Patton woke up to his feet being dragged over slick metal flooring, and the pain along what seemed like every inch of him. On either side of him, footsteps and hands pulling him along.
He moaned, and someone’s grip on his arm tightened, a voice demanding he shut up in a sharp bark of Common. It wasn’t much of a threat. He doubted they could do much else to scare him at this point, not after-
The thought stung even as he cut it off sharply, trying to hold back a sob.
He’d forced himself into optimism day after day while stuck on the smugglers’ ship, hidden somewhere in the backwater corners of some mostly-barren nebula, but this was it. This was the point where he couldn’t fool himself anymore.
They’d stripped him of his coat, the gossamer feathers that lined his limbs and back torn away. It was the only reason they’d taken him in the first place; Ampens were common enough that they didn’t sell well and so smugglers didn’t often target them. It just so happened that he was one of the rare few with bright, phosphorescent plumage.
He’d been so proud of it, too, before this. Always happy to make his feathers glow iridescent for the kids or the sake of a bad pun.
Now, they were what had gotten him into this mess, and they were what was going to ensure he never got out of it. Ampens weren’t designed to be plucked. His feathers were meant to let him siphon energy from the air. Without them, he would need to be touching someone directly to feed, and smugglers weren’t known for being cuddly with their victims.
He’d heard the stories, tragic cautionary tales about captured Ampens wasting away from illness in solitary cages. He’d just never thought that would be how he went out. He’d always had more than enough energy with his shipmates around, even if Roman was the more tactile one.
“Okay, this one.” The smuggler holding his left arm came to a stop in front of one of the doors in the cold hallway. The other one stopped a beat late, jerking Patton’s tender right arm painfully.
“What? Isn’t this the Human’s cell?” They asked, uncertain.
Patton felt the soft, fur-like down along the back of his neck and spine rise in alarm. Human?
“Yeah, weren’t you paying attention? Ampens don’t have a shelf life, and we all know how Humans are. It’ll get rid of this one, we won’t have as much trouble managing it for a bit. Two problems solved at once.”
The second smuggler responded, but the words were static in Patton’s ears. They were going to leave him with a Human. How had they even captured a Human?
A rusty screech made him jerk his head up, and he realized the door had been opened just in time to be harshly shoved through. He hit the ground with a thud, scraping his legs and seconds later there was a slam and the lock clicked into place.
He scrambled to his feet, clawing at the door hopelessly for a minute before a rustle made him turn and flatten himself against the wall.
The Human was large, not the biggest he’d ever seen, but definitely much larger than him. It was said that Humans could take down creatures twice or even thrice their size, though, so it really didn’t matter how big it was. It was half-crouched in the shade, most of its features completely obscured, but he could see the smooth, near-hairless skin even in the dark.
Patton remained frozen. He’d heard that Humans didn’t have the same sight abilities as other creatures on their planet, so maybe he would be safe if he didn’t attract it’s attention…?
There was a long, low exhale from the corner, and the Human lowered itself, somehow fading back even further into the corner until it was visible only as the barest shape.
He hardly dared to breathe. Was it truly that easy? Humans were bloodthirsty, cruel deathworlders. They ran off some of the most potent chemical combinations in the universe, and some of the most infamous massacres were due to Humans fighting brutally to the last.
Moments passed, and he slowly sunk down, bit by bit, to the floor. The Human didn’t stir, and he sat there, wondering how he was going to handle all this, until his eyes drooped shut despite his best efforts.
When he woke, it was to the sound of a slot in the door clanging against a rations tray, which fell into his lap like a death sentence. He slowly looked up, and found that the Human was slightly more visible.
And looking directly at him.
It didn’t bare it’s bone-teeth or anything, but the gaze was unmistakably pinning him down. A low click of terror escaped him, and the Human tilted its head ever so slightly. After a moment, it clicked back.
Patton had known that Humans had stunning mimicry skills, but it was bizarre to see it up close. He stared, eyes wide, until the Human’s gaze flicked down to the tray in their hands. He managed to stifle his instinct to throw the offending object far away from himself, but just barely. He was not getting in between a Human and what it wanted, no matter how long it had been since he’d eaten.
Instead, he mechanically lifted it, setting it to the side and pushing it, slowly, in the Human’s direction. Away from him.
“Your food.” He said under his breath, carefully sliding himself back until he found a corner, directly across from the Human’s corner.
The Human watched him with those dark eyes for a moment longer, and then rose to its terrifying full height and walked to the rations, movements sharp and purposeful.
Patton was sure to avoid eye contact as it reached the package. There was a long moment of rustling and tearing, and then-
“Your… food.” A raspy chur-and-click, replicated clumsily from his own earlier. He looked over, startled that the Human had heard his earlier muttering, and the Human shoved the tray, now open, once in his direction.
He must have stared for too long, because the Human flushed a strange red and slowly returned to its corner, never turning its back to Patton. He chose to believe that pinched expression didn’t mean anything too bad, seeing as he hadn’t been outright attacked. He shuffled carefully over to the tray.
It was a bit early to start hoping, but as he carefully took a bite from the halved rations, Patton found himself wondering if he’d survive this encounter after all.
There wasn’t much to do but think and sleep when one was captured by smugglers and left in their cold, featureless cells. Seeing as Patton’s thoughts always managed to wander back to the stressful Human enigma across the small room, he spent a significant amount of time sleeping instead.
It was nerve-wracking the first few times, expecting to be attacked at any moment. He woke at the slightest sound, leaving him restless. But every time he bolted upright, the Human was still crouched in its own corner, looking for all the world like it hadn’t moved an inch.
After a while, he started sleeping more soundly, though whether that was due to the Human’s predictability or his own fatigue was anyone’s guess. As such, he didn’t realize the Human had moved until the soft sensation of strange textile cloth suddenly draped over his sensitive skin.
He woke immediately, thrashing, because the last time someone had touched him it had been the most agonizing experience of his life, and then the Human was pressing down on him, keeping him immobilized. He twitched against the immense force, but the Human must have run into Ampens before, because the fabric created a barrier between its hands and Patton. He couldn’t take any energy without direct contact, and he’d barely had any to start with. There was no winning this fight.
Patton felt his body go limp, drained from the struggle, and waited for the pressure to increase, crush him until he was no more.
Instead, the pressure lightened significantly, a muted exhale coming from above him. What? Prehensile fingers wrapped around his sides and pulled, dragging him over to the wrong corner, the one swathed in shadow. Patton’s antennae twitched anxiously. What was it going to do, disembowel him? Stars, couldn’t it just be done with it already?
A heartbeat later, the Human backed off, turning to the door and, for the first time, exposing its back to Patton.
Before he could even begin to process that, the door swung open heavily, and four smugglers crowded into the room. They all wore heavy dark bodysuits, and held rods that crackled menacingly with energy. They surrounded the Human, who hadn’t even looked in his direction, and one of them pressed a tranq patch against its neck, making it turn and snap its teeth harshly, face thunderous.
The others lifted their weapons, but moments later the Human’s legs folded out from beneath it, meaning that the patch had probably had enough drugs on it to kill Patton seven times over.
“He certainly went easier than usual today.” One commented, voice distorted by their mask. They seemed to be staring at the Human’s fallen body curiously.
Another snorted, grabbing one of the Human’s limbs and pulling.
“We gave it an Ampen the other day. Probably still feels sated from tearing that apart. Now, do your job. We don’t have forever and Humans are dense creatures.”
Patton remained still and silent as the others assisted, hauling the Human up and carrying it- him? out of the cell, the door swinging shut behind them.
He slowly dragged himself from under the fabric, turning his head to investigate it curiously. It wasn’t the Human’s shed skin, so it was probably an article of clothing he had been wearing. Why put it over Patton and then leave? Many Humans had keen ears, the Human probably heard the guards coming, so why attack then? Could something so ineffective even really be called an attack?
There were no answers easily forthcoming, and the dark fabric was strangely warm, so Patton curled up and waited for someone to return.
Ampens weren’t known for their keen physical senses, but he strained to keep his ears open, and when footsteps approached the cell, he immediately pulled his head back under the Human cloth.
It was only after the door had been opened, a body roughly tossed in, and then slammed shut again that Patton wondered how wise it was to continue using something that clearly belonged to the Human. Was it even the Human who had been brought back to the cell? He couldn’t imagine many scenarios that could be scarier than this had already been, beyond maybe another, unknown Human.
He dared to look out past the cloth, and froze in astonishment. The Human was flat on his back, head turned towards Patton but eyes barely focused. Right, they probably didn’t transport him anywhere without drugging him out of his mind. He carefully crept over, closer than he’d ever dared to come before.
It took him awhile to realize why the Human looked different: more of his odd skin was exposed from shedding the cloth earlier. He resisted the urge to reach out and touch, take energy to fill up the sickening void within him, knowing that doing such a thing might break the fragile truce he’d forged with the Human.
The Human took a long moment, and then seemed to finally register Patton’s presence. His face twitched into an almost-snarl, but the motion ended as soon as it began. Instead, he let out a long, low sigh, and his head lolled back.
Patton, like most in his nebula, didn’t know anything about Human body language beyond ‘if it looks at you, run’, so he could only assume that this was some sort of threat display out of anger or unhappiness at his current state. He scrambled back a bit to give the Human space, and then grabbed the cloth, bringing it over and even daring to gently drape it over the Human before darting back again.
The poor thing had no insulation built into his skin, it was no wonder he had all these outer layers for warmth. Patton slowly retreated to his own corner, wondering why the Human had used it on him. Maybe the lack of feathers made him worry that Patton was uninsulated as well?
It wasn’t exactly what anyone would expect a Human to do- they weren’t known for rampant mothering instincts- but Patton hoped that it was true regardless. After all, all he had now was his optimism.