"Take my hand, Petra," her momma was whispering, and everything in Petra was breaking to pieces and she’d never, ever been so scared. She couldn't look at Mom's face, she just couldn't; looking made it real. It was worse than a nightmare, so much worse, and the tears were drowning Petra and she was trying so hard to be brave and she looked back at her mom –
But her mom wasn’t looking at her anymore, and there was a long flat sound piercing the air in the room, and suddenly Petra heard herself screaming. She was grabbing at her momma, it couldn’t be too late, Mom couldn’t be gone, and Grandpa’s hands pulled at her but she couldn’t let go, she couldn’t have been too late to hold her hand, her momma couldn’t be gone–
Grandpa dropped Petra’s thrashing body in the corridor and begged her to stay put and he turned and he left her there and there were so many people swarming and crying in her momma's room that Petra couldn’t see her at all.
She didn’t remember running – there was something raw and horrible inside her, pushing her away from the pain that beat at her with every heartbeat. The cold night outside whipped at her skin, cloaking her in tendrils of mist. There was only this, the choking, gasping sobs that ripped out of her, and she was falling and the earth pressed into her face.
Then light, and screaming, and Ravagers.
It’s close to six cycles since they picked that scrawny Terran up for her prissy dad, and maybe she’s kept those hearphone things over her ears for half the time, but there’s some real fight under all that pink fragile humanness, Yondu figures. The moment they’d brought her aboard she’d been sobbing and screaming for her mother, till Horuz went to grab her. Then she slammed a foot in his crotch and knocked out his knees with her heavy knapsack before Mhyra got the dope shot in her neck.
(Most’ve the crew figured that the kid would be staying on crew when they saw her take Horuz’s dumb ass down; Terran or not, anybody who can put that idiot in his place has some Ravager to them). Course, not having traded in Terran before, no one’d been quite sure how much dope was needed to keep her out while they stuck the translator in her neck (well, she’d have to be able to talk with her daddy's kinda folk if they did deliver). More dope would've been the answer, but what’s done’s been done and at least now when they tell her to shuddup already, she knows what they’re saying.
Course, she doesn’t listen, but Ravagers don’t, mostly.
Plus, it was kinda funny for the first cycle, all the "there's how many kinds of alien?" and "what planet is that" and "what’s that do" and "why’s it got tentacles" and all. After that it was mostly annoying, but by then they’d long since gone and pulled out of the deal with her dad, so Yondu figured they’d make the best of it. He even went and found a dealer in weird primitive tech to fix up her – her music gadget, the Walkin or whatever it is – to keep it from falling apart and leaving Yondu with no way of distracting the kid when there's real business to be done.
Real business is something they've got less of today, though; there’s the whiff of a job ahead, and a bad take just avoided (thank the goddess that Mhyra had half a head on her, reminding Yondu that Ravagers don’t ever get mixed up with science types). That Halfworld shitstorm with all their Terran experiments-gone-wrong just proved it again, like she said it’d do. So mostly in relief, they're breaking into rations a bit. Someone’s even brought in a clutch of snarly reptiles for a good tabletop fight, Knowhere style.
Dump half the Ravagers in one common space where they'll yell round a table – it's bound to draw in the rest. The girl’s taken to slinking round the halls and sulking with the hearphones on most of the time, now that her questions ain’t so funny for the crew anymore ("what happened to the dealer you brought aboard," "why don’t we go near that Zen Whoever planet anymore," "if we ain’t paying the ransom why won't we let the lady go?"). This time, Yondu spies her scooting along a rafter near a big bay window, with all of space stretching out past that thick clear glass behind her. Black and ancient and endless.
For a kid grown up planetside, the girl loves climbing around in the higher-up spots of the ship, rafters and vents and storage bays, where the artificial gravity don't hang on so tight to things. One of the few tricks that'd stop her crying (or biting – what the hell kinda trick of evolution gave Terrans that jaw strength?) in the early days was setting her loose to clamber and jump about in the gravity-weak spaces with her hair swirling all frizzly around her head.
Up on the rafter now, her hair’s gone so wild Yondu wonders how she can see the game below her, but the girl’s got sharp eyes for a squishy little Terran. Half-Terran. Whatever.
"I see you up there, girl," Yondu calls, and gestures a hand. "You drop anythin’ on my game, I’m throwin' you out the airlock." He don’t mean it, mostly, but sometimes you’ve gotta scare a body a little to get 'em behaving.
"I wasn’t gonna," comes a mutter. Then the girl slips off the rafter and lets herself dangle a bit before dropping down, falling at a nice slow pace till gravity proper grabs onto her and tugs her down the last few meters to the ship floor. Then she sweeps her way towards the game table with that stupid huge Ravager coat somebody thought it’d be funny to give her trailing behind, and cheerfully elbows past some of the more drunken outliers. Props her elbows on the table, way too close to the snarling reptile-things as they snap and spit at each other, rolling around like crap wrestlers to the shouts of the Ravager
Yondu’s particular favourite pudgy reptile gets chomped in the neck and he curses, bangs a fist down on the table. The girl doesn’t even jump at the sound like she would’ve a cycle back, which is why she’s gonna be a damn good Ravager someday. Adaptability and shit.
She gives him a poke in the side with one sharp little elbow. "The hell are those things?" And yeah, it’s still weird to hear a voice that high-up awkwardly throwing out Ravager words. Can’t quite fit ’em in her mouth yet, when she's that scarce grown. "They look kinda like frogs."
Behind them, Horuz expresses his disapproval of the kid assuming things she ain’t got no way of knowing about with a low grumble, which is pretty calm for Horuz. He’d not made a big secret of hating the kid since she managed to beat on him, that day they took her.
Still, it’s the principle of the thing. "Never heard of frogs," Yondu grunts, wishing he hadn’t bet quite so many credits on the fat one. Right now another two of its kind are squabbling over who gets first bites of its body; least they got a bit of brain on them, not letting good meat go to waste. Yondu can appreciate that.
"Frogs are – kinda like the Orloni? But fat and better in water. Hey, are these some type of Orloni?"
Yondu snorts. "Like we got the units for Orloni. This ain’t a Knowhere bar, girl. These," and he gestures at the scaly little monsters with their webbed claws, "are just a buncha castoffs from some idiot’s gene tests. They gone cheap, since Halfworld."
"What’s Halfworld?" asks Petra, in that familiar curious pitch, and the crew within earshot (which, given all the yelling in the general area, is mostly Horuz, his latest mate, and a quarter-Kree lady escaped from the Kyln) all groan and mutter. Horuz gets a smug look behind that scruffy excuse of hair he keeps on his chin.
The two squabblers are biting at each other now, and it turns out Yondu’s fat one was faking dead. Soon as the others are distracted, it starts scooting away, pushing itself from the chaos of the table battle by its webbed hind feet. There’s a lotta black ooze trailing from its neck. "Halfworld's some haven for dumbass scientists," Yondu says, "who reckoned they’d be fine to let their experiments get smarter’n they were. Word is one’ve their beasties shot its way out and clued in Nova Corps about the goings-on at the lab."
"Cool," Petra says, whistling for effect, which makes Yondu’s fingers twitch towards his Yaka arrow, even though he knows the thing’s coded only for his particular range of sound. "Was it a frog too?"
"Nah, some kinda four-legged – aw, shit," grumbles Yondu, as one of the reptiles takes a bite from his favourite's neck and definitely puts it out for good. Petra’s eyes go sorta white in their sockets, and yeah, that’s enough questions for a coupla days. He cuffs the kid by the shoulder and elbows her away. She hardly makes a squeak of protest, which ain’t the usual. Yondu snatches up one of Mhyra’s frankly savage alcohol brews, and nicks a few credits from Horuz’s pocket (idiot don’t deserve ’em, anyhow.) Time to bet on a bigger monster.
Knowhere, East Port
"You’re dumb as a post, and – shut up, I know you’re a tree – but Groot, what the hell."
Maybe it's normal, maybe it ain't – there's no way for Rocket to tell, since he's never actually had a friend before – but nearly every time they return from one of their little planetside excursions, Groot will have something or other tucked under one arm as a gift for Rocket, and a huge smile on that stupid face. If Rocket’s honest with himself (not that Rocket’s honest with anyone, only Groot, only sometimes), he kinda loves it. Groot’s brought home engine parts and tiny knives and good-smelling flowers and tangles of wire and once, memorably, this twisted metal statuette that ended up being a cultic idol. (Groot only lost one arm and they did escape the rioters, but that moon banned the shit out of them.)
Groot’s sure as hell never brought back a kid.
It’s a girl, maybe. Rocket ain’t so good with these things, and going by the glum look on its face, it (she? he? le?) stopped trying to break out of Groot’s grip ages ago. Kid’s got a tangle of coppery hair and ragged black rucksack and a mix of Ravager and Xandarian-looking clothes. It’s also got a plasma handgun in a thigh holster which, though Rocket knows exactly jack shit about Class M kids, he’s pretty damn sure isn’t standard fare. (The kid hasn’t shot Groot, though, so it can’t be that unhappy at being dragged around.)
"Tell your tree to drop me," the kid snaps suddenly. It lets its head tip back so it can glare upside-down at Rocket, and seems too busy being frustrated to notice that he don’t exactly look like most folks.
"What, on your skull? What've you done to Groot?"
The kid’s face twists further. "I didn’t do nothing, Ranger Rick. I nicked what Yondu told me to, nobody saw. Only the tree, I guess, but Groot doesn’t say much, huh?"
"I am Groot," Groot pipes up.
" And I’m Petra, you don’t see me bragging about it," grumbles the kid. It's a weird name, but the kid seems weird too – Rocket's guessing girl, from the spunk and the few thin braids twining idly through her hair. "You two the Nova Corp or something? ‘Cause if you are, I got kidnapped off my planet by Ravagers a year back, and the crew says they’ll eat me unless I start pulling my weight, so it ain’t my fault."
Rocket’s been on the verge of running a scan for any Yondus in the area on his tablet to hand the kid back over, but this is starting to get interesting. "What ain’t?"
It’s not easy to shrug when you’re half upside-down and trapped by a giant walking tree, but Petra manages. "Any of it. I stole a buncha stuff by now." Damn, there’s pride in that tone; Petra's lucky they aren’t Nova Corps.
Gently, Groot unwinds the arm holding Petra and lowers the girl to the floor, brushing back her messy hair with a tendril and securing a loose strand of it with a flower. She gives Groot a huge, toothy grin, which surprises Rocket; Petra’s face looks real different when she’s smiling. More like a real kid, not a mini-Ravager, or whatever.
Of course, that’s when Groot turns those huge liquid eyes on Rocket to – no, that’s manipulation, trees aren’t supposed to be manipulative, and Rocket’s not gonna listen to this. Saving spunky pirate kids is not the business they're in. "I am Groot."
"Oh hell no," says Rocket, "don’t even ask me, you idiot, it ain't happening. Look, kid, we're not the Nova Corp. We’re criminals." Rocket is, at least. Groot’s just kinda there, and mostly there for Rocket, because Groot likes Rocket for whatever damn reason.
Petra’s face falls a little. "I got kidnapped again?"
A sigh sputters its way out Rocket's nose. "No, you're not. You wanna go back to your wherever? Go back. But hey," and he only means it as a joke, nothing more, "least this time it ain't a crew who'll eat you. Groot don't eat at all."
The kid doesn't run. That's the first surprise. Petra draws a deep breath, straightens her ragged leather coat, and pinches her eyebrows in heavy thought for a moment. Then she squares her shoulders and nods at them. "Okay. Fine. But I ain’t going back to Terra."
The what’s she mean, fine? in Rocket’s head stutters to a stop. He stares at Groot, whose smiley serenity hasn’t faded, then back at the girl. "You’re Terran?"
The girl crosses her arms and scowls with righteous fury. "So what?"
"Do humies even talk to anyone off-planet?"
"I do. They beamed me up and put a thing in my neck," Petra pulls back her hair to reveal the implant behind her ear and dammit, the spot’s still puckered and scarred red, Rocket knows what a shitty surgery looks like, "and now I can do all the languages. They said I was a fighter, so they were gonna make me a Ravager too."
"I am Groot?" Groot asks her, and Rocket expands on that: "You didn’t want to be a Ravager?"
Now her eyes are getting big and wet and shit, Terrans don’t do that crying thing little Xandarians do, do they? "I...I wanted to go to my mo– I wanted to go back for the funeral. I wanted to tell my grandpa where I – where I’d gone. But Yondu said we weren’t going back for anything and everyone at home’s gonna hate me for not staying put. And space is cool. So I ain’t going back to Terra, not ever. But I don’t wanna be a Ravager." Petra's mouth starts quivering. "I’m no good at being mean. I’m gonna get caught one day and then Yondu’ll let them eat me alive."
Petra rubs her fists in her eyes before marching straight up to Rocket and glaring at him with one fist gripping her plasma holster. The effect is ruined a little by the fact that she’s barely taller than him and has a flower in her hair. "Don’t you take me back to the Ravagers."
Rocket manages to shrug – hey, it was a hell of a speech, he's got stuff to process – and Petra visibly relaxes. Come on, like he’d give a kid back to her captors. Even if he’d no feeling for the kinda people who didn’t deserve their prisons either, there’s no way Groot would let the kid be hurt, not now.
Then Groot’s hand is on Rocket’s shoulder, startling Rocket enough that he can think straight again, and Groot’s voice is thick with sorrow. "I am Groot."
"No – I said we ain’t doing that," snaps Rocket, and Petra frowns at them. "No way. No."
"I am Groot."
"Nah, I’m the one who kept you, idiot, but this ship’s barely got space for the both of us, and how’d we feed it?"
"I’m a her," Petra corrects, picking up on the thread of conversation with excitement. "And I’m fast and I’m smart and I don’t take up much space or eat more’n my share. Really."
Rocket narrows his eyes. Petra blinks back at him innocently.
"Hey, Groot took me. Groot wants to keep me. And if Groot’s keeping me and you’re keeping Groot..."
Dammit. Rocket should’ve figured, the moment Groot gave the kid a flower. He rubs his ears in frustration, shooting Petra a why are you doing this to me kinda look. She shrugs again. The hem of her leather coat, far too large for her little body, shushes against the floor.
"You don’t eat people," she says. "I mean, you’re a raccoon, so I guess you don’t."
One of Groot’s branches goes to Rocket’s back, trying to steady him, but he still snarls the words: "The hell’s a raccoon?"
Grandpa’s sitting by her momma's bed, talking real quiet. It’s night outside, and there’s a white sliver of moon hanging over the fog. Petra’s supposed to be asleep in the chair by the window, curled up with her headphones on her ears, but she’s turned the volume almost all the way down on the tape and she’s trying to listen. Their voices and the music all whisper on the edge of her hearing, distant as a dream.
"...not coming back if he hasn’t already," Grandpa’s saying, gentle and hushed. Through her eyelashes, Petra sees both of his hands are covering one of Mom’s. (Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must.) "I trust you, sweetheart, I just...it’d feel like lying, to build Pet’s hopes like that."
Her mom’s quiet most days, because she’s always tired and talking takes lots of breathing and the cancer makes breathing hard. "Daddy," she murmurs fondly, like he’s said something silly. "He’ll be back for her. He’s good...an angel. He’ll treat her like a princess, after I’m gone."
(When I die and they lay me to rest.) Petra’s heart pounds against her chest, like it wants to push out of her skin and go back to her momma where it belongs.
Grandpa takes a choked breath and squeezes her hands. "I can’t lose you both, Mer. I can’t. I can’t let Petra be taken away by a – a stranger." (Going to the place that’s the best.) "Some man who – he’s never written, never sent her a present, never sent money. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, honey. He doesn’t deserve her."
Then her mom laughs, just a little soft breath of happy air. "Oh, Dad." (Going up to the spirit in the sky.) "None of us do."
She looks over at Petra, right at her eyes, even though Petra’s been keeping them almost closed and breathing slow. Before, Mom could always tell when Petra was pretending to sleep. She’d chuckle, kiss Petra’s forehead, sit on the bed and tell a quiet story about a girl who travelled the stars, breathed alien air and danced on a hundred planets.
(When I lay me down to die.)
Her momma's voice would fill the room like fireflies and Petra would never remember falling asleep. "My little star-lord," her momma says.
It would’ve been a damn sight easier to not like the hyper little gun-wielding ex-Ravager petty thief and Terran kidnapee if she didn’t introduce Groot to the music from the ancient gadget at her belt and basically imprint on the idiot’s heart until the end of time.
Now Rocket’s best friend spends the days twirling and arm-waving along with the songs the little humie trails behind her as she climbs the rafters, or falls from the rafters, or breaks into the food stock when she’s meant to be sleeping, or runs across the entire ship and back five times for literally no reason.
And Groot adores her. Makes little nests out of branches for Petra to sit in, indulges her when she uses said branches to weave targets for her plasma handgun, learns how to braid back her hair at night and always sticks a little flower in it, even when she complains that flowers are for kids. (You’re a damn kid, Rocket always shouts at that, and she yells back You’re a damn raccoon and Groot adds I am Groot, in case they’d forgotten.)
"Doesn’t this ship got a name?" asks Petra, sometime in the first week, and Rocket couldn’t help grumbling at judgement in her tone. The kid had no right to judge his baby; maybe the ship was a little messy, a bit cheap, but Rocket had spent hours reworking the engine and rewiring the cortex and Groot had regrown from a sapling inside of it that one time – this ship was theirs, Rocket and Groot’s. Great for a quick getaway, too.
Rocket shrugs. "She don’t need one. Why, you wanna name her?"
It hadn’t been a suggestion, but – Petra grins, the way she did when Groot gave her that first flower. "Milano sounds like a spaceship name," she says. "It’s what I was gonna call my M-ship if I ever got one. I love Milanos."
(She waits a whole month to let them know a Milano is a Terran cookie, of all damn things. The name's stuck too firmly by then for Rocket to change it, and arguing with Petra does no good – "Did you have a better idea, Ranger Rick, come on, if it ain't got a name we've gotta say it's Rocket's rocketship and that's dumb.")
The thing is, Petra makes Groot happy, and that made Rocket feel really, really good. And if she lets Rocket modify her plasma gun without complaint, and affix rockets (anybody who punned about that got a fist in their face) to her boots, and doesn’t care if Rocket eats with his hands or has chunks of steel sticking out his spine, well – kids are manipulative little bastards. She still never shuts up and pouts when they don’t get her dumb Terran references (who the hell is Ranger Rick, anyway?) and plays her music so damn loud Rocket can hardly think.
But she has nightmares, just like Rocket. He knows the sound of nightmares, of restlessness and lost sleep, and – the Milano's a small ship, okay. And since Rocket mostly sleeps in the branches Groot grows for the night, and Groot's taken to perching beside the kid’s blanket nest in the loft, well, it'd be harder not to hear her. Usually Petra's nightmares wake them both up around the same moment, so Rocket gets a bleary glimpse of Petra sitting bold upright, whipping her head round as though afraid something's crept up on her, then stuffing her face in her arms to cry. Always silently, save for deep gasping breaths, and only when she thinks nobody's listening. And for awhile, that was all Petra did – cry with no noise until she tired herself out, and Rocket would fall back into sleep feeling guilty for no reason.
Then one morning the ship is skimming the edges of Spartax space and the kid has that ooh child song blaring. Petra's taken to flicking on the rocket boots while she dances, shooting up in midair and twirling around, and it scorches the floor but she’ll always look so happy and– well.
It’d been a bad night, the night before, and Petra’s been kinda glum and quiet the whole day through. Rocket knows some of her tells, now – like when she puts on the red-and-black checked shirt she brought from Terra, the nubby one she wraps round herself at night. Petra's slumped in the co-pilot’s seat and keeps putting her boots on the control console (even though Rocket told her to keep ‘em off unless she wants to clean the ashy smears off the console panelling) and hasn’t done much else since poking at her breakfast.
There was a ribbon of green stardust twisting somewhere in the edge of his vision. Rocket fiddles with a loose bolt on the edge of the console, tries not to hum. Then thinks – what the hell, I'll try. "So," he says to the kid, "you’re feeling bad today, huh."
Petra goes stone-faced. Great job, idiot.
"Ain’t nothing wrong with that," Rocket hurries to add. "There’s days like that. Groot’s even got ’em."
She frowns, disbelieving. Which Rocket gets, given that Groot’s been all grins and dancing since Petra came aboard. "Does not."
"Does too. There’s not many groots or whatever-you-call-em left, you know that? Sometimes that’s hard. Groot’ll – wilt a bit." Those are the worst days, because Rocket can rewire a bomb in seconds and break his way out of any prison in the universe, but he doesn’t know how to stop his best friend from hurting. He just doesn’t know.
Rocket can see Petra’s reflection press its lips together in the glass of the concave window. "Does Groot..." There’s a catch in the words. "Does Groot cry?"
Even her music’s quiet today, Rocket thinks. He can barely hear that Terran crooning about a beautiful sun. "Never seen it. Maybe some extra sap comes out, never asked." Suddenly it feels like an important question, something Rocket has to know the way he has to know his guns inside and outside and backwards and broken – do you cry, big guy? Do you know how?
There’s green light twinkling on the window glass, now, spraying shards of colour around the helm. Rocket doesn’t think about anything but where they are right now. He’s good at that.
"Could, if I wanted to. Not that I do. Ain't no thing like me, Pet, 'cept me – and my kinda thing's got nothing to cry about." And there’s the same guilt he gets when he lets Petra sniffle and whimper herself back into sleep. Since when did Rocket care about lying?
Maybe when the half-grown too-clever Terran who’s survived being stolen from her backwards world by fighting to change herself into a Ravager gives him a teary side-eye, like she’s got a way of knowing that Rocket’s not telling anything near the truth.
"Sometimes I do," whispers Petra. "I try not to, but I can’t stop. When I wake up at night and I forget I’m..."
Alone? Lost? Afraid?
"Yeah," mutters Rocket. "Been there." He stares hard at the control console and pretends everything's not gone all too quiet. When Petra cries, she doesn’t make a sound at all, and even though Rocket grumbles that she won’t shut up most days, it’s worse like this.
The song ends; so does the tape. It kind of clicks a bit and then it’s just silent and it’s louder than anything Rocket’s heard in a long while. He wishes Groot would lumber in and fix this, wishes there was another song coming.
"There’s this thing Groot does," Rocket tells Petra, cause if he can’t bring Groot in he might as well bring Groot up. She loves Groot best, after all. "When we’re in a, you know, dark spot – Groot opens up a hand and these little flying bits of light come out and they just float all around." Prettiest damn thing Rocket’ll ever see, not that he’s telling Petra that. "S’like falling to sleep with stars all around you, little stars with wings."
"Fireflies." Petra’s voice is hushed. "My mom and I used to watch ’em come out at night, before I went to sleep. I – I thought I'd never – I thought they were only on Ear– on Terra." She sniffs loud, swipes at her eyes with the sleeve of her red-and-black shirt. "Groot makes fireflies."
Rocket’s never heard of fireflies in his life.
"Yeah, kid. Sure does."
Rocket’s not sleeping too well that night, anyway; he doesn’t have dead people like Petra and Groot do, but that’s only cause he’s never had anyone. (Anyone worth remembering, at least; the ones that made him are all dead now, but they sure as hell don’t count as people.) Point is, he’s been dozing in his little mossy nook of Groot and trying not to hear Petra whimper and toss around, when she lets out a little gasp and shoots bolt up. Then the soundless tears come, torn up by ragged breaths, and Rocket thinks he hears Petra calling for her mom again.
He gets that, really. Not that Rocket’s ever had any kind of mother, but he thinks he’d miss it, if he did. Probably.
Then there’s a shuffling, Petra pushing aside all the blankets and furs and cloaks she’s been stealing every time they land to add to her nest, (the ever-increasing size of which she hotly denies knowledge of every time Rocket so much as glances the nest’s way, like he won't notice all the new laundry), crawling across the loftspace towards the nearest of Groot’s branches canopying over her. She tugs on it a little, and Groot unfurls more limbs in her direction, somehow without jostling Rocket in his own mossy nook.
"Hi," whispers Petra, before sniffling loudly. "Can you – Rocket said you make fireflies when he’s sad."
What the hell, Rocket thinks, remembering the awkward talk from earlier that day, that’s not what I said.
"I can’t...I don’t sleep well. I’m sad too."
Groot hums, low and comforting. Through his eyelids, Rocket watches the big guy brush one leafy finger over Petra’s cheek. "I am Groot."
There’s a soggy little laugh from the girl. "Yeah, you bet you are."
The lights float from every space in Groot’s bark plates, tickling Rocket’s fur as they rise. Their golden glow swathes the loftspace and glints between Groot’s branches, filling the air with a gentle warmth and a barely-there fluttering of wings, soft as eyelashes.
Petra lets out a shaky sigh and settles against Groot’s side, wraps herself in that red-and-black striped shirt from Terra, and hums something to herself until the lights fade and all of them sleep.