Chapter 10: Lost and Found
At first, Peter wasn't sure who was shot. Rocket was covered in blood that was obviously not his – the colour was all wrong. It was more pinkish than red, but it definitely was blood. The kid was okay, there was nothing but a few pink droplets spattered across his cheek. A gurgling sound emitted from the billionaire, Septimus Brandt, and he dropped to his knees, staring at the hole in his chest.
"Father!" the boy cried.
"Sniper on the roof!" Gamora warned, and with a graceful twist of her lithe body, she was vaulting onto a chipped stone table, from which she swung herself up to the low roof and promptly neutralized the threat by decapitating the sniper before he could reload.
When Peter turned his gaze back on the business man, things looked dire. The bodyguards were gathering around the boy and his father, and the kid was using a piece of fabric he'd gotten from somewhere to try and stem the flow of blood. From what Peter could see, the man had lost a lot of blood. The boy clung to his father, eyes brimming, and looked up at the sky.
"Please!" the boy whispered, and it sounded almost like a prayer. "I'll give anything. Anything!"
Taking in the scene before him, it was very hard for Peter to feel hatred for the man who'd almost killed them all and Rocket, because what he saw now was no longer a bad man, gunned down in the name of justice, but a dying father, and a young son begging not to be left all alone in the world. With misty eyes, Peter stepped closer and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"We need to get Father to the hospital," the kid said, a spark of hope in his eyes.
Peter nodded. He stood, placed his hands on his hips and glared at the surrounding bodyguards.
"Well, what are you waiting for!?" he exclaimed. "Get the man to a hospital!"
The bodyguards mobilized immediately. One of them found an old stretcher that had somehow endured the passage of time. There was nothing more he could do, so Peter sat down next to Rocket as he watched the black-clad men bustle around the boy and his father. The little raccoon was positively filthy, but Peter didn't mind as Rocket leaned on him for support.
"I'm sure your new friend will give us a ride to the hospital," Peter said, indicating the boy. He turned to look at Rocket, who was still shivering uncontrollably. "You know, you're gonna have to get checked out as well."
Rocket grunted sourly. He truly did hate hospitals.
The guards had the boy and the business man ready for transport, so Peter rose to his feet. Ponderous, creaking footsteps announced the arrival of their friendly tree giant. Groot bent down beside the raccoon with a tentative: "I am Groot?"
"S-Sure, just... gimme a sec..." Rocket mumbled, eyelids drooping, then promptly collapsed into the wooden man's arms, unconscious.
"I am Groot!" the talking tree panicked.
"Right," Peter guessed, "hospital!"
The boy, Timmy, sat next to his father's bed in the hospital room. Things had looked bleak. Father's blood had been all over his clothes instead of inside his body, where he needed it. When Sam, Star-Lord and Rocket's other friends brought Father in, Timmy had seen one of the doctors shaking his head before catching the boy's eye. Then he'd abruptly turned away to speak to his colleagues. They hadn't had much hope for Father to pull through as they worked on him.
But Timmy was an optimist.
The boy could feel the strength fading from his legs even as his father's breathing steadied and his heartbeat became stronger. A fair trade, in Timmy's opinion. He looked out the window – the moon had finally shrunk back down to it's normal size once more.
His optimism had saved the lives of two people he cared about tonight.
With a secret smile, the boy watched the astonished faces of the doctors gathered around the patient's bed as Father opened his eyes and spoke to them as though he had merely been sleeping.
When Rocket woke up, it was to the familiar, swaying motion of Groot's lumbering gait. His eyes felt glued together and the fur on one side of his face was sticky from drooling. He forced his grainy eyes open and winced at the splitting headache that had lodged itself inside the front of his skull. His whole body felt stiff and sore. Despite being cradled in the large wooden hands of his overgrown tree pal, Groot, he felt a sudden stab of panic.
Where am I?
His hands flew to his throat. He gasped in pure relief – no collar.
"I am Groot," a big, smiling face said above him.
"'Hi' yourself," Rocket croaked, draping the back of one hand over his eyes, "Must've passed out... The hell are we?"
"I am Groot."
"Flark it," he cursed without much enthusiasm.
He should have figured they would take him straight to the krutacking hospital. No way was he sitting still for some freaky, random doctors to stick needles in him, no matter what Star-Dork said! He clenched his hands into fists, and suddenly felt utterly defenceless as he rediscovered the blunt stubs at the ends of his fingers, all that remained of his claws. He would have to unlearn his instincts to use his claws first. Biting would have to come first, now.
His ears picked up the buzzing drone of a vending machine and Rocket sat up in Groot's hold so fast that his head spun. Blinking a couple of times to clear away the dizziness, he turned his attention to finding the food source. His stomach was a black hole threatening to swallow up his middle. His eyes located the bright lights of the machine sitting against the wall, its glass compartment chock full of colourful packets meant to draw the eye. His mouth watered at the thought of something to eat.
"Whoa, hold up," he said and Groot froze.
"I am Groot?" Groot frowned.
"'m starving," Rocket explained, pointing at the vending machine, "Just wanna get somethin' from there. Check if they got those mellowmushes."
Groot obliged by slamming a fist into the vending machine and pulling out a packet of sweets. He held the liberated snack out to Rocket innocently as the dying machine spat it's last couple of sparks before finally collapsing in on itself in a tinkling of broken glass. Quill, Gamora and Drax, who had been leading the way, turned around at the ruckus. Patients and staff alike popped their heads around doorways from all the way down the hall to see what the commotion was about. The raccoon grimaced, but there was nothing for it but to take the big guy's sincere offering and move on.
"Thanks, Groot," he said, wrestling a moment with the wrapping before ripping a hole in the packet with his teeth and spitting out the paper. "Now c'mon, let's move b'fore Star-Lord gets his knickers in a twist."
"No use crying over crushed vending machines," Quill remarked to no one in particular as Groot and Rocket caught up with the others.
Rocket's only reply was to upend the packet of sweets down his gullet. They weren't exactly the good stuff he'd found stashed in Timmy's room, but they were soft and fruity. Gamora looked like she was trying very hard to hide a smile behind her hand. Drax's face had "Isn't that stealing?" written all over it – not literally, of course.
And then something occurred to Rocket.
"So what happened to the kid's dad?" he asked, feeling slightly guilty that he only remembered to ask right then. He couldn't be expected to show remorse over the man, after everything, but he'd be sorry for the kid. Asshole or not, Timmy was obviously attached to his father.
"He will make a full recovery," Drax responded, eyeing the empty packet Rocket discarded casually over Groot's shoulder for a moment before bending down to pick it up and place it in a nearby waste basket. "The doctors are saying it's some manner of miracle."
"Weirder $#!& has happened tonight," Quill added with a shrug. "Besides, I'm kinda glad for the kid. It's... you know, tough to lose a parent."
Rocket didn't miss how Gamora placed a supportive hand on their self-appointed leader's shoulder.
"Any chance we could go by and visit the bastard? Y'know, rub his frickin' face in it?" Rocket ventured with his best savage grin.
"You, fur ball, are going for a check-up!" Quill said emphatically, seeing right through Rocket's ploy. "Your temperature is still off the charts and— did you just eat an entire packet of sugar gums in one gulp!?"
Flark, why couldn't Quill be slow and dim-witted when it counted?
"I was hungry!" Rocket countered, suddenly feeling defensive.
"Yeah, but, dude, you can't just swallow a packet of sweets whole!" Quill went on. "Especially when you're sick!"
"I just did," Rocket growled, arms crossed, "whaddaya gonna do about it?"
"The packet is in the recycling unit – I put it there myself," Drax supplied helpfully.
Gamora cleared her throat.
"Forget about that," she said simply, ushering them towards the doorway at the end of the hall, "we're here."
Rocket's hackles rose. The room smelled uncomfortably like medicine and sterilising chemicals and fear. There was no-one in there, but his heart thundered. They were really going to make him go through with this! Rocket turned with a pleading look to his so-called friends. He instantly regretted that sentiment – they were not doing this to hurt him, but because they cared about him.
Still, that didn't mean he had to like it.
"I think we should all go together," Drax offered, gently placing a big hand on Rocket's head. He had to reach up in order to touch the raccoon high up in the tree man's arms.
Rocket took a deep breath. The air coming down his windpipe felt like barbed wire to his sensitive throat. The beginnings of a migraine was sending its thick tendrils burrowing around inside his skull. His lungs felt too small for the amount of air he needed. He was sure that, if Groot hadn't been carrying him, he would not even have made it all the way down the hall from the vending machine to the doctor's office.
He needed this. He knew he did.
I'll just get the frickin' meds, then get the flark outta here... he thought. In and out. It won't be so bad. He wished he could have believed his own lies.
So that's how Rocket found himself sitting on the examination bed, kicking his legs back and forth nervously. His shivers were coming back, or maybe they were there the whole time and he only noticed them now that he was paying attention. The air inside the office seemed frigid, but Quill had taken off his jacket and tossed it casually over the arm of one of the waiting chairs.
"Relax, Rocket," Quill said, making himself at home in the chair, "it'll be fine."
"No, it won't be krutacking fine!" Rocket hissed, tail swishing. "Ya know how I feel 'bout some creepy gronad doctor pokin' me with their flarking instruments! Freaks me the hell out!"
"Trust me, it's not some creepy doctor," Quill replied with a stupid smirk just as a nurse with pearl white skin and pale pink hair stepped into the room. She had the biggest, roundest eyes Rocket had ever seen – brown on the outside, green on the inside – and a friendly smile graced her rosebud lips.
"I see what ya did there," Rocket deadpanned.
"Well... Rocket, is it?" she asked, adjusting her rectangular glasses. He nodded. "Let's take a look at you..."
Rocket froze up as she cupped a hand over his nose. She wore a serious expression as she checked his whiskers, then proceeded to peek inside each of his ears with an odd little tool, almost like a mini flashlight on a long handle. Apparently, she liked what she saw there, because she smiled slightly, a friendly quirk of her lips.
There was a tense moment when she asked him to turn his back and lift up his shirt so she could listen to his heart and lungs. He could practically feel her eyes roving over the ugly metal ports and scar tissue on his back, but she made no comment. Instead, she told him exactly what she was going to do and what she was listening for. He shuddered when she pressed the cold metal disk against his back. She must have asked him to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out a hundred times over. He was relieved when she finally let him pull his shirt back down.
Were they done now? It occurred to him that he'd never in his life had such a gentle examination. He'd still be glad once it was over, though. But then she was getting more instruments from her kit. So she wasn't done yet, he despaired inwardly. Any minute now, it would stop being gentle. Any minute now, it was going to start hurting...
"I must say, you have a lovely coat, Rocket," she said upon looking up, her words laced in a tone that was on just the right side of almost-cooing.
Rocket caught himself feeling a little bashful. This might not be so terrible, after all, he thought.
As long as she doesn't try to pet me...
"Do you think he'll notice?" Peter whispered nervously and not at all quietly enough, in Gamora's opinion.
Luckily, Rocket was too busy chatting with the pretty nurse to pay attention to what the others were doing.
"The fact that your palms are all sweaty for that nurse," Gamora practically hissed, "or the fact that she's really a—" then dropped her voice to barely a half-whisper, "veterinarian in disguise?" She added a glare for good measure before continuing in a heated whisper: "Because if you talk any louder, he'll hear."
"I think Quill is referring to our deception," Drax confided softly.
"I am Groot," Groot added in what passed for a whisper with him – it came out as a low rumble.
"Do you think he'll be okay?" Peter asked soberly.
"He seems all right..." Gamora replied, her eyes travelling back to the raccoon sitting on the examination bed.
The group stood silently watching as Rocket made the nurse laugh with some or other rude joke. Either that, or he was bragging about being the last of his kind and how all the girls usually fell for that – in some ways, Rocket was more like Peter Quill than he would ever realize, Gamora mused thoughtfully.
"It is difficult to be certain," Drax spoke up suddenly. "For as long as I've known him, that one has used words to cover up pain and weakness. He is skilled at pretending."
"Arright, break it up, idiots!" Rocket announced as he hopped off the bed and marched on over.
"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Peter asked with an insolent grin.
"Let's stick a frickin' thermometer in your ear and see how ya like it!" Rocket shot back grumpily.
"Be glad it was in your ear and not up your—"
"Ahem!" their sweet veterinarian-turned-nurse coughed delicately, effectively distracting Peter from finishing that fateful sentence. "Mr Quill, Lady Gamora, I'd like to speak with you."
Rocket stared at Quill suspiciously for two more beats before shrugging.
"Well, I'm gonna go check on the kid," he declared, tucking his hands behind his head casually and heading for the door.
"I am Groot," the tree man asserted, following the raccoon. Gamora could only guess that Groot had volunteered to go with him.
"A fine idea," Drax said, smiling down at Rocket, "I, too, shall accompany you, small friend."
"If ya want," Rocket replied nonchalantly, then grinned at the nurse and waved. "See ya, Margot!"
"Bye, Rocket!" the nurse called back in a voice like honey.
Gamora watched the odd procession leave the office.
"And, Quill," Rocket piped up as his head suddenly popped back around the doorway, "don't go makin' an ass of yerself, she's married."
Gamora was hard-pressed to stifle a laugh, especially when she turned back and saw the look on Peter's face, which ranged somewhere between an incensed big brother and a kicked puppy. The laughter died in her throat when she caught sight of the veterinarian's expression, though.
All traces of honey forgotten, the woman wore a face like a thunderhead as she briskly went to close the office door and then rounded on them with a fierce: "Why didn't you bring him in sooner!?"
"Whoa, whoa, wait a second!" Peter spluttered, raising his hands defensively, but the veterinarian gave him no leeway.
"The poor little guy can barely breathe and he's running a horrendous fever!" she scolded, making Peter shrink back as she punctuated her every word with a jab of her forefinger to his chest. "I'll have to do a scan to be sure, but his lungs are under terrible strain. Did you rescue him from a fire? Do you have any idea the damage smoke inhalation can cause if it isn't treated in time!?"
"We would have brought him sooner, if we could," Gamora admitted, hoping to save Peter before the pink-haired beauty ripped him to shreds, "but we only got him back tonight." The woman shifted her fiery eyes to Gamora and Peter slumped gratefully and somewhat pathetically against the wall she had backed him into. "As we said before, he's very sensitive, so we didn't want to mention this in front of Rocket, but he was abducted. The kidnappers used some form of spray to keep him docile and we suspect that it has harmful side effects."
The veterinarian's hazel eyes went wide as she took in Gamora's words. She whirled around and whipped a hefty file out of her bag. She slammed the file down on the desk with trembling hands and flipped through the pages hastily. She stopped at a page with an illustration of a canister with a large red 'D' printed on its side.
"This!" she exclaimed, pointing at the picture. "It matches his symptoms perfectly, but..."
"But?" Gamora questioned, a knot of dread forming in her middle.
"A few months back, we had a series of animals come in, suffering these same symptoms," the doctor explained. "Someone was testing the chemicals on strays. The police even caught the perp doing the testing, but everything got covered up. I'm sure you've heard of Brandt Industries – the doze chemical was their product, but no one could connect it to them directly. There was never any solid evidence, anyway." She took a deep breath. "The point is... most of the animals that came in bore the same symptoms as Rocket and I managed to save one or two of them, but... most of them didn't survive. Judging from the severity of his symptoms, it's a miracle he's breathing at all."
"You've seen the marks on his back, Miss...?"
"Mrs Benster, if you please," she supplied curtly.
"Mrs Benster," Peter ploughed ahead, "Rocket was genetically and cybernetically enhanced by the ones who created him. He's, y'know, very secretive about it all, as you can imagine, but... they sorta built him to be stronger and smarter than a normal raccoon."
"I read Nova's file, too," Gamora spoke up, noting Peter's discomfort at discussing Rocket's history with a complete stranger. It had to be done, however, so she picked up where he left off. "He's known to be resistant to anaesthetics and certain other varieties of narcotics."
"That's about all we know," Peter pitched in, "but maybe Rocket built up a resistance to this 'doze chemical' or whatever. Maybe that's why he's not— Why he's still— You know, why he's okay."
"Rocket is by no means 'okay', Mr Quill," the veterinarian remarked icily. "I've taken care of his other injuries and I gave him medication that should make him feel better for the moment, but that was just a temporary measure. He isn't going to like it, but we'll have to keep him overnight to monitor his condition."
And with that, she stalked off, probably on her way to try and sweet-talk Rocket into staying at the hospital overnight. Gamora wished her luck.
"Yup, definitely married," Peter muttered under his breath, making Gamora roll her eyes.
Flanked by Drax and Groot, Rocket made his way down the hall. Walking between the muscle man and the sentient tree, they felt more like bodyguards to him than anything else. Despondently, Rocket wondered if they would ever let him out of their sight again. His despair deepened as he found that the thought of going anywhere by himself sent an involuntary shiver down his spine. He tried to recall the carefree feeling he'd had that day when he decided to leave Groot beside the fountain and head to the Munitions District on his own, but that feeling was beyond his grasp, possibly forever...
He was planning on passing by the vending machine Groot had murdered earlier in the hopes of finding another snack, or maybe something to drink. The medicine that unbelievably nice doctor had given him was soothing his headache and his body no longer trembled, but his throat felt terribly dry and sore. Maybe he'd get something with bubbles in it. He thought that might help.
Unfortunately, he never made it as far as the vending machine. He remembered saying something to Groot when he felt a sudden, painful spasm in his abdomen and half his sentence got stuck in his throat. It stayed there, not coming out.
"I am Groot?" the tree giant asked, brow creaking with concern.
But Rocket couldn't talk. His breath was caught in the back of his windpipe. In a desperate attempt to dislodge it, he began to cough. And once he started coughing, he didn't know how to stop. It felt like his chest was about to burst. His lungs and throat roared with heat and he was coughing so much that there wasn't any chance to breathe in between. He was on his knees, coughing. He needed air.
"I am Groot!?"
"C-Can't—breathe—...!" Rocket gasped between coughs.
"Nurse, we need assistance!" That was Drax.
Everything went black.
Rocket barely registered anything except that it was bitterly cold and his insides were a raging furnace of heat. His head was swimming as he was passed from hand to hand. He thought Quill was there with him. Or maybe he was wrapped in Quill's toasty leather jacket, he just couldn't tell.
Peter and the other Guardians of the Galaxy took turns watching over Rocket as he lay in the hospital bed, a myriad of tubes and wires keeping their smallest member stable. The doctors had done everything they could to clear up the raccoon's badly bruised little lungs. They said he would be all right. He would make it, but they worried that there might be permanent damage to his respiratory system. Rocket might walk away from this unscathed or he could suffer from asthma for the rest of his life. There was really no telling just yet.
Aside from his adoptive family, Rocket had other visitors, too. One of the Brandt bodyguards, the big one, called Sam #2, came by once, apologizing and shuffling his huge feet uncomfortably. Gamora didn't let him stay long, but he left a packet of marshmallows on the bedside table for Rocket.
The kid, Timmy, came by a couple of times, too, wheeling his chair up close to the bed and petting Rocket's limp little hand tenderly.
Pink-haired Florence Nightingale paid the raccoon a visit, too. Peter tried to tell himself that he wasn't jealous when the pretty veterinarian planted a kiss between Rocket's fluffy ears. Nope, not him, he was definitely not jealous. Not even a tiny bit! Lucky bastard...
The raccoon was asleep for most of it, but once every few hours, he would open his dark eyes wide, stare at the tubes around him in bewilderment, then locate one of his team mates sitting close by and let out a sigh of relief.
The best day was when all the tubes and things could finally come off. Peter was glad to see Rocket free of that forest of wires. The nurse removing them almost had a fit when Rocket spoke to her for the first time, but she quickly warmed up to the smart-mouthed little patient. Peter did not envy the nurses their task of cajoling the raccoon into eating a proper meal when all he wanted was junk food. In the end, they resorted to holding his packet of marshmallows hostage until Rocket sulkily agreed to comply with their demands and eat the "flarking tasteless hospital gruel".
Rocket still slept a lot. Peter wasn't sure if it was from the heavy dosages of medication he'd received during his time at the hospital, or the exhaustion of his ordeal finally catching up to him. When the Guardians finally got to take him home, it was with firm instructions to keep the raccoon warm at all times and to keep a close eye on him.
Meanwhile, Timmy had been glad to hear that Rocket was stable. Father had been discharged from the hospital just a day after being admitted. Every other day, he would take time off work to drive Timmy to the hospital so he could visit his sick raccoon friend. Knowing full well that he would not be welcome in Rocket's hospital room, Father sent Sam #2 along and waited for the boy in the car.
Timmy never told his father how his legs had been healed under the light of a gibbous moon that night, and Timmy never told his father just how the man had managed to survive what should have been a fatal gunshot wound. But Father suspected. Either way, they never talked about that night again. They talked about all kinds of other things, though, in the evenings over supper.
Timmy thought of himself as a very lucky boy. He may have lost the use of his legs once more, but thinking about what he'd gained in return made him smile.
Rocket Raccoon became aware of a pleasantly warm feeling all over his chest and belly. He also found that he was swaddled in blankets so tightly that he couldn't move. He wriggled a bit until his blanket cocoon loosened enough that he didn't feel quite so suffocatingly immobilized. He sighed and hugged the warm and squishy thing he found himself wrapped around, stretching the stiff muscles in his arms and legs. Bleary eyes – not crusted over, for a change – blinked open lazily and he saw that he was in someone else's bunk, wrapped in several layers of blankets and holding a hot water bottle.
He was appalled to find that he was naked.
"Arright, which one'a you perv'rts took my frickin' pants off!?" was what he planned on yelling. Instead, he gave voice to a hoarse, wordless groan that didn't sound nearly as impressive.
"Lie still, small one," Drax's deep voice spoke softly, "you're home."
"Home..." Rocket murmured, hugging the hot water bottle tightly as the big man sitting next to him gently stroked his fur.