They’ve done this before. Many, many times. It’s a dance as painful as it’s familiar: the crunch of knuckles into cheekbones, knees into guts, elbows into shoulderblades.
Peter lands hard on his back, air gushing from his mouth like it’s the nozzle of a whoopee-cushion. “I thought we were trying not to kill each other!” he hisses. Yondu, bouncing on the balls of his feet, shrugs and beckons for him to stand again.
“Speak for yerself,” he says. This’s been a long time coming. Peter stole from him. And, like he told the Juggernaut chief, that deserves an answer.
Plus, y’know, if he doesn’t think they’re giving this bout their all, he’ll shoot ‘em both anyway.
They’ve fought seriously before. Course they have. Quill learnt swiftly that pulling punches when Yondu’s your sparring partner results in broken bones – and that’s Best Case Scenario. But no matter how pissed off they are at one another, they’ve known there’s an easy tap-out. One that’ll be respected.
It’s a simple signal. Needs to be. With adrenaline turning limbs and brain to gelatin, you ain’t exactly gonna be drumming out a solo on snares. So three heavy knocks suffice, spaced like the dashes in Morse code. Everyone on the crew knows what they mean. Even high on the pain in your scraped fists and the swell of bruises under your leathers, they’re impossible to mistake. Good thing too. If the Ravagers punished every slip-up in the training ring permanently, they’d have no men left by the end of the astral week.
But they ain’t in no ring now. When Yondu knees him in the throat – shit, was aimin’ for his collarbones – Quill thuds onto his side, choking and pounding his fist on the floorplates.
No time to falter. Yondu kicks Quill in the ribs. He doesn’t even enjoy it. Much.
He definitely doesn’t enjoy it when Quill grabs his boot. Boy curls around it like the galaxy’s biggest barnacle, face so red it clashes with his hair. Blood spills down his split lip: runny lava. One heave and Yondu’s off-balance. Fuck, he thinks. Let my guard down. He windmills to right himself – but Quill’s strong, even downed and wheezing. He practically hoists his feet from under him.
Quill deposits him on his stomach. And, coincidentally, his face. Yondu doesn’t have the coordination to get his hands under him and scramble away. Not before Peter’s tightened his grip on his shin guards. By then it’s too late. Quill hauls himself along his body, mighty and unshakable. Yondu reckons this is how it feels to be engulfed in the curls of a constrictor. There’s no hint of that scrawny brat who used to crawl into his bed. Only muscle, and fists, and a suffocating heaviness as Peter steamrolls him into the sloped floor, pinning him with a knee on his back.
Yondu struggles for air. No way he’s bucking him. Not while Peter’s thighs squeeze his sides, ready to ride out any bid for freedom. Only one thing left to do…
Peter’s hand fastens on the back of his neck, slipping under the collar of his sweat-soaked black pullover. His thumb grazes the implant. “I win,” he says.
Yondu grins. He’s bit his lip. All he can taste is copper. Might as well make the most of it – he cranes to spit blood in Peter’s face.
Peter grimaces. “Gross, dude!” His grip loosens. That’s all Yondu needs. He doesn’t try to writhe out from under Quill, or toss him vertically. Instead, he breaks the hold on his nape. When Quill braces, expecting him to crawl forwards, he instead squirms backwards, under the arch of his legs. He hooks them, one under each arm, and violently throws his bodyweight to one side.
Quill follows along. Not that he has much choice. He bears the brunt of the roll, too shocked to resist. Then the next, as Yondu lurches again and lets momentum take over, sending them both tumbling down the incline, at the apex of which looms the Juggernaut’s throne.
The room whirls past. Juggernauts, Guardians, walls, floor, ceiling. All blur into one. Quill and Yondu separate when they cross an uneven camber. Yondu’s shoulder jars painfully in its socket, but he can’t complain. Quill makes a yelping grunt as his temple smacks metal, and Yondu freezes instinctively, because this’d be the point in a normal punch-up where a dazed Quill would reiterate his tap-out.
No tap-out comes. Quill must’ve realized it’s useless, which Yondu’s thankful for. He doesn’t want to break his trust again.
Yondu sits. He’s dizzy, room twisting in nauseating spirals, and he spares a precious moment to give his inner ears a pep-talk before struggling for his feet. He staggers. Catches himself. Stands again, more confidently – and looks for Quill.
Quill’s thumped a whole revolution further than him. His scramble to stand is more laborious still. Yondu’s guts clench at the sluice of blood that slicks one half of his face in livid crimson. Quill must see the expression on his face. “S’just a flesh wound,” he slurs. Raises his fists once more – although he seems to be having trouble focusing. “Come get me.”
They’ve punctured the circle of guards; it reforms around them, a fluid bubble that makes retreat impossible. The chief hadn’t called halt, even when Peter had Yondu pinned. That ain’t a good sign. Neither’s the way Quill lists back and forth, unsteady on his feet. Even at this distance, one of his pupils looks significantly larger than the other.
“Stay still,” he grunts, swaying into a boxer’s stance and squinting in Yondu’s vague direction. “Can’t hit you if you keep bobbing about.”
Yondu wonders if telling Quill he’s the only one that’s moving is a bad idea.
“Stop!” A woman’s voice. Gamora. “He’s concussed. We’ll do whatever you want –“ Quill makes a noise of denial. He lunges, attempting to sock Yondu again – apparently he’d prefer getting beaten on to consenting to working as a slaver-for-hire. Yondu understands the sentiment. But with Quill in this state – dazed and groggy, pupils dilated – indulging him might result in a casket rather than a brief jaunt in the medbay.
Yondu can’t have that.
He dodges easily, sidestepping Quill’s wild uppercut. Turns to receive the Chief’s verdict – and freezes. Ignoring Gamora, who thrashes in the grip of a Juggernaut to his right, the Chief strokes his lip, staring straight at Yondu. His eyes are jet slits. “Very well. Whoever wins can join you on your expedition.”
As for what happens to the other one… Well, that goes without saying.
Quill spits on the ground. He glares at the Chief. Despite his wonky vision, he manages to cast him one hell of a sneer. “Good thing I’m gonna lose then. I’d put my gun to my head before I’d work for you.”
Yondu wipes blood from his cut lip and shoots him a tense grin. “Antagonizin’ the guy on the throne ain’t never a good idea.”
“What can I say? I learnt from the best.” Peter draws up to his full height. He sticks his chin in the air, looking all proud and righteous and heroic, like a man dying for his honor. “After you beat me, you better kill him.”
Yondu nods, mouth grim. Then he squares up to Peter, balls his fists – and sits crosslegged on the floor.
“Huh?” Peter gapes. “Um. Whatcha doing?”
Yondu’s seen the time on the holographic chronometer display by the chief’s chair. Ten minutes until Kraglin’s ETA. He’d hoped to have lasted longer before resorting to this, but thanks to Peter’s dumb Terran brainpan, which can’t take a bit of roughplay without turning to mush; not to mention his lust for self-martyrdom…? Yondu don’t exactly have a choice.
“Surrenderin’,” he says. Yawns. Picks a flake of old Beastie from his teeth. “You ain’t playin’ his game. Well. Neither’m I.” And that, Yondu hopes, is that.
Rocket’s held breath bursts from him in a noisy guffaw. “Y’know, I think I might be startin’ t’like this guy!” he announces.
“I am Groot.”
“Yeah, he stole my Beasties and ruined my clothes. I don’t like him enough t’forget that. Y’hear me? Vengeance is a-coming, ugly!”
“Silence,” rumbles the chief, drowning out Rocket’s sniggers. “Bring them to me.”
Aw hell, thinks Yondu, as he’s hoisted under the arms and dragged up the slope, suspended between two rhino warriors. He does his best to slow ‘em down: sagging deadwight, kicking their shins. They don’t appear to notice. Now would be a very good time for Kraglin to be early.
Kraglin is not early.
Kraglin is, in fact, late. And if he gets any later, Yondu’s gonna be late too. Late, as in… Dead. Geddit? He’d like to share that joke with Quill, because there’s nothing like a little gallows humor while a rhino-man tests your ribcage’s yield point with his massive hoof. But surprisingly, being crushed alive isn’t conductive to coherent speech.
“Argh,” says Yondu.
Or he would scream, if he was a wuss. Perhaps he’s heard an echo of Peter’s?
“Stop!” shouts Gamora, straining against burly grey arms. Two rhinos pin her in place. Sure, she could slit their throats with the nail on her pinky finger, but she wouldn’t be able to slit the throats of the rhinos with guns to each of the other Guardians’ heads, not before they pulled at least one trigger. “This is stupid. How is beating them meant to make them work for you?”
He thought she was the smart one. Yondu tries to laugh, but it comes out inaudible. His suspicions are confirmed when the rhino boss smirks. “Oh, I’m just doing this for my own amusement. You lot can get me what I want – or die similarly.”
Yondu writhes under the steadily increasing pressure. Something snaps. He coughs. The wetness that splatters from his mouth is so warm it takes a moment to realize it’s blood. Then the taste hits. Yondu – stupid – sucks in air before he’s had time to convulse out his coppery mouthful. The blood slurps noisily up his airways.
Pain. Like sniffing fumes from his Warbird engine, only so much worse. He ain’t drowning in toxic exhaust. He’s drowning in blood, his own blood, gooey and oddly viscous. Yondu sputters, trying to force the liquid out. But his lungs are too overtaxed, and his cough merely dredges a thin streak of blue that trickles through his stubble, clinging to the corner of his mouth.
Dimly, he realizes that Peter’s barging the rhino’s side. Ain’t gonna work. Boy looks all kind of pathetic; even moreso than usual. He’s scarcely on his feet, his charges do more damage to him than his opponent. And there’s that headwound. A bump’s already swelling, compressing the delicate tissue within. A slice above Peter’s forehead dispenses blood down the collar of his jacket…
His Ravager jacket. Peter ain’t even unpicked the stitching that holds the flame in place.
Yondu, windpipe spasming, remembers guiding Peter’s hands to thread the needle. They’d been small and pink. Little freckles smattered over their backs like stars in a peachy sky. His temperature, as ever, lagged at the low end of the thermal scale, and Yondu’d been struck even then at how someone so small could gobble so much, grow so little, and not be blasting out heat like a supernova. (Of course, as time had proven, Peter was simply bottling his growth spurt up.)
Yondu demonstrated how to suck the threadtip, cementing any frayed strands with spittle. He guided its tiny black bud through the needle’s eye. Then tugged it free, and handed both implements to his audience. Peter had watched with all due diligence – tinged with boredom, because no eight-year-old wanted their first lesson as a space pirate to be Home Economics. However, at that tender age he still had enough awe-slash-terror of the Ravager captain to pretend to nod along, even when he wasn’t listening. He’d failed the task seven times – at which point Yondu’s daily threat-quota had run dry. Having no other option, he wrestled the bobbin from Peter’s fingers, plonked grumpily on his ass, and showed him how it was done.
“There,” he’d snapped when he was finished. Shoved the completed patch into Peter’s scrawny chest. “Ya better learn fast, boy. Thas the last time I do that for ya.”
He sure hopes Peter’s mastered the art by now. He’s gonna need it. The rhino boss catches him by the arm as he attempts a messy hook. He swings him away. The patch rips, threads snapping in a noisy ricochet, and Yondu glimpses the yellow flame, bisected almost perfectly in two, dangling from its mooring like a flag on a windless day.
For some reason, that makes him mad. Almost as mad as when Peter slams headfirst into the floor for the second time, groaning in half-conscious agony. Fuck broken ribs. Fuck lungs that may or may not be perforated. Like hell is this jackass gonna get away with that.
Yondu’s been shoving ineffectually at the foot ever since it was planted atop of him. Now he changes tactics. Thing about Centaurians is, while they can draw energy from vegetation and exert the sway of psychic influence over lower life forms, the ability decreases as sentience grows. In space, where everything’s abiotic metal and smelly leathers, the gift’s as good as useless.
Good thing the rhino-clones are bred to be manipulated.
Spitting blood in a frothy spray, Yondu bypasses the panic of asphyxiation. He focuses his thoughts on one clone in particular. It’s hard. Like flexing a muscle that’s been paralyzed for a decade. His brain throbs, a blazing pulse that has it pressing on the confines of his skull as if it wants to ooze out the seams.
The clone’s spent its entire existence enacting the whims of its master. There’s no consciousness to get in the way, no wriggly thought processes to disrupt him. Of course, it helps that said master is currently distracted, weighing up whether he ought to stomp over to finish Peter, or stomp down and deal with the problem clutching his ankle. Yondu’s so out-of-practice he can’t have the clone swing up his gun to menace the chief. But he can make him loose his grip on it.
“Oi, Rocket!” he yells, loud as he can. That’s not very, when your lungs are swamped in fluid and your vision’s fuzzing grey. “Box!”
The Guardians are restrained right besides the chief’s chair. Upon it sits the yaka arrow, incarcerated in its slim grey prison.
The rodent’s quick on the uptake. He shrugs off the guard’s loosened hand, mounts his wrist and scurries to his shoulder. A bound carries him to the top of the throne, and he perches there a moment, cocking his head at the locking mechanism, before diving down and setting his lil’ claws to work.
Unfortunately, that’s enough time for the chief to process this turn of events.
“Shoot them!” he roars. His sole mashes Yondu’s chest – what’s left of it; bone structure probably looks more like a concertina at this point.
Gamora snarls. The sound is pure animal. She centers her balance, uproots one of her guards, and throws him sailing over her shoulder to land on his back, devastating and spine-shattering. Then stomps her heel through his jugular, just to make sure.
“We are fighting now?” Drax inquires, as plasma pistols prep on all sides. Gamora confirms with a nod and a feral grin – one which Drax mirrors. “Finally.”
Suffice to say, those pistols rapidly depower again. Kinda hard for charge to build when the fingers on the triggers are no longer attached to hands. However, there’s still a good twenty clones for them to plow through before they can be of any use. They need something else, something more immediate…
Rocket pops the catch on the box. “Blue! You’re up!”
The yaka link sears Yondu’s tired greymatter, which is by this time more than ready to give up the ghost and float into limbo, untroubled by memories of the dumb idiot suffering severe head trauma to his right, the one he’d give anything to save. He purses his lips more of muscle memory than will. No way is he drawing a breath, not while drowning on dry land. But, over the course of three gasps which border hyperventilation, he sucks enough air into his mouth for a single staccato note.
The arrow zips through the chieftain’s chest, heedless of the plated, shell-like exoskeleton. Yondu forgets to dial down the heat enough that it doesn’t cauterize immediately. He supposes he can be forgiven, what with the whole dying thing. But if he whistles the arrow round, makes another pass…
Maybe Peter at least will survive.
He can’t though. Sight’s failing. Senses are haywire with the panic of trying to draw oxygen and finding only blood. Yondu’s synapses are swamped beneath a synesthetic barrage of data, the smell and taste of metal blending with the thunder of his overtaxed heart, the dim agony as that boot grinds on splintered bone, the sight of blue all around him, smothering him: endless blue, fields of it, broken only by the vivid ginger of Peter’s hair…
Sneering, the rhino touches the new wound in its chest. Hole’s neat, size of a nickle. Yondu can see through it to the other side when the rhino bends to laugh in his face. It ain’t enough to kill him immediately, not when the capillaries and arteries have been seared shut by red-hot radiation. Somewhere behind him, his arrow reaches the peak of its parabola and clatters to the floor. Yondu tries to get it flying again, but he’s lost coordination; he can only mouth out the shapes of a rising chromatic gliss. There’s nothing he can do, nothing at all, as the rhino removes his foot from his chest cavity – ‘cavity’ being worryingly literal – and strides for Peter.
“I want you to see this,” he says over his shoulder, ignoring the ongoing fight to his rear. Unclips the gun from his belt. Holds it steady and level, its glowing barrel on line with Peter’s red-stained forehead. “I suppose there’s not much point in you saying goodbye, Udonta. You’ll see him again soon enough.”
“I… am… Groot.”
Bark divides Yondu’s fading vision. It grows faster than a branch has any right too, and for a second he’s back on Alpha Centauri, the wafting tendrils of the jungle melding into one another in a liquid leafy haze. Groot widens the tunnel left by his arrow. He heaves the chief into the air, holding him aloft and kicking like a man in the noose. Then brings him brutally down.
“You’re right, buddy.” Rocket scampers along the stretched limb, fangs gritted. When the chief raises his shaking pistol at Peter with a dying man’s stubbornness, he brains him with the yaka box. “You ain’t seeing neither of ‘em. Not where you’re going.”
A self-professed Guardian of the Galaxy thinks Yondu’s headed up rather than down? Somehow, that’s amusing. Not nearly as amusing as Peter.
Boy blinks into bleary wakefulness – asleep for the action, awake for the victory; go figure. He attempts to sit. He doesn’t get very far. Partly because being knocked unconscious is no small matter and he’s lucky he’s not been left a vegetable, mostly because Gamora finishes off her targets in the space of a blink and a cuss, and darts to his side, easing him horizontal once more. But not before Peter’s gotten a good eyeful of his mentor. Yondu lays flat out, head twisted so Peter monopolizes his tunneling eyesight.
“Dude,” Peter croaks. “You look kinda concave.”
Yondu wheezes a laugh. It turns into a cough, then a splutter, then another messy fountain of blood that erupts from his airways like a geyser full of royal blue food coloring. In that moment, he’s as sure he’s gonna die as he’s ever been. He fights to keep his eyes open. Stares at Peter until his face starts to swim, and notices his gaze is dulling too.
At least if they’re gonna fall asleep together, it’s for the last fucking time.
Awake. A word with two meanings, connected yet dissonant. The first: to rise from slumber. The second: to be kept from it.
Peter wants to stay awake. Truly he does. He wants to pump Rocket’s paw in thanks for saving him, squeeze Gamora’s wrist to tell her he’s alright, draw Groot and Drax into hugs that will be floundered into and stiffly endured. And he wants to tell Yondu he’s not a mean bully, like Peter’d said on the Juggernaut transport shuttle. Because while he’d been tough and sneery and always ready with a glower or a harsh word, he could’ve been a helluva lot worse. He doesn’t deserve a cookie for being Not Awful. But for every memory tinged with irritation, competitiveness, and more than a little hatred, there’s others that stir something else.
Being lifted into a hammock. Having blue palms tip his head to slow the nosebleed – Yondu’d been the one to kick him in the face in the first place, but Peter supposed it wasn’t technically on purpose. That stupid picture Kraglin had snapped of the two of them on the Bridge, after Peter’d faked a fit and Yondu’d told him his plan wasn’t bad. Then when he’d gotten flu and Yondu’d lugged him to the doctor, then back to his own room, and hadn’t kicked up too much of a fuss when he woke up to find a sickly Terran snuffling into his neck. Then a nightmare, accompanied by three little words: Don’t Hurt Quill. That’d been followed by something much scarier. Heat draining from the surface of a barren room. Yondu barely lucid, crawling away from an incapacitated Peter as he sought out a hole to die in. Then a certain encounter that was never-to-be-mentioned again, after which Peter had steam-washed every millimeter of Yondu’s nest (unpleasant) and the Eclector’s sewer system (worse).
As for the poisoning incident… Well, Peter’s not sure what to make of that. At the time he’d assumed Yondu feigned his excuse to crawl into his bed, so he could get his mitts on his watch and plant the tracker that had cemented Peter’s decision to make his own way across the stars. But he’d stayed even after that, hadn’t he? He could’ve snuck back to his spacious nest, rather than coiling on the cramped and overheating hospital cot, his back pressed against Peter’s. But he’d stayed.
If there’s one thing being a Guardian’s taught Peter, it’s that there’s no such thing as a good person, just as there’s no such thing as a bad one. You just gotta do the best you can, day by day. Some days Yondu had put in more effort than others. Peter’d begrudged him that at the time, but now he recognizes that regardless of magnitude, that effort had always been there. It had been expended around him, because of him, for him, and if Yondu’s parenting techniques had vacillated between tough love and tougher captaincy, they’d always been earnest – no matter how adamantly denied.
Yeah, Peter wants to keep his eyes open. Failing that though, he supposes he can settle for a brief nap. Just so long as he wakes up again, and Yondu’s besides him.
Having the first half of Peter’s wish fulfilled? Frankly, that isn’t good enough. He jerks to an upright seated position, far too fast. Plips go haywire. Some sorta medi-machine in the corner. Peter’s head swims. It’s worse than when he was muggy and brain-bloated with fever, his broken Walkman laying on his lap. It takes almost a whole minute to make sense of his surroundings. Then he recognizes the Nova sigil, and feels his stomach clench – before remembering that Nova doesn’t mean enemy anymore. He’s safe.
Only problem is: while the Guardians have maintained their squeaky clean records (for the most part) the Ravagers make no such efforts.
After awareness comes recollection. Peter’s scrambled brain fills him in on the events of the hour before he lost consciousness. They come in drips and drabs, saturating Peter’s neurons with animal fear.
Juggernauts had caught up to them. Bad.
Yondu’d been hiding in the Milano vents like a demented squatter. Very bad.
The Juggernauts had wanted them to fetch slaves; Peter had refused; he and Yondu had been thrown in a ring and told to fight…
It’s after that that things get fuzzy. But there’s one thing Peter’s sure about, as he drops his hand to the cold expanse of bed besides him, whimpering as he feels for a body that’s simply not there. And that’s that something must have gone wrong.
Logically, he knows Yondu wouldn’t step foot in a Nova hospital unless he planned on robbing the place. And given that the Ravagers had been en route, there’s a fair chance he’s languishing in the Eclector’s sterile-swabbed medbay, eyes rolling behind their thin blue lids as Doc stitches him together like he’s done a thousand times before. That doesn’t change that he ought to be here. Getting hugged by Peter, where he belongs.
Peter’s distracted by the pain in his head. “Ow,” he moans, worming his hands through the monitor-wires stuck to his chest with orange medi-jelly so he can clutch his temples. Either he’s got another ear-parasite or his brain’s trying to barge its way out of his skull of its own accord. Instantly, twigs engulf his wrists.
“I am Groot,” says Groot, and eases his hands away. Peter, not lucid enough to interpret tree-speak, gives him a scowl he in no way deserves.
“He said ya just had brain surgery. I’d leave pokin’ yer noggin alone for a while, unless ya wanna cause even more damage.” Rocket’s snicker is harsh, low, and incredibly relieved. “Not that we’d notice.”
Peter’s not in the mood for bickering. Prying Groot away, he got down to business. “Where’s Yondu.”
Rocket, for some reason, looks awkward. “You remember that? Doctors weren’t sure you were goin’ to…”
“No, no, I…” Peter winces, scalp twinging. He now recognizes the sensation of medi-jelly slathered liberally over his crown. His shaved crown. “My hair!”
“Calm down, idiot. It’ll grow back.” Rocket grins and pops to his feet. “I’ll go tell the others. Doctors said ya weren’t allowed booze, but the rest of us can party –“
“No…” Peter’s fingers close helplessly over the image of the retreating figure as it exits through the ward door. He can’t muster any details of how he’d come to be in this state. But he knows one thing for sure, and that’s that he needs to find Yondu. Now. Having no other option, he turns on Groot to begin the interrogation. “Okay, out with it. Where is he?”
Groot glances shiftily to one side. “I am Groot.”
“Yeah, you’re gonna have to be more specific than that, buddy.” Peter’s parched. He smacks his dry lips and searches for liquid to chug. Groot, ever the excellent nursemaid, offers a bottle, and holds it to the perfect height so that Peter can suckle its tip without drowning himself. Once he’s had enough he pulls back, gasping, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“I am Groot,” says Groot again, a tendril caressing Peter’s cheek. It’s mushy, even by Giving-Tree standards. Peter leans into the gesture, confused. His fear grows as those cupping branches cradle his face, Groot’s mournful eyes inches from his own. “I am Groot.” He sounds undisputably… sad.
Peter asks where Yondu is, and Groot sounds sad.
“No.” He shakes his head. “No, I don’t believe it. The Ravagers were coming, right? They’ll have got him out. Old bastard’s had worse –“ Just never while I was there to see it. “He’ll be up and kicking in no time, hunting us across the galaxy again. You guys must’ve been mistaken.”
Groot’s soft touches don’t cease. “I am Groot,” he murmurs. It’s an exact replica of the tone grandpa used when he first parked Peter on his knee and told him mom was headed to hospital and never coming back. Peter had screamed and flailed and refused to believe it, and Grandpa had held him tight and whispered the words into his hair, again and again – I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Pete. “No,” Peter repeats. Groot’s almost too close to focus on – that, or his eyesight’s gone all wobbly for other reasons. Reasons Peter doesn’t want to contemplate. Because why cry for someone who’s not dead? As if Yondu’d let a silly thing like a Juggernaut captain come between him and his love of all things lively and illegal. “No. You’ve made a mistake, Groot. That can’t be right. Did the Ravagers ever show up?” Groot shakes his head.
“I am Groot,” he says, pointing to the Nova insignia. They must’ve had a report of Juggernaut activity. Probably scared any loitering Ravagers away – that or there’d never been any Ravagers to begin with, because why’d bother showing up for the corpse of an ex-captain?
Not a corpse. Peter’s absolutely one-hundred-fricking-percent sure about that.
“You gotta go back and get him! Tell me we didn’t leave him there!”
“I… am Groot.”
“No, no. You’re lying. You’ve got to be…”
Groot does the only thing he can do. He pulls him into a loose embrace, careful not to disturb the wires pinned across his trunk. “I am Groot,” he whispers against his shaved skull.
Peter’s fists unclench. The tears finally spill over. “No,” he breathes, but it’s said with resignation rather than hope. “No.” Groot holds him the whole time: never smacking him for sentiment, never ribbing him for showing his grief. What Peter wouldn’t give for someone to do that now. But there’s only the comforting card of roots across the paper back of his hospital gown, and the barky crust of Groot’s shoulder against his cheek. Peter cries, and cries, and cries, and curses fucking Stockholm syndrome until his lungs ache.
When he finally peels himself away and wipes his crusty lashes, he finds Groot watching him with a small smile. Peter’s first instinct is to punch it. Not that he ever would, because Groot is Groot, and Groot is a precious specimen whose unthinking kindness is all too rare in this grotty galaxy. But how dare he look happy? Yondu might be the Guardians’ enemy, but to Peter… But to Peter, he’s so much more.
“He’s gonna kill ya, y’know,” says Rocket conversationally from the doorway. Peter frowns. Tears still blur his vision; he mops them from his swollen, soggy cheeks, but they reform as quickly as he can dash them away. He might be a little torn up about this latest dose of bad news – not just a little, if he’s being honest with himself – but he doesn’t plan on shooting the messenger. Groot’d attempted to comfort him, at least. Rocket had just run away.
…Run away to fetch the other Guardians. And Yondu, who sits in a wheelchair with the air of one only using it on threats of further evisceration.
Yondu, who’s smiling the biggest damn grin Peter’s ever seen.
“Pay up,” he says, flexing his fingers. Scoffing, Rocket forks over a bag of Knowhere trade-units. Gamora reluctantly does the same. “I told ya he’d cry.”
Peter’s hallucinating. He has to be. It’s easier to accept that than to believe he’s been duped, because then he’d have to get up to grind his fist right in the middle of Yondu’s stupid smile. And maybe, just maybe, once he’d repented and begged Peter’s forgiveness, drag him in to hug.
Like hell is Yondu ever gonna beg. Not for anyone, and certainly not Peter. Peter’d better give up on any aspirations on that note, and give him his hug anyway. First though – he’s due some shouting.
“You asshole,” he sputters. “You utter evil asshole!” Then to Groot – “You were in on this?”
Groot shrugged one shoulder. “I am Groot.”
“I wasn’t sure I could keep from gigglin’ long enough to pull it off,” Rocket explains, hopping onto the bed and padding over. “Lucky Groot’s a good actor.”
“I told them it was a foolish idea,” Drax intones. He crosses his beefy arms, and were it anyone else Peter might term his expression a pout. “They did not listen.”
Yondu, slouching over his chair like a lazy feline, cackles into his palm. “It was mighty funny though, wasn’t it?”
“For you, maybe! You jackass, I can’t believe you’d do this –“ He’s still crying, he notices. Only it’s not sobs that shake from his throat: it’s laughter. Ridiculous, gut-quaking, head-aching laughter. “Oh my god. You are so fucking unbelievable. Scooch over here, meals-on-wheels; I wanna hit you properly.”
Yondu tries. He scoffs when he realizes the brakes are on, and pushes unsteadily to his feet. He keeps one hand clasped over his chest like he’s holding himself together, and through the loose neckhole of the hospital gown Peter sees stitching: a gross black knot that crisscrosses Yondu’s chest like the webs of a spider on LSD.
Gamora scowls at him. Even her grumpy-face isn’t as potent as usual. “You shouldn’t be walking –“
“Suck it up, skinny.” The walk to Peter’s side takes longer than it should, Yondu hunched as if those stitches are pulling him tight at the front. He refuses the Guardians’ help – offered from all but Rocket, who moves only to relinquish his seat. Yondu accepts it. “Hey boy,” he says. That smile’s more familiar now. Peter knows better than to call it ‘soft’, but it’s as close as Yondu gets. Yondu’s eyes pop wide as Peter grabs him. “Hey, don’tchu squeeze! You wanna break my ribs again?”
“Suck it up,” Peter mocks. He buries his face in Yondu’s shoulder, inhaling his warmth, his smell: the dry leather musk laced with the sharper antiseptic tang that seeps from the hospital walls like sweat from pores. “You’re getting hugged. Don’t even try to fight it.”
Yondu doesn’t. Instead, he leans in, unhesitant now Peter’s taken the first step, and returns the gesture with gusto.
“So, I’m under arrest,” Yondu explains. The blasé tone does not go unnoticed by the Corpswoman, who’d accompanied him and the Guardians into the room. She nervously fingers her stun baton. “But there’s some mighty interesting shielding tech left on the Juggernaut ship. I’ve pinged Krags about it – if he can’t convince the crew to show up for me, he can at least get ‘em to bust me out of the slammer in exchange for money. I’ll be captain again in a week.”
“You’ll be in jail in a –“
Peter interrupts, sparing the woman a pitying look. “You’ll still be on bedrest in a week.”
“Only if you are.”
“There ya go.”
The doctor’s advice to the contrary is blithely ignored. Peter and Yondu share a smile. It’s broken when Yondu glances to the other Guardians, who mill about the room. From the way they interact, Peter discerns that first: they trust him not to gut Peter in his sleep, second: Yondu’s been awake a while longer than him, and third: it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’s spent the time regaling them with stories from his youth. The bastard. If Gamora’s shudders are any hint, the Tale of the Defiled Bed had been included.
“Dunno about Quill here, but I’m mighty whacked. Y’all wanna fuck off so we can get some sleep?”
The Corpswoman draws herself up, officious glare already in place. “I will not allow any improper conduct –“
“Ah, fuck off.” Yondu collars Peter round the neck, narrowly missing scrubbing the bandages. “He’s my kid. Keep yer mouth shut if ya don’t know what yer talkin’ about.” The quivery happiness that spreads through Peter’s chest is almost worth the blanket terror of thinking Yondu had dared die without him. Almost. But his snappy riposte – that Yondu’s kid he might be, but he can still banish him to the couch for being a jerkwad – is cut off by a yawn so wide it threatens to turn him inside out.
“There.” Not waiting for the doctor’s approval, Yondu gingerly reclines, stealing a pillow to keep his torso elevated. “Now, y’know where the door is. Show yerselves out.”
“As the member of the Nova Corps in charge of your arrest –“
“Alright, alright! You can stay, so long as ya shut up. The rest of ya? Skedaddle.”
Peter waves to the Guardians. He’s buoyant; elated; floating on a cloud. They’re all fine. They’re all safe. Yondu’s sworn to be in charge of his crew by the week’s end, and Peter doesn’t doubt him. For now, all that’s left is to recover. Shuffling prone besides Yondu – flat-out, because he doubts Yondu’ll appreciate having a heavy forearm lugged over ribs held together with wire, medical sealant glue, and prayers – he gets himself comfortable. Then casually touches his hand. Just to reassure himself this is all real, and Yondu’s not going to fade into the shadows of a coma-sleep. He means for it to be mistaken as an accident. But he doesn’t withdraw fast enough. Head rolling, Yondu confronts him with a half-open ruby eye.
Peter tenses, expecting a tease or a growl. But there’s only the firm clench of fingers around his.
“Quill?” Yondu mutters, lashes drifting shut.
Those fingers have yet to release him. Peter decides Yondu reaps what he sows, and holds them tight enough that he couldn’t extract himself if he wanted to. “Yes?”
“Go the fuck to sleep.”