"Peter, have you seen the basket of cartridges Rocket was cleaning--"
Gamora paused, silencing what she thought to be her normal speaking voice, but apparently it was several decibels too loud. She averted her eyes to the floor of the ship's lounge, where Groot was frowning at her noise and pointing a finger at the couch above him. He had also paused his multi-tasking of playing with the Zune and coloring his drawings.
"I am Groot!" he explained in an aggravated whisper.
The woman furrowed her eyebrows, and looked up to see a Terran male snoozing peacefully on the sofa, his head resting on one of the furniture's arms, ankles crossed at the other arm with his socked feet in the air. His jacket was discarded, though he still had his hospital I.D. sticker on his thin shirt.
He was deep asleep, snoring softly and drooling a bit.
"Oh," Gamora whispered in understanding, indulging Groot in the importance of the matter. Protecting his leader's nap was serious business. "I'm sorry, I didn't know," she continued whispering, and bent down so Groot could hear her better. "When did he conk out?"
The tiny tree thought for a moment and estimated, "I am Groot?"
"An hour ago?" she confirmed, and Groot nodded seriously. "Well, I would hate to disturb him. But you know, it is late. I think he would sleep more comfortably in his own quarters, than alone on the rough couch. What do you think?" she asked him.
Groot studied the human's form and bent angle, and turned back to look at Gamora in agreement. "I am Groot," he answered, eyes wide, trying to decide how to solve this grand dilemma.
"I think I know a fun way to wake him up," she offered.
"I am Groot?" he asked and held up the Zune.
"No, I said fun, not nice," she said with a playful tone, and whispered in the sapling's ear. He perked up and rushed to climb onto the dirty furniture.
Peter twitched and almost subconsciously kicked the tree off his sock, and Groot ran to his shoulder and tugged on his earlobe.
"I AM GROOT!!!"
"AHHH!!!" the Terran shouted awake with a jump, covering his ear. "Heeey..." he whined and grabbed the laughing, menacing child. "What happened to quiet?"
"I am Groot," the tree child answered honestly, pointing at Gamora watching them.
"She told you to, huh?" Peter said, shaking his head and squinting his eyes at the cruel enabler. "Make a guy go deaf, that's real nice."
Gamora smirked. A child waking him seemed fitting, given the probable source of his exhaustion.
"I'll take it from here, Groot. Thank you," she said sweetly. The growing tree made Peter 'ooomph!' as he hopped down.
"I am Groot?" he asked with big eyes and lifted the Zune.
"Yes, you can take it," Peter caved, acknowledging Groot had been selfless and understanding that he needed to share "the music toy" for the day. "But charge it before sleeping, or ask Rocket to help you charge it," he ordered, and Groot said his own version of "good night" and ditched the couple, leaving his papers and artist utensils scattered on the floor.
"You say I spoil 'im, and then instruct him to do things like that. Hypocrisy, thy name is Gamora," the human teased while sitting up and stretching.
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, refusing to admit to such hypocrisy. "I will not be forced to listen to you whine about your stiff neck all day tomorrow."
"Yeah, that wouldn't be a tasteless complaint after everything today," he mumbled through a yawn. 'Fair point', Gamora thought.
"I believe some clients have left you quite worn out, Star-Lord," she instead teased, watching him groan and rub his eyes. "How are you more tired now than after almost being plugged full of holes during a battle?"
"Hey, adrenaline's got nothing on the power of dance parties," he said, and stretched his limbs some more.
"Mmm. I was stunned that you didn't demand payment for showing off your 'awesome moves' for so many extra hours."
Peter paused and glanced up at her; his eyes and tone conveyed a mixture of annoyance and hurt. "You think I'm that slimy," he said almost as a statement rather than a question.
Gamora's face fell. "No. No, no, of course not, Peter, it was a...joke," she said awkwardly, and he looked embarrassed.
"Oh. Right. Ya, duh. Sorry," he said, sheepish. "I just woke up," he stupidly stated the obvious, his brain still muddled.
She relaxed and silently cleaned up the papers the child in their own custody left behind, noticing an unfamiliar toy near the corner of the sofa. Upon inspection she learned that it was actually a model of The Milano.
A very realistic and impressive model.
"Did Groot make this?" Gamora asked, already fairly certain of the answer.
Peter saw what she was holding and shook his head with another yawn. "No. One of the kids made it. But don't make Groot feel bad," he said. The little tree's crafts weren't anywhere on the same level, but no need to discourage his creativity.
The woman nodded, taking in the detail and paint job of their team's spaceship appropriately designed to scale. "Which one?" she asked without looking up from the smaller version of their familiar windshield.
"Brunette boy on the East side? Teal striped clothes, native from Salcoret?" 'Respiratory defect,' Peter tried not use as his primary descriptor. "Super into astronomy, had those cool wheel shoes?"
Gamora remembered. "Isn't he ten-years-old?" she asked, further impressed by the item in her hands.
"Twelve. But it is amazing. A nurse told me he started working on it just two days ago when he found out we were coming," he informed her with a smile, only adding to her awe.
"And he just gave it to you?"
"Us. He insisted, as a gift. Showed me and Drax his entire collection, and yes, they're all incredible."
"Wow," she breathed and took a seat beside Peter. Routine sleep could be postponed since Peter had just awoken from a much-needed rest. She glanced at her own sticker on her shoulder pad and smiled at him. "You had fun."
He scratched the back of his neck, but didn't deny it. "Is 'fun' the appropriate word?"
She understood his tentativeness in using such a term, and nodded anyway. "You made many unfortunate people very happy, and did so joyfully, asking nothing in return. I think you are allowed to consider parts of it fun."
He gave her a grin. "You did, too."
It started when the team of space heroes were contacted for a very different, but no less noble reason than they were expecting. A request, an opportunity, a hope that they would consider visiting some young admirers. At a hospital. A large, first-rate Xandarian hospital.
The message probably should not have been a huge surprise. A year after forming the team, they knew they had achieved some celebrity status, and that their fan base included kids, but the unique offer had left them uncertain.
A video chat meeting with the hospital directors confirmed that this was no ambush or mistake. In polls regarding what special guests the patients would be most excited to meet, 'The Guardians of the Galaxy!' had been unanimous. The Nova Corps also fortunately gave nothing but positive recommendations, and the medical facility's staff in charge of scheduling children's entertainment took the chance in asking Star-Lord and his crew if they would be interested in a volunteer visit.
Of course Peter and Gamora, though hesitant and concerned, were not heartless enough to refuse.
It wasn't difficult to persuade the other Guardians to a day of more subdued altruism either, and a week later they were being briefed on rules and greeting coordinators, going through hospital metal detectors and forced to temporarily relinquish all weapons. The six eventually met with dozens of children in a large theater room to answer questions about being two time galaxy-savers, and generally meet with the small, enthusiastic fans.
"I don't think Rocket ever allowed himself to be petted and prodded so much," Peter said with a giggle at the memory of the raccoon's uncharacteristic gentleness with the curious admirers.
"I don't recall previously seeing you write down your pseudonym, or give out so many...what did you call them? High...fives?" Gamora teased.
"They deserved 'em," Peter defended his silly actions. "They were cool."
She displayed a subtle expression of amusement and challenged, "They were cool because they thought you were cool?"
"No," Peter shrugged, and looked again at the model spaceship in his girlfriend's lap. "They were just cool."
The scheduled event of speaking to the large group and introducing themselves to families in line only lasted approximately thirty minutes. It was after the kids said goodbye and were escorted back to their rooms that the Guardians were asked if they were comfortable or had the time to meet some patients unable to leave their rooms. This second portion of the adventure was the reason Peter Quill remained at the hospital for over five hours.
Most of the team had stayed longer than planned, touring nearly the entire building, visiting rooms to meet kids of all ages and varying health statuses. An overall enjoyable, but also very rough ordeal. For every patient with curable aliments or injuries who were on the mend and would be out the doors to freedom, the volunteer guests were privately informed that several patients were terminal, with cases beyond what known, tangible medicine could do. The majority were Xandar natives, though some were transfers from other planets to receive the best treatment.
"I will confess..." Gamora spoke up, glancing in the direction of Groot's bedroom door. "I regret telling Mantis to leave with Groot so soon," she said. "I think it could have been good for him. I think he could have handled it."
"Me too," Peter agreed. The sapling had greatly enjoyed producing and giving out flowers to the kids that surrounded him, and the Terran was aware that his over-protectiveness was misguided. He had falsely believed that visiting sicker individuals would've been too sad or frightening, but if Groot could dance through violent battles trauma-free, this also could have been a fulfilling experience.
Plus, there was no way that fearless little flora could have been any more scared or distraught than Peter was before entering every room.
"A lot asked about them," he said with a guilty wince. It also felt terribly unfair for Mantis to depart from the day's activities to babysit; she truly wanted to engage with more children than were at the theater. Peter knew how many she could have cheered up.
The warrior slipped her hand into Peter's. "None of us were trained for this. Your concern was valid. I was merely reflecting," she said in the hopes of reassurance. Despite their regrets, she wouldn't have changed anything else about the day.
Once Gamora finished her own rounds, Rocket and Drax in a different department, she had taken the time to observe Peter's visits. She watched him bond with various patients, alone except for their parents or supervisors.
The traveling guests were also well-informed that a large number of patients had but one or zero living parents, many lost to the same hereditary diseases. Gamora knew it had strongly resonated with Peter, and how he was grateful that even the most dedicated fans had skipped the portion of his bio that briefly mentioned the loss of his mother at an early age, and instead were most impressed with "raised by Ravagers," "held an infinity stone," "dating the last Zehoberei," and "loves dancing more than air."
Music and dancing were Peter's main connection and games with the kids. He made every time he shared his Zune seem like a rare treat ('I never show anyone this, but check it out'), describing it as his greatest tool, a final gift from his old Ravager Captain, and the most incredible technology from his home planet. Whether the kids believed the last description didn't matter. It belonged to Star-Lord, and that made it amazing - at least, that's what Peter hoped they were thinking.
He granted them the honor of choosing the songs, explaining the significance of his favorites, and even the children confined to beds or automated chairs, those relearning to walk after gaining prosthetics, still moved to the beats in their own ways, to the encouragement and rave reviews of the adult human.
"How's Drax?" Peter cut through Gamora's thoughts. "Better?"
"Mm, yes." Gamora nodded in reassurance. "More himself and talkative at dinner." The day's events were emotionally draining for the destroyer, leaving him quieter and more reserved than usual. He had shown earnest compassion toward their hosts, but the experience unsurprisingly filled him with memories of his daughter.
"Thank you, by the way," Gamora said softer, and Peter looked at her curiously. "For persuading me to enter that one room. I am happy I did."
Peter smiled, but looked concerned at the recollection. He wasn't going to bring it up...
"I was curious why you were hesitant. She wasn't terminal. Or contagious. Or bratty. Her older sister was a bit of a know-it-all," he joked regarding the preteen schooling him in correct aerodynamics terminology when discussing space travels, while a nursing assistant checked the vitals of the younger transplant recipient. "But the patient was just...shy."
"I know," Gamora said, ashamed in retrospect. "I was...wondering if it was a good idea, if I should go see someone else instead..." she tried to rationalize why she spent so long standing in the doorway listening to Peter chat with the girls as they asked, 'Is the neat green lady was still here?'.
"Why?" Peter asked again.
She sighed. "I knew that her sister was very interested in history. And that she is old enough to have heard my name in...other contexts. I am sure she at least knows of Thanos, and I--I was steeling myself, preparing for possible...difficult questions, what I would say if--also I thought I saw her father give a...disapproving look when he saw me in the hallway, though it could have been my imagination," she admitted.
This time Peter gripped her hand. "Even if he did, screw 'im," he said confidently, the harshest he could ever imagine speaking about a parent in that terrible situation. "None of that matters now--"
"It is not the same for you," she tried to gently state the fact that made her somewhat envious. "You were not as well-known as a 'legendary outlaw' as you liked to pretend."
"Hehehey!" he joked in response to what he would take to the grave as a treasonous insult. "That is a lie."
She indulged his reaction, but continued seriously. "You are most famous today for being a brave hero. There are many who will always see me as a Daughter of Thanos." A ruthless assassin, mindlessly obeying a tyrant. An evil killer to be eliminated. "That title became popular. Stuck like glue. A year of good cannot erase--"
"Those girls did not see you as someone to be scared of, or someone famous in history for hurting people," he firmly stated. "They saw you as the badass fighter who saved their planet, who was sweet and smart, and kind enough to visit their family. They loved you." He gripped her hand tighter until she looked at him. "You were her hero."
The female Guardian swallowed a lump, held back an infuriating urge to release tears. A year of courage and heroism, and she still wasn't used to strangers being happy to see her. It still felt foreign being the cause of healing rather than suffering, to ease pain rather than inflict it.
"Besides, I think you've got yourself an admirer," he added teasingly. "That boy in the front row of the theater definitely had a crush on you," Peter joked, though was not exaggerating the boy's obvious, poorly-hidden infatuation. "Do I have competition?"
"Well, he is a better dancer than you are."
"Wooooow," Peter feigned shock at the silly, throwaway remark, amending his thoughts about her previous statement. This is the sharpest insult she would ever deliver.
Gamora smirked at the ridiculous man, and smiled endearingly at the memory of the pink-skinned boy - his eyes lighting up every time she spoke, pushing in line to shake her hand, stuttering a little when praising her confident knowledge and skill (and "beauty").
It was true that she received no uncomfortable questions about her past. Patients in the burn center did comment on her facial scars, before excitedly showing off their own. Attention spans were short, and creating a guessing game regarding scar origins was far more fun than factual lessons.
The ex-assassin favored and accepted this trend, though she soon realized, after keen observation, that had she been directly asked anything on the subject, the best method would have been to tell the truth, within reason. These kids could have grasped the concept that someone hurt her, a long time ago. Nine out of ten of them would have understood. They were smart. They had to grow up fast.
Peter and Gamora could relate to that.
"What is it?" Peter asked her quieter when she seemed to be contemplating something else.
"It is..." she began, taking a deep breath. "It is impossible not to feel...grateful," she said, the word feeling selfish in her mouth. "For every horror, every nightmare in our childhoods...we grew up. We're alive. We're healthy. It is rare I would say it, but in many ways, we were dealt a lucky deck from the universe."
"I know what you mean," Peter answered sadly. It was humbling, devastating, and left him also feeling grateful in the most wrong and selfish way, pondering why the universe thought he deserved so many second chances, a fully functioning body, when these strong and innocent children did not.
It was so frustrating. Limiting. They were unable to physically help anybody this time, and some weren't any happier at the end of the day. Several patients were too young, too sick, or not emotionally up for a "fun hero" visit. Many older kids especially weren't interested in being cheered up, and the Guardians were no experts in communicating on their level, although Peter knew damn well how it felt to be an angry teenager.
A handful of adolescents did seem to appreciate the blunt honesty of the former criminals, their raw agreement that "life often sucks." No sugarcoating the situation, no obnoxious attempts to make them smile or psychoanalyze their mental state. It was enough to prompt some to quit pouting for a period of time, to look up from their screens and indulge the human and raccoon in a game of virtual darts.
"Did we...do you think it was...alright?" the leader asked in a soft tone, glancing again at the model Milano. A year of knowing him prevented Gamora from needing to ask for clarification on the vagueness of his question.
"I think it was good. It surely wasn't a bad thing. It is impossible to know if we made a long-term difference, but I am very glad we took that call," she stated with confidence and a hand on his shoulder. What they saw broke their hearts, but their presence meant so much to their fans. "It still isn't fair. Life isn't fair. But some days are brighter and less lonely than others," she said, and the Terran knew she was talking about more than those children's lives.
Peter gave a bittersweet smile, and once again stretched his limbs at the sound of traffic from the outside port. "We should take up their offer to go back. Or to another hospital," he said. There were plenty of facilities full of more needy children. Facilities with far less resources and comfort than Xandar.
Gamora agreed, and thought of all the glory her team of idiots were given, little ones shouting 'Star-Lord!' and various incorrect versions of the nickname. "They really inflated your ego, didn't they?" she teased.
"Not all," he defended, his hands in the air. "One kid challenged, 'If you're a superhero why can't you fly?'" Peter mimicked in the kid's voice. "And later the same brat asked, 'Why aren't you richer?' What kinda stupid questions are those?" Star-Lord playfully mocked the words of the snooty child who was expecting the goddamn Batman.
"Oh, I could have answered why we're always broke," Gamora provided.
Peter glared in response to her deadpan quip about their financial habits. "Was there a reason you instructed Groot to break my eardrum?"
She nodded and appreciated the lighter conversation. "Rifle cartridges? In the small, white basket? I was going to reload. It can wait until morning."
He stood up rubbed the back of his sore neck. "I slid them under our bed so Groot wouldn't get to them." A likely unnecessary move, given Groot's recent growth spurts, and obedience about not swallowing dangerous gun pieces. The emerald-skinned co-leader and co-parent stood as well, and joined him in walking up to the cockpit.
"Uggh, my neck is gonna be freakin' killing me..." he lamented under his breath, then covered his mouth after the tasteless phrase slipped out. "Shit. Sorry, not--not literally, 'course."
"You ate at the hospital, right?" she presumed, considering he napped throughout supper.
"Mmm-hmm, yeah. I wasn't ready to leave; thought it'd be easier," he explained. "Ya know, from my memory of Earth hospitals, their cafeteria food was always disgusting. But here wasn't so gross," he said, and Gamora's heart clenched a little. She knew hospitals carried bad memories for him, terrible memories he often tried to avoid. Yet a hospital was where he spent the entire day, when he could have refused or cut the visit short.
It was one thing to spend time in a hospital for his own injuries, or out of loyal concern for his team, his family. It was another thing entirely to hang around a depressing environment to lift the spirits of strangers, to smile in the company of young, innocent, music-loving individuals with life-threatening illnesses, an experience that by all accounts should have triggered those painful memories of watching somebody die.
Peter Quill could be such a clueless, narcissistic, stubborn asshole a fair percentage of their lives.
He could also be one of the most respectable and caring people in all the galaxy.
The couple strode to the pilot's seat of the cockpit, where Rocket quickly replaced a pair of toy goggles with a welding mask. The captain flicked the ear of the raccoon who was pretending not to see their approach, causing him to scowl and lift the mask.
"You done sleeping off all that self-righteous nobility?" he snarked, and took in Peter and Gamora's expressions. "You look even mushier than usual," he said with an easy-going attitude that the human and Zehoberei saw right through. "I told ya you were loafing about that place for too long."
Peter glanced at the cheap "laser goggles" on the floor next to a mess of screen devices. Screens displaying copies of photos snapped by the parents and chaperones, one featuring pictures of a cybernetic furry hero being caressed by an orphan toddler, Groot tossing petals in the kid's hair.
Another monitor revealed a slideshow of images - Drax and Mantis telling a group of tiny and bandaged skeptics a space adventure tale, a five-year-old wearing an oxygen nasal cannula hugging Star-Lord's waist, and a little girl in a back brace handing Gamora her play sword to sign.
"I know, right? Whole day wasted," Peter sarcastically replied, and Rocket gave another sly smirk. The irritable rodent had shown remarkable patience with the more cranky hosts, only matched by his patience with their own sapling. "Did Groot charge the Zune and get to sleep?"
The Terran's question was answered when they heard an agonizingly catchy song by The Partridge Family coming from the speakers in the tree child's room, and what sounded like energetic dancing on the bed.
Gamora sighed and began to walk to the child's room. "I'll go make him shut it off."
"Ehhh," Peter spoke up to stop her. "Give him a few more minutes, at least 'til the song's over," Peter said. Gamora turned to him, and obliged when she saw the clear gratitude on his face. Gratitude for their fortune as parents, for their surrogate plant son's clean bill of health.
"Spoil 'im, ya really do," Rocket interjected. "He is gonna be such a brat when he grows up if you don't lay down the law."
"Yeah, you're one to talk about the law," Peter quipped, even as Gamora nodded in agreement with Rocket's warning. "Our parking permit won't last all night. Wanna back us out?"
Rocket grumbled his affirmation and signaled, holding back a verbal grievance about stupid parking ordinances.
The building on the far south end of the lot was still visible in the dark sky, various lights and colorful paintings illuminating the windows of the higher floors. A single window proudly displayed a neat row of handmade figures and replicas, similar in style to the one their creator had gifted to his heroes.
Gamora placed the model spaceship above the control panel, brushing dust particles off the signature carved into the stand. A proper display area could be chosen in the near future.
"We should return," she stated Peter's earlier sentiment with more confidence. "Before it is too late." He wrapped his arm around her and nodded at the building growing smaller in the distance.
"You two talkin' more about turnin' us into a kiddie charity?" Rocket interrupted the couple's spoken consideration, paying half attention. Gamora gave a harsh glare.
They did need to resume taking jobs to earn a living - the hospital couldn't afford to pay them, and they would never have accepted - but to jeer at the idea of a second visit completely--
"If you all quit pattin' yourselves on the back for bein' so d'ast pure and perfect...I'll think about it," the rodent added with a wink and a glance at the model casting a shadow on his buttons. Peter softened and grinned, while the woman in his arms let go of her frustration and impatience at Rocket's dismissive behavior. The biggest jerk on their team made a solid point.
One visit didn't make them saints; one good deed did not make them heroes.
They would make time to follow up on the well-being of their new friends. An opportunity for Groot to stay longer and learn to count his blessings, for Drax to prepare mentally for the emotions and grief brought on by seeing vulnerable and innocent children in such circumstances, for their deeply empathetic and sweet friend to be included and propagate some joy.
A second chance for both Gamora and Peter to recognize such hosts as heroes themselves, and not allow their reservations or their pasts to distract them from giving all they could.
It was a satisfying day, Gamora thought as she glanced up at the man she admired, and down at the cybernetic mammal who waited until they were alone to complain about germ-ridden fingers and mucus in his fur. It was good, but not worth bragging. They were simply doing their best to spread some love and selflessness, and positively affect this externally ugly and harsh realm.
All they did was answer a call.
The springs of Groot's bed were ready to burst, the last baroque pop notes echoing. Peter kissed Gamora's hairline and departed the cockpit to intervene and tuck the child into bed.
Of course not before taking another fond glance at the hospital, giving a wink and a gesture with his finger to imitate clicking a gun, an action that could not possibly be seen from such a distance, at least not by any person inside that building.
Her smile was warm as he left, and against all logic, Gamora found herself waving, perhaps symbolically, at the young inhabitants of the hospital.
And for a brief moment, although she was 99.82 percent certain it was only her imagination, the heroine allowed herself to believe she saw a small hand waving back.
"An open mind," she told Rocket, before also departing to reload those cartridges and retreat to sleep. "That's all we ask."