How to Buy Happiness

Epilogue

"Whoohoo!" Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, cheered loudly. "We sure showed them!"

"Throttle, Quill!" Rocket shouted, voice rising with urgency. "Now!?"

The raccoon's fur was standing on end and he was gripping the arms on his seat as though he was hanging on for dear life.

His claws had begun growing back quite nicely, Gamora thought to herself. It was a relief, really. No one wanted Rocket to think that they were taking advantage of his handicap in defending himself... Every stray gesture was a potential violation of the raccoon's personal space. They didn't want him to think they were reluctant to touch him either, though, because, for all that Rocket was wary of physical contact, he was even more susceptible to feeling rejected. So they came up with the secret agreement that, once per day, at irregular intervals, someone would offer or ask to pet Rocket, claiming that they needed stress relief or that Rocket looked in need of stress relief. Already, Peter was using his charm, as he called it, (or lame jokes, as anyone on the receiving end saw it) to waylay Rocket's suspicions with comments like: "C'mon, man, just let me scratch your ear for a bit – you're so stressed out, you've got dark circles under your eyes...!"

Secondly, and also the more tricky one, they agreed that every other day someone would "accidentally" brush Rocket's shoulder or gently bump into him. The trick was to make it look like an accident without actually startling the raccoon. Peter had already gotten his hand bitten once, but that was because of bad timing on his part – Rocket had been half-asleep that time. For the most part, their plan appeared to be working. At least, Rocket didn't seem to suspect anything.

"In a sec," Peter replied, making absurd placating motions at the raccoon with his hands, "I wanna see the looks on their faces when they see us make off with all their stuff!"

The Guardians of the Galaxy were preparing to make good their escape from an almost-completely-botched-but-saved-at-the-last-minute mission (how the legendary Star-Lord thought that translated into a full-fledged "Mission Accomplished!" Gamora would never be entirely sure). In other words, it was just about your average day on the Milano.

"Just before we left, I saw them retrieving a rather big weapon that looked like it was meant to obliterate a ship the size of this one or larger," Drax pointed out helpfully.

Of course, Peter would have noticed this himself if he hadn't been so preoccupied with the "booty", as he called it.

"It's a fair estimate that, if we can see them, they can shoot us," Gamora added, hoping to sway their reckless leader.

"I am Groot!"

"Throttle, ya frickin' moron, d'ya wanna get blown to space rubble!?" Rocket cursed, ears pulled back flat against his head.

"All right, all right already!" Peter gave in, blasting them off at the Milano's best getaway speed in time to the last few snatches of Cherry Bomb.

There was a collective sigh of relief as they got away with everything, including their paint job, intact.

"Peter, you are such a child sometimes," Gamora groaned.

And then the infuriating man grinned at her with a genuine child-like exuberance that not only proved her point, but also made it impossible for her to stay mad at him. She settled for rolling her eyes and giving her head a slight shake.

"I'm gonna check out our haul!" Peter announced, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

"Oh, go ahead," Gamora offered with a shrug, "I'll take over."

Peter hardly waited for her to fasten her seatbelt in the pilot's chair before bailing in the direction of the cargo hold.

"I got dibs on the 'lectronics!" Rocket cried, disappearing down the hatch after Peter, tail flouncing behind him energetically.

Gamora allowed herself to share a small smile with Groot and Drax. Both Peter and Rocket were like little kids when it came to loot.


Peter Quill was wearing a big, goofy grin as he raced the nimble raccoon to the cargo hold, where the trophies of the latest mission awaited their inspection. The lively little fuzzball outpaced the half-terran despite having much shorter legs. It had been weeks since Rocket's kidnapping and his recovery was really coming along. They were all very grateful that the raccoon's lungs had suffered no permanent damage despite repeated exposure to those poisonous chemicals. Short, high-speed sprints no longer left him weak and winded, and only after a really long hike would Rocket start to look a little bleak. Long before it came to that, though, someone would casually offer him a shoulder to perch on and the proud little guy would accept it without comment.

They never really talked about Rocket's ordeal since he woke up after the hospital. Aside from contacting the kid every once in a while, the raccoon, for one, seemed happy to forget the whole thing ever happened.

Since Rocket had already chosen a box to claim ownership over, Peter made his way to the stash of food supplies they'd pilfered. Stealing from ruthless mercenaries who were clearly on the wrong side of the law didn't count as violating their agreement with Nova, so, in keeping with Peter's "bit of both" policy, they took great pleasure in stopping the bad guys and then taking their stuff.

Guardians of the Galaxy needed to eat, too, after all.

Rummaging through a hodgepodge selection of canned fruit, preserved meat of dubious origin, some form of wild-smelling cheese and a couple of energy bars, Peter found something that he never expected to see again in his entire life – a vivid red can with curving, white script on its label. Peter stared, nostalgia kicking into overdrive as he rescued the still-cold can from the stash of alien food.

"Aww, man, I don't believe this! Look!" Peter exclaimed, thrusting the can under Rocket's nose to get his attention. "They actually had Coca Cola on them!"

"Whazzat, food?" the raccoon asked, whiskers twitching.

"Nope," Peter enthused with an eager smile, "it's a very special Earth drink!"

"How much alcohol's in it?" was predictably the next question from Rocket's lips.

"Come on, man, that's not really what makes it special..." Peter began.

"How much alcohol?" the annoyed raccoon asked flatly.

"Um... none? But—"

And with a muttered: "Meh, not interested, then," Rocket went back to scavenging in the box of parts he'd claimed as his share. So far he'd separated his loot of choice into three random-looking piles, all of which seemed to Peter like equally useless junk, but the raccoon kept up his meticulous sorting, so he obviously had some sort of method.

"I wonder if it still tastes the same..." Peter mused out loud, hoping to get at least some sort of reaction from the furtive little furball beside him.

After a few beats, he accepted that he was studiously being ignored. He pouted a little at being the only one in this corner of the galaxy who understood the significance of finding a drink from his home planet, a drink he'd last sampled when he was a kid, and finding it in the supply cache of an alien mercenary group of all places! Oh well, he wasn't about to let a grumpy, talking raccoon spoil it for him. Peter wrestled a moment with how to work the tab, only after a long moment of fumbling remembering that with Earth cans you had to lift, then pull. The can finally opened with a gratifying hissss... and suddenly Rocket was nowhere in sight.

The three piles of neatly sorted scraps lay abandoned on the metal floor of the cargo hold, but the raccoon was just gone.

"What the—? Rocket?" Peter called out. "Where'd you go, buddy?"

And then he heard it – soft, shuddering breaths that sounded slightly muffled, like they were being suppressed. He thought it was coming from behind a stack of crates. Instantly worried, Peter set down the soda can and checked his trusty blasters in their holsters at his hips. Though unlikely, someone might have boarded the ship while they were fighting the mercenaries. Whoever it was, if they harmed Rocket, there was going to be hell to pay...

Treading ever so carefully, Peter made his way to the suspicious stack of crates. He took a breath to steady his nerves, then went for it. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greeted his eyes when he turned that corner.

Peter swallowed a lump in his throat when he saw his best friend, Rocket Raccoon, the toughest, most stubborn badass in the history of badassery, sitting squeezed into the gap between two crates, his small hands clamped over his muzzle to smother the sound of the violent sobs that his furry little shoulders were already quaking with. His ears were drawn tight against his skull, his tail was puffed up to twice its normal size and runaway tears had made tracks in the fur under his eyes.

Peter slowly got down on his hands and knees.

"Rocket, hey..." he said softly.

The raccoon started, then tried to retreat further into his hiding place.

"What—the hell, Qui—Quill!?" Rocket screamed, glaring at the intruder, his dark eyes burning with anger and shame. "Lea—leave me alo—ne!"

Peter's initial reaction was to be defensive – he hadn't done anything, after all – but watching Rocket sit there trying to swallow those uncontrollable sobs was too damn painful and Peter deliberately forced his indignation aside. He wished for Drax to appear right then. The Destroyer seemed to hit it off pretty well with the unpredictable raccoon – he would know what to do... But Drax was not here and he was. Peter was not about to run off and leave his friend alone in such a distressed state, so fetching Drax was out of the question. It was up to him to calm the raccoon.

Knowing that Rocket did not take as well to physical comfort as most other people would, Peter settled for simply sitting down and stretching his hand out to the trembling raccoon squeezed between the crates.

Rocket eyed his hand suspiciously, pupils large and glittering. The small frame still shook with pent up sobs.

"I'm here for you, man," was all Peter said. He would leave the rest up to Rocket.

It took a full minute of long, loud breaths before the raccoon could make himself look up into Peter's eyes again. Finally, he spoke.

"I-I... I didn't mean to yell at ya..." he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "It's just—" Deep breath. "It's just—" Another deep breath. "It—it—..."

"It's fine," Peter shrugged, "I mean, I shouldn't have startled you."

"Shaddup, lemme fin—finish!" the raccoon hiccuped, somehow managing to seem incredibly ferocious and (sorry, Rocket) unbearably cute at the same time. "It was li—like I was back in the..." His ears flicked violently as he floundered for the words. "L-Like I was back—back there an—and—!"

Peter was ridiculously proud of himself for not flinching at the raccoon's unexpected movement when the little guy suddenly darted from his hiding place and tackled him, latching on tightly and pressing his wet, furry face into the stunned human's shirt. Uncertainly, Peter let his hand hover above the head of his trembling friend, who, at that moment, seemed smaller than ever before. Would it be all right to try and comfort him, or would it only make him lash out again? Peter didn't want to gamble with Rocket's trust. The raccoon must have sensed Peter holding his breath, for he tensed, as if bracing himself for something...

Rejection... Peter realized with a pang. Rocket thought he was going to be pushed away. That decided him – he lowered his hand and gently began to stroke the fur on the top of the raccoon's head.

That bust the dam wall wide open.

Rocket cried like Peter had never heard him cry before; harsh, ragged sobs ripping from the small animal in a painfully human-like way.

"I ha—hate it, I hate it!" Rocket sobbed brokenly into the material of Peter's shirt. "Th-They had no—right to—make me feel—so—so frickin' weak!"

It was shocking to see his friend like this, stripped of his usual bluster without being even a little drunk. It occurred to Peter that Rocket must have been keeping all of this bottled up inside for all those weeks since the kidnapping. Either he'd consciously been pretending to be fine all this time, or something had triggered a memory from Rocket's time as Brandt's prisoner, unexpectedly forcing him to deal with the demons lurking in his subconscious. But the team had been watching him closely. They would have seen through Rocket if he'd been pretending. The more he thought about it, the more Peter figured it must have been the latter. Rocket's reaction was too severe for anything else.

Sometimes it was good to let it all out and just cry. Peter was pretty sure it wasn't something Rocket did very often. He was too busy trying to prove to the world, and to himself, that he didn't hurt to deal with his own pain. Oh, blowing stuff up probably helped, too. Rocket was way too fond of making things explode for it to be healthy, but it was an outlet. As Peter sat there, caressing the soft fur on the top of Rocket's head, waiting for the wordless sobbing to run its course, his mind drifted to the soda can standing in the middle of the floor around the corner. He hoped nobody who came looking for them accidentally kicked it over before he had a chance to find out if the drink still tasted the same.

And that was when he realized just what had triggered Rocket's flashback. He was never opening a soda can near the raccoon again. Peter made a mental note to tell the team they had to try keeping any sudden hissing noises around the ship to a minimum if Rocket was nearby, to avoid any more invasive flashbacks that could send the raccoon into this state.

Except for a small hiccup every now and then, Rocket's warm, furry body grew still against his chest, the violent sobs having exhausted him. The raccoon let out a long, stuttering breath.

"You're not weak, Rocky," Peter said quietly, his hand lingering atop the raccoon's head, "in fact, you are the toughest, scariest son of a bitch I ever met, and I grew up with the Ravagers."

Rocket responded with a snort. He must have chuckled a bit. Peter couldn't be sure, but the slight tremors felt a little different from the erratic sobbing that had wracked the raccoon's body until a few moments ago.

There was a pause as Rocket seemed to gather his courage.

"Thanks, Quill..." he murmured hoarsely, eyes still closed. His words came out funny because his nose was blocked.

"Hey, what are friends for, right?" Peter replied with a winning smile.

"You know the drill," Rocket said without looking up, suddenly sounding like his old self again, "ya tell anyone about this, I flarkin' kill ya."

"Uh, yeah," the half-terran laughed nervously, "sure, no problem!"

"That said..." the raccoon sighed, curling up in Peter's lap, "isn't it 'bout time fer one'a you losers to come up with some excuse to ask to pet me, or sumsuch?"

"Nothing gets past you, does it?" Peter smiled ruefully.

When there was no reply, Star-Lord, legendary outlaw and leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, resigned himself to his fate and began methodically petting the feisty little fur ball in his lap.

And Rocket slept and Rocket purred.

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