles and slowly lowered them over her antennae, gently prodding and curling the slim stalks into the large eyeholes. She winced a few times, but the goggles made it onto her forehead, and didn’t look unusual.

“Is that ok?” he asked doubtfully, “That doesn’t hurt? I assumed those things were sensitive.”

“It feels odd. Like bending an ear down. I will wait and see if it worsens.”

“They look alright, but do they still work, curled up like that?”

She closed her eyes and there was a slight glow from under the lenses, “Well?”

He extended his hand along the desk, “They’re lighting up. But you should probably should test whether you can feel. You need to know your capabilities.”

She looked at him doubtfully, “What do you mean?”

“I mean see if you can read me when they’re covered like that.”

She shook her head, “No. I should not. You were right before.”

He sighed, ashamed “I wasn’t. I’m sorry I yelled at you. And for what I said. I don’t have an excuse. I wasn’t even angry at you I was just tired and embarrassed. I made you think that I was going to hurt you, and I almost did. You’re right not to trust me but-”

Mantis winced, ‘Please stop saying things. I do not understand what you mean and I can not make it better. We know we are not safe from each other,” she opened and closed her hands pensively, “but I think that we are still safer together.”

He nodded, “I agree. I mean, for what it’s worth, I would rather you hurt me as often as it takes in the name of getting us free than end up back with the people that are going to hurt us anyway,” he rubbed at the back of his neck, “but I’m still sorry.”

She looked at him seriously, “Can you accept that I feel the same way? I value your concern for my safety. More than I can express. But can you allow that I may be hurt by you, and still prefer that to the alternative? That it is what I would choose?”

He closed his eyes and nodded, “I can get there.”

She watched her steady hands as she cradled them close to her chest, “So I think we will just try our best, and not focus on the things we do not understand and can not fix about ourselves,” she glanced at him hopefully.

He nodded, turning his hand up, “Ok. So give it a try. I’ll try to think of something nice.”

She grimaced, “It is not about thinking.”

“I’ll try to feel something nice, then.”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded, picturing an ad-perfect bouquet of roses, velvet red, with jewels of dew shining on their leaves, their blooms smelling of syrupy summer, “Yeah.”

She sat by him, and her small hand slid into his. She winced, “There is pain in your side, and in your head, and you are thirsty. And your armor is hurting you again.”

He nodded, frowning, “Well yeah, that’s true. Are you getting anything other than sensations?”

“I think so. But I do not know how to say,” she slowly cocked her head to the side, goggles glowing brighter, “You feel the shape of one smile among the stars. All the stars,” her breath hitched, “And it makes you feel so...” she gestured furtively along the centerline of her throat and sternum, “...suffocating on too much air...like a…”

The flowers dropped from his mind and he squinted. She wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t mean he understood the thing she was feeling, “What?”

She snatched her hand away, shaking her head, carefully lifting the goggles off, “I do not know. I thought my lights were just so I could not use my abilities in secret. But perhaps these are having an effect.” She fidgeted with the goggles.

He shrugged, swallowed, unsettled by how quickly she retreated from his mood, “Hey, it’s ok. We all get our wires crossed sometimes. We’ll just try to avoid needing you to sense things, if it doesn’t get any easier. But we’ll also want to test if you can knock me out when you have those on, once we’re someplace safe to sleep.”

She sighed uneasily, “Yes. We will need to know that.”

He cleared his throat, moving on, “So what about your eyes?”

She blinked at him, gingerly smoothing her antennae, “What about my eyes?”

He tried to sound light, “Well, how can we disguise them? They’re kinda distinctive. I mean I don’t know much about all the different creatures in the universe, but just about everyone I’ve met so far with a flat face and language skills has eyes like mine, albeit in some pretty unusual colors. You look like your pupils take up most of your eye. I hadn’t seen that before I met you.”

She looked thoughtful, “Oh.”

He smiled, “It’s not a criticism, though. They’re really pretty. It’s just that pretty attracts attention, and we don’t want attention, right?”

She nodded, not seeming to hear the compliment as she looked at the small pile of supplies, “We will need to do something about your eyes as well, then. If pretty is a problem.”

He felt a blush creeping up his neck, “I’ll be wearing a hood, so…”

She nodded, thinking, still not looking at him.

He shrugged, “It’s probably fine. Forget I said anything. I mean, nobody has probably ever met every kind of person, right? If we’re too nondescript that might seem weird in a place like this,” he busied himself separating the sheets, trying to figure out how much fabric they could spare to hide him in.

“Jonkarter?”

He turned a flat disc over in his hand, “Yeah?”

“I feel so much sadness.”

He swallowed, trying to sound even, hoping he hadn’t infected her with his bullshit melancholy,  “Yeah?”

“I would like it if you would kiss me. It helps.”

He closed his eyes and bowed his head. God, she was so sweet. He cleared his throat, “That isn’t a good idea right now.”

“No?”

He sighed, “It’s just that we can’t stop here too long. It’s safe to catch our breath, but we need to get to someplace we can actually sleep before we get too tired. Sleep deprivation is poison to awareness and accuracy and a lot of other things we can’t do without right now,” stop babbling, Barnes, you’ve made your point, “And we need to scout the other side of that door. We need to get a feel for the local barter culture before we’re too desperate for food or supplies,” for once in your life just stop talking, “And kissing you, it-” he cleared his throat, “-it could easily take up a lot of time. Because of how much I like it.” He hazarded a glance at her and instantly regretted it.

Her eyes were wide and heart-meltingly hopeful, “You do?”

Instinct and habit pulled at his gut to treat her like a beautiful girl, a beautiful gift, to give her anything she wanted from him, to make her happy. It would feel so good. It would feel so normal. She was waiting so patiently for him to close that space. She was trying so hard not to hurt him, not to upset him, that it kept completely upending him.

“I really-” he stood up hastily, knocking against the console’s underside with a loud two-part bang, one that rocked the heavy shell back on its edge an inch, and one as it fell back into place.

He squinted. It had seemed welded to the floor. They traded looks that agreed, and she nodded agreement at the next natural thought, gathering their things off the desk into a hasty bundle. He braced and shoved, and the entire end of the console tipped back, bringing along the floor plate it was welded to. It revealed a shallow crawl-space underneath the room, a few broken brackets still bolted to the subfloor that probably once held bundled wiring. The dust was thick and unmarred, the air stirring slightly with a thin draft.

She glanced at him “I think that I can fit down there, to take a look.”

---

He had insisted that she wear the heavy apron, gloves, and goggles if she were going to lay in the dust on her belly. It made a certain sense, but it also made moving troublesome. She’d taken the goggles off her eyes and put them over her antennae again, so she could lift her head without rasping her feelers on the low ceiling. Light leaked in through cracked joints on the skullward-side of the space, shadows pooling in the corners. She caught a faint incongruent odor of home, but found only a few small bits of wrappers and lengths of optic wire as she moved towards the slivered light. Reaching the wall she aligned her sight with a crack that felt vertical to her ears, bringing the inner city right-ways-up to her eyes.

The city proper was brighter and bigger and deeper than the neighborhood in the eye socket, rank upon rank of spired towers and floating kiosks that projected from the same unseeable depth, each seeming to orient to the same selective “down”. Flying transports and bulbous manned mining pods wove as effortlessly as their drone counterparts among lights of every color and structures of every conceivable shape. For all she could see, there was no structure of any kind immediately on the other side of the wall, the door above as forgotten by the city as the room behind it.

She moved on and pulled herself around the perimeter of the crawl space. Approaching the final corner, something pale edged into view, mostly hidden behind something black. As her wide eyes adjusted more fully to the low light she recognized it, without alarm, as bone.

A petite, bipedal, and bilaterally symmetrical skeleton lay curled in the corner, dry and dusty, obscured by the bunches of an almost-invisible black sleeping mat. She peeled off a glove and gently stroked the large, flat-faced skull. It came away easily, the ligaments dust. There was no injury, no trauma obvious in the dark. Behind the mat, the arms cradled a small glass box with a brass bottom, open on one side and empty except for the husk of a cocoon that was ready to fall to powder.

She knew how long it took most creatures to decompose so completely in the absence of animals and weather, and suspected her new friend would have been dead of old age anyway if it had not died when it did. Still, death was such a shame. She touched the skull’s brow gently all the same, and stroked its brittle sutures. She let her lights flare, listening quietly as was her habit with her friends, her quiet acknowledgement that she would welcome them back if she could. But there was no more to feel from the empty skull than there would be from the empty cocoon.

“You are at peace,” she murmured, pushing gently into that silence from a peaceful place inside herself as her lights dimmed out again.

“Mantis? You ok down there?”

“I am fine. Someone left their things here.” She gathered the pile of bones into its shapeless and browned clothes, laying the bundle on the mat with the box and a small knapsack she found wedged behind. She worked her way back to the hatch, dragging the mat along incrementally.

She handed up the knapsack first, “I have not looked inside,” she picked up the box and the bones, settling on the edge of the shallow hole while Jonkarter sat down opposite to look in the bag, “There is a sleeping mat as well.”

He chuckled with disbelief, “Well that’s lucky.” He pulled out a finely woven net like the ones the mining drones carried, “Looks like someone had the same idea we did.”

Mantis nodded, “In more than one way,” she lowered the makeshift satchel to the floor, letting the skull peer at the room, and turned the glass box around in her hands, “I think they stole from the Collector.”

It pleased her that he regarded the bones with a certain solemnity rather than fear, quietly taking in the ramifications. He looked back at her face before responding, “Who were they, do you suppose?”

Mantis shrugged, “The remains are very old to have decomposed so thoroughly. There was no sign of injury or immolation, and it seems she was down there alone. Perhaps she became trapped.”

Jonkarter glanced at the black sleeping mat that was still in the hole, then at the box in Mantis’ hands, “Can’t be that old, though. That box and the mat look just like the same sort we left behind. And the net isn’t too different.”

Mantis shook her head, “Carina says that the technology the Collector uses is quite antique,” she shrugged, “As you can imagine, he does not throw things away, and he is very old.”

Jonkarter grimaced, “How old?”

“Very. Like the one who owned you, he is an Eternal. Some say they are as old as the Celestials. Some say older.”

Jonkarter looked away, out the window at the stars, and did not look back.

“Jonkarter?”

He didn’t say anything, but turned back to look at her, his eyes distant.

“What is wrong?”

He managed an apologetic half-smile, “Nothing,” he shook his head, “nothing new. Sorry. I’m being stupid.” He sighed, tightening his fingers on the sharp edge of the floor, “Been property for a long time. I feel...ashamed of that.”

Mantis’ chest ached with recognition, with a sensation of suffocating on too much air. She stood up quietly and walked across the mat to where he sat at the edge of the hole. She longed selflessly to comfort him, to drink in his longing and change it into comfort, whatever it was he lacked, and give it back to him. She longed selfishly for the comfort that would give her, to serve a simple purpose, to treat him like a creature that needed comfort like any other. It would feel so useful. So normal . But he wasn’t just any other creature. There were things he wanted that were dangerous to him, and things she wanted that were not safe.

Her thoughts whispered please let me… over and over as she took the grey sheet from his hand and spread it down over the black mat. She kept her antennae carefully dark, putting one hand on his cheek and sliding the other over his scalp, “You are tired. You can sleep here. I will help with your buckles. The climb was hard on your skin.”

He nodded, silent.

She stepped between his parted knees, kneeling down, carefully attending to the little metal fasteners before standing again, hauling the brittle hide off his shoulders. Though freshly chafed, the skin beneath was far more whole than it had been just a few work cycles previous, and his wounds no longer wept. He healed quickly. Just a few more sleeps, and he might lack any marks at all. She put the armor aside and he leaned heavily on his hands, head bowed, not looking at her.

She stroked his scalp again and he turned under her touch. He slowly uncurled, sat up straight, and his pretty eyes found hers. Reminding herself sternly that she was not helpless, that she was choosing, that it was not what he wanted, she bent her head down and to the side to silently offer, silently plead.

With a highly selective gravity he took her by the hip, lead her against him soundlessly. He met her lips, flooding her with relief that obliterated thought. His hand slid down her hip and her thigh flexed, fitting her to his lap as his other hand slid further around to embrace her. She rested her elbows on his broad shoulders, stroking his soft fuzzy scalp in a way that tipped his face up to hers, working their mouths more firmly together in a progression that neither resisted.

His hand slid down to the small of her back, holding her tight against him, his metal hand still holding tight to the edge. He leaned forward, bearing her down onto the mat in the crawl space with him, her hips touching down as he leaned forward over her, his weight significant and affirming but careful, almost tentative.

He slid his biological hand up under the hem of her thick top, taking her by what he had described as the handle of her weight. She had never had a hand on her skin like that before. Like with kissing, she’d studied many iterations of the mating urge, but the feel of her own still managed to confuse her. She felt hot inside, and her body ached with a desire to ache more. She wanted  to commune with his desires, reflect and amplify, feed her own urges to him and let him feel how his touch focused and pleased and tortured her. She wanted to press him away and press him inside, to hide from him inside his kisses.

“We shouldn’t do this,” he whispered, his thumb stroking ticklishly along her side, his metal arm bracing his weight above her.

She nodded, “We will not do anything,” and lapsed into another long cadence of breathing and kissing, working to keep it slow in the hopes that it wouldn’t stop.

His hand crept slowly higher under her clothes, “I don’t know what it would do, to either of us.”

She put a staying hand over his, reluctantly, “I will not do anything you do not want.”

He laughed a little breathlessly, nuzzling into her neck, “I wish that not wanting to were the problem. I wish the problem were that I was as afraid as I ought to be.”

She wanted, too. Too much. She didn’t fear it, but his body, hers, it was too new, he was still too ill. Her fingertips trembled over his cheek as his biological hand flexed on the rounded place where her waist became her hip, “We should stop?”

He nodded, bringing his hand off her side and putting hers against the side of his head, “Yeah.”

She kissed him deep and long, her lights flaring bright as she mournfully pressed a deep and primal urge upon him: Sleep.  

Chapter Text

“That is when I woke up and found they had tried to disable the lift,” Carina concluded, mincing carefully along as Tivan surveyed the corridor of silicate sentients in his collection. She wished for something to hide behind that wasn’t made of glass. She wished the soldier had done a better job of disabling the lift.

He idly drew his white glove along a surface, frowning, “What did they take?”

“Nothing of consequence. Just the supplies from the box.”

Tivan’s head ticked sideways, “Not the weapon?”

“No, Master.”

He pursed his lips at a creature that jutted and flared like a crystalized thunderstorm. He murmured, “And they let you live.”

“Yes, Master.”

His eyes rolled, “It was not a question. Did you damage either of them?”

Carina shook her head, “I fired above the soldier to try to warn him off. The glass absorbed my shots, but he broke through,” she fidgeted with the restless ball of glass in her hands, hoping Tivan would analyze its simple memory and confirm the basic shape of her story.

He nodded, murmuring again, “And they let you live.”

“Yes, Mas-” she cut herself off as he gave her a blandly derisive glance, “She stopped him. To protect him from being shot, I think.”

He frowned, meandering along again, “Did she perhaps suspect that your death would trigger an immediate alarm?”

Carina shook her head, “I do not think so.” She kept her mouth closed as Tivan regarded a box of floating grey glitter. She’d had no idea that her death might trigger an alarm, either, nor any notion of how. She fought the impulse to prod around the base of her skull for scars. When he did not speak she offered again, "I do not think they suspected that."

After another long silence, Tivan murmured, “Agreed. They disabled the lift. They abandoned a weapon the water would have ruined. This implies they do not know about their own implants.”

“Master?”

He glanced at her, “The soldier cannot tolerate the cold. They are both aware of it but still tried to make it seem like they went through the well. No. They most certainly climbed out. Relatively simple, though they can’t have gotten far.”

“Shall I take a scanner and retrieve them, Master?”

His chin shrugged up, “No. Activate a local bounty. Descriptions only. Alert the ports. They cannot escape, but they may try.”

Carina stayed very still, “I would welcome the chance to find them myself, Master.”

He spread his hands oddly, airily, “I am not displeased with you, Carina. But I still wonder: why let you live?”

She swallowed, her guts tightening at his potential meanings, “Perhaps it was an act of mercy, Master.”

Tivan quirked a rare smile, as if she had made a perverse joke, “I shall have to ask them. Go. Keep me apprised.”

“Yes, Master.” She fled.

---

Mantis was very tired. She’d made a short foray back to the underside of the aqueduct, tossing a cloth on a string up into the flow of water and hauling it back down, filling a plastic bag she’d made from adhesive plastic sheeting lined with cloth. She’d drunk her fill as well and returned, considered whether to wake him, but recalled that he’d been more tired than thirsty.

She sat in the hole beside him and sighed, lifting the goggles off and massaging her feelers as they straightened painfully. Sitting alone, watching him sleep, she became aware of her own feelings in ways she did not like. The air was cool but her skin was itchy and sticky. It had been too long since she was clean. And more than that, she felt ugly on the inside. Impatience and loneliness gnawed at her. Abandonment yawned around her like a space without direction. Even knowing it was not his fault, she wanted him to fix it somehow, and was almost angry that he hadn’t. She felt stupid. Nothing she wanted made any sense. She wanted to know why any creature would be created that could feel such stupid, unhelpful things.

She watched him breathe, and longed to touch him, but she did not believe her own assurances that she only wanted to feel whether he dreamed; that she would not look closely, would not try to understand more than she should, that she could surely exercise that degree of control under such unprecedented conditions. He was so beautiful asleep that it was all she could do not to shake him awake.

Her hand smoothed an antenna upwards again instead, and she reproached herself. Her own feelings were such a mess she would just make more nonsense misinterpretations about smiling stars and smothering air, most likely. She knelt up, leaned on the edge of the hole in the floor, and gazed at the empty eyes of the skull. She appreciated how they seemed to curve with pity at the upper edges.

“I feel so odd,” she intimated, falling into her old pattern of chatting with dead faces when she became too lonely, “I want to keep him from being enslaved again, but I feel as though I have only stolen him for myself.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him, the diffuse light just picking out his bowed contours as he breathed, “I think if it would not kill him I...I would have tried to make him think that he can not leave. To say ugly things that make him feel small, so that when I want things he will do them,” she looked back to the skull for reproach, “And I should tell him this, as I should tell him about his own bad thoughts that mean to harm him. If I am to help him become his own property, I should give him the warnings I would give his owner. Yes?”

The empty eyes seemed unconvinced.

Mantis nodded doubtfully, “Perhaps when he is stronger. We must trust each other. Until then I must try to be trustworthy.”

The skull listened patiently.

She sighed, “I know I cannot keep him. Ego is coming. I saw him. Like he is watching me somehow,” her eyes prickled with tears, “and he has seen that there are things that I want.” She winced, sniffling lightly, “I do not know if that is the worse thing. That Ego would be cruel to him because of what I want, or that I would. I suppose either way it is my fault.” She reached out a hand to stroke the skull’s wide orbitals, “Maybe if I can understand this feeling I can make it die. But I cannot understand it unless I ask him,” she glanced at Jonkarter, then at the sealed door, “or someone, I suppose.”

The skull's smile was kind.

“I am not thinking well. I should clean myself up,” she showed the skull the little three-fingered salute before picking up the damp cloth and climbing lightly from the hole.

---

He wandered aimlessly between rooms, bright white and cement grey and institutional beige. Tables with straps. Chairs with needles. He didn’t need to look. He knew them and he didn’t know them and it never changed. 

He just kept going. The flickering theater. The armory. The room with the door to the soldier, where the three imaginary record players hissed silently but would pull the door open if played. The soldier stalked along beside him behind a mirrored observation window to his left, watching him like a hungry dog, the star on his shoulder trickling red down his arm. He walked away, feeling that gaze on the back of his neck.

He kept trying to get back past the beginning. He never got back. Whenever he reached the beginning, the blue room pulled him up short. The first room. The one where he’d gotten lost. The one with a record player that hadn’t really been there but which he’d listened to anyway, playing it when he couldn’t stop reciting things he’d already stopped believing. James Barnes. Sergeant. Three-two-five-five-seven-zero-three-eight.

Logic said there was a way out of that room that didn’t lead into everything that happened after. If all the other rooms lead back to that one, then that one had to connect to the room that came before it as well, and he could go back there. Back before the first time he’d opened eyes that weren’t truly his own anymore. But in that room full of blue moonlight, he couldn’t move. He was somebody’s puppet, strings cut and strapped down, wooden affect and wobbling joints. Still, if he rolled his eyes back far enough, he could just see out a dingy window.

That far out in the mountains, with the base blacked out against night raids, the stars were brighter than Brooklyn, back when stars were just magical dots of light and not other places he would ever go. And Steve’s stupid song would come back to him... anything your heart desires ...so clear he knew there must be an impossible record player close by, and he would let himself drift, listening to a fantasy and mumbling a lie. When dawn came the pain would start again. The counting. The whir of that creepy machine. But at night, the stars sang.

He tried not to look at himself on that table, tried not to see the stupid bleary hope carved on that stupid bleary face, or the shape that suddenly blocked out the stars and brought them into the room.

It had been kind of funny, actually. Because damned if a beautiful blond in blue pajamas hadn’t shown up to tell him he could talk and move and walk. After months in the army, the blue fairy joke had even crossed his mind, but he’d been too busy trying to figure if he was dreaming to pick up the bullshit banner of boys being boys just then.

Fitting, though, since he wasn’t a real boy at that point. He should have realized that. Should have accepted it before riding onto that freightcar on a string. How could he even have thought he knew what was real anymore?

His own stupid hope crumbled as he watched the dream replay again. Steve helped him up, saving his life for a little while and dooming them all. "Leave me there, you dumb punk," he muttered, "Save yourself. Save everyone but me, for fuck's sake." He shook his head and turned to go. He knew there was no way out. That’s what he always found when he went back to that blue room, but he never remembered that until the end. The blue room’s only redeeming quality was that it wasn’t the red-

He pulled up short. There was someone in the hallway watching him. He’d seen her in a movie, read her in a sci fi novel. She watched him with an articulate pity that made him feel naked, like his sisters peeking in at him the first time he tried to shave. He opened his mouth to speak but she turned away and disappeared. He wanted her to come back, because needed to tell her to get out, to stay away.

He turned hurriedly through another room, irritated by the uncomfortable necessity of looking around himself, taking in details, trying to find her. The smell of burning hair. The sick he felt amidst the calm after the screaming. Fighting in the cage. The heartbeat of the firing range. The crack of bones. The eerie silence from the table as he did as he was told-

He turned through that bright white room and saw that mirror, that door, the soldier beyond for once not looking at him. She had gotten beyond the soundproof glass somehow, but the three buttons by the door, blue red and white, were untouched. The soldier was stalking her.

He knew the way that seething mind moved. Suspicious. Tactical. Deadly violence on a hair trigger. She wasn’t even watching, she was studying the white record player, the last in the line. Her antennae pricked to his approach before her ears. She straightened slowly, turning, calm, accustomed to dangerous animals. He wished for all the world that the soldier was the sort of beast that could see beauty, but he knew better. She didn’t flinch. She was too good to see evil. She touched his bare shoulder gently, but that brutal metal hand snaked around her throat, lifting her like she weighed nothing.

Her placatory expression barely wavered as she clasped helplessly at the metal wrist, her lights flaring brighter and brighter in a futile effort to reach some shred of humanity under that titanium shell.

Barely a foot away, he pounded silently on the glass with both fists, shrieking at himself not to watch it happen, shrieking at her not to make him. As her dark eyes began to go blank, he surrendered and looked away, gaze falling to the buttons by the door, the buttons that had never existed anywhere but in his head that controlled the recordings that never existed anywhere but in his head that controlled the soldier.

That would get his attention.

He didn’t want his attention.

He didn’t want any of it.

But he definitely didn’t want to feel the ping of neck bones cracking at the end of his metal arm.

He pounded the white button with his palm, the white needle falling onto the spinning disc in response.

The soldier dropped her, backing away, his catlike motions suddenly blundering him into the second player and then the third, needles jabbing down and becoming voices. The soldier knelt to the ground as the girl picked herself up off the floor. She stared at the record player, listening carefully. Carefully she lifted one needle, then the next, and finally the last. The soldier rose and stood right in her space again, and again she touched him, as if she hadn’t been just about to die. She spoke.

The soldier listened and turned to the window, those unremembering eyes drilling into his own, raising both hands to touch the glass where his did. The wintry unfeeling stare horrified him, but not as much as the dawning realization that the metal hand met his, as if the soldier’s right arm were metal, not the left.

But it was the left. His left. It was just a mirror. He was the only soldier.

He turned to the room behind him with wintry unremembering eyes: the woman, the players hissing silence, and the weight of what she wanted. She wanted him. He was ready to comply before he reached her, gripping and rending her clothes, grasping her and lifting her but not by her throat. She didn’t struggle. She had asked for this. It was what he was for, when she was his handler.

As he struggled to push his body inside hers, something pushed him out of his, and he found himself staring at the back of his own body, watching his own shoulders flex, the blades pressing back as his double pulled her against him and pressed her up against the white wall. 

Disoriented, he raised a hand to tap himself on the shoulder, but glass had materialized between them again and he could only watch. He moved to the side. He wanted to see her. She was so beautiful. He was so curious, and so concerned. He didn’t want it to hurt her. He wanted to know how to make love to her, what she had asked for. The glass between him and them curved like a specimen jar, and he met a glass barrier on either side as he tried to move around, like a man stuck in a revolving door that pivoted with the jar.

Slowly the soldier sank to the floor, the girl in his lap, his frenzied thrusting confounded and finding no entry. She kissed him deeply and patiently, her little lights flaring. She worked her body slowly open against his as he sat and gasped. He watched from outside himself, feeling a detached sort of pity for them mingled with his consternation and aroused envy. Her lights were glowing, and he could see that each felt what the other’s body felt, but they were not together, connected but not communicating, acting but not contributing. When she shifted sharply and took him inside they both winced with pain, her lights bright, and he hastily unseated her from upon him.

He didn’t see precisely what they did next because another flare of light caught his eye from the far side of the jar. In the dark, clothed, and watching with a curiosity that matched his own, stood a double of the girl. Or more accurately, it was her, watching his double and hers struggling too intently with the painful complexities of inter-species penetration. His gaze attracted hers and she blushed brightly as she met it, her lips trembling and parting numbly as if to offer an apology. His own blush must have been as bright. He tried to move to her, to reassure her, but the glass panels of the revolving door separated them with a full quadrant of space between them on either side.

She swallowed, studying him, far more fascinated by him than the erotic misadventures separating them. She rested her hand carefully on one of the glass panes between her and the empty quadrant. Her lights flared, and she smiled as a hole opened that she could move through.

She came closer and studied him. He knew her. She was sweet and gentle and he trusted her. He knew they were both stupid and naive, but if she would let him he would like to spend a week making love to her, figuring themselves out. He knew he could do worlds better than the idiot mandroid trying to fuck her like she was his own hand. He could make her comfortable. He could make her feel beautiful. He touched the glass encouragingly and she put her hand up to his.

Her lights flared as before, but her smile contorted in sudden pain as the intelligent glass shot spikes into her flesh. It flensed her arm with brutal efficiency, revealing a limb of cold segmented titanium that echoed his. She flinched away and disappeared, leaving only him, and the naked soldier sitting in the bottom of the specimen jar like a broken puppet.

--

He opened his eyes in the dark, feeling her warm beside him in the ubiquitous cool of Knowhere. Her antennae flickered as fitfully as the city lights outside, and her eyes darted beneath their lids. Her neck was resting over his arm, her right hand twitching over his heart. He bent his arm around her and realized with a blush that she wasn’t wearing her shirt. He kissed her beside her nose, as it was the spot he could reach, and whispered, “Mantis, it’s ok.”

She only whimpered, memories of the bizarre nightmare recurring to him as she flickered. He lifted her hand from his chest as gently as he could, and she turned away, her soft warmth even harder to give up willingly than a hot shower. He rolled towards her back, spooning in behind her with his legs bent to keep parts of himself from getting too involved. He carefully matched his fingertips to hers, feeling peaceful and safe, and then heartened as her lights flared and she seemed to calm, snuggling back against his chest with her arms crossed over her own.

He silently shouted down the wheedling argument that maybe the vanishing dream wasn’t just a dream, that she might want him to wake her with touching, that she meant to let him explore the soft skin of her shoulders and breasts as they offered themselves to his lips and fingers. She had taken off her top and lain herself beside him, after all. But then, he hadn’t really explained about which body parts were considered erotic, and that her top and his were not equivalent in that regard. Even if it had been an offer, his body was still twice as weak as his spirit was willing. It only took a few minutes, after wrapping his forearms over hers, to fall back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mantis drifted slowly awake, but lingered in a sleep-like torpor, tangled in the dream that had spun off too far. Her physical awareness of sleeping in a subfloor mingled with her sense of being stuck in a between-place of sleep, and ideas lanced in and drifted away like city lights through cracked walls. She’d dreamed nine strange words that meant “longing”, “rusted”, and so on. The sounds of them had become meanings, language. Threat. She would remember them. They summoned the soldier, because only the soldier could stop them. It was a deep secret, known only to those who had hurt him, and knowing it shamed her.

She had intruded again, as she had with Carina and with “taking care of business”. She was coming to understand that it wasn’t just rudeness, wasn’t just carelessness. It had become increasingly evident to her, as they fled, that people had a right to their private things, a need for them. But in her thirst for closeness she kept ignoring the safety and modesty of those she longed to know. It wasn’t right. It was hurtful. She was hurting people.

She didn’t mean to. At most, she only wanted a simple answer to a simple question. She wanted to know if he was going to disappear back into the stars he came from, like a fanciful shape drawn in sand and shaken apart in a moment without question or warning. She wanted one simple answer, but kept coming away with fistfuls of shapes and sensations that defied yes or no, all of it precious and all of it making the original question more pressing. It was difficult. It was confusing.

He had known that. He knew about difficulties between people, confusions, and rules that helped. He had wanted to take turns sleeping. Perhaps he had understood things about her she had not. The thought made her want to flee and hide, but he had not fled her. Perhaps it was not so bad. Or perhaps he was over-accustomed to violation and betrayal. That thought turned its gritty heel in her gut, bending her around it where she lay.

She wished she were strong enough, despite the climb and the exhaustion, to move away from him and wait her turn to sleep, to avoid sleepwalking through his feelings, but the mat was soft and his arm around her was warm and heavy. Her skin was mostly-clean and her brain was raw and foggy, uninterested in her ethical feelings.

She eventually slept again, but woke twice to shaking.

The first time he’d made stifled sounds of frustration, and sent skitters of emotion through her skin. His chest against her back was warm and prickling with fear and suppressed violence, his heart shaking the bars of his ribcage. She’d shared her calm with him, half asleep, the sensation of being close to someone protective, someone trusted. He had quieted, sighing with relief. She had given him the contentment of that as well, the feeling of doing something good for someone who deserved good. A satisfaction of purpose.

He had pulled her back tight against him as he sank deeper than dreams reached, and she felt a sort of belonging in the way their knees bent together, how his arm fit under hers around her middle, how his nose nestled on her ear and the sweep of his breath conformed to the length of her neck. His cheek scratched at her ear, sending mysterious and expectant tingles down her limbs to her digits. His hair was growing quickly. He was getting stronger. She let his peace drag her down in kind.

The second time the shaking was harder, and happened faster than she could perceive it as she woke. She was bowled over as he lunged and reached, objects falling close around her, and finally a thick thud as a lid closed over them.

Snug beside her again, he put a hand over her mouth and said against her ear, “Someone’s coming,” the words more motion than sound. She nodded and pushed his hand away, listening with him.

Three sets of boots landed heavily on the thick floor above, shaking little specks into the air around them. Low rough voices spoke a language she knew, though it was hard to catch more than the tone and the occasional word.

Jonkarter heard them too, looking from her to above and back as their eyes slowly adjusted to the deeper dark. With that same unbreathed whisper he asked, “Can you under-” and she nodded, putting fingers over his lips to listen.

They were the three from before on the aqueduct. She had not seen them well, just that they were large and armed, speaking a kree dialect unsuited to their toothy mouths, their syntax strung together with growls. Probably a bio-engineered kree combat-type. Slaves.

The largest one strode around the perimeter, knocking at walls. There was a kick and a clatter of bones across the floor, and she caught a laugh and the words for “the signal” and “wrong bounty” in a longer sentence. A second voice responded more lightly, words that meant “at least” and “sell”, followed by some shuffling and gathering. A reply, and the only word she could pick out was not language: “Carina”.

The third voice was higher and clearer, penetrating, lighter footsteps crossing to the door that wrenched open with a clatter of gears and a loud metallic crack, “...assume they’re further in by now.” Some words were lost out the door and trampled under footsteps headed that direction, but the last thing before the hiss of aero rigs carried the bounty hunters away was, “...our head-start.”

The door slammed and all was silence again. They waited a long time, just in case, and she automatically stroked his short hair to soothe him, calming herself by proxy, strange dreams forgotten. He lay his head on her shoulder, pleasantly heavy.

He murmured, “It’s going to take some leverage for me to get the floor open again. You might have to move over.”

She nodded, smoothing his hair behind his ear, “Not yet.”

He cleared his throat, “Do you think they’re coming back?”

“No. I think they are not. But I am not ready to be awake.”

He gave a laugh and shifted awkwardly in the small space to try and get an elbow under himself. The stubble of his cheek grazed along her shoulder and neck and she caught her breath, a sensation oddly pleasant and intensely specific. She touched his cheek, “Your hair grows fast.”

He shifted and his fingers examined his cheek alongside hers, “Yeah.”

“I like it.”

“Yeah? It’s like my dad’s. I think,” He tried to shake his head as he shifted and ended up bumping it on the ceiling, “Gah. Here, let me just get this ceiling off our backs. You’re sure they’re not coming back?”

She nodded, not moving, “They assumed our evidences belonged to our dead friend, I think. They concluded that we are already in the city.”

He arched and pressed his back experimentally against the ceiling, too close to the hinge to budge it, and relaxed, “Are you sure they were looking for us? I doubt this place has a shortage of fugitives.”

Mantis sighed, knowing she was about to upset him, “They said Carina’s name. It is possible they are looking for her. But they also mentioned having a head start. I expect she has had to put a bounty on us.”

He sighed, rolled onto his back, and stared at nothing, “That didn’t take long.” He made a bitter noise through his teeth, “I knew I should have shattered the catches and just dropped that whole lift into the water.”

“I think that those hunters followed a signal to find us. I expect they attributed that to the skeleton, too.”

He scrubbed at his scalp with stiff fingers, “And I should have assumed we were tagged. Dammit. I’m stupid. So Carina got out of the well just as soon as she woke up, and put out a bounty to keep up appearances. But she hired some thugs of her own to find us first, and gave them a way to track us.”

She brightened with a pleasant realization, “But that means they will want to help us to get off Knowhere.”

He looked at her like she had spoken in Shrike, “I seriously doubt that.”

“But if they work for Carina-”

His tone darkened, “Carina made it pretty clear that her only concern in freeing us was to keep you from talking to the Collector. She couldn’t kill you outright without suspicion, but now that we’re loose-”

The idea hit her like a bullet between the eyes, and her expression crumbled, “You think she would have us killed? To prevent us being captured?”

“You tell me. How bad is the thing you’ve got over her?”

Mantis swallowed. She had promised not to tell, but if Carina was trying to murder her because she didn’t believe she would keep her promise, did it even count? Friendships were confusing. “Carina is kree.”

“I- what? I don’t know what that means. Kree like that Yondu guy?”

Mantis nodded, “She does not look like she is kree. The Collector thinks she is krylorian. She is a spy. I saw that in her feelings when I first came here. She reports on him to her kree masters.”

“So perhaps those hunters work for the same masters as her, to keep her from being compromised.”

Mantis shrugged and nodded, “They were speaking kree.”

“If the Collector knew she was spying on him for the kree, would he kill her?”

Mantis shook her head, “worse.”

He sighed, “There’s always a worse, isn’t there.”

Mantis nodded, “He has a device, a box, for creatures that are too strong to submit to memetic stasis. He separates them.”

“From what?”

She shook her head, “He just separates them. From themselves. So they become-”

“Compliant?”

She nodded.

He made a grim sound, looking aside, “Yeah, then I’m pretty sure her hunters aren’t out to help us.”

Mantis felt hurt, “I do not think she would-” she sounded naive even to herself, “I know that she hates me, but-”

His frown was apologetic, “People do all kinds of terrible stuff to save their own skins from worse-than-death. I doubt it’s anything personal.”

Mantis nodded, pensive. She had threatened Carina, after all. She hadn’t meant it, but it had been a terrible thing to do to save her own skin. And his. She had frightened Carina, and it had felt awful, and the price was apparently going to be awful too. “I do not think she wanted to do this.”

Jonkarter grunted, turning over on his stomach, “She can join the club. Move over.”

She wasn’t listening, “But it is my fault. That I know things that could-” something clicked into place, “-could doom her to compliance if the Collector got hold of me,” she swallowed. Longing. Rusted. “You are right. It makes sense for anyone in that position to want me dead.”

He sighed, not listening, trying to change the subject, “Look, if you’re not going to move,” he shifted, half-climbing over her, squeezing his upper body between hers and the ceiling, planting his hands, “I’m just gonna have to work around you, because we need to keep going.”

He pressed himself up, arching, opening a trembling inch of space between them as he heaved the limits of their confinement aside. She wasn’t even trying to feel his feelings, but they were becoming familiar. She knew his moods without meaning to know them. Just then, he was trying to distract her from feeling sad. He was uncomfortable in small spaces and trying not to show it. He was anxious of touching her, but also wanted to. Without even trying, without knowing how, even without light, she kept stealing private things that he felt and didn’t say. Complicated things. Unprecedented things. What was wrong with her?

The ceiling popped open and he knelt up, overbalancing his burden with a hearty thump. He stretched, “That’s better.”

She felt cold and self-conscious. The shower of diffuse starlight seemed awkwardly bright after the dark. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched him breathe, pleased with himself after his show of strength to free them. Her gentle Jonkarter could probably tear her in half without effort. That did not bother her; it was true of most creatures she befriended. But he was the only one that had ever feared to do it. And if she was not more careful, it might be a choice he would be faced with, to save his own skin from worse-than-death.

He began to lower himself down again, but his face changed like shifting sand when he saw her worry and her crossed arms. He glanced away across the larger room and sighed, “It looks like they took everything. I grabbed what I could reach, but most of the supplies we had for barter were on the desk,” he reached and picked up the skull, “they left your friend, though.”

Mantis rolled over and sat up, picking up her undershirt and the bag of water from beside the mat, “There is water, if you are thirsty.”

“Yeah, thanks,” he sighed with disbelief and gratitude, taking a quick drink and almost choking, “oh, you’re a lifesaver.”

She smiled, turning her back and shaking the grit from her shirt before pulling it on.

He drank deep and wiped his mouth with a sigh, “I was able to grab the knapsack. So we’ve got that, and rope. We’ve got the mat and the sheet, that will make sleep a little more accessible anywhere we can find cover. And Carina’s protective gear. So we can probably make passable disguises. We’ve just got nothing spare to sell.”

Mantis felt around, “We also have this,” she turned on the laser-comb, which blazed to life with a hiss that made him jump.

“Jesus why-” he took a breath, shaking his head, “well I guess that’s lucky.”

She nodded, “I was thinking I would cut my hair after I washed, but I did not want to wake you. And I was tired. I know you wanted to take turns sleeping but-”

He shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly, “It’s fine. No harm done for two trustworthy and reverent scouts, right?”

She smiled, nodding. It was hard to stay afraid around him. “It is lucky that you heard them coming.”

He winced, his fingers travelling up over the back of his head, searching, “More than luck. There was this ping in my head that was almost vibrating my fillings. It woke me up, and I was already moving when it did. I think my tech was picking up on whatever signal they sent out to track- yeah, ow, there’s the spot,” his hand stopped, fingers pressed to a point just below the convexity of the back of his bowed head, “it’s under the skin. Like a disk.”

Mantis nodded thoughtfully, picking up the bare skull and turning it over in her hands, “Like this one?” she showed him the pale metal circle, like a thumbprint, barely visible on the white bone.

He sighed, “Yeah, probably. Good thing the Collector likes his antique tech, huh?”

"How do we get them out?”

“Not sure. Here, let me see,” he took skull gingerly, “I gotta assume they’re not real complicated if the hunters can’t tell the difference between two live signals and one dead one,” he dug at the bone around the embedded disk with his thumbnail, “This one had a long time for the bone to grow around it, though. The metal has a texture. Ours might be looser. We- Shit-”

His metal grip slipped on the smooth bone and the skull fell to the floor before he could catch it, cracking into several pieces along its natural suture lines without disturbing the tracking implant. He sighed, “Yeah, that’s really in there,” he glanced at her, “Sorry.”

“Why?”

“Well, your friend.”

She palmed the rounded shard of forehead like a bowl, “I do not think they felt it. But it gives me an idea.”

Chapter Text

“It will be the best way to keep you covered,” Mantis urged.

“I don’t know.”

“We do not have enough wire to stitch proper sleeves, and as you say, wrappings would be difficult and uncertain.”

He gave a resigned groan. In all the science fiction adventures he’d ever read, he didn’t recall any arguments about pants. He wondered if he was just special that way. But it had already been a long struggle against limited resources to jigsaw together disguises for them both, and he knew she was right. He just wanted to keep his pants, was all.

Mantis continued with supreme patience, “You can keep the upper part, we just need the legs. It will be much easier to move without revealing your arm if you have real sleeves.”

“And draftier,” he grumbled, mostly to himself.

She gave a conciliatory sigh, “It will only be for a work cycle or two, I expect, even if we do not find any transport faster than walking.”

“Yeah but I can’t exactly re-attach them after.”

Mantis fell silent, gently laying aside the piece of bone she’d been working on. She folded her arms on the desk, lowered her head to rest on them, and stayed very still, her face hidden.

It startled him, “M-Mantis?”

She lifted her head just enough to show she was listening.

“Sorry. Did I say something wrong?”

“I can not think of anything else,” she sounded miserable.

“Hey, it’ll be fine. I didn’t realize I was actually wearing you down. I'm sorry. I know you’re doing your best, and you are right. I’ll do it, I just...needed to complain a little.”

She sat up and peered at him, “You need to complain?”

“Kinda. Not really, just, when things aren’t going so great it feels good to at least be able to say so. Problems feel worse when they’ve got you all to themselves, you know?”

“No. But I believe you.”

“You should try it sometime. I’m a good listener.” He went to the other side of the stripped databank for modesty’s sake and began shucking off his pants, “When I’m not being an idiot, anyway.”

She sighed, probably confused, going back to her own project, “What makes a good listener?”

“Well,” he lay his pants on the desk and turned the laser cutter on with a wince, “just being willing to hear problems and care about feelings. But I don’t have to tell you, you’re already a great listener.”

She brightened, “I am?”

He nodded, cutting a french curve into the severed legs to make passable sleeves that would cover his entire shoulder, “Thing is, when you’re a good listener, lots of people are going to tell you their problems. For a lot of people that’s all they really want, for someone to hear them and care. Of course when you care, it’s hard not to want to fix it, or try to tell them how, try to be the hero, but that’s not really what most people need. And trying to fix everything gets exhausting,” he shrugged, cutting slits for straps, “I probably could have been clearer that I was just complaining. Sorry about that. Can you hand me the adhesive?”

They had trimmed as much of the bioadhesive plastic from the water pouch as they dared, making strips that created passable stitching on leather. Everything else had to be tied, tucked, or reverse-engineered from existing garments with bits of belting and optical wire scraps. Still, between Mantis’ fertile imagination and the skills he’d learned watching his mom make clothes, things were turning out mostly-passable.    

He put the mutilated remains of his pants back on, grateful that the toga-ish cloak-like thing they’d devised mostly covered his thighs, and that the black arena boots he’d picked up on Sakaar came up almost to his knees.

“What do you think?” Mantis asked.

He shrugged into his new set of sleeves, buckling them on across his chest, “Well, like I said before, I’m a pretty vain guy, and my legs apparently haven't seen the sun in-” he glanced at her, “SweetMaryMotherof-”

Mantis grinned back, the upper half of her face hidden behind a mask made from the facial bones of their friend’s skull, hung from the goggles on her forehead by careful wire stitches. She’d managed to grind some greasy dirt into the deep contours, and her own dark eyes were lost in the hollow sockets, “It is effective?”

“Well, I didn’t recognize you, and I’m talking to you so, yeah. You look like a maniac. Are you sure that won’t attract more attention than it deflects, though?”

She frowned, “I am unsure, but I have seen ravagers wear much worse. This at least has all the flesh removed.”

His head nodded up and down, but his eyebrows stayed up, “Probably just the right amount of maniac, then.”

She lifted the goggles off, wincing, “Will you help me with my hair?”

He nodded, rubbing his own scruffy scalp as he moved back around to behind where she sat, “Not sure why you’d want me to though.”

“You have had practice.”

He nodded, testing the sleeves again as he moved his arms to bring a handful of dark hair away from the side of her head, cutting it short as a precursor to shaving the sides, “And hey, it'll be a chance for you to practice complaining. You’ll need that for when we get back to New York.”

She smiled, “I like the way you say that.”

His heart fluttered and he cleared his throat, “So this skull-faced ravager maniac you’re inventing. What should her name be?”

“Not a ravager. They all know one another. It would attract trouble.”

“Freelance maniac, then.”

She frowned, fingering the bony face in her hands, “I do not know many names. None that I have any right to use. What is a good maniac name?”

“I don’t know many maniacs. None I care to remember, anyway. I know some tough women though. How do you feel about the name Margaret?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s the name of the fiercest woman on earth, since Sarah Rogers passed away. Everyone calls her Peggy. Or Agent Carter.”

“Ajentkarter? That is a lot of names.”

“Ok, well...how...how about Dejah?” he blushed to suggest it and so, as usual, kept talking, determined to hang himself, “She’s just a character in a book. She’s a princess of mars who meets a soldier from earth.”

“Mars?”

“It’s what we call the planet that’s next to ours in our star system. Ancient humans named it for a god of war. I mean, I say ‘next to’ but it’s so far away it just looks like a red star.”

“And she gets to go to earth?”

“No, neither civilization is able to bridge the distance.”

“Then how do they meet?”

“Well, he dies, sort of, and he gets drawn to her planet, where he’s a lot stronger than most other people because of the different gravity. They meet because they’re both taken prisoner by the same group of martians. He falls in love with her-”

“Why?”

“I- I don’t know. He gives a lot of reasons. She reminds him of home when he’s been a prisoner for a long time. She’s smart and beautiful and valiant. He happens to touch her shoulder and her skin...it just feels like love, to him. So he falls in love with her and they decide to escape.”

“And her name is Dejah?”

“Yeah.”

She said it again slowly. Then, “What is the soldier’s name?”

He blushed, busily slicing off hair, “I- I don‘t remember. The book is called A Princess of Mars, anyway. He just protects her,” he gave a hesitant shrug, “sometimes by jumping, but mostly by killing people, now that I think about it, so that’s not great. But she’s heroic. She got captured in the first place because she was out trying to find ways to save mars.”

“Oh. What happens at the end?”

“Well, he ends up being sent home unwillingly. Without her.”

“Oh.”

“But he comes back in the next story. After ten years.” He lifted the hair off the back of her neck, gingerly checking the small wound where he’d cut out her tracker, careful to leave enough length to keep it hidden.

When he released her hair she shook her head, “I do not want to be Dejah,” her tone lightened and she added, “I do not think my maniac is a peaceful hero.”

He smiled, equal parts disappointed and relieved, “Ok. Well, what do you think of the name Jane?”

“J-ain,” she was quiet, as if letting the sound sit in her ear, “It does sound strong.”

He nodded, “She mostly does whatever she wants, in the movies anyway. And like Dejah, she spends a lot of time with a guy who never seems to wear any pants.”

Mantis grinned, “Jain seems good. What about you?”

He finished shearing the sides short and worked on shortening the rest a couple of inches, the smell of burning hair starting to get thick, “Aren’t there any names at all that you like?”

She shrugged, “There are words that I like.”

“Like what?”

“Tulip. Pelican. Harbor. Bauble. Ignition. Missouri.”

He put down the laser and started a pair tight french braids along the borders of the shaved hair, “Missouri’s a name. Sort of. That’s not terrible.”

“It does sound a lot like ‘misery’, though.”

“Well, he’s Jain’s prisoner, right? She’s a real terror.”

She nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I do not think it is his real name, just the one she knows.”

He finished and took a step back, unsettled by her imaginative certainty, “That should do it.”

She reached up and felt the bare sides of her head, up to the border of bumping knots along an uneven mane, “So strange.”

“Part of the point, right?”

She nodded, looking to his expression as the only available mirror, “I like it,” she picked up his altered armor, easing it onto her shoulders. They’d cut the front and back panels narrower to fit her, leaving the stiff shoulders wide to obscure her silhouette, lacing the cut edges together with strands of rope. He gave her a significant smirk as he helped buckle on the bracers he'd made from the cut scraps, and she blushed and grinned.

They’d padded the heels inside her shoes to give her a couple more inches of height, and by the time she put on her mask, secured with the goggle strap and an extra line strung with small bones around the crown of her head, he had to admit he couldn’t see a trace of the mild-mannered Mantis underneath.

He wrapped the laser comb’s handle in leather scrap and hung it at her side, hoping it would serve as a nasty-enough surprise for anyone that made a lunge at her.

The gloves went on over the ends of his sleeves, and the severed and contoured pillow of the sleeping mat went up on his shoulders, creating a menacing hunch when it was covered. They made a short robe by binding and belting the bedsheet around him with strips made from the heavy apron, crossing over his chest and back like a harness. He’d tapped into his muscle-memory of knot-tying in scouts to make a rope collar and manacles that looked deceptively severe and binding. The hood of the sheet, overlaid with apron, hung low over his face, and he hunched up his shoulders to encourage the illusion of a hulking brute.

The last piece of his costume tickled at his awareness at the back of his neck as he tucked the other two trackers, one still embedded in a bulge of dried bone, into the knapsack with the remaining rope and water, binding the compressed sleeping mat on top. It had been a difficult decision, and an arduous argument, to insist that it would be better if his tracker stayed in place. It could help the illusion that he was a prisoner, he'd argued, and that she wasn’t. They’d seen that it could alert him if someone nearby was trying to track them. And if he were captured, it would help the illusion that they hadn't discovered the devices, and anyone looking for her would follow a tracking signal...and they would have two of those to play with for misdirection.

Besides, he’d reasoned, his means of disabling opponents didn’t change if they were looking right at him, whereas hers heavily favored stealth and surprise. She was also the one that could open the Collector’s boxes and could speak more of the local languages. If one of them had to get caught, she was the one most likely to be able to get the other free. She’d agreed, reluctantly.

What he hadn’t said was that if they got separated, he knew how to fight multiple opponents and kill pursuers at a distance. He also wasn’t the one that Carina wanted dead, or that the Collector wanted to interrogate. He was doubtless worth more alive and healthy. For her, it would depend on who was hunting. He couldn't bring himself to gamble with that, even if the odds had been far better than they were. In ways that went beyond reason and would cost him too much to fight, he needed her to be safe. Or at least as safe as he could make her.

She finished fiddling with his collar, smoothing his monster costume with the radiant fondness of wife straightening her husband's tie, “So, Missouri, how do we get into the city?”

“Well, Jain,” he sighed, “I have this ugly suspicion that we’re going to have to jump.”

Chapter Text

Mantis tried the metal door in the mottled natural wall. The latch clunked open without much protest, and she peeped out at the sideways skyline, head tilted. Compared to the borough of the eye socket, the colors inside the skull were brighter, the shadows deeper, the shapes stranger, and everything in the lopsided, top-heavy metropolis seemed to move more quickly. Each structure presented outlines alternately bulbous, jutting, and frail; and, everywhere, bright windows and streetlights winked like flecks of mica in granite, highlighting the size and distance of it all.

The space was so large that weather patterns of clouds and mist collected high in the cranial vault, lit to a grey glow by the long limbs of odd buildings that just kept going up until they disappeared. Tiers of ducts and scaffolding doubled as walkways, strung between structures that acreted like stalactites and sprawled like chandeliers. Drones, transports, and small space-faring vessels slung past in the middle distance, disappearing between the interlinked buildings like iridescent minnows among giant reeds.

Her pulse raced with the prospect of going in among such a vivid churn of freely interacting beings, but as she studied the problem of getting there, her heart sank. There was a half mile of open air between where she stood and the first true rank of buildings, presumably to give incoming vessels some small space to find their level and merge with the aggressive arial traffic. A few smaller structures intervened like foothills, but none were tall enough to safely jump to from their hole in the middle of the sky if there were any gravity at all.

“How’s it look?” he was sitting at the opposite window, watching ships come in through the eye and pass through the gate, the strange hunch of his disguise adding to his air of brooding.

She couldn’t keep the wistfulness out of her voice, “It looks like a dream. It is so large, I thought that it was closer.”

He made a grim sound and settled into silence. He was getting uneasy, trying not to rush her, but she suspected, intrusively, that his unconscious imperatives were beginning to gnaw at him. It hardened his expression impatiently around the edges and dropped his voice by half an octave.

She looked across the distance, hoping for any inspiration. Most of the structures seemed more like rebellious art than architecture, mismatched assemblages of squats, spires, armatures, and platforms. Working industrial complexes the size of small mountains were interspersed with honeycombed residences and open-air market plateaus. Even the structures that must have once been carefully designed had been re-fitted and repurposed over time, wearing close-fitting off-brand parts like a uniform of membership.

And yet it was chaos on such a large scale that stylistic patterns had undeniably emerged from the seemingly uncoordinated ambitions of a thousand-thousand choices over hundreds of years. Despite being more varied and intricate than any one mind could ever intend, the patchiness of its juts and hubs manifested an order that seemed to both defy and define centralized intent, like a colony of insects or the texture of a dream: the entropy of individuals into a collective. An imperative of her own began to gnaw. She had to get among them, to touch, to know what it felt like to be taken up by a city, how it sounded when it spoke to those that belonged there. There had to be a way.

Assured that no one was watching their pin-prick of a door at that distance, she braced one hand on the wall and dragged it just a little wider, the hinges grating stiffly. She’d meant to do a quick spit-test for gravity, hoping that there might not be any in the transition-zone, hoping there might be a climbable route down the wall. Instead, glancing unintentionally past the tips of her own toes on the edge, down a rough-hewn cliff, across the eye opening and unevenly down, down, away into bottomless shadows, her throat tightened automatically, and her balance reeled.

Before she could twitch a muscle she was falling in her own mind, hope receding into the distance along with the heavy-gloved hand that could not catch her. She felt her own hand tightening on the door, on the wall, but she was too far from herself to stop the illusory sensation of the plunge. Icy wind was lashing at the tender rims of her ears, but couldn’t seem to spare her any breathable oxygen. She reached out for the cliff face as he had done, trying to dig her fingers in and find purchase. Everything started to shake.

Vaguely she knew that it wasn’t happening to her, that it had never happened to her, that it was just a sense-memory of a sense-memory and not her own, but that did nothing to slow it. She heard a friend calling her by the wrong name, first gently and then more urgently, “Jain? Jain? Jain?!”

And there in the dark bottom, rushing towards her as she fell, Ego turned and looked through her, his expression a skull-like rictus of rage. The ground  sprouted tendrils of clutter and stone, ready to tear everything down atop her as she plunged, to crush her under everything she had treacherously embraced. He roared like distant claxons, growing larger and larger as she fell faster and closer, ready to swallow the whole city if she didn’t stop. If she wasn't sorry. If she wouldn't kill-

“Mantis?!”

She caught her breath and screamed, “Stop!” louder than she had ever raised her voice in her life.

Everything went dark.

----

Mantis started to waiver on her feet just as the earthquake began in earnest. He called her name, and she screamed, and he had to dash to catch her back before she pitched forward, reaching her just as the lights of the city went dark; everything but the glow of her goggles, the scarce starlight, and the skating streaks of vehicle lights in the distance snuffed out.

That was lucky in its own way, he thought abstractly, avoiding the hole in the floor as he pulled her back towards the center of the room. Since he couldn’t see the drop beyond the door, it didn’t trigger him. Moreover, the distant yells and shouts that filtered from both sides of the gate assured him that Mantis’ scream was unlikely to have attracted any attention. But unlikely wasn't the same as impossible, the back of his mind needled.

The earthquake persisted, less violent than the previous one, more of a heavy thrum than a bouncing upheaval. It was the kind of deep structural moan that happened when large beams bent and grated, or heavy machinery went off its timing.

He flipped the skull-mask back as he cradled her to the floor, but he couldn’t discern her face in the dark at all. He checked for breath and pulse, muttering, “Why does this keep happening to you? How do you feel those quakes coming? I-” frustration like nausea curled in his stomach, setting off a buzzing in his head that seemed to chime with the vibrations of the city, “We have to escape. If we don’t-” the buzz made his face hurt, and he could feel his adrenaline rising like a warm haze of stinging bugs, “We should keep moving.”

The city-wide tremor pulsed a little stronger, then faded, though the lights stayed out. Without the heavy moan of shifting metal pylons he could hear more emergency sirens going off, more people shouting and screaming far away on every side. In the dark, he felt surrounded.

A terrible idea crossed his mind, the realization that it was his best chance. With the lights out, it was his best chance to make a jump without being seen and without seeing anything that would melt his brain. But to where? She’d seemed to think the way out the door was unworkable.

He glanced around for ideas. Out the window he saw another small ship cruising in through the darkened eye, making straight for the gate. In the dark, he could just make out a humanoid form in the lighted cockpit, a bright red jumpsuit and a strangely elongated alien face.

Carefully calibrating his sense of scale, he estimated that the ship was moving slower than a lot of vehicles he’d spontaneously boarded back in the war, and was even slowing down a little more as it approached the gate. He had just enough time, he reckoned, to throw himself into the partial gravity outside the window. With a strong-enough push he could land himself and Mantis on the ship’s side and ride it to the end of the line, to wherever spacefaring ships liked to go in Knowhere, as easily as hopping a trolley. It looked like there were handholds. Probably.

His timing had to be perfect, he realized. Missing the ship would most likely mean getting pincered at the center of the gate’s weird gravity until the next ship flew into them like a windshield into bugs. But it was the only plan he had, and he had to get moving. Escape. He had to.

He hauled Mantis over one padded shoulder, frantically digging out the long rope net from the knapsack slung over the other. He jumped up on the low desk. He felt the gravity weaken as he got to the frame, and how it still pulled him towards the center of the gate.

Before he could pointlessly re-think, he crouched and let himself pitch forward out the window, getting the ball of his foot under the narrow outer ledge to push into the fall as hard as he could, cruising through a slow-motion dive to converge with his target like a zip-liner, right on target.

He hadn’t counted on the pilot noticing them and trying to steer carefully away from whatever sort of free-floating flotsam they resembled. If not for the net, flung out and catching on some small mechanical detail, he’d have missed entirely, and without contingency. He threaded his metal arm through the net to the elbow and got one foot braced into a loop, the drag of the air riffling his tunic around his bare legs as they swung along. He couldn’t suppress an adrenalized grin.

“Hey Jain, wake up,” he slid her down off his shoulder and onto his arm, feeling vaguely invincible and distinctly Tarzan as her arms slid instinctively around his neck. Not stilted-speech movie Tarzan, either, erudite book Tarzan.

His grin faded as she moaned softly. She sounded really unwell, like Steve after the Cyclone at Coney Island. The mask had fallen over her face again, and when he pushed it back he could clearly see that she was almost as pale underneath. It registered then that the rush of adrenaline had stoked up the soldier-sight night vision behind his eyes without his conscious consent. He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. That was the soldier, getting stronger, pushing him around with terse one-word impulses. Stilted Tarzan. It dawned on him that he’d risked both their lives without thinking, without even making sure that she was stable. But she’d said she wanted that, hadn’t she? That she would rather be hurt than captured, the same as him? Still, none of that had crossed his mind, and he knew it. He'd just felt an impulse and let it drop him out a window.

But they’d made it, he consoled himself. They were making it. Still, he held her close and took deep breaths, letting the synthetic sight behind his eyes fade.

Gravity corrected to a more widespread consensus of “down” as they crossed into the city, rolling his equilibrium by a quarter turn. It felt weaker than gravity on the earth, by his estimation, which soothed his fear of falling a little. But as a few places among the heaped structures began to get some emergency lights going, hinting at layered distances if he looked too carefully, he resolved to try and get his feet on solid ground before the power came back up. He watched for a likely landing surface as their ride’s front lights licked across the heaped and tangled cityscape. If the pilot noticed that they were hitching a ride, they opted not to do anything about it, heading deep into the city at an easy cruising speed. 

Suddenly they stopped in midair and were dropping, slowly at first as the ship’s side-jets fired to steady its descent, then a good deal faster as one of those jets burned through the place where the net had snagged around it. It was a mercifully short distance to the flat surface that caught them, but he bobbled the blind landing, and everything got tangled in the net as the small flat-bottomed ship slowly descended over them, threatening to crush them.

Chapter Text

“Carina. Where are you?”

Carina ducked into a side passage and pushed her hood back before flicking on her communicator, “I was applying a sturdier fix to the lift, master. I will be back up shortly.”

He clicked off the communication with a frown that made her wince. She took a breath. Just stay the course, she told herself. Stay the course and get clear of the problem. Falling apart will just make it worse.

The scanner picked up another return-ping, possibly two. Distinctions became dicey when tags were close together and scanners were far away. The broader data signal was still too distant for her simple scanner to pick up, but she was certain it was them, and that they were somewhere within the socket. She adjusted her hood back down over her face and continued along the aqueduct walkway.

She hadn’t lied, she reminded herself, feverishly trying to soothe her paranoia. She had been fixing the lift. She did plan to be back up shortly. She just meant to have a little word with certain incompetent escapees first, to warn them of what was coming. She glanced around the lowest level of the lawless neighborhood and touched the projectile gun under her cloak. Nothing else had to go wrong. She was handling it. It was under control.

She got two distinct pings, slightly overlapped, and permitted herself a small smile.

Then the groaning tremors began. The water trembled in its trench beneath her, sloshing crazily, and the crooked buildings above began to flex lazily back and forth like water weed, bending further and further the more vibrations they absorbed. Sirens started automatically, decrying the structural stress.

As the lights went out, the diffuse outbreak of yelling couldn’t drown out the high, familiar cry that grated on the whole length of her spine, newly edged with genuine fear. Even the consonants that bracketed Mantis' wail were distinct at a distance: “Stop!” She hurried towards it, keeping the side of one leg against the guard rail in the dark, muttering curse after curse. A second quake would make Tivan more demanding, cutting into how long she could safely stall. Time would be tight even if she didn't get waylaid by flying rubble, which he certainly wouldn't accept as an excuse.

In the dark, she got two nearly distinct location pings and a thready glowing data readout, breathing a sigh of relief that quickly caught in her throat.

The gladiator’s adrenaline was up in the soldier-mode range. Mantis’ tracker wasn’t reporting any life-signs, and she saw no signal from her hunters. “No,” she whispered under her breath, a gory scene flashing across her imagination, “no no no no no…”

As she got closer to the source, the signals separated, Jonkarter going off to the side and into the distance until his vitals were lost, Mantis staying in place, vitals simply gone.

When she got to the gaping gate, the lights were just coming up. Mantis’ signal remained dead. She spotted the booth on the side of the gate, rechecked the vector, and hesitated.

Maybe it was better not to see. One less thing to pretend she didn’t know.

She shook her head, steeling herself for a shock. Better to jump into knowledge than fall, she knew. Following the faded symbols common to the complex, she climbed to the access door along the catwalk rim of the gate, then to the hatch in the booth’s ceiling, dropping lightly down.

What she found was the scene of an apparent struggle: an upended databank over a hole in the floor, the dirty subfloor significantly disturbed, another door left open on empty air. Boot prints were crossed by drag marks. Scorch marks on the counters matched strangely with the thick tang of burnt hair. A makeshift bioplastic bag, half-empty of water, slouched near the middle of the floor.

And near the window, discarded so oddly she wouldn’t have seen it if she hadn’t had the tracker right in her hand, a small white disc with a smear of dried blood. Beside that, further in the shadows, a small dusty box of brass and glass, open on one side. She picked them both up with trembling hands. The glass reflected her face back at her, mocking her with the prospect of her own containment and...a thready ping of deja vu that contained no valuable data, no helpful memory. Just a disjointed dread in her gut that signaled at something more, something distant, a ping that sounded like no, no, not again...

She looked around the small, dark room with fresh fears. She couldn’t even clearly recall how long it had been, precisely, since the last time one of the inhabitants of the collection had tried to escape, but if they had found that same nearly invisible room it was a disturbing coincidence. She shook her head and climbed out of the unhelpful scene, pocketing the tracking disc, the box, and the bag, trying to stay focused and not think about what might happen if the pair were caught by the wrong person.

---

The more he struggled, the more tightly they seemed to become trapped in the net, Mantis’ not-quite-dead weight making it impossible for him to roll them both away.

The ship sank closer.

He twisted and scrabbled frantically at her hips until he finally came up with the laser comb, fumbling to find the buttons under the leather wrap, grunting with frustration as he got the first few strands cut through, far too slowly, arms pinned at an awkward angle.

The ship slowed to a hover less than a handspan from his face as some important rope finally gave way and he was able to roll aside, dropping the comb so he could grab the net with both hands and drag Mantis along the platform with him and out from under the dim landing lights. He had to change direction and fumble for the comb again as several slender landing legs descended from the ship’s seamless bottom, one of them pinning a trailing bit of rope and preventing him from getting them both any further away.

The moments it took to cut them free again felt far too slow and bloated.

A ramp extended from the opposite side of the ship as the lights of the complex came back up. Mantis stirred with an irritated sound as he got hands under her shoulders, dragging her several more feet before needing her weight to prevent himself overbalancing off the platform's blind edge, having backed up to it unawares. Her hands found his collar and, blearily, she helped draw him back to balance as footsteps came down the ramp. As her eyes focused, they followed his towards the source of the sound.

They were at the edge of a circular landing platform about the circumference of a city block back home, mismatched spacecraft that resembled oddly wadded subway cars and slightly squashed tug boats parked along the perimeter within weathered yellow and black markings. The surface itself was deserted except for the newcomers, though the buildings that loomed and the traffic that passed above provided an actively indifferent sort of supervision that he found entirely familiar. His muscles tensed up for a fistfight on the sense memory of parking lots that managed to act deserted in a borough of two million souls.

Mantis straightened and turned, struggling out of the last of the singed netting. The pilot turned into view towards them around the edge of the ramp, long limbs in a red jumpsuit, face concealed behind an oblong helmet with a dark glassy visor and strange tubing. They carried a long weapon casually in both hands. The shoulders were broad and spread out roughly half a foot higher than his own. The pilot stopped several feet away, helmet canting to one side.

“Ithat ziadzil?” came a resonant inquiry, as if from inside a bucket.

Mantis put both hands out to the sides, palms facing their interlocutor, “Ba- um,” she hesitated shaking her head before starting over in a language with tones that bore no resemblance to the question, “Ba nino ho ian?”

The head tilted the other way, and they ambled a few steps closer, slowly, as Barnes’ muscles ratcheted tighter. He was scanning the terrain, looking for a place to sweep Mantis out of the way safely, trying to gauge how many seconds of space separated him from that weapon at a full sprint, and whether it could get him first.

The helmet wobbled back and forth, the tone becoming a little more tense, “T-t-t-t-t-tkr?” the sound was chittering and eerie.

She shook her head, her breath taking on a high, tense note.

He leaned to her ear, “What are they saying?”

Mantis shrugged, not turning her face away from the pilot, “I- I do not know. We do not seem to have a language in common so far.”

The tension in his body crept into his voice, “Don’t you know a couple thousand languages?”

Though she didn’t turn he could hear the curl in her lips as she half-hissed, “It is a big galaxy, Missouri!”

“It is,” the bucket-voice responded with an amused edge and an accent that sounded smooth and foreign to Brooklyn ears, “so I seldom expect to encounter terrans, or their many languages.”

The butt-end of the long weapon found the ground, freeing up a hand to press some button that retracted the helmet away from an appealing human face with a dark complexion, generous features, and long eyelashes. The young man’s smile was mildly amused, though there was a wariness around his eyes.  He took up his weapon again with an ease that seemed casual but bespoke practice.

Mantis lowered her hands, slowly, “You are terran?”

He gave a noncommittal head-wobble, “Most terrans are not space-faring people,” his head lapsed to one side again, “unless they are in serious trouble of one kind or another.”

Mantis mirrored his angled stance, “Are you? In serious trouble?” her tone was earnest and soothing, at complete odds with her disguise.

The man smiled, his face lighting up and remaining smooth in a way that indicated that he was quite young indeed, his broad hands shifting as he shrugged, “Not unless you are far more heavily armed that you appear. I'll bet you’re in trouble, though, jumping at my ship like that.”

“You Jamaican?” Barnes took a wild guess, trying to change the subject.

Their semi-captor played along, “You could say I am half-Wakandan,” he waited a beat and added, “That is in Africa. If you would please come stand over here,” he jerked his head along one shoulder, towards a pod-like building fixed to the platform by fist-sized bolts, “away from that edge, so I do not need to turn my back on you to see if you have damaged my baby.”

Mantis nodded, complying. Barnes bent down on the pretense of helping her feet out of the net, palming the laser comb up his sleeve as he gathered up a fistful of rope and followed her, the rolled mat and limp knapsack still tangled inside. He dropped the net by one of the heavy bolts, reassured when the young man didn’t seem to object to his retrieving their belongings. He wasn’t jumpy with his weapon, but his posture wasn’t cocky or sloppy, either. A soldier, maybe.

“My name is Jain,” Mantis offered helpfully.

“In Wakanda, I am called Mabaya,” he smiled at Barnes, “And your name is Mizuri.”

“Get that man a cigar,” he quipped in response.

Mabaya’s diplomatic smile revealed little. He turned away very slightly to examine the side thrusters they’d gotten themselves snagged on, pulling a few strands of rope down and nodding, “Does not look like any damage. All the same, I expect you are some sort of opportunity, one that I ought not let slip away in a place such as this.”

That was all he needed to hear, really. They did not have time to be taken prisoner while some ambivalent kid tried to puzzle out what they might be worth. He swept his left hand under Mantis’ jaw, tilting her head back against his chest with the appearance that he was throttling her, though all the pressure was between his fingers and her jawbone, his palm only barely resting on her throat. He held her against him like a shield, kicking one end of the net out before him as he sidled towards the edge, the other end looped securely, he hoped, over a bolt, “I think I’m gonna be on my way, if that’s all the same to you, pal.”

The long weapon had come up to shoulder height in a single smooth snap, the young face remaining calm, “You’re betting that you might not be worth more, even dead, than it would cost me to kill you. In my experience the sort of trouble that sends terrans into space is fairly lucrative, especially on Knowhere.”

He wrapped his right hand around hers, pretending to pin it behind her back, “If you were willing to make that bet you’d have shot through her to kill me already.”

The pilot shrugged affably, the barrel staying perfectly level, “I’m betting one of you is more eager to sell the other out than they are to go over that edge on a tattered net.”

He grinned, “If so, she’d have already reached for the remote for my obedience disk, even if it meant getting her other arm broke. But I'm the demon she knows, so,” he only needed four more steps before he could make the jump. Mantis was following easily, letting him guide her weight, just like dancing.

“She might change her mind once she sees just how high up we are.”

He hesitated. Her antennae glowed faintly, reading him. If the height sent him into a seizure midair, there was no telling if they would survive. He trusted her to decide, did everything he could to feel trust for her that she might detect through his fingers. If she wanted, she could knock him out, pretend it had been his obedience disk, and pretend to work with this new person until she could get them both away, maybe get them a ride all the way to the occipital port, wherever that was. It could be a good shot.

He tried to tilt her head back a little further as the glow in her goggles grew stronger, keeping the light from where the stranger could see. He waited for things to go black and silent, but instead he felt his skin begin to tingle.

As he neared the edge he felt giddy. Joyous. Yearning. He was eager for the platform edge, the wind in his powerful wings. He’d been holding back so long, locked in a tiny box. The open air was everything he wanted in the galaxy, his fear of falling eclipsed by his desire to fly.

A smile spread across his face that caused the young man behind the long gun to falter. That handsome, seamless professional demeanor slipped and crimped incredulously. He must have looked truly mad.

With a wild laugh, Mizuri slid his right arm around Jain’s waist, caught up the end of the net in his left, and jumped.

Chapter Text

Mantis sat, silent, in a dark maintenance tunnel somewhere under the landing platform. Her heart hurt. That was all she could feel with any certainty. A knotted rope of sobs squirmed in her belly, but the harder it tried to push into the ache in her chest, the harder she pushed it down until her thoughts were quiet again, paralyzed and numb. Ego hated her crying, especially when she was hurt, so her head had learned how to forbid it. Still, her body kept trying to cry.

The ache twisted inside her like a lump of dry food that wouldn’t go down. Stupid, it said. Stupid, stupid, helpless and stupid. Stupid and alone. She touched the sore spot at the base of her skull. No one would even be coming to find her.

She’d been so sure that they could help each other survive in the outside world, that they would be safer together. She’d thought they had a good plan. She’d thought she could hold him.

She'd been wrong. He was gone.

She hadn’t expected a real world to be so loose, so bottomless, as to swallow permanent-seeming things as easily as things fell to dust on Ego’s world. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have expected it to hurt so much. She'd never owned anything in her life. But everything she tried to keep close kept disappearing into space as if there were no gravity at all, as if it didn’t care that it wasn’t supposed to do that here. She shivered, feeling sick, trying again to understand how a little thing like jumping off a cliff could go so wrong.

The landing platform rested on a stout stalk like a trumpeted flower. The net had dropped them a good twenty feet before losing slack and swinging them towards the concave surface of the stalk. They’d gotten just within scrabbling distance of the heavily ribbed and terraced walls when the much-abused net lost its hold above and began to slither down behind them. They kept a hold though, clinging to the wall and each other as the net hung heavily off his arm.

That part had gone so well. They’d had almost no need to communicate as they worked their way to the maintenance tunnel entrance. She had kept a hold of his hand, feeding him Gerd’s instincts, keeping him safe from his fear of falling, drawing on his confidence in kind.

The entrance they found might have been impassable, if they had been unlucky, but it was only covered with an old grate that swung open easily enough to a super-heroic yank. It might have made noise or left signs of their passing, but instead it closed snugly once they were inside.

She’d begun to look for a fast exit, a way up or down, but he'd gathered her back into a side alcove, putting a finger to her lips. Better to wait and face a pursuer than make noise retreating that would attract one, he’d explained quietly. She’d agreed. They’d waited. The city noises hadn’t changed. No searchlights came spying for them. No tooth-buzzing alarm went off in his head to indicate a tracker in range.

It made sense, when she thought about it calmly. Mabaya probably had no desire to chase two crazy birds no longer in-hand. If he were still after them at all, he’d probably choose a likely exit and watch for them. And so it made more sense for them to wait as well, to give him time to move along, just in case.

When they finally sat to relax, he’d had to cover his mouth to avoid laughing out loud. She’d felt that in him; that for the first time in functionally-ever, his ribs weren’t screaming at him for breathing, let alone swinging around by one arm like a cave-kookla. His brain wasn’t screaming at him to be careful, to keep his eyes down, to mind his fragile and fearsome strength. He was aware of feeling good, because it was so different. To her eyes, in the dim greenish light cast by sparse phosphorescent tubes along the wall, he seemed radiant with it.

Their first contact with the city had gone wrong, badly wrong, but he had trusted her, and she had trusted him, and they had survived. It was a good sign. The best sign. It made her think she should trust him a little further, as long as they were waiting, catching their breaths.

“Jonkarter?”

“Missouri,” he said low, “even if you don’t think anyone else could possibly be listening. Until we’re on our way to earth, me Missouri, you Jain.” Despite his seriousness, his posture was loose, almost careless, his back to the wall, one knee up.

She nodded, “I made a mistake before. I wanted to tell you. And apologize. To be trustworthy.” And brave, she thought.

He fiddled with getting his arm out of the net and extracting the knapsack, “Ok.”

“I felt something before. It was private. I understand that now. I thought it was very beautiful, but that did not make it a thing for me to see. I do not think you were aware that you were showing me. I should have tried to turn you a different way, and could have, but I was curious. And selfish.”

He was quiet, he cleared his throat. He didn’t look at her, “Ok. What was it?”

“Talking to your uncle. About girls.”

He hung his head, huffing a quiet laugh, “Hah, yeah, he could be pretty frank about stuff. Sorry you had to hear that, but it’s ok.”

“Um, also...taking care of business.”

He swallowed, “Oh.”

She nodded, “Yeah, oh. And camping.”

That brought his eyes around to her, his head tilted quizzically, “Camping?”

She blushed in the dark, “Yes. I am sorry.”

“I-” he stopped again, cleared his throat, “I don’t know what you mean, actually. You mean scouts? Or in the army?”

She felt ashamed, to the point that she wanted to shrink into herself, “No.”

“Something I felt?”

She nodded.

“I- could you show me? I mean, I’m not mad, I’m glad you’re telling me. I just don’t understand what you mean, and I feel like I’m upsetting you by wanting you to explain.”

She nodded. He put his hand on hers, but it felt too awkward crouching beside him. She moved close and knelt astride his knee so she could touch both his temples, and he could steady her. She showed him.

Darkness. Crickets. Leaf sounds. Sleeping bag. Skin and skin. Push and give. Soft. Urgent. Pulsations of perfect bodies and perfect unbodied pleasure in bright primary colors. It was so easy to fall into. It swept along for several seconds. She had thought she would be careful, but it hurt like starving to feel such things, to feel him recognize them, and then try to move away again.  

She heard him sigh suddenly, felt his hands gathering hers, taking her touch away from inside him. She blushed, trying not to cry. She was sorry but she still could not be trusted.

“I did not mean to witness your mating. I understand that you have rules, and deserve privacy. I am sorry.”

It was agony waiting for him to respond, but she kept very still. He pushed her mask back to look her in the eye, lifting the goggles gently off as she winced. He was smiling. He touched her cheek. She leaned tentatively into his warm, strong, not-angry touch. She longed to snuggle into his care, his not-rage, the way his touch attended to her response as if he, too, were an empath.

He dropped his hand to hers with a pat, “So...thank you. For being honest. I should be honest too, though. What you saw, about camping. I wasn’t mating. It never happened.”

She looked at him, puzzled, “No?”

“No, that,” he grinned and shook his head, “It was just a fantasy I obsessed over, for a couple weeks one summer. I’d forgotten all about that.”

“It seemed so real.”

“Yeah, I had a pretty dramatic imagination back then. I mean, there was a girl, and plans to go camping, and I had big ideas about what was going to happen when we did. I didn’t think about hardly anything else until...well it’s a long story. Anyway, yeah, we never actually...went camping.” He reached into the knapsack, “Ah damn.”

“What?”

He sighed, turning the knapsack upside down over the bundled netting, nothing falling out but the small bowl of bone with its embedded tracker, “I think I lost the water. And your tracker. When I pulled the net out in the dark to hitch that stupid ride.”

Mantis shrugged, “We will find more water. Please, tell me. About the girl.”

He looked doubtful for a moment, but relented on studying her face, pulling the shoulder-padding out of his shirt and putting it behind his back, letting his wrapped shirt hang loose off his shoulders. “Ok. Well, we met at Rockaway Beach, one of the times Steve and I went.”

She picked at the laces along the sides of her armor as she settled in for the story, wanting it looser where it had begun to chafe through her shirt, “What is Rockaway Beach?”

“A beach, a sandy edge of an ocean where people go to swim and sunbathe; and an amusement park, a place with games and thrill rides- machines that-”

Ego had known a word for that, “Like a carnival?”

He grinned, “Yeah, a lot like that. Except Rockaways’ Playland is fixed in one place. And fixed in time, too, in a way. I mean...” he shook his head, “Me and Steve went a couple dozen times, growing up, but in my head it’s all sort of the same trip.”

Mantis blinked at him, fascinated, “Why?”

“Some places in a city are just like that. They’re big and familiar but kind of otherworldly. Anonymous. Any summer Sunday, a mass of people flock there with their spare nickles, spending their hard-earned change to do the same stuff they did the summer and Sunday before, picking up exactly where they left off. The permanent things stay the same-enough, and things that would normally change slowly a little at a time change quickly and completely, so every time you’re there it’s like no time has passed since the last time.”

“Change that seems like no change?”

“Well, for instance, there’s always some kid slinging red hots at Nathan's, but since it's never the same kid he never ages from year to year. It’s a kind of complete change that defies the appearance of change. And even as you change, you can watch the older kids and think about what you want to do when you’re old enough, or watch the parents and think about bringing your kids someday, or watch the younger kids and remember yourself, and see them watching you. It kinda blurs together into the same scene. You can go there and see yourself, displaced in time but fixed in space, your head filling in for any inconsistencies in the setting like a dream.”

“That sounds confusing.”

He was smiling, “Nah, I like it. Even when we didn’t have money to spend on the rides we’d take the train out to the end of the Rockaway line, eat hot dogs and watch people by the water. Some days it was just easier for him to breathe out there,” he studied the back of his right hand wistfully, “It’s kinda beautiful, in a city way. I’ll show it to you when we get there.”

“It sounds beautiful,” she ducked her head a little, seeking his eyes and prodding, “Was she? Beautiful?”

He gave her that wary look again, but whatever problem he was looking for in her expression he didn’t find, and his smile relaxed again, “Yeah. She was a good looking girl. There were always good looking girls, in that dreamlike way. We met her and her friend on the line to the Thriller. I’d saved up six bucks so I’d definitely have enough, after the train ride and lunch, to make Steve go on the big roller coaster.”

Mantis grinned, fiddling excitedly with her fingers. She knew about roller coasters. Ego’s earth mate had loved them. It was tempting to say so, but she didn’t want to interrupt. She wanted to drink in the story.

“After that, Steve just wanted to sit on the boardwalk and sketch people and drink a soda to settle his stomach. The fast rides always made him queasy, but I think he really liked them anyway. So I took Dot and her friend over to the shooting gallery to try to win her a bear. I went all in, figuring Steve had enough nickels to get us home. Dot said that for all the money I’d spent we could have just gone to a movie, all four of us. That was when she gave me her number. In case I wanted to try my luck another time, she said,” he grinned, “She was what you might call a real pistol. But she had a kind smile. And she wasn’t grabby, you know?”

Mantis shook her head.

He sighed, “Well, sometimes you go out, and if a girl wants to get your attention she’ll be all over the place. Like, you just want to dance and meet people and have a good time and not worry about anything. Some girls are really on the hunt though, and once they’ve got your attention they don’t want to let you go. And they get real surprised if you tell them no. Some guys and some girls aren’t a whole lot different that way. But Dot wasn’t like that. She was nice, you know? Confident. Good listener, you’d like her.”

Mantis nodded encouragement, “Then what?”

“I remember Steve had gotten his appetite back and eaten three hot dogs all by himself while he'd waited, and then bought another one for some stray tabby cat that had cozied up to him while he was sitting, so he was almost as busted as me. We didn’t have enough for the train back. Home was fifteen miles, across the bay, and it was getting late. I mean, I realized later, he had one nickel left, he coulda gone without me, but that was never something we did. So we hitched a ride on a freezer truck,” his smile softened and he closed his eyes, shook his head, “That’s a whole ‘nother...anyway, the next day I called Dot.”

“You went out?”

“We went out a couple times. A couple movies, nothing fancy, but it was the first time I was going out to see someone in particular, not just meeting folks in a group. My sisters almost lost their minds,” he grinned at the ceiling, “She- I mean she wasn’t trashy or anything, just confident, but I still remember, she really knew how to kiss a guy to roll his socks up.”

Mantis gave him a quizzical look but let the idiom pass. He’d given her enough examples that she understood what it meant without asking. And without socks.

He heaved a dramatic sigh, “Looking back I shouldn’t have thought it was a big deal, but she had me kind of loopy. After our second date, when I was walking her home, she mentioned she was going on a camping trip with some of her friends. Either the way she said it or the way I heard it, it sounded like we were gonna go together. I mean, I never asked, I just assumed. So, yeah, that’s how I spent two weeks thinking I was in love with a girl that I’d gone out with twice. And saving up for an air rifle so I could get better at midway games.”

“In love,” she tried the words out, “What did that feel like?”

“Hah, wow. Like a cliffhanger in a serial. Like my heart didn’t quite fit in my chest. Like I couldn’t wait to see her again, to find out what happened next. I had this fantastical plan in my head that I was gonna get laid in a sleeping bag, and go swimming with her at night and...well, it was elaborate. I basically worked on it every day, like a sculptor.”

“But it did not happen?”

He shook his head, “Nah. She, um, she had another guy. I think I was just kind of an amusement for her. She picked me out at Playland after all,” he gave a bemused smile, “But Steve got kinda sick of hearing her name for a few weeks after that.”

Mantis nodded knowingly, “You needed to complain.”

He grinned, “Yeah. But it was my own fault. I made a lot of assumptions. Steve was a good listener but he reminded me when I was being a jerk, too,” he tapped the back of his head against the wall and laughed, “He said I sounded like a snake sending messages in morse code; ‘dot dot dot, dot dot dot, dot dot dot’. I promised to stop bringing her up and we went to Coney Island instead of Rockaway for a while, even though the Cyclone made him throw up.”

Mantis took a moment to collect her words, “So you have never…gone camping.”

He smirked, blushing, “I did, later. I mean, I have. It just...the real thing isn’t…” he took a breath and tried again, “When you’re a kid and you hear the kind of stories guys tell, it sounds like sex is this magical other world of perfect bliss. It’s so different when it’s real, though. It’s nothing like a dream. It’s scary and weird and worse, but also better. And different every time.”

Mantis nodded slowly, “I am finding that to be so, the difference between thinking and feeling. I have known many feelings in my mind, but it is all very different in my body. Worse and better.”

They stopped talking, and he stroked her cheek again. She smiled and sighed, and he stroked her temple, her forehead, massaging the sore points at the base of her antennae where the bending put the most stress, working upward as he’d seen her do for herself, gently rolling the tender spots to ease them when she reacted. It felt so safe, so easy, like he could go on touching her forever and never find a wrong way to do it. He really was a good listener.

When he reached the top of each antenna he ran a crooked finger under the feathery tip, sending a surprising shiver down her body that made her smile.

She dipped her forehead close to his, “I am sorry that I was grabby.”

“Nah, you made a mistake. As much work as I put into that dumb idea, it's probably about time someone else saw it, right? Anyway, I think you’re the least grabby person I’ve ever met,” he traced a finger along the line of her shaved hair, “I do worry about how easy this is. That just entertaining it is the same as me being too grabby. Because you’re so...so...”

He’d lost track of what he was saying as his fingers found that place on the back of her neck and shoulder, that little curve that wasn’t quite one part or the other. His breath had deepened, without pain or anxiety. He’d pulled, just a little.

She had kissed him then...and he had whispered...

The memory of it tied another hot knot of sobbing onto the base of her stomach, making her push it all down and away again, back into queasy numbness, waiting, the cycle beginning to wear on her.

And then a different feeling. Discontent. And annoyance. And resolve. She picked up her goggle-mask, fingering the wide inquisitive eye holes and darkened contours. Maybe Mantis did not know how to get by on her own, but Jain did whatever she wanted. They had agreed on that. And Jain was bored with sitting around. Jain had wanted to see a city her whole life. Jain wanted to get Jonkarter home.

She pulled on her armor and began stuffing the knapsack with the scanty remains of everything she’d started with.

Jain wanted to find out what happened next.

Chapter Text

"Hey cuz! To what do I owe the diversion?”

“To your contender. I find him satisfactory. I want to transfer the credits for his purchase.”

“Rrreally,” En Dwi Gast’s holographic leer bunched his face into such a rapt snarl that it looked like a transmitter malfunction, “Remind me what we agreed?”

“Seventy thousand. And a cutting of my nervarium.”

“Was that all? Goodness. Like I’m running a charity.”

Tivan spread his hands blandly, “I could see my way to increasing it if there were any additional materials pertaining to his acquisition and care.”

“Hmmmm, let me think, yes yes yes there are, but I don’t have them. No, didn’t buy them. Now let me see, who would have those...think think think-ity think.”

Tivan sighed, “Certainly you must allow me to reimburse you for the trouble.”

“No! No. No no no no no, don’t be silly, we’re family.”

“Surely there’s something?”

“Well…” he rolled his eyes innocently, “I do love details. I’m thinking of adding a new component to the big show: Where are they now?” his hands spread like starbursts, “Just little vignettes between bouts, highlight the continuing stories of the great contenders of the past. Educational and motivational. Whaddaya think?”

“Sounds delightful.”

“So slather it onto me. How’s the earthling making himself useful?”

Tivan spoke slowly, letting the consonants click and roll like dice, “He’s currently doing some routine asset management, exercising one of my many pet projects. A real talent.”

En Dwi Gast’s excited lip-biting smile slowly collapsed, “Now, cuz, I like to think of myself as a pretty hip dude, but I am not parsing that innuendo at all.”

Tivan bowed his head demurely, peering at Gast from beneath his pale eyebrows., “The name, if you please.”

“Oh fine. At least he’s alive, that’s a positive spin.” Gast punched a couple buttons and a readout of contact specifications transferred to Tivan’s screen, “If you could get the courier to bring the nervarium cutting to me once you’re done with him, I’ll pay him for the trouble. Ta!”

The screen went dark.

“Carina!” Tivan barked, startling her where she lingered just outside the door of the communications vault, “Contact this Yondu Udonta. I would like to make him an offer.”

---

The hollow slap and splat of water dripped on an upturned cheek far above him. He felt the vibration, but not the impact. Not the cold. He was too deep. It couldn’t reach him.

He felt nothing, couldn’t move. His limbs were too heavy, like sodden sponges. The leather over his arm kept the steel sieve of the floor grate from cutting into his shoulder. The damp sheeting around his waist and legs didn’t do nearly as much. He knew it more than felt it. Watched it. He’d fallen down inside his own head. He knew he was too deep, but nothing back at the surface was anything he wanted.

A ripple of motive force tickled across the silver strings under his skin, offering to pick him up, if he was ready to comply.

It would be so easy.

He pushed that creeping offer away, though it burned up all the strength he’d been gathering to try to focus. He preferred to just lie there. Wherever “there” was. Whoever “he” was.

You ought to move the cold voice prodded inside his skull, you can’t sleep anymore, or the dreams will come…

He was fairly sure he had been to that exact same starting place before. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. It could make him remember. He didn’t want to remember. He had fallen. Again…

The water drip was pleasantly distracting, dabbing him cooly on the temple, wearing a disruptive divot into his thoughts. He knew the drill, and a few tricks of his own. He reached for the pain or the hunger to focus him without forcing him to be aware. They were missing. That scared him. His fingers felt too warm despite the cold. His mouth felt wet and warm and sour. He’d been fed. He’d been...kissing…

A punishing flutter of images slashed across the screen behind his eyes, too fuzzy to comprehend but reeking of dread, backed by the sound of shrieking metal and roaring air. It shook him, dragging him up into himself, rolling him onto his elbows. A droplet of cold water kissed him on the back of the neck, trailing around to his throat, sparking another flare of images. Cold. Closeness. Danger. Hiding. Kissing. Words catching in his throat, blocked up by breathing.

Do you want to see what happened next?

He cringed onto his knees, fists planted. The question circled his mind like a well-fed wolf pondering dessert. He had to stop thinking. He needed to start knowing. Needed to get out of his head and back into his body.

He was in the dark. The floor was metal. The ceiling was dripping. He looked above. There was a city up there, through the grate above him that dripped on his eyes while the grate below bit into his knees. Spires and lights and flying cars. Spires and cars. Sakaar? He’d fallen from the escape ship. He prodded carefully around the line of his low back, just above the waist of his pants. The obedience disk was still there, buried jaws deep like a two-headed dog tick. He dug at the edge with the tip of his thumb. It was like trying to pry off a toenail. His body didn’t want to let him.

It had gone off when he’d jumped...or...he’d pretended that it would...but she had...had…

She...

Pummeling thoughts rushed him like a loud burst of startled birds, crowded him out of his own memory. Fists hitting faces with a crazy sound like scraped steel. Eyes going blank with the sound of slamming doors. Everything tight and headache-y, always. Stop thinking. Just comply.

He would. He didn’t want to, but it had begun to feel inevitable.

He felt too weak for his overclocked head. Why had he let himself get strong? If he kept eliciting corrections from the program, it would push him out all together. If he didn’t let the soldier take his place, his body would just lie empty, helpless, until he died. That, he didn’t have to think about. That, he just knew. He could try to lie still enough, without breathing…

Ears shrieking, eyes slamming. No.

He held his mind carefully quiet, hoping for enough equilibrium to let him stand. He felt so heavy. It was so hard.

It could be easy.

His eyes stung with hot salt at how much he just wanted to let it be easy. Let other people get hurt just so he could stop feeling himself hurt them.

With a lurid slowness, one of the shrieking and slamming thoughts forced itself on him, a taunting strobe of soldier-sight, so fresh he could almost smell it. A woman’s throat clutched at the end of his right arm, her eyes pleading, fading.

No.

He knew her.

Stop.

He could still feel her on his lips.

Please.

His hand twitched with a phantom sensation, pulse and crush, and he slammed it against the floor, splitting his knuckles.

Oh god oh god oh god what did I do...

She had kissed him. Her mouth had tasted like love. He had whispered...

Did you really think it would change anything?

The door-slam thoughts blotted out thinking, pressed his face right against the black and white screen, grinding him against images that sped by like a subway train and shrilled like failing brakes.

It won’t change what you know you are.

Please stop.

They killed him because of you. They were always going to kill him because of you.

No.

One way or another.

Stop.

Who do you think you’re talking to, soldier?

He roared and clocked himself across the temple with his own fist to try to stop the voice, over and over, drip, drip, drip. He barely felt it. His body had gotten too strong.

He lost steam before he fell over. He could never stop it. But she could. The woman. The gentle friend whose touch felt like forgiveness. She had a power to find him no matter how deep he fell. But where was he? How would she even know to look for him there?

He looked down through the floor at a pool of black water, his silhouette cast dark against the city reflected bottomless above him.

He shook his head and muttered, “What did I do?”

Without thinking, he knew: He had stopped.

He wasn’t allowed to stop. He had to escape. She helped him to stop. She starved the voices, stayed their grip on him. She could put the soldier to sleep.

He hadn’t even felt it stalking her, watching her for suspicious behavior, weighing her usefulness against her meddling.

What had she done?

She’d kissed his mouth. She’d tasted like love. For a moment he’d felt like he couldn’t breathe. She’d asked him with her hands, her breath, her body, if he was willing to be touched, and his had assented, eager and certain. He’d never been with someone that loved him. He and Dot had been fun for each other, for as far as that went. What Connie had done for him with her mouth the night before he’d shipped out had been a whirlwind act of patriotism that’d had him marching on air for weeks. And that night in London, well, he’d thought he’d known what he needed, and five bucks had sounded more than fair. But the way his friend kissed him, he realized he had never really…

Never? Really?

It had slammed his head back against the wall.

Do you really think it would change anything?

His hands had shook, the ache of an oncoming seizure fuzzing everything into static. How had he thought he could…

She had touched his temples, her voice a soft breeze through the fog, “Easy, relax, you are alright. You are right here, on the ground. Nothing is going to happen to you, I promise.”

But he wanted it to happen. He found her face and kissed her hard, the connection reflecting the needful ache of it back and back and back to him through her own lips, warmer and wetter.

Like rescue breaths.

It had slammed him back again, stars popping behind his eyes at the impact to the back of his head.

With an effort he could feel, she backed off from desiring him, whispering, “We are safe here awhile. This is hurting you. I will make you sleep.”

He’d shaken his head with a moan, his body begging with a single voice while his mind tried to shake itself apart, “No, dammit, no, I want to be with you.”

She had whispered back, soothing him, guiding his bare hand to the back of her neck to show him, “I am right here…and so are you...”

She had whispered against his lips, more motion than sound, “I am with you.”

His lips read hers, as she pressed the sincerity of the thought upon him, I’m with you...

He and the soldier both recalled the end of that line at the same time, the six words that completed the original three to complete a nine word trigger at strict odds with his programming. It was a blatant attempt to trigger James Barnes. Sergeant. Three-two-five-five-seven-zero-three-eight. Unacceptable.

The suspect handler had plainly outlived her usefulness. The soldier had stepped in without a single word of warning. He had corrected the error, renewed the protocol. Escape enemy custody or die. Not a choice, just a fact. There was never a choice. It was so much easier that way.

The skin of his hand pressed her deep until he felt her die, her hands falling from his wrist, her bright glow going from white to black.

That was that. That was where he was, and how he’d gotten there. And why he wasn’t going to fight it anymore if he knew what was good for him. The soldier had reacted to an emergency threat, and had escaped into the city. Now he had to escape the city.

As the wave of seizures finally let him go, he found that he was on his feet, his head pounding. The soldier, improperly activated, was settling down in his awareness like a stomach after a bout of vomiting. It had done its job. The system had been purged. He was back on track, lighter and clearer. His right hand still ached with the knowledge, though he wasn’t sure when he had split his knuckles open.

He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but someone had stolen his boots.

His lips and cheeks and eyes burned, freshly raw, but he couldn’t bring himself to touch them. Not with those hands.

He shook his head, "You miserable, murdering, goddamn monster."

Who do you think you're talking to, soldier?

Without pain or hunger to distract and comfort him, he settled for that miserable tickle in his chest, quiet and constant, of merciless resolve. Keep going, it urged, the same way hunger urged eating. What else is there to do? Don’t look back. Keep going.

He hitched his baggy makeshift shirt up around his shoulders, dropping the hood across his eyes and setting in to walk until he had a better sense of where he was. To keep going until he figured out what else he could possibly do.

A more regular and muted rhythm of shrieking and slamming wrapped helpfully around all his background thoughts, the red and black noise of it blurring everything behind him into a shapeless mist. There was pain enough hiding in that fog to kill him a hundred times over, he knew. He really wished it would, but didn’t hope. If he were going to die of pain, he’d have done it long ago.

---

“So there you are at last,” Mabaya called from above her.

Jain startled and turned. She’d been deep in thought about how to start looking as she’d exited the lower level of the docking platform, and had not noticed the man perched above the door. It was dark under the shadow of the fluted top, but she could see from his outline that his weapon was not raised.

She shrugged, wondering what someone like her would say, “And there you are again.” She tried not to smile, but had not yet developed a way to make her social pleasure centers distinguish between people that were her friends and those that were merely known to her. Relationships were complicated.

He jumped down lightly onto the wide suspended walkway, the polymer surface muffling his impact, demonstrating enough grace that she doubted she could outrun him despite his standing several feet away. “I think you ought to consent to be my prisoner this time. Your wild man is not to hand.”

She shrugged again, unable to come up with another gesture on the fly, “You do not know that.”

“I do. I saw him go. Neither of you waited nearly long enough. And you shouldn’t have made yourselves so interesting if you hadn’t the time to spare waiting for my curiosity to wear out.”

She shrugged a third time, blushing under her bone mask. What other gestures did city people even use? “I will not make the same mistake twice. Goodbye.” She strode away, feeling sweat spring from her skin, hoping to put him to sleep very quickly if he grabbed her. She was so startled when he did not lunge at her that for many strides it did not occur to her why he did not. When it finally did, she walked back to avoid raising her voice, “Which way did he go?”

Mabaya just grinned at her, head tilted to one side.

She swallowed, feeling very little like Jain probably ought to, “Please?”

“You are very odd.”

She nodded. At least it wasn’t a shrug. That was good.

“How much is he worth? Your wild man? And to whom?”

Quite a lot, she thought, to me. “I am not sure yet.”

He took a few easy steps towards her that still kept him exactingly out of arm’s reach, “You are a very poor liar.”

She couldn’t disagree, “Sorry.”

“Nah," he said authoritatively, "This is a good thing.”

“Oh?”

His smile was very nice, “The galaxy is full of excellent liars, and they are all rather tedious. They never imagine anything as fascinating as the simple truth. It means that it will be worth my while to lead you to where I saw him drop, if you will walk with me and answer my questions.”

“I can answer questions right now.”

He held up a long finger, “No no, journeys are important. If we like each other we may be able to come to some arrangement about helping one another get him into hand, and splitting the profit. I am not, at present, desperate for money, though only because I never let an opportunity pass me by.”

He held out a hand.

Jain looked at it, then at him, “Do you know where the occipital port is? A place called Hemianopsia?”

His head tilted the other way, “I do. You mean to sell him to Putty?”

“I have not decided.”

Mabaya looked perplexed, “He strikes me as more of a fighter than a lover. Once we have him you must let me show you to the pits. Killing is still more profitable than kissing, out here at the edges.”

“I think it depends on what you value. No matter where you are.”

His hand still hovered, extended, “Very true. There are many economies on Knowhere. I myself am fond of mutual interest.”

She narrowed her eyes, “How do I know you will not just kill me?”

He shrugged, “Bounty hunters, like you,” he nodded towards her significantly, “tend to already know that, and not to rely on anyone else for assurances. You seem to have no weapons, which makes me think you have several. That should be how you know I will not kill you: your confidence that you can kill me first. And if I really thought it to my profit, I’d have shot you both in much easier reach of my ship. I don’t think it would be, given what I value.”

“Is this my only option?”

He shook his head, “I could give you, say, fifty credits for the controller to Mizuri’s obedience disk for your trouble, and we don’t bother one another again while I go collect him. That will get you a cup of kaff and time to tell your story to someone else instead, but no new stories besides.”

She sighed. She had no controller, and no idea what to do if she had to give up the search for her wild man. “I will come with you.”

She took his hand and shook it, considering, briefly, the thought of dropping him. But she stirred her powers very shallowly upon him and found him sincere. To him, she was a thing of genuine and abstract value, because he spent quite a lot of time feeling bored.”

He smiled and walked along with her, and she said, “You are very odd too, I think, Mabaya.”

He nodded genially, “I think that you are very right. Just for one example, that’s not my real name.”

Chapter Text

“Who’ziss?” A bulky boy-child with frowsy hair and a sad smattering of facial mane clicked open the communication channel.

“I am Carina Krylora. I have a private message for Yondu Udonta from my master.”

The childlike lips pouted, one eyebrow raised jauntily, “Well, you can tell it to me. I’m in charge of communications and-”

“Quill! Whozat yer talkin’ to?”

“None of your business, Kraglin, it’s private!”

A gaunt xandarian face with a slightly better mane poked into frame, “Whoziss?”

The one called Quill tried to shoulder the one called Kraglin aside, “It’s private, you dingus, get the hell outta-”

She took a very deep breath, firmed up her best vacant smile, and tried again, “I am Carina Krylora. I have a private-”

“I told you!” Quill bellowed, his voice cracking.

Kraglin pressed some toggle that dropped the back of the comms chair, and Quill’s face, from view, “Sorry, ma’am. Who was you sayin’ your message is for?”

“Yondu put me in charge!” Quill hollered.

“Well now I’m puttin’ you on notice.”

“I’m fifteen now, asshole, you can’t just-”

Carina felt her carefully blank expression flaring wildly as her smile clenched. “YONDU UDONTA PLEASE.”

Kraglin nodded and slid from view. A second later Quill popped back up into frame, scowly and flustered. Kraglin yelled something indistinguishable, and Quill yelled back, “I did not!” then shrugged, huffed, and hunkered toward the screen, “Sorry about him. The accident that screwed his face all up like that also did a number on his brain. Can’t expect any great prizes out of that crushed cereal box of a head.”

Carina kept smiling politely.

Another muffled yell from Kraglin.

Quill reflexively yelled, “You shut up!” he smiled, “Sorry, not you. Lemme just transfer you over to the captain’s private comms. I should warn you he’s in a little bit of a mood right now because someone,” he turned over his shoulder, “can’t seem to shut their lie-hole!”

The screen flicked over to a holding image. Carina carefully released her right hand’s death-grip on her left wrist and took deep, composing breath.

A faceless blue head flickered into frame, accompanied by a gravelly voice screaming, “-and then bring you back to life so I can do it again!” The head slowly turned forward to present a weathered smile full of jagged teeth and little sincerity, “Excuse my boys, missy. You got some business with me?”

“This channel is secure?”

“It is on my end. I see you’re callin’ from Knowhere, though, so I’m gonna watch what I say if it’s all the same to you.”

Carina fluttered a nod, and very briefly explained that The Collector was interested in materials associated with a sale by Udonta’s clan to the Grandmaster. Yondu nodded cannily, “Hmm, yeah I think we might still have some of the junk from that job around here,” he thought for a moment and without turning bellowed, “Quill!”

Carina jumped.

The youth’s voice came from out of frame, “I wasn’t listening!”

Yondu rolled his eyes, “You got any of the stuff from that cryo’d cyborg we skimmed off earth last annum?”

“Wha...Pfsh, no. Who cares about Earth crap. Or some russian guy that-” he got mumbly, “looked like if Rambo and John Stamos had a baby and it joined the Galaxy Rangers. Pfsh. No amount of cryo could make that cool.”

Yondu gave Carina a sly smile, “Really? Coulda sworn you spent a whole lotta time in the hold after that job. Talkin’ to yourself, I think?”

“Pfsh, yeah, whatever old man.”

“A well, that’s a shame. Sounds like The Collector himself might have wanted to buy the leftover gear and data from that haul but I guess you didn’t save any of it from being trashed after we sold the cyborg, huh? Too bad. Collector’s pretty generous when there’s something he wants. If I junked it and you salvaged it that woulda been your money, boy.”

The boy’s voice went’ up half an octave, “Uwahhhhhum....maybe? I mean, maybe I did? I don’t know. I mean some of it was, yanno. I’d have to look. Actually you know what, I do. I remember now, I definitely do. Like, all of it.”

Yondu chuckled indulgently, “Well, we were gonna swing by Knowhere right after the Ravager Gather for the spinward run races in a few-”

“It would be worth your while to come sooner. Quietly. There’s a-” she cleared her throat primly, “there’s a courier job besides. A biological sample. Time-sensitive.”

A flinty gleam returned to the ravager’s eye and his attention fixed back on her, “Izzat so?”

Carina swallowed, nodding, “How soon could you meet me in person at the occipital port?”

“A while, I expect. Depending on how much your master figures a while is worth,” he picked at his craggy teeth.

“I assure you there will be no need for haggling, certainly not on a channel you don’t trust. We’re both familiar with the needs of an ego where live cargo is concerned. I’d prefer to work with the only ravager that really understands that.”

The blue face paled, then soured, “It’ll take me about four of your cycles to get over there, I expect.”

“Perfect. Please contact me when you arrive. I shall take pains to assure that everything goes smoothly.”

---

“So was that when everything went wrong?” Mabaya opened in the middle of their mutual silence, leading along a series of walkways from the deserted parking deck area and towards a network of open promenades with denser foot traffic.

She blinked at him, half unhearing. Between the ache of worry and the layered grimy grandeur of Knowhere, she was struggling to attend to anything else. She’d grown up among grandeur, of course, but Ego’s grand ideas were set in patterns he thought were clever and tastes he was impressed by. His ever-changing wonders all followed a similar theme and scale, despite any lack of moderation or material constraint. Their uniform pomposity was instantly stale to her, and they were gone again before any circumstantial character could develop. His tastes had changed gradually, a few times, but had frozen dead once he’d built the protective shell around his core.

Knowhere up close was a forest of tiny improvisations and visible time, feeling and functional compromises pushing and pulling it into a lived shape like bone, mismatched bits salvaged from somewhere and last-parts remaining of some whole that had been scavenged. The unliving structures, close up, expressed a scale of living beyond anything she had known. Finally being close enough to touch it seemed unreal, and there was so much of it in every direction.

She glanced at Mabaya to hazard a reply and was similarly distracted trying to decode his details and finding them too abundant and vibrantly mismatched. He was young and lean, but his demeanor had a weight to it. His flight suit was bright red but of a clean and practical construction. His air of swagger and casual amusement felt more charitable than arrogant.

He tilted his head to one side, “Well?”

She blinked, “Well what?”

“I asked if the place where we met just now is where everything has gone wrong for you.”

She shrugged up the strap of her knapsack decisively, “Not everything is gone, or wrong.”

He kept walking, his smile glowing in profile, “I mean when everything departed from the way you had planned.”

She had to think about that, “I suppose. But only because the plan ran out and things had to keep going. There was not much plan to begin with, if I am honest.”

“I think It takes courage to make a jump like that without a plan.”

“I think it does, yes.”

“I will be honest, I was surprised that he left you behind.

She nodded, “I should not have been. Surprised, I mean. I failed the responsibility I took up for him.”

“To contain him?”

“No,” she smiled, “My job was to make him better. Not let him hurt himself anymore.”

Mabaya was quiet for a long beat, then, “He’s that valuable?”

She nodded decisively, “Yes. It is important to take him alive and unharmed,” she glanced at him hopefully, “I hope you will agree to that.”

Mabaya pondered that, silently, long enough that it made her uneasy, and then long enough for her attention to drift again.

A great variety of people passed them on the wide way, richly diverse in manner and dress. Most were flat-faced bipeds proportioned roughly like herself, ranging in size from less than half her height to more than twice. Others were monopods, knuckle-walkers, gliders, hoverers, and skitterers of every kind. Most seemed to be dressed for rough work or long travel, thick layers and simple fabrics and a common layer of the local smog, but everyone seemed to wear at least one splash of color, high plume, or bright spangle, as if to honor the hard place’s contradictory promises of liberty.

She gathered from the brisk way they all moved, regardless of form, that it was rude to look at one another. That made sense, the longer she thought about it. The more concrete details she noticed on any passerby; a hitch, a look, a badge, a smell; the more she wanted to stop and ask them who they were, where they came from, where they were going, what they were feeling, casually anxious to know their circumstances and what was going to happen next for each of them. If that was what it meant to be in love, it could quickly become awkward, considering she did not have time.

She ventured to distract herself from the distraction, “So what is your name?”

He shrugged, “I am not the person that was given a name. What I was called where I was born, when I became known, just means ‘badness’. Illness. But my swahili was never very good. Wakanda is rather insular, and prefers its own language, even over others spoken in Africa.”

She didn’t entirely understand, and hadn’t entirely listened. She nodded thoughtfully, “Is Africa close to earth?”

He favored her with a bemused smile, “Very.”

“But they did not like you there?”

“They had good reason. I killed a very handsome and likable fellow.”

“That does seem like a fair reason.”

“I am inclined to agree.”

“Do you often kill people?”

“No, just the one.”

“That is lucky.”

He grinned wickedly, “For those in my company, certainly.”

She nodded earnestly, “And for you, too. I find being a monster very unpleasant.”

He didn’t seem to have an answer to that.

It was both a disappointment and a relief to her when Mabaya’s path turned down an open stairwell to a less-populated understreet lined with dim modular shops, instead of continuing into a densely thronged open market.

“He came this way?”

Mabaya nodded, “I watched from above. He seemed to want to avoid people. And vice versa. He has quite the air about him, your creature. He went down another four levels before he fell.”

“He fell?” she looked down, ”how far? What is down there?”

“At the very bottom, a retaining pool, and a series of grates to keep things from falling in, and to keep the things in the water from rising when the water does. Most things that can’t find another place end up down by the water.”

They passed a broad landing on their way down, with an encampment of children sleeping around the flame of a detached micro-fusion jet. She looked out across the cavernous dimness and saw flickers of other flames on other stairways, and struggled not to become consumed by wonder at the thought of being a child among other children.

Then she saw, in the middle distance, three flickers descending like falling stars. Aero-rigs. She pointed, “Look there. I think they may be some hunters that were tracking him.”

Mabaya eyeballed their trajectory and nodded, “Could be. We’d best head them off quickly if we’re to protect your wild man from them.”

“Or them from him, yes.”

Chapter Text

He was being followed. He could feel it in the nape of his neck, taste it in his fillings like tinfoil.

It had always been like that, out in the world, with Steve. A little weaker, maybe, but just like that. That prickle, before he consciously spotted the bully down the block waiting for them to get off the trolley with his mom’s grocery money, or before he made the sniper on a wall siting the star on Steve’s chest. It tightened the set of his shoulders, made his mind go as smooth and focused as the car on its rail, the slide in the rifle. Next stop: not today, you sonsabitches. It was that prickle that said put up ‘em up, chamber the round, focus down. It meant the other guy would get got, and never know what hit’em.

He felt it in his throat like an impulse to bite. Someone was looking to pick a fight. Someone who was going to get got. He let the icy certitude of that anger push out the fear.

The soldier sight flicked on without comment, falling into formation with his other senses. He didn’t look. He didn’t have to. Two behind, one off to the side, high up but descending. Closing in. He kept walking straight. It occurred to him that he didn’t have his rifle. Sub optimal. He made a fist, testing. His knuckles were stiff, split and bloody. When had that happened? Didn’t matter. He could fight southpaw.

The layer of grate above, between him and them, would shield him if they meant to take him with fists or nets or projectiles. It would trap him if they came at him with sonics or gas or beam weapons. Lacking intel, he needed options. There was a pillar fifty feet ahead, through the ceiling and the floor and into the water, extending up beyond sight. It had a ramp alongside to the level above him, closest clean opening for another quarter mile. He knew they carried long weapons. Why did he know that? Three big enemies, long weapons...

The soldier plucked sullenly at his ear, wanting to be given control, to take Barnes out of the equation. No go, he thought. He’d made sergeant out of basic because he was a tactical thinker, and three-on-one without gear was about tactics, not targets. There’s no mission in this fight, he thought. Soldat falls apart without a mission. Your owners count on that. Better listen to the only superior in earshot to get us out of this. We'll survive, escape, return. Let me keep my head. I won’t hold back. Comply?

Comply. The phantom nerves up his left arm bristled, but the soldier stopped its muttering. He would pay for that later. It didn’t like when he got strong. He felt it fingering the lock on a box of horrors, the needles that contained the voices, reminding him that his lucidity was at its discretion, but it let him keep his head. He wasn’t fighting it. He wasn’t digging. They had a common enemy, for the moment, closing in. 

The plates of the metal arm fanned open slightly, the resonance dampers retracting, picking up echo and feeding data directly to his spine. The one to the side had gotten well ahead and doubled back, heading for the ramp by the pillar. The two behind had found some kind of drop-gate. They were on his level. He had missed that. Sloppy. Fine. Whatever. Better beat the one up ahead to the ramp, then.

Anticipation spread from his throat down his shoulders, warm and numbing.

He broke into a run.

---

Jain’s wide eyes adjusted easily on the last dark landing, scanning the branching catwalks for a way to span the final long drop to the upper grates, “Is there a way down?”

Mabaya shook his head, “Nah, they don’t want the stuff that’s down there to have a way back up. Can you see him?”

The depth of the metal lattice made it hard to discern at an angle, but fear made her hyper-aware of motion. A dark grey shape flickered past below, moth-like, heading for a dark pillar and a hole in the floor, and beyond that the dim light of a descending aero rig, “There.”

---

The edge of the wide ramp gave him a sturdy push-off, and a kick off the pillar planted him on the upper grate first. The hunter that rounded the pillar a second after was big, with jagged teeth and a face like burnt beef, and they startled visibly to see him so close. They carried a long weapon and he knew...he knew they spoke kree. He didn’t recognize the hunter, couldn’t think what “kree” even sounded like, and yet-

Stop thinking. He closed the distance before they could get their weapon around. They were fast, but only for someone their size, and he landed a solid left as they backpedaled in the dark, shaken. His adversary couldn’t see half as well in the dark as he could, plainly. His pale skin and tunic were probably doing him no favors, but he was willing to bet the dark sleeves and gloves were making his arms and shoulders impossible to read.

He proved himself right, feinted left and seized the weapon by the barrel, pulling the muzzle past his side to close with the hunter. The long weapon discharged into the dark behind him, some kind of lightless pulse. Two more hard hits to the pitted face and knotty throat, and the weapon was in his hands. One quick turn to get all his strength behind a single swing with the long gun, and the biggest hunter went down, missing several jagged teeth, their consciousness going, going, gone.

It was less than a breath before two lightless pulses struck him in the back and one of his lower ribs let out a jolt of continuing pain that pierced his combat numbness for several long moments before his endorphin levels could adjust. He kept his feet but staggered sideways, hoping to get the pillar between himself and his new dance partners.

---

She turned to Mabaya and found him gaping, shaking his head. She touched his shoulder solicitously, “What is it? Are you afraid of heights?”

He scoffed, “No, I’m afraid of your wild man. I think we should let the hunters soften him up as much as they can before we try to take him. There’s no way they’re going to stop him.”

The thought of abandoning him to a beating, either giving or receiving, hurt her heart, “I can not.”

“Well if you activate his disk before he takes them out, we’re just going to have them to contend with anyway.”

She eyeballed the distance down, silently trying to convince herself that it wasn’t all that far. Maybe three times her height? Four? She sighed and pulled out the net, trying to work one of the knots Jonkarter had shown her around a sturdy part of the landing.

“No!” Mabaya grabbed her wrist, shaking the ropes out of her hand incredulously, “Just wait. You don’t know what else is down there.” As if to contribute to his point, an eerie gravelly barking came from the distance below and ahead of them, and was answered by a similar sound from off to the left, “Those puppies smell blood.”

She’d begun to understand people enough to realize that her new friend (and captor) was just going to keep giving more reasons that he thought proved his point, but in fact only increased her sense of urgency. There was no time for that. She put a hand on his cheek, smiled apologetically, and pushed, “Sleep.”

It felt strange, like trying to dig through wireweed. She couldn’t reach anything that responded to her instructions, and the feelings she sent into him swirled apart like smoke. His expression changed from concern to shock, and he swiped her hand from his face, turning her shoulder over, forcing her to bend down. Her legs went reflexively loose, submitting, and she dropped so fast that the side of her head cracked against the rail with the sound of breaking bone.

“Shit,” he muttered, loosening the severity of his grip on her arm but resting his other hand on her shoulder in warning, keeping her down, “I didn’t mean you to hit your head like that. Are you alright? What were you trying to do to me? What are you playing at?”

Something warm was dripping down the side of her face. Not tears. She knew better than to cry, even as her head swam and lost track of what was happening. The voice was stern, not enraged, the hands firm, not cruel. She tried to apologize, but it came out as a half-babbled moan.

---

He drew the next-largest hunter into his orbit, pivoting the two of them around the pillar out of sight-line of the third. With a hard left-cross he knocked the visored helmet askew, and his opponent lost seconds shaking the thing off, revealing a head that was smooth and grey with beady lizard eyes and a crest of spines. They tried to step back but he moved with them, looming into their space. Too close to shoot with the pulse weapon, they swung on him with the shaft. He ducked low, sidestepping underneath, grabbing lizard-face’s neck and ramming their head downward into his rising knee. They had a thick skull and stayed up, swinging again and catching him in the jaw with a surprise jab from the butt of the weapon.

He grabbed lizard-face by the strap of their jetpack, leading another quarter-turn around the pillar to keep them out of engagement range of the third hunter, who thankfully seemed obliged to hang back. Probably the “leader”. He huffed a sigh, eager to get done with lizard-face and get his hands on lieutenant leads-from-behind. He pinned the unlucky grunt to the pillar with the long rifle across their neck and pulled back his left fist to permanently put out some lights.

There was a small sound, high and far away. He felt it before he heard it, someone sighing in pain. His fist flew as hard as he could throw it, three brutal strikes in succession throwing dark shrapnel out of the dent he gouged in the pillar, completely missing the pinned target.

A trembling uneasiness was spreading in his gut, holding him back, I’m not going to kill anyone.

No time no time no time for this, his tactical mind slapped at him. The soldier at his ear snarled. He’d promised it he wasn’t going to hold back, that it could trust him to kill. He yanked lizard-face around again, pulling them both down the deep end of the opening to the ramp, turning to land his partner on the bottom and scrambling away when that stopped them moving.

He dodged back around the pillar on the lower level as the last hunter circled towards the edge of the hole, hoping lieutenant leads-from-behind had dark vision as poor as hamburger-face.

---

Jain was wavering dizzily, so Mabaya let her lower to the ground and put her knapsack under her head, noticing the blood on her face, “Damn,” he muttered, mostly to himself, “Looks like one of those little bone ornaments on your mask-strap shattered and cut your scalp.”

He pulled out a rag and worked to staunch the blood, “Just a flesh-wound, I think. Don’t worry.”

Carefully he lifted her bone mask and tried to slide the goggles back, meeting resistance that made his captive moan in pain and try to grab his wrist.

“Ah ah ah, no,” he chided, catching her hand in a second bit of cloth, “Whatever it is you do with those, you’re not going to do it to me. I’m already angry with you for trying the first time. I just wanted to keep you from getting hurt, now you might be concussed,” he sighed as her arm drooped passively back to the floor, “I am sorry about your head though. I do try very hard not to hurt people. I didn’t think you would collapse like that. You surprised me,” he smirked, “again.”

She opened her eyes for a moment, patting him deliberately on the thick shoulder of his jumpsuit, murmuring “I know how that feels.”

Some sharp sounds of struggle reached them from below, and another ominous set of distant yips.

She tried to sit up, “I am fine, please, I have to help him.”

He tucked the cloth into her hand and lead her to press it against the small but determinedly gory wound.

He stood up, grumbling, “No, you are bleeding. Scalp wounds are minor but very dramatic, and you will just draw the puppies. I will rescue him."

She looked confused but said, "Thank you," very softly.

He huffed a sigh, "You are a very bad bounty hunter. You are lucky that you are weird and interesting. If you stop bleeding before I get back, you can come help. Otherwise stay here. Promise.”

She nodded, hooking a thumb under the back strap of her goggles and pulling the whole mask forward and up off her head, a pair of long feathered antennae unfurling as she sighed, her eyes unfocused, “I promise. You are a very bad captor.”

He nodded agreement as he tied the net securely around a rail, slung his gun across his back, and climbed down, noting that there were suddenly no more sounds of struggle coming from the grates by the pillar, hoping that meant that his best-case had come true and they had all knocked each other helpless.

He checked the large unconscious one up top, probably only concussed but far worse-off than Jain. He checked the pale scaly one at the bottom of the ramp. Same. He stalked carefully around the pillar twice, finding nothing. No third hunter, no Mizuri. He listened. No distant struggling. No footfalls. Like they had just vanished into thin air.

He was dragging the scaly one up the ramp by the straps of their aero rig when he groaned and slapped his forehead, realizing the third hunter could have flown Mizuri straight up the far side of the pillar like a squirrel dodging a cat, to just about anywhere in Knowhere by that point.

He grimaced sourly at the two unconscious hunters, stripping them of their aero rigs, relieving the smaller one of a wrapped pack made of sheeting, rifling their clothes for identification and weapons. The yips of scavengers were sounding closer and more numerous, gathering strength. He glanced toward where Jain was lying, at the net hanging down, at the dark all around him, and cursed himself for ever wanting an interesting day.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Jain, wake up, I need your help.”

Mantis opened her eyes, blinking blearily. She recognized Mabaya, standing over her expectantly. Her head hurt. She prodded her scalp where the bloody cloth had stuck on, and then another realization had her searching her bare forehead with a gasp of alarm, finding her antennae waving in the air and as sore to the touch as the rest of her head.

Mabaya sighed, “No worries about those. They're cute. Anyway I’m not prejudiced. Do you speak kree?”

She felt around for her mask, nodding.

“Come help me question these goons. My kree isn’t good, and we need to know more from them than ‘how much does this cost’ and ‘where is the bathroom’. Here, put this on.”

A small heap of metal and straps landed beside her as she got her goggles back down over her antennae, wincing. She couldn’t tell if she suddenly disliked Mabaya or if she was just grumpy and in pain, but she felt like she had a better understanding of Jonkarter’s enjoyment of complaining. So that was good, she told herself. New experiences were good. Ego typically left her alone to sleep it off when she was in pain. But she wasn’t hurting all over, just in her head. And she was having new thoughts. That was good.

It surprised her when Mabaya jumped over the railing, until he bobbed back into sight, hovering. She picked up the other aero rig and slowly buckled it on. It was well designed, adjusted snugly over her armor. She didn’t know how to read the labels, but it only took a little fumbling to figure out the on-switch and the auto-controls for landing and hovering. She stepped off the platform by Mabaya, “Where are the goons?”

He grinned and lowered himself by a body length. Wrapped in the net and tied to the underside of the catwalk were two helpless mercenaries. One was grey, scaly, and unconscious. The other was big, gristly, struggling, and smelled like pee. She looked down and realized that Mabaya’s “puppies” had gathered below them, alert and silent, the largest maybe half as big as Snuggles.

She counted only three, but then noticed smaller ones in the shadows of the others. A family. They had patchy grey fur that blended to black around four shining black eyes, short sharp muzzles, and large pointed ears. They licked their chops with long slimy tongues that seemed to have evolved for lapping up water through thick grates. Their ready stances were taut and fidgety, four long legs and articulated paws that gripped around the metal floor. Long naked tails with tufted ends waved back and forth, small patches of white sitting up on their backs when they bristled.

They were so adorable. She had never wanted to pet or feed anything so much in all her life. Well, almost never, she amended. Jonkarter was a weird quantity in that ranking. She was already thinking of names for each of them when Mabaya interrupted.

“Jain?”

She looked up, “Hm?”

He gestured at the craggy-faced goon, “Ask about their plan for your wild man. Let him know that if they cooperate, I will happily set them free, and if they don’t,” he grinned at the place where one end of the net was secured to the walk with a simple bow, “I will happily let them go.”

She nodded, trying to figure out how Jain would ask questions of a prisoner. She’d never had one before, unless she counted Carina. She didn’t want to count Carina. It made her sad. She’d been a prisoner plenty, though. She set her jaw and tried to think of the goon as a nanite, something that was just supposed to do what Jain wanted without question, or a flea that was annoying her and deserved to be crushed.

“Hey, look at me,” she snapped.

He snarled at her through broken, jagged teeth, his voice as rough and unpleasant as his face, “Let me out of here!”

She tossed her head haughtily, carefully replacing her mask when it went askew, “If you answer questions well, we will let you out. If you answer badly, we will let you fall. My head hurts, so you better answer very well if you want me to notice. Those puppies are hungry, and I already do not like you.”

“Questions,” he sneered, “ask.”

“Why were you hunting that cyborg?”

“Just a job. Kraliss picked it up off a kree subnet.”

“For who?”

He scoffed, “Clean my genitals with your tongue.”

Jain blinked, taken aback by the odd and vivid answer. Mabaya interjected, “Wow, that phrase I actually know. Remind him that we’ve caught two of them and only really need one to have a tongue at all.”

Jain sighed. She could make vivid ideas too. “My friend loves puppies. He wants to cut pieces off you and throw them down, like feeding dewbirds at a pond. You should probably not mention genitals again.”

The hunter glanced at Mabaya, who beamed agreeably.

She nodded with reassurance and sympathy, “He is from Wakanda. They are crazy as hell.” She felt herself blushing at lying so much, and enjoying it so much, scaring a goon without touching him. She liked lying. Well, Jain liked lying, she thought. Mantis was usually too scared to lie. Too stupid.

Gristly grumbled, “The orders changed. Originally we were supposed to capture some escaped collectables before the bounty went out, the cyborg and some kind of mantid mind-controller, and bring them both to Carina at the Occipital Port, unconscious, unharmed, concealed.”

She felt she must have heard wrong, “Not kill them? Either of them?”

Gristly shook their head, “Both alive. But just before we got a good signal on the cyborg, Kraliss said the plan had changed.”

“Changed why? By who?”

“Don’t know. Just that the plan changed. Said it was a better offer. Said we were gonna hold them both for a few work cycles before taking them to a drop point,” he grinned, “and it would be alright if we had  to hurt them.”

She blinked, stunned, “Why?”

Gristly shrugged, “Don’t know. Ask Kraliss.”

“Is Kraliss the snoring grey one over there?”

Gristly laughed, “No.”

Jain pondered for a moment, “What place was Kraliss going to take them to hold them?”

“Don’t know,” a slow smile split their face unpleasantly, “But I have a guess what place it might be.”

She waited. They waited. The silence stretched. A puppy gave a high-pitched yawn.

“What did he say?” Mabaya asked.

Jain shrugged in exasperation, “I do not know. They have not said it yet.”

Mabaya squinted at her, “What?”

“What.”

He spread his hands, “Haven’t said what yet?”

“Exactly,” she gestured at their captive, repeating herself slowly, “They have not said what.”

Mabaya spoke slower, “What ‘what’ have they not said?”

“What they guess the place is.”

“What place?” he sounded tense.

She nodded, “Yes, exactly. They do not guess. But I do not know why.”

Mabaya blinked, “Why what?”

“Why not-guess,” she explained patiently.

“Because I…” he stared at her for a second, “Just tell me what he said.”

“I cannot, they have not-”

“-said it yet,” Mabaya concluded with her. He exhaled slowly, “What was the last thing he did say.”

“That they do not know for sure what place their leader, Kraliss, would take the cyborg to hold him, but that they have a guess.”

Mabaya breathed a sigh of evident relief, “Ah. I see. He’s not afraid of you. He wants to play tough, in case we are bluffing.” He shook his head and began sorting through his pockets, muttering, “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

“Who?”

He smiled, finding a knife, “Nevermind. Old joke.”

Her eyes widened at the knife. That was not funny, “Th-they are helpless. What are you going to do?”

He hovered over close to the craggy face, holding the knife up for them to see. He held up his other hand and slit it swiftly open across the palm, dark red blood running down his forearm and dripping off his elbow. As the droplets landed among the puppies they leaped and snapped and whined and snarled, and Mabaya’s grin grew wider. He browsed down Gristly’s tangled length and reached into the net to smear blood all over their feet and ankles, “Tell him I hope that they start at his feet and work their way up, so he can’t run away and it takes him a long time to die.”

She tried not to sound afraid, the image in her mind, “He said that he hopes the puppies…”

Mabaya was up in front of Gristly’s face again, showing them his palm, and Gristly’s eye began to twitch at one corner, looking past Mabaya at Mantis, “Get away from me! They’d’ve gone to the pits!”

She spoke soothingly, as she often did as a first defense when she was spooked and others were agitated, “Mabaya, back away.” She returned to kree, “The pits?”

Gristly was snarling, anger concealing fear in a way she pitied, “If Kraliss got hold of your cyborg, they’re probably heading to the pits. That greedy asshole would never pass up a little extra gambling income on the side. Not with a package in hand that fights like that thing does and needs to be softened up anyhow. It’s where I would go.”

She turned back to Mabaya, “He says they probably took him to someplace called…” she had to think for a moment about an equivalent word, “The...the holes? The…”

“The pits? The fighting pits?”

She nodded, “Yes, sounds like. For gambling. It is hard for me to tell words for objects sometimes if I am not…” she shook her head, “They need to hold him, and could mean to bet on fighting while they wait. This one does not know any other details. Should we wake the other?” she frowned at his hand, “Are you alright?”

He nodded, wiping blood off his wrist and arm with a long cloth that he then dropped, letting the sound of vigorous tearing filter up as the puppies got hold of it, “I doubt the other will tell us much more. This is getting boring. Let’s go find your guy.”

“You are not bleeding anymore.”

“Nope. Still pisses me off that he decided to test us, though. It was a lot of work hauling them out of puppy-snack range. Ungrateful ass. Tell him he can find his own way out of that net.”

Mantis made a doubtful face, turning back to Gristly, “How certain are you that this Kraliss went to the pits? Would you bet your freedom on it?”

Gristly nodded assuredly, salvaging dignity, “Yeah. I answered you. Now get me out of here.”

“We will send Kraliss back to get you when we see them.”

“What?! But...but...”

“You think maybe we will not see them there? If you have a better guess you should say so.

“Wh-but...no but if…” he trailed off into snarling and struggling and she hovered back over to the landing.

Mabaya was going through the hunters’ packs, tucking away some things, tossing out others. One was made from sheeting she recognized, and that gratified her. Mabaya made a face, “Who the hell packs this much preserved blubber on an urban bounty hunt? I know city prices are ridiculous this far out but this is enough for camping in zero kelvin.” He set aside several shiny packages.

“It is food?”

“Loosely interpreted.”

“You do not want it?”

He wrinkled his nose, “No.”

“Can I have it?”

He looked at her, perplexed, “That’s pretty much what ‘I don’t want it’ means, as far as I’m concerned.”

She picked up an armload of the packs and hopped over the edge again, hovering over to Gristly, “Here,” she pushed one through the net, “In case it takes us some time and you get hungry.”

Grisly scowled at her but held his tongue.

“I am going to give the rest to the puppies, so maybe they stop being hungry and waiting for you to fall.”

“You’re a damn thief.”

She shrugged, “You steal people. I do not feel bad.” She tapped his forehead, “Sleep.”

The puppies barked fiercely at her, standing over the small ones as she hovered down closer.

She could not help smiling, “I will not steal your small ones, I promise,” she wrestled with the first shiny package, “No matter how much I want to,” she admitted, “I want to steal all of you. Collect you. But I will not. You belong to each other.”

She tossed them food, churning the puppy pack into a slavering milling mass of excited fur and dander, the largest adult continuing to regard her evenly, never blinking more than two eyes at once. After half a dozen packages, two of the adults and all of the small ones headed off towards the ramp and down to drink some water. The largest one stayed, still staring at her but no longer snarling. She hovered down a little closer, getting the last package open. The puppy backed away and circled as she descended, rumbling warning in its throat.

Her feet touched down and she tossed it a chunk of food. It caught it. She did it again. The process repeated and the puppy’s pace slowed. She could not help smiling, “You are so big and strong, you do not have to be scared of me.”

The puppy yarped deeply in response and paced a little closer. It had deep scars on its face and flanks. It protected the family from harm.

She held out a piece, trembling, knowing it might get her hurt. She could let the left hand get hurt. As it drew close, it started to rumble warning again, but its shoulders were square and confident, level with her chest. It put its muzzle onto the food with an air of entitlement, and she bent one finger to touch its chin as her lights flared, whispering, “I like you very much.”

The puppy whined and shook its head, large ears flapping. It butted its forehead into her chest and stuck its nose into the remains of the bag, licking greedily at the last of the grease. She pet it on the head, breathless and glowing happily, “I think you are wonderful.”

The puppy turned to follow its family, free and wild, rubbing its whole pungent, bony, bristly side along her front as it went and knocking her back a half step. Halfway to the ramp, it stopped and looked back, as if annoyed that she wasn’t following. She smiled, “No, you go. I do not belong to you either. I can not take care of you. There is someone else I have to find.”

The puppy snuffled indignantly and went after the others.

When she returned, Mabaya seemed satisfied with his take and leave piles. He shook his head at her, “You feed wild dogs, all you get is more wild dogs.”

She beamed hopefully, “Do you really think so?”

He sighed, standing up and handing her a pack, “Or in your case, you get covered in dog-stink. Carry this on your front, so the rig doesn’t burn it.”

She nodded, pawing briefly through the small pile of things he’d decided to leave behind, “Did you find a small vial full of powdered glass wrapped in a cloth?”

He shook his head, “Nah. Is it important?”

She sighed, “No. Someone wanted it for someone else.”

He appraised her skeptically, “I saw what you did to that goon. So you were just trying to make me sleep like that?”

She nodded, prodding the sore side of her head sheepishly.

He pursed his lips soberly, “Nice trick. Don’t do it again.”

“Sorry.”

He shrugged, “Don’t be. I made you my prisoner. Prisoners try to escape.”

She smiled, “That is true, I guess.”

He got his pack fixed across his chest, “So why didn’t you run off once he told you where to look? Or lie to me about what he said so you could run off later?”

She thought for a moment, wishing she had thought of that, “Maybe I did lie. Maybe I will run off.”

Mabaya sighed patiently, “You didn’t. And you won’t. I know where the pits are and you don’t,” he shook his head, dismayed, “You are the worst bounty hunter. Even selling all these takings, even splitting whatever your wild man is worth, I expect to lose money looking after you.”

“Then why not run off?”

“Because I put most of the valuable things in your pack.”

“Why did you do that?”

He grinned, “So I could not run off.”

She laughed, baffled, “You are very weird.”

He took off into the air, heading for the pits, idly rubbing his palm, “This is very true.”

Chapter Text

Carina fell into bed, exhausted. She pulled her pigtails down harshly, shaking out bits of crystalline excrement and dried sheigla skin, too tired to bathe or care. She promised herself she would get up and stand under the sterilization lamp, at least. Soon.

Every part of her ached and weighed a ton.

She reached and pulled her scanner to her, propping it up and flipping it on, keying to check on her contacts in the subnet and the status of her hunters. Encrypted chatter slowly filtered out, leaving only a flashing red string of symbols she had expected to be green. They had been green at the beginning of the cycle.

Contract Cancelled. Penalty Paid.

Suddenly alert, she bolted up and began keying delves and overrides, a cold fire kindling in her stomach to know how, why, who. It didn’t take much work to see that Kraliss had cancelled the job directly. It took more work to determine that the down payment refund and cancellation penalty had come from somewhere else. Someplace above her identity’s subnet clearance, which wasn’t especially high, and her skill level in kree code extraction, which was.

At least she could confirm that it wasn’t Tivan. A quick peek through the back door into the collection’s private transactions confirmed that her master had neither contacted nor paid any mercenaries at all, kree or otherwise. Some third party had put out a job and bought out her mercs.

That level of intervention in a subnet contract implied kree military, which implied intense interest from above.   

She sat back against the wall of her tiny dim room on her tiny hard bed, breathing a sigh of provisional relief. On the one hand, good. She was a devoted kree asset. If the kree were out to capture Mantis and the cyborg, her own troubles were over. Tivan was determined, but his ambitions were slow and diffuse. As long as he relied on her to manage posting for the pursuit of his collectables, she could see to it that the kree got there first, and her superiors would smooth over any consequences for her once they had what they wanted. She was in the clear.

On the other hand…

The cold fire in her stomach twisted into an awkward knot, turned to lead, and rolled over. Without even thinking she thumbed the readout aside and the still image from the gladiator’s box, of that odd and tender embrace, shone from the scanner’s screen, casting ghosts across Carina’s face. The rough hand gentle on smooth hair. The relief and anxiety mingled around his eyes.

If the kree wanted them, it wasn’t to send them to the gladiator’s homeworld to live out peaceful lives. It wouldn’t be anything even remotely like that.

She ran her calloused fingers through her hair, finding more bits of biotrash and flicking them away. She didn’t care. She was certain that she didn’t care. It had been taken out of her hands.

She shouldn’t care. She didn’t owe those two idiots a damned thing.

It took more than a quick subnet search to find the contract Kraliss had picked up to replace hers. Direct messages were a fiendishly sticky get. Fortunately the mercs had left their communicator synced with the scanner she’d given them to track the escapees’ disks. Even then she had to play a lucky hunch to descramble the text, presuming that a large chunk of the offer was just a rehash of the bounty contract she’d originally written, including descriptions and time of escape. It was just the terms that were new.

Payment 3x plus buyout. Isolate and retain, six cycles. Deliver to main port alive, contained, pacified.

Six cycles. No contact identity. Keeping the fugitives away from the occipital port long enough for Udonta to show up, get pissed off, and leave again. Maybe a coincidence.

It wasn’t her problem. She’d risked Tivan’s wrath to give them a chance. That was more than dangerous enough. The wrath of the kree Supreme Intelligence or the fanatical purists was immeasurably worse and harder to hide from. In no way shape or form could the fate of those mismatched refugees be considered her problem.

She closed the subnet and deactivated the scanner, the image of the fleeting and fragile embrace glowing brightly for a second before going dark.

---

Consciousness restored. Time elapsed: two hours six minutes. Location: unknown. Alien planet, dummy. Correction. Location: undefined. Asset Status: damaged, stable. Asset Custody: uncertain.

The view through the soldier’s eyes was grainy and muddled. The environmental light kept shifting unpredictably. The soldier’s grip on him wasn’t tight enough to keep him from thinking, but he couldn’t get it to shut the hell up.

Damage report: Organic components seventy-one percent functional. Bruised bones. Overtaxed pain suppressors. Minor facial lacerations. Occipital concussion. Extensive chronic degenerative strain and fatigue. Hungry. Hardware enhancements eighty-three percent functional. Balance sensor malfunction. Weight stabilizer offline. Non-critical synaptic interruptions. Software enhancements twenty percent functional. Recovery function offline. Trigger function compromised. Repeated misfires and mid-performance failures. Mandatory hard reset overdue. Time synchronization overdue. Invasive personality detected. Yeah, I detect you, too.

Situation assess: pending. I tried to protect us and you threw a tantrum. Error. Situation assess: pending. I had a plan to get us home and you ruined it. Error. Situation assess: pending. I met someone who was going to help me and you...you...I… Error. Soft reset in three...two... no wait no no n-

A tearing pain started in his left shoulder and spread up his neck. It was what a heart attack felt like, someone had told him once. He couldn’t move his lungs. His eyes froze wide. Things got unbearably bright very fast.

Consciousness restored. Time Elapsed: six minutes. Location: unknown.

He let himself sink into his seat as the stiff announcements echoed into the theater behind his eyes from some distant adjoining room, a tinny hiss scratching at his awareness like a dry pen. He wished they’d shut that door. The air conditioning and projector seemed to be having trouble, too. It was uncomfortably warm, and the images wouldn’t cohere. He was thirsty again. Where was the girl with the water? He was aware that he was half-dreaming, but it was hard to tell which half, the part where he was dissociating himself into a dark theater, or the part where his imagination ran away with him and he thought he was living inside the movie on the screen. Either way he had to pee.

Situation assess: pending.

His body shook from a gentle electrical spasm. He was strapped into his seat, across his chest, wrists, and ankles. It was not uncomfortable, tight, or hard. Professional restraints. Waiting restraints. Valued asset restraints. Perfunctory but humane.

His head ached, but was free to move. He panned left and right. Close walls, shallow room, small box, like a closet. The door in front of him had a barred window too high up to see out. Lights moved past, whirling the window’s striped shadow around the inside of the box above his head. No stars, just stripes.

No audio but a dull ringing in his ears. Muffled voices. Wind sounds that didn’t stir the stuffy space. Dizzy. Floating. He was going to be sick.

Consciousness restored. Time elapsed: Two hours six minutes.

He was on his back. Same chair, same closet, different gravity. Someone had lain the box down like a coffin. The back of his head was cold. There was some kind of ice pack strapped there. It hurt, but it made the uncomfortable heat all around him bearable. He sank back into the theater behind his eyes. They’d had some good pictures lately. Fred Astaire. Tarzan. Flash Gordon.

An invasive contrarian thought twitched in his chest, urging him to remember, Snow White.

Christ, he muttered to himself in the dark, shut up, Barnes. Just leave it alone. Just shut up and leave it alone and stop insisting on everything being as painful and miserable as possible all the time. Stop fighting when there’s no escape. Just let it be easy. Stop smashing your head into the wall. Stop pretending you’re clever. It doesn’t fucking matter what I do anymore.

Pinnochio.

Shut up, I swear to god. Shut. The fuck. Up. You’re going to wake it up again and it’s going to be angry and it’s going to fucking hurt me and I am just so fucking tired of it hurting all the time! What do I have to do to make you stop?!

Who do you think you’re talking to, soldier? He sounded like he was using that charming reassuring smile on himself. The one that had been foolproof, once upon a time.

“Shut up!” he hissed inside the box outside. His lip was bleeding. His mouth tasted sick. “I’m not you. You don’t exist. You…”

He closed his eyes behind his eyes, wishing he could scream, wishing he could cry, trapped inside his head and out of his mind.

Go on, whispered the disembodied voice haunting him from his own body, Say it.

“You died.”

That shut it up for a full ten seconds.

True enough he felt himself admit with an amiable shrug. Get some sleep.

But as he let himself sink, he felt one more parting jab from around  his kidneys.

Frankenstein...

---

Mantis leaned against a curved ceramic wall and fidgeted with a little stack of slabs that were supposedly food, watching as Mabaya argued with the owner of a pod kiosk in the open market. She felt hungry, but she didn’t want to eat. She picked off a piece of the beige spongy slab on top and rolled it into a granule the size of her fingertip, like she ate on Ego’s planet. It was squishy and salty on her tongue, tinged with the musty motor flavor of the air that high up in the city.

That had been a surprise. The mist she’d mistaken for clouds was mostly oil smoke and dust, which made sense, once she thought about it. If the gravity mostly ignored it, why wouldn’t smog pool upwards? Everything and everyone in the market was smudged and vaguely sticky. It made her feel sad. Or something did, at least. People walked past, beautiful and strange, and it just made her chest hurt. She did not want to be there. It was too much. Each face just made her look for the next face, and the next, and the next. None of them were the right one. She acknowledged, with a defeated sigh, that she was beginning to understand “lonely.”

She made another granule and swallowed it, feeling strange as it passed through the raw cold place between her mouth and her stomach. Her head still hurt. She wanted to sleep.

Mabaya came back, his pack significantly lighter and his smile much brighter after selling off several worthless bulky things. He glanced at her hands and frowned, “What’s the matter? Are you vegetarian?”

She shook her head, not recognizing the word, “I do not think so. I have not eaten these before. It is strange.”

He narrowed his eyes, “Do you live alone in a cave in the spinward dark or something? Every culture in the galaxy with thumbs eventually invents a sandwich.”

She picked off another spongey morsel, her sadness thickening, “I am not very hungry.”

He frowned and shook his head, “Well. We won’t be able to get into the pits for another cycle and a half, so-”

“What? Why?”

He sighed, “Apparently the Grandmaster bought up a lot of the battle slaves when he was here last. They barely have enough bruteflesh left to run an entire card every third cycle. I expect the orloni tables and chance bars to be doing very well for the next little while. But this will make it much easier to find your wild man if he-”

She had a sudden thought and her posture straightened, “Can you sell me?”

He blinked at her, “Can I-?”

“To the pits. We might get in if we are business rather than customers. Can you sell me?”

His eyes closed and he sighed with a fragile-sounding patience, “Can you fight?”

She shrugged “I assume so.” Jonkarter certainly made it look easy. “Anyway I will not need to, if I have an entire cycle to find him and escape.” She knew she was quite good at escaping.

He shook his head, “The most basic insanity of that assertion aside, I can’t possibly sell you if you can’t convince the pitmasters that you can fight.”

“You just sold a rope made of rags and wire. You can convince them.”

“I sold junk to a junk shop. I can only sell a fighter to the fighting pits. Nobody that takes one look at you is going to be afraid of you.”

She shrugged, remembering Jonkarter’s voice and smiling. “Maybe not. But they should be.”

He smiled for a second then shook his head, “No. No it’s a terrible idea. In the first place, these are some hard characters. If I try to pass you off as a fighter, they’ll shoot you in front of me just to teach me a lesson for insulting them. In the second, this is Knowhere. Everyone running a business is savvy to the notion that everyone is trying to cheat them and steal from them and skip out on what they owe. I can’t bluff them. And you certainly can’t lie to them.”

Mantis drooped, feeling stuck and sad. Not only for herself. Jonkarter had been right. Someone was always going to find a way to use him for his purpose. A sudden idea threw itself across her head like a splash cold water. She grinned wide, explaining her proposal in a rush.

He shook his head, “You are lucky that I have a perverse sense of humor.”

“You will do it?”

“If we can get in to see the boss, and if we can confirm your man is there so this is not all for nothing, yes, I will try to sell you to the pits. One condition though.”

“All right.”

He shook a shapely finger at her, “No slavery until you finish your sandwich.”

Chapter Text

“How did you eat that many hot dogs?” Bucky exclaimed as they headed up the Rockaway boardwalk. Winter had harassed the Long Island shoreline well into May, creeping in off the water whenever the sun’s back was turned. They needed to find a way home before it got too late.

Steve shrugged amiably, “I was hungry. Anyway I didn’t eat them all myself.”

Bucky shook his head, “Aw Steve, not another stray dog.”

Steve gave a loaded scoff, “No! Course not.”

Bucky glanced at him for the punchline.

Steve shrugged, “It was a stray cat.”

Bucky laughed and stuck his hands down in his pockets, glad his mom had pressed his warm coat on him at the door, but wishing he'd brought a hat, too. He’d been feeling that wishful, coltish urge to swap into short sleeves and light jackets despite the chill, as if a change of uniform might trick the cold into finally surrendering in time for summer.

Steve’s mom hadn’t been feeling well the week before, and had been working a lot to make up for it. He’d come out in just his tan windbreaker. Bucky wanted more than anything to trade him his coat, keep his chest warm, but couldn’t figure a way to do it that wouldn’t just get him a dirty look. He’d settled for trying to get them off the boardwalk before full dark.

He shook his head at Steve, “You’re the Lord Greystoke of the greater metropolitan area. Or is it just that you’re a sucker for big green eyes?”

“You’re one to talk. I spent twenty cents, you blew three bucks. I thought you’d sworn off redheads.”

“Yeah, but you haven’t.” Bucky nudged into him with his elbow.

Steve nodded with exaggerated sobriety, “Now that you mention it, it was a ginger cat...”

Bucky guffawed, “Exactly! I was talking you up the whole time, dummy. Girls like her and her friend love guys like you.”

Steve made a face, “Stop it.”

“I’m serious! They’re maturing faster than us. Girls like that, they're fed up with guys like me.”

Steve nodded pensively, “You are objectively kinda terrible.”

“Right! But you, you played it perfect! You said hi, showed her that boyish smile, got through introducing yourself without throwing up on her shoes, conquered a roller coaster, and then excused yourself to go contemplate the ocean and create a little art. You showed yourself to be a man of substance, a budding college swell with a poetic soul.”

“And corrective shoes.”

“Bah. I’m telling you man, come September, it’s all over for mooks like me. You’re exactly what a real woman is gonna want.”

Steve glanced at him and smiled that indulgent, fleeting smile that had become rarer every year, the one that chose Bucky’s version over what he actually believed. That heavy smile had made Steve seem older when they were kids, but seemed younger and younger the older they got. Eventually it would stop being what it really was and become a nostalgic monument to itself, a muscle memory toast to that fleeting age of choosable innocence.

Back then it still signaled the surrender of Steve’s sharp-eyed skepticism, and his resistance beyond that was merely a matter of form, “With a story like that, pretty sure you’re the real poetic soul.”

Bucky shrugged expansively, exaggerating his brooklynite, “Eh, I’m Scots-Irish. Whaddaya gunna do?” he dropped the patter and glanced over, “I’m really glad you came out today.”

Steve smiled, taking a last glance at the water as they walked, “Yeah, me too. It’s been a good day. I feel good. The winter’s been too long.”

“Glad your mom’s feeling better.”

Steve nodded the wrong kind of nod.

“What is it?”

Steve glanced at him, that worried squint that meant just between you and me?

Bucky flicked a yeah, of course, duh eyebrow.

Steve grimaced and glanced down, “I don’t think she was sick. When she couldn’t go to work last week. I think maybe she was just sad.”

“Really?” he couldn’t picture it. Sarah Rogers didn’t exactly smile very often, but she never really seemed to get sad either. Her benevolence was solemn and unwavering, like a Catholic saint or the statue of Liberty. “Sad about what?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “probably me.”

“Ah come on, don’t do that. Did she say that?”

“She didn’t say anything. That’s the thing. I mean, It happens sometimes, that she’ll get sad. She just doesn’t like for folks to see. But she didn’t take out her wedding album or play her records like she does when she misses dad. She didn’t want me to read to her or set up the card table to help wait out the blues. She just smoked in bed, read the paper, and slept. Sometimes when I got home I could hear her crying.”

“Jeez. But she’s better now?”

Steve shrugged, “She’s back at work. She does that, though. She’s no good at sitting around.”

Bucky grinned, “Yeah I remember, last year, when you stayed with us because she had the bronchitis and didn’t want you catching it, and my mom took over some soup.”

Steve nodded, picking up the story, the story picking up the corners of his mouth, “And she came home irate that she’d found my mom cleaning the bathroom. In her defense, she was already in there with the hot shower on to help clear her lungs.”

Bucky laughed, “Yeah, after she’d hauled all the towels and sheets into the kitchen to boil, and was wiping down the fixtures and walls with rubbing alcohol or bleach.”

Steve grinned, “She doesn’t like to be bullied,” he shrugged again, “Anyway yeah, she’s out of bed now. So that’s good.”

They got to the end of the boardwalk and turned down the street, a chill ocean wind shouldering past them from behind.

Bucky glanced doubtfully at Steve, “It’s getting pretty dark, maybe we should try to catch a ride or something.”

Steve shook his head, “Nah, I feel fine. The air was really clean today, and the walking feels good.”

“Yeah but all the way back to Brooklyn? It’ll be midnight before we get in.”

“It’s fine.”

His stomach turned uneasily, “You know what? Just go get on the train. I’ll find something. It was my stupid mistake. No reason for you to have to hoof it.”

Steve sighed, “I don't care whose fault it is. I’m not gonna leave you out here like an asshole.”

“Then I’ll hop a turnstile.”

Steve rolled his eyes but his weary tone took up an abrasive edge, “You’re not gonna hop a turnstile. I’m fine.”

“Right now you are but-”

“Goddammit Buck, I’m fine!” the sudden depth and volume of his voice when he raised it always seemed like a magic trick from his narrow chest, “I don’t need everyone worrying themselves to death about me all the time!”

Bucky shook his head, mystified, “Are you serious? I admire your confidence but you know as well as I do that you can’t get sick right now, Steve. You blew through all your absences before Christmas, remember? Now we’re this close to graduating and you’re gonna risk having to repeat? For what?”

“It’s just walking! I’m not gonna get sick!”

“It’s fifteen miles! At least! Across the bay! Did you even bring your asthma cigarettes? Or your brace? Not that they’d help if your heart gives out or you burst a vessel in your brain.”

“Shut up.”

“What am I supposed to do if you keel over with an aneurysm in Bushwick in the middle of the night?”

Steve's growl ascended quickly to a yell, “Maybe you’re supposed to just leave me there!

Bucky stopped short, stunned silent. Steve kept walking.

“Steve. Steve!” He wished he could summon up the kind of commanding tone Steve could, but he had to use his size instead, dodging around him and blocking his path, jabbing a finger at his chest, “Never,” he barked, “not ever. You hear me? And never say that again. Or even think it.”

Steve shook his head, “Get outta my way, Buck.”

“No!”

Steve’s face screwed up like he was about to scream, but it came out hushed and bitter, “See, that’s the trouble. I can’t get you out of my way. Did you ever think that maybe the reason I’ve never gotten better is because nobody will let me try? Teddy Roosevelt had asthma and-”

“Here we go again. I knew it was a mistake giving you that biog-”

“And he beat it!” Steve snapped, “He grew out of it! Because he didn’t just sit around all the time afraid of what might happen!”

Bucky scowled, nodding at the wall beside them, thinking he’d probably have better luck talking sense to the bricks if Steve was gonna be in That Mood, “Yeah, well you gotta actually grow before you can grow out of anything.”

The hit probably wouldn’t have knocked him down if his head weren’t already turned halfway over his shoulder, or if it wasn’t a complete surprise, but all of a sudden his ass and elbows were on the pavement, ears ringing, Steve standing over him with his fists balled up and a look on his face like he couldn’t believe it either.

One fist opened and reached out sheepishly to help him up.

Bucky took it, wary of his own weight, surprised when Steve was able to haul him up, bending his knees and leaning back for all he was worth. He brushed himself off and took a step aside, leaning against the wall. He wasn’t sure what he could do if Steve started walking away again, and it made his heart hurt.

“You’re such a jerk,” Steve muttered.

“Yeah,” he nodded, “I’m sorry, man. I-” he sighed, “yeah.”

Steve nodded slowly, shoulders relaxing, “Sorry I hit you.”

He prodded his jaw, grinning in spite of himself, “If you call that a hit you’re coming to the gym with me, first thing after school monday. No more arguments. Cuz you ever hit me again you better knock my ass out, punk.”

Steve smiled, a real one, no suspension of disbelief required.

“So let’s find a ride, unless...” he tried not to say it, tried not to plead, but it was filling up his chest and if he didn’t let it out he felt like he might suffocate on it, “unless you really do have that death wish.”

Steve grimaced, head rolling back on his shoulders, frustrated, “It’s not that, Buck. I just-”

“Will you get it on already!” a voice yelled from an alley down the street, “I got to get all the way to East Village and back before close!”

Steve and Bucky exchanged a curious look before heading towards the yelling.

The source was a graying woman with a melodious russian accent, haranguing a couple of kids who were struggling to load a large office desk and chair out of the back of a small restaurant and into the back of a tiny refrigerated truck.

Steve called out, “Hey there, sounds like you could use a hand. Mind if we cut in?”

The lady looked them over shrewdly but nodded, “Thank you, sweet boys. My back is no good and my grand-nieces-” she gestured, shaking her head as if their deficiencies were unspeakably worse.

Steve squared his shoulders gallantly, “No problem at all ma’am. Buck, you ok to get the other end?”

Bucky gave him a warning look but they got the furniture up over the truck’s edge and securely into the back without Steve turning blue or collapsing. The lady chatted with them proudly, “I give this to my son in law, for his new butcher store project in Manhattan. He is trading me two sides of beef. So I take the truck. Just in case.”

“If you’re heading that way, could you maybe drop us in Brooklyn Heights?” When she gave him a suspicious look he added hastily, “We could ride in back. Make sure nothing slides around.”

As she shut them into the dark box, she admonished, “No sitting in chair, goldilocks.”

Bucky sighed as he settled with his back against the desk, “You could have just asked her for a spare nickel for the train.”

“I’m not gonna ask for cash from an old woman who’s trading furniture for a cow carcass. I think that’s how you end up abducted by fairies.”

Even without the cooler running, it was wickedly cold inside the truck, but at least Steve could rest, and it was out of the wind. They sat side by side in the dark as the truck bumped its way out of the alley and into traffic.

“I don’t have a death wish,” Steve offered quietly.

Bucky snorted softly, “Sure.”

“No I mean it. I promise, ok? I would never do that.” He tested a bantering tone, “I know how helpless you are without me.”

Bucky’s smile didn’t quite reach his voice, “Then why you gotta keep scaring me like that.”

“It’s cuz I wanna live, Buck.”

He leaned his head back and tapped it against the heavy wood a few times with a satisfyingly solid thunk, “I swear you’re gonna drive me to the nut house.”

“I’m serious, Buck. I know I went too far, I’m just so tired of being so...and I know it’s no picnic for you, either.”

“What are you talking about.”

“When my mom couldn’t get outta bed it reminded me...how hard it must be, being my friend.”

Bucky groaned, “Look, I said I was sorry, I know I went too far too, you don’t have to rub it in.”

“No, I mean it. Being sick all the time. It hurts. It’s boring. The exhaustion and the pain and the...the tedium. It rules what I eat and whether I sleep and how much I cost to exist and what,” he held an arm out into the dark and dropped it again, “what time of the evening we have to head home because a cool spring breeze could knock me out for a week. I don’t wanna die, but I don’t want this to be my life, either.”

He shook his head, his tone softer, steadier, “But it’s my life, and I can take it. I know how bad it is and how bad it isn’t. And I know you don’t. And I know…” he coughed, “Once in a while I realize what that’s like.”

“What what’s like?”

“Being on the outside looking in at someone else in pain. And I gotta say, of all the stuff that being sick gets to control about my life,” he coughed again, clearing his throat to cover a sniffle, “the thing I hate the most is how strong a person has to be just to be my friend.”

“Oh my god would you please stop talking.”

“But Buck, listen-”

“No I mean, seriously, stop talking,” he unzipped his coat and began shucking out of the sleeves, “It’s too fucking cold and dry in here. You’re starting to cough, and if we don’t keep your airway warm-”

Steve’s sigh was broken up by another little cough, “I’m aware of how it works, Buck.”

Bucky pressed on, knowing he was being a pedantic ass, needing to say the words he knew like talismans against evil, “-you’re going to start wheezing, so stop talking and start doing your breathing.”

"Yes, mom." Steve pulled his windbreaker off, submitting to being wrapped in Bucky’s oversized coat, scooting in close and draping the windbreaker over both their heads like a tent to trap warmth. He took a deep breath in through his nose slowly, blowing it out through tightly pursed lips.

“It feels like the truck is making good time,” Steve offered as they got settled together, “bet we’re across the causeway already. Be home in no time.”

Bucky nodded resolutely, tucking his neck and arms as close to his body as he could, digging his chin into the shoulder of his own coat and pressing as much of his front to Steve’s side as physics allowed, the chill already slipping through the knit of his sweater and gnawing at his shirt, “No time at all.”

Steve nodded resolutely, deploying that sober commanding tone that had been the puberty fairy’s only real gift to him, “This was a terrible idea.”

Bucky agreed crisply, “One of your worst.”

“No argument here.”

They were quiet for a while, trying not to move as the truck shook and swayed, to keep the windbreaker tent from losing heat, breathing slow to maximize air exchange without drawing in the cold. They felt the truck shudder to a stop, wait about twenty seconds, then grind into gear and lurch onwards.

“See?” Steve coaxed on the end of another long exhale, “Traffic light. We’re probably in Queens.”

“As if we needed any more evidence that this was a terrible idea.”

Steve scoffed and they were quiet again, adjusting into each other a little bit tighter, Bucky’s forehead tipped to press against Steve’s head above his ear.

“Steve, listen. What you said…”

“Buck, it’s ok.”

“No, listen. It’s not about me. Being your friend, I mean. It’s got nothing to do with me being strong enough, because when it comes to you getting hurt, I’m not. I know I’m not. I don’t know where you’re getting all this crazy guilty bullshit from, but if it was down to whether or not I’m strong enough to handle the shit the world puts you through, it all woulda fallen apart by now.”

“Buck-”

“No listen. Because I don’t handle it like you seem to think. I almost never have to handle it at all. Because all I see when you’re around is my best friend, and all I think about is whatever it is we’re talking about. If there’s a way we’re friends because of me, then it must just be because I’m the luckiest jerk in the five boroughs, ok? And I’ve got a lot of great stuff going for me that I don’t deserve. I’m not your friend because I’m strong enough to worry about you all the time, I’m your friend because, just even knowing the first thing about who you are, there’s no other way I could ever be. It’s not about me.” he chuckled, pulling his arms a little tighter around himself against the cold, “God help us all if it ever is.”

Steve pulled one hand out of the crook of its opposite elbow and found Bucky’s, pulling it into the end of the warm sleeve, his voice thick, “Thanks, Buck.”

“Where’s all this coming from, anyway?”

Steve took a while to answer.

“I know I’m the reason my mom is sad,” Steve offered glumly, “Otherwise she’d talk to me about it. I mean, usually she does, if just so I won't worry. And she was only ever sad about the past before. That was something she could talk about. Now I think she’s scared of the future. For me. That’s the difference.”

Bucky shrugged, “She shouldn’t be worried. You’re doing fine. Helping old ladies in alleyways and punching ne'er-do-wells on the sidewalk. You can be the next pulp hero detective.” He suddenly felt a little dizzy, an image of stars flashing behind his eyes.

Steve’s tone conceded nothing, “Apparently someone’s been putting up flyers in the neighborhood around the hospital. Propaganda. About how some people are born to be a burden. Talking about cripples and immigrants and the mentally ill. I found a bunch she’d torn down when I had to go into her bag to write the rent check.”

Bucky had a brief vision of holding a crumpled flyer in his hands, neat print framing calm statements calling on reasonable people to acknowledge the problem . Had that happened? No, that hadn't happened yet. That was outside the recruiter's office.

“That’s just talk, Steve,” Bucky tried to sound reassuring, but something was plucking at the back of his mind, discordant with what he heard himself saying, “Some smug small-minded busybodies are always gonna talk like that. And oh well. It’s a free country. That’s what makes us better than them.” Shut up Barnes, a voice whispered in his head, you know better now, don’t you? You should be warning him.

“My mom has coworkers who sat on eugenics boards in our lifetimes, Buck. Doctors. Their talk decided if people from one group or another, one diagnosis or another, were justified in existing, whether the state had the right to sterilize them. Cataloging families in terms of genetic worth and wishing they could do more to curate them. Lately these same enlightened scholars have been talking about Germany’s enlightened new dictatorship in envious terms.”

“Yeah, but that’s Germany. There's this little thing called the Atlantic Ocean.” Shut up Barnes, you stupid fuck. Don’t you remember what’s about to happen?

“No, Buck. Cold Spring Harbor’s maybe twenty miles from here. That’s stuff that started here. It happened here. Real people were put under the knife in the name of cleansing the population, and it only stopped because better people forced to. It’s still happening in other states. And if it starts again...” he coughed, “...It could be the…”

“Steve, you need to be doing your breathing.” This wasn’t how it had happened. Had it even been cold that day?

Steve slipped his small, cold hand across Bucky’s forehead, gasping for air, “...the end…” his fingers stretched strangely, drizzling through his hairline, “...the end…” the truck was shaking. This wasn’t how it happened.

“...end of the line…”

The sides of the truck burst off and everything became bright and blurry.

Chapter Text

“No way, nah. Heave off.” The slender pitmaster spoke Skrull in low grunting syllables, his thick grey-green skin moving oddly on his long, knobby, birdlike frame. Mantis shrank further down into the shadows by the box office wall, watching doubtfully as Mabaya negotiated. She had never seen a Skrull before, that she knew of, and she distrusted the idea of shape-shifters. Ego could change his shape at will, after all, but only because he had no true shape. His form was his puppet. Skrulls had real bodies with their whole selves in them, with bones and tongues and ankles, but they could squash and flex and mimic into other forms anyway. The thought of what that must feel like made her woozy. She hoped she did not have to touch him.

Mabaya smiled through the thick window and tried again, “Dandan, my friend. You don’t know me, so let me tell you. I cut my margins closer than any other freelance lowlife in this stinking dome. Hearing the straits you’re in and the way people take advantage of your generous nature, I’m sure I can pay you triple the agreed buyback of any bounties you’re holding in hock, easily. What do you say?”

Dandan leaned down close so his breath fogged the glass, “I say no. You make me say it again, I’m gonna get testy.”

Mantis gulped down a swelling sense of doom. Without her mask on, she could not find her already meager tolerance for being involved in conflict, and the way the proprietor’s throat bulged when he spoke threats upset her stomach.

Mabaya pressed on, heedless, “I’m just thinking of you, my friend. Knowhere counts on you to bring the real deal, for the tourists and the betting elite,” he spread his hands in open admiration,  “You’re the only straight, unregulated show in the outer spin; the last bastion of authentic, titanic, independent bloodsport. That’s a massive responsibility. I just want to help you out, do my part for the community.”

“No.” Dandan’s lour folded heavily over his eyes and around his mouth, shoulders hunching up larger than seemed plausible on his narrow arms. Mantis felt her neck and back begin to sweat, wishing Mabaya would say he was sorry so they could run away. But, she steadied herself. Jonkarter was probably inside, probably also scared, probably also being brave.

Mabaya nodded sympathetically, “I can understand why you’re testy. It’s been a rough anum all over. Grandmaster probably didn’t leave you much wiggle, or hardly any real fighters to rake in the kind of crowds you need to rebuild your roster. It’s a blow to the sport, no question. Fortunately, what I can afford to offer for your borrowed amateur bruteflesh could hire you some real stock. Pros. Contenders. Showfighters. It’s not even a question of credits, with me. I’m bored, I need a sense of purpose. Let my folly be your gain, friend.”

Dandan’s fists swelled in size, and thick black bristles stood up on his cheeks and chin, “You want a purpose? Your purpose is to get this through your skull. I play clean with my customers, no exceptions, so the high-rollers trust my show, and the big bounties trust my security. That trust, and the credits it brings to Knowhere, are what keeps bigger lowlifes than you off my mush. So, you ever breathe the notion of bounty poaching here again like it might happen, someone else will have a purpose to sponge you off the walls.” Mantis couldn’t help picturing it, and shuddered.

Mabaya seemed completely unfazed, “Ok ok ok, you have a reputation to uphold, I respect that. We can still help one another. Don’t sell me the meat, just the info. Tell me one decent piece you’re holding right now, and for whom. I’ll poach it myself after pickup, it’ll never splash back to you.”

A thin electrical whine from the ceiling indicating that a theft deterrent measure was powering up, “I sell storage and admissions. Now buy an advance pass or move your muck off my window. You got four tics." He slowly brandished his bulbous, four-fingered fist, "Heave.”

Mabaya only smiled wider, though his speech sped up and he stumbled a little on the language, “I was hope you say this. I got for you a bounty to hold a cycles, and I think you love this. Could not risk if you was dishonest-er that can be bribed for poaching,” he gave the little cord at his wrist a tug, “Step up, Dejah, darling, let the proprietor of this fine establishment see you.”

Dandan gave a blase chuckle that soured into a grunt as Mantis slowly unfolded to standing and minced into view under the lights. She stooped and peeped out under the hem of her hood, not needing to work too hard at seeming meek and fearful.

“You’re kidding me,” he huffed, “What does she do? Crush foes to death with her weighty stare?”

“She does much more than that.”

“Nah. Shove off to Putty’s place. I don’t do skin shows.”

“You misunderstand, my friend. She’s not meat for the pot. She’s a serving ladle,” he leaned in conspiratorially, “The best.”

Dandan squinted at her, seeming unimpressed, his small sharp eyes shadowed by bristling gathers, but the threatening sound from the ceiling did shut off, and his swollen arms deflated. Finally he jerked his head to one side, “Alright, head through the weapon’s scanner, and drop everything sharper than your elbow into the lockers. I’ll meet you in box one-hundred-six.”

---

Bucky awoke disoriented. A bright yellow light kept flaring into his eyes from beyond a small window, like the source was swinging lazily, or maybe fixed behind a recurring obstacle. He was on his back, secured. He’d been on a truck. He’d been…

His head was eerily quiet. Where he reached for his memory there was just a dark blurry gap, but also silence, like a warm spot on a chair. There was no one in his head. It was such a relief. He wasn’t sure why.

He decided to take it slow. His name was James Buchanan Barnes. Sergeant. Bucky to his friends. And he had died. He tried to shake that weird thought off and start over, but it just sat there insisting itself. Reaching after an explanation only turned up still images and fragmented reports. There had been an accident. Not a truck, a train. In the transylvanian alps. He’d fallen. He’d been falling ever since.

He seemed to have hit bottom on his back in a sturdy box, strapped down. His chest hurt. His head felt cold and damp. The inside of his scalp felt prickly. He vaguely recalled the sound of gunfire. Strange weapons, like something out of science fiction. But he was awake. That mundane fact was an unexpected and peculiar relief, as if sleep had been an aching spot in his back that had finally cracked.

Voices came from outside, the first one low and guttural, the next smooth and light.

“...needs to be refurbished after some Kree nobles had their way with it, so I’ve just been using it for short-term storage. In here.”

“Very nice. Love the view. Real gravity too. Fancy. Sorry I got turned around. Forgot to count in base-eight. Or I suppose I should say, I forgot that my people count in base...twelve.”

A low grunt dismissed this, “It’s soundproof with the door closed as well. I’ve got the allspeaker field on in here so you can stop mangling my language, but she’ll hear what we say as well, if that’s a problem.”

“Oh, it should be fine. She understands most simple instructions in Kree, Skrull and Xandarian, but she doesn’t talk at all, far as I can tell. Dejah, sit.”

There was a small shuffling sound, followed by a decidedly unimpressed sniff from the first voice.

The mellow voice continued, “I’m bringing her to you because she’s a little simple for the city, and I’ve got some more business to transact before I can leave to take her home. Don’t want her wandering off a platform and getting eaten by grate wolves.”

“Yes, I can see why you don't want her, but why would I want her?”

“Because of what she does for her owner. She’s what they might call a calming-goat where I come from. A small docile creature to make the big skittish ones more manageable.”

“If she’s so docile how come you had to hunt her down?”

“She didn’t run away, she was stolen, poor thing. Her sort are extremely valuable in beastsport. They have a power. They can motivate reluctance, sedate eagerness, smooth transitions between owners. And I bet she can help you get the very best out of the fighters you have left.”

“There’s no drugs in my ring. I sell to the Grandmaster because I have to, but my clientele aren’t a captive audience of backwater Sakaarian rubes. Every syndicate sends me their independent wardens scanning for stimplants, not to mention anyone in the stands that brings a laser reader that can smell dope.”

“That’s just it. What she does, there’s no chemicals. No disks. No magic. No hangovers. No mess. She’s efficient, contained, and a hundred percent organic. Gets inside their heads like hypnosis but without the need for time and quiet, and durable under violent circumstances. Unbreakable. Undetectable.”

There was a long pause and a skeptical huff, “I never heard of this. And I've heard of everything. Lemme look her over.”

A heavy step, followed by a small cry, made all of Bucky’s limbs tense.

“Hey hey,” the mellow voice urged half-heartedly, “don’t touch. She’s very sensitive.”

There was a derisive snort, an abrupt riffle of cloth and a subdued feminine whimper. Bucky’s muscles strained against his straps. He hated bullies. Hated it when they put their hands on helpless people. The bonds held him down but the box around him shook.

“Sounds like you’ve got a live one,” the mellow voice observed drolly,

The heavy voice sighed, disinterested, “Nah, that one’s a total wreck. What’s wrong with her eyes? She some kinda Luphomoid hybrid?”

“I think her kind are just cave critters from a planet with keen predators. Evolved to communicate mostly with touch to avoid being seen or heard. Rare now, though. All but wiped out by a proxy war in their system or something.”

“Hmph. Well, show me.”

Light steps approached his box, and the mellow voice asked from close by, “May I?”

“Sure. Why not. Nothing she does is fatal, is it?”

“Not unless she sedates you off the edge of a cliff. Dejah, come.” Locks rattled. “What do you want to see, Dandan?”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose I’d like to take that one down to delousing and hardware inspection. But he half-killed the hunter I’m holding him for. He’s fast and mean.”

A pair of hands clapped together briskly, “Fair test. Ok. Dejah.” A couple thumps sounded on the lid, “Lead this one. Make him nice.”

The top lifted off and a mottled red face with wide hollow eyes peered down at him, intermittently haloed by golden light. Her hair was swept back and wrapped in sections of dark cloth in a high intricate pile. Her lips were trembling, and everything he’d meant to say the moment he could see fell back down his throat and landed in his chest with a thump. Things tried to stir in the back of his mind but all of his attention was focused forward and up. Her name was Dejah. He knew that name. From a book. She looked just like he’d imagined her.

He closed his eyes carefully. They’d just said she had hypnotic powers. Better not look any deeper into those bottomless eyes, considering how lost he already was. Fine fingers touched his face and suddenly there was a voice and a burst of relief washing over him, “...so afraid I wouldn’t find you so happy you’re safe but they hurt you and I was so angry will you trust me I'm so sorry I failed you and I’ll get us out of here…”

Startled he opened his eyes again to find her eyes searching his expression doubtfully, her lips unmoving. The breathless voice kept chattering, submerging him in a comfort so intimately familiar it was actually discomfiting in the bizarre circumstances, “...so happy you’re ok I had to threaten hunters but will you have to try to kill me even if I am helping you to escape and I forgive you and I’m so sorry and our plan could still work if you would trust me and I think that I think that I think that I couldn’t wait to see you again and you said that’s how it feels but we’ve been so busy…”

The loudness of it in his head made him anxious and he couldn’t listen. Someone would hear, someone inside his head, and that would be bad. He couldn’t think why, but he knew. She leaned down to study him closer and he whispered, “I’ll follow you. I’m not mean.” he turned his head away from her touch, “But that hurts me.”

Her eyes flickered happiness, but grew worried and searching again quickly. He was struck by that feeling of familiarity again as she freed his arms and legs from the surface, helping him get his feet under him after he’d been down too long. Impressions of a blue room. Someone he recognized and trusted but hadn’t expected, couldn’t fathom.

It was then that he realized he was wearing hardly any clothes at all, and the ones he had were damp and musty, especially the sleeves. He did his best to do what was expected, though. He stood like a docile beast. Easy enough. He chose not to return the looks as the two owners, a young man and a greenish wrinkly alien, looked him over dispassionately. He studied the room instead.

The bright yellow light came through a wide window overlooking a broad fighting pit about the size of a baseball diamond, sans outfield, from the height of an upper deck. Across the field, in the far wall, were three adjacent hexagons, deeply inset. Each was about as broad as a store front, each framed by indecipherable planks like flower petals and metal tubing around the rims. The bright lights were similarly inset into the walls like headlights, seemingly contributing to the uncomfortable warmth in the area. A large exhaust fan turned lazily at one edge of the room's large window, creating a slow strobe of shadow in the corner where his box had been dumped.  

The young man, owner of the smoother voice, said “Seems like a success. Lead the way, Dandan. Come, Dejah. Lead him. Make nice.”

Dandan with the bristly rubber face muttered, “That is a nice trick. Does she do anything besides taming overclocked cyborgs?”

“Plenty! Get her agitated and let her transfer that to a reluctant fighter. Scare her bad enough that she’s ready to play dead and send her in to stop a berserk before an irretrievable kill. Applied properly she can optimize the usefulness of your current stock, enable more thrilling energetic fights, and minimize needless casualties. And the best part is, even those squeamish manicured remote betting parlors on Xandar can’t make rules against feelings. Even if they did, you can’t scan for it. A man with less honor than you have could potentially put his thumb on the scales of any fight he wants, with no danger of it being cut off.”

While Bucky listened to the young man boasting, Dejah quietly reached and rested a hand on his low back, just off to the side. She gave him a small, hopeful smile when he glanced at her, and she mouthed the words, “Lead you.”

Something large tried to stir in his memory, something overworked and sore that had only just laid down to rest, and it gave up quickly. Apparently not seeing what she needed in his face, she took her hand away, and didn’t try to touch him or catch his eye again. It made him irrationally sad. 

 

“I she quick?” Dandan asked, “More importantly, I send her in to stop someone and she gets pasted, you gonna pitch a fit at me like it’s my fault you lied?”

“Nah. Like I said, this is her whole purpose in life, and I’m not in this for the credits anyway. I’m doing a service for Knowhere.”

“Well that’s good. Because I usually pay a percentage of what loaners net me after expenses. She’s not fighting, so you’re not going to be making any money off her.”

“Well, the more familiar surroundings will still benefit her. Space travel is hard on her nerves. She needs boundaries, regular work. That’s worth it. And you’re an honest man. I expect if she keeps you from losing money, you’ll think warmly of me.”

Dandan chuckled again, “And if she doesn’t I’ll be considering her upkeep a loan. With her as collateral. How long you leaving her for?”

“Couple cycles. You’re running a card the cycle after this, right? Well, if you like her, I could see my way to hanging around for a second card in another three cycles. If you really like her after that, you can pay me the balance of the bounty and save me, and her, a trip. I’ll even give you a community service discount.”

“Hah!" Dandan's smile was almost as unpleasant as his frown, "You got some droopers. I’ll front you a pass at the door, if you wanna come watch. What’s your name?”

“Mabaya.”

Dandan gestured down the corridor to the end that opened in a grey room full of steam and noise, “There's no allspeak field down here. Don’t want the assets chatting in the shops.”

“Clearly not.”

Dandan's tone turned speculative, “What do you suppose is the biggest thing she’s ever subdued?”

“Well, if you believe the rumors," Mabaya grinned, "something very much like a god.”

“Oh good!” Dandan chuckled, “As it happens I just ni dhajoog mar ni klat noo ih bilbalik.”

As the translation petered out, Bucky caught Dejah and Mabaya exchanging a surprised and fearful look behind the proprietor's back.

Chapter Text

“Something is wrong. He does not remember me,” Dejah/Jain whispered as Mabaya took the cord off her wrist. The mist in the air wasn’t thick enough to obscure his vision, but Mabaya still couldn’t quite interpret the worry on her face.

The delousing room was loud with falling water on tile and the echoing talk of Dandan and a few workers speaking over it in Skrull, so he decided to risk it, “It’s probably just the disguise.”

“It is not that. He recognizes me. But he does not remember.”

“What?”

“It happened before, part of him going missing, but it is different now.”

“So? Is that a problem?”

She gazed at him piteously, but shook her head, the line of her mouth trembling so helplessly he couldn’t help thinking she was putting him on.

He sighed, keeping his tone coaxing, clipped, and in-character, just in case, “I expect he’ll still want to escape. We can figure out his brain at the rendezvous. But listen, the most important thing is that you don’t seem to have anything to do with his escape. It’s already going to be kind of a tight coincidence no matter what, and I am not going to be Dandan’s office paint job for you. He seems like a reasonable person, but they’re the least forgiving of betrayal in a place like this.”

She nodded vaguely, which was definitely not good enough for him, with his skin on the line.

“Or,” he gave her a piercing look, “I can tell him you’re panicking and walk you out right now. We at least know he’s here now. We can-”

“No, I will be fine,” she nodded resolutely, barely whispering, “No one will know. I will handle it.”

“Damn right,” he patted her shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner, “I’ll come check on you before the match if I don’t hear from you. If everything goes wrong, your wild man can probably survive one round of fighting. Dandan doesn’t want any of them dying, and he’s a pro.”

Dejah/Jain gulped doubtfully, “I am worried, though. If he really has an Agodawi…” she winced with concern, “I know someone who-” she paused, choosing, “offended an Agodawi once. Someone very powerful. It is the only time I have ever seen him harmed. It is not for nothing that their neighboring systems treat them as gods.”

Mabaya nodded thoughtfully, “Well, just do your best. You’ve got an entire work cycle, that’s almost half a day where I come from. I can’t spend all that hanging around here or it will look strange. I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?”

He grinned, “The less you know about my business on knowhere the better for you.” It was true. Still, he couldn’t help leaning in conspiratorially, “There’s something I mean to leave here with, that belongs to someone more powerful and less forgiving than your new overseer.”

Her large eyes widened and she put no sound behind the form of the word on her lips, “Tivan?”

It pleased him. The reactions of others always made things exponentially more interesting. He grinned and put one finger over his lips, then booped her on the nose with a wink, “Just recon for now. See you in a little while,” he turned and called to Dandan, who was chatting with his workers, “Ok, I think she gets it. Just be patient with her if you can, alright? She is a good worker but she’s got less sense than Set gave the sea monkeys.”

Dandan laughed, “No worries, kid. Nothing gets by me.”

---

Carina hauled back on the pry bar with all her might, but couldn’t budge the lid of the recent delivery. She glanced at her scanner, again, and thought about scanning the crate, again, to assure that it wasn’t sealed in some way. But the last two scans had shown that it was just an absurdly snug lid with over-sized and corroded fasteners, nano-inert and impervious to magnetic decoupling. She loathed antique containers, but for once she was grateful for the methodically frustrating grunt-work in the lower delivery office. It was a good antidote to the nerve-wracking over-active chaos of the last several cycles. She was an observer, not a fixer, she told herself again. Her entire role was to lay low, remain inconspicuous, and gather information. She sighed and seated the bar to try again.

From the cargo dock beyond the force barrier, the soft hiss and thump of an unscheduled landing interrupted her. She reflexively smoothed her expression to servile placidity as she turned, though the barrier’s transparency was one-way and she was alone.

A figure in segmented black Kree battle armor and an aero rig strode across the landing pad towards the transparent force wall, studying a scanner of a sort she recognized. It was plugged into a panel on his gauntlet by several slim wires.

With a shiver she realized then that she still had Mantis’ bloody tracking disc. Sweet mother, she wondered, why had she kept it? She slid her right hand around it in her pocket, as if that could smother the signal.

As the armored figure approached the field, assessing its boundaries with a turn of its helmet, Carina minced over to stand on the talk plate by the door, her knuckles whitening nervously around the pry-bar, and announced through the speaker in her prissiest Xandarian, “This is the lower delivery platform of the frontalis gallery, property of The Collector. Personal inquiries regarding the collection should be directed to the main entrance above. Admission is by appointment.”

The helmet emitted a deep voice speaking terse yet cultured Kree, “I’m not here for a tour. I’m tracking a fugitive. The signal disappeared some time ago. This is the only place on Knowhere with enough tracker noise and shielding to completely foil an enhanced scan,” he held up his gauntlet to illustrate, displaying an indecisive readout, “No reason this needs to be unpleasant.”

Carina stifled the urge to glance toward the security recorder just inside the barrier. The Kree-command connection he was hinting at was too close for comfort and casual talk, and the last several cycles had left her nerves in no shape. She replied in Xandarian, “Apologies, I do not speak Kree. Master Tivan is at rest. Any business with him, you will need to contact his assistant, Carina, for an appointment, channel four-one, during a second or third work cycle.”

The helmet retracted with a tap, revealing a weathered and scowling kree warrior. He had pale blue skin, a finely drawn mouth, long dark hair, and eyes wrinkled with a perpetual squint. Despite the fatally charged wall between them, the casual severity in his expression unsettled her. He spoke Kree again with belabored slowness, an octave higher than the helmet, his tone threatening to become uncivil, “You got my thing. Let me in. I get. I go. No trouble.”

She replied pleasantly, “Apologies, I do not speak Kree. You will need to inquire upstairs.”

The black helmet closed over his impatient snarl with a tap, and he took two long steps forward, the field barely sparking off some kind of disruption pattern on his armor as he passed through it. He brushed by her with equal disdain, “I’m on a bounty for the people that bought Carina’s out. I have from them all the relevant codes for your quaint little stronghold, and no time for nonsense.” Without a backward glance he strolled in among the crates and clicked his scanner again.

The scanner gave two pings. One had significant volume and sustain for the myriad trackers above in the gallery, the other was small, soft, and separate. He tapped his gauntlet and paused, staring at it. She could feel his scowl as he turned towards her, and a tap retracted his helmet again to confirm it, his sharp-cut cheekbones and jaw well suited to scowling. He shook the scanner and one extended finger at her, eyes narrowed, “You’re giving off the bug’s signal, too.” He nodded shrewdly, “You must be Carina.”

She smiled pleasantly, rolling her eyes towards the recorder evident above and behind her without turning, “You must be Krallis. Please lower your voice.”

He pointed his fist impatiently at the old tech. His bracer hummed and the recorder hissed and popped with a single sad spark, “There. Alone at last. Your bounty was bought out last cycle. Where’s the bug?”

She kept her tone pleasant, “If I knew that there would have been no bounty from me in the first place. Two assets escaped, I put out a bounty at my master’s direction. Kree Command bought the bounty out,” she said it lightly, hoping he would confirm her hunch, “It is no longer any of my business.”

His mou of annoyance spread into a sly, condescending grin, “Well the cyborg didn’t have it. Which is funny, considering the disc in his head is giving off the bug’s tracking signature. Imagine our surprise, tracking a meek little critter and catching a bio-enhanced kill bot. So I’m guessing the bounty’s just a sham to hide that you’re stealing, is that it?”

Her brain skittered to a hard stop, “What?”

He nodded thoughtfully, wandering back towards her, “You thought nobody could catch that piece of pitmeat in time to realize the trick,” his smile widened, “You even knew Kree Command would have the serial records for everything The Collector puts a disc in, or why would you have bothered. Bet you even sent whatever info it was that made them take an interest. Thought you’d waste a bounty hunter's time chasing shadows while you cashed in on stealing from The Collector? Or were you just cheating Kree Command of their buyout price? Was I going to take the fall for you, too, if they found you out?”

She shook her head, baffled, edging slowly along the wall a few feet to avoid being cornered by the barrier, her mind dancing frantically. There was no reason for the gladiator’s disc to mimic a different disc. They were simple tech. “You must be mistaken. Or-” it occurred to her that he did have that mechanical arm. Maybe he’d been able to alter the disc somehow? “-or maybe he changed his disc after he cut it out. But it wasn’t me.”

“His disc was right where you left it, though. No sign of meddling. You just played one too many sides this time, Krylorian. No shame in that, but Kree Command isn’t going to be amused if I tell them they bought out a sham bounty from an unauthorized subnet user. So how about we just clean all this up right now. Give me the bug. Live to steal another day.”

Carina took a step back toward the corner, carefully not glancing at the buttons that could drop the deadly force barrier or activate intruder alarms, “I don’t have her. I just found the-”

He took a step, his voice rising, “Shlopshit. Then what happened. You kill her by accident? Trying to cover your tracks?” The question echoed slightly off the back wall where the stairwell was.

Carina gritted her teeth in a quavering smile, “Please. Keep. Your voice. Down.” If he would just shut up, she thought, and stop threatening to make the situation even worse than it had thus far been, she would explain again that he was the reason she shouldn’t have to care about this anymore.

He lowered his tone, taking another step, returning to tedious slowness, “The bounty is only good for both of them, and getting the cyborg locked down has cost me. If you killed the bug-”

She shook her head at the startlingly ludicrous assertion, squeezing Mantis’ disc into her palm, “I never killed anything!”

He held up a placatory hand, ignoring her otherwise, “-just give me the body, I’ll handle it, no charge. If you’re holding her for a buyer, well, that’s over. Good try. Give her to me or I tell command you violated their buyout. As you’ve seen,” he ran an armored finger through the plane of the force wall, drawing sparks, “you can’t hide from them here.”

“I’m not trying to hide from-”

He shook his head once in disgust, reaching for her wrist, muttering testily, “Of course you’re not. Just give me-”

She gave a breathy squeak, flinched away, and lashed out. There was a burst of impact up her arm to her shoulder, and when she was able to take stock again, everything was silent. The Kree known as Kraliss was on the floor at her feet, all but his stately skull, which had vaporized when it had broken the plane of the barrier. His fluids fountained merrily into the field with a surging surreal hiss from the singed stump of his neck, his circulatory system even slower on the uptake than Carina.

She looked down at her left hand with a numb gulp. Her heavy pry-bar dripped with purple-black blood and thick clots of neural tissue. She noted that her dress and hands were also spattered. Being the easiest frustration to cope with, her own brain focused on the realization that this was going to leave a stain.

“Shit,” she whispered to herself in Kree, dropping the bar and wiping at the bloody flecks with her bloody hand, “Shitshitshitshitshit.”

---

Dejah watched the activity in the delousing room from under her heavy hood. The walls and floor were light grey, and probably the cleanest surfaces she’d seen since arriving at Knowhere. There were two circular stepped ponds sunk into most of the floor, half a body-length deep and two across, full of different liquids. The closer one was faintly bluish, the other a thick soupy brown-red. A freestanding wall opposite the entrance formed a narrow corridor with the opposite wall. The corridor had drains and a row of spigots that she recognized, from Joncarter’s memories, as showerheads, dropping water that was the primary source of noise and steam.

A tiny part of her heart leapt for joy. That would make him happy. That, he might be able to remember.

Dandan had gone and taken most of the workers with him, leaving only three: a pair of tall sturdy plant-like monopods with four vine-like arms apiece tending the tubs, and a smaller biped apparently made of minerals, holding a stack of towels. She was trying to figure out how a rock creature’s joints even worked when a scuffle broke out by the blue pond, Jonkarter (or Mizuri, or Soldat, whoever he was just then) trying to resist being undressed by one of the viny plant fellows.

Backpedalling, the handler whistled at her, speaking skrull from a raspy and poorly suited palate, “Hey, newthing, Dayjo, whatever. You speak stupid? Come handle this burger. Boss says it whats you do.”

Jonkarter seemed to get the gist of the exchange and gave her a warning look as she approached. She didn’t even need to touch him. He was concerned about his pants again. Her heart burned with a warm sort of sadness and a strange desire to laugh. She wished it was up to her to absolve him of needing to remove them. As it was, she thought it better to start with the buckle for his sleeves.

He let her come close, wary, and she put a hand on his chest, bowing her head as she fidgeted with the buckle and speaking very low, trying to make the rare language sound like idle noise, “Do not act as though I am speaking. No one will look at you as you bathe. Then you can have a hot shower.”

He made an involuntary noise low in his throat, and she knew he would be a brave scout.

She took him by the wrist to take his gloves off and realized there was a lump in his sleeve, a long thin tube. The laser comb. She guessed that they must not have detected it next to his arm.

“You have a weapon in your sleeve. Keep it hidden if you can.”

He squinted, probably wondering where he’d gotten a weapon from, taking her cue and murmuring low, “Where am I? What is this place?”

She smiled softly, still pleased to be asked a question she knew, “Knowhere. It is a city inside a head. Far from everything.”

“Like a dream?”

She smiled again, thinking of the wonderful organic incoherence of the city, “It is, yes.”

He nodded resolutely, “I can deal with that, I guess,” he stroked his bare hand with his gloved one, then pinched himself, “It feels real.”

She nodded, “The danger is real. You must let them clean you,” his blush came up and she shook her head, “Do not be shy. They do not see you like a-” she stumbled a little choosing her words, “-like that. And I will go.”

“Don’t go,” his hand came up reflexively fast over hers, but he released her just as quickly when she flinched, “Sorry.”

“Hey! Newthing!” a new voice called to her, “You come with me. Tour time.”

She glanced over at a squat, fuzzy person standing in the doorway, with two long arms that touched the ground and one leg that did as well, the other leg ending in a bald stump below the knee. It took her a moment of staring to realize that the last short lengths of the long arms were artificial, and the delay prompted the new person to come towards her a step, arms first and then leg, “Come on, dum-dum. No pawing the merch. Let the veggie boys do their job.”

She nodded and pressed a hand to his chest again, engaging her hidden lights, “Stay calm. I will come back. We will escape.” It was easy to push the necessary resolute calm onto him, even hastily. She felt it strongly in his presence, and it was very natural to him. The only thing she felt even more strongly was a desire to hold him, and when she realized a bit of that was sneaking through as well, she snatched her hand away from him, looking down and murmuring, “Sorry.”

He stared at her, unmoving, “Why?”

“Come on, googly-eyes,” the broad fuzzy face parted with a bemused smile, its owner swinging another step towards her through the thickening steam, “Gotta meet the rest of the squad.”