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How To Hug A Ravager

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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.

Right?

***

Wrong.

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!”

“Boy?”

“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.

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.

Chapter Text

Yondu never does get him better fitting boots. But Peter grows into them, and stuffs them with socks in the meantime.

After Peter’s relocated to his own dorm, the contract with Spartax vanishes from Yondu’s records (and, not fancying burning a million quarts of fuel to deliver the boy back to his precious Urth, Yondu has Kraglin add his name to their rosters).

Things quiet down. Which means things liven up.

Peter’s gotta learn to fly (which he’s good at) to shoot (which he’s excellent at) and to kill (a field in which his talents refuse to manifest). But at least Yondu can come home to an empty cabin and not have to worry about Peter’s stupid sentiments migrating to him via osmosis. In fact, there’s barely a peep from the kid in years. Boy’s a regular feature on the Bridge, when Yondu doesn’t have him doing grunt-work, and is shaping up to be quite the little con-artist. They’ve hauled him along on a couple of jobs; Yondu’s unsure whether Peter can cry on demand or if he's still spooked by their threats of making him tonight’s main course, and the waterworks are all genuine. But it’s worked so far, and that’s all that matters. Ravagers don’t cry – unless it’ll earn ‘em money.

So the next time it happens, Peter is pushing thirteen. His type’s an early-bloomer as far as puberty goes. He’s in the process of slipping down an octave, which means the yodelling gets notably less tuneful, and Yondu has to flat-out ban him from singing on the Bridge because the Navs keep bitching about migraines. He’s finally starting to get some meat on his bones. Good thing too, as the crew’s latest theory had been that the kid had a black hole in his stomach, and was actually a pawn in some malevolent cosmic entity’s plot to slowly but surely suck their foodstock into another dimension.

…There’s a lotta space to cover between jobs, even at lightspeed. When the Eclector’s old radar relays fail at hacking Nova Empire soap channels, gossip makes good entertainment.

However, Horuz has used crazier theories as part of his ongoing effort to have the kid jettisoned as ballast. That goon always did hate him, for some reason. Yondu don’t ask because Yondu don’t care; but Yondu’s also a fair sight smarter than he pretends, and happens to know that Horuz left a kid Peter’s age when he fled Xandar on charges of assault and battery, and that might have something to do with it.

But whatever the case, Peter is a big boy now. Big-ish. Practically a man, by Yondu’s reckoning – although the Nova Corps and their stupid laws about drinking and driving and sex might beg to differ. And yeah, Yondu quietly offed the last couple of jackasses who insinuated that he kept the kid around for the latter reason, or made a pass at him themselves. Not that he gives a shit – but certain things don’t sit right even by a self-professed amoral space pirate.

But there’s some shit big boys do that little boys are expected not to do. And, more importantly, vice versa. For instance, in Yondu’s humble opinion, big boys do not cry at space storms.

Yondu’s humble opinion unfortunately is not enough to impact actual reality. It turns out that big boys do cry at space storms, although they desperately try to hide it, and it also turns out that big boys are savvy enough to hack his doorlock.

That ain’t hugely impressive. Yondu can’t be bothered to faff through five layers of security when he’s stumbling back to berth after a weeklong stake-out (or a booze fest, which happen with roughly the same amount of regularity and result in similar grogginess and misanthropy come morning). And anyway, where locks won’t hold, the high regard his men have for him will. Or, more accurately, the examples he’d made of the last idjits who’d stolen from him, currently decorating a small holodeck in the ship’s bowels that’d once been used as a recc-room.

For some reason, nobody goes there anymore. Yondu can’t see why. He ain’t no professional taxidermist, but you pick up some interesting tidbits in his line of work, and they won’t start to smell for another two years at least.

Peter had seen those examples too. He’d also thrown up on Horuz’s boots – which, thinking about it, is a more plausible reason for the big lug’s animosity. Yet (and this is the part that Yondu can’t fathom) despite having no illusions about who Yondu is, what he does, and what he will cheerfully do to Peter if he thinks for one moment that he’s a threat; the boy has still (still!) snuck into his room.

 


 

Yondu wakes up.

Of course he does. In fact, he snorts into consciousness and flails upright, eyes on the potential mutineer, earbuds dug out and lips pursed in a whistle – a whistle that, luckily for Peter, never sounds.

The cosmic tempest buffets the Eclector like an old bean tin dropped in whitewater. Yondu’s thankful that there’s no planets in the nearby vicinity; if there were they’d be bouncing off them. It’s eerily silent. At least, the storm itself is: a thousand tons of icy dust hurtle through the vacuum, winds pulsing in time with the neighboring quasar. The galleon ain’t so respecting of his need for sleep. Every rusty partition bends and creaks, every thick metal hull plate tests how far it can flex, screeching at their rivets and straining to join the maelstrom’s bacchanalian dance.

Yondu had visited the quartermaster when the first gusts hit. He stomped to the front of the line and demanded one of their few noise cancellation sets, shooting middle fingers at any of the queuing Ravagers who grumbled. Until Peter bust in, he’d been sleeping like a man swaddled in breezeblocks and sent to the bottom of the lake.

“Yondu?” the kid hisses. “You there?”

Like it’s gonna be anyone else. Yondu squints at Peter, who’s peering into the cabin with one cheek pressed to the comforting stability of the doorframe. He decides that shitty night vision can be added to his ever-growing list of the Terran’s faults. “You need something?” he croaks. Fuck knows. Perhaps the kid’s found a liquor stash tucked under his mattress and wants to share. Can’t hurt to hope.

Peter inches towards the warm red light of his implant. “Can I come in?”

No liquor in sight. The temptation to hurl the noise cancellation set at his head is only slightly outweighed by his trepidation about breaking it. Yondu sighs. “Ya hacked my door. You’re already in.”

“Uh, yeah. Sorry about that.” Peter shifts from boot to boot. The squeaking leather is drowned out by an arpeggio from a choir of banshees – that, or their internal combustion engine’s given out. Yondu doesn’t care. If it’s serious enough to need him to yell at people, some sod’ll come fetch him; if not, he’ll deal with it in the morning. Just as he’ll deal with this.

“Fuck off,” Yondu says, throwing himself face-down on his pillow and snapping the earbuds back into place. “You wake me up, I kill you.”

 


 

Peter lingers in the doorway, cringing at every metallic grind. He weighs the words – fuck off, which is pretty self-explanatory, versus you wake me and I kill you, which implies a tacit understanding that Peter is going to remain close enough to jeopardize Yondu’s slumber. As usual, he listens to the order he prefers.

The corridor behind him’s empty, the crew either strapped up in their quarters or rolling about the Bridge. Peter checks it again, just in case. Then tiptoes into Yondu’s cabin and shuts the door.

 


 

Their job’s at Galaxy’s Edge. The tracts between systems take a week to traverse even at lightspeed, and every third settlement is abandoned: frigid, frozen husks, tumbling eternally through deadspace. Main fleet’s a long way behind, chugging along the civilized starways, all five frigates of it. They’re picking off any Empire ship that strays from the aligned wormhole-paths between worlds. Yondu buzzes them once every three day-cycles to make sure they haven’t been dashed to smithereens by a rampaging Badoon squadron or all dragged off to the Kyln. He ain’t afraid of an uprising. And even if he were, what good would it do to breathe over their shoulders constantly? Just show he was worried, that was what. Best let ‘em get on with it and kill any would-be usurpers when he returns, rather than keep himself up at night.

Thus, now he’s addressed the Peter issue, he has no qualms about swiftly and surely descending into dreams.

 


 

Peter waits until Yondu’s breathing steadies. Of course, the one time the captain doesn’t snore is when the entire ship’s performing a continuous drum roll.

Releasing the doorframe takes every grain of Peter’s confidence – or so he thinks, clapping a hand over his mouth to stifle the whimper when the floor bucks under him and something directly overhead cracks. But he places his bootsoles down, trembling, one in front of the other. As he feels his way through the darkness, his fear starts to recede.

Noises, he tells himself. S’just noises. Like thunder. It can’t hurt you. Isn’t that what Mom used to say?

It can’t hurt you, because noise is music and music brings happiness, not pain. What you’re hearing is the music of the heavens, Petey. That’s the Spirit In The Sky, and he’s playing just for you.

Peter prises the palm from his mouth. The lips beneath wobble into a smile. His knees bump the bed, fingers overshooting, but he catches himself before he goes tumbling. Then squeezes himself carefully into that small, cozy space at the nest’s end, the one between Yondu’s feet and the piled blankets, which he had first claimed four years ago.

He’s grown, having to curl so his forehead doesn’t scrape Yondu’s knees. But he’s safe. The sky-music is loud and violent, but it’s bursting with energy and life. Now Peter’s not terrified of it he can hear its beauty. Not enough to risk sleeping alone, but enough to only need the cup of a hand over Yondu’s ankle to keep him tethered and content.

He’s warm. He’s safe. He’s gonna be fine.

 


 

Peter may have survived the night, but the morning’s a different story. He wakes up when Yondu kicks him in the face.

“Ow! Wha –“

Yondu, who hadn’t meant to break his nose, but had assumed that his calves were in the clutches of a dislodged blanket or a deepspace parasite, both problems that could be solved with a simple and swift application of foot, jolts from his doze. He sees Peter, cradling blood and dripping liberally over his feet. Then he growls, and kicks him again.

Well, okay. Doesn’t ‘kick’. More a gentle-ish shove. “The heck are ya doin’ in my –?” he begins. Then cuts himself off. He’s struck by the sudden and inescapable certainty that he’s been here before. Scoffing hoarsely, Yondu scrapes a palm across his stubble and starts again. “Quill. Scat.”

“Huh?” Peter gapes. It doesn’t do much for him, what with the glossy red blood caking his jaw.

“Ya heard. Fuck off. Shoo.” Then, when Peter still fails to move, he shuffles forwards, picks the thirteen year old up under the armpits – grunting, because when did he get so heavy? – and sets him, blood and all, on the floor. “Yer dripping on my legs.”

“Whose fault is that?” Peter asks nasally. But he tips his head back as Yondu guides him and squeezes the bridge of his nose.

“Yours. S’what happens when ya break into my cabin – heck, you oughta thank me for not whistlin’.”

The kid pulls a face – best as he can, wincing as it tugs on his twisted septum. But he doesn’t argue. “I was just scared,” he says instead. “I ain’t anymore.” Hell, if committing the crime was bad enough, trying to explain himself is worse. Yondu yawns, grabs him by the shoulders, and starts a tired frogmarch for the door. Damn. And he’d actually felt somewhat recuperated when he first opened his eyes. Point-five seconds in the presence of the youngest and most irritating member of his crew could sap the energy of a blue fucking supergiant though. Yondu’s morning-brain doesn’t stand a chance.

“Shut up,” he says, once he’s opened the hatch and pushed Peter through. A Ravager, coming to the end of his shift and stumbling with the giddy gait of one who’s been beaten off enough walls to get concussion, boggles for a moment at the sight of the captain, bare to his boxers, steering a bleeding kid in Ravager reds out of his room. Then decides he’s either hallucinating or doesn’t want to know, and staggers for the medbay. Yondu points after him. “Go see Doc, get yer face fixed. Then ya can come mend my lock.”

“You aren’t gonna make me get your breakfast?” Peter asks, head tipped back far enough that he can see Yondu behind him. His voice is all wet, and his eyes, while moist from the pain, aren’t threatening to leak – hell, he almost looks happy.

Good for fucking him. Yondu grimaces, rubbing his hands on his thighs. Terran juice’s itchy when it dries. “Nah, you’d just bleed on it. Thinkin’ about it, ya can come clean my quarters too.” It’s around this time that Peter realizes that the longer he dithers the more chores Yondu’s gonna pile on. He sighs and begins his trudge. Yondu calls after him – “And Quill?”

The figure – small, not as small as he used to be – pauses. “Yeah?”

Yondu leans back on the doorframe and looks him dead in the eyes. “Don’tchu ever do that again.”

 


 

Looking back, having the kid fix the same lock he’d busted wasn’t the wisest idea.

Chapter Text

Yondu heads down to the Hangar deck in preparation for blast-off, and fantasizes about filleting every kitten in the galaxy. Slowly.

It’s been a long month. After besieging a Skrull station (which had required the tragic sacrifice of several thousand units' worth of ammunition, thirty able recruits, and Yondu’s favourite dashboard ornament) the Ravagers have returned to being a haphazardly structured army of self-serving a-holes. One quarter’s assigned to general maintenance-slash-guarding-homebase under Horuz’s tender command. The rest buzz out on contracted missions: kidnapping the offspring of Xandarian fatcats, ransacking small satellite stations, liberating items of value from uncrackable vaults; so on and so forth.

Ravager jobs are organized centrally, but wages aren’t. The boys always put themselves forwards for the highest paying assignments, then Yondu trawls through and makes the necessary amendments: smacking rookies down to low-grade courier contracts, and assigning folks he don’t like to whichever roles are most dangerous while yielding the least dole. Distribution of work is as erratic as Yondu’s mood. Sometimes he shuffles the rosters for the hell of it. Sometimes he sends his Bridge crew planetside and lets a swarm of rookies try out the controls on-ship, just so he’ll have an excuse to yell at ‘em. And sometimes, he takes a job for himself.

M-ships swarm from the Eclector hangars every solar-cycle: a mass exodus of metal birds, each custom-painted and in varying states of cleanliness and disrepair. Every night-cycle, almost as many return.

Today, Yondu ain’t gonna be among them. Of course, he doesn’t know that yet.

 


 

It’s a solo, and a tough one. Nothing out of his league though: the sort of mission that’ll be a quick in-and-out, no time for faff or coddling teammates. Perfect for when you’ve been confined to ship for the past fortnight, because your first mate barricaded you in your office and refused to alter the exit code until you finalized the debt collecting schedule for the next galactic space year, and you need to kill something before you start picking off your own recruits. In short, Yondu ain’t at his friendliest. Thus, when Peter sprints from an adjoining corridor and grabs his sleeve, he only has himself to blame when Yondu almost shoves his arrow through his eye.

The Terran blinks at the glowing red spike. He’s displaying impressive bladder control. In fact, if Yondu didn’t know better he’d think Peter wasn’t scared. Peter looks past the arrow, performs a snappy salute, and belts at the top of his lungs: “Captain! Sir! Reporting for duty!”

Oh, like hell. Does the kid have a deathwish?

But Peter’s eyes are all shiny and determined. He’s got his pistol shoved in a holster stitched shoddily out of scraps of discarded and bloodstained uniforms from the bucket outside the quartermaster’s. The Ravager jacket droops from his shoulders, but not quite as much as it used to.

Yondu makes up his mind as Peter readjusts it over broadening back. Boy’s in a stubborn mood, and he’s on a schedule. If he snaps and stabs him, it’ll only mean less irritation in the long run.

“C’mon then,” he grunts. Strides onwards, pulling Peter behind as he whistles his arrow back to his belt.

The kid protests, until he realizes what’s been said. “I’ll be helpful! You know I will! Wait – what? Really?

Yondu spares him an exasperated glance. “Ya want me to change my mind?”

“No!” Peter releases his sleeve, smile threatening to burst off his face, and ups his pace to trot cheerfully beside him. “What’re we stealing?”

I’m stealing. You’re distractin’.” Because he’s plotted his course for a Nova-planet, and while Yondu’d never admit that Peter had had a good idea, the kid’s right about him being useful. Nova civilians go soft on brats. Which means that, in his opinion, the suckers deserve everything they get.

Peter’s face falls. “I’m always distracting.”

“Ya got that right.”

“Why can’t I take point, for once?”

“Because,” says Yondu, wafting a thumb over the print-reader – it’s coded to the hatch that deposits them direct into the M-ship pod, its bug-eyed windows gazing onto the vacuum of the Eclector spacedock – “You’re a kid. Like ya said.”

“I’m fifteen!” But when Yondu reminds him on what he’s missing out on – a day under Horuz’s rule – he shuts up, and stalks over to claim the copilot’s seat.

The interior of Yondu’s M-ship is cluttered but Spartan. It’s a paradox made possible by the amount of gubbins arranged over every available surface, in contrast with the complete lack of personalization regarding the spacecraft’s actual frame. Barely a lick of paint, and no additional installations. He’d even refused requests for a tape-deck. That doesn’t stop Peter from amping the volume on his Walkman. The boy props his headphones carefully on the dashboard, under the cheesy lil’ I <3 Xandar bauble dangling from the eject-lever overhead. Ooh Child begins, distorted and crackling but loud enough for them both to hear.

“Aw,” says Peter, making himself comfortable as Yondu cranks the ignition. He plucks the troll doll out of his pocket and sits it astride the bauble. Its ridiculous tuft of orange hair’ll be wavering over Yondu’s vision for the whole damn trip. “Don’t make that face, boss. This’s gonna be fun.”

 


 

It is not fun.

It is very far from fun. In fact, it’s so far from fun that they’ve both been arrested, and the only reason Yondu hasn’t been tossed in the Kyln is because he’d kept his arrow stowed and these private security dolts had taken one look at him (dressed in nondescript black undersweater and leather pants, mistakable for a grubby Kree refugee) and decided that a thief dumb enough to partner with a fifteen year old couldn’t be that nefarious.

…Thinking about it, bringing Peter might’ve been the smartest choice he’s made. Doesn’t change the fact that this is all his fault.

“This’s your fault,” Peter says from the cage besides him.

They’re back to back, bars between them. The portcullis of steel matches the other walls. All can be charged at the first sign of misbehaving. Their cages are suspended midair, one guard for the two of ‘em; sadly, that says more about the decency of this prison unit than their captors’ overconfidence.

Yondu’s estimated they’ve an hour before the boss finishes his dinner and comes to deal with them – at which point they’re fucked, because while a guard with good job security won’t have opened a bounty book in decades, the officer in charge of protecting the head of Xandar’s biggest noble family probably peruses them over breakfast. And if two pesky thieves don’t warrant a call to the Nova Corps, Yondu doubts he’ll ring them up for one big bad Ravager captain. Not even with the pretty sixty-thou stuck to his mugshot. There’s others out there who’ll pay more – only they’ll be less interested in locking him up than they will be in piece-by-piece evisceration.

Nope. They gotta get outta here. And soon.

Yondu’s so busy ticking off possible escape routes that it takes him a moment to realize Peter’s words are directed at him. Then he scoffs loud enough to make the guard jump. Thankfully, the woman doesn’t mash the shock-button on instinct.

My fault?” he seethes, slamming his shoulders against the bars so hard that Peter reverberates. “Did they hit yer head, or sumthing?”

“No,” Peter shoots back. His ram is equally ferocious, although lacking in bodyweight. “Just stole my Walkman!”

Well, that explains the pouting. At least Peter ain’t tearing up. Yondu returns their conversation to more important issues. “It were you that tripped the alarm. Howzat ‘my fault’?

Peter’s going a fabulous shade of fuchsia. “If you saw there was an alarm, why didn’t you tell me?”

Like he even needs to explain. “Because I told ya to stay put! Didn’t I say you were coverin’ distraction?”

“There was no one to distract! What was I supposed t’do? Go get myself picked up by the Nova Lost Child Service?”

Idiot. Yondu turns in a rustle of blood-crusted fabric – most not his; that which is, is leaking from his cut cheek rather than any part he’d desperately miss – and reaches through the bars to flick an ear. He misses, mostly because Peter sees him coming and jerks out of range, partly because his arm’s still stiff from being wrestled into cuffs. Least the guard had the decency to remove them once they’d been dumped in their cells. It’ll make taking a piss a helluva lot more pleasant. “Which means ya be my lookout! Ya chat up a pretty lady, ya start a fight, ya go find a bar that’ll serve underage. But you don’t follow me!”

“Ain’t like there’s a manual for space-pirating!” Peter snaps back. Then slants his eyes at the arrow sitting on the guard’s desk, confiscated with the rest of their armaments. They must have thought it was some sorta melee weapon. “You gonna get us outta here, or what?”

Yondu crosses his arms. “P’raps I oughta get myself out. If ya can’t follow orders, I sure as heck don’t want ya on my crew.”

“Aw, c’mon!”

He could. At least, he could whistle and pray arrow hit artery before the guard slammed the shock button and left them both twitching. It’s a crappy chance. If it’s the best he’s got, he’ll take it, but he’d rather spend what little time they have left calculating other options.

Like this one. Time to see if Peter’s as useful as he claims. “Oi! Honey – can ya c’mere a moment?”

The guard blinks. Strokes the shock button. “I think I’ll stay right here,” she says. Yondu affects unconcern.

“Sure thing, baby.” Then he settles down, back warm against Peter’s, and waits. Peter, who’s almost vibrating in anticipation –

“What’re you planning?”

Yondu elbows him before he can give the game away. “Shuddup.”

The silence persists a moment longer. Then the woman’s curiosity gets the better of her. “What do you want?”

Yondu scratches his nose. “Eh, nothin’.” Waits until she shrugs and resettles, hip propped on the dais, before speaking again. “Was jus’ wondering if ya could get the kid some grub. If he keeps naggin’ me…”

Peter, thankfully, is smart enough not to disagree. He does roll his eyes, but that complements the whole grumpy teenage aesthetic he’s got going on. Yondu waves towards him. “He’s one of them high metabolizin’ species: gets all pathetic if he don’t eat six times a day. And heck. He’s just a brat. I mean, c’mon. You got kids?”

If it’s maternal instinct he’s looking to capitalize on, he’s not going to get very far. The woman sneers. “No.” But her glare isn’t quite as harsh when it drifts from Yondu to Peter, and they both notice her hand waver where it hovers over the button. Her mind resolves – of course – on the sensible option. “He’ll survive until the boss’s meeting’s over.”

Foiled. Yondu grumpily clonks his implant back on the bars. “Well,” he tells Peter quietly. “Thas’ us fucked.”

The cool pressure of shoulders shifts against his. Yondu frowns as he feels Peter move, because this is uncomfortable enough as it is. If the boy’s acting as a backrest he could at least have the decency to stay still.

Then Peter slumps sideways and starts to seize.

 


 

The guard’s hand whips towards the button. It pauses, once she’s discerned Peter’s flailing to be involuntary rather than some jerky attempt at escape. “Uh,” she says. “Is he okay?”

He most definitely isn’t. Yondu, bewildered, is unable to do anything but stare as Peter convulses across the slatted steel.

Peter ain’t really a high-metabolism species, is he? Sure, Yondu’s not the best at keeping track of what his Terran can and can’t do – as evidenced by that time he’d assumed all civilized species could hold their breath at least five minutes, and wound up drowning him during a dodgy water-landing. But while Peter still puts a lot away, Yondu’s spent enough hours rearranging stock supplies to account for a growing Terran’s guts that he knows the ins and outs of his digestive capabilities as well as the Doc. Peter gobbles up a good double portion for every joule he expends, but he ain’t never started fitting before, not even when they’re short on rations and he’s had to go hungry with the rest of ‘em.

No, this is something new. Something unexpected. Which means that something’s seriously wrong.

He can’t reach Peter through the bars. That doesn’t stop him trying; he feeds his arm through, and keeps forcing until the steel’s biting his armpit and his rotator cuff’s about to pop. It ain’t enough. Blue nails scrape the sole of Peter’s boot. They almost buckle when Peter kicks, stiff muscles yanking his back into an ugly arch. Yondu retreats, swearing so loud that the guard’s finger inches towards the button again. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“What’s wrong with him?” the guard repeats. Her eyes are wide, whites showing, and the Xandarian buttercup of her skin has drained to pastel. “What the fuck is wrong with him?”

“I dunno, I dunno!” Yondu extracts himself from the trellis, gives his aching shoulder a rapid rotation, and shoves it back in to the joint. “Peter! Quit messin’! Dammit!”

The crash of skull smacking metal makes both of them wince. The guard jolts to action, scrabbling at the commlink on her belt – “Okay, okay. I’m gonna call in a doctor –“

“No time!” Yondu roars. He can’t reach him. He can’t reach him. “Get over here and hold his head before he cracks it open!”

Peter’s mouth falls open and he gurgles messily, teeth clacking to around his tongue. His eyes have swiveled up into his head, and the bloodshot bulges visible between his twitching eyelids are horribly, awfully blank. The guard’s indecisive pondering is cut short. She jumps off her platform, and doesn’t look back.

“C’mon, c’mon! Hurry up, woman!” Every vein in his arm is straining at the surface, parasitic slugs burrowed under the skin. Peter’s still an inch away, beyond the reach of his furthest cracked blue nail.

There’s blood slathering the boy’s chin. More stains his teeth when he coughs. Yondu imagines him choking on it. Terrans struggle to hold their breath for one minute, let alone five, and fuck, this ain’t no way to go. Kid ain’t seen half the galaxy, yet.

The guard stumbles to a halt beneath Peter’s cage, and reaches in to cushion the back of his head.

And Peter opens his eyes, looks directly at Yondu, and grins through a mouthful of red. “Get her,” he gurgles.

Yondu’s almost too surprised to whistle. He gets over it.

 


 

Three short trills later, the guard’s hemorrhaging and the locks on their cages are busted. The bottoms swing open, depositing them on the floor. Yondu lands on his feet. Peter doesn’t. He cusses mightily, but Yondu figures he deserves it. For his burning shoulder, of course. Not because he worried him, or nothing.

But as they leave – Peter offering a small and oddly sincere “Sorry” to the dying guard – Yondu clears his throat before muttering “Good plan,” almost too fast for Peter to catch. Yondu’s brutal when he takes out the next two guards, leaving them with sizzling holes in their stomach sacs so the acid eats them slow. Peter capers around him heedless of the violence, drooling blood from his bitten tongue through a beam brighter than M-ship headlamps in fog.

“You say something, captain?” he asks. “Didn’t quite catch it!”

Little pest.

Yondu whistles through the guards surrounding the exit and, with a grunt and a heave that tugs the tenderized muscle of his shoulder like it’s prepping it for a basting, bursts open the door. They spill onto a bustling high street. Once there, Yondu spares Peter a sideways glance, pupils shrunk to pinpricks under the sudden assail of light.

Funny. For a little pest, Peter’s not all that little anymore.

 


 

They straggle into the M-ship before remembering that they haven’t actually completed the mission. Thankfully, all guards are preoccupied hunting down the murderous escapees. It’s an easy task for Yondu to slip into a crawlable duct, guide his arrow carefully around the laser beams, hook the necklace they’ve been commissioned to steal by its slender chain, and whistle it into his waiting hands.

This time Peter stays on the ship. As a reward, Yondu fetches his Walkman.

Suffice to say though, by the time they reach the Eclector they’re both whacked. Yondu’s gotta take the necklace and stow it in his safe. It’s in his room: a forcefield tucked behind a retractable panel, which requires his voice, palm, and eyeball to open. No one’s gonna hack it (or if they do, he’ll be past caring). Least of all Peter. Yondu doesn’t kick up a fuss when Peter trails after him, yawning, and leans on his doorpost as the captain swears his way through the locks.

“What is it, anyway?” he asks.

Yondu waggles the necklace at him without looking. “Shiny, thas what.”

Technically, it’s not the necklace their client cares about. He’s after the empty setting. It’s nestled between the diamonds that cluster the silver thread like grapes on an overladen vine: some sorta fancy ore that’s purported to be strong enough to hold an infinity stone. The client claims it was built by Celestials, passed down through Xandarian noble lines for millennia. One of only six in the galaxy. But what some creepy lipless Outworlder knows about all that ain’t none of Yondu’s business.

Thing’s valuable, and seeing as the Outworlder asked only for the setting, the diamonds are his to do as he pleases with. Maybe he’ll have ‘em made into trinkets for his dashboard.

“Alright,” he says to Peter, once he’s gotten the order of identification right and the blasted forcefield’s finally cracked. “I’m headin’ for the Bridge.”

Peter yawns – Yondu has to tighten his jaw until his teeth creak to prevent himself from copying – and knuckles tiredly at an eye. “Ain’t you tired?”

Yes. But they’ve been gone a day longer than expected; it’s better to find out how much Horuz’s fucked up now rather than in eight hours, by which time all sorts of further catastrophes could have occurred. Joys of being captain. Yondu forces a snigger.

“I ain’t no weedy Terran. You fuck off and get some sleep.”

Really, he should know better. That was practically a challenge – or at least, a call to competition. When Yondu sets off, refusing to let a tired stagger interrupt his stride, Peter clamps down on his next yawn and follows.

 


 

So technically, they’re both to blame – Yondu for setting the challenge, Peter for rising to meet it. They wake up the next morning on the Bridge, in full view of everyone.

Kraglin looks like he’s trying very hard not to laugh. As always, he makes a poor job of it. “Mornin’, sir,” he says. Yondu wriggles upright in his chair, nose scrunching, and hits the side of his head until his vision ain’t so blurry. Then looks down. And groans at Peter, who’s slumped at his feet, cheek squished on Yondu’s knee and slobber liberally coating his pantleg.

“Aw heck.”

Perhaps it’s time he let the kid work solo.

Chapter Text

“Yondu!” That’s what he calls him now. Not captain. Never sir.

Somehow, it matters that Quill’s respect for him has dwindled. But it shouldn’t – so Yondu decides that his mind’s playing tricks on him, and stifles any feelings on the matter under a hearty dollop of amusement. He turns to meet him, mimicking the same aggrieved tone of voice: “Quill!”

Quill, for once in his life, gets straight to the point. He crosses his arms and stands up tall – because he is tall now; might even have an inch on Yondu, and growing to boot. Shoulda quit feeding him back when he was small enough to use as an armrest. “So when’m I getting shore leave?”

Oho. That’s what this is about.

Course, kid’s eighteen now. Giving precisely zero fucks for Empire sanctioned ages-of-consent, Yondu determined Quill mature enough to do as he pleased one and a bit years ago. He’d celebrated the occasion by dragging him to a bar in the middle of Knowhere, declaring him to be in Open Season, and ceasing his subtle deterrence (read: loud threatening) of anyone who offered to buy the kid a drink. Everyone on board’s too terrified to look at him twice though, just in case their captain was joking. So even if Peter was interested in pimple-chinned Ravager rookies, they’d all rather hop into an escape pod than his bunk. Given their lacking enthusiasm, Peter’s teenaged hormones can be sated on planetside alone. And, as Peter himself has been confined to ship for the past month, that hand of his must be getting mighty sore.

But, considering the circumstances, he ain’t got no one but himself to blame. Yondu returns his attention to important matters – rearranging his trinket collection.

Kraglin found him a glittery snowglobe last week. He’s outdone himself. It’s so twinkly that Yondu needs to heap the others around it so it don’t distract him when he’s working. Kraglin’s nothing if not a canny shit though, and he’ll find out if he chucks it, so Yondu’s makes do with building a tower of his largest and heaviest baubles in the hopes that the next time the galleon takes fire, they’ll avalanche and smash the damn thing. This hobby’s been going on for years. Its longevity is mostly due to Peter’s irritation when captain and first mate refuse to cue him in on the joke, and nowadays keeping its origins from him is more funny than the actual story of how all those shiny little figurines began to accumulate. Doesn’t stop Yondu from accepting the kid’s own contribution.

Sure enough, Peter spots a familiar orange tuft of hair. He swears and leans over him to pluck his troll doll from the mound. “Seriously? You nicked it? Again?”

Yondu gives his customary answer. “Shouldn’t make it so easy to steal then.” Then he goes right back to ignoring him.

Quill’s first M-ship (the Oberon; heck knew what it meant but Yondu’d quit bothering to remember Quill’s references within a week of acquiring him) had met its infernal demise four weeks prior, when he decided fiddling with his tape deck was more important than steering. Best thing to come outta the crash was that his walkthing had been damaged. It was mangling the songs so badly not even Quill could stand listening to them. But anyway – that Quill has the balls to ask for shore leave after that fuck-up is impressive. Or it might have been eight years ago, when Yondu was still wondering whether initiating the Terran had been a stroke of genius or the biggest mistake of his life.

Definitely the latter. Not because Peter isn’t tough enough for the Ravager way of life, as Yondu'd first suspected, but rather because he’s worked out that Yondu is, for some inexplicable reason, mildly more reluctant to kill him than the rest of his employees. And now that he considers himself an adult, he’s milking that inch of lenience for all it’s worth. Which means Yondu’s gotta come down harder on him if he wants to keep him in line. Or more importantly, if he wants to stifle those annoying murmurs that’ve been creeping through the crew lately: that he’s gone soft and thinks of the kid as his own.

That’s the stinkiest load of bullcrap Yondu’s ever had the misfortune to eavesdrop on.

But it don’t change the fact that it’s what the crew’s thinking – and not just the low-ranking nobodies he can off on a quiet night-cycle while the rest are none the wiser. Oh no. Horuz was the one to recall that story of how captain and kid had fallen asleep on Bridge; the one that’d been amusing at the time but is a whole lot more humiliating once you’ve seen the cheeky pic Kraglin snapped. Horuz is also an ugly, fat old windbag. His skull scarcely has space to harbor orneriness, beard follicles, and gossip all at once. But that doesn’t mean he don’t have influence, what with having been a Ravager since before Yondu wore red. When a guy like that starts complaining, you’ve got a problem on your hands. When a guy like that starts complaining because his captain’d had the audacity to look cute and cuddly rather than fuck-your-eye-sockets ferocious, the problem becomes a potential catastrophe.

Well. Horuz hadn’t actually said that. If he had, not even his less-expendable-than-most status would’ve saved him. But Yondu’s brain had supplied it. The overheard tête-à-tête between Horuz and Nav chief had left him contemplating how much he really needed a bo’sun. Or a first mate.

Luckily for Kraglin, he’s also the best damn haggler outside of a Xandarian auction house. That doesn’t stop Yondu from grimly studying his largest, heaviest trinket; a hunk of flawed volcanic diamond carved from an unstable moon, in whose indigo depths the galaxy twinkles in miniature. He balances it on the mountain’s peak, so that when the landslide starts it’ll be first to fall.

Peter eyes the snowglobe. “Uh, y’know that’s gonna break, right?”

“Countin’ on it,” Yondu growls. He barges Peter out of the way as he heads for the cabin door. “Quit bein’ so big, wouldya?”

“Give me shore leave,” says Quill smartly, sidling after him, “and you won’t have to worry about me getting in the way. I’ll be outta your hair.” Yondu gives him a look. “So to speak.”

The door makes a funny squeak when it clicks to, kinda like someone treading on a duckling in slow motion. Quill winces. But Yondu can’t be bothered to perform his usual inspection and decide how to upgrade the lock next. Kid breaks into his quarters whenever he feels the urge to pester him anyway. By now, Yondu’s gone through enough aggravation searching for a mechanism too complex for Peter’s clever fingers; he figures he might as well suck it up, call it training, and pretend this was his intention all along.

“Pay me back for that M-ship an’ we’ll talk about shore leave,” he says, not for the first time.

Not for the first time, Quill groans and reminds him that he’s paid for the damn spacecraft five times over in manual child labor. Also not for the first time, Yondu snickers and replies that that’s his own stupid fault for working for free.

But it’s certainly the first time that Quill dares keep bartering.

He lengthens his stride, grabbing Yondu by the shoulderplate. “Y’know, there’s factions where my skills’d be better appreciated,” he says. “P’raps I oughta desert.”

That’s new. Yondu peers back at him, taking in the pout that’s gradually solidifying into a clenched jaw, the angry set of his eyebrows, and the steely glint beneath that informs him Quill means every word. Then he laughs until he pulls a muscle.

“Heck,” he says, wiping tears. “Thas a good ‘un.”

 


 

He gives Quill his shore leave though.

Only one cycle of it, and a whole fortnight later – long enough that he can pretend it’s in reward for the boy’s part in their latest job. Kid’d done well, cracking that safe before the alarm tripped. Even he admits it. Not out loud or anything, although when he comes back to his quarters after debriefing the Bridge crew to find Quill spinning round and round on his chair, he mutters something about at least all that hackin’ of my lock paid off.

Quill’s up immediately, demanding a day to waste fucking barmaids on the nearest satellite. And Yondu, chucking the prize from hand to hand – egg of an extinct avian species, as commissioned by the Collector – shrugs, and grants it.

Peter’s so surprised he actually blurts “Thanks!” Then he remembers that he doesn’t owe Yondu anything, seeing as he never wanted to be pressganged into a Ravager uniform in the first place, and snaps his mouth shut.

Yondu laughs again. Then has to fumble to prevent the egg, along with two thousand units, shattering on the floor. “Use protection,” is all he says. “Ain’t no one footing the bill if you come back needin’ venereal vacs.”

 


 

Peter doesn’t catch an STI. He does however catch a particularly brutal strain of Xandarian flu, one not covered by the injections Yondu’d punched him full of when he first arrived, to prevent his immune system from buckling under exposure to a broad and unhygienic galaxy. Judging by when the first shivers hit, it takes under a week to incubate. Just enough time for Peter to complete a solo and proudly tell Yondu it won’t be long before he can support himself, before eating his own words when he keels over next day on the Bridge.

“Rest, fluids, quiet,” says Doc, flashing his light-pen in Peter’s eyes. “He’ll be fine.”

Peter, snot dribbling from every visible orifice, doesn’t look convinced. But he can’t talk because his tonsils are the approximate size of hand grenades. The one time he tried he sounded so ridiculous Yondu had been cackling too loudly to hear what had been said. Given that his voice is rougher than gargled gravel on his good days, it was probably ‘hypocrite’. But whatever. He’s got a drippy teenaged Terran on his hands, one who looks even more pathetic than usual.

And pink. Very, very pink. Yondu tilts his head at him. “He meant to be that color?”

Doc’s turned back to his other patients. Given the bust-up they’ve escaped, all are in dire need of his attention. But when the captain came barging through with a sneezy kid hanging off his shoulder, he was smart enough not to argue. “It’s a fever. Capillaries widening under the surface of the skin.”

Curious, Yondu presses the pad of his thumb into Quill’s cheek, as hard as he can. Quill burbles and dazedly swats, but doesn’t do any damage. When Yondu withdraws, the blue digit leaves a pale print for a split nanosecond before the blood swamps back in. “Huh. I need t’worry about this?” Then freezes. “Not that I’m, uh –“

Doc decides now would be an excellent moment to drop his mediscanner. The clatter is loud enough that when he retrieves it he can justify asking: “Did you say something?”

“Just askin’ when he’ll be back on his feet. Ain’t worth much to me on bedrest.” He even makes it sound smooth.

Doc wrestles a gag between the first patient's teeth and starts digging shrapnel out of his shoulder with a pair of alcohol-dipped tweezers, shouting over the muffled screams – “Two days, for the fever to break! If it takes any longer, or tops 104 degrees, shove him in an ice bath and come fetch me!”

Paying no attention to the unfortunate Ravager, whose wrists are straining at the leather straps on the table and whose companions are clutching their own wounds in nauseous trepidation, Yondu frowns as he pieces together the meaning behind Doc’s words. “Wait – ya mean he ain’t staying here?”

If he hadn’t been busy levering scorched metal out of the man’s bones, Doc would’ve rolled his eyes. “Rest, fluids, and quiet. Now please – I need to work.”

There’s few and far between who Yondu lets get away with talking to him like that. Okay – not so far between if you count Quill, who’s roughly six feet away. But you don’t argue with medics. At least, not if you don’t want the painkiller stock to be mysteriously depleted next time you stagger in with a hole in your belly. Speaking of, whatever the poor sod on the operating table’s done to deserve Doc’s wrath, Yondu hopes it was worth it.

He gets Quill off the bed through a combination of swearing and careful leverage. Boy’s gone all floppy. While his weight ain’t a problem his enduring attempts to liquefy are. Eventually, he hooks one limp arm over his shoulder and grabs Quill by the waist, setting off from the medbay at a brisk enough walk that Quill’s dragging feet can’t keep up. He winds up using his bootcaps to dust the floor.

Yondu glowers at anyone who dares look their way. He’s so busy making sure that anyone who spots them knows at a glance that he ain’t doing this of his own volition, that he completely misses Quill’s dorm and smacks himself in the forehead when he realizes he’s drawn to a halt outside his own damn door.

What the hell though. Doc said he needed quiet – ain’t like he’s gonna get that with rowdy bunkmates above and below. S’just one night, right? Once the fever breaks he can dump him to sweat it out on his lonesome. Plus, after the effort it took to lug him this far without tripping, Yondu ain’t gonna retrace his steps.

“Hope ya don’t mind the floor,” he grunts as he shoulders open the door, because certain rules about giving up his bedspace still apply. He’s kind enough to donate a couple of blankets though. He bundles his trenchcoat up for good measure, slotting it into the space between the chilly metal and Quill’s blazing forehead.

Boy’s too dry for being that hot. Heck, Yondu’s used to Peter being several degrees his cooler; having the press of his skin feel more like touching a sun-warmed hull plate than a corpse is unnerving. When that’s settled and Peter’s coughing feebly into his fur-lined collar – and he can give his coat a full steam and sterilize after this, seeing as his species leak germy secretions like unplugged bathtubs – Yondu checks his chronometer and figures it’s too late to faff about with stock rotation. And if sponging snot off a snivelly Terran means he don’t have to deal with it in the morning either, well, that’s a bonus.

“Alright,” he says, clapping his hands for darkness. He knows his room well enough to shuffle to the nest blind, and sinks into it with no little relief. Not every day you watch your pet Terran collapse, after all. At least only Kraglin’d been on Bridge at the time, otherwise Yondu would've had to whistle at anyone who had something smart to say about him rushing over and smacking Peter’s face until he was coherent enough to croak that he wasn’t helping. “G’night. Ya need anything, say now.” Quill makes a crackly noise that might, in some part of the universe, be translatable. Yondu yanks off his undershirt. He kicks it to join his pants at the nest’s lower lip, stretches out, and sniggers. “Yeah, s’what I thought.”

If he needs to piss in the night, he might trip over the shivery sod. But other than that, Yondu’s got enough trust in the Doc to be reassured that Peter ain’t in no danger. Any discomfort’s just karma, biting him in the ass for that charred wreckage of an M-ship that’s turning slow somersaults in an asteroid field off Betelgeuse.

 


 

Peter’s cold.

Peter used to be cold a lot, but he’s pretty well adapted to the Eclector’s malfunctioning temperature gauges now, and has invested in several sets of stretchy thermal underclothes that keep him toasty through anything up to a coolant leak. Sometimes, if it gets real chilly, he activates his space helmet and lets the forcefield wash over him, soothing his goosebumps and reflecting as much of his bodyheat back onto him as it lets escape. Do that now though, and he’ll risk gumming up the lenses next time he sneezes. And – well, there’s another solution. One that’s snoring quietly in his nest. One who if he’s not infected by now isn’t likely to be after a quick round of snuggling (bed sharing; Peter and Yondu do not ever, would not ever, snuggle) and who, as experience proves, doesn’t perceive Quill as enough of a threat to shoot in his sleep.

If only he can walk that distance without falling on his face.

Peter shoves two fingers up his nose to stifle the sneeze. Draws them out, moaning, and wipes them on Yondu’s coat. Then huddles the blankets tighter around him, and arduously struggles to sit, kneel, and stand. The latter lasts under a second. The shadowed room – what little he can see of it – spirals like the matter’s being siphoned into a miniature black hole. Peter finds himself back on his knees rather sooner than he’d anticipated.

The crash isn’t hugely noisy, but he holds his breath nevertheless. Releases it to cough. Then holds it again.

Yondu garbles a few of those weird, nonsensical clicks. But his implant’s not glowing. His eerie red eyes remain shut. Peter’s measured exhale is broken by another aborted sneeze, and he makes his way to the bunk at a steady crawl. The rim might as well be Everest. It takes him what feels like the good part of an hour to heave himself up and over, torso first, then legs clumsily rolling after. He counts himself lucky that he doesn’t wind up on top of Yondu, which, heavy sleeper or not, would wake him, and probably result in a stint in the brig regardless of how sick he is. Jackass.

But eventually, Peter makes it. His muscles ache from the strain – which is all kinds of pathetic; but Yondu’s here and Yondu’s… not warm. Which is odd. But unlike the floor, at least he’s not actively giving him frostbite. Peter shivers again. He wriggles until his head’s in Yondu’s armpit, rearranging the outflung blue legs until he can tuck along the line of Yondu’s side. Given where his nose is, it probably doesn’t smell all that great, but right now he’s too stuffed up to care.

Peter snorts a snotty bubble, grumbles as Yondu twitches and kicks him in the shin. He drops his fever-heavy arm over his waist so he can’t roll away.

 


 

Not often Yondu wakes up overheating. Not unless the engines are malfunctioning or they’re all risking death-by-solar-flare. First thing he does is expand his senses, pushing outwards from his implant, wondering if the yaka-link will pick up on any radiation leaks. There’s nothing, besides the usual cosmic buzz; atoms splitting and fusing in the heart of far-off stars. He can’t smell anything out of the ordinary either – yet he could swear that his right side’s been doused in gasoline and set alight.

He oughta do something about that.

Groaning, Yondu sits up. Or tries to. Another strip of fire is resting over his belly, weighty as an anvil. When he sleepily elbows it off the relief lasts only a moment. Then it flops back down onto his solar plexus, punching the air out of him.

“Oof –“

Whatever that strip is, it moves, coiling around him like the muscles of a constrictor, and for a dazy, half-awake moment, Yondu’s transported back to the Centaurian jungle.

Snake.

Tensing, he tightens his abdominal panel as best he can, because if he allows any give the critter’ll refuse to relinquish it. He licks his lips in preparation to whistle. Then Quill gives his armpit a frail head-butt, and says “Quit moving” in a voice that’s raspier than his.

Yondu pinches the bridge of his nose. Then whistles anyway.

That wakes Quill properly. “Shit! Shit – Yondu?”

“Who’d ya think you were huggin’?” Yondu spits. “Whoever gave ya this bug, I sure as hell ain’t her.” He leads the arrow in a spinning dance around both of their skulls, a threat display clear enough to percolate the inch of inflamed sinus between Quill’s face and his brain. But in the glow of his implant, he can tell the kid’s not focusing on it. When whistling it to hang an inch in front of Quill’s white-ringed pupil yields no better effects, he mutters a “shit” of his own and plucks it out of the air.

“M’sorry,” Quill burbles, as Yondu claps for the lights then presses the back of his hand to his forehead.

“Shit,” Yondu says again. It’s about as eloquent as he gets at this time of the morning, but there’s no need to elaborate: ‘shit’ pretty much encapsulates all he needs to say. Quill’s even hotter than before. Two days, the doctor said? Fever’d better break soon, or he’ll evaporate. Yondu snaps his fingers. “You need. Uh. Fluids, right? Water.” Peter sneezes miserably at him. “And a towel. Thas fuckin’ gross.”

“M’sorry,” he says again. Reaches for the buds of his walkthing, then shudders when his finger’s close on empty air. “Where’s my… where’s my…”

Of course he’d be asking after that. Yondu warily watches his lip for any sign of wibbling. Fever or not, if Quill cries at eighteen, Yondu’s justified in firing him. Possibly out an airlock. “Broke, remember?”

Peter’s chin makes a minuscule quaver, but he controls it. “Oh. Y-yeah. Think you could get it for me anyway?”

Great. Now he’s stuck playing nursemaid. Yondu pulls away, frowning when the wash of air over his bared back registers as cold rather than comfortable – but that’s what he gets for conking out hard enough to let a feverish Terran get the jump on him. “I’m getting ya water,” he says, hoisting Peter’s ankles to rescue his pants. “Don’t get greedy.”

“Please.”

“What’s in it for me? Then I gotta listen to you pumping yer daft beats all day.”

“I’m not gonna turn it on. Jus… jus hold it. Please, Yondu. Please.”

Yondu pauses, halfway through burrowing into his shirt – why are there never enough elbow holes when you’re tired? – and squints under the thick fabric to find Peter wilted over the nestside. He stares at him. Well. As close to him as he can get, what with his dizzy vision. Huffing, Yondu tugs the shirt down. “Better you hug that than me, I guess. Don’t never say I didn’t do nothin’ for ya.”

He stomps out the door before the words can register, so he doesn’t see Peter’s dumb pink face split into a grateful smile.

 


 

Quill’s true to his word. Doesn’t even hum – not that he’s got the voice for it at the moment. It’s almost painful watching him force himself to stay silent as Yondu plows through that stock arrangement he’s been putting off and allocates the next round of contract jobs, taking the odd call and leaving threatening messages on the commscreens of any who’ve skimped on payment. He even stifles his sneezes. By the time Yondu’s finished, he’s almost forgotten he’s there.

He creaks upright, fancying a stretch of the legs and a trip to the practice rooms before dropping in on the engines for a surprise inspection – he ain’t been down there in a while, and it never does a captain good to go long without ensuring his fission core’s hot enough that he won’t be waking up to a hold overflowing with radioactive waste.

Quill coughs. Just once. He swallows it guiltily, glancing from beneath a fringe dampening with the first hints of breaking fever-sweat, to check on his reaction.

Yondu raises eyebrows at him. Then scoffs, and marches over to shake the canteen he’s left in guzzling distance, the one which Quill’s neglected in favor of cradling his busted walkthing. “This better be empty by the time I get back,” is all he says.

If he gives Peter shoreleave at the next tech spot once he’s fighting fit again, and mentions the name of a geek who he knows to be a whizz at all that vintage analogue era, pre-plasma crud… Well, that’s his business.

Chapter Text

There's not a man among them who hasn't done bad shit. Yondu more than most: rape, murder, theft, punting some spoilt brat's yappy puppy-thing off a cliff – only one of those crimes ain't taking up space on his rap sheet.

But it doesn't keep him up at night. Nothing keeps him up at night (including, to his consternation, Terrans galumphing into his bed uninvited). Heck, even if he had nightmares – which he doesn't – they sure as hell wouldn't stop him from crashing after a hard day's work. Quill has trouble sleeping sometimes. But that's because Quill's an idiot. And buried under that hard-boiled gunslinging swashbuckler that Yondu's slaved so hard to cultivate, there remains the shreds of a conscience.

Yondu's done his best to eradicate it. Really, he has. Went through a phase of enacting every atrocity that crossed his mind when the lad was little, for the sole purpose of mocking Quill's reactions. The thought behind it was honest enough. He needed to prove that the galaxy wasn't the fun and sparkly place Quill dreamed it to be. What better way than up close and personal?

(Not, as it turned out, his best plan. All Yondu got out of it was two wailing kids, a very angry letter from the Galactic Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lower Life Forms, and dog-blood on his boot.)

By the time Quill's twenty-something, he's as good as given up. He lets the kid do as he pleases, so long as it don't cost him too much in broken machinery, or angry Gravarian Dukes hunting them halfway across the galaxy and demanding Quill marry their daughter. By his reckoning the boy's old enough to choose what he wants to do with his life – Yondu drops in on him only to deliver constructive criticism or gentle encouragement. And if that choice includes spending his first post-job hour of freedom brooding on the observation deck, searching the vast expanse between stars for an unspoken purpose, well - far be it Yondu's place to argue.

Course, that doesn't mean he can't ask questions. "Whatcha mooning at, Quill?" he booms, smacking him between the shoulderblades. Quill hasn't heard his approach – too engrossed ogling the void to be tipped off by the rest of the Bridge crew, who snicker as they watch their captain sneak up in his blind spot. He chokes and slams against the glass. "Whoops," says Yondu, entirely unapologetic. "S'what ya get for not bein' aware of your surroundings. Sorta stupid'll get you dead out there."

Quill, rubbing the new bruise, scowls. Yondu raises his eyebrows. Boy's gotten better at looking intimidating. "Good thing I'm not out there then," he spits as he rights himself. He looks all kinds of pissed off, for some reason; his face has turned this funky shade of purple. "Good thing I'm home, where I can relax and not have to worry about people jumping me, because I'm with my crew. Who I trust."

And he shoulders past Yondu, actually barging him back a pace, and storms away.

For a moment, Yondu's stuck staring at his retreating reflection in the viewport. Weren't Terran grumps supposed to be confined to the teenage years? Then he remembers that his crew've witnessed one of his routine pick-on-Quill plots go awry, and from their perspective, his silence might be construed as defeat. Can't have that.

He turns and stomps after. Has to make his stride a bit brisker than comfortable, because Quill's got long legs nowadays; with his headstart, he makes it to the end of the long, low hangar before Yondu's made it halfway. Yondu decides to impart some more wisdom, cupping his hand to his mouth and bellowing above his Navs' bowed heads: "Trust'll get ya dead too! Ain't I taught you that?"

"Oh yeah," growls Quill, slamming the pressure pad for the door. "Better than anyone. Ask them Kree, if you don't believe me."

"Yer still pissed about that?" Yondu pauses, genuinely surprised. It's been a week. Surely that's enough time for Quill to prise out his wedgie? But Quill's about to exit the Bridge, and Yondu can't justify chasing him round the Eclector's cramped industrial labyrinth, not while he's supposed to be overseeing maneuvers through the same asteroid field that'd claimed Quill's Oberon so many years ago. "Don't you walk away from me!" he roars.

The door's closing though, and Quill's already gone.

________________________________________

 

Yondu takes Quill off active duty. Scrubs for a week, starting that same morning. It ain't cruel, not by his standards, but the boy gripes about it something rotten. Even brings up that old shtick about leaving. Bullshit, of course – Yondu's done better by the brat than anyone else.

He still finds himself sitting on his bed that night, chin in one hand and power core in the other, wondering if it was worth it. Thing's valued high on the black market. Can operate a ship the size of the Galleon indefinitely, no tricky fission engines that threaten to combust every other fortnight, or glossy black solar panels that dent and crack under the endless pummel of space debris. Fuck knows how the power core works – Yondu sure as hell don't, but it ain't his place to ask. All he knows is that it’s worth money, that his crew were watching, and that when it came down to a choice between Peter and prize, the outcome was inevitable.

It ain't about trust, he tells himself. He never swore Quill nothing. No reassurances he'd be safe, no vows to protect him. Certainly no oaths of loyalty. Course, he asks for plenty in return – but that's different. He's captain. Quill's expected to do as he says, watch his back and ensure no one puts a knife in it. Nowhere in that contract does it suggest Yondu's duty-bound to return the favor.

Nah, trust ain't a factor. And if Quill thinks it ought to be – well, he's only got his fool Terran sentiment to blame.

________________________________________

 

Peter does not blame himself.

Peter considers blaming himself, because Peter is an open minded and well-adjusted young space pirate, and Peter's masculinity isn't so fragile that he needs to uphold a hardass front 24/7 to reassure himself that he still has a cock. But this time, no matter the angle from which he scrutinizes that day – and he tests many, scoping every inch of the scene from the viewpoints of Kree, crew, and captain – there's one solitary conclusion to be drawn.

This isn't his fault.

Because, when a guy's pretty much hand-reared you, there's this tiny smidgeon of expectation that he won't up and leave you for dead.

Sure Yondu's threatened it plenty of times. Eating him's tamest of the bunch; Peter's accumulated a veritable hoard of death-threats. But until last week, Peter was sure those comprehensive explanations of how Yondu was going to slaughter him would never be enacted.

He's part of the crew, isn't he? A respected part, at that. Kraglin lets him handle M-ship maintenance without consulting the manual. The Navs turn to him when they need a piss break, and they trust that he won't poke any buttons he doesn't recognize – not unless he's really bored. Even Horuz doesn't crumble pepper in his hair and greet him with 'looking tasty' anymore (although that could have more to do with Peter promising to heave him out the airlock next time he’s ambushed with condiments).

In fact, it seems like the only person on board who doesn't value him is Yondu.

That had been cinched perfectly seven days ago, when Peter made a wrong turn and found himself facing the nasty-end of a necroblaster. And rather than turning back for him, or waiting one goddam minute – precisely the amount of time it took for Peter to swipe the sucker's feet from under them and reverse the stakes – Yondu had blasted off, abandoning him to the Kree infantrymen closing on all sides.

Yeah, he'd escaped. And yeah, one of them had called him Star Prince (it wasn't 'Star Lord' but at this early stage in his outlaw-career, Peter took what he could get). That didn't make up for the fact that Yondu took all of five seconds to scope the situation and decide Peter was done for, and left without looking back.

Truth be told, Peter isn't surprised. He knows the rules: job comes almost-foremost, with reputation ahead of it. When there's a whole bunch of malleable-minded rookies watching, expecting Yondu to put the whole operation on hold so he can haul Peter to safety is like expecting a bilgesnipe to adopt a kitten rather than use it as an appetizer.

But he didn't have to make leaving look so easy.

Peter drags himself up the bunk ladder, smearing the rungs with oil. He's been sponging spills from the engine deck for the last four hours, and suspects Horuz threatened the rookies under his command into clumsiness, because they've been flinging fuel around faster than he can mop it up. His bellyflop into his cot is inelegant, but well deserved.

Picking at the patches stitched around his elbows (and pretending they're Yondu's eyeballs) turns out to be more therapeutic than glaring at the stained underside of the bunk above, so he decides to dedicate an hour or so to that, hoping that by the end of it he'll be drowsy enough to put his night shift to its intended use. The jacket sleeves have been turned down one time too many. Their edges are frayed and tatty; he'll have to look into getting a new outfit. Peter fondles the seam, tough tacking stitches indenting his callouses.

This is his first jacket, the one he'd been shoved into when he arrived. It's been repaired, sliced, diced, lengthened, modified almost beyond recognition, and where once it dwarfed him it now strains tight about the seams. A physical memento of how he's grown. Part of him wants to hang onto it for posterity – but what does he care? Sentiment's stupid, right?

Rip.

Peter looks at his sleeve, and finds the cuff dangling by a thread.

"Aw, fuck this." He snaps the stitches, messy and ferocious. Then balls the torn leather strip and lobs it for the center of the dorm so that no one'll know whose bunk it's come from. Digging the heels of his palms into his eyes, Peter lets out a single, frustrated growl. What's he doing, laying around and moping like a kid? Better he take that smug blueberry's advice to heart and work on growing up a bit. And if Yondu's idea of a responsible adult is one who doesn't give a shit about anything but themselves and their profit, well… Peter sure hopes he can handle what he's wrought.

His mind darts back to the Kree battleship. To the weight of the power core, humming in his grip. It'd died when he'd unplugged it, noise fizzling in conjunction with the dimming purple lights as the alarm sirens raised their mournful blare. But it had left a warm imprint when he tossed it to Yondu, like the compression of a hand around his.

How much had Yondu said it was worth again?

…And how many times has Yondu let Peter watch him bungle the security codes embedded in his forcefield safe?

________________________________________

 

It takes an hour to rustle up a plan – or at least, a concept. By then their night shift's well underway. Yondu'll be snoring in his nest, even if he stayed up late to dish discipline on anyone who dared laugh when Peter stomped off Bridge (vindictively, Peter hopes that some did. And that they continued to do so, loudly and unapologetically, long after his footsteps had faded.)

He's got it all planned out. Handprint, eyeprint, voice. Yondu's not gonna relinquish the first two, not easily, but the latter should be easy to forge. The a-hole leaves Peter enough jeering messages that it takes Peter less than five minutes to clip together an amalgamation close enough to the codeword to activate the lock. He'll get the rest on the go.

Steal from Yondu. Contemplating it's a rush by itself; that he might actually get away with it is an endless high with no end in sight. Peter's giddy, buzzing, electrified. He's gonna do it. He's gonna break the Ravager code – Steal from everyone, but not each other. And Yondu can't even be mad, because he's the one who's taught Peter that rules are made to be broken, and that anyone who gets close is a weakness waiting to be exploited.

It's time Peter got to exploiting one of his own.

His hands pat his thighs, a percussive accompaniment to an internal rendition of Escape. He can't risk blasting it through the headphones, not when he needs to keep his wits about him. He can't help but hum along though. "Shut up," groans someone from the bunk stack on his right. A boot crashes into his crown, smelling strongly of fungus and blue cheese, but Peter bears the blow with grace.

There'll be no coming back. Not once this is over. He might as well relish the swearing that follows him as he steals out of his dorm mid night-shift, wincing at the screech of door over unoiled runner. Yeah, whole room's seen him go. But disappearance is enough of an incrimination; it doesn't matter if he's left witnesses to deny him an alibi, not if he doesn't plan on being caught. The wristwatch is all set up, Yondu's gravelly "Thanos's Ballsack", a password indeterminable from the list of cusses reeled out whenever he has to struggle through his own security, ready to be played at a push of a button. Peter's heart pumps pure adrenaline.

Tonight, he leaves the Ravagers.

Tonight he becomes a free man.

________________________________________

 

Only he doesn't.

Not because Yondu catches him, or because Peter wusses out. But because by the time he's picked the disk from the middle of the lock and twitched the tumblers into their pinholes one by one, emulating the release code sent when the pressure pad recognizes Yondu's biosignature in the way he's done a half-million times before, it's not to the usual scene: Yondu taking up as much space as possible and exuding a humid combination of snores, warmth and body odor.

Instead, Yondu's twitching like he's been tasered. He shudders against the piled blankets with forearms curled protectively over his implant. And from the sounds he's making, he's hitting the climax of a nasty nightmare.

Peter's first thought is shock. His second is disbelief. His third is a nauseating twist of fear, because if there's crap in this galaxy that can scare Yondu Udonta, Peter doesn't have a prayer.

But that's quitter talk. Peter seals the door, soundproof shell sucking all air from the hollow walls. Then shudders when he realizes that should Yondu wake, he'll kill Peter for seeing him like this before he even thinks of punishing him for theft.

Hell though. He's come this far.

Peter steps forwards. His foot creaks on the metal parqueting, a sound which has never roused Yondu before. This time though it sparks a whole-body flinch, and the freaky, rapid-fire clicking that's rattling from his throat steadies into speech, accent thicker than ever: "Don't – don't…"

He doesn't care. He doesn't. For all he knows, this is a subliminal ploy capitalizing on his sentiment. Peter steels himself, lifts his boot – another squeak, another brutal wince from the blue figure on the bed – and sneaks towards the forcefield. His mind turns over the practicalities of the job ahead, and he almost manages to convince himself that it's not in an effort to ignore the way Yondu's thrashing his head from side to side, cocooned between his forearms as if he's fending off an invisible attacker.

Voice is the primary level on the lock. But would it be better to wake Yondu first? He'll have to eventually, and if Yondu's startled into consciousness by the sound of his own garbled speech, he'll have a chance to whistle. Better Peter rouse him now, and find something to shove between his teeth so his captain won't have a chance to overpower him before Peter's got him pinned with a pistol against his head.

And it'll stop him saying "Don't," to whoever it is he's seeing in his dream.

He knows, logically, that Yondu can't know he's here. Even if his brain's picked up on the intruder, the fight-flight response has been translated into the context of a relived memory, or a battened down subconscious fear. He knows, equally logically, that Yondu will have some of those, however adamantly he ignores them during his waking hours. But that means that he also knows Yondu ain't a complete heartless git. Right now, on the cusp of betraying him, that's not something Peter wants to be contemplating. Easier to think of his captain as the asshole who'd abducted him and proceeded to boss him about for a decade and a half, than this: a short scarred blue guy, shivering and sweating, alone in his bed.

Peter distracts himself searching for a decent gag. Light streams from Yondu's implant. The nightmare must be vivid; Peter's only thankful he doesn't sleep-whistle. He locates his discarded leather pants as the cabin is saturated again and again with powerful beams of ruby, and yanks the belt free of the loops with a grimace. "Ugh. When was the last time you washed these? They've covered in Kree blood!"

Predictably, the answer is "Don't." It's small, the quietest sound Peter's heard Yondu make outside of a stake-out. And, to his amazement, it's followed by a cracking and desperate – "Don' hurt Quill."

Peter looks at the belt. At Yondu: jaw clenched, jagged teeth grinding as he snaps at an unseen foe. Then sighs and drops it to rest on his arrow holster, tossed over the back of the chair.

The instrument's dull and grey. Must be some kinda failsafe to keep it from activating while Yondu's in the land of nod – Peter flicks it, listening to the tinny ring, and watches Yondu squirm around the nest, squeezing his temples like he can exorcise the nightmare using pressure alone. He jerks in time with his flashing implant. Red light washes his skin in purple, scars silvered like scratches on an M-ship keel. "Don' hurt Quill," he slurs again. But now fear's replaced by familiar fury, and Peter imagines Yondu reliving that battle, grinding every Kree beneath his heel.

He bites his lip. Thinks of the power core, of a bank account filled with more credits than he's ever known. Vacillates back and forth: safe or captain, captain or safe…

"Don't hurt Quill," says Yondu. And then, impossibly: "Please."

Aw, fuck. If this is a trick, if Yondu's fully conscious behind those ticking, scrunching eyelids, then his performance is goddam Oscar-worthy. That means Peter's got blackmail material should Yondu try and fling him in the brig. It's the most assurance he's going to get – and if Peter's gonna abandon his plans of freedom (for now), he sure ain't spending his remaining years in chains.

Peter releases a pent up breath, and steps away from the safe. Turns for the door. Then –

"Quill. Quill – issat you?" Busted. But when Peter turns, stomach swimming on level with his boots, he finds Yondu's eyes shut. His head's turned towards him, but he's still prostrate on the piecemeal mattress, still breathing like he's drowning on dry land. "Don' go," he mutters, and stretches a blind hand in his direction.

________________________________________

 

Peter's always liked napping on his side, and Yondu on his back. This means that whenever he embarks on illicit Ravager-hugging adventures, they wind up in some variation of the same position: Yondu passed out in the middle of the nest and Quill sandwiched to his side. However, as Peter gets bigger, the space available to Yondu's left and right shrinks in comparison.

Which means he's gotta improvise.

________________________________________

 

Yondu wakes up.

Well. He opens his eyes. That's a start. Everything's woolly, as if he's been up half the night – but unless he's a closet somnambulist, he's certain he's slept like a log. Must be getting old.

Yondu yawns, orientation swimming. He frowns as his mind informs him he's flat-out and his inner ears disagree. He's on his side. Why is he on his side? He never sleeps on his side, not unless…

Yondu tenses.

Someone's plastered against his back. Someone whose hair's tickling the top of his implant; someone who he's got no recollection of going to bed with.

He ought to get on with murdering them right away. Busy day, and all. But his whistle's cut off by the flood of waking awareness, which reveals a throat rawer than usual and skin clammy like he's been rolling in dew. A leatherclad arm's flung over his waist, sleeve torn at the cuff; it slips on his sweat as he breathes. Yondu jolts it when he tries to cough the itch from his voicebox. His face feels tight around the eyes, as if he gurned into the wind and got stuck that way, and if he didn't know better he mighta thought he was getting sick.

Of course, that's impossible. He ain't no Terran. Germs are as scared of him as every other sane organism in the galaxy. Nope, he musta been dreaming about screaming out the engineers again. Or else he's been fighting, and got smacked in the head hard enough to make him forget it. Or he's just hungover.

He feels the guy grumble more than he hears it – and it's definitely a dude; shit, he ain't been that drunk in a while. Whoever it is though, they're fully clothed, and Yondu ain't aching nowhere he's not expecting to, so he crosses both 'attacker' and 'one night stand' off the list. Few years back and he wouldn't have thought twice before whistling anyway, just to cover his ass. But if he throws his back lugging a corpse about, he'll be giving Peter and Kraglin ammunition for their age cracks.

First thing's first. Yondu worms his elbow under the heavy arm, testing where to aim the blow. Once he gets Mister Big Spoon offa him, Yondu can look him in the face and work out whether bribing will work better than threats, and if he needs to swear off alcohol for the next decade. Thankfully, that horrendous prospect is waylaid – as Quill yawns, squeezes him tighter, smacks his lips, and mumbles groggily: "Mornin'."

It's been several years since the last incident. Yondu ain't counted; he lost track of the boy's self-proclaimed 'birthdays' many solar cycles ago, relying instead on the numbers reported by Doc's mediscanner. Which means he can be forgiven for his blurt: "The fuck? Yer twenty-three! What you doin' in my bed?"

"Twenty-five."

"Don't say that. That jus' makes it weirder."

"It's only weird if you make it weird," Peter singsongs, and Yondu bounces his implant off the nestside in aggravation. Then frowns. Then freezes.

"…Okay, that'd better be a pistol in yer pocket."

Peter looked down himself, shuffling enough to see into the dim space between their bodies. Then sighs in relief. "It is."

"Thank fuck."

They lay in silence for a moment. "You plan on movin' anytime soon?"

"You plan on having any more nightmares?"

________________________________________

 

"Liar," spits Yondu.

Quill, pressed against the wall and cross-eyed at the arrow menacing his nose bridge, sighs. "I'm telling the truth."

"You ain't. I don't – I don't get –"

"Honestly," says Quill, batting the arrow aside and wincing at the sear of radiation. "Ow! This is the thanks I get for helping you?"

That startles a laugh. "Watch it, boy. You're beginning t'sound like me." For some reason, Quill doesn't look happy about that. But posturing at Quill's never yielded effective results, and if Yondu ain't gonna kill him, he might as well let him go so he can concentrate on thinking up a suitable punishment. Scratching tiredly at his stubble, Yondu whistles the arrow back to its holster. He hoists the contraption to wrap around his waist. Then figures he probably ought to put pants on first, swears, and unbuckles it again.

"So," says Quill, rubbing his blistered palm as Yondu kicks moodily through the trash on his floor in search of clothing. "Usual Ravager Rules?" 'Usual Ravager Rules' means 'suck it up, do your job, don't ever mention it again'. Which is all fine and dandy, except that it insinuates that Quill thinks there's something to be mentioned.

Which there isn't. Because Yondu. Does not. Have nightmares.

And even if he did, he could handle them like a man. He doesn't need someone to coddle – or worse, cuddle – him. Not like a certain Terran. He decides to change the subject. "The fuck's my belt?"

Quill, for some reason, looks shifty. "I dunno. Oh – wait, ain't it on your chair?" So it is. Dropping the trenchcoat he'd been ransacking, Yondu squints at it, head tilting to one side. He didn't leave it there, did he…? "Anyway," says Peter, sidling forwards so he takes up the bulk of his gaze. His hands are shoved knee-ticklingly deep in his pockets, and the set of his eyebrows proclaims innocence – heck knows why, Yondu already caught him sneaking into his fucking bed. Again. "I figure you and me, we should talk about this."

What happened to 'Ravager Rules'? Well, if he wants to give Yondu therapy for his non-existent nightmares, he's both delusional and suicidal. Fortunately, Quill catches the warning look, and clarifies before Yondu can wet his lips to whistle – "I mean, what happened at the Kree base. I geddit, y'know? I don't expect you to look out for me, or nothing. But did you have to just… go? Without me?"

There's a lot Yondu could say in response to that. Quill ain't the most subtle when something's chewing on his wick and eight days is plenty of time to think up insults. For once though, Yondu doesn't share the first thing that comes into his head. Instead he pauses, silence stretching until Quill's jittering about like a fidgety cricket, and ticks off options until he's found one that the boy might actually understand.

"I don't look out for ya because you don't need me to," he says eventually, dragging on his undershirt and rolling the sleeves to his elbows. Eclector's balmy today, and his usual four-or-so layers seem a bit redundant. He pushes past Peter to snatch the belt, lashing it on, and then moves to sit on the lip of the nest. He doesn't pat the space beside him, but when Quill joins him, he doesn't push him away. "Same respect I'd afford any crewman, that."

"Bullshit," says Quill. "When've you ever respected me?"

Aw hell. Better this than a discussion of whatever bad dream he'd been having – not that that was what was happened; oh no, Peter was just projecting his own weakness onto Yondu, or something. Nevertheless, this is edging a little close to heart-to-heart territory. Yondu shifts uncomfortably. Then decides that if he's gonna say it, he'd rather get it over with, and looks Peter dead in the eye. "List's too long to be recited, boy."

"You're kidding me."

"I ain't. Escaping them Kree's just the – whassat thing you Terrans say? Icing on the bread?"

"Icing on the cake," says Peter. He still looks suspicious, like he thinks Yondu's gonna shout 'psych!'. But his arms relax from their defensive cross and he angles a little more towards him. "You mean that?"

Ugh. "I guess." And while he's making an idiot outta himself, he might as well go whole-hog – "An' for the record, m'glad ya made it back to ship. Galleon wouldn't be the same without ya." Peter almost smiles. It grows as Yondu continues, morning light-settings glancing off his blue forearms as he pokes the headphones looped round Peter's neck. "Quieter, for one thing. As shit as Terran singing is, the tunes're kinda catchy – so if ya fuck off one day and don't come back, you better leave your Walkman behind."

"Like hell," says Peter, which is only to be expected. Yondu nips in, sniffing an opportunity –

"Troll doll then. We got us a deal?" It ain't been on his dashboard in a while; Peter's gotten better at detecting when he's being pickpocketed, and Yondu's bored of popping his fingers back into joint. Peter shakes his head to the suggestion, although the grin has yet to wear off:

"We ain't bargaining over my stuff. Why'd I leave you anything – you were the one who abducted me in the first place!"

"Picked you up," Yondu corrects. But as usual, he doesn't elaborate.

________________________________________

 

Of course, the peace can't last forever. At some point, Yondu's gotta ask the question Peter'd had been hoping wouldn't come up. He does so as they're eating lunch on the Bridge, halfway through a mouthful of lumpy green protein-porridge. "So, boy. I gotta know – what were ya doing in my cabin to start with?"

It's the two of them and Kraglin. They're coordinating a multi-ship bust from the Eclector's observation deck. Yondu'll have to step in if things get too hairy – doesn't do for Ravager captains to act like Nova generals, sitting on their asses all day and watching their men die from afar. But Kraglin's estimated low enough casualties that he can slouch around with his feet up for half the morning. As he has yet to rescind Peter's week on scrubs (stifling the inevitable bitching by declaring it would double whenever he complained) Peter's decided to clean the Bridge window and keep him company, out of the kindness of his heart. And the temptation to tease him, of course.

"Oh, y'know," he says, lifting a laden spoonful of his own to his lips and watching the cosmos wheel by. "Couldn't sleep. Bad dreams."

Yondu smacks him on the back of the head. Peter's spoon goes flying, skittering to rest by Kraglin's console – who tosses it back, trailing sticky granules, and manages to clip the play button on Peter's wristwatch.

"Thanos's Ballsack," comes Yondu's voice, a little wonky, scratching between the syllables. "Thanos's Ballsack. Thanos's ballsack. Thanos's Ballsack."

In the background, Kraglin's torn between shock, horror, and a surprised giggle. He settles on the latter. Yondu's gaze is artfully cool. Peter's is rapidly twisting to panic, as he smacks the watch against his thigh guard until the screen cracks and the drawling invocation of the mad Titan's testicles warbles to nothing. "Shit – This ain't what it looks like, I swear… Shit!"

The first whistle has him jumping to his feet. The second has him running for the door. The third has him scrambling through it, slapping it closed just in time for the arrow to punch steel rather than skull.

"Best keep runnin', boy!" Yondu calls after him. He watches the receding figure through the sizzling hole, lounging low in his chair and limbering his spine in a luxurious series of clicks. Another whistle keeps the arrow on target, tracing Quill's mad scramble through the ship via the tracking icon he'd taken the precaution of sticking to his wristwatch when the kid got smart enough to actually desert, rather than shout about it. He rolls to his feet, stretches, rotates the kink from his shoulder – having it mashed into the cushions by his own bodyweight ain't all that comfortable; Quill's fault for fucking spooning him – and reaches under his chair to pull out the bottle he likes to keep for special occasions.

M-ships are dog-fighting Skrulls outside. From this distance they look like tiny firebugs, glimmering in the gloomy endless cavern of space. Kraglin fishes out a coupla cups. He doesn't question what his captain's celebrating, but, as ever, is eager to participate. And somewhere beyond the Bridge's sloping walls there's a Terran running for his life, arrow calculated to keep him at a punishing sprint.

Yondu unstoppers the bottle, grinning at his first mate. He pours two generous portions. Then takes the troll doll out his pocket and sits it on the arm of his throne so it can watch the pretty orange lightshow, as combusting skrull ships spiral through the vacuum and another eighty thousand credits transfer into his bank.

Oh yeah. He'll be sleeping well tonight.

Chapter Text

You'd think freezing to death would be a drag. Each second teased to its maximum as your cells petrify and your eyeballs crystallize, and your blood turns to icicles in your veins. Time flies when you're having fun – so the adage goes. As there ain't much less fun than having your core temperature wrung outta you like water from a sponge, logic dictates that terminal hypothermia ought to be one long, cold, and boring slog to your grave.

Peter imagines that's what it's like to die of space-exposure. Give the mind enough pain, especially pain of brutal suddenness and intensity, and temporality pales to insignificance. It doesn't matter how long you take to croak; once you exit that airlock, whether voluntarily or by coercion, the seconds lag into minutes, hours, and years. Capillaries squelch and lungs pop inside out. Each new ache's another decade, each cramp and split expounded into novel-length soliloquies. Entire lifetimes pass before the inevitable expiration.

Here though, trapped on an uninhabited moon with an atmosphere so pathetic that space masks are a constant necessity, and night-time temperature dips into the minus forties while daytime skyrockets to the mid-hundreds, Peter's surprised to discover that freezing to death actually goes by quickly when you don't realize it's happening.

________________________________________

 

The coldness grows in increments.

Quill, having never attended high schools Terran or otherwise, can make that statement without the underlying knowledge that coldness does not grow but spreads, like a virus.

Yondu ain't so lucky. Not that he suffered through higher edumacationing – there'd been little time for that between tribal warfare, hunting things, and almost getting eaten by other, bigger things. But he's listened to so much engie babble over the years that some of it's stuck. He knows that as one molecule's vibrations decrease, that molecule siphons energy from the molecule besides it, and that the next: on and on, a gradual creeping encroachment that lulls the entire universe towards thermodynamic stasis.

Heat death, the engies call it. Kinda dramatic in his opinion. Of course, being Ravagers, they also use it as an insult – yo carrier's cunt's so cold it don't register on the Kelvin scale – so while Yondu's familiar with the concept, appropriate context is another matter.

Anyway. Even if coldness don't grow… Ice does, right? Like… ya freeze water, and, and… and it gets… bigger. When hulls breach (as his had done, while he hooked Quill by a forearm over the throat and hustled the big dolt onboard the M-ship before he could scamper off in search of his Walkthing), water literally punches its way outta the pipes.

He hates when that happens. Money, which could be spent on more important things; things he likes, like… what does he like again? Thas right. Booze. Booze and trinkets and guns – guns're nice. Don't have much of a cause to use 'em, what with the arrow an' all, but, but they look all cool an' shiny an'… Hadn't he been saying something…?

Right. The pipes bursting. Unfortunately, majority of crew're carbon based, which makes water-guzzlin' a necessity. So they have t'replace everythin'. Sometimes twice, because… Why had they had to do double repairs, last time this happened? Oh yeah – turned out the, what was it called, the thing above their heads, the thing that held the floor above… the see-ling. Funny word, that. Sounded odd in Xandarian and Zatoan alike. But the see-ling had been bucklin' under the strain of so many boots trampin' over its upperside, and if they hadn't ripped it all out and redone it when they did, whole level mighta pancaked. And that woulda been bad.

Why though? Surely they could've just… left it. Too much effort, fixing stuff. Yondu pokes the busted compass, the only bauble on his Warbird's console that hasn't been crushed beyond recognition. He hums happily to himself. Yeah. Fixing broken stuff's overrated. P'raps he should dig this baby out, put it on his dashboard…

"Yondu," croaks Peter from the floor. What's he doing down there? "S'cold. You shouldn't be moving."

Peter shouldn't be lounging on his ass when they've crashlanded on a mystery-moon, but Yondu doesn't tell him what to do.

"At least take the fucking coat," Peter continues, voice raspier than his hungover. Flattery's the best form of imitation though. Or… is it the other way around? "C'mon, man. You run hotter than me, so you'll crash if it gets cold faster than you can burn food…" Huh. Perhaps Peter listens to the engineers too. Or Doc. Maybe Doc, who's the go-to authority on gastric matters – Yondu'd been to see him enough, back before he knew Peter worked less efficiently than everyone else and had to eat that much food to survive, and wasn't feeding that intergalactic tapeworm Horuz'd been fretting about.

Horuz. Yondu wonders if he got off the galleon okay. Wonders if he'd care if he hadn't.

"Hey – can you c'mere? We'll be warmer if we stick together. And – and I can't really come to you."

That's sheer laziness talkin'. Heck, it ain't even that cold – Yondu stopped shivering ages ago.

Rolling his eyes, he pokes the compass again. Despite that he's looking straight at it, his finger skids a good six inches high and rams into the shattered bulb of the windscreen. He can't feel the cut, which is weird; but as he can't feel all that much anymore, he figures it ain't nothing to worry about.

"Moon's uninhabited?" he asks, cocking his head at the hulking four legged thing sniffing its way across the windless crater-strewn plain. Although his brain thinks out the words, it takes them a good minute to actually form. Peter makes an affirming grunt though, so he can't have slurred too much. That grunt sounds pained – or more likely irritated; kid's been gettin' all grumpy as of late, not that Yondu's done nothing to deserve it. Won't be long before he starts nattering about leaving again.

Yondu turns away from whatever had caught his attention outside, and pads across to Peter. Walking over to the twisted console had been difficult. The return journey's infinitely worse. He has to move slowly. Reaaaaaally slowly. Even then he keeps overbalancing, and each time it's a little harder to regain his feet.

Heck. He ain't that old yet, is he?

Yondu interprets it, as he does most things that take effort but can't be avoided, as a challenge. And upon discovering that walking into the twisted fenders and busted support columns doesn't hurt, he makes a game out of bouncing off as many as possible. Five points for one, doubles if he hits that same one twice.

"Stoppit," Peter groans. "You'll bring the roof down."

Oh. Yondu looks up. Neck's all stiff and head keeps lolling, but he gets there in the end – and sees the high swoop of the M-ship hull, like a steel cathedral, dents and dings from the rough landing tossing the feeble light of Peter's glow-orb in all directions. A roof. So they still got one of those.

"Ain't there meant t'be a… a thingy? Between… between us, an'…" He waves inarticulately upwards. Peter, pale and shuddery, collapsed on his back with sweat glinting in the visible stubbled space above his collar, somehow manages to look worried through a spacemask.

"A second floor, you mean? A ceiling? It broke. Most landed on me, if you remember."

That word again. "See-ling," says Yondu. Then again. "Seeee-ling." Then he realizes he's overheating, like he always does on the Eclector at night, and that if he wants to find somewhere small and tight to hibernate, as his body's ordering him to, he oughta strip to his boxers like a normal person. Peter pushes up on his elbows, making quizzical noises as Yondu unrasps the zipper on his underjacket after the sixth clumsy attempt. Just looking at his heavy leather coat, bundled over Peter's legs (both of which seemed to be sticking out at funny angles) makes him sweat. He needs these off. Now.

"Um," says Peter, catching the jacket when it's flung in his direction. "What are you doing?"

"Hot," says Yondu. He would've been more verbose, or at least thought up a couple of inventive swear words for punctuation. But when he sits besides Peter – sit being a generous term for what is, in all honesty a controlled collapse, and not a particularly controlled one at that… “It’s… 'S'warmer…"

Peter doesn't notice the despair in his voice. He bites down a hiss as Yondu jostles his leg – but as Yondu can't recall the word for 'sorry', he'll have to live with it. "Yes, it's warmer here. Because you gave me this. Not much, but it gives out a little heat." He shakes the light sphere. It leaves trails over Yondu's eyes. It takes them too long to close – the streams remain after they shut, poxy ribbons scoured into the blue undersides of his eyelids. "Then, of course, you had to wander outside for an hour to see if you could salvage anything from the engines, even though I told you it was useless, and you didn't take a fucking coat, and now you're being all weird and don't remember any of this, which means you're hypothermic – no, don't deny it, it's obvious. So come here and let me hug you before you croak, old man. Just mind the legs."

Yondu frowns. For some reason, he feels that this strange pink creature shouldn't be ordering him about. He draws away, crawling through the detritus without a care for what's digging into his palms and knees, and finds a dark hole under a fallen tabletop. It looks large enough to house one finless Centaurian. Peter's voice bounces after him, high-pitched and desperate. "Yondu? Yondu! Where are you going? What're you doing – dammit, get back here!"

"Sleep," Yondu explains, and fumbles with his shirt. Why's it so hot? This'd be so much easier if his fingers were responding…

Peter punches the wall. The sound's big, a boom that rattles through the busted grates and splintered floor panels, and shakes Yondu's boots as it's repeated again and again. He rests a moment, halfway to the hole, and considers the icedust clinging to his toecaps as the bangs pulse through him. Maybe he oughta take those off too? "Yondu!" Peter shouts. "Don't you dare go t'sleep, you hear me? The temperature's still dropping – you gotta stay with me! Don't go to sleep!"

Well, he's sure as heck making it difficult.

"Shaddup," groans Yondu, struggling fruitlessly with his boot zipper. "It'll… hear… ya…"

"What're you talking about? What'll hear me? Yondu! Yondu, talk to me, c'mon man…"

A deep growl answers his question. The rhythmic thud of Peter's fists stops – finally. Yondu makes the most of the opportunity, and completes his sluggish journey. He curls into the smallest ball he can and wriggles into the cramped little cranny. Gets distracted momentarily, as claws rend through the M-ship's hollowed hold. The shriek from Peter is almost as loud. Dammit, does nothing on this moon respect his need to sleep?

Yondu decides he doesn't care if the two of 'em start up a goddam Mariachi band. He leaves his boots guarding the tiny doorway, wraps his bare arms around his knees, and shuts his eyes.

________________________________________

 

"You're a fucking idiot."

Yondu ain't surprised when he wakes with his face stuck to Quill's chest. Heck, by now this's practically routine. "Mornin'" he slurs. Doesn't bother to extract himself. Limbs're too heavy, for one thing. (Yeah. That's a good excuse. It actually ranks under the primary reason: that Quill's warm, and warm feels nice; but like hell if Yondu admits that to anyone, least of all himself.) Then, because he's still captain and captains have to stay on top of things, no matter how low they've fallen – willfully cuddling Quill is definitely a new nadir – "Whas goin' on?"

Quill's sigh rumbles. It is most definitely not nice, and if he tells himself that a hundred times he might start to believe it. "You're recovering from a fucking hypothermia-induced coma, and I'm calling you an idiot. As I have been for the past hour. Nice of you to finally notice."

Huh. Sounds like they'd had a fun day.

He'd give anything to doze a while. However, what little he remembers – broken shards of sound and color, the grinding shriek of metal over metal as enemy fire hewed apart the Eclector engines – demands attention. Yondu begins the long clamber upwards. "How long…?"

"How long've you been out?" Quill scoffs. The humid puff of air bursts over his implant like a warm water-bomb. "Two Xandarian day-cycles. Congratulations on still having fingers and toes. You're damn lucky Nova med-equipment's so advanced – if we'd been on Terra, you'd have been past help."

Yondu stops wriggling when it becomes apparent Quill's heavy arms aren't gonna lift of their own accord. He doesn't have the strength to barge him (yet), and sure, kneeing him in the goolies is always an option – fuck knows he'll be doing the galaxy a favor if he stops Quill sowing his wild oats. But the next flurry of recollections prevents him from putting that theory into practice.

Peter, swearing as Yondu drags him from the collapsed upper level, his pants painting white clouds on the cooling air.

Fast forward to Peter flat out and biting his arm, Yondu crouched over his twisted femurs and smacking the opposite elbow until a vein lifted. Emptying their only surviving needle of painkillers.

A third memory surfaces, as Yondu reorganizes himself at an inch's distance, just so Quill's chest hair don't incite a sneeze. Himself, pausing in the doorway and glancing at the shivering boy (man), who nurses a pair of broken legs and tries not to cry, a thousand lightyears from his home. Then cussing, stomping over, and donating his coat along with one of the two light spheres.

Second had come with him outside. It hadn't returned. Frankly, considering how rapidly the heat had leached, Yondu's surprised he had.

How rapidly the heat had leached and… Hadn't there been something else? Another threat…?

Yondu swings upright too fast for Quill to tighten his grip. Clutches his temples when they protest, wastes a second staring in bewilderment at the bandages swaddling him wrist to fingertip, shakes his head, and returns to the topic at hand. "Quill?"

"Yeah?" Quill sits slowly, watching him like he might crumple at any moment. Yondu delights in proving him wrong. "You alright?"

"Peachy. Why ain't we dead? What happened to the – the thing –" Because the last thing he remembers is a massive claw, scything open his M-ship like a knife through butter. If they've been gobbled by some hitherto unknown moon dweller though, the least the Spirit In The Sky could do was heal Yondu's headache.

But Quill shakes his head, first hints of a smile showing. "Rescue dog. Genetically engineered, specially trained for retrieval in hazardous locations - or something. We got Kraglin to thank for that. Soon as the M-ships took out the enemy fleet and he saw we'd gone down, he went and hijacked a rescue base." Thank fuck. Because on his galleon they ain't: there's no bassline rumble of combustion engines, no throb of oxygen generators, or creak of ancient but trusty steel. Hearing Quill talk about Nova medical tech, Yondu'd been worried this bay belonged to the Kyln.

"Smart kid," he says. Peter's smile becomes fully-fledged.

"I'll tell him you said that."

"Ya wouldn't dare." Only he would. And Yondu might even let him get away with it. "Hey. How's the legs?" Because that'd been one nasty break. Two. Possibly four; they'd been zigzagging like interlocking bollards around a racetrack chicane. Peter pulls the duvet back and reveals that he too is clad only in loose hospital-issue boxers (a fact Yondu elects to ignore, for his own sanity), but with two fat casts poking out beneath. Ouch. Yondu clears his throat. "You better be walkin' soon, or I'll demote ya. Ain't no use having a second mate who's bedbound."

Whoops. There goes that smile again. "Hey," says Quill, poking him hard in the ribs. "I mighta saved your life."

Oh, he'd walked into this one. Prodding back would be ineffectual, given the bandaged mittens – boxing gloves, they're boxing gloves. Yondu draws himself up instead, and lets Peter count every cracked and silver-filled tooth. "Don't make up for all those times I saved you…"

Peter claps his hands over his ears. "Don't. I don't wanna hear it again –"

"When I first picked you up on Terra…"

"Picked me up…"

"When I picked you up, my boys, they wanted to eat ya! I stopped 'em! Me!"

"And you haven't shut up about it since."

"You oughta be grateful."

"I'd be grateful if you fell back into a coma."

Usually that'd earn him a cheerful punch. But Yondu suspects that whatever the resemblance, his snazzy new boxing gloves aren't actually intended for that purpose. If he wants to be whistling at people and getting his galleon back in working order before the end of the day, he'd better stay on Doc's good side. He settles for glaring, long enough that Peter sheepishly raises his hands and says: "Not funny" (although honestly, it kinda had been; had Yondu been able to curtail the sappy moment with an uppercut, they coulda shared a laugh.)

"What's our damage?" he asks eventually. Peter looks glad for a change of topic, and makes his report with surprising efficiency.

"Undercarriage almost entirely blown away; gonna need new hangars and at least five new engine compartments, at Kraglin's last estimate. I vote for some new scanning tech too – those Skrulls shouldn'ta got the jump on us like that."

He's right there. Luckily, the picture he's painting ain't as cataclysmic as Yondu expects – the Eclector an exploded diagram of rubble and dead Ravagers. The dorms haven't caught the blow out. Air supply will be off and anyone who's barricaded themselves in long suffocated – but who knows? Quill's Walkthing mighta survived. "Crew?"

"Important ones made it. Horuz led the evacuation."

Yondu snorts. "Damn."

"Yeah."

They sit in silence for a moment. Yondu tries ineffectually to swallow a yawn. Peter doesn't disguise his, and side-eyes him as if he's plotting something. Yondu's red glare gets redder, and narrows to dangerous slits.

"Whatcha lookin' at, boy?" he growls.

"Wanna go back to sleep?" And then, before Yondu can rain insults on him for being a weedy Terran who ain't up and active and walking off the pain, quickly clarifies: "Not for long. Kraglin'll be here in a bit, and then you guys can start organizing repairs and shit. Just… Just for a little bit?"

And… well, he asked.

"You're the one what asked," Yondu says, as if there's any doubt. Then flops onto his back, drags Peter's meaty arm over his chest – being sure not to toss him about too much, what with his gammy legs and all – and shuts his eyes once more.

Chapter Text

He's always known Quill's got a thing for the ladies.

Less a thing. More an overpowering and unhealthy obsession.

Not with following 'em home or sniffing their undies or anything creepy like that, but with sweet-talking his way into the beds of every goddam species in the quadrant. And all without the aid of alcohol, sleight of hand, and effervescent knock-out pills!

Yondu ain't complaining about that last part. If ya can't pull 'em with your own charm, that's your defect, and you're better off practicing on some uglier dames than slipping something in their drink. That's practically cheating. Yondu, a self-proclaimed cheat at every game from A'askavarian poker (which involves tentacles in uncomfortable places for every round you lose) to that weird game called snap that Quill'd introduced him and Kraglin to, the one that’s basically an excuse for smacking people and shouting (which, in retrospect, Yondu enjoys immensely), is nevertheless an avid believer in honing your skillset wherever you can. You never knew when you might have to seduce someone on the job, after all.

Thus Quill spent his youth blundering through the bars of the central systems, making a fool of himself and offending as many cultures as there are galaxies in the sky. Yondu had laughed into his drink, refused to wing him, and thrown twiglets at his head whenever Quill's self-glorifying monologues drifted into 'accidental duel-to-the-death challenge' territory. Although why Quill'd boasted that his ship was the fastest since the Millennium Fahlcohn (whatever that was) when everyone knew how protective Hadrangians got over their faster-than-light technology, and that their honor codes insisted that they demand a race through fields of spacemines every time they were wronged, was anyone's guess.

Nope, Quill's enduring quest for nookie has given Yondu and the crew whole evenings of entertainment. Especially when Quill returns to their side of the bar and shouts at him for throwing off his groove, and Yondu chases him out with an arrow on his heels before buying the poor woman he'd been bothering a drink. Sure, rescuing him had gotten irritating after a while. But that's nothing (nothing!) compared to how annoying Quill gets when he finally cracks the mystery that is the fairer sex.

Because nowadays, Peter flirts with an A'askavarian, gets stabbed by a Kree girl, illegally manipulates a Duchess, and gets honeytrapped by a wannabe-bountyhunter, all in the same fortnight. It's high time for an intervention.

"You," says Yondu, jabbing his finger into Quill's chest, "ain't fucking nobody for a month. Nobody."

That's a time out with a capital T. It's also, Peter thinks as Yondu snaps a picture for his own ever-growing blackmail collection and finally deigns to whistle his arrow through the joints on the buzzing grey electrocuffs, the last fucking straw. "You can't do this!" he protests, wrenching his wrists free as soon as the charge dissipates. "You've got no right – it's my life!"

"I got every right." Yondu marches across to the trembling bountyhunter, a young Shi'ar who thought she could lure him here by holding his second mate hostage and, judging by the way she's staring at the arrowtip boring gentle revolutions into her nasal bridge, is starting to regret it. "Where's his pants."

She points mutely to the cupboard. Yondu stomps over, rips it open, and tosses the pile of Ravager leathers onto the bed between Quill's legs. He can figure out how to get the ankle cuffs off himself. The trousers have been folded neater than they've ever been during their twenty-year stint in Quill's stinky locker. 

"Get dressed, get loose, be back with the fleet in fifteen or we leave ya," he orders Quill, ticking them off on his fingers. "As for you, girlie, you're damn lucky ya didn't render my second mate inoperable." Or done anything Quill hadn't wanted her to, as far as he can tell, up until the moment she held a knife to his throat and activated his Ravager comm. Knowing Quill, he even agreed to the cuffs.

Idiot.

"However, ya cost me some ten quarts of fuel jettin' over here. So how's about you fork it up, with interest? I like t'make me a profit from these ventures." He twizzles the arrow, drying her eyeballs like dishes of water in the desert, until she summons her bank details to the holoscreen. Once satisfied with the new padding in his account, Yondu nods, whistles the arrow back to his belt, and turns on Quill in time to see him pop the gravimetric generators out of the ankle cuffs and kick his way to freedom. "Put on yer goddam pants. Thas more of you than I ever want to see."

Quill doesn't have the decency to look embarrassed. "Look, Yondu, I'm sorry," he says as he shimmies them up his hips. Grabbing his gunbelt from where it's dangling from the lampshade (Yondu is grudgingly impressed) he lashes it around his waist with furious clicks. "I shoulda been more careful, alright? I admit it. There you go. I was wrong, you were right, I shoulda known that a booty call from Melanie here –"

"Meladre," Meladre corrects. She's ignored.

"- Was gonna be some sorta trap. So, now you've had your I-told-you-so, can you, I dunno, demote me for a week or something? Put me on scrubs? Make me clean your M-ship? Anything but this!"

Yondu's generous enough to wait while Quill hops around, forcing his feet into his boots. This is mostly so he can cuff him on the ear once he gets in punching range. "If yer that desperate to get out of it, that means it's a good call," he growls. "Seriously, boy. This's the fourth time you've almost been killed by a bird in the past fourteen solar cycles. You gotta problem."

"He's right," says Meladre.

Yondu nods towards her. "See? Even Melabi agrees."

"Meladre," Meladre insists, but she shuts up when Yondu taps his arrow.

Quill however, in true addict's fashion, has an excuse for everything. "It's not my fault I like dangerous women! And – four times? The A'askavarian doesn't count. She didn't try to murder me – that was all the Kree…"

In Yondu's opinion, which may or may not be informed by experience, making goo-goo eyes at A'askavarians is plenty dangerous without jealous girlfriends lurking on the sidelines. Especially if said A'askavarians take you up on the offer. "Whatever," he says, and leads the way to the door. He whistles his arrow to standby, in case Melavitch has goons outside. "You're confined t'ship for the next four weeks. Best say goodbye to Meldido here – she's the last bit of sweetness yer gonna taste."

________________________________________

 

The crew's trepidation about fucking their youngest member has, unfortunately, worn off. Well, not exactly. The youngest member is now a surly Xandarian lass called Zqo. She's tough enough to handle herself though, and made sure to loudly declare she'd come to the stars to bolster her severed alien genitalia collection the first time she attended a Ravager booze night. But when it comes to Quill, he's as free game as the rest of 'em – more so, because he's part of the High Command Bridge team, and one who the captain's rumored to have a soft spot for at that. Who knows? Warming his bed might earn the ambitious rookie certain... privileges.

Usually, Quill's aware of the motivations of flirting crewmates. But a month without fucking's a long time for a guy like Quill. Scarcely a week rolls by before he's willing to make a pass at anything that offers.

Which means Yondu's gotta be on red alert. Cockblocking Quill is a fulltime job.

This is why he enlists help. Kraglin, Horuz, and Zqo herself, whose unfuckable junior status means she's perfect for navigating Ravager parties unmolested. The four of them gather in Yondu's cabin for a powwow before the corks are popped and the barrels split open. "Alright," Yondu says, huddling close. "Battle plan."

________________________________________

 

You ain't sleeping with nobody for a month.

You ain't sleeping with nobody for a month.

What sorta dumb, cruel, insensitive, tyrannical, moronic punishment is that?

It's not like Peter's done anything to deserve it. Well. Not much. He remembers that time Yondu admitted that he left him to work his own way out of messes, not because he didn't give a shit but because he believed he was capable of it. Winces, at the realization that four years later, he's had him come to his rescue again. Like he's a goddam kid. But how's stopping him from chasing tail meant to make Peter grow up?

This is, Peter thinks, a challenge. Yondu's testing him. Seeing if Peter's smart enough – man enough – to dodge his stupid restrictions and get laid. Which means Peter's gotta do something big, something flashy, something mad enough to get Yondu's attention and prove to him that he's an adult and capable of making his own decisions.

Peter's gotta fuck a girl on Yondu's bed.

First thing's first though: he's gotta find a girl who's down to fuck. Usually, that's not too much of a chore. Today, however, the galaxy is conspiring against him.

"Hi Pete," says Kraglin, sidling between him and the skinny Plutonian he'd been chatting up. "How ya doin'?"

Horuz bodily steers him away from the fluffy Carnillian breaking it down on the dance floor, and Zqo clambers to sit on the bartop besides him, warding away any horny Ravagers with her presence, and demands stone-faced that he teach her how to dismantle a plasma pistol without singeing her fingers. Peter, grumbling, does so.

He tells himself that ladies always appreciate a guy who's good to kids – which, Zqo, peaking fourteen, most definitely is. He rumples her hair in the way Yondu used to do to him after he's governed her through her basic maintenance checks. Unlike him, Zqo bites his finger. Peter decides she can go find someone else to pester; he hoiks her off the bartop under the armpits and sends her scampering with a sharp flick to the sensitive horn-like protrusions that jut from the tips of her ears.

He's making headway with a feline-faced six-boobed chick who likes her spirits neat and her men grovelling – an act Peter can don and discard as is necessary, for as long as it takes him to lure her into the sack. Then there's a familiar nasty cackle. Yondu himself appears, plonks onto the barstool at her right, and begins regaling her with the tale of that time Peter accidentally swallowed an Imodium instead of a soldier pill back when they'd been slogging through all night stake-outs on a Betelgeusian satellite. The conversation ought to end once Peter's cradling his head in his hands and the catgirl's whiskers shrivel in disgust. But Yondu keeps talking a full minute after she's retreated, pounding Peter between the shoulder blades and embellishing gory details until he's cleared a meter-wide space all around.

Jackass.

Yondu polishes off her drink, and Peter's too (abandoned in favor of curling into a ball and wishing he were dead). Then turns and treats him to the biggest, smuggest grin that's possible to cram onto his ugly blue face.

"Hey, Quill. How ya doin'."

Peter screeches out his stool and stomps away. Yondu's laughter scrapes like someone's crushing gravel chips with a lump-hammer, grating on his ears long after it's swallowed by the throbbing pulse of Xandarian dance music.

He barges through the center of the canteen. Rookie assignments this morning revolved around clearing the room of benches to create optimum room for drunken flailing, and converting the usual nosh counter into the grubby little bar he's just left. Worthy pursuits – Ravagers party like they do everything else: at full gusto, with no care for broken limbs, structural damage, or bodycounts accumulated along the way. Peter pushes to the core of the throng. Here, submerged in the sweaty, boozey, liquor-slopping heat of Ravager entertainment, he hopes he might be able to lose his tails.

No such luck. Kraglin's over there – shifting his gangly limbs in something approaching a rhythm. If he looks up, for a single moment…

Kraglin raises his head.

But by that time, Peter's been dragged into a group of grinding Carnillians, and is – for the moment – hidden. He follows the small fluffy hand on his wrist, up a small fluffy arm until it lands on a small fluffy face. Her fur's the same merlot-red as her dark leathers, and softer than mink. When it comes to girls, he's not the best at recalling names and faces (unless they've threatened to kill him, in which case it's a matter of self-preservation). But perhaps – just perhaps – this is the girl he'd been approaching when Horuz manhandled him off.

"Hey!" she shouts, louder than necessary. "Were ya tryin' to get my attention earlier?" Peter digs a finger in his ear and grins. Considering how loud the music is – and how poor Carnillians' hearing – there's no way she heard Yondu's delightful tale. And Kraglin has yet to spot him, which means the game is on.

"Oh honey," he purrs. Then again, at higher volume, when she tilts quizzically in his direction. "Gorgeous furball like you? You're the one who caught my attention. Now, you seem like a girl who likes some fun. Living dangerously – am I right?"

The sly smirk tells him he is. Downy fingers tangle in his hair. "Captain's had his Bridge crew keeping tabs on you all night," she hollers. "M'guessin' you must be gettin' desperate!"

He nods. Grins back, as the group splits in time with the drop of the bass, revealing Kraglin – who almost chokes on his shot before hunching his shoulders and determinedly wobbling towards them. Peter leans until his lips crest the point of Carnillian's fuzzy red ear. "Fifteen minutes, outside the captain's cabin," he says. "Let's you and me have an adventure."

He feigns reluctance when Kraglin arrives. The Ravager mate demands Peter help him with job categorization for the next week, slurring every other word but intransigent. Peter lets himself be yanked along, tossing a faux-apologetic smile to his future partner. She's already squeezing her way to the exit, but twists long enough to shoot him a wink.

Ha. Yondu should know better than to exert control over this aspect of Peter's life. Heck, even if this shitty situation isn't the grand test Peter's making it out to be, at this point the bastard deserves everything he gets. 'Everything he gets' being in this case a room in need of airing, and a very sticky nest. He allows himself a wicked cackle in the privacy of his brain. Opens Kraglin's holopad and sets to correcting all the drunken errors, then pleads tiredness and escapes, allegedly to his dormrooms, taking care not to look eager.

Oh, he is getting laid tonight.

________________________________________

 

Seems like the boy's given up early. Shame. Yondu'd hoped for a good five hours of torture, but has barely enjoyed one and a half. He coulda handled this solo. He buzzes Horuz, Kraglin and Zqo over to him. They arrive, straggling in in various states of inebriation – Kraglin all but sagging off Horuz, to Horuz's disgust – but manage to pop three semi-respectable salutes. Yondu waves them off. "Yer all dismissed. Boy ain't as much fun to tease as he used to be."

"Don'tcha get maudlin on me, sir," says Kraglin. "Folks might think you're soft on him." Then he laughs obnoxiously loud, slings his arm around Yondu's shoulders, and burps in his face.

Somebody ain't no better at holding his drink than he was when the Ravagers picked him up. But decent Bridge Crew's difficult to come by – which also means he oughta prevent Obfonteri from pickling his few functioning brain cells, or he'll be no use to anyone and Yondu actually will have to kill him. Who'll buy him stupid baubles then?

Yondu steals the glass out of his hand before it can slop on his jacket. Kraglin doesn't notice. He contemplates setting it safely out of reach on the bar, then decides it's a shame to waste good spirits. "You're gonna regret that in the morning," he promises, wiping his mouth. The ingrained threat percolates Kraglin's drunken haze, and his pasty face becomes significantly pastier. He unwinds his arm, almost tripping over his own boots as he backpedals: "Uh –"

Yondu helps him balance by punching the side towards which he's listing, then the other for good measure. "Go find someone nicer to insult."

"Yessir."

He turns on his two remaining conspirators while Obfonteri's slouching away, clutching his bruised gut. "Anyone else wanna comment?"

Their muttered 'nos' are music to his ears.

________________________________________

 

Yondu decides it's time to turn in once the ratio between standing and prone Ravagers has tipped towards the latter. Kraglin's still going, improbably, but Yondu doubts he's gonna see him on Bridge in time for his morning shift – or if he does, man'll be about as responsive as a victim of that nasty Skrull disease, the one with the parasitic flies that lay in your brain so their larvae gobble you from the inside out. That's okay. Peter can handle his duties – boy's had an early night.

Yondu shakes the last sour drops of moonshine from his glass, holding it over his open mouth, then dumps it beside a snoozing Horuz for someone else to deal with. He wipes his lips on his sleeve. Wobbles upright. "I'm off!" he roars, loud enough to shock Kraglin. Man's up against the wall, boxing in the little Plutonian he'd first rescued from Peter's amorous advances, but at Yondu's yell he startles and accidentally smacks his nose on her spiky scalp. She rolls her eyes and shoulders him off before the blood's had chance to drip. "As for the rest of ya – you can drag yer sorry carcasses to bunk when you're through, or else kip here. But those who crash'll be on cleanin' duty, and I want this room spotless before lunch shift!"

And with that, he collars Zqo before she can wobble off the tabletop she'd been dancing on, nudges her firmly in the direction of her dorms, and heads for bed.

________________________________________

 

He never makes it.

His room's soundproofed. Sorta. If you stand right by the door and holler, someone might make out the words if they've got their ears squished to the steel – but all other noises, especially potentially embarrassing ones of the bedroom nature, are stifled under several inches of vacuum-insulated metal. And so, as he caresses his lock in the hopes it'll take pity on him – he ain't tipsy; he doesn't get tipsy; liver of fucking titanium, he's got – and thinks he hears something (a whisper of a moan, a giggle) he figures it's just his imagination. That, or someone's fucking in the corridor next door. He doesn't have the energy to threaten them to disperse, or the coordination to whistle an arrow and make 'em, so he settles for rolling his eyes at the clicking lock (finally!) and shouldering his door open.

He makes three steps before realizing what he's heard. Five for the occupants of his bed to realize they've been caught, and six – the precise amount of steps it takes to carry Yondu over to the nest and grab Peter by the ear – for the screams to start.

There's nothing quite as sobering, nor as mood-killing, as your captain hauling you out of your current partner by the earlobe.

"Ow!" shrieks Quill, tugging at Yondu's wrist. "Ow, ow, ow! You're gonna tear my ear off!"

"Let's hope not," Yondu growls. Gives the very big and very naked Terran, who has just committed a sin so monumental it doesn't bear voicing aloud, a thorough shaking. "Wouldn't want ya to miss me ordering you to scrub every fuckin' nanometer of my nest. An' the outside keel. Startin' tomorrow, and using only yer toothbrush. You get a spacemask if I'm inna good mood." He pauses for effect, pincering the lobe so hard that the impressions of his cracked blue nails will be emblazoned there for day-cycles to come. "Oh. An' I'm confiscating your M-ship so ya can't escape. Might sell it for scrap."

"It was his idea –" the girl starts. Yondu snaps his fingers at her.

"Shaddup. I don't care. Yer lucky I been drinkin' – don't reckon I could peep a whistle if ya squeezed me. But if you wanna test that, do feel free t'stick around." That gets her moving. Yondu's generous enough to allow her to pull on her jacket before glaring her out of the room, still tugging her trousers up around damp fluffy thighs. He'll remember her face for the next time he needs cannon fodder. She might have disobeyed the direct order unwittingly – Peter Quill shalt not fuck. But if she planned on screwing anyone in her captain's bed who wasn't her captain himself (although she honestly ain't his type; fur gets stuck between his teeth) she's gotta be suicidal. Yondu'll happily help her along the way.

For now, he has a Terran to terrify.

"Quill," he says. Laces it with every ounce of menace his vocal cords can muster. "You got an excuse?"

Quill squirms miserably from his captive ear,. His large bare body – ugh – is already goosepimpling with cold. "Yes, actually," comes the answer, snappy as ever but with enough of a wobble to inform Yondu that he's spooked. "It was an accident, y'see. She got the wrong room, and –"

"I just remembered – I don't care." He gives the ear a shake. Quill reverberates, hands folded over his crotch and eyes scrunchy with pain.

"Ow, ow, ow; look Yondu, please, just leggo my ear, man; we can talk about this –"

"Talk about what? You sneakin' in here, and…" Hell, he can hardly say it. That Peter even contemplated this; that he thought he'd get away with it… "Boy, you are in such deep shit. Actual-like, in fact. Our sewage system ain't been dredged since before we got ya."

Quill deflates. Yondu keeps him bent at the waist, head on level with the Ravager emblem on Yondu's chest, but at those words his shoulders stoop lower still. Yondu could almost be fooled into thinking he was disciplining a little boy again – a stupid, uppity little boy who doesn't know how to respect the sanctity of other people's property, and who only follows orders when they suit him. It's enough to soften any heart.

Unfortunately for Quill, it's a well-known fact that Yondu doesn't have one of those.

"And," he continues, smirk growing, "You ain't heading offship before you're done." That's hardly punishment; Quill's already proven he's willing to fuck crew if it's necessary. But Yondu amends himself with a cruel twist, Peter's head cricking to an unnatural angle as he follows the blaze where lobe joins skull, and hoists his wristpiece to a level where the holocam'll catch both of their faces. Message, he selects. Then, in the space for designated recipient: entire crew. Those who're dead to the world can enjoy his lil' video come morning.

"Howdy, boys," he drawls, directing his grin into the camera's winking lens. Quill, already vividly tomato coloured, veers towards plum; he quivers lower, as if trying to compress his bulk into Yondu's shadow. Yondu cheerfully yanks him into the light. "Ya might remember a certain rule about my purple-faced bud here from when he was a kid. Well. I'm here t'tell ya that that rule's coming back. As of tonight, no one touches the Terran, whether or not he asks for it – not until he's finished the jobs I've set him." A gritty snigger. "Which, seein' as most of them involve the sewage processin' unit, I doubt'll be a turn on, even for you lot. Awright. You got yer orders. Yondu out."

"Evil," Quill's saying, as Yondu presses send, releasing his ear to do so. He rubs the side of his head, somewhere between horror and pain. "Evil, evil, evil. You're evil. Y'know that?"

"Ain't no angel, that's for sure."

"I'm serious, Yondu. You can't do this. You can't control me like this! It's weird, it's creepy, I'm nearly thirty… Look, I know I broke your orders, but… Oh… Dammit, you're not my dad!"

They stand in silence for a moment. Yondu crosses his arms. Pointedly looks down, and Quill remembers that if he's angrily gesticulating then he's not hiding something else, flushes impossibly brighter, and manages to smack himself in the groin in his hurry to amend himself. "Oof-"

Yondu crooks an eyebrow, unsure whether he's amused or just angry. Probably a bit of both. "If you're tryin' to prove to me that you can control where ya stick your cock, you ain't doing the best job."

But rather than cowering and sponging for forgiveness as he ought, those words make something inside Quill harden and fortify. He straightens his spine. Sets his shoulders to level. Puts his hands on his hips – then hastily changes his mind. "I didn't do it to prove nothing to you."

"Then why…" Yondu's voice trails off. He feels a bit queasy. "You. Uh. Wanted to…? Where I sleep…? With… With me…?"

Quill looks confused for a grand total of five seconds, then goes motley white and shudders from toes all the way up to his gingery roots in a way that's, quite frankly, a little offensive. "No! God no. Just cause you ain't my dad don't mean I want you to be anything else. Just… just ew. Please don't ever insinuate that again."

"Gladly." Not that that isn't a favorite theory for why the kid's still breathing, but the mere idea makes Yondu wither deep in his belly. Apparently, it has similar effect on Quill. He glances down at himself, checking for a moment in the dark pool of shadows gathered by his carefully cupped hands. Then, inappropriately, grins.

"Thanks."

Yondu grimaces. "Do I wanna know?"

"Well, after that discussion, I'm not gonna get hard for the next month anyways. You've saved me a serious case of blue balls – no offence intended." Whether he intended it or not, Yondu still socks him in the stomach. "Sheesh," wheezes Quill, curled around the dents left by Yondu's knuckles. "What was that for?"

"Ya really need ta ask?" Yondu toes through the litter he keeps artfully scattered across his floor and locates a pair of underpants. He tosses them, thin fabric slapping Quill around the face. "Put these on. Yer other togs too, if you're cold."

"Okay," says Peter, unfurling long enough to step into the boxers, but shooting nervous eyes at Yondu from under furrowed brows. "So you're not gonna make me do a walk of shame from your cabin. Wise, I guess. But –"

"Oh no," Yondu interrupts, passing over pants and jacket. "You ain't going nowhere."

Peter, boxer elastic snapping against his muscled abdomen, freezes. "Um. What?"

"You're staying right here. In bed. With me." Pause. "Oh, an' you can sleep on the sticky side."

"What?"

"Like I don't know yer gonna hunt down that fuzzy honey the moment I letcha go." Yondu yawns, shuffles to the nest, and starts pulling off clothes. He makes a quick assessment of it, deems it to be far from the worst thing he's slept on (and, let's admit it, far from the messiest his bed's ever been) and decides that the far corner's safest for having precisely zero of Quill's bodily fluids contact his skin. He steals Quill's undershirt for good measure, and uses it as a mop to sponge up anything that might have splattered beyond the expected range. "You're stayin' here. You ain't never woken me up when you've crawled into bed with me, but I'm bettin' I'll know if ya try an' sneak off in the middle of the night. Now…" He divests himself of his shirt after a lot of complex wriggling, straps and buckles loosed and multitude of belts unpeeling. Foregoes unzipping his boots in favor of collapsing into his designated twelve inches of berth. "Geddin here. You can be lil' spoon this time."

Quill grumbles. Growls. Groans and gripes as he lowers himself onto the messy patch. The rasp of his up-zipping fly is loud against the white noise of their evening breaths, and his jacket-clad back is stiff and cold. "I might not be yer daddy," says Yondu, poking him in it, feeling the muscles unclench as Quill relaxes to the gravelly rasp of his voice. "But I am yer captain, boy."

A lot could be read into that. You're my crew. That means I depend on you. Even look out for ya occasionally. But it also means you've gotta respect me. Follow my orders. Don't fuck girls in my goddam fucking bed.

Yondu can't be bothered to put it all into words. And, as Quill shuffles back against him, not close enough to overheat but just enough to brush, he suspects he knows anyway.

Chapter Text

It starts with Peter punching Yondu in the face.

Yondu reels. But he slams his boot into Peter's gut, leg a pendulum, so that while he stumbles for balance it's Peter who's left wheezing.

Peter hacks spit. Coughs. Raises his eyes to gauge where the next barrage will come from, and manages to duck beneath a volley of rapid-fire jabs, plowing his shoulder into Yondu's unguarded side. It's a blow impossible to bend into, and he hears the clack as Yondu's teeth snap shut.

Peter laughs, loud and sharp. "Ha! Gotcha!" But he leaves his fist tenderizing Yondu's oblique a second too long. Recovering quickly Yondu grabs it, sets his center low, and uses Peter's next attempted cross – behind which he puts his entire bodyweight – to swing him up and over. His momentum acts against him, rolling him across Yondu's back in a bone-rattling throw.

Peter smacks steel. His watch smashes in a splintered polyphony, as if someone's swung a mallet into a block of ice. He scrambles to his feet, ears ringing, and works numbness from his shoulder – fuck, he'll be feeling that come morning. Shaking out his arms, he treats Yondu to a bloody grin. "Thought that'd put me out for the count, old man? Think again."

But rather than grumbling "old man yerself" and renewing his attempts to give Peter grievous bodily harm under the guise of 'combat training', Yondu stares at the broken watch.

Curious, Peter follows his gaze. Shakes the thing, watching slim needles of glass and plastic shiver free. "Guess I should get that fixed," he says. "I'll head to the Techies after we're done here."

And that's that. Yondu readies himself, nods, and the match begins anew.

The practice hall is a hollowed Ferrero Roche, halved by a deceptively thin grate. It's on this grate that Yondu and Peter grapple, suspended a hundred feet above the dome's flipside: a deep semi-circle into which nervous rookies are poured to test their jetboots. There's a few there now. Peter can hear them shrieking and scrabbling at the walls, as Horuz tosses them tenderly from the tunnel. They have a generous three seconds to learn to fly, otherwise it's a swift trip in the opposite direction.

Shift's winding to a close though. Horuz won't clock a single second more than his contract demands, and everyone who's been working out their grudges on the fighting floor has already traipsed off to polish their knives, chuck Beastie-worms at the latest Xandarian soap, or gamble away the day's meagre haul over cards. Peter and Yondu, the ones responsible for said meagerness, are the only ones left.

Blood drips through the grills. It speckles the cheeks of the last trembling rookie, whose jet-strapped legs buckle at the knees like those of a fallen colt. She looks up and sees Yondu block an uppercut, Peter catch a hook that could’ve knocked him deaf for life. When she wipes the streaks off her face, her hand comes away purple. The hall's curved walls are made of a million interlocking hexagons, each of which can flip to cast projected patterns of light: phantom enemies to hack and slice. Peter and Yondu don't bother with any of that. They've got each other.

Peter trips him, brings him down hard. Follows as Yondu scrambles backwards, boots scraping on the slippery steel, and goes to punch him again.

Then does the worst thing a Ravager can do, and hesitates.

Not because he cares, but because Yondu's not looking at him – or even at the fist drawn up besides Peter's ear which is about to become intimate with his nose for the second times in as many minutes. His eyes, twitching to keep them free from the sweat and the blood, are still fixed on his broken watch.

Peter frowns. "Uh –" he says.

That's all he manages.

Yondu surges up, bucking him off, and shamelessly kicks below-belt.

Fuck. He's glad he wore a cup. Peter still shrinks over himself. He forces through the pain before Yondu can land the next blow, smacking his bare forearm aside and catching the fold of the up-pushed sleeve to drag him into a close enough proximity that he can return the gesture. But that just means Yondu's close enough to nut him. He does so, not using the forehead but the rim of his rock-solid implant. It would be devastating. A knock-out for sure – but Peter jerks at the last moment and absorbs the crunch with his own thick browbone rather than his jaw.

Unlike Yondu, Peter's got his looks to think about.

Dazed, they stumble apart. Yondu's blood leaks steadily from his nostrils, faster from where Peter's knuckles grazed his temple. Peter, hardly in a better state, favours his right side after that agonizing pull on his shoulder cuff. He spits red to one side, tongue wobbling a loose tooth. "Bastard," he grunts, wiping his chin. "Gonna have a mouth like yours at this rate."

"Nah," says Yondu, grin gristly. "Mine's a better kisser."

"You wish!"

"I know, boy! You ain't never brought the same girl home twice. I never get to learn none of their names…"

"You never try! And anyway, you’re the one who cockblocked me for a whole goddam month –"

That's enough banter-time for them to catch their breath. Yondu holds up a hand and crooks a blue brow at him. "Ready?"

Peter smirks. "Always," he says, and clenches his fists anew.

From below they look like a pair of magnets, constantly parting and meeting, repelled but always drawn back together. Each smack of skin on leather dispels another measure of irritation leftover from the flunked raid. There'd been scarcely enough booty to cover repair costs; their source'd either been mistaken (stupid), duped (stupider), or attempting to dupe them (stupidest of all), and would be receiving comeuppance as soon as they dispatched schooners for Knowhere. The contents of the Kree frigate, the one they'd blown two prize M-ships boarding, hadn't been top-notch artillery. Oh no. Just a scraggly, sickly shoal of pink-skinned slaves.

Ravagers stick their paws into all sorts of businesses. But the slave trade's rarely one of them – their ship's not the nicest smelling place to begin with. A hold full of ill folks swimming in their own shit might just tip the balance from 'unpleasant' to 'uninhabitable'. Plus, there's a few of their own number who originate from slave stock. Peter figures the pricetag isn't worth the mutiny-risk.

But that doesn't mean he's not pissed off about it. His girl – the only girl that's ever stayed long enough for Yondu to remember the name of – has been steering dodgy this past week, and he needs the credits to take her for overhaul. Never able to resist a bet, Yondu'd insisted they take out a stake on themselves. Winning this match is Milano's best chance at having her flaps realigned before the next client calls.

That in mind, Peter gives this next bout his all.

Yondu doesn't. He's distracted by his watch again, red eyes glancing towards those shards as they bounce the sharp white lights. This time, rather than call him out, Peter makes the most of his years spent learning from a band of the nastiest, most ruthless scallywags to prowl the galaxy. He pulls his watch-bearing arm to one side and, when Yondu's head snaps round to follow, socks him in the solar plexus.

"Ow," says Yondu, from the floor.

Peter holds out a hand to help him up. He prepares to jerk back at any moment – Yondu's as liable to slap it as use it as cover to sweep his legs from under him. But when Yondu grasps the proffered palm he uses it to lever to his feet, and pats Peter firmly on the shoulder. "Good fight."

"We're done?" He can't help but feel disappointed, despite the knowledge that his account's going to be fattened by the morning. While there's those on the crew who're better at hand to hand than the captain, there's none quite as satisfying to punch.

Yondu shrugs, zipping down his underjacket to examine the new bruise. "Yeah. I got shit to do. Can't be wrestlin' round with you all day no more. Anyway, ain't you gonna fix that watch?"

"Right," says Peter, as Yondu reclaims his coat from the far edge of the practice room's echoing honeycomb, and stalks for the exit. Below them, the rookie controls her wobbling ascent and escapes through the practice shaft's opposite hole. "Uh. See ya on Bridge, I guess."

________________________________________

 

Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

He broke it.

How could he break it? And why now?

Quill's mentioned leaving three times in the past week, in a variety of different ways: Go my own path and light my own way; I just want some fucking independence; you ain't my dad, remember? Yondu doesn't remember okaying that his brain stamp them all into its grey matter, but it's happened and he’s gotta live with it. Only now Quill can't shut up about going solo, the tracker – the one Yondu planted on him fucking years ago, when all this nonsense talk began – is broken.

He stomps out of the room, shrugging his coat up his shoulders. Blood and sweat are scrubbed onto a crusty sleeve, and any oncoming Ravagers armed with reports or engine read-outs are dissuaded by the force of his glare. This takes first priority. Calling his next client can wait. So can replacing their temperature gauge – if the gaskets blow, it's not like the crew'll have time to worry about their imminent fiery death. Nope, everything's gotta be put on hold for the next coupla hours, until he's got Quill suitably distracted and can slip a new tracker into his watch.

It'd been easy, first time. Tell the boy he needed an upgrade, back before Quill began this whole independence shtick and was happy to foist general day-to-day chores onto others rather than insisting that he could handle everything himself. He'd practically feed you his watch without a thought. But for the past decade, that baby's been glued to his forearm. Yondu ain't getting it off without aid of a hacksaw and chisel.

…Now that's an idea. Break it so bad he needs a cast, and the watch'll have to come off, right? Unfortunately, Terrans stay broken for an average of six whole weeks. That's time without a second mate that Yondu can't afford to waste.

He kicks open the door to the shower racks, ignoring the gaggle of engies ridding themselves of their oily epidermis (heck knows why they bother; it'll only be replaced tomorrow). Clothes are bundled into a locker. Boots clomped on top without a care for grubby soles – next time he takes a shower he'll choose the full solvent bath and douse his outfit as well. Cheaper than a dry-cleaner and a helluva lot more effective, if you don't mind scraping dead skin off your head and hands for the next week.

His nose has clotted by the time he hammers the touch-panel to start the spray. But hot water'll only restart it, and there's enough blood from the headwound dripping in his eyes already. He selects a chilly setting – not the chilliest; they've got a coupla Kronans on board, and when those boys want a cold shower they use goddam liquid nitrogen – and hunches under the icy spruce of water, wriggling his toes in the puddles before they soak through the porous sponge-stone, into pipes that funnel to the water treatment facility deep in the Eclector's bowels.

So, if breaking Quill's out… How else is he supposed to separate man from watch long enough to squirrel the tracker-capsule inside? Hijacking his lil' visit to the Techies would be the obvious bet – except that Yondu knows they patch gadgets on the go. Peter won't even have to unstrap.

No, Yondu thinks, grimly scraping dried sweat off his biceps. He's gotta do this the difficult way.

________________________________________

 

Sleep eludes Peter rarely.

Used to be that every other mission'd have him whooping and hollering and blasting aliens full of holes, then collapsing into his bunk and wondering why he was too jittery to shut his eyes. He tells himself it was skittish energy, that he was hyped on battle-fever. Yet it was always his mom's face that showed up behind his closed eyelids, scolding him for punching that bully who'd smushed a frog with a stick.

He doesn't see her much anymore. Since being promoted to second mate, hecticness has become the new routine. Scarcely a day goes by when he's not juggling a half-dozen different tasks: leading a pillage, counting plunder, sweet-talking angry exes… By the time he hits mattress he's too exhausted to entertain a conscience. But tonight, he can't help it.

The Ravagers had stripped the slaveship of valuables, including their engine components but excluding life support system, although this had only been after debate. They’d left 'em adrift in the star-strewn gulf. "We don't deal in this," Yondu'd told him shortly, when he caught him watching the receding craft. "And them lot were too weedy to eat. Take too long to chew."

That struck Peter then, and it strikes again now. Yondu's joking (he thinks). It's a rehash of that tired old monologue, about how he stopped Peter becoming one of the unidentified carcasses that dangle from hooks in their kitchen hold and replenish themselves during long space journeys, whether or not the galleon stops for supplies. But although Peter brushed it off at the time, shrugged and returned to his Bridge-duties without further thought, as he watches the flex of the cot-slats overhead as the Ravager above him breathes, his mind returns to that ship.

It must seem so small. Marooned in a star system too young to have grown planets, populated only by straggly pink people with hollow-cheeked faces and the gut-spilling corpses of their big blue captors. Enough of their comm relay has been left that they'll be able to call the Nova Corps – but will slaves be able to work the technology of their masters? Will they figure out how to read the galactic lexis of the starcharts, before their foodstock runs dry and they eat their dead or starve?

There's so many questions. It says a lot about Peter that his primary one is not whether those collared men and women will float there for all eternity, but how narrowly he'd escaped their fate. Now he's full-grown, he doesn't doubt that there's those in the galaxy who'd pay good money for a Terran child. Not that he's grateful to Yondu or nothing, but… He supposes things could’ve been worse.

Nevertheless, when he sets his music to the comforting drone of Moonage Daydream, nuzzling into his thin-stuffed pillow and shutting his eyes, all he sees is mom. She teaches him what the Ravagers never could, cupping his face in a hand as skeletal and cold as those of the slaves who had dragged on his sleeves as he walked away.

It's okay to cry when you're sad, so long as you smile when you're happy. If you're nice to others then they'll mostly return the favour.

And Peter? Darling, promise me you’ll be good.

As Peter finally dips into dreams, he wonders if 'not being as awful as I could be' is the same as being 'good', and whether not selling slaves is really any better than leaving them behind.

________________________________________

 

Quill doesn't have his own cabin like Yondu and Kraglin. This is partly because Yondu likes to mess with him, but mostly because the thought of Quill being within sleepwalking distance of his room is tempting disaster. Although perhaps Quill'd get the wrong door and snuggle up with Kraglin instead. Boy'd get himself shanked, and that'd be another problem crossed off Yondu's evergrowing list.

However, while their sleeping arrangement is designed to prevent accidental bed-sharing, it means that when the reverse is true – when Yondu needs to creep up on Quill unawares – he has to sneak around his own ship like a fucking stowaway.

Grumbling to himself (very, very quietly), he tiptoes along Quill's row. Ravager dorms are long and thin. Three hangars have been cleared especially for this purpose, positioned in sprinting distance of battle stations. Each is divvied into twenty dorms by salvaged, flat-hammered sheets of ship keel, which are attached to one another by horizontal runners. In an emergency, mammoth gears grind in the ceiling and floors, and these walls compact slowly in on themselves, clearing space for three extra broadsides of plasma cannons and pasting any Ravager who ignores the sirens. The walls stretch thirty metres skywards. Every interval is marked by one fold-out bunk, carved directly into the steel. The lights hum at a constant dim amber, bright enough that you can't pretend you mistook someone's sleeping face for a ladder rung but not too bright to disturb, and the pallets close over shallow locker-spaces in which a Ravager's few personal possessions can be distributed over wonky, makeshift shelves.

It ain't luxurious. But it ain't the Kyln, and that's what matters.

Yondu swarms a ladder halfway down the hall. He's a silent silhouette, trenchcoat and boots discarded and implant dark, no crimson seeping to join the muddy orange hues of the solar cells high above. Last time he was here he'd been showing Quill where he was gonna sleep. At the time he'd only cared that said sleeping place didn't intrude on his own, so he hasn't bothered to memorize where he'd put him. It's near the top though, he's sure. Vindictiveness on his part. But hey – it'd helped Quill get over his fear of heights.

Once he reaches the ceiling he surveys his kingdom from on high. He searches for a tuft of gingery hair (of which there are a few), an outflung white arm (of which there are several), or the shiny orange circle of a walkthing headphone (of which there's only one).

Got him.

Teeth bared in a victorious smile, Yondu hoists himself to hang from the spaghetti-knot of pipes that lace the dormroom's ceiling. Bonuses of being a tree dweller – he don't have to climb all the way down and up again next door. Creeping to the row over takes a while, not because his muscles are quivery from the fight (not as young as he used to be; shut up) but because he doesn't want to have to explain to Quill why he's looming over his bunk like some blue deepspace parasite. Or the surrounding Ravagers for that matter, who Quill will no doubt wake up when he screams.

Nope, Yondu's gotta be stealthy. For a guy whose weapon of choice requires loud whistling and who, as Peter will attest, never stops bragging once he's got you in his debt, that oughta be difficult. But Yondu's also a Ravager, a damned accomplished one at that; he ain't even gonna risk coughing at the smell as the chick below Quill lets loose a ripper of a fart. The heck has that woman been eating? Quite a hottie, so Yondu won't put it past Quill to have fucked her, but… Yeesh. When Yondu lowers himself from the pipes, sliding his bare feet into the ladder notches and descending until he's inches from Quill's dumb snoring face, he's only surprised the boy’s spacemask ain't activated in the presence of toxic gas.

He crouches, best he can in the cramped space. Clings to the narrow rim that's the only fortification keeping Quill from a long drop and a messy stop. The gap left for the ladder chute is about three foot wide; it plummets beneath him, a shadowy waterfall that sucks on his toes. But Yondu's climbed higher in much worse conditions. Sure, it's muggy up near the roof – Quill must like it; air's warmed by a thousand snoring space pirates – but any Centaurian jungle would make this place look like the savannah.

That's a shame really. Because if Yondu can't blame the heat and humidity for the sweat prickling his forehead, that means he's nervous, and…

Well, anyone who's ever met him knows whatta load of bollocks that is.

Yondu fishes in his inner jacket pocket, wobbling precariously over the gulley. He draws out a slender glass tube. It hosts a miniature transmitter wire, thinner than a cat whisker but as strong as the beacons blinking in the M-ship cockpits, powered by a bead of glowing plasma. If the Techies were wondering why he needed another stealth tracker when none of the jobs on their roster call for tailing, they had the sense not to ask. This goes under the watch casing, which means he's gotta pop that without Peter noticing. But when he visited the Techies' lair he'd palmed a multitool, and the reedy murmur of Terran music from Quill's headphones assures him the boy ain't gonna notice if he starts welding his wristpiece to the bedframe.

…Tempting. Maybe later.

Yondu wishes he could crack his knuckles without anyone jerking awake. He reaches into the cot, adjusting his weight with knees knocking on the rung above, and gingerly grabs Quill's sleeve.

Now he's a big boy and running his own jobs, Quill can afford multiple sets of leathers, as well as a plush top for sleeping in. It's disgustingly soft – touching it makes Yondu's teeth itch – but when he tugs it Quill's limp wrist comes with, rolling slackly over the unwashed coverlet. Yondu has to use both hands to tackle the casing, which means holding the tracker in his mouth. Thank fuck Quill's a log-sleeper; this'd be a devil of a job if he was a kicker. Yondu pincers the delicate nugget between his teeth, breath misting the glass. He sets the very tip of the multitool to the watch's rectangular corner. One lil' jiggle… One lil' blast of heat to sizzle through the solder…

Yondu activates the multitool. Prepares to do the deed and scarper. As he presses the flaming tip to the seal, waiting for the silver metal to liquefy, he sucks the capsule further into his mouth, hiding it in one cheek so that on the offchance Quill's eyes pop it won't be on display. Flipping the multitool setting to 'pick', he scrapes away the molten solder and scratches at the repairman's catch release like he would the tumblers on a pre-plasma lock.

Then the chick under Peter thunders out another nose-shriveller. Yondu's so busy not stabbing Peter in the wrist that when he jumps, he forgets he's not supposed to swallow.

________________________________________

 

Three days later, he's ready to try again.

"You pay your Techies too much." Quill leans over his Bridge chair back and twists his wristpiece back and forth, showing Yondu the give. "Casing's all wobbly, and I haven't even punched anyone with it."

"I ain't volunteerin'," says Yondu, elbowing him away. "Fuck off and make sure our rad-blocker's working. Don't want that asshole to know we're on our way." Today's the day they make the contact rue the day of his germination – flora-species; 'born' would be a misnomer. Yondu's gonna spin him upside down and use his leafy head as a broom. Then he's going to drug Quill's celebratory tankard and plant this fucking tracker on him if he has to inject it besides his translator implant.

Things go according to plan, right up until that last part.

________________________________________

 

Yondu's mopped the floor with the contact, as promised. Fellow'd been crying by the end – whether the tears were due to the Ravagers drinking all his liquor and laying claim to any and all that might be floggable on the blackmarket, or because Yondu's arrow had been gently burrowing into his woody forearm, was negligible. After the grand alcohol consumption, Yondu upended a sachet of anaesthetic powder into a cup. He yelled for a final toast before passing it to Quill.

That'd been an hour ago. Now, as they plod along the Eclector's low-hold corridors with stuffed burlap plunder-sacks dragging at their heels, the boy sways promisingly from side to side.

A bit too promisingly.

Yondu grabs his collar, hauling him upright. Wouldn't do to have him collapse in the middle of the galleon; he'll only be rushed to Doc (or, more likely given the condition of those behind them, trampled by a hundred hungover boots). "Still can't hold your liquor, eh boy?" The Ravagers closest to them cringe and cup their ears. Quill barely seems to hear.

"Huh? You… you say something…?"

Yondu scoffs when Quill bobs in the other direction, body rocking like the needle on a metronome. He digs his heels in so he ain't dragged over as well. He's been reliably informed that this shit can knock out a Xandarian for an hour. He neglected to ask these reliable informants how they got their information, but he trusts their word, and Terrans typically need double dosage. This crap shouldn't even conk Quill out – just make him drowsy enough to want an early naptime and then keep him zoned while Yondu plants the tracker, unimpeded by his cabinmate's brassy accompaniment. Why's he so floppy then? Perhaps he snuck an extra bottle while Yondu weren't watching; the cocky shit?

Whatever the cause, Yondu has no sympathy.

"C'mon," he says, heaving them through a sharp-angled confluence where Bridge-bound corridor meets dorm-bound passage. "Ya can sleep it off." He signals Kraglin to lead the flagging stampede to the canteen. The first mate can handle debrief; evidently someone's learnt from experience and not gone overboard on the moonshine. Guy's practically chipper. Although that could be because of who's beside him. To say Horuz looks like Death Warmed Over would be an insult to Thanos's girlfriend.

Still, Quill's in a notably worse state. Yondu figures volunteering to lug him to bunk ain't gonna seem too suspicious. Uncharacteristically benevolent, maybe; but he can live with that. Although first person to say 'soft' gets to join him in a game of target practice. Yondu hikes Quill's arm higher over his shoulders. "Quit draggin' yer feet, boy. You're heavy enough as it is."

"S'rry," Quill burbles, and proceeds to sink further floorwards. Yondu, feeling more like a pack mule every second, wonders if Quill's dopy enough that he can plant the tracker now and dump him in the middle of the corridor. Nah. Best not to risk it. This's a good work out, anyway – can't go getting flabby on the job.

By the time he reaches Quill's dorm, he regrets everything. Quill's decided to be as annoying as possible, and Yondu's puffing from the strain. He has to rearrange him so he can slap the pressure-key. When the door rolls open, bringing with it a throb of cool air and the wafting billow of unwashed socks, Quill moans and goes impossibly limper. Yondu manages to drag him over the threshold before his arms give out. He dumps him on the grubby grilling and spends a well-deserved minute working the kinks from his back.

"Thas' it," he complains, once his spine's ceased impersonating a concertina. Toes Quill with a boot. "You're going on a diet."

When Yondu taps Quill's call-sign into the touch-panel beside his stack, his cot drops out of the wall. It bounces on its hinges with a clang. Yondu cocks his head, blinking. Was it that high last time? Or is it just the prospect of heaving Quill's heavy ass vertically that's making his neck crimp up? Not that he couldn't do it if he wanted to, because dammit, he ain't that old yet – but, well. The bed is mighty high.

Yondu considers. Fingers the tracking capsule in his pocket. "You asleep Quill?" he calls, tentative. There's no response.

That settles it. Operation happens now. Why waste unnecessary energy? Yondu stalks back to where he's left his big pile of Terran, flat-out on his back and staring glassily at the ceiling. He pulls his wrist out of his sleeve, turns the watch this way and that, searching for the entry point, and –

Wait.

Staring at the ceiling? That's not right. Terrans don't sleep with their eyes open.

This is one fact of which Yondu is absolutely, positively sure – if only because he's had the misfortune of waking up with one clinging to him like a bushbaby at several choice moments over the past twenty-six years. Yondu nudges Peter with his foot again. Again, there's no response. There is, however, a trail of frothy-looking blood working its way from the corner of his too-pale lips.

Aw shit. He's poisoned him.

Chapter Text

They said it would work on Terrans.

They said Terrans were just like Xandarians, but that their biology was a wee bit more robust when it came to chemical exposure. So why, why the heck, is he currently slumped at the bedside of a critical-state idiot, waiting for the moment his heart monitor beeps offline?

"Captain," says Doc quietly. Yondu almost spooks out of his seat. Catches himself, arms tight over his chest in what's not so much a cross as a squeeze. He glares.

"What?"

Doctor's gaze is sympathetic – ugh – but professional, so Yondu tolerates it. He creaks into the chair besides him, moving like a man twice his age, and strips off his plastic gloves before pinging them at the trashcan. "Any idea what did this?" he asks. "Anything at all?"

Wordlessly, Yondu digs out the packet. He drops it in Doc's hand. Powder spills between his fingers like ashy rain. Doc's eyes are bloodshot from a night spent prising open a Terran's clamping windpipe and draining fluid from his lungs, and they take three tired flicks to scan the letters and another to comprehend. By the time they finish, they're almost popping.

"Xandarian Nightshade!" Doc stares at Yondu, shaking it, the dog-eared lip of the sachet pinched between index and thumb. More dust falls, sprinkling their boots with icing sugar. "You know what this is, don't you?"

Yondu nods. "Found it at the bar."

The lie comes as easy as breathing. He cups his chin, stubble prickling as he drums on the opposite chairarm, and continues talking into his calloused palm. "Musta been that merchant who contacted us 'bout the slaveship. Knew I shouldn'ta made him serve us the drinks. Spotted this after, picked it from his pocket. But figured if it was just Xandarian crap it couldn't do too much damage." Keeps his phrases short. Abrupt. To the point. His voice croaks hoarser than ever, after a long night spent shouting at medical staff – which, in retrospect, wasn't as helpful as he'd thought at the time. He's been glaring at Peter's wavery vital signs for so long that they're practically engraved on his retinas, but he doesn't dare look away to check if Doc believes him.

There's a quiet sigh. Doc ensures his assistant’s snoring before patting Yondu on the shoulder.

"It's not your fault," he says, and moves away.

________________________________________

 

"Didn't ya tell me once that Xandarians and Terrans could take the same shit?"

They've teased Quill from the brink. Again.

It's his third crash. They've kept him kicking only by aid of adrenaline – not theirs but his, and lanced direct to the heart. By now, Yondu's used up every miserly capacity he has for guilt and empathy. It's time to find someone else to blame.

But Doc shakes his head, from where he's emptying a plunger of viscous ruby liquid into Quill's intravenous line. "Not exactly. Usually, the double-dose must be precisely calculated – that's hard enough with a pureblood subject. But whatever Quill is besides Terran, those genes have made palpable changes to his physiology. When I've medicated in the past, I've actually used far below what would affect a Xandarian. It still makes a monumental difference – almost as if his immune system scarcely needs a hint to pick up a concept and run with it, healing his body on the way. Incredible, really –"

Great. Fucking great.

Yondu lets Doc waffle on. Unseen by anyone but the assistant, who's new enough to be cowed by a leer, he gouges his thumbs into his scrunched-closed eyes and screws them there until he feels the sting. "Ain't helping him now, is it," he says.

Doc's sleep-deprived babble cuts off. He shuts his mouth guiltily. "No. But, with time – so long as we keep monitoring him, reacting to any changes... His system should flush. He's not out of danger. But if he survives tonight…"

Yondu cuts him off by screeching out his chair. "He's as safe as he's gonna get." Not like his presence makes an ounce of difference, and he can't sit by a bedside all day. He's got a ship to run. And a traitorous contact to kill, if only for appearances' sake. He pauses by Quill's bedside long enough to take in the ghastly hue of his face, the rapid twitch of his pupils behind bruised-violet lids, the purpling veins that stand out from his greying skin and glow in time with his sluggish pulse.

There's a lot he could say. Most starts with 'Sorry' and ergo is never actually gonna be said.

While Doc's a smart-ass he ain't a mind-reader, and he's one of the rare men on this crew who doesn't take sentimental as an insult. Yondu capitalizes on that. "Just in case," he mumbles. Pauses. Gives himself time to breathe, matching his own juddery exhales to Quill's. Starts again. "In case he don't make it. Can I… In private?"

Doc finishes fiddling with the tube and gives Yondu a look which is, despite the circumstances, approving. "Of course," he says, nodding to the assistant. "Yell if there's a change."

"Sure."

Yondu waits for him to leave before he strokes the soft fuzz on Peter's cheek. Then props his lolling forearm upright, and loops the IV-line out the way so he can twist the cover off his watch.

________________________________________

 

Peter dreams of slaves.

He dreams of a drifting ship and a collar that tightens whenever he speaks. Peter's never been able to shut his mouth when it's in his best interests. Now he gabbles and babbles and jabbers away, as the ring around his neck begins to crush...

His heart stops. His heart starts again.

________________________________________

 

Peter dreams of a straitjacket that turns into a lifejacket in the space of a blink. A cage undergoes the same treatment. One moment he's faking a fit to escape, bashing himself to bruises. There's a blue hand almost close enough to grasp. Then the hand twists into a shark, ravenous mouth lined with row after row of broken yellow teeth. It champs ferociously on the bars; the cage is all that protects him.

When he dreams of bottomless staircases, the pings of a monitor drag into one long beep.

________________________________________

 

A jolt of electric brightness frightens away the shadows. Peter's next dream is of being swallowed by a scream so deep it has constellations in the tonsils. When he passes through that vast oesophageal wormhole, he finds himself on Earth, holding a toy-sized Eclector.

He dreams of a boy with tow-hair and a bright grin, who makes his new spaceship fly over an acid green lawn in summertime. Voices float through the open kitchen window, along with the smell of cooking dinner: meatloaf and apple pie. Grandma's scolding mom for letting him play make-believe with a lump of scrap metal. Shouldn't little boys have real toys, she snipes, her old voice smokey and crotchety as a bunch of cigarettes stuffed in an exhaust pipe. Granddad's telling her to lay off, that Merry should raise her child her own way. Grandma replies that if 'that man' had stuck around long enough to walk down an aisle she wouldn't have to interfere – but after that someone shuts the window, and Peter can't hear any more.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeep.

________________________________________

 

His heart's getting tired of this. It takes longer to restart, and when it does, Peter sees the same garden – only there's a creak from the door and a crunch of leaves, and suddenly it's autumn. Mom wraps thinning arms around his waist. She tells him that he can play with anything if he only has the imagination, and when Peter looks down he sees the Eclector, snapped in half by a childish stomp. The echoes of the tantrum – I want toys, not scrap metal! I want a dad, not a mom! – recede with the dying wind.

Then it's winter. Mom's standing alone before the alter, veil over her face. Snow flurries through the open church door, but it's not chilly and there's no draft. Pale sunbeams break over the pews, and everything's bright but fragile, as if it'll shatter at a breath. The whole family's here. Grandma, granddad, Yondu and Kraglin, his aunts and uncles, his new little cousin. There's even Horuz: lurking at the back, glowering like he'd rather be anywhere else.

The pastor's A'askavarian. His watch breaks as he looks at it. Everybody ignores the chime of glass hitting floor, so Peter does too.

Grandpa's beckoning from the first row. He looks worried – but nothing can ruin a day as perfect as this. Giving mom's hand one last squeeze, Peter bounds over, energy compressed into a child's small body, and clambers on his lap so he can feel his whiskers tickle as grandpa hisses urgently in his ear: "Peter, where's your father?"

Peter shrugs. "I don't care," he says. Pushes off grandpa's knees and runs back to mom, miniature Ravager boots slapping off the church tiles.

Mom looks glacially beautiful. Her dress is an icy froth of white, billowing out like a mermaid's tail. It trails the entire length of the aisle, and Peter can't tell where the snow ends and she begins. He hugs her. Makes her stoop to his level. Lifts the veil so he can kiss her cheek, because everyone deserves a kiss on their wedding day whether or not it comes from a groom.

His lips mash cold hard bone, and Peter opens his eyes.

________________________________________

 

"Where am I," he tries to say. But his tongue's turned to tar and his throat's drier than Tatooine. (He'd been so mad when Yondu told him that didn't exist. How long ago had that been? A day? Week? Year?)

Peter gives in and attempts to roll over. His efforts are aborted – not least by the spiderweb of sensors and wires stuck to his torso by a hundred flesh colored sucky-pads. One wire looks like the earth cord in a dismantled plug socket, and another's translucent and humming on the low cusp of Peter's hearing. And, for all he knows, he's finally been captured by a gang of aliens who prefer probing their Terrans to training them into galactic-class space pirates.

A beep sounds in time with the blood rushing in his ears. It speeds as he realizes he's stuck, and something tugs inside his arm when he tries to thrash and free himself. Fuck. If he's been honey-trapped again, Yondu'll never let him hear the end of it… He smacks the lip of the table as he struggles, flipping the tray of medical-come-torture instruments. He's not sure if it's the crash and clatter or the smash of his watch – again, dammit – that brings his captor running. But it works. Peter readies himself to attack, doubling the IV over to use as a garrotte…

"Quill!"

He knows that voice.

Peter relaxes as Doc rushes over, crunching through the broken glass. He allows himself to be eased horizontal once again. The bunched IV falls from his hands. As Doc flutters his hands and chitters an exclamation in non-translator-compatible dialect, Peter lets his fists loosen on the sheets and catalogs every ache and bruise. His chest's the worst. As if he's been stabbed…

Peter glances down, chin to chest, and goggles at the bandage. "Don't remember that," he tries to say, but can't get out the words. Doc fills a glass and helps him drink when Peter struggles to hold it, unconsciously checking his pulse and pupil dilation as he does so.

"Adrenaline shot," he explains, motioning to the dark plaster. "You were poisoned."

The water tastes like sour booze and unbrushed teeth, but it's cool and it soothes his parched throat. He'd guzzle until he puked if Doc didn't tilt the slick glass rim away. Peter swallows, messily. He coughs a weak burp. "Poisoned?"

"Yes." Doc's mouth thins. "By your last contact."

Ah. The bar. Peter shudders. Then attempts to sit again, feebly swatting at Doc when he's resisted. "Wait! The other guys, everyone else who drank… Are they…?"

"Everyone else is fine. It seems you were the target."

"But me? Why…?" Peter casts his mind back. What's the last thing he remembers? Loping into the bar at Yondu's left side, Kraglin to the captain's right. Feeling the power of an army at his back, as red-clad creatures from every quadrant known to Nova (and a few more on the side) elbow their way into the cramped room, scouting for booty. Wincing as he watches captain and first mate exchange jovial small talk over the screaming, writhing merchant, who's pinned to the floor with an arrow through the branch.

Yeah. He can see why the guy wanted vengeance. But why choose Peter as the target? Unless… Peter's memory scrolls again, finding the furthest piece in the chronological jigsaw before things fade to fuzz and darkness.

Yondu handing him a drink.

"I wasn't the target," he growls. "Where's Yondu?"

Doc raises a spindly brow. "Killing the merchant."

"Ah crap, I gotta, I gotta warn him…" He drags his wrist to eye-level, and squints at the watch's snapped frontpiece. He might still be able to pick out Yondu's call-sign if the plasma cell has yet to expire. Alas, he's not that lucky – but he does spot a weird lil' nugget, trapped under a shard of unbroken glass. One which he's never noticed before.

________________________________________

 

Yondu stomps down the warbird's docking ramp, sticky footprints winding after him. Shoulda known tree-folk squirt sap like geysers. Stuff's glue-thick and smells grossly woodsy, and if he stands in the same place too long he ain't leaving it without aid of a chainsaw.

"Ya killed him?" asked Kraglin, falling into step besides him. Sniffs. "Huh. Sandalwood. New cologne?"

"'Yeah' to the first, 'fuck off or I'll smear it on you' to the second."

Kraglin hastily removes himself to the rear. But he hollers after Yondu, voice bouncing about the spacious cavern of the Hangar and assaulting him from every direction – "Hey, boss! How's Peter?"

Yondu stops. Hunches in his coat, and makes a valiant attempt to scrape some of the sap off his sleeve – it only leaves his fingers coated in the viscous syrup, so he wipes it on the nearest Ravager instead. "Fine," he grates. "He's fine."

"Glad to hear it." Kraglin nibbles his lip. "Although, ya know. Don't tell him I said that, or nothin'."

"Whatever." Yondu continues his steady tramp towards the medbay, having to pull to unstick the treads of his boots, and wonders if the lack of notifications on his wristpieces insinuates the best case scenario or the worst.

________________________________________

 

First thing he notices is that Quill's awake.

Second is that his watch is broken. "Fuck."

"Nice to see you too," Quill snorts. Yondu scans through the contents of the dustpan in Doc's hands, sees the crushed remnants of the tracking chip, and determines that the cosmos must be cracking a joke at his expense.

"Congrats on not dyin'," he says, painting a gummy trail along the wall as he heads for the exit. "I'm going to bed."

________________________________________

 

Only he doesn't. Because hell, Thanos himself could scupper him and Yondu'd stand up swinging – his bow to no one rule includes omnipotent Titans, anthropomorphic entities, and planet-eaters alike; Yondu ain't genuflecting if the goddam multiverse piles on his back. Just because thing's've gone a bit awry doesn't mean he's giving up.

With that in mind, Yondu sits in his nest and snaps his fingers for the lights. "Yeah," he mutters, yawning. "I'm gonna do this. Third time lucky, right?"

The Techies do ask why he needs a tracker this time – or at least, how he's getting through them so quickly. "Eating 'em," Yondu says, not entirely untruthfully. Snatches it out of the girl's hand, gives her a demeaning pat, and scampers off to flip whatever deity has made a hobby out of foiling his plots a massive middle finger. He's buzzing by the time he reaches Quill's bedside. He has to concentrate to stop himself giving the game away – it's the giddy elation of the sleep-deprived, as Yondu convinces himself that there's no way this can possibly go wrong again.

Tempting fate, it turns out, is never a good idea.

Quill wakes up as soon as Yondu rolls his cuff off the watch. The medbay's dark and silent, the assistant on duty operating from one of the other compartments to allow Quill and Doc peace to sleep. Yondu doesn't know what startled his eyes open – he hasn't made a sound, and Quill'd looked deep under – but whatever the cause, he's caught without an excuse.

"Um," he says. "Yer dreaming. Go back to sleep."

"Liar," Quill wheezes. Grabs his hand. "Knew you were coming back. Gotta tell me you missed me properly."

Yondu extracts himself, grimacing. That tantalizing gleam of uncovered circuitry from Quill's wrist gores his eyes like boar tusks. His night vision's better than Quill's – helps to emit your own bioluminescence – and he reckons that if he can secret the nodule inside, Quill won't be able to distinguish the tracker from the internal power cores. "Somethin' like that," he says. But how to get close enough? How to convince Quill to shut his goddam eyes long enough for him to do the deed and make his getaway? He ain't singing him no lullaby, that's for certain. Those tracks on Quill's walkthing already repeat through his brain on an average of five times a day-cycle; anyway, he doesn't have the voice for it.

Quill's watching, expectant. The gentle rumbles of Doc's snores from the pallet around the corner make a comforting soundscape, like one of them ocean recordings Xandarians buy for their arsy-farcy meditation, and… well, ain't the medbay beds wider than Quill's?

Okay. He can do this. One little moment of vulnerability. Faked vulnerability at that! It ain't too heavy a price to pay; not when you consider the boon…

Yondu licks his chapped lips. His throat's gone arid all of a sudden, and when he rubs the seam where the cool crystal of his implant yields to nape, his fingers come away sweat-tipped. "I had a nightmare," he mutters. Coughs. Resets himself – gotta make this believable, after all. "I had a fuckin' nightmare, okay. Like before. When ya… well, y'know. When you tried to crack my safe." When you decided to hug me instead. To this day, he's not sure which outcome he would've preferred. "Anyway," he continues to Quill's shocked face. "I dunno. I just. Thought I'd make sure you were still breathin', is all."

"Oh," says Quill, eyes showing the whites. Struggles a little higher on the bed, looking stumped. "I thought –" Then he reconsiders whatever he had been about to mention, meets Yondu's eyes, and folds back the sheet.

No. Oh hell no. Yondu almost chokes. "You ain't serious."

"It helped before."

Says you, Yondu wants to spit. I still say you were lyin', cause I don't get nightmares. Except it's an untruth his deception relies on, and he's gotta uphold it if he doesn't wants the boy to get suspicious. Yondu sags. "Yeah," he admits. Stalks forwards and flops the blanket over Quill's wire-studded belly. "Ain't getting under the covers though. Too warm."

Quill shrugs. "Your choice. Don't pull out my tubes, or I might not wake up come morning." And he shuffles onto his side, facing away from Yondu, and tugs the sheet up to his chin. Yondu surveys the space besides him. Gingerly lays a palm flat on the mattress, feeling how it's soaked up Quill's body-heat. Presses until creases form in the sheets, like ripples frozen in time, and rests more and more of his weight on the bed until he's sitting. Quill's legs slide towards the indent. "C'mon," he mumbles, already half-asleep. "Get in, old man."

Yondu shucks his trenchcoat off his shoulders. Dumps it on the floor, teasing off his boots one by one to join it. Doc's too smart to say nothing, even if he happens to be awake. And what better chance is Yondu gonna get?

"Go to sleep, brat," he says, and tangles his hand in red-gold curls for the briefest of moments before reclining and shuffling backwards until his shoulders nudge Quill's. They're spine-to-spine, sheet stretching over Quill and under Yondu, and Yondu can feel his ribcage expand and contract every time he breathes. He steadies his own to match. Then, and only then, once he's certain Quill's under (and he's not responding to gentle kicks, prods, or jiggles of the IV) he inches away, sits again, and bends over Quill to fiddle with his watch. With the casing already broken, he plants the bug in less than a minute, pushing it close enough to the plasma bead that the glow of its activation will be drowned.

There. He's done it. Now he can go back to his bed.

…Or stay here. Ain't that long to morning, and medbay's closer to the Bridge than his room...

Yondu smiles, rolls horizontal, and shuts his eyes.

________________________________________

 

Peter keeps his exhalations slow and paced, in for four, out for four. He feels the mattress dip. There's a wash of heat as Yondu bends over him, leather sliding on the sheet. The gentle lifting of his wrist, the soft clicks and cusses as he manipulates the tracker into place; they’re all oddly relaxing, soporific, sinking into Peter's mind.

He knew it. All of this – the nightmare, the concern – has been fabricated in preparation for this moment. He's been expecting it with such assurance that having his suspicions confirmed is a borderline comfort.

Except, y'know, for the fact that Yondu's tracking him.

Under the heavy, busted watch, Peter's fist hardens into a knot. He wants to rip it out. Gouge it from its nest of wires; fling it in Yondu's face; shout that he knows… But he also knows that if he does that, Yondu'll resort to other methods of keeping him tethered.

Chain him in the brig. Sabotage his M-ship. Steal his Walkman.

Best he keep this to himself. Then, when the next high-paying job flags up, he can jet off to claim the bounty and dump the Tracker on a passing Novaship. That'll come later though. It's been a helluva day, and right now, Peter needs rest. And while Yondu might be a dick – a hundred percent of one, at that – he's also warm. And kinda comfy. And this might be a positive memory of the man that Peter'll want to treasure, because once he's deserted there sure as hell won't be any more.

________________________________________

 

Peter dreams of cages and sharks.

He dreams of opening the cage door (turns out the lock was on the inside after all, he just never noticed before). The shark snaps hatefully at him. But when Peter touches it he discovers it's only a shoal of minnows, which skitter away from his water-parsing hands, blue light glinting off their scales. A trick of the eyes; not a shark at all.

________________________________________

 

It takes Peter a month to recover. By the end of it, he's bordering stir-crazy – so much so that he bothers Kraglin until he forks over some of his mission files for him to trawl through. One name stands out from the rest. Anonymous buyer. That's nothing unusual – Ravagers like to have plausible deniability when shit goes tits-up, and their clients are always more comfortable keeping their identities to themselves, especially when ordering copious amounts of drugs to be smuggled through the Nova stockade.

That’s not what this guy’s after, though.

The location is what catches Peter's eye, as well as the price tag – fifty thou for a twee dashboard ornament. Morag's a planet he's never been to: hunk of rock drifting past the Bellerophon system that'd once housed some swanky Ancient's security vault. According to the file, it's been deserted for the last century, ever since the volcanic eruptions went from 'regular' to 'ridiculous'. But as the vault’s listed as being cleared of valuables during the evacuation, no one's bothered to go back and scope it.

Apparently, one of those useless lil' baubles the Ancient had abandoned has caught somebody's eye. Somebody rich enough to go through the Broker on Xandar, rather than a middle-man orientated towards usual Ravager clientele. Peter thumbs through the description, holographic leaves peeling back and forth before his face. Prize looks boring enough. Just some funky orb with a weird industrial design. Buyer probably wants it to sit on their control console, like someone else he knows. But who's he to question the whims of folks when they're willing to pay him easy-money?

Peter taps the assignation box at the bottom of the holographic page and enters his own name. Then he dismisses it, tucking the pad into his pocket to return to Kraglin. He swings his legs over the sides of the medical pallet. Shunts his feet into their boots – which by now are well-fitting veering on tight. Peter pulls his Ravager jacket over his broad shoulders, and smiles.

Chapter Text

Yondu doesn’t know what karma is. At least, not in the Terran sense of the word. He boasts a vague grasp of physics – every action has an equal and opposite reaction, yada yada – and that’s enough for him to smirk knowingly when whatever goes around comes back and bites a prideful fucker in the ass.

So long as that prideful fucker ain’t him, of course. Certainly, this sense of cosmic justice doesn’t prevent him from robbing every Nova-bound cruise schooner that crosses his fleet’s path.

Sometimes however, the universe can’t be relied upon. Sometimes, folks never get their rightful comeuppance. When that happens, justice does not so much prevail as fail, and the galaxy gets a lil’ grimier in conundrum. So really, after a year’s elapsed since a certain troll-doll incident and Quill is no closer to being sorry, it’s only natural that Yondu takes matters into his own hands.

First thing’s first though: getting onto the Milano. Easier said than done. But he doesn’t have a choice – crew ain’t happy with him after the Xandar fiasco, what with having been duped out of a sweet four billion by the same idiot Terran he’d convinced them not to kill. They lost good men that day. Good ships, too. Yondu figures it’s best to lay low a while, take a solo job, let Kraglin smooth things over (with the aid of lots and lots of booze). Sure, his pockets’ll be a helluva lot lighter once the crew reach that optimum state of inebriation, where enough alcohol’s seeped into their brains that they’ve either forgotten the battle or are too sloshed to form a lynchmob. But he’ll still have a crew, and that’s what’s important.

Yondu saunters through the dingy spaceport, hood pulled over his implant. Shadows eclipse his dim red eyes. He’s shed the Ravager coat in favour of a black ensemble that lets him meld into dark corners, covering almost every inch of electric blue skin – anonymous and mundane, perfect for what he’s got planned.

Thankfully, Quill’s an idiot.

His team’s newfound celebrity means they’ll be targeted from one end of the galaxy to the other, whether for autographs or more sinister affairs, but the lad ain’t ordered one of his goons to stay and guard ship while the rest of them party. Probably wouldn’t be able to enforce the order if he gave it. Boy needs to issue proper commands, earn the respect of his men (or scare it outta them, should ‘earning’ fail…) He needs to quit poncing about like he’s a captain, and act like one.

But that ain’t none of his business. Because Quill left, and Yondu doesn’t owe him shit.

Yondu snorts. He glances left and right. Once certain no eyes linger on him, he slouches over to the Milano’s shiny new wing (and the Nova corps never promised him and his men an overhaul, did they? Sure, Yondu hadn’t exactly hung about after grabbing the orb, but it woulda been nice to’ve been asked.). He sidles up the gangway, casual as you like, and starts fiddling with the lock.

 


 

It’s been a long fucking day. Peter is sweatstained (his own), bloodstained (most his own, some not), and shitstained (none his own, although with the amount caking his legs it’s not like anybody would notice). He’s in high need of a bath, a scour with a wire scrubbie brush, and a stiff goddam drink.

“That was your fault,” growls Rocket, who’d avoided the sewer-sloshing experience by taking refuge on Groot’s highest branch. He sniffs Peter’s crusty ankles. Recoils. “Eugh. Bagsy first dip. And not bein’ on shower-scrubbing come morning. Smell of crap’s gonna cling to my fur as it is.”

But Peter’s mind lags behind, trawling through his teammate’s first words. That was your fault. He thought he’d left the blame-game behind him when he cut ties with the Ravagers, but apparently being unable to admit responsibility is a symptom of space travellers in general, and not just one more dumpling in the stewpot of Yondu’s psyche. Speaking of, Peter wonders how that old git’s doing. Perhaps he’s been marooned. Or shot. Peter can only live in hope.

“Seconding that,” he growls.

“Third,” says Gamora smartly, divulging her boots of crap before entering the ship, which Peter is happy about, by scraping them against the gangramp, which he is not.

“Really? You really have to…?”

“I am Groot,” Groot chimes in, shedding his filthy bark in a rattling shake and ducking to enter on Gamora’s heels. Seems like yesterday he’d been toddling – could well’ve been, with the rate of his growth spurts. Peter grumpily toes a slice of dead wood and wishes he had such an efficient self-cleansing system. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to leave unclogging the shower drain to the one guy who didn’t need to use it. Which leaves…

Peter spins on Drax, face splitting into a cheery grin. “Drax! Ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Draxy-waxy. Draxinator –“

“I resent being called old. I am not, to my knowledge, waxy. And my usual moniker is ‘Destroyer’, not ‘Draxinator’ – although I have not earnt it, so long as Thanos breathes. I assume you are approaching a point?”

Of course. Peter takes a breath – regrets it, inhaling a noseful of excremental fug – and starts over. “Drax, my friend. You have, I regret to inform you, been assigned shower cleaning come morning.”

Drax blinks. “But it is not my turn on the roster.”

Ah yes. The roster. Insisted upon by Gamora and Drax, hated with a vengeance by the sane members of the crew – by which Peter means himself and Rocket, so on second thoughts scratch the ‘sane’ part. ‘The members of the crew who have never done an hour of work unless ordered under pain of whistling, or who are a literal animal and thus have an excuse for living in their own filth’ would be more accurate. Admittedly, Rocket’s filth usually involves nothing more noxious than gunge from the engines and spliced copper wire clippings. Peter doubts his slobbiness extends to cover the faecal matter of ten thousand protein-shake fed mine workers, which Peter had maybe, possibly, forced them to slog through when he tripped that wire and alerted whatever was left of the Collector’s security system that they were retrieving samples of a rare larval pod that could potentially cure a dangerous substrain of Xandarian fever, after having blocked off all other exits with his element gun to prevent capture by the rhino-headed pirates still chasing them after the last job, and…

Okay, so maybe a little bit his fault. But hell. It’s been a long day.

“Drax?” says Peter, crossing his arms. He waits until he’s got the big guy’s attention, before assuming the stern voice of authority he’s been practicing while the others sleep. “Just do it.”

Five minutes later, the matter’s resolved. The roster will be adhered to. Peter’s on morning bathroom shift, and his skin feels impossibly grimier at the prospect.

Sighing, he heads in, toeing off his boots inside the door. He pads the rest of the way to the shower racks in socks. At least he bagsied second slot in the rinser, before everything gets unbearably brown. Once there, he sets to banging his head rhythmically off the wall until Rocket ceases his exfoliation-slash-lice-picking, or whatever the hell takes twenty minutes to cleanse that tiny rodent body, and stomps out, trailing water and glowering at Peter the whole way.

“Don’t give me that look,” says Peter, pointing at him. “I see you scowling. Don’t think I don’t. We gotta learn to share space, buddy, and that means ten minutes in the shower maximum, five if there’s other suckers in line, and – Okay. You’re just gonna. He just. Walked off while I was talking to him. And now I’m talking to nobody. Fucking perfect. I bet Yondu never had to deal with this.”

Perhaps he oughta start threatening anyone who pisses him off. Although of course his options are stunted somewhat, being down a radioactive arrow and up four teammates fully capable of extracting his spine with their pinky fingers (or, in Rocket’s case, building a bomb that’ll blow the lot of them to hell). For now, Peter counts his blessings and hops into the steamy shower cubby, dialling the radius of the cascade until it covers the box’s entire ceiling panel, drenching him head to foot.

 


 

As tempting as it is to drop from the rafters like a malignant blue gremlin and correct him – ‘never got disrespect from no one but you, numbnuts’ – Yondu resists the urge. He huddles tighter in the nook between piping and ceiling, all but invisible as the intermittent occupied light outside the wetroom blurs blue skin and black outfit into one. He satisfies himself with the knowledge that if he jumps down now, sure he’ll make Quill piss himself, but it’ll be a one trick wonder. It’s infinitely more gratifying to let this play out natural-like. See how much havoc he can wreak…

Yondu smirks. He tucks his hands behind his head, and reclines in his makeshift hammock of pipes and wires, which creak and gurgle as they pump warm water over his Terran’s stupid, dirt-smeared ginger head.

They say you learn patience as you get older, right? Looks like his years’re finally paying off.

 


 

Everything’s going fine until Peter reaches for his shampoo and his hand closes on empty air.

Rocket.

Shady little crook thought he’d have revenge, eh? Well, he’ll show him. Once he’s stolen a glob of Gamora’s and sluiced the soapy suds out of his eyes, that is.

Ah well. Isn’t like she’ll notice. Peter’s just grateful that there’s another member of this crew with hair – Rocket’s whiskers quiver in silent fury whenever Peter mentions chemical concoctions coming into contact with his fuzz: something to do with cosmetic animal experimentation that Peter hadn’t had the stomach to inquire further into. Groot’s bark needs little more than the occasional dose of sunlight, and Peter’d found out the hard way that Drax’s carpet matches his drapes (or lack thereof) when Drax’s pants required darning and he waltzed around the ship starkers in search of a needle and thread.

Peter shudders.

No time to be horrifying himself with that recollection. He’s got – he checks the timer, set into the steam-dripping grills of the walls – eight minutes to soak in peace before Gamora comes to demand her turn. He could be done in half that time – has experience showering in a hurry; you don’t exactly hang around when the call to battle stations could blare any moment. Sometimes, he swears Yondu set it off just to mess with him.

But that’s in the past, now.

Peter, in traditional Ravager fashion, kept all his clothes on when he first entered. Once the solvent-laced water’s given ‘em a thorough scouring, he strips and shunts them through a hatch in the wall that leads straight to the quick-dry chamber. Efficiency is everything. In a job as mucky as his – as his had been, because the Guardians are supposed to be a cleaner gig in every way (real well that’s turning out so far), you get used to ploughing through messes and dealing with the clean-up afterwards. But said clean-up is so ingrained into his system that it’s practically ritual. And Peter’s shampoo is the sacred relic at that ritual’s heart – a relic Rocket had seen fit to desecrate, over something as petty as a truncated jaunt in the washbox. Does he know how difficult it is, to get hold of any toiletry that’s that exact fragrance of mom’s jasmine perfume?

Peter’d promised himself he’d never call Rocket ‘rodent’ or ‘monster’ again, outside of the privacy of his own mind, and has summarily proven he’s willing to beat up anyone else who dares. But damn, if it isn’t half tempting… He doesn’t want to think about how the tiny critter had smuggled the bottle out when he was clad in nothing but the fur he’d been born, experimented on, and helped saved a planet in. But Rocket’s got brains, and Peter knows better than to put anything past his genius.

He spends the next seven minutes mutinously chipping grub from under his fingernails. Drags his fingers through his hair one more time, combing the thick damp strands free of excess water, and dials the wash system over to the drying one, blasting himself with warm arid air. By the time Gamora arrives his locks are suitably mussed, and he lashes the towel at a teasing half-mast over his hips before opening the door in her face and treating her to his best smirk.

And almost gagging.

Oh yeah. Covered in shit. How’d he forgotten?

“Move, fool,” says Gamora, elbowing him out the way. But she sounds borderline fond, and when Peter accidentally-on-purpose drops the towel (and bends to retrieve it) she snorts and slams the door rather than taking any more violent, knife-involving measures of removing his privates from her direct line of sight.

“Have fun,” he calls, somewhat lamely. And walks off barefoot, shaking his head at himself, towel unfolded to swaddle him shoulder-to-thigh in a cozy cocoon, avoiding the clotted lumps of manure Gamora’s trekked behind her. De-lightful. He’s sabotaging the roster – if Drax doesn’t want to pitch in, take one for the team, and clean the bathroom, he can damn well make Peter’s corridors sparkle. It is his ship, after all. As sort-of captain, it’s his duty to keep it a tight one.

 


 

Quill’s ship’s a fucking disgrace. Yondu thought he taught him better.

And it ain’t just from whatever sewer-trekking expedition they’d swanned off on earlier, but a mess in every sense of the word. There’s twigs caught above the doorway from where the tree keeps banging its head. Scars scour each wall; differences in depths and height demarcate contributions from the sword-spinning green lass and that hefty tattooed fella who’s got a thing for his knives. Then there’s the rodent’s toolkit – scattered with liberal munificence, screwdrivers and sonic imagers laying prong-up to accost any intruder who didn’t know to avoid them.

Yondu figures there’s worse ways the critter could mark its territory, but his smarting heel disagrees.

Anyway. Ain’t like Yondu’s warbird’s the epitome of pristine sterility, but at least all the junk’s his. Anyone who enters his ship leaves it the way they found it, else they’ll be whistled out the airlock. First rule of keeping control of your men: not letting ‘em intrude on your space. Quill’s the only one who’d dared break into his room (at least, the only one who’d survived long enough to do so on a regular basis) but Yondu’d always given the boy a radioactive, glowing red motivation to tidy up after himself.

Quill, it seems, has not inherited his gift for diplomacy.

Yondu keeps a bored eye on him as he stalks down the corridor, towel flapping, and smirks into his palm when Quill stomps on an up-turned plug. He shrieks loud enough to bring all crew running (bar the showering lass, more’s the pity).

“I am Groot! I am Groot?” calls the tree, wringing its twiggy hands. Quill hops and cusses as if he’s practicing the can-can, inconsolable until Drax forcibly holds him in place.

“Cease this infernal racket. Are you injured?”

Rocket’s last to saunter up. “What’ve ya done this time, idiot?”

“You!” Shrugging off Drax’s weighty palm, Quill levels a trembling finger at the fuzzball while Yondu watches in growing amusement. “You little…” This’s it. Quill’ll holler them out, reassert some damn authority

But Quill visibly wrestles control of himself. If he can’t smother his anger, he at least dampens it to the extent that the next words out of his mouth aren’t a litany of insults. “I have had it with you today,” he hisses. “Can you clean this mess up? Please? This place’s a fucking biohazard! If I get tetanus you’re paying for my shots…”

That’s not quite what Yondu meant. No threats? How’s Quill supposed to make ‘em follow his lead if they ain’t cowering whenever he opens his mouth?

The rodent raises a bushy brow. “Someone’s in a dee-lightful mood. You tidy it up if yer gonna go stamping about and…” he gasps. Darting forwards, he prises at Quill’s upraised foot, frozen mid-hop, and retrieves the embedded screw. “You broke it!”

“Serves you right,” huffs Quill. He shakes his ankle free of Rocket’s grip, twisting it to examine the blood smeared across his arch. “Ow. That’ll teach you to steal my shampoo, a-hole.”

“Your what?” Rocket tucks the screw into his pocket, blood and all, and squares up to Quill best as anyone can whose eye-line is on level with his opponent’s kneecaps. “What’d I want with your crummy champloo…?”

Overhead, Yondu turns the pilfered bottle between his fingers. Stuff stinks: something floral and Terran and Quill-like; but heck, there’s more on his mind right now than whether the fragrance will cling. Quill’s been ordered to tidy up after his men. Yondu ain’t raised a softie, has he?

“I don’t know! But it’s gone, and there hasn’t been anyone else in there, and c’mon man, we agreed! We each have our own stuff and we respect each other’s property! No, don’t you feed me that bullshit you told Dey – I don’t care if you ‘want it more’ –“

But before the rodent can make his riposte – which, judging by how far back his black rubbery lips have peeled, would be enhanced by biting – the bathroom door smacks open. Gamora storms out, dressed in her fresh-dried uniform (heaven knew why Quill hadn’t done the same; probably just to mess with the girl, bless her heart) and hoists Quill effortlessly against the wall. She then proceeds to dig her nose into his neck as if preparing to rip out his jugular with her teeth.

“What? What?” Quill sputters, hands flapping in abortive confusion. The other Guardians look on as Gamora inhales, then twists her expression into something sour and dangerous.

“You used my shampoo.”

“Yeah, ‘cause Rocket stole mine…”

“I don’t care. You don’t use my shampoo, Quill. I will not tolerate such a breach of trust –“

Note to self: Guardians are even touchier about their possessions than Ravagers. Yondu can work with this. He tosses the bottle hand to hand as Quill’s crew bickers below. Stealing shit’s child’s play – scarcely worthy of his talents. But when the crew slopes away to their stations, leaving Peter clasping his towel with one hand and a mop with the other, Yondu doesn’t desert him. Who knows what Quill might spill about his new companions when irritated at them, and without an audience to his knowledge? This could be a valuable opportunity for gathering information on the enemy.

Yondu hunkers down, tucks the bottle into his inner pocket (besides the trolldoll) and waits for the grumbling to begin.

 


 

Peter rubs the cloth in infuriated circles, muttering under his breath. “A-holes, the lot of them. Don’t give me no respect, don’t give me no authority…” He only realizes he’s slipped into Ravager dialect, peppered with double negatives and slipped consonants, when he catches a glimpse of himself in the fresh-shone floor. His gaze lingers on the yellow flame stitched to his sleeve.

Why don’t you leave it? Gamora had inquired one time, after Peter fought his way through a horde of skrull-built robots for his jacket. She’d observed his passage, gunning the clanking behemoths down with the same cold vitriol with which he’d retrieved his Walkman from the guard at the Kyln, her expression equal parts mistrustful and inquisitive. It can’t mean that much to you, surely.

Why don’t you get a new sword? Peter had sniped back. He’d regretted it when that sword – the sword Gamora never talks about, which slices through titanium as if it were butter and has Thanos’s crest engraved on the pommel – rested against his windpipe.

But the point had been made. You can’t run from your roots. When Peter had been a Ravager, he’d never been able to divide himself from what he was: a Terran boy from a backwater planet, wet-behind-the-ears in the way of the stars. Now, as a Guardian, he’s discovering that the Ravager life has left its marks on him in much the same way as the Terran one. He wonders if this latest role (Star-lord, saviour of Xandar!) is molding him too: unobtrusively, implicitly, so that he’ll only notice the change when he moves on.

If he moves on.

Because for all of his complaining (not to mention the soul-numbing amount of crap caked to the bathroom walls, which he is duty-bound to scrape) Peter likes being a Guardian. He likes helping people. He likes taking jobs that’d make mom proud, almost as much as he likes liberating small and valuable items from their owners. This, where he is right now? It feels right. Like he’s found what he was searching for. Like whatever gap left by the Ravager lifestyle, the one that’d gouged deeper every time Yondu twisted one of his (many, many) knives or lashed out at him for sentiment, has finally been filled.

Okay, maybe not right now. Right now Peter’s slaving over a stubborn stain and cursing the roster in a vibrant blend of Terran, Xandarian, Centaurian and Kree. But he smiles, nevertheless.

 


 

The fuck’s he smiling for?

There’s a niggle in Yondu’s brain telling him something ain’t right. The Guardians don’t treat Quill like a leader. As far as he can tell, Quill’s their lackey – the weakest among them bar the rodent; the most fragile, the most easily breakable. It ain’t what Yondu wants, not for the man who’s as close to a legacy as he’ll ever get. Why would Quill choose to linger among folks like that? They can’t be better than him and his boys. Sure, the Ravgers’d teased him something rotten when he was small enough not to get revenge, but after he’d proven his worth they’d always afforded him what he was due. His own ship. His own salary. A bit of independence. A place on the Bridge by his captain’s side, where he belonged.

That’s a helluva lot more than Quill gets here.

Yondu rubs his bristly chin. Nope, Quill can’t be here of his own accord. It don’t add up. While Yondu is adamant that he pay for his own mistakes (i.e., leaving), if Quill’s being doped like an opium addict or mind-whammied into enjoying the Guardians’ shoddy care, Yondu figures he should get him out, if only so he can laugh in Quill’s face and say I Told You So. So. Mission objective is due a change – from annoy Quill to rescue Quill from his own idiot self, as per frickin’ usual.

…And sow mistrust among the Guardians, so he can watch their cutesie shindig fall apart. Then Quill’ll be free of them. He’ll have no choice but to come home.

Once he’s there, Yondu’s gonna give him the biggest knuckle-sandwich yet and put him on grunt-work until he’s repaid that debt (i.e., until he gets tired of hearing Quill whinge and promotes him again). Then they’re gonna party until the whole crew drops, and maybe, just maybe, Yondu’ll tell him he’s sorry for poisoning him and so forth, and get a good night’s sleep for the first time since Peter went rogue. Yeah, at the end of the day, this’s still selfish. He’ll only be confessing to Peter because it’ll clear his own mind, which for some reason ain’t enacting it’s usual defrag of all guilt-related processes and keeps sketching pictures of Quill’s purple-veined face, both on the gurney in the Eclector’s medbay and on Xandar, glaring with the righteous fury of a God at that pesky Kree whassisface, every time Yondu tries to shut his eyes.

Yondu squeezes into the spongey hammock of waste chutes, vent pumps, and humming powerlines that cradles the floor above. He begins his arduous caterpillar-crawl for the kitchens. Can’t plot on an empty stomach, after all.

 


 

“Who ate the last Beasties?” Rocket wails, bounding onto the counter to boot the empty tin. The spoon rattles like a pea in a rain-maker, and Groot grabs the can to stop it tipping and splattering thick orange juice all over the table.

“I am Groot.”

“Well obviously it weren’t you; your diet’s a healthy blend of water and flarkin’ sunlight. But I’d told ‘em this was mine! I even wrote my name on it!”

Groot tilts his head at the illegible scrawl on the label. “I… am Groot.”

Rocket wriggles his pawpads in his face, snarl apocalyptic. “You try holdin’ a pen with hands this tiny. Nope, this was one of ‘em. And whoever it was, they’re gonna pay.”

 


 

Drax senses something is amiss as soon as he sets foot in his quarters. The air tastes wrong, for starters. Drax keeps the door shut on the room he shares with Peter: a relic from the days when Groot, fresh from his pot, had taken to stretching his sapling-legs anywhere and everywhere. The tree had managed to tip Drax's collection of knives on top of himself, from where they were stacked on the table to be polished. It turned out that growing back a limb stunted the rest of the re-aging process, and while Groot had consoled Drax with his usual mantra, Rocket hadn’t been so easy to convince that it wasn’t Drax’s fault. As a result, by the time he crawls in to bunk – “Hits the hay,” as Peter terms it, although Drax can’t see why, given they both sleep on mattresses – there’s a stuffy sourness to the air, circulated only by the rusty internal pumps and valves in the Milano's fan-system.

Tonight, said stuffiness is not present.

When Peter drags himself through the door, coat spattered in gunk – he’s decent enough to dump it outside the door rather than in its usual spot, over the chair on the half of the room deemed his – he finds Drax sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Uh. Hi, big guy. What’re you doing down there?”

“Something is different,” Drax says. “Can you not smell it?”

Peter wrinkles his nose. “Dude, I’ve been sponging the ship clean all day. All I can smell is cleaning solvents and ammonia. I’ve singed my goddam nostrils – no thanks to you lot. Unhelpful a-holes…”

“You’ve singed your nostrils?” Drax stands and crosses in a single stride to tilt Peter’s had back and squint up his nose. “I do not see any sign of burning.”

Peter smacks his forearms. “Drax! Drax, buddy, it was a metaphor! I’m just saying it wasn’t nice of you guys, to leave me to handle all that alone. That’s all.”

Drax releases him, considering this new information. “You… are not wrong,” he finally decrees. Flopping face-first on his bunk, Peter burrows into his pillow.

“Finally. Someone who gets it. I scrubbed the whole damn ship, but Rocket and Gamora were still glaring at me all dinner –“

“They were? I did not notice.”

“Drax, you wouldn’t notice if they’d stripped naked and danced a tango. You were staring so hard at that tin of Beasties I thought it was gonna combust.”

There’s a moment of silence. “I think,” begins Drax, eyebrows crunching the centre of his forehead into a steep V, “that I would notice that, actually.”

Peter doesn’t bother to raise his head. “You are not wrong,” he mimics, muffled by the cotton in his mouth. “Seeing as I didn’t eat them, and Gamora’s poison is sweet things rather than protein snacks – poison’s a metaphor! – I’m guessing you’re the one who scarfed ‘em down. Kinda impressed, buddy. You’re getting better at this lying thing.”

Drax’s placid stare turns offended, then hurt. He hauls himself stiffly up the ladder, and the creak of his settling weight makes the bunk slats over Peter’s skull strain in warning. “I do not tell falsehoods, Peter. If I were you, I would not accuse me of such again.”

Peter chuckles. “Sure you don’t, buddy.”

As he’s noticed the error of his ways and assented to Drax’s version of events – that Rocket had simply polished off the can on a midnight raid and forgot – Drax gives a satisfied nod. He knew Peter would understand. “Thank you for trusting me,” he says sincerely, because that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell your friends. Then he rolls over, and goes to sleep.

Peter extracts himself from the pillow once breathing becomes an impossibility, and turns on his side. Drax’s snores make the walls rattle. He’d rather bunk with Gamora – but she’s opted to share the room opposite with Groot and Rocket, citing his ‘pelvic sorcery’ as motivation (which is frankly an offence to Peter’s chivalrous and noble nature).

So Drax it is.

Honest Drax.

Drax ‘would-not-tell-a-lie’ Destroyer.

Drax, who seems worryingly earnest in his insistence that Rocket’s precious protein snacks aren’t stewing in his gut. Peter doesn’t know if he should be more worried about Drax turning into a master of deception, or that niggling sense of being watched that’s been following him all day. It’s gone now though. That’s something, at least.

As has the smallest of Drax’s knives.

Last Peter saw, it was impaling the bug-eyed Thanos doll Rocket stitched him for his birthday. Perhaps Drax found a better sheathe for it? No doubt it’s with his others: hanging from the shirt-rack in the wardrobe, arranged in a painstaking order of size/color/number of attributed kills that Peter can never master. He’s caught every time he borrows one to chop vegetables, but it doesn’t stop him trying. Nope; if Peter flung open the doors of their commode, that knife would be there. He’s sure of it.

Reassured, Peter follows Drax’s lead and drops into uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

Perhaps it’s Gremlins, Peter thinks as they drag Drax away from Gamora the next morning (who had discovered his knife inside her pocket at the breakfast table and been immediately detained by seven-plus foot of growling grey). Although the only recent technological mishaps have been traceable to Rocket, who’s rewired all the door systems for his own sick amusement so they open and close in the middle of the night cycle, spelling obscenities in Morse code. A poltergeist then? Peter makes a cross with his index fingers and glares at the ceiling. “The power of Christ compels you,” he says.

No green sludge pours from the walls. That’s something, at least. Knowing his team they’d make him sponge it up.

Giving in, Peter sighs and slopes into the cockpit. Where he finds Rocket slumped moodily in his chair. It’s a good thing he spots him. They’re early in the day-shift yet, on their way to a Shi’ar planet to pick up the proposed trajectories of those rhino-headed traffickers who’d chased them through the Collector’s grotto. With the lights on dim, Rocket’s small body almost melds into the cushioned seat.

“You,” says Peter, slinging his arms over the chairback and making him jump, “almost got sat on.”

“Nah,” Rocket retorts, once the fur on the back of his neck has smoothed. “You almost got my teeth in yer ass.”

“Kinky.”

“You got issues, Quill.”

“And you, buddy, are moping. When you mope, things tend to explode. So, I’ll ask before the fireworks start. What’s up?” He expects Rocket to snarl and swipe with his vicious little claws and order him to back off. He doesn’t expect the dejected expression, which has his face crumpling like he’s been left out in the rain. Even his whiskers droop. “Buddy?” says Peter again, softly. Rocket does growl then, infuriated by Peter’s sympathy. But Peter navigates the bluster with the ease of one practiced in Speaking Yondu, and drops a hand across his ears, smoothing the prickly fur.

Rocket considers scratching him. Peter sees it in the way he stiffens, small limbs going tense in his jumpsuit. But then he gets over it, and drops his chin to his chest, allowing Peter unfettered access to that place at the rear of his skull that he never admits he loves to have scratched.

Peter, tracing the delicate bones with fingers that seem thick and clumsy in comparison, doesn’t mention when Rocket’s leg starts to tic. “What’s up?” he asks.

Rocket tells him.

Peter doesn’t laugh. Just. “Groot wouldn’t do that! Not on purpose. C’mon, you know that.”

“Well, he’s managed t’wash our clothes every frickin’ time in the past without mixing mine with your stinky Ravager longcoat! Don’tcha know the dye runs? Why you even drag that thing about’s beyond me.”

“It’s warm,” says Peter lamely, which is a simultaneous truth and lie. Ravager garb is designed for all-terrain travel, but Rocket knows as well as he does that Peter’s reasons for keeping the golden flame on his sleeve goes beyond that go-to excuse. “Hey. It can’t be that bad, I’m sure.”

Rocket stands. Wordlessly, he leads Peter through the ship – Peter sends nods and smiles to Drax and Gamora, the latter of whom is, on his suggestion, attempting to placate the former with his favourite dish, which would be more successful if Gamora was awake enough to cook. Groot squats nervously in the corner, his organic bulk somehow difficult to pick out against the Milano’s steel interior. He gets a smile from him too. It’s not returned – mostly because Rocket doesn’t echo it.

“Here,” he grunts, turning into their room. He hops onto the table to punch the lock panel. A portion of wall reels aside, revealing Rocket’s meagre possessions. Or rather: the meagre possessions Rocket bothers to put away. Seeing as the majority of his mechanical medley is spread across several floors of Peter’s ship, the contents of the wardrobe is not the most accurate representation.

Peter once more struggles to hide laughter. Rocket is too aggrieved to notice. “I can’t wear these. You see, Quill? It’s flarkin’ terrible. I just can’t believe my bud would let this happen, and then hide them here without telling me… I mean, c’mon! I’m gonna notice. It’s almost as if he wanted me to find them…”

Alarm bells.

Internal ones, thankfully. Peter, who’d been shredding his lips with the effort of not giggling as he absorbed the swinging rail of jumpsuits, each of which was a startlingly bright shade of fuchsia, frowns. “What’s Groot’s side of the story?” he asks.

“Idiot says he was planning on washing my crud today, not yesterday. Bollocks, of course. Who else coulda done it?”

“Yeah, no one on this ship willingly does their chores. Much less when they don’t have to.”

It could have been his imagination, but Rocket looked a little guilty at that. “Ya didn’t tread on no more plugs on the way down here, didya, big guy?”

It’s nice to be called ‘big guy’ on a team with Groot and Drax. Peter smiles. “No. I was watching where I was going.”

“Huh. Good. Wouldn’t want t’have to keep fixing ‘em.” Rocket sighs, plucking the nearest pink pantleg. “I can’t wear these. M’gonna have to walk about in my birthday suit once this set gets dirty…”

Ah. That’s why this bothers him so much. Peter substitutes his amusement for genuine compassion. When you’ve spent your conscious life railing against being considered an animal, suddenly having to revert to skin and fur would be demeaning. “I’ve got a t-shirt you can borrow,” he muses. “Won’t fit like these, but I wore it as a kid so it’ll be better than anything else on board. If you want it, it’s yours for as long as you need it.”

Rocket blinks at him, shocked. “You’d do that?” he blurts, then covers his mouth with a paw. Peter chuckles.

“Course I would. We’re a team, aren’t we?” He gives Rocket a last pat, then goes to rummage through his commode. Like Rocket, he’s surprised Groot would commit such a grievous error. Even if he was the culprit, he’d have hidden his handiwork better. Any of them would. Except perhaps Drax – but then again, Drax is a stickler for the roster, and thanks to Peter’s meddling, he's due to be sweeping corridors for the next week.

It’s almost as if he wanted me to find them…

And there’s that strange sensation again. Like he’s being watched.

Peter whips around. There’s no one in the doorway. When he glances overhead, to the vents that stud the ceilings like bolts in a mod-addict’s flesh, there’s no one there either – but he swears he catches a glimpse of black and blue.

Probably nothing. Figment of his imagination, combined with morning-bleariness and lingering humor at Rocket’s fashion-predicament. Others’ll laugh if he says anything.

Peter walks into the hall. To his surprise, Rocket’s crouched over a pile of wires and metal shavings. He appears to be scraping them into some semblance of an order. Peter stands and gapes. “You’re cleaning up?” he squeaks.

Rocket’s hackles raise. Then slowly lower. “I guess,” he mutters. Nods to the t-shirt in Peter’s hands. “That it?”

Peter hands it over. “Yeah.”

“It’ll do.” Rocket pauses. He glares at the wall behind Peter’s head. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, bud.” Sensing further conversation will broach awkward-sentiment-territory (and result in Rocket mussing his tidied crud out of spite) Peter drifts away. He drifts all the way to the maintenance hatch at the base of the engine rooms. “I wonder…” he says.

 


 

Yondu, meanwhile, is observing Rocket’s efforts in bewilderment. Why’s the critter doing what Peter wants? He’s gotten what he needs out of him – manipulated him into forking over his clothes. Why saddle himself with extra work when Peter’s made it clear he’ll do it for him if there’s no other choice? Heck, if he was Yondu, he’d have smacked that dumb tree good and proper (not that the tree had been the one to mix reds and oranges on a hot, brutal wash cycle, with a whole packet of color-catalyst mixed in). Then he’d have batted his eyes and milked Quill’s dumbass sentiment for all it was worth.

…If Rocket was Yondu, perhaps Quill would’ve left him too.

That thought’s the result of too much stress and too many sleepless nights. Or else he’s going senile. Either would be preferable to the uncomfortable suspicion that his impression of the Guardians is false.

What if they actually like Quill? What if he likes them? What if he never comes back?

Yondu’d better step up his game.

 


 

Peter decides night shift would be the best time to access the ventilation tunnels. Nobody to ask questions, for one thing – he’s still half-convinced he’s being paranoid, but seeing as Drax had walked into a storage locker and gotten doused in a mist of herbicide, things are getting serious.

Thank God he’d gone first. If it had been Groot…

Peter shivers. Drax hadn’t mentioned anything about a wire, and it could have been an accident – but Peter doesn’t trust this coincidence. At least, not on top of everything else. But he also refuses to believe Rocket would avenge his wardrobe in such a way. Not against the flora colossus who is, despite Rocket’s continued grumps, his closest friend. But if Peter voices his suspicions, and if they’re corroborated, the Guardians’ll rip his ship apart in search of the saboteur.

Peter lays his hand on the Milano’s trembling wall, feeling the powerful thrum of her engines. “Won’t let that happen to you, girl,” he mutters.

***

Quill’s talking to his ship. He really has cracked.

But the mission’s taking longer than expected. It’s now been a week, and while they’re treading around one another with more care, the Guardian team doesn’t seem liable to splinter. Yondu sighs. The only time he’s been able to catch shut-eye is when Quill’s in view, ready to reassure him that he’s not frothing at the mouth, eyes blood-bloated and rolling like they are in Yondu’s dreams. Tragically, that means suffering through Drax’s snores. But Yondu’s had noisier bedmates. In fact, by the time Peter slips from his bunk, he’s been lulled into as deep a slumber as he’s had this past year, both by the rhythm of Drax’s gargling breath and the certainty that if he opens his eyes, Peter’ll be there.

Only he’s not. When Yondu drifts awake and checks his view from the vent, Quill’s bed is empty.

A lesser man would panic. Yondu, after an extended period of insomnia, the deficit of which has yet to be redeemed, is a lesser man.

He sits too fast. Bangs his head on the grill. Scrabbles backwards up the tunnel, pain and frustration blaring through his brain in equal measure – how could ya be so stupid, ya want the big guy to wake up? Then freezes, as he registers the muscular forearm wrapped around his chest, pinning one arm to his side. And the knife blade teasing his jugular.

“Hi, Yondu,” Peter growls. “Next time, send a postcard.”

 


 

Gamora wakes to a whistle.

That’s weird. She didn’t think any of the Guardians could do that. Groot doesn’t have lips, Rocket has the mouth of a rodent, Drax can’t carry a tune to save his life, and Peter makes spitty raspberries whenever he tries. If this is him practicing, it’s paid off.

Then she realizes the whistle has an echo. Peter’s voice. “Guys! Guys, a little help –“

Gamora snaps fully awake. She meets Rockets’ eyes, eerily reflective in the dark. He nods at her, as Groot levers himself creakily from the top bunk and hands them their weapons, their quiet thanks acknowledged with an equally soft I am Groot.

Stealth, it turns out, is a foreign concept to Destroyers.

“Udonta!” roars Drax, barrelling into the corridor. “What is your purpose on our vessel –“

Yondu taps the arrow currently making laps around Peter, its tip pointed unerringly at his neck. “Uh-uh, boyo. You stay right there.”

Gamora, next to the scene, growls low in her throat and weighs her dagger. She wonders if she can fling it through Udonta’s head before he whistles an offensive. Probably not. For one thing, the amount of force needed to puncture his thick skull has got to be significant. Peter spots her calculating glare, and shakes his head. His eyes are desperate. It takes Gamora a belated minute to realize he’s not only afraid for himself.

Don’t kill him, he mouths.

Perhaps he’s been hypnotized?

Yondu, blissfully unaware, crosses his arms and shows every one of his broken teeth. “Peter never brought y’all home for dinner,” he drawls.

“I am Groot,” comes the dangerous rumble. Rocket translates – with embellishment.

“Alright, ugly. Ya got Quill. Now what d’you want?”

“Four billion units’d be a good start – but I’d settle for all that’s in yer kitty right now. Cough it up.”

Rocket’s scowl is mortally offended. Yondu doesn’t notice – or, more likely, doesn’t realize the danger of pissing off all five of the Guardians. Sure, he could kill them all, but given he’s had every chance to and hasn’t yet, Peter guesses that’s not the endgame. “I’m waitin’,” he says. Then wriggles his comm-watch. “Oh, and I’ve sent a distress beacon to Kraglin. Half an hour and the whole fleet’ll be here. I’d like t’see ya fight off all my boys at once.”

Gamora’s smile turns cold and deadly. “So what you’re saying is, we’d better defeat you before that…”

Of course, that’s when the proximity alarm goes off.

“Great fucking timing!” Peter yells, as a missile impacts on the Milano’s flank, juddering off her forcefields. They’re intact – for now. But they won’t be for long under a barrage, not without evasive manoeuvres, and then they’re all dead. He spins on Yondu, heedless of the arrow. “Did you also tell your boys to fire on sight?”

“No!” Yondu looks just as bewildered as he is. He hides it quickly. “This ain’t me.”

“Then as leader of this crew, I suggest we put aside our differences until we’re not fucking under fire. Agreed?” Doubtless, Yondu would like to argue. But he’s not stupid, not when it comes to self-preservation. He nods, tight and decisive, and leads the way to the cockpit, arrow zipping back to his belt. Peter stumbles behind him. “Hey, woah. I walk first…”

Gamora rests her hand on Drax’s arm until his knife lowers. It takes a considerable implementation of her bodyweight. “Peter’s right,” she grunts. “We can deal with Udonta later. For now, let’s focus on staying alive.”

 


 

The view from the cockpit reveals two things. First, it’s not Ravagers. Second, there’s no way they’re coming out of this alive.

“This is your mess, boy!” Yondu roars, slamming Peter against the glass. “You pissed off the Juggernaut clan? Y’know what their motto is? Never fuckin’ give in. Now I’m gonna die because ya can’t pick yer fuckin’ battles –“

“They were dealing slaves!” Peter protests, waving frantically at Rocket before he can put a hole in Yondu and the windscreen alike. “I had no choice!”

“You always have a choice. Have I taught ya nothing?”

“And you chose to break into my ship! I say you oughta quit whinging and deal with the consequences.”

For a moment, it looks like Yondu’s going to kill them himself. Certainly, if he whistles in this confined space they’re all at risk of depressurization. Then he steps back, fists unballing from the material at Peter’s throat. “How’d they get so close?” he asks.

Gamora, bent over the scanners, shakes her head. “They have cloaking devices. Beyond anything I’ve seen –“

“And a big fuckin’ artillery.” Yondu squints at the circling armada, shading his eyes against the blinding headlamps. “But they ain’t usin’ it. Just a warnin’ shot. Which means they’re optin’ for the ‘take ‘em alive and torture ‘em slow’ route. Lucky you.”

“Then I say we go out fighting!” Drax rams his knife blade-down into the console besides Yondu’s hand. As far as dramatic gestures go, it’s impressive. It’s also taken out their pilot rig, and, judging by Quill’s bereaved moan, irreparably damaged his décor.

Groot shifts nervously, leaves scraping the doorframe. “I am Groot.” Rocket, perched on his shoulder – all crimes involving jumpsuits have been forgiven, in face of emergency – sneers.

“Groot’s right. I ain’t sacrificin’ myself over this. How’s about you stay and fight-to-the-death, while me and him jettison the escape pods?”

“If anyone’s gettin’ in them pods, it’s me! I ain’t got nothin’ t’do with this…”

“Aw,” Peter mocks. “You scared?”

There’s a long silence, during which Yondu glares at him evilly, Gamora looks between them in barely stifled amusement, and Rocket claps a paw over his mouth. Then Yondu stomps into the kitchen-area, out of the light, gesturing for them all to follow. “Alright,” he growls, palms flat on the table. “Listen up, idiots. Ya wanna live, here’s what we do…”

 


 

“Why should we trust him?” asked Rocket, for the fifth time.

“We don’t,” came Peter’s equally well-worn answer. “But he’s got the experience in this field. Old a-hole’s survived the stars this long. I say that for now, at least, we follow his lead.” The Guardians have adjourned for a brief meeting – which translates to Rocket and Drax loudly pontificating that this is Peter’s worst idea yet, Groot adding quiet words in Peter’s favour (which’d be more useful if Rocket was in the mood to translate) and Gamora as-of-yet undecided.

“Y’all done with yer lil’ powwow?” Yondu calls. He’s stolen Quill’s chair – of course. “Wanna know if I’m due to die surrounded by idiots.”

Gamora’s mouth twitches. Up, not down. “I’m with Star-Lord,” she says. And, in the democracy that is the Guardians’ crew, that’s the deciding vote.

 


 

As Yondu predicted, the Juggernauts send a retrieval ship. It’s stuffed to the brim with rhino-headed, bull-brained infantrymen. They’re all from the same clone-batch, by the numbers branded onto their bare chests: lowest tier of the military hierarchy, barely any sentience to call their own. Perfect cannon fodder. Their lives are ruled by orders, projected directly into their helmets.

“Dumb an’ stupid,” Yondu tells Quill out the side of his mouth. “But that don’t mean they ain’t dangerous. They got no pain sensors, and they’ll fight until they fritz. No point resisting. Even your cute lil’ boyband’d be overrun.”

“Dumb and stupid mean the same thing,” is the not-so-witty rejoinder. Yondu rolls his eyes and smacks him upside the back of the head.

Instantly, weapons train on him. The Guardians’ as well as the Juggernauts’. Given that the Juggernauts are in the midst of disarming them, that’s not appreciated. Half the barrels swing back in their direction – then to Yondu again, wavering between the two targets with an indecision that precedes itchy trigger fingers.

Not good.

“Uh, sorry.” Looking to defuse the situation, Yondu relocates his hands above his head. “My bad. Ain’t gonna happen again.” He looks into the translucent, circuit-laden plastic of the nearest visor. It’s broadcasting a live feed for whichever lucky clone runs this joint. “Y'all can tell yer men to back off.”

Regardless of how they’d shielded themselves until they were in firing range, the Juggernauts’ tech-calibre is far inferior to the Ravagers’. And despite their freaky hive-mind shtick, their organization could be slicker. For a start, they don’t have yaka-boxes on hand. From the muttering over the radio they’re scrambling to find one in storage, but right now all that prevents Yondu from whistling is the captain’s orders. They scroll across the inside of each rhino’s visor in sulfur-yellow print. He so much as licks his lips? The Juggernaut infantry finds out how long they can keep tearing limbs from bodies while a radioactive arrow sears holes in their guts. And, judging by the hum of depowering gun cores, worst-case scenario just came mighty close.

“Keep your mouth shut, Ravager,” the nearest rhino growls.

Yondu mimes locking it and throwing away the key. Rhino doesn’t find it amusing. He must be the leader – or is a defective clone, given he’s capable of speech and thus in possession of more than three brain cells. He grabs Yondu and manhandles him into a cuffed seat, Quill and the Guardians a space to his right. “Strap ‘em up, lads. Extra tight, until the Centaurian learns to keep his hands to himself.” The Juggernauts obey.

When a guy with skin thicker than Yondu’s leathers says tight, he means tight.

The veins stand out from Peter’s neck. If the Juggernauts ever go out of business, they can sell these chairs to a medbay as whole-body tourniquets. “Thanks a lot, idiot!” he hisses, as the craft decouples from the Milano’s airlock and jets for the Rhino mothership in a blaze of fiery amber. “Now I’m gonna suffocate. At least we’re belted in if we crash. Safety first, right?”

That’s several shades of unfair. Ain’t like this’s Yondu’s fault. Who’d pissed the Juggernauts off in the first place? “What’d ya even do to ‘em? Ain’t I taught you to pick yer battles –“

Peter tries to kick him. The leg cuffs make this difficult. “Fuck you, you taught me fuck all –“

“I taught you to survive!”

“You were a mean bully! I hate bullies!”

“Shut up,” murmurs Gamora. “Or I’ll kill you both.” She’s lashed up just as securely as they are, but something in her voice warns them not to call her bluff. The rest of the journey is made in stewing silence, bar the faint chords of Cherry Bomb from where Quill’s lap-strap digs into the Walkman’s on button.

Could be worse. Was a time when Yondu feared he’d never hear that crappy song again.

 


 

They’re taken – read: frogmarched – to the control hub of the Juggernaut mothership. The clones are, as expected, uniformly massive and ugly; they make Drax look svelte. When they enter they’re met by a single seated rhino. He looks over them in cold intrigue, blunt grey fingers steepled under his chin. Despite his confidence in his plan – which is obviously going to go off without a hitch, if he only believes in it hard enough – Yondu has, as Peter might say, got a bad feeling about this.

“Hi,” Peter says, before Yondu can stop him. He rubs the bruise on his chest from where the belts dug in. “Um. Lovely day, isn’t it? I notice you’ve got our ship locked in place with grav-fields, and that you attempted to garrotte us with seatbelts on the way over. So, you got our attention. Now what can we do for you?”

The rhino grins. At least, Yondu thinks he’s grinning. Could be a grimace. Or a snarl. “Reimbursement,” he grates. “We lost an entire galley of slaves to you fools. You will assist us in acquiring our stock.”

“Uh, this’s gonna be mighty awkward when I say no…” Peter rubs the back of his scalp, gathering thick ginger curls between his fingers. “Y’see, that’s not what we do. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy – well, us five are. He’s just a tagalong.” Just-a-tagalong crosses his arms. “If you’re being, I dunno, oppressed by an evil cult of Terran poachers suffering from premature ejaculation, we could help you there?”

Drax looks mightily confused. He opens his mouth. Gamora plasters a hand over it until it shuts.

The rhino pushes to its feet. (Hooves. Trotters. Whatever.) It glares around its horn at Quill, beady black eyes glimmering like sweated raisins in the crinkled grey meat of its face. It looks older than the other clones, and it’s the only one not to be wearing a visor. Yondu guesses that makes it chief. After all, why would the guy that gives the orders need to receive them?

“You’re making a very poor choice,” he rumbles. Yondu seconds that. Sure, slavery sets his teeth on edge. But if you’re told to jump by a gang of horn-nosed behemoths whose arms are the approximate width of his torso, you damn well jump. Or at least you pretend to, for the half hour until the Ravagers arrive.

He’d told himself – and the Guardians – that this plan was foolproof. Juggernauts are determined, but they ain’t stupid (or rather, not all of them are. Grey matter increases in indirect proportion to batch number; the chief in front of them, n#5, must be borderline-genius). They’ve got guns, but the Ravagers have more. The clones would rather give up six prisoners than run the risk of fighting off an enemy armada. Quill and the others, being transferred fom Juggernaut to Ravager custody, will simply trade one prison for another. But that’s their problem.

Only wrinkle is, Yondu ain’t exactly the Ravagers’ favourite person at the moment. And even if they were in the mood to mount a dramatic rescue, half an hour is a long time when Quill’s big mouth’s involved. On cue, Quill gives the chief rhino a winning smile. “So are you. Making a poor choice, I mean. Dude, breathmints are a lifestyle.”

Oh dear. Time to intervene. Yondu sidles into the narrow gap, jutting up his chin so he can look the chief in the eye. “What sorta slave-stock we talking?” he asks, in his business-voice. “Fighting? Labour?”

This time, there’s no mistaking the chief’s smile. A big and ugly one: it puts Yondu’s nastiest to shame. “The former,” he rumbles. His massive hand drops like an anvil on Yondu’s shoulder. “I’m curious as to why you’re here, Udonta. Word is the Guardians cheated you of a massive haul. An Infinity Stone, if I’ve heard right.”

“Yer hearing’s fine,” says Yondu easily. “I’m here for revenge, same as you. We oughta join forces.”

Rocket makes an angry snort, which sounds a lot like ‘I told you so’.

“That’d be more appealing if you weren’t trapped here alone, without that precious arrow of yours.” The guard holding the yaka box freezes, visor flaring gold. Then he stalks to his leader and deposits the prize in his arms. The chief smirks, rubbery lips distending, and strokes the box’s crude-forged lid. “And if I had not also heard that your failure in securing the stone has made your crew… Less than amenable to your presence.”

Oh dear. Yondu’s been counting that they wouldn’t know that particular detail. Once the Ravagers show up, their lives are gonna depend on the rhinos believing they’d retaliate if anything untoward were to happen to their admiral and his companions. ‘Untoward’ as in: butchered fillets of their bodies being blasted chunk by chunk from the galleon’s exhaust. The adrenaline of the past five minutes saps at his tired energy, but Yondu could maintain a poker face after a session of rigorous water-boarding. He gives the chief a blink.

“Per’aps yer deafer than I thought. We got that sorted months back. Made a decent mint on a job near the skrull homeworld, brought a round with every whore on the planet, got everyone thoroughly drunk… All forgiven and forgotten.”

The chief laughs. Not good. Then he releases Yondu’s shoulder and walks past him to clasp Quill’s.

Very Not-good.

“’Forgiven and forgotten’? Does that go for him, too?”

Yondu glares at him as if he’s as dumb as his clones. “What d’you think? Boy robbed me. He’s due an answer, alright– but it’s t’come from me, not you.”

“And you?” The chief addresses Quill. “I heard your accusations on the journey over. I think it’s fair to say that you and Udonta have… a tense history, to say the least.”

Yondu doesn’t like where this is going. From the way he’s struggling to hold his stance under the weight of that massive, rough-textured hand, Quill doesn’t either. He nods, ignoring the Guardians’ nervous scowls.

“Fighters, he said,” whispers Rocket, ever-quick on the uptake. Yondu has time for the word to register – and to think a very poignant shit – before the chief collars Quill and him, palms engulfing blue and pink necks alike. His footsoldiers shuffle back a pace, forming a wide circle in the center of the Bridge-room floor.

A circle into which Quill and Yondu are unceremoniously thrown.

“We were going to keep a few of the slaves for our own entertainment,” the chief explains. “That’s the trouble with clones – they’re all perfectly matched, and most don’t have the smarts to make a contest exciting. It’s just punch, punch, punch, until one’s brain comes flying out their nose. No dirty play. No underhanded tricks. Dull.” Yondu and Quill land heavy, gasping. The scrubbed chrome is reflective under their boots, mirror images synchronized as they push to sit, then kneel, then stand. They glance at each other. Share a gulp.

The Chief projects a thought that has the guards linking arms, a bulwark penetrable by no less than a battering ram or a bazooka. He withdraws from the ring and mounts his throne-like dais, motioning for the remainder of the clones to hustle the Guardians up the ramp so they too have an unobstructed view. “I imagine you two will put on a better show,” he says. Sprawls across his chair like an emperor at a gladiator match – which is pretty much what this is. “Pirate versus hero, captain versus traitor, father versus son.”

“I ain’t his –“

“He’s not my –“

The chief cuts them off with a lazy circle of his hand. “I don’t care. If you impress me, I might let you stop before the other one’s dead. For now? Fight.”

Chapter Text

They’ve done this before. Many, many times. It’s a dance as painful as it’s familiar: the crunch of knuckles into cheekbones, knees into guts, elbows into shoulderblades.

Peter lands hard on his back, air gushing from his mouth like it’s the nozzle of a whoopee-cushion. “I thought we were trying not to kill each other!” he hisses. Yondu, bouncing on the balls of his feet, shrugs and beckons for him to stand again.

“Speak for yerself,” he says. This’s been a long time coming. Peter stole from him. And, like he told the Juggernaut chief, that deserves an answer.

Plus, y’know, if he doesn’t think they’re giving this bout their all, he’ll shoot ‘em both anyway.

They’ve fought seriously before. Course they have. Quill learnt swiftly that pulling punches when Yondu’s your sparring partner results in broken bones – and that’s Best Case Scenario. But no matter how pissed off they are at one another, they’ve known there’s an easy tap-out. One that’ll be respected.

It’s a simple signal. Needs to be. With adrenaline turning limbs and brain to gelatin, you ain’t exactly gonna be drumming out a solo on snares. So three heavy knocks suffice, spaced like the dashes in Morse code. Everyone on the crew knows what they mean. Even high on the pain in your scraped fists and the swell of bruises under your leathers, they’re impossible to mistake. Good thing too. If the Ravagers punished every slip-up in the training ring permanently, they’d have no men left by the end of the astral week.

But they ain’t in no ring now. When Yondu knees him in the throat – shit, was aimin’ for his collarbones – Quill thuds onto his side, choking and pounding his fist on the floorplates.

No time to falter. Yondu kicks Quill in the ribs. He doesn’t even enjoy it. Much.

He definitely doesn’t enjoy it when Quill grabs his boot. Boy curls around it like the galaxy’s biggest barnacle, face so red it clashes with his hair. Blood spills down his split lip: runny lava. One heave and Yondu’s off-balance. Fuck, he thinks. Let my guard down. He windmills to right himself – but Quill’s strong, even downed and wheezing. He practically hoists his feet from under him.

Quill deposits him on his stomach. And, coincidentally, his face. Yondu doesn’t have the coordination to get his hands under him and scramble away. Not before Peter’s tightened his grip on his shin guards. By then it’s too late. Quill hauls himself along his body, mighty and unshakable. Yondu reckons this is how it feels to be engulfed in the curls of a constrictor. There’s no hint of that scrawny brat who used to crawl into his bed. Only muscle, and fists, and a suffocating heaviness as Peter steamrolls him into the sloped floor, pinning him with a knee on his back.

Yondu struggles for air. No way he’s bucking him. Not while Peter’s thighs squeeze his sides, ready to ride out any bid for freedom. Only one thing left to do…

Peter’s hand fastens on the back of his neck, slipping under the collar of his sweat-soaked black pullover. His thumb grazes the implant. “I win,” he says.

Yondu grins. He’s bit his lip. All he can taste is copper. Might as well make the most of it – he cranes to spit blood in Peter’s face.

Peter grimaces. “Gross, dude!” His grip loosens. That’s all Yondu needs. He doesn’t try to writhe out from under Quill, or toss him vertically. Instead, he breaks the hold on his nape. When Quill braces, expecting him to crawl forwards, he instead squirms backwards, under the arch of his legs. He hooks them, one under each arm, and violently throws his bodyweight to one side.

Quill follows along. Not that he has much choice. He bears the brunt of the roll, too shocked to resist. Then the next, as Yondu lurches again and lets momentum take over, sending them both tumbling down the incline, at the apex of which looms the Juggernaut’s throne.

The room whirls past. Juggernauts, Guardians, walls, floor, ceiling. All blur into one. Quill and Yondu separate when they cross an uneven camber. Yondu’s shoulder jars painfully in its socket, but he can’t complain. Quill makes a yelping grunt as his temple smacks metal, and Yondu freezes instinctively, because this’d be the point in a normal punch-up where a dazed Quill would reiterate his tap-out.

No tap-out comes. Quill must’ve realized it’s useless, which Yondu’s thankful for. He doesn’t want to break his trust again.

Yondu sits. He’s dizzy, room twisting in nauseating spirals, and he spares a precious moment to give his inner ears a pep-talk before struggling for his feet. He staggers. Catches himself. Stands again, more confidently – and looks for Quill.

Quill’s thumped a whole revolution further than him. His scramble to stand is more laborious still. Yondu’s guts clench at the sluice of blood that slicks one half of his face in livid crimson. Quill must see the expression on his face. “S’just a flesh wound,” he slurs. Raises his fists once more – although he seems to be having trouble focusing. “Come get me.”

They’ve punctured the circle of guards; it reforms around them, a fluid bubble that makes retreat impossible. The chief hadn’t called halt, even when Peter had Yondu pinned. That ain’t a good sign. Neither’s the way Quill lists back and forth, unsteady on his feet. Even at this distance, one of his pupils looks significantly larger than the other.

“Stay still,” he grunts, swaying into a boxer’s stance and squinting in Yondu’s vague direction. “Can’t hit you if you keep bobbing about.”

Yondu wonders if telling Quill he’s the only one that’s moving is a bad idea.

“Stop!” A woman’s voice. Gamora. “He’s concussed. We’ll do whatever you want –“ Quill makes a noise of denial. He lunges, attempting to sock Yondu again – apparently he’d prefer getting beaten on to consenting to working as a slaver-for-hire. Yondu understands the sentiment. But with Quill in this state – dazed and groggy, pupils dilated – indulging him might result in a casket rather than a brief jaunt in the medbay.

Yondu can’t have that.

He dodges easily, sidestepping Quill’s wild uppercut. Turns to receive the Chief’s verdict – and freezes. Ignoring Gamora, who thrashes in the grip of a Juggernaut to his right, the Chief strokes his lip, staring straight at Yondu. His eyes are jet slits. “Very well. Whoever wins can join you on your expedition.”

As for what happens to the other one… Well, that goes without saying.

Quill spits on the ground. He glares at the Chief. Despite his wonky vision, he manages to cast him one hell of a sneer. “Good thing I’m gonna lose then. I’d put my gun to my head before I’d work for you.”

Yondu wipes blood from his cut lip and shoots him a tense grin. “Antagonizin’ the guy on the throne ain’t never a good idea.”

“What can I say? I learnt from the best.” Peter draws up to his full height. He sticks his chin in the air, looking all proud and righteous and heroic, like a man dying for his honor. “After you beat me, you better kill him.”

Yondu nods, mouth grim. Then he squares up to Peter, balls his fists – and sits crosslegged on the floor.

“Huh?” Peter gapes. “Um. Whatcha doing?”

Yondu’s seen the time on the holographic chronometer display by the chief’s chair. Ten minutes until Kraglin’s ETA. He’d hoped to have lasted longer before resorting to this, but thanks to Peter’s dumb Terran brainpan, which can’t take a bit of roughplay without turning to mush; not to mention his lust for self-martyrdom…? Yondu don’t exactly have a choice.

“Surrenderin’,” he says. Yawns. Picks a flake of old Beastie from his teeth. “You ain’t playin’ his game. Well. Neither’m I.” And that, Yondu hopes, is that.

Rocket’s held breath bursts from him in a noisy guffaw. “Y’know, I think I might be startin’ t’like this guy!” he announces.

“I am Groot.”

Yeah, he stole my Beasties and ruined my clothes. I don’t like him enough t’forget that. Y’hear me? Vengeance is a-coming, ugly!”

“Silence,” rumbles the chief, drowning out Rocket’s sniggers. “Bring them to me.”

Aw hell, thinks Yondu, as he’s hoisted under the arms and dragged up the slope, suspended between two rhino warriors. He does his best to slow ‘em down: sagging deadwight, kicking their shins. They don’t appear to notice. Now would be a very good time for Kraglin to be early.

 


 

Kraglin is not early.

Kraglin is, in fact, late. And if he gets any later, Yondu’s gonna be late too. Late, as in… Dead. Geddit? He’d like to share that joke with Quill, because there’s nothing like a little gallows humor while a rhino-man tests your ribcage’s yield point with his massive hoof. But surprisingly, being crushed alive isn’t conductive to coherent speech.

“Argh,” says Yondu.

Less ‘says’.

More ‘scream’.

Or he would scream, if he was a wuss. Perhaps he’s heard an echo of Peter’s?

“Stop!” shouts Gamora, straining against burly grey arms. Two rhinos pin her in place. Sure, she could slit their throats with the nail on her pinky finger, but she wouldn’t be able to slit the throats of the rhinos with guns to each of the other Guardians’ heads, not before they pulled at least one trigger. “This is stupid. How is beating them meant to make them work for you?”

He thought she was the smart one. Yondu tries to laugh, but it comes out inaudible. His suspicions are confirmed when the rhino boss smirks. “Oh, I’m just doing this for my own amusement. You lot can get me what I want – or die similarly.”

Yondu writhes under the steadily increasing pressure. Something snaps. He coughs. The wetness that splatters from his mouth is so warm it takes a moment to realize it’s blood. Then the taste hits. Yondu – stupid – sucks in air before he’s had time to convulse out his coppery mouthful. The blood slurps noisily up his airways.

Pain. Like sniffing fumes from his Warbird engine, only so much worse. He ain’t drowning in toxic exhaust. He’s drowning in blood, his own blood, gooey and oddly viscous. Yondu sputters, trying to force the liquid out. But his lungs are too overtaxed, and his cough merely dredges a thin streak of blue that trickles through his stubble, clinging to the corner of his mouth.

Dimly, he realizes that Peter’s barging the rhino’s side. Ain’t gonna work. Boy looks all kind of pathetic; even moreso than usual. He’s scarcely on his feet, his charges do more damage to him than his opponent. And there’s that headwound. A bump’s already swelling, compressing the delicate tissue within. A slice above Peter’s forehead dispenses blood down the collar of his jacket…

His Ravager jacket. Peter ain’t even unpicked the stitching that holds the flame in place.

Yondu, windpipe spasming, remembers guiding Peter’s hands to thread the needle. They’d been small and pink. Little freckles smattered over their backs like stars in a peachy sky. His temperature, as ever, lagged at the low end of the thermal scale, and Yondu’d been struck even then at how someone so small could gobble so much, grow so little, and not be blasting out heat like a supernova. (Of course, as time had proven, Peter was simply bottling his growth spurt up.)

Yondu demonstrated how to suck the threadtip, cementing any frayed strands with spittle. He guided its tiny black bud through the needle’s eye. Then tugged it free, and handed both implements to his audience. Peter had watched with all due diligence – tinged with boredom, because no eight-year-old wanted their first lesson as a space pirate to be Home Economics. However, at that tender age he still had enough awe-slash-terror of the Ravager captain to pretend to nod along, even when he wasn’t listening. He’d failed the task seven times – at which point Yondu’s daily threat-quota had run dry. Having no other option, he wrestled the bobbin from Peter’s fingers, plonked grumpily on his ass, and showed him how it was done.

“There,” he’d snapped when he was finished. Shoved the completed patch into Peter’s scrawny chest. “Ya better learn fast, boy. Thas the last time I do that for ya.”

He sure hopes Peter’s mastered the art by now. He’s gonna need it. The rhino boss catches him by the arm as he attempts a messy hook. He swings him away. The patch rips, threads snapping in a noisy ricochet, and Yondu glimpses the yellow flame, bisected almost perfectly in two, dangling from its mooring like a flag on a windless day.

For some reason, that makes him mad. Almost as mad as when Peter slams headfirst into the floor for the second time, groaning in half-conscious agony. Fuck broken ribs. Fuck lungs that may or may not be perforated. Like hell is this jackass gonna get away with that.

Yondu’s been shoving ineffectually at the foot ever since it was planted atop of him. Now he changes tactics. Thing about Centaurians is, while they can draw energy from vegetation and exert the sway of psychic influence over lower life forms, the ability decreases as sentience grows. In space, where everything’s abiotic metal and smelly leathers, the gift’s as good as useless.

Good thing the rhino-clones are bred to be manipulated.

Spitting blood in a frothy spray, Yondu bypasses the panic of asphyxiation. He focuses his thoughts on one clone in particular. It’s hard. Like flexing a muscle that’s been paralyzed for a decade. His brain throbs, a blazing pulse that has it pressing on the confines of his skull as if it wants to ooze out the seams.

The clone’s spent its entire existence enacting the whims of its master. There’s no consciousness to get in the way, no wriggly thought processes to disrupt him. Of course, it helps that said master is currently distracted, weighing up whether he ought to stomp over to finish Peter, or stomp down and deal with the problem clutching his ankle. Yondu’s so out-of-practice he can’t have the clone swing up his gun to menace the chief. But he can make him loose his grip on it.

“Oi, Rocket!” he yells, loud as he can. That’s not very, when your lungs are swamped in fluid and your vision’s fuzzing grey. “Box!”

The Guardians are restrained right besides the chief’s chair. Upon it sits the yaka arrow, incarcerated in its slim grey prison.

The rodent’s quick on the uptake. He shrugs off the guard’s loosened hand, mounts his wrist and scurries to his shoulder. A bound carries him to the top of the throne, and he perches there a moment, cocking his head at the locking mechanism, before diving down and setting his lil’ claws to work.

Unfortunately, that’s enough time for the chief to process this turn of events.

“Shoot them!” he roars. His sole mashes Yondu’s chest – what’s left of it; bone structure probably looks more like a concertina at this point.

Gamora snarls. The sound is pure animal. She centers her balance, uproots one of her guards, and throws him sailing over her shoulder to land on his back, devastating and spine-shattering. Then stomps her heel through his jugular, just to make sure.

“We are fighting now?” Drax inquires, as plasma pistols prep on all sides. Gamora confirms with a nod and a feral grin – one which Drax mirrors. “Finally.”

Suffice to say, those pistols rapidly depower again. Kinda hard for charge to build when the fingers on the triggers are no longer attached to hands. However, there’s still a good twenty clones for them to plow through before they can be of any use. They need something else, something more immediate…

Rocket pops the catch on the box. “Blue! You’re up!”

The yaka link sears Yondu’s tired greymatter, which is by this time more than ready to give up the ghost and float into limbo, untroubled by memories of the dumb idiot suffering severe head trauma to his right, the one he’d give anything to save. He purses his lips more of muscle memory than will. No way is he drawing a breath, not while drowning on dry land. But, over the course of three gasps which border hyperventilation, he sucks enough air into his mouth for a single staccato note.

The arrow zips through the chieftain’s chest, heedless of the plated, shell-like exoskeleton. Yondu forgets to dial down the heat enough that it doesn’t cauterize immediately. He supposes he can be forgiven, what with the whole dying thing. But if he whistles the arrow round, makes another pass…

Maybe Peter at least will survive.

He can’t though. Sight’s failing. Senses are haywire with the panic of trying to draw oxygen and finding only blood. Yondu’s synapses are swamped beneath a synesthetic barrage of data, the smell and taste of metal blending with the thunder of his overtaxed heart, the dim agony as that boot grinds on splintered bone, the sight of blue all around him, smothering him: endless blue, fields of it, broken only by the vivid ginger of Peter’s hair…

Sneering, the rhino touches the new wound in its chest. Hole’s neat, size of a nickle. Yondu can see through it to the other side when the rhino bends to laugh in his face. It ain’t enough to kill him immediately, not when the capillaries and arteries have been seared shut by red-hot radiation. Somewhere behind him, his arrow reaches the peak of its parabola and clatters to the floor. Yondu tries to get it flying again, but he’s lost coordination; he can only mouth out the shapes of a rising chromatic gliss. There’s nothing he can do, nothing at all, as the rhino removes his foot from his chest cavity – ‘cavity’ being worryingly literal – and strides for Peter.

“I want you to see this,” he says over his shoulder, ignoring the ongoing fight to his rear. Unclips the gun from his belt. Holds it steady and level, its glowing barrel on line with Peter’s red-stained forehead. “I suppose there’s not much point in you saying goodbye, Udonta. You’ll see him again soon enough.”

“I… am… Groot.

Bark divides Yondu’s fading vision. It grows faster than a branch has any right too, and for a second he’s back on Alpha Centauri, the wafting tendrils of the jungle melding into one another in a liquid leafy haze. Groot widens the tunnel left by his arrow. He heaves the chief into the air, holding him aloft and kicking like a man in the noose. Then brings him brutally down.

“You’re right, buddy.” Rocket scampers along the stretched limb, fangs gritted. When the chief raises his shaking pistol at Peter with a dying man’s stubbornness, he brains him with the yaka box. “You ain’t seeing neither of ‘em. Not where you’re going.”

A self-professed Guardian of the Galaxy thinks Yondu’s headed up rather than down? Somehow, that’s amusing. Not nearly as amusing as Peter.

Boy blinks into bleary wakefulness – asleep for the action, awake for the victory; go figure. He attempts to sit. He doesn’t get very far. Partly because being knocked unconscious is no small matter and he’s lucky he’s not been left a vegetable, mostly because Gamora finishes off her targets in the space of a blink and a cuss, and darts to his side, easing him horizontal once more. But not before Peter’s gotten a good eyeful of his mentor. Yondu lays flat out, head twisted so Peter monopolizes his tunneling eyesight.

“Dude,” Peter croaks. “You look kinda concave.”

Yondu wheezes a laugh. It turns into a cough, then a splutter, then another messy fountain of blood that erupts from his airways like a geyser full of royal blue food coloring. In that moment, he’s as sure he’s gonna die as he’s ever been. He fights to keep his eyes open. Stares at Peter until his face starts to swim, and notices his gaze is dulling too.

At least if they’re gonna fall asleep together, it’s for the last fucking time.

 


 

Awake. A word with two meanings, connected yet dissonant. The first: to rise from slumber. The second: to be kept from it.

Peter wants to stay awake. Truly he does. He wants to pump Rocket’s paw in thanks for saving him, squeeze Gamora’s wrist to tell her he’s alright, draw Groot and Drax into hugs that will be floundered into and stiffly endured. And he wants to tell Yondu he’s not a mean bully, like Peter’d said on the Juggernaut transport shuttle. Because while he’d been tough and sneery and always ready with a glower or a harsh word, he could’ve been a helluva lot worse. He doesn’t deserve a cookie for being Not Awful. But for every memory tinged with irritation, competitiveness, and more than a little hatred, there’s others that stir something else.

Being lifted into a hammock. Having blue palms tip his head to slow the nosebleed – Yondu’d been the one to kick him in the face in the first place, but Peter supposed it wasn’t technically on purpose. That stupid picture Kraglin had snapped of the two of them on the Bridge, after Peter’d faked a fit and Yondu’d told him his plan wasn’t bad. Then when he’d gotten flu and Yondu’d lugged him to the doctor, then back to his own room, and hadn’t kicked up too much of a fuss when he woke up to find a sickly Terran snuffling into his neck. Then a nightmare, accompanied by three little words: Don’t Hurt Quill. That’d been followed by something much scarier. Heat draining from the surface of a barren room. Yondu barely lucid, crawling away from an incapacitated Peter as he sought out a hole to die in. Then a certain encounter that was never-to-be-mentioned again, after which Peter had steam-washed every millimeter of Yondu’s nest (unpleasant) and the Eclector’s sewer system (worse).

As for the poisoning incident… Well, Peter’s not sure what to make of that. At the time he’d assumed Yondu feigned his excuse to crawl into his bed, so he could get his mitts on his watch and plant the tracker that had cemented Peter’s decision to make his own way across the stars. But he’d stayed even after that, hadn’t he? He could’ve snuck back to his spacious nest, rather than coiling on the cramped and overheating hospital cot, his back pressed against Peter’s. But he’d stayed.

If there’s one thing being a Guardian’s taught Peter, it’s that there’s no such thing as a good person, just as there’s no such thing as a bad one. You just gotta do the best you can, day by day. Some days Yondu had put in more effort than others. Peter’d begrudged him that at the time, but now he recognizes that regardless of magnitude, that effort had always been there. It had been expended around him, because of him, for him, and if Yondu’s parenting techniques had vacillated between tough love and tougher captaincy, they’d always been earnest – no matter how adamantly denied.

Yeah, Peter wants to keep his eyes open. Failing that though, he supposes he can settle for a brief nap. Just so long as he wakes up again, and Yondu’s besides him.

 


 

He’s not.

Having the first half of Peter’s wish fulfilled? Frankly, that isn’t good enough. He jerks to an upright seated position, far too fast. Plips go haywire. Some sorta medi-machine in the corner. Peter’s head swims. It’s worse than when he was muggy and brain-bloated with fever, his broken Walkman laying on his lap. It takes almost a whole minute to make sense of his surroundings. Then he recognizes the Nova sigil, and feels his stomach clench – before remembering that Nova doesn’t mean enemy anymore. He’s safe.

Only problem is: while the Guardians have maintained their squeaky clean records (for the most part) the Ravagers make no such efforts.

After awareness comes recollection. Peter’s scrambled brain fills him in on the events of the hour before he lost consciousness. They come in drips and drabs, saturating Peter’s neurons with animal fear.

Juggernauts had caught up to them. Bad.

Yondu’d been hiding in the Milano vents like a demented squatter. Very bad.

The Juggernauts had wanted them to fetch slaves; Peter had refused; he and Yondu had been thrown in a ring and told to fight…

It’s after that that things get fuzzy. But there’s one thing Peter’s sure about, as he drops his hand to the cold expanse of bed besides him, whimpering as he feels for a body that’s simply not there. And that’s that something must have gone wrong.

Logically, he knows Yondu wouldn’t step foot in a Nova hospital unless he planned on robbing the place. And given that the Ravagers had been en route, there’s a fair chance he’s languishing in the Eclector’s sterile-swabbed medbay, eyes rolling behind their thin blue lids as Doc stitches him together like he’s done a thousand times before. That doesn’t change that he ought to be here. Getting hugged by Peter, where he belongs.

Peter’s distracted by the pain in his head. “Ow,” he moans, worming his hands through the monitor-wires stuck to his chest with orange medi-jelly so he can clutch his temples. Either he’s got another ear-parasite or his brain’s trying to barge its way out of his skull of its own accord. Instantly, twigs engulf his wrists.

“I am Groot,” says Groot, and eases his hands away. Peter, not lucid enough to interpret tree-speak, gives him a scowl he in no way deserves.

“What?”

“He said ya just had brain surgery. I’d leave pokin’ yer noggin alone for a while, unless ya wanna cause even more damage.” Rocket’s snicker is harsh, low, and incredibly relieved. “Not that we’d notice.”

Peter’s not in the mood for bickering. Prying Groot away, he got down to business. “Where’s Yondu.”

Rocket, for some reason, looks awkward. “You remember that? Doctors weren’t sure you were goin’ to…”

“No, no, I…” Peter winces, scalp twinging. He now recognizes the sensation of medi-jelly slathered liberally over his crown. His shaved crown. “My hair!”

“Calm down, idiot. It’ll grow back.” Rocket grins and pops to his feet. “I’ll go tell the others. Doctors said ya weren’t allowed booze, but the rest of us can party –“

“No…” Peter’s fingers close helplessly over the image of the retreating figure as it exits through the ward door. He can’t muster any details of how he’d come to be in this state. But he knows one thing for sure, and that’s that he needs to find Yondu. Now. Having no other option, he turns on Groot to begin the interrogation. “Okay, out with it. Where is he?”

Groot glances shiftily to one side. “I am Groot.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna have to be more specific than that, buddy.” Peter’s parched. He smacks his dry lips and searches for liquid to chug. Groot, ever the excellent nursemaid, offers a bottle, and holds it to the perfect height so that Peter can suckle its tip without drowning himself. Once he’s had enough he pulls back, gasping, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

“I am Groot,” says Groot again, a tendril caressing Peter’s cheek. It’s mushy, even by Giving-Tree standards. Peter leans into the gesture, confused. His fear grows as those cupping branches cradle his face, Groot’s mournful eyes inches from his own. “I am Groot.” He sounds undisputably… sad.

Peter asks where Yondu is, and Groot sounds sad.

“No.” He shakes his head. “No, I don’t believe it. The Ravagers were coming, right? They’ll have got him out. Old bastard’s had worse –“ Just never while I was there to see it. “He’ll be up and kicking in no time, hunting us across the galaxy again. You guys must’ve been mistaken.”

Groot’s soft touches don’t cease. “I am Groot,” he murmurs. It’s an exact replica of the tone grandpa used when he first parked Peter on his knee and told him mom was headed to hospital and never coming back. Peter had screamed and flailed and refused to believe it, and Grandpa had held him tight and whispered the words into his hair, again and again – I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Pete. “No,” Peter repeats. Groot’s almost too close to focus on – that, or his eyesight’s gone all wobbly for other reasons. Reasons Peter doesn’t want to contemplate. Because why cry for someone who’s not dead? As if Yondu’d let a silly thing like a Juggernaut captain come between him and his love of all things lively and illegal. “No. You’ve made a mistake, Groot. That can’t be right. Did the Ravagers ever show up?” Groot shakes his head.

“I am Groot,” he says, pointing to the Nova insignia. They must’ve had a report of Juggernaut activity. Probably scared any loitering Ravagers away – that or there’d never been any Ravagers to begin with, because why’d bother showing up for the corpse of an ex-captain?

Not a corpse. Peter’s absolutely one-hundred-fricking-percent sure about that.

“You gotta go back and get him! Tell me we didn’t leave him there!”

“I… am Groot.”

“No, no. You’re lying. You’ve got to be…”

Groot does the only thing he can do. He pulls him into a loose embrace, careful not to disturb the wires pinned across his trunk. “I am Groot,” he whispers against his shaved skull.

Peter’s fists unclench. The tears finally spill over. “No,” he breathes, but it’s said with resignation rather than hope. “No.” Groot holds him the whole time: never smacking him for sentiment, never ribbing him for showing his grief. What Peter wouldn’t give for someone to do that now. But there’s only the comforting card of roots across the paper back of his hospital gown, and the barky crust of Groot’s shoulder against his cheek. Peter cries, and cries, and cries, and curses fucking Stockholm syndrome until his lungs ache.

When he finally peels himself away and wipes his crusty lashes, he finds Groot watching him with a small smile. Peter’s first instinct is to punch it. Not that he ever would, because Groot is Groot, and Groot is a precious specimen whose unthinking kindness is all too rare in this grotty galaxy. But how dare he look happy? Yondu might be the Guardians’ enemy, but to Peter… But to Peter, he’s so much more.

“He’s gonna kill ya, y’know,” says Rocket conversationally from the doorway. Peter frowns. Tears still blur his vision; he mops them from his swollen, soggy cheeks, but they reform as quickly as he can dash them away. He might be a little torn up about this latest dose of bad news – not just a little, if he’s being honest with himself – but he doesn’t plan on shooting the messenger. Groot’d attempted to comfort him, at least. Rocket had just run away.

…Run away to fetch the other Guardians. And Yondu, who sits in a wheelchair with the air of one only using it on threats of further evisceration.

Yondu, who’s smiling the biggest damn grin Peter’s ever seen.

“Pay up,” he says, flexing his fingers. Scoffing, Rocket forks over a bag of Knowhere trade-units. Gamora reluctantly does the same. “I told ya he’d cry.”

Peter’s hallucinating. He has to be. It’s easier to accept that than to believe he’s been duped, because then he’d have to get up to grind his fist right in the middle of Yondu’s stupid smile. And maybe, just maybe, once he’d repented and begged Peter’s forgiveness, drag him in to hug.

Like hell is Yondu ever gonna beg. Not for anyone, and certainly not Peter. Peter’d better give up on any aspirations on that note, and give him his hug anyway. First though – he’s due some shouting.

“You asshole,” he sputters. “You utter evil asshole!” Then to Groot – “You were in on this?”

Groot shrugged one shoulder. “I am Groot.”

“I wasn’t sure I could keep from gigglin’ long enough to pull it off,” Rocket explains, hopping onto the bed and padding over. “Lucky Groot’s a good actor.”

“I told them it was a foolish idea,” Drax intones. He crosses his beefy arms, and were it anyone else Peter might term his expression a pout. “They did not listen.”

Yondu, slouching over his chair like a lazy feline, cackles into his palm. “It was mighty funny though, wasn’t it?”

“For you, maybe! You jackass, I can’t believe you’d do this –“ He’s still crying, he notices. Only it’s not sobs that shake from his throat: it’s laughter. Ridiculous, gut-quaking, head-aching laughter. “Oh my god. You are so fucking unbelievable. Scooch over here, meals-on-wheels; I wanna hit you properly.”

Yondu tries. He scoffs when he realizes the brakes are on, and pushes unsteadily to his feet. He keeps one hand clasped over his chest like he’s holding himself together, and through the loose neckhole of the hospital gown Peter sees stitching: a gross black knot that crisscrosses Yondu’s chest like the webs of a spider on LSD.

Gamora scowls at him. Even her grumpy-face isn’t as potent as usual. “You shouldn’t be walking –“

“Suck it up, skinny.” The walk to Peter’s side takes longer than it should, Yondu hunched as if those stitches are pulling him tight at the front. He refuses the Guardians’ help – offered from all but Rocket, who moves only to relinquish his seat. Yondu accepts it. “Hey boy,” he says. That smile’s more familiar now. Peter knows better than to call it ‘soft’, but it’s as close as Yondu gets. Yondu’s eyes pop wide as Peter grabs him. “Hey, don’tchu squeeze! You wanna break my ribs again?”

“Suck it up,” Peter mocks. He buries his face in Yondu’s shoulder, inhaling his warmth, his smell: the dry leather musk laced with the sharper antiseptic tang that seeps from the hospital walls like sweat from pores. “You’re getting hugged. Don’t even try to fight it.”

Yondu doesn’t. Instead, he leans in, unhesitant now Peter’s taken the first step, and returns the gesture with gusto.

 


 

“So, I’m under arrest,” Yondu explains. The blasé tone does not go unnoticed by the Corpswoman, who’d accompanied him and the Guardians into the room. She nervously fingers her stun baton. “But there’s some mighty interesting shielding tech left on the Juggernaut ship. I’ve pinged Krags about it – if he can’t convince the crew to show up for me, he can at least get ‘em to bust me out of the slammer in exchange for money. I’ll be captain again in a week.”

“You’ll be in jail in a –“

Peter interrupts, sparing the woman a pitying look. “You’ll still be on bedrest in a week.”

“Only if you are.”

“Not likely.”

“There ya go.”

The doctor’s advice to the contrary is blithely ignored. Peter and Yondu share a smile. It’s broken when Yondu glances to the other Guardians, who mill about the room. From the way they interact, Peter discerns that first: they trust him not to gut Peter in his sleep, second: Yondu’s been awake a while longer than him, and third: it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’s spent the time regaling them with stories from his youth. The bastard. If Gamora’s shudders are any hint, the Tale of the Defiled Bed had been included.

Asshole.

“Dunno about Quill here, but I’m mighty whacked. Y’all wanna fuck off so we can get some sleep?”

The Corpswoman draws herself up, officious glare already in place. “I will not allow any improper conduct –“

“Ah, fuck off.” Yondu collars Peter round the neck, narrowly missing scrubbing the bandages. “He’s my kid. Keep yer mouth shut if ya don’t know what yer talkin’ about.” The quivery happiness that spreads through Peter’s chest is almost worth the blanket terror of thinking Yondu had dared die without him. Almost. But his snappy riposte – that Yondu’s kid he might be, but he can still banish him to the couch for being a jerkwad – is cut off by a yawn so wide it threatens to turn him inside out.

“There.” Not waiting for the doctor’s approval, Yondu gingerly reclines, stealing a pillow to keep his torso elevated. “Now, y’know where the door is. Show yerselves out.”

“As the member of the Nova Corps in charge of your arrest –“

“Alright, alright! You can stay, so long as ya shut up. The rest of ya? Skedaddle.”

Peter waves to the Guardians. He’s buoyant; elated; floating on a cloud. They’re all fine. They’re all safe. Yondu’s sworn to be in charge of his crew by the week’s end, and Peter doesn’t doubt him. For now, all that’s left is to recover. Shuffling prone besides Yondu – flat-out, because he doubts Yondu’ll appreciate having a heavy forearm lugged over ribs held together with wire, medical sealant glue, and prayers – he gets himself comfortable. Then casually touches his hand. Just to reassure himself this is all real, and Yondu’s not going to fade into the shadows of a coma-sleep. He means for it to be mistaken as an accident. But he doesn’t withdraw fast enough. Head rolling, Yondu confronts him with a half-open ruby eye.

Peter tenses, expecting a tease or a growl. But there’s only the firm clench of fingers around his.

“Quill?” Yondu mutters, lashes drifting shut.

Those fingers have yet to release him. Peter decides Yondu reaps what he sows, and holds them tight enough that he couldn’t extract himself if he wanted to. “Yes?”

“Go the fuck to sleep.”