In which everything goes according to plan, there's absolutely no danger to life and limb, and Kraglin doesn't almost die again.
Trouble comes not in the form of a bilgesnipe’s anvil-shaped tail stud, but a bulky yellow Xandarian with ripped sleeves and flame tattoos.
“Dagada,” says Kraglin, jogging to a halt. “Sir.” It’s two hours into his night-cycle, there’s foreign Ravagers all around, and he’s got a pack full of anesthetic cartridges strapped to his back and another box under one arm. All in all, not the most subtle expedition. Dagada, blocking the corridor, rethinks the question he’d been about to pose and studies Kraglin’s cargo with interest.
“What’s all this?”
Kraglin juggles the incriminating evidence lower in the box, and repeats the lie he’d told the quartermaster. “Errand for Doc.” Unlike the quartermaster, Dagada doesn’t sniff disinterestedly and return to his account books. Instead he leans closer, cocking his head to read the script on the nearest label.
“That’s some potent juice you’ve got. What would Doc want with this? It’s too strong for use on bipedals.” Kraglin lifts a shoulder, striving to emulate the ignorant drawl of a Ravager gopher.
“Ain’t my place to ask, sir.”
“Indeed.” Dagada motions for Kraglin to turn, and gives his backpack a leisurely peruse. Kraglin bears the indignity with grace. So much for hoping Dagada would forget him. The bo’sun-turned-first-mate ignores the majority of the crew and incessantly picks on the minority brave or dumb enough to disrespect him; Kraglin had rather hoped to fall in with the former section, but Dagada nurses grudges like suckling teats, and evidently has yet to forget the part Kraglin played in his humiliation at Yondu’s hands. Just Kraglin’s luck.
“Where’s Udonta?” Dagada inquires, rummaging Kraglin’s jacket pockets. Kraglin stares straight ahead and answers as dully as he can –
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“I find that hard to believe.” Dagada pulls out his hairgel, turns it over in his palms, sneers at it, and drops it to clatter across the rusted paneling. “You two are thick as thieves recently. I can’t help but wonder what is it you’re up to.”
Shit. If he searches the inside pockets, he’s gonna have his question answered. Kraglin holds his breath, feeling the sharp edge of the lube tube dig through the lining.
“Are you planning something? Something regarding myself, and the first mate position Udonta so kindly vacated for me?” He’s spun again, Dagada in front of him this time. “Lift your arms. Or could you be conspiring against the captain?”
A brief pat-down ensues. Dagada’s hands are professional and sure. He touches Kraglin as little as possible, turning out his trouser pockets and checking through the pouches on his belt. The inspection is as thorough as it is detached, however, and Kraglin can only be grateful that he hasn’t been ordered to strip, bend over, and cough. But then, inevitably, Dagada tugs his coat zipper. “I know you’re up to something,” he hisses.
There’s no one on board who’s got the pleasantest breath, Kraglin included. After a fortnight of sharing bodyheat with Yondu, he’s kinda gotten used to it. But Dagada’s is especially putrid. His tongue’s furry and white, and the few solid dregs that can be strained from a bowl of Shorro-slops have been filtered by the gaps in his large, blockish teeth. Kraglin rears back.
“Sir, I really gotta go, I ain’t supposed to dawdle –“
“So you’re hiding something in here,” says Dagada gleefully, yanking the zip open with a rasp. One hand closes around Kraglin’s neck, forcing his chin up and compressing his airways just enough to warn. Then Dagada shoves the other into the lining of his coat. Kraglin braces himself –
Only for Dagada to hastily yank it out again.
“Ow! What the fuck?” There’s blood. A lot of blood. It spills from the ragged pit of Dagada’s nail bed, where he caught the tip of Kraglin’s new favorite dagger and pulled. Dagada stares at it, enraptured with pain, as if he can’t work out what’s happening. Kraglin stares at it too. Then realizes this is his chance, shuffles his bag securely over his shoulders, and ducks under Dagada’s arm.
“Sorry sir!” he calls, sprinting for the ladder-shaft. Oh, how he’d love to stay and offer him an anesthetic – preferably one of the ones with the fluorescent orange warning label on it, which when pressed, scrolls through holographic messages in every language in the Nova corpus: Not For Use On Bipedals. But duty calls. Yondu’s still on the M-ship, and they’ve got a bilgesnipe to knock out.
Later, he’s ass-naked with Yondu in a snoring sprawl over his lap, half a mind on the bilgesnipe in the storage-space next door and half dedicated to the IED digging into his hip, praying that this doesn’t all go abysmally tits up, and wishing he had a cigarette. Still. He’s on Inventory for his morning shift. The next day-cycle starts in three hours. Yondu’s not going to move for long after that, so Kraglin might as well grab some shut-eye while he can. He yawns, rubbing his eyes, and sets to scouring an area amid all of Yondu’s crud that’s big enough for him to curl up in and sleep.
His alarm goes off on the dot. Kraglin jerks awake, thrashing when it dawns that he’s not in his bunk and there’s something pinning his legs. Upon discovering that that something is blue, and distinctly fleshier than the gravimetric electroties favored by Cartel bounty hunters, he flops down again, intending to take a well-deserved five minutes.
Then he remembers that he’s already been conked out for three hours; three hours which Baby could’ve spent chewing its way out of its pen (not that it needs to do much more in the way of teething). And that if he scoots an inch to his right, he’ll be sitting on the detonator for the charge under his ass, and they’ll find out if these damn things are as inactive as Yondu keeps claiming.
Kraglin scrambles to his feet. Yondu’s rolled off with a grumble and a thud, but soon finds a grenade launcher to hug. Kraglin prays he doesn’t set it off in his sleep. Still, there’s bigger, fangier dangers weighing on his mind. He hits the door panel, and pokes his head into the dim compartment beyond.
Then slowly removes it. He’s hallucinating. He has to be.
Fourteen meters of spine-backed, mace-tailed bilgesnipe doesn’t just disappear, after all.
Kraglin shuts the door, counts to five, and opens it again. Then pinches himself just to be sure. Then, and only then, does he start to panic.
“The fuck d'you mean it’s gone! It can’t be gone!”
Yondu’d responded to the wake-up shake with the expected amount of swearing and an unprecedented number of fists. But as soon as the words Kraglin had been hissing seeped into his ears, it was impossible to remain unconscious. Now he sits, cross-legged and bleary-eyed, and leers at Kraglin like this is somehow his fault. “You telling me ya lost it?”
“I didn’t lose anything!” Kraglin yells. Yondu’s eyes widen and he grabs him by the cheeks, shaking his head violently from side to side. Kraglin drops his voice to a whisper, panting through his squished lips. “I had nothin' t'do with this! I just went to check on it! And it! Is! Gone!”
Yondu blinks. “Well, did ya look in the cage?”
“Of course I looked in the cage, dammit, I ain't retarded –“
“But if someone took it out,” Yondu interrupts, clamping down on Kraglin’s shoulders hard enough to cut off the circulation, “that means they musta seen us!” He releases Kraglin long enough to smack himself in the forehead. “Fuck!”
Kraglin boggles at him. “That’s what you’re most concerned about?”
“Aw, just… hell, let’s go.” Yondu uses him as a crutch to drag himself upright, lifting the nearest shirt from the pile of carb-cubes on the way. Kraglin totters after him, unsteady on his feet.
“You’re telling me we’re – what? Going to hunt this thing? Can we at least comm it in first?”
Yondu stomps into the antechamber. He takes in the crowbarred wreckage of the bilgesnipe’s cage and the absentee roof, and crouches besides the truncated bulb of the wall, running his fingers over a scrape between rivets. The lights of the Hangar slide clinquant off his bare blue legs. Kraglin is suddenly glad that they’re suspended close to the roof.
“Look,” Yondu says, pointing. “Someone pried off the top panels – like how I got it in.” As if that wasn’t evident. Yondu strokes his chin. “Perhaps they didn’t see us after all.”
Kraglin could throttle him. Or he could try, but he’d wind up dead and unsatisfied. He strangles the air in front of him instead. “Please, I really don’t think now’s the time for us to be worryin' over that…”
“I ain’t worried,” snaps Yondu, predictably. Kraglin’s so on-edge that he actually rolls his eyes at him. “What?”
Kraglin makes a long survey of the busted, roofless storage chamber, the cracked cage, and the rumpled Centaurian clad only in a black shirt and his skin who stands amid the wreckage of his future prospects. This… is beyond his pay-grade. “I’m comming the captain,” he says. Yondu’s eyes widen.
“Like hell you are –“
“Ya might wanna put on some pants before she gets here.”
Yondu snarls and tries to tackle him, but Kraglin has the bonus of having been awake for more than five minutes, on top of actually having a normal adrenaline-response to discovering that the gargantuan man eating monstrosity they’ve been hiding on Yondu’s ship is loose. He sidesteps, and Yondu skids facefirst into the doorjamb.
“Don’t you fuckin’ dare,” he growls, more hellish than ever with his eyes glowing red and blue blood dripping from his nose. Kraglin, preparing to dodge again at short notice, keeps his eyes on him as he dials the relevant code into his comm. “I’ll shoot ya, Kraglin. I’ll do it.”
He’s not sure if he dares call his bluff. Kraglin glances around, checking if Yondu’s arrow is in the vicinity – might give him an extra second to make the call, if it’s out of Yondu’s line-of-sight. Then regrets it, as Yondu pounces on opportunity and him alike, and dives him to the floor. Kraglin’s head clunks off a storage box. Spots stutter in front of his vision; he moans, waving them away to reveal Yondu astride his legs and sans-modesty from the waist down, Kraglin’s limp wrist held in one hand as he figures out how to cancel the comm-call upside down and backwards.
“Fuckin'… fuck… dammit,” he mutters as he clicks through the buttons. Kraglin holds his breath in hope. For once, his prayers are answered. Yondu’s fumbling catches the call switch.
“The fuck d'you want?” snaps Jora’s, voice all the huskier through the static. Never has Kraglin heard a sweeter, grouchier sound.
“Captain!” he shouts. “Escaped bilgesnipe in M-ship Hangar V need assistance –“ Yondu swears and clicks the comm off. “ – Send reinforcements immediately,” Kraglin finishes lamely. Then squints at Yondu, who’s sitting back on his thighs, still naked-bar-shirt (and damn, it is really not the time to be distracted by that now) with an inscrutable emotion in his eyes. “What?”
“Now I gotta kill you,” Yondu says.
Kraglin only has time to relish the sensation of all his internal organs dehydrating simultaneously, and to thank his ancestors that he’s inherited their impeccable bladder control. He watches Yondu’s lips purse in slow motion. The daze in his head settles like a miasma, and he’s at once inside his body and outside of it, a spectator and participant in the same instant, and he’s going to die. Maybe this time for real.
Then Yondu’s comm beeps. Kraglin flops like a rag doll. Honestly. It’s a wonder his heart hasn’t given out, what with all this adrenaline whiplash.
“Udonta!” Jora roars.
Kraglin has seen Yondu infuriated, hungry, horny, half-asleep and grouchy. Never nervous. It’s not a good look on him. “You should get that,” he croaks. Yondu motions for him to shut up. Shifts so his foot’s pressed on Kraglin’s chest and he’s sitting on his knees, preventing him from fleeing as he activates the comm.
“Hey captain,” he drawls. “What’s up?”
There’s an incandescent splutter of rage. “You… you bring a bilgesnipe onto my ship? And then you ask me that?” She knows. Shit. Kraglin meets Yondu’s panicked eyes and pulls an eloquent face. You got yourself into this. And, knowing Yondu, he’ll get himself out of it. Even intact, if he’s lucky.
Yondu’s mouth thins; Kraglin can see him chewing on the inside of his cheeks. When he speaks it’s collected; decisive – even though his foot’s sweating against Kraglin’s chest. The arrow-scar twinges under a cracked blue toenail. “They was gonna cough up forty-hundred units for a simple drop-off. You think I’m gonna pass that up?” There’s a hum of appreciation from behind Jora; Kraglin guesses that’s the rest of the Bridge crew listening in. Of course. Money – the way to a Ravager’s heart. Of course Yondu’d spin it like he was trying to nab them all a pay-raise, not just up his pissing contest with the first mate. Jackass. “Nah, it was under control,” Yondu continues, well-aware of their additional audience. “Until somebody decided to steal it.”
“Really?” Jora’s voice is poison. “Because I now got two reports confirmin' that there’s a bilgesnipe loose on deck. And that it clawed its way outta your M-ship.” Kraglin frowns. He hadn’t mentioned that, had he? Yondu, meanwhile, is scanning the remains of his busted-open wing, a smile starting to form.
“Hey, I’m on site and I ain’t seeing no clawmarks. It was still conked out when they nicked it. Someone’s loosed this thing; and, as it sure as heck wasn’t me – who else made the report?”
Jora hesitates. Kraglin can’t see it – from his angle, the hologram is a dark pixelated slice. But he hears the weary exhalation of breath. “Some novice,” she says – a press of Yondu’s foot warns Kraglin not to reveal himself, not that he’d be tempted anyway. “And Dagada.”
Yondu’s grin is bloodcurdling. “The wiseguy who never thinks ahead, forgettin' to wipe the evidence. Wouldya imagine that.” It’s just as likely that Dagada had had rather more on his mind than evidence-wiping – the logistics of hauling a bilgesnipe around the hangar-deck, for one. Or potentially, a waking bilgesnipe. Kraglin’s torn between hoping the tranqs are as strong as Yondu promised and wishing Dagada a startling toothy end.
Jora stabs her finger into the camera on her wristpiece. Her miniature hand bursts over Yondu’s forehead in shimmery ribbons. “I still wanna know why I wasn’t aware it was on board to start with! And why you didn’t comm me earlier.”
“Because the kid I put in charge of it only just told me it was missing,” Yondu lies easily. Kraglin groans and smacks his skull on the box with a solid thunk. “And I knew ya wouldn’t say yes.”
“You think that gives you an excuse to disobey me?” Jora asks. But it doesn’t sound like her heart’s in it. “Tell me ya at least sedated it.”
Yondu snorts, offended. “Of course! It’ll be woozy for another hour, I reckon.”
As if he has any way to tell. But Jora takes his word on it, inclining her head in a severe nod. Kraglin wishes he had the same confidence. “I expect it restrained in that time,” she tells him. “I’ll evacuate the Hangar deck and seal you in. And dock any damage from your pay-cheque.” Yondu’s grumble is snipped short by a glare. “Judgin' from that last message, it’s already eaten one novice.” Kraglin wonders if there’s anyone left with a bet on him, and whether they’ll try to collect. “Let any more die, and I’ll tie you up and feed ya to it myself.”
“And Dagada?” Yondu asks. Jora narrows her eyes.
“He can help. And if the bilgesnipe eats one of ya, it’ll sure make my life a helluva lot easier.”
Yondu clicks off the comm, scowl folding into grim contemplation. Still pinned, Kraglin stretches his nose as far away from Yondu’s foot as it can get, and treats himself to a drawn-out, lingering whimper. Perfect. He’s going monster hunting with the biggest asshole on board, and the first mate. Sure, Kraglin’s name hasn’t been mentioned; as usual, he’s hovering on the peripherals of this venture. But he’ll be roped in somehow – although if they crawl out alive he can wager that he’ll never see any of the rewards. Soon enough, his prediction is proved. Yondu shifts his steely gaze onto him and affords him a generous inch to extract himself.
“Alright. You, me, and Dagada. Go fetch the tranq box.” A beat. “And my pants.”