The Art of Cliffhanging

Chapter 2: The Edge


"I am confused."

"Of course you are..."

"When you say you will dismember Quill if we make it out alive..."

She sighs.

"...you are speaking seriously?" Drax sounds amused. Or at least, as amused as someone can sound when suspended over a cliff edge by a rapidly fatiguing teammate.

"Oh, yes. As surely as I live and breathe," Gamora confirms tiredly, staring up at the sky. "But, for your benefit, that roughly translates to banning him from intel and making him sleep on the couch for the next few days."

Drax snorts. "I thought as much." She cannot see his face from her vantage point, but she can hear the smile in his voice. "You have gone soft."

She smirks. "Not as soft as you, princess."

"Shrew."

"Pixie."

"Nag."

"Infant."

"Harpy."

"...Duchess."

"Duchess?" he scoffs, putting an end to their familiar back-and-forth. "That is nothing more than an ill-disguised repeat of the word 'princess'. I win."

"Fine," she says. "I concede this round."

They fall silent for a while, conserving their strength. Gamora trembles from exhaustion: she is stretched and strained to her limits, and every joint in her body seems to hang together by a thread. The pain in her sword arm is now a sharp throb, and she doesn't even want to think about the damage to her shoulder... Every once in a while, one of the cybernetic components clicks and whirs, as if trying to snap back into place, but to no avail. Thus far, the only not-horrible part of this day was the fact that the Brood had not yet arrived to rip them limb from limb.

"We may have lost them," she shivers, thinking of snapping jaws and venomous needles. "Or they may have given up the chase."

"That is not how the Brood functions," Drax points out wearily. "They do not give up chase until their attackers are dead. Perhaps not even then."

Gamora grits her teeth. "I know, but I am trying to think of an outcome in which we won't get ripped apart by an insect horde."

A long pause. "I have already thought of one, Gamora."

That immediately throws up a warning flag, because he rarely, if ever, calls her by name. She is 'harpy' or 'shrew' or 'banshee', while he is 'princess' or 'pixie' or 'drama queen': it was a game between them. An incredibly sexist game, come to think of it—she should probably address that, if and when they got out alive... In the meantime, she would simply setting for getting out alive.

"If you have a plan, I am all ears," she says tentatively. "But please don't point out how that would be biologically implausible—I am not in the mood."

"Your concerns are unfounded," he says, sounding amused. "We have discussed that expression before, remember? Contrary to popular belief, I am capable of learning."

"That's right... I remember," she smiles, thinking of late nights, coffee-stained mission reports, and scrawled edits in blue crayon. "Sorry, but sometimes I forget that you're not actually an idiot."

"Mmm," he hums noncommittally. "Then we are even, because sometimes I forget you are not actually a whore."

She snorts. "And we are back to the 'whore' thing. Just when I think we're finally making some progress."

"We were— are," he corrects, not quite able to cover his slip in tenses. "But in all seriousness, Gamora... please listen. We may not have much time." He sounds strangely quiet and calm—something in his change of tone makes her nervous.

"There are only a few possible outcomes to our predicament," he tells her. "Outcome one: You pull me to safety. But we have already attempted that. Outcome two—"

"What, no comments about my useless bio-mods, or my sticks for arms?" she says, trying to sidetrack him, because she has a sneaking suspicion where this is going and would rather not find out for sure...

"Outcome two," he says again—and the fact that he chooses not to question the 'sticks for arms' metaphor makes her really and truly alarmed—"We stay here. In five minutes, if we are fortunate, the Brood catches up to us. We both die."

"How very cheery of you."

"Outcome three—"

"Outcome three," she says firmly, "you leave the strategizing to the trained warrior-assassin. Our team will come for us. Until then, you stop talking and hold on. You can thank me later, by covering my kitchen duty for the rest of the month."

He laughs. "That is wishful thinking. The Milano is a capable vessel, but she cannot reach us before the Brood. Furthermore, I would never consent to a month of kitchen duty: a week would be more than enough to show my gratitude."

She snorts. "One week would be barely worth my effort," she fires back automatically, "so in that case, I should just drop you here and now."

Drax mutters something unintelligible.

"What was that?" she asks, half-knowing and dreading the answer.

"I said, that is the fourth outcome," he repeats quietly. "You drop me here and now." He sounds perfectly serious, and there is no fear in his voice, only a quiet resignation that chills her to the bone. "It is the only decision that makes sense," he explains. "We let go. You escape before the Brood arrives. You live."

"No," she grinds out. "Fuck that. Fuck outcome four, and fuck you. I am not going to drop you, princess, so don't you dare give up on me now."

A beat of silence. "I don't..." He sounds surprised. "I don't believe that I have ever heard you curse before."

She laughs in disbelief. "That's the only thing you took away from what I said? The profanity?"

"No, I heard the non-profanity as well, but I decided it was irrelevant."

"Irrelevant?" she hisses. "You stubborn, infuriating... I decide what is relevant, and what is not. Because I am single-handedly keeping you from plunging to your doom."

"That is not true," he says, in that calm, steady voice. "I am keeping myself up, too."

She feels the pressure on her forearm ease slightly. Oh God. She hadn't realized how much of the work he was doing in holding himself up, until he'd started to let go... Oh God, he'd actually started to let go... Her eyes widen, her breath catches in her throat, and she thinks she might be panicking. With a cry of effort, she adjusts her grip, digging her fingers into his forearm.

"Gamora, I am sorry."

"Drax," she seethes. Dammit. Now she was using his name... "I swear to God, don't you dare let go, or I will..." She trails off, at a loss for how to threaten him.

"You will what?" He almost sounds amused. "You will drop me?"

"...That wasn't funny."

"It was a little funny."

"Stop. Just stop this." And stop saying my name: it sounds too much like a 'goodbye'... "Dropping you isn't even an option."

"It is the only option," he tells her gently. "I have known what to do, ever since your first attempt to pull me up. I stalled because I doubted you would accept my decision. But now we have no choice: we are running out of time."

"You are right about one thing," she says darkly, hating that he sounds so level-headed, so rational. "I do not accept your decision. If you go through with this, I will never forgive you, and I will never forgive myself. I can't... I can't have your blood on my hands." There is already so much of it...

"My blood would not be on your hands," he points out matter-of-factly. "This drop is much too high. You would not even see my blood, let alone be hit by it—"

She makes a strangled noise that lands somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "You are, without a doubt, the biggest fucking idiot in the galaxy..."

"—And even figuratively speaking," he continues, speaking over her, "your hands would be clean. This is not your decision—it is mine. You are not to blame, Gamora. You have done everything you could."

She blinks. Sniffs. Replays his words in her mind. "Did you just... successfully interpret a figure of speech?"

"Yes, I think so." He sounds equally surprised. "But... was that the only thing you took away from what I said?" She can hear the smile in his voice as he baits her.

She follows through with the exchange, smiling bitterly, despite herself. "No, I heard the rest of it, as well. But I decided it was irrelevant," she says. "Because you are not going to die."

"Relevant or not, I meant every word. I will meet my end gladly, knowing that you are safe." He loosens his grip. Immediately her stomach plummets, as if she is the one about to fall...

"Just wait, wait!" she pleads, panicking. Her voice is hoarse as she forces it past the growing lump in her throat. "We have time—we'll find a way out of this! At least give me until the Brood comes... you have to give me that. Maybe you're wrong, and they won't come. Maybe Peter will pull through."

He laughs bitterly. "Maybe my wife and daughter are still alive somewhere. Maybe your family is with them."

"Fuck you." Her vision blurs, and she blinks angrily to clear it. "Just do this. If not for yourself, then for me."

He sighs.

"Drax, please."

He tightens his grip on her forearm. She nearly sobs in relief.

"Until the Brood comes," he agrees.

They fall silent again. Trying to collect herself, Gamora focuses on breathing in and out. She has bought them time, but she is still at a loss: her mind is racing through the outcomes that Drax described, and unfortunately, his reasoning is sound. The chances of a successful rescue are slim at best. The Milano is over half a parsec away, and with the route through hyperspace effectively barricaded by an asteroid field, their allies will be hard pressed to reach the Brood colony within the hour, let alone within the next few minutes. They are short on options and short on time. Still, she refuses to let go.

"I am sorry," Drax says suddenly.

"What?" She almost panics, thinking that he plans to go back on his word.

"No, I am referring to my previous blunder," he clarifies hurriedly. "I mocked the memory of your family. That was wrong of me."

Her eyes grow hard. "It would not be the first time their memory has been mocked to my face," she replies, voice carefully cleared of emotion. "I grew used to it, under Thanos. Mock them all you want: it means nothing to me."

He makes a frustrated sound. "Why do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Dismiss your pain," he says. "You speak as if you are so hardened by your past, so numb, that you are beyond pain. But you are not. I can hear it in your voice."

"Oh, so now you suddenly care about my pain?" she lashes out. "I would never have known, based on how you belittle and insult me at every turn."

A beat of silence, as he considers her words. "You are right," he finally says. "I did belittle you, and I am sorry. I think I did it because... things were easier that way."

"Easier?" she scoffs. "Easier than what?"

He takes a deep breath. "Easier than being constantly reminded of her. Of Hovat."

Taken by surprise, she turns her head toward him, waiting for him to elaborate.

"You remind me of her," he says simply. "She was by far the most stubborn, exasperating woman I had ever met. And like you, she was fearless. Honorable. Strong."

Her eyes widen. "Is that truly how you see me?"

"Yes," he answers, "and I did not want to see you that way. It was easier to dismiss you. To call you weak, or call you a whore, until I started to believe it. I thought perhaps, if I could look past you... then I would not have to dwell on my memories."

"I never knew," she says, not knowing what else to say.

"Now you do."

They lapse into silence. Finally, she breaks it.

"I envy you, you know," she admits. "You are able to speak so freely about your family, while I cannot do the same for mine." Even now, she finds herself unable to speak their names. Unable to acknowledge them in the way that they deserve.

Drax waits for her to continue.

"Ever since Thanos took me," she explains, "I have been taught to keep my pain hidden. I was not allowed to act out, or to weep, or to let myself remember that I had ever been anything other than a weapon. I had to pretend as if I had known no other life than the one before Thanos. So I... I never let my pain out, and never let it heal. Then I met you, and I saw how openly you grieved your family. I saw how you let your pain drive you—and it angered me. Because I was never allowed that luxury. So I said cruel things. We all did. And that was wrong of me... I should have been more sympathetic to your loss. I know, all too well, what it feels like."

He listens quietly as her words pour out. "Gamora, promise me something," he says when she is finished.

"Anything."

"When... after I..." He searches for the right words. Or more likely, he knows exactly what the right words are, and is tiptoeing around them for her sake. When I am gone... "When you are back on the Milano," he finally says, "do not bury your pain again. You said that you would be proud to die among your friends. But you must not be ashamed to live among them, either: to turn to them for comfort and help. It would not be an admission of weakness—it would only be an admission of your trust."

Her eyes water again, and she swallows. "You know," she says, after gathering herself, "I feel like we are finally speaking for the first time."

"I feel the same. Although I wish it had been under better circumstances."

"As do I."

She pauses, frowning. "I would squeeze your hand—I thought it might be a pleasant gesture of camaraderie—but I think the muscles in my arm have become permanently atrophied."

"Consider the gesture given." He laughs. "But I would not have been able to feel it. My own arm has been numb for minutes."

She laughs.

He falls silent for a moment, and she feels his weight shift, as if he is straining towards something. "Do you hear that?" he asks her.

"Hear what?"

He shushes her. "Just listen. In the east."

She closes her eyes and concentrates. There is the wind. There is the sound of their breathing, strained from prolonged exertion. And then...

She feels it before she hears it. Like the barest tremor in the earth, or the beginnings of an avalanche. Then, as it gets louder... Her eyes widen in recognition. Not an earthquake: A stampede.

"The Brood," she whispers, eyes wide. "They are coming."

"Then we are out of time." He takes a deep breath and releases it slowly—it dawns on her that he is preparing himself...

"Drax, don't do this. Please, we'll think of something..." She begins to plead with him, words pouring out clumsily as panic takes over. She wants to fight, to run, to lose herself in pure instinct as she tears through a line of foes. But this is not a problem that can be solved by the sword—this is not a problem that can be solved, at all—she is completely and utterly powerless and everything is happening so fast and oh God, he's really going to let go...

"You once told me," he is saying, "that you doubted the existence of an afterlife."

"Please..." She tastes salt, and realizes she is crying...

"But if there is one—"

"Please, you can't..."

"—then I think I will miss you."

Arms trembling, heart pounding, she curses him in her native tongue... All the while, the tremor grows, as the Brood draws nearer...

He laughs at her, because of course he does... The tremor swells to a roar... For a moment, Drax tightens his grip, and she can feel their pulses racing together, wild and fast and frightened—his only sign of fear.

"Run, my friend," he says. "Run, you foul-mouthed harpy, and fight on."

He lets go.

"No!" she screams, fighting to hold on, but losing her grip, losing him... Please no no...

Her hand closes on air.

He is gone.


Author's note:

So, yeah... that went a little dark at the end. I should probably be honest and disclose that I don't yet know how the rest of this story will play out. This may end up being a death fic, or it may not, but if it does end up being a death fic, then consider this a warning. Gamora and company would have a lot to deal with, in the aftermath. Hmm. What to do.

If you would like him to live, throw cookies. If you would rather read a death fic, throw... I don't know, rocks or something.

As always, thanks for reading and reviewing!