They lose. Nebula thinks she should be used to losing, but the sting of losing her sister isn’t something she’s prepared for. Watching her sister’s chosen family turn to dust around her until it’s just her and one human makes disgust rise in her throat. How could she have ever wanted this? Why had it taken her so long to see her father’s cruelty for what it was?
She’ll win Nebula decides. She’s never won, but somehow, she is going to find a way to win. She’ll find a way to combat the cruelty she’s help put into the galaxy. She decides to start by keeping the human, Tony Stark, alive. He pays her back by teaching her that not all games come with a punishment or reward, some are just played for the fun of playing. She’s not sure what kind of debt they’ll owe Carol when she rescues them, but the Milano needs repairs and they were almost out of air. Tony just blinks at her not quite comprehending her stress about being rescued. They need the help, but she’s not sure they’ll be able to pay the price of it. What if Carol wants the Milano? Would Gamora accept this?
“I’m rich,” Tony tells her. “You kept me alive. If she wants something for this I’ll be the one to pay it. No debts owed by you to me or her, okay?”
She doesn’t think Tony is lying and she forces herself to try and trust his words. After helping Tony into his home, so he can be taken care of by his friends, she sits outside with Rocket. She’s grateful that she isn’t the only one left that her sister cared for. She doesn’t have words to help him with the loss of his flora colossus. She tries, “I am sorry you lost your tree.”
“Yeah,” Rocket agrees, his tone exhausted. “I’m sorry you lost your sister.”
For a moment Nebula wishes she could trade places with Gamora, but then the supplies on the Milano would’ve gone faster and neither Gamora or Tony would be alive.
Eventually they head into the building that Rocket says is the Avenger’s home. A man is waiting in the kitchen and Nebula isn’t sure if she’s more distracted by the smile he sends her way or the braces on the outside of his legs. She wants to find out if he is like her, part machine, but first she addresses his smile. She’s seen smiles like that before, fended off assumptions about how easy she would be to manipulate and use.
“I am not a pleasure bot,” she glares.
Rocket groans and buries his face in his paws. The man holds up his hands and shakes his head. “I’m not sure I want to know what that is, but I’m Rhodey and Tony is my best friend. According to him you kept him alive. He says that he thinks you kept pushing him to take more of the supplies, so I came out here to see if you needed anything. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
Rocket is studying her carefully as he tries to reassure, “He’s just being friendly. He’s not expecting anything from you.”
“I require less,” she tells Rocket.
“Now that there are supplies, what do you require?” Rocket pushes with an overly patient tone.
It makes her bristle inwardly, but she decides to be honest. “To destroy Thanos and avenge my sister.”
“Yeah, that’d be good,” Rocket agrees, rubbing his paws together in anticipation.
Rhodey opens a large cabinet that lets cool air out and takes a bottle of water off a shelf. He approaches slowly so that she can see he’s not hiding any weapons or going to attack. He holds out the bottle, then chides gently, “I meant more like food or drink. What do you like to eat?”
She takes the bottle and examines it, grateful that it’s easy to see it hasn’t been tampered with. There are arrows to show how to twist off the lid and she wants the water, but she’s tired and standing is difficult. She’s not ready to show weakness, even though she believes she can trust Rocket and she’s starting to think maybe she can trust Rhodey too. She hugs the water close with one arm and looks around. Maybe she should go back to the Milano. Maybe Gamora wouldn’t mind if she continues to sleep in her bed? Not that it really matters since Gamora is dead, but it’s comforting to think her sister would at least understand that the room feels safe.
“I’ve started to increase my oxygen intake closer to my normal,” she tells Rocket. “I’m having to do so slowly otherwise it would leave me lightheaded. Water would be good. Are we sure there’s enough?”
“For now, there’s plenty,” Rhodey reassures, eyes sweeping over her slowly with a concerned look.
“When was the last time you slept?” Rocket asks.
“I require less,” she reminds. “The ship was in need of repairs, there were only two of us with limited supplies and fuel. The air filtration system broke and I didn’t have enough supplies to fix it.”
They get her to agree to sit on a comfortable couch that is large enough to seat many people. She drinks her water watching as Rocket leaves.
“You took care of Tony, let us take care of you for a bit, okay?” Rhodey bargains.
His smile is back, but it has a fond sadness to it instead of the flirting that seemed to grace his lips earlier. She feels herself relax, though that could be from how tired she is and the relief that she’s won: she’s managed to keep Tony alive. The stress of their dire situation on board the Milano is starting to leave her.
Rocket brings her a pillow and then leaves again.
“Do you prefer sweet foods or spicy foods?” Rhodey tries.
For a moment she considers sharing her nutritional requirements, but she’s not even sure she trusts Rocket that much, yet.
“I like fruit,” she manages.
Rhodey brings her an apple which he says she can just eat and then shows her how to peel an orange, putting the fruit on a plate when he’s done. She eats both while watching Rocket leave and come back with blankets. Eventually he decides he has enough and starts building a nest of blankets around her while reassuring her that she’s safe here. She drinks the water slowly, letting the drowsiness weigh her down until she’s comfortable enough to sleep.
She wakes up when she hears footsteps in the kitchen. She takes stock slowly. Rocket is curled up, nestled in the blankets, behind her feet. Rhodey is in a recliner, his braces near the chair as he reads a book. He glances over at her, then past her to the kitchen. He’s kept watch while she slept and even though Rocket had said they were safe her, somehow that makes her feel safe. Nebula frowns at the feeling, she barely knows Rhodey, it doesn’t make sense. He looks past her to the kitchen, then tells her, “Natasha just came in to get something to eat.”
Nebula looks over the couch, careful not to disturb Rocket and takes in the woman in the kitchen. Natasha gives a brisk wave.
“Thirsty?” Rhodey asks her.
She nods and he asks Natasha to bring them more water. Nebula takes the bottle gratefully.
“Will you trust it if I bring you some food?” Natasha asks. “Rhodey made lasagna yesterday and there’s enough left I can heat everyone up dinner.”
Cautiously Nebula agrees. She wishes she could trust Tony’s friends, she knows Rocket does, but she doesn’t know them yet. She feels herself relax when Natasha brings everyone, even Rocket, a plate of the same thing. Natasha settle into a chair that faces her. Rocket encourages her to eat. She decides the lasagna is good after her third bite. Rhodey’s smile says he’s pleased with himself. Eventually he puts his braces back on saying he’s going to check on Tony. Nebula tells herself it's strange to already miss his presence.
“When you’re feeling better we should spar,” Natasha comments.
Nebula stills. Is this a trick? The food suddenly feels heavy in her stomach. Her fingers curl around the fork and for a brief moment she wants to throw it at Natasha and run for the safety of the Milano. She and Rocket probably wouldn’t make it and even if they did she wouldn’t trust taking the Milano off the planet.
Rocket lays a paw on her hand. “She just means spar.”
“She moves like my sister.”
Natasha is deadly of that Nebula is certain.
“I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to not trust a place is safe,” Natasha says. “Sparring for me is a way to keep fit and my skills in order. I wasn’t talking about either one of us hurting the other.”
“And when I lose?” Nebula asks, wetting her lips. She’s trying to hold herself still, not let her anxiety show, but she’s sure she’s being obvious.
Natasha tilts her head, regarding her silently for a moment. “I want to ask what you expect, but I suspect now isn’t the time. If you want to tell me I’ll listen.”
“Thanos was my father,” Nebula grits out. Will they kick her out now? Will they try and hurt her?
“I too was raised to do horrible things, but here we both are trying to right those wrongs,” Natasha offers.
Nebula’s grip on the fork lossens and it clatters against her plate. Rocket squeezes her hand. She swallows hard. She’s not ready for this conversation.
Rhodey comes back in, except now he’s in a chair on wheels. Nebula tilts her head. It’s not the chair they put Tony in. She says as much, desperate for a subject change.
“That’s a chair we keep here in case I need one, but this one is mine,” Rhodey explains. “Would you like to stay with Rocket or I can show you where the spare rooms are?”
“They’re overly generous. Get your own room,” Rocket advises.
She agrees, though mostly as an excuse to ask where the bathroom is. The room is sparse, though that seems to be deliberate as an opportunity for the person occupying it to personalize the space. It’s larger than any room she’s ever had. The bed is too comfortable and sets her on edge. She prowls around the room making sure it’s secure and determines that it mostly is at the same time she realizes how much the quiet is making every one of her nerves stand on edge. There isn’t even the hum of the Milano to keep her company.
“Couch?” Rhodey offers from the doorway.
“That’s an option?”
Rhodey shrugs. “Wherever you’re comfortable.”
Natasha isn’t there when they get back, but Rocket settles in next to her and Rhodey goes back to the recliner he’d been in before.
It takes her a few days to feel as if she can function normally. She gives herself the time to recover, then starts to help Rocket with the repairs to the Milano. Rhodey comes to help, asking pointed questions. Carol helps too, when she’s not with the others helping in the nearby cities. Most of the Avengers go out during the day to help clean up, but nobody is sure how anyone would react to her or Rocket so the two of them stay behind to concentrate on their ship. She feels as though she’s breathing easier when they finally manage to fix the air filtration system.
Then she and Rhodey are taking a break, sitting on the floor of the engine room drinking water, when she finally asks him about his braces.
He tilts his head to look at her and considers her question. She’s thinks about dismissing her curiosity if it causes him pain, but he tells her, “There was a fight. Sam was chasing me and Tony told Vision to shoot at him. Sam got out of the way and I got hit.”
“You’re not going to ask why our team was fighting each other?” His eyes are amused.
“With the number of times I’ve tried to kill my sister that would be a foolish question.”
He laughs. “I like how blunt you are.”
“Matter of fact. Tony can be the same way. Not everyone is. I find it easier to relax around someone when there aren’t any false pretenses,” he explains.
Nebula takes a drink of her water. She hadn’t thought to be insulted, but she can appreciate him making sure she isn’t.
“Sam is one of the ones you lost when Thanos won?”
“Yeah, he was a good guy. Only other Air Force besides me and he was a medic. Can’t have too many medics on a team. Banner’s good, but a lot of the time we need Hulk, and Sam was actually formally trained,” Rhodey tells her.
“You miss him.”
“Took us some time to get used to each other, but yeah, he was my friend.” Rhodey nods, then blows out a breath. “In some ways I’m not sure which one of us was more fucked up by my getting hit. He’d have died if it was him, but he watched his partner get shot out of the sky the same way and watching me go down messed with his head. Yeah, I’ve got a physical injury and it changed my life. I had to make a lot of adjustments, but the number of people with similar injuries that wrote to me or the kids with leg braces who drew me pictures and told me now they knew they could be superhero too, really helped.”
“You wouldn’t go back,” she fills in.
“This is who I am now,” Rhodey agrees before he asks. “Am I allowed to ask about your…”
He trails off to run a hand over his body indicating where he knows she has enhancements.
“Thanos made his children fight. When I lost he’d replace something to improve me. I lost a lot.”
Rhodey grimaces, “That sounds painful.”
“Better than being killed for being too weak.” It’s a small comfort, but some days it’s all she has.
“That sucks,” he says with sympathy.
She indicates his legs. “That sucks.”
He grins at her and leans in until they’re resting against each other. It’s a comfort. She leans back.
Talking about her childhood seems to knock something loose because she wakes up to Rhodey calling out to her. She sits up heart racing, still wanting to fight and desperate not to lose.
“Hey, hey, you’re safe,” Rhodey soothes, careful not to touch her, but voice low and close. He’s gotten into his wheelchair and is near the couch. She shudders, grateful that Rocket is sleeping in his own room, she might have kicked him in her panic. She tries to control her breathing, but finds herself taking deep shuddering breaths instead. She balls her hands into fists, frustrated. Rhodey tells her she’s safe again and encourages her to slow her breathing. He counts out how long she’s should take a breath in and out until she can breath normally again. She opens and closes her hands trying not to give into the urge to pull Rhodey close. She doesn’t need that she tries to tell herself. He takes both her hands and squeezes. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She shakes her head. “I just want more sleep.”
He moves his chair so he can join her on the couch, settling in behind her so she won’t feel trapped. It’s a comfort and yet uncomfortable because she feels too close to the edge of the cushions. Rhodey rests his chin on her shoulder, an arm around her waist. “I have a suggestion, but I don’t want you to think I’m being impertinent.”
“This is unacceptable, we need a bed,” she decides.
“Guess I’m not being impertinent,” Rhodey jokes.
His room is lived in and comfortable. It’s neat, but there’s pictures on his dresser and a painting on the wall. His bed is also against the wall and he lets her have the inside so she can have her back to the wall.
“If anyone comes in here shooting they’ll get you first.”
Rhodey shrugs. “You’d avenge me.”
“I’m not an Avenger.”
“You are now.”
She reaches out and takes his hand, threading their fingers together and squeezing it in thanks. He shifts and wraps himself around her, cuddling close. Knowing he’s there and listening to his breathing even out relaxes her quickly. She keeps holding his hand as she drifts back into sleep.
“Are you sharing a room now?” Rocket asks at breakfast.
She glares at him.
“Only if she wants to,” Rhodey answers before he’s eating his toast.
She leaves one of Gamora’s knives and her favorite blaster on his dresser in response. He grins and asks her to teach him how to use the blaster. She sleeps better after. Hulk finds three abandoned kittens and insists on bringing them home. There’s an orange striped one, a calico, and a bluish-grey one. The bluish-grey one takes to following her around and screaming at her until she picks it up, then it doesn’t want to be put down.
“What do I do with it?” she asks Rhodey. She’s going to break the tiny thing that’s falling asleep on her shoulder. She strokes it gently.
“Name it and tell Hulk it chose you,” Rhodey suggests.
She scowls at the tiny cat. It yawns and kneads at her shoulder before falling asleep. “Are we sure it’s a cat?”
“They’re definitely just kittens,” Carol reassures. “I checked.”
Rhodey gives her a soft smile and she finds herself smiling back hesitantly. She finds herself wanting in a way she hasn’t in a long time. She pets the kitten not sure what to say, but takes his hand as he joins her on the couch.
He reaches down and shifts her legs over his then leans back and wraps his arm around her shoulder. She closes her eyes and leans in close while keeping a hand on her kitten.
“Adorable,” Tony comments.
“Don’t be a dick Tony,” Rhodey grumbles, his fingers running in sooth lines over her shoulder.
“I’m not!” Tony comments all wide eyes and hands flung up in faux defense.
Nebula snorts. She knows the ruse behind that look.
“Rhodey I’ve very rarely approved of anyone you’ve dated,” Tony starts.
“Your opinion matters?” Rhodey shoots back playfully.
Tony taps a finger against his lips then cocks his finger at Rhodey. “Since I had the good taste to actually date Pepper, yes my opinion matters.”
Rhodey makes a disbelieving noise. Nebula feels a smile tugging at her lips.
“We’re not exactly dating,” Rhodey says cautiously.
“We’re still trying to pull the world back to some sort of normally,” Tony agrees. “Dating isn’t easy, but she saved my life and you’ve saved my life so I’m liking the cuddling and comfort level I see here.”
“Are you making this about you?” Rhodey teases.
“I’ll feel doubly safe in your presence,” Tony agrees grinning.
Nebula snorts, then laughs. Rhodey presses his head against her as he starts laughing too. The kitten howls in protest at having been woken up. Nebula strokes it’s fur, relaxing again when the kitten goes to sleep. It’ll need a name if Hulk lets her keep it. She closes her eyes again waiting to be disturbed by Tony’s words, his declaration that she and Rhodey are romantically inclined towards one another, but she disturbingly comfortable with the idea.
She sits on the edge of their bed that night and reminds. “I plan to leave. To figure out exactly what happened to my sister and Carol says other planets will need our help.”
“I know,” Rhodey agrees as he sits down beside her and begins taking off his leg braces. The kitten crawls off the pillow it was sleeping on to bump her hand. She picks it up and holds it close. Rhodey rests a hand on her knee. “You have reasons to leave, but I’d like to give you a reason to visit, maybe even start thinking of this as a base of operations.”
“Come back and see you,” she clarifies.
“I know Natasha, Rocket, Tony, and the Wakandians are working on a way to communicate,” he tells her.
“They should ask Carol.”
The kitten falls back asleep and she settles it on her lap before reaching to take his hand. She turns to look at him.
“I told Tony that,” Rhodey smiles.
“They could ask you too. I think you know the Milano’s systems as well as I do now.”
“You parked a giant spaceship in our backyard, there was no way I wasn’t learning everything you’d let me know about it,” he nods.
Their eyes meet.
“I don’t trust easily,” she acknowledges.
He squeezes her hand. “We take this at your pace and if I need you to slow down I’ll tell you.”
She nods before slowly bringing her free hand up so she can brush her thumb against his lips. He kisses it. She leans in carefully. His hand stroke against her cheek. Her lips touch his tentatively at first and then more firmly. She shifts closer and he smiles. She has to pull back because she’s echoing that smile. Their noses brush as they sit their grinning at each other. His thumb runs over her cheek. She sighs as she tilts her head, closing her eyes as she as his lips part and their tongues slide against each other.
She hasn’t won yet, but she can slow down and explore this comfort and trust she’s building with Rhodey while she figures out what winning will look like.