In which Yondu is a role model, for once in his life. Don’t drink after having anesthetic. Just… don’t.
One hour later sees them trudging below decks, down into the musty dark of the bilgesnipe’s lair.
Well, Kraglin trudges. Yondu limps. When the quartermaster couldn’t find two crutches of any one size in the whole of his stores, Yondu, still woozy, had blamed Dagada. When Kraglin pointed out that Dagada had yet to leave the medbay and that this was just the result of bad scavenging, Yondu gritted his teeth and blamed that on Dagada too.
“Damn idiot!” he rages, leaning against the canteen trolley as Kraglin unlocks Baby’s cell. “Doc and quartermaster say they need more supplies! But Jora’s too much a coward to attack anything larger than a mini-med cruiser thas' gone off course, and Dagada’s too dumb to stage an ambush! You see what I gotta work with? It… It ain’t fair!” Kraglin, peering nervously into the space beyond – the grubby walls of which are lit only by a flickering bulb that makes it look like it could stand in as a set for a Xandarian slasher holoflick – prays that Baby’s a heavy sleeper. And that Jora doesn’t have any spies sneaking about this level of the ship.
“Y’know?” he says, patting Yondu on his heaving shoulder and easing him against the wall. The cast thumps the uneven floor paneling, and his face screws up belatedly, like the pain’s taking a moment to filter. “I think you’re still high. How about you stay put, and I’ll go dump the meat. And clean up the crap an' all.”
“That’s a good plan,” Yondu slurs, slumping down and wincing as his cast scrapes the entire way. He props his crutches next to his head – then sighs when they slip, and lays them over his lap instead. “Why can’t captain come up with good plans like that? You’re a good planner, Krags. I like you.”
If only he knew which icon on his wristpiece recorded.
“Thanks, sir. You can tell me again when you ain’t juiced to the gills.”
He steps into the makeshift cage, treading lightly. It’s acquired a warm, stinky animal hum; rotten meat-breath, damp fur and carnivore-shit; which Kraglin suspects he’ll be scrubbing for a week to eradicate. Pushing the trolley that Shorro had sullenly loaded with raw meat scraps into the room’s center, he glances at the snoring Baby, shoulders his shovel, and heads for the nearest pile.
It doesn’t take him too long, all in all. He scoops the poop into another bucket – there’s no one around to grimace at, so he just sets his face and bears it. Then, generously deciding that whatever her crimes against him, Baby doesn’t deserve to squirm over the sticky patch in her sleep, he sponges the worst of the slime off the metal and splashes it over with water from her bowl. Ain’t five-star accommodation. But it’s the best they can provide (and, while he’s hardly gonna suggest as much to Yondu, this smuggling bunker’s a helluva lot sturdier than the crappy wooden crate lying busted and splintered in his M-ship). He figures it’ll last ‘em till they reach Knowhere, at least.
Then they can deliver Baby over to the Collector, and be on their way. Whatever business he has with her, it ain’t none of theirs.
That’s what Kraglin tells himself.
Still, he’s not going to get answers by mooning into her empty eyesocket. Hefting the steaming bucket, Kraglin waves bye-bye to Baby. When you’ve suffered through salivating jaws and meat-breath inches from your face, the sight of her slumbering at a distance can be called cute, if you’re feeling generous. Very, very generous. She’s like a kitten, really – a massive, ugly, scythe-clawed kitten that’s been crossbred with a dinosaur; but a kitten nonetheless, and one that needs affection and love. Kraglin squats, bucket resting on the dull scuffed steel, and props his chin on his hand. Why, she’s borderline tranquil (which admittedly, might have something to do with the massive amounts of opiate-based soporific pumping through her system). Watching the steady heave of her chest, the bulge and flutter of her nostrils, he’s a little guilty about delivering her to a future of glass cages and terrible fashion choices. A beast like this deserves to be free. Running through a forest somewhere. Terrorizing small villages. Not… not locked up to be gawped at.
Baby snuffles and rolls, yawning.
Kraglin manages not to piss himself through sheer willpower. He scrambles out the door, slams it and locks it so fast that he almost drops the bucket on his foot. Scratch all that; the Collector’s welcome to her.
The bucket’s contents, thankfully, are too stodgy to slop – he ain’t sure how you convince a fourteen metre bilgesnipe with teeth made for bone-crunching to get more fiber in their diet, but that’s the Collector’s problem. He still nearly upends it over Isla when she pops up by his hip and elbows him in the thigh-nerve. Isla dodges back, cackling.
“Nice handbag ya got there, Krags!”
Kraglin lowers the bucket, pins and needles jarring up his leg. “It nearly went over your head,” he warns. Isla doesn’t look especially worried at the prospect.
She heads to Yondu, passing a hand in front of his eyes. “Eclector to Udonta? Anyone in?” Yondu blinks out of whatever daze he’d fallen into. Wedges his crutches between the floor grills and starts the arduous task of levering himself upright. Kraglin doesn’t dare offer help, not with Isla here – who, taking in the leg that’s bound thigh-to-toe in rough white plaster, whistles under her breath.
“Nice. You tried kicking anyone with it yet?”
“You could be the first,” Yondu offers. Kraglin insinuates himself between them, bucket held up in warning.
“Uh, no. Doc’s orders. And no alcohol either. So sorry Isla, but if this’s about the moonshine –“
“Who made you my nurse?” Yondu interrupts, glowering at him. He’s looking at Kraglin like he’s an extension of the bucket. Which is… well, all kinds of rude and unfair, but hardly unexpected. Isla raises her eyebrows and finds an interesting string of rust to examine on the doorpost. Kraglin sighs.
“I’d say 'knock yourself out then sir', but you actually would. And I’d have to lug yer heavy ass back to the medbay.”
Yondu’s preparing to retaliate – possibly test out his cast on him instead – when Jora’s name pops out of his wristpiece, flashing like a demented bioluminescent species dredged from an ocean trench. Kraglin, who’s picked up a spare chronometer from the quartermaster and had it coded for him while Yondu was in with Doc, blinks at the matching icon fanning in front of his own face. Captain Calling. That’s… a surprise.
“Saved by the bell!” Isla smacks Kraglin on the ass – his bucket jolts alarmingly – and waves a cheery farewell to Yondu. “Meet me tonight,” she tells him, circumnavigating Kraglin’s warning – or perhaps ignoring it completely. Isla does have impressively selective hearing. “Usual place. Whole gang’s there – ‘cept Varra, of course.”
Kraglin manages not to jump. She winks at him and saunters off, swinging her broad hips like a wrecking ball. Ass smarting and wire bucket handle digging into the meat of his palm, Kraglin watches her go. Once she’s out of earshot, he turns on Yondu. “What she said… D’you think she knows…?”
“'Bout Varra?” Yondu shrugs. “Dunno. Don’t care neither, so long as she don’t go bringing it up in conversation.”
Right. That’s the way it works round here. You can murder your friends if they badmouth you, then swan off for a pint with the gang after. Kraglin presses the commlink more as an excuse to think of something else than out of any real desire to be chewed out by the Ravager captain; he blinks when, instead of the usual animated mugshot, a full-sized hologram unrolls.
“Bridge,” says Jora. “Now.” It’s a pre-recorded message – Yondu gets the exact same, echoing a half-beat after Kraglin’s own. Jora’s face is stern, as severe as Nova Prime’s and icier than engine coolant. Kraglin imagines that those dead pixelated eyes, half-buried in wrinkled raisin-skin, are scouring him to the soul. She reaches towards the camera and snaps it off.
“That wasn’t her happy-voice, was it?” Kraglin asks. Yondu snorts.
“Don’t think she’s got one of them.”
Jora, to Kraglin’s surprise, meets them at the door of the Bridge with a smile and two glasses of neat. The latter, at least, are real. Her smile diminishes when the two of them make no move to accept her offering, Kraglin following Yondu’s lead. She fixes them with a rigid glare before marching up the gangway and plonking the drinks on the chart table in front of the captain’s chair.
“Don’t just stand there,” she barks, flinging herself into it. The creak of old joints is drowned by rustling leather. “C’mon in!”
Yondu looks at Kraglin. Kraglin looks at Yondu. They obey.
Yondu’s crutches tap arythmically on the floor. One’s two inches too high, digging uncomfortably under his arm – so he leans most of his weight on the other, which being a mere centimetre too low is by far the better fit. The oversized crutch takes the deficit after Yondu’s swung his short crutch out and his good foot to follow it: a too-quick, unsteady clack of metal-on-metal, uneven as a triplicate heartbeat. His cast leg is angled stiff in front of him. Kraglin can see the effort that heaving himself up the ramp is costing; there’s sweat on his neck, and the tendons in his hands stand out where he grips the crutches too hard. He doesn’t look at Kraglin – at anyone really. Only the ramp before him. And his goal – Jora’s throne: a majestic obsidian obelisk at its far end.
The Bridge crew have paused in their assigned tasks. Twelve pairs of eyes focus on them – on Yondu, really. Kraglin is, as usual, happy to shrink into his shadow. Those twelve pairs become thirteen when they ascend to the captain’s deck. Cheek resting on the withered shelf of a hand, Jora nods to the waiting stools.
“Join me,” she says. Kicks the nearest to screech to a stop besides Kraglin’s boot. He wraps his hand around the back strut, but doesn’t move to take it until Yondu limps to the other, nudging it into place with his unused crutch.
Jora nods when they’re both seated. Her flat glare is mostly reserved for Yondu – but it lingers on Kraglin too when he pulls up his chair. He meets it. Then quails, like she’s pulled a plasma rifle on him. After staring down assorted angry Ravagers and a bilgesnipe, you’d think he’d be hardened to the dourest of glowers; but Jora… Jora is something different. She’s older than the stars and as coldly fierce, and while Kraglin can’t read the nuances beneath her wintry expression, he doubts any of them are approving. Whatever her reason for playing nice, she’s not doing this of her own volition.
The silence isn’t so much stretched as racked. When the Bridge crew are shuffling and antsy, Jora smiles again – practiced enough to look perfect – and gestures to the drinks with an arthratoid claw.
“Bottoms up, boys,” she orders. “You sure deserve it.”
Yondu’s blue fingers close on the perspiring glass. Kraglin copies, deciding that captain’s orders ovveride Doc’s recommendation. Not that he could stop Yondu from drinking if he set his mind to it. But he figures, if you can’t beat ‘em… Before he can toss it back, Yondu lifts his tumbler to eye-level and treats the inch of amber liquid swilling around its bottom to an accusatory sneer.
Kraglin’s lips freeze on the rim. There’s another awkward silence. Then Jora proves that she does, in fact, know how to laugh: slapping Yondu hard across his burly shoulders. Judging by the pop of his eyes and the loud oof, that blow contains a bit more power than one would expect from an age-wizened arm.
“Nice to know you're still a paranoid shit, Udonta. I got better ways of killing you than poison – and didn’t I say that this is a reward?” The flat line of Yondu’s mouth doesn’t tic. He places the drink on the table, untouched, with a defiant clink. Jora’s smile becomes more and more hollow. Kraglin looks between them, and settles his own glass down. Just in case. The tension fizzles like sparks from a torn conduit line, and he wishes he could slip under the table and hide away.
“Rookie,” says Jora eventually, not looking at him. It’s enough to lock the curious stares of a dozen Ravagers’ onto him though, and Kraglin withers low in his jacket collar.
“Yes ma’am?” he mutters. Jora shunts Yondu’s glass over.
Kraglin’s mouth opens around a protest. Then slowly shuts again. Can’t say no to the captain.
…But she wouldn’t really poison him, would she?
Surely not. Not even if she wanted to. He’s Hraxian! Immune to all but the most potent toxins; and anyway, Yondu’s babbling – whatever insecurity is being aired, it’s the anesthetic talking.
The pleading look Kraglin sends him is met with a shrug. Kraglin fingers the glass. It’s just acting, he tells himself. Yondu amping up the dickishness to get back at Jora for not punishing Dagada – or maybe, maybe he’s trying to ensure that no one’ll accuse him of being soft and caring about one dumb greenie. Because no way would Yondu let him do this. Not if he really thought…
Kraglin’s throat clicks. The glass is cool, condensation smeared in the shape of Yondu and Jora’s whorled fingerprints. He smooths his own over them, and lifts it slowly to his lips, watching Yondu for any hint, any glimpse…
Alright. No more hesitation. Kraglin tosses back glass and head alike, and doesn’t let the liquid rest on his tongue. It sizzles through him, fire and whiskey and old sweet malt. He waits for pain. For froth. When no agony develops and his spittle remains un-rabid, he lowers the tumbler triumphantly, stomach warm. “Hey, that was some good stuff, ma’am. Looks like it’s okay-“
“See?” Jora says, cutting across with the casual grace of one accustomed to doing so. She lifts the full tumbler from Kraglin’s place, nails clicking off the glass, and sets it heavily before Yondu. “Now drink.”
Yondu side-eyes it like he suspects it’s gonna bite. “Ya think I don’t know you’d poison ‘em both?”
A noisy sigh. The second glass is sent Kraglin’s way too.
Both of them watch expectantly. Aw heck. What’s one more gonna do? Shrugging, Kraglin knocks it back. Again, he relishes the warm burn. Again, he waits ten seconds. Then coughs – and is gratified when Yondu jumps in his seat, fists clenching around the crutches. Kraglin coughs again. Holds up a finger. Then puts his fist over his mouth and lets the liquor settle, before thumping the empty glass down besides the first.
“Nice. You got any more of that, ma’am?” He’s ignored.
“So,” says Jora, through a clenched smile. “Now that we’ve gotten the obligatory celebration out the way, how’s about you tell me why I got a whole crew singin' your praises for catching that blasted thing, when you was the one who brought it aboard in the first place?”
Yondu’s grin is sharp and deadly. “I guess they’re seein' it was a good idea all along. Y’know, ya can’t expect folks to sit tight on pennies forever.” He leans over the table, darkened by the prints of their wet tumblers. Peeping at the rest of the Bridge crew, Kraglin assures himself that they’re out of hearing range and leans in as well. “We got one of the biggest non-Empire fleets in the fuckin' galaxy. The crew know it, and sooner or later, they’re gonna start demanding we use it. They’re gonna want more. More jobs, more profits – the lot. And when they do…” His voice husks lower. “They’re gonna want a leader who they know ain’t afraid to give it to them.”
The gradient of Jora’s eyebrows steepens. Wrinkles and liverspots slacken, drooping like slow motion waterfalls until the grain of her skin’s resettled around the frown. “Really,” she says.
Kraglin gives Yondu’s cast a kick under the table. A very, very light one. Then looks the other way when Yondu flinches and smacks his shin with the crutch. He’s just trying to help. To save them from being shot, drawn and quartered right here.
“Really,” Yondu repeats. He rests one hand flat on the table, jabbing the index of his other against the chipped metal finish. “And if you ain’t gonna be that person, you’d better make me your first mate again so I can be it for ya. Because look what happened to me. Ya don’t want Dagada thinkin' he can do a better job than you, too.”
Jora sniffs. “Dagada, Dagada. It always comes down to Dagada with you. Y’know, I’m starting to wonder who the jealous one is.”
When Yondu scoffs, the noise ricochets out of his throat with a serpentine rattle. “What's that prick got that I don’t? Besides my fuckin' title?”
Jora’s eyes twitch to Kraglin. It’s so quick that he almost misses it, and he’s certain that Yondu does. “No limitations,” she says quietly. Kraglin’s belly twists up as Yondu growls.
“And what's that supposed t’mean?”
Jora hunches, matching the lean of Yondu’s tense spine. Their faces are inches apart, Yondu’s jaw pushed forwards and his yellow teeth bared, Jora’s hooked nose bonier than a beak. Her words are delivered in a tight-packed, venomous bundle. “That when I taught you boys that lesson, only one of you listened.”
Kraglin ain’t got the first clue what that means. But he sees the effect it has on Yondu. His eyes widen, nostrils flaring. Next moment he’s lurched to his feet – foot – and slammed his palms on the table. The crash is so loud that several nearby Bridge crew, caught in their attempts at eavesdropping, jerk out of their too-languid perusal of the monitors and scramble to look busy.
Kraglin, neck hairs prickling, watches Yondu. Yondu doesn’t say a word. Just breathes, hot and heavy through his nose. He glares at Jora as if he’s considering bucking the table and goring her like an angry bull.
“Sit down,” says Jora eventually. Yondu, muscles quivering, does so. His leg skids out to forty-five degrees, and Kraglin winces for him. “You may have won the crew’s favor,” Jora continues, whispering the words into the crackling space between them. “But you have yet to win back mine. However, I respect that – while ya were a fucking idiot to hide it from me –“ Kraglin can’t help but agree there, “- Your bilgesnipe’s gonna pay well. And that as a fleet we are, perhaps, capable of more than I push us to achieve.” Before Yondu's smile can reach fruition, Jora taps her spider-thin, gnarl-knuckled fingers on the back of his hand. Her skin’s as discolored as old wood bark and about as tough; Kraglin imagines it feels like being beaten by a bushel of twigs. “This stunt’s earned ya another fortnight as a midshipman. After that... Who knows? Now fuck off and find someone else to annoy.”
It’s as good a dismissal as any. Kraglin aborts his instinct to steady the crutches as Yondu struggles upright, knowing he’ll only be snapped at and shoved away. Yondu’s not glowering at Jora anymore, which is something. But his gaze is locked on some middle-distance only he can see. Kraglin shifts uneasily, rising from his chair. Somehow, this is worse.
“C’mon,” he murmurs, when the brooding silence becomes too much to bear. “Let’s go.” Jora, legs crossed and sipping idly from a hipflask as she surveys the swirling aether, glances at his reflection in the glass. Kraglin avoids her gaze. “Isla’s waiting, and we got a lot of moonshine to drink. And a Doc to piss off.”
That snaps Yondu out. Barging past Jora’s chair, he swings himself away from the Bridge, crutch-foot-crutch, crutch-foot-crutch. He doesn’t look back.
If the grin that’s turned on Kraglin is more jagged than usual, he ain’t gonna mention it. “What happened to lil' nurse Kraglin?” he teases, once they’ve begun the long lope for Isla’s favorite cupboard.
“He was poisoned,” says Kraglin flatly. Yondu’s smirk dissolves into snickers. He swipes his unused crutch across the corridor ahead of him, smacking any Ravagers who don’t get out the way.
“Hey, I was tryin' to be good because you said I shouldn’t drink –“
“As if you were gonna listen to me!”
The snicker becomes an all-out guffaw. “At least you ain’t stupid, rookie,” Yondu says, as they come to an unpopulated stretch. He presses his shoulder against Kraglin’s. It’s less of a nudge and more of a lean; with his face so close, Kraglin can see the stiff prickles of stubble between the scars on his jaw and the wrinkle of skin where the implant melds wonkily into the bone. The edge of a bandage is starting to peel. When Kraglin smooths it back on, Yondu makes a pleased, throaty noise, and Kraglin thinks he’s about to get kissed. But Yondu only ruffles his hair – then smacks him on the back of the knee with his crutch to get him walking again.