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Heaven Can Wait We're Only Watching the Sky

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 “Happy re-birthday to you! Happy re-birthday to you! Happy re-birthday Groooot!! Happy re-birthday to you!” Peter, Gamora, Mantis, Kraglin, Drax and Rocket sang over the flora colossus as he sat at the end of their crowded table grinning over the green cake Drax had baked.

“I am Groot!” He commented, blowing out the candles. They erupted in cheers, Peter personally grateful that their wooden friend had gotten it right this year. He blew out the candles rather than staring at them and leaning so close he signed his wood. Last year the mistake had ended in a small fire which almost spread to the engine room.

“You are welcome!” Drax beamed between mouth-fulls of cake.

“Drax, my man! You never cease to disappoint!” Peter commented, eating some of the odd green cake himself. Gamora laughed and Peter’s smiled widened. She hadn’t grinned that much in a while. Not since Nebula…

“Groot you sap!” Rocket laughed, “you were so tiny when you regrew, you were just a twig! Yondu used to call you twig,” his words drifted off and for a moment Peter watched his raccoonoid friend look down at his cake. The human’s own heart twinged at the thought, he looked at the flora colossus, Yondu would be proud of you. He thought with a bittersweet smile. Peter resumed his cake eating, standing up again and seating himself on Gamora’s lap.

“Peter!” She scolded, balancing her slice of cake as he knocked her arm. He kissed her cheek,

“Hey! You know the rule, it’s Groot’s re-birthday, no teasing me!” She rolled her eyes but adjusted her seat for him to sit between her legs.

“I still fail to see how Groot’s special day has anything to do with you getting teased. This is his day, not yours.” Peter shook his head,

“You gonna eat that or not?” Gamora’s eyes narrowed as she lifted her plate and put the whole cake slice in to her mouth, cheeks full like a chipmunk.

“I am Groot!” The flora colossus laughed, picking at his own slice with long wooden figures.

“Everyone feels so happy!” Mantis exclaimed bouncing up and down next to Kraglin who snuck another spoonful of cake. 

“Why shouldn’t we be happy?” Drax asked, “today is the day our friend returned to us! Even though he did not return today. Not this specific day…but…years ago, he did. So Peter decided we should celebrate, commemorate. Right?” The large tattooed alien looked at Peter for confirmation, the human nodded approvingly. 

“That’s right man!”

“One of the happiest days of my whole flarking life!” Rocket put in, he helped himself to his cake slowly. His small hands shook subtly as he lifted the fork. “You were so tiny when you regrew, you were just a twig.”

“I am Groot!” Groot countered, grinning. Rocket waved him off, eating once more. Gamora’s head tilted slightly, but Peter watched her shake it off.

“Hey cap’in,” Kraglin wondered aloud, setting his plate down with an audible crash that almost broke the dish. “How come we celebrate Groot’s re-birthday and your terran holidays but none of us get a holiday?” Peter considered, they had celebrated Christmas, (his favorite), Halloween (Gamora’s favorite and Mantis’s least favorite), New Year’s (Rocket’s favorite if only because it was an excuse to drink and blow things up), and even Valentine’s Day (Mantis’s favorite.) Now that they had plenty of units at their private bank account in Nova Corps headquarters, (a generous thank you for their duties in the fight against Thanos,) they didn’t have to constantly search for jobs. More free time had allowed for more celebrations, bickering, stupid team decisions born from boredom and overall more freedom to do the things they’d always wanted to do. Like celebrate, bicker, and make stupid team decisions born from boredom.

 “Well…. what holiday were you thinking of?” He asked, watching despondent from the corner of his eye as Drax grabbed the last large slice of Groot’s cake.

“Not sure,” the ravager continued. “Just, somethin’ fun each of us could celebrate.”

“Oh! I like that!” Mantis put in, laughing as Groot grew her a flower from the palm of his wooden hand and leaned across the table to put it in her hair. “I would like to celebrate the day I got free from Ego’s planet! We could all eat good food and dance together!” Peter laughed, setting his own plate down.

“Sounds good to me!”

“I am Groot!” The flora colossus agreed, Peter watched as the flora colossus finished off his cake and stood up at least twice Peter’s height. Finally, back to his old size, he thought.

“We’re definitely celebrating the day Groot and I got free from Halfworld!” Rocket made clear as he got up, Peter watched the raccoonoid carefully brace himself on the chair and turn around, tail stuck out trying to maintain balance as he slowly shuffled down. 

“Need help?” Peter reached out a hand for the raccoonoid to grip as his arms trembled lowering himself down. Immediately Rocket swiped at him, claws out.

“No I don’t need help Quill!” He snarled, eyes narrowing. Peter jumped back,

“Alright man, sorry.”

 “Tsch,” Rocket shrugged, lifting his own dishes and following Groot to the already disgusting sink of the Milano’s small kitchen.

“I am Groot?” Groot wandered, Rocket faltered for a moment, dishes clinking as his hands shook.

“Yeah I know you never escaped, but I’ve told yah the stories well enough.” Rocket hefted the dish over his head, reaching for the rim of the sink. Groot watched skeptically as he dropped the plate with a clatter.

“How would you want to celebrate?” Gamora asked, clearing her own plate. Rocket shrugged,

“The usual.” The assassin rolled her eyes but grinned, she knew as well as Peter that ‘the usual’ meant copious amounts of drinking, probably some sort of thieving (usually of a space ship). And at least one night in a prison with some whack escape plan.

“We’ve done worse,” Peter shrugged, punching music into the stereo. The sound of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” bumping through the Milano’s newly installed sound system (courtesy of Tony Stark.) They played it every re-birth day.  Groot waved his arms to the beat, swaggering into the common area next to the kitchen 

“Yeah Grooty baby!” Peter moved his own hips to the beat, taking Gamora’s hand and swinging her about. Rocket leaned his back against the wall, arms folded but he smiled.

“You always loved this song,” he groaned trying his best to sound annoyed. “And now your full grown. You were so tiny when you regrew! You were just a twig!” Kraglin frowned,

“Yeah you said that already.”

“I did?” Kraglin stepped closer to him, swaying with the song.

“Yeah like three times now.” Rocket tilted his head in confusion and shrugged.

 “Kraglin what would you want to celebrate?” Peter called from where they danced. Kraglin left Rocket to his brooding, dancing over to where Star Lord and Gamora danced.

 “I don’t know, maybe the first time Yondu let us lead a job?” Peter couldn’t help a smile, Zethaya, man I still got the scars from that fight!

 “Hard to forget that one!” Star Lord laughed, Gamora threw herself back in his arms, twirling, nearly kicking Kraglin with her heels. She looked at Peter.

 “I’d like to commemorate Nebula,” she stated matter-of-fact. Peter nodded, smiling sadly and kissed her,

“Alright.” She smiled, eyes blinking back what Peter imagined could’ve turned into tears. Nebula, he recalled with strange mixture of guilt and sorrow. She saved Gamora during the fight with Thanos, when they’d both gone in for the kill. Peter could still hear Gamora’s horrified scream.

“I am Groot,” Groot put one large hand on Gamora’s shoulder, growing a flower for her which she tool with a sad grin. He’d gotten into the habit of growing the flowers lately, something he’d picked up from Thor after the battle with Thanos. Something about being happy and always finding the best in things. He’d only been a teenager then, but the god of thunder left as big of an impression as any that had continued on through the years.

“Thank you Groot,” Gamora said, tucking it behind her hair.

“I too would like a celebration!” Drax announced as the next tune by the Jackson Five came on. “On my home-world each clan would nominate the best of their warriors to fight in ritual combat.” Peter and Gamora stared at him,

“I am Groot!”

“No!” Peter interjected, “we are not fighting to the death!” Drax opened his mouth to respond, but closed it upon Gamora’s warning look.

“We could modify the rules I suppose. For you are all weaker then I and so I will take pity on your fear.”

 “Like a contest!” Mantis laughed, dancing. Kraglin agreed with a spin.

“Alright, could be fun,” Peter gave in even as Gamora sighed in exasperation. Rocket nodded, coming over to stand with them though he didn’t dance. Peter watched him, the lights of the stars through the windows shown against the raccoonoid’s silver coat, hair dull.

“You bet your butt’s it’ll be fun!” He grinned, teeth bared. Though some of the previously sharp white fangs had yellowed a bit in recent years and given Peter’s experience the last time Rocket bit him (it happened about twice a week), they had gotten duller as well.

“Alright then,” Star Lord announced, “we’ll draw up the brackets and have ourselves a fun little tournament!” They danced through five more songs, Peter turned spinning around and swaying hand in hand with Gamora. By the doorway something caught his eye and he stopped. Groot walked beside Rocket, one long arm out. The small raccoonoid took his time walking up the steps, one hand on the metal wall.

“I am Groot?” Rocket shook his head, lumbering up another step. Peter’s breath caught as Rocket stumbled but Groot’s hand steadied him. He watched as the flora colossus guided the small raccoonoid up the short staircase, and picked him up after two more trying steps.

Chapter Text

Groot looked over Kraglin’s shoulder as they sat in the cockpit the next morning, Gamora frowned at the paper whilst Drax held the pen in his hand and Mantis spread her fingers across the paper holding it down against the metal grating. The flora colossus looked down through the hallway hoping that Rocket was there. No, just the stars reflection moving across the hall. He turned back to the bracket before them.

“Kraglin will fight Mantis,” Drax began to write in her name, Groot smirked at the ravagers concerned and confused frown.

 “I don’t want to hurt her…” he began, Manis smiled.

“You won’t hurt me,” she reassured. Kraglin looked doubtful. Groot only snickered, Mantis single handedly apprehended four of those Utrakan assassins. She is underestimated, like me.  

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge. I think Mantis can hold her own,” Gamora put in, she leaned over putting in her own name in.

“Anyone?” She surveyed the room Drax, Mantis and Peter starring up at her. They all know she could take them down easily. Groot slowly grew out his hand and took the writing utensil from her, etching in his own name. Gamora grinned, “very well Groot!”  He nodded his challenge in response, eyes going to do door once more but no sign of Rocket at all.

“You are worried about Rocket,” Mantis’s gentle voice explained. Groot nodded, “It’s alright. He usually sleeps in.”

“Yeah, but this is late, even for him.” Peter pointed out, looking upward to the door again and biting his lip.

“I am Groot,” he voiced. The others nodded, and Groot’s own vines knotted inside him as they turned themselves back to the sheet before them as they drifted through the sixty-eight quadrants, the purple stars gleaming. Clank, clank, clank, the flora colossus turned awhile later to where Rocket now made his way toward the cockpit, one arm bracing against the doorway. 

“Hey sleeping beauty,” Peter perked up as Rocket shuffled in.

“What you all lookin at?” The raccoonoid demanded, his sleepy eyes blinking.

 “Nothin’,” Kraglin answered quickly. Rocket narrowed his eyes but came forward moving between them and taking a shuddering breath as he knelt down, closing his eyes as he moved in disjointed discomfort.

“You alright?” Gamora asked as Drax continued drawing up the bracket. Groot looked at his friend.

“Just stiff,” Rocket admitted hissing as his left knee bent. Peter reached out a hand and Groot shook his head. The human met his gaze nodding reluctantly and kept it to himself. He’ll hardly accept assistance if he knows others are watching. Groot had learned that much from his years as Rocket’s friend.

“What’s this?” The raccoonoid asked, eyes scanning the large piece of paper.

“What do you mean ‘what’s this’ we were just talking about it last night!” Peter wondered, hands on his hips.

“I’m serious Quill, we’re fighting each other? Since when? Don't we already do enough of that?”

“I am Groot,” Groot reminded him in a low tone.

 “Tsch,” Rocket let it roll of his shoulders, but Groot only watched as the small raccoonoid surveyed the bracket Drax had drawn.

“Alright! Let my new celebration begin!” The destroyer announced with pride. Gamora, Groot, Mantis, Kraglin and Rocket exchanged looks. This was going to be fun! Groot thought and slid into the pilot chair. He switched off the auto-pilot and navigated them through the asteroid field.

“The first fight will begin tomorrow!” Drax told them at dinner. Mantis held her spoon at arm’s length, sniffing and wincing.

“What is this?”

“Told yah,” Kraglin beamed over the sour smelling pot, “it’s soup!” Peter crumpled his nose,

“Krags, soup isn’t supposed to smell like a renare’s hairy butt.”

“Ha!” Rocket laughed, “hahaha you got that right!” His small feet kicked the metal crate on which he sat, “hahahaha…aaah…” Groot’s head tilted as his friend’s laughter broke off into a cough, followed by another. Rocket held up a trembling paw to his muzzle as his cough-laughing continued. Gamora looked at him, unable to help herself and gave him a gentle pat on the back, careful to mind his cybernetics. Rocket’s body shook as he braced himself, coughing more.

 “I am Groot?”

 Cough-cough- “I’m…” he sucked in air, wheezing and pinched his eyes shut. “f…fine, just” cough cough- “went down the wrong tube!” Groot felt the room of them freeze in apprehension for their frien as he worked through his fit, trying to take in air where he could. He’s so fragile, Groot thought, twisting with worry. “What you all staring at?” Rocket demanded and ate himself a spoonful of Kraglin’s strange mixture.

They ate the rest of their meal with on the preposition that everything was fine. Kraglin tried to defend his cooking, (unsuccessfully) and Peter threw on a track by some band called the B52’s that Groot quite liked halfway through. He ate all of his soup, it wasn’t as bad as the human said.

 “Mantis, Kraglin you better get your rest,” Gamora winked at the empath as they made their way to clear the table.

 “I am sure it will be very fun! And I will go easy on him!”

“I am Groot!” Groot answered on Mantis’s behalf. They laughed, even Rocket-this time he only coughed once to the flora colossus’s relief. The family dispersed shortly after with Peter and Gamora going to their shared room and Kraglin wandering off to the flight deck to pilot the Milano through the night as he preferred to do. Mantis stood, and gave Groot a small kiss on the cheek then turned to Rocket. The Flora colossus watched as the empath approached him slowly, wringing her hands and the raccoonoid appraised her, resisting at first and then rolling his eyes.

“Alright, fine.” Mantis laughed rushing over and ran her hands through Rocket’s grey fur. Not using her powers, Groot observed, for her antennae didn’t glow.

“Good night puppy!” She chirped, giving him a small peck on the ear. Groot laughed as the raccoonoid tried his hardest to look furious.

 “I am Groot?” He asked once she had left, Rocket nodded and the two got up, walking at Rocket’s slow pace down the hall. “I am Groot,” Groot said outside the door to his quarters. 

“I’ll be fine,” Rocket reassured. Doubt it, Groot thought to himself. He could feel Rocket’s energy. Not an empath like the way Mantis could, but he could generally tell the overall status of another living creature just by being around them. Another odd gift the world-pod had bestowed upon him. Rocket felt sluggish and soft, very unlike him.

“I am Groot?”

 “I promise,” he waved the Flora colossus away and Groot finally nodded, if Rocket wanted his help he’d ask for it. Wouldn’t he? Groot slid the door to his compartment shut, technically it belonged to both him and the old raccoonoid. But ever since Groot’s teen years Rocket had spent more time in the engine room and he wanted a place of his own, so eventually their shared room became his alone. He liked his space, and Rocket never said anything about it. Groot settled down on his bed, leaves crunching under him as he shook his head. Rocket doesn’t feel well, he recalled. Not suddenly, he remembered the time when Rocket couldn’t identify his own guns several turns ago. When he tripped and fell during that chase on Yrka. Groot could still hear the echo’s of Rocket’s shrill cry of agony as a cybernetic augmentation in his left arm had snapped. Groot shook his head, curling up to sleep. The old Groot would probably know what to do. A thorn in my gut to this day . He never knew that old Groot, but Rocket had told him years ago about how he had been Rocket’s original partner, how he died saving all of them and how he, Groot regrew from one of the three remaining twigs that had come from the old Groot.

Groot winced just thinking of that old flora colossus. Rocket would always love him more. He’d made his peace with that, more or less.

 “GO MANTIS!” Peter roared in Groot’s face the next day as Mantis vaulted over Kraglin’s bent back. The ravager let loose a string of expletives and cradled his arm. The empath twirled in the air, one leg kicking up and knocking the man sideways to the ground. On his other side Rocket cheered, kicking his feet as they dangled over the walkway. They had cleared the carbo bay for the fight and filed in on the overhead walkway. Groot watched Kraglin pull himself up and ran at Mantis.

“Lookout!” Gamora shouted, Mantis turned, but too late. Kraglin grabbed her around the arm and twisted, she screamed as she fell down, kicking.

“S…sorry,” the ravager managed. She struck again, this time with her fists, hitting with such force that Kraglin’s knees buckled. Peter’s mouth fell open as she spun around Kraglin and knocked him down once more. 

“That’s alright!” The Empath reached her hand around and hit him against his neck with the side of her flattened hand.

“Wooo!” Drax cheered, even as Kraglin recovered, not fully falling and threw Mantis into the pads they had fixed to the side of the walls. “She is clearly besting you!” 

“Someone get Yondu!” Rocket cackled, “he needs to see this!”  Groot blinked, Peter turned. Rocket continued watching. “He’s gonna get a kick outta this!” 

“Rocket are you kidding me?” Anger bit at Peter’s tone, Groot frowned as the human glared down at the raccoonoid.

“What?” Rocket demanded innocently, “go get him, he’s got to watch as---” A shrill broke through his laughter as Mantis punched Kraglin in the chest. He stumbled back, recovering and made to counter-strike. She dodged and grabbed his ear, twisting.

“Ow!!”

“Yondu!” Rocket cheered, “get in here you blue idiot!”

“Shut up Rocket!” Peter snarled. “Yondu’s dead!” Groot’s vines twisted as Rocket’s ears fell, his red eyes flickered with hurt, bewilderment.

“R…right…” he said slowly, Groot watched him shake. “S…sorry Pete.” Below them Mantis held Kraglin down as Drax counted to five.

 “FIVE! MANTIS WINS!!” She beamed, helping the ravager to his feet. Groot hardly saw them, watching as Peter swallowed.

 “S’alright,” the human whispered. Rocket shook his head, shame. Embarrassment. Groot reached forward, placing a hand on his shoulder. Peter forced a smile,

“It’s alright Rock. I wish he were here too.” Groot fidgeted in his seat, offering his friend a sympathetic smile.

“I…I forgot,” he whispered, “I actually forgot Yondu…” he shook his head. “How could I forget?” Drax leaned over Groot’s lap to Rocket,

“You better prepare yourself small, aged friend! You and I are up next!” Groot’s bark shivered as Peter and Drax stood, Peter offering Rocket small “it’s alright, really,” nod. But it’s not alright…Groot shivered.

Chapter Text

Red ones go in the cartridge…orange in the barrel first…right? Rocket held two variations of stunning bullets in his shaking paws. He blinked, leaning closer to them, which…is…it? That’s orange…he squinted at the rounds in his left hand. No…it was darker then orange...it must be red. He examined the ones in his left, why….is it…he strained to distinguish the colors as he sat in the engine room that evening. No, I was right the first time…these are orange, these are red, he loaded the cartridges into his stun-gun and reached for the small lock, fingers trembling.

 “F…flark it…” CRASH! “FUCK!” The gun clattered to the floor with a nerve-jostling bang. Groaning, the raccoonoid bent to pick it up, wincing as a sharp pain stabbed at his side.

“Rocket!” Kraglin shouted, his fist banging on the metal door to the engine room. “Your up in ten!” The raccoonoid’s lungs seemed to spasm as he drew a sharp breath, shocked by the shouting even through the door. Breathe, you know the drill…he clenched his fist. Breathe. 

“Got it!” Rocket shouted, locking the gun and resting it against the wall. He closed his eyes, the pain of his back now vibrating out through his arms and legs. His head spun, I’m not up for this…he breathed, looking at his reflection against the turning engine. Pathetic.

“I am Groot?” The pain subsided for a moment hearing Groot’s hesitant soft voice. Those three words. Every time he heard them Rocket thanked the stars, even all these years later. He might be a different Groot, but the raccoonoid loved him just as much.

“What’s up bud?” The raccoonoid slid the door open. Groot looked him over, frowning.

“I am Groot?”

 “Yeah, I’m ready as I’ll ever be.” Rocket answered, toting his gun and stumbling forward. Violent shooting aches jolted through his arm and right shoulder as he struggled to hold the gun. It’s getting so much heavier.  

“I am Groot!” Groot reached his hand forward, gently taking the gun and balancing it until Rocket nodded.

“Of course, I still want to do this,” Rocket lied. If I back out now they’ll worry. Don’t want them to worry more than they already do. Especially Groot. I’m not that feeble. He assured himself. Groot raised a brow, hands going to his hips.

“I mean it man,” Rocket tried to assure him. “I appreciate the concern but I’ll be fine.” Groot closed the door behind him.

“I am Groot.” He pointe out. The old raccoonoid shook his head.

“No it doesn’t. You were never on Halfworld, so I don’t expect you to know.” Rocket rubbed his ears, ignoring the dull throb in his arm socket. Groot looked down at his large wooden feet.

“I am Groot,” Rocket caught his breath, looking up at him.

 “Hey, don’t be sorry. I’m alright. I’m just used to the aches and pains is all I meant. It’s nothing new.” But one look at his friend’s drawn face and Rocket’s heart throbbed slowly for the shame.

“You didn’t know me then Groot. And I’m kinda glad. I did some real terrible things.” Blood, chemicals…shooting them. So, so many of them. Rocket gazed off at the walls full of wiring, seeing the walls of the labs in their place. So many memories, so much screaming.  Not from the scientists, he’d never regret that. But from those he’d left behind. From all those he’d killed in an effort to get money. The ghosts of what he’d done creeping at the corners of his mind. “If I’m paying for it now…well…I deserve every second of it,” he whispered.

“ROCKET!” Kraglin’s shout rang from the bowels of the ship. “Let’s go! I put ten units on you to win this fight!” Rocket snapped back to reality as Groot looked down at him with trepidation, the raccoonoid could almost read what was unsaid in those large brown eyes. Wordlessly, Groot held the door open as the raccoonoid walked forward, teeth clenched against the pain of the weight of his gun.

“I am Groot,” Groot wished his friend luck, looking at him with his face drawn. Though Rocket could not discern. Rocket watched the large floral colossus make his way up to where the rest watched. The distance between where he’d entered and where Drax stood, brandishing his knives was farther then Rocket ever realized.

 “Go Drax! Go crabby puppy!” Mantis shrilled from above. Drax beamed, waving his knives and gesturing for them to cheer louder. Rocket smirked, no wonder he wanted to do this!

“Go on rat!” Kraglin shouted, banging his knuckles on the iron bars of the walkway above. Rocket looked to his fellow guardian and the large tattooed alien grinned,

“Let us commence the fight my rodent friend.” He held each knife in his fist like a death grip. He may have knives, but those are only good at close range. They walked forward, each matching the others, the hairs on the back of Rocket’s neck bristling even though he trusted the Destroyer, knew him. “I will not go easy on you just because you are small,” Drax whispered, grinning like a feign. Rocket returned the favor,

“I’d kill you if you did, asshole.” Rocket held his breath as the Destroyer’s eyes held his own for a brief moment before they stepped away.

“Alright!” Quill shouted, stepping between them, “rules are same as last time. Fight until forfeit. No hits at the face or groin, or behind the back. If you make each other bleed your cleaning it up. Ready?” Back out now…Rocket flicked his tail, dismissing his instinct. Quill held up his right arm, “aaannd GO!” The raccoonoid sprung away before Drax could tackle him, silently gritting his teeth against the throbbing of his stiff cybernetics. The Destroyer laughed, leaping after him and swinging his knife at Rocket’s torso. The raccoonoid barely dodged, he knew what to do. Same as all the other scraps he’d been in, he made to get down on all fours and transfer the gun to his back. Heaving the thing over down in front of him,

“Aaagghh,” he pushed through the heavy weight of the weapon which threatened to snap his wrists, moving the thing to his back as Drax spun to charge at him once more. Fuck…why is it so…h..heavy? Rocket’s thoughts moved as sluggishly as his own body and fumbled in his skull as the butt of one of Drax’s knives nailed him in the ribs. He stumbled, cybernetics creaking inside of him, threatening to split skin.

“You must be faster rodent friend!” Drax taunted, Rocket’s blood seethed. You want fast baldy?! He snarled, vaulting upwards as the Destroyer closed in for another blow. This time it worked. With a thud he landed on muscular shoulders and scratched, that’s right! He sneered even with the cumbersome weight of the weapon on his back. Colors spun as Drax tried to pry Rocket from his head, meaty fingers groping through his fur.

“Yeah! Go Rocket!” Quill shouted as the raccoonoid clawed at Drax’s head and face.

“AAArrrggg,” Rocket went rigid as Drax’s hands finally grabbed him around the torso and flung him off, his stomach sloshing as he was pitched through the air. G…get the gun! He screamed at himself, how is this fight different from any of the others?! In a flash he tried to reach and pull his weapon around in front of him to shoot.

“I am Groot!” Groot urged, Rocket twisted and cried out as he bent to far too fast, the cybernetic panel in his back sent electrifying pain through his entire body, impounded by the crash against the mats. Colors blotted his vision as he shook his head, trembling. Get up…get up…his claws fumbled for his gun, trying to find his way through the white pain. He tried to ick himself up as his whiskers twitched, Drax advancing once again. He twisted, pulled and aimed.

 “Ha!” His stance squared, he watched as the Destroyer rushed at him. Rocket peered through the scope at Drax, aiming for his torso. Wait for it…wait…NOW! He pulled the trigger and thrust his chest out in triumph as Drax stumbled.

“Yeah!” Kraglin fist-pumped the air as Rocket approached Drax, given his weight and the doage of Hkranian sedative he should be out for….how long…? Why couldn’t he remember? Muddled colors where clarity should have been. Hkranian sedative,  yes, what’s the dosage? He shook his head, swallowing back the bile in his throat. Every step sent shooting pains through him, don’t stumble, their all watching you. Rocket put on a face, smiling with debonair swagger. 

“Told yah not to go easy on me!” He grinned, pride swelling within him. I can do this, I can do this. His left arm twitched with the wiring of his cybernetics, his gun dropped, which he picked up as quickly as possible.

“I am Groot!” Groot shouted, Rocket swung around, aiming his gun. Drax dragged himself up, shaking the sleepiness from his head.

“You may have shot me once small friend,” he smiled as he stepped forward but this time, Rocket was ready. Breathe, breathe, he sucked in air, and twitched as the air tried to fill his shriveled lungs. He coughed once, twice and sidestepped, sucking in a panicked breath as Drax came for him, fist balled. He huffed for breath, why is air so scant. Rocket fell to all fours once more as the Destroyer lunged for him, he spun, the tip of his tail brushing against Drax’s arm.

 “You can do it Drax!” Mantis shouted from below, the Destroyer glanced at her and Rocket sprang with the momentary distraction, claws out. He vaulted for the tattooed alien, landing on his bare back and scratched at him. With a groan Drax started to move, not so fast! Rocket socked him on the top of the head, not hard enough to do any true damage, but enough to put his head back down. Rocket cocked his gun, aiming between his shoulder blades.

“Give up yet?”  He laughed, cocking the gun for good measure.

“I am Groot!” Groot cheered, wooden hands clapping together and echoing off the sides of the ship.

“Yield Drax!” Gamora shouted, “you know he’ll shoot you if you don’t!” That’s for sure, Rocket brimmed with pride, not feeble at all. Just as good as I once was, just took me a little longer is all.

“Drax the Destroyer never yields!” Without warning he sprang up and Rocket fell backward, slamming down to the hard metal ground with a heavy thud.

“Aaaaahhhh!!” The cybernetic panel in his back fritzed and snapped with the impact. Black filled his vision and Rocket heaved for air through the pain, coughing. Where is he?! The raccoonoid panicked, unable to see through the shadows that muddled his vision. 

“I am Groot!” Groot’s frantic call barely reached Rocket’s ears as Drax towered over him.

“Do you yield yet?” He implored, Rocket shook his head, n…no, one movement at a time he raised himself, one step, good. Two steps…aahh..flashing agony fileld him as he finally stood, facing the large alien.

“N….not a…” he panted, “c…chance…” For a moment he looked at Drax, who’s eyes widened in surprise and regret. Without thinking further Rocket made to climb up the Destroyer’s legs and take him out from his shoulders once more. He fumbled for his gun as he ran, stretching to reach for it. He ran sluggishly, drifting from side to side, the panel in his back sparking.

“Please, yield my friend!” Drax pleaded, he held his knives limply, waiting for Rocket to attack him.

“N…no!” Rocket forced, he steadied his grip on the gun, that’s it…his jelly like legs threatened to give as he threw himself unceremoniously out of the way of Drax’s strike.

“Rocket easy!” Quill warned from above but Rocket barely heard him. I will not be beat just cuz my kurtuckan body’s actin’ up! As usual he summoned his rage to channel through him, he dodged another blow from Drax, look for his blind spot…back of him, strike there. Yes...move…his mind told him but his legs did not obey. It happened quickly. Rocket tried to measure the distance with which he could hit the back of Drax’s knee he measured it, perfectly, swung and stumbled forward in his lethargy no…no…missed. Seeing the opportunity, the Destroyer twirled his knife, aiming the blade away from Rocket’s flesh and instead using the butt of it to ram into his back as he tried to wing again. Drax threw force behind the second blow in a single arch, landing squarely on the raccoonoid’s upper hip on the right side.

“Aaaaarrrrghhh!!” Rocket could not hush the cry as he crumbled, head spinning. N…no...his mind freaked as he hit the ground. Below the horrified gasps of his friends only jabbed at his pain. Vision swimming…get up…no…c..can’t.

“I have triumphed!” Drax boasted, holding his knives above his head and gloating. “Behold! I am victorious! Even against a formidable foe!” He turned but Rocket’s eyes could not see anything except blotches of grey. His legs kicked at nothing agony hot and flashing…back at the labs….cybernetics, hands grabbing him, taking him apart. The electric shock coursed through him and he managed to squeeze himself into a ball on his side. So exhausted….can’t get air… “You did well too my friend!” Drax was saying, somewhere far away. “Stand and you too will be congratulated for your valiant effort!” But Rocket could not speak, his stomach emptied out it tasted like shame and weakness. Drax turned, his knives falling to the ground as he ran towards the raccoonoid. “Rocket?” A soft whisper, Drax hovered over him, “I did not think you would succumb so easily to such a blow! Are you alright?” Through the twining of the metal in his body Rocket could barely make-out the pitter patter of Gamora, Peter, Kraglin and Mantis coming down the stairs.

“I am Groot?” The flora colossus knelt before him,

“….did I win?” He choked out, swallowing as another wave of shock ran through him. 

“Rocket,” Gamora’s voice reached his ears, “I’m going to have to look at that wound. I just have to open your suit.” He didn’t have the strength to resist her. She let out a small gasp.

“W…what…is it?” Rocket asked, but he knew full well what she’d discovered. On the small of his back, right below the scar from where the scientists had modified his lumbar spine, two metal panels baring the resemblance of battery life indicators were sewn crudely into his flesh. One labeled “Bio-ware,” the one beside it read “Hard-ware.” He discovered these when he first got free from Halfworld, after a nasty fight with some Iopianian thugs on Krattamor.

“Bio-ware severely compromised,” Gamora translated for Peter. Rocket listened to her even as Groot gently slid one comforting hand under his face that was pressed to the floor. “Immediate maintenance required.

“H..how bad is it Gams? How…how bad is it?” Above Kraglin and Drax’s hovering faces tears sprung to Mantis’s eyes.

“We’re not going to worry about that right now Rock,” the assassin answered calmly, closing up his suit once more. Groot’s narrow eyes and furrowed brow told the raccoon everything he needed to know. Taking a shuddering, stabbing exhale he managed a sarcastic smile,

“You…us…used a nickname Gams,” he breathed, “so I know it c…can’t be good.” Whatever reply Gamora gave was lost as the metal in his body rang with cold stabbing pricks.

Chapter Text

Sparkling stars danced across the fourteenth quadrant of the galaxy. Shimmering in their striking blues and vibrant orange stardust. Against a backdrop of eternal black the miraculous supernovas curled in diaphanous tendrils across the sky. A serene passivity more ancient than any other thing in creation. All was calm but for a single ship that moved streamline through the expanse, even that ship appeared quaint. But inside the Milano, those within could not be more frantic.

Expiration immanent, Gamora leaned against the navigator chair in the cockpit. Expiration immanent. Three red lights for bio-ware, three for hard-ware.

“I am Groot!” Groot strode the floor of the small cockpit for the seventeenth time, his vines curling and bending. Thorns sprung from his shoulders and he folded his arms, twiddling his long wooden fingers.

 “Will you stop pacing?” Peter begged, “it’s making me more stressed then I already am!” Groot ignored him, turning on his heel and walking towards Gamora once more.

“This is all my fault,” Drax whispered, hands holding his head. “I did not realize our furry friend was so sick.”

“I am Groot!” Groot snapped, glaring daggers as the tattooed alien.

“Yeah!” Kraglin echoed, “he ain’t sick!”

“He looked sick,” Mantis murmured. Expiration immanent, those two words taunted Gamora’s mind as she thought. No, it’s just another problem. Another obstacle, another challenge. Another mission. She resumed herself to contemplation even as the sounds of her fellow guardian’s bickered. Expiration immanent, as if he were a machine. An object. Created to be used and tossed away when broken. She thought disgusted. A means to an-ends, like me. She shuddered, like Nebula. But at least she nor her sister had nothing so explicit hardwired into their flesh. Nothing that indicated they weren’t deserving of personhood. We just knew it in our minds.

 “What’s wrong?” Kraglin asked, shaking Gamora from her thoughts. Clearly, she had not concealed her emotions well enough.

“What do you think Krags?” Peter quipped.

 “Sorry cap’in.” The ravager glanced around nervously before bowing his head. Peter sighed,

 “You got Rocket those pain meds right?”

“Yes cap’in.”

“How much?” Gamora looked up at the ravager’s large wandering eyes, his hunched shoulders.

 “About 17 tolls of that equan stuff. Enough for a five-year-old terran kid.” Mantis nodded at the response as though she understood, and patted Drax on his shoulder.

 “He won’t be in pain anymore,” she whispered trying to be helpful. Gamora almost felt sorry for him. But Drax only huffed, shaking his head.

 “This is all my fault.”

“I am Groot!” Groot snarled, rounding on the Destroyer. “I. Am. Groot!” More thorns protruded from his bark as he loomed over Drax.

“Groot, don’t,” Gamora advised, but Drax’s soft reply stopped her short.

“He is right,” he looked up, eyes rimmed with red. “I should have known.”

 “Look we can’t waste time on what should have happened,” Peter spoke shortly. “We got to stick to what’s actually happening.” Gamora nodded, he’s come a long way. Being responsible and clear headed for once. Were circumstances better she may have smiled at him, but one look at Groot’s torn face only made her stomach turn.

“Peter’s right,” she answered. “We’re in the fourteenth quadrant, far from any civilized planet. The best we can do is keep him comfortable until we inventory the med-bay and see if we have any supplies that can repair his cybernetics. What we have on board is what we got until we can find some sort of clinic on an out-post.” And even then, Rocket would rather have us rip the cybernetics out then be brought anywhere within reach of a clinic. That challenge comes later.

Her trained mind calculated, putting it aside. Groot himself nodded giving Drax one more look of utter rage and disappointment before resuming his pacing.

“Mantis, Groot, why don’t you got check on him…”

“No,” Gamora spoke before she could stop herself. The empath glanced at her with worry, “I’ll go.” Peter frowned, confused. “I know cybernetics,” she continued. “And I’m sorry Mantis but you are probably the last person Rocket wants to see right now.” 

“I am Groot,” Groot slid a foul glance at Drax.

“Don’t blame Drax!” Mantis shouted, one comforting hand on his shoulder. “It was not his fault, he was just fighting the way he always has. It’s not one’s fault.”

“Mantis is right,” the green skinned assassin spoke. Kraglin looked up once more, nodding. “It is no one’s fault.” She turned to the flora colossus, “come on Groot.” He didn’t need to be told twice. He’ll be alright, we will figure this out. He just needs basic repairs, I’ve done more complex work on him before. She reassured herself of her competence, and yet, expiration immanent poisoned every plan she could come up with.

“I am Groot,” Groot motioned for her to hurry as they navigated the corridors of the Milano.

“Groot wait,” reaching out Gamora grabbed his arm, yanking him backward even as he glared over his shoulder and tugged his arm forward out of her grip. The thorns on his back barring her from speaking to words and reason, he won’t listen even if I do caution him. A hardness to him that his predecessor did not have, she realized with momentary sorrow. “Groot we cannot just barge in there,” she called after him, hurriedly stepping down the metal stairs, every fie over her steps amounting to one of his. “Groot, stop!” He halted, turning with such rapid force that she stepped back, the thorns coming from him nearly stabbing at her.

“I am Groot?” What now?

“Those pain medications Kraglin gave him,” she began. “I’ve seen them before,” in every infirmary across the galaxy. “He might not be himself.” Groot only crossed his arms. “I just want to prepare you.”

“I am Groot,” I am prepared. I might not know how to help him, but I do know him.

“I know you do,” Gamora reassured, hoping she’d understood the full extent of what his word meant. With that she sidestepped him, leading the way to where the med bay sat on the second lowest level of the ship. Peering through the window, Rocket lay flat on his back, he’s so small. She thought, watching him sleep there. His fur no longer contrasted so starkly against the white of the blankets he’d kicked off. Instead he seemed to become a part of the bed itself. Still and sinking into it.

 Gamora blinked away the image, we will fix him. She challenged the galaxy as she recalled that day. That day. After the battle with Thanos. When Rocket, guns smoking, and eyes aflame had approached her, almost timidly.

“I found this,” he’d said almost nervously as he held out Nebula’s arm. “Thought you should have it.” She had starred down at the thing in blank surprise. Leave it to Rocket to steal something in the middle of a battle. She smiled at the memory, such an absurd moment surrounding so much tragedy and pain. Rocket had made her laugh, even then.

“Groot! Wait!” Gamora snapped out of it as the flora colossus punched in the codes deftly and strode in as the doors parted. Gamora held her breath, waiting for Rocket to stir, to awake violently as he did so many nights. With teeth bared and claws ready to strike. She walked wide around the room, eyeing the crude bag Kraglin tied to the ceiling with a spare power cord.

“Gammy!” Gamora startled, Rocket’s large dilated pupils stared at her like an overjoyed child. “Groot!” Rocket looked between them, ears perked but fur dull.

“How are you doing Rocket?” She asked practically, stepping around and looking him over. He hadn’t even noticed the small intravenous sticking out of his left arm. 

“This shit is great,” he leaned back once more staring up at the medication. “What’s the street name for this? We could make a killing if we sold it!”

“I am Groot!”

 “No,” Gamora shut the idea down. She set herself down as Rocket looked dejected and fell back against the bed.

“Said it once I’ll say it again,” he breathed, “you just want to suck the joy out of everything.” 

“I want you to be alright,” she countered. “Now roll over, I need to look at your wounds.” Groot slowly reached out, helping Rocket even as he winced and groaned with the effort. Gamora slowly lifted the small white smock they’d put him in, only after he passed out of course. Red, inflamed, she pinched her nose at the smell of puss and looked at Groot, shaking her head.

“How bad is it Gams?”

“It says your bio-ware and hard-ware have been compromised,” she answered. He nodded as he rolled back over onto his back.

“How compromised?”  Better to tell him the truth then keep him in the dark, her rationale reasoned. She opened her mouth to answer, “wait,” he shook his head, eyes shutting as he shook his head back and forth. “Gamora?”

“Yes Rock?”

 “Do we have a mini-bar on this rig?” Groot laughed, as Rocket chittered, sucking in a small breath of pain.

“No.”

“Why not? You gotta tell Star-turd, we need some kurtuckan booze on this d’ast boat!”

“I am Groot!”

“I would not drink all of it if we had one!” Gamora allowed herself to laugh, momentarily dispelling anxiety in her mind. Rocket laughed until he coughed and coughed until he fell back again, sides breathing in and out in short spasms. She reached around slowly, patting his back just between the shoulder blades.

“What were we…?” He wondered, sniffing. “How…how bad has the bio-ware been compromised?” He wondered again, Gamora looked at Groot who only had eyes for Rocket. .” If his hard-ware has been compromised…if he’s breaking down…the only creatures who will know how best to fix him are those that built him.

“We are going to get you fixed,” she replied after a moment. “I have an idea…but you won’t like it.”

“Try me,” he managed between another round of coughing. This time Groot made a distressed groan, glancing at the bag of medicine. 

“We need to take you to Halfworld,” she explained. Rockt shook his head,

“N…no…” he whispered, voice shaking and tight.

“We will all be with you,” Rocket held up a paw, waving at her.

“Not that,” he gasped, paw going to his side and clutching it. She watched him huff through it, that’s it Rock. You are stronger than your pain remember? Just like you told me. “Not that,” he recovered. “Not that I’d let you take me there if you wanted to,” he challenged, red eyes glaring. “But there…there ain’t anything to go back to."

“What do you mean?” Gamora asked, though she already had an idea.

“When Groot and I broke out,” Rocket sighed, his paws clenching at the sheets. “…they never showed us mercy, not once.” Gamora looked at the flora colossus who’s own knotted face betrayed him. He doesn’t even know what Rocket is talking about, a vague idea maybe from the stories. “…we returned the favor.”

“You destroyed everything?”  Rocket nodded, his gaze far away.

“They took us apart, burned him." He gestured at Groot, "tore me up…” his breathes came in short ragged drawls.

“I am Groot…” Groot reached out and Rocket snarled, ears going back.

“Don’t!” He cried, “don’t take me part again…I’ll…I’ll be good!”

 “Rocket, it’s just us!” Gamora tried, even though she knew it was pointless. Even as the raccoonoid hunkered on all fours, head dashing this way and that, tail stiff.

“I’ll pass the test! I will! No upgrades needed!” His eyes roved as he whispered desperately, “Rodent, vermin, Groot! Subject, 8….9…P,” he clenched his eyes shut, shaking his head as his claws sharply tore at the flimsy blankets.

“I am Groot!” Groot looked helplessly at Gamora as Rocket repeated his designated cereal number. “I am Groot!” What do I do?!

“ 1…3…varmint, animal…m…monster.” Rocket growled, shook and collapsed, thrashing out as he did in his nightmares. Gamora watched in terror at his agony, what do we do? What do we do? No. Think. THINK. It is a mission. Assess. By sheer force of will she thrust her panic down, allowing instinct and years of her own torturous training to take over. 

“Just steady him,” she instructed Groot who’s pleading look could have cut stone. He nodded, placing his large wooden arms around Rocket who’s own exhaustion eventually shortened out his frenzy. He sweat profusely, dry heaving with the effort it took him to steady his breathing.

 “There’s nothing left,” he spoke at last. “Destroyed all of it.”

“All of it?” Gamora inquired, patiently waiting his response. Rocket nodded, seeming to come back now from his outburst.

“All of it. Blew it sky high.”

“So there are no records of any of the procedures?” She dared to ask. “No survivors? No one escaped?” Rocket shook his head. “Are you sure?” His large red eyes stared at her, narrow and feverish.

“N…no,” he tried to calm himself. “Trust me, Groot and I made sure of that.” Groot made a small whine, and Gamora’s heart clenched for him. Rocket turned to the flora colossus, “don’t feel bad about it,” he whispered, the flora colossus wound his arms around him tighter. “Look at me Groot,” Rocket’s claws clamped on to the bark. He clung to it as if it were the only thing holding him to his senses. Maybe it is, Gamora wondered with trepidation. She watched Rocket look up at Groot, with that same desperate longing as he had moments before the old Groot they knew and loved had sacrificed himself. His dry nose inches from Groot’s sad, bewildered and guilt ridden face. Rocket spoke taking a deep breath. “The greatest joy in my whole d’ast life was raisin' you, got it?” He implored, tilting his head.

“I am Groot?” To Gamora’s surprise Groot looked at her. She glanced at the medicine bag above.

“Yes,” she appraised. “Those pain meds are pretty strong.” Groot nodded and turned back to Rocket.

“Fuck,” he whispered, leaning out of Groot’s embrace and resting neutral on the bed once more. Gamora looked him over. “You gotta tell me Gams,” he sighed. “What did the bio and hard-ware indicators say?” It was the assassins turn to feel vulnerable. Maybe Groot will hate me for answering him. Maybe Peter will hate me. But he deserves the truth. No matter how hard. And still we can fix it, if not Halfworld some other way. There are plenty of labs and hospitals, thousands of scientists. Once again she used her reasoning to distract from the harsh reality of emotion. From that which took hold of her heart and threatened to shatter it. A survival mechanism. She looked at Rocket, sucking in a great deep breath, as if she could swallow up the words.

“It said….” She looked at those eyes, those eyes that had so often glared and laughed and sneered and concealed themselves behind sarcasm and callousness. But no longer, now Rocket was looking to her openly. Expectant, vulnerable, as helpless as she’d ever seen him. Not every problem can be solved with the sword. You know this. Daughter of Thanos, your presence has always been one of ill will and dread. You have always instilled fear in people’s hearts. Why are these words any different? She glanced at Groot, then back at the raccoonoid.

“It said expiration imminent.” She spoke the words aloud and her stomach flipped as though she had just made them real. Rocket’s eyes looked down at himself, then to Groot. He took it in by degrees, she watched each stage play out across his face though she could tell he tried to conceal it. For her and Groot’s sakes. Maybe for his own. The starting tears of fear, the tail switch of rage, the whisker twitch of trying to think of a solution. Finally, he just nodded. Somehow that was worse.

“Might have known,” he whispered 

“It doesn’t mean anything,” she quickly reassured, already running through more possibilities. “We are going to get you fixed. We have time. You have time. The wound itself is just a bruise,” she smiled. “And Groot will help you too. It’s going to be alright.” Groot tried to crack a smile as he retracted his hold from Rocket.

“I’ll give you two some space. Let me know if you need anything Rock.” she excused herself, standing and exited the med bay, punching the lock shut and threw herself back against the wall, sliding down and holding a hand to conceal her face. Breathe, just breathe. The weight of that room lifted as she drew her knees to her torso. Think Gamora! This is a mission. Expiration is NOT immanent. Groot regrew his own planet, he can heal Rocket! Yes? Please. Even if he can’t there are options. She cleared her throat, standing and summoning her training, willing herself to walk back up to the cockpit. As usual all eyes will be on me, demanding an explanation. She should be used to it by now.

“Well?” Kraglin asked hopeful as she stepped in.

“He’s doing well. Pain meds are working.” She glanced at Quill. “Peter may I speak with you alone for a moment?”

Chapter Text

“I am Groot!” Groot protested with a rage barely concealed, Rocket glared up at him.

“He’s right,” Peter agreed, “you’re not dying. People who are dying don’t rip out their IV’s, bribe impressionable empaths to sneak them out of the med-bay, start rebooting the weapons systems and installing a mini-bar!” Rocket only huffed, hands on his hips. Peter glanced at the nav-controls and frowned. “You got hurt and you’re getting older that’s not the same thing.” Rocket glanced at the flora colossus, Groot know he wanted him to agree. But he couldn’t agree. Could not bring himself to agree. He heard the truth same as Rocket when Gamora told them a few turns ago.

 “That reminds me,” Rocket continued, pulling a handgun from its holster and cleaning it with a cloth. “I want to stop by Erate and try stealing one of those rare quatandin ships again.” 

“We are not doing that,” Peter glanced over his shoulder looking at the flora colossus who shrugged. They always expect me to mediate for him, he stared down at the raccoonoid.

“But I’m dyin’ Pete,” Rocket wined. “That means you have to do what I want.”

 “People who are dying don’t use that as a pathetic excuse to they what they want,” Peter practically growled. Rocket’s tail flicked in irritation, he ran the cloth across the barrel of his gun methodically. 

“Yeah how do you know?” He pressed, Groot rolled his eyes, why couldn’t he just let it go?

 “I am Groot,” stop it. Peter slammed “auto-pilot” and bolted up, turning on Rocket so fast the raccoonoid dropped his gun.

“My mother Rocket!” Hurt and sadness, pain resurfacing. Groot could feel it coming off of Star-Lord like oozing black ink. Rocket’s mouth opened, ready to spit some smart retort. Groot shot him a warning glance. The raccoonoid shut his muzzle, glancing up at Peter.

“A’right Pete, sorry. Geez.” He muttered, Groot watched as his friend seemed to deflate in the shadow of the human. Peter shook his head,

“It’s fine,” he snapped. “Just stop using ‘I’m dying’ as an excuse when you’re not.” Rocket rolled his eyes, folding his arms and leaning back against the wall continuing to clean his gun.

“Besides,” Groot watched Peter recover and break into a grin, “we can’t get a bar because I have no self-control and neither do you.”

“Speak for yourself humie,” Rocket mused. “I wasn’t the one who did six shots of dranaln vodka.” Peter laughed, lifting the ever-present nausea in Groot’s mind.

“That was you.” Peter reminded the raccoon. “I said ‘Rocket don’t have that shot’ and you said, ‘don’t tell me what to do Star-Butt’ and ordered five more of them.” Groot laughed, chest vibrating with happiness and light as he remembered that night, and Peter clapped him on the back. “

“So no mini-bar?” Rocket laughed, stifling a cough at the end of his chuckle.

“No,”

“Not even a mini-fridge in the kitchen?”

“No!”

“Fiine,” Rocket gave in, shaking his head in laughter. It feels good to hear laughter, Groot thought. After the nights of nightmares, of watching the raccoonoid drift in and out of nightmares. Sometimes fighting unseen demons, sometimes just lying there in the delirium of the pain meds, crying and shaking. In the past few days, Groot had come to realize he preferred the former to the latter. But Rocket seemed to be well again, well enough to re-design the Milano’s sound system for optional effect, well enough to complain and well enough to continue doing all the things that typically annoyed them. A knock on the cock-pit door swung Groot’s attention to where Drax stood, bald head bowed. Drax, Groot’s bark hardened at the thought. He should have known to go easy on Rocket. He’s not stupid. Peter slid the door open and the Destroyer cast a wary look at Groot.

“Drax, what’s up?” Rocket asked, “haven’t seen you round since I got outta the med bay!” Drax said nothing and Groot’s mouth hung open in disbelief as the Destroyer got to his knees, before Rocket.

“Small furry friend,” he began. “It was my fault you were hurt so. I feared you were going to die. For my stupidity I forfeit my victory in our match. You will be the new winner.” Rocket blinked, Groot watched him trying to decide how to respond no doubt there were a variety of sarcastic comments he could make, half of which Groot wanted to say himself. Drax would deserve whatever barb he got. The flora colossus fumed, but Rocket only picked something out of teeth with a claw and grinned. 

“Rematch then,” he answered simply.

“I am Groot!” No, I’ll fight him.

“No!” Peter and Rocket both shouted. Drax looked up at him, eyes laced with a pain that made Groot feel shame for a small moment. Drax really hadn’t meant to hurt him at all.  

“There’s no rematch,” Peter stepped between them. “We’re cancelling this whole tournament.” Drax didn’t even protest, he only nodded and stood.

“I am Groot!”

“What’s that?” Gamora asked, she sauntered in and kissed Peter on the cheek.

“We’re not doing the tournament anymore,” he answered shortly. Gamora frowned,

“Why not?”

“Because…”

“It’s cuz I got hurt and Star-Lord here don’t want it to happen again,” Rocket interjected. “But I ain’t made of glass a’right humie? I’ve had worse.” Your bio and hard-ware are compromised, Groot thought to himself with a pinch in his proverbial heart. The incorrigible raccoonoid only continued to shoot down Peter’s protests. Groot looked him over, even as Rocket argued he could see the pattern of his short breaths. The twitch in the muscles of his face and the lethargy of his tail. Like a leaf clinging to the branch…

“What do you think Groot?” Gamora inquired finally remembering he was there. Groot looked at Rocket’s hopeful eyes. They were brighter then they had been in months.

“I am Groot,” I want to continue the challenge.

“See! Told yah!” Rocket boasted. Anything to return to some sense of normalcy. Peter surveyed them all, anxiety. Finally, he gave a dejected sigh, running a hand through his sandy blonde hair. 

“Fine, Groot, Gamora you’ll fight tomorrow. Same rules as last time.”

“I am Groot!” He reached out a vine, giving Rocket a high-five. Gamora laughed and even Drax smiled.

“I will tell Mantis to come and make you feel better about this Quill. It will be fun. No doubt it will distract Rocket from the pain he is feeling.”

“I can hear you Drax,” Rocket reminded. The Destroyer nodded,

“Come then small rodent, let us go and see if we can find more of that poisonous liquid to consume in celebration of your recovery.” Groot watched the two of them exit the cock-pit, shaking his head. Rocket was incredibly smart, how could he be so ignorant? But yet again, Groot could not judge too harshly. He’d felt like a failure more times in the past few days then any other time in his life. Unable to soothe his friend, unable to ease the misery and stop the seasons taking their toll on Rocket’s small body. The greatest joy of my whole d’ast life has been raising you, Rocket’s wondrous, pleading words echoed in the depths of Groot’s bark.

They had all raised him, Peter, Gamora, Mantis, Drax, even Kraglin in his own way. But Rocket’s part in Groot’s life was different, amplified. It was Rocket he tried to please as a sapling, Rocket whom he loathed and longed for approval from as an adolescent, even if he’d never admit it. Rocket, Groot contemplated even as Gamora and Peter turned back to piloting the Milano. Rocket is the black, rocky, liquor-soaked soil I’ve grown through. Tough, and messy and broken but stuck in every crack of my bark nonetheless. And to see him age so rapidly, just the other night he’d fallen on his way back from the tiny restroom in the med-bay. Crashing to the ground like a rock, his cybernetics shattering. And Groot had frozen over watching it. Had not rushed to help and had not called anyone for aid. He’d only watched as Rocket tried and failed to stand, at least five times. Each time he hopped his friend would succeed. He let Rocket drag himself back to the bed, reassuring himself the agony of it was worth it. Winter makes all things brittle, he recalled that which he’d seen on his newly regrown home world. All things age. Age…

“I am Groot?” Groot asked, making his way over to the planetary index behind the pilot and co-pilot seats.

“A rajoon,” Gamora answered.

“Raccoon,” Peter corrected. “A North American raccoon.” Groot nodded, typing “Earth” into the index, Earth. Flora and fauna. Fauna, search by type: r-a-c-c-o-o-n. His eyes rapidly scanned the screen. 

“I am Groot,” what is the lifespan of a North American raccoon? The flora colossus watched Peter and Gamora exchange worried glances. A bling on the screen made him look back,

“2-3” years.

 “I am Groot,” he read aloud. Gamora stood, coming over and looking over his shoulder.

 “That’s impossible,” her lips pursed. “We’ve known rocket for at least ten years, your entire growth years Groot.” Peter muttered something, switching the controls to auto again and coming over, peering down at the screen. 

“He’s not a raccoon though, not entirely. He’s more human then raccoon guys.” A nervous laughter broke the silence, 

“His biology is still the same, he still has the internal organs and cells of a raccoon,” Gamora pieced together. “His physiology and anatomy is still raccoon, thus he’d age in the same way.”

“I am Groot,” he is not entirely raccoon. He’s got cybernetic enhancements. As if that fact would prevent anything. Groot stared at the image of the animal the screen. If this is correct then Rocket….Rocket should have died years ago. A cold chill iced his leaves at the thought of it. With a grunt Groot swiped the data  pad off and stood. “I am Groot,” don’t tell him.

“Groot, we can’t…” but the flora colossus only stalked from the cock-pit, unwilling to hear the rest.

That night, Groot watched Rocket tinker with his bombs.

“I am Groot,” the flora colossus pointed to the compressor.

“Yeah it needs to get replaced,” Rocket muttered, trying to attach yet another cartridge to the his latest gun. It already had three. “Quill that cheap skank won’t buy us a new one.” He shoved the pack into the gun and clicked it experimentally.

“it’s cheap-skate,” Groot turned to see Quill walking into the engine room. Rocket snickered,

“Oh don’t worry Quill, I can fix it again. It’s just gonna keep breaking though.” He glowered at the human though not with too much distaste as far as Groot could tell. “I can fix it again and I’ll do it with my shirt on.” Peter only laughed, he wore nothing but pants.

“I am Groot,” Groot asked pointedly.

“No! Gamora and I were not…we don’t…” his voice drifted off as he came up to them and sat down next to Rocket. “How you feeling?” The raccoonoid fiddled with the contraptions in his hand, shaking his head. “You tired?” Quill asked gently. Groot could read the concern in his eyes. Rocket glanced up from his work,

“I’m always tired these days Quill.” Rocket eventually answered sadly. Peter nodded, Groot watched as the human reached out and touched Rocket’s shoulder. The raccoonoid flinched, evidently biting back the instinct to attack.

“Your not dying, we’ re gonna get you fixed up.” Groot nodded to himself, then pointed to the tape at Quill’s hip. 

“Oh yeah, it’s new.” he answered, Rocket leaned closer, evidently glad for the change of subject. 

“Got any good tunes on it?” Rocket asked. Peter grinned from ear to ear, he unplugged the headphone jack and pressed play. Groot listened as the music began, shimmering like the sunset over water.

Let's dance in style, let's dance for a while, heaven can wait we're only watching the skies, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” Groot closed his eyes, letting the music carry him as they sat in the heat of the engine room. It’s constant whirling and omnipresent force. “Let us die young or let us live forever. We don't have the power, but we never say never. Sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip, the music's for the sad man.”

He opened his eyes, Rocket was looking up, at the window of the engine room, the stars floating past. Beside him Peter gazed outward, both of them sitting in silence side by side, allowing the words to be spoke by the music. “Can you imagine when this race is won? Turn our golden the faces into the sun, praising our leaders, we're getting in tune the music's played by the, the madman.”

The flora colossus felt the ship drift, pushed onward by the very engine and thrusters and rockets that Rocket meticulously tended. The music continued, carrying them through the endless expanse, “Forever young, I want to be forever young, do you really want to live forever? Forever, and ever.” Do you really want to live forever? Groot wondered as the music continued, he watched Peter lean closer to the raccoonoid, one hand gently patting the top of his head. Rocket did nothing, just sat, watching the stars. Could anything truly live forever? Groot asked himself. I was grown from the twig of another flora colossus…what will happen if I age someday? Will another Groot grow from my bark? Do I live forever like that? Everything is a cycle. All living things are young, then grow old and eventually die, don’t they?

“I like this song,” Peter said quietly. Rocket nodded as it continued. “Forever young. I want to be forever young. Do you really want to live forever? Forever young. Some are like water, some are like the heat, some are a melody and some are the beat, sooner or later they all will be gone. Why don't they stay young? It's so hard to get old without a cause, I don't want to perish like a fading horse. Youth's like diamonds in the sun, and diamonds are forever.” A small cough from the raccoonoid broke Groot’s thoughts, as if to magnify that which he was already thinking. Peter pat Rocket on the back and finally the temperamental raccoonoid shrugged him off. Taking a deep breath as Groot turned to the sky once more. “So many adventures given up today, so many songs we forgot to play. So many dreams swinging out of the blue. Oh let it come true, forever young. I want to be forever young Do you really want to live forever. Forever, and ever? Forever young.” The music spun around them, lifting Groot’s vines. He reached out his arms, enveloping Peter and Rocket in his embrace. Hold them tight and protect them. Finally the silence crept over the notes of the facing song. The only sound being the whirl of the engine and the shallow thrush of Rocket’s breathing.

“We’re gonna fix you up,” Peter whispered. Rocket turned to the human, sparing a glance over his shoulder to where Groot forced a smile. “We’ll take you to Wakanda,” the human continued. “Shuri can patch you up in no time.” Rocket’s red muddled red eyes looked up through the glass to the galaxy,

“No,” Rocket finally breathed. “We ain’t going to Wakanda.” Peter turned sharply, Groot felt the human’s momentary anger, born out of the inability to face the fact.

 “You know what that means then?” he finally asked, the words coming out with difficulty.

“Yeah humie I know what it means,” Rocket sighed, shuddering against Groot as if from a chill. On instinct Groot wound his vines around his friend, securing him there. The truth of Rocket’s words not yet hitting his heart. Peter sucked in his lip, shaking his head.

“No.” He hissed. “No. You might be willing to lay down and die, but I’m not willing to let you.” 

“That’s not what it’s like Pete,” Rocket tried. It’s already hopeless, Groot knew of Rocket’s effort to convince the human otherwise.

“Really?” Peter turned to the raccoonoid once more, “then what’s it like Rocket? Tell me.”

“I am Groot,” they both looked to him.

“Forget it,” Peter dismissed standing up and breaking free of Groot’s hold.

“I am Groot!” the flora colossus called after him, but the cold metal door of the entire room slid shut.

“You better get ready for your fight tomorrow,” Rocket said. Groot shook his head, not realizing his friend had even addressed him. 

“I am Groot,” he nodded, numb. I know what that means humie. No. There must be some way. Some way we don’t know yet. There must be. Uselessness like rot threatened to bore into Groot’s bark and spread its cancerous doubt.

“What do you mean your not worried about it?” Rocket asked, “it’s Gamora! She’s the best fighter we got! She’s gonna wipe your wooden ass with the floor if you don’t practice!” He tried to laugh, but Groot only shook his head. Rocket isn’t the only one who is tired of fighting.  

“I am Groot,” goodnight.  

“Groot!” He halted at the door, as he had so many times.

“What I said…about raising you,” Rocket wrung his paws together. “It was true a’right? It wasn’t just the meds. I meant it.” Red searching eyes looked at him, into him. Begging for something Groot could not name nor give. I know…

“I am Groot,” Groot smiled sadly. Rocket nodded and Groot contented himself as he turned away, shutting the engine room door.

The next day, Groot fought Gamora. He watched Rocket cheering on from above, and Mantis clapping frantically. It was tough, Gamora’s speed and cutting blade forcing him to be constantly moving, dodging. But in the end he won, tangling her in his vines and disarming her. She had only cut off two of his limbs. That night they got drunk off the rest of Rocket’s ivamoa brandy. Groot watched them all, the alcohol having no effect on him. Finally, after Rocket passed out in Kraglin’s lap, Groot hoisted his friend over his shoulder and headed down to the engine room once more.

“You got him?” Mantis asked as Groot stood. He turned, her expectant face wide and full of concern. She’s talking about me, he realized. Do I have Rocket? Yes. I’m holding him. Looking after him since he can’t look after himself. But I don’t know how. Rocket hiccupped, his whole body contracting with a spasm. No, the terrible face reared its head in Groot’s heart. I don’t have him. Don’t know how. Halfworld, nightmares, Rocket’s simultaneous acceptance and refusal to acknowledge age. The only thing Groot could do was what he’d always done. Try his best, hope it was good enough. Help Rocket survive another winter.

“I am Groot,” he answered with sickly honesty.

Chapter Text

Rocket’s eyes squeezed shut against the pinching in the crook of his shoulders. Short claws gripped the tiny bathroom sink.

“Breathe….in and out, just breathe…” Gamora’s words of advice spoke softly in his mind. His small body trembled, he gripped the sink harder trying not to fall. He couldn’t fall again, that’d be the third time this week.

“Yo Ranger Rick!” Peter’s fists pounded the door, rattling Rocket’s brain. “What are you doing in there?!” Rocket’s teeth clenched

Just breath it out…. he rode the pain like the waves. His shoulders pinched tightly, and he let out s throaty cough. Flark it….

“Rocket c’mon!!” Peter wailed. “What are you…”

“You don’t want to know Quill!” He forced through the stinging pain in his throat. Momentary silence relieved him.

“Ew…Rocket! People shower in there!” A smile tugged at his muzzle.

“Yeah well that never stopped you and Gamora!” A string of curses followed from Peter.

“I swear to god if you drop dead in there and start stinking up my ship!” The raccoonoid gnashed his teeth and clutched the sink as another stab resonated through his back. In the recent days Peter and he had repeated their usual “post-argument” ritual. Navigating awkward silent circles around each other for a day, then continuing to dance around each other while making eye-contact at brief moments when they thought the other wasn’t going to look for the next two days, with easy jabs at each other peppering the last two to three days depending on what the argument was over. After that, back to normal.

“If I drop dead in here I’m haunting you for he rest of your life Star-stupid!” Rocket yelled back, throat scratching. “You’ll never shit in piece again!” He laughed at the thought. “Have fun trying to get all handsome for Gamora while I’m laughing at your undoubtedly tiny junk!”

“ROCKET!” Peter’s muffled horror made the old raccoon laugh, choke and gag out more viscus black and grey slime from his throat. Rocket hunched over, swallowing the bitter taste. Residue from the chemicals and residue breaking down. “Gamora says it’s averaged sized!”

“Gamora’s too nice!” He howled back.

“Your one to talk!” The human growled, pounding his fist once more against the metal door. Rocket chittered through the agony that bit at him,

“I just want you to appreciate the amount of restraint I’m using right now Quill!” He laughed, “trust me, when I say cybernetic enhanced I mean enhanced in every way.”

“GROSS ROCKET!”

“Your….your mom didn’t think so!” He shot back through another cough.

“That joke doesn't even work because my mothers dead!” Peter hollered.

"Don't kink shame Quill!" Rocket escalated through his own pain, at least it provided a welcome distraction.

“Your disgusting!” He heard the slap as Peter face palmed,

“Just hurry up in there!” Peter shouted; the raccoonoid mused as he heard Peter’s steps drift away. Smell was no longer so poignant.  In the left over, quiet Rocket lifted his head, heavy on his shoulders to gaze with dread into the stained mirror and grimace.

Subject cannot identify its reflection.” He choked out the words that the scientists spoke as they watched him through their strange masks and scribbled on their clip boards. Rocket blinked back the ocean fog of his eyes, the years unrelenting. Trademark dark fur around his eyes now a shade of grey and white. Blinking his eyes found their way down to the metal bolts below each collar bone, and he squinted, trying to see past the fading lines. Rocket reached up a claw to pick at the dark crusted blood that rimmed the metal. He shivered at the stinging pain as he picked away. Flesh burned beneath the patchy fur. Even in the tiny mirror, his face was small. He held his breath and wretched over the sink once more, giving into the ochre of bile. Legs trembling, he groped at the cast-iron for support. He wretched at the site of his scars, almost all of them were made seen by his fur which fell out. As if I needed another reminder of what they did. At least I got some of my own scars now, got by my own d’ast choice he noticed looking down at his own torso. Forbidden territory, even to him. The one on his left side a puncture wound from the time he’d single-handedly taken out four wrerllian assassins. The long-jagged strip, crawling across the flesh of his right ribcage was from a fight in the fourth prison he’d broken out of. The memories crept back from the murk of his mind.  Navigating the craggy mountains that were his metal implants and Rocket bit his lip with a worn fang. A monster still. He closed his eyes, unable to look anymore and let his tremors of his paws fall to his side. They’d made a monster of his body, but out of spite, he’d kept his heart and mind his own, as much as he could, which wasn’t much. Squirreled away under booze and anger and sleepless nights and shouting at those you loved and regretting it later. Dark and concealed. Now all of it was shattering, like gunfire. How fucking poetic.

Rocket reached up, scratching tentatively at the back of his head, under the thin fur the bumps and implants stood out like fungus on a tree beneath his flesh. The mirror mocked him as he starred. A body that was not totally his own, did not belong to him. Even after all these years those hooks, pinchers and scalpels had not left him.

 “I am Groot!” The spell was broken, and Rocket quickly ran a paw over his teary eyes and swallowed. Groot, the one who planted flowers in my shriveled little soul and made them grow. He smiled at the thought. And even those flowers had bloomed and shriveled in the seasons of their shared years. Now it’s wilting. Rocket’s stomach turned as he looked at the unrecognizable reflection. Wilting. He forced himself to crack a grin as the words of the Flora Colossus, who called for him once more. inpatient and waiting. Alright buddy, I’m coming. Rocket took a deep breath, the throbbing feeling still vibrating from his back through his entire form. It wasn’t anything new, but the impact of it had worsened. He felt things more deeply now a-days. For better or worse. Steadying himself he opened the door and nodded to Groot.

“I am Groot?”

“M’fine.” But one look at the flora colossus’s large eyes and Rocket knew it was pointless to refute Groot’s questioning. He ducked under his friend’s large legs, out of the small bathroom and into the winding halls of the Milano.

They drifted onward through the sixteenth quadrant, large planets dotted the skies, their bright colors contrasting with the dark sky, a more populated place as Peter had commented the other day after the final fight. It came down to Mantis and Gamora, with Gamora eventually winning though it was no easy feat. Gamora then went on to beat Peter and the crew had celebrated the conclusion of the tournament with toasts to Drax and his family. Several turns later, it was Mantis’s turn to decide what she wanted to do to celebrate her liberation from Ego’s hold.

“We’ll be headed into Tola in three jumps!” Gamora’s broken voice came over the mics. Flark not even enough time to rest, Rocket thought grateful. He hadn’t slept since he listened to that song with Peter. Not even Groot asking if he was alright twice an evening kept him reassured. Rocket felt his way down the hall to the kitchen, feeling the metal pipes and ramps for support. It was harder to move these days, each step brining shooting pain through his feet and up his legs, to his knees and hips. His tail struggled to help him balance, darting this way and that. He reached for purchase, squeezing his eyes shut and hissing at the burning in his hips and the base of his spine. Chronic pain had always been a part of living in a cybernetically enhanced body, but somedays were better than others. Can hardly remember the last “better” day I had, he grimaced as he went down another step. He rounded the corner stifling a cough,

“Aah! Kraglin!” The ex-ravager blinked down as Rocket collided with his leg and stumbled back lamely. “Watch where your goin’ would yah?”

“Sorry Rock,” Kraglin muttered. “Jus going up to the cock-pit to see us coming up on Tola.” Rocket swallowed the metallic bile that filled his throat.

“Well watch it would yah? I’m trying to walk here pal.” Kraglin frowned, lips drawn.

“You seem irritable.”

“Tsch,” he muttered.

“Listen…” Kraglin’s face softened, “how you feel…”

“If one more person on this d’ast ship asks me how I’m going I’m gonna blow this place to shreds!” He snarled, hair raising on his back, spitting the nasty liquid on to the floor.

“S…sorry,” Kraglin whispered defeated. Rocket watched him slump his way to the cockpit as shame writhed within his stomach. He made his way to the kitchen and poured himself the last dregs of the coffee Quill had introduced them to during their Terran road trip after the Infinity war.  Why is everything spinning? Rocket thought, vomiting as the Milano spun.

“We’re here!” Mantis’s squealed. The raccoonoid shook his head and stood, pouring water over the floor where he’d been sick just in time for Drax, Mantis and the rest of them before the rest of them came walking through, Peter laughed at the empath’s glee as Rocket rolled his eyes.

“I am Groot!”

“I AM being nice,” he growled, taking up the rear as the Guardian’s exited the ship and stepping out on to the grey cobble stones and chartreuse skies. Smells of sugar and metal wafted through the raccoonoid’s nostrils, the sweat of the different people winding through the narrow streets pressed against them, the hot sun baking the stone buildings. At least one part of me isn’t fucked up, he thought while they walked.

“You’re doing great Mantis,” Peter pat her on the back whilst she darted about running from stall to stall.

“I KNOW!” She exclaimed, “I really wanted to come to Tola, ever since one of…” She glanced at the human with a meek unspoken apology in her gaze, “Ego’s children mentioned it.” Rocket watched Peter deftly cover the sorrow.

“Well it’s beautiful!” He responded, “what is it you want to do? It’s your day!” Gamora smiled at the man and Rocket himself couldn’t quite look so sour. For once Pete isn’t being a selfish dick.

---

To Rocket’s dismay, Mantis wanted to go out for dinner. Tola, as it turned out was a luxurious planet independent from the Nova Empire and served as a getaway for the wealthy of the galaxy. With more shops, restaurants, high-end bars (none the dark dingy drinking holes Rocket preferred,) and a myriad of other expensive luxuries, Mantis only wanted to go out for a nice dinner.

“And how are we payin’ for this smorgasbord?” Rocket demanded,

“What is a smorgasbord?” Drax inquired, moving aside for a woman as she exited the restaurant Mantis had selected.

“I don’t know, I heard Quill say it,” the raccoonoid admitted. Kraglin gazed longingly at the large green tinted windows of Yeveena, with it’s finely dressed diners and ornate chandeliers. Smells of sweet and spice seemed to penetrate the glass and waft through their noses.

“I am Groot,” Groot remarked holding up a small blue card.

“What is that?” Peter demanded, the flora colossus grinned, holding it out to him.

“I am Groot,” he shruggled simply. Gamora, Peter and Rocket balked.

“You got Tony Starks credit card?” The humie demanded, “how? Wait…do I want to know?” Rocket watched Groot shake his head as Peter took the card.

“I’m so proud of you,” Rocket beamed, wiping a fake tear. “See Quill, told you we raised him right!”

“Not sure if ‘right’ is the correct word.” Peter looked at them, Mantis’s expectant face most of all.

“Alright,” he shrugged. “But you all need  to behave yourselves alright? This is a classy place here.” Gamora smirked, waltzing past him into the restaurant,

“Speak for yourself!”

Rocket no longer felt angry when the waiter looked down his nose to eye him skeptically. It didn’t faze him when he struggled to choke down the first coarse, swallowing past the nasty coating in this throat. Across the table, Groot’s concerned eyes found him every time he coughed.

“This is so fun, oh thank you all for coming!” Mantis exclaimed through a bite of her w’tavan

“Not like we had much of a choice,” Rocket mumbled, taking another sip of his drink, the fourth one of the evening. “Hey!” He snapped, wincing as Drax’s boot slammed his boot into his chin under the table. Fiery pain shot up his legs and he clenched his claws into the wooden chair.

“This is delicious!” Kraglin slurped his uvak noodles with glee and Rocket snickered as the ravager studied the utensils before him perplexed. After charging their meal, drinks and all to Tony’s card Rocket slid down from his seat, paw on his head to trying to still the spinning room. Didn’t even have that much to drink…he told himself, counting the three cocktails he’d consumed in the last two hours. His stomach turned, and he shivered though his skin was burning, even as they strode through the red-tinted rain outside.

“Guardians!” Fuck me, Rocket grumbled at the four udain aliens who rushed up to them, camera pads in hand. “You’re the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t you?!” One of them wondered in awe, Peter’s smiled from ear to ear, swelling with pride.

“Can we get a picture?!” Another one of them begged.

“Sure!” Peter answered for them, to Rocket’s irritation and by the looks of it, Gamora’s as well. “C’mon guys!” The humie slung an arm around each of the udian women and pulled Gamora and Groot to them on either side. Rocket folded his arms in the front of the camera. He scowled as it clicked and flashed purple across the screen, stepping away as soon as it was done.

“It’s really an honor to meet you!” One of the women spoke, incessantly looking to each of them and turning to Rocket. “Oh! You are Rocket!” He watched blankly as she fumbled with something in her belt. “I heard you build your own weapons!” She shouted, revealing a gun. “I made this myself! Would you sign it?” Stars d…damnnit…what? She wants me to sign?” The outline of the weapon bent as he tried to see it.

“S…sure why not?” Trembling fingers reached for the pen she held and he scribbled his name, trying to configure the correct words of his name. She stared at it confused,

“Umm, thank you.”

“C’mon, Rocket let’s get you some rest.”

“I don’t need fucking rest Quill!” Embarrassment flooded the raccoonoid as they departed, back onto the Milano.

“Ahh!” Rocket could not fight the impulse as his left knee gave way and he crumpled to the ground, throwing up. Fuuck!

“Rocket!” He swatted Peter’s hand away,

“I don’t need you to carry me humie I ain’t dead yet!” He tried to recover any scrap of dignity as he stood, stinging pain flooding through him.

“Alright, fine!” Peter held his hands up helpless. He didn’t wait for Rocket’s begrudged apology but turned on his heal into the ship.

“You alright?” Rocket nearly jumped as Mantis’s large eyes starred inches from his face. She caught her own impulse to touch him and put her hand down.

“No bug lady, I’m not!” He snapped, storming on to the ship and down to the engine room. Painfully creeping onto the metal bench he’d converted into a bed Rocket curled up, tucking his tail over his nose in an effort to get comfortable. Don’t matter if it’s cozy around you, if it’s what’s inside that’s causing the pain. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on something other than the agonizing throbbing of his cybernetics and the buildup of residue from them.

“Why would I want you to sign anything of mine?!” The cruel gaze of the udain woman sneered at him in his nightmare. “you’re nothing but a monster. A pathetic one at that. Rocket fell back on to the concrete, stomach emptying its contents as he stared down the barrel of her gun.

Look! It puked!” Their laughter rang in his ears.

“No….no!” Faces, masked faces, shooting pain sliced through his abdomen seconds after she pulled the trigger. “Fuck! HHHSSS!!” The excruciating lightening of pain wracked through the raccoonoid as he bolted upright, clawing, sweating, tail thrashing, body trembling.

“I…I am Groot!” The flora colossus held his arms out on either side as if attempting to embrace his friend. Rocket’s heart hammered in his chest, threatening to shatter his fragile ribs.

“Don’t!!” His nightmares twisted around him:

“Subject 89P13 is expiring.” The people in the masked faces tapped on their data pads. Legs kicked, the panels in his back chilled him, skin festering.

“No!” Rocket lashed out, claws skimming through Groot’s bark. The flora colossus retracted his arm,

“G…groot!”  Dirt and earth, he sniffed him out, trying desperately to placate the images in his head.

“What should we do with it?” The masked scientist asked, looking through the strange goggles as Rocket lashed out.

“We could observe it as it expires.”

“We did that with all the other ones.” Rocket gagged, the sour black liquid coming up as he hunched over his blankets. Around him Groot looked down with helpless shame.

“I am Groot?” The deep, familiar sound of his friend’s voice reached his ears through the voices in his mind.

“N….no!” Rocket ran his claws through his fur, have to…tear the machines out….get them out…I’ll rip myself apart before they get the chance! Fur came off in his laws, blood oozing out as he tore across his sensitive flesh.

“Don’t get Mantis!” The raccoonoid screamed over the terrors in his mind. His body shook, why is it so cold? But I’m so hot…what…what is going on…?

“I am Groot!” Please! Rocket ducked, ears flattening as Groot reached out.

“Don’t touch me!” He tried to run from the agony in his body, so many shadows blurred his vision. Groot’s blurry form finally came into view as Rocket blinked, trying to study his friend. His chest heaved, subject is expiring…..expiring…Groot…the flora colossus’s large eyes stared at him, large and full of horror. Me too, Rocket  agreed, sniffing.

“What’s it like?”

“I am Groot?” Rocket steadied himself trying to stand up in the corner of his bed against the wall.

“Dying man!” He snarled, “what’s it like?” Groot only cocked his head. Burning pain pushed Rocket to anger, fueling the fire.

“I know you ain’t the old Groot and yah don’t…don’t remember nothing but….but yah must remember something,” Rocket heaved for breath, his sweat causing him to shiver. “What happens, when you die?”

“I am Groot?”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW?!” Rocket roared, throat raw, terror the likes of which he never knew seized every last vein in his body. Tears scathed his eyes.

“I am Groot,” Groot looked away, sap rimming his eyes. “I…I am Groot?”

“No!” Rocket growled, tears of his own threatening to release. “Don’t get M…Mantis.” The images flooded him again. Needles, shocks, tests, bones breaking, those eyes watching.  

“Tell me! Please bud,” Rocket regained clarity for a moment. “Groot!” His voice cracked, “you gotta tell me! You gotta tell me!”

“I am Groot,” Groot whimpered. Black residue erupted from Rocket once more as he turned away and coughed it up. “I am Groot!”

“N…no!” Rocket shook, swallowing as Groot reached out once more and he shrank back. “Just tell me what happens man! You gotta know, you more than anyone!”

“I AM GROOT!” Groot’s own miserable fury retorted. Rocket froze, realizing. He doesn’t know what to do…how to make me…f..feel better. He can’t make me feel better…Groot closed his eyes, heavy head hanging low. Rocket sniffed, smelling sour shame. Cybernetics clicked, shocking the small raccoonoid’s aging form and causing him to fall forward on all fours, trembling. He gasped, Groot reached out about to touch his back but the wooden hand hovered just barely touching. Unsure. Just do it….do it for him….for his sake. Shuddering, Rocket gathered the shreds of his dignity and pride and swallowed them. It tasted bitter. He slowly lifted his head,  its so heavy…looking at Groot’s stricken face that face that looked so much like it had when he was a baby and first witnessed Rocket’s nightmares, his shattered mind laid bare, he’s just as helpless now as he was then. He nodded as he looked up at the flora colossus,

“Okay......g….get Mantis….” Without a word, he nodded and departed.

“Puppy!” The empath approached with caution, followed closely by Groot a few moments later, too soon, Rocket thought as he forced himself to breathe through the pain.

“Hey’a Mantis,” he shrugged. He starred at him, wringing her hands, knees trembling.

“G…Groot said you couldn’t sleep?” Rocket looked over her to his friend and nodded.

“Well don’t just stand there,” he finally said, sitting himself down amid his assorted blankets and stolen items scattered across his bed. Mantis nodded, reaching out the palm of her hand, her eyes met Rocket’s with soft determination. He looked at Groot, who nodded. Do it for Groot, taking a deep breath, Rocket stood up on his toes, pressing the top of his head against Mantis’s hand. Warm tendrils of unseen compassion wound from her touch through his parched skin, into his mind, dispelling the scientists, the tools, the memories. He felt his muscles relax, eyes getting heavy. Mantis bit her lip, trying not to cry but Rocket hardly noticed. Calmness drifted through his torso, his arms and legs, soothing his mind, singing him away from the agony of his body into the serenity of his newly peaceful mind. Mantis stroked his fur, bringing a crashing wave of stillness with every touch.

“Sleep,” she whispered. Rocket sniffed, smelling Groot’s earthen scent, Mantis’s genuine kindness. Don’t deserve it, don’t deserve any of this…the thoughts left his mind as soon as they entered with the empaths touch. He twisted around looking over his shoulder even as the empath continued to pet him and Groot stood over them supervising. From the corner of his eyes he could see the panels in his back at an awkward angle. Two bars left…but now he did not fear.

“Th…thaank you,” Rocket whispered just before he let himself slip away into sleep.

Chapter Text

“Rocket!” Gamora’s voice lifted with surprised glee as the raccoonoid entered the cockpit late the next morning. “You look better,” his eyes were clear for once, tail chipper and his fur glossier then she’d seen it in a while. “Sleep well?” Rocket’s eyes narrowed, he only shrugged, climbing into the vacant co-pilot seat. 

“Where we headed Quill?” He asked gruffly, peering at the codes on the data pad.

“Eight quadrant,” Earth, Gamora realized as soon as he said it. She sucked in her bottom lip, studying her own data pad. He’s going to try and get help. They talked about it last night, after Rocket’s howling had awoken them. Peter’s words still seized on her heart while she recalled the words he’d spoken as they lay in bed together.

“I couldn’t save my mom Gamora,” he’d whispered. “I couldn’t save Yondu,” she remembered the way he’s breath shuddered in the starlight, chest rippling with emotion. “I’m going to save Rocket.” It’s not about saving him, she knew it deep down and thus told him. But as usual, once Peter got an idea in his head, there was no talking him out of it. Not even she could do that. So now they were headed to the eight quadrant anyway, the only thing between Peter and a case of rabies is Rocket not finding out where we’re going. She thought, peering over the co-pilot chair to glance at whatever Rocket was scanning on his controls.

“Looks like she’s actually flyin’ on her own for once,” he smirked.

“Why do you sound so surprised?” Peter asked, grinning from ear to ear. “She’s a first-rate ship!”

“Tsch,” Rocket shrugged leaning back in his chair and watching as they coursed through the galaxy, the stars shimmered through the black sky.

“I am Groot!” Gamora turned at the words of the flora colossus,

“Higher!” Kraglin’s enthusiastic shouts rang through the ship. Gamora rolled her eyes, he’s probably swinging them around on his vines again, she mused. At least some things haven’t changed. Rocket grumbled, climbing down from his seat and she reached out an automatic hand as he slipped, falling to the floor.

“Rock?!” Peter turned his eyes from the sky ahead,

“I’m fine,” he swatted Gamora’s hand away. Why don’t you just accept the help. You fool! I’m being a hypocrite. He carefully balanced on one knee, growling with effort as he pushed himself upward and stalked down the hall towards the laughs of Mantis, Kraglin and Groot. She watched him go, wondering if he really was in such pain, or was being dramatic. Either was probable with Rocket.

“See?” Peter switched the gears to auto-pilot. “Told you he’d get better.” She forced herself to smile, despite her better judgement. When did it switch from forcing a drawn face under Thanos to forcing smiles here? Nebula would be laughing at me, at that thought she could not hide her sad smile.

“He does look better,” Gamora agreed, I just hope it lasts. It wasn’t that she was a downer, or a doomsayer, far from it. But Gamora was nothing if not a realist. She was after Groot died, throughout their years together as a family, when Kraglin and Peter were grieving Yondu, and she was now, and she would be when Rocket was getting older.

“Your determined to go through with this then?” She asked skeptically. Peter nodded in earnest, coming up and kissing her cheek.

“It’s gonna be fine, I’m gonna radio Shuri tonight, see what she can do.”

“Rocket doesn’t want to do it,” she reminded him. Peter only shook his head, he pinched the bridge of his nose as he did when thinking, or nervous, or didn’t know what else to do. Quite cute, Gamora smirked.

“Rocket doesn’t know what he wants!” Peter’s one rose to the point of misdirected anger. Gamora shook her head, as usual she’d have to let him learn the hard way. Peter I know it’s out of love you want to help him…but the best we can do is just help him feel better and get better without putting him through unnecessary discomfort. Unnecessary discomfort like going to Wakanda to be poked and prodded. Gamora shuddered at the memories of Thanos’s own mercenaries, training her, modifying her arms and legs, they called it “enhancing.” Warm arms around her shoulders gently rocked her away from her nightmares as Peter hugged her awkwardly over the chair.

“We all get old Gams, I know that,” he whispered uncommonly softly in her ear. “I’m almost in my 40’s in earth ears. But Rocket…. it’s too fast. Something’s wrong with his cybernetics and if that’s the case the Shuri can help.” She nodded, immediate maintenance required continued to run through her mind.

Gamora watched Rocket at dinner, his paws trembling whilst his eyes flutered, trying to focus.

“I am Groot?” The flora colossus inquired gently. Rocket starred at the table,

“Huh wha? Oh, m’fine.” She looked at the large humanoid tree who met her gaze, both of them sharing trepidation. Beside her Drax only continued to eat his dinner, laughing at Mantis who had stuffed her face too full of rquat bread.

“This is mighty tasty Kraglin,” Rocket spoke through his clenched teeth. “Your getting’ better.” The ravager beamed, tearing into another piece of the orange spongy bread,

“Drax is teaching me!” Gamora felt her chest lighten at the sound of the raccoonoid’s raspy laughter. Maybe Peter’s right, she allowed herself to think. Maybe everything will be fine.

“We’ll have to refuel tomorrow,” Peter reminded them, taking Gamora’s dish after they’d finished eating. “We’ll stop on Raquet before we make the final jump to the eight quadrant. Rocket, are those thrusters going to be ready?” Rocket cleared his throat, swallowing and pounded a fist to his chest before answering,

“If she keeps flyin’ like this she’ll make it,” he responded nonchalant. “That broken compressor ain’t helpin’ things though,” he emphasized as he moved down from the table and out of the kitchen.

“Rocket,” Gamora called begrudgingly, “you left your dishes!” He only waved it away, disappearing into the long corridors of the ship. “Thank you, Groot,” she acknowledged, watching the flora colossus pick up his friend’s dish.

“I am Groot,” I don’t enjoy cleaning up after him all the time. He said, or at least that was the general sense Gamora could understand, …but we’ve all been cleaning up after him. We always clean up his mess. Over and over….because we love him. Gamora couldn’t disagree with that point but finished helping Groot and Peter clean.

“That’s the last of it,” Gamora congratulated them while Drax placed the last cup on the shelf.

“We’ll I am headed to bed,” Mantis piped, Gamora winced, taking a long breath as the empath gave her a kiss goodnight on the cheek. She danced around to Peter next, who giggled and then Drax who tried to conceal his smile and Groot. Lastly Mantis kissed Kraglin goodnight and Gamora watched him blush a rose red. If Rocket has been trying not to lash out, I should at least try not to snap at her, Gamora told herself in regard to Mantis.

“C’mon,” Peter took her hand and led her from the kitchen.

“Have fun!” Kraglin shouted,

“What? Dude we’re not…”

“I wish you best of luck in your love making,” Drax put in with glee, making Gamora laugh with embaressment.

“How many times do I have to tell you guys, just because Gamroa and I sleep in the same bed doesn’t mean we’re doing it every night.” Peter turned around to face Kraglin and Drax, arm around Gamora’s shoulders.

“Exactly,” she emphasized calmly.

“We’re doing it almost every night.” She rolled her eyes, oh stars, Peter! The echoes of their laughter followed the pair until Peter slid their door shut, striding over to his data pad and plugging in the coordinates they had used to contact Shuri during the Infinity War. Gamora watched the black hologram screen against the wall. Don’t answer, just let it be. Don’t answer. Please, for both Peter and Rocket’s sakes. Don’t….

“Hello?” Shuri’s face filled the screen.

“Shuri! Long time no see! It’s Star-Lord!” Shuri’s brown’s knitted.

“You are not Tony Stark.”

“Yeah I know,” Peter ran a hand through his hair. “I said it’s me, Star Lord!” Shuri only cocked her head,

“Peter Quill,” Gamora put in. Shuri nodded,

“Oh yes! The strange space man with the old music.” Peter bit his lip, restraining whatever he was about to say. “What can I do for you?” Gamora opened her mouth to speak, but Peter beat her to it.

“You remember your other guardian, Rocket?”

“Rocket?” Peter nodded,

“Yeah, the uhh, raccoon looking one?” She nodded, smiling.

“Oh yes! Rocket! What about him?” Peter glanced at Gamora, for permission. For you, she assured herself while she looked at him. Those eyes that laughed so easily though such heart. That heart that refused not to love. Even after everything he’d been through. Peter wanted to help Rocket despite Rocket’s protests for the same reason Groot tried to help Rocket. Love. Hard, calloused ‘whether you like it or not’ love. Love continues to infuriate me. She nodded to Peter to go ahead and he looked once more to Shuri.

“He’s…he’s in a bad way. We think he’s aging…. rapidly. Can’t see well, constantly shaking. Coughing black mucus from his mouth….” Gamora sat herself on their bed and put her head in her hands as she listened to Peter explain Rocket’s rapid deterioration.

“Send me some scans,” Shuri instructed. “I will look into it and see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” Gamora spoke, the own wavering of her voice surprising her. Maybe Peter’s right, maybe she really can help and we’ll turn this around. She imagined the thought, if only I could have helped Nebula….the stinging pain in her gut pricked at her. Nebula’s eyes as she ran for the mad titan, full of unbridled rage. Determination. Thanos’s sly grin, so assured. His gauntlet raised, Nebula unable to dodge in time.

“Nebula!!” Gamora herself lying there, useless, unable to move. Trapped, watching as the crazed man slammed her sister down into the ground…No…don’t think about that now. She shoved the image down.

“Thanks so much Shuri, we appreciate it.” Peter nodded to her as he turned off the hologram. He turned to Gamora, kissing her, flashing that smile that made her believe it would be alright.

“I’m gonna hack into Nova records and send her Rocket’s rap-sheet.” Gamora laughed,

“That should be no problem,” he grinned, running his hands over his small data bad.

BANG! “Fuck!” BANG, BANG! “Fuuuck!” What now? Peter turned sharply in the direction of the noise,

“I’ll…”

“No,” Gamora stood, “you send her the files. I’ll go check on him.”

“Let Groot check on him. He knows how to calm Rocket better than any of us.” Not sure that’s true anymore. And even if it’s true, doesn’t mean that should be his burden to bare. Without answering, she stood, exiting the room and bracing herself for whatever mood Rocket was in.


“Target practice?!” Gamora shouted, hands over her ears as Rocket blasted off rounds at the hologram targets.

“C’mon!” He shot off five more rounds, she looked at the target, a strange image of an alien she’d never seen before. Bullets bounced off the reinforced wall, the alien taunting Rocket as he misfired over and over. He stopped, cursing and banging his gun,

Click, click, “Flark it! FLARK IT!” He snarled, throwing his gun down, Gamora stepped aside as parts scattered across the floor.

“Target practice?” She repeated, Rocket glanced up, coughing.

“I can’t…..the target…I can’t….” He gestured to the alien hologram, and her throat caught. Not a single bullet made its mark. Her heart caught in her chest and she watched him disheartened, collapsing down next to his gun, reaching out and fiddling with it. She sat down across from him, watching him hover open the weapon.

“You missed again, hahahaah!!”

“Fuck you!” She flinched as Rocket threw a wrench at the hologram and punched it off. His body shook as he stared down at the weapon, palms empty on his knees. He looked at them as though they were foreign to him. I know that feeling, Gamora remembered checking over her latest implants after every procedure Thanos ordered. She watched him finally pick up a tweezer like instrument and lean forward over the cartridge of the gun, squinting.

“Rocket…” she realized, that’s not the trigger that’s the release valve! “Don’t! Rocket that’s not…”

“I know what I’m doing!” BAAAAM! Gamora whirled on instinct as years of training had been ingrained into her, jumping up as hot pain flared across her hands like flames. Smoke billowing up obscuring the two of them. Through the fog, Gamora kicked the gun out through the doorway and thrust herself against the door with her weight, shutting it closed.

“Rocket! Achk, achk, are you alright?”

“Ack, ahck, achk, Gams!” He wheezed, coming into view as the smoke began to dissipate. “I…it wasn’t…I…didn’t mean.”

“It’s alright,” she whispered though he shook his head, picking through his tools.

“I couldn’t see…” he whimpered, refusing to meet her eyes. His shaking hands reached for a small box of mechanical parts and began fiddling with them. “I…..I’m falling apart,” he admitted. Gamora felt her spine seem to melt, where is Groot when I need him? They sat in tense for silence for several minutes, she listened to Rocket’s labored breath as he tinkered away with his tools.

“…When Groot and I escaped Halfworld and destroyed everything, I found the files they kept,” he whispered. Gamora frowned, ringing her hands desperately seeking something else to concentrate them. “They wanted to create sentient creatures,” he smirked, looking at the mallet in his hand as he pounded it rhythmically into the strange metal box Gamora assumed was a bomb in progress. “…I didn’t need the notes to tell me,” he continued. “They figured out sentience had consequences. We became self-aware,” he looked at her then. Those eyes…cataract ridden but…deadly with the grin to match. Gamora moved a piece of hair behind her ear.

“Thanos made the same mistake,” she offered. “He wanted to rid Nebula and I of our own free will.” Rocket nodded,

“He failed,” he smiled.

“That he did.” He turned back to his work,

“….didn’t know it was called life.” Rocket murmured. “Didn’t know what the word meant. Didn’t know what death was either,” he sighed. Gamora could only listen. “ Going away, we called it. Cuz one minute there was someone in the cage next to you, bleeding or pissing or shitting, the next minute there wasn’t. They just went away.” Like Thanos’s camp, my other siblings he called them.They went away. Rocket ceased his hammering, “Life, death…I didn’t want to know about any of it,” his tail thrashed. “I didn’t want to have to know or think about it or fear it. Mortality, morality. What’re those?”

“Something we flirt with every day,” Gamora offered, trying to invoke Peter’s sense of humor as she sat across from him in the dimly lit room. Rocket met her eyes once more,

“Tsch,” he smirked. Good, it worked. He shook his head, looking at the far wall. “Halfworld was so fucked up. Once they realized we were aware of things, of ourselves they…they wanted sentience, but they didn’t want us to have free will. Wires, needles,” Gamora winced at each word, Thano’s himself sticking metal into my arm, trying to destroy my own mind. “They did everything they could to walk that thin fucking line.” He snarled, snatching up his tools once more. “Pretty soon I stopped being a…cough, cough, cough,…afraid I was gonna go away in there,” Stopped being afraid I was going to die in there,Gamora realized. “And started being a..afraid that I…that I wasn’t going to.”

“Rock,” Gamora reached out, touching his shoulder. He shrugged it off, shaking his head as he looked at the small bomb in progress.

“I’m not worried about it Gams. What they did to me on Halfworld, I was so close to dyin’ int there every flarking day.”

“You and me both,” she whispered. He nodded. “I sure am sorry I ain’t done none of it right,” he shook his head. She blinked as he started to laugh, “I sound like Yondu!”

“You do,” Gamora grinned, looking him over with mixed sorrow and joy. “And you are doing it right. Raising Groot, keeping this ship flying, all of it.” Rocket smiled, resuming his tinkering.

“Least I never trafficked kids, like Yondu. Sacrifice yourself everyone’ll forgive all the bad shit you did,” he whispered. “It’s the easy way out.”

“Guess you’re right,” Gamora observed seeing Rocket’s filmy red eyes narrow, trying to fight tears.

“Blue idiot….never really had to face what he did. At least he managed to make shit right with Peter before he kicked the bucket,” Rocket whispered. “He saved Pete, took me awhile to realize he saved me too,” His voice trailed off. “I just hopped I could change before I kicked it so I didn’t end up like that bastard,” he shrugged, eyes rimmed with tears.

“For what it’s worth Rock,” Gamora whispered, touching his shoulder once more. “I think Yondu would be proud of you. I…I’m proud of you,” she added awkwardly. She watched Rocket’s ears perked, looking up at her smiling.

“Thanks Gams.”

“Of course.” She waited a few more minutes, watched as Rocket busied himself. He’s gonna regret saying all of that in the morning. Like a scab you ripped open. Like how I felt opening up to Peter, she recalled the first time she had wept over Nebula.

“Do you want me to get Groot?” She asked, standing.

“Nah, I don’t want to bother him.”

“You’re not bothering him,” she reassured though he didn’t look convinced. She wished him goodnight once more, gently shutting the door per his request.

“Did you send the scans to Shuri?” Gamora climbed into bed next to Peter, who’s eyes flitted open, cracking a smile as he saw her. She lay on her side next to him laying her head on his chest and allowing herself to relax as his large warm arms enveloped her.

“Yeah, I sent them. She said she received them and she’ll get in touch tomorrow.”

“And what do we do? What should we tell Groot if…” his lips cut her off. “Let’s not talk about Groot,” he kissed her again, “or Rocket, please? Just for one night? They’ll be fine.” He kissed her again on the lips then against her neck, laying his weight on her.

"What should we do then?” She wondered, a sly grin coming to her as she shifted underneath him. He reached over the bed for the remote and pressed play, (one of the many new technologies they’d acquired from their last trip to Terra.) The music churned around them and Gamora let herself be loved. Maybe Rocket isn’t the only one changing for the better. Not the only one learning,  facing the consequences of what they’ve done. Not only only one trying to love and be loved.

Chapter Text

They commemorated Nebula next. After getting fuel on Yrath Gamora decided now was as good a time as ever. It was quiet, unassuming and Groot watched as she lit a htranian candle and they watched it drift off into space. Peter picked a song and the Guardians watched the lantern like candle dazzle. Groot shifted his weight as they stood and watched, Rocket’s small hand hitting against his head, bringing him to attention once more.

“I am Groot,” he grumbled.

“Just be nice,” Rocket hissed from atop his shoulder. Gamora and Peter stood beside them her head on his shoulder. The music drifted onward as Nebula’s candle grew smaller and smaller on the horizon. Groot had never particularly liked Nebula, but for his friend’s sake he stood there silent long after the small light disappeared into dark. Against his shoulder’s Rocket’s small claws gripped his bark.

“I am Groot?” he whispered, turning his head, Rocket’s sides shuddered as he let out a hiss. Another bolt of pain. Those cybernetics. Groot thought with a grimace.

“Shhh,” the raccoonoid hushed. “M’fine.” Unease rolled through the flora colossus’s stomach, doubt, guilt at the mistrust of Rocket’s words.

“Thank you all,” Gamora finally whispered after two more soft songs had gently finished.

“Of course, Gamora,” Drax whispered quietly and laid a hand on her shoulder before nodding to her and departing. Mantis too offered Gamora her condolences. Groot watched Peter squeeze her hand. Peter can help her…make her feel better…how?

“I never really knew her,” Kraglin approached Gamora with the usual apprehensive caution. “But…she was fierce, would’ve made a great ravager.”

“Thank you Kraglin,” the green assassin gave a shake of her head.

“Rocket, you a’right? You don’t look so good,” he observed. Groot felt Rocket go tense,

“I’m flarking fine alright?!” He fumed. “Anyone asks me that again I’m gonna shoot them in the foot, we’ll see who’s not looking good then!” Groot rolled his eyes,  and watched Kraglin nod apologetically.

“I am Groot!” Groot snapped at the raccoonoid, sick of his anger and lashing out at everyone. Even though he must be in pain. For once, Rocket listened, making a small growl but did not continue further.

---

“I gotta go work on that carburetors,” Rocket muttered to himself after Nebula’s memorial had ended. Drax agreed to cook dinner that night, kavien op-Gamora’s favorite. They toasted to her sister and ate, Groot remaining quiet, watching as Rocket talked and laughed and cursed. It was nice to hear him laugh. He’s not eating, Groot watched carefully picking through the meal himself as he was not that hungry.

“I am Groot?”

“Nah, I can do it myself,” the raccoonoid murmured, limping from the kitchen. Groot felt his chest recoil as his friend gathered himself, leaning against the doorway of the common area for support but by now he knew better then to press. Useless….he thought wincing as he watched Rocket leave.

“Groot,” Peter spoke softly, the flora colossus turned. He’d seen it too. “Shuri’s calling.” Moment of truth, Groot thought, nodding in resolution as he followed the human and Gamora into their room.

“I am Groot,” He looks at Shuri, trying to read her face.

“Hello Groot,” she says, tone soft.

“I am Groot,” Well? Peter sits down on the bed, and Gamora with him. Anticipation. He watches Shuri take a deep breath,

“I’ve looked through Rocket’s scans,” she begins, typing something on a data pad that is held just below the bottom edge of the hologram. “His cybernetics were not properly put in, they are a whole mess of different metals and parts….” Her voice drifts off into Groot’s mind he prayed to whatever made the universe that it would be already. Somehow. “The best I can do is replace the superficial parts of his implants. Those that are surface level, on his clavicle and anything sticking through the skin.” That won’t make a difference, Groot thought, the stinging fact pricking through his wood. Like the rot of a tree, it was what was underneath that was causing the damage. Exterior bark did little more than provide a cover.

“You mean, you can’t replace the internal…parts?” Peter asked his voice wavering. On the screen Shuri shook her head slowly. “I could try, but his biological condition is fragile. It would be invasive, risky. Doing that could kill him.”

 “So there’s nothing else you can do?” Gamora continued.

“He’s old…” Shuri shrugged, though not from lack of compassion. “Keep him comfortable, encourage him to care for the cybernetics best he can. Make sure he eats and sleeps well.” Peter shook his head, elbows resting on his knees as he bent his head.

“Well Rocket hardly ever sleeps as it is,” he grumbled.

“I am sorry,” she whispered.

“I am Groot,” don’t be sorry. Not your fault.

“So, you will bring him to Wakanda then?” She prompted. Peter began to nod but Gamora squeezed his arm,

“I am Groot,” no, not unless he changes his mind. A sour knowledge at the reasons for this made Groot want to grow thorns from his bark and retreat away, to look at each and every star in the sky and ask, why?

“We can make him change his mind,” Peter stood.

“We’ve been over this,” Gamora started, but his gaze only looked more determined.

“We’ll bring Rocket to you,” he vowed.

“I am Groot!” No. Peter looked sharply at him, mouth agape.

“and why not? It’s the only way to save him!” Peter’s voice shook, trembling at the end and Groot could see the tears within. Still the flora colossus spoke slowly,

“I….am…Groot.” Because Rocket’s life has been defined by people, beings, making decisions about him, for him, decisions that impacted his life in one way or another, usually for ill. Will not do that. We won’t betray him like that. If he does not want to go to Wakanda we will respect that. We are not his creators to say what he will do or not. Peter and Gamora looked at him, Gamora heaving a sigh, shaking her head in agreement. Peter bit his lip, brows knotting refusing to surrender. It is out of love, Groot perceived easily. In a way, that made it hurt more.

“We’ll let you know when we make a decision,” Gamora finally answered.

“Please, let me know if there is anything more I can do. I’ll keep looking over the scans in the meantime and let you know if I discovered anything helpful.”

“Thank you, we appreciate it.” With that Shuri’s face disappeared into static. Groot turned to the two of them, giving a stern look to Peter, who had the courtesy to at least look ashamed. With a heavy heart he turned from them, closing the door behind them and walking down the Milano’s corridors. Far off the noise of Rocket tinkering away at the hard ware of ship gave him some steady reassurance. Groot gripped the metal railings of the ship’s staircase, closing his eyes and listening to it. Random clicks and bangs punctuated by Rocket’s expletives.  He relished the noise, looking through the small port holes of the windows at the dark sky and the stars.

“Groot?” Rocket stood on the stairs below, one small hand holding the rail, clouds swirled in his eyes as the flora colossus approached. “Groot?!” Rocket’s voice strained as he looked around frantically. The flora colossus grew out a vine, gently brushing the fur on Rocket’s shoulder; the raccoonoid blinked, focusing as relief spread across his face.

“I am Groot,” I’m here.

“Oh, yeah there you are!” Rocket smiled, taking an attempt to step up the steps. Groot caught him as he fell forward, and the raccoonoid did not protest as he lifted him up to his chest in a tight embrace.

“I…I couldn’t see you,” he whispered fearfully.

“I am Groot, I am Groot,” I am here. I’m always here. He held Rocket to him as he made his way down to the engine room. Rocket breathed softly in his arms, sides going in and out. Fragile…not full breathes. Groot could tell by the vibration of his friend’s lungs, how Rocket twitched in his arms, eyes roving. Wilting, Groot realized nearly stumbling into the iron door, his legs felt weak, wood splintering. But he gripped Rocket tighter as he slid into the engine room and sat down on the floor where his friend had created his nest of blankets. How many times had Rocket held him and tried to get him to go to sleep? He remembered the many nights as a sapling when Rocket would hold him gently. Warm fur and tender words.

“I am Groot?”

“Feelin’ kinda crappy honestly,” the raccoonoid’s raspy voice whispered. He curled into a ball in Groot’s arms, tail hanging out. There must be something more I can do…to make the pain go away…as if on cue, Rocket lifted his head. “It’s a’right Groot, you don’t have to do nothing. I’m alright,” the sweetest lie he’d ever heard. “Asshhh,” Rocket cringed suddenly, claws curling into a fist. Groot held him tighter, trying to squeeze the pain out. Trying to absorb it as his own.

“I am Groot,” tell me how to help you Rocket…

“Just stay with me,” the raccoonoid wheezed, finally relaxing after another stab of pain that Groot felt from where he hugged his friend. Slowly Groot concentrated, beginning to release spores of light that Rocket watched with rheumy wonderous eyes. Groot held him there in those precious moments, creating their own private forest of light and leaves. He watched Rocket slowly collapse into himself, against him. Cherish these warm moments, such a little broken soul. How can one body stand so much pain? They cut you and ripped you apart…and still you managed to love. Broken…tired…messy…warped love. But how could you know any better? And all of these lines across my bark….tell the story of myself…of us. Groot held him to his chest, growing branches all around them as Rocket slept. The raccoonoid nuzzled against him, turning and Groot glanced down, throat going dry. In the panel on Rocket’s lower back. one more dull light throbbed, fading and shining, fading and shining. One more light.

“I am Groot?” Groot asked, as if to reassure himself that Rocket would still answer.

“Yeah but, I’m…I’m good,” and that sardonic grin was all Groot needed to see, he laughed in spite of it all.

“I am Groot,”

“Good night bud,” Rocket opened and eye, grinning at him before he covered his face with a small paw and fell into a tranquil sleep for the first time since Groot could remember. That was when it dawned on him. Don’t have to do anything…just being here is enough. Why was that the hardest thing of all? Still Groot held on, as he always did. To hope. To love.

Chapter Text

Unbeknownst to him, Rocket came into the world shrouded in the darkness of a hole in a large tree, enveloped in a sweet, damp, dark must that smelled of milk and fur. He was born to a nameless raccoon female and with three nameless siblings. In that safe place of earth and wood Rocket sniffed and nursed and slept against the other kits, tucked into the fur of his mother. Safeguarded from the cruelties that would befall him a few months later. He would leave the world, in a remarkably similar fashion.

“Hey rat!” Kraglin’s crackling voice carried through the Milano, pricking his ears as he sat trying to wire a new gun and glancing at the blue-print’s he’d drawn up some turns ago.

“What?” The raccoonoid growled, it had taken him so long to concentrate this hard on the weapon. Blinking and squinting every time he had to pour over the sketches he’d down.

“Mandatory movie night!” Rocket rolled his eyes, stiffening as he stood, catching his breath as his small feet struggled for purchase on the metal grating. He fell forward, reaching out for anything to grab on to, “aaaggghh,” his paws gripped air and he let out a scream as the impact of his body hit the floor with a rough clank, vision going white. Fuuck…. he whispered, seething as electric wires sent shocks through his metal bones. He huffed for breath, lying there. The people in the strange masks looking down upon him…. what’s the next test? Fuck heads?! His mind challenged the demons within. Breathless the raccoonoid stood, holding on to the wall for balance and carefully made his way up to the Milano’s main deck.

“Hello puppy!” Mantis greeted, Rocket suppressed a growl at her usual perky demeanor. “I am very excited to see earth movies!”

“Your excited about paint drying,” he spoke with a bemused cough. She only giggled while the made their way to Peter’s impromptu movie theater on one of the lesser-used rooms of the ship.

“There you are! We were gonna make Groot come down there and carry you!” Drax announced from his seat. Rocket glanced at the Flora colossus who gave him a look contradictory to the Destroyer.

“Why can’t we just watch the one with the kids and the pirates again?” Rocket grumbled, shuffling to an empty chair.

“The Goonies?” Peter corrected, squinting at the VCR as he attempted to configure it. “Because you all have a whole lot of terran pop-culture to catch up on and Star Wars is an institution. There’s guns, you’ll like it.” Rocket folded his arms, tilting his head as the lights went off and the blurry pictures appeared on the screen. He strained to see, nearly toppling out of his seat at the loud crescendo of music.

“Peter, your crushing my hand,” Gamora informed him. The human let go, apologizing under the music.

“A long time ago in a galazy far, far away,” he began to read aloud.

“What galaxy?” Drax inquired, “there is only one. This movie makes no sense.” Rocket tuned out the incessant questions of the Destroyer, but he did on the whole appreciate the film. Lots of guns, much more useful then the light up swords. He sat in his chair, shifting, trying to find a position where the panging in his spine and the throbbing in his hips would not hinder him.

“Psst, Rocket stay still would yah?” Kraglin whispered, Rocket dismissed him with a flick of his tail. Can’t be here, everything in Rocket’s little body that was natural-which was not much but just quiet enough-propelled him to go. To depart from the others, to find a quiet place and hold solitude. Somewhere preferably dark. Flee. He glanced at Groot, who’s large eyes were glued to the screen. Scanning the others for he knew they’d come after him, Rocket slid down off his chair and quietly made his way over the threshold and down into the hall. Dark and small, alone…he glanced up at the air vents and nodded to himself, crawling upwards and easily dislodging the grate.

“F…fla…flark it,” he hissed, metal bones threatening to pierce through his flesh as he crawled through the vents. Black sludge dribbled from his muzzle, though he hardly noticed it. He rounded another corner and two more, dragging himself, his aching from a slave to the instinct that compelled him. Finally, the raccoonoid collapsed at the dead end of one of the vents, just above the cockpit. Through the slotted vents his heavy eyes could make out the starlight. He could not remember the stars of his early days, the scientists ripped that knowledge with him along with the memories of the forest and trees, his mother and siblings, but he had seen stars for the frist time when he escaped the labs. Though the sky had also been alight with gunfire, smoking and turning into the vast sky above. The moment he beheld the stars was the first moment 89P13 realized he did not fear life or death. He did not fear it now either as he allowed the twinkling stars to lull his disheveled mind.

“Rocket?!” Rocket’s ears flicked upward untold time later. “Man, where are you?! You missed the movie!” Quill. Go to them! No. Dueling voices within Rocket compelled him to stay put, he flung his tail over his face.

“Small furry friend,” Drax intoned, closer. “Where did you go? Are we playing the hide and seek game we played with Groot when he was small?” Rocket smiled at the memory though it also had resulted in several grey hairs that never regained their color.

“Rocket” Gamora called, clear and concerned. “Rocket we just want to make sure you’re alright!”

“Puppy?!” The raccoonoid cracked an eye, peering down at the cockpit, watching as Kraglin looked under the control panel and Drax began searching the secret compartments in the wall.

“I am Groot!” Rocket’s heart cracked at the fright in his friend’s voice, yet still he shrank back as Groot’s large eyes appeared before him and his nimble wooden fingers dislodged the grate. Rocket hissed, involuntarily, hair raising. The agony in his body creeping over his mind as Groot reached for him. “I am Groot?!”

“J…just leave me be,” Rocket begged, knowing logically that it was futile. He bristled as strong vines and ample hands wound around his body and lifted him down from the ceiling.

“You found him!” Peter came forward, followed by Gamora and Kraglin.

“I am Groot,” Rocket frowned. Why did his voice seem so far away? He was spinning in Groot’s hold. The flora colossus sat on the ground, legs folded, cradling Rocket in his lap.

“He…he doesn’t look so good….”

“Shhh!” Gamora snapped, the raccoonoid squinted, trying to see her face through the black spots of his vision.  “Rock?” She whispered, Groot’s own face loomed over him and Rocket smiled, recognizing that face.

“I am Groot,” the raccoonoid nodded though his body spasmed, light of the cybernetic panels reflecting against the bark of the flora colossus. What was happening? Wilting, he was convinced when he’d seen himself in the mirror. But maybe he was wrong. As Rocket lay there, leaning his whole body against Groot and surrounded by the faces of those who had done so much more than put up w him, but had forgiven him, loved him. He wondered if that sad garden of self he’d curated away in the dungeons of Halfworld wasn’t wilting at all.

“The light in the last of this panel…it’s blinking.” Drax fretted, though he could not hear him. Rocket stole a breath, and yes it really did seem like stealing. Stealing more scraps of air. He’d always been prone to kleptomania, but this time was different. This time he was stealing every moment of life he could gather to him. Rocket had been hard wired for hate, conditioned for cruelty. He was created for the sole, simple propose of violent vitriol. To kill and bleed were to be his only intentions. Rocket’s mind was malformed and warped to cause destruction.  Every strand of fur left on his 4’ body had been pricked as it was pricking now, fabricated with rage and it did not take long for that rage to become real. The first emotion he discovered. Yet despite all of this 89P13 who would call itself Rocket, refused to let anguish and chaos be his destiny. Though the tendrils of those scientists still lingered in his mind long after his escape Rocket eventually let himself discover other ways of being. Groot was the first to wrap him, unwillingly at the time, in love and compassion. It was not long before the others crashed into his life.

First it was Gamora. She who quickly shoved him out of the way, pushed him aside but then who had, in her own dignified way come to look upon him with kindness and understanding. Ever since then, Rocket recalled, sniffing her scent and letting it permeate his heart they had tentatively revealed the small dark scraps of their past to one another. How a woman who had endured arguable more torture then him, had such soft hands to work his cybernetics? He had known for many years. But he realized now, as he sensed her closeness that it was because she nobly refused her abusers intent, and because after all she had gone through, she was still Gamora. She smelled of metal and of pure intentions, of a heart that had only been made stronger through struggle. 

The second person to come into Rocket’s pulverized existence, was Quill. The first to show Rocket friendship, the first to see his intelligence for his own, not the result of those experiments. Peter Quill, who like him combatted a traumatic unorthodox upbringing. Rocket sniffed weakly, leather, music, cologne that was left on too long. He smelled like the ship, he smelled of home.

Drax crept along the edges of Rocket’s life for some time, but it was he who had given him the first affectionate touch, besides Groot, hat Rocket had ever known. He turned his head slowly, colors moving, blurring together until Rocket could make out the grey and red of the Destroyer’s tattoos. H smelled of awkward empathy, of sweetness buried under steele. The unassuming scent of grief lingered too. It was ubiquitous but somehow serene.

In the churning waves of his awareness Rocket could smell Mantis. She who he had been malicious towards and realized almost too late that she was the most generous of them all. She had shown him this generosity. This ability to be profoundly empathetic. Rocket had poured all his pain into her these past few months and she had never spoke against it. He sniffed, her scent was of sunlight and tears, of a breeze that caresses others but is still itself. She is so sad…comfort her…He opened his mouth to speak but only regurgitated that black metallic residue within. It seared his throat and Groot’s fingers clutched tight to him. 

 Kraglin sniffed somewhere though Rocket could no longer perceive where. While other senses were failing him, he could still smell. The ravager smelled of ash and dirt and familiar gun-powder. He smelled like someone still a little lost, still trying to find themselves. Rocket had faith that he would. Kraglin had borne dignified witness to both his and Yondu’s own pain; a conduit for the sorrows of the two of them. A sentinel. He had shown Rocket humility.

The we’re all, each of them more than the wrongs they’d suffered, more than the mistakes they’d made. He was more than himself. Rocket felt himself sinking now, melting against the wooden embrace of his friend. All of them together, he and Groot included had been thrown together after saving the galaxy and all of the fame and fights and laughter and joy that had come with that. They saved themselves and each other. They sowed the seeds of their hurt and grew something beautiful. Something beautiful.

“Quill,” Rocket breathed, “in the engine room under my stuff in a box there’s a twig. Get it for me would yah?” Only Peter’s cold perplexed stare answered. Rocket shuddered in Groot’s hold, another stab of malfunctioning metal tore at his sides and in his belly. He gazed up at the humie and without provocation, grasped Quill’s hand. “This ain’t like your mom alright?” He tried to blink away the clouds of shadows obscuring Quill’s dejected face. “This ain’t like Yondu.” The slim fingers tried to pull away, but Rocket’s grip was earnest. “This…this is natural,” he spoke softly, “maybe the most natural thing about me.” Quill’s mouth parted, tasting those irrevocable words.

“Rocket…” The human’s face slowly crumpled It’s a’right, I don’t mind. Rocket would’ve continued if his throat would have obeyed, it’s a’right. Everything was all right. Every squabble between them, every insult hurled or sarcastic quip. It hardly mattered now. They had, each of them been trying to come inot their own. Peter clicked his tongue in some sound between a cough and a sob. Rocket tried to grin, wearying to make his own muscles obey him. Peter did not go off to get the stick but instead looked at the raccoonoid who in turn could feel his bright helpless eyes. If Groot had saved his soul, Gamora his past, Kraglin his unease and if Drax had saved his ability to receive affection, if Mantis had saved his pain then Peter Quill had saved Rocket’s life. He had tossed the opportunity upon him for a chance to be a part of a family and even when Rocket had rejected and reacted to it with malevolence Peter still stood by. Challenging him, challenging him to be better and always there. In Rocket’s small hand, Peter held with it all that was unspoken between them.

“I…it’s okay humie,” he could barely make out Quill’s solemn nod and felt the human’s fingers slip from his. He smelled Peter depart and if Rocket lamented anything about this whole flarking thing it was only the jokes and smart bickering they would no longer share. Rocket’s sentience was not of the kind to contemplate a higher power, but whatever else he hoped that Quill would forgive himself.

“It’s….the last twig from the old Groot,” Peter’s tender voice found him a few moments later. “You saved it.” Rocket felt the thin stick in his paws. It was smooth now, so brittle and bare. He held it to his chest, clinging to it with all the strength he could muster. Around him, spores of light danced, he could make out their faint glow. He swallowed more of that nasty liquid, the metal in his back stretched his skin taunt as he curled around the last remains of his original partner.  This last shred of that which he had cherished most in all the galaxy. Well, almost, more than anything. He twisted himself towards Groot again, smelling that earthen scent of soil and rebirth. The only thing he loved more than his original Groot, was this one. He gripped the twig in one paw, and the bark of his friend in the other.

“I am Groot,” Groot bent his head low, tears of sap collecting on the raccoonoid’s fur.

Rocket sighed, yes maybe he was wilting, but he knew as he looked up at Groot that which he’d been ignorant to see the first time: Groot was that little piece of his soul he had clung to. Groot was that part of himself and to another extent all of them were. Gamora asked him once, many years ago what the old Groot had meant when he said, “We are Groot.” Rocket couldn’t bring himself to answer her then, nor did he totally undetsnd himself. But he knew now. Groot had conveyed that all of them were more than themselves all of them were more than themselves all of them had toiled through treachery, defined their tragedies and loved nonetheless.  He did not fully understand then, nor could he bring himself to tell Gamora when she asked. I gotta tell them now, Rocket’s fragmented mind urged him. He opened his eyes again, savoring each of their faces as he spoke.

“You. Are. Groot.” He looked a Groot last, yearning for that familiar face to be imprinted on his soul forever, no matter what happened next. It could not be more agonizing, more lovely or perfect that then which had already happened in his life. As he fell back into Groot’s hold he knew it to be true. All lives are blotted and smudged with pain and tears, with sleepless nights and unsaid words. Indescribable feelings. But if somehow through it all you could still love others the way he’d loved Groot and eventually the rest of the Guardians, then that was truly what mattered most. And so all things go on, he realized, spinning and turning. No matter what the Galaxy stretches onward into millions of stars. The only true eternity there is. Rocket curled up tighter, nestled in Groot’s chest. His heart and soul slept, content and whole and more than anything, loved.

He did not wake. He did not have to.

Chapter Text

“You….are…Groot,” Rocket’s words were somehow broken and all together whole as he spoke them, meeting Groot’s eyes with such emotions the flora colossus could not name. Had he a beating heart, it would have stilled. The raccoonoid held him there in his gaze for one ephemeral moment before Groot caught him as he fell forward and sideways, into his chest, his breath short and paper thin. Groot cradled Rocket in his arms, so small and nearly fragile. Aching took hold of Groot as he held fast, but he ignored it, keeping his grip on his friend’s heavy body. I’ll wait for however long I must. Peace, content, serenity. He tried to pull him closer, but Rocket was already so snug he found he could not and instead let out more golden spores of light and wound his vines tight. Groot could still remember the swaying and small pats against his back, the raccoonoid’s husky voice mumble-singing and stopping abruptly every time he thought someone was in ear shot. He smiled down at his friend, his father like figure, his soul friend. Gamora crept closer, leaning to peer between the branches of the flora colossus, though he did not even notice her. Peter bit his lip, also squinting to see inside that private forest. Kraglin kept his dissidence, wary of such emotion whilst Drax put a hand on Mantis’s trembling shoulders. In his embrace Rocket lay curled on his side, the twig of the original Groot tucked against his chest. But for once it was only with pure unfettered love and appreciation that Groot beheld the twig. You. Are. Groot. Flowers grew with determination from the small vines that the flora colossus had grown around Rocket, dotting his grey fur in sweet softness and color. The greatest joy in my whole d’ast life was raisin’ you. Groot could close his eyes and hear Rocket’s words, but he dared not.

“I am Groot?” Groot breathed after what was their own eternity, he tilted his head, trying to see between the closed lids of the raccoonoid’s black painted rings around his eyes.

“Rocket?” Peter begged, voice cracking gently. Sweat trickled from his brow, mingling at his eyes as they comingled with his tears. Groot’s leaves shook subtly, brushed by the human’s own tremors. “Rocket?!” Panic, Groot looked down once more, Rocket only lay there calm and still. He bristled a moment as the human reached forward through the mingling of branches and held his hand up inches from the raccoonoid’s muzzle, waiting. “C’mon man,” Peter whispered, having eyes for nothing else but the hope his friend would wake. Gamora’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “Dammit Rocket!” Peter cursed, Groot only looked between them, then back to the raccoonoid. The human’s fingers curled into a fist after several moments and Groot watched as he shook his head, bowed. “No! No, no, no, c’mon, NO!” In an instant he retracted his hands and stood, hands wracking his face. “No…Rocket…” Peter growled.

“What is it?” Mantis timidly asked, but the human man only waved her away, fleeing from the room down the hall.

BANG!” Groot jolted, tightening instinctively around Rocket as Peter’s fist slammed against the metal. Gamora looked at him, her eyes seeking permission. What secret softness she has too her. I’ve been privileged to see. So many nights Gamora had consoled Rocket from his night terrors, so many times she’d pull him out a bucket or push him through the walls of the Milano whenever he got himself stuck. He smiled at the thought, Rocket was always yelling at him then, but he was always relieved whenever Groot got out of the mess. Gamora’s bottom lip disappeared as she drew her face and the flora colossus was helpless as he watched her shake her head.

You. Are. Groot. Rocket’s last words echoed in Groot’s mind like the rolling tide. Beating ceaselessly against his heart. Rolling and crashing into his consciousness, filling in the edges like a tunnel. His world spun and at the center of that world a bad-tempered raccoonoid. Gamora and Drax’s hands steadied him until Groot regained control of his own bark.

“I….I am Groot,” fragmented words speaking fragmented things.

“Puppy,” Mantis let out a high sob, the Destroyer pulling her close and patting her back.

“It was his time,” the low rumbling words tried to comfort gently. But whatever reply Mantis was to give was lost in sobs. Groot looked down, still holding his friend. But was Rocket even there anymore? He didn’t know, didn’t want to think on it. Winter, he wilted away but there is always spring…always rebirth. Wasn’t I reborn from that old Groot? Groot shook his head remembering Rocket tell him through angry words of desperation and fear.

 “I am Groot,” Groot whispered, still staring down at his friend. Unable to look away, as if only then would he truly be lost. His roots cracking though no sap welled from his eyes when Gamora approached him again.

“Groot,” she whispered carefully. “We…we have to do something with him.” Groot wound his vines tighter around the raccoonoid who was now no longer warm. “Poor rat,” Kraglin sniffled, creeping closer. Groot glared up at him, thorns sprouting from his shoulders though they pricked his own conscious, knowing it was wrong. “I…I just want to see him,” the ravager asked. Groot knew what was right, precariously retracting some of his branches just enough that Kraglin could make out the raccoonoid’s face. A smug smile, Groot noted, gazing down. The ravager nodded, as if reassuring himself and stepped back, “thanks.” Groot held on to Rocket even as Mantis and Drax too came forward, all seeking confirmation of what had already been deemed true.

“We will honor him,” Drax whispered looking at Rocket and then to Groot. “We will have a great feast. He will be quite delicious.”

“No Drax!” Gamora snapped, “we are not eating Rocket!” Drax opened his mouth to argue but she silenced him with a wave of her hand.

No! Don’t take him! Groot could not relinquish such intimacy, not this small forest of memories, of glowing spores and safety. A place where he was truly happy. “Groot, please,” her voice wavered, hoarse. “We have to,” he watched her hand reach out to brush against his branches, seeking to take Rocket from him. No….to let her take Rocket would be to give him up to whatever unknowable thing existed beyond. Drax’s heavy warm hand settled on his shoulder,

“There is nothing that displeases me more than parting you from Rocket,” he said gently. “When you were small, Rocket hated to leave you while we went on missions. But he did, because he knew it was better for you.” Groot nodded, despondent. “You must leave Rocket now, though he will not truly be gone. To any of us,” Drax pointed to his tattoos, caressing them. “This is how I keep Kameria and Ovat with me, these marks tell their stories. You can still keep Rocket with you, we can all hold on to him each in our own way.” The destroyer’s words seeped into Groot’s bark, so slowly he unwound his vines relinquishing Rocket to Gamora’s careful hands. the raccoonoid’s small body slid from his hold and Groot felt his roots crack.

---

As usual, Peter allowed music to express his grief for him. He turned the dial upward as soft music saturated the Milano’s cockpit. They gathered around where Rocket lay, arranging his guns around him.

 “She packed my bags last night pre-flight. Zero hour nine AM and I'm gonna be high as a kite by the. I miss the earth so much I miss my wife It's lonely out in space, on such a timeless flight.”

 Kraglin placed a round of bullet casings around the raccoonoid’s head, he sniffed, and Peter suppressed a weak laugh.

 "What?”

 “Nothin,” the human responded. “It just, it looks like a halo.” Mantis and Groot blinked inquisitive. “Never mind,” his voice drifted off as he placed a small, half-built grenade by Rocket’s hip. The last twig from the original Groot still lay against his breast, they’d moved it ever so carefully to just over his heart. 

“And I think it's gonna be a long long time, 'Till touch down brings me round again to find I'm not the man they think I am at home, oh no no no I'm a rocket man. Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone and I think it's gonna be a long long time ‘Till touch down brings me round again to find I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh no no no I'm a rocket man, Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.”

“Not alone,” Gamora put in quietly, winding an arm around Peter’s waist. He turned to her, cocking his head, “he’s not drifting up here alone.” She nodded to where they’d set him up, Kraglin and Mantis wept while Drax cleared his throat, his hands wringing together anxiously. Groot stood a silent sentinel before Rocket’s head, beholding him with the same grace and noble passivity as any tree watches all around it. Watches life, death and rebirth and life and death again, and still rebirth. “Rocket isn’t alone, he never was,” she smiled down at the raccoonoid.

“Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids , in fact it's cold as hell and there's no one there to raise them if you did and all this science I don't understand. It's just my job five days a week a rocket man, a rocket man.”


“He raised Groot,” Drax intoned over the music. But even this did not provoke a response from the flora colossus.  I am Groot. All things need sunlight, water and nourishment in order to grow. I hope I gave Rocket enough nourishment, enough love. He certainly gave it to me, Groot recalled with a broken smile, the painted pot the raccoonoid had given him for his first re-birth day and every drop of golden sunlight, every sprinkle of water since. His eyes moved to watch the others, how was it those who are so broken, rejected, who have every reason to hate and be hated are often the ones most capable of love in their own marred and fractured way?

Peter took a deep breath, stepping up beside Groot on Rocket’s right side. Silently the others gathered around, and the flora colossus could feel their sorrow, peppered with the last vestiges of shock.

“Rocket….” The human began, tasting the words as if they stung his tongue, “Rocket w…was many things,” he cleared his throat, adjusting his stance and stared straight ahead at Gamora who’s head was bowed. “….a mechanic, marksmen, escape artist,” Drax chuckled the tension of the dense air momentarily dissipating. Peter grinned, the fragile lightness provoking him to continue. “A pain in the ass too, stars such a jackass….and a drunk.” Mantis nodded, as did Kraglin who’s face lifted with memories of the many late-nights he and the raccoonoid had been the last ones at the bar. Groot wilted as Peter’s voice halted and choked as he finally looked down at their fellow Guardian. “But he was....other things too…a friend, father…” Groot felt the human’s eyes against his bark, his leaves shivered.  “…father,”

“Lover.” All heads snapped to where Gamora stood, closing her eyes and rocking nervously. Peter’s face drained with color and Groot reached out an arm to steady him.

 “Hahaahahah!!!” Drax and Kraglin howled.

 “W….wait, w…WHAT?!” Peter roared, not nearly angry as much as horrified. Gamora only nodded wordlessly. “You….you cheated on me?” He demanded helplessly, “with….WITH ROCKET?!” Peter shook his head, “No, no you are kidding.”

“I wish I was,” Gamora murmured. Peter only continued to blunder his words, stammering over Kraglin and Drax’s laughter.

 “That’s….no, Gamora! No!” Finally she couldn’t take it any longer, and her musical laugh lifted through the air.

 “Of course I’m kidding!” She reassured, grasping Peter’s hands and steading him. “He promised me the last of his units if I said it in all seriousness.” The human balked, mouth agape, then twisted into mild anger.

 “That bastard! If you weren’t already dead, I’d kill you myself!” He shouted down at Rocket, “You hear that pal?! Second I get to the afterlife your tail is mine!” Groot cracked a smile as Peter’s own aghast laughter traveled down the Milano, the giggles turning over unto tears as he shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is natural, probably the most natural thing about me. It’s a’right.” Rocket’s last words still resonated through Peter’s soul, shooting at him with every invocation. Groot still needs you…he hissed, trying to stifle the tears. We need you….I….need you.  Every prank, every jabbing remark, what Peter wouldn’t give to hear Rocket bitching him out right now. Fuzzball was right, damnit, Noxious longing and the unknowability of Rocket’s death, the final joke he’d made, all of it shattered Peter as he stood, allowing it to consume him. The flora colossus reached out, gently touching him on the shoulder and Peter looked up at him, eyes full with righteous love and a fierce mourning for Rocket, for his mother, for all who he had ever lost and would ever loose. The tears slipped into the cracks of Groot’s bark and he soaked them up to sustain him.

“Cap’in?”

“Yeah Kraglin?” Peter looked up, grateful for the distraction.

“Yah know how we’ve been celebrating Terran holidays and celebrations and stuff?” The human nodded, Kraglin looked around them nervously. “Well…I was thinkin’ maybe we could add a new celebration?”

“What kind?” Drax asked, the ravager looked him up and down anxiously.

“Like uh…Rocket Day? To a celebrate him you know? And his life….just a thought.”

“That’s a great idea Kraglin,” Gamora answered for them all. He looked to her and smiled, for once confident. They fell into silence once more Finally, the human dragged himself to the lever that would move Rocket’s pyre into the chamber to be set aflame, a ravager funeral. Like Yondu. Gamora’s own bitter sweetness had since faded too and he watched her reach out, gently petting Rocket between his ears. Ever so slowly she bent down and kissed him on his brow tender and with some secret wish. Peter waited until she stood once more and looked at Groot. For permission, the flora colossus realized with terror. With gumption he finally nodded, watching as the pyre slid gracefully…No! No! His arms reached out, seizing the metal rims of the stretcher though the heat of the ship’s flames already began to heat them.

“I am Groot!” This is wrong! Peter pushed the lever up and Groot released as the stretcher stopped.

“What do we do then?!” The human demanded hotly, the flames of grief turning in his heart, sorrow speaking for him. Groot felt his insides twist with indecision as he looked down at Rocket. Something more…. something more perfect…more peaceful. More deserving of him. Groot’s eyes traveled over the raccoonoid and looked at that small twig,

“I….I am Groot…”

“What’s the idea?” Krablin wondered.

 ---

Gamora’s heart was equal parts heavy and full as they beheld the wonders of Groot’s homeworld. Planet X, birthed back from the world pod Groot had carried within him as a youth. She could still recall the moment that the rocky desolate place had returned once more to life. She stepped over a boulder with ease and looked at the flora colossus with pride and grief, her eyes finding Rocket in his arms once more, still an uncharacteristically quiet. The silence is screaming. Is it right? To bring such death into this place of life? She could’ve laughed at it, death as followed me my entire life. To many it was me who was death…. how things have changed. Her gut twisted as she followed them through the fields, rolling and growing and Groot persevering.

“I am Groot,” she watched him point and felt herself deflate seeing that impending, sprawling majesty of the tree that Groot had planted so many years ago. Grown from the second of the three twigs Rocket had saved from their original Groot. It stood now a Guardian in its own right over this sacred planet. A robust trunk, branching out into small and large limbs, growing ever onward. Unseen beneath the ground a world of roots, curling and extending into the unknown spread outward and down into the heart of the planet. Groot stepped closer, hefting Rocket’s weight in his arms.

“It’s still there,” Gamora whispered, nodding to the notch in the middle of the trunk of the tree. It’s heart and soul.  Groot turned, facing them and Gamora beamed at what he had become. Cradling Rocket to his chest she felt her breath catch at the sight. Nearly perfect.

“I am Groot,” Groot intoned, and she watched hanging in wonderment as he lay one large hand over Rocket, small thin light green vines growing outward and enveloping the raccoonoid in a pink flower painted shroud. Goodbye Rocket…he invoked as the threaded vines covered his torso and down to his tail, eventually slipping over his head. “I am Groot,” he turned his back to them and Gamora bent her head as the flora colossus gingerly placed Rocket, still holding the last twig, into the hollow of the grand tree. Warm fingers slipped into her palm and she glanced sideways at Peter whose own eyes glistened like the stars. Groot stood back, walking up to them and turning around, Peter’s other arm wound and Groot, holding him.

“He loved you, you know?”

“I am Groot,” he nodded.

“We all love you,” Gamora whispered, looking at where Rocket rested, “both of you.” Groot nodded once more, recalling all the times Rocket had yelled at him, tried to put him in time-out, all the times he’d dragged Rocket back from a divvy bar on some backwater planet. All the fights, the missions, the night terrors and the seldom calming evenings where they could all simply be. He stood strong between them all, though he could still feel that Rocket shaped emptiness within him, dark and stormy and fathomless. No longer complete but no longer broken. Wind rustled the branches of the tree, sending leaves outward all around. Groot listened and heard they spoke of sweet simple things. Rocket slept within, somehow complete and no longer broken.

“We will come back and visit him,” Mantis said quietly breaking Groot from his reverie.

“Of course,” Peter whispered, his fingers on Groot’s bark tightening.

“He’s up in the stars cap’in,” Kraglin confirmed with his own certainty. “Up there shootin’ all them what stole from him and wronged him, up there with Yondu too. Bet they are given what’s ever beyond this here life one hell of a run for its money.”

“I’d like to think so,” Peter responded.

“This is all hard to understand,” Drax pieced out aloud. “I do not know what you mean by after life, we don’t know what comes after life. Rocket was here and now he is not. He never will be. But wherever he is, I believe it is the same place as my Ovat and Kameria. I do not think it is a bad place.” 

Groot had no knowledge of any of this, he only watched the large tree before them, and watched Rocket and all that he was contained therein. Belonging, devotion, serenity, love and safety and despite it all, hope. Hope for what he did not know, but it was there. If knowing and loving and imprinting with and arguing against Rocket had taught Groot anything about all of these endless seasons of life and death and rebirth it was one thing. He turned to the rest of them and spoke three words, of gladness, sorrow, life, death and all that existed between.

“We, are Groot."

THE END