Word count: 4630
Setting: GotG, post-Vol.2
Characters: GotG team; no pairing
Warnings: Graphic violence (non-sexual but may be upsetting due to the character it involves)
Notes: I started writing this as a scene that had popped into my head, then tried to resolve it into something that worked as a one-shot, and in the process it turned into yet another piece of family warmfuzzy rather than the grimdark I had envisioned.
(Still pretty bleak in the middle though so heed the warning.)
“Where’s Groot?” asked Rocket as soon as he found Peter on the ground.
Peter had both eyes on his spatial history map, trying to pinpoint the location of each brigand hiding in the woods, but he pointed absently at the ground off to his right.
Rocket looked around, then repeated, “Where?”
“There,” said Peter impatiently, pointing again even as he lowered the map. “Groot?” His finger was aimed at nothing. “Shit, he was right here. I told him not to go far.”
Rocket shook his head in exasperation, but he shushed Peter as he saw him drawing in breath to call out for Groot. “Don’t make noise. I don’t want ‘em to know we’re lookin’ for someone.” He didn’t seem altogether concerned, which was reassuring. “He blends right in around here. He’ll come back when he’s done jumpin’ in the leaves or whatever.”
Peter frowned. “I don’t like not knowing where he is when we might be going into battle any moment.”
“We should split up now anyway, cover more ground. I’ll circle back to the others, tell ‘em to keep their eyes open for Groot.” He grinned, teeth gleaming. “I brought some tunes. If the gunfire doesn’t draw him out, that will.”
Before they parted, Peter showed Rocket the map and pointed out a few places where he could get a good view and hiding spot in the trees. As Rocket headed in that direction, running low to the ground with barely a rustle of sound to give him away, Peter smothered a devious laugh. These guys were going to have no idea what hit them.
The stolen goods that the Guardians had been sent to find turned up on Peter’s map before he had walked too far. They were hidden in a pit beneath an overhanging stone, some distance from a campfire where he could hear at least four distinct voices. He was debating on whether to wait for the rest of the team or take on all of them himself, when the decision was made for him by a shot fired from the opposite direction. Cursing his oversight, he fired back, aiming between two giant trees and hitting his distant target cleanly before he had even activated his mask.
From that point on it was a lethal game of hide-and-seek, but Peter kept the advantage. He knew the gang would try to run when the other Guardians appeared, and they would come for their treasure first, so he stayed close to it and let them try their luck at rushing him. The light was good and his blasters were fully charged, and one by one, the thugs were falling.
He was looking around for a new target when he heard Groot’s voice. Just lately, Peter had been recognizing the greater vocabulary hidden in those three simple words of his, but this was no words at all. It was a child’s scream of pain, echoing through the forest, transporting Peter into some hellish alternate dimension where there were people evil enough to hurt Groot. His body knew enough to start running before his mind had even processed the sound, but he couldn’t move fast enough. The agonized wail sounded again, every second of it a torture too great to endure. The Guardians’ baby was being murdered, and it was Peter’s own fault.
A little more distance covered, and the shape of a man on his knees came into view at the source of the scream. His back was to Peter, but there was a cloud of grey smoke rising from the ground in front of him -- the last color that Peter noticed before everything went red.
The man turned just as he reached him, and a blow torch fell from his hands along with a small wooden figure, half blackened with flame. He grabbed at a weapon he had lying on the ground, but Peter had bull rushed into him and flung him down on his back, and was now kneeling over him, punching him repeatedly in the face.
The red haze didn’t lift. The screams came now from the enemy, as it should be. His efforts to fight back filled Peter with contempt for his weakness, and even those slackened off swiftly, while Peter felt himself grow stronger with every blow he landed. He was invincible. When his right fist could no longer find a satisfying purchase on the slippery remains of the man’s face, he switched to his left and kept going. The vocalizations from that ruined throat turned into a gurgle and then ended. There were other voices in the air now, some which seemed to be saying his name, but they were distant enough to ignore. The only sound that mattered was the rhythmic thwack and squelch of the skull caving in from his onslaught.
Suddenly there were hands on his shoulders, pulling him backward and away from his kill. “Enough!” commanded Drax, and that should have been the end of it. Drax was many times stronger than Peter; both of them knew it well.
But instead of accepting the facts, Peter broke free, bent on returning to his work, and it took a second pair of arms and a second voice -- Gamora’s, telling him to stop, please, Peter, stop -- to force him to his feet and hold him there.
The world froze in a moment of perfect stillness, and color returned to Peter’s vision. Everything in front of him was red anyway, though. The body had two arms, two legs, a torso, and part of a neck, but the rest was just a shapeless mass of carnage. Peter spat out something that tasted like blood but wasn’t liquid. Slowly, he lifted his hands. They were the same color as his coat sleeves.
“Groot,” he panted, the only word he could remember. He looked at Gamora for answers, but she was crouching near the body, picking something up from the ground.
She turned to speak over her shoulder, telling Drax, “Get him back to the ship.” When she rose, she appeared to be wearing a wooden carapace, until she came closer and Peter could see that she was hugging Groot to her chest. He had extended vines to wrap around her shoulders and waist, clinging as tightly to her as he possibly could, and he was bawling uncontrollably, but he was alive.
“Where’s Rocket?” Peter asked faintly as he let Drax steer him away from the scene with a firm grip on his arm. This wasn’t right. Rocket should have been with Groot.
“On his way,” she told him. “Go with Drax. Go.” He complied, unable to think clearly enough to object, but as he walked away he heard her call out Rocket’s name, loud as she could, and he didn’t hear a reply.
Peter didn’t know when his hands had started shaking. It was more like his entire body, making his teeth chatter and the steps up to the Quadrant vibrate as his feet made contact. Drax kept him moving along, one hand always on his back, even when Mantis appeared in the hatch above them and stifled a shriek after one look at Peter’s face.
Confused, he turned to the reflective metal surface on the ship’s exterior to see what she had seen, although Drax was attempting to angle him away from it. He planted his feet and stared: the image of himself was blurry and distorted, but as soon as he saw the blood spattered across his face, he could feel it, stiffening his skin and drying into his hair. And those eyes...those couldn’t be his eyes. He was looking at some soulless stumbling fiend, not himself.
“Come,” said Drax softly, and Peter put up no more resistance. Mantis helped get him into the captain’s quarters and assemble and fill the tub in there, and then she vanished as Drax began removing Peter’s coat and boots.
“Stop, I don’t need help,” Peter protested, but he tried a zipper himself and the tremble in his hands became exponentially worse. He grabbed Drax’s shoulder, just for a moment’s support, and found himself leaning his forehead on his friend’s steady chest, sobbing. He didn’t even know why they wanted him to take a bath. Nothing made sense right now. “Groot,” he sniffled as Drax patted his back.
“He’s gonna be okay,” came the unexpected response from the other side of the room, and Peter’s head jerked up. The voice was Rocket’s.
A fresh flood of tears streamed down Peter’s face. “I was afraid you were dead,” he confessed.
Rocket was at his side in a flash, dexterously removing the gear from Peter’s belt as Drax went back to his boots. “I’m alive,” Rocket said grimly. “Groot’s alive. He got burned all down one side, the mark’ll be on him for a while, but the cells layer on from the sapwood and eventually it all heals away. Gamora an’ Mantis are takin’ care of him.”
Peter tried to visualize the damage; he knew he had seen it, but all he remembered was a charred little humanoid shape falling to the ground from the arsonist’s hand. “Please,” he choked. “I need to see him.”
“He doesn’t need to see you,” Rocket snapped, then took a breath and continued in a more level tone, peeling Peter’s socks off. “You scared him, Quill. He was standin’ right next to you, beggin’ you to stop, and you didn’t even see him.”
If Rocket said it, it must have been true. Peter made a token effort to lift his arms as Drax, steady and silent, pulled his shirt over his head. “You must hate me,” Peter said to Rocket.
“Shove it. Stand up. Move your feet, don’t make Drax dump you in there.”
Peter obliged, leaning on the wall of the tub and stepping out of his pants and into the hot water, one foot at a time. Drax kept him from sliding down too quickly, but as soon as he was sitting, he saw that the water was splashing around each of his hands: they were still shaking. Were they ever going to stop? He submerged them both and closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on the simple sensations of the present.
Rocket’s hand pressed down on his shoulder, his voice close to his ear. “I don’t. You saved Groot. He’d a’ been a goner.”
“Then why...?” He felt a damp cloth against his face. “What are you doing?”
The answer came in a solemn tone: “Saving you.”
Before long, the bathwater was tinted with blood and grime. Drax drained it and dumped a bucket of clean water over Peter’s head, and Rocket scrubbed at his hands, tucking each one under his arm to control its trembles and get under the nails with a stiff brush. Peter was surprised to see that not everything washed off. His knuckles were scraped raw, and on his left wrist he found a tiny, perfect handprint, seared into the flesh like a brand.
He kept staring at it as Drax got him out of the tub, draped him with towels, and handed him some soft clothing. Once he was dressed, Gamora replaced Drax, but Rocket stayed, jumping onto his bed and pulling back the blankets so that Gamora could steer him into them. “I’m not going to sleep,” Peter informed them, feeling almost apologetic about it. He didn’t want to act against them if they thought he should sleep, but he knew he couldn’t do it. Groot was still screaming inside his head, and his hands...his hands were never going to stop shaking.
“I know,” said Gamora. “But try to rest.”
She bent over him like a mother over a sick child, and with effort he made himself meet her eyes. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what he was apologizing for, but he was afraid she would never forgive him for it, and that she would be right not to.
There were no answers in the way she nodded in response and touched his cheek sympathetically. Rocket was still on the bed with him as she left, idle to all appearances but giving him a wide berth, and finally Peter looked at him and asked, “Rocket, what are you doing in here?”
Rocket’s response was characteristically blunt: “Escortin’ you through your first night of bein’ someone who’s beaten a guy to death with your bare hands. S’okay to ignore me. I could use a sleep.”
“Don’t you want to be with Groot right now?”
He got a glare for that, which he supposed he deserved. “‘Course I wanna be with Groot,” said Rocket. “He can’t be near you right now and you need me and he doesn’t. You do the math.”
Peter wanted to ask why Rocket was so sure it him that he needed rather than any other Guardian, but he also didn’t want to inadvertently talk him into leaving. Rocket had just inched closer, making it look like he was merely getting comfortable, and Peter felt compelled to reach out and touch him, just lightly on his head. Instead of flinching or saying anything, Rocket shifted to encourage more contact, and soon Peter was losing track of time in the comforting repetition of his hand moving over Rocket’s fur.
The shaking seemed to stop for as long as he was petting Rocket, although it returned when he took his hand off. Apparently, there really was a reason that no other Guardian was whom he needed right now, although how Rocket had known that was a mystery. He lay back on the pillows, and Rocket curled up beside him, and he stared at the handprint on his wrist, thinking about how it would be there for the rest of his life.
Suddenly he couldn’t bear the sight of it, and he moved his right hand to clamp over it. The loss of the grounding connection with Rocket made him start shaking all over again, shattering the moment of relative peace he had found. “If you had heard the sound he made--” he began, needing to defend himself somehow.
Rocket pinned his ears back. “Do ya think I’m deaf?” he snarled. “I had three a’ them shitbags emptyin’ barrels at me. Came as fast as I could but you got there faster. Don’t try tellin’ yourself this only coulda happened to you.”
Peter tucked his branded wrist under the blanket so he could use his other hand to rub at his eyes. “Would you have done what I did?”
“No.” His gaze was clear and stern as he spoke. “All it needed was one good shot to the head.”
“I...I was angry.”
“No shit. Keep pettin’ me, moron.”
Peter obeyed. “Can I get a bandage to put over this?” he asked meekly, steering his left wrist toward Rocket without looking directly at it himself.
Rocket glanced at it. “It won’t get infected,” he said in a dismissive tone.
“I know. I just don’t want to see it.”
“It’s part of your body. Learn to deal.”
It was another long stretch before either of them spoke again. A few stray thoughts crossed Peter’s mind, but none of them seemed important. He kept Groot’s handprint out of sight, and kept Rocket close enough to hear his breathing, punctuated by the occasional hum of internal cybernetics. Eventually, he even began to feel tired.
Throughout the night, Rocket stayed adjacent on the bed, except for a few brief occurrences when he got up to use the bathroom or mumble into a comm without disclosing the other side of the conversation. Each time he would jump back up to the bed and settle down again, only looking at Peter if it was taking too long to feel his touch. Once or twice he even dozed off, which Peter found unexpectedly encouraging: it was the first sign he’d had that this wasn’t a suicide watch.
Whenever Rocket was awake, Peter kept expecting him to deliver some kind of lecture about why it was a bad idea to let rage get the better of you, even in defense of Groot, but Rocket didn’t try to initiate any kind of talk at all until the first dim lights of the day-cycle were starting to come on. Then he sat up, yawned, and said, “I clawed someone’s eye out one time. Felt it poppin’ outta the socket under my hand and didn’t even slow down. Chewed through half his face before Groot managed to pull me off.”
Rocket was staring straight ahead, sitting with his hands on his knees and his tail trapped under Peter’s slack fingers. Peter exhaled as if the anecdote was releasing him from something. “What did he do?” he asked. “Did he hurt Groot?”
Rocket shook his head. “He didn’t hurt me, either. I made a deal with him to help break his buddies out of jail, and we were havin’ a couple drinks to seal it. He was with this other guy who had a dog. Can’t remember exactly how it went down, but one of ‘em thought it would be funny to take its collar off and put it on me.”
“Jesus,” Peter breathed.
“I was angry,” said Rocket flatly.
“Of course you were. If I saw someone treating you like that I would...”
Rocket turned his head without changing his pose. The light still wasn’t enough for him to be more than a silhouette, but Peter could see that his ears were pinned back, and his voice was quietly dangerous. “You would what, Quill?”
Peter’s throat tightened, and he shook his head aimlessly. He didn’t want to be someone who hurt people. Not like he had yesterday. Not like Rocket had, one day long before they had met. He didn’t want to be someone who let other people get hurt, either. There had never been a conflict in that before, but now it seemed like an impossible paradox. “You were different back then,” he said, not questioning, but leaving it open to correction.
Rocket hesitated. Peter held his breath; he felt it was of monumental importance that Rocket answered the question, as if it were the only way he could be guided back into rational life. He moved his hand back onto Rocket’s head instead of his tail, which was twitching like a wounded bird. Finally, Rocket sighed and said, “After I watched Old Groot die for us I couldn’t bear being less than what he thought I was. I wanted Baby Groot to take after him. Had to show him the right way myself.”
Alongside Rocket’s valiant efforts to be a good parent to Groot, Peter felt even more ashamed of himself, but all he could say was, “That’s what I want too.”
“He really is gonna be okay, y’know,” Rocket offered.
“On the outside maybe.”
“You’re thinkin’ like he’s some kinda mammal baby. He’s not. He’s seen some gory shit. Hell, he’s done some murderin’ of his own. Next time you see him he’ll be beggin’ you to play with him just like always.”
Peter’s response came out with a bitter undertone that he hadn’t intended. “So you are gonna let me see him again?”
Rocket gave him a side-eye, then reached behind himself and lifted Peter’s hand off of his head. “Put your hands on your lap,” he instructed. “Over the blankets. Let me see ‘em.” He examined them critically for a few seconds after Peter obeyed, then said, “A’right. I’ll go see if he’s up yet. Get dressed and come out.”
He slid off the bed, leaving Peter furrowing his brow in confusion, and within a moment had left the room. Peter looked down at his hands. The brand on his wrist was making him wince a little less each time he saw it, but he didn’t think that that was what Rocket had been looking for. Then he realized -- they didn’t shake. He had no idea when it had stopped, but there was no longer any part of his body that was trembling.
Hoping to feel more like a captain and less like an invalid, he changed out of his pajamas and into a standard outfit. He adjusted the light setting, too, bringing the room fully into morning, but the memory of his dead eyes from yesterday stopped him from checking himself in the mirror. He supposed he would have to learn to deal with it, as Rocket had told him; he couldn’t let his own body become the subject of a personal superstition. One step at a time, though.
Nobody else seemed to be around yet as he made his way through the dimly lit shiip, preparing to try his damnedest to restore Groot’s faith in him. Rocket hadn’t actually told him to come to the kitchen, he recalled, but he knew that was where they would be, and he was right.
Rocket was in a chair that he hadn’t bothered to adjust to his height, so just his head and one arm were visible over the tabletop, where Groot was sitting in front of him. Groot’s appearance, even before he turned around and showed his face, startled a laugh out of Peter: half of his head and body were covered in some kind of white paste, as if he had been dunked in cream. “Hi Groot,” said Peter softly. “You look funny.”
“I am Groot,” Groot replied with a grumpy pout, but he wasn’t scared or haunted, and he didn’t sound like he was angry about anything serious. Peter would take any amount of grumpiness over that.
“It’s not for long,” Peter told him. “You can put some on me if it makes you feel better.”
Rocket pricked his ears at Peter. “You got that?”
“I think so.” Peter pulled up a chair. “He doesn’t like the ointment, right?”
“Yeah.” Rocket touched Groot’s frosted arm and rubbed his fingers together, grimacing. “An’ you’re not wrong about it bein’ temporary. This stuff is gonna get all over the place.”
Peter laid his right arm on the table so Groot could scrape some of the paste off of himself and rub it into Peter’s hand. “Helps with the pain, though?” he asked hopefully.
“I am Groot?”
“Hm?” Peter frowned and looked at Rocket for help. “That one I didn’t get.”
“He don’t know what pain you’re talkin’ about, so, I guess that’s a yes.” Rocket rapped on the table sternly to get Groot’s attention back on him. “Hey. Don’t forget too fast. You gotta learn from this. Fire hurts. We stay away from ugly mean guys with blow torches until we’re big enough to take ‘em on.”
Groot nodded, his round solemn eyes tearing gashes in Peter’s heart all over again. Rocket cast him a look of warning, and Peter pulled himself together before he got too emotional to hide it from Groot. He swallowed and began carefully, “Groot, I wasn’t a very good friend out there. I got so scared when you were in danger that I...well, I lost control. But I’m still me. And I’m going to be better next time, so nothing like this happens again.”
He meant to leave it at that, but then he realized that he had been unconsciously hiding his left hand under the table. Somehow he had a hunch that Rocket, with his observant gaze, had noticed it first and was waiting to see what he would do, so he sighed and set it down right in front of Groot. “This is how I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He pointed to the handprint on his wrist. “I’ll see this and it’ll remind me that my family needs me. I’ll remember, this is the present Groot gave me so I’ll always stay focused on what’s important.”
There was no verbal answer from Groot, but he scooped another handful of ointment off of himself and patted it tenderly onto Peter’s wrist, entirely concealing the brand. Peter choked down a sob. “It’s okay, buddy, it doesn’t hurt…”
Rocket busied himself applying some more of the ointment to replace what Groot had removed, but he spoke up in a no-nonsense tone before Peter could begin to wallow. “There’s a lot of stuff I wish I’d asked Old Groot about while I had the chance. I knew the basics on his reproductitivity n’ all, but I never thought I’d be takin’ care o’ his offshoot one day. For a while alls I could think was they shoulda been together. Baby Groot shoulda had another tree teachin’ him to be a tree, but he got stuck with us losers instead.”
“Yeah,” Peter agreed. He had pictured it himself a few times: Rocket’s old self-sacrificial companion with the new little Groot perched on his shoulder or nestled in his hand. How different things would have been.
“But, see, I try to talk to him about his dad, and he doesn’t get it. He knows there was a time before he was born. He knows we knew another Groot. He just calls him ‘when I was big’. Even though he don’t remember any of it.”
Peter looked at Groot with bemusement, and Groot smiled, seemingly content to sit and listen for the moment. “Really?” Peter asked Rocket. “I gotta get better at understanding him. Didn’t know I was missing so much.”
Rocket folded his arms on the table, looking perturbed. “I get the feelin’ he ain’t just confused. Maybe that’s how it is for them: don’t matter which one’s which, ‘cos they’re all part o’ the same big thing.”
“We are Groot...” Peter murmured.
Rocket gave him a sharp look. “That’s what he said before he died. You heard that?”
“Yeah, I...didn’t everyone?”
“I don’t know. He wasn’t talkin’ any different than usual. That musta been the first time you understood him.”
“Wow.” Peter shook his head. “I had no idea.” He stroked Groot’s face with a fingertip, on the side still dry and smooth. “There’s a lot we can learn from you, buddy. I’m glad you came to us already knowing who you are.”
“I am Groot,” Groot corrected him.
“Right.” Peter smiled. “Who we are.”
He could hear stirring in the ship, the faint voices of his family, just a few words audible: he’s awake and Rocket said and flight path. It almost seemed like a normal day, but that thought was its own reminder that things had changed overnight. Anticipating the arrival of the others in the next few minutes, he quickly turned to Rocket and asked, “How is everyone else? What did they say about me?”
“Say about you? Nothin’. I said I was gonna keep an eye on you and they said okay. Mantis was gonna touch you, but...” He shrugged. “Doesn’t take a Mantis to know what was goin’ on.”
“Really? Because I still don’t know what’s going on.”
Rocket was still down low in his chair, and had mostly been talking to Peter around the corner of the table. Now he hoisted himself up next to Groot, stepped around him, and crouched in front of Peter, setting his hand on his forearm. “Quill. You can lose your mind all you want, but you’re not gonna scare us off.”
Peter lifted his eyes. “Gamora’s in charge for the next few days. Or longer. Tell me when you think I’m okay.”
“Yeah, we were already planning on that.”
There were footfalls in the corridor. Peter took a deep breath and gripped Groot’s hand for luck. “What do I say?” he asked Rocket at the last minute.
“Start with, ‘Thanks for saving me, guys,’” Rocket suggested. He gave him an encouraging thump on the arm. “And, Quill? You’re welcome.”