A/N: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. My apologies for such a long delay; between getting a new job, holidays, several other games and projects I was involved in (and a generally uncooperative muse) this took a long time to finish. And it wasn't like a halfway finish, but literally the last two or three paragraphs left, just trying to find a way to wrap it up. But now it's done, I just saw the new GotG movie, and now I'm uploading it. So, here we go, the emotional backstory chapter.
The gondola ride was a quiet one at first. None of them really knew what to say or where to start on everything that just happened. It was also still late into the night, so each of them was starting to feel the tug of sleep and drowsiness pulling on them. Footchase, nudist club, mob shakedown and wedding, surviving a horde of berserkers, standing up to Chief Buffalo Butt - the three of them had been through a lot this past day and night. It had finally started setting into their minds, and what could you say after experiencing all that?
"Whose fox repellent is this?"
Nick and Judy - who were both up front looking out as the morning fog was starting to build - turned around to see Rocket gingerly resting on a bench, holding a little pink canister in his paw. He wasn't looking at them, but inspecting the device in his hand, only observing them through his peripheral vision. Hopps looked so embarrassed, her ears drooping, a visible blush coming through her cheeks as she nervously glanced at Nick. Wilde's face hardened, a mask unwilling to show anything, but still speaking volumes.
"Nick, I-" Judy started, trying to explain.
"It's fine, Carrots," he stated flatly, "I understand. You work a dangerous job, rabbits fear foxes, you want to protect yourself. I get it."
"Nick, I'm not like that!" She protested. "My dad gave it to me before I moved here. I only took it so he wouldn't worry about me. I would never even think about-"
"It's actually a good thing you had this on you." Rocket interrupted, looking at them. Judy's ears shot up in surprise, and there was a brief flicker of offendedness on Wilde's face as he explained, "I grabbed this after I got hit by Manchas. It says fox repellent, but I guess it works on anyone if sprayed right in the eyes. It gave me enough time to grab my gun and put a crater where his face used to be."
He leaned over on one side, favoring the one not gashed by panther claws. With a little bit of pain and a lot of seriousness, he continued, "If this spray hadn't fallen off you and into my hand, I'd be very dead right now. I owe yuh, Hopps."
Judy shuffled her feet, unsure of how to take that. Saving someone via barely acknowledged personal flaw was different, to say the least. After a little thought, she settled with, "Well, I'm glad you're okay. And, I want to thank both of you, for standing up for me back there."
"You know, it's kinda weird." Rocket mused, gently reclining back against the wall. "I would think dat, you, bein' someone nobody expected to be a cop, got picked up through government shenanigans, spending your whole life not wanting to be judged by others like you - you'd be the last person carryin' 'round a weapon meant only for the most stereotypical enemy a rabbit can have. Kinda weakens the whole 'Anyone can be anything' vibe if you still treat predators like they're gonna eat ya at da drop of a hat. You tell us one thing, yet you do the opposite. Why?"
Judy looked away, taking a seat on the bench opposite of them. She held her badge in her hands, and sighed. "When I was about 8," She began, "I did a play for the Bunnyborough harvest festival. I wrote it, directed it, starred in it - it was the biggest project I had ever worked on. It was about how all of us mammals used to be savages like those guys back there, but over time we evolved to be civilized and eventually built Zootopia. It was also when I first revealed to everyone - including my parents - that I wanted to become a police officer."
"I take it they didn't like it too much." Nick said, more a statement than a question.
"They came around to it... after awhile." She admitted. "It probably helped that I have 270 other siblings, so if I turned into a disappointment, it wasn't the end of the world or anything." Both males blinked in surprise at that - 270? God, her poor mother! - but she continued, "But there was one kit there that wasn't as supportive as everyone else. He thought becoming a bunny cop was stupid."
"Five bucks says he's a fox." Rocket murmured.
"Gideon Gray was the school bully, and a fox who hated bunnies. After the play, he came up to some of my friends and took away the tickets they won at the fair. I demanded that he give them back, but just laughed at me and said that foxes ate rabbits. We fought, and while I got the tickets back... he left me a little mark as a reminder." Her paw went up to her cheek, where Rocket noticed that, just under her gray-white fur, there was a trio of thin pink scars. He nodded approvingly - scars built character, even ones that no one ever saw.
"I still dedicated myself to becoming an officer," She continued, "And I've tried not to let what happened effect how I interact with... other foxes. I guess I'm not as over it as I thought." She sounded uneasily, embarrassed as she said it - that she was just starting to accept the possibility that she hadn't worked out all her ingrained prejudices.
"At least you try." Nick said, leaning against the railing. His back was to them, his voice even. "I appreciate that, really. At least you're aware enough to try not to let what happened stop you from being a good person. I wish I had friends like you when I was growing up. When I was at that age, all I wanted to be was a cub scout. Learning survival tricks, selling cookies, doing community service, that kind of deal. My father has been in jail most of my life, but my mother, she worked two jobs in one of the worst neighborhoods in town. She managed to save up enough money to get me a uniform. We were so happy that day... but the only troop in our neighborhood was entirely prey. I didn't have a problem with them, but they had a problem with me. That night, when I was supposed to swear the oath to become a member, they..." Nick stopped, gathering himself. He breathed once, twice, thrice, burying those emotions once more. When he finished, he sighed, "They pinned me to the ground, and muzzled me. I begged them to let me know what I did that was so wrong, and all they said was, 'If you thought we'd ever let a fox join us, then you're even dumber than we thought.' That day, I learned two things. First, I was never going to let anything get to me again. And second, if all the world was ever gonna see was a sly fox, then there wasn't any point in being anything else."
Judy gasped, absolutely shocked. Rocket raised an eyebrow, not impressed. "That's it?" He asked, looking at them incredulously, "That's supposed to make me feel sorry for you and your painful trips down Memory Lane?" The fox and bunny looked at him like he started speaking Shi'ar. "Oh boo-hoo-hoo!" He cried mockingly, "I was bullied when I was a child! A bunch of punk kids beat me up and called me names! No one has ever had it as bad as me! My life is a complete and utter tragedy!"
They looked at him, aghast at what he was saying. "You two have no idea how good you had it." He grunted. "Parents? Siblings? Friends? Bah, there were times in my life where getting picked on by a bunch of little dipshits would've been a nice reprieve."
"How dare you!" Nick snapped, clearly offended. "What's wrong with you?! We just opened ourselves up, and you just go out and say that it isn't a big deal?"
"I didn't say dat," The raccoon countered, "I'm sure all of dat was very painful for youse two to go through. I'm jus' sayin' dat if we're goin' to the 'Crappy Life Olympics', I'm takin' home da gold. Neither of you, or Finnick, or Bogo, or anyone else in dis city or dis world has gone through da thing's I've been through."
"Oh I'm sure," Nick huffed sarcastically, "No one can ever have it worse than you. There's nothing that makes mammals act racist more than a Space Raccoon."
"Racist?!" Rocket shouted, standing up and getting in the fox's face, "You think da shit I went through in life came from racists?! Buddy, I've had more shit done ta me in my first month than most people will experience in their entire lives, and none o' that has anything ta do with jackasses having problems with raccoons. And I ain't gonna stand bein' judged and condescended to by some whiny lil'-"
"Rocket!" Judy interjected, getting between them, "Ease up, you're bleeding again." They looked down, and sure enough his injuries had opened up again, oozing blood down his side. "We have to take you to a hospital."
"We are not going to a hospital." Rocket hissed, both in pain and annoyance. "Look... Hopps, do you know how to stitch a wound?"
"I have EMT training and I grew up on a farm." She explained. "Of course I do. But I can't do it here in a rickety gondola."
Rocket sighed. It was becoming increasingly blatant in his eyes - the "gods" who sent him here were pushing for him to bring the bunny into his circle. If he wanted this wound taken care of, and he didn't want to go to a hospital, his only other option was to bring her to her home and take care of it there. Which meant introducing her to Groot.
"Tell ya what," He said, clutching his side, "Since we're all havin' a little therapy session, let's head to my place to get patched up. There, I won't just tell you about my past, I'll show you..."
It was about 2 in the morning when the trio got to his warehouse. Groot had already been back for half an hour, watching a different TV marathon - Paw and Order. He was a little surprised to hear a knocking at the door, but hoped it was Rocket. He wasn't disappointed.
"Okay Judes," The wounded raccoon warned her, "Whatever you see in there, promise me you ain't gonna run away or freak out or anythin' like dat."
"Oh please," She scoffed. "After everything that's happened today, I don't think there's anything that can surprise me."
"Oh sweet bunny of summer," Nick chuckled, quoting from Game of Bones, "You've got so much to learn."
Rocket opened up the door, and as Judy looked in, there was a brief moment when she made eye contact with something sitting on the sofa. Something big, brown and thin, with scary-looking holes for eyes. Her eyes widened in fear, and she quickly hid behind a wall outside. "Rocket?" She asked nervously, speaking in a whisper and standing stock-still, "What the holy hell is that thing on the couch?"
"Wow, that's really judgmental of you, Fluffybutt." Rocket teased. He grabbed her arm and pulled her inside, Nick closing the door behind them. "Hopps," He introduced, "This is Groot. Groot, this is Officer Judy Hopps. The one I caught the weasel with this morning."
"I am Groot." The plant-man squatted down and extended a hand to the bunny, palm up. Within his hand grew a small flower, the same color as her neck fur. "Oh." She stammered, hesitantly plucking the flower. "Thank you."
"He says 'Nice to meet you'." Rocket translated. "He no speak good like you and me - he can only say "I" and "Am" and "Groot", in that order. I know what he says by how he says it, so don't worry about any confusion. He's also learning to communicate through texting, but let's not make that a habit - data's expensive."
"How... How did you make him?" She asked, staring in apprehension at the giant man-tree.
"Make him? Ha! I hired him!" Rocket started to laugh, but winced at the pain in his side. "Hey bud, can you clear a table and get the medical kit for my friend here? Took a beating on the job today. Nick, can yuh get us some drinks? You know where the fridge's at." Rocket and Groot led the bunny into his workshop, moving aside some junk as Nick brought out some sodas and a bottle of vodka for disinfectant. Judy was given a medkit, and quickly went through it to find the necessary needle, thread and cotton balls.
As he reached back to unzip his jumpsuit, he paused, and warned Judy, "Look, Long Ears, I need you to promise me that you won't go tellin' anyone about what you see. It's gonna be weird, but I need to know you won't bolt or tell Bogo or literally anyone, ok?" Judy wanted to make a crack about him being oversensitive and repeating himself, but after seeing the walking talking tree, she realized that yeah, this raccoon was serious. She nodded. Convinced, he turned his back to her, and unzipped the top half of his jumpsuit. He heard Judy gasp, and Nick, upon entering the workshop, uttering, "What the hell?!"
"Rocket?" Hopps asked, apprehensively.
"What are those... things on your back?"
"Good question." He explained, and began pointing them out. "This one at the base of my neck is connected to both the computer in my brain and my larynx, and helps me speak so purdy. These things along my spine help me walk upright, and maintain the structural integrity of my bones. This one by my liver monitors my body for toxins and poisons and whatnot, and helps keep me healthy. This one at the base of my tail... I dunno what that one does. Never got the chance to find out."
There was a silence, before Judy asked, "What are you?"
"I'm a raccoon, duh." He replied cavalierly.
"Rocket, I'm dead serious. If you want me to stitch you up, you need to explain yourself right now."
"Wanna know the truth?" He shrugged. "Well, for starters, I'm not from here. Not just Zootopia, Hopps - I'm from another world, another universe. You can ask Nick, I've told him part of this. I come from a world where mammals were still unevolved, savage beasts. See I wasn't always this cultured, sophisticated devil you see now. When I was young, I couldn't walk, couldn't speak, couldn't think beyond basic instincts."
"You mean… you mean you were like those mammals back in Tahunga?" Judy poured a little vodka on a cotton ball, and started cleaning up the wound.
Rocket winced from the sting, but answered, "No, not really. At least, I can't really remember a time I was that… I dunno, single-minded. I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was tired, chased tail when it was dat time o' year. I didn't really feel happy or angry or sad, I just… was. I survived day to day, and that was it. I couldn't tell you how long it went on, every day seemed pretty much the same as the next. Until one day, when everything changed.
"I remember I was in a giant metal trashcan, going through half a pizza someone just threw out, when I was hit by a bright blue light in the sky. There was a lot of wind, and I felt myself getting pulled up into it. The next thing I knew, I was staring up at the light, my limbs bound to a table. I couldn't move, I could barely breathe. I had never been as scared as I was at that moment. I saw the shadow of a man come in front of me, and a dozen little mechanical arms came down on me and… started operating on my head. While conscious."
Judy stopped when he said that. "Do you know what it feels like to have your brain cut into and messed with like silly putty?" He asked rhetorically. "I do. It felt like every nerve in my body was on fire. Like a nuclear bomb was exploding behind my eyes, in my teeth, pushing against my eardrums. I was stabbed with a bunch of little needles, shooting me up with hormones and chemicals and all kinds of shit. I screamed and screamed and screamed in pain, and I could hear my voice get deeper. I could feel as the additives began to change my body - my muscles burned, my gut felt like a toxic dump. Words and images flew through my mind, filling my head with information and knowledge I never had before. When the initial download and operation stopped, I looked up at the guy, and my first words were, 'Why? Why are you doing this?' You know what he said? 'To see if I can, of course.' Like it was the most obvious thing ever. 'I'm going to make you into a weapon, and you will be the deadliest creature in existence. You should thank me when I'm done.'"
"It went on after that," He continued as he nodded for Hopps to stitch up already, "Don't know if it went on for hours, or days, or years. Time was a damn blur in that place. The guy workin' on me was a mad scientist type by the name of Judson Jakes. He kept me strapped to that table, having his machines cut into me for god knows how long. He insisted that he kept me conscious to make sure all the nerves and connections were working properly, but I 'spect that he just liked watching' animals suffer, the sick fuck. He infused some kinda space metal into my bones, makin' dem much stronger. He put all kinds o' things in me - different chemical compounds, cybernetic augmentations, a wet-work computer in my brain. I'm pretty sure he even gave me a minor healing factor, to speed up my recovery times. I would beg for him to stop, curse him out, demand that he just fucking kill me and get it over with. You know what he'd say? 'Oh, Subject 42-' That was my name back then "-I can't kill you now. I have a contract with the people of Ro-Kekt to make an army of supersoldiers out of other planet's vermin. What kind of scientist would I be if I backed out of a deal just because one of my subjects was feeling sad?' Goddamn I hate that guy."
The bunny briefly paused as he growled, but continued stitching as he continued talking. "Eventually, something happened. The place we were in was a space station near an asteroid belt, and an abnormally large meteor shower was striking it. The main reactor had gone out, and the place switched to auxiliary power. The transfer somehow turned off the security features of the wing I was in, and the straps unlocked as the door to my room opened up. I got off that table, and I ran outta there faster than I'd ever moved before. My first kill was some security guard guy with tentacles for arms, holding a Mark 12 XK-035 lasgun with an added semi-automatic mini-rocket shooter. He tried to shoot me, but I got to him first. Ripped his throat out with my teeth - blood tasted like extra salty fish, real nasty stuff. I took the gun and just started running.
"I have no idea if I would've made it out of that place, if I hadn't met Blackjack O'Hare and Lylla. Blackjack - Subject 37 - was, well, a hare, but blue, and always wearing these big orange goggles. Lylla - Subject 69 - was an otter. Think Ms. Otterton, but taller, and with your eyes. A real beauty. They were stuck in a shoot-out with a bunch of robot guards, and I came in and saved them by killing them all. Center o' mass, pop-pop-pop! We recognized each other as fellow experiments pretty quickly, and after a brief talk decided to work together to break out of the place. Blackjack had picked up a heavy machine gun, and was just mowing down bitches left and right. Lylla was the smart and sneaky one - she only had a little laspistol, but she was deadly accurate with it, and she knew how to operate the doors and other machines.
"We made our way from one end of the station to another, even as it was starting to fall apart from the constant bombardment. We had just about made it to the hangar bay, when that bastard Jakes stood in our way. He had such... such a happy expression on his face. He couldn't be more proud of his experiments, how they had torn through such tough security. Sometimes I wonder if our breakout was something he allowed, like it was some kind of graduation test to see if all his 'work' had paid off. There was a moment where it looked like he was about to say something - maybe try to convince us to work for him, rule the galaxy together as his puppets, that kinda crap - but Blackjack and I, we didn't give him a chance. We filled that bastard with more plasma and hole than most star engines. Didn't even bother makin' sure he was good an' dead afterwards, just ran for the nearest spaceship and hightailed it outta there. The place got torn up by the shower, but by then we were already on the other side of the galaxy, trying to start our lives over."
Rocket reached for the bottle, and took a swig. "Found out pretty fast that we were the freaks of the universe. Took us days to find someone to help us who didn't think we were literal vermin, and even then the bastards didn't take us seriously until Blackjack pointed a gun at his head. Hell, that seemed to be his only way of dealing with people outside of the two of us. I never asked him, but I think he remembered more of his past than I did - rabbits fear everything instinctively, and he got picked because of his jumpy nature. At first, I figured that, I dunno, him being so aggressive and trigger-happy was his way of makin' sure he never felt that old fear again. Now though, lookin' back, it's more likely that he got a kick giving others the fear and pain he went through. He never turned on me or Lylla... but damn, there were times when he'd go in a frenzy, and I'd keep my paw on my grip 'til he cooled off.
"Lylla, now she became the brains of our little group. She was created for more of an espionage angle; seduction and interrogation, stealth and hacking, spy stuff, you know? She kept us employed and kept us out of trouble - for the most part, anyway. She knew economics and contracts like I know guns and bombs. Once she established herself in the markets, money just flew our way like a neverending waterfall of credits and jobs. You'd like her, Hopps; ever the optimist, and always the smartest one in the room. I don't want to imagine what Jakes had done to her or had in mind, but it sure never seemed to effect her. She got me out of some real dark places when things got rough, and nothin' could brighten my day more than her smile... except maybe building a killer robot. Depends on my mood."
"Sounds like you two were pretty close." Nick observed.
"Let's just say I haven't met a girl like her since. And I'm not just sayin' dat 'cause she's a one-off like me."
"What happened to them?" Judy asked, putting the finishing touches on the wound.
"We all ended up heading our separate ways. Blackjack went and formed his own pirate gang, and headed off to the Outer Rim. Lylla got a job working with Lord Dyvyne's weapon manufacturing business. She actually went legit, she made something of herself. Me though? Pfft, I met this big blockhead a month after Lylla left, bein' sold as an exotic pet... like I might've been. I admit, I felt sorry for the lug, and so I bought him. I wanted to set him free, but I guess Groot's are a sentimental bunch, 'cause he hasn't left my side since. I give him a cut of the profit, but it's not like trees can just go out and buy stuff you know?"
"I am Groot."
"I know, I'm about to get to the good part." He then told them about his adventures with the Guardians - getting sent to the Kyln, meeting the Collector and the fight at Knowhere, the battle of Xandar, all that good stuff. Judy had finished stitching him up, but both of them just sat there as he went into detail about Quill, Gamora and Drax, what an Infinity Stone is and does, how dangerous Ronan and Thanos were, and all other kinds of things about his galaxy. Even for Nick, it never really occurred to him what it meant to live in a place like that - so dangerous and vast. It kind of made sense now, why Rocket could be such a jackass at times.
You had to be a little shit sometimes to survive in the depths of space.
Rocket eventually looked over his shoulder, and spotted the stitches. "Oh hey, you're done." He grunted, getting up. "Thanks. I know goin' to a hospital would've been easier, but between the augments and-" He waved vaguely to indicate the whole story he just told, and sighed, "-There's no way it would've worked out. Dat's two I owe yuh, Long Ears. At dis rate, I'm gonna have to keep a Tab."
Judy gave a half-hearted smile, as her mind went a mile a minute. All of this new information just got dropped on her, and she had so many questions - Was he really a mindless savage once? How many people had he killed? Who were those two godly voices speaking to him? How was he able to make all these different gadgets scattered across the room with just scrap? All these and more ran through her brain, before she hesitantly ended up asking, "S-so... uh, what's the plan now? Where do we go from here?"
"Plan?!" The raccoon scoffed. "It's two-thirty in the morning! I've been up since dawn, got in a car wreck, beat up by mobsters and nearly got eaten by a crazy cat! My only plan now is to get some sleep, recharge and come back at our case in the morning." He got off the table, and turned back to the two of them. "Y'all can spend the night here, and we'll come together over this over breakfast or somethin'. Nick, you've got the couch. Groot, see if we still have a spare Insta-Mattress around for the lady."
"Groot!" The floral clossus agreed, leaving the room to find the sleeping gear. "I'll text Finnick," Nick yawned, "See if he can drive us to... wherever it is we need to go. Night, guys." He in turn left the room, leaving the cop and the former lab experiment alone. Without prompting or so much as a goodnight, Rocket went over to the back wall and began climbing a ladder to his bunk.
"Wait, Rocket!" She protested, reaching out to stop him. Her paw grabbed his shoulder, and he stopped to look back. "Thank you... for telling me." She said, "I know you didn't have to, but it means a lot. I can't imagine what it must've been like-"
"Don't." He sighed, pulling her paw off. "You couldn't understand what happened to me. No one on this rock could understand. I wouldn't want you to understand, 'cause I wouldn't wish what happened to me on my worst enemy, let alone someone like you." His eyes grew distant and hard, looking away as he continued, "What happened to Manchas... what happened to all those mammals... I can't help but think of me and all those animals Jakes experimented on. When we find the bastards who did this, you better get them first. 'Cause if I get 'em first, I'll give 'em a fate far kinder than what we were given, and put a hole where their face used to be..."
Now, now it's personal. The next chapter involves a little change in tone - a little bit of comedy, a little detective work and intrigue, a little bit o' romance, all within the most dangerous and terrifying place in the world - a capital office building.