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Their first meeting with the Broker does not go well. This is probably because one look at his face convinces Pete that she’s died and gone to Hell.

Okay, granted she’s died and gone to Hell three times before now. The first time was when these idiots picked her up—that was Blue Hillbilly Hell. Pickpocketing lessons (“On-the-job-training”, Yondu calls them) are Snatch-Grab-and-Run Hell. Peeing her pants on her first real job was, obviously, Pants-Pissing Hell. This one, Pete decides, is Old-Old Man Who Should Just Die Already Hell. Because, geez. The guy makes Yondu look pretty.

“Who’s this?” When he scowls, his wrinkles wrinkle, and his tufted eyebrows quiver like antennae, but neither of those things is as ugly as the look in his eyes. That look makes Pete feel like a dead beetle, stomped on and smeared across the floor—tiny, dirty; as ugly as he is.

She doesn’t shrink back; shrinking’s a sign of weakness. But she does step back, so fast and hard that she plows into Yondu, her head knocking against his chest and her back pressing into his belly.

“Nobody you gotta worry your pretty li’l head over.” His creepy long fingers settle over Pete’s shoulders and squeeze. “Kid’s ‘bout as pigheaded as they come, but she ain’t no runner.”

Pete feels the rumble of Yondu’s voice and growls, trying to pull away. She’d run if she could. She’d run if she were stupid and didn’t know that, thanks to him, she’s already wanted in four provinces and on two planets.

“Easy, Red.” Yondu squeezes tighter, keeping her pinned close to him. His tone would sound friendly to anyone who’s known him less than two minutes.

“Well…” the Broker’s nostrils flare. “So long as she doesn’t break anything…”

“Like I said.” A hard line runs through Yondu’s voice; one that Pete’s already learned not to cross. “The kid ain’t no bother. ‘Less you bother her first.”

The ugly little man must sense that line, too. His lips quiver as he tries to smile. Pete smiles back, thin and mean, as Yondu’s chuckle vibrates against her shoulders.

“But we got a deal what needs workin’ out, huh?” he says, finally loosening his grip on her shoulders. “You—” and his fingers tighten one last time, vice-strong. A warning. “—get an eyeful of them pretty doohickeys over there.”

Pete stares at the glass shelves lining the walls, so clean they’re almost invisible, then flicks her eyes back toward the Broker, who looks about ready to cough up a hairball. He glares at her, helpless but sharp as a tack, and Pete hesitates.

“What you waiting for?” Yondu smacks the back of her head lightly. “Git.”

Pete gits. For all the stuff glittering and winking on the Broker’s shelves, she’s only really drawn to one display. It’s on a corner of shelving in the very back, low to the ground where someone taller might not notice. Pete guesses that that’s probably the idea—the dolls and figurines scattered across the shelf are pretty, but nowhere near as expensive as the knives and jewels displayed above them. She squats down, stretching out a finger to stroke the ears of a tiny jet-black cat.

“Fancy stuff’s what’s expensive,” she remembers Mom saying. “Cute doesn’t cost anywhere near as much.”

As Pete pokes at the other doohickeys (a frog made out of emerald-colored glass, a topless ceramic mermaid) she keeps one ear cocked towards the desk. Yondu’s needling the Broker over the exact value of an authentic 12th century Xandarian battle knife when suddenly their voices both short out, from “I question whether this is 12th century at all,” to complete spit-specked gibberish.

She fingers the swollen red lump behind her ear. Pete’s universal translator has been implanted for six months, from the very second she hit the deck after getting beamed up. And for six months it’s been glitchy as all hell; Yondu keeps saying they’ll get her a better one once they come by some cash. In the meantime, she’s supposed to keep her hands off it.

But that’s impossible. Pete prods the tender spot; poking sometimes helps. It doesn’t this time, so she pinches the lump, hard, until tears spring into her eyes. Nope. All she’s getting is a steady stream of blahs, and those blahs are growing louder and angrier by the second. Pete’s on the verge of whacking the spot with the flat of her hand—always her last resort, since it hurts even worse than pinching—when someone yanks the back of her coat, spinning her away from the shelves.

She thrashes away, knowing it’s not Yondu because he never attacks from the back, except when he’s teaching her to fight dirty (like it’s something she needs to be taught—please). Sure enough, she whips back around just in time to get a faceful of Broker-spit. Somehow, her implant picks up the screech of his voice and nothing else. It’s all Pete can hear. Her head rattles and pulses with it. She clamps her hands over her ears, as hard as she can, scrunches her eyes shut, and it’s all she can do to not to bolt into the darkest, smallest corner she can find and curl up in there, too.   

She misses the shafts. They’re dark and cool and, unless a shouting match is going on right underneath them, quiet. Not even Kraglin’s skinny enough to crawl up in there and drag her out. Why’d she ever leave?

Making sure her head doesn’t explode keeps Pete too occupied, at first, to feel Yondu’s hand on the back of her neck. His touch isn’t gentle—in fact, he’s grabbing at her scruff like she’s a kitten or an A'askavariian Tent-Monkey—but it’s firm enough to steady her.  She squints just enough to see that he’s shoved himself between them. The heavy folds of his coat block her view of the Broker, and suddenly all Pete wants to do is bury her face in them, to hear nothing but the rumble of Yondu’s voice.

She catches his lips moving, shakes her head. Yondu taps his own ear. Pete nods.

There’s a sharp sting, and an even sharper pop when he flicks her behind the ear. Pete shakes her head as the screech morphs back into quavering apologies.

“I thought—”

“She weren’t doing nothin’.” Yondu’s voice is hard. “Knows I’d skin her alive if she was.”

Pete snorts.

Yondu glances back at her. “Had enough, Red?”

“Yeah.”

If her voice sounds watery, they both ignore it. Yondu lets go of her neck and drops his hand back to her shoulder; if Pete works her way under his arm and presses against his side like she’s five years old instead of eight, they ignore that, too.

“Well then,” he says, looming over the Broker, whose face is flushed almost purple with a mix of rage and absolute terror. “I’d say that concludes our business here. Matter of fact, I’d say it’s time to take it elsewhere.”

The man stutters something about if he could please have one last look at the hilt—the inscription along it could just possibly be 12th century, after all. But Yondu doesn’t even blink (which, Pete has to admit, is impressive, seeing as “greed” is practically his middle name). Just sweeps by, jostling the Broker so hard he stumbles. Almost falls. Pete strides along in his wake, turning to flash her sunniest grin before the door slams down behind them.

+

“I didn’t break anything,” she says as they make their way back to the ship. Pete wipes her eyes. Not because she’s crying. Her eyes are just watering. Allergies. And if she were crying, it’d be because her stupid second-rate implant is still throbbing, not because she was scared. She glares at Yondu, just so he knows.

Pete’s not scared of anything.

Still, she sticks close to him as they duck through back allies, past the kind of booths Mom would call “shady”. This galaxy is huge, nutso to boot, and it’s just hit her, suddenly and horribly, that Yondu’s about the only person in it she can count on. She reaches out, snags the sleeve of his coat.

“I could’ve kicked his ass,” she says, “if it weren’t for that implant.”

Yondu lets out an awful noise; something between a snort and a chuckle. “Cost us payment for four days’ work is what you did.”

Pete falters. “So sell it to someone else.”

“Uh-huh. This might surprise you, girl, but them other sellers ain’t near as susceptible to my charm and good looks.”

“Let the knife do the talking. I mean, it is almost 12th century.” Pete pauses. “What does ‘susceptible’ mean?” The second she asks, cold horror washes over her. “And how come you know a word I don’t?”

“Never underestimate your Capn’.” Yondu sounds smug. “I’m a man of mystery.”

A block away from the docks he stops her. “Lemme see it.”

“See what?”

“See what. We coulda been swimming in credits if I hadn’t stuck up for you back there. Now what you gonna do? Turn me into a liar?”

There it is again. That you-better-not-cross-this-if-you-value-your-life line. Pete rolls her eyes, roots around in her coat pocket, grabs it, and drops the little jet cat into Yondu’s outstretched palm.

“Broker thought you was ‘bout to smash it.” He tosses the figurine up like a ball, catches it one-handed. “Idiot.”

Pete almost tries to fight the warmth pushing up through her stomach and into her cheeks. Mom wouldn’t want her stealing, not even cheap little doohickeys from rich old idiots. But Mom’s not here, and a job well done is a job well done.

“It was easy,” she says.

“You forgetting who taught you?”

“Doesn’t matter who taught me,” she scoffs. “Thieving’s in my blood.”

“Is it.”

“My mom was the sweetest, smoothest woman in the whole galaxy. She’d steal the words right off your tongue.”

Mom never stole a single thing in her life, but it feels like the right thing to say. And it must be, because Yondu’s lips curl into one of his sly, all-too-easy grins.

“How ‘bout your daddy now?”

That gives Pete a pause. Yondu doesn’t like her talking about her dad. The few times he’s caught her doing it he’s either clonked her head or doubled her daily chores. Or both. She’d better tread carefully here.

She shrugs, like she doesn’t much care. “My daddy was a real sonuvabitch.”

“And that’s the gods’ honest truth.” Yondu laughs, long and way too loud. “Ain’t gotta remember nothing else, girl. Nothing but that.”

(And this the last he’ll talk about her dad--the last time they’ll talk about either of her parents—until five years down the line, when it’ll get loud and rough and ugly, and they’ll both spew out things that can’t be unsaid. That’s not today, though. Yondu won’t remember what he said today.

Pete will. Pete remembers almost everything.)

“You keep the kitty-cat,” he tells her. Orders her, really. “Next time you better be sure whoever you’re thieving from don’t catch nothing.”

“I told you it’s because of the implant. If it hadn’t—”

“Don’t I know it. Come on. We best get back to the ship.”

+

Space on board is in short supply, even for itty-bitty cats. Pete stores the toy under her pillow for a while, but the sharp ears keep poking her, and she knows someone’ll try to steal it sooner or later. Ravagers can’t resist cuteness any more than totally decent beings, whatever they pretend. Plus, most of them are still stupid enough to think she’s an easy mark.

She isn’t, but she can’t keep awake night after night waiting for a thief to strike. She needs to put the cat somewhere safe. A place even the real idiots wouldn’t dare swipe it from.

“What’s this crap doing on my dash?”

“It’s my crap,” she says, “and I’m entrusting it you.”

“That so? I supposed to be honored or something?”

“Just make sure nobody else touches it.”

Yondu flicks the cat’s tiny button nose. “Your fancy new implant botherin’ you, Red?”

“Nope.”

“It better not.”

Pete watches the way his fingers scuttle towards the cat, then away. He doesn’t want her to know, but even he thinks it’s tiny and adorable and pettable. Yes. She thinks this’ll work out just fine.

+

Neither of them quite means for it to become a tradition, but it does. Pete steals shiny little doodads. Yondu collects them. Nobody mentions it.

She leaves a purple plastic dinosaur on his dashboard after the Krylorian bank job. A pottery owl after the debacle on Aakon. A teeny green bobblehead that looks like no alien she’s ever seen after their raid on Cormac the Befuddler’s fleet.

Soon enough Yondu quits calling them crap. He calls the dinosaur cute for the first time when they’re docked on Raine. Pete heads out to the market and palms a plastic puppy and a troll doll. The puppy goes to Yondu. The troll doll she keeps.

+

Pete’s fourteen. She was wrong about all those other times because this--this is Hell. She may not be quite dead yet, but she’s close enough, and getting closer. She squats over the can, picturing her gravestone. Pete Quill. Died of--

Of what? Bad beans? Poison? Internal hemorrhaging? Is this what happened to Mom before she died?

Pete Quill, the first girl to bleed to death out of her privates.

She unrolls at least ten feet of toilet paper, but the mess is all over the seat, all over the bowl; there’s no way to hide it. No time to hide it, either.

“Hey!” The flimsy door shudders as Kraglin starts in on another round of pounding. “I’m ‘bout to bust a gut out here!”

A cramp throbs deep in her stomach. Pete sinks her teeth into her lower lip before yanking her jeans back up. “It’s clogged!”

“Don’t care!” he sounds desperate enough that she’d almost feel bad for him. If she weren’t dying. Pete wipes over the seat, then drops the ball of bloodstained toilet paper into the crapper. She wasn’t lying, though. It’s clogged. She can’t flush.

“What the hell you waiting for?” Kraglin about wails.

She unspools the last of the toilet roll and dumps it in, as if that’ll cover up the murder scene she’s left behind (it really looks like something got stabbed to death in there, which doesn’t help the pangs in her gut any). Pete unlatches the door and bolts.

If she’s going to die, she wants to do it on her own. She wants to go softly, curled up in the shafts like the gear lizards do when they know their time is up. Mom didn’t go softly. Mom held on for months and months, rocking Pete, kissing her, telling her everything was going to be okay night after night until she got too weak to hold anybody. Even then she didn’t go, not until she’d said goodbye to absolutely everyone--her friends, her sisters. Grandpa. Pete.

Pete wonders if anyone on board will miss her. Maybe she should go and say goodbye. What would she say, though? If she was bleeding, they’d want to know where and--

No. Nope. No-fucking-way. Dying alone is fine. Dying alone is perfect.

+

So it turns out you can’t run far--or fast--when it feels like you’re being stabbed in the stomach. Luckily there’s an access point to the shafts right around the corner from the bathroom. Pete climbs up the ladder, unlatches the hatch, and heaves herself in. That in itself is awful, seeing as she’s never had to heave herself in before (and now that she’s in the fit’s much tighter than she remembers, or will ever admit). The cherry on top of the shit sundae, though, is that this shaft connects to the one over the bathroom. She hears everything.

Like when Kraglin comes out, slams the door, and yells, “Wouldn’t go in there if I was you, Capn’!”

Capn’. Pete curls up in a ball and prays for death.

“Don’t need to,” snaps Yondu. Then, suspiciously, “Why?”

“Erm,” says Kraglin. He pauses for exactly a second before yapping out, “Head’s all clogged up with bloody rags.”

In the awful, sticky silence that follows that sentence, Pete can hear the gears in both their idiot heads creak to a stop.

“Oh,” says Kraglin, quiet. Even quieter, “Aw, hell, Capn’, I didn’t think--”

“Shut up. Where’s the kid?”

“Lit off like a scared rabbit,” Kraglin mutters. “Thataway.”

Pete hears Yondu’s boots stomping around the corner. She thinks about crawling away, deeper into the shafts. No. He’d hear her. And, as awful as this is--God only knows why, but the way he and Kraglin were talking makes her think that they, at least, have an idea of what’s wrong with her. Maybe she doesn’t have to die after all.

His footsteps stop right under the hatch.

Then again, maybe she’d rather die.

Yondu clears his throat.

Pete waits.

He clears it again.

Well, if it’s bad enough to strike him speechless, she must be on the next bus out.

“You can come on down now,” he finally says, his voice sort of strangled, like he’d rather be saying anything else, and almost...soft?

Wait, is he trying to sound gentle?

Pete wraps her arms around her stomach but doesn’t make a move toward the hatch. Not even a twitch. She bites her lip through a silence even more painful than the last. At least it’s shorter. Gentleness wears off real quick whenever Yondu’s involved.

“I ain’t fooling, girl. Get your ass down or--”

“Save it for the eulogy.”

“What?”

Pete flips up the hatch. “I said save it for the eulogy, you big dumb Smurf!”

His devil-red eyes narrow. “Whattdadya do to your lip?”

“Huh?”

He crooks a finger, like she’s a puppy or an exceptionally dumb baby. “Come on down.”

Pete does then. They’ve had standoffs before and honestly? She’s not in the mood to spend hours screaming at him from behind a vent. Her gut can’t take it. Not to mention her pants.

“Bit clean through,” Yondu grumbles once she’s wobbled down the ladder. He reaches to grab her chin between his thumb and forefinger. Pete sidesteps.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I’m dying anyway.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah,” Pete snaps. “Yeah, that’s exactly right,” and she opens her mouth to say something else, something lippy that’ll have Yondu narrowing his eyes again, or prepping for a slap, but instead this god-awful, banshee wail leaks out, so loud they both jump. Once she’s started, she can’t stop; the snot and tears come gushing out a second later and Pete doesn’t blame Yondu for grabbing her, crushing her against his coat to muffle the noise. What she does is harder to explain. Pete reaches for him, wrapping her arms under his and squeezing, clinging, wishing he were Mom, wishing this were all a dream she’s finally about to wake from. It’s not, and Yondu sure isn’t Mom, but he’s here, and he’s solid. Something to hold on to, even if he smells like day-old sweat and Crazy Joe’s.

Something that squeezes her back, at once too tightly and not tightly enough. Pete turns her face away from his coat just enough to gurgle, “I don’t want to die!”

“I’d call that convenient.” If Yondu’s pissed about the spit and snot she’s spewing over his badges, he doesn’t show it. “Seeing as you ain’t dying.”

“I’m bleeding to death!” Pete almost shouts. She mashes her face back against his shoulder, sputtering the rest out fast enough that she half-hopes he won’t catch it. “It keeps coming and it’s been like, two days and I can’t stop it and I don’t know what to do I don’t know what to do, I don’t wanna die--”

“Don’t nobody want to die, Red.”

“I don’t wanna di--”

“Hey. You hear me?” He whaps the side of her head. Pete pulls back, gasping and snuffling from the sting.

“You ain’t dying,” Yondu repeats, pulling back himself. His jaw works, so he is pissed. But not, Pete guesses, with her. She’s seen that look before. Usually comes on when the rest of the crew complains about him being too soft on her. From the look, Pete’s always thought that Yondu halfway agrees with them.

“Now shut up and get your face back in order,” he says. “Goddamn female hysterics is what this is.”

“What the heck are you talking about, old man?”

“I’m talking ‘bout what I’m talking ‘bout.” He used to say that all the time after they first picked her up, when her crap implant kept shorting out; he never wanted to explain himself twice. Lazy dick. Yondu roots through one of his pockets, coming up with twenty credits.

“Here’s what you’re gonna do,” he says, jingling the credits in his palm. Avoiding Pete’s eyes. “You go down to the market, you go to one of them lady stores--”

“Are you going crazy? Or, you know, senile? ‘Cause I have no idea--”

“--You say--”

“And what’s a lady store? What does that mean?”

“--say it’s that time ‘a the month, or, shit, tell em’ it’s the full moon, I don’t know.”

She’s never heard Yondu admit that he doesn’t know something. It scares Pete worse than the blood currently trickling down her leg. She holds her hand out anyway. She’s never refused free credits.

“Go now,” he orders. “‘Fore it closes.”

Pete swallows. “Can’t--can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?” Why should she have to blab all this to strangers?

“Girl.”

“Yeah?”

“Some things I don’t never mean to tell you,” says Yondu. “And this here’s one of them.”

+

She comes back with bright pink boxes full of stuff she’s only half-sure how to use (it’s not like she could ask for a demonstration) and a flimsy paperback book called Your Body and You: The Humanoid Edition. It promises “up-to-date information regarding all human and humanoid races--now with full-color photos!” Pete flips through a couple, trying not to barf.

This is her life now. Month after month, until she either hits fifty or dies. Cramps. Bleeding. More cramps. Bloody pads that she’ll somehow have to get rid of without anyone else noticing (Your Body and You does not recommend flushing them). Pills that’ll never work because, thanks to one too many near-death experiences, Pete’s built up a heck of a resistance to painkillers.

Don’t forget growth spurts. She popped a button off her coat when she scrabbled out of the shaft today. Come next year she won’t be able to fit up there at all.

Where the hell is she supposed to hide now?

+

Pete makes sure Yondu gets his change. They don’t meet each other’s eyes for a week straight. From that day on, though, nobody bothers Pete when she’s in the bathroom. Which, hey, doesn’t make up for the fact that the Captain and the first mate both know exactly when she got her first “cycle”. (The only word Pete hates more than “cycle” is “puberty”.) But a perk is a perk.

There’s a new toy left on his dash after she gets back. A spotted cow that moos when you pull its tail. Mostly, she pocketed it because it was sitting right there, on the edge of some guy’s stand, the only spotted cow left while its solid-colored brethren got snapped up by a mass of squawking kids. All the same, leaving it for Yondu feels right.

He came after her, told her she wasn’t dying. He even gave her money. He didn’t have to do any of that.

He held her.

She can’t say thank you. Talking about that day at all would mean admitting that it happened, and apart from how humiliating the whole mess was, Pete did actually think she was going to die. Who wants to relive that?

The plastic cow will have to do.

+

When she’s fifteen, she decides that the whole dashboard-decorating thing was a stupid game neither of them needs anymore. Come on, she’s almost an adult. Yondu’s probably about a hundred and all he does these days is bawl himself hoarse when she takes the Willis out for a spin. They’re barely getting along anymore. What’s the point?

When Pete sees them all lined up like a twittering, mooing Technicolor menagerie, though, she remembers what each one means—thanks for standing up for me, thanks for the talk, thanks for taking that shot. She thinks about how small her world used to be, back when she could say that much with a dinky piece of plastic. It’s bigger now. She’s bigger now, but she can’t say what she means—she barely knows what she means—with gifts or words or anything else. Who knows when things changed. Who cares? There’s no going back now.

+

It takes another nineteen years, two days in the Kyln, an honest-to-gods space battle, and Ronan the Accuser vaporizing ten feet from her face for Pete to realize that maybe their old dashboard-decorating game wasn’t as stupid as she thought.

Nothing brings on the nostalgia quite as strong as a near-death experience.

Yondu must feel the same way. He doesn’t even open the Orb she hands him before jetting off.

He’s the closest thing to family I’ve got left.

Not quite. Not anymore. Pete’s willing to agree with Gamora on this point; the whole joining-hands-to-save-the-galaxy, Kumbaya bit clinched that. So now her family includes one of Thanos’s disowned daughters (who, despite years of torture that make Yondu’s “on-the-job training” sessions look like a visit to the puppy farm, looks like a runway model and can do a perfect cat’s-eye without smearing her eyeliner even once—how is that fair?), a widower who wouldn’t know a metaphor if it kicked him in the junk, a talking, thieving trash panda, and a sapling. She doesn’t expect them to understand how Yondu fits in with all of them, or why he even should. Their relationship…well, it’s never been what you’d call easy.

Of all the good turns he’s (grudgingly) done her, this was the biggest. Still doesn’t mean she owes him the Orb, and when Pete grabbed her troll doll to use as a decoy she figured it was just because it was the nearest thing that could approximate the weight of the stone.

Now that he’s gone she’s knows differently. It’s a gift like the ones she used to give him when she was a kid. A screw-you and a thank-you all in one. He’ll get it. Yondu always did love that troll.

“Ugly lil’ bugger,” he’d say when he spotted it on the dash of the Willis’s control console. “You and him must be twins, huh, Red?”

“Bite me.”

Some day one of them—Rocket, probably—will ask why she doesn’t just cut him to the curb and have done with it. If she’s in a bad mood, Pete’ll tell him to shut his trap and go back to packing pipe bombs. But if she’s in a good mood she’ll tell him the story of her very first meeting with the Broker, and how Yondu passed up a quarter-million credits just because the guy yelled at her. If she’s drunk, she’ll tell him about the fiasco of her first period; how Yondu talked her down, held her, and never mentioned it again. If she’s in a really good mood—if she’s feeling kind, and also, possibly, still a little drunk—she’ll tell him that there’s no going back, but you can always start afresh, that actions speak louder than words, that when she was a kid, okay, they had this sort of system, whenever she needed to say thank you, but couldn’t, for whatever reason, she’d steal him some cheap little trinket, something cute, and he kept them. All of them, lined up right there on his dash.

Sometimes, with the galaxy being what it is, huge, dangerous, and, at the end of the day, unknowable; sometimes you’ve just got to scale down, you know? Say a big thing with something small.

“You get me?”

Rocket smirks at her over the guts of his half-finished bomb. “Nah.”

Pete deflates. “You sure?”

“Not a clue, Quill.”

“Well, see, neither of us is that good at getting our feelings across, especially not to each other—“

“Hmm. I must have misspoke.” Rocket’s smirk, if possible, stretches even wider. “What I really meant was…I don’t care.”

“Asshole! You asked me—“

“I didn’t ask you anything! You just got up in my face. Started going on about Yondu and the plastic crap you used to steal for him. For no good reason! You idiots didn’t even try to resell it!”

Pete stares down at the beer can half-crumpled in her hand. “Shit. How many beers have I had?”

Rocket points his snout towards the almost-empty twelve pack beside them.

Shit. She just blabbed out half her history with Yondu. To Rocket. Who didn’t even ask. Pete reaches for another can.

“He’s looked out for me,” she admits, slurring a little and praying she forgets this all by morning. “Always has.”

Rocket snorts. And remarks, not for the last time, “You people got issues.”