Chapter 8: Family
The unstable laugh rolling out of the rotund man in front of him gave Rocket shivers. An elaborately decorated ceremonial knife appeared in the man's hand. He approached the cornered raccoon with a lopsided grin. The crescent moons carved into the blade caught the light and gleamed menacingly.
"I'll show you what I'm going to do with your sad excuse for family!" Gibbous Bisonbait said in a breathy chuckle.
The man's threat of selling him in little pieces was still fresh in Rocket's mind. He edged away from the maniac with the fancy knife as far as the restraint on his wrist allowed, but Bisonbait's slow and inexorable advance soon brought him almost nose to nose with the raccoon. Well, not nose to nose exactly, now that he'd had first-hand experience with Rocket's vicious biting capabilities (Next, the bastard was probably going to want to pull his teeth! Rocket grimaced inwardly), but uncomfortably close anyway.
As the crazy man raised his knife-wielding hand, Rocket flinched back. But then the knife was slicing through the leather restraint attached to the bed and pudgy fingers dug into the back of the raccoon's neck as he was lifted into the air by his scruff. A numb tingle began to spread through his limbs.
He struggled and kicked and cursed until he was out of breath, fighting the unpleasant numbness as much as the man's hold, but nothing could loosen the bruising grip the bastard had on him. Why did big people always insist on carrying him around like this? He thought of blowing this jerk up in a glorious explosion right here and now. But there were too many variables and he did not have enough of an escape plan yet. He knew next to nothing of the layout of the old hospital and he still needed to find the kid. No, Rocket had to wait for the perfect moment to use his last grenade. With luck, this hairless gronad was taking him straight to Timmy and they could escape together.
What felt like endless tiled hallways went by, all identical except for different stages of decay. As he hung there, unable to free himself, Rocket's thoughts drifted to his rescuers. They were probably having all the fun without him, guns blazing and elbow-deep (all right, more likely it was hip-deep at their height) in fallen and falling enemies. He could just see Quill bobbing his head in that insufferable way he did when he was doing battle with his headphones on. Gamora would be certain death in motion – that dangerous dame made killing into a form of art. Compared to the lithe green assassin, Drax was more like a bulldozer on the battlefield... a bulldozer on steroids. Well, people didn't go around calling him Destroyer for nothing. And Groot, Rocket's great big best friend would be mowing down his enemies with ferocity, but still be ever ready with a goofy smile.
How Rocket wished with all his heart that he could be with those blasted idiots right now.
They came to a courtyard that must have once been connected to the cafeteria, if the rotten stone tables and benches arranged all along the edges were any indication. Now, it looked like these moon goons had turned the place into some sort of open-air temple. Rocket guessed that the fountain commanding the centre of the courtyard was either restored or new, since its stone was smooth and polished and the fountain was in working order. Wistful thoughts of Groot came unbidden to the raccoon's mind at the sight of the burbling water.
He didn't have much time to consider this strange form of nostalgia, however, as his eyes found Timmy sitting in the corner in that old wheelchair. The boy looked up and, at seeing Rocket, a relieved smile lit up his pale pink features. He looked a little frightened, but otherwise unharmed, Rocket noted gratefully.
Gibbous Bisonbait seemed to notice the exchange. He turned a smug and rather vicious smile on the raccoon hanging helplessly in his grasp. By now, Rocket had lost most of the feeling in his arms and legs from being held by the scruff for so long.
"Say goodbye to your pathetic family, rodent," the fat man smirked.
And then it hit him. The man had assumed when Rocket talked during his outburst about having a family that he'd been referring to Timmy, because, of course, he did not know about the Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket felt a nasty, sinking feeling settling in his gut.
"The time will soon come for us to defend ourselves and our most holy shrine..." Gibbous Bisonbait intoned dramatically. "The Moon Sisters demand payment in blood. Ready the boy!"
Two black-robed acolytes immediately stepped forward to haul Timmy out of the wheelchair and place him on an oversized stone bench in the middle of the courtyard, just opposite the fountain. The boy's eyes were wide with fear. Rocket felt a spike of guilt rip through him. If only he'd kept his mouth shut...
"Wait!" Rocket cried, willing his numb limbs to move, trying in vain to twist himself out of the grip so he could bite the bastard's hand again. "Ya got it all wrong, that ain't—"
"Here, hold this," the fat man said disdainfully, shoving the struggling Rocket at a nearby guard. "Careful, it bites."
"But sir, you said no harm was to come to the boy," one of the armoured soldiers protested. "We were to ransom him back to his father for a staggering amount of credits, as part of our campaign to bring down Brandt Industries. W-We even prepared a ransom video to be sent at your command—"
"That was before I discovered how much this little monster is worth," the fat man remarked, giving Rocket's nose a vengeful flick. "We'll have more than enough funds for our campaign. Not to worry, Brandt will still be brought low. Imagine how distraught he'll be when he finds nothing but a used up husk of his only son, knowing he suffered at the hands of the Moon Clan!"
Gibbous Bisonbait removed his sandals, then delicately lifted his robes as he climbed over the ledge and into the fountain. The water seemed to pulse higher as he did so.
"W-What are you doing?" Timmy asked, voice pleading, as the two robed figured secured his hands in place with manacles.
This is my fault... Rocket thought bitterly as the acolytes flanking the boy each unsheathed a ceremonial belt knife.
He forced himself to watch as they drew the blades across the boy's open palms as part of their macabre ritual. The moon worshippers shuffled over to the fountain and dipped their reddened knives into the water. The fountain spiralled ever higher, eventually hiding the fat, robed man inside it from sight.
This is all my fault... Rocket thought as he watched Timmy slump forward slightly like he was in some sort of magic-induced trance.
Blasting through crowds of Moon Clan soldiers and bobbing his head in time to Hooked on a Feeling, Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, couldn't help feeling a little bit like a hypocrite. He was mad at the Moon Clan for betraying them, but here he was, betraying them right back. The moon dudes hadn't been completely honest with him, so he was pretty sure he was still in the right, but it was damn well confusing.
It wasn't every day a guy signed up for an infiltration mission and ended up fighting alongside the very people he'd intended to rob. Well, 'rob' wasn't technically the right word, since they weren't planning on stealing from Brandt and his lackeys, just on getting their missing team mate back. How was he supposed to know that the crazy moon-worshipping clowns he'd been working with not too many hours ago would end up kidnapping not only an innocent kid, but also the very team mate Peter and his team had set out to rescue?
Even more ironic was the fact that, if Brandt hadn't put that high-tech, evil-sounding collar on Rocket, they wouldn't have been able to trace the enemy's location. Of course, if it hadn't been for Brandt kidnapping Rocket, this mess wouldn't have happened in the first place.
Septimus G Brandt had been so desperate to get his son back, he'd put all his resources at the Guardians' disposal. The man had even personally escorted them to the site in his limousine. It felt strange having an army of bodyguards fighting at his side, but he was definitely grateful for the assistance. There were hundreds of these Moon Clan bozos, so Peter certainly appreciated the numbers Brandt's bodyguards added to the field.
Not that any of the Guardians seemed to be having a hard time cutting down moon zombies. Gamora had a clear space around her at all times as the enemies learned to keep their distance from her or lose limbs. Drax was a whirlwind of fists, daggers and feet that left a trail of bodies wherever he went. And Groot, of course, stood head and shoulders above anyone in the crowd. Every now and then, a soldier would come flying over Peter's head from that direction as the big tree man hurled enemies from his path. Peter himself brought his blasters to bear, utilizing his boot jets to move quickly through the armoured men and surprising them from unexpected directions.
The only thing that was missing was the crazed laughter of their trigger-happy raccoon as he laid waste to stragglers with those big ass guns he loved so much. Well, Peter would be fixing that soon enough.
Suddenly there were no more enemies between the Guardians and the main courtyard, where the tracking device indicated Rocket's location. Peter took off his headphones and surveyed their hard work with what he hoped was a serious expression – he really wanted to do an air punch at being so close to finally getting Rocket back.
"What is that?" Drax rumbled uncertainly, making Peter look up.
A tall pillar of water was spouting from the centre of the courtyard up ahead, fountaining a good two storeys into the air. High up in the sky, the moon seemed much bigger than it had earlier that evening.
"That can't be good," Gamora murmured, "let's go!"
The Guardians of the Galaxy stormed the courtyard. The first thing Peter noticed upon entering, was, naturally, the giant pillar of water. It seemed to come from the stone basin of an ancient-looking fountain. Across from the fountain, a boy was sitting slumped on a stone bench, his arms held to the bench by metal cuffs. Finally, Peter's eyes located Rocket. One of the enemy soldiers was clutching him by the scruff of his neck. The raccoon's eyes were fixed on the boy by the fountain.
"Okay, the game is up!" Peter declared to the cowering black-robed men beside the boy's chair, placing his hands on his hips for more effect. "You're welcome to untie the kid and surrender, because we're breaking up this sermon!"
"You'll do no such thing!" a monstrous voice erupted from within the fountain.
A grotesque, red-eyed figure stepped out of the wall of water. Peter had only a moment to recognize him as a hideously bloated, glow-in-the-dark version of the fat man who had first let the Guardians into the Moon Clan's secret hideout before the man raised his glowing hand, palm up, and hit Peter with a blast of air and water that slammed him into one of the crumbling stone benches surrounding the courtyard.
Black spots swam before his eyes as he fought to stay conscious. He was aware of Drax charging the unnatural being. At the same time, Gamora flanked their hideous enemy, sword singing as it arched through the air on its path to drinking Gibbous Bisonbait's blood. Groot came lumbering in from a third direction, barbed vines already stretching to impale their foe.
Time seemed to slow as Peter watched his team come within a hair's breadth of reaching the glowing, super-powered villain. There was a noise like a thunderclap, then a moment's silence before a shock wave pummeled everyone around the crazed moon priest, knocking Brandt bodyguards, moon soldiers and Guardians alike off their feet.
"You might as well give up now," the bloated man laughed in a voice like an earthquake. As he spoke, the spittle that flew from his lips became a torrent of wind and rain. "I have been blessed by the power of the Moons! None of you can touch me!"
Peter looked over his downed team mates. Gamora was recovering quickly, but Drax hit his head hard and Groot was pinned to the wall by a pillar of water stemming from the main column at the heart of the fountain. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter caught the motions of a furry tail swishing furtively – Rocket. A determined frown grew on the half-terran's face and he staggered to his feet.
"You think you're so tough!" he shouted at the top of his lungs to be heard over the abnormal storm raging in the courtyard. "You're nothing but a kidnapper and a bully!"
"You measly little insect! I will crush you!" raged the swollen Gibbous Bisonbait, eyes glowing with sinister red light as he advanced towards Peter. "I'll teach you to respect the power of—"
An almost comical expression crossed the fat man's face as a small metal object came sailing through the air, bounced once and rolled to a stop right in front of his feet. He had a full second to stare at the grenade on the ground before him in utter puzzlement.
"Eat shrapnel, jackass!" Rocket crowed triumphantly.
Peter covered his face as the courtyard erupted in flying pieces of stone, metal shards and moon fanatic innards.
The tempest in the courtyard had not yet cleared when Rocket Raccoon half-ran, half-fell his way towards the great stone bench in the middle of the courtyard. Guilt was a hungry thing, gnawing at his insides. He practically lurched up onto the armrest to undo the manacles around the boy's wrists. Hurriedly, he fumbled the iron clasps open before scurrying into the boy's lap, all the while mumbling apologies. He took Timmy's face in both paws and carefully lifted the boy's head.
"M'sorry, kid, m'so sorry," he gasped. "Please... don't be dead..."
He nearly collapsed out of pure relief when Timmy's eyes opened.
"Rocket..." the boy rasped, grinning. "I'm so glad you're okay..."
"Me?" Rocket frowned incredulously. "Yer the one who had to sit through a frickin' ritual!"
"I'm all right, really," Timmy replied.
The boy looked pale and tired. He looked relieved. He did not, however, look hurt, thank goodness.
"I'll take it from here, kitty," a big voice said from behind, nearly making Rocket jump.
The goon whom Rocket had tasered back when the guy had been chasing him up and down the Brandt manor house trying to recapture him cast a huge shadow, blocking out the now thankfully normal moonlight from above. Rocket's heart was in his throat as he checked the big man's hands for that nasty bottle of spray. But, for once, the Brandt household bodyguard only had eyes for the boy at the raccoon's side.
"Ah, hi, Sam," Timmy said with an exhausted smile, "I'm glad to see you..."
"Come on, Master Timmy," the beefy bodyguard said, kneeling and gently gathering the boy in his arms, "let's get you home."
The word hit Rocket with force akin to a fist in the gut. The raccoon felt another pang of that painful nostalgia he'd never known before discovering he had a family. It was longing mixed with hollow, desolate sadness. It was a very uncomfortable feeling and Rocket decided that he hated it. If it hurt like this whenever you missed your family, having a home and a family was nothing but a weakness. With a twinge of anxiety, he realized that that meant he was really better off not having one. Hot on the heels of this idea came another absurd realization – he didn't care. He wanted this. He wanted to call that bunch of losers his family and he wanted them to come to his rescue and the very idea of losing that scared him so much he—
"Rocket!" a voice he knew all too well called out to him, startling him out of the disorienting maelstrom of his thoughts.
Were they really here this time? Or was he hallucinating again?
Slowly, he turned around, hoping he could believe his eyes.
Peter's heart ached for the little guy as he watched Rocket stumble towards them unsteadily. The little raccoon had a limp in his step and his tail dragged behind him in a bedraggled manner. He seemed to favour his one side and Peter was horrified to notice dried blood on the clothing there. Rocket's usually bright and mischievous eyes seemed a bit glassy and distant. Cuts and scrapes marred the raccoon's muzzle and drooping ears, and despite his slow pace, Rocket seemed to be panting slightly. Groot was immediately at his tiny best friend's side, but Rocket just stood there looking up at him tiredly. He made no move to scurry up onto his usual secure perch on the tree man's shoulder.
"I am Groot?" the tall wooden man asked softly and Rocket shook his head, spreading his small hands. This seemed to agitate Groot. "I AM GROOT!"
Peter and the other Guardians winced at Groot's outraged bellow.
"I-It'll grow back, ya d'ast idiot," Rocket laughed softly, but it sounded forced, "don't make a fuss..."
But Groot was still angry and Rocket looked inconsolable with that fake smile on his face and even though Peter had no idea what it was about, he could no longer stand it. In two long strides, he closed the distance between himself and Rocket and scooped the vulnerable little creature up in his arms. Predictably, Rocket went stiff as a fence post at this, but Peter wasn't about to be put off. He braced himself for the sharp little claws as Rocket instinctively gripped his shirt, sharp little claws that never came... and suddenly Peter understood their tree giant's rage. Someone had trimmed Rocket's nails down to blunt little stubs.
What else had they done to him that Peter could not see with his eyes?
Hoping to convey a feeling of safety to his small friend, Peter held Rocket gently but firmly against his chest. Drax was the first to comprehend Peter's gesture and stepped forward, placing a large hand with surprising tenderness on the top of Rocket's head. Gamora was not far behind, lacing slender green fingers through the fur of Rocket's cheek. Lastly, Groot stomped closer, his great wooden hands splayed open wide so they could touch Rocket's shoulder and encompass each of the other Guardians' hands as well. They stood there like that, huddled around their lost and found family member. And then, finally, Rocket, too, understood what they were trying to say and relaxed into Peter's hold, letting out a long, shaky breath.
"It's all right, buddy," Peter spoke in a low whisper, meant for no one's ears but the raccoon, "we're gonna take you home."
"Wha'took you guys so long?" Rocket murmured with his face pressed into the material of Peter's jacket.
"Well, you know," Peter quipped playfully, "we had to pick up Gamora's dry-cleaning and we absolutely had to stop for take-out along the way..."
"We did no such thing!" came Drax's scandalized exclamation. "Furry friend, as soon as we heard that you were in peril—"
"Not literally, Drax," Rocket laughed quietly – a real laugh this time, if slightly subdued, but that counted as a victory.
At first, Peter took that small tremor in Rocket's body for silent mirth. But when the trembling didn't stop or slow, Peter looked down at the quivering creature with concern and saw that the raccoon was shivering.
"Rocket, buddy, are you okay?" he asked.
"Just c-cold, 's all," Rocket stammered. "Could do with summa that take-out right about now..."
But the usually cold and wet nose was too hot for comfort. Rocket's ear flicked irritably as Peter held it between two fingers. He found that the insides of Rocket's ears were much too warm, too.
"You're burning up," he said.
"Screw that, I'm f-freezing my fuzzy little ass off here...!" Rocket complained faintly, teeth chattering.
The overheating little furball burrowed deeper into Peter's jacket, desperate for body heat, his breath coming in short, strained gasps hot as any furnace. The defiant eyes slid closed and if it wasn't for the short, harsh breaths, Peter might have thought Rocket was only sleeping.
Gamora broke their protective huddle reluctantly.
"He is ill," she said decisively as she looked Rocket over, "we have to do something."
"First, we should take him away from this place," Drax agreed, his gaze travelling over the many fallen enemies and what was left of Gibbous Bisonbait. "Then we can take him to a medical facility."
"N'doctors..." Rocket groaned, shaking his head weakly.
"That's not debatable, Rocket," Gamora replied not unkindly, stroking his fur sympathetically.
Instead of arguing, Rocket only let out a miserable sigh, a sure sign of how sick he really was.
"All right, everybody, let's mosey," Peter announced with his best swagger.
"Not so preposterously fast, good sir," Septimus G Brandt's voice rang out across the courtyard. The business man's smile was filled with avarice as he ran his eyes over the trembling bundle of fur clutched to Peter's chest. "I believe you still have something rare and exotic that belongs to me..."
"Well, $#!&..." Peter cursed whole-heartedly as the bodyguards who had been fighting alongside them mere moments ago all turned and aimed their guns at the Guardians of the Galaxy.