By unspoken agreement, they take turns watching over Groot. It’s not an exciting job at first. Rocket is with him most of the time, while Groot is little more than a twig with pale green buds that spring up from the splintered ends. Rocket sits outside with him as much as possible, citing fresh air and sunlight. Together, they observe the clean-up operations and the beginning of the rebuilding. There is a fountain, mostly rubble now, that Rocket insists Groot liked. One day Peter catches him scooping up water from what’s left of the basin and dribbling it into Groot’s pot, though the look on Rocket’s face tells him that he’ll deny it if Peter ever brings it up.
Once the Milano is back in operation, he finds a spot on the instrument panel to wedge Groot’s pot. Rocket tells them it’s the best place for him to get some light, and no one argues after tiny black eyes open on the twig, blinking against the last of the Xandar sun as they pull away from the planet. When Rocket goes down to his bunk, he takes the pot with him, and if they hear him talking through the bulkheads, it’s another thing they won’t ever mention.
One day, Rocket hops down from the co-pilot seat and says, “Keep an eye on him, will ya? Gotta take a leak.”
Peter laughs a little, but when he glances over, Groot is watching him. His green buds have opened into tiny leaves like a crown. Peter can almost see a familiar shape forming from the delicate twists of new sprouts.
“Hey buddy. Lookin’ good there.”
The line of Groot’s mouth turns up in a smile.
“Still not talking yet? You are Groot?”
Peter would swear he sees a twitch of miniature leaves.
“That’s cool.” Peter looks back down at the instrument panel. After a too-long silence, he says, “Hey, I got an idea. Let’s start working on your vocabulary now. It’s never too early. Maybe we can get you up to six words, huh?”
So when Rocket climbs back into the cockpit, Peter is slowly reciting, “Now try, ‘Come quick, Timmy fell down a well.’”
Rocket eyes him hard. “What the hell, man?”
“Oh, hey, Rocket.” Peter gestures to the pot. “We were just working on our vocabulary. We were trying a little Lassie, but I think Chewbacca will be a better fit. What do you think, Groot?”
Rocket turns to Groot. His tiny arms wave, and his mouth opens wide. No sound comes out. When Rocket looks back at Peter, the terran is grinning.
“Alright. Chewie it is. I’m gonna get you a bandoleer. It’s going to be awesome.”
Without a word, Rocket picks up the pot and carries it out of the cockpit.
Rocket comes into the galley one night to find Drax sitting at the table, arms folded, head bent to the level of Groot’s pot. He’s getting almost too big for it now. At their next port, Rocket will have to try and find a bigger one. He has no idea how long it will be before Groot will be able to move around on his own. They might need to find a forest for him to hang out in for a while when he gets big enough. For now, though, he still looks impossibly small with Drax leaning over him.
“What are you doing?” Rocket asks. He resists the urge to reach for his gun.
“I am watching.”
“Watching our little tree friend.”
Rocket wonders if he could pick up the pot and get out of the ship before Drax could catch them. Given that they’re in space, it won’t be easy. “Why?”
“I believe that he is trying to deceive me.”
“When I am not looking, I think he is moving. But when I look, he ceases.”
Rocket looks closely at Groot. Since his new tendrils have grown in, he’s much more flexible than the twig he began as. Rocket has seen him moving plenty, stretching his little arms and swaying in the pot. Now he is perfectly still and unblinking.
“I will not be fooled.” Drax says solemnly. “I will catch him at it.”
Rocket rolls his eyes. “Yeah, you do that.”
As he turns to go back toward the storage compartment and his latest project, Drax shifts his gaze to him, just for a moment. Over his shoulder, Groot waves ecstatically. When Drax turns back, he freezes once more.
Nova Corps may have cleared their official records, but there are places in the galaxy where that news has been slow to spread, or where people don’t really care about the official record. They try to avoid those places, but this time, the bounty is good, and it’s only one of them the locals take issue with. They compromise by landing outside the city, and by agreeing that someone has to stay with the ship.
Well, Gamora thought, most of them agreed. She is currently stalking around the outside, cursing between her teeth and kicking at the sparse brush that seemed to grow everywhere on this dingy planet. The others are gearing up to go, and if Quill says one more thing about how they can do this without her, and how this is the best plan, she’s going to break his femur.
She’s considering going back in to do it anyway when Rocket emerges, carrying Groot’s pot. He hitches it up as he approaches her, and she pauses her assault on the offensive shrubbery.
“He’ll need water in about an hour. He likes it sprinkled on. There’s a bottle by my bunk.” Rocket says. Her responding snarl is cut off when he shoves the pot into her hands. “Keep him out here for a little while, will you? He needs the fresh air.”
Rocket is walking away before she can gather her wits enough to object that she’s a trained assassin and not a…plant sitter. She is about to call after him when she feels something brush against her hand. She blinks down at Groot. His round black eyes blink back at her. After a moment, he smiles.
He’s almost gotten too big for his latest pot. His tendrils spill over the edges, arms long enough to reach out and wrap spindly fingers around hers. There is a tiny white flower blossoming on one shoulder. Gamora wonders suddenly what it must be like for him, to have once been so powerful, and to begin again so small and fragile. He seems happy. Content to let them carry him from place to place. Trusting that someone will always been there to sprinkle water on him from a little bottle.
She sits down there on the ground, balancing the pot in her lap. A faint breeze blows past, making the brush around them whisper. Instead of smelling of recycled air and exhaust, it smells of distant rain and green growing things. Groot hums quietly as he sways with it, arms raised high, leaves unfurling. Still smiling, he turns his face into the sun and closes his eyes.
After a deep breath, Gamora does the same.