Space isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Tony decides that after the fourth round of alarming noises coming from the beneath the floor panels of the Benetar. His fingers are still seared from the last session of splicing together motherboard-like-things and Nebula's no better, having sacrificed a piece of her arm to let them make the final connection. What used to be exciting new tools are now just interesting ways to get mildly electrocuted.
It's with no great enthusiasm that he disturbs Nebula's examination of the star charts.
"Hey, reckon we could find somewhere soon where we could stop for awhile, do some proper repairs?"
Behind him something overhead sparks and they both wince. The fun part is that although it's probably just the lights briefly overloading again, it could also be something like oh, the life support.
"I have been narrowing down planets," Nebula says. "We have a choice between barren and cheap, or populated and expensive."
"How far is cheap gonna get us?"
Her eyes flick up to him like she's assessing how much truth he can take. "To the next backwater planet and no further."
It's her gifting the decision to him, he realises. Their strange friendship growing legs and other errant limbs with each little venture further into the unknown.
"Expensive, then. We'll raid Quill's piggy bank again and there must be something else to sell on here, right?"
Nebula's face goes still and he clenches his nails into his palm at his slip-up. He forgets sometimes that it's the belongings of her sister's friends they're selling.
"We'll find something," he reassures her. "If nothing else, I'm good with my hands."
By the time they get close to the skeevy-looking planet called Kith, Nebula's left hand is no longer functioning. The thing Tony has been thinking of as the FTL drive malfunctioned during the night and nothing in their box of cannibalised parts wanted to fit. So he'd had to watch and try not to wince as she'd pried out another part of her arm and then held it against the gap while he soldered. The unholy energy still spilling out from the drive wreathed her arm in blue light. He can still smell the last of her wiring disintegrating as she yelled out instructions to him over the noise.
"You should remain on the ship when we land," she says, strapping a weapon to her thigh with her good hand.
"Cool story, I don't think so." She's good, but the last two months have taught him that's not necessarily enough.
"These people are not nice or my friends."
"Sounds like the kind of place where backup might come in handy."
She gives him one of her snarling sighs that he would never admit having grown fond of. "Your suit is dead, what kind of help could you provide?"
"Hey, I've got half a gauntlet. And if we scrounge the right things, my suit doesn't have to be dead."
"This is not a place that looks kindly on your species."
"Uh huh," Tony says, pulling on his threadbare jacket. "Not much different from anywhere else in the galaxy, then."
He may be just a weak and fleshy human without his suit, but they're still a team and he isn't going to lose the only person left.
Apart from some of the hulking yellow clientele, the bar they walk into looks almost familiar. Tony gets the impression that if he hit up the toilets, he'd be able to smell the puke and regret just like home.
"Buy a guy a drink?" he says to Nebula out of the corner of his mouth as he looks around.
None of the patrons look friendly, but that's not exactly unfamiliar either. A pair by the door look like pinker, hairier Klingons and on the table along from them are human-like species with metallic ridges along their heads.
Nebula walks confidently to the bar where the bartender does something that looks like a smile and places a empty glass infront of him.
"Nebula, daughter of Thanos," he says, filling the glass with something unpleasant-looking that Nebula knocks back in one gulp. "What can we do for you?"
"We are looking to trade for supplies," Nebula says.
The bartender laughs. "If you can afford them. Prices have gone up since you last came by. Half our usual entertainment disappeared overnight."
"Understandable," Nebula says. Tony can see her tense. "We will pay one and half and we have parts to swap."
"Money we have plenty of," he says. "It's new material for the crowd I'm short of."
His eyes drift up over Nebula's shoulder to settle on Tony. Tony suspects one of his eyeballs isn't quite real, it has a glassy edge to it and the colour doesn't quite match the other. He finds himself suddenly hoping it doesn't see through clothes. On the other hand, if the guy has fake eyes, there's a good chance he'll have what they'll need to fix both Nebula's arm and the ship.
"I can tell jokes," Tony says, with a shrug.
"One of your bounties?" the bartender says to Nebula.
"Ignore him," Nebula says. "He's weak and unfun."
"He's pretty enough, in a fleshy way," the bartender says. "I'll take an hour of his entertaining someone and one and a half pay."
"No," Nebula says.
"Ohh." The bartender's smile goes sharkish. "I guess you don't want to eat after all."
"We want to eat," Tony says pointedly, coming up to stand beside Nebula. "And purchase parts for vital repairs, remember honey?"
"Shut up," Nebula hisses, turning to him. "You do not understand this exchange."
"Oh yeah?" Tony says. "I've seen Return of the Jedi, okay? If it takes me gyrating on a table in a gold bikini to get something to stop you short-circuiting once a day, I'm game."
"Weak, unfun, and stupid," Nebula says. "Nothing about this will be easy or pleasant."
"Welcome to the new world," Tony says.
He turns to the bartender. "We'll take your deal."
He's generously given the opportunity to clean up first, behind the flimsiest curtain Tony has ever seen. There's packets of some kind of alcohol-like cleanser that evaporates as he rubs it into his bare torso, leaving behind a fine grimy dust that brushes off easily.
"So -" he says to Nebula, because she pushed her way behind the curtain with him, glaring at everyone else in the room before ducking in. "Any tips or tricks for pleasing the crowd?"
"This was not the plan," she says.
"I know, Blue. But we could both use a decent meal and some cybernetic enhancements, and between you and me, I've always wondered what life would be like as a stripper."
She huffs, then makes a noise that sounds like grinding her teeth. "You should let me do this. Your body is still frail."
'It's fine," he says, reaching out to touch her on the good arm. To his surprise she doesn't shake it off. "Look Ma, 99.9% operational capacity."
"70% at most," she says, but her shoulders climb down an inch. "If you truly insist on doing this, there are a group of Numeans in the corner, they typically have credits to spend."
"But I do not approve," she adds fiercely. "We should not be letting these people near you."
There's a shirt in a shimmering material on the table that looks like it's seen better days. Tony holds it up to the light where the stains become obvious.
"What do you think?" he says, turning to Nebula and bringing it to his chest.
She rips it out of his hands and throws it to the floor. Then she starts to unbuckle her own jacket one-handed.
"It may not close, but I suspect none of these scum will mind."
She holds it out to him impatiently, gesturing at him to take it. Beneath it she's wearing an undershirt not unlike his, but in a dark shade of red.
"Good thing I'm on diet right now, huh," Tony says, taking it from her.
He holds it in his hands for a moment, stuck on the right words to say. There's a thank you brewing somewhere in his chest, but they're neither of them good at emotional moments. He gives her a grateful nod instead and starts pulling it on.
The leather on the inside is softer than it looks, heavier than his own thin blue jacket from Earth. She's right too, the buckles don't quite meet on him, leaving a stripe of his chest open to the air, but like she says, it's likely no bad thing.
"How do I look?"
"Adequate," she says stiffly, not meeting his eyes.
There is no mirror so he has no choice other than to take her word for it.
"Time to face my public, then," he murmurs.
"I will be by the bar," she says, the stiffness still present in her voice. "Don't leave this area. Under this agreement they may be familiar with your body but Ja'var did not negotiate for anything that would happen in a private room, do you understand?"
"Got it," Tony says, cracking his knuckles and refusing even to acknowledge the few nervous butterflies in his stomach. "They can look and they can have a little touch, but nobody gets the full package."
"Correct," she says. "And again, I will be by the bar. You will call me if things get out of hand and we will leave."
"Sure thing," Tony says, though he has zero intention of doing that.
He aims himself at the table Nebula had suggested, filled with humanoid-ish patrons with just a few extra gills.
He uses the walk he saves for press conferences and TV - focused, easy. Nobody laughs, which is a plus, but they all stare.
"Hey," he says, placing his palm on the table and letting one of his hips cock out. "Have you heard the one about the guy who walks into an alien bar?"
The Numean nearest to him opens its mouth on a full set of razor sharp teeth.
"Pretty," it says. "Come sit next to me."
It follows up by flicking its hand against one of the undone buckles of the jacket.
Out of the corner of his eye Tony sees Nebula flinch, leaning forward in her seat.
"Easy now," Tony says, for the aliens, for her, and for him all at once. "Let a gentleman introduce himself."
From there on out he finds the corner of his mind that deals with things that are grim but necessary. It's the face he wears for meetings with shareholders when profits are down, for funerals when someone wants polite chit chat, for demands for selfies after 8 hour long fights.
The Numeans' touch is heavy-handed. Beneath the table they grasp and squeeze his thighs from both sides with tight grips and the press of tiny sharp nails.
When they talk to him, it's rarely in reply to anything he says, but he keeps up the inane patter nonetheless.
After ten minutes of probing him on one side of the table, they have him move so the rest of the group can get to know him. There, with his back to the bar and Nebula, the touches get more adventurous, creeping up underneath his jacket to pinch at his skin, pulling his flesh away from his body and watching it snap back with curious noises.
The bartender comes over at one point with a drink that he drops infront of Tony.
"From the daughter of Thanos," he says.
Tony has to strain his neck to look over at her but she gives him the slightest nod when he does. With a hand that he's surprised to find is shaking finely, he lifts up the glass and downs its contents in one.
It takes him a moment to place the sweet taste of it as the only thing they'd found in the Guardian's meager stash that he'd liked. Not alcohol, Nebula had said, but a soft drink, favoured by 'the tree'. It didn't taste like anything Tony had ever drunk before, and in the weeks after Titan anything that didn't remind him of Earth had been a blessing. He rationed it out and used it as a reward for getting through the days.
She never passed comment or asked to share it, and he'd assumed it was because she didn't like it, but now he wonders how much of his feeble coping mechanism she saw through.
Thinking of the careful way she'd tended his chest, his resolve hardens, his mind shifting to focus on the overall and not the details.
The nails digging into his skin through his pants hurt less, the hands holding his thighs apart for exploration are easier to handle.
He's present but not theirs as their fingers press in past the waistband of his pants and expose him to their gaze.
By the time Nebula is standing at the table, clearing her throat pointedly and touching her thigh holster, the effects of the drink have worn off.
It's only when the hands pull back that he realises how omnipresent they had been. His body aches in a hundred strange places. One of them had poured something from a glass across his collarbone and then rubbed it onto his skin, making it sticky and sour smelling. Another one had fondled him beneath the cover of the table, squeezing him uncomfortably tight in its palm, his body half-responding against his will.
Looking down, he's surprised not to find his pants pitted with tiny puncture holes. He can still feel the sense memory of the nails seeming to prick through to his skin.
"We are done here," Nebula says.
Embarrassingly, Tony has to grip the table to pull himself up to his feet.
His set of admirers make sad sibilant noises but Nebula pays no heed as she manoeuvres the table to give him more room to get out.
Tony has just enough presence of mind to ask if they've been paid and then Nebula is hustling him out the back door without even a single glance back.
In the frosty air outside, she frogmarches him to the ship so fast that Tony almost feels motion sick. Voices call out to them as they pass but she pays them no heed and he can't concentrate on trying to make out the different dialects. The rhythmic thump of the heavy bag she has slung across her back is what he concentrates on to ground himself.
His chest is numb where the Numeans had rubbed whatever they'd rubbed into him and he feels dirty, like he's spent all day in the lab tinkering and is coated with some kind of grease. For all the strange experiences he has been through in his life, there's nothing that really matches being held apart by strangers and having their ungentle hands squeeze and pull at him like a toy.
"Hey, Blue," he says, but he can't work out what goes after that.
"We are almost there," she says.
He suddenly remembers it's her jacket he's wearing and that she must be chilly in the cold atmosphere of the planet. But the idea of giving back feels like handing over the one layer of armour he still has.
"I think I need to sit down," he says, just as she props his body against something large and metal and starts keying things into an electronic pad.
"Almost there," she repeats.
There's a hissing noise and then a gangplank descends. It's only when he realises the smell of the air rushing out of the doorway is familiar that it clicks for him that they're safe and back at their ship.
She feeds him water gently, holding a cup against his mouth and letting it trickle in. Her forehead is furrowed, her actions firm but with a softer edge than he's used to from her.
When he's drunk as much as he can, she puts the cup away and then carefully peels back the jacket to look at him. She sniffs the air and then wrinkles her nose.
"Idiots. They've tried to coat you with their zlic juice to make you more compliant, but it doesn't even work on humans."
"Gross," Tony says. He honestly cannot wait until they fix the shower.
"It's mildly toxic, I will wash it off."
She stands up without another word and disappears over to the water dispenser. Tony swears he can feel his blood pumping to the beat of her receding footsteps, loud and unceasing. His mind is strangely absent of critical thought, focusing instead on the warmth of the air drifting up through the floor from vents far below.
By the time she comes back with a bowl or water and a cloth, he's isolated the sound of the life support in the background too and the faint hum of the lights.
He holds the jacket out of the way while she scrubs at the sticky remnants on his skin. The water in the bowl is a faint purple by the time she's done. In some kind of silent mutual agreement, they haven't gone anywhere near the pant area, for which Tony is grateful.
"There," she says, setting the bowl aside. "You should sleep now, it will help the effects wear off."
She steadies him as he pivots, kicking his shoes off. He doesn't bother with removing any other clothes, just lets her lower him onto the bed. She drapes the covers up over him and then waves her hand at the light until it dims to almost nothing.
"I will guide us into orbit and then I will be back to check on you," she says.
"Thanks, Blue," he murmurs with the last of his energy, feeling coddled. "Thanks for having my back."
He wakes three times in the night and each time finds her present on the other side of the room.
When his body can take no more resting, he rolls over to look at her.
She's sat on the room's other bed with her back against the wall. She has her knees folded up and on one kneecap she's spinning the triangular paper football from the set they play with sometimes.
"Morning," he says.
"Hello," she replies.
"Hey. You guys ever do hugs where you came from?"
She stops spinning the piece to clench it tightly in her hand, her face turning fierce.
"I don't remember."
She breathes in deep and then loosens her fist around the gamepiece and puts it down on the covers instead.
"But I will lie beside you, if you like."
He likes having her beside him, the very faint sound of her breathing making him feel calm. After weeks of sleeping alone with only the metal wall for company, it reminds him of his humanity.
He clears his throat, pushing the strange rush of emotion aside.
"When we do find Thanos, I might let you have first dibs," he says to break the silence.
"You will not let me, if anything I will be the one to -"
"To permit me to lay a single finger on him, I get it. Just saying, I'll clear the way. I'll even hold him down for you if you promise to suckerpunch him somewhere where it hurts real good."
"I have some experience of that."
He's surprised by her barking laugh, then even more surprised by the gentle touch of her fingers against his. For all the times that they have had to be up in each other's space when crouching over the fuel cells or hammering together new parts, they never deliberately touch. He presses back without a word.
"I regret the things that happened on the surface here," she says.
For a moment Tony's mind jumps back to the memory of alien hands on him, but he's old and rugged enough now that he can choose to recall instead her standing over the table, demanding they finish up. He concentrates on the feel of her jacket, still snug around him, of the furious look in her eyes as she had stared down every person at that table and then shoved it aside to get him out.
"Not a big deal," he says. "Now we get to fix your arm and eat something that's not algae."
She shifts on the bed, as if something about what he has said is uncomfortable.
"I have never felt concern for the pain of others, bar my sister. But last night and in this moment -"
She trails off without finishing. He's proud to realise he doesn't need her to say anymore. He understands.
"Means a lot, thanks, Blue."
"No," she says, turning to face him and squeezing his fingers tighter. "Thank you, Tony Stark, for what you did for us."
The plate of food she brings into him late morning is unexpected. They gave up on cooking experiments pretty early on and tend to just share things from packages or whatever they can eat raw.
Yet the split open vegetable looks like it has been grilled or charred in some way, wafting unknown but interesting smells in Tony's direction.
"Is that for me?"
"Yes," Nebula says, holding the plate awkwardly while he sits up in the bed. "It's a yarrow root, my sister was growing them below deck. I didn't think the plants would still be alive after all this time, but somehow they have survived."
"Huh", Tony says, unexpectedly touched by the gesture. "And so now I get to eat us in metaphor form."
Nebula stiffenes, drawing the plate back. "If you do not want to eat it - "
"I want to eat it."
"You do not want to eat it. You want to make a mockery of what I have prepared for you."
"No, I want to eat it and then maybe make one tiny joke about our fragile existence."
"You infuriate me," Nebula says, but she unclenches gradually and offers him the plate back. "I do not know why I like you."
"Because I'm smart and I'm going to make you an even more terrifying new arm?"
"Because you're annoying and I have no choice," she corrects, but she sits down on the other bed and watches him eat, even taking the plate away when he's done.
The yarrow root is so good he makes her cook it again for lunch. He's pretty sure he catches her smiling as he stuffs it into his mouth at the same time as examining her fried wires.
When he goes back to his room to wash up later he finds there's a second pillow on his bed.
"If you would like to -" she says awkwardly from the door behind him. "I thought we could share again."
His chest goes tight in a way it hasn't in a long time. "I'd like that, Blue."
"Hmm," she says, looking away from him in that way she does when she's flustered. "Settled then."