Peter’s nine years old. His mother died three days ago.
Three days ago, he’d been too much of a coward to take mom’s hand. Similarly, it was three days ago that he ran from the hospital crying in noisy, broken gasps, stumbled into a glowing prism of light, and got himself abducted by hungry space-pirates.
Two days ago, Peter cried himself to sleep out of fear for himself rather than for mom. Mom was past help. Mom was already dead.
One day ago, they gave him a translator chip. The scary blue man with the arrow clipped him on the ear and told him to behave or he’d let his boys taste Terran. His teeth looked sharp enough for him to make good on his threat, so Peter obeyed.
Today, their lightspeed engines clunk off. The galleon chugs to a halt in a quadrant on the far side of the galaxy. The same scary blue man – who Peter now knows is called Yondu, Udonta, or, more often, Captain – drags him to the observation deck, jabs a split-nailed blue finger at the stars and glimmering spaceports that spangle the abyss, and says, in an inexplicably southern accent:
“Yer precious Terra? A million lightyears thatta way. No point running, kid; you ain’t got no way back home.”
Peter drops helplessly to his knees and starts to sob. Yondu allows him a generous ten seconds to get it out of his system. Then another ten. And another. Then he rolls his eyes and stomps so his filthy bootcaps monopolize Peter’s vision. He waggles a ginger troll doll in front of his nose. “Damn, you’re a soft brat. And just when I was about t’give you your present too.”
Peter gasps. It’s the first of his belongings he’s seen, since he was stripped by cold, unfamiliar alien hands and (rather than being probed, as he’d been dreading) sprayed with stinky orange delousing gel and bundled into a red leather coat five sizes too ambitious. Yondu jigs the toy about in a rhythmless polka. When Peter snatches for it he yanks it out of reach. Reminded of the bullies on the playground back home – home, where he’s never going again – Peter’s fists clench, and he goes to kick him in the shin.
Yondu dodges. Then, to Peter’s surprise, laughs and tosses the troll doll at his head. He even does it lightly enough to avoid concussing him. “We’re still scannin’ the rest of yer crap for contamination n’hidden weapons and all the rest. But figured ya couldn’t do much harm with this.”
Peter, clutching the stupid, ugly little lump of plastic to his chest, is sniffling too hard to splutter out the thanks his mother would want him to give. But seeing as the captain’s the one who stole his troll doll in the first place, and mom’s up with the spirit in the sky and is never, ever coming back, Peter’s doesn't have much to be thankful for.
Yondu seems to disagree. He heads below decks with a parting grin, hands lodged deep in his trenchcoat pockets. “Be grateful I didn’t nick it for my dashboard collection! Now quit with the waterworks. Voyage’s gonna take a bit longer than predicted, so we better find ya somewhere proper to sleep.”
Peter has behaved so far. Besides kicking at Yondu and smacking the skinny guy with the Mohawk and the neck tattoos – Kraglin? – in the goolies when he first arrived. (Yondu found that amusing. Skinny-guy was of the opposing opinion. He’d tried to repay the favor with the addition of a plasma rifle until he was dissuaded by a whistle and a threat of the brig.) But the evidence is unmistakable. Peter’s behaved, and the captain has given him his doll. If he keeps being good, will he get mom’s music back, too? Rubbing his eyes, Peter blows his nose on the sleeve of the oversized jacket. He stumbles after Yondu on legs shaky as a newborn pup's. A proper sleeping place. Anything’s better than the hard corner of the storeroom he’s been curling up in, during the indeterminable hours that he guesses might align to night.
They’ve had an influx of new recruits – not that Peter’s aware of this; he assumes that the corridors bored through the Ravager galleon like spaceworm tunnels in an asteroid have always been heaving. But as a result, there’s few bunks to spare. Yondu figures the brat’s too little (and ain’t gonna be round long enough) to require a bed-proper to call his own. Hence: the hammock.
It’s strung in one corner of Yondu’s cabin. Calling it a hammock is generous. It’s a strip of smelly salvage-cloth the quartermaster had rustled up at short notice. Besides Yondu’s nest (which he’s constructed himself in true Centaurian fashion, albeit out of pillaged blankets and synthetic thermal-weaves rather than animal rawhide and woven grass) it looks dingy and a little pitiful. So does the boy, as Yondu shunts him over to it. His squidgy face is all pink. He’s spent the past three days dehydrating himself through his tearducts over a dead carrier, and yeah, Yondu gets that that’s worth a coupla sniffles, but he’s given him the damn dolly, hasn’t he? Don’t that deserve a bit of gratitude? At least, a reprieve from the constant crying.
“Go on then,” he grumbles, flicking the back of the kid’s head to get him moving. “Tuck in.”
Peter doesn’t complain. He’s tired, after all. Night and day have no real meaning under the Eclector’s high-watt internal solar lamps, but his body’s worn out from crying and he craves sleep almost as much as he does the familiar beats of Hooked On A Feeling. He picks up the tune without realizing as he swings into the hammock, gripping the ropes for stability. Then spies Yondu, squinting at him like he’s interpreting the hums, and cuts off halfway through a chorus.
They stare at each other a long moment: Yondu sneery but more than a little inquisitive; Peter defensive. Then –
“You’re weird,” decrees the captain.
Perched on the nest’s edge he removes his coat, tosses it in the general direction of the hook, and sets to work on his boots. The arrow is laid on the nest besides him with reverent delicacy. Peter’s a teensy bit intrigued about what space pirates wear at night, even though he’s determined not to show it. To be honest, up to this point he’d thought that the Ravager leathers grew like a crabshell. He can’t stifle the huff of disappointment when Yondu yanks off his shirt and pants – revealing a sturdy blue torso laced with scars, and a weird horizontal line in place of a belly button – and demonstrates that space pirates sleep in their boxers.
Peter doesn’t share his inclination. The Ravager ship’s too cold for his liking, and although the coat he’s been given holds sweat like a water gourd, the thought of shedding it makes goosepimples prickle up his arms. Yondu, one red eye cracked, takes in his shivers, but doesn’t comment.
“If ya snore, I’ll whistle,” is all he says. Then he rolls over and goes to sleep.
Peter doesn’t snore. Yondu does.
It’s not horrendously loud, but it’s weirdly human, especially given the garbled gargle that emanated from his mouth before he’d pinned the translator to the back of Peter’s ear. Now, Peter reaches up to touch it, caressing the cool metal weight. It’s heavier than something that size should be. He’s accustoming to it though, even if he tends to lean his head too far the opposite direction to compensate.
Xandarian. That’s what they’d called that language – and there’s some folks who’re Xandarian too, so it must be a race, like American or Mexican. But Yondu isn’t Xandarian. Peter knows this because while Yondu’s the colour of the ocean on one of those tacky postcards mom collects (collected), the ones with the dirty jokes that grandpa wouldn’t let him read, the fat guy (Horuz?) and the scarred girl (Morticia, or something) are both rendered on a scale of pink that runs from pastel to fuschia. Horuz, the less eye-offending of the two, looks almost human. Heck, Peter’d thought he was - until he pinched the scant flab under Peter's arms and declared there was barely enough meat on him for a casserole.
Peter shudders. He’s still not certain what the Ravagers have in store for him. Yondu’d stopped Horuz eating him – and the next guy that’d tried, and the next. But although he keeps hinting, Peter hasn’t worked up the guts to ask him outright.
So, here’s what he’s put together. A stuffy emperor on the far side of the galaxy fancied a Terran snack for lunch. Yondu, proficient in all things illegal, had volunteered to undertake this acquisition. He’d whisked Peter away by chance, and now he has a week to freeze and shiver in a clunky old Ravager galleon before he becomes haute cuisine.
Peter buries his nose between his knees to muffle his shaky breaths. The hammock rocks from side to side – not with the engines, which are a smooth reverberation akin to the rumble of a downhill coasting doubledecker bus, but at every one of his movements. He’s forced to sit stiff and small at its center. He can’t sleep like this. There’s no way. And he can’t cry either, because if his shoulders shake the hammock’ll upend and he’ll be deposited on the floor. Then Yondu’ll wake up and he’ll take away his troll doll and he’ll whistle at him.
Peter’s fingers fist in the baggy fabric of his pants. The troll doll’s tucked into his top pocket; a tough nugget that scrapes his collarbone. His eyes are itchy from tiredness and swollen from crying, and there’s a big yawn building in his throat, threatening to lurch him off balance. And he reckons there’s enough room – just – at the edge of Yondu’s nest for one skinny boy.
Peter dangles his boots off the side of the hammock. He swings perilously a moment, grasping the strings until the horizontal sway stabilizes, then slithers soundlessly to the ground. At least, he tries to be soundless. Boots smack floor with a ringing metallic boom. It resounds through the bell-shaped cabin like a funeral toll.
Peter flinches, watching Yondu. The captain’s flat out on his back, limbs in a starfish and dead to the world. He doesn’t so much as twitch.
That’s… reassuring. Peter exhales and pads over, pausing after every creak. He gains confidence as Yondu’s snores increase in volume, and the blue man’s head flops to one side, jaw dropping with the looseness of bone-deep slumber. He’ll probably have drooled on himself come morning. It should be relieving, seeing the big scary captain of his kidnappers so defenseless. But if anything, all it does is remind Peter how far out of his league he is.
Yondu’s comfortable sleeping in front of him, because – well, let’s face it – Peter’s too weak to cause him any threat.
It’s a hierarchy unspoken but firmly established. Peter mulls it mutinously as he crawls to the end of the bed, wishing there was a blanket he could steal – or at least use to smother Yondu’s unwashed feet.
He considers appropriating Yondu's coat for a duvet. He considers making a break for it, commandeering a ravager schooner and zooming off into the open stars. He even considers grabbing the captain’s arrow and sticking it between his eyes. But then thinks about where he’d be: stranded a million lightyears from earth and wanted for murder.
Still, it’s a little warmer here. Yondu runs hotter than Peter. There’s a weird musky scent to his skin, mixed with sweat and old leather and the sharp tang that Peter will soon recognize as plasma residue; animal and thick, oddly peppery. Peter’s viscera inform him that he’s kipping in biting distance of a potentially deadly predator. But his sleepy brain only registers the relative softness of the patchwork mattress, old coats stitched together by crude twine but with a surprisingly delicate hand.
He turns the troll doll in his pocket so its ginger tuft doesn’t tickle his chin. Then he curls up close enough to leach warmth from Yondu’s calves, and sleeps.
Yondu hasn’t woken up next to someone with no idea how said someone had gotten there in decades.
Years. Months. Maybe a week.
Nevertheless, when he blinks awake the next morning and tries to stand only to find a small pink creature wrapped around his ankles like a well-flung trip lasso, it’s a bit of a shock.
“Huh, wha –?” Yondu’s first instinct, when faced with anything new, is to whistle. But trawling through space in search of unlucky merchant vessels turns up a lot of surprises, so he’s adept at resisting the urge. Once he’s located the arrow – rolled into the crease beneath his thigh – he sits, dragging his snuggling parasite with him, and begins a process of extraction that is less deadly (if not especially gentle) while his mind puzzles out what has occurred.
Sex? God no. Kid’s tiny. And pink. And – well, a kid.
Hammock broke then? Yondu spares it a glance as he mashes his heel on Peter’s slack cheek. Nope. All tight-roped and comfy. So – why the kid?
Ah. The kid who’s now awake and gagging as Yondu wafts a sweaty toe under his nostril. Excellent. He can ask him himself.
“The heck you doin’ in my bed, boy?” he barks.
“Peter,” the boy corrects, before his head swims back to the world of the living and he realizes the toenail threatening to jam itself up his nostril is as blue as the skin around it. “Aw crap!”
“Crap indeed. I’ll ask again, boy. My bed. You. Why you in it?”
Peter unhooks his deathgrip from Yondu’s ankles. He scrambles back, almost tipping over the rim of the nest in his eagerness to get away. “Fell out of the hammock,” he mumbles. Then, after a long pause, punctuated only by Yondu’s expectant blink – “Got cold.”
Yondu snorts. The quartermaster’d slung the hammock too low – at waist-height, like the kid was a fucking invalid. He’s gonna have to fix that. Peter’s half-Spartoi; he oughta be able to sleep high-up like a normal person, and to handle a little nippiness.
“I ain’t yer personal spaceheater, boy,” he tells him. Rolls to the other side of the broad cot and fishes through the general detritus littering his floor panels for pants. By the time he’s pulled them on, Peter’s still there. His nervous stare prickles Yondu’s neck. It’s not a scrutiny he enjoys. Kid’s looking at him like he expects a smack – and yeah, if there’d been crew around Yondu’d have given him one, just for gawping. But right now there’s no one to witness Peter’s mistake but himself and the walls. Catching a glimpse of the tuft of orange hair poking out the kid’s neckline, Yondu figures he can be lenient.
Just a little.
He swivels with a noisy sigh. “Get the fuck outta here and find me some breakfast. Or you’re on the menu. Go on, git!”
There’s a squeak and a scuff of oversized boots. Then the unmistakable clatter of a slide door shunting open and shut around the body of a tiny Terran, who’s scrambling to obey.
It’s all good, Yondu figures. Ain’t like it’s ever gonna happen again, not now he’s put the fear of God in the Terran; made him know his right from his wrong, his hammock from Yondu’s nest. Which is why next night, as he slopes in a coupla hours after the Terran turns in and finds him passed out in his nest, hugging a pillow like a skinny-legged octopus, he rolls his eyes, deposits him in the hammock, and reclaims his goddam space.
Peter snuffles awake as he’s lifted – then instantly freezes at the memories of the last couple of days; where he is, who he’s with. How many times has Horuz threatened to eat him? Crap, crap, he’s gonna be stew…
“Damn brat,” mutters a familiar voice. Peter smells leather and engine oil and that underlying hint of predator. He goes slowly limp.
Just Yondu. He’s safe.
From all except the damn hammock. The damn hammock which has been winched up ridiculously high, and fuck, this is gonna hurt… Yondu drops him into it and turns away – and seems surprised when Peter immediately slithers out and lands on his ass. Hard.
“Ow…” Peter picks himself up, rubbing ruefully at the seat of his pants. “Do I gotta sleep here? I’ll just fall out again.”
Great. He’s already picking up Ravager speech-patterns. And looking at Yondu with a sort of sleepy defiance, and – did he just question Yondu’s order? That there’s a breach of conduct Yondu can’t abide. If people don’t wanna do as he says, they can at least have the decency to do it behind his back so he doesn’t have to make a show of disciplining them.
Yondu pulls himself up to his full height. He’s a nightmarish silhouette, the light from the gold solar orb that hovers in the corner splitting through the red prism of his implant. “You disrespectin’ me? After I give ya your doll? After I stop ‘em eating you?”
“No, no!” Peter scrambles up, and Yondu doesn’t miss the way his little palm folds, just momentarily, over the lump in his breast pocket. He could snort. Sentiment. Kid cares more about his toys than his own hide. Stupid – but also good motivation. Yondu bares his teeth.
“You get in that hammock, or I tie you there while me an’ yer dolly take a walk for the nearest airlock.”
Peter, eyes almost as white as his face, attempts to heave himself up into the hammock. He spins round it once, and lands on his face.
Yondu glare devolves into a surprised laugh. Then anger. “Ya think you can get yer way by clownin’ about, boy –“
“I’m sorry!” Peter blurts. “Sorry, I’ll try again, look –“ And he jumps for the hammock.
Jumps. For a hammock which is winched up to hang thirty centimeters above head height like that of any civilized person. He catches it, but winds up dangling with his boots twitching off the floor like those of a man in a noose. Yondu, observing from outside kicking range, props his hands on his hips and cocks his head.
Peter’s clumsy struggle. His pathetic wriggling. His third attempt to enter the hammock, which results in him swinging beneath it and smacking his head off the wall with a noisy clonk. That’s not clowning. That’s… genuine inability. And the kid’s only making himself more panicked and nervy every time he fails.
Yondu squeezes his nose bridge. “Thought Terrans were tree dwellers.”
“That’s monkeys,” Peter pants. “But yeah, we were tree-dwellers like them – a million years ago.” Ooh. Apparently embarrassment and frustration brings out the sass. Yondu can’t make himself be offended – a snarking boy’s a thousand times easier to deal with than a sobbing one. He marches over, shoving Peter out the way – gently, but the damn brat still flinches like he expects to be punched through a gunwale. Hammock’s a bit short for him, and a bit low. And yeah, it’s been a while since he was last in one – not since he was first out the pouch, not since the Badoon…
Yondu pulls the crank on the wall to hoist the hammock to a decent height. Then grabs it from the pleated underside and jumps, controlling the upwards swing with a kick of his legs. It’s not as graceful as he’d like (out of practice, that’s all). But he manages it, and perches there with a grin, surveying his room from on high. S’not a bad view. Perhaps he should get one of these for himself –
“Okay,” says Peter, yawning. “I’ll take the bed.”
Oh no he did not.
Yondu bounces out of the hammock hard enough to set it spinning. The clash of his boots on the steel floor makes Peter as good as lurch out his own in shock – and yeah, Yondu should see about getting him a pair that actually fit; not that he’s gonna be around long enough to appreciate them, but can’t be forking him over to his father with the brat complaining of blisters now, can he? Papa might not think he’s been treating him right.
However, the margins of Yondu’s hospitality recede long before letting a kid in his bed.
“No,” he decrees, the jab of his index spearing Peter to the spot. “You can’t handle the hammock, you sleep on the floor.”
And that, Yondu thinks, is that.
It takes approximately five minutes of waiting for Yondu’s rolling and rearranging to descend into a passed-out sprawl, then ten more minutes of sheer stubbornness as the floor plating digs into his shoulder. Then Peter stands, shaking stiffness from his limbs. He spares a hateful glance for the hammock – and the nest’s lone occupant – and curls up in the corner, as far away from Yondu as he can get. There’s space. It’s a big bed, obviously made to be shared when the captain wants company. With Yondu on the far side, Peter can stretch out without risking brushing his boot along a strong blue calf.
He lays there a moment, enjoying the space and the softness. The cove is warming with each of Yondu’s snores. Peter’s warm. He’s comfortable. He hasn’t been hit more than twice, and none of them hard enough to do more than bruise. So why isn’t he asleep already?
There’s a throaty grunt. Then Yondu rolls, natural and slow as a breaching whale, and his snores diminuendo into soft snuffles as he pillows his cheek on a lax bicep that’s about as broad across as Peter’s head. Peter holds his breath. The heat increases in direct proximity to Yondu’s body, and with him now only inches away, Peter’s crammed into the corner of the nest and sweat’s beginning to prickle the underarms of his grotty undershirt.
And – and that’s what he remembers. That’s what’s niggling on his mind, chewing his memories like rats on old rope.
Mom, fever-hot and tucked up to her chin under white hospital sheets. Mom, who’d been too tired to play with him, but who had slipped the covers down to her toes the moment the nurse’s back was turned, and patted the pallet for him to crawl up besides. Peter had hugged her while she’d slept. He’d laid his head between her thin breasts, inhaling the smell of sickness and disinfectant in the hopes of scouting out some familiar fragrance, some hint of jasmine perfume or fresh-baked cookies: the mom-smells of his youth. While he held her in his frail nine-year-old arms, Peter had imagined he was Star Lord, hero, healer. That he was protecting her from anything that would dare to take her away from him.
Of course, it hadn’t worked in the end.
Peter buries his face in his hands. Then stubbornly bites his lip, refusing to let sound escape. He’s not gonna cry. He’s cried enough. And if Yondu catches him, it’ll be insults and smacks and orders for him to get back in his corner. But damn, what Peter wouldn’t give for someone to hold him right now, to hold him like he used to hold mom and to make the bad things go away. There’s no one here though, so Peter’s gonna have to make do.
The captain’s face isn’t any softer when he sleeps: all strong jaw and sharp cheekbones. But without its usual sneer, or the mocking smirk that trails Peter through his mishaps of the day, it looks a little more amenable to the use of its owner as a substitute. And – well, Yondu wouldn’t wake for an engine bursting right now. Peter hopes.
Swallowing, he shuffles a bit closer. Then closer still.
His skinny chest presses against the captain’s. Leather sticks on the muscle. When Peter receives nothing – not a mumble, not a twitch – his smile goes wobbly and he cuddles in as close as he can get. The room’s dark. Even with the dimmed solar-light Peter can tell Yondu’s too blue and too thick-built for mom. His scent’s all wrong and his skin’s rougher than the toads Peter had found at the end of the garden as a kid, even though it looks smooth. (Peter rubs his cheek on his shoulder, still uncomprehendingly awed that he’s touching an alien, a real life alien, and that he’s in space.) But he’s got that same heat to him. The same weight in his limbs as when mom was passed out with the drip above her head the only sound.
Peter shuts his eyes and smiles.
Thing is, Yondu’s not actually impervious to noises uttered in the dead of his sleep cycle. Only the ones which he doesn’t deem as dangerous.
Which entails his brain isn’t interpreting the kid as a threat. Even a potential one. And yeah, he’s small and stupid and all kinds of pathetic. But Yondu’s a Ravager captain. He’s seen enough go before him to know that out here, slacking on your security gets you nothing but dead. And anyway, the kid’s totally dangerous. Deadly, in fact. Both to his reputation – which could’ve been decimated if there’d been a crisis and Kraglin had come stumbling in from the cabin next door to wake him – and to his ribcage. Which is currently being compressed by two reedy arms, which tighten exponentially when Yondu attempts liberation.
“Gerroff,” he groans. Peter’s too high up for him to stick his foot in his face. When his order’s met with a whuff of releasing air and Peter’s chilly nose digging into his collarbone, Yondu grabs a wrist in each hand and squeezes.
Peter’s eyes pop open and he starts to thrash. He actually manages to kick Yondu in the stomach before Yondu can shove him over the side of the nest to crash on the floor. It’s not a bad blow. Bit light – not enough to rupture nothing, but enough to wind. Kid’s got the making’s of a fighter. Right now though, Yondu can’t be thinking of that. “The fuck you doin’ hugging me? You got a deathwish?”
“Why’d you try to break my wrists?” Peter shoots back. The question-dodge is far too convenient. Yondu lets an ominous glow thread his implant, red streaming from his thinned eyes.
“Because you was trying to strangle me in your sleep. So I’ll ask again. Why?”
He guesses he looks scary enough to drain Peter’s fight, because next moment the boy’s shrinking low. His shoulders quake from the sudden change in temperature. And damn it, but Yondu is not a sauna. This really has to stop. “Dunno,” Peter mutters to the laces on his boots. Yondu glowers a while longer. Then rolls his eyes and starts looking for his pants. “Here.” They’re passed up to him by a small white hand.
“Thanks,” Yondu says without thinking. The hand freezes. So does Yondu. “Uh, how about ya go grab me some grub? Or –“
“You’ll eat me instead. I know.” Peter peels himself off the floor, shoots him an unrepentant glare, and slopes off to do his bidding. Really, Yondu shouldn’t feel so accomplished about ordering a nine-year-old weepy Terran around. A weepy Terran who apparently can’t see what’s so ridiculous about snuggling a scarred and scary space pirate come naptime. A weepy Terran who he absolutely cannot have in his quarters an hour longer – even if there’s a good week to Spartax – because this is, quite frankly, getting embarrassing for both of them.