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A Ship Called Wander

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1

Drift looked around the combined kitchen/living room of the small house he was renting and gave a sigh of satisfaction.

It was tiny, it was his and it was as different as possible to his life in the gang.

Drift’s certificates from the Open Polytechnic and Dive School hung (slightly crookedly) on the wall, giving him a small taste of pride every time he saw concrete proof of his achievements. All his other ‘official’ documentation was filed tidily in a beat-up old filing cabinet he and his ride had ‘liberated’ from the dumpster outside an office building back in Rodion some multinational was refurbishing.

There wasn’t much else in the house. All his clothes fit in one bag and he had nothing to cook on in the kitchen. The fact that he even had a kitchen was still sinking in. At least the place came semi-furnished so there was some whiteware as well as a saggy old couch and rock-hard double bed.

He’d slept on much much worse than that bed before.

Hell, even the floor was comfier than what he was used to!

Drift wandered through to the bedroom, running a hand over his bike when he passed it in the hallway. He’d bought it from someone in town via Tradey and picked it up as soon as he’d dragged his bag and filing cabinet inside the rental house.

That pushbike was one more thing to distance himself from who and what he had been until Officer Atlas had finally forced ‘Deadlock’ to face the consequences of a life of crime.

Deadlock skated and carried a gun.

Drift cycled and had a sturdy knife in his pocket for ‘chores’.

Deadlock was essentially uneducated and the most feared gang member in Rodion City.

Drift was a graduate (just barely) of Higher Education and nobody newcomer to Crystal Cove.

It took less than half a minute to dig his phone charger out, plug his phone in and throw himself on the indestructible nightmare of a mattress. He wanted to get up early and go see his boat before the meeting the parole officer.

A house and a boat. What next, actual friends?

Drift smirked self-deprecatingly at the ceiling, rolling onto his side to grab the sleeping bag which was all the bedding he had. Someone, maybe the last tenant, had left a mirror behind and he frowned at the reflection.

I’ve gotta do something about my hair.

He’d never known his parents, but Drift bet they carried those genes that made you go grey early. His hair and eveybrows had been silvery-white for so long he’d forgotten the original colour. The first non-food thing he’d shoplifted had been hair dye, dyeing it himself in the wheelchair bathroom of a 24hr fast food joint.

He’d made a horrible mess of the place and had to run three blocks before security gave up.

Over the years he’d gotten better at both stealing and DIY haircare.

In the D-Cons he’d made glossy black and electric purple his signature colours and he’d kept it up even under the watching eyes of Officer Atlas. One small defiance to show that they hadn’t changed who he was.

I guess they finally have changed me.

Drift snarled at the familiar reflection with its scars and the choppy, faded charcoal-and-lavender hair. At least the Unbreakable Rule of Tattooing required by the D-Cons let him pass almost unremarked if he kept his sleeves rolled down.

Never get ink that shows at court. Makes more sense than it should.

Drift kicked off his shoes, unzipped the sleeping bag and rolled himself up in it. One accurately thrown shoe switched off the light and Drift found himself pondering the issue of hairdye as he let himself relax.

I’m still gonna dye it, first good sale I get. Maybe different colours, but still gonna dye it. I’ve changed a bit but I’m still me.

That decided, Drift closed his eyes and let sleep claim him.

Chapter Text

2

Drift’s parole officer was some stuffy by-the-booker immigrant called ‘Prowl’. He had a weird accent but his pedantic insistence on following procedure meant that their initial meeting breezed by and Drift could get down to the wharf to finally see his boat.

He’d slept through two alarms and ran out of time for the boat-ogling session he’d planned to indulge in before the meeting.

As soon as Officer Prowl said they were done Drift shot down to the marina as fast as he could pedal, leaving his bike chained to the fence next to a handful of others.

It seemed he wasn’t the only person around here that didn’t have a ‘proper’ bike lock. His was a thick piece of chain and a heavy padlock that could (and did) double as a weapon. It was a relief to see another chain-and-padlock combo on a battered old BMX, even if it was obviously just a half-assed thief deterrent and not a potential weapon like his own.

The organisation system of the Crystal Cove marina seemed to follow a strange sort of logic that had Drift completely baffled. The few locals he saw appeared to know exactly what they were doing. Eventually Drift figured it out and found his boat, standing on the warped planks of the wharf to soak in the realisation that this was his.

It wasn’t brand new by any stretch of the imagination, but even though the yellow paint was faded and it was a little timeworn overall it was certified seaworthy and sound. The previous owner had listed his gear as part of the sale on Tradey, so Drift had a dozen or so crayfish pots, a sturdy surfcasting rod and a handful of lures tailored to the preferences of the local fish.

Just the fish, though. I’m trying to do things right now.

If the safety gear left on board passed muster it would be a backup to the stuff he’d purchased while at Polytech.

Wow, I’ll actually have spares of something besides cartridges.

As he admired-slash-inspected the boat Drift head footsteps approach, a deliberate heel-first thump that carried easily over the racket of squabbling seagulls and the sound of the ocean lapping at the heavy piles of the wharf. Drift stomped on reflexes from a life lived violently and ignored the approach of whoever-it-was, digging his fists deep into his pockets and shivering a little as the breeze picked up.

Thumpy-feet came right up to him and stopped about a meter away.

Brilliant. Piss off and let me check out my boat in peace, would you?

“You must be Drift.” Thumpy-feet said matter-of-factly.

No shit.

Drift turned slowly, reluctant to take his eyes off the glorious faded yellow of his boat. When he finally managed to he almost wished he’d been able to do it sooner.

Thumpy-feet was… a bit taller than Drift. He had to look up to meet the guy’s eyes properly, since otherwise he’d be looking at the collar a seriously hideous jersey.

Burn it. Knock him out, steal the jersey and burn it.

Thumpy-feet smiled down at Drift, little crow’s feet wrinkling up the corners of some seriously weird blue-green eyes. His hair had half gone to a shiny silver-grey, the rest of it and the little almost-goatee thing on his chin was a fiery orange. There was a nasty scar cutting across the taller man’s chin.

Did you take the stiches out yourself or something?

“Uh, yeah. I’m Drift.”

There, that wasn’t too hostile was it?

“Pleasure to meet you, Drift.” Thumpy-feet said, holding out a hand. “I’m Ratchet.”

Drift pulled a hand from his pocket to awkwardly shake Ratchet’s hand, stuffing it back in as soon as he was released. He was used to the warmer climate of Rodion and had dressed accordingly. Big mistake. He was freezing.

“I’m from the local Wildlife Rehab Centre,” Ratchet explained briskly. “I work with our resident Mers, among other things. We’ve got a few there who can’t be released back into the wild for various reasons and the local pod killed any we tried to establish in the waters around the bay.”

Drift couldn’t hide his interest when Ratchet mentioned the Mers. He’d had the compulsory lessons about what you were supposed to do at Dive School and done the elective extra paper at Polytech, but he’d never actually seen a Mer.

Ratchet glared at Drift with an expression that made his palm itch for a gun.

“I know that look, kid. I’m telling you now: Don’t even think about it.” Ratchet’s voice went hard as he delivered an extremely condensed version of Drift’s Dive School lectures on Mers. “They’re a protected species. Don’t go looking for them, don’t approach them and if one comes up to you don’t encourage it. Don’t fish in the Ecosanctuary waters and radio in anybody who looks suspicious. We get the odd Mer-hunter or idiot who wants to ‘commune with nature’”

Ratchet actually made air quotes with his fingers around the last three words, telling Drift everything he needed to know about how to get under Ratchet’s freckly skin. He would have grinned if the wing hadn’t chosen that moment to shove icy fingers down his neck.

“It’s as much for human safety as it is for the Mer.” Ratchet kept talking; apparently oblivious to Drift’s shivering. “The Mer get hurt and they go on the offensive before disappearing for a while. Keeping them safe from us keeps us safe from them and everyone stays happy.”

Drift nodded. It was the same as the streets. One idiot wannabe riles a gang and they tear through the unattached floaters in a blaze of bloody fury. Nobody was innocent; everyone still breathing was just collateral damage waiting to happen.

“The local pod has a designated ‘Speaker’, someone to interact with humans. He’ll probably come size you up when you go out. Be polite and if he gives you an order you do what he says. He comes to us, we don’t go to him.” Ratchet gave Drift a hard stare, complete with frowny eyebrows until the younger man nodded.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought.” Drift said casually, forcing himself to sound pleasant instead of snapping at the redhead for acting like he knew nothing.

Don’t want to piss off the locals on my first day.

“Excellent.” Ratchet clapped Drift on the shoulder, “Sorry kid, I’ve been delegated to give that talk to all the newcomers.”

“It’s ok.” Drift mumbled, unable to hide his shivers as the wind off the sea kicked up another notch, bringing the smell of clean salt air and the faint hint of storm to replace the various odours of the marina.

“Looks like the weather’s about to pack up.” Ratchet observed, squinting out to sea. “You wanna come warm up a bit at the Centre? You can get the tide charts and updated sandbar maps while you’re there.”

Drift blinked in surprise, hugging himself as he followed Ratchet’s gaze to a dark line of rain approaching swiftly, blotting out the horizon.

Crap. I really wanted to take the boat for a test run today.

Still, open friendliness from a stranger was better than suspicion any day.

“Uh, thanks.” Drift risked smiling, remembering to keep his teeth hidden. “That would be really cool. Does Crystal Cove get a lot of storms? I’m more familiar with Rodion Port; it’s where I did my training.”

Ratchet gave him an appraising stare, looking Drift up and down in a way that would have made him growl a year ago and start swinging punches a year before that. Now he just waited the older man out, ignoring the odd feeling in his stomach.

A strong gust of wind announced the imminent arrival of the approaching squall.

“I’ll tell you that at the Centre.” Ratchet said, jerking his head in the direction of the main wharf. “Come on kid; let’s get inside before we get soaked.”

He moved off briskly with that thumpy-footed walk and Drift hurried to follow, suddenly envying the other man his hideous jersey.

Chapter Text

3

They made it through the doors of the Crystal Cove Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre just before the skies opened up. The rain came down so hard it actually bounced back up off the concrete outside. Drift groaned internally, knowing that if it didn’t stop in the next hour or so he’d have a very wet bike ride home.

Suck it up. You’ve survived worse than a soaking.

Ratchet stomped on through the lobby and into the ‘working’ part of the Rehab Centre while Drift stood in the lobby and just stared around him.

He’d never had the chance to just visit a place like this before, like something a normal person would do. As Deadlock he’d never had a reason to visit and after his arrest places like this were visited for a field trip where he’d had to concentrate on absorbing all possible information to regurgitate in an essay or exam.

For the first time he could just stop and take it all in.

The freedom was intoxicating, almost enough to make him forget the lingering chill left over from the wind.

Everything was clean. There were bright colours and informational posters everywhere. Some potted plants, the occasional interactive display and a small guest shop that was currently ‘Closed for Lunch’. The air smelled of polish, saltwater and that indefinable organic perfume that said ‘aquarium’.

Interesting splashing noises were coming from somewhere up ahead. Drift wandered slowly towards the source of the sounds, almost walking right into a glass dividing wall.

Close one.

“You coming?” Ratchet called, poking his head around a potted palm that blocked the door he’d gone through.

“Yeah. Sorry!”

Drift hurried across the lobby and into the staff-only portion of the building.

Chapter Text

4

Ratchet studied the newcomer carefully as the young man hurried to follow him through the door labelled ‘Staff Only’ and into the technological heart of the Centre. The new guy in town was fully a head shorter than Ratchet and definitely underdressed for Crystal Cove weather, especially the storms at this time of year. It was hard to tell under his baggy top, but Ratchet suspected the kid had one of those wiry builds that made him a lot stronger than he looked.

Hair looks like he should be fronting some punk-pop band. Roddy’s going to love it.

“This is where we keep track of everything for the Rehab Centre, Meteorology and Marine is through here.” Ratchet waved a hand vaguely at the screens, computers and monitors before opening another door and ushering the kid through.

Ratchet navigated the sloping maze of corridors that made up the guts of the Centre with ease, noting with amusement how wide the kid’s eyes went when they passed an observation window and a bright orangey shape whisked out of sight.

Yup. Thought so.

“Ignore Roddy; he's being a pain in the ass today.” Ratchet rolled his eyes and let them into the Met room.

“Roddy?” The kid frowned before understanding flashed across his face. “A Mer?”

It was more of a statement than a question, the tone giving nothing of the young man’s own opinions away. He hadn’t shut the Meteorology Room door after him when he’d entered so Ratchet could see the Mer in question making rude gestures at him through the glass of the observation window. Ratchet couldn’t risk responding to the frilly horror without offending the newcomer so he gritted his teeth and pretended not to notice.

Don’t wanna give the kid the wrong impression of the locals.

“We have two permanent residents and a very small transient population who are being rehabilitated for release back into the wild.” Ratchet explained, determinedly turning his back on both Mer and human to pull up the latest weather reports for Crystal Cove waters. “Hot Rod and Tailgate are our two ‘live-in’ Mers, if you will.”

He pulled his fingers away from the keyboard long enough to sketch air quotes around the emphasised words. Ratchet then started hunting up the latest underwater sonar maps of the shallower waters along the immediate coast, talking on autopilot.

“Hot Rod – nickname’s Roddy- was rescued from a black-market Mer breeding ring. He was born in captivity and the lot that had him weren’t busted until it was too late for him to be safe to release into the wild.” Ratchet sent the information he wanted to the printer and turned to lean back against the desk with his arms crossed. “It’s remarkable how social he is with humans, when you consider what he’s been through.”

The newcomer’s face was an interesting study as he digested this information. Amazingly he didn’t ask for specifics about Hot Rod’s past, just accepted what Ratchet said without prying for the gruesome details.

“What about the other Mer?” Drift asked, running a hand through his hair.

Huh. Interesting.

“Tailgate was hit by fin-hunters.” Ratchet was gratified by the look of cold hatred that flashed across the kid’s face at those words. “She’s a small cetacean-type mer. They caught her alone, sliced her dorsal and pelvic fins off then left her to bleed to death. Some fishermen saw blood in the water and found her in shock, being mauled by a small school of hammerheads”

Drift’s eyes went wide and he blanched, going a sickly pale yellow colour. Ratchet check to make sure the bin was where he remembered it.

He looks like he’s gonna puke, probably a good time to change the subject.

“Tailgate is the only wild Mer we’ve seen who’ll put up with Roddy’s nonsense, which is a good thing since they’re both pretty much stuck here.” By now Tailgate had joined Roddy at the observation window, scoping out the new person. Ratchet ignored them both. “They act as our Mer Ambassadors with the casual visitors and tours.”

Ratchet left out some of the other jobs Hot Rod and Tailgate sometimes looked after. The Newcomer to town didn’t need to know and if Drift stuck around long enough for Crystal Cove to become his home then he’d find out anyway.

Chapter Text

5

 “If you’re planning on using Manny’s old boat to fish we might end up seeing a lot of each other,” Ratchet said, “When we have some, transient Mers prefer their fish ‘wriggling-fresh’. I’m down at the dock most days getting food for those bottomless pits they use for stomachs.”

The printer wheezed, groaned and sucked up more paper to turn into seafloor maps, but that wasn’t what made Drift’s day seem brighter.

“That would be good. I was planning to try for crayfish and crabs for this restaurant in town, but I think there was a fishing rod listed with the boat, if you… um…” Suddenly realising he was getting carried away Drift trailed off, looking away to hide the heat crawling into his face.

“I’ll keep an eye out for you.” Ratchet said generously, “Are you aiming to make a career from fishing? It’s not the steadiest form of income but that’s not what some people look for.”

“It’s different from what I used to do but I’ve never really been used to stable income.” Drift rubbed at the back of his neck, suddenly very conscious of the tattoos hidden under his clothes. “I’m going to look for casual work and odd jobs and stuff, too. Gotta pay back the loans for Polytech.”

A quick glance at the other man showed that Ratchet looked more than just politely curious. Oh no, he did not want the redhead asking questions about his past. Drift would either have to lie or risk the fragile new life he was trying to build. In a desperate bid to change the subject he blurted out the first question that popped into his head.

“Why is Tailgate a she?” Drift was confused as all hell.

So far as he knew, Mers didn’t have an analogue to the human cultural construct of gender at all. It was one of the things he knew the Speakers for the pods were absolutely adamant about keeping from contaminating Mer culture at large.

“The kids decided that if Roddy was already a ‘He’ then Tailgate had to be a ‘She’.” Ratchet rolled his eyes. “They insisted that because humans come in pairs then Roddy and ‘Gate had to as well. Also ‘Gate’s smaller and generally rounder then Roddy with less spikey bits or something so she looks more ‘girly’ or something.” Ratchet looked like he was resigned to the situation.

Drift wondered just how much patience the older man had; probably much more than he did. Endlessly rehashing the same arguments over and over with small children would have him pointing them at someone else and bolting while they were distracted.

He’s definitely more tolerant than I am.

The printer finished its job, making a horrible noise when the last sheet of paper hit the tray. Drift eyed the redhead speculatively as he pushed himself upright and went to grab the seafloor data, giving the machine a practiced thump when he did so. Ratchet looked old enough to have kids but Drift couldn’t really put an age to him. Growing up around people who were prematurely aged by the effects of drugs and life on the streets had left him with no frame of reference for dealing with anyone between the ages of ten and sixty.

“Thanks.” Drift took the sheaf of paper from Ratchet and decided to just ask as the older man herded him back out of the office space. “Um, your kids?”

“What? Hell no!” Ratchet gave a dry bark of laughter and waved Drift’s attention to the observation window where a large red and gold mer was pouting and flaring its fins angrily on the other side of the glass. “That nightmare over there is the closest thing I’ll ever have to kids. Unless I get a dog or something.”

The gorgeously coloured Mer flipped Ratchet off with both hands, waved cheekily at Drift and back-flipped gracefully away from the window to disappear from sight. Ratchet sighed, tramping off down the corridor with his footsteps echoing off the walls. Drift followed automatically, putting two and two together.

“That was Hot Rod?”

“That was Hot Rod.” Ratchet sounded resigned as he let them back into the main lobby of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

It wasn’t until Ratchet gave him an odd look that Drift realised he was smiling.

Chapter Text

6

Ratchet stared at the newcomer.

He couldn’t help himself.

Drift’s upper canines came forward from the rest of his teeth, but it wasn’t that making Ratchet stare.

Roddy’s going to love those.

It was something about the way the expression seemed to change Drift’s entire face. Suddenly he wasn’t someone you didn’t want to see standing by your car late at night. He looked like someone you wanted to get to know.

Something tells me that Roddy and this guy are going to get along like a house on fire.

As soon as Drift realised Ratchet was staring at him his smile vanished and he hunched down as if trying to hide.

“Yeah, my teeth are weird.” Drift mumbled belligerently. “I lost a few and the person who did the replacements at the Dental School fucked up the canines and I can’t afford to get them fixed again.”

Ratchet couldn’t make out the younger man’s face but he could see that Drift’s ears were bright red.

“They’re fine. Roddy and ‘Gate would be happy to see a human with something like ‘proper’ teeth.” Ratchet said, wandering into the middle of the atrium “Hot Rod thinks I should have all my teeth pulled and get false teeth that can do a ‘proper job’ or something.”

“Nope, you just need a bite to match your bark.” Someone yelled at truly impressive volumes from whatever room was on the other side of the glass wall Drift had nearly run into earlier “You gonna introduce the newbie with the cool hair or what?”

“Huh?” Drift looked blankly at Ratchet.

“Hot Rod.” Ratchet sighed, rubbing a hand over his face before glancing outside. “It’s still raining so you may as well get this out of the way.”

Ratchet headed in the direction of Hot Rod’s voice, kicking the doorstop into place so the glass door would stay open. He really didn’t have anything else to do right now and hopefully Roddy would be able to keep the kid distracted long enough for it to stop raining.

“What am I getting out of the way?” Drift asked cautiously.

“Meeting Roddy. It can be pretty traumatic if you’re expecting purely Mer or human behaviour from him.” Ratchet couldn’t help but make it sound like a death sentence, leading the way through part of the public display area and through another side door. “He enjoys messing with people far too much for it to be healthy. Oh, and keep an eye on your phone around him.”

“Aww, bad-mouthing me to the newb?” Hot Rod didn’t sound upset about this at all. “You need to get a better hobby, Ratch.”

“Like I have the time for that with you lot around.” Ratchet scoffed, walking up to the rough-tiled edge of a pool set into the floor. “Maybe one of these days I’ll quit and get a real job.”

“You keep saying that but you never leave,” The flame-coloured Mer smirked up at him. “Be honest, Ratch; this is your dream job.”

“Sure, if we’re talking nightmares.” Ratchet rolled his eyes and motioned Drift forward. “Drift meet Hot Rod. Resident of the WRC and one of our two Mer Ambassadors. Roddy, this is Drift. He’s not working here but since he’s bought Manny’s old boat you might want to be nice to him.”

Hot Rod’s fins did a complicated waving thing and he turned an extremely charming smile on Drift, his eyes shining as he held a hand out to the newcomer.

There he goes.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Drift.” The mer said, waiting patiently with his hand in the air until Drift crouched and shook it. “Love your hair, by the way.”

“Um, thanks.” Drift obviously had no idea what he was supposed do.

As usual, Roddy took advantage of his victim’s confusion before Ratchet could intervene.

“Soooo you’ve moved to Crystal Cove, have you?” Hot Rod asked, resting his elbows on the edge of the pool and putting his chin in his hands, looking perfectly comfortable.

Ratchet stifled a snicker, Drift couldn’t stop staring at the mer. The stunned look on his face was kind of adorable. Hot Rod was an absolutely gorgeous specimen of Mer life; the people who’d bred him had made sure of that. His scales were beautiful warm reds and golds with a creamy yellow underbelly, dotted all over with little orange bioluminescent patches that made him look like flame in low light. Hot Rod was obviously derived from some sort of Lionfish-type stock, his fins were reinforced with long barbs that looked harmless but could be extremely dangerous if he felt like it.

“Yeah. I only got here yesterday but I like it so far. It’s a nice place.” Drift’s willingness to compliment the town made Ratchet smile.

“Awesome! So if you’re staying then you should totally give Ratchet your phone number.” Hot Rod said, grinning. His fins twitched in a way Ratchet was far too familiar with. “Sometimes we get injured Mer who want stuff the fish market just doesn’t carry.”

Ratchet clapped a hand over his face, shaking his head.

Thanks Roddy, you meddling haddock.

Drift was looking up at him with a worried expression on his face, looking far too much like a kicked spaniel for Ratchet’s liking. He pulled his hand away from his face and shoved it into his pocket, searching for his phone.

“May as well, if it’s alright with you. Roddy does have a point.” Ratchet said, hoping he didn’t sound as awkward as he felt.

While the kid was too busy trying to find his own phone to notice Hot Rod shot a shit-eating grin at Ratchet. It was probably a good thing Drift missed it, otherwise he probably would have thought twice about getting involved with the WRC and its inhabitants.

I wish I’d had the brains to think twice. I’d still make the same choice, though.

As they traded contact details under Hot Rod’s watchful gaze Ratchet could only hope this place wouldn’t make as big a mess of Drift’s life as it had of his.

Chapter Text

7

It took Drift a full fortnight to settle into some sort of routine in Crystal Cove. All the necessary legalities surrounding setting up as a one-person “Small Business” had him about ready to put a hole through the wall before he caved and went to the two people he knew –Officer Prowl and Ratchet at the WRC- to ask for help.

If I’d known it was going to be this complicated I never would have done it.

Stuffy Prowl had put him onto the right legal advisors and Ratchet helped by pointing out people at the fish market most likely to buy what Drift would be able to catch. Drift’d also advertised that he was willing to do the odd bit of unskilled labour if someone had work they needed done, but that hadn’t gone down well.

Ratchet said they just need time to get used to me. Whatever.

Drift was lying on the couch glaring at the rising moon when his phone started ringing. He stared at in surprise for a full minute before grabbing at it to see who was calling.

Who the fuck would be ringing me?

The caller ID said Ratchet.

Holy shit.

“Hello?”

“Hey Drift? It’s Ratchet here.”

Drift was extremely glad he was at home with nobody around to see the stupid grin spreading across his face at the sound of the older man’s voice.

“Hey Ratchet. Um, whassup?”

“Do you know how to use a lawnmower?” Ratchet asked without preamble.

What?

“Uh, sorry I don’t.” Drift was genuinely sorry that this meant he wouldn’t get to see the redhead.

“Can you walk in straight lines and follow instructions?”

There was a rustling noise and Drift could picture Ratchet pushing his hair back out of his face, wearing that particular annoyed expression that only Drift and Roddy seemed to be able to provoke.

“Yeah, I can do that.” Drift was getting seriously confused by this line of questioning. “Why?”

“Whirl’s gone and busted her leg and needs someone to do the lawns while she’s in a cast.” Ratchet explained. “I suggested you, since nobody else seems to be willing to be the first to take a risk on someone new.” Ratchet sounded distinctly angry.

It was different, having someone be angry in Drift’s defence instead of at him. It felt nice.

“Ok, so what’s her number?” Drift scrambled for pen and paper, jotting down the digits Ratchet reeled off.

If even half the stories Drift had heard about the crazy ex-army pilot were true then this was going to be an interesting experience.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Whirl only lived a few streets over so Drift ended up spending the nest sunny afternoon learning how to wrangle a lawnmower around Whirl’s lumpy backyard. It was an experience he decided he really could have lived without, but he needed the money and wasn’t going to turn down the only person besides Ratchet who seemed to be willing to give him a chance.

It was hot and sweaty and Drift stubbornly struggled on with his sleeves down until Whirl decided he was doing well enough on his own and hopped back into the house on her crutches. The instant the door slammed shut behind her Drift shoved his sleeves up as high as he could and dove back into the fray feeling a little less like he was going to melt.

Oh shit I’m going to need to do this at my place, too.

He didn’t notice when Whirl came back, too busy fighting with the long grass at the far end of her property. Drift had finished the lawn, emptied the catcher and was in the process of dragging the horrible thing back to the shed when he saw Whirl standing by the back door, staring at him with a frown creasing her scarred face. Too late, Drift realised that his sleeves were shoved well up past his elbows and his gang tattoos bare for the entire world to see.

Oh fuck.

It was too late to cover them up without making thing more awkward, so Drift took his time stowing the machine and earmuffs in the shed as Whirl had told him earlier. He went to roll his sleeves down but a sudden surge of recklessness and a tiny, immediately-squashed desire to impress the surly army veteran made him stuff his hands in his pockets and walk out of the shed with his arms still bare, rolling the rickety door shut and wandering back up to the house where Whirl was waiting.

“Not bad, newbie.” Whirl said, surveying the patchy and freshly-mown back yard with satisfaction. “Not bad at all.”

Drift figured that telling Whirl it looked like Edward Scissorhands got drunk and did a bunch of snow angels in her backyard would probably be a bad idea. Especially if he wanted to be paid.

He didn’t miss the way her one remaining eye slid from the yard to his bared arms. It was kinda hard not to notice, considering that he was standing on her blind side and she had to turn around to him properly. Whirl gave Drift’s arms a very obvious once-over, raising an eyebrow and making an appreciative noise.

“Nice ink.” She said approvingly.

“Um, thanks.” Drift shuffled awkwardly, looking past Whirl instead of straight at her.

“Got some of my own. Maybe you can tell me if these guys are still around.” Whirl propped one of her crutches against the side of the house and hauled her Tshirt up with one hand, baring a swathe of impressive abdominal muscles and a slightly lopsided red mask tattoo that was bisected by a long-healed knife wound. “Got this when I was about your age, but time moves real fast back in the Dead End.”

Despite the age of the ink and the pulled scar Whirl’s tattoo was clearly an Autobrand.

Drift stared at the mark of the D-Con’s arch rivals sprawled across Whirl’s ribs, not sure what to say. The wild ex-Pilot clearly enjoyed his reaction, laughing so hard she needed to drop her Tshirt and grab both crutches to stay upright.

“Don’t worry, Con-boy.” Whirl gasped in between whoops of laughter. “I’m not gonna stab you. Bloody hell kid, your face!” She shoved a handful of scrunched-up notes at Drift and waved him off. “That’s your cash and a tip. Don’t trip over your face on your the way out the gate.”

He didn’t bother looking at how much Whirl given him; just mumbled something and took off. Drift rolled his sleeves down as he trotted around the side of her house. His shoes were covered in bits of grass and a tennis ball he’d accidentally annihilated but he didn’t stop to brush them off into the garden. Instead he grabbed his bike and scarpered before Whirl decided to call him back so they could swap friendly tales about their gang days in Rodion.

What the fuck would I even say if she did?

Chapter Text

8

As soon as he was awake enough to register the sound of his alarm going off Drift knew it was going to be a bad day.

He could feel the need crawling through his veins. It followed him up out of dreams of Rodion and the life he’d lead as Deadlock, the most feared gang member in the entire city.

Despite the solid night of sleep Drift still felt exhausted. His body was covered in a cold sweat and even though the sheets stuck to him he lacked the energy to pull them off, no matter how disgusting it felt.

Fuck.

Experience had taught him that he needed to get up. Needed to move and distract himself, but he just couldn’t. An invisible something had moved into his chest in the middle of the night and it weighed him down. A leaden lump that was beyond his power to shift.

Get up. Come on. Just get UP you lazy prick.

Drift knew what would help, what would settle the need screaming through him and blow that heavy feeling out of his chest so he could get out of bed.

No, no I can’t. Not again.

… But I want it.

I need it.

Open eyes stared blankly at the roof, toying with plans he tried to convince himself were only half-hearted. Train ride back to Rodion, look up some old associates and make a little business transaction. He hadn’t changed that much, he should still be able to walk the streets without fear. At least long enough to get what he needed.

Before Drift could seriously consider checking his finances to see how they would withstand the hit of train tickets and a purchase on the other end his phone started to vibrate its way across the floor.

Oh fuck you too.

After the third ring Drift rolled over and flailed blindly in the direction of the noise, shoving himself halfway out of bed when he couldn't reach his phone. The blasted thing was halfway under the bed before Drift got a hold of it and checked the caller ID, half-expecting Officer Prowl or Whirl. When his eyes finally focused properly Drift blinked in surprise at the name coming up on the screen.

Ratchet? What the hell?

Lying sprawled uncomfortably on the floor with his legs still in bed, Drift pressed talk.

“’Lo?” His greeting came out croaky.

Shit I sound like I’m sleeptalking or something.

Splashing, swearing and something that sounded suspiciously like Roddy laughing came from the other end of the line as Drift cleared his throat to try again.

“Hello? Ratchet?”

Oh for the love of- Give that here before you stick your claws through the screen again you ham-fisted clown!

Ratchet’s voice sounded as if he was some distance away from the phone. Drift wondered if Roddy had thrown something and caused Ratchet’s phone to dial him by accident.

“Hiiiiii Drift!” Hot Rod sounded much closer to the phone than he should have.

A vague suspicion began to form in Drift’s sluggish brain.

“Roddy?” He said, dreading the answer.

“That’s me-eee!” The mer sang, briefly exceeding the input capacity of Ratchet’s phone mic.

“Did you steal Ratchet’s phone?” Drift asked flatly.

“Yup!” The mer sounded extremely proud of himself. “You have no idea how many of these things I had to wreck before he finally got a waterproof one.”

Splashing noises and a seriously impressive streak of curses in the background meant that Roddy was probably moving around the outer edge of his tank, using the side for support to keep his head and the phone above water while trying to stay away from a furious Ratchet.

“I don't think I don’t want to know, either.” Drift said, covering his eyes with his hand. “Why the hell are you ringing me? Are you seriously that bored?”

Another flurry of splashing and an enraged shout from Ratchet came from the phone before Hot Rod answered.

“Nah. Hey Drift, I just wanted to ask if you could try to get Tailgate and me some barracuda today if they’re biting?”

Roddy sounded as if this conversation was perfectly normal.

As if Hot Rod wasn’t an illegally-bred captive mer who’d just stolen an aquarium employee’s cellphone on a whim to call a fisherman friend and ask him to pick up a special lunch.

My life is nuts.

“Yeah, sure. I’ll see what I can do.” Drift agreed despite the sinking feeling in his stomach.

At least it’ll get me out of the house.

“Awesome!” Hot Rod sounded distracted and Ratchet had gone suspiciously silent. “And if they’re not you should come over anyway. I think Ratchet misses human company.”

“If I say yes will you give Ratchet his phone back before he harpoons you and glues your hands together?” He was starting to realise just why Ratchet had made meeting Hot Rod sound so awful all those weeks ago. The mer was a force of nature.

“Cross my heart and hope to die!”

Drift sighed. I t looked like he had plans for the day.

“Alright, fine. I’ll see you this afternoon. Just give Ratchet back his phone now, would you?”

Excited mer noises followed by splashing and louder swearing came down the phone while Drift tiredly thumped the back of his head on the floor a few times. Whoever had bred Roddy had set an unholy menace loose upon the Crystal Cove Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and everyone even remotely associated it.

If I ever meet those breeders I’m going to make them wish they’d never heard of Mer.

“Drift?”

“Ratchet?”

“Yeah. Look, I’m sorry about that.” Ratchet sounded harried and Drift could easily picture the redhead running his hand through his hair and glaring at Roddy.

“No, it’s ok. Really, it is. Tell him to just ask you next time or something.”

“… Next time.”

They shared a horrified silence as the implications of Drift’s words sunk in.

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Why some people think they’re about as smart as parrots I’ll never know.” Ratchet's voice changed from annoyed exhausted. “Kid, don’t worry about the fish. The budget for these bottomless pits can’t withstand the current market price of ‘cuda.”

“No, no it’s ok,” Drift broke in quickly. “I can spot you a couple. Don’t worry about it. It’s not like I’m able to donate to the Centre or anything at the moment, so this can be my contribution for the week.”

Ratchet was silent. All Drift could hear was the general background noise of the Centre with a bonus sound of Tailgate verbally laying into Hot Rod in one of the spoken Mer dialects.

“Kid, you’re amazing.” Ratchet’s voice was thick with relief.

Drift flushed uncomfortably, remembering what he’d been considering doing when Roddy rang.

“Not really. Look I’d better go if I want a chance at getting anything for fishface and ‘Gate. I’ll see you this afternoon; just don’t kill him before I get there.”

“I’ll try not to.” Ratchet growled, “I’m not making any promises for Tailgate.”

Drift winced. The little blue-and-white mer had a vicious streak. Someone squealed and violent splashing noises filtered down the connection.

“I’d better go break this up." Ratchet swore, "Catch you later.”

“Seeya.”

Ratchet hung up and Drift let the phone drop to the floor beside his head.

Looks like that train trip wouldn’t be happening today.

Drift had friends to feed.

Chapter Text

9

It cold and overcast out on the water. The stiff breeze cut right through Drift’s supposedly windproof jacket as he steered Wandering Sunlight out of the shipping lane and cut the engine, coasted to a halt in the light chop the wind raised.

This is where I caught them last time. Let’s see if Roddy gets lucky.

Hissing through his teeth at the uncomfortable chill Drift set up both his secondhand surfcasting rods with numb finger and sent the little weighted lures far out over the waiter with strong flicks of his arms, watching the reels wind out as the deeper currents caught the lures and dragged at them. With any luck they’d be taken to stupid, hungry fish who hadn’t run from the sound of Wander’s engine.

Two hours of this then I’ll checking the pots and go in.

That was about all he could stand without the sun to help keep him warm.

Drift stuffed his hands in his pockets and took a long look around, turning on his heel as he took in the increasingly familiar coastline and scanned the open ocean for other ships and incoming squalls. The sea was choppy but not too rough, the deck only rolled a little more than usual beneath his feet. He checked the instruments three times and had his phone halfway out before remembering that there wasn’t any reception this far away from Crystal Cove.

A hopeful glance at the two rods sitting in holders at the stern showed no movement in the lines.

Well, it’s not that rough out today. Might as well get some practice in.

Pulling his hands from his pockets Drift took a deep breath and settled into a combat stance, settling the soles of his shoes firmly against the deck. His focus shifted; things like cold and boredom and the craving gnawing at him shoved aside to pay more attention to his surroundings. The irregular splashing of the choppy sea and the shift of the boat under and around him, how far away the lane buoys were, the status of the rods patiently waiting for Roddy and ‘Gate’s snacks to bite, how much space he had to move.

It all flowed in and Drift began to move through a close-quarters combat sequence, blocking and striking out with hands and feet at the imaginary foe moving around him.

The wind became refreshing instead of freezing as the exercise warmed him. Nothing had bitten before he finished, so Drift shrugged and ran through again, pushing himself to work past the withdrawal-induced lethargy and strike harder, faster, keeping his movements as fluid and accurate as possible despite the movement of Wander’s deck beneath his feet.

Something red-and-white flashed in his peripheral vision and Drift spun on the balls of his feet to land in a crouch, eyes scanning the sea and ready to move for the rods to haul a line in or over to the helm to move the Wander away from whatever she was about to hit.

Straightening up, Drift brushed sweaty hair out of his eyes and frowned. Another thorough check of the surrounding ocean showed nothing. There wasn’t even a piece of floating trash that could explain the red-and-white shape that had caught his attention. Just to be absolutely sure, Drift even crawled out onto Wander’s narrow bow on hands and knees to check for junk lodged against the hull.

Frustrated, Drift cursed under his breath as the wind bit right through his sweaty clothes as he shuffled awkwardly backwards to the half-open cabin and jumped onto the deck with a thump that was louder than absolutely necessary.

I’ve probably scared the fish off with all that carry-on.

It could have been one of the local Mer pod, but he was well away from their territorial waters and the only one who’d come make a business call was their Speaker. The Speaker had some red and white, but he was mostly blue and blended into the deep water scarily well.

The two rods still showed no action and there was still most of an hour to kill before he could go check the lobster pots.

Resigning himself to boredom, Drift grabbed the spare lifejacket to use as a cushion and sat himself down to wait and fight the ever-present craving that seemed to be a little easier to resist when he was out here.

At least he was out of the house.

That counts for something, right?

Drift leaned his head back against the railing behind him and soaked in the sunlight, keeping an eye on his lines and listening to the random splashing noises coming from somewhere off to the side. They didn’t mean danger in any of the ways he’d learned at sea so he ignored them and continued to hope for fish.

Chapter Text

10

By the time Drift gave up on fishing and finished checking his craypots he was dead certain he was hallucinating. He kept seeing red-and-white flashes on the edges of his vision that vanished when he tried to look at them head on. To add insult to injury the fish had completely ignored his lures. Usually he could get at least catch something for dinner, if not something saleable as well.

Today that had not been the case.

Grumbling under his breath Drift ignored another of those weird candycane flashes out to sea and pointed Wander’s bow resolutely towards home. At least he had several decent crayfish and a pair of really nice-looking crabs that had somehow gotten into the pots along with the crayfish. Hot Rod hadn’t sounded too serious about the barracuda, so Drift didn’t think he would be too disappointed by the lack of luck today. It had seemed more like he was looking for a way to annoy Ratchet than trying to cadge a luxury dinner for himself and Tailgate.

Roddy’s cool but he can be a real pain in the ass.

Drift’s usual buyer was extremely happy to see the crayfish but rejected the crabs out of hand. Apparently the snobs who frequented his restaurant didn’t like to eat things that didn’t have tails or something like that. Nobody else seemed to want the pair of crabs, even though they were perfectly edible and energetically trying to maul anything put near them. After the fourth person turned them down Drift shrugged and tied the crab crate to the back of his bike.

If Roddy and ‘Gate don’t want these then I’ll eat well for a few days.

It was hard going, biking from the wharf area to the Wildlife Rescue Centre. The WRC had grown in and around a specialist marine research facility and eventually taken it over like some sort of invasive mould. The original building had been built on the side of a long promontory that protected most of Crystal Cove from spring storms so the road to get to the WRC buildings snaked gently back and forwards up the slope, doubling the distance. There was a more direct path along the waterfront for foot traffic, the way Ratchet had shown Drift the day they’d met. Today with the Syk lethargy dragging at him Drift knew there was no way he’d be able to carry his bike and the crabs up all those stairs.

Drift didn’t even think of sending Ratchet a text message to let him know he was coming until he was already chaining his bike up next to the others in the WRC carpark and it was already too late. Even though he hadn’t been here very often the bored-looking intern currently stuck with reception duty still recognised Drift and waved him on in, letting him through into the staff-only area. With a friendly wave and a warning when Drift opened his crate for inspection.

“Yeah, those are edible, you take them on through and I’ll go let Ratchet know you’re here. Roddy’s been winding him up all day so he’s in a really foul mood. Don’t take it personally if he bites your head off, alright?”

Drift gave the intern’s back a worried look as they vanished into the depths of the WRC. That didn’t sound good. Shrugging, he hefted the crate and took the familiar corridors to the ‘dining room’ area where Tailgate and Hot Rod were already waiting. The flame-coloured mer’s fins were flared with excitement and remained at full extension even when it was obvious that Drift was carrying a crate and not wheeling in a tub as he would have been doing if he’d managed to get the barracuda he’d asked for.

“They weren’t biting today, huh?” Hot Rod observed, leaning casually on the edge of the pool. “What did you get instead?”

“They don’t sound happy, whatever they are.” Tailgate propped herself safely out of range of his spines and watched with interest as Drift put the crate down with a sigh of relief and began unlatching the lid. She tilted her head, listening to the skitterings from inside the crate. “Actually, they sound a little bit crabby.”

Hot Rod groaned and dropped his head onto his forearms, letting his fins droop melodramatically. Drift grinned as he snagged one of the crabs and tossed it to Tailgate. She caught it neatly and casually ripped the pincers off to remove its main weapons.

“Are you punishing him for that phone stunt this morning?”  Drift asked, handing Rodimus his crab and turning his crate into a seat.

It earned him a flying crab leg to the face from Hot Rod but it was worth it to see Tailgate’s toothy grin.

“He earned it,” Tailgate replied, sucking the meat from her crab claws. “Roddy shouldn’t do things like that. Stealing and pesting Ratchet. It’s not good.”

“Pes-ter-ing Ratchet” Hot Rod corrected automatically, stabbing his crab with a forearm spine to kill it quickly. Tailgate mouthed the words to herself while he continued. “And Drift doesn’t come hang out enough.” Large golden eyes blinked at Drift and his fins trembled. “You do know you can just come up and hang out with us when you’re not busy, right? You don’t have to bring anything, just show up when we’re open. I just asked about the ‘cuda so you’d have a reason this time.”

So far as Drift could tell the mer was being absolutely genuine. He flicked a quick glance at Tailgate when Hot Rod looked down at his crab and the blue-and-white mer nodded, her expression serious. Distinctive footsteps echoed through the room, slapping rather than thumping against the tiled floor.

“I didn’t know that, Roddy.” Drift said, trying to think of the best way to reassure the mer without making a promise he couldn’t keep. “Now I know I’ll come hang out with you guys sometime.”

“What’s this about?” Ratchet asked from behind Drift. “Is he still trying to convince you I need a better social life?”

Drift twisted around to see Ratchet standing hipshot with his arms folded across his chest and one eyebrow raised. Today’s jersey wasn’t quite as ugly as usual, a dark blue that made the older man’s hair look almost unnaturally red. But that could have also been because it was still damp and clumped together. So far as Drift could tell Ratchet only looked a little grumpier than usual.

What social life?” Roddy muttered, just loud enough for Drift to hear before ripping a claw off his crab and crunching on it loudly.

“Hi Ratchet.” Drift shuffled awkwardly on his crate for a moment before Ratchet waved at him to stay seated. “I think Roddy was on about his social life, or mine. Yours hadn’t come up yet.”

Tailgate peeled open the belly of her crab and blinked innocently up at the redhead. “I wouldn’t mind Drift coming to hang out with us. It’s nice to talk with an air-breather who isn’t here to study us. Makes us feel like people and not a –what did you call it?” Tailgate glanced at Roddy, who looked confused. “I remember; a glorified zoo-zibbit” She nodded with satisfaction and tore a strip of meat out of the crab and made a show of chewing it.

Drift caught the shrewd look that flickered across Tailgate’s face as she chewed and the unreadable flick of Hot Rod’s fins has he nodded his agreement with her and let the mispronounced stand. Wondering what the pair of mer were up to, Drift looked up at Ratchet to see the older man looking off into the middle distance with a thoughtful expression on his face, tapping idly at his chin.

“So long as you don’t use Drift as an excuse to get out of helping with school groups I don’t see why not.” Ratchet said eventually.

“It’ll probably be easiest for me to come up and hang out on days when it’s too rough to go out on Wander or like today when nothing’s biting.” Drift said, waving a hand at the wreckage that had been two crabs. “I can text or call ahead to make sure I’m not getting in the way or anything.”

“You won’t be getting in the way, kid.” Ratchet said, cheeks going pink behind his freckles.

Drift smiled and was about to thank him when Hot Rod must have accidentally caught Tailgate with one of his fin-spines because she suddenly shouted something in Mer and Hot Rod rocketed sideways to avoid another accidental collision, sending a massive wave of salt water over both humans.

Chapter Text

11

Ratchet was distracted from his awkwardness by Tailgate yelling something that his limited human hearing couldn’t pick up entirely and Hot Rod lurched away from the blue-and-white mer, sending water everywhere. Well-honed reflexes had him skipping backwards out of the way but Drift wasn’t used to the hazards of hanging out with mer. All Ratchet could do was watch in horror as Drift took the brunt of Roddy’ indoor tsunami, getting completely soaked.

Tailgate sank down in the water until only her eyes and the top of her head were visible, a high-pitched sound of contrition teasing the edge of Ratchet’s hearing. Hot Rod was more expressive, his fins plastering themselves flat to his body as he realised what had happened. Drift sat on his crate, arms held out from his sides and soggy hair trailing into his face.

“Oh shit. Drift, I’m so sorry!” Roddy babbled, propelling himself out of the water to land awkwardly on the tiles. “Are you ok? I didn’t mean to do that. It was an accident, I swear!”

Pulling himself over to the human in a sort of awkward shuffle, Hot Rod reached out and put a hand on one of Drift’s arms. Ratchet didn’t move, wanting to see how this played out. Despite his pretty, frilly appearance Hot Rod had proved he could handle himself against all comers, on land or in water. Movement from the pool was Tailgate floating closer, just in case things got out of hand and Ratchet needed backup. By now they were well used to working as a team.

Drift shook his head vigorously, sending water spraying everywhere. Hot Rod flinched away from the sudden movement but didn’t remove his hand from Drift’s arm. With his unrestrained arm Drift pushed his hair back from his eyes; Ratchet could see salt-white regrowth at the roots of his fading dye job. The same hand move in front of his face in wiping motions before the younger man turned to look at Hot Rod. He did a comedic double-take and Ratchet wished he could see the look on the kid’s face.

“You can do that?” Drift blurted.

“Do what?” Hot Rod asked cautiously, his fins flicking up before flattening back to his body again.

“You’re out of the water.”

Ratchet shared an amused look with Tailgate. They’d been through this countless times and it never got old. April First was the most dangerous –and the most entertaining- day on the WRC calendar.

“Yeah.” Hot Rod looked at Drift like the human was being deliberately stupid.

“I didn’t know you could do that.” Drift immediately became defensive. Roddy’s ‘are you thick?!’ look was extremely effective and he had weaponised it for use on certain kinds of people.

“We’re not as good as seals or those little jumpy things” Tailgate broke in, rising up in the water and making a hopping motion with her hand. “But we can get around on the hard dry for a little bit if we need to. That’s not the point, though. Are you ok, Drift? You shake.”

“I’m fine.”

The reply was so quick it had to be automatic.

The younger man was definitely shivering. Ratchet wanted to kick himself for not immediately raiding the WRC’s endless supply of dry towels. Before he could say anything the redhead spotted a definite gleam of mischief in Tailgate’s eyes.

“You look cold. Water’s warm, you wanna swim?” The blue-and-white mer offered with the innocent expression Ratchet knew meant the complete opposite.

What the fuck is ‘Gate up to?

Hot Rod hissed something in Mer, flaring aggressively and baring his teeth at Tailgate. His long tail slapped the side of the pool, sending water everywhere while Ratchet tried to figure out what he’d said.

'Don’t’ what? Humans aren't what? Or was that ‘don't’… ‘something’? And was that ‘fast’ or ‘slow’? Ugh, I wish those earpieces worked.

It was hard to understand spoken Mer language without recording equipment to pick up the full vocal range of a mer and translate it into sounds within the human range of hearing. Whatever Roddy had said, Tailgate just shrugged and rolled over lazily, waving goodbye before swimming clumsily out of the ‘dining room’ pool and into the larger social complex. Hot Rod watched her go, fins slowly easing back from their aggressive position.

“Am I going to have to keep you two separated?” Ratchet felt tired even thinking about it. Roddy had been an absolutely unholy terror all day and if he kept going like this there would be murder done before it was over.

I need a drink.

“Nah.” Roddy flicked his fins dismissively. “’Gate just forgets that what she thinks is warm water and what humans call warm are completely different.”

Riiiiiiight.” Ratchet raised an eyebrow.

“Fine, don’t believe me.” The orange-and-red mer gave Drift a gentle nudge. “Thanks for the crab. I’m sorry about the soaking. You go dry off ok? Catch you next time.”

Moving with casual grace, Hot Rod rolled himself back into the water. The instant he was submerged Drift shook himself and stood up slowly, knees cracking. He picked up the empty crate he’d been sitting on and turned towards Ratchet.

He looks a bit shell-shocked, poor kid.

“Did you bike up here?” Ratchet asked unnecessarily; he knew Drift’s only mode of transport was his bicycle.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s grab you some towels from the changing rooms and I’ll give you a lift home.” Ratchet decided, Drift was shivering hard even though it was fairly warm in the Centre. “You’ll catch your death if you try to bike home like that.”

All Drift did was nod and follow Ratchet obediently. They walked slowly through the corridors to the staff changing rooms, Drift’s shoes making squishing noises on the floor. It took five towels to render Drift car-safe but by the time he’d warmed up enough to stop shivering he became surprisingly talkative, asking Ratchet about his job and how the redhead had come to live in Crystal Cove. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the answers and not just asking for the sake of making small talk, continuing his questions throughout the ride to his flat. Ratchet managed to get some information out of Drift about his time studying. Anything before that, like school or his family and the younger man got a strange look on his face and he dodged the question. Ratchet firmly ignored the traitorous warm glow that ignited in his chest when Drift laughed at one of his dryly self-mocking anecdotes of his early career as an EMT. The younger man’s teeth flashed and he laughed so hard he could barely breathe, clutching his middle and gasping for air.

He’s too young for you and you don’t even know if he swings that way. Just don’t go there.

Something about the way air hissed between Drift’s teeth while he laughed brought to mind the Mer phrase Roddy had said to Tailgate earlier. It circled in the back of Ratchet’s thoughts, playing with sounds to fill in what he hadn’t been able to hear as he navigated the suburbs of Crystal Cove.

Drift seemed reluctant to get out of the car when Ratchet pulled up outside his falt, but that could have been because Ratchet had the car heater on high to compensate for Drift’s soaked clothing at it was cold and windy outside. He shooed Drift on ahead out of the wind while he hauled Drift’s bike from the back of the ute and wheeled it up to the house.

He seemed to hit every single red light possible on his way back to the WRC. Waiting at the 5-street intersection Ratchet was entertaining himself by whistling variations of filler sounds, trying to puzzle meaning out of Hot Rod’s angry words. A possible translation worked with what he had managed to hear but it was so bizarre he dismissed it immediately.

‘Don’t push them. You know humans court slowly?’ Nah, couldn’t have been.

Chapter Text

12

It was the need to get hair dye more than anything else that finally forced Drift to get the train into Crystal City for a long-overdue shopping trip. The stores in Crystal Cove were perfectly adequate for groceries and everyday things but the hair dye options in the supermarket were limited to standard human hair colours and Drift just wasn’t ready for that.

I haven’t changed THAT much.

A random fit of consideration had inspired him to ask Whirl if she needed him to pick up anything from the city. The list was barely legible and Drift could only assume she was trying to prank him with some of the requests.

Two dozen tennis balls and a garden gnome... Not sure I wanna know.

On top of Whirl's generous tips for helping with the yardwork Drift’d had pretty good fishing lately, although whenever that elusive candycane flicker turned up all the fish seemed to vanish and he got nothing except whatever found its way into his craypots. Drift could put one and one together and get two. By now he figured that the red-and-white flash was probably one of the hunters or scouts from the local Mer pod accidentally scaring the fish away. They showed up irregularly, and as Ultra Magnus hadn’t contacted anyone at the marina it was probably just business as usual and Drift was the one still getting used to how things went around here.

So far as he was aware there wasn’t a guidebook on human/mer friendships and Drift had spent the entire trip into the city trying to work out if it would be weird for him to get Hot Rod or Tailgate anything if he saw something they might like.

I’ve never really done this friends thing before, except with Gasket. How does it even work?

He shook his head, shoving the question and memories of Gasket aside as he concentrated on finding a weatherproof jacket in his price range at the outdoors shop Ratchet had recommended. By now Drift was forced to admit that the one he had was completely inadequate for Crystal Cove weather and the last thing he needed right now was to get the flu on top of the withdrawal symptoms that still hit him without warning.

Drift’s last stop was the bed-things section of a big department store. He took his time, eyeing up what he could afford and making idle plans for next time he had a surplus like this. This was his first proper place and his first proper bed and he wanted to get something really nice. If he was honest with himself, decent stuff to sleep on was probably the only non-work-related expense where he didn’t need to spend hours justifying spending a little extra on himself. His trolley currently held far too many pillows, a duvet several sizes too big for the bed and a not-too-hideous cover set for them.

It was sheets he wasted most of his time dithering over.

Eventually Drift forced himself to make a choice and grabbed blindly in the direction of the ones he wanted. When he checked what was in his hand he dropped the item as if it had burned him.

Hot, heavy hands grabbing arms and legs/little bitch/cloying taste of Syk on the back of his tongue/piece of ass/silk sheets sliding under his chest/face-down, someone kneeing his legs apart/Syk-high mixed with alcohol/limbs too heavy to move/slutslutslut/hurry up I want a turn

No. Not that. Never again.

Remembered pain made Drift hunch his shoulders as he made damn sure he picked up exactly what he intended to and got the hell out of there, marching straight to the checkouts. The trip back to Crystal Cove was a blur of counting his breaths to keep from hyperventilating and trying to look as normal as possible. He managed to hold himself together until he got home, closing and locking the door with exaggerated care before dropping his keys and shopping bags on the floor with a thump and clatter that seemed too loud in the quiet house. He leaned back against the door, sliding to the ground when that wasn’t enough support, staring blankly at his shaking hands and listening to his heart thunder in his ears.

I’m never going back to that. Never.

 

~V~V~V~V~V~

 

A week after the shopping trip Drift was huddled on Wander’s deck, extremely glad of his new jacket. The sky had been a solid ceiling of grey for the past three days and finally decided to open up and dump on everything underneath it. Drift squinted up through the rain, trying to see if there was any indication of the squall passing soon.

All he got was a faceful of rainwater and the impression of solid dark grey before giving up and ducking back into the cabin.

As soon as the wind had picked up Drift had lifted anchor and steered Wander into one of the deep, sheltered coves that riddled the local coastline, planning to wait out what he thought would be a short cloudburst and finish checking his craypots before heading back in. He’d read the weather report and gone out early, hoping to be back in before the worst of the bad weather hit. The cold front had obviously been moving faster than the met service anticipated because according to the last update he should have been getting rain on his way back into port, not this early in the day.

An hour and a half after taking shelter behind the cliffs forming this particular bay it was still bucketing down and despite the new jacket Drift was soaked through. The only form of shelter on Wander was the little open cockpit housing the controls. The canopy was helpful most of the time but it did next to nothing when the wind decided to play games and make it rain sideways every now and then.

By now Drift was thoroughly regretting his decision to go a little further down the coast than normal to fish. That red-and-white Mer who kept stalking him scared off all the fish he tried to catch and was starting to put a serious dent in both his earnings and ability to treat Roddy and ‘Gate.  He was starting to regret getting all those pillows as his cupboards were now down to half a sack of rice and some tinned tomatoes. He wasn’t even able to supplement that with fish since his Mer stalker was scaring everything off.

Visibility was next to nothing and he wasn’t familiar enough with this part of the coast to risk heading for home until it cleared up a bit.

An all-too-familiar flash of red-and-white off to starboard filled Drift with the sudden desire to bang his head against something. Instead he dropped his face into numb hands and groaned quietly.

Speak of the devil.

Today was so not his day.

With more daring than it had ever shown before, the wild Mer swam right up to Wander and looked curiously up at Drift with wide golden-yellow eyes. He took advantage of the chance to find out what his stalker looked like, glaring silently and hoping it got the message that it wasn’t welcome.

Up close it was beautiful in a way that would make even the selectively-bred Hot Rod envious. All rich snowy white and rich red with gleaming golden accents echoing the colour of its eyes. It had flowing fins that weren’t reinforced with venomous spines the way Roddy’s were but the easy way it maintained position in the heaving swells told Drift that this mer was just as strong –if not stronger than- the lionfish-type Drift knew.

“Go away.” Drift shouted over the sound of rain pounding at Wander’s canopy. “I don’t care if you can understand me or not, just piss off. Ultra Magnus will have a fucking fit if he catches you here.”

The wild mer blinked and chirruped something in Mer, delicate fins twitching the same way Hot Rod’s did when he was curious or confused by something.

“Go. AWAY.” Drift shouted, making shooing motions.

Red-and-white chatter-chirped too far too fast for Drift to pick words out of the stream of sound, floating closer to Wander.

“Ugh, whatever.”

Drift tucked his frozen hands into his armpits and turned his back on red-and-white, hoping that if he just ignored it long enough the stupid thing would leave. He did NOT want to risk pissing off Ultra Magnus, even by accident. The local pod’s Speaker was pretty calm but if the stories at the marina were true he had one hell of a mean streak.

There were vague splashes which Drift stoically ignored, watching rain run across Wander’s deck as it tilted in the swell.

More chirruping and some whistles. Louder and coming from portside this time.

The ship tilted sharply to port and Drift looked up to see the Mer’s hands gripping the rail, casually dangling by its arms and apparently completely oblivious to the pouring rain. If Roddy’s fin-language was anything to go by Drift thought the wild Mer was giving him a very smug look.

“You’re fucking crazy.” Drift said flatly, shivering uncontrollably as water ran down the back of his neck.

Delicate red fins waved and the Mer trilled something that ended with a question sound, glancing at the mouth of the bay and shifting its grip on Wander’s rail. Red-and-white’s fins flattened and twitched with something Drift knew was worry.

“I don’t fucking know!” Drift replied angrily. “It looks like I’ll be trapped here for a while, ok?! Just sod off and don’t get in trouble with Ultra Magnus. Geeze.”

The wild Mer chirred something soothing that made Drift want to punch it. Then it let go of the rail and dropped back into the water, vanishing from sight. There was a brief flash of red-and-white several meters to stern as the Mer porpoised, heading swiftly out of the sheltered bay and back into the open sea.

“Good. Piss off and stay out of trouble.” Drift grumbled, huddling closer to Wander’s controls as the wind shifted to blast another shower of rain into the cabin. “And quit stalking me, you freak.”

Chapter Text

13

Wing pushed himself, speeding out into the open sea and diving down to where the currents would help him get where he wanted to go. Even with little as he knew of the land-walkers even Wing knew it was dangerous for one to be that sickly-pale; especially this human, with his usually golden-brown hide bleached out from cold and those unique markings completely hidden under those bulky coloured shapes.

I didn’t know their lips could turn blue. I don’t care what Ultra Magnus is going to say, he needs to get back to land.

When Magnus had told the Pod scouts that the yellow-hulled ship had changed hands Wing had been wary, monitoring the familiar shape whenever it neared their waters to make absolutely sure the landwalker wasn’t just borrowing it or something. It had happened before. Wing trusted their Speaker to be an honest intermediary between the Crystal Caves Pod and nearby human settlements but the humans weren’t always honest with the mer and their Speakers.

Even after verifying that the ship had indeed changed hands permanently, Wing found he couldn’t stay away. Once his initial curiosity and caution had been satisfied they were replaced by a continuing fascination that confused the mer. It had become a habit to check on the yellow ship and the strange newcomer, this person who Magnus called ‘Goes-With-The-Currents’ with head-stuff that was almost mer-like in colouring and the strange hide patterns that Wing itched to examine at close range. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t seem to go for more than a few days without making sure that the strangely colourful air-breather was still around.

He wondered if it was that strange dancing that kept him coming back, even though something inside him insisted there was more.

One day he’d been hunting further out than usual and seen the familiar yellow hull in the distance, sitting at rest in the choppy waves. The instant he’d identified the shape Wing had headed towards it, planning to check on the occupant and then go back to chasing a school of barracuda.

What he saw blew his intentions right out of his head.

Goes-With-The-Currents had been dancing on the deck, his movements utterly unlike anything Wing had ever seen before.

Mesmerised by the dance he’d been far less careful than he should have been, head and shoulders above the waves, watching the strange flowing and darting dance of the two-legger as he moved about the cramped space. The motions were aggressive and confident, the serene expression transforming that odd fin-less face into a thing of beauty. The memories stirred a nameless something deep within Wing and he remembered again the surge in his gut, the flare of fins that had given him away as that first dance broke off and Wing had gone deep, almost as deep as he was now, fleeing from the colourful human and his dancing and the strange things it did to him.

Even after that near-disaster Wing still hadn’t been able to stay away.

He kept going back, even though he couldn’t figure out why. Even though he knew Ultra Magnus and the pod leader suspected something, knew they would be watching him in case he did something dangerous. His reputation didn’t exactly help, either.

But not many newcomers stuck around and he needed to make sure Currents was alright, that he hadn’t sold the yellow-hulled ship and moved on. Deeper down, hidden underneath that surface anxiety was the desire to see that strange dance again. Next time Wing wouldn’t mess up, wouldn’t flare and give himself away and he’d get to see the whole thing.

But it hadn’t happened and now he knew he might be sacrificing any chance of seeing it again.

That doesn’t matter.

Luckily for Wing the tide was heading the right way for the deep currents to be at their strongest, helping him make excellent time. He rode them effortlessly, thrilling at the way the seafloor blurred beneath him.

As was usual for this time of day the pod was resting near the underwater caverns from which they derived their name. Wing found Ultra Magnus with little difficulty, the large tricolour mer standing out even in the dim light. He was running some of the youngsters through a net-escape drill with a ‘fishing net’ made of loosely-woven strands of kelp. The pretend net was tough but still easy enough to cut through with claws if anyone panicked at being tangled up in it for too long. As soon as he had Magnus’ attention Wing slowed his approach, using his hands to signing a silent message to the larger mer. Ultra Magnus nodded his acknowledgement and continued to work with the young mer currently wrapped loosely in the kelp ‘net’.

Wing hung back from the group, hoping it wasn’t obvious that he’d just been swimming hard and fast for a fairly long time. It was hard to pretend that his heart wasn’t trying to beat its way out of his ribcage but it wouldn’t do to look too anxious. He checked his crystal dagger at his waist to make sure it was sitting properly and forced himself to respire slowly while he waited, thinking over how he would present the situation to the Speaker.

The youngster eventually escaped the net with a flourish and his success was a greeted by a chorus of celebratory clicking that Wing joined. When it died down Magnus called a brief recess and Wing approached carefully through the swirling school of young mer darting in the opposite direction. His young cousin streaked past, squealing with excitement. The tiny mer was only just old enough for this lesson and Wing knew he’d hear everything in excruciating detail if the smelt was still awake when his patrol ended.

Ultra Magnus listened to his explanation carefully, seeming to believe Wing when he said he’d been chasing a snack and seen a local ship moored in a bay. Since the nearby humans didn’t usually frequent that particular place he’d gone just close enough to see that the person on board seemed to be in some weather-related distress before coming to get Magnus to find out for sure.

He couldn’t smother his sigh of relief when the rest of the afternoon’s lesson was cancelled and Magnus told him to lead the way to the yellow-hulled ship. He set a more sedate pace going in the opposite direction, hoping that humans weren’t actually as fragile as they seemed to be. He really didn’t want Goes-With-The-Currents to get so sick he never came out to dance on his boat again.

Maybe I’ll get to find out his real name.

Chapter Text

14

By the time Drift had radioed the Crystal Port authorities and gotten a weather update he was seriously considering trying to pull his wetsuit on under his sodden clothing for a bit of extra heat retention. He hadn’t seen his candycane-coloured stalker for a while so he figured the wild mer had listened to him and cleared off back to doing whatever it was supposed to be doing instead of following him around.

Port Authority hadn’t been much help. Visibility was so bad that they couldn’t even send someone out to guide Wander in. They’d been very apologetic but said Drift just had to wait it out even though their met screens said the area was in for at least another four hours of horizontal rain.

I’m going to be a fucking iceblock in four hours.

Drift’s hands and feet had been numb for a while and he kept checking his nose since it felt like it was no longer part of his face. He was bouncing on his toes trying to keep warm when there was a flash of colour in the water and an urgent, all-to-familiar warble caught Drift’s attention. Frustrated, he shuffled to the rail and glared at the distinctive shape of his mer stalker bobbing in the water a few meters from Wander’s faded yellowhull.

“What are you doing back here?” Drift shouted, tucking his hands into his armpits. “I thought I told you to get lost!”

The red-and-white mer blinked his large golden eyes up at Drift. Those delicate fins were flattened right down to his head and body, making him look very small. Drift could read that expression easily. The mer was obviously unhappy about something and Drift felt a knot of guilt forming just below his sternum. He was opening his mouth to say something -an apology or an excuse, he didn’t know which- when a familiar mer-accented voice came from the other side of the boat.

“Drift?”

… That’s Ultra Magnus.

“Shit.” Drift swore viciously and stomped across the deck.

Ultra Magnus floated calmly on his back, his large body shrugging off the battering of the choppy water with much more ease than the smaller mer on the other side of the boat. Drift had to hold onto the railing when a sudden gust of wind threatened to push him over. The huge red, blue and white mer gave Drift a stern look, sending the human’s stomach down into his shoes.

Oh shit, what have I done now?

“Ultra Magnus.” Drift tightened his grip on the railing as Wander lurched under him, “Um, sorry if I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not trying to catch anything, honest. I messed up reading the weather report and this was the closest place to shelter. I’m going to leave as soon as visibility improves.”

The huge cetacean-type mer listened to his explanation without blinking. Ultra Magnus didn’t have the decorative fins that Hot Rod did; he was built more like Tailgate on a larger scale so Drift had to rely on facial expressions to try to gauge the big mer’s reaction to his babbling. Magnus just hung there in the water, using his arms and pelvic fins to keep himself in place beside Wander while he waited for Drift to finish.

“You are allowed to be here, Drift. One of our hunters noticed your ship out here, since humans don’t usually stop this far down the coast and the weather is bad he came to get me to see if you were in need of assistance.” Ultra Magnus’ deep voice carried easily over the sound of wind and the waves slapping at the hull of Wander. “The visibility is very poor and you appear to be suffering cold distress. Would you like us to guide you back to the marina?”

Red-and-white floated slowly into sight around the stern, keeping a healthy distance from both the Crystal Caves Speaker and Wander itself. Drift blinked rainwater out of his eyes, ignoring the smaller mer and trying to figure out if he actually had just heard what he thought he’d heard. He knew the Crystal Caves mer sometimes did help people back to the marina but it was so weird to have these strange, wild beings offer to help someone like him. If things had gone a little differently he could have been out here under orders from Turmoil to hurt the Crystal Caves pod.

Ultra Magnus knows what I was, though. I told him. He said it’s what I am now that matters.

“You guys would do that? Help me get back to port?” Drift’s teeth were chattering so hard it was difficult to get the words out properly.

The big mer nodded. He seemed amused at the way Drift sounded when trying to talk with his teeth clashing together but it was kinda hard to tell. He could just as easily be bored half to death or annoyed that Drift felt he had to ask.

“Yes. Your actions so far have proved you have the potential to be a great asset to both the humans and mer of this area.” Ultra Magnus’ tone was completely matter-of-fact but his words surprised Drift so much he actually stopped shivering for a few seconds. “It would be a waste to see that asset freeze to death because of bad weather.”

“I… wow. Thank you, Sir.”

As soon as he’d said it Drift wanted to kick himself for calling the mer ‘sir’. He’d already been told he didn’t need to but it just slipped out anyway. Some people –and some mer aparrently- were so imposing you just did that kind of thing when talking to them. Ultra Magnus ignored the slip, probably letting it slide because Drift’s red-amd-white stalker was hanging around and he wanted to make a point about good behaviour or something.

Does he know that little frilly guy has been stalking me?

“Wing’s colours will make him more visible than myself once we leave this cove. Because of this I will lead you out of here then go on ahead to ensure that we aren’t accidentally leading you into danger. If you keep your speed to… around 5 knots we shall be able to guide you more easily.” Ultra Magnus obviously had to do some rough guesstimating in his head for what speed he wanted Drift to sail at but Drift didn’t care how fast or slow they went, it was still better than hanging around here until he turned into an ice statue.

“I understand.” Drift tried to keep his chattering teeth from mangling the words too badly. “I’ll get Wander started. You guys might want to back up a bit; I don’t want to accidentally catch you with the props or anything.”

The tricoloured mer actually smiled, baring sharp rounded teeth that were exactly like Tailgate’s, but far bigger. He said something in Mer to Drift’s stalker and the smaller mer dove, vanishing into the murky rain-stippled water.

“Don’t worry about us, we know to keep clear. Once we are out in the open water please remember to sight on Wing and follow him. He can be flighty but I will be keeping in visual contact with him so you won’t need to worry, Drift.” Ultra Magnus’ absolute confidence was reassuring. It sounded like he’d done this plenty of times and he obviously knew the strengths and weaknesses of his pod well.

Drift was about to turn and start following instructions when something finally clicked into place in his cold-slowed mind.

“Wait, that other guy, his name is Wing?” Drift asked, confused as hell.

That’s a seriously weird name for someone who lives in water.

“That is his most commonly used short-name, yes.” Ultra Magnus’s expression was even more unreadable than normal. “A better translation of his proper name would be ‘moves as if one-who-is-winged’.”

“It’s like a nickname, then. Ok. Right.” Drift nodded and went to raise anchor as Ultra Magnus dove.

I wonder what they call me?

The trip back to the marina was agonisingly slow. To Drift it felt like several small eternities of bone-aching cold, uncontrollable shivering and a white-knuckled grip on the wheel as he squinted through the rain at the flickering red-and-white shape of the mer called Wing as they trailed along the coast. He could only assume Ultra Magnus was somewhere ahead because the big mer was completely invisible in the driving rain. It was deeply embarrassing that the pod’s speaker had to remind Drift to radio his plans into the port authority before they left the shelter of the cove for the heaving sea. He should have remembered to do that without outside prodding.

I think my brain is frozen.

When they reached the marina buoys Ultra Magnus and Wing surfaced and waited, watching Drift navigate his way to Wander’s assigned mooring. Drift figured they were probably making sure he tied Wander up and staggered off the boat onto the wharf instead of passing out over the tiller or accidentally pitching himself into the water. Gratitude wormed it’s way past the aching cold and he could feel his face stretching into a smile every time he caught a glimpse of the mer. The planks of the wharf seemed to heave under Drift’s feet when he disembarked and he moved very carefully, waving goodbye to the mer who took that as their cue to leave and vanished.

Walking without looking drunk was an effort and when Drift reached his bike it took him far more tries than he wanted to count to unlock the chain holding it to the fence. Cycling home did warm him up a little but it drained what little energy he had left. It was nearly dark by the time Drift made it home, the gentle slope of the hill almost too much for him in his current state. Standing up long enough to get the front door open was nearly impossible but he managed it. Just.

He left his bike in the hallway as usual, not caring that it blocked the door as he staggered down to the tiny laundry room at the end of the hallway, supporting himself on the wall with one hand and throwing his phone and keys at his bed as he passed the bedroom. Drift gave up on standing and sat on the floor to strip off his cold, wet clothes, throwing them in the general direction of the washing machine. Most of them ended up on the floor with him but he didn’t care. He could sort that out later, after he was warm and dry.

It was a slow crawl back down the hall to the hot water cupboard to get towels but it was worth the slog to have instant fluffy warmth. Drift was too tired to do more than get the worst of the dampness off before abandoning the damp towels where they were, wrapping himself in more from the cupboard and staggering off to bed.

Chapter Text

15

Drift was too hot and his phone was beeping.

With his eyes shut Drift rolled onto his stomach and crawled to the source of the noise, poking at the blasted thing until it shut up. He took it with him on his way back to the warm spot he’d made and sprawled across the blankets, wondering muzzily how he could hurt so much after barely doing anything yesterday. It was similar to the ache of pushing himself through withdrawal muscle-weakness but he felt heavier and his head was foggy. He was just trying to figure out if coffee or a shower would be better for waking up properly when his phone started ringing rudely.

Without bothering to open his eyes to check who was calling Drift hit the answer button and hauled the phone up to his face. Instead of asking who the hell was ringing him this early in the day Drift burst into a spectacular coughing fit that felt like both his lungs were fighting over who got to leap out of his mouth first. Familiar yelling coming from the tiny phone speaker prompted him to switch the call to speaker mode while he tried to get the coughing fit under control.

Ratchet’s voice emerged from his phone in a full-volume yell the man usually reserved for Hot Rod.

“DRIFT, WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON OVER THERE? IF YOU DON’T ANSWER I’M LETTING RODDY PUT THOSE PHOTOS ONLINE.”

It was a credible threat and something Drift did NOT want to happen.

If those photos made their way onto the WRC website he’d never, ever hear the end of it from anyone with an internet connection. He shuddered to think about the good-natured hassling he’d get from everyone at the marina and fish market once word got around.

Oh fuck. Whirl.

Forget everyone at the marina, the battered veteran who somehow managed to fly a helicopter with one eye and no depth perception and do so legally could never know those photos existed. It didn’t matter that Tailgate had apologised for the incident and Hot Rod had crossed his heart and hoped to die after taking the pictures, Ratchet had made no such promises and would do as he threatened.

Mild panic helped Drift get control of his lungs just long enough to gasp in some air and try to talk despite the way his head was spinning.

“H-here.” He croaked, “Think ‘m sick.”

The sudden silence from Ratchet’s end of the line made the sound of Drift coughing up a lump of phlegm sound even more gross than it usually would have. He groped around for a tissue or something to use to get rid of the problem, wondering why Ratchet had gone so quiet.

“Drift, are you saying you’re high on Syk or that you’re unwell.” The voice coming from the phone was dangerously calm.

“N-no, not.” Another fit of coughing overtook him and he wanted to punch something with frustration. Why had he told Ratchet he used to do Syk? When the coughing fit finally passed he managed to rasp out “Not well.”

“I see.” Ratchet’s tone was guarded but he seemed to believe Drift. “Hot Rod and ‘Gate said you were going out to check your traps yesterday and wanted me to make sure you were alright. It’s still raining; do you want a lift to the doctor? That cough didn’t sound good.”

Drift thought about it. Every breath felt like knives in his throat and it was too damn hot even though he was only wearing one of the towels from last night. He’d felt much, much worse in his life and still managed to survive without medical treatment. As a test Drift tried to sit up properly. Shoving himself upright was difficult but he managed it eventually, groaning at the effort it took.

“Thanks for the offer Ratchet but it’s probably just a cold. I’ll give it a day or two and see how I feel.”

He really wished his voice hadn’t decided to start dying halfway through that. By the time he finished speaking he could almost hear Ratchet’s raised eyebrow. There were loud splashing noises and Drift could hear the muffled voices of the two resident mer saying something he couldn’t quite make out. Ratchet sighed, the sound of someone feeling very put-upon.

“Tailgate has just informed me that I have to check on you when I do the post office run. That’s in a couple of-” Ratchet was interrupted by Roddy who was yelling almost loud enough for Drift to hear. The other man muttered ‘why me’ and Drift tried not to laugh at his expense. Laughing would just make him cough again. “Roddy says ‘pics or it didn’t happen’. Sometimes I don’t know why we keep him around.”

Hot Rod’s indignant yelling was loud enough to understand and Drift lost the battle against the urge to laugh. Ratchet said his farewells and they ended the call just before the laughter turned into a coughing fit that left Drift gasping for air and tears rolling down his face. Realising that Ratchet would be coming over and that he was still naked except for some towels gave Drift a brief spurt of energy that got him half way to clean clothes before he had to sit down and catch his breath.

This fucking sucks.

He got dressed while sitting down and used the wall for support to make it to the kitchen. Filling the kettle was an exercise in endurance and Drift slid down to sit on the floor while he waited for it to boil. Somehow he managed to fall asleep again while sitting on the kitchen floor, the horrible whistling noise and loud cut-off click of the old-fashioned thing somehow not waking him.

Loud knocking at the front door finally dragged Drift out of hazy dreams and to limbs that felt ten times heavier than normal and ached more than they had since the height of Syk withdrawals. It took so long to get to his feet that a dim sense of worry started to penetrate the fog filling his mind. The knocking came again as he wobbled down the hallway, using the wall to stay upright since his legs seemed to think they were made of playdough and water. A familiar silhouette with a fuzz of red at the top seen through the pane of bubbled glass in the top of the door overrode his normal caution and Drift shoved the door open just as Ratchet was raising his hand to knock a third time.

Drift opened his mouth to say hello and burst into a massive fit of coughing.

It felt like his body was trying to forcibly eject his liver and everything between it and his teeth at the same time. He bent over as the sheer violence of the spasms made his head spin, his eyes watering again and turning Ratchet’s jersey into a splodge of shapeless dark green. The redhead was saying something but Drift couldn’t concentrate, trying desperately to get some air into his aching lungs as he staggered sideways. Solid arms caught him and something lovely and cold pressed to his forehead for a moment before it was snatched away again.

The coughing fit ended with another disgusting lump of phlegm that Drift spat into a tissue someone was holding in front of his face. The tissue vanished and he focused on trying to breathe, taking the deepest breaths he could without triggering another coughing fit. His face was wet and his heart felt like it was trying to thump its way out of his ribcage.

A strong hand closed on his wrist and Drift jerked away from it, accidentally pushing himself into the person holding him. Suddenly realising that he was being restrained he started to panic, trying to escape the body pressed against his side and the arms wrapped around him even though his muscles felt like water and there was no chance of winning a fight. He shoved an elbow back and staggered more than lunged forwards, trying to get away.

“Bloody hell Drift, calm down!” Ratchet’s familiar voice growled as Drift tripped over his own feet and almost faceplanted right into the doorframe.

Ratchet caught Drift’s elbow and lowered him gently to a sitting position on the front porch. He coughed again but didn’t bring anything up, looking up at Ratchet through watering eyes.

“Forgot it was you. ‘M sorry.” Drift mumbled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I’m not surprised. Your forehead is so hot you could cook an egg on it.”

That’s his ‘you did something fucking silly and I’m worried’ voice.

“I’m taking you to A ’n E.” The older man declared, “Between your temperature, that cough and your obvious disorientation you should have been there this morning.”

“I’m not disoriented.” Drift protested. Or tried to. A funny feeling in his chest warned of another coughing fit and he tried to breathe through his nose to avoid it.

“Bullshit.” Ratchet said succinctly. “Tell me where your house keys are and I’ll go get them. You sit your ass there and try not to pass out. If I find you one inch from that spot I’m designating Tailgate your official nurse until your lungs are clear.”

Feeling especially stubborn in the face of Ratchet’s overprotectiveness Drift refused to give the location of his keys, telling him instead in very small words exactly what he thought of the other man’s threats and assessment of his condition. His protests were then summarily ignored as Ratchet hauled him up off the faded wooden decking and helped Drift back inside. Drift didn’t go willingly, dragging his feet as much as he could and protesting the need for a trip to the emergency department.

Once they were back inside Ratchet left Drift on the couch while he went on a hunt through every single logical place one would keep their keys and several that weren’t so logical. He kept up a running commentary on the stupidity of young people who thought themselves immortal that was more than loud enough for Drift to hear.

Drift tried to intervene but his attempt to stand ended up with him bruising his knees on the floor. Attempts to yell at the determined redhead ended in a coughing fit that lasted until well after Ratchet came back not only with Drift’s keys but a pair of shoes and the heaviest jacket Drift owned.

Holding on to the last of his dignity with teeth and nails Drift insisted on putting his jacket and shoes on himself while Ratchet watched with folded arms and a raised eyebrow. He fell asleep in the passenger seat on the way to the hospital, coughing fit to explode when Ratchet shook him awake in the carpark.

The waiting room and eventual doctor questions passed in a haze of unreality and awkward probes into his medical history. Drift knew his temperature was probably rising again but he didn’t have the energy left to care. It was well after dark by the time Drift got home, Ratchet helping him stagger up the front path and forcing the first round of medicine down his throat despite Drift’s increasingly bizarre attempts to argue the need for so much fussing.

There was a glass of water with something nice-tasting in it, a soft surface under him and then the world went fuzzy and tipped sideways into black.

Chapter Text

16

 

Getting Drift from the house to the car was a lesson in persistence in the face of unreasoning stubbornness.

Forcing the younger man to drink something so he could take his first dose of medicine was only accomplished by raiding Drift’s rather sparse kitchen cupboards for something to sweeten the water. All the persuasive skills from his previous job and honed by years of dealing with Hot Rod were tested as they hadn’t been in years and he came very close to completely running out of patience with the stroppy brat Drift became when he was unwell.

Getting tablets down Drift’s throat felt like it took a minor miracle and Ratchet definitely wasn’t look forward to the next round.

Or the one after that.

Ratchet watched Drift pass out the instant his head hit his pillow and sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. Drift was obviously in no state to be left by himself. He couldn’t stay upright without holding onto something, let alone walk under his own power; passing out like this just confirmed it. He didn’t if there was anyone else besides Whirl who knew Drift well enough to come check on him. Somehow Ratchet had a feeling that the ex-Pilot was probably the last person Drift would trust to roam his house unsupervised while he was sleeping.

Someone’s gonna have to keep an eye on him and it’ll have to be me.

Resigning himself to playing caretaker again Ratchet made sure Drift’s shoes were off and he was properly covered by the duvet before grabbing the pile of damp towels that had been on the bed and leaving the room as quietly as he could. The bed coverings themselves were dry, for which Ratchet was extremely grateful. Drift hadn’t been willing to tell him where his house keys were so it would probably take actual torture to make him give up the location of his spare blankets.

I’m not surprised he’s sick if he slept in that lot after going out in the weather we had yesterday.

Ratchet left the bedroom door open so he could hear if Drift woke up, threw the pile of towels down the hall towards the small laundry room he’d discovered during his earlier rampage and went out to the front porch to make a few phone calls. It would probably be a day or two before the kid was on his feet again and he wasn’t giving the stubborn punk a chance to pretend he didn’t need any help. At least, not until he could walk under his own power. When Drift could make it to the toilet without needing the wall to keep him upright Ratchet would believe his claims of invulnerability.

Gonna have to call in a few favours.

One of the people who owed him happened to be working reception duty. Apparently Moonracer was quite happy to cover the next few days for Ratchet, so long as he didn’t come back to infect everyone with whatever Drift had. Once that was settled he spent a while convincing Moonracer to take the WRC’s handheld phone to Roddy so he could tell the Mer what was going on. He was in the middle of reassuring Roddy and trying to convince the agitated Mer that everything was fine when Drift started yelling. It was muffled but still loud enough to be audible on the other end of the line, startling Hot Rod. Ratchet fought the urge to grind his teeth as he caught what was clearly the sound of an almost-drowned phone.

I have to get him his own bloody cellphone or something so I don’t have to replace the Centre phone more than once.

“What was that?” Roddy sounded suspicious and Ratchet could picture the way his fins would be flaring out at half-mast as his eyes narrowed.

“It sounds like Drift; I’ll go check on him. You give ‘Racer the phone back.” Ratchet was anxious to end the call; the way Drift was shouting now sounded like he was being attacked. “I’ll check in with front desk in the morning and leave a message for you guys, alright?”

“Yeah, ok.”

“Behave yourself!” Ratchet shouted as Roddy hung up on him.

Ratchet stuffed his phone away, cursing the people who’d bred Hot Rod as he dashed back inside and slid to a stop in the hallway outside Drift’s room.

The younger man was thrashing, tangled in his blankets and shouting unintelligibly, caught in the grip of some fever-born nightmare that looked like it was a match for some of the ones that had kept Hot Rod from sleeping during his early days at the WRC. Given that Drift had no fangs, claws or venomous spines Ratchet was confident of his ability to handle the situation, crossing the room in three long strides and grabbing Drift’s upper arm, shaking him gently.

“Drift? Wake up, kid. You’re dreaming.” He tried to pitch his voice loud enough to be heard over the garbled sounds Drift was making.

He expected Drift to wake up badly, maybe trying to hit him in place of whatever enemies the fever-dreams were making him see. He was ready to deflect a punch or slap, not really worried as Drift didn’t have the sharp claws or venomous spines that made Hot Rod so dangerous to approach. The last thing Ratchet expected to happen was for Drift to explode up out of the tangle of blankets with a knife in his hand, blade aimed for Ratchet’s stomach.

Time seemed to slow, seconds stretching to impossible lengths. Ratchet felt like he had all the time in the world to take in the way the hall light gleamed on sharp steel and how the mask of pure fear on Drift’s face slowly melted into pure horror as he realised what was going on.

Years of working with Mer had sharpened Ratchet’s reflexes to the point that he was letting go of Drift’s arm and throwing himself away from the strike the instant his brain recognised the attack. The slight delay caused by his brain recognising a weapon meant he wasn’t fast enough to save himself entirely. Drift’s knife slid across his front, slicing easily through the thick material of his jersey and the layer of clothing beneath it. Adrenaline surged through his veins and Ratchet’s mouth went dry, heart trying to pound its way out of his chest in reaction to the unexpected attack.

Drift dropped the knife as if it had burned him, looking up at Ratchet with pure horror on his sickly-pale face.

“Ratchet! I’m so sorry, I didn’t- I forgot you were here and, shit did I cut you? Oh fuck, I’m so sorry. Please say I didn’t cut you.”

Before Ratchet could get enough air back in his lungs to say that he was fine Drift was in front of him, hauling up Ratchet’s jersey and the layers he wore underneath to expose a pale expanse of undamaged skin.

Fucking hell!

“Drift, I’m fine. You didn’t get me.” Ratchet managed to force out despite the tightness in his chest as clammy hands patted at his belly. “I’m fine, now cut that out!”

He grabbed Drift’s wrists and pulled the younger man’s hands away from his stomach. Drift was shaking hard, mumbling ‘oh fuck’ repeatedly to his knees so Ratchet did the only thing he could think of. He sat on the bed beside Drift and hugged the younger man the same way he did with Roddy when the Mer had one of his now-infrequent panic attacks.

“It’s alright, Drift. You didn’t cut me.” Ratchet kept his voice low and soothing, hoping that the same things that had worked on Roddy would work with Drift. “The only casualty is a jersey and ‘Gate will be happy to know this one is dead. She’s been threatening to murder it for months now. Come on kid, take deep breaths.” As he talked Drift out of his panic Ratchet felt his own heartrate slow to something near normal from the terrified rabbit-fast thumping it had been doing since he’d seen the first bright flash of steel. “Yeah, you got it. In and out, just like that.”

His little joke about the jersey startled a rather choked-sounding laugh out of Drift as he gasped for air. That triggered a coughing fit which ended with more phlegm, much to Drift’s obvious disgust. Eventually the shaking tapered off and Ratchet pressed the inside of his wrist to Drift’s forehead to get a rough idea of his temperature before letting the younger man sit up on his own. Drift shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, Ratchet looked away instead of acknowledging the suspicious shine on the younger man’s cheeks, wondering what to do with his arms now Drift didn’t need the support.

“Why’re you still here?” Drift still sounded confused even though his voice was rough enough that it could be used for sandpaper. “Thought you would have just put me to bed and gone home.”

“ER Nurse said you needed someone to keep an eye on you and since I started out as a Paramedic I happen to agree with their assessment.” Ratchet explained. “I’ve got a lot of holiday time owed and Moonracer is going to cover me so there’s nothing to worry about. Also, Roddy and ‘Gate said I’m not allowed to set foot in the WRC again until you’re walking under your own power. So the instant you’re able to walk without holding onto the wall you’re going to be my shield against the Mer Inquisition.”

Drift groaned and dragged the duvet up around his shoulders, hunching into ti as if it could protect him from the promised interrogation.

“So long as being the one to destroy your jersey makes ‘Gate go easy on me I think I can handle being your human shield.” Drift said, then he made a face. “I’ll replace it, I promise. Tell me your size and next time I go into the city I can get you a new one. Just… does it have to be ugly?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ratchet asked suspiciously.

Drift wouldn’t meet his eyes, apparently there was something very interesting on the ceiling but Ratchet didn’t care about that right now.

At least he’s calmed down.

“Your jerseys, they’re all…” Drift hunted for the right word and eventually gave up with a shrug. “You know, not very pretty.”

“They’re warm, that’s all I care about.” Ratchet said brusquely, checking the time and pushing himself to his feet. He started walking as he spoke. “Now there’s one less for Tailgate to complain about and I know to be careful when trying to wake you up.”

He was at the bedroom door when he head Drift mumble behind him.

“’m sorry.”

Ratchet felt a surge of guilt and stopped in the doorway, sighing quietly.

The kid’s sick and just had one hell of a nightmare. There’s no need for you to go and bite his head off, you grumpy old bastard.

“Just go back to sleep, Drift. It’s getting late and you need the rest.”

“But where’re you gonna sleep?” Drift sounded bewildered and Ratchet could hear blankets rustling as he shifted.

“I’ve slept on less comfortable things than your couch, kid.” Ratchet hoped he didn’t sound as amused as he felt. How soft did Drift think he was? He flicked the hallway light off. “Goodnight.”

He didn’t hang around to hear if Drift replied. It had been a long day and that couch looked infinitely more comfortable than the last place he’d slept while playing nurse to some stubborn young idiot. Ratchet pulled his ruined jersey off and bundled it up to use as a pillow, folding himself onto the available surface of the couch and settling down to sleep.

Looks like Drift and Roddy have more in common than I thought.

Chapter Text

17

Drift didn’t want to wake up but his body forced him to consciousness anyway.

He hurt all over and felt even weaker than he could remember being yesterday. Just trying to sit up brought on a coughing fit so bad it felt like his lungs were trying to crawl up his throat and escape through his mouth – and succeeding. By the time it passed was done Drift was wheezing pathetically, eyes watering so badly he could feel tears running down his cheeks.

This sucks. This really, really sucks.

Eventually he got enough air back into his lungs to focus on other things.

That was when Drift notices that there was something in his ear.

He tried to shove it away but couldn’t get his arm to reach high enough. When he tried to lean away from it instead a strong hand closed on his shoulder, holding him in place.

“One second, kid. Gotta check your temperature.”

Ratchet? He’s still here?

“Don’t you have to stick something in my mouth for that?” Drift asked groggily, trying to work out what was going on.

Ratchet made a choking sound.

Drift was extremely confused. His brain wasn’t working anywhere near as well as it usually did. He was sure he was missing something extremely obvious. Then it hit him and he flushed with embarrassment.

I hate being sick.

“Working with Mer put you off using oral thermometers.” Ratchet’s voice was very dry and still sounded a little strangled. “It’s the teeth. Ear ones are more-or-less the same for both species and far less likely to get you bitten.”

“More likely to get you punched if you shove it in my ear again without a warning.” Drift muttered.

Ratchet ignored him, holding Drift’s head still and putting the thermometer in his ear again. Drift sulked until the horrible thing beeped and Ratchet pulled it out to check the display.

“Still high but not high enough to take you back to the hospital.” The redhead declared. He pushed a mug of water and some tablets into Drift’s hands when he tried to shove the older man away again. “Here, take your meds and go back to sleep. I’m going to go get something that’s more closely related to actual food than what you’ve got in your kitchen.”

Drift ignored the water and medicine in favour of glaring.

“What’s wrong with rice?” He demanded. “It’s filling.”

It was almost funny the way Ratchet gaped at him then visibly fought the urge to smack him upside the ear.

“Take. Your. Damn. Medicine.” Ratchet growled, enunciating each word slowly and clearly.

“Or what?” Drift asked belligerently.

He was getting really tired of this. Ratchet was acting almost as bad as Gasket used to, before Drift got picked up by Turmoil. Fussing at him over stupid things like taking his medicine and cleaning his equipment and what Drift chose to eat when he could afford food. At least Gasket hadn’t shoved things in Drift’s ears.

He’s worse than Gasket.

A glare worthy of Officer Atlas rolled across Ratchet’s face. He looked completely fed up and Drift felt momentarily triumphant.

“Or this.”

Before Drift could do more than blink Ratchet snatched the meds and stuffed the tablets into Drift’s open mouth. He was too confused and fogged by whatever illness was infecting him to figure out what was going on, frowning up at Ratchet as he shifted the pills around his mouth, getting ready to spit them out. Everything was moving just a little too fast for him to keep up with successfully in his fuzzy state.

Next thing Drift knew the mug was pressed to his lips and tipped up so he had to open his mouth or get spilled on. Then Ratchet flicked him in the forehead and Drift blinked and swallowed in automatic reaction to the surprise.

Then his brain caught up with reality Drift realised how neatly he’d been tricked.

He scowled up at the redhead, hands turning into fists they both knew he wouldn’t have the strength to use.

“There.” Ratchet looked and sounded insufferably smug. “That’ll only work once, so next time I’ll hold you down and pinch your nose. Got it?”

Drift wasn’t going to dignify that with an answer. He growled something rude that sounded impressively snarly with his wrecked throat and pushed the blankets back, trying to crawl out of bed.

Ratchet stopped him with disgusting ease.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“’M gettin’ up.” Drift mumbled.

“No you’re not.” Ratchet shoved him flat on the bed with one hand and hauled the duvet back up to Drift’s chin.

Drift pushed himself back up and they repeated the process.

“Lie down!” Ratchet snapped. “I’m starving and I’m not about to go get something edible with you staggering around like a week-dead corpse!”

“I need to take a piss, alright?” Drift could feel himself blushing again, the extra blood flowing to his fever-flushed face making his head feel like it was about to burst into flames.

At least Ratchet stopped trying to force him back into bed, actually helping Drift stand up. His legs were wobblier than they had been the previous day and threatened to give out underneath him. Ratchet slid an arm around Drift’s waist to help him stay upright, the way Ratchet silently encouraged Drift to lean most of his weight on him did absolutely nothing to help the younger man’s blush fade. Drift wasn’t sure if his constant blushing was from the strong body supporting his or the utter humiliation of the situation.

Can’t even fucking stand up by myself. I hate being sick.

By the time he’d done what he needed to and stuck his head under the bathroom tap Drift felt a little more clear-headed. Ratchet had taken off the slashed jersey, making it easier for Drift to feel the strength of the older man’s muscles as he tried to steer Drift back to bed.

No.

“Can you leave me on the couch instead?” Drift’s mouth asked the question before he gave it permission to. “Don’t wanna lie in bed all day.”

It was the closest Drift could get to admitting that physical weakness and giving in to it was the next best thing to being dead on the streets. If you looked like easy prey then someone would try take you down. If you showed any weakness you could guarantee that it would be used against you. The last time Drift had been this badly off he’d ended up at the bottom of the D-Con pecking order and it had taken years of struggle and luck to work his way up to where he was one of the predators instead of the prey.

Drift swore he could feel Ratchet looking at him. He didn’t want to know what kind of pathetic expression was on his face so he swallowed the lump in his throat and looked away, pretending the hallway wallpaper was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen.

It was the only way he could really hide.

After a while Ratchet made up his mind.

“Alright, couch it is.”

Chapter Text

18

 

Having been able to win the battle so easily and avoid being dragged back to bed meant Drift didn’t fight Ratchet on his conditions of couch occupancy, not wanting to give the redhead an excuse to change his mind.

Well, he didn’t fight much.

For the sake of his already damaged dignity Drift did point out that a pillow was completely unnecessary; the arm of the couch was right there and it was even the right height and everything. He was absolutely fine without a blanket; he didn’t need Ratchet to go get the duvet from his bedroom.

The only thing Drift didn’t kick up a fuss about was the medicine. All it took was a rather scary look from Ratchet and Drift had the tablets in his mouth, reaching for the proffered mug without a single word of complaint. Ratchet had done something to the water again, something that made it taste nice and soothe the ripped-up feeling in his throat from all the coughing. Drift drained the lot, wondering fuzzily if he could get Ratchet to tell him what he’d done so he could make it for himself next time. When that was done Drift put the empty cup on the floor and slouched backwards, definitely not lying down and definitely not snuggling deeper into the warmth of the blankets Ratchet had insisted on inflicting on him.

The sound of a throat being cleared dragged Drift’s attention up to see Ratchet standing in front of him with his keys in one hand and the ruined jersey in the other.

“Alright; I’m going to pick up a change of clothes and get something that looks like actual food.”  The redhead declared. “You keep your ass parked right there or I promise you, Tailgate will be put in charge and that Mer makes me look like a pushover.”

“Sure, fine.” Privately, Drift didn’t think the adorable-looking cetacean Mer could be anywhere near as overbearing as Ratchet. “See? This is me, not moving.”

He tried to sound nonchalant but it was ruined by a massive yawn. Through almost-closed eyes he thought he could see Ratchet smirking.

How the fuck am I this tired already? I just woke up for fucks’ sake!

“So long as it stays that way.” The redhead said dryly. “I’ll be back in a few.”

Drift made a vague affirmative noise, trying to keep his eyes open until he heard the front door close and Ratchet’s feet thumping down the porch stairs. When an engine rumbled to life outside he deemed it safe enough to slump sideways and drag the pillow under his face.

It was kinda weird that Ratchet was doing all this for him. Weird but nice. He’d never had anyone look after him like this before except Gasket.

Must be because of all that Pod stuff ‘Gate keeps talking about.

That was as far as Drift got, sleep claiming him before Ratchet’s car even made it to the end of the quiet street. A few rounds of coughing pulled him halfway out of sleep, never more than enough to be vaguely annoying before he slid back into brightly-coloured and fantastical dreams.

The sound of a car door slamming outside brought Drift almost all the way back to the waking world, twitching with hard-learned wariness as he tried to figure out what was going on. Ratchet’s unmistakable footsteps thumping up the porch steps and the sounds of muffled cursing when he dropped the keys convinced Drift that it was safe to relax back into the comfortable embrace of his couch.

It was almost funny how much effort Ratchet put into trying to be quiet, easing the door open and taking the softest steps Drift had ever heard from him. He ruined the effect a little by muttering a bunch of curses when whatever he was carrying caught on Drift’s bike (parked in the hallway as usual) and threatened to send everything to the floor.

Drift decided to take pity on the redhead and spoke up.

“Hi Ratch’” He rasped, triggering a coughing fit.

“I thought you were asleep.” Ratchet sounded halfway between embarrassed and grumpy.

“Was. Woke up.” Drift tried to get to his feet but the blankets seemed to weigh a million tons.

“You stay put.” Ratchet ordered, returning to his normal stop as he headed for the kitchen.

Stubborn as ever, Drift kept trying for another minute or so before giving up and collapsing back onto the couch with a wheezy sigh. It was kinda nice, having someone else around. Reassuring. Someone was there and they had his back if something went wrong. Despite himself Drift nodded off to sleep again listening to Ratchet rustle and thump his way around the tiny kitchen.

He woke again when something nudged his leg.

Opening his eyes he saw Ratchet standing beside the couch, two plates of something in his hands. He held one out to Drift.

“Sit up and eat this.”

“’M not hungry” Drift mumbled, frowning and trying to burrow deeper into his blankets.

“I don’t care; you don’t eat enough as it is.” Ratchet nudged him again. “Come on, shove over or I’ll sit on you.”

Having learned the hard way that Ratchet didn’t make idle threats Drift forced himself sort-of upright and shakily took the plate shoved in his face before it got dropped on him. He blinked in surprise at the neat strips of buttered toast and the weird eggy thing Ratchet had prepared.

“I eat way more now than I did back in Rodion.” Drift complained, tying to give the plate back. “And I don’ wan’ it. I’m not hungry now.”

“I don’t care.” Ratchet shoved a fork at Drift and glared. “Eat that or I’ll hold you down and spoon-feed you like a stroppy toddler.”

Heaving a massive sigh, Drift obeyed. His exaggerated show of reluctance vanished as soon as the taste of the eggy thing registered.

“Whas’it?” He asked, eagerly shovelling more onto his fork

“Omelette with cheese, onions and capsicum.” Ratchet said, starting in on his own portion once he was satisfied he wouldn’t need to force-feed Drift. “Doesn’t take long to make and it should be easy enough for you to swallow.”

Despite Ratchet’s snide comments that it wasn’t going to run away from him, Drift practically inhaled the rest of his food. When it was gone he determinedly kept his eyes away from Ratchet’s half-finished plate even though his stomach had finally decided to let him know that yes, it was still kinda empty. He didn’t know if there was any more and had a sneaking suspicion that the redhead would insist on giving Drift some of his own meal if he thought Drift was still hungry.

He’s done too much for me already. Don’t want him going hungry because of me, too.

It might have been Drift’s imagination but it seemed to him like he was coughing a bit less now that he was sitting up. Not coughing was nice. Being warm and comfortable and having food in his belly was even nicer. He leaned back, letting his head rest against the couch and closing his eyes.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Ratchet was chasing the last stray bit of omelette around his plate with a piece of toast when something heavy came to rest on his shoulder. He froze and slowly turned his head to look at the source of the unexpected weight. When he saw Drift leaning on him he nearly choked on thin air, wondering what the hell was going on.

“Drift?” He asked quietly

There was no response.

“Drift?” A little louder this time.

The younger man muttered something that sounded like a slurred, drowsy ‘shut up’ and actually tried to burrow into Ratchet’s shoulder.

Given what had happened the previous night when he’d woken Drift unexpectedly, Ratchet was extremely reluctant to push his luck by trying to wake him while he was still within arms’ reach. Carefully he slid Drift’s empty plate and fork from the younger man’s loose grip, stacking them with his and putting them on the floor, scooting them out of reach with his foot.

Even with the movement and noise Drift didn’t wake up.

Ratchet sighed and gave in to the inevitable, resigning himself to pillow duty for however long Drift stayed asleep and trying to ignore the warm feeling that filled his chest at the display of trust.

He’s just exhausted, like Roddy was.

The restless night and his tendency towards overwork caught up with Ratchet and before he knew what was happening he followed Drift into sleep.

Chapter Text

19

 

Wing was anxious.

Although he tried his best to hide it he knew that others in the Pod had noticed his agitation. It was impossible to actually hide anything completely, and it wasn’t normal for a Mer to want to do so. So it was generally known that Wing was upset and that he would confide in someone eventually, or else those closest to him would try to discover what the problem was before it became dangerous to the Pod as a whole.

Who can I talk to without getting in trouble, though?

He hadn’t seen Currents –well, Drift as the human was actually called- since he and Magnus had guided the landwalker back to the human’s boat place that day in the rain.

After a few days without seeing the human Wing began to worry a bit, but Currents –Drift- had taken longer absences from the sea so a few days was a little worrying but nothing out of the ordinary. He kept an ear out when he was near the human’s hunting area and continued life as normal.

After another seven days Wing was definitely concerned. His hunting success started to decline and he couldn’t keep from fidgeting. When his bright reds began to pale slightly Axe started fussing, pressing food on Wing and hovering nearby to make sure he ate it. The longer he went without seeing the familiar yellow hull in the usual places the more worried he became, until he gave in to temptation and snuck into the boat-place on a cloudy night to make sure that Drift’s boat was still there.

It was.

Confused and trying to figure out what to do next, Wing spent the next few days poking around the offshore rock piles, trying to find some good-sized mussels. The fry needed to learn how to open them and the shells made good decorations and it also got him away from increasingly concerned and nosey podmates. He was starting to run out of excuses and knew he probably should have spoken to someone long before now.

I shouldn’t have let it go this far, to be honest. But with his skin patterns and the way he dances, Drift just seems… different, somehow.

On the last day of mussel collection Wing’s scavenged human-rubbish container was about half full when he heard a familiar engine sound thrumming through the water.

That’s the yellow boat…Goes-With-The-Currents! It’s Drift!

Quickly wedging his container of mussels firmly into a crack in the rocks, Wing turned and powered through the water, chasing the familiar engine-sound. His heart felt lighter than it had in days, the tight bands of worry that had been constricting his gills slowly eased and he snapped playfully at bits of weed that floated past. He would just take a quick look, make sure that Currents, Drift, was there and that the human was alright and then he’d finish getting those mussels for the Pod.

He reached the area where Drift left his crayfish traps and corkscrewed through the water, doing a quick pass over the line of traps to make sure they hadn’t been raided. So far as the Mer could tell they all looked fine and Wing fleetingly regretted that he hadn’t gotten one of the nice big crabs to leave in one this time. The catches on the woven-metal boxes weren’t that hard to figure out and Wing had learned how to break into the traps a long time ago. Whenever the guilt of spying on the landwalker’s dancing got too much he’d catch a crab or crayfish to leave in one of the traps as an apology. There was no way for him to know if Drift had worked out what was going on, but leaving a gift made Wing’s conscience stop bothering him so the Mer didn’t care.

Curiosity satisfied, Wing headed for the surface to find out who was aboard the boat. He was a lot closer than he’d normally be but he was far too excited for caution. Then his ears picked up a strange voice filtered down through the water.

Wing braked hard and floated motionless, listening.

Two voices.

Neither belonged to Drift.

For a moment Wing didn’t know what to do. Rage burned through him, quickly followed by intense worry for Goes-With-The-Currents and a fresh surge of anger. What had happened? Had Currents gotten sick after all? He’d looked absolutely terrible by the time he’d staggered away over the wood platforms of the human’s boat place. Maybe he’d died and his boat had permanently passed to these new people? Grief from this thought flattened his fins and Wing, flipped over in the water, heading away from the faded yellow hull.

I need to find Ultra Magnus.

 

~V~V~V~

 

“What was that?” Sideswipe asked, straightening up and looking towards the rocky shoreline.

“Huh?” Ratchet grunted, glancing up and then focusing back on what he was doing.

So far as he could tell there wasn’t anything different going on onshore, just rocks and scrub and he currently had bigger problems than Sideswipe pretending to see things. Namely; wrestling with the fastening of one of Drift’s crayfish traps. For the life of him the redhead couldn’t figure out the trick of getting into the things. He had no idea how Sideswipe made it look so easy.

Ratchet had agreed to check the crayfish traps on the condition that Drift spent the afternoon with Hot Rod and Tailgate. Supposedly it was to help broaden Tailgate’s command of colloquial English, but really it was to make sure Drift stayed off the open ocean before he was actually well enough to do so.

Just because he’s ‘feeling heaps better’ and isn’t coughing as much doesn’t mean he can throw these bloody things around without needing to sit down for a while after.

Drift’s quiet fretting over potential loss of income had gotten on Ratchet’s nerves a little, but he’d held his tongue until he caught Drift on the side of the road, bent over the handlebars of his bike and coughing fit to bring up a lung. A one-sided argument later and here Ratchet was, struggling to get into one of Drift’s crayfish traps while Sideswipe hauled the next one up.

“I thought I saw another buoy or something.” Sideswipe was frowning, shading his eyes with a hand and scanning the ocean. “Drift’s ones are all orange, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what he said.” Ratchet grunted, finally getting the trap open and emptying it with a relieved sigh. “Why?”

“I thought I saw a red-and-white… Oh, shit.”

That tone of voice never meant anything good. Ratchet shut the storage sturdy bin and latched the lid on its wriggly, claw-waving occupants and turned to see what Sideswipe was swearing about.

Two Mer bobbed in the water, within earshot but out of range of anything that could be thrown at them.

The smaller, faded red-and-white Mer with the elaborate fins looked suspicious and angry, some fins flattened down along its head and upper body while other were fully extended and quivering in the breeze.

Ratchet recognised the larger one immediately, Ultra Magnus’ size and distinctive colouration made it hard to mistake him for anyone else. The cetacean-type Mer obviously recognised Ratchet too, because his shoulders relaxed from their aggressive posture and he came right up to the boat so Ratchet could clearly see the frown creasing his face. The little red-and-white Mer hang well back, flicking his fins in a combination of suspicion and curiosity Ratchet recognised easily from seeing Hot Rod display similar reactions.

“Ratchet? What are you doing with Drift’s boat and gear?” Magnus asked in his clear, slightly-accented English.

Out of the corner of his eye Ratchet could see Sideswipe go a little pale as the large Mer rose a little higher in the water, muscles working visibly even under his smooth layer of blubber as he supported himself in the water.

“He got really sick after getting caught in the rain, still getting over it so Sideswipe and I are checking the traps for him so the idiot doesn’t make himself sick all over again.” Ratchet said, unable to keep his exasperation with the younger man out of his voice.

A smothered choking noise came from Sideswipe but when Ratchet turned to look he had a fist over his mouth, hiding most of his expression.

“Sideswipe here and his brother both work at the docks.” Ratchet reached out without looking, grabbed Sideswipe by the arm and hauled him over to the railing. “Sideswipe, this is Ultra Magnus; Speaker for the Crystal Caves Pod.”

While an extremely nervous Sideswipe made awkward small talk with Ultra Magnus, Ratchet tried to get a good look at the smaller Mer, wondering if this was the ‘stalker’ Drift had mentioned. The Mer’s predominantly red-and-white colouration was broken up by the odd yellow yellow streak and from a distance those fins were likely to come from any of three major branches of the Mer ‘family tree’. The smaller Mer edged closer, probably trying to hear what they were saying.

I wonder how much human language he understands?

The red-and-white Mer caught Ratchet staring and flared angrily, large golden-yellow eyes narrowing in a definite glare. Ratchet pretended to ignore the reaction and decided to save Sideswipe from what was becoming an entertainingly awkward conversation.

“Ultra Magnus; Drift wanted me to pass on his thanks for helping him get back to the marina in one piece.” He said, leaning his arms on the rail so Magnus didn’t have to stay so high to talk easily. “I want to say thank you as well. He’s been a massive help at the Centre; especially with Hot Rod. It’s also doing Tailgate a lot of good to have someone else around.”

That sparked a discussion about the WRC and Magnus asked a lot of questions about the pair of resident Mer and the workings of the Centre in general that obviously made Sideswipe uncomfortable. He meandered into Wander’s half-open cockpit, muttering something about the wind and needing to check the controls while Ratchet thoroughly enjoyed the first proper conversation he’d been able to have with Ultra Magnus in a very long time.

I really do need to talk to him more often. Let him know what’s going on dirtside and find out what rumours the Pods have about the poachers and finners.

While they spoke the red-and-white Mer inched ever closer, those hostile glares slowly changing to curious looks and the inevitable fascinated staring at Ratchet’s hair. By the time Ratchet and Ultra Magnus had wound up their conversation the smaller Mer had been close enough for Ratchet to identify of its physical type as one of the Betta families and see that it wore the ornamentation of a scout for the Crystal Caves Pod. Since Ultra Magnus didn’t introduce them Ratchet could only assume the smaller Mer wasn’t his apprentice. From the body language he guessed the red-and-white Mer might even be in disfavour with Ultra Magnus and the Pod leaders. Sideswipe had begun grumbling about hurrying things along long for that, which Ultra Magnus seemed to find amusing.

“It has been a pleasure talking with you Ratchet, but I shouldn’t delay you any longer.” Ultra Magnus said, a small smile flickering across his face. “I would very much enjoy the chance to speak with you again. If you are able to find time to come with Drift when he is well I would greatly appreciate it.”

That’s not so much a request as an order.

“I would love to.” Ratchet smiled at the big Mer, glad that their species had comparable understanding of the expression. “Thank you, Magnus. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.”

Ultra Magnus nodded and allowed himself to drop back into the water. When both Mer vanished Ratchet turned to help Sideswipe with the rest of the crayfish traps, moving faster to make up for wasting so much time talking to the Crystal Caves Speaker.

Not that it was a waste, really. Magnus a good sort and I’ve only seen him what, about a dozen times?

They guided Wander back to shore with what Sideswipe considered to be a decent haul of crayfish scuttling creepily around the storage bin. When Drift was presented with the payment he insisted on immediately getting coffee for both of the other men. Hot Rod and Tailgate found this to be very exciting even though neither of the Mer could stand the beverage and both of them flat-out refused Drift’s joking offer of getting them a drink with extra chocolate fish.

I did not just hear ‘Gate say something about courting rituals.

Sideswipe declined the offer of a ride home so Ratchet ended up sitting in the cab of his ute outside Drift’s place with the engine idling and heaters going, talking with Drift for about an hour after they’d finished their coffees. It wasn’t until Ratchet started yawning that they noticed the time and Drift said goodbye, getting his bike out of the back of the ute without help and pushing it up the path.

Ratchet waited to make sure Drift got inside ok before putting the ute into first gear and heading for home.

Chapter Text

20

 

Drift  fumed quietly in the passenger seat all the way to the WRC, trying his best not to cough and muttering a graceless response to Ratchet’s cheerful farewell when the redhead dropped him off in the carpark.

This is stupid; I’ve survived way worse than this! A chest infection is no reason to treat me like a fucking baby.

Hot Rod seemed to know exactly why Drift was in such a bad mood when he arrived but as usual Tailgate was completely oblivious to the reasons for his frustration. The smaller Mer pestered Drift with questions about his health, even though most of the answers seemed to go right over her head, smooth features creasing in a frown. She had been adopting more human mannerisms as time went on, deliberately copying them from Roddy, Drift and the humans who worked at the WRC even though the cetacean-type Mer would often lapse back into purely Mer body language, she was apparently determined to learn how to communicate effectively with her new pod.

“So you’re going to live?” Tailgate asked eventually, the thickly scarred hide of her back twitching with agitation.

“What the fuck?” Drift couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Yeah, of course I’m gonna live, ‘Gate.”

“But Ratchet said-” Tailgate tried to speak but Roddy cut her off with twitching fins and a laugh that sounded rather fake to Drift.

“Ratchet was catastrophizing.” The flaming orange Mer said dismissively, accidentally spraying Drift with salty water as his tail twitched restlessly. “You know what he gets like, ‘Gate. Especially when he thinks someone is being reckless.”

“Can you put that in small words?” Drift growled, wishing he was close enough to smack Roddy the same way Tailgate did. He was banned from the pool until his lungs were clear, not that he’d been able to swim with the Mer yet. “Not all of us can stay up all night stealing someone’s mobile data to get a free education.”

Tailgate backed him up with a clicking, growling spate of Mer that sounded extremely irritated. Hot Rod flicked his fins and shifted further away from the smaller Mer in a move that may or may not have been deliberate.

“What I mean is that he jumps right to the worst conclusion when he’s worried, especially if it’s someone he cares about.” Roddy rolled his eyes significantly at Drift, who pretended not to see. “Underneath that fuzzy, warm exterior of his he’s a actually a massive worry-wart.”

“The only fuzzy and warm thing about Ratchet are those hideous shapes he puts on his top half.” Tailgate observed. “How many of those have you killed so far?”

Hot Rod then treated Drift to some of his best ‘Eyesore Elimination’ stories, both Mer and the human discussing Ratchet’s complete and utter lack of good taste when it came to his beloved jerseys until one of the permanent staff came to bring the Mer their lunch. Drift vaguely recognised the lanky, green-eyed girl but didn’t remember her name, giving her an awkward nod and mumbling something when she greeted him.

Drift’s stomach decided that the best time to make unexpected noises was just when Tailgate had a fish tail sticking out of her mouth, which the blue-and-white Mer spat at him before hauling herself awkwardly out of the water to retrieve it with an apology and a curious poke Drift’s midsection.

“Too skinny. You need to eat more.” Tailgate declared, giving Drift a look that had him worrying about the destination of the half-eaten fish in her hand before she popped it into her own mouth and swallowed it whole. “Did you bring food?”

Too late, Drift realised that he hadn’t, shaking his head and getting a glare from Tailgate in response.

He still wasn’t used to having enough food around to be able to carry some with him. When he went out on the boat he usually did without, cooking a massive meal to stuff himself with when he got home and having the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. He’d honestly expected today to be the same, not bothering to grab more than his wallet, phone and keys that morning when Ratchet had arrived to personally confiscate his boat keys and deliver Drift to the WRC for Mer supervision.

“Hey Moonracer, is anyone doing a lunch run today?” Hot Rod asked, raising his voice to be heard over the clank of empty buckets. “Drift needs to place an order before ‘Gate starts force-feeding him Rivets Fishsticks.”

WHAT?!” Drift choked on thin air, hoping like hell he’d misunderstood.

A glance at Tailgate showed no ‘fish sticks’ that Drift could see, but the heavily scarred Mer was leaning on the edge of the pool, idly skinning a medium-sized morwong.

“’Rivets Fishsticks’ was Roddy’s nickname for the strips of raw fish we had to give ‘Gate while she was recovering.” Moonracer explained, coming back over to the pool. “I’m doing the mail and food run when I’m done with these buckets, do you want me to pick something up for you when I get the others’ lunches? The WRC can definitely afford to shout you, in return for all the extra food you get the finny guys.”

“Stupid name, they flop. Not like sticks at all.” Tailgate huffed, flicking the scaly skin of her meal at Rodimus. “Proper word is fill-it, so use it.”

Deciding that this wasn’t an argument he wanted to be a part of, Drift recruited himself to help Moonracer with the bucket tidy-up and chores outside the WRC, claiming that he needed fresh air and a break from Roddy showing off his vocabulary before his brain overheated and died.

The trip didn’t take long but he caught the distinctive shaped of both Mer waiting for him in one of the ‘public’ tanks when they returned laden with mail and assorted takeaways. They seemed to watch him closely as he chatted with Moonracer. She was easy to get along with; having the same easy charm as Hot Rod but hers was less calculated and more naïve, making Moonracer seem far younger than she actually was.

Rodion would eat her alive. Kid wouldn’t last an hour before the streets chewed her up and spat her back out.

It was rather awkward eating lunch with Tailgate doing her best to hover despite Drift deliberately sitting out of the general splash-zone of the pool. Neither Mer seemed to get tired of his company, something that boggled Drift as he ate and listened to them bickering amiably in a combination of Mer and English. He knew that Mer were a highly social species, something that apparently wasn’t changed by the half-cocked attempts at ‘domesticating’ the species by underground breeding rings.

Fuck, those breeders make Turmoil look like a fucking saint.

According to Ratchet, both Mer now considered Drift to be part of their current abnormal Pod arrangement even though he didn’t see them regularly. He figured he probably shouldn’t be surprised that they were making the most of today, given that he usually only saw them for a few hours a week. His questions about Mer culture were answered readily by Tailgate, and he saw definite curiosity on Roddy’s face as well. Apparently the flashy, outgoing Mer knew as little about life in a proper Pod as Drift did and hadn’t bothered to –or maybe not wanted to- ask the cetacean-type Mer about the specific customs of her home Pod and if any of them applied to other Pods at all. Between Tailgate’s often patchy command of English and Drift’s difficulty with putting what he knew into words some concepts took a long time to get across, but eventually Drift felt he had the answers

“So everyone understands paying back someone who helps you out?” Drift clarified. Tailgate nodded and Drift ran a hand through his hair, glad to finally get it sorted out. “Can I get you to teach me how to say something in Mer?” Drift asked, earning the undivided attention of both Mer. “I want to pay back that Mer from Crystal Coves Pod who helped me out of the rain. I know you said its part of Ultra Magnus’ job and all, but that other Mer didn’t have to help me at all. I want to make sure that we’re even and he-she-whatever can’t try to get something out of me later on.”

“Smart.” Tailgate nodded. “Some bottom-feeders try to get everyone owe them.”

Drift had to bite his tongue as Roddy joined in, reminding him that Mer were just as varied in their personalities as humans were.

I know you get assholes everywhere, but I don’t think Wing’s like that.

By the time Ratchet came back with Drift’s boat keys and the payment for the day’s haul of crayfish he was able to say a short phrase in Mer that both Tailgate and Roddy insisted was a formal recognition and discharge of debt.

Fuck I hope I don’t screw it up next time I see Wing.

Ratchet wouldn’t accept any payment for dealing with the craypots, claiming that keeping Roddy and Tailgate entertained for a day was payment enough for him. Neither would the unnaturally red-haired guy loitering in the lobby who had helped Ratchet out. Drift knew the guy and his brother vaguely from the marina. Eventually he talked them into accepting coffee, an offer that had Ratchet patting his pockets and frowning, looking for his wallet. Drift and Sideswipe wandered into the ‘public’ area of the Mer’s pool complex, making incredibly awkward small-talk about hair dye brands and life in Crystal Cove.

“Hey Drift! Over here!” Roddy called, surfacing in the public display pool, holding a suspiciously familiar object.

“Did you steal Ratchet’s wallet?” Drift asked resignedly, wondering how hard Roddy was going to make him work to get it back. His latest dose of medicine was hitting hard, slowing him down and making him sleepy.

 I just want to go home and pass out for a while. Please don’t be a dick.

“Yeah.” The Mer didn’t sound at all sorry. “I wanted to show you something. Here, look at this.”

Roddy flipped the wallet open and held it out so Drift could clearly see a recent-looking photo of Ratchet glaring from behind a clear plastic window. Behind him, Drift could hear Sideswipe yelling to Ratchet that they’d found his wallet and Tailgate saying something sharp.

“Ratchet’s drivers’ licence?” Drift raised a pale eyebrow. “So what? I figured he wasn’t stupid enough to drive without one.”

“Look at the birthdate.” Roddy hissed urgently, practically shoving the wallet into Drift’s face. “Go on, look.”

“Calm down, fishhead. I’m looking.” Drift said, nearly choking when he saw the date printed on the card.

Holy shit! No way he’s that young.

“You’re kidding!” Drift breathed as Ratchet’s distinctive stomping walk came through the doorway. “No way!"

“Nope! Not as old as he looks, is he?” The flame-coloured Mer whispered conspiratorially, snapping the wallet shut and throwing it to someone behind Drift, raising his voice to a normal level to address Ratchet. “You dropped this, butterfingers.”

Ratchet caught his wallet neatly, rolling his eyes sceptically.

“’Dropped’ as in you picked my pockets again.” The redhead said, making air quotes with his fingers as he repeated the word Roddy had used. “And don’t pull the innocent face, it hasn’t worked in years. Quit stalling and say goodbye would you? Drift looks like he’s about to pass out on his feet.”

Protesting just enough to save face in front of Sideswipe, Drift let himself be hustled out of the WRC and to Ratchet’s ute. They left Sideswipe in town after Drift got the other men coffee as some sort of repayment for helping him out. He and Ratchet drank their coffees in the ute, parked outside Drift’s house with the heater going as they talked for what felt like hours. Drift was reluctant to leave the warm vehicle for the chill outside but after both of them started yawning he decided it was probably time to go.

Ratchet stayed long enough to make sure Drift got inside, the distinctive sound of the ute dropping into first gear and pulling out making Drift smile even as he rolled his eyes at the empty hallway as he propped his bike against the wall.

Roddy’s right; Ratchet’s a giant worry-wart. Still, it does feel nice to have someone give a shit about me again.

Kicking his shoes off, Drift made a beeline for bed, practicing the Mer phrase Tailgate had taught him until sleep claimed him.

That night his dreams were full of flickering red-and-white scales and greying orange hair.

Chapter Text

21

 

It took another two weeks for Drift’s lungs to clear and the cough to ease to the point where Ratchet would magnanimously allow him out on the ocean again.

The fact that the local doctor had backed up the redhead’s verdict was just salt in the wound so far as Drift was concerned. His injured pride had been somewhat salved by doing odd jobs at the WRC, helping Tailgate with adjustments to the latest prosthetic fin prototypes and doing lunch runs for both humans and mer. (Although he did wonder if either mer could actually taste the fruit they asked for they did seem to enjoy the texture)

The early morning sun was warm and when combined with the almost non-existent traffic it encouraged Drift to take his time on the ride to the marina, to slow down and really enjoy the morning.

I still can’t believe this is all real…

A legal job, a roof over his head that he could count on, people who called him friend and meant it. Pedalling even slower now, Drift tried to wrap his head around how all of this had happened to him.

Huh. Guess you were right, Gasket.

By the time Drift finally pulled up to the marina and chained his bike next to the other regulars he found he was smiling.

The sound of little wavelets in the harbour lapping against the wooden piles of the dock was music to his ears, hurrying his feet across the boards towards a familiar faded yellow hull.

It was a perfect day to be out on the water, rare at any time of the year. Still, Drift didn’t hurry his pre-sail inspection and was pleased to find that Ratchet and Sideswipe had left Wandering Sunlight in almost flawless condition.

The only problem Drift could find was a hideous mass of eye-searing combination of purple and orange tucked into the small storage locker alongside his emergency beacon and first aid kit. A few careful pokes revealed no signs of life and the now-familiar texture of wool. That was all it took for Drift to look past the appalling colours to the general shape of what could only be a jersey.

Looks bad enough to be one of Ratchets’, but I’ve never seen this one before…

Deciding to pretend he hadn’t seen the neatly-folded monstrosity, Drift slowly closed the storage locker and prepared to take Wander out. He wasn’t planning to stay out long, just check the crayfish traps and head right back.

Despite the excellent forecast he was still under strict orders from the doctor about his return to work. Someone had leaked these instructions to Tailgate and Drift finally understood why Ratchet had used the small cetacean-type Mer as a threat.

How can something that cute-looking be that scary?!

Drift had been told in no uncertain terms to phone the WRC with a report for Tailgate the instant he hit cellphone range again, with unspecified consequences for taking longer than a couple of hours to do so. With this in mind Drift headed out at precisely the legal speed, strangely determined to prove to the mer that he was perfectly capable of ‘hunting’ for himself again.

The weather stayed calm and everything went smoothly until Drift was about halfway through checking his traps. He had just shut a couple of big, lively crays into the transport tub when he heard loud splashing and shrill birdlike whistling coming from somewhere out to sea.

The fuck is that?!

Straightening up, he was just in time to see a long, red-and-white something shoot up out of the water in a graceful arch, cutting cleanly through the air before punching back into the water with a loud splash. It seemed to be approaching Wander so Drift braced himself and waited, wondering what was going on.

As the shape came closer Drift recognised his stalker, although the mer looked a little faded compared to his memory of vivid candycane colours and sunny yellow flashes. The mer was approaching so fast Drift worried that it would run right into Wander’s hull but it dove at the last minute, twisting through the water in complicated spirals before surfacing in a graceful backflip that sent cold saltwater right over Drift and everything else on Wander’s deck.

Pushing soggy hair out of his eyes with one hand, Drift grabbed the rail with the other as the mer’s antics set the little boat rolling in the water. A smile tugged at the side of his mouth as he watched the pale blurry shape dart through the sea in more crazy loops and spirals, muffled whistling sounds and the occasional pure note rising from the water.

Finally the Mer seemed to wear itself out, approaching the surface slightly slower than it had before. Drift still had a moment of worry when it looked like the red-and-white would brain itself on Wander’s hull but the mer deftly corrected course at the last possible moment.

Showoff.

It popped up directly beneath where Drift stood at the rail, fins spread wide and twitching as it chattered away animatedly in high-speed Mer Drift didn’t have a chance in hell of understanding, even if he could hear all the sounds the creature was making. It wasn’t too hard to figure out the general intent behind the stream of alien language and Drift started laughing as the mer bobbed in the water, graceful fins flicking and splashing as it prattled on at him.

“Yeah; I missed you too, you lunatic.” Drift said, his grin spreading wide across his face at the mer’s sudden wide-eyed silence. “I hope you didn’t give Ratchet too much grief while I was stuck at home sick.”

Large golden-yellow eyes blinked up at him, confusion written all over the mer’s face. Up close Drift could see that the mer’s colours were definitely faded; the reds dulled and the white scales seemed to have lost the iridescent undertone he remembered. Even the bright yellows looked tarnished.

Overall the wild mer looked worn and tired. It was something Drift hadn’t seen in a mer before, not even Tailgate on days when the cetacean-type was in obvious pain.

I hope he’s not sick.

“Hang on a sec, I’ve got something for you.” Drift said, turning away from the rail heading for the crayfish bin.

“Drr-ffT?”

The sound was so unlikely it stopped Drift dead in his tracks, staring into space with his mouth hanging open.

How the hell does it know my name?

Memory surfaced, cold and rain-soaked, listening with chattering teeth to Ultra Magnus outlining his plan for guiding Drift to the safety of the Marina.

Moving slowly and mechanically, Drift forced himself to open the crayfish bin and picked out the nicest-looking one. Large and plump with a lot of meat in the tail, still waving all limbs angrily despite the rubber bands Drift had already secured around the claws.

His return to the railing was greeted with a happy trill and excited fin-flaring. Drift couldn’t help smiling as the candycane mer’s expression turned into confusion accompanied by an almost doglike head-tilt of curiosity as Drift leaned on the railing and held the crayfish where his stalker could see it.

“DRr-rr-FFt?” The mer trilled his name again, following it up with whistles Drift definitely didn’t understand.

Sounds like a totally different dialect to what ‘Gate and Roddy use. Ratch’ would know for sure.

“Yeah, Drift. That’s me.” Drift said to the mer, poking himself in the chest before pointing at the mer. “And… you’re Wing, right?”

Faded red-and-white fins rippled with something that looked like excitement as the mer beamed up at Drift with a mouth full of very pointy teeth. It lay back in the water, gills fluttering as it placed a hand on its chest and prattling off a bunch of Mer that Drift only made out one word of.

“Ww-nnnnG.”

“Alright then, Wing. I’ve got something for you; to say thanks.” Drift said, taking a deep breath and trying to remember the phrase Tailgate and Roddy had taught him. “Here, catch.”

With that he tossed the grumpy, flailing crayfish at Wing, who caught it and stared at Drift with obvious confusion. Wing’s fins plastered themselves to its body, then flared out slowly in a reaction Drift couldn’t interpret as yellow eyes took on an intense, predatory focus that made Drift’s palms itch for a weapon.

Instead of finding something to defend himself with, Drift stood firm. Taking a deep breath, he licked his lips and whistle-click-popped his best imitation of the Mer phrase his friends had taught him.

[I thank you for your aid. With this gift of prey I discharge the debt between us.]

Sunlight flashed on the water as the wild mer pulled its fins in and flared again, looking from the crayfish it held up to Drift and back again. Something about the way Wing looked at him brought a hot flush of embarrassment to Drift’s cheeks.

“Yeah; it’s for you, idiot.” He growled, crossing his arms over his chest. “Debt paid, so piss off and stop stalking me.”

Despite the tough words he lingered by the railing, watching as Wing did the fin-flaring thing again. Then the mer shook himself all over, flipped and dove so fast he was gone before Drift could blink the salt spray from his eyes.

A search of the surface showed no sign of Wing, and Drift breathed a sigh of relief.

“Good. Now sod off and stay out of trouble.” He said to the empty waves.

Chapter Text

22

 

The next day the weather was still fine so Drift was back out on Wander, leaning against the rail and watching two floats bob on the water. Having emptied the traps the previous day meant his only real job was to fish -and try to feel like he was doing something useful.

There was help from an unexpected quarter in that department. Drift had run into Sideswipe at the harbourmaster’s office and was riding high on a feeling of pride from the way the other man had praised Drift for colour-coding the floats to match his pair of rods. The genuine praise had more than made up for being jumped on by the other man’s dog.

His brother’s dog, and it won’t listen to Sides.

Drift checked his phone, glancing at the time and sighing before tucking it safely away. Tailgate had actually gotten someone to call Drift early in the morning, asking him to set a timer so he wouldn’t be out for more than a couple of hours and to come visit the mer at the WRC as soon as he got back in. It was such a lovely day Drift found himself resenting it, despite knowing the possibility of getting a secondary infection from pushing himself too hard so soon after being essentially bedridden.

Feeling too relaxed and lazy to move, Drift continued to squint at the sunstruck water and listen to the light swells lapping at Wander’s hull. An hour crawled by with one nibble resulting in some lost bait and a true bite that turned out to be a fine barracuda. It put up a fight that had Drift’s arms shaking with exhaustion by the time he landed it. He re-baited his hook and flicked the line out again with a cast so bad he was grateful there was nobody around to witness it.

With the rod safely set and locked in the holder Drift leaned back against the rail and sighed, shaking some of the aches from tired forearms and hands. Tipping his head back to look at the sky, Drift felt the strain in his shoulders slowly ease and knew he wouldn’t be able to land another fish that energetic if one deigned to investigate his lures today.

Please can the next bite be small. A butterfish or something.

It was embarrassing to admit to himself that Ratchet and the local doctor had been right about how long it would take to recover. Drift was about to start beating himself up for getting soft when a salmon the length of his arm sailed over the railing beside him to land on the deck with a wet smack.

Gobsmacked, Drift watched the fish twitch and flop for several seconds before a smug-sounding chirrup drew his attention to the sea behind him. Dread he couldn’t explain filled Drift as he recognised the particular mer-voice that had made the sound.

Oh shit, here we go.

Instinctively hunching his shoulders to defend himself against whatever was about to happen, Drift turned to see his white-and-red stalker resting at ease in the water. Wing’s finse still looked faded where they fluttered around him but his eyes were bright and he seemed happy as he chirp-whistled something that included Drift’s name.

“…What?” Drift asked, pushing his hair out of his eyes, momentarily forgetting that this wasn’t Hot Rod or Tailgate he was dealing with.

A frown crossed Wing’s face, his fins flicking the same way Hot Rod’s did when he was concentrating on something. Drift watched in fascination until the forgotten salmon thumped against his leg. With a very undignified yelping sound Drift reacted on reflex; scooping the flapping fish up and throwing it violently away from him into the ocean.

Gasping for air, Drift ignored the sound of something large thrashing in the water as he leaned on the rail again and tried to slow his thundering heart. Something red and white moved into view. He blinked, focusing slowly on Wing.

The mer was holding the big salmon in a careful grip, looking up at Drift curiously. When Drift made eye contact, Wing held the salmon up towards him and spoke slowly. 

“Drrr-ft n-oooo de-t”

When Drift finally figured out what the mer had said his blood ran cold.

Magnus is gonna fuckin kill me.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Drift no debt.” Wing repeated, working his tail to get higher in the water. [There was no debt to repay.] He added in Mer, although he didn’t think the human would be able to understand. [Please, take the fish.]

Drift kept staring, face so pale that Wing wondered if he was getting sick again. He said something, a torrent of human words that flowed too fast for Wing to understand. The head-shaking he did, however. Frowning, he threw the dying salmon back up onto the boat, sinking back into the water to glare and repeat himself yet again.

“Drift. No. Debt.”

The fish came back, and this time Wing deliberately severed it’s spine at the base of the skull before tossing it at the human. Wing knew that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be done, knew that he shouldn’t be here at all, but he wanted this human to know that he… valued him.

This time Drift seemed to get the message. He sighed, picked the salmon up and moved out of sight. The instant Wing heard the squeak-thumping sounds of the human’s prey-storing things he dove, rocketing towards the ocean floor at an angle that would take him out to sea.

Feeling lighter than he had in weeks, Wing indulged in a couple of tight corkscrews to express the exhilaration that filled him with sudden energy. It had been a fine fish, a big one of a type he knew humans liked almost as much as mer did. He’d done his research before hunting for an appropriate gift.

It will help him get better. I wonder if those others will still hunt for him…

Lost in thought, Wing slowed his forward speed and started heading for where he was supposed to be hunting that day. He didn’t hear Ultra Magnus calling his name or even notice the huge mer’s approach until Magnus was right beside him.

All it took was one glance at Magnus’ angry, disapproving expression for Wing to know he was in trouble. He’d never seen Ultra Magnus so angry before; the cetacean-type practically vibrated with rage as he glared at Wing, hands flexing as if he was considering ripping into the smaller mer with his hooked claws.

One huge blue hand rose and Wing flinched.

Ultra Magnus pointed in a silent command.

Stomach sinking, fins wilting in submission, Wing headed off in the direction indicated, trying desperately to prepare himself for what was to come.

Chapter Text

23

 

Wing shuddered as mourning wails rose from the gathered pod.

The sound ripped his heart to pieces, bringing a sobbing keen from his own throat as he forced his heavy body to move. Away, away from the pod.

Exile.

Three cycles of the moon, it sounded survivable until he faced the reality of it. Stripped of his few ornaments, his crystal dagger and other weapons confiscated, dead to those he knew and loved. Forced to turn his dorsal fin on distraught friends and family, forced to swim away from comfort.

Wing had one day to leave the pod’s territory. 

He needed to get as far away as he could, because if he was caught within the Pod’s waters at any point during his exile he would be attacked as if he was an intruder, treated as hostile by default. If he placed any value at all on his life, then he would swim as far and as fast as he could, and not return until his time was up. It wasn’t impossible, but given how social their kind was it came very close to it.

If he was clever, if he was cunning, then he would survive to return.

Three entire cycles of the moon…

Wing had undergone many punishments before -including exile- but never one this severe.

Of course, he’d never broken so many laws in one go before.

Never before had his crimes been so great; never had Wing put the Pod in so much danger as he had done in order to indulge his fascination with the human called Goes-With-The-Currents.

I’m sorry…

From past experience Wing knew that he needed others just as much –if not more than- the average Mer. He was even less suited to solitude than an Octomer, if such a thing was possible. Choking on his own cries of grief and remorse, Wing forced himself onwards. His parents, the Pod didn’t need the burden of his grief added to theirs.

Slowly the sound of the mourning pod receeded behind him as Wing moved doggedly through familiar territory, ignoring both hunger and growing exhaustion as he forced himself to keep moving. His thoughts were a muddy roil of currents that circled around one thing.

I know it was wrong; I put everyone in danger. I shouldn’t have done that…

There was a place he thought he might go, somewhere to wait out the terms of his exile. Wing had found it during his younger days; when he had been less careful in his rule-breaking and earned himself a similar sentence of exile.

Though not this long. I’ve never heard of one this long... Execution would be kinder.

Of course, nobody in living memory had knowingly and willingly put the rest of the pod in this much danger before. Wing knew this; had admitted as much to himself while he had spent the night waiting to face the Pod’s judgement.

Every single adult Mer who had a say in deciding Wing’s fate had givvoiceden their opinion. In the end their verdict was unanimous; the only thing for them to discuss was the length of his punishment.

There was no escaping the law. No avoiding justice. It had to be so in order for the Crystal Caves Pod to survive, living as close to humans as they did. The land-walkers and air-breathers were to be avoided, distrusted. They were as variable in temperament as mer; but their greater numbers made greed and the temptation to treachery so very much stronger.

It didn’t matter that Wing felt deep in his gut that Drift was different. This human was too new, too untested. No other pod had considered him worthy of the honour of a Landlink Token –if he’d encountered one at all. A Landlink Token would have indicated that Drift was worthy of a certain level of trust and that the pod who bestowed it upon him was willing to stake their reputation on it.

Three whole lunar cycles…

It was as good as a death sentence and nowhere near as merciful.

Wing was perfectly capable of hunting and defending himself; he was one of the most promising hunters and warriors in the pod. It was only his age that had kept him from being recognised as one of the elite.

This had worked against him, and as much as Wing hated it, he had to admit that the Elders’ judgement in this case was probably right. He did know better; he should have done better. Nobody was immune, nobody was above punishment. That was how it had to be. For the severity of his crimes, Wing knew his punishment was just.

If he could survive, if he could endure the time alone, he would be allowed back.

But only if.

Choking on grief and bitter regret Wing swam blindly onwards, striving for the edge of Crystal Cave territory and a place to wait out his exile.

Chapter Text

24

 

After the Fish Incident (as Drift was calling it in his head) he kept a sharp eye out for the frilly red-and-white mer, but as the days passed and Wing didn’t show up his caution faded. Either the idiot had gotten caught and served some sort of punishment, or he was regretting his actions and stay away out of embarrassment.

For a full week Drift enjoyed better fishing than he’d had while Wing was stalking him and scaring everything off. Even with the time restrictions enforced by the doctor and a Tailgate who was in full Mother-Hen mode he was still catching more than he had for a long time. Whatever he couldn’t sell made it into his stomach or those of his finny friends at the WRC.

Having that little bit extra helped him recover faster, as well as Ratchet’s forced expansions to his grocery list. He’d even started trying to teach himself how to cook (Although Drift would never admit it to Ratchet, the redhead’s version of omelettes were his new favourite food.)

Slowly he resumed training; doing patterns at home or on calm days out on Wander’s deck, regaining his stamina one repetition at time. When he was too tired to keep going Drift would flop on the couch or lean on the rail, wondering if Wing had been read the riot act for stalking him and if so, what kind of chastisement a mer Pod could actually enforce.

Not like you can put them in a cell. Unless they tie rocks to their tails? Doesn’t work if they can just untie themselves. Tailgate would know…

Since Ultra Magnus hadn’t shown up to yell at Drift for not doing more to discourage Wing, he figured it was just a busy season for the Crystal Caves pod and tried to put the situation out of mind. Given that he had a progress hearing with the Parole Board looming over him it was difficult. What he had done –or tried to do- didn’t breach the conditions of his parole, but if Ultra Magnus had gotten a complaint passed to the authorities Officer Atlas was in a nit-picking mood, it could be counted as a technical strike against Drift and he was under no illusions about the reception he’d get if –or when- he was shoved back behind bars.

The uncertainty weighed on him, slowing his footsteps as he walked to the WRC on a day too wet and windy to take Wander out safely. Moonracer waved him on in with a smile that changed to annoyance when she saw the trail of water running from his jacket.

“Stick to the mats, man!” She complained, throwing a towel at his face. “We have a school group in today.”

“Yes, Miss Moon.” Drift tried to imitate the same lisping child’s voice Roddy used when teasing Moonracer. “I will, Miss Moon.”

“Oh my GOD, not you too.” Moonracer groaned, burying her face in her hands. “Go see the finheads and get out of my face.”

Laughing, Drift dropped the towel on the floor and foot-shuffled back over his trail of water, leaving the towel and his jacket in the coat room before heading to the main social pool.

 “Hey Drift, did you find the jersey yet?” Hot Rod asked as soon as Drift was within speaking distance. “Ratchet told me he left it somewhere you’d find it, but…”

The Mer trailed off, giving Drift a significant look with a ripple of fins that Drift just couldn’t decipher. Frowning, Drift tried to figure out what Hot Rod was talking about. Something about the shade of orange on the Mer’s arms as he leaned his elbows on the edge of the pool tugged at a memory.

“You’re not talking about some purple and orange thing, are you?” Drift asked as he pulled an empty crate over and sat down, listening to the splashing as Tailgate made her slower way through the pool complex. “I might have found one like that in the emergency locker.”

Hot Rod looked horrified.

“That thing? Are you serious?” The Mer’s voice rose several octaves as he spoke, the last word almost too high for Drift to hear. “We told him to get you something that looked nice!

“Serious as a bullet wound.” Drift said, pulling out his phone to show a photo of the offensive garment. “See?”

Hot Rod snatched the phone, keeping it well above water level as Tailgate pulled up. The smaller Mer was wearing the current prosthetic fin prototype which made it all but impossible to slow down properly (or so she claimed) so Tailgate braked by turning sideways and bodyslamming the outer wall of the pool.

“Tailgate, look at this!” Hot Rod said, changing to rapid-fire Mer that Drift couldn’t hear or understand as he showed an interested Tailgate the photo of Drift’s latest clothing acquisition.

“He used present money on THAT?” Tailgate’s claws showed clearly as she hauled herself up on the edge of the pool, practically vibrating with anger. “Drift, bring that thing here. It must kill.”

“I know it’s ugly, ’Gate, but you need to calm down.” Hot Rod said as he passed Drift’s phone back with more care than he used with Ratchet’s one. “Your English gets really shit when you’re angry.”

Tailgate muttered something that sounded extremely rude, deliberately pitching the Mer words low enough for Drift to catch a few words. A familiar heavy tread approached as Drift tried to repeat some of the swearwords he thought he’d understood. Rodimus snickered at his accent, fins twitching happily.

“That’s probably not the kind of language you should be learning if you’re going to be talking to anyone from Crystal Caves.” Ratchet said dryly as he joined Drift at the side of the pool. “Speaking of which, how did your plan with the fish go?”

Sighing, Drift told Ratchet and two extremely interested mer about Wing’s reaction to the crayfish and the entirety of the weirdness with the salmon. The longer he spoke the more concerned Ratchet looked. Roddy’s fins slowly drooped and Tailgate began to twitch like a fly-stung horse.

Shit, he was being a bigger idiot than I thought.

 

~V~V~V~

 

“That’s… not good.” Ratchet said, breaking the silence before Tailgate could explode. “You did the right thing there, trying to give the fish back and discourage further contact. “

“Have you seen him since?” Hot Rod asked, slipping carefully sideways away from the fuming Tailgate.

“Nope.” Drift shook his head and sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Hopefully he’s come to his senses and is staying away so he doesn’t get in the shit. What he was doing, that was pretty bad, wasn’t it?”

The expression on his face was that of someone who already knew the answer and hoped they were wrong. Ratchet stifled the urge to hug the younger man; neither of them were very demonstrative and he didn’t want to make things weird.

I’m sorry kid.

“Very bad.” He said soberly. Tailgate and Roddy backed him up, with angry and depressed expressions respectively.

“If you were bad person, could end up like Rivets but not accident catch.” Tailgate hissed, scarred tailfin slapping at the water. “Pretend friend but bring hunters, finners, murderers. Stupid, stupid, fucking stupid.”

Ratchet watched Drift’s face as he worked through Tailgate’s rage-thickened accent and broken sentences.

“Then there’s assholes like the ones who bred me.” Hot Rod said in a too-calm voice, as if he was describing something that happened to someone else. “They have a special team they use just to go out and catch fresh livestock.”

Drift went pale and Ratchet couldn’t help but reach out and squeeze his shoulder reassuringly.

“It’s one of the reasons the Speakers for the Pods try to work with Coastguard, at least in places where there is one.” He said quietly, feeling Drift’s hard muscles tense up through the fabric of his hoodie. “If you haven’t seen him it’s more likely he’s either wised up or been caught out by someone from Crystal Caves. Ultra Magnus will know the answer.”

“I’ll ask Ultra Magnus next time I see him.” Drift said, shoulder muscles slowly relaxing under Ratchet’s hand as the anxious tension ran out of him. “Might be a while before he touches base with me again, though.”

“It won’t be the Triumvirate.” Hot Rod said with certainty. “Last I saw they were set up to last for a while. Your Wing is probably in detention or something.”

“Trash duty.” Tailgate said, pulling a face. “Checking kelp beds. Hated that one.”

Nobody mentioned the worst one, the harshest punishment a mer Pod could inflict on one of their own for this kind of transgression.

Exile…

He wasn’t sure if Drift didn’t know or if he knew of it and just wasn’t bringing it up because of Tailgate’s situation. The Cetacean-type was essentially exiled from the ocean by her injuries, after all. But Drift didn’t mention it even when he accepted a ride home at the end of Ratchet’s shift, thanking him and hurrying through the rain to let himself inside.

I wonder if he’s found that jersey yet?

Chapter Text

25

 

After dropping Drift off Ratchet went back to the WRC. He intended to catch up on some work-related correspondence before calling it a day but of course, Hot Rod had other plans for him.

The mer was nothing if not predictable.

And obnoxious.

“So… did you ask him out?”

The words stopped Ratchet dead in his tracks, standing just barely inside the staff door. Hot Rod’s voice was pitched just a little bit too loud for privacy, bouncing off the walls so there was no way Rachet could pretend he hadn’t heard.

Here we go.

Sighing, Ratchet rubbed the bridge of his nose and prayed for patience before turning his head slowly to fix the flame-coloured mer with a quelling stare.

Hot Rod was peering over the side of a tank, watching him with an innocently curious expression that Ratchet knew was as fake as Moonracer’s current hair colour. Despite knowing what the mer was up to, Ratchet still wasn’t able to hold Hot Rod’s gaze for long. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair as he looked away, wishing he couldn’t see the bright flicker of orange-red out the corner of his eye.

No. And I wish you would drop it, already.” He leaned against the wall, deliberately ignoring the splashing sounds of Roddy moving as close as the tank would allow. “It’s not gonna happen.”

“Why not, though?” Hot Rod’s voice was definitely closer. Ratchet closed his eyes briefly and hoped the orange menace wasn’t about to pull one of his tank-escape stunts. “You like him. And he likes you too; everyone can see it.”

“B-bullshit.” Ratchet spluttered, startled. “I’m his friend. That’s all. If he likes me at all then he likes me as a friend. That’s what you’re seeing.” His eyes snapped open and he shot a glance at the pool, seeing a thoroughly unconvinced mer bracing his weight on his arms, staring at Ratchet with his fins slowly spreading into a display of utter scepticism. “And besides, I don’t even know if he… you know.”

Whenever Hot Rod raised an eyebrow the fins on that side of his head and down his back would ripple like grass in the wind. They did it now as he gave Ratchet the same look the mer ususally reserved for gave especially dense interns.

“Have you asked him?” Hot Rod asked slowly and carefully, as if he thought Ratchet was being deliberately slow.

No!

The word emerged too loud, echoing sharply from the walls.

Lowering his voice, Ratchet continued although he was speaking far too fast for innocence. He knew he’d definitely shot himself in the metaphorical foot by now and that there was no recovering from it, but he still had to try. The smirk on Hot Rod’s face couldn’t go unchallenged.

“We’ve never talked about that kind of stuff.” Ratchet crossed his arms defensively across his chest. “It’s just not relevant.”

Hot Rod’s smirk broadened. He waved a singly orange finger at Ratchet.

Oh hell; I’m screwed.

“Well. If you’re not gonna ask him then ‘Gate and I will just have to do a little recon on your behalf.” Even though Roddy sounded reassuring, the actual effect of his words was anything but. “We’ve got your back; you don’t need to worry about a thing, Ratch.”

Before Ratchet could say anything the mer was gone; dropping into the water so fast he all but evaporated and shooting away into the pool complex in a streak of flame-coloured fins.

As he watched Roddy leave Ratchet felt torn; something strange and light fluttering in his chest while bitter experience filled his stomach with cold lead and sent it dropping down to his shoes.

I… I don’t think I can do this again.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Midway through Drift’s second week of short, Wing-free excursions on Wander he was sure that his finned stalker had finally wised up and decided to stay away. Despite his relief Drift was still getting used to the weird feeling of loneliness that had moved in to fill the Wing-shaped space in his life.

He was still keeping an eye out, but it was more from habit than anything else. Seagulls skimming the waves no longer had him whipping around with a weird mix of anticipation and dread making lumps in his stomach as he searched waters. Harbour buoys no longer got double-takes and random floating trash didn’t get side-eyed quite so hard before he pulled it up and stowed it in his onboard garbage bin.

The weather was improving steadily; storms coming further apart and becoming easier to avoid. The improvement in the weather meant Drift was forming tentative plans that would have the doctor throwing fits as he hauled in a couple of fish that wouldn’t fetch much at the market but would be greatly appreciated by Tailgate.

As soon as I’ve got the all-clear I’m going to dive.

Complications from years of smoking Syk meant that his chest infection was taking longer to clear than it should. It was giving Tailgate an excuse to hover. Normally Drift would have resented this, but by now even he could see how it seemed to be helping the smaller mer to have more people around to fuss over.

How big are Pods, anyway?

Inevitably, thinking about Pods drew Drift’s thoughts back to Wing and the consequences he might be facing over the Fish Incident.

If the idiot got caught…

The conversation he’d had with Ratchet and the WRC mer had eased a worry Drift hadn’t even realised he’d had. Imagining Wing reluctantly collecting garbage and hauling it away from wherever Crystal Caves didn’t want it was actually kinda funny, especially if the delicately finned mer looked anything like Hot Rod did when the hybrid was sulking.

He’d look like a bad Halloween ghost costume.

Despite Hot Rod’s reassurances, a part of Drift still worried that Wing might have run into poachers. Given what he’d heard from Prowl during his regular parole meetings it wasn’t very likely, but after the way his life had been so far Drift wasn’t in the habit of writing off the worst case scenario just because it seemed unlikely.

What’s that thing Gasket used to say? ‘Hope for the best and plan for the worst’ or something like that.

If poachers did have Wing then there wasn’t anything Drift could do about it. All he could do was ask Ultra Magnus next time the huge mer sought Drift out to check on him.

With this in mind, Drift kept a sharp watch out for the Crystal Caves Speaker as he weighed anchor and pointed Wander’s bow homewards.

Despite his worries about Wing, Drift found himself smiling as he strapped his bin of fish to the back of his bike. The slow uphill slog to the WRC didn’t seem as steep as it used to now that he had friends waiting at the top of the hill.

It wasn’t just the strain of the long ride that had Drift’s heart beating faster when he saw Ratchet’s ute in the WRC carpark. He genuinely enjoyed talking to the redhead, looked forward to seeing him with some strange, cautious emotion that he didn’t want to look too closely at. Doing that might lead to awkwardness that had the potential to ruin a friendship he wasn’t afraid to admit that he treasured, so Drift let it be. He could almost hear Gasket laughing at his cowardice as he chained his bike up and untied the crate of fish and carried it in. 

He’d call me a chickenshit and ask if my balls fell off at Polytech.

“What’s that smirk for, Mall Goth?” Hot Rod asked, lounging along the tiled edge of the pool like some kind of fishy Playboy model. “Thinking ‘bout your girlfriend?

“Piss off.” Drift scoffed as he put the crate of fish down and stretched the aches out of his arms and back. “I’m thinking about what I’m gonna get your Mum for her birthday.”

Drawn by the sound of voices, Tailgate arrived just in time to hear Hot Rod’s reply.

“I was born from a test tube and raised by wolves,” Hot Rod said with immense dignity. “And I’ll have you know that my Mum takes her steak so raw it’s still kicking. She’s a wolf of extremely good taste.”

Growling, Tailgate surfaced and pulled Hot Rod back into the water with a massive splash. Drift jumped back just in time to avoid being soaked by the waves the pair created as they wrestled briefly before parting to prop their elbows on the side and stare expectantly at him. Tailgate wasn’t wearing a fin prosthetic today and Drift could see sore patches rubbed into smooth hide where the last one had chafed the small mer.

“Is it safe to approach, or are you going to pull me in too?” Drift asked not-entirely-jokingly. “I come with fish; please don’t drown me.”

“Is safe, for you.” Tailgate reassured him, before adding worriedly. “I thought Drift can swim?”

Drift already had the fish crate open  and tipped it to show both mer the contents as he answered.

“Yeah I can swim.” He said as Hot Rod and Tailgate grabbed their favourites out of what he’d been able to catch that day. “Doesn’t mean I can breathe water like you lot, though.”

Obviously burning to say something, Hot Rod did the unexpected by stuffing a fish into his mouth instead of blurting out whatever was on his mind.

“Huh. I forgot.” Tailgate frowned, carefully selecting a fish and throwing it back into the crate. “Drift; burn and eat that one. Need to eat more, you’ll never get a mate that skinny.”

All Drift could do was blink at the small blue-and-white mer as she bit the head off a kingfish, crunching it up with her eyes squinted shut and making a happy humming sound.

Drift was still staring when Tailgate swallowed her mouthful and saw him.

“What, Drift already have mate?” The small mer asked guilelessly, looking up at Drift with big blue eyes as she chowed down on the rest of the fish.

“N-no.” Drift stuttered, wondering where the hell this conversation had come from.

“Wrong words, ‘Gate.” Roddy chipped in. “So; you got a girlfriend, Drift?”

“No.” The response was automatic after having been asked so often at polytech.

“A boyfriend?”

It was damn near the last thing he’d expected to come out of Hot Rod’s mouth.

“What?! How d’you-” Drift thought his eyes might pop out of his head as he stared at the flame-coloured mer. “No!

“Humans are so weird.” Tailgate observed, rolling her eyes and rubbing at some itching scar tissue. “Doesn’t matter; if Drift wants boy or girl mate he still needs more fat to look like good hunter.”

“Did they put something weird in the water filters today?” Drift asked, feeling a little helpless with the way both mer seemed to have their teeth firmly in the subject.

“Nothing weirder than normal.” Hot Rod said with a grin. “Hey, do you prefer girls or guys, Drift? Neither? Both?

Drift could feel his face burning as he contemplated the answer to that question. He cleared his throat, trying to figure out the best way to answer.

At that precise moment Ratchet arrived and nothing, not even the threat of jail again could have gotten Drift to answer Hot Rod’s question in front of the other man. Thankfully, Ratchet’s presence seemed to be some mysterious signal to the two mer to drop the subject, although Drift was under no illusions that they’d forgotten about it.

Why the fuck do they even care, anyway?

Chapter Text

26

 

Both resident mer had been in a weird mood lately and Ratchet was dead certain they were up to something. He had a sinking feeling that he knew what they might be planning. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t seem to figure out how to warn Drift about both mer’s matchmaking tendencies without making everything weird. All he could do was try to head things off at the pass and hope things didn’t get too messed up.

Because ratchet was tired and in desperate need of a coffee (or five) he completely missed Drift’s arrival. It wasn’t until someone stuck their head into his office and told him that Ratchet found out that Drift was even planning to come to the WRC that day. Swearing under his breath, Ratchet ignored Moonracer’s amused expression as he slammed away from his desk and half-completed emails.

Determined to head trouble off at the pass, he went in search of Drift.

Familiar voices half-covered by the thrumming of pumping and filtration equipment led him right to the troublemakers and their potential target,

Even though Ratchet couldn’t make out what the mer were talking about he knew Roddy’s current tone of voice all too well. Unfortunately for Drift he wasn’t in time to save the poor kid’s dignity from whatever Roddy and ‘Gate were up to.

However he did arrive in time to see Drift blushing spectacularly at whatever Roddy had just said.

Despite the way the younger man ducked his head to hide, Ratchet could see that his ears and face were a dusky red, making his fading hair dye look almost metallic when long strands fell forward across his face.

“Ugh, I need to cut this stuff.” Drift muttered as straightened up, looking anywhere but at Ratchet as he pushed his hair back out of his face. “It’s getting way too long again”

A response reached the tip of Ratchet’s tongue and died there when he saw that Drift’s blush extended right down his neck and past the collar of his jacket. He could feel his own face starting to burn as he wondered how far down Drift’s blush went. His thoughts got stuck on that question and for the life of him Ratchet couldn’t think of anything to say before Drift noticed his silence or decided to look at him.

Hell. I’m not awake enough for this.

“What?! No, don’t cut it!” Hot Rod’s fins were twitching with agitation as he rose up in the water, supporting his weight on the edge of the pool. “It’s almost long enough to be useful!”

“Useful for what?” Drift asked, sounding equally suspicious and curious.

Ratchet heaved a silent sigh of relief, although he had no illusions about Roddy’s distraction being truly spontaneous. The flame-coloured mer shot him a sly sideways look and Tailgate was smirking all over her smooth, two-toned face where Drift couldn’t see her.

A sinking feeling in Ratchet’s stomach was only compounded by the way Drift seemed extremely interested in Hot Rod’s rather overblown descriptions of how he’d braided Ratchet’s hair. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ratchet could feel the dull ache of sleep deprivation turning into a full-blown headache as Hot Rod prattled on.

“He doesn’t sit still much for it these days but it looks awesome when I can get him to.” Roddy was saying enthusiastically. Then he turned to Ratchet, all excited enthusiasm. “Can I show him, Ratch? Please? You haven’t let me groom your hair in ages.”

The disastrous choice of words could only have been deliberate. Ratchet felt cold dread creep over him as Tailgate visibly perked up at the mention of grooming, edging closer while Drift gave Ratchet a considering look that made his stomach flip uncomfortably.

I’m too old for this. Any of this.

“Show me this hair-grooming?” Tailgate asked. It sounded like curiosity was eating the blue-and-white mer alive. “Show Drift too? Will be good for pod.”

Ratchet rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed, feeling his head begin to throb in earnest.

 

~V~V~V~

 

As keen as he was to see what Ratchet looked like with his hair done the way Hot Rod described –if the mer could actually do what he claimed- Drift recognised the expression on Ratchet’s face. He swallowed a laugh when he saw the deep lines of exhaustion and the dark bags under the redhead’s eyes. He half-listened to Tailgate, only really interested in one thing.

He looks absolutely shattered.

“What Tailgate said; and now’s as good a time as any, I reckon.” Drift announced, catching Roddy’s victorious look and double-thumbs-up out the corner of his eye as Ratchet just looked betrayed. Glad to be out of the metaphorical hot seat for the moment, Drift added; “I can go get food and coffee while you guys get started.”

“Sounds good.” Hot Rod said as Ratchet went pale, his eyes wide and white-rimmed. “We’ll meet you in the Community Room, right Ratchet?”

With that tone of voice Drift could have sworn that the flame-coloured mer would have been elbowing Ratchet if he could. It sounded exactly like the situations he’d seen time and time again at various nightclubs and dives around Rodion. Except this time he couldn’t smother his grin in time, flashing his fucked-up replacement canines at both Ratchet and the keenly interested Mer.

“Alright, I’ll see you guys there.” Drift said, shooting Ratchet a reassuring, deliberately fang-free smile as Roddy decided he wanted to punch the air for some reason.

Turning on his heel, Drift started to head in the direction of the WRC Staffroom, wondering if there would be enough sugar left for two coffees.

I bludge off them enough these days; I should probably start chipping in for that.

“DRIFT!” Tailgate’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “Don’t forget fish! Take and put in cold box so not go bad.”

Drift winced, mentally hitting himself over the head for the mistake. He hated wasting anything remotely edible. Worry about Ratchet had uncharacteristically blown any thought of the fish Tailgate had gifted back to him right out of his mind.

“Right. I’ll do that.” He said, returning to pick up the crate while Ratchet glared betrayal and a silent promise of revenge. “Thanks, ‘Gate.”

Smiling to himself and humming under his breath, Drift headed in the direction of food and coffee while the sounds of two mer trying to herd an unwilling Ratchet echoed behind him.

This… this is good.

 

Chapter Text

CH27

 

Making himself wait was one of the hardest things Wing had ever done.

He needed to wait, needed the Pod to drop their vigilance so he could try sneaking around the edges of their territory and in to where a certain human had his hunting grounds.

Half a moon cycle was as much as he could stand.

Loneliness ate at him; time stretching on in day after day of endless bleak sameness. He had food, he had made another dagger and found a protected resting place far outside Crystal Caves territory. What he didn’t have was company and he missed the presence of the Pod more with each passing hour.

The lonely silence settled into his heart, hollowing out a quiet space that it filled to overflowing.

On clear nights Wing watched the moon, traced the slowly swelling outline as it passed in front of shifting stars.

He had to see Goes-With-The-Currents, had to see Drift.

Just one more time.

Half a moon cycle. He had to be careful.

Time crawled onwards.

Chapter Text

28

 

 

When Drift’s lungs finally cleared up he got the GP to write an official something declaring him ‘Officially Healthy’. The middle-aged woman raised an eyebrow when he asked, but didn’t bat an eyelid when he explained why he wanted one. She typed, printed and signed the form with the attitude of someone who dealt with general weirdness on a daily basis.

As he paid the receptionist and left the Medical Centre Drift had to wonder what kinds of things the GP had dealt with that made patients with overly-protective mer friends look like just another day at the office.

She could just have a really good poker face…

He took the precaution of getting his official declaration laminated before taking it to the WRC, figuring the extra cost would be worth it in the end. There wasn’t much point in getting a doctor’s note if it got soaked or shredded before either mer got a good look at it, after all.

Even if ‘Gate can’t read I know Roddy can. He can help me convince the worry warts that I’m fine.

Tailgate being overbearing to the point of suffocation –from a human point of view- was something Drift expected, having been warned at least twice by nearly everyone who worked at the WRC. It had taken all his patience and then some to deal with the small blue-and-white mer, but he’d managed.

Ratchet’s quiet fretting had been totally unexpected and far more confusing.

Hovering subtly and making Hot Rod smirk, asking if Drift wanted lunch and offering him rides home from the WRC if there was more than a puff of cloud in the sky. It might have gotten annoying if Ratchet had been anyone else.

During the long bus ride back to Crystal Cove, Drift tried to work out what the difference was. Staring unseeingly out the window at the soggy day, Drift searched his memories for an answer.

It’s just… Ratchet being Ratchet. He’s like that with everyone at the WRC.

Over the months he’d been visitng the WRC he’d seen Ratchet going out of his way over and over again to make sure everyone who worked (or lived, in Hot Rod and Tailgate’s case) there was looked after. He never made a fuss over doing things for others; and if someone called him on it he passed it off as his almost pathological need to be busy all the time. Drift chewed on his bottom lip, trying and failing to suppress a smile when he remembered the way Ratchet blushed whenever Moonracer teased him about giving Drift a lift home.

Then a sobering thought occurred, wiping all trace of amusement from Drift’s mind.

Has he got anyone other than ‘Gate and Roddy looking out for him?

Drift’s reflection frowned back at him from the bus window, freckled by the raindrops smattered across the glass. Ratchet had almost fallen asleep the other day while Roddy was still elbow-deep in working on his hair, even though he had been sitting on the hard, puddle-covered tiles. Not only did that display an incredible amount of trust in the mer, it also showed that Ratchet was absolutely exhausted. As Drift knew too well there wasn’t much that either of the mer could do for Ratchet once he left the WRC.

Well I’m just gonna have to take over for them when he’s in places they can’t reach…

Drift spent the rest of the trip back to Crystal Cove trying to figure out how to start, ignoring the way his heart beat faster at the thought of seeing more of the redhead.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Predictably, Drift’s plans were upended by the weather.

When he woke the next day it was clear and fine out, forecast to hold that way for several days. He stood on the pedals all the way to the docks, flying down the slight incline so fast the wind stung his eyes and forced him to squint to see where he was going.

Now that he was familiar with the area and no longer being pestered by a scarily intelligent apex predator Drift was finally going to do something he’d been wanting to do for months now.

Dive.

He hadn’t been underwater since moving here and he missed it more than he realised. The weightlessness that was as close to flying as he could imagine, the way sound became muffled and distorted and the water pressure held him safely together so he wouldn’t fly apart.

Too many bad trips hallucinating that kind of shit.

Shivering in the brisk ocean breeze as he stripped, Drift pulled his wetsuit on as fast as he could so he didn’t have to see the lines of pales scars left to remind him of some of those trips. The tattoos he couldn’t avoid; all still as vivid as the day he’d gotten them, thanks to some genetic weirdness that went hand-in-hand with the prematurely silver hair. For some reason his dermis just held on to the ink like nothing else. With the suit on and zipped up he fought the flippers onto his feet and picked up the snorkel mask with a reluctant sigh.

Don’t wanna waste the air tanks on a short swim, and that’s all this is gonna be…

When Drift was ready he sat on the railing, pulled the mask over his face and pushed off, dropping into the water.

The water was far colder than he’d anticipated, sending Drift hurtling for the surface to spit the mouthpiece of his snorkel out and swear viciously, forcefully shoving wet hair away from his goggles. It wasn’t dangerously cold, but definitely chilly enough to be uncomfortable. Knowing that Crystal Cove was in a cooler climate with cooler waters than Rodion Port was one thing; finding out first hand was another.

I’m not telling ‘Gate about this. She’d only stop laughing long enough to shove Rivets Fish Sticks in my face…

For a brief moment Drift contemplated getting out and waiting another couple of weeks until the weather was warmer to try this. The wind felt like ice against his face, warning him about how it would feel when he peeled his suit off. He knew a quick solution for the wind. Shoving the mouthpiece back between his teeth, Drift braced himself with a deep lungful of air and tucked himself over in an awkward dive.

The instant water closed over his head he regretted the choice but he pushed onwards, knowing that he would get used to it soon enough.

I’m gonna get colder faster here.

Aiming down and at an angle relative to where Wander sat, Drift began to explore. He had given himself a short distance between Wander and the bhouys marking his crayfish pots, hoping it would be harder to get lost and disoriented with the obvious underwater landmarks of the bhouy ropes cutting dim vertical lines through the water.

Lampposts… or giant cell bars…

Lungs already beginning to strain, Drift reversed his angle and rose to float on his stomach just below the surface, blowing the water out of his snorkel and taking deep, slow breaths while he floated just within reaching distance of his first cray-pot bhouy. The water played with his hair, sending it floating in front of his face to get in the way no matter how many times he pushed it back.

Should see if Roddy can do something with it for me next time...

That was if the mer even understood the twin ideas of ‘simple’ and ‘practical’. From what Drift had seen the other day he very much doubted it. Still, by the time Roddy decided he was done with Ratchet’s hair the older man had looked amazing.

Maybe I he can show me how to do one of those French Braid things on myself?

Laughing quietly to himself at the absurdity of his life, Drift filled his lungs again and kicked his slow way downwards through the chilly water, using the bhouy rope as a guide.

Asking a ‘giant mutant goldfish’ for hair tips? My life’s a fuckin drug trip.

Smiling around the mouthpiece of his snorkel, Drift tried to see how far down he could get before he had to head back up for air.

 

Chapter Text

29

 

Timing was crucial.

As Wing left the hidden cove he’d made his home he was careful to steer clear of open water. Hugging the shelter of coastal shallows he made his slow and careful way back towards Crystal Caves territory. Anything even remotely mer-shaped had him shooting for the cover of rocks or kelp, heart pounding and fins flat to his body until the distant shape vanished or resolved into something that wasn’t someone from the pod.

Not my pod now…

It was hard to remember sometimes.

It took almost half the day to travel the same distance he’d covered in a few hours of straight swimming on the day of his exile and the closer he got to home the more anxious Wing became. He knew that he shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be doing this.

Shouldn’t have broken the rules in the first place, but when his curiosity latched on to something the rules had never stopped him.

A familiar motor-sound vibrated through the water just as he reached Drift’s trap-hunting place. Shooting for the shelter and safety of tumbled, weed-covered rocks Wing settled in to wait for the boat to stop or pass on. The motor sounded the same as Drift’s, idling slower as it neared. When it came within sight he could see the familiar faded sun-yellow hull below the water.

Drift...

But from his hiding place Wing’s couldn’t see on top. He was at the wrong angle to see if Drift was there.

For long, tense minutes Wing fought with himself, torn between the need to see and fear of being caught. Just as fear lost the battle someone jumped over the edge of the boat, entering the water with a graceless splash. Confusion held him in place, fins rippling and catching their uneven edges on the rocks surrounding him.

When the bubbles cleared Wing saw something he’d only seen a handful of times in his life.

A human in the water.

He wasn’t sure at first, hunkering down in his cramped, weed-covered hiding place to watch as recently-learned caution tempered his curiosity.

This human had hair that looked like Drift’s, but it was wearing a tightly fitting water-skin and some things around the head that it was using to breathe without having to leave the water.

The water-skin covered nearly everything, hiding the arms where Wing had seen patterns on Drift’s skin.

I’ve only seen Drift in loose shapes. Does he have a water-skin?

It was safer to stay hidden until he could be sure.

Landwalker friends of Drift had borrowed his boat before; it could be another one that Wing hadn’t seen yet, one who changed his head-stuff to the same colour as Drift. With this human out in the open water between Wing and the boat he couldn’t go check to see if Drift was on the boat without being spotted. He would have to wait until the human in the water-skin returned to the boat and took the thing off its head to find out.

The human wasn’t a very good swimmer by mer standards, never diving very far before returning to the surface. This baffled Wing for a long time as he watched from the safety of his rocky shelter, silently willing the human to turn in his direction so he could see the face.

Finally the short, shallow dives connected with a common Mer nickname for humans and gave him a reason for what looked like weird behaviour.

They can’t use water, they can only use air. So it has to keep going back up…

For the first time since his exile Wing was glad nobody was around to see his acute embarrassment. He knew he’d never hear the end of the teasing if they did.

It had just never occurred to him to wonder why humans were referred to as ‘air-breathers’ before. Now that he had the evidence in front of him it was absurdly obvious.

Somewhere in the back of his mind lurked the certainty that if the Pod heard about this Axe would laugh himself sick and Magnus would roll his eyes so hard all you would be able to see is the white.

Thoughts of the Pod had the homesickness threatening to overwhelm him again. Swallowing a sob, Wing shoved a memory of Axe’s smiling face aside and forced himself to concentrate on watching the human.

It was closer now, swimming with strong and confident motions, but on the whole it was graceless and inefficient as it moved through the water.

Maybe it just needs more practice?

Then the human turned and Wing saw.

It was Drift.

Drift in the water where they could meet face-to-face for the first time.

Suddenly nervous, Wing tried to hold on to his courage even as it slipped away from him. For some reason he’d never once pictured Drift in the water. In his mind Drift was a definitively air-bound creature. He worked on the boat, hunting with traps and lines, or walked through the human’s boat-place, or danced in strange graceful motions in the sun.

The possibility of seeing Drift like this had simply never crossed his mind. Drift was a being of boat-decks and dry land; this had been solid and unchangeable fact.

Until now.

Now they could talk easily, or even reach out and touch with no barriers between them. Endless possibilities whirled through Wing’s mind before it slowly ground to a halt as unwelcome reality intruded. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never thought this far ahead, never thought about what he’d actually do if he saw Drift today.

What am I doing?!

Heartsick, Wing watched as Drift dove again.

These thoughts and feelings, this undisciplined curiosity and his fascination with this human was what had gotten him exiled in the first place. If anyone caught him here they’d attack to kill, and rightfully so.

One tiny mistake on Wing’s part and he could very easily die before the next sunrise.

All because he wanted to see a human.

They were right. I’m a danger to myself. A threat to the pod.

The sheer magnitude of the risk he was taking, the full weight of his transgressions suddenly crashed down on Wing. A low sound of mourning rose to his throat, swallowed quickly as he remembered where he was.

Quickly, yes. But not quite quickly enough.

Drift heard, freezing and looking around for the source of the sound, pushing his flowing head-stuff out of the way with one hand while the other patted around his torso. The action was familiar. It was one Wing himself had been using a lot lately.

Is he… looking for some sort of weapon?

Whatever he was looking for, Drift didn’t find it. Wing caught a glimpse of fear-widened eyes before the human turned and started swimming back towards the faded yellow hull were it sat patiently in the water.

Suddenly Wing knew what he was going to do.

Leaving the safety of his hiding place, he called out.

“Drift!” One word, the human’s name in his own language before continuing in Mer. [Wait, please.]

Miraculously Drift stopped just below the surface, turning slowly to watch as Wing approached.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Drift almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing as the wild mer approached; swimming slower the closer it got to him.

Despite the familiar voice he wasn’t entirely sure it was Wing. This mer was a dingy faded-cotton red and dirty grey instead of rich ruby and brilliant, iridescent white. It’s fins were tattered, looking more like a towel Drift had hit with the lawnmower instead of the beautiful flowing things he thought he remembered.

This mer also moved differently, swimming with slow, heavy movements as if the slim body weighed as much as Ultra Magnus and the Wandering Sunlight combined. Drift had never seen Wing moving at anything other than warp speed -all hyperactive energy and fancy acrobatics in the water.

But there was no mistaking those golden eyes, the way they fixed on his face as the wild mer slowed to stop a bare few meters away from where Drift was treading water. Then he hung there, nearly motionless in the sea, almost close enough to reach out and touch.

It is Wing… damn, he looks like shit.

There were no injuries that Drift could see, but familiarity with the WRC’s pair of resident mer meant he was able to spot the signs of weightloss, could look past distracting scales and colouring to the thinning flesh underneath. Wing watched him with sad, haunted yellow eyes as he tried to figure out what he was supposed to do.

What does he want?

Questions tumbled over each other in Drift’s mind as he realised that some of the things he’d assumed were fins or small spines must have been decorations. So many of them were gone with no marks or scars left where they’d been. This Wing was so different from the mer who’d helped lead Drift to safety and thrown a fish at him that he may as well have been another creature entirely.

“Fuck, Wing.” Drift said the first thing that came to mind. “You look like shit.”

Or tried to say.

He still had the snorkel mouthpiece in so it the words emerged as a weird, muffled blat of sound. Wing flinched hard, fins slicking down as he looked wildly around them. When he figured out what had happened the mer gave himself a little shake, fins relaxing to flow around him in the water as he glared at Drift with a combination of embarrassment and annoyance.

Although the snorkel mask hid most of his face, Drift couldn’t resist pulling an exaggeratedly innocent expression and giving the mer his best ‘My bad?’ shrug. He didn’t know if the mer would understand, and he knew that he definitely shouldn’t be encouraging Wing and getting him into more trouble, but he was more worried now than he had been for the last few weeks.

Pointing up, Drift put a bit more strength into the kicking of his feet and rose until his head broke the surface. Regret was instant and total as his hair covered his face in a heavy, sodden mess that did nothing to protect him from the sharp breeze.

With a disgusted sound he spat the mouthpiece out and tried to push his hair away to see if Wing had followed him up. It only took a few seconds for him to get impatient give up and just lift the whole mask up, swearing as it caught and pulled at his hair. Something brushed against him and then another pair of hands touched his, warm and smooth-rough.

I did not just make that noise.

Stinging saltwater trailed down his face and into his eyes as Wing helped Drift lift the mask from his face. While he helped Drift untangle himself from the snorkel mask Wing was speaking in Mer, keeping his voice low as if he was afraid of being overheard. Drift thought he recognised a few words, ones he’d heard Tailgate use a lot when lecturing Ratchet and Hot Rod.

When the mask was clear of his face, Drift blinked saltwater out of his eyes and opened them to find Wing so close he could see every individual body-scale on the mer’s face.

“Um… thanks.” Drift croaked, his mouth gone suddenly dry.

Wing gave him a crooked little smile, headfins twitching half-heartedly.

Drift’s skin was tingling, his body buzzing with the knowledge that he was less than spitting distance from one of earth’s most intelligent apex predators. They had almost no ability to communicate, he was in Wing’s element and absolutely defenceless. Wing wasn’t like Hot Rod or Tailgate, he wasn’t constrained by walls and dependence and a passing knowledge of human customs. If Drift fucked up -even a tiny bit- the mer could maul him and leave him for dead and there was nothing Drift could do about it.

It was electrifying.

Drift hadn’t felt this alive since he’d raided an Autobot drug house armed with nothing but a hunting knife and a half-clip of ammo between his two guns. His heart pounded in his chest as Wing’s long, ragged fins brushed against his wetsuit again.

Licking dry lips, he grinned at the mer floating opposite.

“So… what’s up?”

Dull fins twitched, Wing blinking rapidly as he stared intently at Drift’s mouth. Then he raised his gaze to Drift’s and something in his golden eyes sent Drift’s heart from his mouth to his feet.

Then Wing spoke.

Drift couldn’t hear a lot of what Wing said; the mer’s voice was almost too quiet to make out over the sounds of the sea. But Drift could hear the tone of it. He could see the message in Wing’s expression and the thick, gelatinous tears that gathered in those golden eyes as the mer finished speaking his piece.

Goodbye.

Wing was gone before Drift could respond, sending saltwater everywhere as he rolled and vanished into the deep.

By the time Drift got the water out of his eyes again and looked around himself there wasn’t even a hint that the mer had ever been there.

The screaming of gulls overhead sounded like mocking laughter as Drift forced himself to head back to the boat instead of searching pointlessly for the mer. Back on deck and shivering in the cold breeze he looked at the endless empty swells until he started shivering in his wetsuit.

“Stay safe, finface.” He muttered at last, finally turning his back on the sea and reaching into the storage locker for his orange-and-purple jersey. “Take care of yourself out there.”

Chapter Text

 

30

 

It was getting very repetitive.

Every couple of days Ratchet’s shift started with a rehash of the same conversation.

“So.” Hot Rod sounded as hopeful as always. “Have you asked him out yet?”

Ratchet closed his eyes and briefly fantasised about throttling the hybrid mer. It would be difficult, pointless and all it would really accomplish would be to give Hot Rod another reason to laugh at him. But it might also make Ratchet feel better.

Tailgate would probably help me, just for the entertainment factor.

“No.” Ratchet said shortly as he slipped his sandals off and stepped into the examination pool. “I haven’t.”

At least this time Hot Rod had waited until they were alone before bringing it up.

Right now Tailgate and most of the ‘front of the shop’ staff were in the outreach room working with a small school group and Moonracer was stuck on the front desk. With a gloriously sunny day outside the windows of the Centre there was next to no danger of Drift showing up unannounced before mid-afternoon at the very earliest.

This meant Hot Rod had at least a good, solid hour of uninterrupted pestering time ahead of him.

Oh lucky me, all alone with the matchmaking mackerel.

With Ratchet now kneeling up to his waist in the water he was thoroughly trapped and they both knew it. At least Hod Rod had the good grace not to look too smug about being able to interrogate him openly as he approached, slowing to a stop beside the redhead.

He could just be freaking out about the checkup.

With all the progress he’d made, the hybrid mer still had his share of bad days. On those days he found it extremely difficult to deliberately turn his back to a human –even someone he trusted as much as Ratchet. It still had to be done, though. Some of the scales around Hot Rod’s many scars had a tendency to becoming ingrown and it was easier to inspect the mer every couple of weeks, to catch the ingrowing scales before they could cause problems.

All it had taken was one bad infection for Hot Rod to grit his teeth, breathe deeply and force himself through one shaky exam after another until it was as routine as it would ever get.

Ratchet got to work the instant Hot Rod went still, checking the fine tracery of scars patterning his upper back with gentle fingers and a sharp eye for any changes. As he worked the conversation slipped to the back of his mind, almost forgotten by the time the mer spoke again.

“Well I can tell you with 90% confidence that even if Drift’s not into guys in general he’s definitely into one guy in particular. Dunno what that says about his taste in men, though.” The mer announced, nodding decisively as he shifted and flicked his fins aside to let Ratchet move on to the faded scars of his lower back. “The whole thing’s fairly academic to me; but grumpy, ginger, and workaholic aren’t usually what people put into dating app profiles.”

“The fuck would you know about what people put in their profiles on dating apps?” Ratchet asked distractedly. “You and Tailgate getting that desperate to marry me off, are you?”

“We’re trying to find you a hot sugar daddy with a boat and a big dick.” Hot Rod returned the banter smoothly, going for maximum crudity as he did so. “Or a nice pair of tits to go with the boat; we’re not limiting the options yet. What’s the harm in that?”

Ratchet wrinkled his nose and made a disgusted noise, heroically resisting the urge to headbutt the warm expanse of orange-red dorsal scales he was inspecting.

“The harm is to my sanity.” He growled, flicking one of the spines that supported Hot Rod’s long, flowing fins. “I swear you two are going to land me in a padded cell one of these days.”

“Not a chance.” The mer said cheerfully, twitching his fins and shooting Ratchet a bright grin over his shoulder. “They’d never get through Tailgate.” Then he shifted, ducking his head briefly to wet drying scales before resurfacing to continue. “Honestly though, we were checking to see if Drift was on any of them. We couldn’t find him, even with Cliff helping us. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.” Hot Rod was silent for a moment as he pondered before adding; “I think all the profile photos nearly broke Tailgate, though.”

A lightbulb clicked on in Ratchet’s head.

“Is that why she was flexing and pulling duckfaces for those tourists’ selfies the other day?” He asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“Yeah.” Shaking his head, Hot Rod laughed quietly. “She thinks it’s the funniest thing on earth. I have to agree with her.”

Ratchet made a noncommittal sound as his mind raced, trying to remember if he’d ever deleted a certain old profile from his paramedic days.

Fuck, I can’t remember. I’ll have to check tonight.

“So Wing’s been exiled, huh.” Roddy suddenly changed the subject in one of his trademark blatant, lightning-quick redirections.

Hot Rod was perfectly capable of indirectly leading a conversation around to something he wanted to know, if he felt like doing so. The best Ratchet could figure out was that these obvious changes of subject were deliberate, even though he wasn’t sure yet what the point was.

“From what Drift described of his appearance, I’d say so.” Ratchet felt his heart sink at the implications Drift hadn’t seemed to grasp. “I don’t know if it’s temporary or permanent, not without asking Magnus myself.”

Hot Rod froze at the mention of the mer who was Speaker for the Crystal Caves Pod.

“How do you get in touch with him again?” He asked too casually. “Not like you can just call him or anything.”

Hot Rod always acted odd when the subject of Ultra Magnus came up. To this day Ratchet still hadn’t figured out if the hybrid was jealous of the way the Speaker was universally respected, envied him his freedom or if he was simply worried for Ratchet’s safety whenever he was in something smaller than a battleship whenever he met the mer.

He’s a damn big guy, that’s for sure. And dangerous as hell.

Especially after it got back to the WRC that Magnus had once rammed a small poaching boat, sending someone faster to fetch the coastguard while Magnus stayed to watch it sink and keep the crew from abandoning ship and escaping.

“He touches base with Drift about once a month or so.” Ratchet said as he shuffled sideways, done with the thin tracery of scars on Hot Rod’s back and moving on to the mer’s tail. “If the weather stays fine I’ll be going out on the boat with Drift tomorrow. Hopefully Magnus shows up.”

“And even if he doesn’t that means you get lots of lovely alone time with Drift.” Roddy teased, changing the subject again. “You have to tell me all the juicy details when you get back in.”

The flame-coloured mer sounded exactly like a gossipy teenager, perfectly happy despite the way his fins twitched and flattened to his body as Ratchet carefully manipulated a thick patch of scar tissue partway down his tail. This old injury had healed particularly badly and Ratchet only had the sketchiest details of how it had occurred. He persisted despite Hot Rod’s twitching, searching for signs of problems the mer himself might not necessarily notice.

Those bastards killed all the nerves in this area with that one, damn them.

“Yeah, alright.” Ratchet paused just long enough for Roddy to glance back over his shoulder and start to look excited before growling. “When pigs fly. ”

“You asshole.” Roddy pouted, dropping his head to rest his chin on his folded arms with a splash. “I hate you.”

“Uh-huh. Sure you do.” Ratchet frowned, carefully manipulating the area around a hard little lump about the size of his smallest fingernail. “I think we’ve got an ingrown scale here. You want to hold still so I can try getting it now?”

Suddenly all business, Hot Rod nodded.

“Go for it.” The orange mer rolled his shoulders then forced himself to relax. “You know I can’t feel shit right there.”

“Just don’t try to tell Moonracer I was torturing you again.” Ratchet growled as he reached for his waterproof kit. “Poor kid nearly had a meltdown when I asked her what was wrong, last time.”

“That was ages ago; and it’s not my fault you scare the new people.” Hot Rod defended himself, smaller fins twitching with indignation as Ratchet rubbed a disposable swab over the bump of scar tissue that concerned him. “We should weaponise that resting bitch face of yours, it would make the WRC a small fortune in the arms market.”

“Do I even want to look at your browsing history?” Ratchet asked cautiously as one steady hand held Hot Rod still and the other one wielded a scalpel with smooth, practiced motions.

“I cleared it, I’m not an idiot.” Big blue eyes flashed in a disturbingly accurate imitation of a pinup model fluttering her eyelashes as Ratchet freed the malformed scaled and rinsed the small incision with antiseptic . “You know; if I had my own phone I wouldn’t need to see what kinds of porn are in the search history on yours.”

“Any porn is only in there because you put it there.” Ratchet snapped, finally giving Hot Rod the reaction he wanted as he tucked his gear back into the ‘dirty’ side of the pouch. “I’m done here. Do you want a little froggy bandage on it since you were such a good little fish?”

Hot Rod’s eyes went wide with outrage and his fins flicked flat, then flared back out.

“Shut up.” The mer snarled, rolling off Ratchet’s legs and using the momentum to throw a handful of water right into the human’s eyes. “Asshole.”

Ratchet was already laughing when the water hit him, almost inhaling some and choking as he continued to laugh at the flame-coloured mer’s reaction.

Mean, but worth it.

“I’m not talking to you now.” Hot Rod huffed, although he didn’t immediately leave as he would have if he’d been genuinely angry.

Safely out of splashing range (but still well within Hot Rod’s known lunge-and-grab range) Ratchet’s phone bleeped and started buzzing, clattering it’s way loudly along the wall.

“Well at least someone wants to talk to me.” Ratchet wheezed around salt-heavy water and continued laughter, brushing waterlogged hair back out of his face with both hands.

“Whoever it is has shit taste in friends.” The mer declared, following at a distance as Ratchet stood and waded to the edge of the pool.

Hauling himself up onto the tiles surrounding the exam pool, Ratchet shook his hands sort-of dry before grabbing his phone to check the messages.

 

Hey Ratchet. Weather looks like it’s going to be good tomorrow. Do you still want to come out on the boat?

 

“Who i- hang on, I know that face. It’s Drift, isn’t it?” Suddenly Hot Rod was right there, shoving into Ratchet’s space and trying to see the phone screen. “What’s he saying?”

Long familiarity with the mer’s antics combined with total disregard for the fact that his legs were being (deliberately) squashed beneath Hot Rod’s weight allowed Ratchet to keep hold of his phone just long enough to fire off a reply before it was snatched away.

Absolutely. Same time at the marina?” Hot Rod read aloud, lounging across Ratchet’s legs as if he was perfectly comfortable. “Ugh. That’s not gonna get you laid, Ratchet. Here, lemme just…”

A surge of pure panic gave Ratchet enough strength to lunge for his phone. Hot Rod let him grab it as he rolled off the redhead’s legs and back into the water, his laughter echoing from the walls.

Chapter Text

 

Drift’s alarm went off early.

Far earlier than it normally would, even on a fishing day.

Grumbling, he switched it off and flopped back onto his bed, trying to figure out why the hell he’d set the thing for such a godawful time of day.

It took a few minutes to wake up properly. Drift lay on his back, frowning at a patch of orange light on the ceiling from the streetlights outside, listening to the first birds of the day warming up around the neighbourhood while his brain crawled reluctantly away from sleep.

Finally he woke up enough to remember why he’d been crazy enough to set his alarm for the asscrack of dawn.

Ratchet, boat. Going out on the boat with Ratchet. Want to be early.

The instant reality finished filtering through the lingering haze of sleep Drift rolled himself out of bed with a groan and went in search of clean clothes.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Drift was already at the marina when Ratchet arrived.

Ratchet raised an eyebrow when he saw the familiar bicycle chained to the fence, handling the gate easily despite having his hands full of takeaway coffee and a large paper bag from one of the better bakeries that was open at this time of day. His shoulderbag (Roddy called it a ‘man purse’ when he was bring obnoxious) slapped against his thigh as he took the increasingly familiar path along the wooden wharf to where Drift moored the Wandering Sunlight.

The younger man was puttering around Wander’s deck. He looked like he’d been awake for hours, almost obscenely alert and energetic despite how early it was.

Ugh, morning people.

When Drift saw him coming he waved just as the sun finally hauled itself up over the horizon. The low-angle light was blinding if you caught it at the wrong angle. Which, naturally, Ratchet somehow managed to do so as he tried to climb the short ladder to board Wander without using his hands.

Dammit!

Suddenly Drift was there, grabbing him by the forearm and steadying Ratchet as he overbalanced forward and almost faceplanted into the deck. The bag of food dropped like a stone, hitting the deck with a muffled thump while Ratchet continued to stagger forwards. With Drift’s help Ratchet was at least able to save the coffee. He couldn’t seem to find his balance as the deck bobbed beneath him, ending up crowding Drift up against the cabin in an extremely compromising and undignified way.

Not that Ratchet’s dignity had survived long past his introduction to Hot Rod.

If I hadn’t been on call that day…

Drift was close, far too close. He blinked up at Ratchet from where he was being squashed against the wheelhouse, a dark flush travelling across his face. Ratchet silently blessed the inventor of lifejackets, because the extra layer of padding between them kept Drift from being able to feel the way his heart was trying to thump its way out of his chest.

The way their legs had ended up made untangling themselves even more embarrassing than falling on his face would have been. It was too early in the day, the conversation with Hot Rod too fresh in his mind for Ratchet to think of anything to say that might ease the awkwardness. Instead he mumbled a semi-coherent combination of thanks and an apology for almost crushing the younger man, handing him one of the coffees that had miraculously survived the entire incident without losing too much of their precious contents.

Too focused on hiding his burning face he didn’t really hear Drift’s response. He was too embarrassed to look Drift in the face as the younger man handed him a lifejacket, looking anywhere and everywhere else as he tried to put the thing on one-handed.

Ratchet managed by passing his own coffee from hand to hand to free up each arm as needed, reluctant to let go of precious caffeine this early in the day. By now Drift knew him well enough not to risk coming between Ratchet and coffee in the morning by offering to hold it for him. But as Ratchet stole sips in between doing up buckles and tightening straps one-handed he clearly heard Drift snorting with amusement.

A horrible thought occurred to Ratchet as he finished putting the lifejacket on and took another sip of his coffee, wondering at the watery flavour.

I’m so glad nobody was around to film that fiasco for Roddy…

Looking up to see if Drift had his phone out, Ratchet caught the moment Drift finally tried his coffee and started swearing loudly and creatively. He held the paper cup at arms length and stared at it like it had bitten him as he scrubbed the back of his hand over his mouth.

“What the fuck is this?!” Drift demanded, eyes wide as they flicked between Ratchet and his coffee.

“Probably mine.” Ratchet said, deftly swapping their drinks and taking a sip form the one he’d originally given Drift. He hummed happily at the sweet, strong flavour. “Yeah, this one’s mine. Sorry ‘bout that.”

Drift stared at him as if he thought Ratchet was possessed.

“That’s not coffee, that’s jet fuel.” He said with utter certainty, side-eyeing Ratchet as he took another, longer drink. “You could power a fucking city with that stuff. No wonder Roddy hates you drinking so much coffee if this is how you have it!”

That stung a bit.

“I don’t always have it this strong.” Ratchet said defensively, stooping to grab the bag of breakfast to keep it out from underfoot as Drift started casting off. “Only when I have to be up at some godawful time of the day.”

Drift gave him a doubtful look as he coiled the mooring ropes, raising a single white eyebrow.

“If you have a heart attack you can drive yourself to the bloody hospital.” He said. “I’ll find a way to bring Roddy along later so he can point and say ‘I told you so.’”

Wincing at the implications of Drift’s words, Ratchet braced himself against the railing as Wander’s engine turned over and the boat shuddered slowly into motion.

“Those two worry-warts have been telling you stories, haven’t they.” He stated flatly. The almost prim expression on Drift’s face as he carefully navigated their way out of the marina was so out of place on someone who’d lived and thrived in Rodion’s gangs that he had to laugh. “Look, Hot Rod exaggerates things and Tailgate is overprotective because of the small size of her current Pod on top of what happened to Rivets. Trust me, there’s no reason to worry about me.”

Drift frowned, glaring at the light chop that greeting them at the harbour entrance, his knuckles going white on the controls and throwing ragged scars into sharp relief. Ratchet’s heart gave a weird doubletime thump-roll as he realised that yes, Drift had actually been worrying about him.

Well, people do worry about their friends…

It was hard, much harder than normal to cling to the Conversation died off as Drift guided them through the harbour, Wander’s sturdy engine rumbled away beneath them and the air rushed past. Then they reached the end of the low-speed zone and conversation became impossible anyway as Drift sent them skimming and jouncing across the choppy early-morning sea. Ratchet tried to ignore the stay bits of hair whipping his face as he worked on his coffee and watched the familiar coastline unroll past them.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Drift paid more attention to his steering and the ocean in front of him than he had since his first trip out to where his crab traps were set. He was acutely aware of Ratchet’s presence, wanting to make a good impression of his competence at the same time as his worried about everything that could possibly go wrong and tried to figure out how to deal with problems before they came up.

Part of him wanted Ultra Magnus to come check on him that day, but a traitorous corner of his mind reminded him that no Magnus today meant more time spent out here alone with Ratchet.

It was hard to find the time to hang out; snatching a couple of hours here and there around their irregular work schedules, Drift’s parole requirements and the demands of the WRC’s resident Mer. There was always someone around, too. Drift hadn’t realised how much it bugged him until Roddy started hinting that he should ask Ratchet out, and every time he gathered the courage to ask the redhead if he’d like to go do something together (coffee, lunch, anything really. Drift wasn’t fussy and didn’t have much experience to draw on) someone came along and he lost his nerve.

Probably a good thing. He shouldn’t get involved with someone on probation and… does he even like guys, anyway?

His body still tingled from when Ratchet had accidentally pushed him up against Wander’s wheelhouse.

For one crazy instant he’d thought the redhead was about to kiss him, then the moment had passed and left them in awkward silence that would probably stretched out forever if Ratchet’s hadn’t screwed up their coffees.

Ugh, how can he drink that stuff?!

As Drift slowed Wander and brought her around to stop near the first of his bhouys, he flicked a glace at Ratchet. The older man was leaning against the rail, ignoring the stiff breeze blowing his long ponytail over his face. He was still working away on his coffee, eyes half-closed and apparently quite happy to endure the odd mouthful of hair if it meant he got some caffeine into his system.

That reminds me…

Drift’s coffee had cooled but it was still perfectly drinkable. He downed it in long swallows while Ratchet helped with the first crab pot –much to Drift’s surprise. When he thanked Ratchet for both the coffee and the help, he seemed even more flustered and uncomfortable than he usually was when faced with gratitude.

“It’s the least I can do.” Ratchet’s wind-reddened face turned a few shades darker as he fiddled with the latch on the crab pot. “You help keep the finheads fed and you keep them occupied. Having a bigger pod has been extremely beneficial for Tailgate. I don’t think you realise just how much you’ve been helping everyone, even without the extra fish.”

Now Drift was blushing again. He could feel his ears burning, something warm and fuzzy filling his chest and flipping uncomfortably in his stomach when Ratchet glanced up through his windblown hair. The fluorescent lifejacket made his eyes look brighter than normal, overpowering the dingy minty colour of today’s jersery.

“It’s only a couple crabs and the odd fish every now and then.” Drift fumbled over the words; tongue gone suddenly clumsy as his face burned hotter. “And I like hanging out with you guys. Nobody up there treats me weird, it’s… nice.”

Gasket would piss himself laughing if he could see me now…

Ratchet frowned as he straightened up, scrubbing his hands off on his jeans before shoving all the loose hair back out of his face with one hand. Before he could say whatever on his mind a familiar deep, resonant voice came from somewhere just off Wander’s bow.

Ultra Magnus to the rescue.

For someone who had been notorious for talking his way out of all kinds of incriminating situations with the law, it was humiliating for Drift to even need saving from what was just an awkward conversation.

In this instance, with his face burning and those strange feelings tying knots in his guts Drift was willing to eat humble pie and jump on the distraction created by Magnus’ arrival.

Yeah, Gasket would have a total field day with this.

As he headed for the railing, Drift could almost hear his old friend’s mocking laughter in the screaming of a trio of gulls that were fighting over landing space on Wander’s canopy.

Rare good memories brought a smile to Drift’s face as he braced himself for the conversation to come.

Chapter Text

32

 

Ultra Magnus’ body made a small island in the surface chop that was easily as long as Wander’s pale yellow hull. He looked as unbothered by the waves as he always did, easily keeping a comfortable distance between himself and the boat with small movements of his hands and body-fins.

Compared to Wing he looked almost disgustingly healthy, with a nice thick blubber layer under bright, healthy hide that was marked only by the odd well-healed scar. Drift’s anger simmered as he wondered if Wing was being starved as a punishment, even if it didn’t make sense for them to do so. The air self-confidence and sheer authority surrounding Magnus kept any angry words safely behind Drift’s teeth.

Somehow he managed to exchange a polite greeting with the mer, instead of immediately demanding an explanation. As Magnus responded, Drift wondered once again if the Speaker for the Crystal Caves Pod was unhappy to see him or if he just had a serious case of Resting Bitch Face.

I think it might just be his face.

Now that he was looking for things like it, Drift noticed that Magnus had what looked like a knife made of some weird, translucent material strapped to the inside of his forearm. It seemed a bit like overkill, given that between his size, strength and the short claws on his fingertips the huge mer was pretty much a weapon all by himself.

He’s like… a swimming APC or a floating tank or something.

When Ratchet approached the railing it took every ounce of self-control Drift had not to push Ratchet back behind him, even though the older man was more than solid enough to make it extremely difficult. He stuffed the pointless surge of protectiveness down, but wasn’t distracted enough to miss the way Magnus practically beamed when Ratchet joined him at the rail.

It wasn’t anything like Tailgate or Rodimus’ grins, let alone the way Wing seemed to be able to smile with his entire body. It wasn’t much more than a slight relaxing of his face and his mouth looking a bit less frowny, but compared to his normal stoic expression Magnus was grinning from ear to ear.

“Ratchet, I had not expected to see you today.” Ultra Magnus was extremely polite, as always. “It is very good to see you again.”

A cold, bitter lump formed in Drift’s stomach as he glanced at Ratchet to see the redhead openly grinning at the huge mer.

Of course they’d get along.

Drift let them do most of the talking, happy to stay on the sidelines for now. As badly as he wanted to know what had happened to Wing, he knew he’d have to go about it the right way if he didn’t want to get the mer into any more trouble.

Seems like he’s good enough at doing that on his own, without any help from me.

After a while Ultra Magnus brought the conversation around to the WRC’s pair of resident mer, asking questions that Drift thought were plain weird –especially about Hot Rod. It didn’t seem to bother Ratchet any, and he enquired after the health of the Crystal Coves Pod with frankness that had Drift blushing and shifting uncomfortably at the rail. Ratchet didn’t seem to notice this, but Magnus caught it alright. The amused sidelong glance the big blue-and-white mer gave him had Drift wishing that he could fall through a hold in Wander’s decking to hide in the hold. Especially when Magnus answered with what was far too much detail, in Drift’s opinion.

Is he doing this on purpose?

“Talking about the Pod; is everything ok with that red-and-white guy who used to check on me sometimes?” Drift asked, trying to stay as causal as possible. “Wing?”

Drift wasn’t sure if Magnus knew about Wing’s most recent visit but he wasn’t about to get the mer in more trouble than necessary. The expression –or lack of one- on Magnus’ face wasn’t reassuring, but Drift forged onwards despite the way Ratchet was making ‘cut it out’ gestures at him below the railing where the large mer couldn’t see.

I’m not a fucking snitch.

“I haven’t seen him around in a while, and last time he showed up he didn’t look too good. He’s not sick, is he?”

There was no mistaking it; not this close. Frown lines cut across Magnus’ smooth-skinned face and his arms rippled as he clenched and unclenched his fists.

“Wing knew his actions were against our laws,” Magnus said calmly, adjusting his position in the choppy water. “He also knew what the consequences were be when he made the choice to break them; the stress of this is likely what caused the symptoms you noticed.”

“So the idiot did get busted.” Drift muttered to himself. “I fucking told him to stay out of trouble.”

As usual, he’d forgotten that mer hearing was much better than humans’. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Magnus answered him.

“Many have tried and failed to keep Wing in line over the years.” Magnus eased himself closer to the boat, bright blue eyes nailing Drift’s feet to the deck. “It is no failing of yours that he would not heed your words; even if he understood them.”

Ratchet muttered something about another brightly-coloured mer that had Drift fighting down laughter, but he sobered quickly at the hint of resignation on Magnus’ face.

Either he’s gotten easier to read or I’ve been spending too much time around Tailgate.

“So what’s happened to him?” Drift swallowed convulsively, wrapping his fingers tightly around the railing as his palms itched for the weight of his old guns. “Is he out hauling rocks or something?”

Ultra Magnus gave him a long, sober look before answering. Drift was the veteran of so many staredowns with various types of authority he couldn’t remember them all, but Magnus’ sheer intimidation factor still gave him a stupid urge to shoot or run.

Or shoot and run.

“Wing was caught in the act of violating some of our most vital laws.” Even though he sounded almost apologetic, Magnus didn’t so much as twitch a fin as he continued. “As a result of this he has been exiled.”

“What the FUCK?” Suddenly Drift didn’t care that Magnus was easily three times his height and massively outweighed him. A familiar red haze started creeping across his vision; one had dropping to the pocket where his knife lived while the other grabbed Wander’s railing in a white-knuckled grip. “What the fuck do you mean he’s been exiled?” Pure rage dropped his words right back into the Rodion street-slang drawl that Officer Dai and his tutors at Polytech had forced him to drop so he’d have better odds at succeeding in this second chance.

The huge blue-and-white mer thought for a moment, obviously choosing his words carefully. Drift tried to wrestle his temper back under control, forcing himself to breathe slow and deep.

“Specifically, Wing has been formally stripped of his affiliation with Crystal Caves Pod and the right to reside within the territory claimed by the Pod.” Ultra Magnus pronounced some words slowly, as if they were ones he didn’t use often. “The term of his exile is limited to three moon cycles, but if he returns before that time has passed he will be treated as an enemy.”

Movement in Drift’s peripheral vision was Ratchet looking down at the railing he was still leaning on. Drift thought the redhead was frowning, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from Magnus long enough to find out.

“What did he do?”

The question burst from Drift without permission. He thought he could probably guess the answer, but he wanted to know for sure.

Idiot!

“I overlooked Wing’s behaviour so long as he did nothing but watch.” Ultra Magnus was obviously talking his way around a direct answer, skin twitching the way Tailgate’s did when she was nervous or frustrated. “After the incident with the salmon I could no longer afford to do so. As our most promising young hunter and warrior he needs to set an example, and despite his potential we simply could not afford to look the other way.”

Drift could read between the lines easily enough.

Booted out because he wouldn’t listen and stay the fuck away.

It was harsh. Drift wanted to say it was cruel and unfair as well but he couldn’t. He’d operated under similarly tough codes of conduct once he’d earned a place in the D-Cons. Punishments for screwing up didn’t stop as you moved up the ranks, they just moved out of the public eye.

If inked members didn’t follow the rules there’s no way in hell the prospects would even try…

Drift understood the reasoning and necessity for Wing’s punishment right down to his bones; but it didn’t mean he liked it.

Magnus misread his stony silence as anger.

“Wing knew the consequences of his actions and yet he chose to disobey.”

“I told him to fuck off and stay the hell away but he wouldn’t fucking listen.” Drift snarled, hands gripping the railing so tightly they started to ache. There was a familiar ringing in his ears, pure rage slowly stealing his ability to think. “When he comes back you’re going to let me kick his ass.”

Beside him Ratchet made a choking sound, and Ultra Magnus actually smiled at him.

“If he returns I will consider your request.” The mer said, voice equal parts amused and sad.

It felt like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over Drift’s head. The rage-fuelled haze evaporated in an instant, leaving him hollow and cold.

If he comes back?”

“Exile is one of our strongest punishments, and difficult for our kind to endure.” Ultra Magnus was definitely sad now. “It is one we do not hand out lightly, and most times with deep regret because many do not survive.”

Drift didn’t have anything he could say to that.

 

~V~V~V~

 

The conversation didn’t last much longer after Magnus dropped that bombshell on Drift.

Ratchet listened as the other two traded information about the movements of fish, people and odd currents as if they were reciting a script. When they were done Magnus excused himself and retreated to the deeper waters where he slipped out of sight, vanishing beneath the waves.

Because he was watching, Ratchet saw the expression on Magnus’ face when the mer cast a last glance back at Wander and the humans aboard.

He looks absolutely gutted.

The trip back to the marina was subdued. Drift fumed silently at the helm, hands white-knuckle tight on the controls. Ratchet didn’t know what to say. He desperately wanted to help, but everything that popped into his head sounded stupid or trite.

It was Drift who broke the silence when they reached shore, soberly meeting Ratchet’s gaze as they finished mooring Wander and Ratchet pulled out the bakery bag he’d forgotten about when Magnus had turned up.

“Sorry for flipping out like that.” Drift said sheepishly, accepting a scone. “I’m so fucking pissed off with Wing for getting himself into that much shit. Is… is exile a common thing, in the Pods?”

“It’s only used in the most extreme cases.” Ratchet allowed, heart aching for the bright, cheerful mer Drift had described and he’d seen only that once. “You’ve seen how much social contact Tailgate needs; even Rodimus, though he can handle solitude a lot better than the wild-born mer… It’s the most severe punishment they have outside of execution.”

Drift shuddered convulsively, a haunted expression crossing his face before he regained control of himself and stuffed the last bite on his scone into his mouth, chewing and swallowing in a hurry.

“But it’s temporary, so if he survives he’ll be able to go back.” Drift asked, eyes searching Ratchet’s face for hope the redhead didn’t have.

“Yes.” It was the truth, but he could tell that Drift finally understood just how hard it would be for Wing to manage it.

Sighing, Drift turned away and picked up a crate, heaving it onto one shoulder.

“Then I’ll just have to ask Magnus in a couple of months and get him to pass on an ass-kicking from me.” The younger man sounded more optimistic than Ratchet felt, and he didn’t have the heart to disillusion him.

Let him keep his hope. Who knows? He could be the one who’s right about this…

 

Chapter Text

33

 

After Wing’s revelation it was almost easy to say goodbye to Drift.

If he survived his exile, he’d never seek the human out again.

I’m sorry.

He was barely aware of the return journey.

Sunk deep into a fugue state, swimming slowly and paying no attention to his surroundings. In this condition he would have been an easy target for an opportunistic predator or someone from the pod, if any had seen him.

Luck was with Wing for the first time that awful moon cycle; he made it back to the sheltered bay undetected, heading straight for the rocky outcropping just offshore that was full of hiding places for a lone mer.

By the time he returned it was too dark to hunt and prying shellfish from the rocks seemed too big a task to for his overwhelmed mind and exhausted body. Ignoring the gnawing in his stomach, Wing wriggled into a shallow cave behind the rootstocks of heavy bull kelp and dropped straight into sleep.

While Wing slept he slept he dreamed of friends and family; of a time before meeting Drift, before the yellow boat and Goes-With-The-Currents, of a world where this exile hadn’t happened.

Waking to find himself still alone was so painful Wing thought his heart might break. He curled in on himself, muffling keening sobs in the dull scales and ragged fins of his tail.

After that particular storm of grief ran its course he stayed where he was, drained and exhausted. There was no point in moving. He was exiled. There was nobody to talk to, no tasks to carry out for the pod and no demands on him.

Nothing to do; no reason to do anything.

The passage of time lost all meaning. Minutes crawled by like days and hours flew in the blink of an eye.

When the day reached late-afternoon the sun started to send shifting patches of light into Wing’s hiding place, startling the exiled mer.

Finally the realisation that he hadn’t eaten in nearly two days pushed him just far enough out of his lethargy that he left his hiding place in search of food.

Again he got lucky, surprising a small dogshark on his way to pick mussels. The first bites were forced, mechanical. Then fresh blood awoke his sleeping appetite and Wing devoured the rest of the small shark so fast his empty stomach cramped in protest.

Dropping the remains of the shark a safe distance away from the outcropping, Wing retreated back to the shelter of his shallow cave. Once hidden behind the kelp he curled around the matching aches in his belly and heart.

This became the routine of his days.

Sleeping as long as he could, clinging to dreams where he wasn’t alone. Waiting for the afternoon or evening to hunt simply because a full belly made sleep easier.

Gradually he got to know the patterns of the local humans, learning which times of day they used the beach. When it was safe he’d cruise into the shallow estuary and take advantage of easy pickings for crabs and flounder.

After a while it didn’t matter if he hunted or not.

All sense of hunger disappeared. It was consumed by the yawning emptiness that had opened up in his chest, an ache that nothing but the presence of his pod could fill.

Some days he couldn’t leave the cave at all; sheer loneliness draining all strength from his body.

On clear nights the moon taunted him, crawling through a quarter-cycle with agonizing slowness.

Waking got harder with each day that passed. River water made the estuary taste weird and his head ached, the slightly cooler waters of this area sometimes freezing him to the core. It distracted Wing, made him slow and sloppy in his hunting.

Once or twice one of the local humans startled him while he hung in the water, fixated on tracking a flounder across the sandy mud of the estuary.

Figuring the aches and chill to be the effects of hunger he tried to make himself eat more, but the local fish were wary of him now. He’d lost the element of surprise, hadn’t tried to learn their habits well enough to be truly effective without that edge. His few successes were enough to keep him going, but not much more than that.

By day Wing slept or hunted.

By night he slept or watched the moon.

Time crawled slowly onwards.

Chapter Text

34

Drift was annoyed.

Prowl was on holiday, the cop having gone home for his little brother’s birthday. It was apparently a Milestone Birthday of some sort, a concept that Drift just didn’t get. Even he could see that the cop needed a holiday as badly as Ratchet did, so there was a thread of guilt winding through the annoyance at having to spend a day getting the train to Crystal City for his scheduled parole meeting instead of just biking down to the Crystal Cove police station.

A temporary change of your Parole Conditions…

The words and the contemptuous expression on the Crystal City cop’s face when he’d looked at him rolled around the inside of Drift’s head. It kept going as he stopped on the footpath outside the Court building, fishing his phone out of his pocket. It echoed on repeat, tugging at some other memory as he checked the weather report and growled, completely disgusted at the universe.

If I hadn’t had to come out here I could have had a whole afternoons’ fishing.

The money from the extra fish he’d been bringing in lately was being split between paying off his loans and cleaning out all the blankets in the second hand shop in Crystal Cove. The snapper were biting really well lately, and the price that posh waterfront restaurant was giving him for the fish lately made a wasted afternoon a definite loss.

You can never have too many blankets.

Staring at the forecast app, Drift knew he’d happily trade every last dollar from an entire months’ fishing to know how his candycant-coloured stalker was doing.

Temporary… Magnus said that the exile was temporary

Drift’s stomach gave a sickening lurch as he remembered just how flexible ‘temporary’ could be.

Making a mental note to ask Ultra Magnus just how long he’d meant by ‘temporary’ next time he saw the mer, Drift shoved his phone back in his pocket and headed towards the main street. He had a couple of hours to kill before the next train back to Crystal Cove and nothing much to really fill it with. He was wandering slowly up the street, trying to decide if it would be worth grabbing some things from the big department store or waiting until he really needed them when he heard someone shouting his name.

It was an all-too-familiar voice, coming from the other side of the street.

Turning, Drift forced himself not to flinch as he saw Whirl waving at him over what passed for traffic in Crystal City. With his worries about Wing revived with a vengeance the last thing Drift wanted was to deal with the abrasive ex-army pilot.

“Oi, Drift!” Whirl yelled cheerfully, short hair falling forward over her eyepatch. “Stay there!”

Doing a runner would be far more trouble than it was worth. If Whirl didn’t already know where he lived she’d have no problem finding out.

I’m fucked.

Resigned to his fate, Drift waited patiently as Whirl hobbled across the road with blithe disregard for oncoming vehicles. Given what he’d learned of Whirl’s career so far, Drift was fairly sure by now that if someone ran into her the car would be totalled and Whirl would walk away with a couple of bruises and maybe a scratch.

Huh, maybe that’s how she broke her leg?

“So Consuela, what brings you up here to the big smoke?” Whirl asked, barrelling onwards before Drift could answer. “I finally got that fucking cast off, they’ve given me this boot instead. You wanna come celebrate with me?”

“I’m not drinking in the middle of the day.” He said stiffly, deliberately ignoring the nickname as Whirl threw an arm around his shoulders and started dragging him along by main force. “Until you Auto-assholes we have standards.”

“Piss off! I don’t mean with booze, you fuckwit!” Whirl combined scorn and cheerfulness with enviable ease. “There’s this weird new place that does Bubblety and I wanna see if they measure up to the real stuff. My shout, whaddaya say?”

If it’s food…

“Alright, if you’re buying.” Drift said as Whirl whooped and picked up the pace, towing him along the footpath. “What the hell is borble-tee?”

The answer was so out-there that Drift instantly knew the pilot was making it up. Still, he knew by now that despite the constant trash-talking Whirl wouldn’t actively try to get him into trouble. It might be an accidental by-product, but any mischief would be well within the bounds of the law if anything actually did go wrong.

Deciding to see if this promise of free food was a good one and walked beside Whirl as she continued to tell him about bubble-tea. He almost laughed when he saw the shopfront and realised he’d be spending the next two hours or so in a moderately snobby cafe drinking something very weird with someone he would have shot on sight not even four years ago.

And actually looking forward to doing so.

Gasket was right. Life is fucking weird…

 

~V~V~V~

 

It was a quiet day at the WRC.

The low thrumming of the pump-room machinery made a soft background to the distant splashing of Tailgate working with the prosthetics specialist. With the cetacean-type’s command of English now good enough to not need a translator, Ratchet and Hot Rod were taking advantage of the opportunity to hang out and chat (gossip, actually) like they used to do daily before Tailgate had arrived.

It’s nice to do this again.

They were on a ledge in one of the deeper pools, Ratchet using the mer as a backrest while he carefully groomed away shedding scales with a soft brush. Hot Rod was on Ratchet’s phone; trying to find tutorials for the elaborate braid he wanted to inflict on Ratchet for the next staff costume party.

Anything but another toga. Anything but that!

As usual, the mer was harping on about Drift again while he trawled through search engines while Ratchet yearned wistfully for earplugs.

“So why won’t you ask him out?” Roddy asked with genuine curiosity.

Please don’t go there again,” Ratchet sounded as exhausted as he felt. “I’ve already told you. Even if he was interested I’m far too old for him.”

The mer flicked his upper-body fins dismissively, holding his tail still so Ratchet could work around the thick barbs of his spinal fins without losing an eye.

“That’s utter crap and we both know it.” The words were precise and crisp, leaving Ratchet no wiggle-room to speak of. Hot Rod twisted around to look at Ratchet over his shoulder. “Remember when I nicked your wallet?”

 

~V~

 

“Remember when I nicked your wallet?”

Ratchet met Roddy’s eyes warily, brush going still at the edge of a scale-less scar.

“I assume you mean the most recent time you nicked my wallet.” Ratchet said dryly. “Yeah, what about it?”

“I showed Drift your drivers’ licence.” Hot Rod grinned at the horrified look on Ratchet’s face, bracing himself for the human to make a quick escape.

“You WHAT?” Ratchet went dead white then flushed to the roots of his hair.

“I showed him your drivers’ licence.” Roddy repeated himself slowly, adding; “You’re only a few years apart, or something like that. It’s not as big a deal as you’re making it out to be!” Roddy flared aggressively, daring Ratchet to challenge his point.

“Just drop it, Hot Rod.” Ratchet broke eye contact and looked back down at the damage section of tailfin he’d been working on. “He’s not interested and I’m not doing the dating thing again. Too busy dealing with this place and all the drama that goes on here to have the time for it.”

“Ratch,” Roddy knew he didn’t usually speak this seriously, so it was even more effective when he did. It dragged Ratchet’s attention back as he curled awkwardly around himself to put one of his hands over the human’s smaller claw-less ones. “Don’t let that Misty bitch ruin this part of life for you, ok? I want you to be happy and you know you need people around to be happy. She was full of shit and you know it.”

“But…” Ratchet tried to break in but Hot Rod didn’t give him a chance.

“Look, we both know I’m going to spend my entire life alone. I’m never going to be able to find a mate.” His fins slicked flat to his body as he continued, voice going hard as he forced himself to speak the bitter truth. “Not that I’d be able to do anything, anyway. I’m just some fucked-up freak who got a lucky break.”

It was easy to see that Ratchet wanted to contradict what he was saying, but he couldn’t find the right words when forced to confront reality.

Even if Roddy could be released into the ocean, the psychological scars he bore were still too deep for any sort of healthy life in the wild. The hybrid still struggled with the legacy of his life before the WRC but he kept his issues hidden from as many people as he could. Ratchet was one of the few aside from the Triumvirate and Hot Rod himself who knew everything, and one of the reasons he trusted the redhead was that Ratchet never once given him false hope or tried to palm him off with meaningless words of empty comfort.

“Honestly Ratch, what I have now is way more than I ever dared hope for when I was with them.” He said again after a while, voice softer and forcing a crooked little smile onto his face as he looked Ratchet in the eye and gave the human’s hand a little squeeze. “I’ll be ok so long as I have you guys. I mean it.”

If Ratchet had never knowingly lied to Hot Rod, then the hybrid mer had always told him the truth so far as he knew it himself. It was one of the first things they’d ever promised each other, all the way back in the swirl of noise and chaos that marked the beginning of Roddy’s freedom.

“Just ask him, ok Ratch? You guys are the closest thing to a real Pod I’ll ever have and I want you to find mates and be happy.” Hot Rod said earnestly, trying desperately to make Ratchet believe what he was saying. “Come on; a chance at happiness the least you deserve after everything you’ve done for us here and all the crap you’ve put up with on top of it.” He could see the man wavering and went in for the kill, ruthless as the Triumvirate or Tailgate could be when chasing prey. “Drift’s definitely into guys, even Moonracer knows it. Promise me you’ll think about working around to asking him?”

Eyes shining suspiciously, Ratchet jerked his head in a nod and sent a tear spilling down his cheek.

He’s gotta be absolutely shattered. I haven’t seen him cry about anything since…

Hot Rod heaved a sigh of relief and pulled the redhead forward into an awkward hug. He knew the human had been overworking and under-sleeping again and pretended he didn’t notice the sniffing as Ratchet tried to get himself under control.

“Thanks, Roddy.” Ratchet mumbled, giving him a careful squeeze.

“You can thank me by giving yourself a chance to be disgustingly happy with him.” Hot Rod said, squeezing back and politely ignoring the way Ratchet sniffled near his ear. “And if he screws you around I’m front of the line to beat his skinny ass.”

That half-hearted chuckle was all Roddy needed to hear to know he’d won.

 

Chapter Text

35

 

Having extracted that promise from Ratchet yesterday, Hot Rod was quite happy to let the subject of the redhead’s love life be for a while.

I’ll be damned if I let that woman ruin the rest of his life!

The hybrid was in a vicious mood, having spent the night happily imagining what Ratchet’s Ex would look like if he hamstrung the bitch and watched her try to crawl for a first aid kit while coconut crabs chased after her. Following that had been many gory fantasies of vengeance involving vivisection and the finning group who’d hit Rivets Pod.

Some of those humans had been caught and faced trial in a Court of Law. A few of them were still in prison and Hot Rod watched the court news like a hawk, both anticipating and dreading the possibility of parole.

I’m always a bloodthirsty son of a bitch when I’m tired.

It had been a bad night. Tailgate had been in and out of nightmares, screaming like nothing Hot Rod had heard since escaping the Triumvirate. Between breaking Tailgate out of the grip of those nightmares and weathering his own flashbacks, Hot Rod hadn’t slept a wink.

As always, Ratchet somehow picked up on how he was feeling and easily avoided saying or doing anything that would provoke him. Tailgate wasn’t feeling up to human company, staying out of sight by hiding out in ‘her’ pile of fake rocks in the back parts of the social pool complex. She’d probably be there until well after the WRC closed in the evening.

At least there aren’t any school groups today…

They weren’t doing anything in particular. Ratchet was pacing back and forwards along the edge of the pool, muttering to himself while Hot Rod borrowed his phone to abuse the WRC’s wifi data and tried to talk the man into sitting down for a minute.

‘Thinks better while he’s moving’ my nonexistant arse.

“Roddy, I think I’ve got it.” Ratchet said suddenly, changing the direction of their conversation with the subtlety of a bulldozer. “Pass me my phone; I need to get this sent.”

“Dictate it to me while you have lunch,” Hot Rod ordered, switching to Ratchet’s e-mail with a few quick flicks of painfully dry fingers. He licked at the back of his thumb while the app loaded. “I’ll type it up for you and you can read it over after you’ve eaten.”

Ratchet wavered visibly, actually stopping in place and looking in the direction of the staff lockers with a pensive expression on his face. Taking a deep breath, the human lowered himself to sit with his legs crossed, eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose as he took a deep breath and tried to find a reason to shoot down Roddy’s suggestion.

And he’s gonna agree to do it in three… two…

“Hey Ratch, got another call here about that solitary Mer down the coast.” Moonracer’s voice preceded her into the room. “I think you should take this one.”

Fuming quietly, Hot Rod just barely managed to keep himself from telling the young woman to shove the phone up her arse. He’d been this close to making Ratchet eat his lunch while sitting down today instead of while he worked and Moonracer had just thrown the whole idea out the window.

Ratchet’s knees crackled as he stood up, the noise sending sympathy shudders down Hot Rod’s long spine.

That sounds nasty.

“Shingle Creek again?” Ratchet asked tiredly, straightening up slowly and holding a hand out for the phone. “That loner has a weird sense of humour.”

“No, the one near Kenledi. Been getting more reports of it hanging out in the rivermouth and…” Moonracer’s expression dropped. She shook her head hard, short aqua-dyed hair flying everywhere. “You should just take the call. They’re holding on four.”

“Alright then.” With his Professional Face falling solidly into place, Ratchet turned away and was already greeting whoever it was who’d decided to ruin the quiet hour of sitting down Hot Rod had planned for him.

Dammit!

Slapping his body-fins against the water to get Moonracer’s attention, Hot Rod waited until she was actually looking at him to start pouting angrily up at her.

It was extremely gratifying to see guilt join the worry on her face.

“Thanks for that, Moonraver.” He growled, rolling onto his back so he could get the best effect as he folded his arms and continue the pout. “That was the first time he’s sat down all day. Now you get to make sure he actually eats his lunch instead of forgetting about it.”

“Oh shit, I didn’t know.” She sagged, looking down at the tiles. “I’m so sorry.”

“Well now you do.” Tipping upright again, Roddy met the human’s pale greenish eyes and held them in a glare. “You’d better make up for it later on.”

Moonracer swallowed and nodded; her over-straightened hair going everywhere.

“I will.” She said fervently. “There’s some paperwork sort of stuff I need help with, I can make him sit down and help me with that.”

“Good.”

Silence reigned for half a minute or so, before the awkwardness became too much for the human.

“So where’s Tailgate?” Moonracer asked, changing the subject as she blew a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “Normally she’s at the windows in the morning to say hi and stuff but I haven’t seen her since yesterday.”

Hot Rod wrinkled his nose and shook his head slightly. Even though it had been years he still felt weird openly discussing the reasons for someone’s behaviour with most humans. Even though they all knew that Tailgate had zero problems with the other members of her ‘new Pod’ discussing her business between themselves.

Even though I know no ones gonna get hurt it still feels like they might.

“It’s a Bad Day.” The phrase had a special meaning in the WRC, one he knew Moonracer would understand immediately. “She had a prosthetics fitting yesterday. It brought up all the shit that happened and it really hit again that she can’t go home.”

Moonracer had the job of updating and maintaining the WRC page on Tailgate’s progress; photos and all. There was video there, too. Hot Rod had watched it all while trying to find out what the human authorities were doing about what had happened to Rivets Pod.

If they were going to do anything at all.

“Oh no!” Moonracer’s hand flew up to cover her mouth when the too-loud words echoed back to them over the watery backdrop soundtrack of the WRC. “Does she just want some time alone or should we start planning an intervention?”

“…I think she’ll be ok.” Hot Rod said after a while. “Maybe bring your flute tomorrow? She should be ready for a good cry with company by then.”

“Gotcha.” Moonracer nodded then frowned, chewing on her lip. “I’ll pick up something from the shop on my way in, too.”

It was the best they could do. All they could do to comfort their friend.

I hate feeling this useless.

“So when are you gonna do your eyebrows to match your hair?” Hot Rod asked, blatantly changing the subject to something less depressing for the both of them. “You know this way everyone can tell it’s not your natural colour.”

Moonracer stared at him, blinking twice. Then she started laughing.

“You jerk!” She said between giggles. “I know you know human hair doesn’t come in colours like this!”

“Almost had you going for a minute there.” He said smugly, grinning widely. “You’re improving, little Moon-Moon. So; do you know what are you’re going to the staff party as, yet?”

“I have no idea.” Moonracer sighed, running a hand through her hair. “I wanna do something easy but I just can’t think of anything.”

“You know if you ask nicely I’ll help you come up with a costume.” Roddy pointed out, fins twitching with mild annoyance.

She really is a total airhead.

“Really? You would?” Moonracer asked breathlessly. When he nodded she squealed and bounced on the balls of her feet, looking like she was about to launch herself at him for a hug. “Thank you so much Roddy! You’re the best!”

Grinning, Roddy finger-gunned up at the overly excited young woman.

“I’m a mer on a mission, sweetcheeks.” It was his best impression of an old-school New York Gangster accent.

Given the way Moonracer stuck her tongue out at him and giggled like someone half her age, the accent still needed a lot of work.

That was an issue for another day. Right now Hot Rod had bigger and more important fish to fry. Resting his elbows on the smooth tiled edge of the pool, he laced his fingers together and used them as a chinrest as he smiled up at Moonracer.

“So;” He asked, “How do you feel about togas?”

 

~V~V~V~

 

Holding the phone between ear and shoulder, Ratchet listened intently to the person on the other end as he added entries to the Kenledi Loner map-file.

They’d been receiving calls about this particular of a lone mer for several weeks now. This particular area had a small river and shallow tidal lagoon, not really big enough for anything other than recreational fishing. A rocky reef lying just beyond the surf line provided something a little more challenging for local sport-fishers but wasn’t accessible from shore. The local township was mainly populated by retirees and sociable hermits. They were the ones who’d been calling the WRC since the loner turned up.

That place is the ass-end of nowhere. If they didn’t have a petrol station it wouldn’t even be on the map!

It wasn’t exactly comfortable to stand like this, leaning over the back of a chair and tying with his arms out in front like a zombie. Somehow he managed. It wouldn’t be for long. A few questions later and Ratchet was thanking the concerned Kenledi local and hanging up.

Putting the phone down, he straightened up with a sigh of relief, stretching the crick out of his lower back before frowning down at the screen.

Time and date markers were colour-coded, forming a spotty almost-pattern over the map of Kenledi’s tiny estuary and surrounding coastal waters. The entries he’d just made glared bright on the screen, older ones faded out underneath them.

Looks like it starts about after Wing was exiled… Maybe?

It was probably a coincidence. Kenledi was several days’ travel down the coast for a mer of Wing’s type, even swimming fast. Shaking his head, Ratchet forced thoughts of the red-and-white mer from his mind as Moonracer’s laughter echoed faintly down the corridor.

The most important –and alarming- thing was the description of this particular loner’s appearance.

Grabbing the mouse, Ratchet closed the map and brought up the images folder related to this particular case. There weren’t many photos and most of them were blurry, long-distance cellphone shots further corrupted by bad lighting.

None of that mattered in the end. The evidence was clear.

Ratchet’s heart sank.

The Kenledi Loner wasn’t well.

And getting sicker…

Chapter Text

36

 

Ratchet glanced over the images one more time, adding his guess about the lone mer’s health before forcing himself to close the file and put his worry aside. There wasn’t anything he could do to help the lone Mer down at Kenledi right now, and he had two permanent residents to keep sheltered and fed.

And I drew the short straw on this one.

Staff above a certain level took turns applying on the WRC’s behalf for the various funding grants and disbursements from charitable foundations that the place was eligible for.

Nobody liked doing it, nobody could be bribed into taking it on as a permanent part of their workload and everyone was horrified by the idea of Hot Rod doing it. He’d offered several times –probably joking at first, but as his social media presence had taken off the offers had gotten steadily more serious. They suspected the hybrid was intending to deliberately leverage his newfound power on the WRC’s behalf and every single person who knew Hot Rod was wary of the consequences.

So it was Ratchet’s turn to open up the relevant template documents, make the necessary changes and add some paragraphs of pretty, frilly words asking as nicely as he could for the money required to keep the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre functioning. Hot Rod, Tailgate and any injured Mer that came their way depended on it.

Cliffjumper is still the best at this, no matter how much he bitches about it.

It took several tries but he eventually had something that sounded so trite he thought it just might work. Ratchet submitted the application with a sigh of relief, groaning as he tried to stand up and his back decided to inform him that yes, he’d actually forgotten that there was a perfectly good chair right there. One that he’d forgotten to use.

Again.

Swearing, he jammed his fists either side of his lower spine, stretching against the pull of spasming muscles. To add insult to injury he missed the sound of the door opening and nearly fell on his ass when Moonracer burst into the room.

“Ratchet! There you are!” She babbled, looking agitated as all hell. “Hey look, I really need your help with something.”

The ‘something’ turned out to be some sort of legal paperwork. It looked fairly straightforward to Ratchet, but Moonracer swore she’d been trying all week and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Given that it had been a quiet day he had no problem sitting at the front desk and walking her through it. Moonracer still insisted on bribing him with coffee and some strange fruit-based replacement for chocolate that he grazed on almost constantly while they worked.

The rest of the afternoon was as close to truly peaceful as any day at the WRC could be. With Tailgate in self-imposed isolation Roddy was free to ‘entertain’ (his word) any visitors and generally harass those members of staff he considered to be friends with impunity. Ratchet had a brief moment of concern when he saw the hybrid exchanging winks and thumbs-ups with Moonracer when they thought he wasn’t looking.

No, I really don’t want to know what they’re up to.

Despite the way Moonracer acted sometimes she was a grown adult and she should know better than to get dragged into Roddy’s mischief. Rolling his eyes, Ratchet ignored Hot Rod’s antics and signed out.

All through the drive home the Kenledi Loner preyed on Ratchet’s mind.

The best anyone could tell from the blurry cellphone photos sent to the WRC was that it was one of the lighter, finned bodytypes with a regular patterning of dark and light splotches. Given that it liked to come into the estuary during the early mornings or in the evenings when the lighting was bad it was hard to tell if it was black and grey or rusty brown and cream.

Loud sirens approaching an intersection from the side kept him in place when the lights turned green. A few seconds later an ambulance screamed past; barrelling through the intersection with lights and sirens going full tilt.

Ratchet’s stomach clenched, heart hammering as he fought with old training that had him him about to follow. Honking from the car behind him brought him back to the present, clinging to the steering wheel with clammy hands. He payed absolutely scrupulous attention to the road for the rest of the drive home, white-knuckled and listening to his heart racing as adrenaline pounded through his body.

When he pulled into the driveway he turned the engine off, leaned his head on the steering wheel and sighed. His phone buzzed, an incoming message making it dance across the uneven countertop. Sighing, he grabbed it before the Roddy-proof thing could fall and checked the screen.

Drift.

Ratchet stared at the screen for a long moment, tempted to tell Drift about the lone Mer down at Kenledi, the one that might –just might - be Wing. Thumb hovering over the keypad, he hesitated.

All they knew was that the Loner was light-coloured with darker blotches, liked to come into the estuary around sunrise or sunset and moved too unpredictably for anyone to get a good photo. Yes it appeared to be solitary, yes it had showed up at a time very close to the beginning of Wing’s exile, but they just didn’t know enough to be able to say for sure who it was.

Unless they had a positive identification he wouldn’t tell the younger man. He didn’t want to get Drift’s hopes up, or worry him unnecessarily.

That would just be cruel.

Especially if Wing didn’t survive his exile.

Feeling very guilty, Ratchet tapped out a reply to Drift’s message and sent it before he could change his mind.

I’ll call the Coastguard in the morning, so they can keep a watch out for poachers.

It was all he could do.

 

~V~V~V~

 

At some point Wing had to admit that he really wasn’t well.

He was weak, his body feeling heavier than it ever had despite losing so much weight he could now fit easily into the shelter of his half-cave in the rocks.

Sometimes fever would grab him in its jaws and shake him until he thought he would die. For some reason death never came for him. Just when he thought the torment was finally at an end the fever would pass, taking the nightmares with it. Every return to lucidity was a shock. Wing would come back to himself a bit weaker and thinner than before, wondering how long it would be until this exile finally claimed him.

Time passed, but he didn’t know how much.

Whenever he had enough energy to leave his shelter in search of food the best he could do was try to glean a few handfuls of the bigger mussels from the rocky outcropping that he knew might soon become his final home.

It wasn’t enough to keep him alive; nothing like the amount of prey he knew he’d need to recover from whatever illness plagued him. Wing knew he was just prolonging the inevitable. Knew it all too well, but didn’t have it in him to give up.

Not yet.

Sometimes he would get lucky and a random burst of energy would coincide with high tide.

Whenever this happened he would head into the brackish water of the estuary and do his best to snatch up the flounder and crabs populating the muddy seabed.

He was nowhere near as fast as he used to be, missing more of his attempts with each trip. For someone who had been one of the best hunters of Crystal Caves Pod it was absolutely humiliating to fail so often when he was hunting the easiest prey. Each missed target chipped away a bit more of his confidence, added more shame to the burden he carried.

Eventually, the only thing Wing could bring himself to focus on was simply surviving. Trying to breathe and swim with the aching, leaden weight of loneliness dragging him down.

Together illness, depression and isolation reduced his normal caution to dangerous lows.

He was no longer paying attention to the time of day or checking for human presence before swimming into the estuary.

Many, many times he didn’t see the humans on the beach or in the water until it was too late. When he noticed finally them he would turn and flee in a panic, blindly seeking the open ocean or the shelter of the rocks.

After a while he realised they couldn’t chase him that easily, so he would risk lingering just long enough to snatch at something edible before riding the river current back out to sea.

Sometimes he wondered if any of them knew Drift, but the thought was too painful to contemplate for very long.

Then one morning he heard a boat approaching the rocky reef he’d started to think of as home. It had been so long since he’d heard an engine that for a single, blazing moment he thought it was Drift. Sliding out of his cave he pushed slowly through the thick kelp, all his speed gone and most of his strength with it.

A dark shape approached, coming steadily closer. The sun was bright overhead, shattering through the surface and dazzling Wing’s eyes as he squinted up at the boat. It was about the right size, but something seemed off about the rest of the hull. He forced himself further up, fighting for altitude in the water and letting the boat do the main work of closing the distance between them.

Then he saw it.

Two motors at the back, a solid silvery-grey hull the same colour as a stormy sky.

Sheer terror gave Wing the strength he needed to make it back to the rocks before the boat reached him. Burrowing into the kelp, he didn’t realise he was sobbing with fear until he was trying to curl into the back of his shallow rock cave and wondering where the creaking noises were coming from.

Biting down on a piece of bitter kelp to keep himself quiet, Wing listened to the off-time sound of the twin engines as the unfamiliar boat circled the area.

It’s looking for me.

After an eternity of waiting the humans finally have up and left. Wing waited for hours; sure they’d come back.

Come back with nets and spear-guns…

Tense and shivering with stress he swore only to leave the safety of his rocky shelter at night when it would be much harder for the humans to see and catch him.

Eventually the initial heart-pounding fear of capture slowly dulled to a fatalistic acceptance of what looked like inevitability.

Illness or the humans would end him eventually; it was just a matter of time.

One or the other would claim him.

Wing was no longer confident that he would make it to the end of the three moon cycles to return to the pod.

When he could think clearly he was realistic about his chances. He had lost too much weight, had been slowing down dangerously even before illness had started draining him. Now, desperately sick and alone as he was it would take a miracle for him to survive this fever without the care and support of a Pod around him.

He still dreamed of it sometimes. His sleeping mind weaving wonderful illusions of caring hands soothing him, someone helping him to eat -or the gentle warmth of Ultra Magnus’ large body chasing the cold out of his bones and the soft rumbling croon of a lullaby chasing away nightmares.

Nightmares of what his self-absorbed obsession with a human could have done to the Pod.

In some ways it was a relief to wake and find himself alone. To know the nightmares weren’t real.

I could have killed them all… I’m so, so sorry…

Sticking to his new nocturnal timetable as best he could, Wing continued to deteriorate.

To a deeply-buried part of him it felt like justice.

Chapter Text

37

 

Drift was as good as his word.

Two days after the phonecall from Kenledi, Ratchet was out with the younger man on Wandering Sunlight, helping to haul up crab pots and scanning the sea for any sign of Ultra Magnus.

He had his Landlink Token tucked inside his shirt, just in case.

Hopefully it wouldn’t be needed, but given the subject he wanted to question Magnus about, Ratchet suspected that he’d need the weight of that to make sure the Speaker dealt with him fairly.

Tailgate does keep saying that Crystal Caves isn’t the same sort of Pod as Rivets, so their customs could be totally different…

This time he didn’t trip over his own feet while boarding Wander. A gleam in Drift’s eyes and the knowing smile the younger man gave Ratchet as he accepted a coffee showed that he hadn’t forgotten the incident either.

Although he was kind enough not to tease Ratchet about it.

Cruising out to where Drift’s crab traps were was smooth an uneventful. Neither ban tried to talk over the engine noise. Ratchet was content to sit on the decking out of the worst of the wind, watching the strong lines of Drift’s back and legs as the younger man steered the boat with easy confidence. He had re-dyed his hair in the day or two since he’d last visited the WRC. Grinning to himself, Ratchet tried to make a mental map of the blue dye stains on Drift’s ears and neck. It was difficult with the wind blowing the younger man’s hair around, but it gave him an excuse if he got caught staring.

Ratchet finished off his coffee long before they reached the first of the crab pots, so he tucked his hands under his arms, leaned back and let himself relax. He was half-asleep when Drift cut the engine, rousing himself with an effort and accepting a hand to get up to his feet. The clasp of Drift’s chilly fingers woke up him up quickly. Thankfully the younger man let go and turned away before Ratchet acted on his impulse to try rubbing some warmth into Drift’s hands.

Ah well, I don’t want him to think I’m going silly on him.

They hauled the first crab pot up together, but he let Drift open the fiddly thing before reaching in for the first hard-shelled captive.

They established a rhythm quickly, working in tandem to measure the scrappy, angry crustaceans for acceptable size against a guide Drift had etched and painted into the back railing. Drift still seemed a little hesitant about rolling his sleeves up around him, even though Ratchet had already seen the scars and collection of prison, gang and purely aesthetic tattoos that covered the younger man’s arms.

From what Ratchet had seen of them in the past it looked like every time Drift had gotten a scar he’d made sure at least part of it was covered by a tattoo. It didn’t seem like he’d bothered much with touch-ups when existing ink got damaged; one or two tattoos were clearly favourites and had been kept pristine, the rest had been left to become a strangely fitting tapestry of chaos. The overall effect looked deliberate, reminding Ratchet every time of the state of his own ink –faded or ruined by scars he was too ashamed to let anyone see.

Doesn’t matter that it wasn’t my fault…

“So what’s with Roddy doing your hair?” Drift asked, neatly distracting Ratchet from his thoughts as he carefully slipped rubber bands around the claws of an acceptably large crab. “He looked like he really knew what he was doing, does he do it a lot?”

“Fairly often.” Ratchet said with a shrug, sliding a too-small crustacean politely back into the water and reaching for another. “Has its uses. If his hands are busy he’s not getting into trouble.”

Drift laughed, trying to shake his vividly blue hair back from his face instead of using a slimy wet hand.

“Sounds about right, for him.” The younger man observed. “So how did all that get started? Hairdressing courses don’t sound like standard enrichment for the finny guys.”

“Nope; that’s just Roddy.” Ratchet said absently, trying to grab the last crab without getting pinched by the angry captive. “He stole Chromia’s phone one night and went on a massive internet binge.” Remembering the bill the WRC had dealt with after that incident made Ratchet wince. “By the time she figured out what had happened he was probably a third of the way through all the braiding tutorials ever uploaded.”

“Huh.”

Drift tossed the now empty wire crab trap back into the sea with a quiet grunt of effort. The muscles in his arms caught the light as they shifted smoothly under tattooed skin, hypnotising the redhead until Drift snapped his fingers in front of his nose and called him back to the waking world with a grin that glued Ratchet’s tongue to the roof of his mouth. He could feel himself turning red with shame at having been caught staring.

I’m going to throttle Roddy for putting stupid fucking ideas into my head.

“Maybe I should ask Roddy to do my hair next time I go diving.” Drift’s eyes sparkled in the sun as he laughed, his face looking a little bit redder than it should have. “Maybe that way the bloody stuff with stay out of my face.”

By the way Drift kept laughing as they worked on hauling up the next crab trap, he clearly meant the comment as a joke. That didn’t matter, because it took root in Ratchet’s mind and flowered into something brilliant that worked toward solving several problems that had been frustrating WRC staff for the last couple of weeks.

“Actually, that’s a good idea.” He said, surprising Drift into silent, open-mouthed staring. “Good for Roddy and ‘Gate I mean; maybe not so good for you when your hair gets caught in his scales or he forgets that getting your hair pulled actually hurts.”

Drift blinked at him twice, slowly closing his mouth and frowning with something Ratchet figured was confusion.

Heh, that’s the normal state for anyone dealing with our guys.

“Good for them how?” The younger man asked, diplomatically avoiding obvious and awkward questions about a bratty, hairless sea-creature discovering that pulling on hair could hurt.

Letting the crab pot back down instead of hauling it up the rest of the way, Drift slowly leaned himself back against Wander’s railing and gave Ratchet his full attention. His body language was still open and comfortable, a good sign if Ratchet was hoping to persuade him into dealing with Hot Rod and Tailgate on a more regular and consistent basis.

If we do end up taking the Loner in then I won’t have as much time for them…

From past experience Ratchet knew that both Hot Rod and Tailgate could –and would- cause a whole world of grief if they didn’t get enough social contact with people they knew. Unfortunately, the two Mer simply didn’t trust very many people enough to have adopted them into their ad-hoc Pod. It took a concerted effort from everyone involved with the WRC to keep everything running smoothly whenever they took in as severe a case as the Kenledi Loner looked like it might turn out to be.

When it came down to it. Ratchet wasn’t above bribing Drift to help out, if that was what it took. He already knew that free food would be a good angle to take if bribery was needed. Ratchet remembered the state of the younger man’s cupboards all too well.

Screw subtlety. Desperate times…

“It would be good for both of them to have more Mer-normal social interactions.” He said as plainly as he could. “Well, as close as we can get for them, anyway. Hot Rod might have been made and raised in a laboratory but he’s still a Mer at his core. We weren’t doing more than helping him survive the trauma of what was done to him until Tailgate arrived. She might drive everyone up the wall, but with her there he’s actually started to thrive. The more Pod-like interactions we can give them both the better they do. Things are already extremely difficult for Tailgate, so every bit helps.” Taking a deep breath, Ratchet voiced the thing he’d been trying not to think about, if they took on the Kenledi Loner. “Every time we can release a rehabbed Mer it just reminds ‘Gate that she can’t go home.”

“Huh.” Drift said, then went quiet. He stared out over the railing, frowning. “I never really thought about that.” Drift said after a while, pushing blue hair back behind a dye-stained ear. “That’s gotta suck, all the homesickness and stuff.”

“It does.” Ratchet said quietly, forcing himself to move the conversation along before they got bogged down and depressed by things they couldn’t change.

Better to concentrate on what we can do to make life better for them.

“So, let’s focus on the things we can do to make it a bit less shit.” He said, a little louder than they had been speaking, trying to shake himself out of a looming bad mood. “Grooming is a good place to start; it’s a common social bonding activity in Mer pods and it can go both ways.”

Drift blinked a couple of times, clearly trying to process the sudden change in subject. Then he seemed to understand what Ratchet was getting at and accepted the new subject with a little sidelong half-smile that made Ratchet’s stomach do a flip.

Fuck.

“How does it go both ways?” Sunlight flashed bright blue on Drift’s hair as he shook it back out of his face and grinned. “Does Roddy have a secret stash of wigs I don’t know about, or do they prefer getting manicures? Because I suck at everything that isn’t shaving my face or dying hair.”

It was clearly meant to get a laugh and Ratchet found himself chuckling, bending over to pick a slimy piece of sea-lettuce off the deck to throw at the younger man.

“No, and I don’t know, you’d have to ask them that one yourself.” He failed to dodge the return of the slippery weed, peeling it off the collar of his lifejacket and flicking it overboard. “If you’re comfortable with getting up close and personal with them, Tailgate would appreciate any help with cleaning around the scar tissue. If you want to, that is.”

“I think I can manage that.” Drift said, heavy irony in his voice as he looked down at the patchwork of tattoos and knife scars covering his forearms. His eyes flicked up to catch Ratchet watching, dark pupils pulling the redhead in and threatening to swallow him whole. “What about Roddy?”

It took a massive effort of will not to succumb to a sudden increase in gravity that seemed to be pulling him towards the younger man and actually answer his question.

“With Roddy it’s better to wait for him to ask.” He said, tongue feeling strangely clumsy as he spoke. “He hides it well, but he’s nowhere near as chirpy as he likes people to think.”

Understanding and dark knowledge filled Drift’s expression as he nodded.

“Yeah, I get it.” The younger man said soberly, the stiff sea breeze blowing shining, blue-dyed hair across his face. “I’ll talk to Tailgate next time I’ve got an afternoon free.”

 

~V~V~V~

 

Ultra Magnus hadn’t appeared by the time they finished checking the rest of Drift’s crab traps, and the sea had gotten a little too rough to make it worth hanging around for another couple of hours and fishing with the rods in Wander’s cabin while they waited.

This was a little disappointing, but Ratchet knew that the Mer Pods didn’t operate on anything like a schedule that humans would recognise. Magnus would show up when he wanted to; he couldn’t be commanded.

Any human attempting to dictate to the Speaker would be stonewalled, at best.

It had been wonderful to spend long, uninterrupted hours with Drift. Completely unbothered by annoying coworkers or meddling Mer poking their noses into his business.

A certain hybrid would have been proud of the redhead for managing to voice something of his feelings to Drift as they approached the marina.

“Today was fun.” Ratchet said, surprising himself. “It was good to get out of the office, I really enjoyed it. Thanks, Drift.”

“Yeah, me too.” Drift said, most of his concentration taken up by steering Wander into her assigned mooring. “You’re welcome to go out with me any time, just send me a text.”

While he knew very well what Drift meant, the double meaning in the younger man’s words still had Ratchet blushing so hard his entire face felt like it was about to burst into flames.

Then his phone apparently realised they were back in range of the nearest cellphone tower and started buzzing as messages and missed calls started pouring in.

The first message he saw –the most recent one- was an urgent request to report to the WRC. The emergency rescue code included in the message sent his stomach into his shoes and filled his chest with dread, blowing any possible reason for Drift’s abnormally red ears completely out of his mind.

Oh, no.

Chapter Text

 

38

 

“Hello, Kenledi Coastguard.” The voice on the other end of the phone said. “This is Oriole speaking.”

“Oriole, this is Ratchet from the Crystal Cove Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.” Ratchet hoped he sounded far more professional then he felt at the moment. “You contacted us earlier about a lone Mer in your patrol area?”

“Yes, hello Ratchet. Thank you for calling us back so fast.” He could hear a pen clicking away on the other end of the line. “The Loner’s condition has deteriorated rapidly over the last three days. It’s at the point where our Expert’s opinion is that it is in the Mer’s best interests that we should risk a capture. To be totally honest with you, the poor thing looks so bad I’m not sure it will survive the attempt.”

Ratchet’s heart sank. He closed his eyes briefly, taking a deep breath to steady himself.

“There have been no signs of other Mer around, anything that could indicate attachment to a family group or Pod?” He asked calmly, navigating the illogical WRC spreadsheets with ease born of long practice. “I’m looking over the information we have on file but I need to be absolutely sure. Has anyone reported any abnormal behaviour?”

Luckily for them, the Loner had become extremely predictable in it’s movements and behaviour, sticking close to the rocky outcropping it appeared to have laired in. Unfortunately, the very predictability that worked in their favour also made the Loner into an incredibly tempting target for poachers, adding another layer of urgency to the situation.

Illness didn’t matter for most of the uses the Black Market had for Mer.

Armed with this knowledge and the experience of many similar situations, the WRC and Coastguard went into action.

It took them two days to modify the existing Rescue Procedure for the specific sircumstances of the Kenledi Loner, and one more day to ensure that everyone and everything needed would be in the right places at the right time.

Ratchet didn’t sleep much while these arrangements were being made.

Nobody from the WRC did; there was simply too much to be done.

The night before the rescue operation was supposed to take place Moonracer went around the ‘War Table’ with insipid-looking cups of tea, forcing one on everybody present. She claimed was some sort of herbal blend to ‘energise the body and invigorate the mind’.

Privately Ratchet thought the tea tasted a bit weird, but the amount of honey Moonracer had added mostly masked the bitterness of herbs that probably didn’t belong in a teabag. As for the intended effect, however, it didn’t work very well. Ratchet was yawning by the time he reached the bottom of his cup. Half an hour after he finished it he was closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose and wondering if it would be a good idea to chase the tea with an energy drink.

The thought that someone might have slipped him a sleep aid didn’t cross Ratchet’s mind until he woke up on the staffroom couch at five in the morning, a blanket tucked around him and his shoes sitting neatly on the floor beside the chair. He stomped his feet into them while firing off a rude message to Moonracer.

She’ll probably try to blame Tailgate.

As he made his way to the staff exit Hot Rod yelled something at him but Ratchet pointedly ignored the hybrid mer.

I need coffee, a shower and clean clothes before I can deal with him today.

Somehow during the frantic rush of the last few days he’d remembered to throw some clothes through the wash. Silently marvelling that he’d done so, Ratchet made sure he was dressed more-or-less presentably while steadily working his way through his checklist for the day and trying not to think about all the cameras that would be pointed at him later on. There would be dozens of official and unoficial photos of the days events making the rounds of social media by the end of the day no matter what the outcome of the rescue attempt ended up being. The Landlink Token Tailgate had made him was exactly where he’d left it. Hanging it around his neck and tucking the cold stone underneath his shirt, Ratchet headed out.

Moonracer still hadn’t responded to his text by the time he was back at the WRC. Well-fortified by unexpected sleep and several strong coffees he was prepared for the last-minute consultation with the rescue team.

They had an isolation unit with water treatment completely separate from the stuff cycled into the community pools. Ignoring Hot Rod again, Ratchet went straight from the meeting to carry out a thorough check of the isolation facility. If the mer had something contageous they were equipped to handle it.

Once the Loner had a clean bill of health they would (if the mer was willing) be moved to a domicile pool attached to the larger social complex where they could interact with Tailgate and Rodimus if they chose to do so. There were documented cases of genuine loners and exiles who had formed social bonds with the resident mer of other Wildlife Rehabs –or independently decided to become an ambassador for the species and chosen to stay on permanently instead of returning to freedom.

It’s not a common decision. They all say it’s not the best even though the food variety and healthcare are better…

If the Loner turned out to be who Ratchet suspected it was, he wasn’t sure what Wing would choose to do.

Roddy would drive him insane within a week. Two weeks, tops.

Shaking his head, Ratchet forced his wandering thoughts back to the task at hand. None of his speculations mattered. Everything was ifs, buts and maybes until they had the Mer and knew whether or not it was going to live.

 

~V~V~V~

 

The Rescue ship Manannán mac Lir idled well out of sight of the offshore outcropping where the lone mer had made it’s home. Maintaing radio contact with lookouts hidden in plain sight up on the bluffs an in cars parked on the gravelled area of the Kenledi Reserve they monitored the Loner’s movements and waited.

On deck the stiff sea breeze cut right through Ratchet’s clothing, adding real cold to the psychological chill of the overcast day. They were waiting for high tide, when the Loner usually left it’s hiding place to hunt for food around the submerged rocks. Ratchet checked his phone, running a mental calculation of the time against the tide report for Crystal Cove.

Shouldn’t be long now…

Everyone tensed when the radio crackled to life, one of the seaward watchers announcing that the Loner had been spotted leaving the rocks, heading shoreward. The description of it’s condition and movment speed that followed sent Ratchet’s heart to his shoes.

I hope we’re not too late.

When word finally came that the Loner was settling in to hunt they raised anchor and moved in. Two coastguard ships with dive crews hung back, patrolling a perimeter to dissuade –or intercept- possible interference from several groups of idiots who disliked the kind of work the WRC did for whatever reason. There hadn’t been much noise online about the Kenledi Loner so Ratchet thought they might get lucky this time and avoid troublemakers altogether.

This place is fairly far from their usual stomping grounds…

As they entered the estuary he joined the team at the stern, helping slide the capture net into the water as quickly and quietly as they could. With the state the Loner was reported to be in they hoped to capture it while inflicting as little stress as they possibly could.

If it falls for the first decoy drop he’s really not doing well.

Radio contact with the observers onshore and up on the cliff helped them pinpoint the Loner’s whereabouts in the estuary. Then, acting as if they didn’t know where the wild Mer was, the skipper initiated a standard search pattern in the water that was deep enough for Manannán mac Lir to navigate safely. Leaning against the railing Ratchet searched the water, trying to focus through the rippling wavelets in the place he knew the wild Mer should be.

One of the coastguard who’d been keeping an eye on the Loner for the last couple of weeks spotted the mer before Ratchet did, announcing the location in a clear voice.

“There he is; starboard side, right between us and that patch of yellow flowers on the hill.”

Ratchet was still squinting through the shifting water as the skipper issued orders, bringing them about and making slow headway towards the bright marker on the hillside. One hand rose of its own volition to grip the solid weight of the Landlink Token hanging around his neck.

“Alright; coming around.” The skipper declared. “Prep the decoy.”

“Roger.”

The deck moved underneath Ratchet, engine powering against the river current and the beginning of the outgoing tide.

There.

Suddenly the long body of a mer seemed to materialise out of the sandy mud of the estuary floor. The dull, matte scales were almost perfect camoflage and a glaring sign of illness. Ragged fins flowed around the Loner like a tattered shroud as it rested belly-up, clearly watching them. It’s movements were sluggish; heavy and slow as if moving took a lot of effort.

Ratchet leaned over the railing, trying to will the Mer to cooperate with their plans.

Please make this easy, we just want to help…

“Fire.”

In one horrified instant Ratchet realised he hadn’t paid attention to the warning to put earplugs in and the net launcher went off. He lost his own swearing in the ringing of his ears as he watched the Loner’s sluggish reaction to the flight and splashdown of the decoy net.

Too slow, far too slow.

The corkscrewing roll away from the decoy net was executed at a quarter of the speed a Mer of this type should be capable of. Luckily the Loner did exactly as Ratchet hoped, heading towards the outflowing current of the river and directly into the wide-stranded net they’d laid out behind them.

As soon as the impact registered the crane operator engaged the controls and began to reel everything in. The brown-and-grey mer struggled against the net, adrenaline clearly the only source of strength it had as it sought to escape.

All the Loner managed to do was ensnare itself more thoroughly, arms pinned and hidden from sight. Ratchet gritted his teeth, hoping this wouldn’t be one of the cases where a terrified Mer would attempt suicide in the face of capture.

It wouldn’t be the first time. I can’t exactly blame them, given what normally happens…

Concerned murmurs from either side of him told Ratchet he wasn’t alone in the gnawing unease he felt as the net rose and they all got a clearer look at the appalling physical condition the Loner was in.

Then the mer rolled over in the net, staring blankly up at them.

It was close enough now that Ratchet could see the wild mer’s face.

With a shock like a punch in the gut, he recognised the Loner.

Wing.

“Call the Center and tell them to prep the isolation tank for a betta-type.” Ratchet ordered, knuckles going white on the rail. “We’re bringing him in.”

Distantly, he listened to the one-sided conversation from somewhere behind him as his instructions were passed on. The vast majority of his attention was on watching as a netted Wing broke the surface. Cold seawater poured from the bundled mer as he was lifted smoothly into the air, stopping when he was roughly head-height with most of those on board.

A clank announced the winch locking. Wing hung above the water now, thrashing weakly against the wide bands of mer-netting holding him suspended and nearly silent. Ratchet had no doubt that he would be screaming, but Mer vocal apparatus wasn’t designed to produce much that much volume when using air.

Then the mer went limp, drooping in the confines of the net in a display of abject depression.

In a single smooth movement the crane pivoted, bringing the ensnared mer over the deck. The winch reengaged with a clunk of braking mechanisms, lowering Wing slowly and carefully into the water of a transport tank.

When Wing was safely immersed again Ratchet gave him a couple of minutes to breathe and get his bearings. Pulling a hard case out of his pocket, he snapped it open and fitted the special hearing aids to his ears with hands that threatened to start shaking. Then, hoping Wing hadn’t succumbed to panic again he approached the side of the tank, entering the exhausted mer’s line of sight.

Bundled in the special mer-net, Wing was deathly still. He didn’t seem to see Ratchet, although he could see the mer’s eyes sunk into deep hollows in his gaunt face. Fiddling nervously with the earpieces to make sure they were on and working, Ratchet cleared his throat and gave the mer’s proper name his best effort.

[Wing?]

Chapter Text

39

 

The water coming from the river tasted strange over his gills and in his mouth.

Fresh water.

Wrong, it was all wrong.

Even the water around his reef was wrong. It tasted almost diluted when the tide was running. Vaguely muddy most of the time. Definitely muddy after a heavy rain. It must have rained heavy somewhere inland in the last couple of days, because the river water was muddy and left a lingering taste that nothing would remove.

Wing longed for the familiar waters and faces of his Pod like he’d never longed for anything else in his life. There was just over a single lunar cycle left before his exile would end and he could return.

He was no longer sure that he’d survive that long.

The misery of isolation had fed a depression so great that by the time Wing realised he was actively starving it was too late. A body weakened by hunger had left him wide open to catch whatever illness it was that sapped the little energy he had left, wracking him with bouts of burning fever and freezing cold that no amount of shivering could relieve.

He was sick, slowed and incredibly vulnerable.

And worse, lately there had been more humans around on land and at sea than what had learned was normal for this place.

Wing was finally, finally willing to admit that he was in trouble.

But somehow he couldn’t find it in himself to be scared.

That was what scared him.

But it just didn’t seem worth caring about any more.

So what if poachers caught him? He was exiled; the Pod wouldn’t care.

If he didn’t come back at the end of the next moon cycle they would simply continue on. You didn’t go looking for someone who had been cast out. He had already been mourned; his death would simply be coming after the grief instead of before.

He was so lonely and so tired of being lonely.

There had been so many boats around lately that he’d hung close to the offshore rocks he lived in, stripping them of any mussels large enough to eat and scaring off nearly all of the fish. Vegetation wasn’t growing back as fast as he’d been eating it, forced to rely on it for several days now.

If Wing wanted food now he would have to go into the estuary. He had no other choice.

Despite the increasing danger from humans Wing knew he needed to eat.

No matter how badly he wanted to give up there was something inside that just wouldn’t let him. It was the same stubbornness that had gotten him into so much trouble in his short life. No matter what, he still had to try. It was nearing the perfect point in the tidal cycle for a hunting trip. He could use the end of the inflowing tide to fight the push of the river and the beginning of the receding tide to speed his passage back to the sea, saving energy in both directions.

Mind made up, Wing uncurled himself stiffly and began the slow process of leaving his tiny shelter.

Too numb to properly register the uneasy twisting in his gut at the relative brightness of the day, Wing left the relative safety of the massive rocky outcropping and swam heavily towards the source of the muddy water diluting the familiar taste of the ocean.

The tide was high, inflowing current losing power as it neared its peak. It was still more than enough to help him as he cruised into the sheltered high-tide lagoon.

Most of the crabs were too small, the hard-shells in the sand not worth the gill-irritating effort of digging for. Doggedly determined, he managed to get several mouthfuls of meat from crustaceans before he decided that was taking too long and turned his eyes towards bigger prey. There were plenty of flounder around; one or two other kinds of fish had joined them in the last week. He thought the seasons might be changing, but pulled his thoughts back to the job at hand before painful thoughts could trap him again. Flounder, galaxids, trout.

Lots of good eating. He just had to catch them.

It was hard.

Harder than it had ever been in his life.

Without something right in front of him to focus on his mind kept wandering, dazed and easily distracted. He wouldn’t spot the distinctive shape of a fish until it was already scooting away from him -and he just didn’t have the energy to spare on chasing any of them down.

Hanging almost motionless in a calm corner of the estuary, Wing struggled against a growing wooziness. He couldn’t afford to black out.

Not here.

Losing consciousness anywhere except in the shelter of his shallow cave in the rocks would mean capture or death.

Or both.

I… I don’t know if I can do this.

Too late, he heard the deep thrum of a powerful motor. It wasn’t a boat he had ever heard before, but he could tell from the enging-sound that it was a big one.

There was only one reason a big, powerful boat would come to this tiny little cove.

Danger.

It took far longer than it should have for the thoughts to process. Wing finally forced himself to move, sinking down to lie belly-up on the seafloor and search for the shadow of the dangerous boat somewhere above.

It was already inside the estuary.

Sheer terror galvanised Wing, sharpened his mind to something like his old alertness as he studied the shape of the boat. Surface-water distortion was nothing to him when focused. The more he saw, the deeper fear set its hooks into him. Deep hull, a strange arm on top that was used to move heavy things. Humans, so many humans on the deck, moving around, leaning over the side, doing incomprehensible things with stuff he couldn’t name.

All of them watching the water.

Looking for me.

He would have one chance to get around the boat full of humans, to catch the outflowing river current and escape before they could turn or net him.

One chance only.

Gathering himself, Wing waited for the right moment.

Something strange about the hull caught his attention as the boat started cruising the surface of the estuary in an easily-recognised searching pattern. There was a pattern on it, the paler colour contrasting sharply with the dark surface around it.

Wing wasted long minutes trying to figure out why it looked oddly familiar as the boat drifted gradually nearer.

It… looks like someone tried to shape ‘healer’ on it with colours…

An unexpected thwump startled him.

A large shadow flickered across the surface as Wing’s fins flared. Then something hit the water directly above him, spreading out into the form of a weighted net.

No!

The need to escape overcame everything, spurring the exhausted mer into action.

Flipping over, he forced his drained body into motion. Taking off at an angle meant to take him beyond the net and into the strong pull of the river’s outflow as quickly as possible, hoping to make it to the safety of the offshore rocks before the humans caught up with him.

These humans were smarter than Wing expected.

They must have anticipated his escape route when the fired the net; it caught the same current he was planning to use to boost his speed and started moving towards him as it sank. It was chasing him down, drifting menacingly along behind him in the water. Wing strained, trying to force his heavy tail to move harder, faster, towards the sea and freedom.

Escape!

Risking a glance back, Wing saw the boat turning, preparing to follow. It was moving slowly, so slowly they’d never catch him before he hit the deeper water just outside the rivermouth and hid himself in the deeps.

I’m going to make it.

Relieved, Wing turned his head back for another look at his pursuers.

Just in time to plough directly into a second net that he didn’t see until it caught him.

It snagged his thrashing body with unusually wide strands, holding him with a strength he hadn’t encountered before.

Mer-net!

A brief, terrified struggle did nothing but tangle him so thoroughly that by the time he remembered his knife there was no hope of slicing his way out before the humans above hauled him in.

Exhausted and despairing, Wing went limp and gave himself up to capture.

Please, kill me quickly.

 

~V~V~V~V~

 

As soon as Wing gave up on fighting the net his all-consuming panic faded. It shrank to a compact core of suppressed terror surrounded by a detached numbness that he welcomed as the mer-net lurched and began to pull him up.

Whatever it was the humans used to fetch their captives, it was strong. Possibly stronger than anything Wing had ever encountered before. It hauled him smoothly up through the water, and for the first time in his life he broke the surface to fly through the air without an ounce of effort.

Sounds were muffled in the air, furthur distancing Wing from the nightmare situation.

Fear surged again as he lurched to a stop, swinging sideways to come over the deck and he looked down at the faces of the humans. Too many humans. He hung there, suspended for several long minutes. Plenty long enough for the welcome feeling of unreality to creep over him again.

This must be what the birds see when they’re swimming though the sky.

Another lurch and he was lowered, net and all into clean, cool saltwater.

What?

Squirming uselessly against the net, Wing tried to see around him. With his head below water again he was suddenly assaulted by sound. Thumps, clanking, the motor-sound, voices, everything so loud and so much all at once he shrieked and tried to cover his ears with hands that were still trapped at his sides.

Someone shouted and the voices quieted, the thumping and clanking stopping soon after. The engine noise lowered in pitch but continued a steady background thrum that was similar enough to the low humming of a huge whalemer Wing felt tears forming.

[Wing?]

Hearing his own name spoken in thickly accented Mer was so surreal that Wing thought he might have finally lost his mind.

Who?

Looking wildly around a possible source of the voice, Wing found a familiar red-topped human standing beside the water, frowning down at him.

It’s… Drift’s friend? Magnus’ contact?!

Wing felt sick. His mind whirled, unable to reconcile the fact that this trusted human appeared to be working with the ones who hunted his kind.

[Why?] He asked, blurting the first thing to come into his head. [How could you?]

The words emerged sounding as broken as he felt.

Folding his legs up, the red-topped human reached slowly into the water beside Wing, doing something to the strands of mer-net that freed one of the mer’s arms. Before he could find the energy to strike out at the traitor a warm, clawless hand found his and pressed a rounded shape into his palm, closing his longer fingers securely around it.

It was the first touch Wing had felt since saying goodbye to Drift.

[We help.] Was the simple reply, this landwalker aparrently restricted to one- or two-word sentences.

It was miraculous enough that he actually seemed to understand Wing, let alone speak properly in the first place. Wing figured he couldn’t ask for much more than that.

Dazedly, Wing raised his free hand so he could see what the human had given him.

When he opened his fist Wing saw eerily familiar carvings etched into a piece of soft stone. A long loop of something shiny and strange trailed from it; the stone clearly meant to be used as adornment. He ran his thumb over the marks, breath hitching and gills fluttering against the wide net strands as he recognised the Pod named.

Rivets That Died and Lives, the Landbound Heart. A survivor of the Rivets massacre vouches for him!?

Confused, incredulous, disbelieving, Wing looked up, searching the dark shapes outlined against the sky for an answer.

The red human –Magnus’ contact, Drift’s friend -was still watching him.

Waiting for a response.

Slowly, Wing closed his fingers around the stone pendant. He didn’t have a choice, there were no other options. He would have to trust in the Token and the honour of the pod that had bestowed it.

Deliberately meeting the human’s eyes, Wing nodded acceptance.

Extending his shaking arm, he offered the Landlink Token back to the human who bore it.

[Please.] He whispered, feeling the telltale lightheadedness preceeding another bout of fever creeping over him again.

Before he could say anything else the human was in the water with him, releasing Wing from the wide, tough strands of mer-net with quick movements. The instant Wing was freed from the constraints of the net other humans pulled it out of the water. Suddenly confused by the existence of water where experience told him there should be none, Wing looked around and felt reality roll around him as he realised that the humans had somehow made a pool on the boat.

Currents and Tides, they’re more dangerous than I thought.

Guild congealed cold in his gut as the engine noise increased. Strange sliding and thumping sounds from the direction the net had gone sending a fresh thrill of fear through Wing, combining with the guilt to make the scant mouthfuls of crab meat lurch upwards in his stomach.

Trying to edge away from the noises, he bumped into the Rivets Landlink. A smooth, clawless hand touched his shoulder, steadying Wing as the human said something in the air-breathers’ language. Then the boat containing the water-pool lurched and the human stumbled, lost his balance and fell, hitting the water next to Wing with a splash and a shout.

It was second nature to reach out and wrap his arms around the heavy, thrashing human body. Supporting the Landlink against himself, sheer luck already had Wing in a position were the human would be able to get air right away. Well he would be able to, as soon as he finished making those sharp barking and rasping noises and decided to breathe properly.

Voices from out of sight spoke in the airbreather’s strange language and Drift’s friend answered in the same tongue. Wing thought he sounded embarrassed.

The conversation lasted through several more exchanges of words as he held the human’s solid body like a lifeline. Feeling the alien chest-motions of air breathing and a slow, steady heartbeat against his side was unexpectedly comforting. It spoke to Wing on a visceral level, letting him know that he wasn’t alone.

[Thank you for help me.] The human was speaking in mer again, his words much easier to understand now that he was so close. [Can let go now, please?]

It took a minute for Wing to work out the meaning of the mangled sentences. When he did, his fins drooped and he whined low in his throat before he could stop himself. Overwhelmed with shame he choked the sound off and forced himself to relax arms that had tightened subconsciously.

Slowly, fighting himself every step of the way, he loosened his hold on the red-topped human but couldn’t force himself to make the final step. It had been so long since he’d last touched another living creature other than prey that Wing just couldn’t bring himself to let go.

The human would have to do the rest.

But he was talking to someone again, a choppy torrent of airbreather words passing back and forth between him and another who stayed out of sight. Raising a hand, the human fiddled with something dark and smooth that wrapped around his ear.

[Alright. I stay with Wing until at Healing Place.] The Landlink said, startling Wing. [Know Mer things, know need touch.]

All Wing could make of that was that he wouldn’t have to embarrass himself any furthur trying to comply with the request to let him go just yet. Relieved beyond belief, Wing hugged the human as tightly as he dared and tried to suppress the fever-shakes starting to creep up his spine. Being able to hold someone again was like sunlight on his scales after weeks of rain and storms. He was afraid that if he let go he’d never be to touch anyone again. Ever. Human or Mer.

Unfamiliar airbreathers gathered at the side of the pool, talking with the Rivets Landlink while Wing’s temperature continued to rise and he struggled against increasing lightheadedness. Ignoring the seagull-chatter of landwalker conversation was surprisingly easy as the fear had melted away and turnd back into that strange detachment from reality he’d felt in the net.

The strange shapes the Landlink wore had soaked up a lot of water by now, they felt something like heavily scarred fins where they brushed against him underwater. This combined with the presence of another living body against his was enough to soothe Wing’s fevered mind gently towards a state of genuine calm. The landwalker’s red head stuff straggled over them in long wet strands like clinging weed. A sudden shaft of sunlight found them as Wing stared, facinated, admiring the bright orange reflections.

Like scales.

There was a word the rest of the landwalkers used when talking to the Landlink, one he responded to so often Wing figured it must be his name. Eventually there was a pause in the conversation and Wing seized his chance to speak.

[Ratchet?]

[Yes?]

[Thank you.]

Chapter Text

40

 

Even without taking Wing’s temperature, it was obvious that the mer was running a fever.

The long body pressed against him warmed him even through his sodden clothes, Wing’s hands and the face that occasionally drooped into his neck or shoulder felt like branding irons against his bare skin.

Even with the obvious fever Wing was still able to follow their conversation enough to pick up his name, which said good things about his current level of awareness.

“We’re going straight to the slipway, Teddybear.” Lancet said, leaning on the opposite end of the transport tank and grinning from ear to ear at the sight of Ratchet playing pacifier for an apex predator. Then the smile fell. “We need to go ahead with sedation soon.”

Ratchet grimaced.

“Yeah; it’s far from ideal, given his state.” Lancet’s mouth pulled into a thin line, then a thoughtful expression took over from the frown. “How alert is this guy? You’ve met him before, do you reckon he’s coherent enough to cooperate with us on a half-dose?”

Ratchet knew the protocol, knew how many procedures he’d already violated.

Fuck, the paperwork for this is gonna be a nightmare.

They should have sedated Wing before now, especially with Ratchet in the tank with him. He was an unknown, unpredictable and dangerously wild mer. It didn’t matter that he was sapient and sentient; even as weak as he was now, if Wing panicked and lashed out he’d still be able to inflict life-threatening injuries long before Ratchet could even think about getting out of range.

If that happened the lawyers would have a field day and make sure they never ran another rescue again.

Leaving the wild mer to those who’d exploit them into display tanks and extinction.

Even though everyone knew the reasoning behind the sedation, nobody liked to do it. Especially not with a mer was as unwell as Wing.

Ratchet had seen Wing when the mer was at the peak of health. This muddy-coloured, almost skeletal creature was so unlike the vibrant creature he remembered that Ratchet knew he’d be spending his next night at home working his way through a bottle of the strongest alcohol in his liquor cabinet.

Everyone has their own ways to cope.

“He seems coherent enough,” Ratchet said, the weight of Wing’s chin on his shoulder shaking him out of his darkening thoughts. “I’ll talk to him and find out if he’ll accept a half-dose or would rather sleep through until we’ve got him in isolation.”

Lancet nodded, still looking grim but also relieved that Ratchet was essentially taking the decision and responsibility for this on his own head.

“So long as he doesn’t end up spilling your stuffing everywhere, teddy bear.” The last two words were said snidely enough to make Ratchet grind his teeth. “Doesn’t matter who it is, we have to follow the rules.”

“I know.”

 

~V~V~V~

 

It took a minute or two for Wing to realise that Ratchet was trying to get his attention.

He’d been focusing on the physical presence of the human with him as a talisman to ward off fever dreams that lurked on the other side of the exhausted fugue that had claimed him, threatening to descend if he slipped all the way into sleep.

[Wing, can hear me?] Ratchet asked again as he struggled to wake up enough to reply.

[Yes, I can.] Concentrating on speaking as clearly as he could so the human could understand him also helped Wing to hide that his tongue felt thick and slow, threatening to slur the edges of his words together. [What is it?]

[We arrive Healing Place soon.] The human was speaking slowly and carefully, making his pronunciation a little easier for Wing’s scattered concentration to grasp even though it made him sound stilted and strange. [Need give Wing medicine first.]

[Why? What for?] Wing couldn’t help interrupting. This human’s face made the most interesting shapes as he searched for words. He wanted to touch it, discover what the different lines felt like and if they differed from the warm skin of his hands. [What kind of medicine?]

Is that a scar hiding in his chin-stuff?

[Medicine make Wing relax and sleepy.] Ratchet’s forehead wrinkled up now in a sign of human anger or worry that Wing had learned from secretly watching Drift. [Will see many, many strange Human things at Healing Place. Medicine will make it easier for Wing, less stress. If you sleep you not see.]

Wing tried to think about what was being put before him. He really did.

The entire situation was surreal. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen after the humans pulled you up in one of their nets. Speakers like Ultra Magnus were the ones who interacted with LandLinks, and they did so as close to equals as possible. His mind slipped away from the reminder, latching on to the alien concepts the red one –Ratchet- had just casually presented him with.

Medicine to make him sleep –or feel sleepy, he wasn’t sure which one Ratchet meant. It didn’t really make much of a difference to Wing. That kind of medicine was so far outside what he knew of as possible that for all he knew he could have died of shock in the net and this was some weird passage to the Seas Beyond. The Rivets token would have made sense in that context, if he hadn’t heard about the Survivor before.

I’m not dead yet, but I might be soon.

If this medicine did what he thought it might then he wouldn’t have to see what humans had done to the Dry Above.

More of the things they made on the land, maybe a glimpse of how they lived.

Despite how desperately unwell Wing was, the alien strangeness of the place he was being taken to was an almost irresistible temptation.

I want to see. Deep Currents; after all of this a part of me still wants to see…

He was about to refuse when the entire world started to turn around them, sending panic rushing hot and suffocating to tighten around his throat. Heart racing, he clung to the blessedly solid red-topped presence of the Landlink –Ratchet- and forced water through his gills until the universe stopped swirling.

Not the world… the boat is turning.

The engine sound was changing too, slowing down and getting quieter.

[I…] He started then trailed off, swallowing convulsively as his empty stomach rolled in an unfamiliar way.

Wing had never regurgitated his food before and he didn’t want to start now.

Not that there was much in his belly to bring up, anyway.

The human moved against him, shifting around so he could see more of Wing, giving him a hunter’s stare with wonderfully crystal-coloured bluegreen eyes. Hot and cold shivers ran through Wing as Ratchet looked him over, his heart pounding as a wave of lightheadedness swept over him again. He focused on the colour of the human’s eyes as they moved, using it like a talisman against the darkness that crept into the edges of his own sight.

He has a Token from Rivets, if anyone would be able to tell which humans were safe to trust it would be a survivor of that Pod…

Seagull-chatter human voices surrounded them on all sides, coming closer to the inexplicable pool of water on the boat. Loud, irregular thumping shuddering through the water as the boat slowed further and the world swooped around him again.

Beneath the surface of the pool Wing’s gills flared and worked hard, his open mouth gasped for air as his fins plastered flat to his body. Searching for a solid reference-point, for an unmoving anchor, Wing tore his gaze away from Ratchet and raised his eyes to the rocky cliffs around them just in time to see a mind-bogglingly illogical set of airbreather structures come into view.

They crouched on top of the headland, sprawled down to the sea, creeping fingers trailed out onto and over the surface of the water further than any marina. Strange boxy shapes shot along grey ribbons, speeding across the land faster than anyone could swim…

It was too much. Finally, Wing found the limit of his curiosity.

[I will take the medicine.] He forced the words out through a throat that felt like he was being strangled. [Please.]

Smooth, clawless human hands wrapped around his and squeezed gently, reassuring contact that he clung to in the face of a truly alien world.

Fingers swept gently over the inside of his forearm as Ratchet said something in the airbreather language, then there was a sharp prickle-stab where the fingers had been. The fingers returned, soothing the sting into nothingness so quickly he didn’t bother to look.

By the time Wing managed to tear horrified eyes away from a looming collection of landwalker buildings to look for the medicine he was to swallow an odd lethargy had started to creep through him. It was warm and heavy, easing the fear-tightened muscles of his shoulders and tail that had threatened to start cramping. An impenetrable riptide-current formed between him and the strangeness of the things covering the dry land, sucking his fear away and leaving him in a decidedly unnatural state of calm.

[What?] He asked, thoughts moving muzzy and slow as the stimulus of fear retreated.

[Medicine thorn.] Ratchet’s words make little sense. [Put medicine into blood. Wanted to say Wing first but shit-for-brains too fast.]

Wing couldn’t help himself; he giggled.

It was too funny not to.

Hearing the landwalker utter obscenities from a Deep-Sea dialect with his heavy human accent would be hilariously funny under any circumstances. Relieved giggles followed as Wing realised the most likely person to teach Ratchet that insult would have been the same Rivets survivor who’d given him the Landlink Token.

This one can be trusted. Almost as good as Pod. Almost.

That, as much as the human medicine working through his bloodstream was what finally enabled Wing to relax and believe that maybe –just maybe- this would turn out alright.

Ratchet won’t hurt me.

 

~V~V~V~

 

Even under the influence of sedatives, Wing didn’t let go of him for an instant.

This made the process of transporting the Mer from ship to Centre incredibly difficult. It was much easier after they’d gotten him inside and into an isolation pool, sneakily weighing him in the process of lifting him into the water. Even then Ratchet still wasn’t allowed out of Wing’s sight, even when the mer absolutely had to let go of him. Away from the mer’s feverishly hot body he became acutely aware of how his soaked clothing clung uncomfortably and tried to suck all his body heat away. His vague plan to change into a wetsuit was scuppered when Wing started to panic whenever he lost sight of him.

Fucking. Wonderful.

With Ratchet back in the water to cling to and answer his questions, Wing cooperated willingly with the specialist who checked him over.

The temperature and body-mass calculations made him swear in terms Hot Rod and Tailgate had willingly translated for him in the past. When Wing mumbled a question Ratchet flatly refused to repeat what he’d just said for in a language the mer could understand. The fact that he even could have done so would have made both Hot Rod and Tailgate very proud of him.

Someone was sent out to the market with a list of fatty fish to find for Wing while they finished the initial health checks and managed to get some swabs to send off to the lab. Ratchet hoped that whatever Wing had caught was something they knew how to treat. For now all they could safely do was try to clear out the internal parasite load that would be competing with his digestion for whatever food they could get into him.

No matter what Wing had, the next week would be critical for his chances of survival.

Need to keep him calm, make sure he eats and starts putting weight back on.

By now the sedatives were kicking in with a vengeance, making the mer lethargic and slow to respond. They hadn’t given him a very large dose, aiming to take the edge off without putting him out completely but it was still having a much stronger effect than they’d anticipated.

Fuck. We need to get a meal into him, cushion his system against all the meds…

[Wing?] Ratchet waited until the mer was looking at him, golden eyes blinking sleepily. [We have food. You need to eat to get better.]

A clicking trill that might have been an affirmative vibrated the water around Wing’s throat.

[Not hungry. Should be hungry, but haven’t been.] He mumbled, fins shifting aimlessly in the water as his eyes drifted away from Ratchet’s face. [Would eat, but I can’t hunt.]

It was hard to figure out what Wing meant by that semi-lucid collection of words.

[Our hunters caught plenty.] Ratchet assured him, [Enough for us to eat and feed guest too.]

[So you don’t eat your guests?] Wing asked, trilling a rather drunken laugh.

From the strange –but still recognisable- variant of the word the wild mer had used, Ratchet knew there was a joke he wasn’t getting.

If it’s not about actually killing and eating him, I don’t think I want to know…

Then it clicked with something in the vocabulary Tailgate had been trying to teach him, and Ratchet suddenly had a good idea about what Wing was referring to. He could actually feel the embarrassed blush burning it’s way across his cheeks. The way Wing suddenly locked onto the spreading colour change with predatory intensity didn’t help the odd squirming feeling in his belly at all.

Stupid, meaningless innuendo from a deathly ill Mer and I’m blushing like a teenage virgin… fucking hell.

[Will you try to eat something?] Ratchet asked, trying to pretend Wing wasn’t suddenly staring at him with feverish intensity. [Please. You need food to get better.]

Water flowed from Wing’s gills in a sigh and the mer nodded, sagging in the shallow end of the pool.

[I’ll try.]