Summary: Rocket had a very limited number of people he loved, or even tolerated, and most of those are dead. What now? Why bother? And what happens when they come back?
Rating: Teen (for violence and language)
Notes: This has been "pretty much finished" for a few months now. What can I say, I'm rusty.
“So what did you think of Earth?”
In the moments after Groot slipped through his fingers, the battleground became a graveyard. That wasn’t so bad; what was a graveyard but a place of remembrance? Rocket would have stayed there, just remembering, but it changed again. Time kept moving, people kept reacting, and the battleground turned into what it had been before Rocket had ever seen it -- a stretch of savannah that belonged to the nation of Wakanda, a nation of Earth.
The people changed too. They had been brothers in arms, and now they were Terrans. It shouldn’t have mattered; Rocket had never had his own kind anyway, but there was something unsettling about an entire world that was populated by just one sentient race. They all had the same biology, the same history, the same prejudices in spite of it. They all called him a raccoon. He never bothered to make one of them show him some justification for it.
Thor was the only exception, and Thor was broken. It took only a few days of sheltering with the so-called Avengers for Rocket to realize that he would never have a real friend among them. His only hope was for the survival of some part of his family, and that was no hope at all.
He held on anyway, long enough for Nebula to win her throw of the dice and make it down to Earth to confirm everyone else’s loss. It was as hard for her as it was for Rocket, he realized. There had been a time that understanding another’s pain would have been beyond him, but that was from before he had met Quill and the others. Losing them didn’t erase the way they had changed him. Nebula needed him now. He needed her.
“So what did you think of Earth?”
In the early days, once Thanos had been executed, all of Rocket’s work was done alongside the Avengers. They explained as much about their world as was needed for him to help reconstruct it, and they asked him whatever they thought they needed to know. The same went for Nebula, but since she and Rocket were usually together and she looked more like them than he did, they asked her first.
There was plenty of living space for everyone at the Avengers headquarters, but Rocket didn’t officially claim a room. He strung up hammocks near his current projects, or found beds that nobody was using. Sometimes he fell asleep in Nebula’s room, which contained a few achingly familiar weapons that she had salvaged. She never remarked on it, though she tossed him a blanket if he needed one.
One day, Rocket finished updating all of the power sources in the building, and for the first time, was left with nothing to do. Instead of lowering himself to asking someone to help keep him busy, he took a walk outside and began to cross the expansive lawn. Footsteps soon took up behind him, and he didn’t have to look to know that it was Nebula.
At the edge of the property he stopped, sniffed the air, and said, “So Quill grew up here.”
“No wonder he never chose to return,” Nebula rasped.
Rocket’s impulse was to agree, but he knew that looking out to a distant city from a secluded compound wasn’t seeing a world. He hesitated, then ventured, “I might go check it out.”
She betrayed no emotion. “We could take a vehicle.”
Nebula drove. The transport units that Terrans used were mostly earthbound, difficult to maneuver and impossible to adjust for greater comfort. As soon as they had reached a living town, Nebula parked, and they left the car to explore on their feet.
Of course there was nobody but more Terrans, and few enough of those. They gawked, some shouted, but none approached, apparently too full of fear or apathy to investigate the foreign species in their midst. A Flerken strolled by, which raised Rocket’s hackles, but Nebula explained that they were called cats here and that none had ever been known to use its deadly power.
Quill’s frequent boasts about his home planet seemed to have no basis in reality. Rocket hadn’t expected much anyway, but he had been harboring a small secret hope that something would remind him of his late human friend. All of that, apparently, was back at the base. Even the music that the Avengers played was more like Quill’s than whatever was now drifting out of someone’s apartment window overhead.
That made sense, he had to admit. The Avengers were more like Quill than the other Terrans in almost every way.
“So what did you think of Earth?”
Rocket knew the real reason that Quill had never returned to his home, although he suspected that Nebula didn’t: like everything about Quill, it had to do with his mother. He had said more than once that he would never be able to set a foot on the planet without grieving for her all over again.
When the team was still together, Rocket had quietly wondered how true that really was. Maybe it was an excuse for something else, or maybe Quill thought he meant it but would have changed his mind if he ever found himself on Earth again.
What would Quill have thought about this version of Earth? About the Avengers?
Rocket still didn’t particularly like them, but he tolerated some better than others. Rhodey had a kind of pragmatism to his despair; his grief was shared and not personal. When Rocket gave him engineering tips, he listened. Banner was intelligent, for a human. His goal of fusing his two personae into a single mind and body was one of the only ideas on Earth that had interested Rocket for its own sake, and Banner didn’t mind him coming into the lab to observe.
Tony Stark had earned Nebula’s respect, which was enough to get Rocket’s too, but he was never around and the Avengers said he wouldn’t be back. Something about having a baby. That made Rocket think about Groot, so he tuned out every time it was mentioned.
The Terran that Rocket saw most often was Natasha Romanov, which he found unfortunate. She was as subdued and miserable as any of them, but she retained a detached amusement over anything she found incredible, and that included Rocket. When she spoke to him, it was after a brief pause, as if each time she had to convince herself all over again that he was real. He overheard her referring to him as “the raccoon”, long after she had learned his name. She turned all her attention to Nebula when he was standing right next to her.
All of that was typical enough to be barely worth the notice, though, and he found he didn’t want to get back at Romanov even if she were openly laughing at him. Everyone had to find something to not be subdued and miserable about.
For him it was Terran food. They had a knack for combining their meat and produce and grain and artificial flavors into unexpected and delicious snacks, and Rocket tried whatever was available and liked most of it. He seemed to like it more than the Terrans did, actually. They were all so goddamned picky.
One of the first times that he heard any of the Avengers laugh was when Rhodey gave Rogers some kind of candy that made him crease his brow and turn it over in his hands. “Marshmallow...Peeps?”
Rocket pricked his ears. He loved marshmallows.
Rhodey shrugged and ambled over to the monitor where he always checked the daily statistics. “It’s the week after Easter, they’re practically free. What, you didn’t have Peeps in your basket back in the old days?”
Rogers shook his head, smiling. “I think I’ll pass. Nat, you want these?” He tossed them over to her without waiting for an answer.
“Not even if you paid me,” she retorted even as she caught the cellophane-wrapped packet out of the air. She barely spared it a glance as it traveled in a smooth arc from her hand to the nearest wastebasket.
The humans began reminiscing about the holidays of their youths, so Rocket took it upon himself to liberate the Peeps from the pile of crumpled paper they were sitting on in the basket. The packet hadn’t been opened, but it still smelled strongly of sugar. He tore off the plastic and pulled out one of the soft pink shapes inside, inspecting it with his hands and nose.
“Rocket, man,” said Rhodey suddenly, just as Rocket was stuffing the sweet blob into his mouth. “That is nasty.”
Rocket swallowed and glared. “Wastin’ good food, that’s nasty.”
“Yeah, but from the garbage?”
“I wouldn’a had to get it outta there if one of you dweebs offered me some before you trashed it.”
Rogers sat up straighter, his mirth fading. “I’m sorry, Rocket. Should have thought of that.”
Rocket shrugged. “Don’ matter.” He bit into a second Peep, glad that he wouldn’t have to share them, but the atmosphere in the room had changed. His ears flicked back and forth, sensing that the humans outside of his line of vision were trying to have a silent argument with gestures and facial expressions.
Not Rhodey, though. “I can get you more of those things,” he offered. Rocket nodded emphatically, unconcerned about whether this was going to become a running joke for them.
As he was leaving, absently licking sugar from his hands, he saw Romanov shoot him a quick but unmistakably disgusted look. It was a relief to find Nebula again, although there was no chance she would have understood why he liked the Terran candy. Nebula had never enjoyed any kind of food, as far as he could remember.
“Hey,” he said suddenly, after they had both been silently engaged in their own engineering tasks for a few hours. “Y’know they don’t need us here, right?”
She nodded. “Where should we go?”
“So what did you think of Earth?”
They went to Xandar. Rocket knew that it wouldn’t be easy to see it again, and it wasn’t, but there was work to be done there.
Rhomann Dey’s wife and daughter, he learned, had been taken by the Snap. Dey himself was among those slaughtered by Thanos’s army when it had come to retrieve the Power Stone. The wave of rage and hatred that swept over Rocket when he heard the news was stronger than anything he had felt in months, though still a dim reflection of what he had felt before this new reality had begun to sink in.
It was energizing, in a way, and he channeled it into restoring the planet’s technology so that the remainder of its people could have some kind of comfort to rely on. They were grateful, in their deadened, glassy-eyed way, but Rocket wished that they blamed him and demanded satisfaction. He explained who he was to anyone who didn’t know, detailing the story of how the Guardians had defeated Ronan but left the Orb instead of keeping it safe from Thanos, and how he was the only Guardian left to atone for their mistakes.
They simply didn’t have the heart to care. Sometimes they interrupted him just to ask when he thought the television would be back on.
“I dunno what else to do,” he said quietly to Nebula, one day when they had retreated to the Benatar, which was the only place they could bear to live. She had been going through the same thing that he had, but moreso. When she told the Xandarians in no uncertain terms that she had last come here as an enemy and a killer, it barely raised eyebrows.
“Keep moving,” she answered promptly.
They went to Contraxia, Tetra, A’askvaria. Everywhere it was the same. People accepted the help they gave, asked for nothing more, cooperated as needed, and showed no will to survive. Rocket and Nebula ended up spending much of their time chasing down opportunistic criminals, although their stated mission was still research and exchange of information with the team they had left on Terra.
One other, the woman they called Danvers, was moving freely around space. She was both powerful and knowledgeable about the universe outside of one little solar system, and that made Rocket curious about what she could accomplish. Before long, though, it became evident that damage control was all she had in her arsenal, just like him and Nebula and the Avengers and Stark with his baby and absolutely everyone else. Danvers was just one more Terran, and she didn’t even listen to good music.
By the time Rocket was summoned back to Earth, he didn’t have any expectations of hearing an idea with even the possibility of providing the slightest chance of a meager improvement on the current state of reality, but it didn’t matter. It turned out that Earth wasn’t any worse than anywhere else.
“So what did you think of Earth?”
The battle was raging all around him when he found them. Drax first, broadcasting his presence with mad laughter. Rocket dispatched the enemy between them to catch his eye, hailed him through the smoke, and moved on with a grin he couldn't have dropped if he tried.
Mantis was nearby, as he had expected. She reached up with one bared hand, timing it just right for Rocket to reach down and touch her fingertips as he leaped overhead. She laughed in sheer delight, which he transmitted right back to her as it echoed through the empathic contact.
He saw Quill and Groot at the same time, apparently right after they had found each other. They were hugging, and though it only lasted for a second, Rocket’s first impulse was to cuss them both out for dropping their guard in the middle of a battle. Quill should know better. Quill was a seasoned fighter. The only time he ever left himself so open was...was when he was overcome with emotion.
Rocket’s anger ebbed away, and he watched the two of them without letting himself be seen so he could cover them until they broke apart and went running back into the fray. It wasn’t hard to decide which one to follow; Groot needed him. He had been alone when he died and must have come back alone, scared and confused.
But when Rocket caught up to him, he only looked happy -- and determined. “I am Groot!” he insisted, extending a branch to point out the next enemy he wanted to slay. Rocket had never felt so proud in his life.
He stayed by Groot’s side for as long as he could, though still keeping an eye out for Quill. The chance for a real reunion, even the split-second kind he had had with the others, seemed to keep slipping away. The first thing that Quill said to him, between heavy breaths, was, “Did you see Gamora?”
Rocket shook his head, dazed. Gamora was dead with no chance of resurrection; Nebula had told him about it. Had Quill gone mad?
“No. Listen, you gotta gimme a lift. I figured out this move with Rhodey, if you got the jets on your boots I can--”
Quill opened his mask, and Rocket saw his eyes for the first time, frustrated and wild. “Who’s Rhodey?” he demanded. “Forget it, there’s no time. Captain America’s in command, he’s the one with the shield--”
“I know who Captain America is!” Rocket snapped. “That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you!”
The rest of the discussion was cut short; they both had to get into formation and there was no efficient way to make it work together. It didn’t bother Rocket that this had been their first conversation after so long, but it did bother him, even as he spotted Rhodey and jumped onto his back for the move they had invented, that it might be their last.
“So what did you think of Earth?”
Quill started packing up the Benatar as soon as Stark’s funeral was over. Rocket was sure he hadn’t even begun to process what happened, let alone taken a moment to explore his roots.
“So you meant it, huh?” Rocket asked him after completing the final check on every gauge. “You really don’t wanna be on Terra.”
“Of course I meant it,” Quill muttered, tossing a sack into the hold. “Why, do you?”
Rocket knew better than to respond to what was obviously a sarcastic question, but he did have a silent, unexpected brush with doubt about his answer. On one hand, he couldn’t wait to leave Earth; on the other, there were a few goodbyes coming that would be harder than he had expected.
Rhodey was standing solemnly outside the hatch, eye level with Rocket, halfway up the steps. “You ever need anything, you just ask,” he said.
Rocket laughed. “From Earth? Yeah right.”
Rhodey laughed along, but wouldn’t withdraw the offer. “You just ask,” he repeated. He handed Rocket a packet of Peeps, and then he was walking away, waving flippantly. “Catch you later, mister ringtail. Keep an eye on Thor.”
Rocket didn’t realize that Quill had been listening until after the Benatar had left the solar system. It was quiet, almost meditative, if you were into that kind of thing. Quill was in the frontmost seat on the right, Rocket on the left, and everything felt so right.
“Was that guy an Avenger?” Quill asked in that too-casual tone he used when he was feeling pissy about something.
It was a tone that Rocket hadn’t heard in five years, and there was no way he could have reacted the way he used to, with rolled eyes and a barb. He wanted to cry for joy, just being here again, sitting next to this sulky idiot. Instead he grinned and replied, “Eh, they call all of ‘em Avengers now. Probably even us.”
“I’m not an Avenger!” Quill protested.
As he was getting even more upset, Rocket was feeling even happier. “Who cares? The job got done. Nobody’s tryin’ to tell us we ain’t Guardians.”
Quill’s voice dropped under his breath. “Figures.”
“Nothing. You’ve got other friends now. It’s fine.”
It was stupid as hell but it was still funny, and even a little bit touching. Rocket let him change the subject to their flight path, and then Thor came in and started telling some off-the-wall story and it was a while before Rocket and Quill were alone together again.
But the next time it wasn’t funny. They were charting a routine supply run, and Rocket had to keep correcting him because of all the ways that the routes and businesses he had known had changed over the past five years, not to mention the various upgrades to the Benatar itself. Quill’s fuse kept getting shorter and shorter until finally he unstrapped his holster and slammed it onto the table, blasters and all, like that was the only gesture that could match his words. “Fine! You want Thor to be captain so bad, Thor’s captain now!”
Neither of them had been saying a thing about Thor, or who should be captain. The topic hadn’t even come up since they had left Earth. Rocket bared his teeth. “Whatever’s got its claws in you, Quill, you better start dealin’ with it. The rest of us did already.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to deal with it? Gamora’s the only one who ever understood me, and she’s dead! And now there’s another Gamora out there somewhere who doesn’t know us and hates my guts! And you - you -”
Rocket was down on all fours on the table, his fur bristling under his clothes. “Me what? Me went through hell all this time while you got to skip past it? Had a family one day and then nobody but Nebula the next? Gave everything I could to try to get you losers back?”
Quill crossed his arms and locked eyes with Rocket. “Yeah,” he said, making it sound like a challenge. “All of that.”
There was a short but echoing pause. Rocket stood up. “I’m still here, Quill. Gamora’s not the only one who understood you. She never was.”
“After that battle...” Quill’s voice broke slightly, and he swallowed and took a deep breath before going on. “I saw the way people talked to you. How they respected you. And I thought, man, it took us four years to get to know each other that well. And then I thought, oh, right. They had five.”
That wasn’t news. Rocket had done the math himself, counting the days since Thanos won, and dismissed it as meaningless trivia. But the idea that the Terrans had respected him? Why would they?
“I get it, y’know,” Quill stated bitterly. “Why the Avengers and all of them didn’t like me. If you feel the same way, I get that too.”
Rocket tilted his head, genuinely confused. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re all still mad because I screwed up the plan on Titan. Stark probably told everyone how I flipped out because...you know.”
“That’s your problem? Friggin’ mushbrained…” He inhaled, then bellowed, “THOR! Get your royal ass in here!”
Thor didn’t hurry, but he did come. He was looking better, although his depression had taken a toll on his body and his full recovery would take time. “Hello Rabbit, Captain Star-Lord,” he said, nodding to each of them. “Is there a cause for concern?”
Rocket jerked his head at Quill. “Yeah. Look, I need this moron to know what you did while he was gone, so just interrupt me if I get anything wrong, okay? Like, we all caught up to Thanos in the Garden and we’re debatin’ what to do with him and you just decide to swing your fancy axe and kill him dead so’s we never get any more answers outta him, is that how you remember that?”
The jovial expression that Thor had been wearing vanished. “Yes,” he replied. “That is how it happened.”
“And then how about when you and me are in Asgard tryin’ to snag the Reality Ooze and the whole future of everything depends on us and that’s when you have your meltdown ‘cause I guess it’s all about you in the end?”
Thor nodded solemnly, but Quill, plainly aghast, muttered, “Geez, dude, let up...”
Rocket shot him a glare. “You think you’re the only one who screwed us all over? This here’s a friggin’ god, calls down lightning an’ shit, and he still blew it. Why are we keepin’ him around, huh? What makes you think he’s gonna be a better captain than you?”
Quill gave Thor a hard look, then turned back to Rocket. “Maybe you’re the one who should be our captain.”
“Right,” said Rocket sarcastically. “Because I’m the one who never made a mistake. You’re a clown, Quill. Think back a little.”
As memories of life with the Guardians played openly across Quill’s face, Rocket took the chance to confront his own past. He had been born in a laboratory and raised by scientists who had barely acknowledged his capacity to feel pain. With everything that had happened, it no longer seemed so important, but he clearly remembered the days when he had thought that all he could be was what they had made him. Time hadn’t taught him differently. The Guardians had.
Thor stepped forward and put a hand on Quill’s shoulder. He spoke softly and with infinite kindness. “I was the king of my people. I chose to abscond. I have no desire to take your place, Peter Quill, and it’s you that your people need.”
“They need each other. Not me.”
Hearing those words from Quill was as painful as death, and Rocket knew what that meant: there must be some truth to them. The team was fractured. Groot was Groot and Drax was Drax, and Mantis could bypass hours of heartfelt talk with one touch. But Gamora had left an open wound, and Thor was welcomed by all but still an outsider to the ones who had been gone.
Most of all, Rocket and Nebula now stood apart from the others. They had grown. They had changed a little, maybe a lot. It didn’t matter to Rocket, so he didn’t know what to do when he saw how it mattered to Quill.
“Yeah,” Rocket heard himself saying. “Five years without you, an’ I survived it. Never woulda thought it myself, but I guess that’s proof I didn’t need you.”
Thor’s eyes were wide; Quill’s were bloodshot and unfocused. “Are you…” He paused and inhaled deeply. “Are you going to go back and join the Avengers?”
“Like hell!” Rocket growled. “I’m a Guardian of the Galaxy, not some pansy-ass Avenger, no offense Thor.”
“There’s nothin’ left for me on that d’ast planet. Just bad memories. People dyin’ who I didn’t want to die. You oughta get this better than anyone, Quill.” Rocket raked his claws through the fur on his head. “If you don’t, then why did we leave?”
Quill’s response was plainly automatic, and it took a second for his brain to catch up to his words. “Because my mother--!” He blinked. “Oh.”
Thor was grinning broadly, all of a sudden. “Well,” he announced, “I think I’ll go and have a salad.”
After he had left, Rocket and Quill were left staring at each other for a few moments, and then finally, both sighed and sat down at almost the same instant.
“Five years, man,” said Quill.
“Still waitin’ for you to ask what I was doing all that time,” Rocket replied.
The laugh that Quill let out was as real and familiar and sweet as his anger had been. He sat up straighter and asked with cautious eagerness, “So...what did you think of Earth?”
Rocket felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth, making his whiskers twitch. He cocked an ear at his friend. “You ever had a Marshmallow Peep?”