"Out of all the crazy ideas you've ever had, this is the top. This is peak crazy, there's nowhere to go from here." Rocket couldn't stop laughing and Peter was looking at him with that stubborn look Rocket knew all too well. They'd been stranded on a desert-like barren rock for a week, and while their escape pod had landed safely, more or less, there'd been no sign of the Milano. They'd escaped in one of the target ship's escape pods when the mission went bad, hoping that Drax, Groot, and Gamora would be able to track them and pick them up. A week on, they hadn't.
And there were more pressing problems. The escape pod had been fully stocked with survival caches of food, water, medical supplies, and tools -- all for a species that Rocket and Peter did not belong to. The water was usable, of course, but the food was nauseating to smell, to look at, and after touching it prompted an immediate rash on Peter's hand, it had been discarded as too dangerous to try eating unless it was absolutely necessary. Both of them were Terran, after all, despite being different species, and what would make Peter sick would likely make Rocket sick as well.
They were both hungry and hollow-eyed -- Rocket more so than Peter, due to his small size, and he tried as hard as he could to hide how hungry he was, because all that got him was a look of sympathy and horror from Peter that was too hard to deal with on an empty stomach. He thought about telling Peter that, it was pretty funny. Don't look at me in that tone of voice on an empty stomach. A week of enforced closeness with Peter Quill was teaching him a lot he'd never known about the guy, and he'd thought they knew each other pretty well by now. That he was softer-hearted than you'd expect from a savage Terran raised by even more savage pirates. That he knew some of the filthiest jokes Rocket had ever heard -- some of them depending on knowledge of frankly upsetting-sounding sexual crap to comprehend the punchline. Even those were pretty funny just because of how Peter told them. Then again, Rocket was also pretty sure a lot of the things he'd been finding funny since he'd woken up at sunrise, stomach grinding painfully in on itself and his chest feeling cold and empty, weren't actually funny at all and that this was the start of some kind of delerium.
"You can't possibly be serious, Quill. You're gonna go hunting? That's your plan? We'll starve to death way before your dumb ass can find something edible." He choked on his laughter, and gave up on trying to wave away the water Peter was offering when it became clear that Peter was just going to dangle the bottle in front of his face with grim determination until he drank some. At least they had water. He'd asked Peter, trying to pretend that it was a completely casual question, how long Terrans could survive without food. Peter had thought for a bit, trying to remember, and had finally told him a couple of weeks, with plenty of water. That was good; the escape pod had a full water tank, and the filtration system still functioned. They'd even been able to add water to it, with Peter harvesting the condensation traps he'd set up around their campsite. Peter might get through this. Rocket was pretty sure he wouldn't, though, no matter how good Peter was at surviving in the wilderness.
As he'd pillaged the escape pod for usable items, Peter had explained how he'd gone camping many times as a kid, with his grandfather. He'd learned survival techniques that had saved his ass many times in a pinch, and Rocket would never admit to how impressed he'd been, watching Peter set up a camp for them that was actually relatively comfortable. The escape pod's door had blown off, as designed, on impact, and it was so cramped inside that it was useless as a shelter, but Peter had dug through the pod's supplies and found a bag of survival blankets -- he'd used them to string up a shade for them to sit and sleep under, next to the pod, and torn one up into smaller pieces for the condensation traps. They'd kept a few for sleeping, since the desert's heat turned cold at night, and what had once been bizarre -- sleeping huddled up with Peter for warmth -- had become routine and unremarkable after a week.
Now Peter was ripping up something else -- the heavy canvas bag the medical supplies had been packed in -- and put it down in his lap to stare at Rocket. "You need food. Worse than me. A hell of a lot worse than me, and I'm worried about you. We have water, neither of us are hurt, but both of us will die eventually if we don't eat. And I can hunt down one of those," he said, pointing off into the distance at a four-legged ungulate of some kind, grazing on the tough, inedible-to-Peter-and-Rocket grass that was some of the only vegetation they'd seen, aside from stands of tough little thorny trees.
"Neither of us have any weapons, genius. Your guns are empty and mine is back on the fucking freaky-ass-alien ship we got the stupid pod from. You're gonna just run up to it and crack it on the head with a rock?" That set off another fit of laughter, and Rocket knew that was a bad sign. He knew Peter knew it too, because he was staring at him with a deep, unhappy frown.
"No, I'm gonna run it down and slit its throat," Peter said, and Rocket laughed even harder.
"Right, right, sorry, shoulda remembered you're a fuckin' savage." Peter flushed red, hands moving more angrily over the strips of tough material he was making something out of, Rocket wasn't sure what, and Rocket remembered that he himself wasn't the only one with problems about being called certain words.
"Sorry, I forgot you don't like that," he said, with genuine contrition in his voice. Peter hated to be called a savage, or primitive, or any of the other shit people said about Terrans. Although, watching him now, the savage was peeking out around the edges. In the gathering heat of the morning, he'd stripped his shirt off, and was sitting cross-legged on the ground, weaving strips of fabric together into a belt, with loops hanging at regular intervals. "What is that thing for, anyway?" he asked, hoping to move on from hurting Peter's feelings. Peter tried to be careful and not say thoughtless things that might hurt Rocket, and he did the same for Peter, at least as much as a thuggish asshole like him could.
"It's for carrying water. I'll need to drink as much as I can while I'm running that whatever-it-is down."
"You don't really think you can do that, do you? Remember when you tried to get close to one of those things before?" Peter had stepped out from under their shade, on the first day they'd been here, saying that the thing looked like something called a deer, and it had run with fleet speed before he could get more than a few steps.
"I can if I keep it running and don't let it rest. That's how ancient Terrans hunted, I did a report on it in school. A thing like that, it's made for a sprint away from danger, and then it needs to rest and drink water. I can run all day long if I have to, as long as I carry water with me."
"You can run all day long? Like, literally running the whole day? Not even Gamora can do that," Rocket scoffed.
"Terran humans may not be the strongest, or the fastest, but we're the toughest bastards around. I know you've seen me stay on my feet after getting hit in the head, or shot, or stabbed. I can lose an arm or leg and survive, as long as I can keep from bleeding out and keep it from getting infected. I can survive a brain injury, if the right parts are left. If I have clean water, I can go for a couple of weeks without food. Terrans are omnivorous, so I can eat just about anything that's not outright poison. Gamora can do all that, too, but because she's augmented. I'm not. I can do this, and I can keep us alive, Rocket. Trust me."
"You really can do that? Have you ever done it before?" Rocket asked. He'd seen what Peter meant -- it was upsetting, actually, to see Peter beaten and bloody and acting as if he was perfectly fine, talking and walking around with wounds that would have floored Rocket or Drax. Not Gamora, but she was augmented, that was true.
"Not by running it down, no, but I've killed deer with a rifle. I shot my first buck when I was eight. Grandpa made me take his hunting knife and slit its throat myself, said I had to take the responsibility if I was going to fire the bullet."
That was actually a shock to Rocket; he knew Peter had killed in fights and battles before, but always with guns, never with his bare hands or a blade. He'd never seen him get his hands dirty. That he had done so at such a young age, at the command of his grandfather, was savage, and frightening. Peter was squinting up at the sky, squatting next to the filled water bottles they kept piled next to the pod, and after a long, assessing look, he started gathering bottles and fitting them into the loops attached to the belt he'd made.
"You're gonna go now?" Rocket asked, watching him.
"Soon. It'll be better to start early, so the sun will be the hottest at the end of the chase. The hotter it is, the faster it'll exhaust itself, and I can walk right up to it." Peter fished in his pocket and came up with the survival blade from the pod. It had a weirdly curved handle, made for hands other than those with five fingers, and Peter had used medical tape and splints from the first aid kit to make it fit his hand better. "Then I can kill it, gut it, and cook it for us."
"How long will it take, do you know?" Rocket asked, suddenly leery of letting Peter out of his sight. He was weak, and hungrier even than he'd been when he first escaped from the lab and had to scavenge for food like the low creature he was made from. Peter might go out into the desert and not come back, and Rocket would die here alone.
"Could take all day. It'll sprint, but then lie down to rest, and I can catch up, if I stay at a steady run. Eventually, its heart will give out from the strain. Don't know how long that takes, though."
"You're not leaving me here. I want to go with you." Suddenly staying here alone was an intolerable idea, and he wasn't about to let the only other living being here leave him behind.
"How? I'm sorry, Rocket, but you can't keep up with me. Your legs are shorter than mine, and you're too weak right now."
"You moron," Rocket said disgustedly. "What do you think I meant? I'm gonna run right next to you? You can give me a ride on your shoulders, like Groot does."
Peter stopped as he was tying the makeshift water belt around his waist. "You weigh, what? Sixty pounds? That's a lot of weight to carry when I'm running." Peter was casting the same assessing look on Rocket he'd given to the position of the alien sun in the sky.
"You said you needed to drink water, I can hand it to you, hold it for you to drink. And my eyes are enhanced, I can see the thing and its tracks better than you can." He shifted uncomfortably, his stomach twisted into knots and coils over its own emptiness. "And you'll have to drag the thing all the way back. If I'm with you, we can eat right then. And I think I'd better eat as soon as I can," he admitted, hating the way Peter's face clouded over with worry for him. "And I just don't wanna be here alone, okay? So you're taking me with you, Quill."
Peter squatted down again in front of him, looking him over critically. "Are you sure? It's gonna be hot. Do you even sweat? The only reason I can do something like this is because I sweat all over and the sweat cools me off."
"Heat doesn't bother me, so don't worry about that. They fucked with everything about me, when they made me. Got an internal cooling system, to keep all the cybernetics cool enough to function."
"Huh," Peter said. "I didn't know that."
"The sheer tonnage of what you don't know is staggering," Rocket said, grinning at him as best he could with the hunger eating him alive. Peter had run across some Terran movies at a planetside bazaar, and one of them had been something Peter said was a Western, called "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," about a pair of Terran outlaws. It had become Rocket and Peter's favorite movie, and they quoted it to each other constantly, to Drax and Gamora's annoyance. "Now gimme that bag the blankets were in, I have an idea."
Peter tossed it to him, then handed him the knife as well when he made an impatient grabby-hands gesture. Peter sat down cross-legged under their shade, watching Rocket work. In short order, he had retooled the bag into something like a backpack, with a seat for himself that would hang against Peter's back and give Rocket a good view over his shoulders. Getting into it was exhausting, as weak as Rocket was, but when Peter stood up with him in it, he said it was good, that Rocket's weight was evenly distributed and that running with him as cargo shouldn't be too bad. Before they set out from their camp, Peter ripped the sleeves off of his discarded shirt and then sliced the front and back apart, leaving him with four pieces of material. He took one of the larger pieces, soaked it with water from one of the bottles from the belt that Rocket was now wearing like a sash across his chest, and wrapped it around his forehead, securing it with one of the torn-off sleeves.
"What's that about?" Rocket asked, skeptical and a little aggravated to suddenly have a wet piece of cloth dangling in his face.
"Keeps the sun off me." Peter soaked the other sleeve with water and tied it loosely around his neck. "I'm gonna be needing for you to pour water on me when I ask, to help me stay cool, and to hold the water for me to drink when I start to get tired, so keep a bottle of water ready." Peter shrugged against the straps of Rocket's harness experimentally, judging how the weight would fall when he moved. He made sure he had everything he would need, checking his pocket for the knife and the survival igniter from the pod. There'd been a compass as well, but it wasn't playing nicely with the planet's magnetic field -- even if they'd dared use the distress beacon on the pod, the field blocked all manner of comm transmissions, too -- so they would have to rely on Rocket's sharp eyes, both to find their prey's tracks, and to find the campsite again.
"Ready, Sundance?" Peter asked.
"Ready, Butch," Rocket replied, as he always did. He was scanning the horizon with his enhanced eyes, and spotted movement about a half klick to their west. "Over there," he said, stretching his arm into Peter's vision to point it out.
"I see it," Peter said, and started jogging at a slow, steady lope. It was different from riding on Groot's shoulders; not just the makeshift harness, but the height and gait. Not as tall, of course, and the movement itself felt strange. Groot's hard, woody body gave little shock absorption as he moved, like riding on a rolling pile of boulders, but Peter's movements were smooth and fluid, rolling and bouncing with his stride. His seemingly-slow pace was eating up the ground faster than Rocket had expected, and soon they were within eyeline and scent distance of their prey. As soon as it caught sight of them, it bolted, and Peter muttered a "Hold on tight," to Rocket over his shoulder, and began to run.
He'd seen Peter run before, but not like this. His strides were impossibly long, his body moving as if this was what he was bred for. The scenery flew by in a blur as the animal pounded its hooves against the hardpan in front of them, fleeing from Peter in an agony of panic. It was drawing ahead of them now, disappearing over a rise that was scrubbed over with small, stunted trees. "It's getting away!" Rocket said, shaking Peter's shoulder.
"No, it isn't," Peter said, breathing deeply in long, lung-expanding pants. "You can still see it, right?"
"Not anymore, but I see its tracks."
"Keep looking for it, watch for its tracks for me. It's gonna rest now, thinks it lost us." Peter slowed a little, but not by much, and kept running while Rocket scanned the horizon from over his shoulder. He ran on for what Rocket felt was too long; surely he would be too tired to continue, any time now. Sweat was rolling in sheets down Peter's back, his arms, as they pumped at his sides in time with his steps. He couldn't see Peter's face, but he was sure it was wet with sweat as well. He, Gamora and Drax didn't sweat the way Peter did, and it had always been one of those weird Terran things about Peter that no one understood. Now he could see the point of it; he could almost feel the moisture evaporating on Peter's skin, cooling him more efficiently than any other race Rocket had ever heard of. He also understood why Peter had said he needed to drink -- all the water must be going right through his skin as soon as he consumed it, it seemed to Rocket.
"Need water?" he asked, and Peter nodded and stuck his hand back for a bottle of water, pouring half into his mouth and the rest over his head, face, and chest. Up ahead, Rocket spotted the animal again, lying down in one of those ugly little stands of trees, near a pool of stagnant, coppery-colored water.
Peter grunted with satisfaction under his breath when Rocket pointed it out to him, and broke into a sprint. Rocket held on as best he could, jolting along, flying, watching as the animal lunged to its feet and took off. Again, Peter chased it at top speed, forcing it to run headlong into the brushy desert, taking advantage of his ability to cool himself and his prey's lack of same. When it was out of sight again, Peter slowed to that ground-eating jog, reminding Rocket to watch for tracks.
That Peter was still on the move, with no more sign of strain than the sweat pouring off of him and the panting, gasping breaths of exertion, was astonishing to Rocket. Even Gamora would have collapsed by now. Peter's head was ticking back and forth, scanning the horizon as he ran, and it was like riding on the back of some giant predator. He'd never seen anything like this from Peter before. Funny, goofy, dorky Peter was suddenly frightening, almost. The smell of Peter's sweat was strong now, musky and almost overpowering. It tickled at something in Rocket's pushed-down, hated animal instincts, insisted that this was a dangerous creature, a thing that might eat him. Rocket was glad that this predator was on his side, at least.
The next time they found their prey, it seemed to struggle to rise from the ground, long legs shaky, as it hurled itself to its feet and staggered away from Peter's approach. Peter kept after it, running at a gallop until it was again out of their sight. Peter asked him to pour water over his head, and shook it off all over Rocket before taking the bottle from him over his shoulder and drinking the remainder in one long gulp.
"Aren't you tired?" Rocket asked him. It was becoming impossible to believe that Peter was still conscious and moving, much less prepared to continue. He had been running for at least three hours, never stopping, only slowing to a jog occasionally, all while carrying perhaps eighty pounds in total, both of Rocket's weight and the bottles of water they'd brought.
"Yeah, my legs hurt. I'm okay," he said. "I can keep going."
He did, over and over, gaining on the creature and letting it jet away from them again, then catching up to it once more, weaker every time they found it. Peter had stopped talking much, and seemed absorbed in the monotony of motion, legs cutting the air in long, punishing strides. By the time they had found and lost it at least seven or eight times, Rocket could tell the thing was weakening to the point of exhaustion. The last time it had fled from them, it had fallen before picking itself up and heading off into the brush.
"See it?" Peter gasped, and Rocket reached over his shoulder to point.
"There, beside those three trees," Rocket replied, and Peter angled his body in the right direction, suddenly beginning to slow down, to Rocket's surprise. "What's wrong?" he asked, wondering if Peter would collapse himself before he could kill the thing after all.
"It's down, can't get up," Peter huffed out, and it was true. The thing saw them now, and was trying to rise, but its legs failed it and it wallowed on the dusty desert floor, unable to escape them any longer. Peter slowed to a stop, and reached over his shoulders to help Rocket down from his perch, finding a rock with cover from the sun for him to sit by. "Stay here, I think I can take it down now." Peter's chest and face gleamed with sweat, flushed with exertion. He looked nothing like Peter Quill. The shirt wrapped around his head looked like a headdress, his cheeks and nose were painted with red stripes of sunburnt skin, and his eyes were hard and bright. When he pulled the knife out of his pocket and started toward the creature, Rocket wanted to look away, but didn't. He knew Peter was doing this for his sake, and he figured he at least owed him not looking away from what Peter was forced to do for their survival.
Peter approached the thing carefully, walking now, circling around behind it. He watched it, waiting, as the thing tossed its head fitfully, big dumb eyes rolling in its head, showing the whites. Rocket didn't know what to expect, and he watched in disbelief as Peter bared his teeth, almost snarling, and leapt onto the deer-creature's back, snatching its head back with one hand while slitting its throat neatly and deeply with the knife. Blood jetted out across the hardpan ground in a violent spray, and the thing howled a wavering death-cry through the new hole in its neck. Peter held on grimly, holding its head up and back, not letting go until the deer-thing slumped in his grasp, dead weight.
Rocket had to stop himself from flinching away when Peter came back toward where he sat by the rock. His arms were splattered with blood, a big smear of it across his chest, and the knife was still in his hand. He looked dangerous, and savage, and wild. Peter didn't stop where Rocket was, though, instead putting the knife down by Rocket's feet and beginning to gather up sticks and brush from the little stand of trees the animal had gone to ground in.
"Need to build a fire now," he said, and it was almost a relief to know he could still talk like a man. "Once I get a fire going, I'll start cleaning it."
That sounded harmless, at least. When the fire was well established, and Peter took up the knife again and approached the dead animal, Rocket realized that "cleaning" meant cutting it up. Peter pulled out one of the survival blankets from the bottom of Rocket's makeshift harness, used to pad the seat, and spread it out on the ground, hauling the animal over onto it and turning it over on its back, legs sticking stiffly into the air. Rocket had intended to watch, again, because he felt he owed Peter at least something for trying to save him, but found himself unable to when Peter made some kind of cut he couldn't see from this angle, and then stuck his hand inside the creature's rectum and began drawing out its intestines.
"What the fuck are you doing?!" he cried out, hands over his eyes.
"Gotta get the guts out first, before you cut. If you slice the intestines or bladder, it spoils the meat," Peter said cheerfully, apparently not bothered at all by his task. Rocket was only able to look in tiny glimpses, catching little image-slices of Peter slitting the creature's belly open, tossing aside something that looked like testicles, and then sticking his whole arm inside the opening he'd cut in the belly and sweeping out a pile of organs and viscera that made Rocket's empty stomach turn with nausea. Peter was wearing elbow-length gloves of slick blood now, slimed up over his forearms. He was humming under his breath a little, like Rocket did when he worked.
He felt around inside the belly-slit again, and came up with something red and wet and stringy. The heart. He held it up, grinning at Rocket, and said, "You can eat the heart raw. You want it?"
"No fucking way, Quill. You eat it," he said, horrified. That was just disgusting, and upsetting. He hoped Peter was joking, but he wasn't sure of anything right now.
"Suit yourself," Peter said, setting it aside on the spread-out blanket, and started skinning the thing. It almost looked as if Peter was removing a sweater and pants from the dead animal, slitting the pelt carefully around the waist and then ankles and then yanking the skin off from the top and bottom halves in two goes. After it was skinned, he began butchering it, cutting off one of the haunches and spearing it on a sharpened, sturdy stick he'd set aside for the purpose. He hung the stick at an angle over the fire, letting the haunch cook in the open flames. "It'll take a little while to cook. You sure you don't want the heart?" he asked, as casually as if he was offering Rocket the last bowl's worth of cereal.
"Again, no fucking way. I'm fine waiting, thanks."
"Just trying to share, jeez," Peter said good-naturedly, and squatted down by the chopped-up pile of meat and bone. He picked up the heart, and to Rocket's complete disbelief, bit into it like a juicy, ripe fruit or sweet bun. Blood, thick red heart-blood, spurted down his chin and he chewed happily, sighing with relief at finally putting something in his empty stomach. Rocket had never been so appalled in his life, watching Peter eat the whole thing in great, chomping bites, tearing it to pieces with his teeth, clearly enjoying it.
"Do you actually like that?" he asked.
"It just tastes like rare meat, man, I've seen you eat rare meat before," Peter said, actually licking his fingers as he popped the last gobbet of meat into his mouth.
"Yeah, well, you'll never see it again, I can guarantee that," Rocket said, "because you just turned me off all meat and meat-related products for-fucking-ever."
"Don't be a big baby," Peter said, checking on the steaming haunch of meat spitting fat and juices into the flames. "Right before Yondu picked me up, I went hunting with my uncle and cousins, and when he shot a big buck, he cut the heart out for us kids to share. Said it was a rite of passage for boys in some cultures. I liked it." Peter shrugged, turning the meat on the spit to cook evenly. "Besides, you better not be a vegetarian all of a sudden, 'cause the menu is nothing but meat today."
Rocket had never been much of a meat eater -- before joining the Milano's crew, it had mostly been too expensive to waste money on, and he got by with protein bars and the like. After joining the crew, it was too hard to keep fresh meat aboard a starship, and so protein bars were again Rocket's main staple. He sometimes would eat a steak dinner somewhere fancy with Peter, when Peter wanted to celebrate a successful job leaving them (temporarily, at least) flush with units, but only because Peter hated to eat anything he considered a treat unless he was sharing it with Rocket. He'd also never really been forced to consider where the meat he had eaten had come from, and was not happy with the conclusions.
He was mulling over the abandonment of steak dinners with Peter, much as he hated to, and actually becoming a vegetarian, when it occurred to him that the meat cooking did smell pretty good. The growling and twisting of his stomach had been unbearable at first, but eventually it either got tired of complaining without getting results, or he'd just adjusted to it so that it was a deadened, far-off sensation. Enticed by the smell of cooking meat, the hunger woke into raving life. By the time Peter was giving him a juicy, hot chunk of meat cut from the haunch over the flames, Rocket was ready to eat whatever he was handed, no matter it had been alive and bleating in terror and pain a half hour before. No steak dinner had ever tasted this good, either. It was the best thing he'd ever experienced.
"Okay, I take it all back," he sighed around a mouthful of food, at long last. "I fucking love you. This is fantastic."
"I know you do," Peter said smugly around his own mouthful. "Tastes just like venison, I haven't had venison since I left Terra."
Both of them ate their fill, as the day lengthened into evening. Peter got up, complaining about how sore he would be tomorrow, and added more scrub and sticks to the fire, arranging the rest of the meat on skewers to cook as well, explaining that the best they could do to preserve it would be to cook it all well-done, and wrap it up. He disposed of the few remains still lying discarded on the blanket, ranging off into the darkness beyond their fire to dump the offal far enough away so as to not draw scavengers right to them. When he returned, he washed off the plastic-like survival blanket with one of their remaining water bottles and spread it out to dry, ready for the cooked meat when it was done. When it was cooked to his satisfaction, he wrapped it up in a lumpy package and set it on top of the rock Rocket had been leaning against, off the desert floor and out of the way.
He sat down next to Rocket and wrapped the last blanket from the makeshift harness around both of them, pulling Rocket into his lap and taking his place, back leaned against the rock. Wrapping the blanket more securely, with Rocket's back against his chest, he said, "We'll sleep here tonight. It won't be any colder than back at the pod, and I'm beat."
"I can't believe you're still alive," Rocket said, admiration creeping into his voice. "That was some crazy shit. You're something else, Butch."
"Thanks, Sundance," Peter said sleepily, behind him and over his shoulder. He fell silent again, and Rocket heard his breathing deepening and evening out. He wouldn't be surprised if Peter slept the whole next day, after what he'd just seen him do. He was exhausted, too, and his full belly was lulling him to sleep as well, but he kept thinking about that. About what he'd seen Peter do.
He knew better than to underestimate Peter, after being his friend for so long now, but he could never have imagined funny, gentle Peter showing the level of savagery and blood lust he'd seen. He'd seen Peter be almost every way there was to be Peter Quill -- on cons, on heists, on Guardians missions, in battle, in bar brawls they staggered away from laughing; seen him hurt, well, happy and not. He had been sure he'd known him, better than most people ever would. There was a feral thing in Peter, behind those pretty blue-green eyes, and Rocket thought about it for a long time, trying to make his mind line up the man whose lap he dozed off in, and the man he'd watched hunt and kill, in order to save Rocket's life.
He was still thinking about it, sleep just barely creeping up on him, when lights, brilliant and white, washed up over the ridgeline. The Milano hovered for a moment, and then lowered gracefully to the ground a safe distance from the fire that still guttered at Peter and Rocket's feet. The ramp lowered, and Gamora, Groot, and Drax jogged toward them, quickening their steps with concern when they saw Peter still asleep despite the noise and lights of their landing.
"Is he all right?" Gamora asked anxiously as she drew close enough to be heard.
"Yeah, he's just tired. Did you track us from the pod back there?"
"Yes, we had to visually search the surface from the air, once we narrowed down which planet in this system the pod landed on. It has been...tedious. Why did you travel so far from shelter?" she asked, squatting down next to him as Drax and Groot stood behind her.
"We couldn't eat the food in the pod, so Quill hunted down some kind of animal. All that distance, from there to here? He ran. With me on his back, non-stop, for somethin' like five goddamn hours, Gamora. And the whole time he was chasing down this four-legged thing, running flat out a lot of the time. Never stopped, not once."
"Is that even possible?" Drax asked incredulously.
"No. I could not do such a thing. How could Quill?"
"He said it was how ancient Terrans hunted. You know how he sweats in the heat?" Everyone nodded, even Groot. "He was sweating like a fountain, and it kept him cool enough to keep going. He drank a lot of water, and it was like he was a sieve, it just went right back out as sweat. I've never seen anything like it."
Gamora was looking at Peter's sleeping face, his head tipped back against the rock, studying him as if seeing him anew. "How did he kill the thing?"
"He chased it until it was almost dead. Every time it laid down to rest, Quill would chase it again, and eventually it just couldn't get up anymore. Then he walked up to it and slit its throat."
"Quill did that?" Drax asked.
"Yeah, then he skinned it and cut it up and ate the fucking heart raw. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my life, and I have seen shit, okay." Rocket shuddered as he remembered Peter leaping on the thing and slicing through its throat, Peter eating the heart like it was candy. "Oh, and part of cutting it up apparently required him to put his hand up its ass and pull its guts out. It's been a really weird day."
Gamora made a strangled noise of disgust. "And Quill did all that? Quill?"
"Huh?" Peter said fuzzily behind Rocket, hugging him tighter like a stuffed toy. "Z'at Gamora? Hey," he said, sweetly as ever, and Rocket could see Gamora weighing what he'd told them.
"Quill, did you hunt today?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," Peter said on a yawn. "Looks like our ride's here, Rocket." He unwrapped the blanket from around them both and helped Rocket up onto his feet. Groot immediately swooped in and lifted Rocket up into his branches, fussing over him and cooing in a voice like ground-up concrete. "Uh, y'all are gonna have to help me up, my legs are like big sore logs."
Gamora grabbed his hand on one side, and Drax the other. As they hauled him to his feet, he hissed in breath and whined, "Okay, yeah, the soreness is starting already. I'm gonna hate my life tomorrow."
"Did you truly run all the way from the pod to here, in one day?" Drax asked him, steadying Peter on his feet and helping Gamora help him toward the ship. Groot paced next to them, Rocket carried aloft on one shoulder. The view from up here was much more familiar, at least, Rocket thought.
"Yeah," Peter answered, "It wasn't that bad. Endurance runners and bushmen do it all the time. My mistake was not stretching first, oh god ow." He stumbled on his way up the ramp, and his friends steadied and supported him. "Hey, somebody go back and get the meat, I put a lot of effort into that." Groot dutifully turned around and fetched it, and Peter instructed him to put it in the cold storage unit for later. "We're gonna have venison sandwiches for a week, Sundance," he said over his shoulder to Rocket, and Rocket laughed down at him from Groot's shoulder as they rejoined the others.
"You just keep thinkin', Butch, that's what you're good at."
Peter's laugh turned into another groan of pain, but by then he was being hauled through the door of his quarters and poured into his bunk. Rocket climbed down from Groot's branches and sat at the edge of the bed, watching Peter already falling asleep again before his limbs had even settled properly.
"Will he be all right?" Gamora asked, watching Peter snore lightly.
"He needs to sleep, is all. I'll stay in here with him," Rocket said, already curling up next to Peter's side. He'd slept next to Peter for the last week, why not continue? "He might not be able to walk tomorrow, for all we know. I can get him anything he needs."
Gamora was watching Rocket now, and stared a little longer before shooing the others out before her. "If you're sure," she said, and went out, closing the door behind her.
Rocket relaxed by slow degrees, glad to be back on board the Milano, glad to be home. Peter still smelled of sweat, this close up, but Rocket found that either his instincts had decided to grant Peter an exemption to the "things that smell like this will eat you" rule, or that he was too tired to care. He hadn't forgotten the savage that Peter had been when he killed their meal, but he thought that something small like him might be safer with something big and mean like Peter, if the big mean thing was friendly. Good thing for Rocket that the predator he was sharing a bunk with was on his side.