How to Buy Happiness

Chapter 4: Rebellion

Billionaire Septimus Gerhardus Brandt stared down at the still form of the sleeping animal. Its chest rose and fell faintly and it was drooling just a little down the side of one furry cheek. Until moments ago, it had been threatening to shoot him in the face. How could something so seemingly cute and innocent be so ridiculously rude and fierce?

Well, like it or not, the fluffy little thing was just perfect, especially now that it was back under control. Hopefully, after this harsh lesson, it would understand just who was in charge here and they would have no more problems with it once it regained consciousness.

"Gather up our unique prize, Sam," he ordered. "We're going to need something a little stronger than a paltry cat basket to hold this one."

"Yes, Mr. Brandt, sir," one of the Sams said smartly.

"And someone get Sam #2 back on his feet," he added, "I don't pay you lavish amounts of money to lie around airing out your socks."

Turning away from the scene so his Security and Maintenance force could get to work, Brandt straightened his perfectly straight tie unnecessarily. Damage control was taken care of, mostly, excepting the need to teach the disrespectful ferret some manners. It was time to get on with the next step. He would not admit to being nervous, not even to himself. For some reason, though, the prospect of carrying out the rest of the plan made getting his hands on a talking animal look simple.

When Rocket jerked awake, his hands instinctively reached for that blasted collar. Somehow it felt like the thing was going to clench shut around his throat at any moment. His eyes were sticky again, so he had to rub them forcefully before sending his gaze darting about.

Unsurprisingly, he found himself in a cage – these goons had underestimated him before, but, regrettably, wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Predictable or not, being surrounded by bars made Rocket's breath hitch uncomfortably all the same. The cramped little cage was just tall enough to stand up in, but not quite wide enough for curling up. It reminded him of a bird cage or a display pen, both of which were horribly insulting and frightening at the same time.

The pink scumbag in the fancy suit was nowhere in sight.

Those bodyguards of his were everywhere, though. They ignored Rocket when he yelled at them. He tried rattling the cage, to at least knock it over, but the thing was secured to the floor by a stand that was far sturdier than it looked. That didn't stop him from rattling it just because he could, though. His voice was hoarse from shouting anyway, so he let his actions do the screaming.

Let me out! Let me out! Let me out! his compact metal prison rattled on and on, to no avail.

At one point, the guy he'd tasered came to stare at him. At first he thought the man had come to gloat, but the big dumbbell literally just stood there, staring. Rocket stared back. If this was a staring competition, he wasn't about to blink first. The oaf had the oddest expression on his face, his hand hovering just a few inches from the cage. Rocket snarled at him when the look in the man's eyes finally translated itself to him as pity.

The man sighed and left.

The others didn't go away. When they finally did pay him attention, it was to offer him food. But he cursed at them, spat and hissed like he was wild. He wanted nothing from them.

They brought water near him. Just the sight of the clear liquid reminded him how parched his throat was. But he wanted nothing from them, so instead of accepting the water, he bit their hands.

For that, he got sprayed in the face vigorously, not just one blast, but several.

The spray stabbed at his eyes before he had time to shut them. He'd inhaled the noxious vapors before he could turn his head away.

Stop it! he tried to say, coughing and spluttering as everything grew blurry once more. Leave me alone!

And, quick as thought, he was back in that place… The dark place that didn't have a name, that place that didn't need to have a name, that place that didn't deserve to have a name. The place with the hands and the sharp things, the place where you got torn apart and put back together over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and—

No, that wasn't it… From somewhere between the waking world and delusion, he knew that wasn't it.

This place was somewhere else.

This place was different. In a way it was better. In a way it was worse.

But he was somewhere else.

And something else was different, because there was hope. There was a tiny spark of hope, because he knew that the assassin and the big guy… and Quill… and Groot…

They were coming.

He just had to hold on a little longer.

Rescue was coming.

He just had to survive a little longer.

As he finally succumbed to the darkness, he allowed himself to hope.

His family was coming…

"Gamora!" hissed Peter Quill, called Star-Lord by himself and a select few others. "Gamora!"

The green-skinned assassin in question rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the half-terran moron's incessant whispering. If there were two things to be said about Star-Lord, it was that he was, one, a class A goofball and, two, possibly the most caring person in the entire galaxy. The minute they had learned that their small, furry team mate had been abducted, Peter's usual never-minded attitude had transformed into an intense and aggressively protective force. Gamora thought that the scary (and perhaps most endearing) part of this radical change in their self-appointed leader was the fact that he would have reacted the same way for any of them, not just for Rocket. He really accepted each and every one of them, flaws and all, as his adopted family.

"Gamora! You need to tone down your deadly aura a bit or you'll scare them off before we even get the chance to talk to them," the goofball with the biggest heart in the galaxy insisted in a strained whisper that could be heard on the other side of the street.

What ever the hell that was supposed to mean… Gamora tried very hard not to roll her eyes again.

"Are you sure this is the place?" she asked instead.

"Positive," he replied quietly.

"Cease your whispering," Drax growled from the shadows, "or they will become suspicious."

"No offence, Drax," Peter remarked, "but what could be more suspicious than three shady characters skulking near the entrance of a secret subterranean criminal hideout?"

A scoffing noise and the creaking of bark came from behind them and, without turning around Gamora could envision Groot's exasperated expression accompanied by an equally exasperated shrug.

"All right, four shady characters, then," Peter grumbled, slightly deflated at the way his witticism was actively being ignored in the face of more pressing technicalities.

Just when Gamora was about to suggest that they retrace their steps (just to be on the safe side), the rocks right ahead of them seemed to wobble like the distortion of a heat wave and an extravagant secret entrance revealed itself in the cliff side. She closed her mouth with a click of teeth and frowned at the impudent smirk that was plastered all over Peter's face.

A hooded figure peeked out and hurriedly motioned for them to enter.

And since the only logical thing to do here was step into an outlaw base of operations without the slightest idea of what was going on inside, this was what Peter Quill and his team did. It could just as easily be a trap – by now, the Guardians of the Galaxy were becoming known in some systems since their victory on Xandar and bounties were a logical concern. Gamora was not sure who the biggest idiot was here: Peter for going, Drax for following, or herself for not leaving the both of them to sort this out in her own way.

Almost as an afterthought, she realized that she'd dismissed Groot's presence just as casually as Peter had. Without Rocket as his voice, the giant tree man seemed to become more and more distant. It had been a long time since even his usual "I am Groot" phrase.

He caught her gaze as he passed her by and she tried to use her eyes to tell him that she understood all too well what it was to be isolated and voiceless. He smiled at her, a wistful, knowing kind of smile.

"I am Groot," he said slowly.

She wasn't sure if that was a thank you, but she inclined her head as though she understood what he meant.

Once inside, her first instinct had her automatically mapping out the entire area, counting the number of possible threats sitting at their seemingly haphazardly strung together rows of computer screens. Without even thinking about it, Gamora was locating corners and blind spots from which she would have ambushed a group of unsuspecting targets, had this been her own lair.

"And I am Gibbous Bisonbait," the mysterious figure who had allowed them entrance to the secret hideout replied, obviously thinking that Groot had really meant to introduce himself. Gamora was fairly certain that was not the man's real name, although, judging from his rotund physique, the name seemed accurate enough. "I take it you're the group who contacted us about taking down Brandt Industries?"

"Yep, that's us," Peter confirmed flippantly, slipping into the spotlight.

Bisonbait blinked and stared at the cocky human. He must have assumed that Groot was the leader, having been the first to speak upon their arrival. Now that she thought about it, Peter seemed to have a sort of baffling effect on people even without the help of misunderstandings.

"And you are?" Bisonbait asked skeptically.

"People call me Star-Lord," Peter said coolly, but puffing up like one of those farm birds from his planet that he was always going on about during meals.

This earned him a raised eyebrow from the fat spy.

"Your representative spoke of an infiltration mission," Gamora stepped in smoothly. "We, too, need access to the Brandt estate, to retrieve… an object of great importance that will help establish Brandt's downfall."

She stumbled a bit over the lie, not because she was unused to hiding her purpose by spreading falsehoods, but because she suddenly had a picture in her head of Rocket's face and how he would have reacted to being called an "object".

The cover was necessary, though. These people were part of an emotionally-driven organization that hated Brandt Industries for monopolizing everything on this side of the planet, polluting the environment, controlling the local news and anything and everything they could think of, including the bad weather they'd been having this past year. Fanatics were unpredictable and dangerous.

They weren't simply a clear cut group of freedom fighters, either. They had darker connections hidden beneath their banner of ideals, including black market dealings and supporting terrorist activities.

In short, Gamora did not wish to trust them with Rocket's life.

But they had a location and they had a way in.

"We have a mission scheduled for the Brandt estate in eight hours," Bisonbait confirmed. "It's a risky venture, very risky, since the place has the security of a fortress. Previous attempts have failed, ending with all the men we sent killed. This time, we have one of our own on the inside. And I would never say no to more capable hands…" He shifted his gaze to Groot and seemed to be hunting for the right words before continuing. "Or um… branches… to ensure our success."

The round man held out a pudgy hand and Peter grasped it firmly.

"Welcome aboard, Space-Lord," he said, shaking Peter's hand.

"An enemy of Brandt's is a friend of mine," said Peter, his eager grin faltering only slightly.

He was so sensitive about that ridiculous code name of his.

"We have a common enemy," Drax agreed, "let us bring him down together!"

Groot nodded.

Eight hours… Gamora willed Rocket to hold out for eight more hours…

It was so cold.

Rocket was shivering and everything was cold.

Except for the bands of fire he still felt around his ankle and just above his right elbow. Those burned uncomfortably. And his lungs were on fire. Every shallow breath he took stoked the flames. The raw flesh around his implants, too, pulsed with it, yet somehow having all this heat inside his small body did nothing to keep him warm.

He thought he smelled leather mixed with the almost sweet taint of smoke, a trace of cinnamon. Quill… that you?

Somehow, he didn't think so. For no sane reason at all, he sullenly imagined that Quill would have at least done a better job at making sure he wasn't freezing his fuzzy tail off – the swaggering terran didn't wear that nice toasty leather jacket of his just for its looks. Rocket hoped this was some sort of sign that his sense of smell was returning. It was either that or he was hallucinating… which would probably be a bad thing.

Someone with warm hands was running their fingers through his fur, teasing away some of the terrible cold. He flexed his claws in response, and had to suppress a bout of drunken purring that threatened to rise in his throat. The touch felt good, soothing, but if it was one of them touching him, he didn't want it. The fingers stroked his head and then strayed upwards, towards his sensitive ears.

It was one of them.


Blindly, he lashed out with claws and teeth, then flinched away instinctively and waited for the retaliatory hiss of the aerosol and the nauseating dizziness that arrived with the repulsive taste of the spray.

But it never came.

Perplexed, Rocket tried to open his eyes. When his vision finally cleared to only moderately hazy, no one was there.

Great, I'm going mad… he thought resentfully, eyes drooping shut once more.

The boy couldn't help himself.

The fur was soft. A great deal softer than it looked. The ears had a surprisingly silky feel and the bushy tail was lush and glossy, with dark rings. Dark markings around the eyes created the adorable impression that the animal was wearing a mini bandit's mask. The metal parts, however, were disturbing. The furry little being had machine bits sticking up out of its collar bone. Its coat was missing in patches on its back and more mechanical pieces protruded from the exposed skin there.

The creature would not tolerate physical contact and, despite being sedated, snarled and flashed teeth and claws in equal measure whenever it sensed his approach. But now, after letting it alone for half an hour, the poor thing had slumped against the bars of the cage; its forehead braced against the cold metal, defenceless in unconsciousness.

Unable to resist, he reached for the velvety ears again.

"'m not crazy… Lea' me alone…" it groaned feebly.

"Y-You can talk!" he exclaimed, staggering back.

"No krutacking way," the furry being drawled derisively, opening dark, unbelievably expressive eyes almost halfway, "you just figured that out?"

Unsure of how to respond to such bitter sarcasm in a talking animal, he ploughed ahead with the first question that came to mind: "Well, what's your name?"

Interest in the conversation lost, the eyes drifted closed straight away. Was it sleeping? Did he dare? He reached up—

"Quit groping m' ears 'n lemme out, for flark's sake," the talking hamster growled.

Despite the metal bits, this was definitely a real creature, not some advanced toy, and apparently it had a very real grudge against the world. It talked like one of those action movies he wasn't supposed to watch (but did anyway) because of the language rating.

"I can't do that…!" he gasped.

"'Course you can," came the annoyed reply. The eyes opened, but the animal didn't bother lifting its head away from resting it against the bars. "Jus' reach on over to that panel with yer long man-arms 'n flick the frickin' switch."

"How do you know that?" he asked, goggling.

What was such a smart animal doing inside a cage?

"Ohhh, lemme think," it growled, rolling its now bright and alert eyes. "I've just been sittin' here for hours with nothin' to do but watch. No way I could've figured that out. And I'm—"

Ears laid back and fangs bared, it stared at something in the doorway.

"Timmy, there you are!" Father's voice proclaimed loftily from that end of the room. "I've been searching all over for you!"

The boy, Timmy, looked up hopefully. Father sounded in a good mood today, so Timmy eagerly wheeled his chair around to greet him.

"Good evening, Father," he said respectfully, careful not to get too excited.

Self-consciously, he rolled his shoulders slightly in the too-big leather jacket he was wearing. Would Father notice it? The rebellious part of him hoped that he would, but another part of him, he was ashamed to admit, hoped that he wouldn't.

When Father said nothing, he asked: "You were looking for me? Why?"

His father's smile broadened, but his gaze still somehow managed to avoid Timmy's eyes, which made him feel a little sad. Timmy thought he might give away his entire vintage set of space pirate wanted posters if that could make his father give him just one direct smile. Realistically, though, that wasn't happening.

"Why, to give you your long-awaited birthday present!" he announced with a flourish in the direction of the cage. "Happy birthday, my son!"

"He's mine?" Timmy asked, brightening. "Wow!"

He'd always wanted a pet. One that could talk was even more amazing!

"All yours, Timmy," Father affirmed, nodding proudly. "I… would keep it in the cage until it's tame, though. It's already bitten two of the staff."

Timmy was debating whether or not it would be appropriate to hug his father when he became aware of a distressed sound coming from the cage. The animal inside had gone rigid. Its eyes were riveted to Father, its paws grasping unconsciously at the collar around its neck like it was suddenly too tight.

"What's wrong, little guy?" the kid in the wheelchair asked, sounding concerned.

Rocket hardly heard for the ringing in his ears, though.

It was as if the moment he took his eyes off Brandt, the collar would close up around his throat again. His head told him that the man could activate the collar any time he chose and no amount of staring at him could stop it, but Rocket's mind was swimming in a haze of heat and he found logic to be just out of his reach. Even deactivated as it was, it felt like the thing around his neck was choking him.

The bars of the cage seemed to close in on him, too. And his chest was tight, as though his ribs were trying to squeeze all the air from his lungs. His eyes watered and Rocket realized he was coughing. He was coughing so much that he couldn't catch his breath.

The heat intensified, and yet he felt colder still. His entire body trembled with the biting cold.

"No, Timmy, what are you doing!?"

Then the warm hands were back, driving off the cold. Even the heat inside of him seemed to become bearable as Rocket was wrapped securely in the smell of smoke-tainted leather and cinnamon. His constant, violent trembling slowed to irregular tremors and he tried to burrow deeper into the safety of Quill's jacket.

"Easy, there…" but it wasn't Quill's voice reassuring him.

Feeling thoroughly confused, Rocket decided it was probably all right to allow the hands to stroke his head. It wasn't his team come to take him home, but this was warm and better than the cage. It didn't seem to make sense to fight it, so he let the comforting strokes lull his weary body into a peaceful almost sleep.

The boy, Timmy felt a strange sense of responsibility settle over him as the animal, securely bundled up in his jacket, curled up in his arms. He didn't even mind that he was getting animal hair all over the costly authentic second-hand space pirate jacket he'd gone to so much trouble to order. He'd even managed to forget Father's presence for a few moments.

"Well… It seems to like you," Father sighed, sounding surprised and relieved.

For him those were two practically foreign emotions.

Timmy looked up just in time to see his father lowering what looked like an aerosol canister. Frowning, he looked from Father to the animal and back. That was a can of doze chemicals!

"Father… is that what I think it is?" he asked carefully. "But that stuff is…"

Illegal… He could not make himself finish the sentence. There was no telling how Father would react to being defied, especially in a situation like this.

"I hope you will enjoy your birthday present," Father said, suddenly distant again. "And see that you dispose of that dreadful jacket. I'll not have my son and heir parading around in filthy Ravager attire."

He spun on his heel and walked away, but taking care to keep the canister out of Timmy's sight.

The furry bundle in the boy's arms coughed faintly and continued to shiver.

Troubled, Timmy wheeled himself and his sick little passenger back to his own room. The use of such potent chemicals on this small a creature had him so worried that he barely even registered that his father had finally noticed his personal little rebellion.

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