Chapter 1: Chapter 1
“Stephanie, I’d like you to meet Dr. Tim Drake. Dr. Drake, this is Stephanie, the head of our marine mammal training.”
Tim pasted a smile on his face and shook her hand. How these people had managed to get their hands on a mer without a specialist on the team, he had no idea, but he was there now.
“Nice to meet you, Stephanie, call me Tim.”
“Hi, Tim, I’m glad you could come.” She gave him a polite smile, but the stress lines belied the pressure she’d been under. “I admit this is outside of my field, but I’ve been working with Big Red for almost as long as he’s been here, so I’ll help as much as I can.”
“I really appreciate that.” He turned back to Roman, the curator. “If you could show me the mer’s file, I’ll go ahead and get started.”
He and Stephanie ended up in a small conference room with the document spread out on the table in front of them.
“So what’s all going on? The posting was a bit vague, but the mer isn’t eating?” Tim flipped to the next page, trying to make sense of it. He’d never seen a file put together in such a disorganized fashion, especially since aquariums with mers were under such heavy scrutiny.
“Yeah. We entered Big Red into a breeding program last year, and found a mate a few months ago. Before then, he was really cooperative. Easy to work with, although I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I’m used to dolphins, you know?” She heaved a sigh, twisting her fingers together. “But ever since the breeding three months ago, he’s been totally different. At first he just stopped responding to us. Wouldn't answer any of our signals, wouldn't come to the surface, let alone the landing rock, and the only way we could keep feeding him was to weigh it down and drop it to the bottom for him to pick up. But we had to sedate him last week to get an ultrasound, and that made it so much worse. He hasn't eaten anything we dropped in, just stays buried in the sand most of the time, and goes practically feral if anyone gets in the water. He sent one of the divers to the hospital after the ultrasound.”
Tim nodded along, filing the information away and mentally marking Big Red as ‘he.’ All mers were intersex, but if Stephanie had been working with the mer for years, it’d be easier to just adapt to her terms. “It’s pretty normal for mers to get territorial when brooding. What concerns me is that he hasn’t built a nest. He just buried himself in sand? Who are his dam and sire?” He couldn’t find the information anywhere, which was unusual. If one of Big Red’s parents had similar behavioral issues, that could be a factor, but Tim was beginning to wonder if Big Red had simply been removed from his pod too young.
“Oh, we don’t know. Big Red was brought in as a rescue when he was really young. He was all torn up after a boating accident, and by the time he’d healed enough to be released by the rehab facility, they couldn’t find his pod and he’d adjusted to humans too much. The rescue center closed a little while after Red came into our care, so all we really know is that the accident happened about fifty miles east of Gotham Bay.”
The missing puzzle pieces fell into place quickly, making such a horrifying picture that Tim dropped the paper he was holding and collapsed back in his chair.
Stephanie took one look at his face and paled at what she saw. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Tim buried his face in his hands. “You have a wild mer, who’s not an imprint,” he glanced up, hoping she’d correct him, but when she didn’t he was forced to continue, “and you put him in a breeding program.” He sucked in a breath, stomach churning. “Who was the mate? What’s their history?”
“Um,” Stephanie shuffled through the papers, hands shaking a little as she searched for the correct one. “One of the older mers from the Pakistani National Zoo. Demon? They’d had a lot of success with him in the past, and his dam was wild also, so the breeding program leader thought it was a good match.”
“Fuck.” Tim’s face screwed up in pain. “Okay, so, that’s not good. I’m going to have to talk with your curator and the person in charge of the breeding program, because it is unacceptable how little research they did, and frankly I’m tempted to contact APHIS about an Animal Welfare Act violation. Wild mers are protected, and there’s a reason it’s illegal to put them with mers born in captivity. They have complex social dynamics, and their courtship periods can last for years because they usually mate for life.
“Mers born in captivity lose those instincts quickly, sometimes in a single generation, and become almost feral when interacting with non-familial mers. They’re more violent towards others of their own kind, and more likely to cause serious, permanent damage when mating. Wild mers scar each other, captive mers kill each other.”
He let the seriousness of what he was implying sink in, then continued. “These guys are smart, smarter than orcas, smarter than chimps, and most of the current research and petitions are working on halting all breeding programs, because the more we learn, the more we’re realizing that they could very well be at human levels of intelligence. If Big Red was bred by a captive-born mer, that's roughly the equivalent of throwing a feral cat at a rabid dog. Both are dangerous, but only one of them has a chance of winning.”
“Oh god.” Stephanie pressed a hand over her mouth, and she looked about ready to cry.
“It’s not your fault,” he assured her, although she had definitely contributed. “The curators should have done their research, and the breeding program director definitely should have known better. This isn’t your field, and they threw you in without the information you needed. That said, I’m going to be changing some things.” A lot of things. “Can I see the tank?”
Stephanie led him through the aquarium, bypassing all the little areas meant to break up the flow of visitors until they arrived at the right tank.
He would give them credit in that the tank was the right size for a single mer. That was all the credit they would be getting, however. It was clear that Stephanie had done some research on mer enrichment, given the large rock formation with lots of caves and tunnels, but as far as he could see there wasn’t a single living thing in the tank as far as flora went. As it was, he really couldn’t see a single living thing period, because wherever Big Red was hiding, it was not visible from the main viewing area.
“Where has he been hiding?” he asked Stephanie.
“Over here.” She led him to a far corner, then pointed back deeper in the tank where he could just barely see a small rise in the sand against the wall. “It took us forever to find him, but that’s the only corner in the tank where neither wall is glass. We tried setting up an underwater camera so we could watch him discreetly, but he destroyed it pretty quickly.”
"Okay." Tim nodded, a plan coming together in his head to fill in all the things that were missing. Big Red hadn't built a nest because there was nothing to build a nest with, and that was something he could fix. First, though, "What have you been feeding him?"
"We usually hand feed him a mix of fish, some mollusks, squid, that kind of thing. I made sure to follow the guidelines that the Mer Research Institute suggested."
"Dead or alive?"
"Alive, but cold shocked. He wouldn't touch any of the truly dead fish, so we found that using hypothermic ones worked better."
"Alright, first thing's first. Get some fish in there. Basic schooling fish, mackerel, perch, herring, whatever you can get through quarantine quickly. Give him something he can hunt on his own without your intervention. Frankly, I'm surprised he was even willing to eat the shocked ones, but he was probably pretty hungry. We also need to get some small rocks and plants in here. I'm talking seagrass, kelp, sargassum, literally anything that grows quickly and is easy to maintain. He'll probably start ripping it up at first, but that's why he needs it. Sound good?"
Stephanie nodded, a look of determination crossing her face. "I can do that."
"Good. Now, I'm going to go talk with your bosses." Tim smiled grimly, preparing for the coming battle. He’d been hired by the aquarium to help Big Red, and that was exactly what he was going to do.
Jason lay curled up in the sand. There wasn't any nesting material in his tank, but he'd managed to dig a sizable hole in the sand where no one could easily see him, and that would have to be good enough.
The humans had tried coming into the water a few times, but he knew better now.
He hadn't, before. He'd let himself grow complacent, even breaching himself for the promise of food because he'd thought they'd proven they wouldn't hurt him.
They had proved him wrong.
His hand drifted down to cup his still-flat abdomen.
There were parts of his tail still healing, areas that he knew would scar impressively because of how violent the brute had been. He hadn't expected it.
In the past, when the door in the wall had opened, it led to a small tank that let them poke and prod him for whatever reason they wanted to poke and prod him, but last time… last time it had led to a big tank. A big tank with a bigger mer that didn’t speak the same dialect and had spent about three seconds looking at him before ripping a chunk out of Jason’s tail and carrying him to the bottom of the tank.
He’d survived what happened next, barely, and could only be glad that the other mer had been removed after.
He still didn’t understand why it had happened at all, but now he knew that the humans could not be trusted.
A shift in the water had him looking up in alarm, pushing deeper into the sand when he saw a thick net being lowered to cut him off from the rest of the tank. His heart pounded in his throat, anxiety rising while he waited to see which way they would try and push him, but the net didn’t move.
A few minutes later something splashed into the water, shortly followed by a human in one of their water suits.
He bared his teeth. If they tried to set up another of those eyes, he’d rip it to pieces just like the first.
They had a big pack with them, and more things were being lowered into the water, and… was that seagrass?
Jason forgot himself for a moment, sitting up head and shoulders out of his make-shift den to get a better look.
Big flats of seagrass were being dropped into the water along with a variety of other plants, and his heart twisted in his chest. He desperately hoped that this wasn’t a trap, that they would let him have the plants instead of using them as bribery. He’d resist if it was just another manipulation tactic, but he didn’t want to, didn’t want to deny his pup that comfort, even though it would be a while before it was born.
It took hours for them to finish, but at last the humans pulled themselves out of the water. The net remained, and Jason was just starting to feel like his hopes had been dashed upon the rocks when it went taut, and lifted up. As soon as it cleared the surface, a great splash of water poured in, and with it came hundreds of frantically darting…
It had taken much longer than Tim hoped to get everything lined up, but by the end of the week the schooling fish had finished their antiparasitic treatment and the new flats of seagrass had come in.
Roman, of course, had kicked up a stink when Tim had laid into him for breeding a wild mer with one born in captivity. They had ended up taking it to Oswald, the general curator for the aquarium, who could see Tim’s sense. Namely, that they would fail any APHIS inspections and lose all licences to hold protected animals.
Tim hadn’t told them, but he was planning on reporting them anyways once he had a better game plan. From what he’d been able to find, there had been little effort put into finding Big Red’s pod a decade ago, and he had a wild, feral hope that they’d somehow be able to track them down and reunite them with Big Red. It was a longshot, but every time he looked into the tank and saw that sad lump of sand, Tim knew he’d need to dramatically change everything.
When the day finally came to move all the new supplies into the tank, Tim was nervous.
Everything was set up smoothly, and he’d even spotted a dark head sticking up out of the sand, but there was no telling how Big Red would react until it was all over.
As it turned out, he reacted by not doing anything. For hours.
Stephanie saw a hand pop up out of the makeshift nest to snatch a few unsuspecting fish, which was good, but by three in the morning it was clear that Big Red wasn’t planning on investigating anytime soon.
He had a sneaking suspicion as to why, which was why when Stephanie asked if he was going home too he said, “No, I think I’ll spend the night here. Just in case, you know? You go ahead home though, I’ll let you know if anything happens.”
She hesitated, looking back at the glass, then waved him goodnight.
At last, Tim was left alone in the dark. The lights had been off for hours, but now that everyone was gone, the room wasn’t filled with whispered chatter and he finally felt himself relax.
About an hour later, just as he was starting to doze, movement caught his eye.
A figure was hovering low in the water, slowly moving towards the front of the tank.
It was hard to see details at first, but as the mer came closer to the new features it was clear why he was called Big Red. He was bigger than any captive mer Tim had ever seen, which made sense given that he wasn’t captive-born, but still.
Mers naturally grew to be pretty large, and never really stopped growing, but Stephanie had estimated that Big Red was between twenty and thirty years old, and he was massive. At least twelve feet long from head to tail tip, which was well above average. The dark maroon scales of his tail were slightly iridescent, so the shadows played along them in streaks of deep black that would make camouflage easy.
There seemed to be lighter areas as well, which confused Tim a little, and it wasn’t until Big Red was running his fingers through the seagrass at the front of the tank that he realized what they were.
Thick white scars cut through the scales, some still pink and healing. The pale skin stretching across his shoulders was marred by a variety of scars, but the common theme seemed to be deep bites and claw marks. Scars that were definitely not caused by the boating accident that put Big Red in captivity in the first place.
Tim’s heart broke a little as he watched the mer pick through the different materials that had been introduced to the tank.
He started ferrying rocks back to his divet in the sand, building up the outer wall and lining the inside with the small, smooth rocks Tim had been sure to acquire. His speed and strength were promising, and it was a relief to see him moving without any visible signs of pain given the extent of the damage. He pulled fistfuls of the seagrass out of the meadow, and Tim had to keep from cheering out loud as he watched Big Red eat three whole fish, crunching through the skulls with ease.
He must have made some kind of noise though, because Big Red paused as he brought the end of his latest catch towards his mouth, looking intently through the glass for the first time since his cautious appearance.
Tim wasn’t sure whether to show himself or not. He didn’t know if that would scare Big Red away, or if the not knowing would send him back to his nest.
Big Red bared his teeth, hissing loud enough that the microphones inside the tank picked it up and played it over the speakers.
Mind made up, Tim shuffled closer to the glass, hands carefully placed at his sides and forcefully casual.
Big Red moved back slightly as Tim stepped out of the shadows, and growled in warning, glaring at him with narrowed eyes.
Tim sat down in front of the glass, purposefully trying to make himself look smaller and like less of a threat. He raised one hand in a wave, something he knew Stephanie had taught Big Red was a greeting.
Big Red just glared at him some more, flaring his fins in challenge. After a moment more, the mer darted back to his nest, vanishing behind the now-tall pile of rocks.
Sagging back, Tim let himself relax a little. It wasn’t much, but he had hope. Hope that he could build enough of a habitat for Big Red to feel more comfortable. Hope that if he had to stay, he and his pup would be safe from here on out. Heavens knew they needed someone on their side who actually knew what they were doing.
Jason didn’t really know what to make of the changes. All the things his tank had always been missing were suddenly just… there. His handler hadn’t tried to call him up since before everything had changed, and that new dark-haired human had been hanging around a lot. Way more than any of the other humans did, although he’d seen his handler standing by the glass at times.
He had a real nest now, and food to hunt on his own that meant he didn’t have to rely on the humans. He spent most days hiding from the masses in his nest and moving about at night. The dark-haired human was usually there then, but he didn’t try to make Jason do anything, so he had taken to ignoring him.
Sometimes the human would wave, sometimes he’d just watch, sometimes he’d have one of the glowing squares that humans carried around and would only look up on occasion.
It was a curious thing, but the deciding factor for Jason was when he saw the dark-haired human yelling at one of the other humans. It was hard to tell them all apart sometimes, with their lack of fins and how often they changed their outer coverings, but this was one human that Jason was familiar with.
He only showed up during the times the humans poked at Jason in the little tank, but he’d always made Jason’s skin crawl. He could remember the last time, when the water had tasted funny and it had made Jason too tired to fight the divers that pulled him out of his sand nest. He could remember the burning hands pressing against his belly and the straps that had held him down and how he’d been gasping for breath, suffocating with how long they held him above water.
Human behavior was always difficult to decipher, but it was clear that the dark-haired human was angry about something, and that he was winning whatever argument they were having.
It made Jason curious, and later that night, when all the other humans had left, he found himself drifting closer to the glass than usual.
The dark-haired human was on his glowing square tonight, tapping away at something only he could see.
Jason was suddenly struck by the realization that he looked tired. His handler looked like that sometimes, with dark marks under her eyes, and those were always the days where she wouldn’t try and get him to do cheap tricks for his food. This human reminded him of her, but this human hadn’t been around to facilitate Jason being bred.
The human looked up, eyes widening in shock at how close Jason was, and carefully set his glowing square to the side. He offered one of those little waves, and Jason’s fingers twitched to automatically offer one back, but he curled his hands into fists instead.
Humans did not deserve politeness. He shouldn’t even bother giving this one the time of day, he’d just been… lonely. That was all. This was a minor experiment to see what this human would try and manipulate him into doing. They were all the same.
The human made a gesture, then tipped his head in question.
Jason had no idea what the gesture meant, so he didn’t respond. Just swished his tail slowly back and forth to maintain his position.
The human pointed at the seagrass, then the new rock piles and kelp beds. He held his thumb up, smiling happily without showing his teeth, dropped his thumb down with an exaggerated frown, then held his hand in the middle, wavering back and forth while shrugging. He was—oh.
He was asking if Jason liked the materials. Jason was physically capable of shrugging, his handler had trained him how to do a variety of human behaviors that they always seemed excited about, but he was feeling a bit petulant, so he flared his fins and wavered them in the mer equivalent.
The human lit up. He smiled with teeth, which Jason knew wasn’t a threat but still made his hackles rise, and made a few more frantic gestures before diving over to grab his glowing square.
He tapped around for a moment, then pressed it against the glass.
Jason wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do, he couldn’t see any kind of picture like there normally was, and then he heard it. He strained his ears, listening for the tinny sound again, and yes. He’d heard right.
Distantly, coming from the glowing square, was mer song. A group of voices all overlapping each other, making it difficult to parse through what was being said after going so long without speaking to another mer.
“You’re doing fine,” a laughing voice said, louder and clearer than the others. “We’re here to support you, that’s what pods are for.”
“Even if you make them think you’re a guppy, we’ll keep you safe from the sharks.”
The overlap in the voices increased as there was some kind of scuffle, then the first voice cut through again.
“Don’t listen to Ari. Everyone has ups and downs in courting, it’s part of the process. If they’re a good match, they’ll stick with you anyways.”
Jason’s chest hurt at the love and care that carried through the tone. He was fine most days, but suddenly, overwhelmingly, he missed his pod. There was nothing he wanted more in the world than for Bruce to hold him close, for Dick to pull at his hair.
His fins flailed in distress, and he turned tail and bolted back to his nest. He didn’t know who this human was, but they clearly knew enough about mers to make him hurt like none of the others did.
All things considered, Tim thought that things were going pretty well. Big Red was eating, his nest was very nice for what was expected of a mer with no pod or mate, and twice now he’d come up to the glass to interact with Tim. It was very promising.
However, this was Gotham, and nothing could stay good forever.
Tim came in on a Friday afternoon, skipping most of the school groups, and was immediately pulled aside by an aquarist who looked more than a little harried.
“They need you in the back conference room right now. Something’s wrong.”
Tim didn’t run to get to the conference room, but he certainly wasn’t walking.
He opened the door to what looked like a war briefing, and all eyes immediately landed on him.
“Oh thank god. Tim! The bubbler in Big Red’s tank is overheating. Overall tank temperature is up four degrees Celsius and rising.” Stephanie latched onto his arm, eyes wide and hair sticking out in every direction.
“What’s wrong with it?” Tim dropped his bag in the corner, hurrying over to the table to get caught up.
“It’s overworking. We noticed that there was a lot of aeration this morning, but it’s gotten progressively worse throughout the day. The temperature started rising around eleven, and we have salt water in the freezers, but I don’t think it’ll be enough if it continues on this trend.”
Tim was a bit dumbfounded. Big Red’s tank was well over two hundred thousand gallons. The fact that the water was warming that quickly was frankly terrifying.
“What are the options?” Mers were cold-water creatures. They could survive in warm waters for short periods of time, but there was a reason mers didn’t live in tropical regions.
The operations director took over. “Red’s tank is old. The bubbler was… well. It was designed poorly, back when the aquarium was built. There’s a manual shutoff inside the tank, but the only other way to shut it down is to cut off the electricity to the whole room, which would also turn off the water filter.”
“Which would quickly create a hypoxic environment, right.” Tim pulled one of the bubbler schematics over, thankful that the shutoff valve had already been circled in highlighter. “Where is the bubbler located? And what has Red’s behavior been like?”
“The bubbler access is along the back wall, underneath the landing platform.” Near Big Red’s nest. “Big Red has been staying near the filter dump, where the cool water is coming in.”
“Right.” That sucked. The filter and the bubbler were located on the same wall, which meant that the net couldn’t be lowered to box Red in without some serious finagling, which would give Red too much time to get out of the way. “So someone has to go in the water.”
Everyone was silent, clearly having come to the same decision long before Tim’s arrival.
“I have the most experience working with him,” Stephanie offered quietly.
“Have you had any positive interactions with him recently?”
She scrubbed a hand over her face. “Not since before he almost killed John.”
“Okay.” Tim knew what he wanted to do. He wasn’t really sure it was the smartest thing to do, but their options were limited and he was fairly confident that Red wouldn’t kill him on sight. “Alright, so I go in the water and turn off the valve.”
No one immediately rejected the idea, and when Stephanie opened her mouth for a token protest, he cut her off.
“Red doesn’t have negative experiences with me, and I have an up-to-date SCUBA certification. I go in, turn off the valve, and get out. Where’s your equipment?”
Tim was suited up with a handful of waterproof power tools one hour later. His stomach was tight with nerves, but they had him attached to a tether they could use to pull him up if he tugged on it.
Strapping the goggles and mask on, he gave the all-clear and hopped into the water. It was practically frothing with bubbles, and if the situation were less serious he might have made a joke about Finding Nemo and a bubble volcano, but as it stood he could barely see a thing and his anxiety was sky high.
Studying mers for upwards of a decade had given him a healthy respect for how dangerous they were when humans threatened their territory, let alone when they were brooding with a grudge. He wanted what was best for Big Red, and he was absolutely certain that Red did not know that yet. He’d feel a lot better about all this if they could actually see the mer, but with how frothy the water was, Tim could barely see two feet in front of him.
He had a desperate, fleeting hope that he wasn't about to be murdered, but the shifting shadows around him weren't very promising.
He swam forward through the white water, finding the back wall easy enough, and started moving along the length to find the panel he needed to access.
There was a human in the water.
Jason hadn’t been sure, at first. The water was so turbulent, and his gills were working double time in the heat, but he could taste them.
He slipped through the water, tracking the scent towards his nest, lips curling at the idea of one of the humans invading his space. They should know better. He’d hurt the last one, but it seemed like they’d forgotten.
He would have to remind them.
Suddenly, the source of the disturbance in the water cut off. There was still more than enough air in the water to keep it cloudy, but Jason darted towards the back wall for cover just in case.
A dark spot against the wall caught his eye. It was the human, wearing one of their water suits, doing something to a panel of the wall.
Anger surged inside him, further agitated by the warm water, and Jason flared his fins, muscles coiling as he prepared to lash out.
The human turned around, freezing at the sight of him, and Jason pounced. He slammed the human back against the wall, hand tight around their throat, and let out a screech that would be painful even to mer ears.
Thrashing, the human let out what could only be described as a keen, distorted through the mask, and twisted, showing—showing their belly.
Jason lurched backwards, revulsion curling in his stomach at the sign of mer submission, at the sound of ‘please, please, I’m harmless, have mercy.’ The conflicting emotions threw him off, stalled him enough that the human sank down to the sand with a soft thud, and after a moment of fumbling, pulled off the strange black thing that let them breathe under water.
The human lifted a hand, waving, then brought the piece back to their mouth for a breath.
It was the human that had asked him if he liked the nesting material, the one who had played the mer song with the pod.
The one who had stopped whatever was disturbing the water.
Jason felt a rush of guilt at having attacked him when it was clear that he had done something to help. He let out a trilling, questioning sound, not bothering with actual words, and reached out towards the human’s neck where he’d gripped so hard.
The human didn’t fight it, just tipped his head back to bare his throat like it was nothing. The skin there was pink and irritated, but it didn’t look damaged—not that Jason had much experience with human injuries.
He brought the breathing device back to his mouth, then held out a hand, fingers splayed, and slowly curled them into a fist.
It was baffling. How did this little human know so much about mer behavior? Their sounds and body language and gestures? He backed off, because the gesture meant ‘stop, give me space, one moment,’ but the human had now firmly cemented himself as something of interest.
The human pulled a little black box off of his belt, and a moment later it let out a string of mer song. It was choppy and not quite right, clips of other mers talking with context that didn’t fit, but still very clearly communicating, “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
Jason could shake his head, but on a whim said out loud, “No, I’m fine,” and to his utter shock the human seemed to understand.
The human pressed down on the box, and it let out a happy trill. Then he repeated the first set of mer songs and pointed towards Jason’s abdomen.
He raised a hand, physically blocking his belly from sight, then wavered his fins and looked away. The human had understood last time, and Jason wasn’t about to open himself up in such a vulnerable way, no matter how helpful this human seemed.
The human didn’t press the matter, however, and instead clipped the breathing device back in place and fiddled with the little box again. The song that played was happy, reminding him of fingers playing with his hair and peaceful nights curled up with his pod.
This time, when the human raised his hand to wave, Jason waved back.
“Hey Duke, would you like to try and do the impossible with me? … Well, there’s this mer…”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
From here on out, all text that looks like 'this' denotes conversation done through signing. It's an English translation of sign language, so the actual signs are not word-for-word the same, which is why there will be times when one character does not really understand what the other is saying. Let me know if you have any questions!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tim stood at the edge of the landing platform, pants rolled up past his ankles, feet bare, wielding a net on the end of a long pole to scoop up all the fish that had died from the sudden temperature change.
The directors hadn’t approved anyone else to spend time on the platform since John had been attacked, but when Tim had climbed out of the water absolutely giddy with excitement and Stephanie had been able to confirm his story with what she’d seen on the ground? Well, they’d been all too happy to have someone on the mer’s good side.
It was hard to see beneath the water with how the light played on the surface in some areas, but it was hard not to notice that some of the dead fish further out just… magically drifted closer to him. Against the current of the tank.
Tim kept on fishing them out, dumping the dead fish into one of the buckets off to the side, unable to stop his smile from spreading into something a little manic.
Stephanie was down in the viewing area watching, and she’d radioed him a while ago saying, “I hate you so much right now.”
That had been all the confirmation he’d needed.
Finishing dumping the latest batch of dead fish into a bucket, he turned back to the tank to find a dark mop of hair and two eyes sticking up out of the water just beyond the net’s reach. He set the net down beside him, dropping into a squat and giving Big Red a small wave.
The head vanished back beneath the water with barely a ripple, but a moment later it popped up again, much closer.
“Hi!” he called out.
Big Red drifted closer.
“My name’s Tim.” He pointed to his chest. “Tim.”
Red’s eyes narrowed, and his approach paused as he tried to put together what Tim was saying. He head emerged from the water fully, gills tightly closed against his neck, teeth out of sight for the moment.
“Tim,” he repeated, softer now. All the studies agreed that mer ears were more sensitive to sound out of water, better suited for picking up even the smallest of sounds under water.
Big Red sucked his lips into his mouth, worrying them for a moment, then released them and made a soft sucking kind of click that Tim was not familiar with.
He shook his head in confusion, and Big Red repeated the noise, followed by a short hum.
He repeated the noise several times, then pointedly tipped his head towards Tim, and—oh!
“Tim?” The fins around Big Red’s ears flared in pleasure, and Tim couldn’t help but beam, hoping that the mer wouldn’t misinterpret it as a challenge. “Yes! Tim! That’s me, Tim. Holy shit, you said my name.”
And he was saying Tim’s name. It was a pretty close match given that they physically couldn’t speak each other’s languages.
Big Red stopped just a few feet away from the edge of the platform and ducked his head back under the water.
Tim debated for a moment, then lowered himself until he was laying on his belly, heedless of the water soaking through his clothes, and dunked his head down into the tank.
The salt water burned his eyes, but it was worth it to see Big Red’s tailfins twitch in surprise.
He let out a series of clicks and a short whistle, then rolled his eyes—which was absolutely a human-learned behavior—and pointed to his own chest and crooned a short tone. It started with some kind of hard consonant, then shifted to a vowel-hiss-vowel-end.
Tim listened harder as the tone was repeated, then pulled his head out of the water and tried to put the mer song into sounds that could be related to the English language.
The mer popped his head out of the water too, looking at Tim expectantly.
“Jason?” he offered, doing his best to mimic the musical tones he’d heard in the water.
The mer shrugged—the human way—then tipped his head in a nod.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jason.”
Jason let out the simultaneous click-hum. “Tuh-mm.”
“Now, let’s figure out how much you understand.”
The human, Tim, was very strange. He was not at all like any of the others, didn’t even bother trying to see what tricks Jason knew or could learn. Instead, he taught Jason gestures. He taught Jason gestures that meant words.
Some things were lost in translation, of course. There was no way for Jason to put some of his bigger thoughts and feelings into signs that Tim would be able to understand, and some of the signs Tim tried to teach him just… didn’t make sense. However, for the first time in nearly a decade, he was actually talking with someone.
Sure, it was generally simple language, mostly surrounding things that Jason needed or wanted in his territory, but there were now a small variety of squid for him to hunt and purple algae for him to suck on when the pup made him too tired.
They were big enough now that his abdomen was starting to swell, and while he’d become a little obsessed with touching the bump, he was impressed that Tim hadn’t asked to do more than visually check the pup. The other humans had all seemed so invested, like the pup was some magically wonderful thing that they all needed to know about, but Tim kept his distance.
He kind of hovered, sometimes, when Jason let him into the water, but other than simple questions like ‘pup okay?’ didn’t press the issue.
Jason appreciated it more than he thought he would. If he had a pod or a mate, they’d no doubt be fawning over him and catering to needs he didn’t know he had, but given what had happened… he appreciated the freedom of being self-sufficient.
Tim opened the door of the marine research facility, relaxing into the familiar sights and smells. Aquariums were similar, but there was something special about this specific ratio of brine and fish and something that distinctly reminded him of three-week-old clams rotting in the summer heat. It wasn’t pleasant in the slightest, but it was home.
“Tim!” Duke caught his attention from across the room, waving wildly in greeting.
“Duke! It’s so good to see you! It’s been way too long.”
“No shit,” Duke said, laughing. He clapped Tim’s back in a brief hug, then used the hold to sling his arm around Tim’s neck and pull him deeper into the research center. “So how’s the PhD life treating you? I haven’t heard a peep since you took that job.”
Tim grimaced. “It’s… well. It’s a mess, to be frank.”
Duke’s expression turned grim as Tim explained the situation, growing rightfully outraged as he learned the full extent to which Jason had been abused.
“That is so fucked up. Like, dude. So fucked up. We gotta get them out of there. How can I help?”
That was what Tim loved so much about him. Duke saw an issue, and he was immediately ready to fix it.
“I want to try and find his pod. He got hit by the boat fifty miles east of Gotham, and there was never a serious effort made to find them. If we can locate them, then we have a real case where he could be released back into the wild.” It was such a longshot. They’d need to verify that the pod was actually Jason’s, and the Mer Research Institute would need to approve the request, meaning that Tim would have to prove that Jason wasn’t too reliant on humans.
So it was a longshot, but it was still a possibility.
“Okay, what do you suggest?”
Tim reached into his bag and dug around, pulling out his recorder. “I’ve been recording his songs, and I’m hoping we could use it to call them in. After that, I’ll have to fight on the human side, but mers don’t alter their territory often. If we have any chance at all, it’s that they find us.”
Duke accepted the recorder with a nod. “I’ll get the research boat out tomorrow to start broadcasting.”
“You’re seriously the best, thank you so much, Duke.”
“Hey, what are friends for? Now, tell me about this mer. He really taught you his name?”
“Yeah, he did.” Even thinking about it made him feel like flying. “It’s… it’s all I’ve ever dreamed of doing.”
“That’s so awesome, Tim.” Duke smiled, understanding the excitement. They’d spent the past two years together while Tim finished the research for his dissertation, so Duke knew how big this all was.
“Now, we just gotta put on our superhero capes and save him.”
The first step, of course, was the hardest one to pull off secretly.
In the end, it went something like this:
“I’m sorry, what?” Roman gaped at Oswald, and Tim silently cringed off to the side. This would not be pretty.
“Dr. Thompkins finished her audit of our facility, and after some discussion we decided that our best course of action moving forward would happen without you. I’m sorry Roman, but we have to let you go.” Oswald did not, in fact, sound sorry.
“You fucking bitch! ” Roman whirled around, turning on Tim with a snarl.
Tim took a half-step back at the fury pouring off him, somewhat concerned that this would turn out more violent than he anticipated.
“I know that this was all you. Don’t you dare pretend otherwise! You came in here and fucked up a perfectly fine operation!”
“It was not fine!” Tim exploded, surprising himself. But once he started, he found that he couldn’t stop. “Your lack of research resulted in an extreme neglect and abuse of one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and if you did do your research, then you knowingly facilitated the rape of that being.”
Roman sneered down at him. “That would imply that an animal could give consent. Is that really what you’re claiming, Drake?”
“It’s Doctor Drake, and if you knew anything about merfolk, you’d know that they are more than capable of giving consent.”
Roman opened up his mouth to bite back, but was quickly cut off.
“That’s enough,” Dr. Thompkins interrupted. “Mr. Sionis, you’ve been placed on a blacklist by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Security will escort you to your office to collect your things. I suggest you start thinking about another career.”
Roman was pulled away spitting curses and threats, and Tim made a mental note to be extra vigilant the next few weeks whenever he was alone.
“Well, Dr. Drake, what next?”
Tim turned towards the APHIS inspector, suddenly nervous. She was renowned in the field of aquatic health, and could make or break his case when he submitted the request. “I’d like to try and release Big Red back to the wild.” It was hard to remember not to call him Jason.
“That’s a big goal, Dr. Drake.”
Oswald didn’t seem very excited about the prospect either, but he held his tongue.
“Big Red has been held in captivity for close to a decade, most of that time relying on humans for food. How do you intend to prove to the board that he can survive on his own?” she asked, and it was a valid question.
There was literally nothing Tim could do to prove Jason could live on his own, especially with a pup. However… “I intend to find his pod.”
Dr. Thompkins paused, then nodded slowly. “That… could be a convincing argument.” She straightened up, back to business. “I wish you luck, Dr. Drake. Mr. Cobblepot, you can expect to hear from us again in two weeks to see what improvements you have made to your facility.”
“Of course,” Oswald’s smile was tight around the edges, his teeth clenched a little too hard. “Thank you so much for coming.”
The amusement on the inspector’s face clearly showed that she knew exactly how thankful he really was, but she shook his hand without comment.
“Well, Dr. Drake. What do you propose we do next?” Oswald asked as they watched her leave.
Tim gulped. “I have no idea.”
Jason’s hand flashed out, catching the passing fish with a ridiculous amount of ease. It was nice to have fish in the tank that he could hunt, but these fish were incredibly stupid. They understood that he was dangerous now, but as long as he didn’t approach too quickly they’d often swim within easy grabbing distance.
He crunched through the skull, cutting off its struggles, and shredded it enough to swallow.
A low hum carried through the water, a sound that he’d come to expect whenever Tim was there. He swallowed the rest of his meal, then propelled himself up to the surface, sticking his head out enough to see while still keeping his gills submerged.
He froze, his pleasant mood twisting into something uncertain at the sight of the blonde woman standing next to Tim. His old handler.
She’d been… nice. Overall. But she’d been among the humans to manipulate and lie to him, and he wasn’t sure how much she’d been involved in his… attack. Not to mention she’d always smelled like other predators, and he was now in a position of vulnerability that had his instincts screaming to get away.
Tim waved at him, but Jason didn’t approach, stayed back and just watched. He trusted Tim; he did not trust the girl.
Her face twisted up and she said something to Tim, her voice breaking in the middle. Tim murmured something back, and to Jason’s surprise she walked up to the edge of the landing, sitting down at the edge and then twisting to lay parallel to the water. She arched her back a little, baring her throat and vulnerable belly.
Jason knew what this was. He knew what Tim had told her to do. He closed the distance between them in seconds, coming right up to her and clamping a hand around her throat.
She let out a whimper and flinched away, watching him with wet eyes as he pulled himself head and shoulders out of the water to snarl in her face.
Swallowing against his palm, her eyes closed and she relaxed into the hold.
Jason held the position, squeezing to enforce her place as inferior. He stayed there as long as he dared, until his breath started to run out, then he flipped backwards into the water.
When he peeked back above the waves, a safe distance away, she was still laying where he left her.
Her hands were covering her face, and her shoulders were shaking. It was hard to tell at first, but when she pulled her hands away to push herself up, it looked like she was leaking water like he sometimes saw the pups do on the other side of the glass.
Tim was telling her something in that flat language of theirs, then pointed out to where Jason was watching, the traitor.
She smiled, surprisingly not showing her teeth. He’d become used to how often she showed her teeth, and it was curious that she wasn’t doing so now. Perhaps it was Tim’s doing?
After a moment where they just watched each other, she opened her mouth and hesitatingly sang those few simple notes that he’d come to appreciate over the years. It was nothing like a complex pod-song, not even as complex as greeting strangers who weren’t immediate threats, but she had been the first and only human to ever try singing to him.
It was that, combined with the fact that she was clearly trying to learn more about mer behavior, that had him opening his mouth beneath the water and singing the same tones back at a high enough pitch to carry through the air.
She let out a laugh, smiling with her teeth before she remembered herself and pulled her lips back over them and… Jason found he didn’t mind the teeth. Not from her, not when she’d always tried to be kind and attempted to give him things to do—not that those rubber balls had been particularly interesting.
He pushed his head and shoulders above the waves, gesturing to Tim the sign he’d learned to mean ‘it’s fine,’ then smiled at her with his teeth, trying to keep it from looking threatening like she’d always managed.
She made some excited noises, then sang the tune to him again, cutting off a bit short when Tim said something to her.
He wished he could understand the language, but he didn’t know how they managed to pull meaning out of so few nuances. There was no real tonality that he’d seen, and all of the sounds were just so similar it was hard to tell when they were saying different words at all.
Tim turned back to Jason, making a gesture that was new. One hand waved back and forth over his opposite arm, then he pointed to the handler as she sang the simple tones again.
Unsure whether Tim meant the girl, the act of singing, or the tones themselves, Jason dropped back into the water and wavered his head fins in confusion.
Tim pulled out his little glow-box, doing something on it before—
Song filled the room.
Jason pushed his head up, getting his ear fins out of the water to hear it better.
It was mesmerizing, so entirely different from mer song but nearly as complex. His human had found this for him. Tim had found mer song, and now Tim had found human song to share with him.
Jason closed the distance between them, ignoring his handler as the song continued to fill the room. He caught on to the melody, and started echoing it back, singing the human song back to his human, hoping beyond hope that Tim understood how important it was. That humans used songs like this to bond too.
Tim smiled widely, opening his mouth in that way he did to help hide his teeth, and laughed lightly.
Jason came as close as he dared with the girl there, still overly aware that she wasn’t fully safe to be around, not like Tim.
Tim sang a quiet mimic of the song, and oh. His human couldn’t… couldn’t sing. That was okay. Jason could teach him, that was what good podmates did. Tim kept Jason safe from the other humans, and Jason could teach Tim what it meant to be a pod.
Tim dropped his box of supplies on the edge of the landing, quietly marveling at how damn heavy the stupid thing was. You’d think the assortment of knicknacks would be an easy haul, but his arms were aching. Maybe he needed to start working out again…
Saving that thought for another day, he pulled out the wind-up buzzer he’d been using to call Jason to the surface. The vibrations it sent into the water were less sharp than the whistle Stephanie had always used, and served as a distinct separation between him and the other handlers Jason might have encountered.
(He was still a little dumbfounded over their last conversation, how Stephanie had started singing back and forth with Jason almost immediately. It had never even occurred to Tim to try and play music for the mer.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, yeah. But why?”
“Well, he doesn’t like the whistle when his head is out of the water, and since mermish is kinda like singing, I figured this was a good alternative. Kinda like how I use a clicker with the dolphins?”
It made sense, and Jason had loved the orchestra piece Tim had pulled up, but he was still salty that Jason’s first introduction to human music was freaking Little Mermaid. )
The water rippled a few feet away, announcing Jason’s arrival a moment before the top of his head peaked out of the gentle waves.
He let out a pleased hum at the sight of Tim, then swam closer and pulled his head and shoulders out of the water. “Tuh-mm.”
“Hi, Jason.” Tim sat down in front of the mer and switched to signing. ‘ I brought some things for you that I think you’ll like. ’ He pulled out the first toy, one of several different metal puzzles, and put it together while Jason watched. ‘ You want the pieces separate. ’
Jason took the toy, carefully twisting it in his hands to examine the different components all locked together, then accepted the small mesh bag of other sets that Tim had already prepared. It had taken forever—and quite a bit of money—but he’d managed to find a specialty store that sold stainless steel sets, versus the cheaper ones that had nickel plating and other metals that would not react well to being submerged in salt water.
‘ Those are similar, different types of puzzles. ’ It was hard to know that Jason actually understood what Tim was saying, but the mer vanished beneath the water before Tim could try and say more. Hopefully he wouldn’t get too frustrated.
He was back a few minutes later, looking at the box next to Tim in interest, clearly wondering what else Tim had found for him.
‘ This is a puzzle too. ’ He pulled out the Rubik’s cube, showing the different colors on each side, then started twisting it to mix up the colors. ‘ You have to twist it and get all the colors back on the same side. There’s a pattern. ’
He’d had to peel all the stickers off and paint the cube by hand with aquarium-safe paint, but he was still worried that it would get gummed up with algae before Jason figured it out. There was no doubt that Jason would get it eventually, but Tim was still unsure about how long the mer’s attention span could last.
‘ Twist it to match the colors? ’ Jason asked, spinning one of the sections to investigate how it moved.
‘ Yep. And here, ’ Tim pulled the last item out of the box, another mesh bag. ‘ These let you draw on the glass. ’ And had also been a pain in the ass to get ahold of. There were shockingly few options for markers that worked under water that were also non-toxic, but he’d found a small startup company that advertised them for divers as an extra means of communication.
‘ Draw what? ’
‘ Whatever you want! Pictures, patterns, scribbles. You just wipe, ’ he demonstrated the motion with his hand, ‘ to get rid of it. ’
Jason took the small bag, then disappeared under the waves to stash the rest of his bounty.
Tim hoped he found it interesting. Stephanie had tried other toys before, to various degrees of success, but very little had occupied Jason for any significant amount of time. With any luck, Jason would find these more entertaining.
Jason returned with a small splash, and looked expectantly at Tim.
‘ That’s all I have. I didn’t bring anything else. ’
Rolling his eyes, Jason signed, ‘ Get in the water? We can swim together. ’
And, well. Tim had always been bad about saying no.
He geared up, texting the head aquarist that he was getting in the tank, then silenced his phone before any of the ‘wait for a backup diver to arrive’ texts came through. No one else could get in the tank with Jason, but for some reason they really liked having someone on hand to watch when Tim did. He knew it was for safety purposes, but there were definitely days where he just… forgot to let them know. Entirely on accident, of course.
He stepped into the water, shivering as the cold bit at the exposed skin on his face. Then Jason was there, pulling Tim along to show him whatever it was he had in mind that day.
Jason chattered all the way to the rocky-cave formation, and Tim didn’t need to understand him to feel the general excitement and happiness coming off him. Jason interspersed the chattering with short bursts of song, and Tim was surprised to recognize some melodies and echoes similar to whatever Vivaldi song Google had brought up first.
It was distracting enough that Tim didn’t notice what Jason was doing until he felt a sharp tug on his foot, and then suddenly was missing one of his fins.
He couldn’t yelp with the regulator in his mouth, but his indignant squawk was easily understood if Jason’s chortling was anything to go by.
The mer swam in big loops around him, holding the flipper just out of reach.
‘ That’s mine! ’ Tim signed at him. There was a sub-zero chance he could keep up with the mer with both fins on, let alone missing one. ‘ Give it back! ’
Jason grinned, teeth flashing in a playful challenge, then shot off around the other side of the rock formation and out of sight.
Tim paddled as best he could, rounding the near side of the rock formation just in time to see Jason exit one of the tunnels. That would have been more helpful if Tim didn’t already know that the majority of those tunnels were interconnected, meaning his fin could be literally anywhere, damnit.
‘ Where? ’ he asked Jason.
Jason rustled his fins impishly, darting close to tap Tim’s forehead, then away, and… and Tim recognized this kind of behavior. He’d seen it in one of the extremely rare footage of pods playing together.
Jason was playing with him. Playing with Tim like he would with a podmate.
Tim’s heart was close to bursting with excitement and surprise and happiness and every other positive emotion he couldn’t name.
‘ I go find? ’ he confirmed, trying to make sure he’d read the signals right.
Jason mimicked a very human shrug, biting at his lower lip.
Alright, Tim could play this game. He ducked into the nearest hidey-hole, careful not to scrape his oxygen tank against the rock. It was far too dark inside for him to see any details, but after a moment of fidgeting he was able to turn on the flashlight attached to his buoyancy compensator. This tunnel traveled back and up, twisting slightly until it opened on the opposite side of the rock.
He shimmied his way into the next tunnel, fighting back a brief flare of claustrophobia when the narrow entrance blocked off the light and trapped his arms, but it widened inside enough that he could take a few deep breaths and continue on. That tunnel split in two halfway down, and Jason met him at the end of the first branch.
The mer puffed out his cheeks, then blew bubbles out of his nose in a move that had Tim chuckling as best he could. Mers didn’t have lungs, so Jason must have held that mouthful of air in his mouth just to blow it at Tim.
Jason swam off, and Tim backtracked down the other, equally fruitless branch.
It became quite clear that he’d grossly underestimated how extensive the tunnel system was, and the size of the rock formation in general.
Halfway through the next set of caverns he bumped into Jason again—literally.
The mer knocked into him head-first, and Tim started to apologize until he realized that Jason was holding the fin! He was moving it, the damn cheater!
Tim grabbed for it, missed, and managed to latch on to Jason arm instead, which proved to be a slight miscalculation.
Jason towed him out of the cave, swimming fast enough that Tim had to hold on for dear life or risk never catching up. It didn’t count for much in the end, as Jason shook him off over the small seagrass meadow, scaring away about a half-dozen fish in the process.
Singing something high pitched and happy, Jason twisted around and swam big loops around him, holding out the fin only to snatch it back at the last moment.
They played for a long while, traveling the length and breadth of the tank, withTim eventually getting the fin back. He tried to hide away the Rubik’s cube in a reverse of their makeshift hide-and-seek, but Jason found it in seconds and he was no match for a mer in their own territory.
The watch on his wrist said that he’d been there for hours already, but Tim felt like he could spend the rest of his life like this; playing in the water with Jason.
‘ Good day? ’
Jason nodded, curling his tail around one of Tim’s legs as they lay in his nest.
‘ Happy? ’
Pulling back, Jason looked at Tim in confusion at the new sign.
He already knew ‘feel,’ ‘good,’ and ‘bad,’ so Tim clarified the new sign in a way he hoped Jason would understand. ‘ Feel happy, excited, good, or feel sad, tired, bad? ’
Jason’s eyes lit up as he made the connections, and he quickly signed back, ‘ Feel happy. Excited? Happy with you. ’
‘ I feel happy with you too. ’ Tim would cling to this moment for as long as he could, and he could only hope that it would last. Jason deserved all the happiness in the world.
Jason lay curled up in his nest, fiddling with the colorful cube thing that Tim had given him. All the colors had matched on the same sides before Tim twisted it up, and now he was trying to figure out how to get them all to match again.
Tim had definitely found some games that were more entertaining than the things his handler had tried to give him in the past. This was actually taking some serious effort.
He would finish it, though. If only because he wanted to see the look on Tim’s face when he solved the puzzle. The little human had really become something like a podmate in the last few weeks, but no matter how much time he spent in the water, he always had to leave eventually.
He wondered if Tim had a pod too, if they lived somewhere else and didn’t come to visit Tim when he was with Jason. For a horrible moment, he hoped that Tim didn’t have another pod, a pod that was more real and more important than Jason, then he realized exactly what he was hoping for and felt a crush of guilt.
He wouldn’t wish the pain of losing a pod on anyone, let alone someone as important as his human. Tim deserved happiness, although he seemed to be quite happy around Jason.
Jason would do his best to keep doing the things that made Tim happy, which was easy, given that what Tim wanted made Jason happy too.
It reminded him of Dick, honestly, although he couldn’t help but chuckle at the idea of his pod meeting Tim. They would hate him. Alfred, maybe, would give the human a chance, but he couldn’t see any of the others handling a human very well at all. Bruce in particular would probably try and rip him to shreds, not that Jason would let them hurt Tim, but he understood why. Their pod was a special one. Nearly all of them had lost their hatchling pods, the pods they were born with, to human cruelty. That was why they’d chosen a territory where no human ever went. Not even the thrum of boats could reach their nest, not until that fateful day when one had drifted by, then thrummed to life with Jason directly beneath it.
Jason had lost a second pod to humans, only to create a pod with a human. Would they be disappointed in him?
He pushed the thought aside, along with all the other thoughts about how he knew that he’d spent too long in this damn tank. Too long playing nice with the biggest threat to his existence. He was lucky to be alive, really.
Pods were fiercely protective of their pregnant podmates, lone pregnant mers were dead mers, after all. Tim had stepped up when Jason had needed help most, and if he ever had a chance to see his pod again, he’d make sure they knew how special Tim was.
No one else. He’d be more than happy if the rest of the keepers and handlers all drowned in their own blood—maybe… maybe not the blonde one. She could live. But only because she tried where the others had been happy to harm.
She was the one who got Tim to start singing with him, after all. Jason had barely dreamed of it before then, and even though his human wasn’t very good at singing—no human could stand up to mer standards—he would play songs in the water for Jason to sing with, and it was easy enough to understand that Tim was making up for the difference as best he could.
It made a world of difference too. Jason felt less worried now that he had his podmate’s song with him. He’d tried a few times, to see if Tim would come when he sang it, and thus far it had worked even better than he hoped.
Jason didn’t call for his human often. More often than not, Tim appeared on his own right when Jason was missing him most, but with the little life growing inside him, it was reassuring to know that he could summon his podmate if something were to happen.
The little guppy was still quite small, too small to feel much more than the barest of flutterings as they pressed against the membrane of their egg, but that would change. They would get bigger, slow Jason down, and that would be when Jason needed Tim most.
A note here that, as I switch between the POVs, it's important to know that Jason and Tim are both translating everything quite differently. As I continue, there's going to be words/signs that they each use that mean something different to the other (including the fact that Jason's name isn't Jason, that's just the closest human equivalent and I didn't feel like trying to change it for the sake of worldbuilding).
“Sorry, man. We’ve tried almost all the open water in what should be the right area, even sat on the edge of the preserve, but no dice.”
Tim gripped his phone tight, trying not to let his voice show how much the news upset him. “What about the preserve itself? Could you get permission and try calling them in there? It’s restricted with how concentrated the mer population is, that could honestly be the answer.” Especially if the boat that hit Jason had been smuggling contraband into Gotham. Even more of a reason to lie.
“I don’t know… I can always try, but you know how much of a pain it is to get access to the preserve when you have legitimate research to do, let alone just trying to call in a specific pod. We might get false positives if we piss off the wrong group, too.” Duke pointed out the obvious, the things that Tim knew and was trying to forget with his desire to just… will things into existence.
The search for Jason’s pod wasn’t going well, and they were running out of options. “Just give it a shot. I can talk to the board myself if you think that would help.”
“Let me submit the request, and I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Duke.”
“Hey man, I’m happy to help.”
“I owe you one—more than one. I owe you ten!” Tim laughed, then noticed the crowd in front of him, blocking the view of Jason’s tank like they normally didn’t, given how often Jason hid away during daylight hours. “Hey, I’ve gotta go. But text me when you have an update?”
“Sure thing, I’ll talk to you later!”
Tim ended the call, pushing his way into the room to get a better look at the glass.
Jason was swimming lazily back and forth in front of his rock, eyes focused and searching through the gathered crowd.
Before Tim could wave to get his attention, the mer spotted him and darted up to the front of the tank, much to the delighted shrieks of the children pressed up against the glass.
Tim elbowed his way to the front of the crowd, glad he’d already changed into his uniform so everyone knew to let him through.
‘ Are you safe? Okay? ’
Jason responded by smiling, all teeth, and smacked his hand against the glass holding—holding a finished Rubik’s cube.
Tim was shocked speechless, managing a bungled, ‘ Wow. You finished! ’ In three days, no less. It had taken Tim nearly a week to figure it out himself the first time.
Jason nodded, ‘ All the colors are the same. See? ’ He twisted it around, showing off each side with the matched blocks.
‘ How did you figure it out? ’
Shrugging, Jason demonstrated the pattern slowly, clearly proud of himself, heedless of the growing crowd.
A tap on his shoulder forced Tim to drag his gaze away, finding himself face-to-face with an older gentleman who gestured quickly at him. It took Tim’s brain a second to catch on that the man was Deaf and was signing at him, then his brain started translating.
‘ The mer can sign? How can he understand you so well? ’
A tapping on the glass drew their attention back to a very serious Jason, who answered the question. ‘ I know. I understand. Hard, but I know. ’
Ignoring Tim entirely, the Deaf man signed back with another question that Tim couldn’t clearly see in the dark, but people started murmuring when Jason watched carefully before replying with his own signs.
Tim had minored in ASL in undergrad, but he did so with the understanding that signing was the best way to communicate with captive mers. At best, he used some kind of bastardized Pidgin Signed English with a lot of classifiers when he signed to Jason, so it was a bit of a shock that Jason was able to keep up with the stranger’s signs and pick up their meanings.
Tim felt his attention split again as he turned to the new person, a woman with a toddler on her hip and a frown on her face. “Can I help you?”
“You work with the mer?”
“Yes, I’m the mer specialist here. I’ve been working with J-uh, Big Red, for several weeks now.”
She nodded, glancing over to where Jason was still talking with the Deaf man animatedly. “Just how smart are they? I knew they were intelligent, but I thought that it was something along the lines of dolphins.”
Tim nodded. “That’s what a lot of early researchers thought, but more recent evidence has been placing them higher than non-human primates. Big Red here is a good example. He’s wild-born, was brought here by a rehab facility when they couldn’t locate his pod after he recovered from a boating accident. He didn’t know any signs at all until I started teaching him six weeks ago, but now it’s pretty easy to get through a conversation with the exception of some big concepts that are harder to convey.”
She was clearly upset, shooting a vaguely horrified look between Tim and Jason, and Tim felt a sense of grim satisfaction as she hitched the toddler higher up on her hip and scurried out of the room. Good. Let her be horrified. It was frankly inhumane that mers were kept in zoos and aquariums at all; they were too smart.
A soft questioning croon echoed through the room, coming from the speakers that played the sounds made in the tank. Tim turned around and found himself with a face full of furious hands.
‘ Why is he here?! He should not be kept in a cage to be gawked at. This is wrong.’ The Deaf man had clearly understood enough to be on the same page as Tim.
‘ I know. ’ Tim tried to calm him down enough to get his point across, even though his hands felt clumsy instead of confident. ‘ I’ve studied them for a long time, and I want it to end too. I’m trying to get this one back to his home, but with enough research and public outrage, we could outlaw breeding captive mers and stop them from being kept outside of sanctuaries entirely. ’ There would need to be a place for all captive mers to live out the rest of their days in peace, dumping them all into the wild wouldn’t fix anything, but special sanctuaries and habitats could be built so that their homes were less of a spectacle.
‘ What can we do? ’ He didn’t look like he trusted Tim all that much, but by the stubborn tilt of his jaw, Tim felt like he’d just made a worthy ally.
‘ Come here again, bring your friends. Record your conversations with him and post it somewhere public. Research can only go so far when there’s no public support to push it along, and if you get enough people angry, we can make the system move faster. ’
The man snorted, raising his eyebrows as if to say ‘that’s all?’ ‘ I would have brought them here anyways, ’ he signed. ‘ They will be just as angry. ’
Tim smiled grimly. ‘ Good. ’
Jason twisted in his nest, trying to decide if he wanted to go back to sleep or go see what humans were in the dark room. He’d been waking up early lately, and while he wasn’t sure if he liked the change all that much, he had to admit that he looked forward to seeing what people were around that he could talk with.
There’d been a lot of them lately, ever since the first man visited it seemed like there was always someone around who knew the gestures, and it helped fill the hours that Tim couldn’t be there.
He grabbed his bag of markers and the bag of metal puzzles, bringing them along in case the only visitors were pups. They’d taken to bringing him drawings, and always seemed quite delighted when Jason drew pictures for them on the glass.
That was the situation today, and he somehow ended up with a little gaggle of guppies watching him draw jellies and coral on the glass while they lay on the ground with their white sheets and sticks. Someone had brought the color sticks that were different than Jason’s markers, and he found himself getting distracted trying to figure out how they worked.
He gave up after a while, focusing on adding a lumpy squid to his collection of random ocean creatures. He wasn’t quite sure what the point of drawing was, but the pups seemed to like it and their excitement was contagious.
A little boy held his white sheet up to the glass, and Jason put his markers aside to swim closer and get a better look. It… it was a drawing of him. Maybe? There was a circle that looked like a kind of face, possibly, and a green blob underneath that was a similar color to the boy’s shirt. And next to that was another face with a thick red squiggle on the bottom half.
Unsure, Jason pointed to the figure with the red squiggle, then pointed at himself.
The boy opened his mouth in laughter, though none of the sound carried through, and jumped back, pulling at his brooder’s arm and pointing wildly back at Jason. Rushing back up to the glass, he pointed at the red squiggle then at Jason’s tail.
Jason flicked his tail from side to side, trying to smile like the humans did without looking threatening, but quickly pulled his lips over his teeth. It felt too much like challenging a pup.
He pointed at the green blob, then pointed back at the boy, who got even more excited as he bounced up and down.
A few of the other children pushed their way up to the glass then, holding up their drawings, and Jason sucked in a mouthful of water before repeating the process of figuring out which blob was supposed to be him. What on earth had he gotten himself into?
It made him curious though, because after the first instance it kept happening, even with pups that hadn’t been there before. Was it a human thing? It must be, because he didn’t understand the purpose of drawing poor imitations of other people.
He gave in a few days later, when an adolescent pup showed him a drawing that actually looked like him. It was strange to see himself so still, especially with how much detail the young girl had put into his face. It was an entirely new kind of drawing, and he could see the appeal if you were able to create something so lifelike.
Trying his hand at it, he abandoned a half-formed kelp and started carefully tracing out the lines of a face, looking back at the girl’s drawing to see how she’d managed it. His wasn’t very good, but he tried not to get too frustrated and switched to thick wavy lines floating above the head.
The lips turned out all wrong, and the only thing right about the eyes was that they were blue, but he was rather proud of the end result. It looked just a little bit like Tim.
The girl was gawking at him, looking between him and the drawing before pulling out her little glow square and holding it up. Hesitating, she pointed at her glow square, then pointed at the drawing, or maybe at Jason, it was hard to tell at this angle.
Unsure what she was asking for, he shrugged in the human way, watching as she held it up high and tapped on the screen several times.
Putting it back in her pocket, she fumbled with the drawing in her hands for a moment, then touched her fingers to her chin and pulled away, a sign he had come to recognize as ‘thank you.’
He flared his fins in pleasure, and signed ‘ fine, fine ’ back.
She blushed and stumbled back with a wave, and Jason left his drawing up for the next two days. The highlight of his week was most definitely seeing Tim’s jaw literally drop the first time he walked by the front of the tank, and after that Jason left it up just to see his human get flustered.
People asked about it, too. One of the people who knew the gestures pointed at it on the third day, asking who it was.
Jason didn’t know how to sign that it was Tim. He didn’t know how to translate ‘Tuh-mm’ with his hands, so he licked his lips and signed, ‘ He’s pod. ’
The woman looked startled, looking closely at the sketch before slowly signing back, ‘ Pod? ’
‘ Yes. We’re pod. ’ It occurred to him that the sign must translate to something else for the humans, because she looked completely baffled at the very idea. ‘ He keeps me safe. I make him happy. We’re… ’ He didn’t know how to describe that they’d bonded, that for mers, forming new pods or moving to a different one was a very big deal that took a lot of trust and patience. ‘ We’re pod, ’ he settled on. It was the best he could come up with.
She looked frustrated, almost angry, although Jason could be reading it wrong. He wasn’t always sure about the way humans expressed themselves. ‘ But your pup. He did not keep you safe then. How can you trust him now? ’
Jason’s face closed down, and he glared hard at the woman before hissing sharply. He darted forward, dragging his forearm down the sketch to wipe it away, then turned tail and swam back to his nest without looking back.
She didn’t understand. She didn’t understand anything.
He curled up on himself, holding his arms around his swollen middle, and tried to push away the hurt and shame that burned hotly in his stomach. His shoulders ached with the phantom pain of claws digging into his flesh, and he cooed softly as the pup shifted restlessly inside him, as if sensing his distress.
Tim hadn’t been there before, but he was here now, and he’d done nothing but protect Jason from the other humans. Without Tim… Jason really did have nothing but himself.
Tim practically skipped down the hall, glowing from the text that was still burning in his back pocket.
Duke: the MRI approved the trip! We have 3 trips we’re allowed to take over the next 3 months, so we’ll be plotting it out to cover the max area. Let me know if you get any other information that could help narrow down the search
He had real hope that they would be able to find Jason’s pod now, and with the cameras he’d installed inside and outside the tank, there were already three petitions running to stop the breeding of mers in captivity, stop the exploitation of mers for human entertainment, and release those that were releasable. Last time he’d checked, the signatures had just hit six digits, and Tim could feel the tides moving in his favor to enact real change.
The good mood carried him through suiting up, and he held the buzzer underwater for three seconds before jumping in, if only to give Jason a heads up.
He'd started wearing a diving cam clipped to his buoyancy compensator to post clips of his interactions with Jason, but mostly he was just excited to share his energy with the mer. Jason was incredibly sensitive to his moods, and Tim found himself anticipating whatever game Jason came up with this time.
The good mood crashed to a halt when he got to the bottom of the tank and there was still no sign of Jason. The mer was always quick to greet him, but this time Tim found himself searching the waters, trying to see if Jason was being sneaky.
Jason was curled up in his nest looking particularly apathetic, one hand resting on his belly.
' Are you okay? Is something wrong? '
Jason glaced up just enough to catch Tim's signs, then looked away and shrugged. His hand rubbed the lower curve of his abdomen absently, and a horrible thought occurred to Tim.
' Is the baby okay? '
That caught Jason's attention, but he nodded slowly and Tim sagged with relief. Jason hesitated for a moment, then held out his hand.
Tim reached out, thinking that Jason might just want touch, but was shocked speechless when Jason pressed Tim's hand against the swell of his belly, just under where the scales crawled up to Jason's ribs.
Jason was incredibly muscular, but there was an area under Tim's palm that felt denser than the rest of the mer, and Tim realized that he was feeling the egg. He couldn't feel the baby moving or anything, but he could feel the egg.
Tim's breath quickened as much as the regulator allowed and he asked, ' Do you want to see the baby? '
Jason cocked his head, clearly confused. ' What? '
' See the baby. Do you want to see the baby? We have a… machine. It lets you see inside. '
' How?! That's not possible. ' Jason balked, pulling away sharply.
' It is! It's safe. ' Tim struggled to find the words. ' Come. I'll show you. ' He backed off, swimming up to the landing and trusting that Jason would follow.
Whipping off his mask, he scrambled up onto the ledge and struggled out of the bulkiest of his gear. He dried his hands off just enough for the touch screen to work, then grabbed his phone and typed in a quick search.
He turned back to the water while the results loaded, relieved to see that Jason was watching him warily from the edge of the landing.
The third result proved to be exactly what he was looking for, and he sat down on the edge of the landing with his feet dangling in the water.
Holding out his phone, he pointed to the picture of an ultrasound tech holding a wand against a woman's stomach, the fuzzy picture of the fetus just barely visible. ' See? The machine shows you a picture of the baby. '
He switched to the next picture, which was just the ultrasound image, and pointed out the shape of the baby.
Jason pulled himself up, getting his face right up to the phone fast enough to startle Tim. He reached out with one hand, touching his claw gently to the screen to follow the path Tim's finger had just made.
'You can show me my baby? '
Tim nodded. ' It's safe. Not… harmful. I can show you if you want. '
' I want. ' Jason pulled away from the phone slowly, his hand darting down to cup his belly before he dunked his head back under the water. Popping back up, he asked, ' When? '
' Tomorrow. I need the box. I can get a box tomorrow. '
Jason accepted that timetable, sinking back down until his head was just beneath the water again.
Instead of playing like Tim had planned, he spent the next two hours with the mer wrapped around his legs, lightly pulling at the tangles in Jason's hair.
It was quiet, it was melancholy, and Tim's heart ached that he couldn't do more.
Jason glared at the stranger standing up on the landing, a low growl sitting deep in his chest. It wasn’t just any stranger either. It was a White Coat.
White Coats always poked and prodded and smiled when they made him hurt. The only reason he wasn’t deep underwater was because Tim was there too, setting up a hammock in the shallows while the White Coat wheeled a cart over to the edge of the landing.
There was a box on the cart, a box similar to what Tim had shown him last night, but his stomach was twisted up in knots at the idea of going anywhere near the landing with the White Coat around. He trusted Tim, but there was no one and nothing on the planet that would ever be able to make him trust a White Coat.
Tim glanced up and caught him peeking out of the water, offering a little wave.
Jason flicked his head fins back in annoyance, his eyes darting to where the White Coat was watching with interest.
Tim saw the look and said something to the White Coat, who frowned, argued back, then stepped away from the water with a huff.
Turning back to Jason, he held out his hand, gesturing for Jason to come up to the hammock.
Jason pulled his head further out of the water and hissed, a sense of grim satisfaction washing over him when the White Coat flinched backwards a step.
The White Coat said something sharply to Tim, making Jason hiss louder in threat. No one used those tones against his podmate. He wouldn’t allow for it.
Tim stood up, hands on his hips, and snapped something back.
Whatever he said worked, because the White Coat stormed out of the room with a glare.
Tim knelt down on the edge of the landing with an apologetic smile. ‘ Sorry. He won’t come back. It’s just you and me now. ’
Jason approached him cautiously, eyes trained on the entrances the humans used in case the White Coat had planned an ambush.
‘ Hey, it’s okay. I swear, no other people are coming. ’ Tim reached out, letting Jason wrap a hand around his wrist, putting himself at Jason’s mercy.
Jason ran his thumb along the inside of Tim’s wrist, feeling the steady thump of Tim’s heart. The delicate webbing between his fingers smoothed along the hair on Tim’s arm. He let out a throaty hum, still unsettled by the White Coat’s presence, but let Tim direct him over to the hammock.
It was deep enough in the water for him to be completely submerged, but was small, could hold maybe half of Jason’s body, and left his tail hanging low in the tank. It would be easy to escape, if Jason needed to, and he wasn’t sure if that was Tim’s intention or not, but it was appreciated either way.
Tim held up a small white… thing attached to the box by a long piece of plastic. ‘ I’m just going to press this against you, okay? It won’t hurt at all, see? ’ He pulled up his covering and pressed the white plastic against his own abdomen, and the side of the box that had previously been black suddenly flashed with white static before settling into blobs of white and grey that Jason couldn’t really understand.
He remembered the picture from yesterday, though, and how the blobs of white and grey had shown a human pup. He pointed to the white thing. ‘ That sees the pup? ’
‘ Yes, and shows you the picture here. ’ Tim gestured to the screen.
Jason nodded and laid back, tipping his chin up in a sign of trust. From the way Tim’s eyes lingered on the exposed skin, the human clearly understood the importance.
Tim pressed the piece of plastic against the scales on Jason’s abdomen, watching the fuzzy blobs on the screen and shifting around to press in different areas.
He let out a small sound, almost too soft to carry into the water, but Jason perked up as Tim hitched the plastic from side to side, twisting a knob on the box to narrow in on something…
It… it looked a bit like an eel, small and curled up against the black background.
Tim tapped a flat area with his finger, then pointed to his own head. He pointed out the arm and the tail, then the picture got extra fuzzy as the pup shifted, flailing an arm out to the side and—and Jason could feel it at the same time. The tiny shift of pressure inside him.
Tim hit another button, and a static-y sound carried down into the water.
Jason couldn’t make out what it was, so he lifted his head to listen in the air.
It was a quick little pat-pat-pat-pat that didn’t make much sense, then Tim tapped his own chest and leaned forward, trying not to shift the hand holding the plastic rod, and prompted Jason to touch the throbbing pulse on his neck.
It—he was listening to his pup’s heartbeat.
He trembled, a feeling somewhere between agony and elation welling up inside him, and he didn’t even notice that he’d started keening until Tim pulled the plastic away and cut off the sound, a still frame of the picture remaining on screen.
Tim cupped his face, water leaking from his eyes. Distantly, he remembered that leaking water was a sign of human sadness, if all the crying pups he’d seen over the years meant anything.
Jason clutched at Tim’s hands, holding them tight to his face. His pod should have been here with him. Should be curled up around him, supporting and singing. He should have a mate, a real mate, who sired the pup after months of courtship and bonding. His mate would have joined their pod, Bruce wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He didn’t have any of that, not anymore, but he had Tim.
Curling his hand around the back of Tim’s neck, he pulled his podmate down, bumping their foreheads together like Bruce did when he was small.
They stayed like that until his oxygen ran out, and when Jason laid back into the hammock, Tim climbed in as well. He curled up around his human as best he could in the tight space, pressing his head into the fabric covering Tim’s abdomen.
Tim started humming, something slow and melancholy and off key, but all the more precious for it.
He curled in tighter, digging his fingers into Tim’s coverings, vowing to never, ever let go.
He knew he wouldn’t survive losing another podmate.
Tim twisted around at the call, trying to locate the source of the voice. He spotted it quickly, mostly because Duke had a thundercloud over his head dark enough to have the aquarium visitors scuttling out of his way.
“Duke! Holy crap, you look awful.” Tim paused, because Duke really did look like he’d just stepped off the set of a natural disaster movie, complete with blood seeping through the white gauze taped to his forehead.
“Yeah, no shit.” Duke scowled, but it was softened by the almost manic energy pouring off him. “C’mon, let’s move.” He grabbed Tim’s arm, towing him along for three steps before stopping. “Where’s the staff lounge? Or your office, I don’t even care.”
Tim took the lead, getting them through a door marked ‘Employees Only’ and ducking into one of the maintenance rooms.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Why I’m fine, Tim. Thank you for asking!” Duke said, voice mocking, then glared at him. “You owe me. Big time. Fifty years from now, you’re going to be bringing groceries to my apartment, because you will still owe me.” He heaved a breath, collapsing back against the wall. “What happened, is that I think I found your pod, and they legit almost murdered me and my student researchers—who, by the way, are no longer allowed out in the field with me. Yeah. That was fun.”
“ What? What happened?!” Fear for his friend warred with hesitant excitement. Had Duke really found the pod?
“Well! Funny you should ask.” Duke smirked, clearly enjoying Tim’s obvious impatience. “This morning we took our first ride out to the mer preserve and spent about twenty minutes floating along, playing your little clip of mersong. Then lo and behold! A head! Pops out of the water! And we realize there are about six different mers underneath the boat, investigating, calling, trying to find the source of the sound. And let me tell you, when they realized it was coming from a speaker? They were fucking pissed. ” Duke grimaced. “Ripped the speaker system off the bottom of the boat, ripped the camera apart, started tearing chunks out of the boat while we turned tail and tried to get the hell out. They damn near capsized us, knocked into the side so hard I fell and bashed my face on the floor. Thanks, by the way, for offering to cover my hospital bills and repair the boat with that trust fund I know you still have. It’s very appreciated.” Duke stared at him, daring him to refuse.
“Consider it done. Holy crap, dude, that’s… that’s insane.” Tim slumped back, trying to process everything. “ Are you alright?”
Duke sighed, the ire leaving him until he just looked tired. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just, a little shaken, you know?”
“I would be too. That’s terrifying. And the students? Are they alright?”
“Yeah, I think one of them bruised her hip bumping into a corner, but they’re both fine. Were practically bouncing with excitement when we got back to the research station.” He huffed a short laugh, and Tim couldn’t help but chuckle at the picture. “Seriously though, I don’t think my bosses are very keen on letting me go out again if this is what will happen. I’m going to have to wheedle and beg for approval as is.”
“Did you get any recordings of their song?”
“No, I was a little focused on not dying, thank you very much.”
Tim rolled his eyes. “Oh, shuddup. You know you loved it. That was your first contact with wild mers, right?”
Duke grumbled, but didn’t actually deny it.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” He smirked, then frowned. “I really don’t want to send you out there again, not if it puts you in danger, but we need to confirm that it is actually Red’s pod, not just some really territorial mers. Unless you have any suggestions, all I can think of is playing him a recording of the mersong and seeing how he reacts.”
“Shit.” Duke thumped his head back against the wall. “I don’t have a clue, man. Nothing better than that, at least.”
“Any ideas on how to make another trip safer?”
Rolling his head back and forth, Duke mulled it over. “We could keep the engine hot, that way we could leave as soon as we’re ready instead of having to get it started again. You could send me a new recording?” He looked to Tim questioningly. “Make sure it’s your mer being happy, nothing that could hint at distress or anything.”
“I can do that.” Tim already had recordings of Jason singing along to Bach and chattering at children through the glass in his tank. He’d be able to find something better than the meagre song he’d initially sent Duke.
“Alright. Get me that song, and I’ll get approval for another trip. It’s gonna take a bit to fix up the boat, though.”
“Don’t worry about it, just send me the bill. We’ve got two months until Jason’s due, so the faster we can work, the less stressful it’ll be, but we can make it work.”
“Okay. Okay, we got this.” Duke nodded to himself, then grinned at Tim. “Now introduce me to this mer, I haven’t even seen him yet, and that should be a criminal offence.”
Tim snorted. “I will, but only after we get a new dressing on your face. You look like a hot mess, Thomas, I’d hate to scare him away with your grisly appearance.”
“What can I say? It’s part of my charm.”
Jason swam slowly, low to the ground as he worked his way towards where the little squids usually hid. He felt big. And slow. And tired.
He was mildly glad that mers didn’t get as bloated as humans did when pregnant, he’d seen enough carrying mothers to be grateful, but that didn’t change the fact that he was feeling just to the left of miserable most days.
The pup was moving more now too, stretching their limbs and thrashing their tail in the tight confines of the egg, preparing for the world outside. They’d be coming soon, at this rate.
Tim was visiting every day now, staying late into the night and lingering in the water for far longer than he used to. He usually brought shellfish or mollusks for Jason to snack on, for which he was very grateful, but it wasn’t quite enough. If Jason was with his old pod, he wouldn’t be leaving the nest for anything other than stretching his fins, but here, he still needed food.
A big splash put him on high alert, and he looked up through the water, fear rushing through him. Was it the other handlers? Had the White Coats finally decided to come after him now that he was weaker? He could still put up a fight, but he couldn’t risk anything that would harm his pup.
The sight of Tim’s shaggy hair was a welcome one as the diver swam towards him, although the fact that Tim hadn’t used the buzzer to alert Jason was concerning.
Jason closed the distance between them, trying to make sense of the frantic movements of Tim’s hands, hindered by his grasp on a mesh bag holding a few oysters.
‘ Pod near think right. Show you. ’
Jason furrowed his brows in confusion, Tim was pod, and since he was near Jason he could… show him something?
Tim threw up his hands, grabbing Jason by the elbow to try and lead the way back to Jason’s nest.
Jason let him, amused at how much Tim struggled to pull him with so little help, eventually giving in and pulling them both along. He wasn’t willing to spend three hours in the open when it was clear what Tim wanted.
He settled down against the soft bottom of his nest, happily relieving Tim of the oysters while the little human tried to explain what was on his mind.
Giving up, Tim pulled a little black box off his belt, similar to the one that had played the strange mersong all those months ago.
Jason was curious, not quite sure why Tim would bring it back after all this time. They could communicate much better now, and didn’t need it.
Tim hit a button, and music filled the water around them.
Jason dropped the oysters, forgetting them entirely as he looked around, instinctually searching out his pod. That was—this. The box.
Jason looked back at the box, at Tim watching him with wide eyes, and let out a mournful warble. Taking the box, he held it against his chest, feeling the vibrations of the sound of Bruce and Alfred calling to one another.
“It’s his song, Alfred! Those filthy pup-stealers have him, they have him somewhere near.”
“Just because they have his song, doesn’t mean they have him, young one.”
Jason’s voice broke at the reprimand, the heartbreak in Alfred’s voice clearly evident.
“It’s that boat again,” Dick spat, the hatred in his voice echoing in the snarls the others let out.
Other voices carried through the background, hunting songs known to stun some fish and cause pain to land animals. Barbara and someone else. Two someone elses, had the pod expanded in his absence?
The crushing sadness at the thought of having missed meeting the new hatchlings was amplified as the recording ended, only to loop back to the beginning.
He keened, calling his pod to him to comfort him, pulling his fins tight against his body in distress.
Tim leaned forward, butting their heads together and pressing against Jason as best he could.
Pulling Tim close, he held his only podmate as he cried, mourning his pod and the pain they must have felt all these years.
Tim got his attention, signed ‘ Who? ’ and pointed to the box.
‘ Pod. My pod. You found my pod. ’
‘ That’s your pod? ’
‘Yes!’ Jason pulled Tim tight again. There was no way his human hadn’t known, and he didn’t know what this meant, but Tim had found his pod.
He didn’t go hunting again that night, instead, they stayed in his nest, the angry voices of his pod filling the water around them. He wasn’t sure what Tim was up to, but he knew his pod was alright, and that was more than he had ever hoped for.
PSA: ASL is an incredible, and complex, language. There's a reason I haven't been using ASL to describe what Tim and Jason are using to communicate, and that's because they're not using ASL. PSE (Pidgin Signed English - sorry for all the jargon!) is what happens when you take ASL signs and use English grammar. It is significantly different, which is why Tim struggled so much when talking to the Deaf man (Deaf = member of Deaf community; deaf = describes not being able to hear).
If you're interested in learning more about ASL, I strongly suggest searching for resources run by Deaf people, not just rando hearing people who want to YouTube ('ASL THAT!' is fantastic).
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Content Warning: it's baby time!! The 'non-graphic childbirth' happens in this chapter. I focus mostly on Tim being very grossed out, and it's only 3 or 4 paragraphs, but it is there. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns. <3
Tim stepped out of the conference room, hands shaking. He’d done it. He’d really done it. It had taken the Mer Research Institute over an hour to decide, but they’d approved his request to release Jason back with his pod.
They’d have to do it before the pup was born, the words “any mer born in captivity has to remain in captivity” would haunt him for the rest of his life, but they’d approved Jason’s release!
He texted Duke on the way to his car, then called Oswald as he drove to the aquarium.
The director was about as enthusiastic as could be expected, especially since Tim was directly the cause of the media storm surrounding the aquarium lately, but he was begrudgingly happy for Tim. Probably because it would improve the reputation of the aquarium, but Tim was too excited to care.
He parked in the employee lot, barely remembering to lock up before running into the building.
The aquarium had closed hours ago, but he and Stephanie had been taking shifts watching Jason, since the mer had been getting anxious when left alone for too long.
“Steph!” he shouted as soon as he got to the mer room. “Steph! Where are you?”
“What?! What’s wrong?” She turned the corner, eyes wide.
“Nothing!” he said, laughing. He hugged her, but that wasn’t enough, so he picked her up and spun her in a circle. “They approved it! The MRI approved Jason’s release!” Dropping her back to her feet, he pushed away, hands on her shoulders.
She was smiling, barely, but her shoulders were tense and the anxiety hadn’t left her eyes.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Some of his giddiness leached away into worry.
“It’s Red. I think something’s wrong.”
She started walking back towards the stairwell, leading him up to the tank landing. “He’s been swimming in circles and pacing all day. Kept singing Beethoven and calling for you, but every time I called him up he’d barely glance at me before diving back down. I almost called you, but I knew you were in the middle of the presentation and he was still moving around. About thirty minutes ago he settled into his nest and hasn’t gotten up since.”
“Okay. Okay. Let me see what’s going on.” Tim worked to organize the chaos reigning in his brain, shuttling the good feelings into the ‘later’ pile as he started to strip and gear up to dive. He rushed the process as much as one could rush squeezing into a skin tight suit, then strapped on his oxygen tank and jumped in the water.
The cold was a shock as always, but he powered through it and started working his way to the bottom of the tank.
Jason was right where Stephanie said he’d be, sprawled out in his nest and shifting in clear discomfort. When he caught sight of Tim, he let out a sharp whistle, an oddly flat rendition of one of the classical songs that Tim could never remember the names of.
He hummed the tones of Jason’s name back, settling down on the rock next to Jason, scanning his body to try and identify what was wrong.
Jason answered the question for him, signing ‘ Baby, ’ and pressing a hand against his lower belly with a grimace.
‘ One minute. I’m not going far, just one minute. ’ Tim waited for Jason to nod, then swam back up as fast as he could.
Breaking through the surface, he pulled off his regulator and looked for Stephanie.
She sprang up from where she’d been sitting against the wall, out of sight. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Get my phone. The password is 3-4-7-9. Text Duke and tell him we’re leaving tonight, then get one of the transport tanks ready.”
She took a deep breath, nodding with wild eyes. “What else?”
“Set up the hammock and grab a couple of the blankets. Tell Oswald that we’re taking one of the trucks. We’re going to need to move quickly as soon as we can.”
“Alright. I’ve got it. Is… is he okay?”
Tim gave her a grim smile. “He’s just fine.”
Diving back down to Jason, he tried to plan out what he’d need to do next. He wasn’t a vet, had no experience in helping anything through childbirth, human or otherwise, and mer births in general were not well-studied. He’d seen a video of one in undergrad, a zoo that finally managed to get a camera in the nest to observe the process, but that was a very long time ago.
Jason was grimacing again when Tim got back to the nest, instantly latching on to the offered hand and pulling at Tim until he was curled into the mer’s side, his head tucked under Jason’s chin.
Tim didn’t know what he was supposed to do, but Jason let out a throaty hum, practically a purr, and Tim took the hint to start humming a song he’d heard on the drive over.
Jason relaxed marginally, shuddering on occasion, but otherwise kept quiet, holding Tim too close to be able to talk. He regretted, suddenly, that he didn’t carry his aquatic audio recorder with him anymore. After Jason had started learning sign language, Tim had started using it less since he didn’t actually know what the mersong was about and they had a better form of communication with their signs. It would have been useful now though.
It was mildly horrifying when Tim noticed Jason’s slit winking open, widening in preparation for what was to come. He was probably more distressed than Jason was, especially when Jason pushed him down towards it and Tim realized that it was his job to catch.
Everything happened very quickly in the end, Jason squeezed his shoulder in warning as Tim caught sight of the head, and a second later Tim was looking at a tiny little face, and ten seconds later he was holding a very slimy, wriggling merbaby, and the green-grey skin of the pup was probably a pretty close match to Tim’s own pallor.
Tim wasn’t proud to admit that he panicked a little bit. Just a tiny bit, especially because Jason was busy pulling out the remnants of what must have been the egg.
The pup was squirming, and Tim knew that human babies needed their heads supported, but when he tried to hold the pup like he’d held his cousin’s kid seven years ago, the baby mer bit down on his collarbone hard enough to draw blood.
Tim let out a particularly unflattering squeal, flailing around as he fought between reflexively pushing the pup away and instinctively knowing he had to keep the baby close.
Jason laughed, the clicks carrying through the water as he slowly pushed himself up, reaching out to pry the baby off of Tim’s shoulder.
The pup quickly switched goals, biting down on Jason and digging their tiny claws into Jason’s armpits.
Jason’s skin was thick enough that it didn’t draw blood on him, and he hummed softly, stroking down the pup’s back with one hand as he slumped against Tim tiredly. He started singing softly, voice traveling in slow sweet rhythms that brought tears to Tim’s eyes unbidden.
The song picked up, coalescing into sharp, upbeat notes that Tim didn’t have words to describe.
Jason smiled, repeating the song and patted the pup’s back while holding Tim’s gaze.
He nodded, understanding that that was the pup’s name. The closest he could translate it to was Damian, but there were definitely notes he was missing entirely.
Tim wanted to live in this moment forever, and he hated how his anxiety kept crawling upwards with every passing minute. He tried not to fidget, not to disturb this moment of peace as Jason bonded with his pup, but Jason had always been too perceptive.
Waving to get his attention, Jason asked, ‘ What’s wrong? ’
Tim hesitated, but gave in. They didn’t have much time left to linger. ‘ We need to leave. We need to leave now. ’
‘ Go where? ’ Jason looked rightfully confused. He couldn’t go anywhere, after all.
‘ Out. All three of us go to the big water area. ’ Tim struggled, signing waves and water, but Jason didn’t look any less confused. He’d never really figured out how to convey the difference between ‘tank’ and ‘ocean’ to the mer. ‘ I want to bring you home. ’
Jason still looked confused, but nodded. Trusting Tim to take care of him, and wow did that trust weigh heavily on Tim’s shoulders.
Damian stayed latched to Jason’s chest as they swam up to the surface, Tim hovering closer than normal as a way to focus his directionless anxiety.
Jason paused when he caught sight of the hammock in the water, and froze entirely when he spotted Stephanie pacing on the edge of the landing. He shook his head, backing up, and his other hand came up to protectively cradle Damian.
‘ Please, ’ Tim begged, pulling at Jason’s shoulder. He couldn’t do this if Jason didn’t help. ‘ She won’t touch you, but I need her help. We need to leave. ’
‘Where?’ Jason asked again, emphasizing the sign. ‘ Where are we going? ’
‘ Far. Your pod, out to your pod. ’
‘ My… pod? ’ Jason paused. ‘ You’re my pod. ’
Tim’s heart clenched at that and he nodded, then shook his head. ‘ Other pod. Your other pod. ’
Jason’s fins fluttered and he looked back at the hammock, then up at Stephanie’s silhouette. ‘ She won’t get close? ’
There were times where she would have to, but Tim nodded. She wouldn’t get close during the times that mattered.
He got Jason into the hammock, waving Stephanie away, then ripped off his mask, throwing it up onto the landing as he pulled off his regulator. “Throw me one of those blankets.”
Stephanie chucked the course blanket into the water where it quickly began sinking.
Tim caught it and helped spread it over Jason’s torso, hiding the pup who was beginning to squirm.
With an extra hand from Stephanie, he hauled himself out of the water and started shucking off his equipment. A seven foot tank rested to the side, the biggest they could fit in the elevators. It would leave most of Jason’s tail hanging, so they’d need to be prepared to keep him wet.
He dried off as much as he could with one of the towels set to the side, then struggled into his clothes still too damp.
Turning to Stephanie, who was respectfully looking away and definitely not eyeing him appreciatively, he got her attention.“Okay, you know how to operate the lift?”
“Yes.” She turned to him fully, eyes darting to the water and back as she fidgeted.
“Cool. You do that, I’ll push the hammock. He doesn’t want you to touch him, so we’re going to try and work around that.”
He told Jason what to expect, then Stephanie hit the button to lift them out of the water.
Jason was heavy as fuck, and it didn’t help that his tail was dragging on the ground. He tried to help, lifting it up a little, then using it to help push across the distance to get to the transport tank, but Tim was surprised he managed to get him in place at all.
Stephanie lowered them down into the transport tank, and Tim was happy to see that Jason’s tail was still hanging above the ground. At least they wouldn’t have to worry about it dragging.
He set up two bubblers in the water where they wouldn’t get in the way, then carefully shifted the blanket around until it was draped over the tank instead of wrapped around Jason where it could tangle and restrict their movement.
If Stephanie saw anything she wasn’t supposed to, she didn’t say anything, but she was biting her lips and sending Tim wide-eyed stares as they pushed the tank into the elevator, through the aquarium, then out to the waiting truck.
“Are you okay driving by yourself?”
She nodded. “I got it. You stay back here with Red and keep an eye on him.” Her eyes darted over to where the blanket was moving unnaturally.
The lift on the back of the truck bumpily jolted them up to the bed level, then they pushed the tank to the back and secured it in place. Stephanie had already stocked the truck with buckets of water and a mister, so Tim took the opportunity to re-wet the towel wrapped around Jason’s tail and switch on the lamp so he wouldn’t be sitting in total darkness the whole trip.
He waited for Stephanie to lock up the back of the truck, then drew back the blanket to find an anxious Jason and a glaring pup. The sheer fury the tiny mer managed was so startling that Tim let out a short laugh, then cleared his throat.
‘ I’m sorry. I’ll keep you safe, I promise. ’
Jason didn’t say anything, just reached out and held Tim’s hand. He didn’t let go for the entire thirty-minute drive, squeezing tighter every time they hit a big bump or had to take a sharp turn.
Tim wished he had the words to put Jason at ease, but Jason wasn’t putting the right pieces together like he normally did. It occurred to Tim that Jason might not be putting the pieces together because he didn’t think being reunited with his pod was an option, but the idea that the mer had given up hope was even more heartbreaking, and Tim had to focus on the pup to distract himself.
Damian was adorable, but also super creepy. Adult mers looked vaguely human, but there was nothing about Damian that looked human at all. It didn’t help that the little pup seemed hell-bent on taking a chunk out of Tim’s hand every time he dipped it in the water to give Jason’s hand a rest.
He was cute though, investigating the tank, no longer plastered to Jason’s chest.
They came to a stop and the truck turned off, prompting Tim to re-cover the tank with the blanket.
The back door opened, and Duke stood next to Stephanie, both of them looking almost as stressed as Tim felt.
“What’s wrong?” Duke was never one to beat around the bush.
"We got approval from the MRI and APHIS to release Red to his pod, but I was informed that if the pup was born before Red could be released, they would both have to stay until the pup could be weaned and that only Red could be released.” He paused, letting the weight of that statement settle. “Red was in labor when I arrived at the aquarium, and the pup was born in transit. We need to get them both to the pod quickly and calmly, and it is important that neither of you present yourselves as threats to Red.”
Stephanie’s eyes darted to the covered tank behind him, but neither she nor Duke questioned him. This was why he loved his friends.
“Tell us what we need to do.” Duke lifted his chin, eyes flinty with determination.
They got Jason onto the research vessel, which thankfully had not sustained any damage on the second trip to the mer preserve. Tim hoped that the trend would continue, but he also knew that their chances of making it out with no damages were very very low, given that they would need to be stopped before they could risk putting Jason in the water.
They stopped briefly to fill a few buckets of water to add to Jason’s tank over the course of the trip and help him acclimate to the frigid Atlantic sea.
Salt water stung his eyes as Duke drove them to the site, and the darkness seemed to swallow them as they got farther and farther away. It took almost two hours, but Duke slowed them down to a steady chug, slow enough that the wake behind them vanished into smoothness.
“We’re going to cross into the preserve in a minute,” he announced, sending Tim a worried look.
There was no real way to tell when they crossed the line, but supposedly there were regular Coast Guard patrols that would ride the perimeter to watch for trespassers, inspecting boats for permission documents.
Tim found his eyes scanning the horizon anxiously. They had the right forms, but the fact that Jason was sitting in a covered tank with a pup was highly suspicious. The last thing they needed was for the Coast Guard to show up.
“Should we switch on the recording now?” Stephanie asked, and Duke looked to Tim, who nodded in confirmation.
They couldn’t hear anything from above the water, but every moment Jason’s song played through the water, Tim’s anxiety ratcheted up another notch.
The boat rocked harshly from side to side, startling them out of the steady rhythm the waves had set.
Tim glanced over the side of the boat, catching sight of a shadow in the water.
“Stop the recording!” he yelled to Duke.
Heart in his throat, he ran to Jason’s tank, pulling back the blanket slightly and dropping his hand into the water, the recorder already switched on.
‘ Your family, what would you say to them? ’
Jason cooed quietly, clearly confused as he held Damian tight against his side.
Something hit the bottom of the boat violently, and he knew that that would have to be good enough. He switched off the recorder, rushing to the side of the boat and praying that he wasn’t about to do something monumentally stupid.
Tim leaned over the gunwale and thrust his hand into the water with Jason's song already playing. He needed the mers to sing so he could confirm that they were really Jason's pod, it was the only way he felt safe letting Jason into the water.
Twenty feet below him, he could just make out the pale face of a mer, their dark eyes glowering at him as the recording ended and Tim hit the button to record new audio.
Their lips split as the song ended, showing off rows of needle sharp teeth that would haunt Tim's nightmares and go down as the second scariest moment in his life. The first scariest moment in his life went to the cold hand flashing out from under the boat and latching onto his wrist, pulling him into the freezing water before he could react.
The only reason he didn't waste his breath on a pointless scream was because the new mer's other hand was gripping his throat tight enough for spots to dance across his vision while they hissed into his face.
He struggled fruitlessly, clawing at the hand wrapped around his neck.
A light under the boat snapped on, illuminating the water, and the mer flinched before growling and dragging Tim through the water until they were farther away.
His heart was pounding, panic making every lesson he'd ever had in 'how not to drown' completely obsolete. With the last of his brain power, he held out his hand, curling in his fingers like he’d done with Jason all those months ago. The mer paused their movements, and Tim took the opportunity to point at the recorder still clutched in one hand, then up at the surface, frantically hoping that they would understand.
The mer let him go, and he kicked to the surface as fast as he could. He broke into the air and sucked in a deep breath, then a hand around his ankle pulled him back beneath the waves.
He could just barely keep his face above the water, splashing helplessly in an attempt to gain more ground as he spat out a mouthful of seawater. He was facing the wrong way to see the boat, he didn't even know how far away it was, and as the hand pulled him under again he realized that he was about to die.
Jason startled backwards as Tim pulled back the covering hiding him from the rest of the world. He’d thought about pulling it back himself to relieve the anxiety and curiosity as they traveled, but this way he could at least pretend that the other humans were far away.
‘ Your pod, what would you say? ’ Tim looked frantic, eyes wild and hair blown into a wild array around his head.
“What do you mean?” Jason asked, confused. Tim had understood these sounds before, so Jason felt safe asking instead of signing. His hands were a little busy keeping Damian distracted from chewing at his fins. The pup was hungry.
Something jolted them hard from below, and Tim didn’t wait to clarify further, pushing away from Jason’s tank and out of sight.
He sat up slightly, trying to follow what was going on, but quickly got distracted. Those… those were stars. The sky was filled with them from horizon to horizon, bright lights shining down on them. Jason hadn’t seen stars in… in over ten years.
A splash pulled his attention back to what was happening, and he heard a scream before he saw his handler rush to the edge of the—boat. They were on a boat.
Another human, one that he’d seen on the other side of the glass with Tim before, also started shouting, rushing to the boat’s button panel. But… he couldn’t see Tim. Where was Tim?
He took a deep breath, sitting up out of the water fully, and looked around frantically for his podmate.
His handler started shouting louder, and he looked over to see a small figure splashing in the water a ways away. Tim.
Tim was a good swimmer, for a human, so the fact that he wasn’t pulling his head out of the water was very bad. A picture snapped together in his mind quickly, and Jason realized that something must be holding his human under the water, just close enough to the surface to give him hope.
Jason hissed, hardly even noticing at how the two humans flinched away, covering their ears at the sharp sound. His podmate was in danger.
He threw the blanket off the tank, shaking off the one covering his tail. Settling Damian to the side, he gripped the sides of the tank and heaved himself up and over the edge, landing on the deck with a painful thud.
The back of the boat didn’t have a ledge or wall, the floor just cut off for easy access to the sea, so Jason pulled himself across the deck, sliding into the water.
It was a shock. The cold was refreshing, and the salt water didn’t taste like any of the chemicals the humans seemed so fond of, but he didn’t wait to adjust to the change.
He let out a shriek, spotting the foreign mer holding his Tim beneath the water. The mer twisted towards him, startled by his sudden appearance, and Jason charged.
The mer let go of Tim, backing away and flaring their fins defensively, and Jason was quick to get an arm around Tim’s legs, supporting him to give the human a chance to recover.
“Don’t touch him!” he snarled, bristling up in threat.
In addition to the mer that had been drowning Tim, a massive one circled him slowly, and the shadows flickered unnaturally beneath them. Blubbering barnacles, he didn’t know what Tim was trying to accomplish, but his little human had managed to piss off an entire pod.
There was a splash up above them, and he glanced up to make sure it wasn’t another threat, relieved to find Tim clinging to a white floaty of some kind. The other humans must have thrown it out.
The quiet question made him hiss, then pause. That song… that song was familiar. How did the mer know his name?
He frowned at the giant mer, trying to figure out what was going on. Their hair was short, eyes dark and too far away to really make out the color, but the tail… those scars…
Bruce let out a sharp, pained burst of song, reaching forward for him.
Jason ducked backwards instinctively, dragging Tim with him. Tim… Tim had found his pod’s song. Tim had found his pod. Tim had brought him to his pod.
Tim was watching him from just below the surface, cheeked puffed up with air, eyes red from the salt water.
His little human had rescued him from the tank, and brought him to his pod.
He darted upwards, mashing their faces together the way he’d seen other humans do in gratitude, then dove at Bruce.
His brooder met him halfway, slamming into him hard enough to almost hurt, but wrapped around him as soon as they were touching, arms and tail and all.
Jason let out a cry, calling his pod to him—and they came. Dick curled around one side with Alfred on the other, Barbara petting down his sides and tail with Kate and Renee and Selena. A soft touch on his arm came from a mer barely out of pup-hood, resting her fingers against Jason and against the back of Bruce’s neck.
They sang for him, sang of their agony and loss and how they never gave up hope and had never stopped searching.
“My pup, my pup, I’ve got you. You’re here,” Bruce crooned.
Dick rambled on a similar thread, singing, “We’ve been searching for so long, we never gave up hope. I have you, little fish.”
He keened at their words, heart breaking and healing all at once as they talked over one another, all asking what had happened, where he’d been and who the human was.
Jason’s breath caught as he remembered what he was missing, and he pushed back from their embrace.
“Wait! Wait, I have to—” He slid out of their loosened hold, locating Tim, who was curled up with an arm hooked over his floaty, but still watching them. ‘ Pup, ’ he signed. He needed Damian.
Tim nodded, holding out a hand, and Jason dragged him back to the boat, his pod circling all around him, casting wary looks at his human.
He didn’t have time to explain. He needed them to understand, but there was so much to say he almost couldn’t say it. For once, it felt like he didn’t have a song.
He pushed up, helping to heave Tim out of the water, and waited anxiously for his human and pup. “Wait, please just wait,” he murmured, more for his own benefit than for his pod, but they waited, all reaching out to touch him, remind him that they were still there.
Tim’s legs dropped back into the water, then he slid in fully with his arms full of a wriggling Damian. The sharp scent of blood bloomed in the water, and Jason couldn’t help but laugh a little at Tim’s grimace. His pup had already identified the human as pod, even if Tim’s skin wasn’t thick enough to withstand mer teeth.
He heard soft whispers echo behind him at the sight of the pup, and he tried to push them away as he pried the tiny mer off of Tim’s shoulder.
“This is Damian,” he introduced, and the water filled with sound as his pod sang Damian’s name, though the pup was less prepared to be inducted to a pod so large so suddenly.
Damian curled into his side, clinging to him as his pod circled closer.
“You… your mate?” Dick asked, hesitating. His eyes darted to Tim, then up to the boat where the two other humans were watching from above the water.
Jason let out a pained cry, and his pod reached out, singing to sooth him. “No,” he said, nearly a sob. It still hurt, but the pain was dulled by the pup in his arms and the pod around him.
“Oh, oh Jason.” Alfred and Bruce pulled him close once more, the leaders of their pod doing their best to calm him.
“You are here now. We will never let you go again.”
Jason nodded into Bruce’s shoulder, nuzzling into the scent of him. Pulling back, he looked up at Tim, mildly surprised to see the human had put on a mask and some kind of breathing tube… thing without him noticing.
“This is Tim. Tim has… he’s kept me safe. Been my pod. He brought me here. He… he saved me.” Jason could see the conflict in Bruce’s eyes, but Bruce nodded, looking up at Tim with determination written into his very bones.
Tim panicked a little, flailing backwards as Bruce swam up to him—and no wonder. Jason made Tim look small, and Bruce was nearly twice as big.
He chuckled, leaning into the embrace of Dick and Barbara as he watched Bruce press a hand against Tim, spanning nearly the entire length and breadth of his chest.
Tim went lax, didn’t fight it, and Jason could see Bruce’s surprise.
Looking down at his pup, Jason started singing of joy and longing, surrounded by everyone who had ever been important to him, all because one human was too stubborn to worry about death.
By Lois Lane
This week brought tidal waves of change to the aquatic world. After the viral videos released last year of a mer at the Gotham Aquarium, Dr. Timothy Drake has spearheaded a charge to reform mer treatment, and as of Monday, he has succeeded. In conjunction with the Mer Research Institute, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has passed federal legislation that shuts down all mer breeding programs effective immediately. The use of captive mers for human entertainment has also been banned, and they are already working on building isolated habitats where these intelligent beings can live the rest of their days in peace.
Researchers believe that further study will be able to help them better understand the intraspecies aggression that comes with keeping mers in captivity, and hope to be able to give them the companionship they need.
The MRI is already working on an international level to…
Tim closed the magazine, still a bit awestruck that it was real. They’d really done it, him and Duke and Stephanie. It was hard to believe, but now APHIS was taking the battle to an international level, and there was talk about legally recognizing mers as sentient beings. It was… everything he’d ever dreamed of doing.
Tucking the magazine to the side, he stood up and stretched, admiring how the sun reflected off the water. He had about three hours of daylight left, so it was about time to suit up.
As if summoned, a head broke up through the water, interrupting the reflected light. An arm raised up, waving, and Tim waved back happily. The head ducked back under, then eight heads broke through the pristine water.
Yes, it was better to not keep them waiting.
We have reached the end... I hope you all enjoyed the journey as much as I did! Thank you so much for reading!!