Dying was no apology. Wasn't much of a redemption, really, but it was all Yondu had left to give. Lost it all - his ship, his crew, his pride – lost damn near everything he'd spent his whole life gaining, except for Quill.
Quill were the one thing he couldn't afford to lose.
So he didn't fight the frigid tide that tore at his lungs 'til they ached, heavy and full. Full of pride for this kid, who'd grown up with more goodness than Yondu could've ever hoped, and he told him as much, or at least tried.
"Yondu! Yondu, no, NO!" It was a wonder he heard any of the half-assed but heartfelt apology, what with all his screaming and crying. "Please, D- Dad, c'mon–"
It couldn't be natural, what that word did, squeezing his chest worse than the lack of oxygen. Quill hadn't called him that since he was a lil' thing, and that were accidental, a silly notion he had when Yondu first picked him up.
He couldn't spare the breath to hush him, tell Pete it's alright. Instead he framed his kid's splotchy, snot-crusted mug in his hands like it was the most precious sight in the galaxy.
Dying for Quill, that were the easiest thing he'd ever done. Surviving for Quill, well, that were harder – Yondu had a lot of truths to clear up and a lot of mistakes to answer for.
But it was the least he could do for his boy.
They say, far as Yondu's heard, that his is a vaguely empathetic species. Not to the degree of the bug girl that's joined Quill's group of Guardian do-gooders and yet... Supposedly, it was a connection to the natural world, severed when they cut the fin from him as a wee boy, screaming raw with pain and outrage 'til the slave master threatened to give him something to howl over.
Call it a whiff of that leftover instinct, a sliver of his homeworld clinging to the roots of rotten memories, when Yondu shivers in tandem to the deep breath of silence before the world explodes. As if he's lost in that split-second, something vital and irreplaceable, yet he can't explain this feeling of bereft in any capacity that might be understood.
What he can translate is the sudden, crucial urge to call Quill. Just to see and be assured by his dumb pink face appearing on the screen. He doesn't get the chance to act on the weird impulse before the levee breaks and his ship spirals into chaos.
Reports pour in from every quadrant, panic spreading like a plague. Life signs and thermal signatures disappear one after another, except there's no attack, no enemy, nothing. No reason for people to up an' vanish! Yondu's barking orders on the control deck, sending teams to investigate and tamping down on steadily swelling frustration, and then it happens.
One of his recruits – Rajek, piss-poor kid from Betali VI, smart enough to earn a spot on the bridge – sways away from his station with a noise that reeks of dread. Leela, his young navigator, rises uncertainly to her feet.
"Raj, what's wrong?" she asks.
"I don't... I, wait–" His wide, frantic eyes turn to her as his body falls apart. Pieces of him scatter across the controls and Leela sinks back into her seat with a muffled yelp.
"Kraglin?" Yondu demands, a razor sharp tone that translates to What the fuck is this?
His first-mate ain't in an enviable position, trying to explain through his own rapidly growing stress. "Half the crew, sir... S'gone," he rasps.
"Gone? The hell does that mean?" Yondu snarls into the disturbed air that's snagged his bridge and won't let go. "Gone where?"
"Nowhere," Kraglin murmurs. He sounds mystified and a touch scared. "Just... They're gone."
Just gone ain't an answer that can quell this crisis and keep his bridge together. Yondu glances at where Rajek stood not a moment ago, four arms an' all. A twinge of fear bobs at the bottom of his throat.
"Sir?" Kraglin calls as he stomps off in what is firmly not a retreat.
"I'mma call the Ravagers and see if we ain't the only ones." He swivels for the door, kicking up dust with his heels. "An' sweep that mess u–"
Leela's blanched lips gape at him and Yondu realizes what he's suggested. "–uh, never mind. Keep us on course."
He treks to the captain's quarters in quick, measured strides; no sense causing more alarm than's already gripped his vessel, drenching the halls in eerie silence. Ravagers aren't famous for calm and compliance, and the superstitious, space-faring man in him balks at what must be an ill-tiding omen.
As soon as the door shuts, Yondu opens up his messages, where two are waiting: one from Nebula, one from Rocket, and none from Quill. His gut lurches but he shoves it aside.
Both are distress signals with no message, just typed coordinates. Nebula's closest, give or take a few jumps, but Rocket's location is a sucker punch.
This is an old fear that gnaws at him – the fear that Quill will get it in his head to run to his mama's planet, where he'll be ripe for whatever degenerate Ego next hires to retrieve his offspring.
But Ego is dead and Quill has friends in tow. Not the brightest bunch, though that's a tad hypocrite of him, considering the overall IQ of Ravager crews aren't the most inspiring. Unlike Ravagers, though, Quill's little band is loyal to a fault and Greenie and Rat, at least, have a proper brain or two between 'em. Even Drax, Bug and Twig ain't useless.
If Quill's on Earth, p'rhaps that's for the best. Perhaps he's managed to avoid this shitstorm entirely and is just checking on his old man.
Quill is sentimental like that. Gets it from his daddy, the rat jokes nowadays. Used to be that kind of talk would earn a whistle. Now Yondu laughs, and swats at both the rat and his kid, because he's got a goddamn reputation to uphold.
Nebula's call is a bit more bewildering, although not by much. After the Ego fiasco – after Yondu didn't succumb to deep space exposure, after his lungs thawed and Quill wept on him, shouted insults, then wept some more, after a misty-eyed Stakar wandered over to his sick-bed and extended his hand in reconciliation – Nebula boarded their ship with the excuse of needing a ride. Kraglin was initially wary of their stowaway (girl had shot off his captain's implant, after all) but he didn't seem inclined to stop her, either. With his first-mate keeping an eye out, Yondu sat back to observe the Titan's so-called daughter.
Blue was a damn fine bounty hunter, way better than Quill had been. Quill did have her beat at lying and thieving, though, so Yondu at least tried to impart his wisdom in those areas. She was an aloof one, Blue, yet as the weeks went by and she hadn't begged off, claiming she was waiting on a tip, he caught Kraglin teaching her cards and he caught himself enjoying her cynical quips on the bridge.
He couldn't deny the gal looked right in Ravager red.
Last they heard, she was on her self-appointed mission to rid the galaxy of Thanos; she'd got her tip, borrowed a ship, and was off within an hour. Yondu half-heartedly believed she'd succeed through sheer spite. At best, he hopes she's merely stranded and requires another ride.
In the time it's taken to read those messages, a new one has arrived, flashing bright with priority. It's Stakar.
The man who always seemed so ageless now looks every bit his age, his face drawn tight. Those stone-cut features loosen by a fraction when Yondu answers.
"You're still here," is how he greets his sort-of son. Yondu grunts in unnecessary confirmation. "Then I assume it hasn't escaped your attention."
"Mean the man on my bridge who disintegrated to ash, along with half my crew?" Gravely, Stakar nods.
"Aleta's fine," he relays, as if he needed telling. No calamity would dare try to cross Aleta Ogord. "Marty, too. Charlie and Krugarr, though..."
Stomach clenching, Yondu remembers. Remembers marveling at iron torn like tissue paper by Charlie's massive fists, how those same hands gently pried his younger, quiverings self from his shackles. Remembers Krugarr ushering him aside one day, mindful of every movement, showing him books filled with a language he'd forgotten, because slaves weren't allowed to learn.
"We're gathering the council," Stakar rips him from the reverie, the duck of his chin bitter as he mutters, "or what remains."
"Not like you to wallow, old man." The informal-bordline-disrespectful address is an indulgence on Stakar's part, just as it's a indulgence Yondu affords Quill.
"Not one to find myself short half an army at a moment's notice," Stakar retorts, but there's the hint of a smirk before he sobers again. "What are your coorindates?"
"Send me yours and I'll meet ya at the rendezvous," Yondu promises. "But I've got a couple things to take care of, first."
"It can wait."
"M'fraid it can't."
A warning flashes in that steely gaze.
"Boy, if you plan on doing somethin' stupid–"
"See you at the rendezvous." He pounds his chest in salute. If Stakar wasn't spitting mad before, he is now.
Regardless, Yondu ends the calls.
"Kraglin, the ship is yours," he says over the comm. "Set a course for Stakar's location."
"Sir?" Kraglin's cry of protest crackles in his ear.
"Family issue," he replies tersely, and switches off the comm.
Even though Kraglin's technically more family than crew, that wasn't an invitation to join. How he managed to beat Yondu to the M-Ship is almost as miraculous as the day's dizzying events. Damn those gangly legs of his.
"Didn't want you forgettin' your lucky charm, is all." He chucks Yondu that ugly ass doll of Quill's that, since the orb incident, has been the hallmark of his trinket collection.
Yondu grins, stroking at the doll's ridiculous tuft of hair. Kraglin, the eel, uses this as an opportunity to park his hind in the co-pilot chair. Yondu bares his teeth, the grin morphing into a scowl.
"Whatchu think yer doin', Krags?"
"If it's all the same to your, sir," says his first-mate, smooth as Krylorian silk, "I'll be goin' with ya."
He glares with less heat than he prefers. "Disobeying a direct order? That's akin to mutiny."
Despite lacking in menace, Kraglin wilts. The comment strikes a spot of soreness in their long-winded history: the forgiven-yet-not-forgotten mutiny he unwittingly instigated. Yondu isn't mean enough to keep up the pretense of anger, but he isn't above using it to his advantage.
"Got to have someone watchin' your back, sir." Kraglin shrugs like he's made some impenetrable leap of logic. "Somethin' happens and Quill will be whining to me 'til I shoot myself out the airlock. Figure this way I'm less likely to die."
That is extremely feasible. Yondu snickers. "Boy don't know when to quit, do he?"
"Stubborn lil' shit," Kraglin agrees, and can't quite suppress a smirk when Yondu smiles like that's a virtue, not a detriment.
"Let's go an' grab Blue, then," he relents, stowing the doll in his pocket instead of its characteristic place on the console. "Rat, Quill an' the rest will hafta stay outta trouble in the meantime."
He isn't much in the mood to chat, and Kraglin, sensing this, flips a switch so that a copy of Quill's music streams softly out of the speakers. He sinks into the seat with a sigh, ignoring that odd, nagging sense of bereft that he's guessing won't go away 'til he has those dumbass kids in sights again.
On Titan, they land in what appears to be a disaster zone, at the epicenter of which sits Nebula. Not out of character, that. Yet it's off-putting, the ragged sight of her, which hardly stirs at their approach.
"You got my message," she replies without inflection. Yondu pauses at a distance, knowing she ain't one for fussing, yet close enough to check her over and decide that physically she's no worse for wear.
Mentally is another matter, judging by the state of things.
"The fuck happened, huh?" Kraglin asks oh-so-eloquently.
Nebula doesn't blink, doesn't even look at 'em. "Thanos," she breathes, short and circuit-frying.
"Shit," Yondu utters, staring at the battered landscape. "Fuck, shit..."
At his heel, Kraglin repeats a similar slew of curses.
"Take it the family reunion didn't go so well," he says, tactfully as he's able. It's a miracle she's standing before him, still alive, and he's glad.
Except Thanos ain't famous for his mercy. And Yondu's never much trusted miracles.
Kraglin twitches for his knife, muscles on-guard. It's what tips him off to the only other presence on this desolate planet (and what kind of captain is he, so preoccupied not to notice).
Calling it a presence may be a little generous, though. Man is crumpled in the dirt, and it is a man, upon closer inspection, although from neck to toe he's encased in a metallic armor. Nebula isn't explaining but she isn't slashing any throats, either, and that's a ringing endorsement in her book. Yondu relaxes, gestures for Kraglin to do the same. Dark, tumultuous eyes follow the movements.
"Who's Papa Smurf?" The man raises a shaky, metal-clad finger at Yondu. "Another of those guardians?"
He's had a legion of awful names bestowed on him, most of them deserved, but nobody except Quill has ever referred to him as that, because it's some obscure icon of Terran culture. Come to think of it, this guy is probably Terran, with his pink-flushed complexion and how out-of-his depth he seems. That's a hanky coincidence as it is, but–
Guardians, he said. Like he's met others.
"What's he talkin' bout?" Yondu asks with an edge. "Your sis and the rest around?"
Nebula's gaze still hasn't strayed from the ash-covered ground.
"My sister is dead." Her fury is, for once, quiet. "Thanos killed her."
Kraglin's gasp tickles his ears. Greenie is tough shit thanks to her shit of dad and it's nigh unbelievable for her to have fallen by his hands. It's un-fucking-forgivable, a father destroying his own child, but Yondu knows from experience that it isn't impossible.
"Sonuva fucking-" he starts, because Gamora is a gal worth grieving, and if even he feels the sting he can't imagine what– "Where's Quill?"
The question leaves his mouth in a stuttered exhale, completely unbidden. The breath Kraglin exerted a minute ago sucks straight back into his first-mate's lungs.
Clever, wily Quill. Runs in guns blazin' half the time, but to to his credit, usually with an exit strategy in mind. Kid wasn't one-hundred percent a dumbass, and besides, Yondu taught him better.
Unless someone Quill loved was in trouble, then all that good sense went flying out the airlock, along with the self-preservation Yondu has tried to instill in him for twenty-six years. It's one habit he could never cull. So if Gamora is dead–
"Where's Quill?" Off on Earth, crying, broken up inside. Liable to do something incredibly selfish, vengeful and absolutely something dangerous, because nothing's more dangerous to his boy than his own tattered heart.
Yondu needs to find him, fast, before that boy does something to nearly get himself killed again.
"He traded her life to get the stone. As if it was his to give," Nebula spits, her usual fire peeking through the shield of numb that's crept around her heart.
This self-defense is familiar as breathing, and since it's Blue, Yondu might be sympathetic, if it wasn't for the fact that he doesn't have the time. And she ain't listening, she ain't reacting, it's like he's a whelp of a boy, wailing at folks who refuse to hear his pleas, too busy haggling with the slavers over the price of their baby.
"Nebula!" She flinches, twin black eyes snapping up to meet his. "Where's Quill?"
He's yelling, even though there's nobody besides the four of them to hear. Nobody is cowering at the howl of the waspish Ravager captain. He can feel Kraglin's worry blistering a hole into the back of his neck. When Nebula casts her eyes on him, there's a shine of something that may be empathy and he hates it.
"This was his endgame," she tells them in a hollow voice. "Half the universe, obliterated. With the snap of his fingers. The wizard, the boy..."
At this, the Terran winces heavily.
"...Drax, Mantis..." Her speech falters around the name of Bug, who, Yondu guesses, may have been one of the few creatures in this universe she allowed herself to care for. "And..."
She doesn't have to finish. He knows, maybe has known since he shuddered and felt the world rip apart at the seams – and not because the world had actually, literally ended. Because the deep, yawning pit inside of him that scrappy lil' Peter Quill had filled were empty. Empty, 'cause Quill was...
"Everyone except us," Nebula looks collectively at him, Kraglin and the Terran, away from the lives scattered at their feet, "Is gone."