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Hope is a Feathered Thing

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When Yondu was a kid, he was kept for awhile in a slave pen that had some fluffy l'il critter start coming around. He doesn't know what it was, bird or something, probably got used to coming around the pen because the guards would throw it crumbs. (Thrown to the birds, not the kids, though they thrust their skinny little hands pleadingly through the force slats of the cage; that'd be against the rules.) Or maybe it was drawn to light. He remembers, though he's not sure how reliable memory is, that it used to flutter around the hissing, glaring lights that lit up the pens at night.

Whatever started drawing it around in the first place, the kids who hadn't yet had the kid part totally beat out of them -- Yondu among them -- tamed it. Used to even save back a few grains from their own inadequate ration cakes, holding them out, grinning with mouths unused to the sensation when it would nip them up from their fingers.

So of course it ended as these things always do. Guards noticed, finally. Shot it dead through the cage. Left it to rot inside.

Looking back on it now, he wonders a little that they didn't eat it. Even the paltry scraps of meat on its tiny bones would'a looked good to starving kids who worked two-thirds of the day -- combat drills, live-weapon practice fights, or just slave labor on the camp itself, collapsing into the pen when their shift was up, only to be dragged out again at daybreak. But they wasted the meat, gave it a funeral instead, scraped a pathetic little hollow in the dust and put a cairn of stones over the top. Gave it a funeral like they wouldn't get for themselves: if the kids died, their bodies were thrown in a trench or chucked into the incinerators that powered the forcefield. But still they buried that damn little bird like the stupid kids they were.

And then they moved on, of course, hustled into the belly of a cargo hauler at shock-stick point, moved to some other world and some other pen hardly distinguishable from the last, except maybe it rained more, or maybe it would be cold and they'd have to huddle together and try not to freeze. Left its bones to lie forgotten on that drier world (he remembers the dust, though not much else, not what color the sky was or the plants were).

Doesn't matter really, in the end. It all comes down to bones in the dust eventually, and he knows better than to make those kinds of mistakes anymore.

 

***

 

He thinks of that stupid bird-thing, he's not quite sure why, as he slinks down into the bowels of his ship, trailing the Terran kid just a shade too far back to be noticed.

It's not that he's keeping tabs on the kid, not really. It's just that he'd be a damn lousy excuse for a captain if he didn't notice what was going on around his own ship, and the kid's been disappearing more than usual lately, been eating more than usual too. Could just be he's finally starting to put on a growth spurt and stop being so tiny. But Cook saw him slip a hunk of bread into his coat the other day, and that could be a problem.

Could be that he's plannin' to run away, or got something else going on down here, some sneaky Terran kind of thing. Sounds like the kind of thing the captain ought to look into, anyway.

The kid's been with them now a little over a Terran year. In that time, he's learned the ship inside and out. Slithers around in it like a Worran monkey-snake. He's learned all the vents, every nook and cranny. Probably knows the ship as well as its own mechanics do. He spends a lot of time, though less so than when he first came onboard, hiding in various places that are too big for the adults to get into.

Kid's no dummy. It's what Yondu would'a done. Get the lay of the land, figure out the safe places, and hole up there. As long as the kid shows up when Yondu wants him -- and a few threats, plus escorting him out of the vents a time or two at arrowpoint, seem to have done the trick -- he's not too fussed about what the kid gets up to on his own time.

Except in cases like this, where he's definitely up to something.

But nobody knows this ship like Yondu does, and he's ghost-quiet when he wants to be. They've gone down through the cargo hold, past the engine room, and into the very back of the tangle of tubes in the life-support matrix, a place nobody ever comes except the rare times something breaks and needs fixin'. It's a good hiding place. It's one of the places Yondu would'a picked if he was going to hide something, which means the kid is definitely hiding something. Question is what.

He's too far back to see exactly where the kid went, but he can hear something now, the rise and fall of the kid's soft voice (funny how he can pick out the cadence of Quill's voice now, he thinks absently) and something else, a low melodic fluting that prickles the back of his neck for some reason.

He goes even slower, creeps between the pipes and steps over a conduit. There's a light back here, and he peeks around the corner to see the kid stretching on tiptoe to look up onto a shelf.

There's a cage up there, nicked from the ship's stores, and in the cage ... Yondu frowns and edges a little closer; he can't quite see. The kid is sticking a piece of sausage from tonight's mess through the bars, and the thing inside the cage -- pale-colored, glimmering softly in the light of a glow-lantern sitting beside it -- tentatively nips it from his fingers. The melodic warbling is definitely coming from the creature, whatever it is. The lantern's in the way, so he has to swing around behind the kid to try to get a better look.

"That's it," Quill murmurs, and Yondu can picture the look on his face even though all he can see is the scruffy back of his head, that open wondering look he gets whenever he sees something new that interests him. Which is most things, out here. When they first picked him up, the kid yelled and scowled a lot (and cried, but he mostly did that in the vents while he was hiding). But still, that awestruck expression would peek out occasionally, at the sight of a nebula through the viewscreen, glimpses of each new planet they visited, even something like Yondu's arrow or an ordinary pulse pistol. So Quill's found something new to make his this-thing-is-awesome face at.

Then Yondu finally gets close enough to see the thing. It's a fluffy little pod of plumes, each with its tips bright red, like they were dipped in blood. Its tubelike snout pokes out of the floof to take the morsels the kid is ever so delicately feeding it.

Shit. What was the last planet they stopped on? Yeah, Ieilea, wasn't it. Sure does figure.

Yondu doesn't hesitate. He whistles. The kid's head snaps around in shock, but Yondu's already sent the arrow streaking across the room and drilled a hole through the thing's chest, quick as thought. It gives another tiny, fading warble as it dies.

For a moment, man and boy stare at each other. Quill looks from the dead thing in the cage to Yondu, and he knows the look on the kid's face because he remembers what it feels like from the inside, the shock and hurt fading into a baffled, betrayed rage seeded with hate.

He only sees it for a minute because then Quill clenches his little fists and piles into Yondu, punching and flailing and screaming at the top of his lungs, "You didn't have to kill it!"

Yondu catches him almost absently and holds him at arm's length while the kid goes on kicking and clawing and cussing him out with some pretty inventive language -- he sure does pay attention when he wants to, Yondu thinks with some appreciation.

And he could just leave it there. Should leave it there. Should let the kid learn the lesson Yondu learned all those years ago, in so many different ways, that loving things just gives other people a way to hurt you. The kid's too open, too soft, too weak. He's never gonna survive the cruel, cold galaxy like this. Never gonna be a Ravager like this. There's a way to harden him, and the way is right here.

He knows it's what he oughta do.

But he'd also like to make sure the Terran brat doesn't get eaten by the wildlife on the next planet they stop on, so instead he gives the kid a hard shake and says, "Settle down an' listen. That thing was gonna kill you, boy."

He's a little surprised when the kid actually does stop trying to claw at him and goes still in his grip. The small tear-streaked face, screwed up with rage, glares up at him. "Liar! You murdered Tribble."

Tribble? Whatever. Terrans. "C'mere. Gonna show you somethin'."

He steers the kid back to the cage and whistles softly. He uses the arrow to prod at the thing's body, flipping it over and ignoring the tiny, muffled sniffle from the child he is now gripping by the shoulders, firmly but not hard enough to hurt or bruise. He knows how easy a kid can get attached to things they shouldn't, when there's nothing much around to attach to; doesn't he just. But that's why he needs to show Quill what this thing really is.

The fluff on the creature's underside parts to reveal a series of small dark-blue dots. "See those?"

A sniffle. A small nod.

Yondu pulls Quill back a little, and whistles softly, controlling the arrow with great delicacy as it probes at the creature's underside.

There's a sudden snapping sound, and a blue tendril unfurls from the port in the creature's belly, shooting through the cage bars to a distance of a man's spread arms before it collapses limply to dangle down from the shelf, not retracting naturally as it would if the thing was still alive. Yondu feels Quill jerk under his hands and then start to relax.

"That shiny part on the tip there, boy, it's one of the most lethal poisons in the galaxy. Ieilean deathflower, these things are called. This one's a baby. As they grow up, their feathers or whatever you wanna call those plumey things gets coated in poison too, 'til it'll kill you just to touch it with your bare hands. What you been feedin' it?"

"Uh ... whatever I can stea -- uh -- smuggle out of the mess," the boy says, staring at the dangling blue tentacle. "It mostly likes meat."

"Yeah, they do, an' they like their meat best when it's fresh."

"Oh," Quill says in a very small voice.

Yondu lets him go, since it seems like he's decided to stop throwing a fit, and finds a thick plastic sheet in the jumble of old equipment stored on the shelves, as well as a pair of gloves. He bundles up the thing's body. There are places that'll pay through the nose for a good lethal poison.

"You still didn't have to kill it," the boy says softly.

Yondu looks at him. He's fingering the headphones of his music player, which Yondu knows he wears when he's upset, to calm himself down.

"You or it, boy. An' if you wanna be its dinner, you ain't gonna stick around long enough to be ours, which is gonna disappoint the boys somethin' fierce."

The boy swallows, and then sets his jaw in the stubborn lines that Yondu has come to know all too well. "But you didn't have to kill it. You could'a just said, 'Gerraway from tha' cage, Quill --'"

He does a damn good impression of Yondu's rough voice, and Yondu has to clench his jaw against a sudden, completely unexpected urge to grin.

But he's got better control than that, and the kid is looking at him dead serious, wearing a furious scowl. His lashes are still matted with angry tears. "It's not its fault it kills things to live. That's just how God made it. Don't mean it had to die for it."

Yondu barks a harsh laugh. "What kinda bullshit is that? Sure, it can live its life in perfect harmony with all livin' things and shit -- but not on my ship." He gives the plastic-wrapped bundle a shake. "You wanna blame somebody for this thing bein' dead, blame yourself, kid, 'cause it was you what brought it onto the ship."

The boy's face screws up in utter fury. "You're a mean, stupid, awful space pirate and I hope somebody kills you!" With that, he turns on his heel and stomps off, settling the headphones over his ears as he does.

Yondu watches him go, then takes the plastic-wrapped bundle, its poison darts forever stilled, to put it in the ship's cold storage.

 

***

 

A week later, they're on Kolaria for a weapons deal and they've got a spare afternoon, so Yondu figures it's a good chance for some sleight-of-hand practice. Quill's biggest assets are his small size, small hands, and speed. Yondu's crew has always leaned more towards heavy firepower than stealth, so having a tiny pickpocket is a whole new business opportunity for him, one he plans to take full advantage of. Also, the kid seems to enjoy it.

The capital of the third continent is famous for its markets, so Yondu wanders around for a bit, looking for the place he knows is here. He keeps a casual hand at the ready so that every so often he can, with by now well-practiced ease, grab Quill by the collar and yank him back when he starts wandering off to stare at something.

"You never let me see anything," the kid pouts. He's brought his music player with him, as always, the headset looped around his neck. Yondu makes a mental note that after he gives the kid his assignment, he needs to check the junkers for more Terran power cells for it. Wearing it keeps Quill quiet and busy, and that, Yondu has found, is a priceless commodity when dealing with children.

Although silence hasn't really been a problem lately, for a change. Quill's been quiet and mopey ever since Yondu killed the deathflower for him. Children. No gratitude. Still, the boy's obvious misery is taxing; some of the men have even noticed. A visit planetside is guaranteed to perk him up, usually.

"Quit whinin' or it's the stewpot for you." The threat is as automatic as his grip on the scruff of the kid's neck, dragging Quill outta the way of a passing party of Atroiska warrior women, eight feet tall, stomping along in furs and rattling chains. Atroiska don't slow down for nobody; they'd have decapitated the kid as soon as look at him. He's pretty sure the kid didn't even notice -- too busy goggling at a Dralulian wedding party on the other side of the street, with long colored streamers flowing from their antlers.

Anyway, he's spotted the sign he's been looking for.

A few moments later, they turn the corner and pass through the gates. The air gets suddenly warmer than the usual Kolarian chill -- can't be lettin' the fluffy li'l buggers get cold, he guesses.

Quill, round-eyed, stares around him at the rows of cages in the pet market. Stares, too, at the children, most of them younger than him, clinging to the hands, tentacles, or crab claws of their parents as they gawp at the cages, tanks, and habitats. Some of them are cradling little fluffy or slithery pets in their own hands, tentacles, or whatever they've got to grab things with.

"Awright now." Yondu gives Quill a little shake. "You payin' attention, boy? Look at me when I talk to you."

"Uh ... yeah." Quill wrenches his curious gaze away from the pastel-colored balls of fluff in the nearest cage.

"This here's your job, boy." He speaks quietly, pitched for the kid's ears alone. Terrans actually have sharper-than-average hearing by galactic standards. "Haven't never tried you on live cargo before. You gonna get one of these things without nobody seeing you, got it? You be back at the ship with it before we takes off this evening, or we leave you here."

"Which one?" Quill asks, his attention wandering again, past the furball cage to one that's got a bunch of l'il feather-duster things, colors shimmering up and down their incredibly soft-looking fronds.

"Don't matter. You pick. Gotta be alive, gotta get it to the ship alive."

"Where you're gonna eat it, I reckon?" the boy asks, pouting.

"Ain't your business what happens to it after, or what I want it for. Ain't never your business 'cause you ain't the captain, hear? You got your orders. An' I got things to do. If you get caught, well, you're on your own. Ain't nobody comin' after you, got it?"

A hesitation, then a small, belligerent nod.

"Well, you waitin' for the Priestess o' the Sovereign to stop by an' give you a golden invite, boy? Git!"

The kid flinches, hesitates, and dashes off down the row of cages. He slows to a trot almost immediately, then to a walk, and then stops completely in front of the cage of feather things. Cautiously he starts to poke a finger between the bars before stopping himself. Not hard to guess why; since picking up the whelp on Terra, it seems like all Yondu ever does is snap at him not to touch things that are gonna poison him, stab him, try to mate with him, lay their eggs in him, or try to absorb him into their chemical makeup.

But if there ever was a place that he can grope the local fauna as much as he wants, a petting zoo and pet-sales emporium is certainly the place. And if Quill can't figure that out on his own, then he's too timid to be much good on a Ravager crew.

Quill bends his face close to the bars and cautiously touches the tip of a feathery frond. The creature makes a burbling coo, and then, very softly, the frond begins to glow. Quill's face dissolves in soft, childish delight. He looks up at Yondu, beaming.

"Look, Yondu, it glows!"

"Seventh marvel of the universe, all right," Yondu grits out, because he really didn't plan to stick around watching the kid pet whatever that thing is; he was just gonna drop him off and leave. And yet, here he is, standing like a moron. (And getting a few looks from some of the nearby parents. He fits in just fine in the market at large, but not so much in a petting zoo, what with his Ravager leathers and all the rest of it.)

Could be he might not've thought this plan through.

"Yondu, come here and pet it. It's so soft and it tickles."

The correct response to a question like that is "Fuck off, kid, not a chance", so Yondu's not sure why he ends up bending down to the cage with a creaking of leathers to stick a blunt-tipped finger through the bars. He's not expecting the thing to nestle up against him like it wants to be touched (nothing ever wants to be touched by a Ravager), sending a cascade of rippling light across its plumage as it brushes across his hand.

"These are the coolest. Can I have -- uh --" The boy drops his voice and glances around. "Can I steal one of these?" he whispers.

Yondu cuffs him in the back of the head, not hard, but enough to knock some of the starry-eyed look off his face. "You think you can get all the way to the ship with a pet that glows, it's your funeral, boy."

"I totally can," Quill says earnestly.

"Prove it t'me, then."

Quill looks like he's contemplating stuffing one under his coat right now. Yondu crouches down with what he hopes is a parental enough air to stop anyone from calling the authorities (he's definitely getting more than a few uncomfortable looks now) and murmurs, "You steal smart now, boy. Plan out the heist and the escape -- okay, boy, what now?"

Because Quill looks thoughtful and then the starry-eyed look vanishes, replaced by truculence. He crosses his arms and stares at Yondu defiantly. "Tell me you're not going to kill it."

"What?"

Quill's lip juts out. "I ain't takin' it back to the ship if you're gonna kill it just for -- for being in the wrong place, or for stupid games or whatever. I ain't gonna do it."

Some part of Yondu is aware that there's something awfully familiar about the boy's deep stubborn streak. Awfully familiar. He refuses to acknowledge it. "You givin' orders to your captain, boy?" he asks, danger creeping into his voice like frost around the edges of an air leak in hard vacuum.

"You're not my captain, you're a stupid pirate who stole me, and you're not my daddy either, so don't tell me what to do!"

His voice raises almost to a scream on the last part, and now a matronly, uniformed lady is bearing down on them in a flurry of tentacles. "Is there a problem here?"

Yondu straightens up slowly. "Not at all," he tells her in his softest tones, very aware of the arrow at his side, under his coat. He's not completely averse to a bloodbath in a petting zoo, but he'd really rather avoid it. "No problem at all, is there, son?"

The boy takes a deep breath, and in that instant, Yondu isn't at all sure what he's going to do if the boy blurts out the truth he just damn near screamed to everyone in earshot. Quill holds his breath for a long moment, then he lets it out and points to the cage. "Daddy," he says crisply, "I want one of those."

"Do you now," Yondu says dryly. "How much is one o' them things, anyways?"

The lady clasps her tentacles and rattles off a price that he could'a spent on enough supplies to stock the ship for a goddamn deep space flight. He hadn't realized pets were that expensive.

"Can I have it, please?" Quill asks, staring up wide-eyed at both Yondu and the lady, who looks all melty like women tend to get over the l'il fucker. Quill knows he's cute; hell, it's Yondu who taught him to trade on it for taking in marks.

Hoisted by his own petard. This fucking day.

 

***

 

Long story short, he leaves the pet market with a happy-looking Quill in tow, the glowy fluffy critter cradled gently in his arms. Yondu's carrying a bag of (also fucking expensive) glowy critter feed. At least he managed to bargain the lady down to half price for the smallest fluffball in the cage. Quill seems happy with it, and the alternative was killing everyone in earshot, which Yondu really wasn't in the mood for.

"You're not gonna kill it back on the ship," Quill mutters as soon as they're back in the market proper, tucking the critter up under his chin and glaring at Yondu.

"Boy, after what I just paid for that thing, if you let it starve to death, I'll kill you."

Quill buries his face in its fluff and thankfully shuts up.

 

***

 

As it turns out, they keep the damn thing for three years (its typical lifespan according to the brochure chip that came with it). The whole crew likes having a mascot around, and when it dies, they give it a stupid tiny Ravager funeral with all the trimmings and burn it all proper and everything. Yondu decides to turn a blind eye to this, in the interests of crew morale.

Quill is much too old to mope about a dead frickin' pet, except he's Quill and Yondu is more or less resigned to this sort of thing by now. Yondu is up on the bridge by himself when Quill comes to join him, not saying anything, just wearing his music headphones (by this point they've rigged him up a power cell for the player-thing that recharges on regular circuitry like civilized tech). He looks droopy and listens to his headphones and gazes at the stars, and after awhile he flops down across the copilot's chair with his head resting against Yondu's arm, which Yondu decides to ignore.

The small tinny echo of Quill's music has a steady beat. Yondu's used to the quiet on the night watch, but it's not too annoying. And if he curls up his fingers and lets the back of his hand rest against the kid's hair, well, it's just a convenient place to put his hand, that's all.