Fandom: Guardians of the Galaxy
Wordcount: This part, 2857
Notes: We're back! To make up for the delay, this one has a special guest appearance.
Quick recap (as an additional apology for the delay): The team has dropped Groot off on a garden planet so he can heal, with Drax staying at his side as a protector. Although Rocket planned to stay as well, Groot wouldn't allow it, and now Peter and Gamora are taking him to a medical specialist to see to his own injuries. Nobody on the Milano is feeling that good about the situation.
The cold metal of the operating table was uncomfortable against Rocket’s back, but he couldn’t move his arms or legs to roll over. He managed to twist his head back and forth, saving him from staring at the featureless grey ceiling, but there was nothing else to look at anyway, until the door opened.
“Hiya, pal,” said a familiar voice, and then Peter Quill was standing over him, smiling disarmingly. “Today’s the big day. Ready?”
Rocket tried to answer, to say he wasn’t ready at all, to ask what was going on, but the only sound he could produce was a tiny squeak. He struggled against whatever bonds were holding him onto the table, causing pain to shoot through his injured limbs without making any change to his immobilized state.
“Easy there,” Peter cautioned him. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt too bad.”
His hands were covered by rubber gloves now, Rocket saw, with a scalpel of some kind in one of them. Worse, there were other humans coming in. Rocket knew their voices, remembered the remarks they made to each other about calibrating the equipment and preparing the subject. One pulled a blinding light over the table, one held up a syringe and flicked the needle.
Rocket focused on Peter alone, trying and failing once more to vocalize any of his frantic thoughts: You’re not one of them! You’re my friend! Why are you letting this happen?
“Keep still, Thirteen,” said Peter, and brought his blade down to Rocket’s chest.
The dream ended in a hypnic jerk and Rocket lay there panting for a few moments, feeling damp with sweat. He was in Peter’s bed, where he had fallen asleep after sobbing out Groot’s abandonment, and the bunk was in the deep darkness that meant it was late in the night-cycle. He listened for Peter’s breathing and found it coming slow and even, so he must not have woken him.
He didn’t remember taking his prosthetics off, but he wasn’t wearing them. It had only taken a second for his nocturnal eyes to adjust, so he scanned the floor until he spotted the armor for his arm and leg and slid down from the bed to get them on as best as he could. It was hard to manage quietly, but he only needed them to stay on for as long as it took to get the door open and sneak down the corridor to his own room.
As the hatch slid closed behind him, he heard Peter begin to stir, and for a second he thought about turning back. This wasn’t the first time he had been woken by a nightmare in his captain’s bed, and a few minutes of stroking and sleepy reassurances usually helped out more than he would have ever expected or admitted out loud.
But the dreams had never taken this form before, and it was still too much with him. Solitude was the most comforting option available.
Peter sat up, rubbing his eyes, and said, “Rocket?” He hadn’t expected an answer, but when he didn’t get one, he turned the light on anyway to make sure.
Rocket was gone, along with his casts. Peter stayed sitting in bed until it was clear that Rocket hadn’t just gotten up to take a piss, then pulled a t-shirt on and left the bunk himself.
The first place he checked was the cabin, but instead of Rocket he found Gamora there, reading from a tablet and sipping something hot. “I heard him returning to his own bunk,” she said before Peter could ask. “I wouldn’t suggest banging on his door to ask if he’s alright, if that’s what you had in mind.”
Peter shook his head wearily and dropped into the chair opposite her. He didn’t think he was going to get back to sleep tonight, so there was no point in going back to bed just to roll around until morning. “So why are you up, anyway?” he asked, then thought about that and added, “Actually, why do you always seem to be up whenever I’m despondently wandering around the ship at night?”
Gamora tapped the screen of her book to turn it off. “I’m always awake at this hour. I need less sleep than you do.”
“Oh.” He wondered why that had never come up before, or if it had and he just hadn’t been paying attention. “Is that because of your enhancements?”
“Partially. Some of it is training. It may even be a racial trait. I never had much of a chance for comparison before I was the only example of a Zenwhoberian.”
She looked and sounded so composed that Peter felt ashamed that he had ever dwelled on his own problems. He considered all of the Guardians his family, but Gamora was the only one who routinely reminded him of one of his actual blood relatives, his mother. It felt weird to acknowledge that, so he tried to push the thought away whenever it occurred to him, but her wisdom and selflessness made the association too strong to ignore. “They trained you to sleep less?”
Before answering, she shot him a querulous look. “No, I trained myself. Being unconscious doesn’t just make you vulnerable, it takes up valuable time.”
Peter tried to imagine spending years on end without having a safe place to come home to, or a decent period of rest. “How did you turn out so...normal?”
“Normal?” she laughed.
“Seriously. I mean, when someone pushes Rocket’s buttons there’s gonna be fireworks and we all know why, but I don’t worry about you like that. How do you keep your past from controlling you?”
She paused, giving the question due consideration. “It’s a matter of conditioning. Thanos didn’t encourage obedience in his Daughters, even to him. He raised us by the principle of competition - if we lost a fight, a contest, any comparison of qualities, we would suffer for it. If we won...well, life was easier. The idea of betraying him didn’t frighten me once I began to believe I could do it.” After a brief pause, she went on in a lower tone: “But my past does control me, Peter. I try to change it when I notice it, but sometimes, the only thing that motivates me is that I can’t bear to lose.”
“Well,” said Peter, deadpan, “you joined the right team. It’s basically impossible for us to ever be on the losing side.”
“Not only that, but I never have to worry about feeling inferior to you.”
They both laughed, and Peter felt his body relax a little. He wanted to keep her talking, though. “So, what was it for Rocket? He wasn’t trained to compete. From what he’s told me, obedience wasn’t really the point, either.”
Gamora reached for her cup and held it meditatively before her lips. “I don’t think Rocket was trained at all. If he was never meant to leave the laboratory, he wouldn’t need to be instilled with any particular behaviors.” She took a slow sip. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t conditioned, though.”
“Conditioned to never trust anyone,” Peter sighed. “Well, that puts us right back where we started. I’m so out of my depth here, Gamora. After Groot convinced him to stick with us, I thought that was the final word, but what if Rocket’s never going to forgive us for making this choice for him?”
“Have you been fighting with him?”
“Not since Blossomor. I don’t know why he’d go hide in his room if he was okay with me, though. I feel like I said something wrong but he’s not gonna tell me what it is.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, then dropped them and looked at her. “Can you talk to him?”
“I can try,” she said reluctantly. “I don’t think he’ll be very receptive.”
She was right, of course. Rocket shared his feelings on his own terms, no exceptions. “This shouldn’t be so hard,” Peter groaned. “I can’t believe I’m starting to wonder if I’m really doing the right thing taking my friend to see a doctor.”
“What would Captain America do?”
Peter looked up sharply. “Captain America?”
Gamora nodded. “You told us that Steve Rogers was a legend of Terra because he always did the right thing. Don’t you look for guidance from your heroes? Like in the tale of Footloose?”
“Yeah,” Peter mused. “Yeah! And I don’t have to wonder what he would do. I can call him up and ask him. We gave them those comms for a reason, right?”
“Precisely,” she said, smiling. “I’m sure they’d like to hear from you.”
He didn’t fully share her certainty on that part, but he didn’t need to talk to Tony or Bruce, just Steve. “You’re supreme, ‘Mora. I really never would have thought of that.”
“Thank me by making breakfast.”
“Psh, like I would ever let you do the cooking.” It was a running joke that Gamora couldn’t cook, except that it wasn’t a joke. Gamora really couldn’t cook.
Of course, Peter wasn’t exactly a master chef either. Of their crew, the best was indisputably Drax, who was gone, followed by Rocket, who probably wouldn’t want to try it in his condition. Peter’s temporarily lifted spirits sank back down, but he pushed himself out of his chair to compensate and headed for the kitchen. “Ready to start missing Drax like crazy?” he asked. “Because I’m thinking waffles.”
As much as he had attempted to minimize the technological luxuries in his Washington DC apartment, Steve couldn’t in good conscience cut himself out of contact with anyone who might need him. The cell phone and computer that Tony had given him together seemed to cover most bases, but he still sometimes got confused over which one covered which bases. Today, the computer was ringing, and he was fairly certain that only the phone was supposed to do that.
He sat down in front of it and saw that the repeated digital tone was accompanied by an image enclosing the words “Avengers Tower.” Tentatively he moved the mouse and clicked the message.
Tony’s face appeared on the screen at the same time that the ringing was replaced by his voice. “Intergalactic call for you, Cap.”
For a moment, Steve thought he was joking, then remembered that they did have intergalactic correspondents. “The Guardians of the Galaxy? Why is it coming through you?”
“They only gave us that one communicator, and we left it here at the Tower until I can figure out how to replicate it. For now I can patch the call through to your laptop.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Listen, it’s just Quill on the line and he’s asking for you. Get rid of him and I’ll owe you one.”
“Sure,” said Steve. “How do I accept the call?”
Instead of answering, Tony did something with the controls, and disappeared from the monitor. The image went blank for a few seconds, and then Peter Quill was visible with his ship’s interior around him. Even though he had been the one to initiate contact, he looked startled when the call connected, and Steve noted the way he was sitting: pitched forward with his elbows on his knees, twining his fingers together. His expression was equally tense, and his first words were a toneless, “Captain Rogers.”
“Good to see you again, Quill.”
“Yeah, you too.” He hesitated, then chuckled. “I guess I got you off-duty. Sorry. Didn’t really think about you ever needing a break.”
Steve looked down at himself. He was wearing jeans and a Yankees t-shirt, and the part of the room that was behind him looked a little too lived-in to be anything but a bachelor’s apartment. “I get a free evening every once in a blue moon. What’s up? How’s your team?”
Quill shifted in his seat. “That’s actually what I wanted to get your advice about. If you don’t mind. Do you...do you remember my buddy Rocket?”
“Cybernetic raccoon who tried to blow up the Avengers a few months back?” Steve replied dryly. “Does ring a bell.”
“Yeah, you haven’t really seen his best side, huh.” Quill frowned. “Maybe you don’t want to talk about him. Feel free to tell me to go to hell.”
“No, it’s alright. Ask me whatever you’d like. I promise I’ll answer as honestly as I can.”
“Okay.” He exhaled. “Well, he got hurt in a skirmish. We can get him fixed up, we’re on our way to a doctor right now, but...you know how he started life in a lab as some douchebag’s biological experiment?”
Steve blinked hard. “No. You wouldn’t tell us anything about his origins.”
Quill smacked his forehead. “Oh shit, that’s right.”
“You want to carry on, or should I try to forget I ever heard you say that?”
“Too late to turn back now. So. Uh. Rocket’s afraid of surgery, like really afraid. He’s been saying this entire time he’d rather be crippled forever than see a doctor. Which is nuts, right? He can barely walk!”
Steve tried his best to picture it. He had only ever seen Rocket once, and it was over a video conference, but he had gone through the footage of his capture in the Avengers Tower with Tony. Just like a real raccoon, he had been quick, sneaky, and audacious, and it was clear that he would be badly affected by anything that hampered his movement. On the other hand, Steve could totally buy him acting “nuts.”
“So he’s refusing treatment?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, but the thing is, I could just overrule him. We don’t usually play that way, but we don’t usually have a reason to, either. They picked me as the leader, and if I make a call, they listen to me. I mean, I don’t have to tell you about getting a team to function when lives are on the line - sometimes you have to make your friends do things they don’t want to do, right?”
Steve nodded, easily calling up too many memories of facing that dilemma in his own career. “So there are lives on the line, then?”
Before answering, Quill seemed to have to mull it over first. “Well, yeah. Without him we’d be down one good fighter. And that’s the best case, but what would actually end up happening is that he’d insist on fighting with us anyway, which would get him dead in a hyperflash.”
“But the injury itself won’t kill him,” Steve stated, making sure he had it straight.
“Alright. I think I know the question you’ve got to ask yourself here, and you don’t need to answer it for me, just think about it: how much do you need Rocket?” He paused, letting Quill ruminate, then provided a little more context. “If you can get by without his help, you don’t have to force anything yet. Instead just do your best to keep him from making it worse. Maybe he’ll even come around on his own and ask for medical attention.”
“Doubt it,” said Quill bitterly. “The way this has gone so far, he’s not gonna spontaneously change his mind and start trusting me again.”
In spite of his empathy, Steve found himself responding in a harder tone: “Son, trust is not the problem you’re having here. Rocket told you he didn’t want to be healed, but he isn’t trying to leave your team or your ship, so he knows there’s a place for him with you even if he can’t contribute like he used to. This is the same person who went into hiding not that long ago because he thought you were angry at him? Sounds to me like he’s depending on you more than ever.”
That seemed to make an impression. Quill bowed his head, pensive, then looked up again and said, “So you think I should let it go?”
“That depends. You were right about the hard calls being your job. If Rocket signed on for your cause, he should be ready to sacrifice if there’s something you can’t do without him.”
“Yeah,” Quill said heavily, leaving a space of silence after it. “Do you ever feel like being the leader is a total suckfest?”
“Assuming that word means what I think it does, yes.” Steve considered transitioning into a summary of why they had to do it anyway, but they had already had that talk the first time they had met. If Quill was coming back to him now for more advice, he must have found some value in it beyond the Captain America veneer. “Aside from Rocket, how are you doing? Any word on Thanos?”
This time, the silence was longer. Quill was staring forward, unfocused, but troubled. For a moment, Steve even thought he could detect a current of real fear. Finally, Quill shook his head as if breaking a trance. “I’ll send you an update once we’ve got one. Thanks, Captain Rogers.” He touched his forehead in what might have been a playful half-salute. “Thanks a lot.”