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Laughter doesn't work the way you want it to. It bubbles up only when it absolutely shouldn't; when genuinely funny shit happens, you can never summon the real thing.

And then again, maybe you're half lucky. Maybe it's good that you don't have to fight it down whenever you're amused – your sense of humor is just as fucked up as the rest of you.

You learn to put it on deliberately, and that doesn't mean it's not real.

-

You look down at the charred stick in your hands and you think, if I laugh--

You weep.

It's much more startling, and you can't stop, and Drax is approaching you but you can't stop, and what the fuck is he doing? Is he petting you? He's fucking petting you.

You should be angry, you should be furious, you should be tearing his face off for daring to treat you like an animal. You try to drum up some indignant rage but it catches in your chest and you resign yourself to what's happening.

Only, maybe, you think, he's not treating you like an animal.

Maybe, you think, he's remembering his own losses. Maybe he's remembering being left to mourn alone.

(Maybe he's remembering the awful shit you said to him and choosing not to throw it back in your face, because maybe not everyone is a complete and utter asshole, selfish fuck like you are, you--)

Maybe, you think, he's treating you like a friend.

-

if I don't drink anything today, he'll grow back.

if I don't sleep tonight, he'll grow back.

if I destroy this gun--

if I talk long enough without breathing--

if I bite my hand until it bleeds--

-

Groot grows back under a sun lamp, and a careful schedule of water and nutrients, and his own miraculous strength.

(Groot grows back because you made yourself bleed.)

(Groot grows back because you listened.)

-

“So when you say twenty-three prisons,” Quill begins over his late breakfast, in one of his many, many tones that never bode well (you're learning them fast), “are you counting, like... the place you came from?”

You're impressed enough by his sheer gall that you don't kill him, which you're guessing he was counting on.

“No,” you say, not looking up from your work – which he still, adorably, disapproves of like it's going to stop you. “I don't.”

Penitently, Quill offers you half the chocolate bar sitting beside his bowl of actual food. The smell makes you gag. "Poison?" you say, and push it back across the table. "For me? Gee, thanks."

(You do notice, though, that he offered you half.)

-

You end up spending a lot of your time in the engine room. You drag enough equipment in there for a makeshift workshop, and makeshift is the best you've ever been able to have, so you don't really mind the tight space or the proximity to all the thrumming, vital machinery. The shielding keeps you and your work from melting and that's good enough for you. Groot doesn't like it – it's the wrong kind of heat for him, and being apart for too long sets your nerves on edge, so you do it as often as you possibly can without hurting his feelings because you have got to get over that.

Sometimes Gamora comes in and you don't talk to each other. There's not enough room for her to practice much of anything, but sometimes she brings a tablet to read and sometimes she meditates. You didn't know she meditated. You wonder if it helps.

Sometimes she just sits and watches you. You have a habit of humming under your breath while you work, and this doesn't seem to bother her, which is good, because you're not always aware of doing it.

(You made the mistake, once, of being glad nothing told you to hum.

Now, of course, it gets caught up in the pull of cause and effect and or else just like, it sometimes seems, every other damn thing you do.

You don't really mind, most of the time. You still like it.

You just hate when it makes you stop.)

She's better at this unspoken agreement shit than you are, and you want to ask roughly a hundred questions – it's the cybernetics, right, that's why we do this? am I supposed to come sit with you like this while you're doing your own stuff? have I fucked this up yet? is this what bonding is?

You don't.

She never asks you anything, either.

-

You have all alternately mortally endangered and saved each other's asses more times than any of you can keep track of, so you don't worry too much about whether you're pulling your weight.

Some bastard throws you, which, all right, you know it's the middle of a fight and everything, but that's just rude, and Drax catches you and you think, if I bit him--

You work in the bunk room that night, Groot dozing happily under a sun lamp beside you.

(The bunk room is three extra beds bolted haphazardly to the walls and floor in what used to be Quill's room. It's not a big ship. Everyone complains, and no one suggests upgrading.)

Gamora stops just outside and watches for a few minutes. She doesn't ask why you're not celebrating with the rest of them.

She does, eventually, ask if you're okay.

It's not the kind of question you should laugh at. It's especially not the kind of question you should laugh at when it's being asked by someone who you happen to know has been working pretty damn hard lately on this whole friendship thing.

You don't laugh. You swallow it back, and shrug, and tell her you have a headache.

She nods, and lingers in the doorway for a long moment before rejoining the others. In the back of your head, you appreciate everything about what just happened.

In the forefront, you're surrounded by pieces and parts, weapons broken down to their smallest possible components, and you know exactly where all of them go. It's an appeal, an apology, a demand; to whoever, to whatever, to these thoughts and wherever they come from – what more do you want from me? just leave me alone.

-

Later, you will allow yourself a moment to think that of course they found you as soon as you stopped worrying about it, but the truth of the matter is, you never did.

It fell into the background, behind everything else you've learned to worry about, and that's as close as anything ever gets to being off your mind, so when the familiar voice rings out behind you in the crowd, that letter, those numbers

– time slows down and crashes into itself but you're not really caught off guard. You never are.

You turn, and #3 is staring down at you.

She looks unarmed, but you know better, and you're glad it's obvious that you're not.

You're also not alone, and you feel that fact in every heartbeat. The others stand back but stay close, waiting to see what this is.

You wonder how long she's been following you. You wonder how you didn't notice.

“My name is Rocket,” you tell her, and it's every bit of poetic justice that your escape wasn't. “Can I help you?”

She just keeps staring. You're waiting for the sudden movement to grab a weapon or signal to backup, but she just stands and stares and you won't for a second believe that this is a chance meeting. You won't.

“Rocket,” she murmurs, and takes a step back. “Hell. Hell.”

“Ohhhh, right!” You fold your arms, look her up and down, where is she hiding the weapons? “I was wonderin' where I recognized you from.”

“Altrin died, you know,” she says, like she's been wanting to say it for a long time. “The day you left.”

“Good,” you say, and you don't ask her who the fuck Altrin is. You'll look up the records later and then you'll know whether you meant it or not. “Is that why you're here, just felt like catchin' me up on things? That's nice. I'm a hero now, you might'a heard. What've you been up to? I would'a thought, y'know, jail.”

“I broke out,” she says, and, give her credit, that throws you for a second. “My best option with parole was still twenty years.”

You wonder what it was without parole. You wonder how much of it was for what she did to you. You wonder what her name is. You say, “And the others?”

She shrugs. Bites her lip. “They split us up. Some of them might be looking for you, I don't know.”

You snort. “And I'm s'posed to believe you're not? Galaxy's a pretty damn big place for this sort'a coincidence, pal.”

She backs away, shaking her head. “I didn't – I heard you were in this system. I just. Wanted to see.”

“Admirin' your handiwork?” you ask, and, fuck, you're shaking. Not cool, you didn't okay that. Groot takes a step closer and he's barely taller than you, but you catch your breath. “Taking notes on – on the subject in a more open environment? Field test'a the century, huh?”

She looks at the ground. Shuffles her feet. “I... wanted to see how you were doing.”

“Wellll, how thoughtful. I'm pretty great. Eating whenever you want and not gettin' cut open all the time does wonders, I guess.”

In your peripheral vision, on either side, Drax and Gamora are starting to look dangerous.

#3 lets a beat of awkward silence pass and then bravely pushes forward. “I've been doing some underground work. People who need help and can't afford it. Prosthetic repairs, mostly.”

You tilt your head. “What're you expecting from me, a thank you? I forgive you? You did some good in the world and now all the shit you put me through is canceled out? Y'know, I get it, everyone fucks up, so you – you do whatever you have to to live with yourself, but stay the hell away from me.”

She steps back again, catches your gaze and holds it and takes a sharp breath. “I'm sorry.”

“Fuck off,” you snarl, and turn, and walk away.

Your friends follow you.

She doesn't.

-

Altrin was #6. You try to be glad. All you are instead is nauseous.

-

Gamora asks, “How many did you leave behind?”

You don't ask her what she means. You don't put down the cloth, or the gun. You keep cleaning and you say, “I don't know.”

You glance up at her, and she is looking at something very far away. “Neither do I,” she says, and closes her eyes. She sinks back into her meditation and neither of you speaks again until dinner.

-

You wish you could just have Groot explain the whole – the whole thing to everyone else, but they still haven't figured him out, and you feel like scum for being glad about that until he says he sort of is, too.

Which still leaves you living with three people who get kind of concerned when you do weird shit.

You decide you'll tell one of them, and then that one can tell the other two, and you decide it's going to be Quill, because you've already had your weird emotional moment with Drax and you don't want to fuck up whatever arrangement you've got going with Gamora, and because Quill walks in on you methodically shredding one of your old shirts in the bunk room and asks what the hell you're doing.

“I'm tearin' this shirt into twenty-three pieces,” you say, calmly, “so you an' Drax won't stab each other tomorrow morning.”

He looks worried for a second, like he's trying to figure out if he should be afraid for his life. You motion to his bunk and say, "Siddown, Quill."

if I don't make eye contact, you think, he won't call me a freak.

(You don't.)

(He doesn't.)

-

A few days after you've let Quill loose with strict instructions to use his gift of never-shutting-the-fuck-up for your benefit, Drax walks into the engine room and waits quietly while you line up every detonator you own.

“Yeah?” you say, when it starts to feel less like something you have to do and more like you're putting on a show. “What's up?”

“Friend,” he says, venturing further into the room and watching you closely. He barely fits in the small space. “Quill has told me –”

“I know what he told you,” you say, and turn away to begin reassembling the explosives.

Drax is undeterred. “I will not speak of this again if you do not wish me to,” he says, quietly. “All I mean to do is ask – do you know that there is a name for it?”

You don't drop the mass of wires in your hands, because you're good at your job and you don't want to kill everybody on the ship and that's not a thing, that's what would actually happen if this hit the floor. You set it down slowly and take a deep breath. “No.”

“On my world,” Drax says, still quiet, “this manner of thought is called Innate Driving Fixation.”

The words try to settle over you but you can't take it in, you can't – you can't. “It's a thing?” you say, and your voice – well, fuck, apparently weird emotional moments with Drax are going to keep happening, regardless of what you want. “It happens to people? I mean – I mean, people?”

“It happens to you,” Drax says, sitting down carefully beside the line of detonators on the workbench, “and you are a person. But it happens to others, yes.”

“Shit.” You wipe your eyes, and take a large step back from the half put-together bomb in front of you, and think it's extremely unfair to bring your fucked up sense of identity into this. “Shit.”

Drax keeps talking. “I do not know its other names, or how widespread it may be among other species. But for my people, it is a relatively common affliction. It most often begins to develop in childhood." He lowers his head. "...Prospective parents must prepare themselves to help their children.”

“Your daughter,” you rasp, and wonder if you're asking too far. “Did she –”

“She did not,” he says shortly, and takes a breath and turns away from you. There is a long pause. You try not to move.

He sighs. “Nor do I. But others do.”

Others do. Others do. Other people feel like this, other people do ridiculous shit to stop other ridiculous shit from happening when it wouldn't happen anyway, other people –

“Do they – do they think about doin' things they don't wanna do?” Your voice is wrecked and you're beyond caring, beyond mortification, you need to know this. “Like – like hurtin' people, or, or hurtin' themselves, or... Or just, just bad stuff, stuff they don't – don't wanna think about?”

Drax looks at you again and you hold your breath and you fucked up, you fucked everything up, no one else has those thoughts, no one else thinks if I cut this wire--

no one else imagines opening the airlock while their friends are asleep.

Drax says “Yes.”

You can't stop laughing.