Actions

Work Header

I Don’t Wanna Know Your Name

Chapter Text

Here’s the thing—facing down almost certain death is nothing new to her. It’s been a fairly regular part of Pete’s life ever since Yondu took her measure and came up with small + skinny = good for thieving. So yeah. It’s no big deal now. It’s even expected.

But.

But.

It’s never easy.

Pete licks her lips, tries to grin, and remembers, for the tenth time in as many minutes, that she’s not eight years old anymore. Not quite as skinny or anywhere near as small, and lately her sneaking…well, it hasn’t been all that sneaky. The botched job’s on her this time, which makes her chances of survival, even assuming she dodges the blaster pressed to the back of her skull, slim. You screw up in the doldrums of deep space, or at the gambling table, or in a whore’s bed. Not on the job.

She’s not eight years old anymore.

Sixteen’s pretty damn young to call it quits and kick the bucket, though. Pete swallows back the bile sizzling in her throat and stretches her grin tight.

“You probably get this a lot,” she says, “but I wouldn’t shoot me if I was you.”

The smuggler snorts, his blaster’s muzzle steaming against Pete’s scalp like a brand. “Move it, bitch.”

All righty then.

+

“All I’m saying is, I got friends. And they’re coming after me.”

Or they should be. Must have reached the vault by now; Pete’s the one who got them into the ship, the one who’s supposed to get them out. If she doesn't come, they’ll come looking.

The smuggler prods her down the hall without answering. Pete suspects that he’s already exhausted his entire vocabulary.

“No, dude, I mean it. You ever had Ravagers on your trail before?”

He grunts.

“They’re worse than bloodhounds,” she continues. “Worse than wolves. They’ll sniff you out like—“

They both hear it, just as Pete’s about to snap her fingers. Shrill, tighter than a bowstring, cutting through the dim corridors and bowels of the ship, and Pete’s grin stretches into something real, because that whistle? Right now it’s the most beautiful sound in the world to her. Better than even Blue Swede or The Runaways.

“Sorry, sugar. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The smuggler, gentleman that he is, gives her three seconds to feel the soft, tentative unfurling of hope in her gut before wrestling Pete into a headlock. She fights him—does her best to, anyway, but the man’s got a third arm, which complicates things. And he’s not running on hope and half a can of Crazy Joe’s.  

 “‘M saying this cause I like you,” she chokes. “You don’t want to be facing this guy down.”

The muzzle sizzles into her temple. “Little girl,” says the smuggler, his third hand—six-fingered, like the rest—roaming a ways down south, “I think it’s you who don’t want to be facing him.”

Pete’s innards twist, hot and sick, in a way that has less to do with the placement of those spare six fingers and more to do with imagining the look on Yondu’s face when he sees that this is all her fault. She bucks as the smuggler’s arm tightens around her neck.

Too late. The Yaka Arrow zips towards them like a stray, deadly beam of light. Then pauses, ever so slightly, no more than an inch from the smuggler’s forehead.

“Man,” Pete whispers, “this is your last cha—”

He jabs the blaster in even harder; Pete feels her skin bubble and blister. “Shut up!”

They both watch Yondu stroll down the corridor, smooth as a fancy lady wafting down a promenade (though no fancy lady would be caught dead wearing either a Ravager’s flames or a lifetime’s worth of missed dental appointments). Pete hopes that the smuggler’s scared enough for heart palpitations. She sure is.

Fortunately for her, if not for him, Yondu’s too occupied with keeping the arrow aloft and aimed straight to do much talking. He leaves that to Kraglin, who scuttles a few paces behind, red-faced and puffing.

“Gods almighty,” he whines, clutching at a stich in his side as if that’s the real problem here. “Why we gotta keep saving your sorry ass is beyond me.”

“Could we maybe do this later?” Pete hisses. “Or never?”

Kraglin’s grin could spoil milk. “Hell no. You fucked this one inside-out, runt. Wait ‘till we get back, Capn’s gonna—“

Yondu turns his head just enough to shoot Kraglin a look that Pete’s horribly familiar with; the do-what-you’re-supposed-to-be-doing-or-I’ll-torpedoe-your-ass-into-next-Sunday glare. For a second, Kraglin wilts under it, then straightens back up.

“Don’t plan on killing nobody, ‘less that’s what you want,” he says, finally addressing the smuggler. “Just hand the girl back over and we’ll go peaceful.”

“Huh,” the smuggler grunts, unconvinced. Pete doesn’t blame him for that—even after all these years she trusts Yondu, and by extension, his right hand, Kraglin, as much as she trusts the Eclector’s sewage system. But she does blame him for the pattern his spare fingers trace, slow and tickling, like the very point of a knife, just under the neckline of her shirt.

“This is your choice, boy,” Kraglin snaps. His eyes narrow at the wandering extra hand, and though Yondu’s face doesn’t change (not even a twitch) Pete knows that he sees it, too.

The smuggler’s fingers skim over the tops of her breasts, then dip into her cleavage. Pete’s stomach lurches as if it’s going to come shooting up her throat; she jerks away, but the smuggler’s already got a good handful and he squeezes it, kneading and twisting. Pete breathes hard, bites her tongue. She doesn’t scream. Doesn’t whimper. She won’t.

“I came up behind her when she was picking a lock,” he says, conversational. “Ain’t got much in the way of skills, does she?”

When Kraglin doesn’t answer, and the arrow doesn’t move, the smuggler continues. Pete went into this assuming he was dumb, at the very most possessing Yondu-like levels of intelligence, but now she sees that isn’t true at all—she’s the bimbo, the asshat who couldn’t be bothered to think ahead. This man is cunning. He’s brimful of words and ready to use them.

“She’s a pretty one, though.” He squeezes again. “Real young. Real cute.”

At least that proves that, whatever else is floating through his mind, Pete probably doesn’t have to worry about the blaster. Yondu and Kraglin, on the other hand…he could turn it on them at any minute.

The arrow would spear him through before he could pull the trigger.

Maybe. Yondu’s pushing fifty if he’s a day. His whistles’re starting to sound reedy. Pete tries to catch his eye, telegraph Move it! NOW! through her eyeballs, but Yondu’s own eyes are fixed on the smuggler’s.

“I’m thinking,” says the smuggler, “that she’s worth more to me than she is to you. Dead or alive.”

“You don’t know jack-shit,” Kraglin snarls. “Let her go.”

“You’re all working for the Noquoe family is what I’m thinking. Which means this here’s a no-kill job. And I’m thinking I don’t have that restriction."

She can’t speak. Her words are gone, all of them, and it’s worse than a gun to her head or a hand groping her tits. Any power Pete might have had is gone, balanced between this scumbag, Kraglin, and Yondu. Without words she’s nothing.

“I can take her off your hands. I’ll pay you—quarter of the jewels you came to collect. And that’s a damn generous offer.” The smuggler’s back to tracing patterns under her collar. Pete wonders if she can bite hind fingers off. “She’s worth a lot less.”

“Let her go,” Kraglin hisses without looking to Yondu for confirmation.

“Or I could shoot the both of you and take her anyway. You might as well make some profit of this.”

“Let. Her. Go.”

“Half the jewels, say. She really does have a nice pair of jugs.”

Yondu’s last whistle is sharp enough to shrill in Pete’s head for days. But it doesn’t. What does stick; the sound that repeats again and again, stuttering inside her skull like a skipping tape, is splintering, juicy. She’s never been this close to the Yaka Arrow when it does its work. She hopes she never will be again, but considering this job? Yeah, Pete should be so lucky.

+

Her words are gone. They stay gone for hours.

This has never happened before. Pete’s always had words. Or screams. She remembers a point, during those first shitty couple of months, when Yondu’s constant threats and fake chewing sounds wore her down to madness. Even then, she didn’t snap so much as explode.

“So eat me!” Pete remembers yelling. She was standing in the middle of the galley in nothing but a pair of Kraglin’s old boxer shorts and his ratty spare undershirt. The boxers were tied around her waist with a rope, because Yondu was too goddamn cheap to spring for even a belt. “Eat me, eat me, EAT ME!”

According to Kraglin, she started hopping up and down. According to Tullk, Yondu watched for ten full minutes before slinging her over his shoulder and hauling her down to the brig. Pete doesn’t remember either of those things. She remembers that afterwards Yondu quit grumbling about how she was an apple in the mouth away from being a suckling pig every time Pete snagged a second helping. He still brought it up every other time, but it almost didn’t matter. Pete’s known, from then on, that words are what will save her.  

Yondu doesn’t always listen. But he always at least hears.

Pete has nothing to give him this time around. No explanations. No excuses. Even back on the M-ship, she can’t think of a single thing to say. Can’t find the breath, or, more likely, the brains, to turn anything she could say into words. She avoids the cockpit, leaving Kraglin to copilot (and that never happens, never, never). She doesn’t want to face either of them. But she especially doesn’t want to look at Yondu. How’s she ever going to meet his eyes?

She’s got bits of skull and brain and speckles of deep purple-blue blood splattered across the side of her face and the shoulder of her jacket. The jacket comes off, then almost instantly back on again, because thanks to Mr. Grabby Hands she can already see the bruises deepening all over her boobs. God or gods only know what’ll happen if anyone else sees.

She was so sure she had it this time. So sure. Even worse, for a little while there it seemed like Yondu thought so, too. Like he might finally be on his way to trusting her.

Nobody notices Pete’s silence until they dock back at the Eclector. Kraglin and Yondu aren’t in the mood for talking, and clearly no one else who had the pleasure of being involved in this fuck up is either. Taserface (the guy Pete, up until last year, knew only as Supersized Ugly-Ass—not that “Taserface” is in any way better) makes sure to trip her on the way down the gangplank.

Bite me, Becky.

She’s in the galley, rooting through cupboards filled with nothing but can after dusty, out-of-date can of triple-gravy refried beans, when he finds her. Kraglin coughs, and Pete whirls around, crossing her arms across her chest.

What?

“You was supposed to put on that damn fancy dress and meet us back at the M-ship five minutes ago. We’re deliverin’ the goods.”

God, not yet. Can’t they put it off by a day? An hour? A minute? Pete crosses her arms tighter, scowling.

 Kraglin shrugs. “Capn’s orders.”

No shit, Sally. Of all the jackasses aboard this boat, only Yondu would order her back into a slinky, spangly cocktail dress less than two hours after some oil slick squeezed her tits black and blue. Pete forgets, for a minute, to be ashamed. Now’s she’s only mad. Mad’s such a comfortable feeling after eight years. Shame, now. Pete has no idea how to handle shame.

It festers inside her, boiling black and bubbling, as she stomps back to her bunk and yanks the silky, snakeskin-green number out of the cardboard box where she’s kept all four of her outfits since she was ten. Before then, Pete usually ran around in undershirts and boxers; either cast-offs or whatever she could steal. But somewhere around her tenth birthday—not that anyone but her keeps track—she came up to the cockpit dressed just the same as always and Yondu, after getting a good look at her, spluttered and snarled, “Was you born indecent or just stupid?”

Pete wasn’t surprised, seeing as Yondu’s always looking for one reason or another to blow his top, especially where she’s concerned. Still. Those words stung. “Stupid” much more than “indecent”.

“Neither. And what the hell are you talking about?”

“What am I—Christ Jesus.” That curse he picked up from her. Yondu, heathen that he is, has never heard of Baby Jesus or the Virgin Mary or even Christmas. “You can’t prance ‘round half naked no more. Not on my ship.”

Looking back, Yondu must have picked up on something she didn’t. Pete was still short then, and skinny as they come, with no boobs or hips or butt to speak of. The thought that he saw the whole mess coming before it was even a spark in her brain irks her.

The dress (first one she’s ever owned) doesn’t fit quite right. Pinchy at the waist, loose at the top. Pete ditches her bra and exchanges her steel-toed boots for a pair of dinky high-heeled sandals, impossible to walk in. The hawker who she bought them from swore that both the shoes and the dress were the pinnacle of fashion, though, so Pete totters over to a bathroom mirror instead of heading straight for the M-ship.

She’ll never make that mistake again. Because she’s hideous. Disgusting. Loathly. What with one thing and another, Pete’s reflection almost makes her cry.

The zits don’t set her off. Neither do her furry caterpillar eyebrows (which Pete tried waxing exactly once, coincidentally on the same day she discovered that candle wax and eyebrow-hair-ripping-out wax are not, in fact, the same thing). Even her hair is okay, if a little greasy. Pete can stand her features individually, but when they all come together? A thin nose and thinner lips and bushy eyebrows and zits muddied with freckles and muddier green eyes combine into a perfect storm of ugly. She’d better get used to handsy smugglers, because no decent guy will ever want to lay a hand on her.

So maybe Pete does cry. Just a little.

Crying’ll only make Yondu madder, though. She wipes her eyes, bends to yank loose the straps of her too-tight shoes, tells herself she’s still got a job to finish. A job she failed more spectacularly than any other Ravager in the history of ever, as she’s sure Yondu will…let’s just say he’ll remind her of that. Vigorously.

Wishing she didn’t feel like she deserves it, Pete tugs the straps of her dress up one last time before heading to her doom.

+

They dock planetside before anyone speaks. That’s a record when it comes to Pete and Kraglin, and a sign of danger when it comes to Yondu. Pete expects at least a slap. Maybe an actual kick in the ass. She gets neither, which can only mean that he’s still seething. Or still planning out the perfect punishment. Or both.  

She gets evidence of the former when she stumbles down the gangplank. Yondu and Kraglin are both waiting at the bottom; Yondu takes his time, eyeing her from the toes up, then cracks the mother of all sneers.

He turns to Kraglin. “You know something, boy?”

“Can’t says I do, Capn’.”

“If I’d a’ known the kid would turn out so damn homely, I’d never’ve swung by Terra at all. Saved myself eight years’ worth of botheration.”

“Eight years’ worth of rations, too.” Kraglin mutters.

Yondu hasn’t called her a kid in years. Never called her homely before, though that’s only because it would have turned into a real pot-calling-the-kettle-black kind of situation, had Pete been in the mood. She opens her mouth now, then closes it. Words still aren’t coming. It’s more annoying than constipation. More painful, too. All she can do is fold her arms over the hot seed of hurt blooming under her breastbone and teeter the rest of the way down. Humiliating.

It gets worse on the streets; Tolaryia’s one of those planets that’s all concrete and chrome and neon-sizzling metropolises, right down to its core. Pete’s used to being jostled. She was a pickpocket for longer than she was in school. And she decides, right here and right now, that pickpocketing is a breeze compared to getting knocked to the curb in high heels. She thinks about yelling at Yondu and Kraglin to slow down, even makes up some crack about how the meeting won’t go over too well if they leave their reason for it behind. And still the words die in her throat, as Pete falls farther and farther behind.

A big, beefy guy glances her way as he passes. He might as well have reached over and raked his fingernails up her spine.

I can take her off your hands.

Jesus. What if—

“Something crawl up your ass and die, girl?” It’s Kraglin, hurrying back to snag her arm. He tucks it through his, but not out of chivalry. It just gives him a stronger purchase when he hauls her out of the gutter. “Move it!”

In retaliation, Pete stomps on his foot, but sandals, even high-heeled ones, can’t do much damage to boots. Boots, however, can do plenty of damage to sandals; one of her heels snaps clean off.

No. Today is not her lucky day.

Five days ago, now? Five days ago, in these very streets, Pete was just a fluffy cloud and one harp short of Heaven. What can she say; luck’s an uncaring bitch.

She’s the one who found their client and secured this job, more or less. By way of a failed pickpocketing, attempt, sure, but Tubal Noquoe (or Tubby Banquo or Tubular Nosehair—even Tolaryians can’t pronounce Tolaryian names) liked what he saw in Pete. And the Ravagers liked what they saw in Tubal; old money willing to pay up. It was supposed to be an easy job, too—some ancestral jewels, stolen and in need of collecting. Two days’ work, tops.  

Yondu settled the price. Afterwards, riding high on the promise of newly-minted gold and more than a little drunk on whatever they’d been served in fancy-schmancy glass flutes, he slung an arm over Pete’s shoulders, ruffled his knuckles through her hair.

“Not bad, Red,” he slurred. “‘Bout time you started earning your keep.” Yondu jabbed a finger into Pete’s stomach. “You been eating away more n’ half of it as it is.”

It was the closest thing to praise she’d heard out of his mouth in a long time. The truth is, Pete and Yondu…okay, they’ve never been buddy-buddy, let alone warm and fuzzy. For the past two years, though, things between them have been downright dicey. She doesn’t bother wondering when it started, since breathing too loudly can sometimes set Yondu off, but if she had to decide, Pete would say shit began rolling even further downhill after she got too big to crawl through shafts. This was also around the time Yondu won the Eclector and its crew with a good hand in poker. So, bigger ship, bigger crew, and a good half of their annual income slashed right off the bat.  

Again: luck’s a bitch.

This job was her chance in more ways than one. A chance to start earning her keep again, and a chance to get back in Yondu’s good graces. Which Pete wanted for purely practical reasons, until she didn’t. When Yondu put his arm around her again, she realized she’d missed it.

There’s a chance she can still save this. Maybe. Problem is, Tubal isn’t your run-of-the-mill, rich-as-balls Tolaryian. He’s a rich-as-balls religious Tolaryian. And as such, he had a very particular set of requirements for how his hired guns should conduct themselves. Chief among those requirements is the No Fatalities Clause.

Swear to God, he drew up an actual contract. A contract with clauses. A contract as legal as the job itself, but who will they go running to if he stiffs them? The police?

He’s a stand-up guy, Pete thinks desperately. He’ll understand. They got him what he wanted, if not how he wanted it gotten. She prays, to Tubal’s gods and whoever else might be listening, that the jewels alone will be enough.

+

“Boy, we got your loot. Just had some…complications, is all.”

Tubal’s eyes glitter like the jewels Yondu pours over the glass-topped table. Nebula-orange, star-cluster-purple, goat-piss yellow. Out of the blue, a line runs through Pete’s head, a bit of description from a travel guide she read years ago, when she was new to this side of the galaxy and making sense of even one planet stretched her brain till it hurt. Members of the native species are well-known for the distinctive and ever-changing colors of their eyes.

Ever-changing, and, in this case, calculating.

“Fatal complications, from what I understand.”

“That weren’t our intention going in.” Yondu’s trying not to snap. Failing, but trying. “Or going out, neither. You ask my first mate here, ask Quill. We aimed to stick by what we signed. Now, next time maybe you draw up one of them pretty agreements for your mark. But I ain’t losing my crew to words on a damn paper.”

Standing behind his back, Pete and Kraglin flick gazes back and forth. They can almost feel the steam pouring out Yondu’s ears.

Get him mad enough and he won’t be able to think straight. It’s one of Pete’s most reliable tactics, and right now she has to wonder if Tubal’s putting it into practice.

Stand-up guy, huh?

She balances on her unbroken shoe, in a study so full of open space and glass that they might as well be negotiating in open air, waiting for it all to come crashing down around her ears. She thought Tubal would give them at least half the fair price. But the second they filed into his study and Yondu strode over to the desk, so full of hostile, rustled-up confidence (the kind that usually works, but not on Tubal—couldn’t he see that?) that Pete’s blush sizzled across her entire face, she saw that he had other plans. Had them way before he drew up that contract.

Even the air blowing into his study through those crystal-filtered vents feel different than it did during their last meeting. Colder. Pete crosses both arms to grip her elbows, still trying not to shiver. Kraglin and Yondu both brought jackets, the always-prepared assholes.

“You acted according to your conscience, Mr. Udonta,” says Tubal, and both Kraglin and Pete about choke because never, in all their lives, have they heard anyone calling Yondu Mr. Udonta. Heck, Pete wouldn’t’ve survived calling him that. It’s Captain (“Capn’”) or Yondu. Nothing else.

“I can’t fault you for that,” Tubal continues, “just as you must not fault me for acting upon my conscience.”

“Lemme guess.” Yondu’s voice is silky. “Accordin’ to your conscience, we ain’t getting squat.”

“Oh no. Nothing as bad as that—I’m prepared to pay a quarter of what we originally settled on.”

A quarter? Pete thinks.

“A quarter!” Kraglin squawks.

“A quarter,” says Yondu.

Tubal shrugs, his eyes flashing a limpid blue. “You can’t put a price on spilled blood, Mr. Udonta.”

This time Pete and Kraglin turn to outright stare at each other. Can you believe this guy? Obviously he's heard of assassins, hitmen, mercenaries. Probably brushed up against a couple. Where is he pulling this stuff from?

His ass, clearly, but Pete’s not going to say so. Mad as he is, Yondu won’t say so, either.

Nope. Yondu, apparently, has an infinitely better idea.

“So,” he says, voice still silky. Silkier—mother of God, this is not going to end well. “Y’all here—” he sweeps out his arm to encompass Tubal and the two silent servants (perfectly coiffed, perfumed, and waxy-skinned girls around Pete’s age) who haven’t moved an inch from their posts by the double doors. “—are righteous folk. I see that now. Thinking this ass wipe I shot through the skull—thinking his sorry hide was worth somethin’, maybe. Thinking he deserved a better chance n’ what he got.”

“Violence is never the answer to any question,” Tubal murmurs. “And death should never rain down from the hands of men.”

“Hmmm. That so.” Yondu doesn’t take his eyes off him. “Quill. Come here.”

As cold as the room is, Pete hasn’t broken out in goose pimples until now. She casts a pleading look at Kraglin, but he only scowls, jerks his chin.

Go.

“Quill.” Yondu’s voice is dangerous. “You do as I say, girl.”

So, her gut free-falling and her bruised tits throbbing, Pete hobbles closer to the table. She stops by Yondu’s side, almost turning her ankle because of that damn broken heel—she’s never buying shoes from a dumpster-diver again—and she can feel the pent-up rage seeping through his skin, fanning out to crisp her. At this point, she thinks, Yondu’s fury is divided evenly. Half for Tubal, half for her.

She’s the one who got them into this mess. Now he’s giving her the chance to get them out of it.

Pete already knows she’ll fail, but he forces her to try, anyway.

“Do as I say,” Yondu repeats, “And tell this here ee-vangelist what I saved you from.”

She can’t. Yondu might be half-brain-dead, but he must know that. She shakes her head, stares up at him.

Yondu’s eyes flash back at her, poison-berry red. Hard as they come. “Go on, girl.

Tell ‘em.”

Chapter Text

Pete swallows. Once. Twice. Again, hoping that the spit will grease up her words. Send them shooting out her mouth.

Tubal leans back in his chair and smiles up at her. A small, soft smile. And as he does, his irises swirl from orange to glittering red. Mirroring Yondu’s. Even worse, his gaze drops down, skimming the sleek V of her neckline.

“Maybe I can guess. I’ve heard stories concerning Zorath’s…appetites.”

The way he pauses discreetly, as if he’s actually trying to spare her. The way that smile sours at the corners. The way he, oh so carefully, dropped the smuggler’s name. Pete sees it all now. Tubal played them—played her—from the very beginning. Sure, he couldn’t have known exactly how it would break apart. He couldn’t predict the exact placement of Zorath’s hands or the sting of every bruise. But he knew. He knew the smuggler would hurt her. Somehow, he knew Yondu would make the man pay for it.

He knew.

“Ain’t heard nothin’,” Yondu says roughly, “‘till you’ve let the girl say her piece.”

“Mr. Udonta. I don’t think your girl has anything to say.” Tubal’s eyes lock with Pete’s. Red splinters into green, cool and deep and—Pete sees it now; she sees everything—the kind of blank that comes only with long practice. Like a spiked drink, Tubal keeps his nasty secrets beneath the surface.

“It seems to me that she’s overtired. Maybe even in shock. If you truly aim to do her a kindness, perhaps you should take her back to her ship.”

And away, Pete translates. Away from this planet and this system and our broken deal. I hold the power here. I hurt you once. I’ll do it again.  

Neither version of those words goes over well.

“Naw, I ain’t aiming for no kindness, you pansy,” Yondu spits. His fingers grip Pete’s arm and squeeze until she stumbles. “I aim to get what’s owed me.”

“You? I thought we were discussing what I owed your crew, Mr. Udonta.” His smile hasn’t slipped. “Your crew,” Tubal repeats, “as a whole.”

If looks could kill, Yondu would be well on his way to mass-murderer status, not that he probably isn’t already, in some systems. Apparently unaware of Pete’s fingers clawing at his to try to break the hold on her arm, he orders her through clenched teeth.

“Red, best talk now or I’ll wring your damn neck.”

No.

She doesn’t say that. She can’t, and, what’s more, she doesn’t need to. Not with the hot pinprick of rage, expanding in her gut to swallow most everything else. Dragging up her pain again, laying it out for Tubal like a slab of meat on the table—no. It’s not happening.

Yondu clamps his fingers in, wringing Pete’s arm like he’s trying to give her an Indian burn. Too bad. She pivots just enough to plant her free hand on his chest. Before Yondu can react, Pete shoves.

He staggers. Through the reddish mist starting to cloud her eyes, Pete watches him try to right himself, except of course he can’t because he’s old and off-center and you weren’t expecting that, were you, you ugly blue bastard? He slams into one of the glass tabletop’s sharp corners—for a second it seems like the table will hold. Then it crashes over, jewels scattering, glass smashing. Tubal jumps out of the way only just in time as Yondu topples past him. The fall’s broken, hard, by the tabletop’s wooden frame. As Yondu sprawls there, completely winded, Pete whirls around, shoves past Kraglin, whose entire face has gone slack as Silly Putty, and stumbles for the door on her stupid, stupid shoes. Straight past the two servants, who’re laughing at her, she just knows, screeching behind those huge eyes and adorable red bow lips. Can you believe these people? Trash from the backwash-end of the galaxy, and maybe once Pete had a chance of being better than them, being the kind of girl who knows how to look and dress and talk, and who never has to worry about hands groping down her top, but, hell, that chance passed her by years ago.

Yondu’s unholy yell reaches Pete’s ears as she’s jamming down the elevator button (because this is the kind of tricked-out, bullshit house with its own tricked-out, bullshit elevators). Her throat prickles. Her stomach twists with something very close to terror. He won’t be on his feet (especially not with Kraglin’s “help”) for a minute or so more, though. He won’t be out of Tubal’s house for much longer. She has time.

Time for what?

Pete’s stomach settles as she shoots back to earth. She’s not running away. No. No way. Yondu’s not getting off that easy. She’s just…regrouping.

Yeah. Whatever. Too bad “regrouping” feels exactly like retreating. Pete lets her head rest against the elevator’s cool glass wall, biting her lip. Her throat prickles even harder. She doesn’t let herself cry.

+

“Runt! You crap your brains out on the ride over or what?” Kraglin hurries down the eerily empty sidewalk; Tubal’s skyscraper sits in the kind of neighborhood that’s quiet, and, even more disturbingly, lawful, after eight o’clock. He stops under the beam of the streetlight where Pete’s been waiting. Waiting and pacing, her steps hemmed-in, as tight as her crossed arms.

“Hey!”

She doesn’t stop. Once off the elevator her stomach started acting up again, coiling in on itself and knotting like a ball of yarn. The only way Pete can keep her anger at equal levels with her fear is to keep moving.

“Hey! You listen to me!”

Kraglin grabs one of her arms. Pete resists, but her jerks it loose anyway. She lets her other arm fall to her side. Kraglin’s eyes slip downward.

“Aw shit,” he murmurs, his reedy voice suddenly gone quiet. “Aw fuck, Pete.”

The pallid wash of light isn’t doing her bruises any favors, Pete guesses. She hasn’t checked them out herself. Looking calls back the sensation of Zorath the smuggler’s fingers digging in, or, somehow even worse, Tubal’s smug smile.

So, yeah, you know what she’s getting really sick of? Sleazy trash ogling her boobs. Pete snaps her fingers.

Kraglin’s stare bobs back up. “Why didn’t you cart your ass down to the med bay with these, huh?”

Pete twists her arm to break his grip.

“Quit it. I know you can hear me.”

Pete twists harder.

“Still ain’t talkin’. Whatever.” He finally lets go, so suddenly she lurches on her feet. “Too late for no checkup now.” He glances over his shoulder at the skyscraper’s automatic doors. “Capn’s about done smoothin’ over that little bastard’s feathers. Be out any minute.”

She doesn’t move.

“Girl, I’d be halfway to the next quadrant—the next star system—if I was you.” Kraglin’s annoyingly protuberant Adam’s apple (her first year onboard Pete made a game over how many times a day she could punch it) bobs double time. “Don’t nobody do what you just did.”

This seems unlikely. Off the top of her head, Pete can count off at least ten different people who’d like nothing better than to flip Yondu ass-over-teakettle, or worse. Heck, all ten of those people would be thanking her right now.

“Are you listenin’ to me? I said he’d be out any minute. Time to hike up that fancy skirt of yours and—”

Quill!”

Kraglin blanches. As she watches the doors fly open and Yondu storm out, Pete feels the blood leave her own face. All the same, she pulls herself up straight. Stiffens her shoulders. He’s got no right to ask what he asked of her back there, no matter how many times he saved her from becoming a pot roast. No matter how many things she screwed up. He knows that. And if he doesn’t, deep down in the withered, sour, stinking layers or whatever’s left of his soul? She’ll make him know.

She will.

It’s a resolution that’s a lot easier to keep when the man himself isn’t barreling down on them, lit from the inside by the kind of fire that spells a single word. Murder.

Then, as Pete and Kraglin both flinch away from him, then, miraculously, Yondu pulls up short. He snorts a deep breath through his nose. A vein in his forehead pulses double-time.

“Capn’—” Kraglin begins, ducking between them.

“Shut the hell up.” The ugliness boils under Yondu’s words, barely contained. He shoves his first mate out of the way. Draws nose-to-nose with Pete.

“Better be gettin’ down on your knees,” he snarls, “or else cookin’ up some powerful good excuses.”

Kraglin tries again. “She ain’t—”

“She ain’t no goddamn fucking mute.” His breath stirs the sweat-sticky strands of hair plastered to her cheeks. Pete spots a purpling bruise on the side of his skull and finds herself wondering, idly, if she gave Yondu a concussion. Hey—that would be a first.

After the wondering, she realizes that she is very, very calm. The fear’s still there. The anger, too, simmering with the throb of her bruises. But mainly? Mainly Pete feels nothing. Nothing at all. She looks at Yondu at sees what he is—what he really is—as clear as she ever has.

Old. Washed-up. Has been. Back of the beyond Ravager trash who thinks he can get his way through bluster and bawling himself hoarse, because he always has. Anyone else would be angry for her sake. Yondu’s just pissed that she didn’t choke up a sob story on command, wheedle until Tubal gave them what they’re owed. Even if she’d wanted to, Pete’s never been any good at that doe-eyed crap. Yondu should know.

Ain’t no goddamn fucking mute.

Pete sets her jaw.

“I’m not,” she says, “but I got nothing to say to you.”

She can take whatever comes next. She can take it, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

Yondu steps back, the fire in his eyes gone cold. “That how it’s gonna be, is it?”

She doesn’t answer.

“You coming up empty, Red? Huh?”

Behind his back Kraglin’s trying to communicate solely through bulging eyes. Pete ignores him.

“…Four days’ work,” Yondu is saying as if she’s suddenly turned not mute, but retarded. “We got nothin’ to show for it. So is it my fault? Hmm? Or this boy here,” he jerks a thumb back at Kraglin, “is it his fault? Don’t believe it is. No. It’s your fault, girl. You hear me? Your fault.”

Of course she knows that. It’s been rattling around her skull this whole damn time. It’s just—

“Go fuck a duck, old man,” says Pete. “See if I care.”

Yondu’s entire face purples before he spits them out. The words that, could be, she’s been waiting for him to say, pushing him to say, since he sent the arrow through Zorath’s skull.

“I shoulda left you back on that ship. Leastways you’d be gettin’ something with those tits.”

I knew it!

Pete wants to scream in his face. She wants to shove Yondu again, down to the ground, straddle him and pummel his face to a pulp. She’d do it, too, if she weren’t so empty. So tired. His words leached out the last of whatever’s holding her up—fury or terror or ice-cold serenity. Pete balls her fists until she feels her nails slicing into her palms, stuffs them into the pockets of her flimsy green dress, turns around, and starts to walk.

Behind her there’s shouting. Kraglin yelling for her to come back, or he’s yelling at her to run. Pete’s not sure which. Yondu roaring something else. She wishes she didn’t care enough to hear it.

“If you think we’re coming back for your sorry Terran hide—”

Pete doesn’t think. She keeps walking down the street, through a sudden wind that raises goose pimples on her bare arms and stinks like oil-slick rainwater. She’s got idea where she’s headed, just that it’s far away from Yondu. Far away from Tubal, too. From everything that’s happened today. That’s all she needs to know.

Chapter Text

Two blocks down the numbness fades a little, and Pete would love to say that she’s suddenly overflowing with mirth, ready to pitch back her head and laugh at the stars (which she hardly sees, anyway, thanks to the smog) at the brain-dead excuse for a captain she left behind. It would be a lie. Pete’s got no problem with lying, especially not lying to herself, and especially not now, but a good lie takes energy. She’s running on a limited supply at the moment.

Instead, Pete remembers the travel guide.

It was the only ink-and-paper books she owned until some moron on cleaning detail pitched it into the ship’s incinerator. A couple years later she bought one of those pastel-colored puberty books; reading about the twelve crystal towers of Veter in The Star-Sailor’s Guide to the Southern Systems isn’t exactly comparable to reading about vaginal discharge in Your Body and You: The Humanoid Edition. There were digital files saved in the ship’s system: comics and repair manuals and a whole bunch of porn. Pete’s always preferred stories she can hold in her hands.

Star-Sailor’s Guide had a lot to say about Tolaryia. Apparently some people—no one Pete’s ever met, that’s for sure—call it “the brightest jewel of the Diamond Quadrants”. It turns out that the brightest jewel of the Diamond Quadrants is windy and freezing tonight.

Why the hell didn’t she bring her jacket? Or her Walkman? She could use a soundtrack right now. Something furious and spitting and fast. Pete stumps along, folding her arms to preserve what little warmth she’s got left.

So what else did the guide say about Tolaryia? Thriving nightlife, right? She remembers something about thriving nightlife.

Pete could use a drink. Or a dance.

She could use something else.

Since the day Yondu picked her up, Pete’s lived a life devoid of any kind of privacy. It never really hit home, though, before she turned fourteen. Before fourteen, her own curtained-off bunk and the three times a month everyone cleared out of the showers for her—they were never enough, but it was what it was. She had bigger things to complain about. Then she got boobs and her period and, Jesus, what did the puberty book call them, “biological urges”, and nothing else was worth complaining about.

Pete sucks in a breath of the cold night air, then huffs it out in a fine, silvery mist. Two more blocks and the numbness is completely gone. Every steps stokes her anger, but this time it’s mixed with a different kind of heat. And for the first time in her life, Pete’s in a position where she can take care of it; there’s nobody pounding on the bathroom door or snoring three feet away. Yondu isn’t bawling that she’s going straight out the airlock if she ever gets herself knocked up.

She just—

She wants some closeness, you know? She wants someone to tell her it wasn’t her fault. Someone—look, she’s not an idiot, she knows no one will ever tell her she’s beautiful, but someone who looks at her like she’s a person, not a pair of tits or a piece of trash or a problem…Pete wants that. More than anything else, she wants that.

So she holds her head high and keeps walking. Once out of Tubal’s ritzy neighborhood, Pete scoops up the few credits jangling in the deep, slitted pockets of her skirt. She hails a taxi shuttle on the next corner, gets off downtown, and picks three pockets in under five minutes. Her fingers aren’t as light as they used to be, but these people aren’t in any condition to tell. It’s well past midnight. Two of them are drunk.

Pete keeps going. Tolaryian cities are stacked up like skyscrapers; you’ve got the bad level of town, not the bad side. She works her way lower and lower, past three or four bad levels, until she reaches the true underbelly. Here’s where you’ll find Ravagers and smugglers; hookers past their prime and tweakers too poor to afford the good stuff; souped-up sex bots and those guys asking you to bet on genetically enhanced fighting cocks. Yeah, it kind of defeats the purpose of finding a nice guy whose eyes’ll go all soft and understanding when he hears her story, but Pete doubts she’ll have luck scoring a hookup anywhere else. Cheap dress, broken shoes. She’s not wearing the colors, but her face and her bruises scream Ravager just as loud. 

The Back Door advertises itself with a pink neon sign of a naked woman, her enormous tits forming the double O’s. Inside it’s dank and sweaty, but warm. Plus the drinks are cheap. Pete orders something fizzy and purple, plunks herself down at the bar, and has a look around. They’re a couple other women here. Even counting the worn-out ones flailing from poles in the back, she’s the youngest by a good ten years.

“Well hello there, girlie.” 

Pete spins around on her stool. The guy eyeing her up is as blue as Yondu. Probably as old as he is too. Pete’s about to shrug and give it a whirl anyway until he grins, baring a single brown tooth.

“That’s cute, gramps. Keep moving.”

The grin shrinks. “Bitch.”

Pete bares her own white teeth in a sharp smile. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Behind her someone chuckles. Pete spins back around.

“Am I getting my drink or what?”

“On the house,” the bartender says. He’s no looker, either. He is too young to be her father, so count your frickin’ blessings.

When she drinks, the alcohol burns the back of Pete’s raw throat. It also brings tears to her eyes. Too damn strong.

“You okay?” the bartenders asks the second time he swings by. He’s short and solidly built with a blunt, honest face. Pete decides she likes it, and offers him a watery smile.

“As I’ll ever be.”

“That bad? Okay, I can’t get you another one of those for free, but do you want some water? A couple olives? Anything?”

Her smile sticks. “Don’t worry. I can pay for another.” Pete fishes in her pocket. “So you’re a local, huh? I love your eyes.”

The jazzy green glow in said eyes banks to a murky pale gray, and the bartender steps back. “Still on the job, darlin’.” He flicks his towel at the clock.

“Oh,” says Pete. Her stomach twists so hard with embarrassment that for a second she’s sure she’ll puke.

“Still want that drink?”

God, what’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with her?

“Why not,” Pete mumbles. As soon as the new drink is clenched firmly in her hands, she flees the bar. They’re plenty of other guys here, and the music (crappy techno-galactic pop) is loud enough that most of them didn’t hear her making an ass of herself back there. Then again, her body language makes it clear enough. Blundering off with her head hung low like a puppy caught pissing on the carpet. Pete forces herself to stand up straight. The night’s still young, or the morning’s still early. At least one man here must be desperate for some company.

Ten minutes later Pete realizes something.

She has no idea how to talk to men.

After another ten minutes it becomes clearer—she can talk to men just fine. She’s just can’t talk to them the way a girl should talk to them.

She knows how to yell. She knows how to cuss, how to tell a good story, how to win at arm-wrestling. None of those things are what she wants to be doing right now. Pete’s trying to be sweet, trying to be soft, and trying to flirt, and it turns out she sucks at all three of those things.

They aren’t in her nature. Kicked out long ago, if they were ever there to begin with.

And here Pete is, with her big plans to dazzle some poor sap with her wit and charm, if not her looks, and maybe, just maybe, it would lead to something more, and they’d steal off to some dark hotel room and have sex with her skirt pulled up, the dress still on so he couldn’t cop too much of an eyeful of her mottled bruises, and it would be hard and fast and angry, and let Yondu yell himself purple, let him keel over from a damn heart attack; she doesn’t care. He wanted to leave her back there with Zorath, all over a handful of jewels. He thinks this is all she’d be good for now, and the thing is, she could be good at it, she might even like it, if someone would just give her a chance.

She gets laughs, sneers, a few pinches and one slap on the ass. Nobody’s interested in more than that. Even worse, some of the guys—the older ones who look like they’ve sailed through the entire universe ‘till they were sick to death of it—are starting to give her pitying looks.

It’s too much. Pete retreats back to the bar.

“Am I too ugly to fuck?”

The bartender raises his eyebrows. “Say that again?”

“It’s a simple question,” Pete snaps. She’s maybe a little drunk. And furious and hurt, so why the hell should she keep trying to play it classy when everyone can see she isn’t? “Are we talking unfuckable levels of ugly here or is it just my shitty personality? Really. I’d love to know!”

He tilts his head to study her. “Honey?”

Her head’s pulsing like one of those pink-purple-back-to-pink lights over by the dancers and their poles. “What?”

“I think you’ve had enough.”

“You and me both.” She tries to lean against the bar counter and ends up sort of slopping herself across it. “So give it to me. I’m hideous, right?”

Instead of answering the bartender yells “Noma!” so loud that Pete feels like throwing up.

“‘Noma’?” Exactly how strong were those drinks? Pete’s a lightweight, and she makes no bones about it, but if Yondu could see her now he’d be laughing himself stupid. “Shit, you didn’t just sic a bouncer on me, did you? Man—”

“What’s the problem?”

Very carefully, Pete turns her head to the left. “Noma?” she asks cautiously.

The woman beside her is sweaty and dusted with spangles, her silvery eyes focused on the bartender. “She giving you trouble?”

The bartender shakes his head. “We just have a question needs answering.”

“Yeah? What about?”

“How ugly am I?” Pete breaks in.

“Ugly?” the woman raises her eyebrows. She casts another glance back at the bartender, then zeroes in on Pete. “Okay, let’s see. Turn around.”

Pete tries to twirl; thanks to her shoes it isn’t much of a success.

“Whoa, whoa.” Noma steadies her. She smells like sweat, but she also smells sweet—like some kind of spicy, big-bouquets-of-roses perfume. Pete breathes in a good noseful of it.

“Wow,” she says, envious. “You smell sexy.”

For some reason both Noma and the bartender laugh. “Well, kid,” she says, “you’re not a heartbreaker yet, but give it time.”

Really?

“Really?”

“You’re kinda gawky,” Noma admits. “But you’re kinda cute too. Or you could be cute. Doesn’t really matter. You’ve got charm,” she casts a look around her. “Not everybody does.”

“Shit,” Pete breathes. “That’s a relief.” Then she leans in close, planting a wet, boozy smack of a kiss on Noma’s cheek. “You’re real sweet,” she blabbers. “You kinda remind me of…crap, who…? Oh, yeah, my mom! You remind me of my mom.”

The bartender leans toward them. “Where’s your mom, honey?” he asks.

Pete lifts a hand to rake back her sweaty hair. “See,” she begins, “it’s sort of a long story.”

+

She’s only got as far as “and then this crappy old M-ship swooped right out of god-fucking-nowhere,” when the bartender asks, a little quietly and a little coldly, “Did they do this to you?”

“Sal,” Noma hisses. “Don’t.”

At first Pete’s confused—that’s how good the booze is, and how happy she is that she’s not the ugliest thing of the backside of Knowhere, at least according to one very nice pole dancer. Then her chest very helpfully throbs.

“Oh,” she glances down. The bruises show up green under these lights, sprouting from her neckline like lace. “Nah.” She slurps the glass of water pushed in front of her. “Yondu’d kill anyone who pulled that kind of crap. ‘S not good for morale.” Another slurp. “You two’re way too nice to be working in a place like this.” Another. “Yondu’s not nice.”

“So he’s the captain,” says Noma.

“Someone’s been listening! Yeah, he’s the captain. Keeps saying he’ll eat me but I don’t think he means it. Like, I never thought he would, but it’s been eight years, so I’m positive at this point. Almost. Halfway positive. Is that a thing?”

Hoo boy, girl, squeaks the tiny, smothered part of Pete’s brain that always sounds annoyingly Yonduish. You are drunk as a skunk.

Shut up, she grumbles back. It’s your fault, anyway.

Isn’t it always?

“I got these bruises because I was an idiot,” she says. She traces a finger over the greasy counter, wincing when it squeaks. “Yondu kind of had to swoop in and save me, you know? I hate being saved. Love that I get to live another day, but I hate being saved.”

Noma, who’s climbed up onto the bar stool next to her, laughs.

“And Yondu, he really hates saving me. So I guess that’s the problem. Pretty simple, huh?”

But when she turns her head (the bartender’s hurried off to serve an actually paying customer) Noma’s face has softened into an expression that, drunk as she is, Pete can’t place. It’s irritating.

“Honey,” the dancer says, “that doesn’t sound simple at all.”

No. She’s glad she can’t.

+

It seems like only a few minutes later when the room billows in a draft as the doors swing open. The bartender glances up. His eyes narrow.

“You’ve got company, darlin’.”

“Goddammit.” Pete’s just knocked back her third glass of water and is really feeling the urge for some quality time on the can. She doesn’t need this now. She also doesn’t feel like starting another screaming match, especially in front of Noma and—Sal, Noma called him Sal, didn’t she?—who just might be two of the nicest non-Terrans she’s ever met, which is just goddamn tragic when you think about it….

She gets up gingerly. Turns even more gingerly.

“Pete,” says Kraglin, carefully enough and softly enough for her to remember that he did stand up for her, in his own quavery, half-assed way. “It’s time to get on home.”

“I need to take a piss.”

“Best do it then,” says Tullk, already eyeing Noma hungrily. “Wouldn’t want you ta pop.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t.” Pete pushes between them, jostling Tullk especially. “And leave her alone, you perv.”

The Back Door’s bathrooms are as clean as its bar, with the major exception that a mouthful of these splatters and splashes would turn you contagious instead of drunk. Pete gets it over with as fast as she can, before Tullk launches into his “I took up the pirating to support me dear sick mother back home” spiel. Not that Noma can’t handle him, but it’s plain embarrassing to be associated with someone so desperate to hit on anything with tits.

Callin’ him desperate, huh? Yondu sneers in the back of her skull.

You always drop more gs when you’re angry, thinks Pete, and then, I told you to shut up!

Like I said, drunk as a—

Get out of my head!

“Come on now,” Kraglin warbles the second she steps out the door, which means he was waiting, and probably listening to make sure she didn’t crawl out a window or something, and fuck, even when these guys throw her away they can’t leave her alone for more than a few hours.

“Yondu sent you?” she asks.

He shuffles, shoulders shivering up into a guilty shrug. “Pete—”

“Hey, he said my piece and I said mine. Got nothing more—“ she hiccups “—nothin’ more to say.”

“That ain’t true,” Kraglin says. Still so softly. “You know it.” He reaches for her shoulder. Pete shoves him away.

“Sweetheart,” that’s Tullk, either prying himself away from Noma, or, more likely, pushed away. “You smell like a bathtub still.”

Pete sneers. “Fuck you. That’s no way to win a lady’s heart.”

“You’re no lady,” he snorts. “You’re our thief. And the job’s not done yet.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she snarls. “I’m done with the job.”

“Don’t you want what you’re owed?”

“What I’m owed?” Her tongue feels thick, swollen. She sprays spit over of them when she hisses, “I’m owed someone who doesn’t treat me like the shit off his heal.”

Kraglin shakes his head. “Pete.”

“You know what I was doing here?”

Neither of them answer. As if it’s hard to guess. Or maybe they’d rather not know. Pete feels a prick of spiteful pleasure at that. Too bad.

“I was looking for someone to fuck.”

It slips out so easy, but Kraglin flushes maroon from his forehead on down. Pete wonders, fuzzily, if he remembers that time he caught her gaping, pie-eyed at one of the videos in their ships’ files; she’d been looking for comics.

What’re they doing? She was nine or ten.

Whaddaya think? He swatted at her head, his swing softer than Yondu’s but plenty hard enough. They’re fucking.

“Turns out I’m not pretty enough, so. Tell Yondu he shouldn’t have shot Zorath. He was the only guy who’d’ve paid a good price for me.”

Kraglin’s lips thin. His face flushes even deeper. He doesn’t answer. It’s Tullk who reaches out. When Pete steps away, he steps with her. He clamps his hand to her shoulder.

“Ah, girlie,” he says. “You’ve lost your way.”

She’s been lost since the day she bolted out of that hospital, but it’s got nothing to do with her.

“I didn’t asks for this,” Pete mutters. “None of it. You can tell Yondu that, too.”

They’re keeping their voices low; low as they can with the music screeching, Pete drunk, and Kraglin and Tullk probably half-drunk from the fumes wafting off her. Still, people are starting to stare. The weight of what feels like a billion eyes prickles over Pete’s body. Her guts shrivel.

“Are you trying to get me kicked out?” she whispers, furious.

The scars cut into Tullk’s cheeks—Kree smiles, they’re called on this side of the galaxy—pull his face into a permanent grin. There’ve been times Pete’s found that expression reassuring. Now? Not so much.

“Wasn’t plannin’ on it. But whatever it takes, yeah? Your choice, girlie.”

Pete—she knows she’s only proving his point by doing this; still, it’s like he doesn’t even know, and that shouldn’t surprise her but Jesus—Pete explodes.

“It’s not! That’s the fucking problem—it’s never been my choice! Never!”

She’s too mixed up to tell if the hush that falls is real or only in her head; she prays for the latter but also doesn’t give a crap. “You guys must all be a whole lot stupider than I ever thought—I mean, if that’s even possible—if you think I chose to be with you. Is that what Yondu thinks? That I chose to work for him? That I chose to let that pig stick his hand down my shirt? Don’t give me that crap, ‘cause when I did make my own choice he told me exactly where I could stick it.”

“Erm,” mumbles Kraglin. “Erm, Pete?” She doesn’t answer and he keeps going. “Can’t say as…can’t say as you didn’t tell him the same.”

“I’ll rip your face off.”

Tullk fingers dig deeper into her shoulders; she hardly feels them.

“Swear to God I’ll do it. I’ll rip your face off.”

As if what she said to Yondu is even comparable. Kidnapping little girls out of dark parking lots when their mothers’ corpses haven’t gone cold, “raising” them into butt ugly freaks who don’t know their way around anything but a padlock—see, that’s okay. Once the butt ugly freak grows up, and grows a mouth on her, and tells this idiot blowhard exactly what he can fuck—suddenly the idiot blowhard is blameless.

“It’s not my fault!”

“Didn’t ever say it was!” At the drop of a pin Kraglin’s shouting, too, although his shouts always come out more like screeches. “But it weren’t all his, neither!”

Pete lunges at him—now Tullk’s got a hand latched to her shoulder, a hand latched to Kraglin’s. He growls something at both of them that neither Pete nor Kraglin listen to. Pete shoves as close as she can, almost nose-to-nose, and she’s going to…she’s going to…

Well, she was going to scoff something biting and clever. Then, fucking inconveniently, she remembered something having to do with Yondu, and Kraglin, and Tullk. A memory that’s not angry, or bitter…it’s even surprisingly tender. And it comes from the one time Yondu admitted to doing wrong by her.

It was right after she broke her arm. The drugs they pumped into her afterward ensured that Pete remembers nothing of the job itself, just the aftermath, when everything and everyone went crazier than a whole pack of shithouse rats. Even those memories are grainy and spliced in strange places, like a bad clip show.

First she felt the impact, landing on the bubbled concrete with a crunch as glass showered down around her. Pete tried to prop herself up on one arm, just couldn’t—the pain hadn’t registered yet—looked down and the skin was stretched, poked up like the top of a tent with a jagged pole of bone sticking out. Pete’s a screamer, always has been, but this time she just stared, breath coming in wet burbling gasps. A second later, an hour later, who knows, she was breathing just the same, but stretched out on the floor of the M-ship. Tullk bent his head so close that she felt his dreadlocks brush her forehead.

“You’re doing great, girlie—strong as an ox, she is—just don’t try to move this arm, yeah? Don’t move it at all.”

He kept stroking her hair. That’s the only other detail she remembers from their flight to the hospital, probably because it was so annoying. The last thing you want to feel when you’re possible bleeding out is crusty nails scraping against your scalp.

Whatever happened next, Yondu must have shelled out some major cash, because the painkillers they gave Pete were next level. She got a night in her own private room, too, only broken up by one screaming nightmare.

That’s when she’s pretty sure—almost certain—that Yondu sang to her. Again, drugs. But she remembers somebody muttering the chorus of “O-o-h Child”, and not in the dulcet tones of Clarence Burke, Jr.

Whatever. That isn’t the point.

The point came the next morning. The nurses forced Yondu to push Pete out in a wheelchair. He wasn’t happy about it.

“Them girls’re trying to make a fool out of me.”

Pete tipped her skull back against the headrest. She tried to get a look at his face but Yondu was careful to stare up, over her head, so she couldn’t see his expression.

“Don’t you kinda do that on your own?” It sounded like an actual question instead of a jibe. She was still pretty doped up.

He chuckled. “You ain’t the first person to ask me that.” The hospital doors wooshed open, blowing strands of sticky hair back from Pete’s face. She sucked in her breath when the chair’s front wheels jolted over the threshold.

Yondu stopped. “Aw, hell. What’s the matter now?”

Pete swallowed down the sudden lump of embarrassment in her throat. “M’fine.”

She hates being saved. Loves living to see another day, but hates being saved. The fact was, Yondu could’ve just as well left her outside the bank to bleed out or be picked up by the cops. Probably should’ve. She’d be out of commission for at least a couple months. She was no use to him now.

Which is why Pete didn’t have a snippy answer prepped for what he said next. Yondu rolled the back wheels over the threshold a little more carefully, growled something under his breath, then let loose with “I fucked up this time, Red.”

Things she could have said: “Did you ever!” or “What a surprise,” or “Tell that to my compound fracture, Papa Smurf!”

What she did say: “Huh?”

It was the last thing she expected to hear out of Yondu. In any situation, ever. Still is.

“Shouldn’t’ve brought you along on this one,” he elaborated, which was plain unbelievable. Yondu belongs to the “real men don’t explain themselves, especially not when they screw up” school of thought. “You weren’t ready for it.”

Pete bristled. “I was plenty ready. You just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Wouldn’t listen ‘cause you was being stupid as all hell.”

“Was not!”

“Uh-huh. So tell me—” Yondu parked the chair in the hospital square, just beside the tiny serenity garden. A feathery pink vine unfurled, gently, to tickle his arm. He slapped it away. “—what was it made your plan so dang brilliant, Red? Seems I forgot.”

The lump blocked her throat again. Pete stared at the garden’s tiny fountain casting rainbows with its spray until her eyes stung.

“I forget, too.” She finally bit out.

“It’s them drugs they put you on,” Yondu explained, like she might’ve forgotten that, too. “Wiped that all out. Clean as a whistle.”

Pete heard him snap his fingers over her head, sharp as a gunshot, and flinched. “Quit it! And I didn’t forget all of it. Just…parts.”

“You ‘bout yelled your head off.”

She shifted a little—turning at all was awkward with her right arm in a cast and strapped against her body—but he still wouldn’t look down at her. He wasn’t looking at anything that she could tell. Maybe into something. Or somewhere, long gone.

“The nurses reckon it’s good you don’t remember,” Yondu said. “You yelled so damn loud—scared the shit out of ‘em, Red.”

His hand had dropped down to rest heavy on her head. Now, he whipped it off so fast that Pete’s still not sure if he was just going in for another dope slap and chickened out at the last minute; beating on a ten-year-old in a wheelchair would’ve been a new low, even for him. The one thing she’s sure of is that Yondu wasn’t really talking about the nurses. She’s not that stupid.

…Right now she’s stepping away from Kraglin. Tullk’s hand drops off her shoulder. He and Kraglin watch her cautiously while she remembers how they and a couple of the other guys showed up in the square just a few minutes later, loaded down with a massive bouquet of half-crushed flowers. They’ve all been really careful to make sure that the details from that job she forgot stay forgotten; they must’ve felt really guilty, whatever happened, because the bouquet wasn’t stolen.

“S’posed to get sick people flowers, aintcha?”

They all looked like they’d blundered in off the wrong show—from Rambo to General Hospital. Idiots.

Pete rakes her hands through her hair. “I need you guys to leave.”

Kraglin shakes his head, and Tullk glances Kraglin’s way before doing the same.

Pete snorts an anything-but-calming breath in through her nose.  “Step outside, whatever. I…I need a minute, okay? I need you two to get out of my face.”

I’m done with the job.

But she isn’t, is she? Nope. Of course not. Under all the rage and alcohol, the loose ends still jab and pick at her—see, he said sorry once. Or something close to it. He cared about her once; Pete can’t stop missing that, even when he makes it so easy.

She wanted to get away, and then she wanted to find someone to fuck, because if it’s going to happen she should at least get a choice in it, and because that seemed like the only kind of closeness she could get anymore…maybe, who knows; Pete has no idea why she does these things; frankly it’s all probably because her subconscious—who’s an idiot, by the way—told her that’s what would get Yondu the angriest, but he isn’t even here so why would that matter, and crap, she is such a lightweight, and so ugly, and she can’t even rob a damn spaceship anymore…

Pete hears herself make a noise dangerously, painfully close to a sob. “It’s okay, guys,” she says.

It’s not.

“I need to decide.”

Chapter Text

“Family trouble, huh?” asks a guy who, an hour ago, smacked Pete’s ass and then told her to walk it back on over to the bar because he wasn’t interested in jailbait. “Ain’t that always a bitch?”

“They’re not my family,” Pete snaps loud enough for Kraglin and Tullk to hear even as the door swings shut on their backs. If she can’t convince herself of that, she can at least try convincing them. Then the night won’t’ve been a total waste.

“Shit,” she says now, wilting. Slumping back to the counter where Noma and Sal are waiting. Neither of them tried to step in, and Pete sort of wishes they had, but she’s also grateful that they didn’t. They don’t know her well enough for that. She wishes they did.

“Shit,” Pete says again. “Bull-fucking-shit. Cocksuckers.” There’s no spark behind it.

“I’ll get you another water,” says Sal.

Pete wants to plant her face on the sticky, sweaty fake marble and never get up. “Thanks, man,” she mumbles. “Did I ever tell you that your eyes are like…the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen? Ever?”

His lips twitch. “You really think so?”

“I know so.” She props her chin up with her fist. “Guys, help me here. Please. What am I gonna do?”

Welp. There’s a spark behind that. One struck from pure desperation; desperation because Pete knows what she has to do, but she’s hoping that there’s still a question. Still some uncertainty. A way out. Like she’d be so lucky.

She swivels her head to stare, blearily and a little wetly, at Noma. “What am I gonna do?”

“Baby,” says the other woman, “I can’t decide for you.”

“I know,” says Pete. “I know and it sucks.”

Five seconds later the glass of water sloshes to a stop by her hand. Pete stares into it. “I shouldn’t care,” she says to herself. Tells herself. The voice in her head that morphs into Yondu’s: You shouldn’t fucking care.

It’s not done though. The job.

Just the job.

“I gotta go back.” Pete finally admits. Might as well be talking about her own funeral for all the joy that revelation gives her.

Ravagers don’t walk away, Yondu told her once. When exactly Pete isn’t quite sure, but it sounds like something he’d have said in the first few months, probably when he was still giving her what he called “rasslin’ lessons”. “Free of charge!” he’d always tack on with a smarmy chuckle, like kicking the crap out of an eight-year-old for free made him some kind of saint.

She’s not a Ravager. Or if she is she sure isn’t a good one….but anyway, the real problem is that Pete’s never been able to forget the lessons Yondu taught her. She ignores them most of the time, yeah, but she can’t forget.

Don’t you show your back to nobody. You hear me, Red? Nobody.

“But just because I’ve got to take care of business,” she tells Noma, who’s still straddling the bar stool like she’s got nothing better to do then listen to the Slutty McSlut wannabe who has no idea what she really wants, and Sal, who looks like he’s just dying to bust in, but won’t. Because he’s not Yondu. He doesn’t run his mouth like he’s the only guy in the history of the galaxy to ever have a thought worth thinking.

 “Is it okay?” Pete asks. “If I come back?”

 “Well sure, honey.” Sal reaches out to brush a thumb over her knuckles. “Repeat customers—that’s what we’re all about. Give her one of those cards you had made up.”

That’s directed at Noma, who nods. Before she hands Pete anything, though, she says, “I didn’t get a real good chance to…study those guys.”

“Lucky you,” Pete snorts.

“This probably isn’t worth anything to you, but looks to me like they care. Also looks to me like they’re jackasses, but—” Noma shrugs, flickers her fingers. “Ravagers mostly are. Men mostly are.”

“People mostly are,” Sal adds pointedly.

“Uh-huh. People.” Noma leans closer to Pete, who’s too drunk and too tired and twisted up inside to spare much room for surprise, but it’s still almost…dreamlike when the other woman reaches out and cups her cheek with a hand that’s rougher than you’d expect from someone so pretty, who smells like a whole bouquet of the fattest, spiciest roses. “Look, maybe you’re never going to be beautiful. I can’t read bones.” She brushes a thumb over the arch of Pete’s cheek. “But I can read people, and you…I don’t know you yet, but I can tell you’re going to be strong. That you already are.”

That’s…God, that’s so beautiful, and so fucking nice, and Pete feels like such a jackass when she mumbles, “Can’t I be both?”

“Baby,” Noma says—she sounds like Mom; just like Mom— “When you’re beautiful, people do things for you. When you’re strong you do them for yourself.”

But I’m not strong, Pete thinks. Not with her words smeared and sloshed together, as aimless as her thoughts. Words are her strength. Always have been. Doesn’t matter now, since it’s a damn sure bet that whatever she says, Yondu won’t listen.

He never listens. He hears, usually, but after tonight he probably isn’t in the mood even for that.

Good God.

Why’s she still worrying about his feelings?

Girl, Pete can already hear Kraglin yipping, he does the same for—

No he fucking doesn’t. Not after tonight.

Doesn’t matter. You go over there, you speak your piece, you force him to hear, and then you get out. Clear off. For good this time. 

Uh-huh. And where to?

Who cares? Pete needs to get this shitshow over with. Shoo out the clowns, have the fat lady sing already. Throw Yondu off, because this corn-poney blue fucker has been hanging around her neck like a white-winged star sucker for years. She’s been taking it and taking it; she’d had enough by day one. And once their unfinished business is finished, tied up and stashed away, she’ll be gone.

Since that’s all she’s going back to take care of.

Just business.

+

The M-ship slouches in one of those pay-by-the-night docks. Pete swears it glowers when she boards.

“That’s the booze talking, girlie.” Tullk’s arm squeezes tight across her shoulders. “You after an ice pack?”

 “You know I’d kicks your nuts into your teeth if I wasn’t saving my energy.”

“You’d try,” he snaps, dropping his arm anyway. Pete snickers.

“Sure, I’ll have an ice pack. Where’s Bluebell?”

The ship’s empty. Silent as the tomb. Pete can’t let them know how glad that makes her. A little more time. A little more before she’s ready.

“Bar ‘round the corner.”

“Coininky-dink. Give me something to stick in here and I’ll head on over.”

Whoever thought to swipe ice packs from the ship’s piss-poor excuse for an infirmary didn’t think to grab Pete’s sturdy pair of boots or even her Walkman.

The Walkman!

She can’t leave it behind.

You have to.

I can’t!

You have to.

Inside Pete rips like wet paper.

She’s on her way out, with an ice pack jammed down the top of her dress, when she turns back. One last time. But could it maybe feel like the last time? Could she walk off dramatically into the dark without feeling like she’s trailing a thousand loose ends, broken threads that’ll inevitable lead her back to these chumps?

“What, no goodbyes?” Pete asks. Her voice chirps like a cheap whistle. “If you’ve got em’ you’d better use em’, guys, ‘cause I’m not coming back.”

“Idjit,” is Tullk’s only comment. “Who else’d take you in?”

“I don’t need anyone else.” Pete grins. She hopes it’s blinding. “Did you forget I’m sixteen? That’s practically an adult.”

“Not so much.” Those are Kraglin’s first words since Pete stepped out of The Back Door. He looks down at her from the top of the gangplank, and his face is, for maybe the first time in his pie-eyed life, unreadable.

“I don’t need you,” Pete spits. The layer of fake cheeriness she built up all the way to the ship begins to peel at the corners. “And you definitely don’t need me. We all made that clear.”

Neither of them move.

“Pete.”

“What.”

“You got a lotta hurt thrown your way today,” Kraglin says. “And I ain’t saying we didn’t play no part it in it. But, girl…you gotta stop carrying it all ‘round your neck. ‘Less you want to end up just like him, ‘cause the Capn’? That’s his way, Pete. Hauling his shit back and forth, back and forth, ‘till it chokes him.”

Well, hell. It’s not…it’s not like there isn’t a grain of truth to that. Kraglin can stuff it when it comes to lecturing Pete on how to handle her own shit. The feeling of carrying it all though—back and forth, back and forth, ‘till it chokes you. He got that just right.

+

Inside The Watering Hole is a carbon copy of The Back Door, minus one very cool bartender and an even cooler stripper. Pete flounces over to the bar first, where she’s certain she’ll find Yondu, sloshed to oblivion and holding forth like the entire room wants to hear about the time he came this close to picking his own fingers out of an Abilisk’s back chompers. Somehow the room always does. Yondu’s a good storyteller; she’ll give him that.

He’s also only truly friendly when he’s drunk. And this time he’s not at the bar; Pete’s gut sinks.

“Any of you seen an ugly blue sucker? About this high?” She waggles her hand just above her shoulder.

He’s in the back corner, and he looks as drunk as Pete feels—so one shot of whiskey short of liver failure—and the sight of his face feels like a slap to hers. In the sweaty dim of the failing strobe lights, she’s back in front of Tubal’s desk, then under the streetlamp, then trapped by a ship’s beam, eight years old and about to vomit, she’s that scared. Screaming into the black of the parking lot.

Pete knocks a sticky bottle off the table. “One more sip and you’ll drown.”

His eyes lurch up to hers. Focusing, honing in, they turn sharp as needle points.

“Quill.”

Yondu’s face…shifts, for a hard, cold second, before settling back into the folds of his usual sneer. For that second, he lets Pete see that she’s surprised him.

“Thought I’d seen the last of you.”

“I wish you had.”

“I wish I’d beaten your ass into the pavement.” His teeth flicker, wet. “Guess we’re both disappointed.”

“Beat my ass?” Pete can’t help it. Doesn’t want to. “I beat yours. Dickhead. You can at least own up to that.”

She knows what he’ll do next. Or—Pete knows what she’s daring him to do next.

For once, Yondu doesn’t disappoint.

The table flips. Glass shattering; booze splashing, dripping, pooling. Yondu’s over it in a second—two, maybe, accounting for all the splashes and drips already in his system. He crunches across wood and glass. His arm shoots out with all the force of a good punch; his fingers wrap around Pete’s throat.

Squeeze.

“I could kill you.” Yondu’s stubble rasps against her ear. His nails dig into her neck. Black floaters swarm in Pete’s eyes.

She chokes.

Yondu squeezes harder.

She tries to force the word out, breathless, but there’s no sense to it.

His grip loosens. A fraction.

Pete gasps against his fingers. “Try.”

Yondu squeezes in, viciously; Pete’s vision swims red, then black. Clears, slower than it should, and she’s fallen to her knees. Pete gulps down air as she eyes Yondu’s fist, held clenched at his side.

“No you can’t,” she tells it. Her breath whistles.

“Ravagers,” Yondu bites out—the veins in his fist pop out thick as cords— “Don’t turn away when the deal goes bad. They come down hard and they take what they’re owed.” He unclenches his fist long enough to backhand Pete across the jaw. “Got mutiny on your mind? You save that for back on the ship, for deep space. You don’t let it come between you and no loot.”

His strike pulses in her teeth. Pete sinks them into her tongue.

“We got a code,” he says. “I taught you to live by it.”

Pete swirls her smarting tongue to collect a nice ball of drool, then spits into the splinters and broken bottles. “So you must’ve cared about me then.”

She knows his gut plunges down as fast as hers does. They don’t talk about this.

“I never said that.”

“Don’t give me that, Yondu.” Pete wipes her mouth before finally looking up, glaring. “You did once, and you’re going to listen to what I have to say, you piece of shit.”

“Get out.” He won’t even look at her.

“You taught me the code.” “Taught” is a pretty generous term for Yondu’s methods, but she’s not parsing meanings just now. “If I’m a Ravager, I get a seat at the table. My voice gets to be heard.”

Yondu doesn’t answer.

“That’s the code,” Pete snarls. “That’s your frickin’ Bible.”

He glances down then. Twin flashes of red.

God, thinks Pete, if this doesn’t work

What will?

The code is as close as Yondu ever gets to belief. In anything or anyone.

“What the hell.”

She clamps her lips over a sigh of relief.

Yondu shrugs; a great, wobbling movement that almost brings him lurching down to his knees. Pete figures he sobered up for the last few minutes; now the alcohol’s kicking back in with vengeance. He turns away from her, stoops, and flips the table upright. Then swipes a half-empty shot glass from an abandoned booth before slamming down onto his own bench.

He pinches the shot glass between his fingers. “Talk.”

Scrambling to her feet, Pete glances around the bar. The regulars still hanging around aren’t in any state to notice her and Yondu or try getting between them. Good deal. She needs a quiet minute and her own words, not a white knight.

The bartender does raise his eyebrows at her. When Pete shakes her head, he goes back to rinsing glasses.

She cuts her eyes back to Yondu. “At Tubal’s—”

He tips his head back; to study her better or because he’s finally too drunk to sit upright, Pete’ll never know. His face is set, blank and thin-lipped as a snake’s.

“I don’t know why you thought I’d tell him. That was, like, class-A levels of stupid. Even for you.” Her throat dries out, rasps and throbs. Get to the point, Pete. “I don’t care if I bombed your deal—but I didn’t, because he wasn’t ever planning on giving us the money, and I should have figured that out before, because who hires some dipshit pickpocket off the street—you want to kick my teeth in for that? Okay. I can take it.”

It’s like talking to a mask. Only she couldn’t stop if she wanted to.

“But you can’t tell me what to say…about that. That was private.”

Yondu scoffs.

Pete kicks the table. “It happened to me.” Her hands slam down to grip the edges. “I choose whom I tell. If I tell anyone! So you don’t get to fucking order me.”

No answer.

“Don’t you understand?”

A spark flares behind Yondu’s eyes again. Suddenly, they blaze.

“I understand,” he says. Too quiet. “Some old boy catches you ‘round the neck, gives them titties a squeeze—” his fingers scoop to the bottom of the shot glass, flick out; warm, spit-swilled whiskey splatters against Pete’s cleavage. “—and you think there’s nothing in the galaxy could hurt you worse n’ that. You don’t know nothing.”

She tries to interrupt, but he bulldozes on, low and furious. Implacable. “You ain’t seen folk die. Seen some drop off quick-like, but you ain’t seen nobody die. Bring up blood till they choke on it. Trampled down, and their skin splits, and their guts rip apart in the dirt. You ain’t never cried like they cried, Quill. You’re never going to.”

She means to tell him he’s wrong, means to wring his neck and spit in his face, means to do so many things, but Yondu’s words bind her down. His eyes fix on hers, and not on hers; they pull her to a place far away. A place she doesn’t want to go.

“You ain’t seen folk die. Ain’t sucked dick for clean bandages and a cell to yourself. I reckon you got it pretty easy. Pretty soft.”

Pete’s voice feels thick. “It didn’t hurt you,” she tells him. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt me.”

He snaps his fingers—God, she hates when he does that. “There. There’s your damn problem.”

Slumped over the table, chin flecked with spit and booze and a day-old shave; Yondu’s eyes are hooded, mean as a snake’s, but his head sags on his neck and he’s practically dribbling, like the hicks of those crap-ass asteroid mines. The ones so inbred they can’t see straight. Pete glares at him. If he’s telling the truth (and now she wants to vomit, and it’s got nothing to do with the booze)—

“How can you say that?”

Yondu makes a small, violent movement with his hand, cut short. The shot glass overturns. “You think someone’s always gonna be running to you? They’ll always get there in the nick of time? Then you’re dumber n’ some hick off one of those crap-ass asteroid mines.”

“He was like, three hundred pounds,” Pete hisses. “He had three hands.”

“Maybe you couldn’t stop him,” Yondu hisses back. “But you coulda stopped yourself gettin’ hurt.”

“I couldn’t.” She’s shaking.

Another sneer. “More’s the fuckin’ pity.”

Pete lunges. Fuzzy on how she does it—maybe Yondu let her, and alcohol is clouding both their judgements besides—but now her hands are on his neck, or at least one of them. Clamped to the base of his skull and squeezing as hard as she can; if she could snarl at him and slam his face into the tabletop at the same time, she would.

“It hurt.” Her nails spike into his neck. Pete digs them in harder. “I guess you could’ve stopped it, since you don’t feel a damn thing anyway—” her throat hurts, her throat hurts, “—but I couldn’t and it hurts and I don’t want to talk about it—”

Spilling all out of her. Vomiting. All the time she’s squeezing as hard as she can, but it’s no good. Yondu forces his head up anyway.

“—and I never did.”

“Then what,” he says, “are you coming to me for?”

Pete’s hand jerks away as if it’s been scalded—she feels scalded; boiled and drowned and peeled raw. Has all night, but Yondu makes it worse; his words make it almost unbearable. They both lurch away from each other, folding and curling into themselves. Yondu rights the overturned glass, then, split-second, dashes it to the floor. Pete tries to roll her eyes. Her own fingers twitch. She needs to break something.

She needs to go. Into the streets, into space, alone and credit-less; who cares, she needs to leave.

No.

She’s got no problem lying to herself. But somehow she’s never been able to lie to Yondu.

Pete opens her mouth.

What?

Tell me…

What, exactly?

…that I never owed you anything.

…that it wasn’t my fault.

Tell me that I was right and you were wrong.

Lie well, that is.

“Goddammit,” Pete breathes. She huffs, lifting her hands and dragging them back through her hair. “Fuck.” Tangles rips apart. Her scalp stings. “I’m such a fucking stupid bitch.”

Yondu does not contest this point.

“I keep coming back,” says Pete. “Coming back and coming back and you never change. You never change.

She kicks the table again.

“Every single thing you do for me, I remember. And every single shitty thing you say to me? I remember those, too. Don’t you get it, Yondu? Or is that the one thing you’re not carrying around your neck?”

She has to stop there; her throat hurts too much. Bruised and swollen, inside and out. Pete glares at him, panting; gets a tiny stab of satisfaction when Yondu’s eyes slide away from hers. Not much, and not enough. She’s looking for an answer. One Pete can barely admit she wants, even to herself. Especially to herself. It’s the answer she’s never going to get.

I keep coming back. So tell me it’s not over.

She can tell Yondu’s looking for another glass to break. No luck.

“I coulda killed you,” he finally says.

“Jesus shit, I’m not going back there!” Pete almost screeches. “Neither are you!”

“Coulda eaten you,” Yondu continues, stubborn. “Coulda sold you.”

Now Pete’s pushing the table out of the way, barging as close as she can. She’s going to slug him, or really scream at him, or, or, or—she doesn’t know—

“Coulda done a whole lot of things. Made some good money, too, but you were such a worthless slip of a thing. So small—” About to head into different territory, Yondu pulls himself back. “I didn’t mean for it to end up this way.”

What?

His lip curls off his teeth. “You came out clean.”

Her voice trembles. “I’m not clean.”

“Bullshit.” Again, he tips his head back. Pete can tell, this time, that Yondu is studying her. That he doesn’t like what he sees, but when has he ever? “You’re the—” his eyes widen, really feeling the smack of the booze; Yondu shakes his head and plows on. “—the cleanest damn thing I ever raised a hand to.”

Pete snorts then. Come on. She doesn’t even look clean.

“Guess maybe that’s why you’re such an imbecile,” Yondu muses. “Won’t say a goddamn thing you don’t want to. Won’t bend, and you won’t break, neither.”

“Buddy, I’m not the imbecile here.” And I break. I break all the time.

“Shut up, Quill.” Yondu snarls, as if he’s not really talking about her at all, and likely he isn’t. Pete’s own eyes are a little watery, a little blurred (Drunk; all ‘cause you’re drunk.) but she doesn’t need them twenty-twenty, or open, to see that.

“You was like no thing I’d ever met before,” he says. “Leastways it seemed so then. And I couldn’t never change you, no matter what I tried.”

Yondu flicks those long, sharp-nailed fingers against the edge of the table. Over and over.

“You came out clean,” he repeats. “Came out nothin’ like me.”

Tell me.

Tell me.

“I wish I’d never met you,” Pete tells him. Her words sound sloppy. Wet. “So I could look over here and go, ‘Who’s the big blue sad sack? He must’ve wasted his entire life.’ But I’d never care. I’d never want to.”

Flick. Flick.

“I wish I’d never even heard your name.”

Flick.

“I do,” Pete growls. “Don’t look at me like that. I do!”

And Yondu says nothing.

And—

And then—

It breaks. Whatever’s been holding her together, whatever thread’s been frizzling out since Pete felt that blaster pressed to her skull, it snaps, and everything else breaks after it, cresting before slamming down on top of her like a wave. Pete’s making sounds, and she’s moving, shaking, but she might as well be watching those movements cast from a projector for all she can do to stop them.

There’s—she’s got two different tracks running in her head, it feels like, and on one she hears only her own sobbing, but on the other she hears everything else, crystal-clear and sharp enough to cut—there’s the rustle of leather, and the creak and pop of his knees like a spatter of gunfire when he gets up, and his hands are on her and Pete wants to fight, wants to shake them off and shove them away. Wants to so badly, but just, she just—

“Girl,” says Yondu. “Aw, girl.”

She can’t bring herself to.

“It ain’t no matter. Ssh—c’mon, lay your head down. It ain’t no matter.”

Pete’s almost too tall for this to work anymore. Her head thumps against Yondu’s shoulder; light with booze, heavy with tears. She clings to him like she hasn’t since she was fourteen (which was only two years ago; barely any time at all, but it feels like ages; like forever) and she remembers Zorath’s hands and Tubal’s eyes and Yondu’s words under the streetlamp. His words in here, just seconds ago. If she forgot all that she’d stop crying.

If she forgot it she wouldn’t be here.

An especially big shudder throws them both off-balance; Yondu stumbles and Pete, instinctively, grabs hold of his elbows to steady him.

“Dammit,” he grumbles. His breath ruffles through her hair. “You’re heavy as a horse.”

This is how badly she’s falling apart—Pete doesn’t bother pointing out that Yondu’s never seen a horse in his entire miserable life. She can’t catch enough breath to. When she raises her head, hoping to at least shoot him the mother of all dirty looks, Yondu grabs her face between his hands. He squashes Pete’s cheeks with his thumbs. Too hard. “Hey. Quill.”

Despite herself, Pete stills. He did this—used to do this—in her first couple of months on board. Once or twice? Three times? She’s a little kid again, her stormy tears and screeching rage frozen under his gaze.

Eyes on me.

Their foreheads knock together.

“What I said earlier.” Yondu hisses. “You don’t pay it no mind.”

He’s talking so softly—almost whispering. Doesn’t want anyone else to hear. Not even in some no-name bar in the underbelly of the galaxy’s most overpopulated planet. Pete clenches her jaw, gulps down a huge breath.

“Are you talking about the part where it was all my fault or the part where wished you’d left me with the guy who almost squeezed my knockers off? Let’s be specific.”

She watches his jaw set as hard as hers. “All of it.”

All?”

“Most of it,” he decides. “You’re the one what introduced us to Tubal.” Yondu spits out the name. “That’s your fuckup, and I ain’t takin’ no responsibility for it.”

He lifts his head and shakes hers a little, lets his eyes slide back over her damp face.

“But it weren’t so bad as it could’ve been, maybe.”

“Why thank you,” Pete says. Acid. “I’ll treasure those words forever.”

“That not enough? Whattdadya want me to say, Red?”

It’s tight and biting and pissed, and his thumbs dig into her cheeks even deeper, but something else lurks under all that. A note of…desperation, almost. Like he genuinely wants to know.

I don’t have to tell him, Pete thinks. It’d be the best kind of revenge, to leave Yondu dangling the one time he reaches out himself. It would be bitter, spitting-mad, and perfect; part of her turns the prospect over in her head, licks it, relishes it.

Her other, weaker half beats that part to the punch.

“Don’t let anybody else hurt me.”

Pete pulls away. Yondu lets her go. She stumbles on her broken shoes.

“We’re going to hurt each other. I guess that’s just what we do. But don’t let anybody else do it. Not if you can stop them.” She feels so stupid, so small and trembling; Pete has no idea where her next words come from. “You do that for me,” she says, “and I’ll do the same for you. Deal?”

Because—and only a tiny, tiny part of her, easily squashed, is ready to think over this—maybe that’s what Yondu was trying to do all along, in his own brain-dead sort of way.

I ain’t aiming for no kindness.

If that is true, a minor concussion and a shattered ego were all the thanks he got. Neither of which Pete feels the least bit bad about.

But still.

She looks away, arms folded over the ice-pack now gone warm and slushy in the folds of her neckline.

“Red,” he says.

Her eyes are blurring up again. Geez. When are the waterworks going to stop?

“Come back here.”

Pete doesn’t have to. She’s said her piece.

Pete wants to, so she does.

+

Pete’s never—she didn’t used to think of Yondu as someone who could be hurt. Physically, sure. It’s not like she hasn’t seen enough evidence of that. But deeper down, hurt in the head or in the heart…must’ve been other evidence, somewhere along the road. She always made sure to miss it.

“Quill.” There’s weariness in his voice, bone-deep, that settles over the both of them like a fog. “What you still crying for?”

“I’m not crying,” Pete mumbles. A snotty tear trickles its way over her chin and down her neck. She wipes at it gingerly.

“Mm-hmm.”

They’re sitting on the bench, not quite close together. Near enough for now. Pete cuts her eyes toward Yondu. Might be the piss-weak lighting in here, but the scars long his temples and skull stand out dark as fresh wounds.

She reached up to touch them once. She was eight. Should’ve known better. It happened the first time he took her into the cockpit. With Yondu in the pilot’s chair, his scars were almost at eye-level. For some reason, it was like shaking keys in a baby’s face. She wanted to grab at them, run a finger along them. She didn’t think they were ugly then. Just interesting.

Yondu slapped her hand away.

Pete’s been thinking about that, and about what he told her, when she was too angry to truly listen.

Oh, God.

No wonder he called her clean.

“You’re makin’ my head split,” he says dangerously. Twists it just enough to glower at her one-eyed.

Pete snorts down a deep breath. It doesn’t help much.

Yondu waits.

She can’t tell him the truth. That her head’s suddenly swimming with pictures out of the news broadcasts their ship’s system sometimes picks up. The ones Yondu always makes her turn off. Scruffy little kids armed to the teeth, faces empty as if their brains’ve been scooped clean from everything they’ve seen. Without legs. Without eyes. Dropping down to wail in the dust.

A blue-skinned boy, scarred and very, very small.

I’m not your slave! She yowled a couple weeks ago.

Damn straight. You don’t know what slavery is.

No. She’s not telling him that.

“It’s just…” Pete scrubs at her eyes, buying some time. “It’s just…uh…some guy at the other bar told me I looked like the back end of a freighter.”

Yondu twists his head a little more. Both eyes now. “That right?”

Almost right.

“Yeah. All ass and no face worth speaking of.”

“I told you,” says Yondu, “you don’t pay no mind to them pop-eyed yokels. Half of ‘em in these parts is probably inbred. He look inbred to you?”

“God, Yondu, I don’t know.”

“He look like this?”

He contorts his face in a way that’s probably got more to do with the booze than said pop-eyed yokels.

“…Maybe.”

“Only thing them boys thinks is pretty is a cow’s dumper. You’re no cow, Red.”

“Thanks.”

Yondu shifts toward her, then licks his thumb.

“You got good bones,” he says, smoothing down Pete’s eyebrows with it. “Just need to grow into ‘em a little.”

Pete sniffs. This might be the nicest thing he’s said to her since…ever? It doesn’t make her want to cry any less—makes her want to cry more, point of fact. She can do this for him, though, right? She can pretend things are okay.

“I wanted someone to want me,” she says, and where did that come from? Spilling this to Yondu, of all people, makes Pete want to cringe, shrink back into herself. Can’t take back the words, though. She plows on.

“You know, but want me because they thought I was pretty or nice or funny, not…not whatever Zorath thought I was.” Pete settles back against the wall, kicking one leg out so she can see her silver heels winking back at her in the dark. “Didn’t work out that way, but.”

Yondu stretches out his own legs and crosses them at the ankle, one boot over the other. “If they’ll come, they’ll come. You don’t gotta be in such a damn hurry, Red.”

Yeah? I need to get away. I can’t stay with you my whole life.

And she can’t be alone.

Pete kicks her spindly shoes off, tucks her feet up under her.

When she scoots closer to him, Yondu flinches. Pulls back, just a little; it’s the kind of thing she used to interpret as his just not wanting to touch her, his wishing he had nothing to do with her. It goes deeper than that, she thinks now. As deep as his scars.

“What’re you doin’?”

“No one else is gonna know,” she says. “Let me have this once, Yondu. Please.”

Pete slumps against him, and lays her head against his shoulder.

“I’ll only need it once.”

She knows, already, that that’s a lie. One of her biggest. And when Yondu’s arm wraps around her shoulder, heavy and hesitant at once, she sinks into it, and doesn’t worry about what he’ll think, or how she’ll explain this to her own self, later.

How she’ll make it into something it wasn’t. Or better yet, ignore it all together.

This is what they do. What they’ll always do.

“Tell anyone ‘bout this and I’ll rip out your tongue,” Yondu warns her.

“Uh-huh.”

“And I’ll eat it.”

“I get it! Jesus.”

He’s okay when he’s doing the reaching—more often the striking—out. Not so much when it’s her reaching to him. All the same, Pete feels Yondu relax under the creases of his leather jacket pressing against her cheek. With his other hand, he swipes the hair off her face.

“Had a doctor look at those yet?”

“Nope.” The bruises still splatter over her like lacework.

“You better.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Ain’t fooling, Red.”

“Neither am I.”

He rubs her shoulder with his thumb. Rough circles, digging in too hard. Pete doesn’t say anything. The darkness of the room, and the glasses of booze, and her own weariness, all mix into a strange, slow mood that drains her all at once; leaves her with more energy for thinking than talking.

All the ports and planets and systems she’s been to. All the god-awful seedy bars. All the stars and skies, mountains and seas. All the people she’s met—people like Zorath, sure, but the others too. Noma and Sal. Kraglin and Tullk.

Yondu.

I wish I’d never even heard your name. That’s what she told him. But—let’s say he did offer to drop her back on Terra, to take off and never return. Would Pete take him up on it?

She didn’t choose this. None of the shitty parts.

None of the good parts, either.

“You wouldn’t have left me with him.” Pete’s voice scrapes against her throat like sandpaper. All the talking, crying, screaming, and squeezing have just about blown it.

Yondu huffs. “Dumbass.” He pinches her ear. “We got a code.”

The circles he’s digging into her shoulder slow down a bit. “I never would. You know that.”

Pete isn’t sure how stupid this makes her, but she does.

It’s only later, when he thinks she’s fallen asleep, that Yondu lays a hand on her head. Pete stays absolutely still, bites her lip. Remembers just in time not to hold her breath.

“‘Wish I’d never met you’,” Yondu mumbles to himself. His fingers slip through her hair, touch her cheek, and rest there. “Girl, you think I don’t wish the same?”

+

It would be so much simpler if he hadn’t.

So…

Different.

+

An article pops up in news feeds the day they leave the system. Breaking news, Tolaryian Business Times with the exclusive scoop. Something about the heir of one of the planet’s finest families—old money, prehistoric old—who woke up that morning with his entire bank vault cleared out.

It didn’t look like an inside job. The vault was accessed from the outside, by a laser-tunnel drilled through the wall. It didn’t look like an easy solve, either; this heir had an idea of who’d done it. You might even say a working theory. A theory that the cops didn’t think much of. The suspects he had in mind wouldn’t have had the resources, or likely even the brains, for this. Besides, they’d be halfway to the other end of the galaxy by now. It’d be a long shot, not to mention pure hell, to track them down. 

Pete prints out the article and tapes it to the wall next to her bunk, right next to Noma's business card. To tell the truth, she feels a little sorry for the guy. Losing your life’s fortune in one night’ll get you seeing the world with new eyes, at the very least. But you know what they say. Luck’s a bitch.