How to Buy Happiness

Chapter 9: Friend

"Ha! You dare challenge us?" Drax roared in defiance, his twin knives flashing menacingly.

Some of the enemy bodyguards actually stepped back when he glared at them. Peter couldn't really blame them – they all saw what he was capable of during the fight against the Moon Clan. Gamora brandished her sword almost casually and the offhandedness of her gesture somehow made her all the more intimidating. Groot was flexing his moss-covered shoulders and cracking his great wooden knuckles loudly. Peter thought some of those bodyguard dudes just might be wetting their pants right this minute.

But if they were caught in a firefight now, what would become of Rocket?

"Guys, I know we're awesome and all, but we're not exactly bullet-proof!" Peter hissed, nodding towards the shivering bundle in his arms.

"Just keep the small one safe," Drax assured him with a grim smile, "and we will end this quickly."

"I am Groot," their talking tree offered, thick wooden arms beckoning.

That's right, Peter thought, smirking, Groot's bark is pretty bullet-proof, after all...

"Ignoring me, hm? That's not exactly polite," Brandt pouted, fiddling with something behind his back. "Fine, if you refuse to relinquish those threatening weapons... your little ferret will pay the price."

"Pete...!" Rocket gave a distressed squeak.

When Peter looked down, he saw that the raccoon's eyes were wide with panic. He was clawing desperately at the collar around his neck. To Peter's horror, he saw that the thing was constricting! He tried to remove the vile contraption from his friend, but his fingers just couldn't seem to grasp any kind of release mechanism. Rocket's urgent panting turned to choking.

"Stop it!" Gamora cried. "Turn it off!"

"Only if you lay down your weapons," Brandt said with an oily smile. "And step away from them, if you please."

"Bastard!" Peter spat, but, knowing that Rocket couldn't last much longer, quickly threw down his blasters and took a few steps back.

The others followed his example and the collar finally eased up just enough for Rocket to catch his breath. The raccoon gasped and coughed and spluttered, but at least he was breathing. He looked up at Peter with wet, slightly unfocused eyes. Running his hand through Rocket's fur, Peter grit his teeth in frustration. The slime ball had Rocket as a hostage without even having to get near him.

"Now, hand over the unique little beast so that we may conclude our long overdue business here," Brandt ordered and a burly bodyguard stepped forward, holding out a pet carrier. Brandt's greedy grin broadened as he elaborated: "I will have to receive some form of compensation for the significant damage you all have done to my luxurious home. You see, it has come to my attention that this loud-mouthed creature is highly sought after in certain distant star systems... I've seen what the Kree were willing to offer the Moon Clan for him. There are others as well. I am sure to be compensated handsomely."

Peter felt the raccoon tense up as the business man spoke, but all he could do was keep stroking the soft fur. He wasn't quite sure who he was trying to comfort anymore; Rocket or himself.

"You fiend!" Drax growled.

"You must be out of your mind to think we'd put Rocket in a cage willingly!" Gamora ground out, furious.

"Would you rather I strangle your vulgar little pet?" Brandt asked, shrugging nonchalantly, as though he had no other choice but to be an asshole.

Dammit! Peter thought. He needed an escape plan, and he needed it now! Dammit-dammit-dammit!

The sniper took up position on the roof, making sure he had a near perfect view of the courtyard. For a moment, his eyes lingered on the regrettably ruined Moon Font. The blast had all but disintegrated the fountain completely, leaving behind nothing but rubble and a few trickles of holy water.

He had been too late to see what exactly had happened, but he was sure the Brandt boy's talking rodent was responsible for the explosion. He scratched irritably at the bandages wound all around his forearms. The rude little fur ball was half-hidden behind the huge tree-monster at the moment – all he could make out was a ringed tail and part of a shoulder.

His gaze swept the rest of the courtyard, taking in all the players. Conditions were less than perfect, and he only fired when he was absolutely sure of his shot.

With all the patience of the moon-blessed ocean, he watched the scene below unfold.

Deathly silence reigned in the courtyard as Brandt waited for the Guardians' answer.

Not another cage... Rocket thought in dismay. Not when he'd come so close to freedom... They wouldn't do that to him, right? Not his family...?

As if in answer to this question, Quill spoke up.

"Rocket," he said softly, "it's your call."

What a choice – get in the cage and once again become a prisoner, or death by strangulation. Rocket didn't really have to think about his answer long. He didn't want to die, of course not, but at least he would be with his family when it happened and not off on some frickin' alien operating table.

"A brilliant idea – let's have the untamed animal decide, shall we?" Brandt laughed. "What do you say, 'Rocket'? Will you give yourself up willingly, or can I start killing off your defenceless friends?"

What? Rocket's heart slammed hard against his ribs. No, that's not fair...!

"I think we'll start with the big wooden guy," Brandt continued cheerfully, "Sam #2, did you bring the flame thrower?"

"Right here, Mr Brandt, sir," the bodyguard in question replied.

And suddenly Rocket was confronted once more with the ugly realization that having people you cared about truly was a weakness that others could and would exploit to hurt you.

"I am Groot," the big tree said quietly, from what Rocket could see he was probably eyeing the flame thrower.

"A-Are you nuts!?" Rocket croaked. "Forget it! N-No!"

"I am Groot," he said again without blinking.

"Like hell, Groot! I'm n-not losing–" Rocket was interrupted by a vicious coughing fit. His insides were on fire again and it felt like he just might cough up a lung right there and wouldn't be surprised to find it was filled with burning coals. Groot waited patiently until the shaking raccoon got his breath back and could all but shout at the dumb tree: "D-Don't you dare die for me, Groot, ya hear me!? Don't you dare!"

Groot stared at him sadly. Gamora's eyes seemed bigger and rounder than usual and Drax's forehead held a few more creases than was normal for him. Quill looked like he'd swallowed something sour that made his stomach ache. Each, in their own way, wore the same expression.

Weakness or not, Rocket knew that these were his flarking people. Sure, he was no hero, not in the traditional sense, but he wasn't about to let anybody take any more hits for him if he could help it. He was done with being the cause of others getting hurt.

"Rocket..." Quill began in that tone that Rocket knew was meant to soften him up and change his mind, but the stubborn raccoon was having none of it.

"Put me down, Quill," Rocket said slowly.

"But Rocket–"

"Put me down or I'll bite yer krutacking face off!" Rocket yelled with as much force as he could muster.

Instead of getting angry at being threatened like the raccoon expected him to, Quill just suddenly had the most heartbroken smile on his face.

"All right, buddy, if that's what you wanna do..." he said, reluctantly lowering the raccoon to the ground. His eyes said something else, though. We'll come for you, his eyes said, no matter where they take you, we'll come for you.

Rocket nodded solemnly, then turned to face his fears.

The boy, Timmy, was only half awake as he was carried off in the safety of the big bodyguard's arms. Something kept him from dozing off completely, however. It was an odd feeling, a sort of buzzing energy that seemed to flow through his veins. He barely remembered anything from the strange ritual except for the feeling of being drained of life, of his very soul. And then he had felt a sudden jolt as he was snapped back into himself. When that man exploded – Timmy was sure he exploded; Rocket must have gotten his paws on a grenade somehow – something, something besides his own strength had surged into Timmy, leaving behind a strange, tingling residue.

"Wait a minute," Timmy exclaimed, eyes snapping open, "Sam, where's Rocket?"

"There may still be enemies about. Mr Brandt said to take you to safety immediately, young Master Timmy," Sam replied, keeping his eyes fixed ahead, "so I am taking you to the car."

"But, Rocket! He was hurt when I last saw him!" Timmy argued.

Sam ignored him. It was when good-natured Sam, one of the few of Father's staff who ever really spoke to him or showed any interest at all, refused to talk to him or even look him in the eye that Timmy realized something was wrong.

When they reached the car, Sam opened the door and hurriedly deposited Timmy into the vehicle despite the boy's protests. Then the man was getting something from the trunk. A heavy-looking weapon and a... box? No, a cage!

"Sam, I need to go back!" he cried, a bubble of fear rising in his throat.

"Master Timmy, just... just wait in the car," Sam said seriously, still avoiding the boy's eyes.

The man's shoulders were slumped and he was talking in that "this is adult business" tone Father so often used with Timmy when he really didn't want to answer the boy's questions. It was usually followed up with something like "you wouldn't understand" or "go to your room and play something on your computer". It had been the same ever since Mother's funeral and Timmy had, in a way, become used to it. It was now, when Sam – someone who had probably been the closest thing Timmy ever had to a friend until Rocket – used that same tone with him, that it really hurt.

"Please, you can't just leave me here!" Timmy begged, pounding on the window when the bodyguard turned his back on the car and started walking away. "Sam, please, he's my friend!"

Sam kept on walking without looking back. Soon his shadow was swallowed up in the surrounding darkness. After all Rocket had been through to save Timmy, Father would still put him in a cage? It was so unfair! Timmy stared out into the night, feeling more helpless than he'd felt in his entire life, and that included quite a collection of helpless moments. His vision blurred with unshed tears, he looked up at the moon, nothing more than a yellow puddle to his eyes, and did the most childish thing he'd done in a very long time; he made a little wish.

Was it his imagination, or did the moon seem bigger? Forcefully wiping the tears away, he frowned up at it. It was bigger.

Something made him think of flexing his legs. Wait... since when could he do that? Experimentally, he wriggled his toes and gasped aloud when they responded. Could it be true?

As if in a dream, he opened the car door and climbed out. Blinking in disbelief, he put one foot in front of the other... and started walking.

His wavering steps grew heavier and heavier the closer he came to the cage. Brandt stood over him, wearing a twisted smile. Rocket could smell the residue of chemicals wafting from the cage – though he did not think he would have recognized the thing with his eyes, his nose told him that this was the same cage they'd first captured him in. For a moment he stood frozen before the open cage, unable to make himself take that last step.

And then there were hands everywhere. Hands, roughly grabbing his arms and his legs, forcing him into the cramped steel trap. His breath hitched as memories of forever ago came bubbling over reality and thrusting him back into the past, into that cold place with the hands and the needles and the fear and the pain. This is where you get torn apart. Don't worry, they will put you back together, because they need you whole in order to tear you apart again...

Rocket was jolted out of his trance by Brandt speaking once more.

"Kill them," the pale pink business man instructed his men coldly.

And something snapped inside of Rocket.

The cage door had not yet completely closed. The owners of the grasping hands were distracted by the unexpected order. He fought back. Using the last weapons available to him, his teeth, he ripped through the hands clutching him on all sides until they let go. He squirmed his way past the gripping fingers tearing at his fur.

He knew he was too late the moment he felt the d'ast collar clamp shut around his windpipe once again, but he sure as hell wasn't going down without taking that bastard with him. Trying to block out the excruciating pressure around his throat, Rocket moved to attack Brandt. Maybe he could rip the man's throat open with his fangs.

But his vision was clouding over and his legs refused to respond. Somehow, he found himself on his knees, just a little too far from Septimus flarking Brandt to do anything to him except glare.

Can't even do this right... Rocket thought bitterly as he felt consciousness slipping away from him.

"Father, stop!" a small voice rang clearly across the courtyard.

All of Brandt's bodyguards stood frozen.

"T-Timmy, what...!?" Brandt faltered.

And then Rocket knew he was only seeing what he wanted to see. His oxygen-deprived mind was showing him something that his eyes told him was simply not possible: he saw Timmy, the boy in the wheelchair, running up to him, keycard in hand.

There was an electronic beep, followed by a click, and fresh air came rushing back into Rocket's lungs as the pressure from the collar ceased. The device that had caused him so much trouble fell to the concrete with a resounding clang, golden bell tinkling one last time.

The next few moments of Rocket's life consisted of simply breathing and relishing in the fact that he could.

"Timmy, how- how is this possible? You... Your legs...!" Brandt blubbered, disbelieving. "You're healed!"

"Father, please, listen to me," Timmy said, the boy's usually timid voice gaining intensity as his confidence grew, "I want you to let Rocket and his friends go."

"Wh-Why?" Brandt asked petulantly. "Timmy, don't you see? I-I'm doing this for you, I...! Don't... Don't you want your little pet back?"

"He's not a pet, Father," Timmy replied with conviction, "he's my friend. The only real friend I've had since..." The boy hung his head and made to let his sentence trail off unfinished. At this point, Rocket dragged himself to his feet and lightly touched Timmy's knee. The boy seemed to draw strength from the contact and looked back up, a determined light in his eyes. "My only real friend since Mother. Before I met Rocket, I was alone."

Septimus G Brandt's expression was a little like someone had slammed a door on his fingers.

"But, son," Brandt protested, "what makes you say that? I am your father – how can you say that you were alone? I-" The business man took a deep breath and seemed to steel himself. "I promised your mother I would give you the best life money can buy... I gave you a home, an education and anything your heart desired. Didn't your life of luxury make you happy?"

"When was the last time we spent any time together?" Timmy asked quietly. "We don't even have supper together anymore. We live in the same house, but we hardly ever talk to each other."

The pompous billionaire seemed to deflate.

"Oh, and just so ya know, the greedy lying g-gronad was gonna have my friends killed and then sell me to the frickin' Kree!" Rocket piped up as soon as he had his voice back, figuring now was as good a time as any to dispense some well-deserved payback.

The big bodyguard, who was apparently called Sam #2, comically tried to hide the bulky form of the flame thrower behind his back. Brandt, however, did not try to disguise his actions. Instead, he looked down right ashamed of himself.

And he krutacking-well ought to be! Rocket thought, caressing his tender throat. His head was throbbing and his eyelids felt heavy.

The boy turned to Rocket and knelt down so he was at eye level with the raccoon.

"I'm really sorry my father hurt you," Timmy said, slowly and deliberately placing his hand on Rocket's shoulder. "But I'm very glad we met."

The raccoon shrugged nonchalantly.

"Thanks for the save, kid," he replied earnestly.

Rocket's eyes sought out his family. There was still an uncomfortable chill in his bones and all he really wanted to do was sleep. His head swam. His sore body demanded rest and, though he would never admit it to anyone, he longed to be carried around for a bit. Somehow, if it was one of them doing the carrying, it felt... safe.

"Well, I guess that settles everything, guys!" Quill declared, strolling on over like he was the one who single-handedly resolved the conflict. Stupid attitude or not, Rocket would be lying if he said he wasn't glad to see him.

Just then, the happy silence Rocket had been revelling in was shattered by a resounding gunshot. And there was blood everywhere.

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