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To Fix what is Broken

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Grow, grow, grow…

The little sapling knew very little at this stage, he knew that he was Groot, and the others, the bigger others, they were also Groot. They were his. Get strong, get big… He did not remember how, he, in fact, did not remember much at all. He was too busy growing, pulling strength from the soil, light, and water that they gave him. The smaller one, the one closer to his height, covered in something soft, was always with him, always making sure he was alright.

Dig deep, burry roots…

The soft one was his favorite, hazy images dancing just out of his reach as for why, but he did not have time to remember them. He needed to grow. He needed to get strong. He did know, though, that the soft one understood him. Understood his words behind the only words he spoke. In turn, Groot knew his.

Grow, grow, grow…

The others did not understand, but they listened, they tried. He liked them. He liked their care, their concern, their gentleness. He could feel them. He could feel their life, the color that belonged to each of them.

The largest one’s color was red. Warm, sturdy, and above all, powerful. It had been overwhelming for the sapling when he first encountered it, almost too much, burying him in his force. It took him a while to realize there was a loneliness to it as well, a hollow, empty ache that longed for something Groot did not know. He froze when the other looked at him at times, but that life began to comfort him when he realized that it reached out to his. It sought to protect, and Groot entwined his gold with the red, and no longer felt as frightened. If it made that hollow loneliness that much less, then it was worth it. He even let him see him dance. But only sometimes. It was a game now, and while Groot may not know much, he knew that he liked games.

Drink water, grow big…

The green one - of a color deeper than even his leaves- theirs was the color of deepest blue, calm, but impossibly cold. He had been intimidated by it at first, the chill seeming to be directed at him, at the gold of his life, at the others’… But he realized what it was doing. This was a color that had been hurt, that sought the warmth, and did not know its own chill. It merely wanted what they had and took for granted. It wanted their warmth. Groot took that blue, and wrapped it with his own, sought to warm, sought to comfort. If he wound the red with the blue as well… It gave them something to lean on, as he was busy growing.

Light, bright, warm…

There was another life, also bright, also warm, yellow and bubbling, instinctively seeking others, and Groot happily weaved that aura around the others, around his own gold. They were there to brace the others, giving them something to soothe. Give them balm to heal their hurts. He liked the yellow, the way it danced, the way it moves to the beat of the ‘music’ that he loves so much, the way it’s almost always cheerful. There was a brittleness to the warmth, sometimes, an emptiness that comes without warning, and lasted too long. He tugged the others close to the yellow, warms it when he can’t do it himself. These are the days when they dance.

Reach up, get tall…

The last life is like fire, orange and crackling, and while something instinctive warns danger, something deeper, something that sings from his roots to his crown, screams that this life is his friend, that this is a color he knows. He weaves this one to the others tightly, particularly when he finds that underneath the crackle, there is something deeper, something frightening. Underneath the fire, underneath the spitting, the sparks, it was lonelier than the red, more brittle than the yellow, and it was more frigid than the blue. Groot took this aura with the utmost care, wrapping it with his gold, wrapping it with theirs, keeping it in the middle of it all, but it remained the same. Spitting sparks for distraction, while all the while, underneath, it was lonely and broken. This must not be so… He tried to tell him often, but his words were ignored.

Must get big, must get strong…

Together they were copse, together they were…family. The word often building up in him and bubbling out in a soft: “We are Groot,” when he spoke.

Which they were, they were Groot, they were his, he was theirs.

Grow, grow, grow…

Then one day, something broke through the need to get strong, the need to grow. The orange, the one that was lonely and broken, screamed out, the link shrieking of pain, of fear. Wait… Groot opened his eyes, blinking in the light, looking around the ship for a sign of what was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong… Something was wrong, something was terrible. It grew and spread up the link, the other three rippling with the aftershocks. There was panic rushing through the other three colors, a frenzied sort of desperation, and suddenly Groot no longer cared that he needed to grow. He needed to know what was wrong.

Wait, wait and see…

That was when he noticed that the orange was being taken farther away from the other three, that that spitting, desperate color was being stolen…

He did not mind that the other four often left him alone. He knew that they must go, just as he knew that he needed to grow. They would always come back and he was never truly lacking for anything. Usually one would remain with him, but this time had been different. Their colors had crackled with unease in the beginning, but there was a fight and determination to them as well. He had trusted them to be alright, but it was becoming clear that they needed him.

Grow…

He needed to wake up.

Must grow.

He needed to be big, he needed to be strong.

Grow. Grow…

The one thing he did remember, the elders’ words of warning, chastising that they must be careful in their growth, lest they cause undue distress to their bodies, was finally and harshly ignored.

Grow!

They were calling to him, to each other, to the orange, who was being taken progressively farther away…

Grow!

He was needed.

Grow!

He stretched his arms upright, absorbing the riches in the pot, taking in all the light, soaking in the water, gaining legs, spindly, green, but whole, good. More soil, more fertilizer, more light, more water. He was needed, and he needed in turn. They kept them all close, ready when for it was necessary, and it was necessary now.

Grow! Grow! Grow!

“I am Groot!”

Finally, finally, he stood, towering at a height that felt right, just barely starting to brown, bark still tender, still green in spots, and let his memory seek to fill in the gaps. He needed it all in order to help.

Remember, know, be…

The first to come were names, words that the other beings called themselves apart from him. Gamora, Drax, Peter Quill –Starlord, and Rocket. Rocket who was orange, spit sparks, and was in desperate peril.

More things came to him, many things, a tide that almost left him dizzy. He took a step and almost crumbled. There may have been truth in the elders’ warnings, but he had no time for that. He was needed. He took a step towards the door, willing his bark to thicken, willing his limbs to be strong.

Needed. He was needed, he was needed, he was needed.

He felt stretched, but it was nothing he could not handle. He felt dizzy, but it was passing. With every breath he took, with every memory he glimpsed, he found a new drive to continue.His copse needed him. He in turn, needed them.

Groot finally belonged somewhere, with an entire group of them, each a different color of the spectrum, each a different part of a whole.

They were Groot.

……

They had failed.

Peter was yelling, what, Gamora didn’t know. She believed that it must be the same thing that they were all feeling. The same thing they were all thinking. Blood-stained, battered, and torn as they were… She had never felt so vulnerable. So exposed. Not even the knives of the surgeons of Thanos had unmade her so… Her thoughts, her feelings, all torn up and ripped from her, shaken, laughed over, and left. But that was nothing, nothing compared to the pain of losing a member of their own.

She remained where she was, kneeling in the midst of a long strip of dirt, torn up from her body impacting the ground. Her shoulder was dislocated, having taken the brunt of the landing, her arm hanging limply, yet she couldn’t find it within herself to care. Not yet.

Gamora had felt the full force of their attention for only a few moments, enough to dig through her history, dig through her past, and rip everything to the forefront. Her parents, their screams, the flames burning the planet down around her.

Thanos.

The tests, the pain, the fear, the agony… Her sisters, Ronan…

All there, before her eyes to see again. They had left her more than a little numb.

She was aware of what facing them would be like. She thought she had been prepared. They all thought they had been prepared. It was agreed. Each of them had known the risks, they had all known the potential price…

It did not make it any better. It did not make their loss, their failure, any easier to cope with. She forced herself to struggle through the memories, struggle through the mire. She was needed, they were all needed.

She had faced them for but moments before she was discarded. Rocket would be stuck with them for much longer.

It was with this thought that determination finally coursed through her again, and she forced the echoes of the half-remembered voices in her brain to keep silent. She crossed her limp arm over, gripped her elbow, and jerked her arm back into place. It went back into position with a wet pop as she stood.

Peter had stopped yelling, his back to her, and Drax farther away than either of them. They stood still for a moment, immobile, and then Peter turned towards her. She noticed with a jolt that his eyes were wet, noticed with a further feeling of shock that hers were, too. Her hand moved up to her face, wiping away the tears that she had not seen in years, and she watched as he did much the same. The both of them looked at the wetness on their hands as though it was an object completely foreign to them, she noticed.

Drax didn’t turn around. Gamora could tell from the slant of his shoulders, the way his hands moved up to his face, that he was also suffering from the same effects of having his mind ripped open.

“What are we going to tell Groot?” Peter’s voice split the silence, cracking slightly due to his yelling, she was sure. Regardless, the question gave them pause.

There was a moment of silence, the vision of Groot, kind, loving, and entirely too good for them, Groot, and his reaction to this dancing in their minds. In that one moment Gamora had her answer.

“We tell him that we’re going to get him back.” Her voice was laced with steel, and the other two immediately looked over to her. She watched as Drax’s back straightened, as Peter’s expression finally fell into determined certainty. There was none of his usual cockiness, but she didn’t expect there to be. They were too aware of what they were up against. But it wouldn’t stop them. This was just a temporary set-back.

They would get Rocket back.

…………….

Rocket woke up to the smell of something he never wanted to experience again. His mind felt as though it was wrapped in cotton, his thoughts sluggish to the point that initially he didn’t know why this strange, clean smell would be something he didn’t like. And then something clicked and he knew what it was.

The sharp, acrid smell of anesthetic.

His brown eyes snapped open, adrenaline rushing through his system to banish the cotton. It did nothing to banish the sight around him. Harsh white light burned into his eyes, temporarily blinding him.

It was a situation he had found himself in too many times to want to count. His breathing sped up along with his heart-rate as he tried to move his arms and legs. It came as no surprise that he couldn’t.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, not again, not again, no, no, no, no, no…

His mind screamed, and he jerked again, writhing against his bonds, his eyes still attempting to get used to the light. He hurt. Everything hurt.

Rocket choked back a sound that wanted to escape, the kind of sound he quit making years ago, taught by pain and fear that it was not right. He forced himself to regulate his breathing, still shuddering. He needed to be strategic about this. He could escape. He was able to get out of many prisons, many traps, this would be no different. He was okay. It would be okay.

He wished his mind was better at lying to itself.

He laughed, a choked, half-hysterical sound, staring around at the white, the light, at the wires, the knives, the needles… Panic was a real thing, bubbling up in his chest and throat, and he desperately tried to tamp it down. That was when they came.

They were not them.

They were not the ones who had made him what he was, but that did not matter.

They were worse.

Rocket closed his eyes, turning his head away, gritting his teeth. He knew it wouldn’t do anything. They didn’t need to look into his eyes to know him. They already did. They already had. They knew what secrets beat beneath his breast and he hated them for it.

"Subject 89P13…”

His ears flattened to his head, fighting against the odd intrusive feeling of a voice that was not just speaking to him, but was ringing in his mind. The odd clicking, gurgling of their actual spoken voice combined with the dry, hissing sound in his head was almost too much, made him cringe, his hackles instinctively rising.

Protests to the name rose up like bile in the back of his throat, but he knew better. He bit them back, quite literally, sharp teeth sinking into his tongue, not enough to draw blood, but most certainly a physical reminder to not say a thing.

“Stubborn, angry, violent, intelligent. Above all, proud. Proud of all you have done, proud of what you know, about what you can do. But underneath…” A clawed finger trailed up his belly to rest over his heart, and Rocket shuddered, jerking away from it. “Such fear you have.” The claw tore through his suit, pressed into flesh, running down his jumpsuit from his heart to his leg, tearing a long slit into both his outfit and his skin.

His teeth did draw blood then, welling up in his mouth. He swallowed, shuddering at the awful tang, but kept his eyes shut, kept his mouth closed.

Say nothing, think nothing, be nothing.

“Such beautiful, wonderfully appetizing fear.”

His breath escaped in harsh little pants, the rest of the jumpsuit cut from him, peeled away to leave him exposed before the bright lights and the eyes. He could not see them, but he could feel them, boring into him. There was one disadvantage to keeping his eyes shut. The feeling of a scalpel cutting into the flesh on his shoulder was both sudden and agonizing, and it finally made him open his mouth as his eyes flew open, a strangled scream managing to escape despite his best efforts. For as familiar as the feeling was, it was not one he had experience in a while.

It cut along the cybernetics in his shoulder, a line he was very familiar with, and that was the moment Rocket made eye-contact. Black, hollow, empty eyes stared down into his, and everything he was, was once again dissected, torn, and found lacking. In that instant, Rocket no longer cared.

“I’m not afraid of you!” he cried out, tugging at his restraints, looking up at them. Hate burned in his throat, lending him bravery. “You flarkin’ assholes don’t scare me!” He watched as those eyes tilted slightly along with the owner’s head, a head he couldn’t see, a body he didn’t recognize. All that mattered was those eyes, and he couldn’t look away.

“This is nothing! I’ve been through this. Nothing is new! Let me guess, after this you’re going to dissect me, you’re going to rip me open, see what happens, then you’re going to put me back together again, right? You literally think that that’s going to scare me?” He laughed, loud and long, regardless of the cut in his shoulder that went to the bone, the pain that tore into him with every breath. “But guess what, assholes, I’m not scared of you, because I’m not alone! They’ll find me! They’ll come for me!”

Rocket realized his mistake the moment the words left his lips. Their warnings about the ones before him, about their eyes, about the way they loosened tongues to spill secrets, to give them more fuel…

“Come for you?” The voice in his head dug deeper, that rasp of dry leaves across pavement almost laughing.

“Why would they come for you?” It asked, soft, insidious, the words accompanied by another slice in his other shoulder, one he writhed away from.

“Do you honestly think that they care about you?”

A needle came up, resting against his right arm, empty.

“Who would care about you?”

It was pressed into his flesh, harsh, filling with blood as Rocket tried to squirm away. Useless, pointless, the restraints too tight. Even so, he wouldn’t have been able to escape that gaze.

“You’re a freak.”

Another cut was made and he belatedly remembered that there was more than one.

“Nothing more than vermin.”

The words cut into him deeper than the scalpels, and before he knew it, he was screaming.

“You play at being the hero, but you know deep down what you truly are.”

But it didn’t matter.

“You know that it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out, too…”

He can still hear them, their words digging into his brain and refusing to let go.

“A monster.”

The worst of it is, it’s not just their words they’re whispering in his ears and in his mind.

They’re his. His thoughts, his emotions, torn out and whispered back at him, and he found that he couldn’t find it in himself to contest them. They’re true. All true. Freak, vermin, monster…

“Useless.”

“I’m not useless!” Rocket screamed out before he could stop himself, before he could force himself to look away from those eyes, and they bore into him forcing words from his throat. “I’m not useless,” he hissed, writhing, but his eyes are still locked, and he can’t look away, and he hates them. He hates them for the words that tear themselves from his throat. “I can fix things, I can create things. They owe me their lives a few times over ‘cause o’ that”

There was a pause as they stared at him, and he wanted to scream, wanted to writhe further, but his limbs have all been sliced into. They had avoided cutting into his stomach, into his vitals, and while the lines of blood were deep, very few of them were long. He would take a while to bleed out, but he didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. Rocket didn’t care about the incisions when hands slowly went out to his, clawed hands running their way along his much smaller ones. They traced each black-padded finger gently and then took his thumb between two of theirs. Before he could truly process what was happening, it was taken between their fingers, and snapped.

He screamed, and fear pulsed in him, the first bit of true fear that he has felt, and he knows they feel it, too.

“Useless.”

And the worst part is, he knows it to be true.

Chapter Text

Groot did not pilot much. Before the bounty on Peter Quill and what came after, Rocket was the primary pilot. Groot had never minded. Now that he had his memories back, now that he knew them as more than an aura, as more than a color, he knew more about why Rocket was his favorite. He knew more about why he was empty.

Groot knew more about why he wanted to protect him.

He knew that the most popular theory held amongst his friends as to why Rocket and Groot travelled together was held in the idea that they had come from the same place.

When he had been in the pot they had talked, often over his head, speculating on any number of things. A good few questions had been directed to him, but as he had not been fully himself, the answers had not been known to him. Not that the answers would have been understood by them, regardless, but he had appreciated their attempts to include him.

Rocket had neither confirmed nor denied that version of events, bowing out of conversation around it. As their theory coincided with something they had often sworn to killing the ones involved with, they had let it go. He did not need to remember if he did not want to.

Groot knew, however, that Rocket had in fact been running for long enough to escape from his first prison by the time he met him. It was, in fact, in running from this second prison that Rocket managed to crash-land on the planet that Groot had called home. It was the most exciting moment of Groot's entire life up until that point.

Groot did not remember Planet X with any particular amount of fondness. His kind was one that did not aspire to much more than growing, digging roots deep, looking to the water, appreciating the sun as nothing more than a source of food. Groot, however, had been too busy looking up. There were lights up there, twinkling, golden, and Groot had been unmistakably drawn to them. It was this that gave him the inspiration to learn how to use his spores as a source of light. The others of his kind did not understand him, did not have any interest in the potential around them, and Groot's existence had been very lonely.

That was when Rocket had crash landed and things had changed. Suddenly there was this small being, a good deal similar to a few of the other little creatures that ran around underfoot that were native to his planet, but so very different.

Rocket had crawled out of what, at the time, Groot had taken to be some sort of natural protective covering, and he had been hurt. Rocket had looked up at him, his arm limp, leaking red and Groot… Groot had tried to help.

Flora Colossus were special in the way that they could regenerate themselves after almost near-complete destruction. It was a rare gift, and one they often used to their advantage. Groot had been in fights before, had injuries. As he was something of an outcast there were, at times, fights for territory, or fights for the simple pleasure of fighting. Groot had been forced a few times into remove an arm or a leg so the regrowth could be that much better, stronger. It was sometimes even better to do so than it would be to let it heal on its own.

Rocket and Groot's first meeting basically consisted of Groot trying, and thankfully failing, at removing the mangled limb.

It could have been any number of things that led to his failure. The scream of pain, the look of wariness replaced with one of the deepest fear, the way the small mammal tugged away, so weakly, but as hard as he could… Groot had let go, jerking back as though struck, Rocket doing his best to dart away. He had limped, fallen twice, and was finally cornered by a desperately apologetic Groot, who initially did not understand why this small being was so afraid.

It had taken him a moment to realize that he was not healing. There was no regeneration, no regrowth. Simply more of that liquid, small quivering chest heaving for air. The sudden realization that perhaps he did not rejuvenate, that those limbs were all he had, and a damage must be healed…

Groot had been contrite enough to rip off his own arm, holding it before him, and allowing the wound to heal, allowed another to take its place, letting him see what he had meant to do. It had taken two weeks of consistent attempts with gifts of food and water before Rocket let him approach. It took an attempt on Rocket's life for him to really start to trust the flora colossus.

The ones who had chased Rocket to X had caught up to them.

Ronan had not been the first time Groot had made sacrifices for his friends.

Rocket's reaction to Groot's chest having a hole blown into it, and both of his arms removed had been startling, at first. It was the first time he actually went up to him voluntarily. Rocket had held his hand, screaming that he would be okay, to hang on, which was something he had only learned later. Rocket had not spoken to him for a week after he realized that Groot was okay, and would be okay, healing before his very eyes. He had not forgiven him for this since, it seemed, no matter how often he apologized for scaring him.

This was the crux of the matter, he suspected. Rocket did not like to be scared. He did not like to admit that he could be scared even less, but of all the things in the world, Rocket truly hated the feeling of fear. And Groot knew that in his heart of hearts, Rocket was often afraid. But there was one thing that Groot was even more certain of.

Rocket was also very brave.

Groot had a feeling though, as he followed the auras of his friends, that this time his bravery would not help him.

The orange had not stopped screaming for help, desperation making it crackle.

And he would make the ones responsible pay dearly when he caught up to them. The best part of it was, however…he wouldn't be the only one doing so.

….

Peter Quill watched the Milano fly towards them with his heart slowly sinking into his stomach. Drax and Gamora both immediately fell into ready stances, his own guns held out and ready in slightly nerveless fingers. Everything still felt slightly numb and he hated it. It was then that the Milano began going in for a landing, and they slowly tensed.

They didn't know how it got here, they didn't know who could be piloting it. The only one who had been on the ship was Groot…

Groot.

Peter felt his heart stop, reaching the conclusion of their small, helpless companion at what seemed to be the moment everyone else did, too. If whoever had taken their ship had hurt Groot…it didn't matter if they rescued Rocket, he would never forgive them for it. The Milano landed and Drax let out a roar, charging the ship, Gamora close on his heels, Peter moving into cover-fire position.

It was a similar set-up to before, only Drax didn't have someone on his six this time. Peter would have to cover both.

The hatch opened, and a loud voice split through Drax's war cry like a hot-knife through butter.

"I am Groot!" it bellowed, causing Gamora and Drax to falter, Peter's guns starting to lower reflexively, their eyes widening. And there he was, ducking under, and walking towards them.

Groot.

Peter felt a smile slowly spreading across his face, moving forward, elation rising into his chest at the sight of their friend standing before them. Gamora and Drax both lowered their weapons, resuming their headlong charge with a different goal in mind.

"Groot!" Peter shouted, charging forward, momentary elation taking the place of his numbness. His smile had spread into a wide beaming grin, his guns holstered as he ran forward.

Groot was greener than he had been before, and also a good deal thinner, almost stretched, but it could not hide the same black eyes that peered at them with a mixture of happiness and concern. That concern made them falter, the realities of their situation catching up to them like a blow to the chest.

"Groot…we lost Rocket…" Gamora spoke softly, her step faltering, before her eyes narrowed, watching the way Groot nodded, jerking his head back towards the ship, beckoning them in. "You knew." It was not a question, a weight of certainty in her tone.

"How did you know to find us, dumb tree? How is it that you have come to be as you are?" Drax asked, his smile fading.

"I am Groot," Groot responded, beckoning them once again, this time with his arms, looking almost like he was trying to draw them in. "I am Groot."

Peter frowned, the urgency returning at Groot's almost desperate movements. "Explanations later, after we have Rocket, he'll give us a very thorough translation I'm sure, but we have to get him back first."

Groot hummed at that, nodding, once again beckoning them with his arms. They charged past him, Peter heading to the helm, Gamora with him. Drax and Groot both stood behind them, hovering, before Peter froze.

"…How are we going to find them?" The question drove them to a stop, now that their minds were clear the absolute scale of what they had to do was becoming clear to them. They hadn't managed to slip a tracker on them, they had been too lost to see where they went… They were nomadic. They could have gone anywhere, if they hit lightspeed…

They could be anywhere.

Drax's hand pounded into the bulkhead, just hard enough to cause a ringing clang, hopelessness doing its best to sink into them. But that was the moment when Groot gave another soft hum, and pointed starboard. They paused, staring at him for a moment, hardly daring to hope.

"You know where he is?" Peter asked, staring at him. Groot inclined his head, pointing once again, his expression filled with determination. "Okay. Okay, you pilot…" He started to stand, only for Groot to wave him down, walking over to the soil, fertilizer and water they still had for him, indicating that. "You…you're going to get stronger, big guy?"

"I am Groot." The sharp look in his dark eyes, the kind that screamed death to any who opposed him made Peter grin.

"Alright, but…how do you know where he is?" The question was called over his shoulder as Peter once again started to flip switches, bringing the Milano online and up.

"I am Groot." Groot was dragging everything up into the middle of the deck, letting them see him in order to follow his directions, before planting his hands into the mess of moist soil and fertilizer and beginning to feed.

"Should have known." Gamora gave him one of her small not-smiles, but her face was tense.

They had a rescue to get to.

Rocket didn't know how long it had been since they left him. He gasped for air, chest heaving, the stinging of the scalpel wounds ignored under the weight of everything else. He had to keep going, even though he could barely breathe. His breathing hitched, his body tensing.

He felt like he was holding two fist-full of needles, his hands still giving soft spasms of pain, twitching at the feeling, and sending more lances of agony up his spine to his skull. He choked back a mewl of pain, his eyes watering. He hadn't looked down, he couldn't look down, couldn't look at what they had done to him. He didn't want to know how bad it was, didn't want to know about the wetness that stuck to his palms, the 'needles' that dug into his flesh. He shivered uncontrollably, sweat and steadily drying blood caking his fur. He strained slightly at the bonds holding him secured to the operating table he had been left on, the cool metal a sharp contrast to the heat of his wounds.

He felt fuzzy, his mind traveling a thousand miles in every direction, barely able to stick to any one thought for any length of time. Above all, he hurt. He hurt so much, his body screaming in pain even as his mind seemed to be in a fog. He wondered vaguely how long he had been there and how long it would take for the other Guardians to rescue him. Rocket knew they would come for him. They had to. Groot wouldn't let them do otherwise, regardless of his current state.

They would come.

The fog seemed to be getting thicker, a soft whimper escaping as a jolt of pain once more travelled the length of his spine to his head. Now that they were gone he could breathe, now that they had left him alone the panic that strangled him had dwindled slightly. He still could not get out, but he would be damned if he let them know how much they had affected him. He needed to get his breath back, needed to be sure he wouldn't freak out at the sight of them.

The worst part of it was, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to.

Didn't know if he could force back the screams, the whimpers at the sight of them, didn't know if he could keep them separate from them. They were so alike, so alike and becoming more alike by the minute, his mind dancing between parallels and making connections. He felt like he was with them most of all. He felt like he was back there, and in the hardest of moments…

He felt like his team wouldn't come for him. He felt like even though they did come for him…they wouldn't help him. That they'd finally see him for the ugly, repulsive little monster he was, and leave him. The worst part was the feeling like he would deserve it.

That was when he heard it.

The faraway sound of an explosion somewhere in the aft deck, there were alarms ringing through the fog in his head, and a bright bubble of hope started to build in his chest. They were coming. He turned his head slightly, facing the door. He didn't care that he was naked, he didn't care that they had never seen him this vulnerable before, that he was still bleeding, that his fur was plastered to his body, or that he was likely the biggest mess they had ever seen, he just wanted to get out.

He wanted to go home.

He gave a soft whimper as the fuzziness started taking over, wondering vaguely if he was about to fall into unconsciousness, the room seeming to go black around the edges. Rocket remained stubbornly clinging to awareness. He would happily acknowledge he possessed a good many negative qualities, one of the most prominent being a vindictive streak a mile wide. He wanted to see with his own eyes what his team did to the ones who saw fit to, once again, tear him apart and piece him back together again.

The explosions were getting closer, as was the yelling, the sound of voices getting closer to his position, and Rocket had just enough gumption to shout, "I'm in here! I'm in here, get me out!" His shouting was interrupted with a coughing-fit, but it seemed to be worth it as the voices of his team seemed to come for him.

He didn't care if they heard him, he didn't care if the ones who did this gave two fucks about him trying to get help, and decided to hurt him for it. He knew his team. They'd rescue him. They had to.

He really hoped they had one of his bombs with them, he wanted to be the one who rigged the ship to blow, and blowing up this particular lab seemed like a good place to start.

But that was only if he still remained conscious. Why the hell was everything so fuzzy? Did they drug him? He let out a little whimper as for just an instant the pain of shifting shot through the fog, only to be enveloped by it twice as thick as before. He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't…

That was when the door finally flew open, Peter Quill in his mask taking the first step in, guns held at the ready. Rocket's head was barely held up right at the moment, lethargy and agony mixing together into a very potent cocktail of misery. Yet as Peter approached, Rocket was more certain than ever that something was wrong. He didn't know what it was, but something was wrong, wrong, wrong… He hissed through his teeth, head still bowed, before looking up at Peter with a half-smile, and finally caught sight of the others.

Drax came in, his knives surprisingly blood-free, his expression colder than usual. Gamora followed him, her expression even more unreadable than he had ever seen it. He curled his toes, staring at them, trying his best to ignore the fear building in his chest.

"It's…about…time…" Rocket managed softly, coughing. Then someone else entered, someone he wasn't expecting.

Groot stood there, the same as he had been before, towering over the others, black eyes locked on his. Rocket felt his stomach give a little flip, the sudden joy at seeing his best friend whole and well almost more than he could stand, combined with his current agony it was almost too much.

It took him a moment to realize that none of them were moving towards him, that Peter had made it to within a couple feet of the table he had been strapped to, and was no longer moving forward. The others had paused in their motion, staring down at him, their expressions unreadable. He felt his stomach once again do a sickening lurch, only there was no happiness in the rush.

Rocket felt the smirk slowly die, watching them as they watched him, before giving a soft, "Groot? Are…are you okay, buddy? You… grew awfully fast." He stared at him, watching those black eyes that were the coldest he had ever seen them. Groot had always been warm when looking to him, had always…always…

"I am Groot." Groot's voice was a disinterested rumble.

Rocket felt his heart lurch, his mouth opening. "What, what do you mean I'm not…?" He couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe… His breath entered his lungs in little desperate hisses, fingers almost reflexively trying to curl. The agony at the shift sent his head back as his back arched, his tail bristling in agony as he let out a strangled cry. They did nothing to help, standing there as he finally fought his pain down, as he gasped for breath.

"You heard him, Rocket." Peter's voice was bright, almost amused, and Rocket knew something was wrong, but he was hurt, he was so hurt, he couldn't think, his mind was so fuzzy, his nose felt as though it was numb… "We thought we were coming for something worth saving." There was a brief laugh, the mask finally coming down to reveal Peter's expression, pulled into a smirk, and Rocket was still so fuzzy… "Couldn't even escape from this." He rapped the table, the metal clanging, sending a ringing through his body, the metal implants running through his body joining the cry to the point it made his teeth ache. "I thought you were my master escape artist…" a shrug, followed by a sigh of "guess not…"

"Quill…Peter, you…you're joking right? You're not actually…" Rocket gasped out, only to have Peter once again rap on the table.

"Weak, pathetic, useless little rodent…" Drax' voice cut through the pain, making Rocket look at him. There was a tight bundle of something in his chest that hitched painfully every time he tried to breathe.

"I am not useless!" Rocket hissed out, violence in his words. Gamora silenced it with a single touch of her fingers to his hands, his shattered, mangled hands that he had refused to look at for fear of what he would see. He screamed at the lance of agony that shot into his brain, his fingers involuntarily trying to curl only to make it worse.

"Without these…you're worse than useless. You're nothing. Just a worthless little test-subject." She frowned at him. "I'm disappointed."

Rocket tried to flinch back, tried to curl in on himself, only to once again be reminded painfully that he couldn't, anger and hurt, and that damn foggy feeling of something being wrong battling for dominance. His breath rattled, and he bit down something rising up in the back of his throat like bile. His eyes stung. Rocket opened his mouth, fighting for the anger he knew that lay deep within him, fighting for the feeling of injustice, and finding nothing.

He was numb. A hollow emptiness beating in his chest where his rage used to be, hurt and pain and fear rising up to take its place. They couldn't be serious. This…this had to be a joke. A tasteless, horrible, completely unfunny joke. He looked back, looked beyond them, and met eyes with Groot.

"Groot…" Rocket started softly, body tensing. "Groot, please…" His words died in his throat. Those eyes, those normally warm eyes that stared at you as though you were the entire world…were staring at him as though he was a worm trying to eat its way into his roots.

"Groot…" Rocket whispered, "please…"

There was a pause, Groot giving a low rumble as he walked forward until he was staring down at him, looking him over from the tip of his tale to his ears, and Rocket suddenly felt shame. He tried once again to curl in over himself, fear and desperation, and…

"I am Groot."

Rocket recoiled as though physically struck, choking as those three words rumbled out in a voice that rippled over him like ice-water. His tail bushed out, ears lying back against his head, his eyes widening in shock, in hurt. "No…Groot, no, please…" he choked the words out, watching Groot's face, watching his eyes, his body trembling.

"I am Groot."

"You can't mean that…" Rocket whispered, his body hanging limply, body and soul in desperate pain, fear a knot inside his chest. It was against this fear that he rebelled. "You can't mean that!" He shouted, straining, trying to get at them, trying to force his way out of the restraints. In that moment he didn't care about the pain, he didn't care about the anguish that tore through him. It made his vision hazier and he let out a whimper, falling lax against his bonds. "Groot, guys, please! Please! This isn't funny! I don't know how you got Groot to go along with this sick joke, but…"

"I do not know who is telling these short stories with an amusing ending, but it is not us." Drax's confused voice cut over him, and Rocket flinched back immediately. Drax was many things, but a liar was not one of them.

"We'll be leaving you now, with the monsters." Peter started, turning around and leading the way out. He paused, looking over to him with amused eyes, a smirk on his face. "You'll fit right in, huh? You two practically deserve each other."

They followed him, leaving easily, one by one, Groot the last one to leave. Rocket tried one more time, a soft, "Groot…please…" leaving his lips one more time.

Groot paused, turned around, and stared at him. Rocket felt hope building, watching as his friend stared at him, and finally said softly,

"We are not Groot."

Rocket recoiled as though struck, trembling, his eyes wide, ears flat against his head, tail curling up between his legs, and watched as his friend, his brother, walked away, leaving him in the white of the operating room. Something rose in the back of his throat, watching as they left without a backwards glance, something bitter and wretched that tore its way kicking and screaming up his throat and out of his mouth.

It lasted until the ones he had hoped to escape came back and he didn't know when it would stop.

He hated them for it. Hated his team for being lying, betraying bastards, who would leave him to this hell. He hated Peter, with his smug grin, his comments that pricked too deep, Gamora with her stoicism, Drax with his honesty, Groot…

Groot… That noise that he no longer recognized as coming from him hitched, shuddered, and cracked. Hated Groot…with his too big heart, that no longer had a place for the twisted little monster that he shouldn't have been with in the first place.

In that moment…Rocket realized that the one he hated the most was himself, and that only twisted the knife deeper.

He was never going home.

He had never had a home to begin with.

Chapter Text

It had been a simple infiltration.

It helped when you were in possession of a cloaking device. It had been a very recent acquisition, Rocket had haggled furiously for the tech-cloaker with an old acquaintance Peter had honestly been surprised he had. He didn't seem to be the type to collect many friends, but apparently one had been just familiar enough with him to accept a trade.

It had been one hell of a gun that exchanged hands.

Cloaking devices were tricky things, heavily policed by the Nova Corp, possession of an unregistered one could be a potential big issue; they were made even harder to come by when you considered the technology was Kree in origin. The actual device itself was picky, most likely due to where it came from, and often shorted out, but at this point Peter had never been happier for it. It made attaching to the enemy ship and cutting their way through that much simpler, the Milano recently re-fitted with Ravager special boarding gear.

It helped when the enemy ship itself had shut down almost all systems except for life-support.

It was the way They worked, apparently. Hiding in plain sight, waiting until They were passed. It was the Guardian's luck that They were also telepathic, which was something they hadn't considered possible until they were right there. Until the Guardians had looked into Their eyes and been stripped bare, every fear, every secret taken, ripped from them, and reflected back to them in a way that they hadn't been able to resist.

Rocket apparently had been the most appealing.

They had, up until recently, been considered mainly a tale told to frighten children. But the Guardians had been going deeper into the fringes of known space, charting unknown parts of the Galaxy for Xandar, and had found more than a few things that should not exist.

It was easy enough to see why They were considered myth. They never stayed in one place, only going around to take someone, and then leaving. No one knew why They did it, but the Guardians could hazard a guess.

They left behind broken people.

The Guardians had been passing through when they had been contacted. They had been begged, pleaded with, sworn to that they would have more than a slight chance, they would have every chance of stopping Them. The Guardians had a 'connection.' They hadn't known what that had meant, but one glimpse at the ones that They had left, one moment spent talking to the shattered husks left behind had been enough to convince them.

They would take that chance.

They had no name that the Guardians knew of, Their planet of origin lost to time. They had been chased across the galaxy at one point, driven into a state of near-extinction. It would have been sad if it wasn't for one of their own. If they hadn't seen what They did. The Guardians were past sympathy by this point. That didn't mean they were by the start of it. Before Rocket had been taken, before they had truly met Them, they had wondered whether it had to be this way.

The Guardians had also at one point been run from everything they touched, everything they had made contact with. They understood the pain of it, the bitterness that could rise up from it. They had hoped They could be reasoned with, that their shared experience would be something they could use to reach Them. It was a sentiment that hadn't come naturally to all of them, some more bitter and hurt than others, but they had eventually agreed to it, insisting that they needed to be prepared to fight if they needed to. This was agreed to, and they had gone, hoping that it would work.

They had never been more wrong and now one of them was paying for it.

The ship they had finally traced was small, naturally cloaked with its reflective surface that made them blend into the surrounding starscape, and due to its near-complete system shutdown, had no need of a cloaker. They were barely a blip in the radar, certainly not something the Guardians would have noticed if it hadn't been for Groot's ability to somehow pinpoint Rocket's location. Groot…who had no idea what they were up against or why…

They stayed dead like that for however long it took to escape notice, however long it took to do whatever it was that They did to Their newest victim, leaving them pale shades of what they had once been. The wisps of people they had met that had been left by them ghosted through their minds. They wouldn't let that happen to Rocket. They couldn't.

Groot did not have these images running through his head. He didn't need them, didn't need to know who they were facing or why, all he needed to know was currently thrumming in his head.

The orange had quit screaming for help.

The crackle had faded to a few paltry sparks, barely noticeable amongst the quickly dulling orange. It no longer reminded him of fire. There was instead the image of the faded, almost rusty color of a dying leaf, brittle, tattered, barely clinging to the tree that it came from. Groot had never been more afraid. Even with Ronan, even when Groot was almost certain there would be no coming back, it had been worth it. Rocket would have been safe. His friends would have been safe. Now…

It felt like the orange had given up.

Groot would take whoever or whatever had done this and break them.

The inside of the ship was dark, a dull-red glow coming from little strips along the walls, casting more shadows than they did light. The eerie stillness was something they were loath to break, the hollow kind of emptiness that came from a ship that was too empty, almost paradoxically ringing with it. They were tense as a bowstring, Peter taking point with his guns held ready before him, boots making soft clanking sounds as he walked over the metal mesh that made the floor.

The walls appeared almost skeletal, various panels yawning open, revealing the guts beneath, wires and pipes a messy tangle. It smelled musty, the air thick and heavy. Peter was certain something would jump out at them at any moment now, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. Drax shifted his grip on his knives as Gamora brought her sword into a two-handed grip, her stance broadening.

Groot gave a soft hum and with a slow sweep of his arm, sent thousands of puffs of golden light into the air around them. They weren't going to hide. The hull-breach would already have alerted Them, so the fact that They weren't immediately gunning for them was more than a little off-putting. The fact that none of the inner doors had closed them in was also more than a little worrying.

They knew the Guardians had come for their own. Why weren't They responding?

The lights floated before them, drifting down the hallway, almost dancing, chasing away the shadows. They didn't know what they would do without Groot.

Gamora froze suddenly, frowning, holding up her hand to signal for everyone to stop moving, and pointed to her ear. They waited, listening, bodies tense for whatever sound she had heard to come again.

Peter frowned, ears straining as he leaned slightly forward. Gamora was enhanced in more ways than in just physical strength and reflexes. Her other senses had also been heightened, making the possibility he could hear what she heard limited, but it was so still

Silence

Suddenly he heard it, echoing down the halls, high-pitched, hitched and brittle. It took him a moment to recognize it, the sound one long-forgotten, pushed down into the recesses of his memory as something no longer important. It belonged to a past life, to a planet he had never worked up the courage to go to again. The moment Peter recognized it was the moment all the blood drained from his face. The rest of his team had barely registered his reaction, before Peter was running.

He no longer cared about the fact that it was too confined, that a trap was potentially imminent, Peter knew that sound. Heart in his throat, he heard the rest pounding after him, following his lead, even into this, Groot's lights left far behind as they charged headlong into darkness. He had a moment to feel very proud past the fear bubbling in his throat. They trusted him enough to follow, and he knew he had his back. They needed to get to Rocket. He recognized that sharp, whistling cry, had heard it once when his Grandpa had been attempting to clear out the hayloft in the barn for storage and had managed to uncover a small group of them.

If he had ever had any doubts about Rocket's origin, they were gone now, shattered with a sound he had never thought he would hear, and one he now never wanted to hear again. It was the sound of a raccoon in distress, a sharp whistling call that echoed down the halls and rang in Peter's ears.

Peter attempted to skid to a halt at the sudden sound of a shrieking, gurgling call that seemed to echo from all directions at once. The sight of a large black shape scuttling along the ceiling towards them made the hairs on his neck stand on end. He aimed his pistols, sending two shots careening down the hallway.

His only indication that something was strange about it was when Gamora shouted his name, confusion and a slight tinge of fear in her voice. There was a good reason for this. Weakened as the internal structure of the ship was, Peter could ill afford to miss. It was only thanks to a mixture of dumb luck and the fact that his weapon was on a lower setting that it didn't immediately punch a molten hole in the ceiling. Gamora grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back, her expression a mixture of anger and concern.

"Why did you shoot?"

"There was something there! I swear, I saw something coming right towards us."

There was an immediate silence. "I saw nothing," Drax stated finally, looking back the way Peter had shot, examining the smoke rising from where it had hit. He frowned slightly, opening his mouth to continue speaking, drawing their attention, only to freeze. His expression was one of quiet shock, slowly changing to something pained.

"What do you see?" Gamora asked instantly. She did not believe Peter or her friend Drax to be crazy, which meant that there was something else going on. Something else they were seeing.

"I see my dead child and wife at the end of the hall. They are soaked in red." Their bodies stiffened, turning in the direction Drax was staring. They saw nothing, but Drax saw them standing there, his wife's face turned towards him, her head partially caved in. Blood splattered across her face, dripping down her body, staining the white garment she was clothed in red, the liquid pooling on the floor. She held hands with their daughter, a bloody open-wound in her chest. He could see her still-beating heart.

Gamora gripped his hand, even as Peter took his shoulder, the both of them seeking to ground him. Drax blinked, and she stood in front of him, empty eye-sockets boring into his soul, a grave-worm wiggling its way out of her head to plop onto their daughter's hair. It immediately began digging deep, boring through skin and bone to reach the softness beneath.

"Father…why did you let us die?" Drax recoiled, knives dropping to the floor.

Gamora had started coughing, the smell of smoke hanging in the air, acrid and sharp, clinging to her lungs. She didn't notice that she had let go of Drax, backing away slowly. Flames were licking up the sides of the ship, blackening already twisted metal. The smell itself had changed, turning to something that made an instinctive part of her mind recoil. She knew that smell.

Burning flesh.

It got closer, suffocating her, drowning her senses. She stumbled back, wiping at her eyes blindly, and black smoke surrounding her. She couldn't see, she couldn't breathe.

Peter's world had been transformed to white. White walls, white floors, and at the end of the hall his mother. She stood there in her hospital gown, skin blending in so well with the white he could barely tell where she ended and the walls began. Her breath was shallow, skin drawn so tight across her bones that he could see her collarbones perfectly formed, her gown hanging off of one shoulder. Her face was hollow, her nose bleeding, and her eyes…

"Peter…" Her voice echoed to him, his body tensing in shock. "Why didn't you take my hand?" She took a step towards him, holding out a hand that seemed to decay, bone beginning to peek through the rotting flesh. He backed away, shaking his head, fear welling up in him. "Don't you love me, Peter?" Peter fell to his knees and for the second time that day, tears came to his eyes.

They were lost.

Groot had been startled at the sudden appearance of something black reaching out for his friends' auras. He hadn't even noticed at first, so focused on running towards the source of that sound that the initial attempt on Peter hadn't even been felt. But now, now that his friends reeled, lost in their own personal hell, Groot understood what was going on. He could see it, vile and bubbling, choking the red, blue, and yellow in a mass of black. It was being absorbed, the colors accepting it without question, the onslaught too quick and too violent to be resisted.

He noticed, however, that the black had merely dragged certain things to the surface; certain fears and secrets pulled free and let loose. Their auras, they, filled in the rest. Groot was worried. He did not know where it came from, could not follow the lack of color that swallowed them whole. He reached out, touching Gamora's shoulder, only for her to give a sound he had never heard before, a broken sob that she half-choked herself on trying to keep down.

She was looking right at him.

Gamora stumbled back from the sight before her. She hadn't meant to turn around, but there had been a touch on her shoulder and now she was facing it. Her father stood before her, burned, blackened, blood slowly oozing from his wounds, and his mouth finally opened.

"I'm disappointed." The words rang through her mind clear as a bell, making her jerk back. "You gave into our murderer…" She took a step back, eyes wide. "You became a monster…" She swallowed, taking another step. "You should have died before you gave into him."

Gamora ran.

Groot reached out with his arm, whipping his vines out and wrapping them around her waist, dragging her back. That black was wrapped around her tighter than anything he had ever seen, and suddenly he knew what this was.

Groot was not a natural telepath. While he did have his own methods which relied primarily on emotion and a fair bit on color, he could not enter another's mind fully without someone to let him in. He could not counter what they were feeling unless they wanted him to.

Gamora turned, looking back at the thing that held her with eyes full of fear. Her father had changed, stretched, and suddenly he wasn't her father at all, but Thanos. She felt like she was dreaming. Fallen into some horrible nightmare, but it felt so real.

"Did you think you could run?" He spoke, his mouth pulled into that mad grin that she knew so well, and the smoke grew thicker around her, choking her. "I made you." He pulled her closer. "I know you." She struggled, pulling back, her eyes wide, watering from smoke. "I know the blackness in your heart." She bared her teeth, trying to reach her sword. "How does it feel, wench?" If she could get her sword she could get free… "Knowing that now they know, just what kind of monster you are?"

Suddenly she could see, and her friends were around her, bodies bloody, eyes glassy, staring up at nothing, and her hands…her hands were bathed in red.

She screamed, her sword finally coming out and hacking against him, refusing to look at the blade which was coated in red. She understood. It was somehow his fault. He had done this.

Groot almost recoiled at the sudden cry, the slash of her blade into his bark, sending chips flying. He let out a whine, his gold seeking her blue, trying to force his way through the black. He didn't know where she was, what terrible things her mind was forcing upon her, but he didn't like it. He didn't like any of it.

The black started to converge on him, and for just one moment Groot was stuck on Ronan's ship, they were all going to die, and he needed to save them. The fear, the pain once again pulsed through him, and Groot almost cowered, not quite prepared for the sudden rush. He felt the ground come towards him, that fear pulsing in him, and he felt that black attempt to suck that down.

He shook it off with a mighty roar of, "I am Groot!"

He did not regret that moment, he had had no lasting fear. It was the only way his friends would have survived. He would do it again in a heartbeat. It had been worth it. No black, no pain, would ever tell him otherwise.

He grabbed Gamora tighter, whining low in his throat. He needed her to come back to him. He took her with his other arm, with his vines, trying to pull her back, trying to get her close where he could restrain her and try and pull that black off of her.

He may not be able to get in, but that did not make him totally helpless. That was the moment when Drax and Peter looked towards him, their eyes glassy, that black wrapped around them.

Suddenly Groot was afraid.

The return of that keening cry that he barely recognized as coming from Rocket was enough to send his head up, looking past the other two. It was sharper, louder than it had been, and the sudden realization that something was being done to him now, while his other friends were ensnared by their own pain…

The sudden impact of a shoulder to his stomach almost made his grip on Gamora fail. He fell backwards with it, toppling as Drax slammed into him.

"Avenge us, father…avenge us!" His family whispered in his ear, and Drax attacked as though his life depended on it. Ronan was dead, but he was not the one behind it. Thanos must be destroyed.

The only positive Groot could see was that Gamora had lost her grip on her sword, the weapon falling to the ground beside him. He kept his grip on her, lengthening the vines, sending her out of range. He didn't want her attacked as well.

It was only as a sudden rush of heat and sudden pain struck him that he remembered that Peter had his pistols. Fire could hurt a Flora Colossus. The bullets had serious heat, sparking in his core.

He shifted his body around them, letting them fall through and to the ground, leaving a hissing hole in his chest, even as his other arm came out, vines reaching out for Peter's guns. They were shot repeatedly, falling to the ground, a mass of torn up vegetable matter, more coming to take their place until finally, they were grabbed and ripped away, sent careening down the hall. Peter fell back as though struck, hands going up to cover his face, hunching over his stomach.

"You were always weak…"

Groot had a moment to feel worried before a sharp something was stabbed deep into his chest. Drax had found his knives. His vines whipped out again, wrapping around The Destroyer and lifting him up from his position. They were cut through, Drax dropping down to land on his chest, his knives taken up and bearing down on his face. Groot barely managed to duck out of the way.

While they wouldn't kill him, it still was never nice to have something jammed into you, particularly when you were trying to concentrate. He managed to swing his arm up and around, launching Drax into the wall, where his vines pinned him in place. Drax snarled at him, inarticulate with what looked like rage and grief. His hands got to work peeling them apart, and Groot could barely keep up with the number he was tearing.

And then Drax was on top of him again.

Groot had not wanted to hurt any of his friends. They were not entirely there, trapped in their own hell. But he needed to get them to stop. He needed to get to Rocket…he needed to get them out, and he was running out of options.

Groot let out a roar, sending his arm sweeping Drax to the side once more, rolling to his hands and knees and moving forward. He pinned him to the ground, "I am Groot!" He bellowed, shoving him down, fighting against The Destroyer who lashed out at him with savage ferocity. That was the moment when Gamora leaped onto him, sword running through his chest, barely missing impaling the Destroyer, and Groot finally let himself fall.

Chapter Text

It was warm when he opened his eyes again, warm and bright. His toes curled, fingers fisting, and immediately he flinched, but found no pain shooting up his arms. Rocket blinked, and looked down, lifting his hands slowly, taking in the whole fingers, the claws, the black flesh scarred with the typical electrical burns and small cuts from working on his guns and bombs…

But it was nothing like they had been. He could move. He could think.

Where was he?

He looked around, frowning slightly, only to realize there were trees all around him, trees and grass and flowers of all things. His nose wrinkled slightly as a small insectoid with large colorful wings flitted by his whiskers.

He hadn't…he hadn't been in a place like this since…

He looked up, and there was Groot, sitting with his back against one of the more immobile trees a respectable pace away from him.

He hadn't been in a place like this since X.

What the hell was going on?

"Groot?" Rocket whispered softly, looking over to him. He was confused. He didn't know how he had gotten here, didn't know what was going on… What was going on, something was wrong, something was wrong

'We are not Groot…'

Rocket flinched back, his body tensing, and then…

"Hey, look who's up…" A voice from beside him said, startling him, his ears pressing flat against his head as his tail bushed, and Rocket looked over to regard Peter's smiling face, and a chill ran down his spine.

'Leave you with the other monsters,' his mind echoed, Peter's amused grin flashing through his head, and Rocket found himself on his feet before he could properly register what he was doing, stumbling backwards. His eyes flickered to Groot, his earlier words ringing in his ears, and Rocket started running. He didn't know what was going on, his mind was fuzzy and his nose was still numb. He couldn't smell anything.

What was going on? Where was he?

Peter's voice called after him, entwined with Groot's deeper rumble, tinged as they were with worry. He heard the both of them stand up to head after him, but kept running, scalpels and pain and fear blurring together in his mind until he could barely think… His body twinged with phantom pain with every step…

That was the moment a pair of legs stepped out in front of him and he found himself scooped up and pressed to a broad chest.

Rocket's claws immediately flashed, clawing and biting, anything to try and escape. It took him a while to notice that the arms around him were doing nothing but hold him, that a soft voice was continually whispering to him, telling him that it was alright, that he was safe… Then he realized he was being held by the Destroyer himself, who was currently looking down at him with narrowed eyes, a worried expression on his face. Rocket stopped clawing, stopped biting. He simply…stopped.

He barely even breathed.

Drax' hold loosened, before placing him at his feet, kneeling down to look at him. "Are you calm, small friend?" Drax asked him, and Rocket didn't even feel like snarling at him for the 'small' comment, heart beating too fast, lungs unable to get enough air, everything was wrong. Rocket slumped to the ground, head between his knees, breathing deeply, trying to calm his racing heart.

"Rocket, what is wrong?" Gamora asked. He hadn't even heard her come up, yet there she stood, looking down at him quietly, her head slightly tilted.

'I'm disappointed' rang in his ears, and he flinched… Yet she wasn't saying it. None of them were saying it. There were no scalpels, no pain…

"Was it a nightmare, buddy?" Peter asked, hovering beside him. Even Groot hovered, slowly moving to sit next to him, and the word 'nightmare' rang in Rocket's brain like a siren. He frowned, looking up at them, scrutinizing their looks of concern, and slowly found himself asking himself the same question. Groot reached out to him and slowly, hesitantly, Rocket returned the gesture, taking hold of his arm and skittering along to perch on his shoulder. His heart was still hammering in his chest, his body had yet to stop trembling, he needed something to ground himself to what was around him.

More than anything, though, he needed to prove that Groot still cared.

The bark underneath his feet had the same firmness, the same texture as the Flora Colossus he knew… His trembling slowly stilled.

He didn't pay any attention to the others looks of concern, knowing he was breaking form by seeking out Groot's presence when they could see it. At that point, however…Rocket didn't care.

"Where…where are we?" He asked, voice a dry rasp, fear still choking him.

"…X. You said it would be a good place for Groot to recover, remember?" Peter asked, frowning at him. "You had one hell of a nightmare, didn't you? Shit, I'm sorry…it didn't even look like one of your nightmares. I didn't think to wake you."

"How do you know what my nightmares look like?" Rocket immediately snapped, digging his claws into Groot's shoulder tighter. He never let them see his nightmares, never wanted to be seen as that vulnerable, that weak.

"There is no soundproofing on X." Gamora's voice was calm, steady, and she locked eyes with him carefully, eyebrows very lightly pinching. "We have seen them, just as you have seen ours. They are nothing to be ashamed of."

Rocket blinked, flinching slightly, frowning, her words ringing in his ears as both truth and somehow painful. He was so confused…why couldn't he remember anything? He tugged at his ears lightly, head bowing as he struggled to pull up the memories that they were referencing. "Was it…it felt like…" He was still so groggy… Groot nudged him gently with his other hand, humming softly to him.

"Can you remember the dream?" Gamora asked him.

Rocket bristled, finally biting out a quiet, "It doesn't matter." He rubbed at his head again, frowning.

"You about clawed Drax to death."

"He did not," Drax immediately countered. "I was holding him too tightly, he had no access to any of my vital areas."

Peter rolled his eyes. "You still scratched him up pretty good. Obviously this means that it's not 'nothing.' Also it does matter," Peter stated belatedly, blinking. "That's the worst reaction I've seen."

Rocket hesitated. Their expressions were lightly pinched with concern, watching him closely.

Rocket took a breath, and finally started to open his mouth. "It was a nightmare…" He said softly, tasting the words on his tongue, testing them. "It just…you remember those stupid stories? About those things that could take your worst fears, make them real?" There was impatience crawling into his tone. The phantom pain of knives in his flesh kept him talking, their words before echoing in his ears trickling through. "They just…cut me open. Mocked me, spat at me, ripped my mind open and… Everything I was afraid of…" He shuddered tensing, hunching over himself, words stuttering to a halt.

He hated it.

"Well that sucks." Peter frowned slightly. "You know we'd never let that happen to you, right?" He asked. "We'd kick all kinds of ass before we'd let that happen."

"You're one of us. They would not take you so easily," Gamora stated simply, frowning.

"Should they take you, we would put our fingers to their throats." Drax inclined his head once, frowning deeply.

"I am Groot!"

Rocket paused, staring at them, fighting back a slow bubbling of something warm in his chest that he didn't recognize, and finally gave a soft scoff, shoving the feeling to the back of his mind. "Yeah…yeah…"

He felt his lips turn up slightly into an expression he rarely used, before blinking, staring at Groot with a slight frown slowly tugging his mouth down.

The big dumb tree was smiling like normal, tilting his head to the side slightly as he regarded him, but something was wrong with his eyes. Rocket blinked, his frown deepening as he noticed the black slowly seeping from their corners. Black like ink, thick like sap, trailing down his face…what the hell…?

He blinked, frowning, reaching out slowly and touching the liquid carefully. He lifted it to eyelevel, sniffing it, and frowning. "Groot…what…?" He looked back up and met eyes with hollow sockets. Rocket fell backwards in shock, landing on his back on the ground, a flash of pain running down his spine.

"Rocket?" Peter's voice asked, and Rocket turned, seeing that Peter's eyes were the same. Hollow, empty, red seeping from them. "What's wrong?" He asked, and Rocket slowly stood, backing away, eyes flickering from one pair of empty sockets to another, heart beating in his throat.

"Are you well, small friend?" Drax stood, blood trickling from his mouth, from his ears, reaching for him, head tilting as red trickled down his face, and Rocket panicked. Leaping to his feet, he turned, running away from what was behind him. He didn't know much about what was happening, but he somehow knew that he couldn't let them touch him.

Their voices cried out after him, calling his name, asking him what was wrong, but he was starting to hear something else behind their cries, something cold, something hungry.

Rocket stumbled, and when he pushed his head up from where he'd fallen to the ground, he found that the woods around him were full of smoke. Fire was leaping from the trees, branch to branch, and he couldn't smell it. It was there, heat radiating out of it like hell itself, and his hand immediately came up, shielding his face.

Their cries were still behind him. He could hear them. Crying his name. And in that instant, for whatever reason, Rocket knew that between the two…he would rather take the fire.

Rocket stood, stumbling forward, fighting through the murk, the black that clung to his fur, fighting through the raging inferno that burned. The roots were reaching up to grab him, cling to him, and he tripped, barely catching himself to continue moving. He couldn't stop. He didn't know why, he just knew that if he stopped…

There was something behind him and he screamed out as it touched him, grabbing hold of his scruff, and lifting him up, his body curling reflexively, unavoidably. And then he was face to face with Groot, or what had been Groot. Burning, fire dancing in his branches, body sharper, twiggy, looking more like what he had been before he had been attempting to befriend Rocket. Before he had changed his appearance to be less threatening to someone so small.

There was sadness in his face, sadness and loss, and for one instant Rocket was confused. This was supposed to hurt, he knew it was, so why wasn't it… "We are Groot," he said, voice rumbling softly, empty sockets staring into his somehow, and then that mouth opened, wide, wider, jagged bark rising up like teeth, and then they closed down on him, and Rocket screamed as everything went black.

Rocket woke to the same room as before, metal table cool on his back through his sweat, a cry tearing from his lungs, even as pain shot through every limb, tears prickling in his eyes as he screamed and screamed. Finally, finally, as he relaxed, realizing where he was, seeing Peter before him, who shouldn't be there and yet was, a frown on his face.

"You were dreaming." His voice came softly, the same and yet different from the Peter he knew. That undertone he had heard was still there, and Rocket no longer knew what was happening. Was he still dreaming? "I have never dreamed before." He said softly. "Do you have any idea how lucky you are?" That rustling, brittle voice wasn't coming from Peter's mouth. "To dream, to know happiness…" It was ringing in his head, and there was that hunger in his eyes, that strange, frightening hunger.

"Why do you get to know happiness? Why can't I?" He finally made contact, running cold, bony fingers through his fur, making him flinch, twist away. "How is it that you, who has no real existence, who was created and broken can know happiness? How do you deserve to know these things when I do not? …to feel the kind of bond you had, that I felt in your mind?" Those claws dug deep, pulled, and Rocket whined. "You trusted them…you trusted them even with all this, when we are wearing their faces, when we cause you pain… What is it like? What is it like?"

Those fingers clawed at him, and Rocket thrashed away, tears running down his face, chittering cries leaving his throat, desperate, pained, afraid.

And all the while a small part of him screamed that this was the end.

This was the part where he died.

Groot lay still, letting himself play dead, his eyes closed, his gold suppressed as much as possible, until it barely glinted. He did not know how the Others reacted to it, if They could sense it as well as he could… He could not chance it. The plan was in shambles, knocked out of bounds by something he hadn't truly expected, but now he understood. Now he knew why. And he hated Them for it. He also knew why Peter had requested he bring what he had, nestled in the hollow place inside him, luckily not pierced by Gamora's sword.

He understood what they wanted to do. How they meant to challenge. He did not know if it would work, but he found himself hopeful. He merely had to wait until They got close.

Drax, Gamora, and Peter had not run off as he had feared, collapsing where they were, twitching, lost in their own personal hell, lost in whatever their minds envisioned, silent tears trickling down stone-faces. And in the middle lay Groot, refusing to move for fear They would realize… The trap had been baited. All that was left was for Them to walk into it. All that was left was for Them to just…get…close.

He heard Them. High-pitched, almost musical chattering filtered down to him, ringing in the hollows of his bark, the vibrations bringing forth sound. The sounds They made as They walked were strange, almost like skittering, the rustle of what sounded like dead leaves rubbing together like gnarled, old hands a harsh parody of excitement. And Groot still didn't move. Letting Them come closer…

Finally, he felt Them above him Their chattering rising in pitch, in something almost like melody that swooped and dived below and around him. He felt Their hands on him, cold, clawed, scratching at his bark as he was slowly rolled to face the ceiling, and more importantly, Them.

They were strange, almost insectoid, skin a white he had only seen on the dead, it's composition as scaly as the Chitauri's dark hide. Their mouths were divided into three segments, lower parts hinged, opening wide so long black tongues could just barely be seen as they continued their strange song. The most chilling part of Them was Their eyes, large, deep-set, and black as pitch, empty of all feeling, of all light.

He felt that he could drown in Their eyes. That They could suck down his gold, suck down his life, and feed the remaining husk to the darkness that rested in Them.

Groot had never been more afraid. This wouldn't be a death like the one back on Xandar, this would be complete non-existence, sucked down into a pit from which there was no regeneration. A small part of him felt pity for something that was so hollow.

Even so, he could not forgive what They had done to his friends, what They had done, were doing, to Rocket. He remained still, watching as They moved towards his friends, watching as they reached out gingerly, mouths splitting, that black bubbling, wretched aura getting thicker, squeezing his friends', killing their colors.

He could see Them all now, watch Their spindly, too-long, too-many-jointed fingers as They reached out, and he knew that if he wasn't going to act now he never would. He reached inwards with his vines, wrapping them around the box in his chest, and searching for the buttons on top.

It had been an accident, the initial discovery that Groot could actually be used as a makeshift-speaker. Rocket had told him to hide a communicator somewhere, which Groot had naturally interpreted as hiding it where he naturally hid everything, inside some hollow. He had been interrupted by gunfire, which happened more often than he liked, and unfortunately placed it in what passed for his voice-box, a hollow chamber that bent and morphed sound to his typical 'I am Groot.' As it was artificial, there mostly for the flesh-bound creatures he was around, it was also something he was not completely familiar with. Peter's voice coming out of Groot had been a moment of shock for most of them, but it had started something.

Peter had been happily using him as portable speaker since the initial discovery and now was the time when all that practice went to good use. The sound was a bit deeper, and a bit rougher, but it was recognizable, thrumming through the very same hollows that allowed Groot to speak, and as the hollow bent around it, morphing and changing it, the sounds deepened, the volume grew, and finally…

Music echoed down the hallway, the sounds of guitar, bass and drums, the female vocalist finally belting out:

"Can't stay at home, can't stay at school
Old folks say, ya poor little fool,
Down the street, I'm the girl next door,
I'm the fox you've been waiting for!"

Groot watched Them jump, black eyes immediately whirling towards him. He felt Their black flinch back, the sound so utterly foreign to Them that They immediately recoiled. As the black twitched, so did the colors of his friends, the music calling to a deeply engrained part of them, calling them home.

"Hello daddy, hello mom,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world, I'm your wild girl,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

The singer screamed out as Groot's aura reached, taking the colors that were desperately reaching out for anything out of subconscious reflex, a deeply engrained part of them realizing they could, and took them, snatching them right out of the black. As they were released they slumped, but Groot had no time for them. As they were released, They immediately focused on Groot.

"Stone age love and strange sounds too,
Come on baby, let me get to you,
Bad nights cause'n teenage blues,
Get down ladies you've got nothing to lose!"

Groot stood, a lumbering* giant among ants, bark and branches rising up in sharp splinters, fingers sharpening, lengthening, and Groot let out a roar.

"Hello daddy, hello mom,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world, I'm your wild girl,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

As the singer let out her first little moan, Groot lashed out, clawing through the first, and moving onto the second. Initially They flinched back, before he felt their black once again attempt to leach into him, and in his initial reflexive attempt to jerk back, fell upon his friends. But it was too late.

"Hello daddy, hello mom,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world, I'm your wild girl,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

As the song reached the second refrain, the Guardians were waking up. And they were not happy. The blackness that attempted to penetrate their color was not enough to keep up with the absolute energy and brightness that was Rocket's favorite song. But Groot could not focus on them.

They were finally beginning to attack physically, and while Their size was nothing particularly devastating, They had power in numbers. They no longer had the use of Their auras, Their prey no longer something They could influence mentally. Groot had expected no less of Them than to react like cornered animals.

Groot thrashed, using his defensive spikes to dangerous effect, reaching out with arms that lengthened and speared, stomping heads underfoot, and still they kept coming… He roared, "I am Groot!" melding with one last moan, and swung, just as they finally toppled him over.

"Hey street boy what's your style?
Your dead end dreams don't make you smile.
I'll give ya something to live for,
Have ya, grab ya 'til your sore!"

They clawed at him, shrieked at him, pitches dancing up the octaves, and then…

Gunfire.

"Hello daddy, hello mom,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

Peter Quill was on his feet, using both pistols to devastating effect, snarl on his face, yellow aura the sharpest Groot had ever seen it. It was biting out on reflex, even as it pulled Groot's gold close, seeking the other two. The yellow had purpose.

"Hello world, I'm your wild girl,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

Drax gave a bellow, charging forward with his knives that he had recovered, slashing almost blindly, so enraged that they had used his family against him once again. Had used them to hurt his friends. His red burned like the sun, gold, yellow, and blue pulled deeply into it, fueling it until it was too intense to touch properly, anger blazing inside of him. The red had something to protect.

"Cherry bomb, cherry bomb
Cherry bomb, cherry bomb!"

Gamora attacked with hands and feet, the Galaxies Deadliest Woman not about to let the other two show her up, regardless of her lack of weapons. She snapped necks and broke bones, face expressionless, blue so cold it burned to the touch. The blue had found warmth.

They would pay.

"Cherry bomb!"

As it echoed into silence, They fell, Groot rewinding the player inside of him, and Gamora froze at the sight of her sword in his chest. Before anything could be said, Groot ripped it out, and held it out, hilt offered first. She took it, before as one they turned, and charged down the hall, faces set, expressions deadly, Groot taking the lead.

Cherry Bomb once again roared down the hall, a strange battle-song for an equally strange group. They wouldn't have it any other way. Yet even as they ran, Groot prayed they weren't too late. While the other colors had found each other, drawing strength from the purpose they had gained, the orange had stopped crying out.

It no longer believed they were coming.

Rocket could no longer muster up the will, muster up the voice to call out. There was no point to it anymore.

They weren't coming. They never had been.

He was alone.

Tears still leaked from his eyes, running down his muzzle, seemingly ignoring the internal voice that screamed at them. Useless, pathetic, wasteful little bastards. What did he expect? When did he ever get stupid enough to think he had a chance? To think that he was anything more than a useless, awful waste of space? When had he gotten it into his mind that he was actually worth anything to anyone?

To Rocket's frustration, the tears only seemed to fall faster, and a cackling, half-hysterical laugh bubbled out due to it. He was having trouble breathing, a wheezing crackle leaving his throat, choking on the sound. It hurt. It hurt so much.

It took him a while to realize that no more pain was introduced. That whatever was using Peter's voice, Peter's face had stopped… It took him a moment longer to realize that he could hear something. Something he didn't think he would ever hear again.

"Ch-ch cherry bomb!"

Rocket's eyes rolled towards the door, mouth pulling into the smallest of frowns, dried blood cracking as he turned his head, pulling fur. He flinched at the feeling, shame burning deep inside him at the fear that flashed through him at the idea that this was just some sort of trick, that as soon as he turned, he would be hurt again.

No pain came.

"Hold on, Rocket, we're coming! We're coming!"

Peter…Peter's voice? Was that Peter?

Hello world, I'm your wild girl,
I'm your ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

"Hold on small friend, we are here to rescue you!"

…Drax…

"Stone age love and strange sounds too,
Come on baby, let me get to you,"

"Rocket!"

Even Gamora? What…

"Bad nights cause'n teenage blues,
Get down ladies you've got nothing to lose!"

"WE ARE GROOT!" Rocket felt his heart leap, before reality set in.

This had happened before.

It was just another lie. Rocket was so tired of lies.

Rocket cried out as once again pain came back. His eyes had reflexively shut, so he did not see how the thing touching him no longer even remotely resembled Peter. But he could smell it.

…He could smell it.

Sharp, acrid, the stench somehow sweet, mixed with something fetid. Something rotten.

It was the scent of death.

It clung to his fur, to his nostrils, to everything around him, and with every breath the thing took it was blown into his face. He could also smell something underneath it. Something past all the death, past the bitter tang of his own blood, the reek of his own sweat, he recognized something. Something that called out to him.

Something that reminded him of a home he didn't have.

"Let him go, foul beast!" Drax' voice came and with it a smell that he knew.

A smell that belonged to a friend.

His eyes slowly opened, peeking out, staring at the four people that stood framed in the doorway, one of which he hadn't expected. One who was taller, leaner, and simply greener than he had been. Cherry Bomb resonated out of him, making Rocket's ears twitch, recognizing the song. It was his choice. First pick, all the time, not even caring for the lyrics, just the tempo, the energy, the screams of "ch-ch-cherry bomb!"

What more did a song need?

Rocket let out a pained cry at the sudden lance of pain that shot through him, centered around the claw that had suddenly dug into his side, coaxing out more blood, Groot's growl resonating through the room. Rocket watched their faces, watched their tension, their hatred an almost physical force, something he flinched back from, a small part of him screaming that it wasn't aimed at him. At that point, Rocket didn't care. Didn't believe it. Couldn't afford to believe it. If it was wrong…

Rocket would not be betrayed again. He could not be betrayed again.

He wouldn't be able to take it.

As it was, he closed his eyes, let his head fall to the side, and tried to shut everything out. He missed the look of pain Groot gave him, the way the others almost faltered in their standoff positions, expressions a mixture of grief and horror. They shortly turned to fury when they looked back at the Thing next to their friend.

"You have one chance. Let him go, or we will make you." Gamora's voice echoed out, strong, her sword pointed directly between It's eyes, her expression as hard and blank as marble.

In the one moment when It turned to look at her, Peter fired his pistols just as Groot's vines cracked out like a whip, Drax' knife thrown into his stomach. Groot's vines smashed into It and sent It back, crashing against the wall, broken.

Black blood bubbled up from It's mouth, black as pitch, thick as sap, and with a slow gurgling hiss, one last mental assault was made, even as Gamora walked forward, blade held ready, whispering into Rocket's mind with a vindictive little chuckle.

"They will see you for what you are in the end. They will see you for useless and remove you. What use do they have for a monster? Particularly one without the use of it's hands?"

Gamora's blade came down, piercing It's skull, the last of It's connection to Rocket broken with the feeling akin to a rubber band snapping. It did not remove what Rocket believed to be truth.

Rocket had barely realized that there were people around him before a hand touched his side, causing him to flinch, opening his eyes to see Peter's face above his.

Rocket thrashed back, crying out, panic bubbling up in him like a fountain. This had happened too many times, in too many ways. He knew better. He knew better.

Peter's face was a mask of shock, horror and pity rolling in equal measures, staring down at what Rocket knew had to be one pretty pathetic picture. Peter's face, Peter's voice, talking to him, saying what, Rocket didn't know. He had shut down. It was too much.

It was just…too…much…

That was the moment Peter stripped himself of his jacket. Rocket looked back, eyes foggy, most likely red-rimmed, and then that jacket was lowered down on top of him, and suddenly he was somewhere warm. He could smell Peter all around him, his scent seeped into the jacket, flooding his senses with something familiar. His words registered then, "It's okay, Rocket, it's alright, we've got you…we're going to get you out. It'll be okay… We'll get you to Xandar, they'll know how to fix your hands."

"I am Groot…" 'We are here. You are safe. I am sorry…' He felt Groot's vines wrap around the outside of the jacket, as they worked their way under his bonds, finally snapping them open, carefully avoiding his hands.

Rocket immediately took that time to burrow into Peter's jacket, hiding, his body slowly succumbing to exhaustion and stress, and the slow simple realization that he just didn't care.

He didn't care anymore. If it was a lie...Rocket wanted to enjoy it while it lasted. He wanted to pretend, if only for a little while, that this was real and they were taking him out.

He jolted as he was lifted, cradled to a large chest still wrapped in Peter's blanket, and a soft whine rose in his throat, much to his disgust. He was shushed, soothed, and then he was moving. They were taking him out.

He dared not think they were taking him home.