Chapter 10: Treading the Immaculate

Du-Ducky… kissing Petrie?!

That single thought was all that dominated Petrie's head as the rest of his mind shut down unceremoniously. This was attributed in part due to a breath getting caught in his throat as he froze in shock, literally forgetting how to breathe as he felt Ducky's beak placed to his warm cheeks.

What going on… Petrie feel like me gonna faint!

His eyes were trapped in a precarious balance, repeatedly shifting back-and-forth between two distinct states — furtively glancing right at Ducky, and simply glazing over as his faculties were sent into overdrive due to the sensory overload that he was feeling from his friend exchanging such an intimate gesture at him without her knowledge.

Was it any wonder that his nerves were left in a completely frayed state as a result? Petrie couldn't even get his vocal cords to articulate anything that came close to resembling a coherent word. All that managed to escape his beak were strangled, indecipherable squeaks that conveyed a flurry of confused emotions where words had failed him, emotions that varied from a wide spectrum which consisted of just about every possible feeling between befuddlement and horror.

Because really, how else could Petrie put across his reaction to the fact that Ducky was actually kissing him… eagerly!?

The circumstances that had led to the whole situation playing out in such a way was almost unfathomable to Petrie. It seemed so implausible that all the stars had miraculously lined up to give him such an outcome. Because seriously, how had things even ended up getting to this point? How did his simple goal of hiding until the Bright Circle went down end up so royally sidetracked that he was now being kissed by Ducky on her own accord?!

Listening into a valley meeting? Had that down to a T. Find himself being pursued by a sharptooth? Nothing new by this point, to the extent that Petrie was able to recognize Red Claw and his two fastbiter cronies Screech and Thud from a distance away. Sneaking out of the valley? Just another ordinary day to him and his friends.

But this? This, he never saw coming. He had no prior experience whatsoever to draw from on how he should react to such an event.

Should he reciprocate her? Or should he cut his losses and reject Ducky's advances by pulling away from her? Despite his frantic brain screaming at him to execute the latter, Petrie didn't do so… and he had no idea why. He simply stayed frozen, right where he was.

Nothing existed outside of this moment. He wouldn't have been able to even describe his surroundings if someone had questioned him right then and there.

And to think that this wasn't even the first time that his friend had smooched him!

Back when the gang had first ventured to the valley, a grateful Ducky had given him a thankful kiss for trying to combat his fear of heights when he was gathering a cache of fresh treestars from the branches of a high tree. Discounting that, there were many more embraces he'd shared with her thereafter — after miraculously surviving the fall from Sharptooth when the predator had almost dragged him to a watery death, discovering the Great Valley for the first time against all the odds, him sobbing about Uncle Pterano, a surprise hug after he had informed a gleeful Ducky that the spiketail herd were going away that one Cold Time… and many more which he couldn't immediately recall off the top of his head.

Despite remaining mulish and hesitant when it came to making decisions or taking charge, Ducky had always been brazen in terms of expressing her emotions. Petrie knew this very well. So why, after he had already shared so many close moments with Ducky, did things feel so drastically different this time round?

Oh wait, that was completely rhetorical. The circumstances behind this show of affection were very different from all the previous ones… so very different.

Petrie had known Ducky for more than half his life now, and it thus went without saying that he was well aware that his friend was a very bubbly and expressive swimmer, even by her species' standards. As such, Ducky also had an inclination towards more physical ways of showing affection. Petrie had seen it firsthand many times before when she hugged or nuzzled against her siblings, and even when the subject of her affection wasn't a swimmer—like all the times she'd embraced him as Petrie or with her brother Spike—they were very clearly meant to be taken in an entirely platonic way.

It was just how Ducky was. Her affectionate traits were pretty much part and parcel of his swimmer friend's jovial and kind-hearted personality. They were practically synonymous with Ducky, almost as much as her wide smile and her signature "yep, yep, yep!" affirmation.

…what was he doing?

Dammit, he needed to quit thinking about her smiling face! What was up with him!? Ducky was still Ducky… his best friend! This changed nothing, nothing!

…or did it?

Petrie felt a chill running down his spine, eyeballing Ducky to see her still looking at him with coltish eyes as she continued to persistently press her beak to his cheek. His swimmer friend seemed incredibly stoked, practically smiling from ear to ear… and considering the gutsy move that she'd just pulled on him from out of nowhere, Petrie couldn't exactly blame her for feeling that way.

What bothered Petrie the most about this was the startling reminder that Ducky had grown older. Though she was still rather short compared to the height of a grown-up swimmer, she definitely grew at least a head from when they had first met. The slight growth spurt wasn't all that noticeable in the grand scheme of things, especially since Ducky's perky personality was mostly the same as it always was, if a little more reserved and restrained compared to when she was five.

But subconsciously, maybe because he himself—not to mention the rest of the gang—was also getting older, the context and motive behind being the recipient of an innocuous kiss back in their younger days was way different compared to receiving a kiss right now. Granted, Ducky's spontaneous gesture may have been done solely to refute Ferris, but given the context and her fiery words, it was practically akin to a declaration of love. She might have viewed this as a means of an end to spite Ferris, but Petrie could not underscore the impact of what his swimmer friend had just done to him.

One does not just have their best friend unknowingly declare their love for you and then proceed to shrug it off like it was no big deal. That wasn't how things were supposed to work! Just how the heck was he supposed to reply to that!?

Thankfully for Petrie, he didn't have to conjure up a reply. After what seemed like an eternity, Ducky finally pulled away and stepped back to admire her handiwork.

Well, Petrie couldn't speak for anyone else, but she had certainly done quite a number on him. It took quite a while for him to register that Ducky had concluded with her little show.

Only when the world slowly came back into focus did Petrie jolt back into reality. But as his thoughts were still firmly entrenched on Ducky, the first thing that he noticed was his friend shifting her feet awkwardly. Her cheeks were tinged with a reddish shade, a hue that stood out clearly against her green skin.

…wait, did Ducky not think of her kiss as just a means to an end? Surely it was impulsive, a decision that she'd made in the spur of the moment… right?

Oh, no. Oh, noooooooo.

As the haze of his muddled feelings cleared, the euphoria that had coursed through his body slowly gave way to a fearful void. Petrie felt himself going clammy as he took a shaky step towards Ducky. "Wh-what… that about?" he finally managed to force the burning question out at a sniggering Ducky. It was not his best effort though, as the sputtering of his disconcerted voice only resulted in a bemused Ducky giggling more even audibly at watching his plight.

"Well, I kissed you, silly! Yep, yep, yep!" Ducky answered with a light admonishing tone, almost as if she couldn't believe that she had to explain it to him in words. Her aqua eyes glinted with a judgmental expression as she eyed him shrewdly. "Surely you must know what being kissed by a girl means, Paddy? Huh, huh?"

Man, despite her sweet demeanor, Ducky could still be really sneaky and conniving when she wanted to. Such a trait probably came as a prerequisite to being friends with Littlefoot, considering how infamous the gang were around the valley.

But in this instance, her teasing was not helping him, not in the slightest. Yes, there were certainly times where Ducky's happy-go-lucky nature could be quite jarring, usually when she behaved in such a way during otherwise serious situations. He knew that this optimism was Ducky's way of coping with distress, but here it had the unfortunate effect of tainting his mind and leading it towards astray thoughts.

No… no! Bad Petrie, bad, bad Petrie! Why you think of your friend this way! She Ducky, she no some flyer girl!

Petrie had always consigned himself to wind up a lonely flyer who would remain stuck without a mate for the rest of his life. After all, he wasn't an amazing flyer like his siblings in terms of flight, he wasn't naturally charismatic—if acting like a big bully character counted as that—with his words and actions like Gyro, and he didn't have a fancy coat of wings — even Gryphon's khaki wings stood out more than his lackluster dark brown coating.

He'd been hatched near the bottom as compared to his peers and siblings when it came to the pecking order, and as a result Petrie sincerely doubted that any female would take an interest in him beyond a passing fancy given the most optimistic outlook. Even if they did somehow look past all of that, Petrie knew that his broken, childish speech would be a complete deal-breaker and drive away any last remaining stragglers. If his own siblings couldn't live with his manner of talking, what girl in their right mind would willingly nest with him of their own accord?

And thus, he had consigned himself to a bachelor's life. Hey, if it worked out well for his Uncle Pterano, he couldn't complain.

So of course, it was only after he had surrendered all hope of ever finding a mate that the world decided to play a cruel prank on Petrie. What serendipitous timing…

The fundamental problem was that Ducky's gesture had shaken Petrie's worldview, throwing it completely off center. Call him jaded and acclimatized to always being the butt of jokes, but never had Petrie been the subject of so much affection outside of his family and friends… which was ironic, of course, given that Ducky had been his best friend from the moment they first met. Though it was a bond that had been forged ever since a flying attempt gone wrong resulted in Ducky inquisitively pressing for an introduction from him, Petrie's friendship with Ducky had flourished and was still sustained over many adventures throughout the passing Cold Times, and it was no secret that she was just as close to him.

But in that one single kiss, the status quo between friends was shattered as Petrie ended up tasting a forbidden sweet bubble that he never even knew existed before today.

Me like it… but she Ducky! Plus, she no know me actually Petrie! It different for Ducky… she think me swimmer!

He knew that it was wrong for him to be getting a wild sense of thrill from Ducky unknowingly pecking him on the cheek, especially when the swimmer claimed that she'd done it in a romantic way. Why was it that the rapid pounding in his chest made it clear that his heart very much enjoyed Ducky's lips being on his cheek?

If it was so wrong, then why did it feel so… right?

Could it be that he was feeling this way just because he was currently taking the form of a swimmer? Was all this emotion simply a manifestation of his fickle heart deciding to pay a cruel trick on him?

He was hatched a flyer, and her a swimmer. Up until the abrupt transformation that Vekal had subjected him to yesterday night, that was an immutable fact. Despite their similarities they couldn't be more different, so any romantic inclinations from Ducky which might have taken place prior to him being turned into a swimmer would have simply whizzed past his mind.

But now…

St-stop! What Petrie thinking? Me scared… this wrong, this all wrong!

The raging tempest in his heart ended up plunging Petrie into anguish. There would be no satisfactory outcome that could arise from this now that the temptation within him had been awakened.

"I am still waiting for your answer, Paddy. I am, I am!" Ducky teased him jauntily, "Do you like it?"

Mom tell Petrie that me soon going to enter Time of Great Growing. Ohhhhh, does this mean it all Time of Great Growing fault me feel dizzy inside!

Petrie stiffened at the possibility. The last thing he wanted was for pesky emotions and feelings that he didn't even understand to mess everything up for him. He hadn't even really begun to grasp the whole concept yet. Since he was frankly in the dark about the intricate nature involved in such matters, Petrie decided to give a noncommittal answer to Ducky's question instead of outright confirming or denying it.

"Me… I know what kiss between two swimmers mean… and it okay for Paddy."

He just prayed that his stutter or his hesitation didn't give away that lie. If his heart had a say in the matter, the kiss was more than okay, and that apprehension likely came through and was possibly being articulated through his body language. Petrie took in a deep breath to calm himself down, before mumbling a small confession with a meek voice.

"Though… it f-first time me got romantic kiss…"

Ducky cooed at him. "Aw… the first time is always the best! I remember my first time swimming, I do, I do," she smiled fondly. "It was amazing, yep, ye… uh…"

She winced when she recalled that Paddy couldn't swim in fast water, quickly raising a finger to change the topic. "I hope you liked-ed the kiss as much as I did," Ducky winked at him before glancing over to his side. "Yep, yep, yep!"

Following her gaze was what allowed Petrie his first glimpse of a shell-shocked Ferris.

It was at that where he was reminded of why Ducky had initiated the kiss to begin with. Petrie had been so focused on himself that he had forgotten that the kiss had actually been facilitated by an argument between Ferris and Ducky in the first place.

Needless to say, in spite of his many grievances and personal issues—not to mention the resulting fallout that was bound to ensue in the aftermath—with such an approach, Petrie had to concede that Ducky pulling a fast one on him was undoubtedly the most direct way for her to articulate her intentions to the headstrong and obstinate Ferris.

Ferris' face was blank as he looked at the two swimmers. The brash swimmer—and everyone around him, come to think of it—had been stunned into complete silence by Ducky's spontaneous move. His beak was visibly trembling, and it looked like the swimmer was unable to so much as articulate a simple sentence, the choked noises that he was making showing his struggle just to find the words to speak.

Brrrr… me sure glad know me no only one who no can think straight after what Ducky did!

The stupefied swimmer finally managed to raise a quivering finger in their direction. "Du-Ducky… why?" Ferris croaked out after considerable difficulty, his dejected tone of betrayal making it apparent that he was more dazed than aggrieved.

Ducky let out a harumph of displeasure, huffing as she wagged a dismissive finger at Ferris. "Oh, silly Ferris! I told-ed you that I like Paddy as a swimmer more than you. I did, I did." To the chagrin of the prideful Ferris, Ducky proceeded to rub that fact in his face by affirming it with a little ditty. "Yep, yep, yep! The two of us kissed, kissed, kissed!"

Ferris sputtered at her response, the swimmer at a loss for words. His face hung to the ground at Ducky's jeering tune.

Petrie was able to see that the once-headstrong Ferris couldn't bear to look at Ducky after that. Rather unusually for such a sweet swimmer, Ducky was getting gratification at seeing the male driven to his wit's end, her face glowing with cathartic joy. Ferris was able to discern that disdain from her expression, and he wasn't taking it well. He clearly couldn't stand to see Ducky gleefully tearing into him like that, and made no effort in hiding his disappointment.

Oh well. It served him right. If Ferris didn't act so self-centered and behaved like everyone and everything revolved around him, then he wouldn't have taken it so badly. Petrie might have even supported their hypothetical relationship if Ducky didn't have to leave the Great Valley to be with him… and well, if Ferris' attitude had a marked improvement.

A very marked improvement to his current insufferable attitude.

Quite frankly, Petrie was surprised that Ducky even bothered going to such lengths just to spite Ferris by making her displeasure with his actions as clear as the surface of a tranquil river. She was typically a lot more passive with her emotions and thoughts compared to someone like Cera, so the fact that Ducky got frustrated enough to vocalize her irritation about the way Ferris handled his advances towards her as well as call him out for the grudge race that he had challenged Petrie to spoke volumes about Ferris as a whole.

"Life comes at you hard, eh brother?" Amaryl responded on behalf of her brother by walking up to him and patting the still Ferris in the back, a pronounced smirk gracing her beak.

Ferris jerked away from her touch as if her hands were scalding him. In the blink of an eye, his mood changed for the worse. "Oh, shut up, sis," he snapped, positively seething at his sister's instigation. "Not this again… why does this keep on happening to me?" He was vibrating with suppressed anger as Amaryl's cautionary words from earlier regarding Ducky ended up being vindicated.

A small—okay, larger than 'small'—part of Petrie had to admit that seeing Ferris react to the kiss in such an uncultured and undignified manner was very cathartic. He crooned at the sight of the shattered Ferris, who was pretty much in complete and utter shambles. To describe how Petrie felt, it was like if he witnessed Amaryl digging into her brother before he'd run into Ducky all over again, took the enjoyment he felt at that moment of time, and multiplied it by a hundred. Ferris' reaction was that priceless.

Ferris jerked his head up to the sky, before wringing his fingers and wildly gesticulating at Petrie. "Why do this to me, Ducky? What does he have that I don't?" he cried out, his face genuinely torn by Ducky's rejection.

Ducky fixed him a stern look, getting exasperated by the swimmer's incessant whining. "Do I really have to answer that?" she pressed, frowning.

"Yes! Please do!" A powerless Ferris nodded his head vigorously to her question, practically pleading with Ducky. Either unaware or willfully ignorant that Ducky meant for it to be rhetorical, he thrust his arms out in frustration. "I'm stumped! I just cannot comprehend it… why choose him over me?"

Ducky's eyes flashed with a pensive emotion akin to that of disappointment. "Well, I am not going to tell you if you cannot figure it out for yourself. Nope, nope, nope." She closed her eyes, shaking her head despondently. "You should go reflect on everything you said to Paddy and I, Ferris. You should, you should!"

Ferris opened his beak to speak, but then thought better of it and clamped his mouth shut when he realized the futility of trying to duke it out with Ducky. While he had done so earlier before the race and before Ducky initiated the kiss, both times he already had the upper hand going into the argument.

He didn't have that edge this time, and his body language showed that he knew it.

Without so much as batting an eye, Ferris whirled onto Petrie, spinning around so fast that his tail appeared to have a whiplash effect. "Why…?" he asked, more disappointed than angry as he glanced him over. "You can't even swim in fast water! Why would Ducky pick a failure like you over me? I just don't understand…"

Petrie scrunched his eyebrows as he heard Ferris lamenting. All things considered, there were likely visible lines that were etched on his forehead from all of the stress.

How the situation had de-escalated from a possible reveal of his identity to now having to debate love matters was beyond him. The only thing that he could focus on as Ferris tried to rationalize how things were falling apart was how different their attitudes were when in distress. While Petrie tended to break down into a panic whenever things went wrong for him—which was very often—Ferris on the other hand apparently had the belief that events would always accommodate him and thus seemed to take it a lot harder than Petrie.

Petrie could recall that when he was spying on Amaryl taking potshots at her brother, Ferris appeared to take her disparaging comments in stride… at least in comparison to how Petrie would've handled his own siblings whenever they teased and mocked him.

Despite the lack of a confirmation from Ducky, Ferris remained confident that she would come around… or at least, he appeared so on the surface. Internally however it would seem like he wasn't quite as sure about his chances. Petrie remembered the doubt and insecurity written on Ferris' face as he privately whined to his sister about the state of his shaky relationship with Ducky, and the knowledge that Ferris wasn't as infallible as he'd initially appeared was what had given Petrie his first ray of hope after he was transformed into a swimmer by Vekal against his will.

And true enough, Ferris certainly wasn't able to ignore all of the warning signs that had pointed to the opposite outcome of what he would've liked to believe and keep himself blissfully ignorant forever. After this debacle, a mutual affection between the swimmers was definitely not the case.

Now you know how it like when things no go your way! Things no go Petrie way since day me hatched!

But of course… Jovi had explained to him that Ferris was being groomed to be the next herd leader, so was it really any wonder that he appeared to act like an entitled brat who took his authority for granted? He'd borne witness to the condescending way that Ferris used when talking to Bartley and Jovi, and during those conversations he certainly took control and spoke like someone who knew of his sway over them.

Ferris only talk big… The realization dawned on him as he looked at the quaking swimmer. But he no actually big at all!

The whole thing reminded Petrie of Hyp and his cronies, a trio of bullies who had mocked him and the gang many Cold Times in the past by virtue of the fact that they happened to be older and larger in size. It seemed as if this was no different — Ferris only seemed to wield his authority on those who he knew would concede to his rule. When the situation spiraled out of control, he hadn't the slightest clue as to how he could salvage it.

But before Petrie could fire back with valor, armed by the knowledge behind Ferris' behavior, his good friend beat him to it.

"Must you always target Paddy whenever you cannot get the better of someone you are arguing with? You are being mean to him just because he cannot fight back, you are, you are!"

An unhappy Ducky stepped in between the line of sight of the two swimmers, coming to Petrie's rescue as she reprimanded Ferris with a tone that was filled with ire in every word. "I told-ed you earlier that I only think you challenged Paddy to a race because you were jealous and wanted to prove that you were better than him by using your herd tradition as an excuse. That is all wrong, Ferris! It is not about who is the better swimmer based on their swimming ability, no, no, no! Not everything must be a competition! Are you that obsessed with your pride… are you really?"

Ferris stumbled back at Ducky's accusation, his eyes going wide and frantically darting about at the crowd of swimmers and flyers surrounding him as he breathed heavily. This time Petrie could spot no trace of hidden anger or vexation in both his posture and expression. Instead, what remained of the formerly conceited swimmer was a somber sense of brittle vulnerability. His glum expression said it all.

Ducky pursed her lips contemplatively, pausing for a brief moment as something came to mind. "Just because someone is not as good at swimming…" she murmured, looking to the flyer siblings in the background who were enraptured by all the commotion, "…does not mean they are a bad swimmer. Nope, nope, nope."

Petrie paused as he looked at Ducky in a peculiar way. There was something about that statement which seemed off to him.

"Hey…" Yaw muttered from the distance, beating him to the punch, "would she happen to be referring to Petrie? Our brother couldn't fly back then, right?"

Petrie found himself stumbling back in shock when he realized that his older brother was likely right — Ducky had probably been thinking about him while lecturing Ferris about the fallacy of judging someone prematurely. Now while he would normally be thrilled to be the subject of Ducky's praise, his current circumstances conversely made it very awkward…

"You know what?" Pitch considered, tilting her head at an angle as she scrutinized Ducky's expression. "That analogy makes total sense. That swimmer Ducky always was rather close to Petrie. Even taking into account the difference in their species, Petrie hangs out with her all the time, more so than the rest of his friends."

…so very much more awkward.

Petrie felt like curling up and hiding away as his close companionship with his swimmer friend abruptly became the subject matter between his squabbling siblings. And since he was listening in on them unintentionally, Petrie felt as though he was eavesdropping on their personal thoughts.

"That reminds me…" Pitch quizzically scratched her head, looking at her two siblings. "Weren't you guys supposed to be looking for Petrie with me?"

Now this caught Petrie's attention.

Petrie stared at his siblings as though he was seeing them for the first time. He was so caught up by the possibility of his family finding him out when his siblings had showed up from out of nowhere that he never once stopped to consider why they were even in the area in the first place. In the heat of the moment his frantic mind simply chose to blame his rotten luck for their sudden appearance.

Although the immediate crisis regarding the challenge-cum-blackmail about his identity was averted, Petrie still had to take care not to divulge any information that he shouldn't be privy about while remaining under the guise of Paddy, doubly so now that his flyer identity was being brought up in conversation. All it would take for everything to fall apart like a consolidated pile of treestars being scattered by the winds was someone putting two and two together, unlikely as may be given the line of thinking it would take for someone to go from noting the similarities to wondering if they were one and the same.

"If you two want to hunt for our skittish brother, be my guest," Roll offered to her two siblings, brazenly shrugging without a care in the world. "But in my opinion, you'd just be needlessly exhausting your breath doing so."

Pitch glanced at her sister disapprovingly. "Just because we got carried away with this drowning incident doesn't mean we can't resume our search, Roll. There is still a chance of locating Petrie if we pool our resources together."

"Ha! You'll have to try harder than simply using fancy words to rope me into this. Why bother expending so much energy on a search that is destined to be futile, Pitch?" Roll countered. "Remember what Gyro drilled into us back at the nest? That we should half-heartedly fly over the valley until the day is done so that we can hand the search over to the grownups when we turn up nothing?"

Petrie wanted to be surprised by this knowledge, but deep down he wasn't. He should have known that his siblings were looking for him while simultaneously denouncing the importance of such a search.

His hint as to what the magnitude of vanishing under mysterious circumstances entailed? A passing comment by Ducky.

"Where are you, Spike? I cannot also be looking for you when I am searching for Petrie!"

Back when Ducky first stumbled across Petrie in his new body, she had remarked that she was searching for him. Back then Petrie simply assumed that it was just Ducky and the gang who were trying to figure out why he had disappeared into thin air, but now that he thought about it there was no reason that the search party couldn't also encompass his family members. It would explain why so many of his siblings were in the area when he had previously chalked it up to mere chance.

The part about Gyro trying to order the rest of his siblings around and convince them that the search be a sloppy and perfunctory one did lead to a damper on his mood though. Looking for Petrie really that big of burden for me brothers and sisters?

"Roll kinda has a point, sis." Yaw tried to rationalize, stretching his wings out with a yawn. "I'm quite roughed up after screeching for help to save that drowning swimmer." He glanced at Jovi and Ducky, still miffed that he himself had lost his nerve to plunge into the rapids to rescue Paddy on his own. "After going through something like that, I pretty much lost all motivation to seek Petrie out. I'm tired… just tired."

Satisfied that it was now two-against-one, Roll placed her wings by her hips with a satisfied grin. "As for me, I personally don't care about putting my heart and soul into such a pointless task. Watching the shenanigans here play out is far more entertaining."

Yaw snorted, his perception of the amusement derived from the situation colored differently as he deftly recalled Ferris teaming up with his sister to humiliate him. He had to inhale a sharp breath to cool off. "Given the track record, Petrie's probably in good hands anyway," he tried to persuade his older sibling Pitch, who remained staunchly unconvinced. "How many times has Petrie cheated the Great Beyond now? At least thirty?" the flyer mused before changing his estimate, "…probably more. All things considered it's frankly a miracle that he's still alive today."

In spite of everything, Petrie had to concur with Yaw's assessment. He had scraped through life by the skin of his teeth far too many times to count, typically when participating in one of the gang's many misadventures. Whenever Petrie counted his blessings after surviving a terrifying ordeal, he liked to think that perhaps his father was looking out for him from the Great Beyond.

Roll cackled at Yaw stumbling on his feet while analyzing their youngest brother's fortuitous luck. "Anyway, I agree with Gyro on why we shouldn't plunge into our task full-force, because I'm also betting my treestars that Petrie flew out to the Mysterious Beyond, just like he surmised. But unlike Gyro, I feel as though there's no need to even put on a show just to show Mom that we're 'invested' in searching for our brother." The flyer sarcastically rolled her eyes to place emphasis on the air quotes. "What a pointless ruse. Who cares if Petrie got himself caught up in yet another one of his dumb adventures? Don't waste your time in a lost cause and enjoy this spectacle with me, sis! It's getting spicy!"

Petrie had to restrain himself from verbally protesting even though he sorely wanted to defend himself, as him saying anything would give his real identity away. Trying not to make it obvious, he eyeballed Ducky to try and read her emotions while his siblings were throwing shade at him.

Ducky furrowed her brow, scratching the crest at the back of her head in contemplation. Petrie had to admit that the half-grouchy, half-pensive demeanor that Ducky emoted while she brooded was admittedly kind of cute.

Hm, look like Ducky crest be growing slightly bigger since… no wait, Petrie, stop! What you doing!?

This time Petrie was able to mentally catch himself fantasizing about his friend in time, forcing him to physically slap his beak with the palm of his hand to snap out of it.

"Getting spicy?" Pitch's retort as she repeated her sister's words thankfully assisted in keeping Petrie's mind out of a ditch. "The swimmer that was flailing for help is now safe and sound, so we ought to search for Petrie. Mom asked us to!" Seeing her siblings remain unconvinced despite that, she tried to appeal to their emotions. "There is still a chance that we can find Petrie if he's here somewhere in the valley and not out in the Mysterious Beyond. Don't just write the whole thing off as a failure just because Gyro said so! We can't afford to slack off, we need all wings on deck during the early critical moments!"

"Let someone who actually cares about Petrie do all the work then!" Roll muttered to Pitch. "As long as I have someone like that goody-two-shoes Gryphon picking up the slack for me, I don't have to lift one wing to assist!"

Petrie felt his eyes drift away as his sisters continued to fervently argue about him, just in time to see another sister catapult the situation into turmoil.

"Ahahahaha! Just suck it up and admit that I was right all along, Ferris! You totally bungled things with that girl, just like I said you would!" Amaryl chuckled at her brother's plight. "Your sheer incompetence when it comes to mock leadership is nothing short of disastrous!"

With an enormous effort, Ferris lifted his hanging head to glare daggers at his sister. "I think you've made your point. Now leave me alone," he deadpanned.

"Actually, I think the one who has made their point is me," Ducky corrected. "Yep, yep, yep!"

"Really? Is that so?" Amaryl commented in a droll-like manner that Petrie had quickly likened to the constantly sarcastic—at least when it came to mocking her brother—swimmer girl.

For a brief second, the humor in Amaryl's eyes was displaced by a raw emotion of unbridled agitation. Right as Petrie blinked in surprise at the swerve of her mood from amused to frustration, the amused swimmer went right back to cackling at Ferris' plight.

Petrie had to rub his eyes, unsure if what he saw actually happened or was a figment of his imagination. It very well could be his head playing tricks on him. His incredibly active mind had conjured a whole plethora of chaotic doomsday scenarios, almost all of which involved his identity being revealed and resulting in him being stranded in his current swimmer form as he was hung out to dry by a triumphant Vekal.

Petrie vehemently shook his head. Nope… not gonna happen! Nope, nope, nope!

…gah, he couldn't be safe from Ducky in his head even when she wasn't the focus of her thoughts. Twice now he had unconsciously used her trademark triple affirmation without thinking.

Frankly, it was a miracle that Vekal hadn't trounced him with the whole "keep your identity secret" caveat yet. There were plenty of opportunities where Petrie could have blown his cover, but now he was so deep into his Paddy persona that even if the threat by Vekal was hollow, he couldn't reveal himself to be a transformed Petrie.

Because really, how could he possibly tell Ducky that she had unknowingly kissed her best friend like she would a prospective mate?

He shuddered as he contemplated the possible fallout of such a reveal, especially as up till now he still wasn't sure how far Ducky was going to take it. Even now Ducky was still sending him mixed signals on whether she had kissed the transformed Petrie just to instigate Ferris or if she actually had something for Paddy. Despite trying to wrap his mind around all the possibilities and meticulously scrutinizing her expression, he still couldn't figure it out.

But if it was the latter…

P-Petrie? You were Paddy all along…? Ohhhh… how could you trick me like that!? I-I trusted you! I did, I did!

No… it wasn't going to happen. He'd take this secret to his death.

Besides, if Ducky somehow did learn about his dirty little secret before the Bright Circle set, then it would all be for naught anyway, because Vekal would—

Petrie's eyes widened in shock. How could he have forgotten?

The swimmer subtly slid his eyes over so that the vegetation further inland came into his field of vision.

Yep, they were still there — a pair of gleaming teal eyes surrounded by a deluge of treestars, the foliage serving as the perfect cover for someone attempting to intrude on the scene.

"I have my ways of knowing. Spill the sweet bubbles and I will ensure that you stay this way forever…"

Petrie shuddered when he remembered that he had wanted to investigate them right before Ducky had distractedly sent the entire situation spiraling in her favor. After all, as he had surmised, someone who was deliberately keeping themselves hidden to observe him was quite likely to be in cahoots with Vekal…

Well, no time like the present. And with a sizeable audience encircling the premises thanks to all of the hijinks that succeeded his near drowning, the perpetrator wouldn't be able to flee the premises when Petrie confronted them. Who would have thought that the crowd of swimmers and flyers which he'd earlier feared would be the precursor to his downfall was now about to be his greatest asset?

Petrie sucked in a deep breath and steeled himself, taking large strides over to the bush before he could lose his nerve and wimp out.

"Who you? Why you hiding in here!?"

His accusation cut off the battle of words between his sisters. The feverish bustle of conversation died down almost instantaneously as almost everyone turned and focused their attention to where Petrie had thrown his voice. All that remained was an eerie silence as all eyes fell onto Petrie.

The eyes in the bushes appeared to shiver when everyone noticed them, but they quickly hardened and recovered from the unpleasant surprise.

"Oh, dammit!" a male voice spoke up. "Got caught out, and just when it was reaching the best part of Ferris' hilarious stand-up comedy act too!" The frustration then simmered down, supplanted by a posh and mocking tone. "But please, don't mind me. I'm just a friendly observer who has never been here."

Everything was thrown for a loop when the one who was hidden unveiled themselves from where they'd previously lay unnoticed in the bushes. It wasn't Vekal—the differing eye color was a dead giveaway—or the mystery flyer who had stalked him out earlier.

But to Petrie's complete surprise, he was able to recognize the yellow-colored dinosaur who emerged from his hiding spot while sporting a smug demeanor.

"It's not that I don't believe you. It's just that your reliability as a navigator has come under fire before, and this incident is getting rather close to the tipping point. Your bumbling is seriously getting out of hand recently."

It was the swimmer who he had witnessed reprimanding Jovi for missing their herd leader's speech just yesterday!

He staggered back in shock, left reeling from the revelation. Given how eventful the previous day had been for him, he'd completely forgot about the other swimmer who had been strolling with Jovi until now. That wasn't even taking into account that for some reason Petrie had expected the culprit to be the flyer who had been spying on him uncannily from a vantage point on the Great Wall before the race had begun.

Petrie didn't anticipate for the eavesdropper to be a member of Ferris' herd. The idea had never even crossed his mind.

The swimmer stepped out of his exposed hiding spot and into the open, barely even fazed at being caught out. Conversely, it appeared as though he was positively reveling at being the center of attention. He brushed off a few yellowed treestars that were stuck to his flank, almost perfectly camouflaged with his sandy-yellow body, the slow and deliberate manner in which he insipidly swept them off a telltale indicator that he was likely deriving a sense of twisted enjoyment from savoring the slack-jawed expressions which greeted him.

"V-Valent…!" Ferris seethed, the first one to break the silence as he pointed a trembling finger at the newcomer. "You… what is the meaning of this!?"

Oh yeah! Petrie realized with a jolt as he looked to and fro between both swimmers. Me no remember his name till now! It slip Petrie mind!

"You'll have to excuse me." Valent stated in a curt and superficial manner which implied that those words weren't meant to be taken sincerely in the slightest. The way he carried himself in a gruff and self-important way quickly set off his Cera alarm bells. "I simply wanted a better view of the show. I mean, I wouldn't want to miss a race after your previous debacle. You lost to Jovi, for crying out loud!" His eyes slid over to the herd navigator, still catatonic from the trauma involving the drowning Paddy and his resulting scolding from earlier. "No wonder you ordered this one unannounced! But did you really think that I wouldn't be able to catch wind of it! Only in your sleep stories, I'm afraid!"

Ferris squeezed his eyes shut, the swimmer struggling—and failing—to keep his cool. After having to deal with Ducky's harsh reprimand, the threshold of his patience was at its breaking point. "And what about it, huh? Come to taunt me?"

"Not particularly." Valent stopped walking, leaving a distance of about three arm's length away from the other swimmer. "What's wrong? You don't believe me?"

"Hmph! What a rhetorical question, coming from you of all swimmers," Ferris replied with a half-hearted chuckle.

The yellow swimmer snorted at that. "Glad that we're both on the same page then. No need for me to waste my time by beating around the treestar bush, then."

Ferris stiffened. "What do you want, Valent? I won this race, so how about if you be nice and keep your beak shut for once?"

"I'm afraid you've been misinformed." Valent took a few paces forward, a smug grin on his beak. He glanced over to his side, making brief eye contact with Ducky followed by Petrie. "You think that your victory over that other swimmer should take precedence over the fact that a tragedy almost occurred to your competitor?"

"You've been here for that long…" Ferris cursed, before marching up to Valent with fury in his eyes. "And if you were, why didn't you go and save Paddy, huh?!" He flew into a rage, looking ready to slap the other swimmer. "Don't try to be hypocritical and accuse me when you yourself are no better! I know it's really because you didn't want to blow your cover! If Paddy didn't notice you, none of us would have been the wiser!"

Something clicked in Petrie's mind as he took in Ferris' sour expression. The normally stoic Ferris was being unusually bristled by the appearance of this swimmer.

Jovi had mentioned something about this swimmer to him and the gang when they first met… what was it that Jovi said about Valent? There was something that he knew he was forgetting…

"I'm afraid Ferris is used to getting what he wants. It's why he considers Valent quite the annoyance. To think that it's all because Valent is a rather curt reality check for him. Petty, isn't it?"

Wracking his brain paid off. That was it! The two swimmers weren't fond of each other!

"Ferris and Valent are not the best of friends. In fact, I'd peg the two of them as rivals. Their many feuds are legendary among the herd."

Yep, yep, yep! That was clearly true… argh, he did it again!

"Valent… that swimmer… of course he'd say that. He really takes great joy in putting down others."

Great. Just what he needed at a time like this.

Valent was confident and assertive with his words. Petrie could clearly remember making the distinction between Jovi and Valent when he'd first seen both swimmers through differences in their physical stature, namely that Jovi had a larger head crest and body size. And yet, the smaller Valent was chastising him the entire time, talking down to the herd navigator as though he was the one calling the shots.

This occasion was no different.

"Geez, I was about to," Valent defensively held his arms out, rather unfazed by Ferris' allegation. "I'm not heartless, but fortunately for me that blue flyer, Jovi, and the swimmer you were hoping to impress all collectively saved me the trouble." His face turned to that of disgust as he turned his back on Ferris and strolled away from him. "Don't compare me to the likes of you. I am ten times the swimmer that you'll ever be, Ferris!"

Ferris stomped his feet on the ground. "Y-You… where do you think you're going?!" he demanded, unwilling to let Valent get the last word in. "Come back here right this moment!"

Valent exhaled a derisive sigh, spinning on his heel to face Ferris. "You are hoping to bolster your reputation here in the Great Valley, hm?" he claimed, before tilting his head up and laughing to himself. "Too bad for you, then. The dinosaurs around here are a clean slate free from Geoffrey's influence, so making a good first impression counts."

Ferris visibly flinched, but tried playing it off. "What are you insinuating?"

Valent held out his right arm and wagged his index finger at Ferris with a metronomic rhythm. "Isn't it cruel that all it'll take to ruin your name is a single incident such as this? Wouldn't that be a shame? If word of this were to leak out?" he sneered with a cocky glint in his eye, leaving his threat dangerously hanging.

Ferris forcefully kicked his foot against the trunk of a tree that was unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire. "Did you come here just to prance around like an overconfident buffoon?" he hissed, the harsh undertone making his intent clear to his audience. "Trying to force me to submit by threatening to tell on me is about as threatening as a sharptooth hatchling!"

"Are you sure about that, brother?" Amaryl interjected with an impish grin.

"Sh-shut up, sis!" Ferris shot his sister a betrayed look. "Quit aiding him! You always do that!"

Valent winked at Amaryl before chortling at a perturbed Ferris. "Hahaha! You may act impassive on the outside, but I know you far too well! When this is all over, we'll see which of us has the last laugh!" Leaning his head back intrepidly with his fingertips locked in a web behind his neck, Valent let his deep baritone rumble. "You better prepare yourself, because I intend to sully your name so completely that you'll never be able to hold your head high in this valley ever again!"

"Try me, you damn swimmer! My Pops is the one with power in this herd!"

As tempers began to flare and accusatory fingers started to fly everywhere, Petrie could hear his sister Roll murmur a snide remark to her older siblings. "See! I told you two that it'd be worth staying here for the drama!" she held her head up high in triumph. "I mean, we're flyers… the eyes in the sky! With our gift of flight and our keen eyesight, we flyers are privy to more information than practically any other species. We live a life where we have the opportunity to witness and listen in to all sorts of tantalizingly juicy conversations. Come on, don't tell me you two aren't the least bit curious to see how this'll all play out?"

Petrie felt a physical jab in his heart as his sister listed all the traits of a flyer which he had previously taken for granted after learning how to fly. Concluding her speech with a summary of the benefits of being a flyer was simply the kicker. It really stung due to his current situation.

He raised the palm of his arm up, staring at the spot where a wing membrane would have once draped down from his tendons.

Me no gonna look down on swimmers when me back to normal! Ducky make swimming look easy, but she really have it hard!

As the two swimmers glared at each other with undisguised venom in their eyes, Petrie regretted calling out Valent from his hiding spot. How was he supposed to know that the dinosaur who was lying in wait was not actually Vekal's probable associate, but rather Ferris' sworn rival?

The knowledge that Valent wanted to disseminate the details behind his near drowning as a threat to Ferris spooked Petrie. He supposed that it was inevitable with an audience having witnessed the incident, but when Valent warned that he would leak details of the episode, the consequences and repercussions of the knowledge spreading across the valley seemed all the more real. Petrie felt as though he was once again threshing about in the suffocating fast water rapids… and just when things looked like they were calming down, too!

…okay, discounting the whole 'being kissed by Ducky' part. But at least Ferris was in a depressed funk in the aftermath of that. If he hadn't unveiled the hidden Valent and reignited Ferris' anger, there was a very good chance that he might have been able to escape the premises with only a scant few dinosaurs having seen him.

But with the two of them making a scene, that was out of the question now. In a sense, he supposed that with the attention having fallen away from him he could technically attempt to sneak away, but some morbid part of Petrie couldn't pry his eyes away from the unfolding scene.

Petrie supposed his sister was right. Despite having the body of a swimmer, the innate curiosity that he had as a flyer remained a part of him.

No fancy transforming shiny stone or manipulative flyer could rob that from him.

"What's the matter?" Valent smirked, knowing that he was grating on his target. "Sharptooth got your tongue, Ferry?"

Petrie froze at the unusual term of address right as Ducky let out an unsuppressed snicker. A mortified Ferris blanched, shooting his head towards Ducky in despair before his face turned an icy cold.

Then again, making a run for it sounded more and more tempting a prospect as time went on…

Author's Note:

I've actually had a good portion of this chapter sitting on my laptop for the past month, and since the conclusion of this arc—much like the entirety of this fast water race arc as a whole—proved to once again be a massive undertaking, I eventually decided to just finish up whatever I had and post it online. Y'all have waited long enough for this!

A large bulk of this chapter was exploring the ramifications of Ducky's kiss, both internally and externally. Poor Petrie had his mind blown, haha! Does Ducky like his alter ego, or is it all to keep up the ruse so that she could serve Ferris his just desserts? I am also aware that a few readers do not like the way Ferris has acted thus far, and in this chapter he does publicly get taken down a peg, hah.

Guest: Thanks! Unfortunately, Petrie would still want to flee when the situation blows over, so I'm not too sure if a meeting between his new form and the gang would end up happening between them. If Ducky almost made him squeal the truth, imagine Cera. :p

DiddyKF1: Don't worry, Ducky kissing Petrie probably caught everyone off guard both in and out of universe, not just you. I think the question to ask isn't whether Petrie returns Ducky's feelings, but whether Ducky's feelings for him are genuine right now at all. Plus, Ferris does indeed get trolled by Ducky's antics in this chapter. Are you happy now?

Anagnos: I never actually thought of JW when I was naming Delta — a delta is a landform at the mouth of a river. :p Anyway, Ducky is a swimmer who is seemingly incapable of hate, so while she does dislike Ferris and is rather hostile to him at the moment I wouldn't discount the possibility of some reconciliation in the future. While Ferris did put the blame on Jovi for freezing in the heat of the moment despite being the closest bystander, I think Ducky succinctly put it best — in that it seems as though Ferris is determined to blame everyone but himself. I also find it intriguing that you do not stand by Ducky's choice of kissing Paddy, since in a sense you are absolutely right — kissing Paddy is quite a petty move to make if it was done solely to spite Ferris. But to be fair Ducky did come to Petrie's rescue when he was being lambasted earlier thanks to her kind nature, it's just that I haven't explained what Ducky's thought process is from her POV yet, so everything we're getting now is from Petrie's viewpoint.

Keijo6: Yes, I'm glad you pointed that out. Despite being submissive most of the time, Jovi is assertive when it comes to certain topics — as you surmised, probably his disdain for Ferris. There's definitely more to him than just being a Guido 2.0. I understand your concerns for Ferris and I will admit that the structure of this arc shows him as more of a typical antagonist, but there are shades and hints of him being more than just a two-dimensional hate sink, at least compared to his first encounter with the gang.

Rhombus: I think I always wanted to write a 'the talk' scene in a LBT context given how many I've read in the past. The propensity to make things hilariously awkward for the subjects involved isn't one to miss, especially with the obvious low-hanging fruit that is swimmer species habits. Yes, the last chapter was practically the callout chapter. In a sense, Petrie is legitimately the audience to his own demise as others end up fighting on his behalf with their own personal goals. And now others are still arguing about Ducky's sneaky kiss on him. How fun! :P

With two rival swimmers about to duke it out and Valent threatening to reveal the events of the fastwater race to a larger audience, will Petrie make it out unscathed? And more importantly, just what is Ducky thinking about the kiss?