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The Shark Heart

Chapter Text

Daryl Dixon closes the door behind him, turns the key in the lock, then stretches his limbs and ties his hair into a low ponytail which helps keep his vision clear. He probably should’ve cropped his hair a long time ago or let Carol cut it for him because it’s in the way, but he can’t really be bothered. He just makes sure it’s tied back whenever he needs it out of the way. Like now. Then he undresses quickly and puts on the standard navy blue bodysuit with the logo of the Institute: a black outline of a generic shark on a white circular background, surrounded by the curved inscription of Alexandria Marine Life Institute . He doesn't bother with the rest of the diving gear: the oxygen tanks, the mask or even the swim fins. He's got no need for any of that. Even the bodysuit is a concession, a deal he made long ago with Aaron who's very adamant about not letting him do this naked. Daryl sincerely doesn't understand why, it’s not like anyone’s going to be watching him or anything, and even if anybody were watching him, it wouldn’t bother him at all; he can’t be held responsible for other people being bothered. He still agreed to the compromise because Aaron and Eric have done so much for him already over the years. It’s not like making a concession here and there is too much of an effort. The bodysuit is comfy, anyway, hugs his body just right without squeezing anything vital, so it’s not that big a deal.

He grabs the heavy bucket of frozen, slowly melting fish and makes his way towards the top floor. Most people rarely go there at this hour of the evening. The staircase leads to the personnel-only room housing a small saltwater pool above the fondly dubbed Biter Tank where the two Great Whites dwell. The pool is an extension of the giant aquarium, separated from it by a firm, wide eye net made of stainless steel. It's one of the locations the food is delivered from at feeding times. Daryl sits at the edge of the pool, lets his legs submerge in the cold water, and empties the bucket into the deep. He watches as the pieces of fish float down slowly to the bottom of the pool and pass the eyes of the net. It's not much, certainly not enough to fill a Great White's stomach, but then again, nothing ever is. And anyway, Daryl isn't here for feeding. Dinner was about an hour ago. This is more of a snack.

It takes a few long moments, but Daryl waits patiently, humming softly. There’s a girlie song stuck in his head, one which he heard yesterday at the cafeteria, on the radio. He chuckles to himself, remembering the lyrics, something about kissing in the rain and it being so very wild. People are ridiculous , he thinks, rolling his eyes in exasperation. 

He notices there's still half a tuna left in the bucket. He picks it up and takes a bite. He makes a face; deep frozen fish is nothing short of disgusting in comparison to fresh. It’s got no taste. Still, food is food, and he won't complain. There was a time in his life when he didn’t dare to even dream of going to sleep on a full stomach; scavenging whatever he could from garbage cans and hunting small animals in the woods only got him so far. He’s not in that place anymore, but he won’t forget what it’s like to go hungry. He’s gonna appreciate the stupid frozen fish. He’s got a lot to appreciate, here at the Institute; a lot to be grateful for.

He finishes the piece just in time to see the big dark shape looming in the depth beneath him. Licking his fingers, he pushes the bucket further back from the edge of the pool and lowers himself into the water.

He breathes out and submerges himself fully, then takes in as much water into his lungs as he can in one big gulp. For the first few seconds, it hurts like hell, and he thrashes, his body fighting the sensation of drowning. Then, almost just as soon as it comes, the pain stops and Daryl breathes easy again. The sting of saltwater in his eyes is gone, too. He smiles at the feeling of being home , at the electrical impulses travelling down his spine as he senses every movement below, and he swims towards the bottom of the pool. There’s a trap door lodged in the net, one only a select few people know about. Daryl is one of those people. Actually, Daryl’s the sole reason the secret entrance is even there. Nobody else ever uses it. Not the cleaning crew, nor the scientists, certainly not any of the fools who pay for shark diving or some such shit. Nope. This door is for Daryl's benefit only.

He opens the hatch with the latest lock code and swims down. He locks it back just in case, though he doesn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to follow him into a shark tank. He heads down towards the immense dark shape in the water beneath him. Even from the distance, he can already recognize Henry, the male Great White, all twelve feet of him a sight of majestic beauty. Lydia is even bigger, almost sixteen feet of alpha female. She’s off exploring the shallower side of the tank and probably won’t come back to play tonight, because yesterday she found a fat piece of pork the feeders dropped there as a treat. She’s probably hoping there’s more where that came from. She’s stubborn; she won’t be around until she gives up that hope, unless Daryl asks her specifically to come.

Daryl swims towards Henry, making sure to let him know who he is before his old friend tries to bite him by mistake. He smiles in reply to Henry's signaled inquiry about his well-being, then gently pats the shark's nose in greeting. This kind of exchange, including the touch, is not normal between sharks, but it’s customary between Daryl and his two Great White friends. He taught them new sorts of touches and gestures because he doesn’t have all the flexibility required to employ the full potential of shark body language, and he probably wouldn’t survive a lot of their usual biting communication. Instead, they make do with what is available and doable for someone with an osseous skeleton.

They swim around for a while, catching the majority of the fish Daryl's thrown in. Daryl lets Henry have most of the food; he's not particularly hungry after tonight's dinner at Aaron and Eric's place. He tells Henry all about the spaghetti with meatballs in their non-vocal way of communication, comprised of a custom version of the American Sign Language adapted to be simpler and to work fluidly underwater, combined with soft humming sounds which vibrate in the water for their electromagnetic sensors to interpret, and the movement of jaws, limited as it is for Daryl. He’s amused when Henry just stares at him, jaw open wide, tail swishing lazily, like he's trying to tell him he’s a fool for liking human food more than good old-fashioned fish or seal.

Well, don’t recall y’all had much complaints about ‘em beef steaks I brought ya the other night, Daryl thinks in amusement, swimming faster to catch a particularly fat piece of tuna he then throws into Henry's immense jaws. 

Because Great White sharks are perfectly capable of rolling their eyes like humans do, and because Daryl taught him what it means when humans do it, Henry does roll his eyes at Daryl’s playful and immature behavior. He chomps down on the food he’s given and nudges Daryl's belly with his nose, making him laugh. He's an affectionate fellow, Henry, when he forgets all about his posturing. Daryl grins and bites him fondly on the side fin. His teeth aren't nearly as big or sharp as a Great White's, although they are pointier than an average human's, serrated in a distinctly Great White-like pattern and, well, there are two visible rows of them, only one of them retractable; it’s something Aaron had some trouble getting over the first time he saw them a few years ago. Daryl admits it must be a little disconcerting for other mammals to see the teeth of an apex predator growing uncannily in the mouth of someone who otherwise looks mostly harmless. The teeth were such a shock to the poor guy, he didn’t notice the dark blue pupils of Daryl’s eyes until a few months later on a particularly sunny day when the light hit Daryl’s eyes just right and revealed how they were not quite human either. Like many other characteristics of Daryl’s species, the eyes are easier to miss than the teeth. People tend to get hanged up on the teeth.

He tells as much to Henry, gestures to his tiny human jaws and indicates how even that can seem creepy to some even though it’s just laughable in the depths. He chuckles when the shark gives him an equivalent of a shrug, like he wants to say Humans, right?

They swim to the coral reef in the northern part of the tank where Daryl does his best to convince Henry it's not a good idea to test bite any of the moray eels again . He reminds him of the last time he tried and got sick for days. Sharks, like most fish in general, aren't the best at the whole responsible thinking thing, and the ability to discern logical chains of events isn't the most developed skill they have, so Daryl's kind of serving as the voice of reason for his Great White friends. It's a bit like he's their parent, teaching them things, and they sort of treat him like it even though they are both adults and don’t really need the guidance. If Lydia were here, she'd nuzzle his face with her nose like she were his pup, easily giving up her leadership position even though Daryl isn’t a female or even half her size. Henry doesn't usually show fondness so obviously besides a few nudges here or there because he likes to be independent. Honestly, Henry is about as threatening and domineering as a baby cat shark by nature, but the same nature still demands he keeps up the impression of a lone alpha predator of the deep even here in the Biter Tank. Sharks really are all about appearances and posturing, regardless of whether it’s needed or not. 

In the wild, Great Whites are rather solitary beyond the mating season. They spend their lives hunting and swimming, always hungry and always in motion. Their interactions are scarce and equally likely to end in carnage as they are to be friendly. Here, in the Biter Tank, it's pretty much the same with the one notable exception: Daryl swims with them. His presence makes all the difference. It's why the Alexandria Institute succeeded where no other facility ever could: the two sharks in the tank eventually acclimated to living in captivity without too much of a fuss when their species is known as almost impossible to keep in human-made conditions, and they didn’t end up tearing each other apart. They’re as friendly as two Great Whites can be with one another outside of the mating season.

He and Henry, they continue to swim around the reef, taking turns chasing each other in the absence of any hunt-worthy prey. Daryl can tell Henry misses real food he could catch by himself. Something he would have to actually work for like a real predator for once. He can sympathize. Just the thought of catching a fat, juicy seal makes his mouth water even though he’s never participated in that kind of hunt in his life and probably wouldn’t know how to go about it. He wishes it were possible to have access to that in the aquarium, but alas, Aaron told him in no uncertain terms that it's absolutely not going to happen for as long as he lives and breathes.

“It's not a slaughterhouse, Daryl, it's a place of education where parents bring their children to see marine life,” the man explained patiently and, much to Daryl's disappointment, he didn't even agree to a few dolphins a month, regardless of how pretty Daryl tried to smile at him or how convincingly he told him how dolphins were all insufferable bastards anyway. 

“No murder in the tanks, Daryl, or so help me,” Aaron warned.

Licking his lips, Daryl swims out of Henry's reach when the shark attempts to nip lightly at his leg. It’s unbelievable how careful Henry can be with his teeth, like he understands that his normal biting behavior would likely irrevocably hurt this strange, weak creature that’s sort of like a shark but mostly not. Daryl smiles and swims upwards, then swoops down on Henry and latches onto his dorsal fin with his hands and teeth, signaling to him to swim as fast as he can. The rush of water against his body is amazing and Daryl feels free like he never does on land. 

The thought of the ocean fills him with longing. He'd only ever swam in the endless depths once, many years ago, when he was but a tiny pup himself, barely more than a newborn. It was well before Merle went and accidentally killed some kid at the school he attended. Just the once he felt the rush and the calling of the true deep, but Daryl still misses it. He wonders, sometimes, what would happen if he just left the life on land altogether. Would he survive out there in the deep wilds, without human food, with his inferior physique that could so easily be mistaken for prey by other sharks? With his skeleton stiff and unable to take the high pressures of the deep, his teeth like a pitiful parody of the real thing and his blood warm in his veins, a mammal in all but a few irrelevant details?

Henry snorts, throws Daryl off and nudges him in the side with his nose, successfully dismantling his fantasy of the wide seas. The shark points towards the pieces of frozen fish floating down from above, another treat coming their way. Because it’s not from Daryl, they both know this time the fish is supposed to signal the end of their fun together. Daryl shakes his head, disappointed. He hasn't noticed the passage of time. He got lost in the sensation of floating, in the thoughts flowing freely through his head, as always when he’s down here. If he could, he would rather swim for days instead of the meager two-three hours a night before dawn, but of course he can't. If anyone saw him: the morning shift staff coming up to feed the fish, the outside cleaners or the early visitors, there would be questions and unnecessary exposure, and - well, nobody wants that to happen.

Daryl says goodbye to Henry in their way, nips him on the dorsal fin and pats him on the nose, scratches his rough skin behind the pectoral fin. The shark scoffs and pushes him bodily forward, and Daryl laughs, catches a whole tuna with his teeth; he shows it off, proudly, hey, look at me, the mighty hunter, and then swims up without looking back because if he does look back, he probably won’t have enough willpower to leave just yet.

Snorting, he passes the trap door and climbs up the ladder to the edge of the pool, the tuna he caught still in his mouth. He chokes on the surface air, too dry, too rich in oxygen, and the fish falls from his mouth. He catches it in his hands and looks at Aaron who rolls his eyes at him, face scrunched up in disgust.

“Really, I can understand sushi or what have you, but this is extreme,” the man informs weakly.

Daryl chuckles breathlessly as his lungs slowly adjust to the change of environment. This way around always takes longer, like his body knows living on land is not the natural state for him and it’s rebelling. He waits a moment to make sure he's not dying yet and then devours the fish. He's always starving after swimming. It takes a lot of energy, even if he feels rested and relaxed afterwards, like he’s had a good night’s sleep.

“Wanna buy me breakfast?” He asks and winks at his boss. Friend. One of those.

Aaron hums. “I might,” he agrees, “if that breakfast isn't raw fish for a change.”

“Naw, ya spoilsport. Bacon 'n eggs will do,” Daryl says graciously. He starts taking off the bodysuit, completely unbothered by Aaron's presence. He rolls his eyes when Aaron blushes and turns around. The man always does this, regardless of how many times he’s already seen Daryl naked or almost naked. He smells different when it happens, too, the mixed scents of shame and arousal coming off of him in waves. Daryl doesn't really understand how humans work in that regard, sometimes. He knows the majority of humans mate for life and that they don't always choose their mates based on their size and strength, or even their ability to produce high quality offspring. He's aware that Aaron and Eric are mates even though they are both male, knows it’s called being gay , it happens with both males and females of the species - and he's fine with it. Like, it doesn't seem to have a point for his shark-oriented sensibilities, but it's okay, most human behaviors don't and anyway, he’s got no room to talk: his shark instincts aren’t exactly perfectly aligned with his mammalian desires, either. If sharks could be gay, he supposes that’s what he’d be. Maybe? Or not. Difficult to say because he’s never been interested in anybody, regardless of their gender. He doesn’t really think it’s going to happen, either.

He just wonders if it’s normal for the human species to be sexually aroused by somebody who isn't their mate, outside of the mating season - wait, do humans even have a mating season? Daryl hasn’t heard of any such thing, and there’s no biting involved to indicate sexual interest for humans, either. So it's probably normal to want just about anyone, anytime, he concludes, since he often smells arousal on other people, male and female, when they look at him or at each other. With their puny, blunt teeth, he knows humans don’t indulge in much biting of things anyway. It’s a wonder they can have anything done when it comes to reproduction, really, they're like little pups in a coral reef about the stuff. 

“By the way, you're flying solo on the group tour today,” Aaron informs him in a suitably apologetic tone when Daryl's dressed again. They walk out of the pool room and head to the staircase, empty buckets in hands. Daryl removes the barrette holding his hair and brushes the long strands with his fingers.

“Don’t wanna,” he says, scowling. It’s not even officially in his job description, to be a tour guide; he may have let Eric train him into the role, but that doesn’t mean he actually wants to do it. He doesn’t. He sucks at people. He’s only good with sharks.

“And I don't care,” Aaron replies firmly. “Come on. It won’t be too bad. It's mostly children and a few teachers. You know you do well with children, don't you? They love tours with you.”

“... yea,” Daryl mutters. Human pups are much more tolerable than the adults of their species. Less complicated. They like to listen. It's easier to talk at them and expect nothing back, than it is to try to talk to fully grown people who, in Daryl’s experience, generally tend to think they know better and usually want to prove that by spouting nonsense. 

“Just make sure you don't smile at them too wide,” Aaron advises, teasing. It's an obvious joke. They both know Daryl's as likely to smile at strangers as he is to suddenly turn vegan.

“If you're good today, I'll make sure there's something fresh and bloody for you and your toothy pals in the deep for tonight,” Aaron promises. “It won't be alive, but I guess freshly slaughtered pig is the next best thing?”

“Sounds perfect,” Daryl says and licks his lips. His stomach growls.

“Hah. Let's go and feed you, shark boy, before you decide to have me for breakfast, and not in a sexy way,” Aaron jokes again, and Daryl lets himself be led to the cafeteria.

The promise of food always works on a shark: they're always hungry, after all.

Chapter Text

Despite the extremely early hour, Carol greets the both of them with one of the brightest smiles Daryl's ever seen from her in over a decade of their friendship. She piles a generous amount of bacon and eggs on the plate she hands Daryl, well acquainted with his overwhelming morning appetite by now. Daryl can't help but notice the not-too-subtle diamond ring she's proudly wearing for the world to see.

“That from Ezekiel?” He asks, pointing to her right hand with his chin.

Carol beams, nodding in affirmation, trying to act coy but quite unable to keep it up. “He proposed to me last night,” she says and her voice vibrates with excitement.

“Woah, congratulations!” Aaron exclaims with a wide grin of his own. He’s a sucker for romantic stories and he’s a terrible gossip. Already he’s on his phone, probably texting Eric to let him know the news.

“He better make ya happy,” Daryl says, pretending to be gruff and threatening, but his lips twitch and he can't help but smile a little. 

If he had a pack - school? Colony? Whatever it’s called with sharks, though pack sounds best - of his own, Carol would be part of it, part of his family. Not a mate though, Daryl wouldn’t bite her and definitely wouldn’t mount her; she’s more like a sibling or even a pup. He's known her a lot longer than he's known Aaron. He brought her and her daughter Sophia along when he came to Virginia Beach all that time ago. Carol's one of the few people who are aware of what he is. She calls Daryl's teeth cute and likes feeding him raw meat when he’s good. Back in the day, Daryl helped her out of a marriage to a horrible man. They’ve been inseparable ever since, and Daryl’s incredibly protective over the woman and her daughter. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill for them if need be. He almost did, once.

Professor Ezekiel King is a good man though. He's one of the scientists associated with the Alexandria Institute, a researcher involved in various fields of marine biology. He's the one in charge of Henry's well-being in the tank, and he is absolutely devoted to the job. Daryl respects him a lot. The man takes good care of his Great White ward. It stands to reason that he will take good care of Carol and Sophia as well.

If not, well. Daryl won't eat a man, but he's very capable of mangling one.

Funny thing about Carol, Daryl thinks as he eats, is that she doesn’t even work in the cafeteria at all. She’s an ichthyologist specializing in Mako sharks, one of the best in her field to reside in the States. She’s just here because she’s pissed off after one of her underage wards recently rescued off of a poaching vessel, a bigger female named Lizzie, ate another, smaller female, Mika. Daryl attempted to placate her by trying to explain that eating each other is just what sharks sometimes do in general, in captivity and outside of it too. It happens with all carnivorous shark species. Carol knows this, though. She’s still pissed off and totally done with Mako sharks for the time being.

“There's a school group coming in today,” Aaron announces, sitting down with his own plate at the bar. “Sixteen kids, not sure how old. Four adult guardians plus a teenager. They're from Atlanta, Georgia. It would be great if they had lots of fun.”

Daryl tenses and glances at Carol. She holds his gaze and shakes her head, expression mild like she’s not even ruffled by the revelation, and Daryl eventually relaxes. It’s been over ten years since the three of them - Daryl, Carol and little Sophia - took a bus out of Atlanta with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a bag of baby supplies and a couple hundred dollars in their pockets. They fled the city in a hurry after Daryl got involved in an altercation with Carol’s son-of-a-bitch ex-husband. In all of the years since, the only contact Carol had maintained with that bastard was through the divorce lawyers. She didn’t want anything from the man, just full uncontested custody over Sophia. She got it, Ed was still too scared of Daryl back when it was all in progress. 

Sometimes, Daryl worries the whole ordeal might come back to bite him in the ass. Ed Peletier isn’t a very smart man, but he’s not completely dumb. He might put two and two together one day, he might realize Carol’s savior who threatened him and nearly ripped his arm right off with his teeth wasn’t exactly fully human.

But a school group from Atlanta is just a coincidence. Ed wouldn’t be imaginative enough to use a bunch of kids as cover if he wanted to come and stir some shit in Virginia Beach. It would be more in-character if he came directly to the Institute, shouted himself hoarse at the gates and probably ended up escorted out by the security. 

Still, Daryl can’t help being slightly apprehensive.

Aaron catches on to the tension in Daryl’s shoulders and sighs. He scratches his chin in a gesture which looks somewhat sheepish, and says: “I'll be honest here. I know what a group from Georgia means to you, I know where you’re from. I tried to discreetly block this one, but the Council voted in favor of inviting them for the extended tour. We're going to try and impress this group because Governor Blake's daughter is with them. Her name is Penny Blake. It's political, we’re officially getting political now. You know we're trying to apply for some additional funding to expand the Great White research way into next year. So, you know. Do better than your best. It's for a good cause.”

He looks very awkward in the following silence as Carol and Daryl look at him. Aaron hates making any sort of speeches, which is interesting because over the years, he sort of became the Institute’s unofficial spokesperson.

Finally, Daryl takes pity on him. “Still ain't gonna smile,” he warns and shovels a big portion of scrambled eggs into his mouth.

“Wouldn't dream of it, charmer,” Aaron promises. “Just, please try not to be rude even if the kids are? You know, be professional. You can do that.”

“Yea,” Daryl agrees. “No cussin', no murder talk, no scarin’ ‘em pups too much. I get it.”

“Don't worry, Pookie. You're great with children,” Carol assures him and pats the top of his head affectionately. Anyone else who’d try that would end up short a hand. Carol is special.

“Ain't worried. Hungry though. More?” Daryl asks, handing her the empty plate.

He doesn't get why both Carol and Aaron laugh at him. He does get another serving of breakfast, so he doesn't even mind. He's a simple creature. If there's food and the prospect of carefree swimming later, he's satisfied. What else could someone like him want from life?

He ends up having four helpings of the eggs and manages to sweet-talk Carol into throwing in an extra treat in the form of a hot-dog by praising her engagement ring. Just like the sharks, he never really stops being hungry. While he’s capable of going without food for extended time frames - literal weeks, if need be - he also has the ability to devour insane amounts of food at one go. It’s connected to the opportunistic eating instinct most sharks share; because they don’t know when the next meal might be, it’s better to have as much as possible right when it’s available. Daryl’s really lucky to have such a high metabolic rate or he’d be plump like one of those seals he was daydreaming about hunting with Henry earlier. 

He’s becoming softer around the edges anyway. Might consider cutting back on the helpings. 

“Don’t worry, Pookie, you’re still pretty,” Carol assures him with a smirk when he mentions his recent weight gain. “And you’ll burn all that excess fat off when you start teaching Sophia to swim in summer.”

Daryl’s actually looking forward to that. Sophia is his favorite pup in the whole wide world. Not only is she Carol’s, and therefore Daryl’s too; he helped raise her since she was three years old. She’s also the biggest shark fan among humans. She has a whole collection of toy sharks, and she even made a stuffed Great White for Daryl last year, as a gift for that winter holiday the humans make such a fuss about. It sits proudly on Daryl’s bed. It looks nothing like a real shark and it’s got buttons for eyes, but it’s made of a scratchy linen fabric Sophia dyed by hand, and the button eyes are blue instead of black.

If anyone tried to take the toy from Daryl, he’d commit wanton murder in its defense. That’s how fond he is of Sophia.

The fact that the girl can’t swim yet is because of her father. Ed Peletier is a bastard, true, but he’s also a marine biologist like Carol. They actually met when they were both undergraduates, volunteering at a shark rescue off the coast of New Zealand for their final credits. The problem was, while Carol had always been fascinated by the large predators of the ocean, Ed’s academic pursuits always drove him towards the studies of coral reefs and their ecosystems which he felt sharks generally threatened. When Sophia was a toddler, barely old enough to understand words, Ed kept feeding her nightmare fodder about how sharks ripped people apart for fun. Showed her videos of Great Whites hunting seals, some footage of a shark attack from the eighties. Stories like that stay with pups. Sophia is thirteen now, but she still wakes up from dreams filled with entirely too many teeth sometimes, even though she knows sharks aren’t monsters intent on hurting her. 

She knows, because she’s fully aware of what Daryl is. She wears his damn tooth on a string as a necklace and tells her friends at school that it’s a totem of her shark guardian deity. Carol doesn’t mind, and Daryl isn’t afraid his secret might be revealed because of a little girl’s imagination. Like any coastal city all over the world, Virginia Beach is full of stories about sharks acting as spirit guides, protectors or carriers of vengeful spirits of people who passed away at sea. Nobody would think twice about Sophia’s shark guardian. 

He wishes Sophia could be at the Institute right now, to help with the group coming in later, but she’s away on a school trip of her own. She’s visiting Boston with her class. She was very excited about the trip which is the only reason Daryl didn’t vehemently protest her going; he’s still unhappy about having the pup so far away for three more days. 

At least he’s going to have all the time in the world to spend with her once her summer holiday begins.

“She gonna chase me ‘round the damn ocean, ain’t she?” He jokes and offers Carol a satisfied grin that fully shows off his rows of teeth.

Aaron looks slightly alarmed. “That smile, don’t do it in front of the kids. Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Man, I ain’t been born yesterday,” Daryl complains. “Been hidin’ these teeth my whole life, ain’t gonna suddenly show ‘em off bein’ a happy loon. C’mon, you ain’t done even noticed ‘em in the whole first year you known me.”

“That’s… not true,” Aaron protests, frowning, but his tone isn’t so sure. That’s probably because he can recall the memory of how exactly he first found out Daryl had a mouth full of sharp teeth with serrated edges. The reveal involved a barbecue party celebrating the opening of the new shark wing at the Institute, lots of alcohol, a whole raw chicken and a very unfortunate request in a drunken game of truth-or-dare.

Daryl still thinks it could’ve been worse. He could’ve eaten the damn chicken in front of the entire staff instead of just Carol, Ezekiel, Aaron and Eric. That’s why he doesn’t drink alcohol anymore. Apparently, it affects him just the same as if he were fully human, just gets purged quicker due to his metabolism. Well, as that incident showed: it’s not fast enough. 

“Okay, you know what, Toothless,” Aaron says, and he schools his face into a stern expression that’s meant to make him seem professional. He does this when he wants to exude authority. It would probably work better if he wasn’t approximately as threatening as a baby zebra shark.

He knows this, but he bravely attempts it anyway: “Why don’t you go and get ready? Wear something decent, those scars of yours are awful distracting. Do something about your hair, it’s a mess. Maybe let Carol cut it for you?”

“He won’t,” Carol notes with a smile. “Won’t even let me touch it. It’s like he’s growing a curtain to hide that cute face of his.”

Daryl rolls his shoulders and groans in relief when his joints click audibly. “Y’all should mind yer own business,” he announces. “Gonna go take a nap or somethin’. For better digestion.”

When he gets to his tiny apartment located in the living area of the Institute, though, he realizes he’s not sleepy, so after getting dressed in something comfortable and clean, he goes outside the Institute’s walls. He does that sometimes in the early mornings to take a walk at the beach before it’s too crowded. Today he has a purpose besides a meaningless walk, however. There was a storm a few nights ago, one of the early summer storms which seem to come earlier and earlier with every passing year, like the seasons shift at a different pace than the human-made calendars give them credit for. As a result, the shoreline of the beach is littered with trash; plastic bags and bottles, old pieces of glass, fragments of fishing nets pile up, some half-buried in the sand, others in plain view. It’s disheartening.

When Daryl and Carol first arrived here in Virginia Beach, Daryl took on the job of a cleaner in the employ of the City Council. The pay was the lowest possible wage and the hours were awful, but the work was easy and, he believed, for a good cause, so Carol told him to go for it. He got fired, though, because he spent almost the entire time cleaning the beach of garbage instead of taking care of the city lawns or some other shit. Whoever’s working the cleaning job now clearly doesn’t seem to bother with the beach at all except for in the vacation season when the tourism’s at its highest. Aaron’s sent many disapproving letters regarding the matter to the municipality, but to no avail as of yet.

With a sigh, Daryl grabs a surprisingly intact plastic bag from the ground and starts picking up the pieces of trash in his closest vicinity. He wishes he could do more, but there’s only so much a guy can do in a few hours now and again. Later in the day, if their schedule allows, more people from the Institute will come out and try to sort out the mess, but at least Daryl can get started.

“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” A male voice asks, and Daryl looks up from his task to watch suspiciously as a man approaches from the parking lot. The stranger’s dressed in casual clothes, but Daryl’s seen enough politicians in his time at the Institute, he can tell when casual shit’s of the expensive kind. There’s a smell of luxurious perfume trailing behind the man who has some scruff and a friendly expression on his face, and Daryl immediately doesn’t like him. Just like that, his instincts tell him this guy’s no good. 

But he doesn’t react with outward hostility. He doesn’t want trouble, especially not with someone who might be influential and take it out on the Institute in some way. “‘s just how it is,” he mutters neutrally, returning his attention to picking up garbage. To his surprise, the man produces a trash bag from his pocket and begins to pick up shit as well. 

“Wha’cha doin’?” Daryl asks, squinting at the stranger. His instincts have never been wrong about people before, but… he can’t exactly ignore the fact this rich-looking asshole really is stepping up, lowering himself to an activity as mundane as picking up trash from the ground. Cleaning the beach. Like it’s something rich people just do.

“Oh, I try to come here once a week, to tidy it up a bit if I can,” the man explains, smiling at Daryl in that friendly manner which appears somewhat fake. Maybe it’s just his face. Maybe he can’t help the way it looks. “People need to start being responsible for their messes, right? The ocean’s sustaining us, but we’re doing nothing to sustain it back.”

“You some sorta green freak?” Daryl asks. He doesn’t mean it as something negative, but he’s not exactly fond of activists. They chased him away from some good hunting grounds back in Georgia, because apparently killing animals for food is cruelty and shit. If they spent half of that energy telling people not to throw their damn plastic trash into rivers and the like, that would be great. But no. That requires actual educational effort.

“Nope, nothing like that. I’m just a man with a conscience,” the stranger assures cheerfully. “Same as you, I suppose.”

Daryl grunts in reply and returns to work, not really eager to engage the stranger in further conversation. The man respects that and they both work in silence, and it’s good. Peaceful. When his trash bag is so full it’s close to bursting, Daryl notices the sun is up quite high. Means he really needs to get back. He looks around and sees the rich stranger some fifty feet away, retrieving a second trash bag from his pocket. The man nods at Daryl, grinning widely his way, and Daryl responds with a small smile of his own; instincts be damned, he thinks, because this guy? This rich asshole type who just devoted some time of his day towards cleaning up a bit of humanity’s mess?  He seems way up there with the people Daryl respects and likes. 

Daryl returns to the Institute just in time to see a bus parking in front of the main entrance. He doesn’t wait to see the arrivals; he takes the door labelled staff only and ducks into the hallway leading to the labs and office spaces. He only makes a detour at the reception ten minutes later to pick up his ID for the tour, and he waves back to Jesus who’s already surrounded with school children.

Now, normally, all tours at the Alexandria Institute are divided into two parts. The first part is more generic and aims to broaden the visitors' knowledge about all kinds of sea life. It takes around three hours in the morning. Jesus handles that part. His real name is Paul Rovia and he's Professor King's undergrad, working his ass off to earn himself a permanent position at the Institute post-graduation. He knows his shit well enough, so Daryl's practically convinced the guy's got it in his pocket. His friends call him Jesus. Daryl’s apparently his friend, too, since the dude gave him his phone number: Daryl’s been reliably informed that people give each other phone numbers when they want to be friends. So, Daryl calls the man Jesus as well. He thinks the nickname is connected to some human religious rituals, but he can't be sure. Nobody ever tells him things and he’s not interested enough to do the research himself. He knows how to Google, but he doesn’t like to use it. Computers make him uneasy. He doesn’t even have a smartphone, just an old flip-phone that’s mostly waterproof. He doesn’t need anything more advanced.

Anyway, the tour. After the first part of the tour is concluded, there's always an hour-long lunch period in the cafeteria followed by the main attraction: the shark tour. Before, it used to be done by Aaron or, more often, his boyfriend Eric, but lately, on special occasions, they’ve been asking Daryl along to help lead groups as part of his training. Every time’s been stressful to him because he's shit at human interactions, especially when it means talking to strangers; he doesn’t think he’s especially good an entertainer, either, though that’s not something his friends seem to agree with him on.

He finds Aaron at the staff room. Not surprisingly, Eric is there with him, and he’s red in the face. Aaron is, too, actually, and the smell in the room - arousal, embarrassment, want - makes Daryl think he may have interrupted something between the two of them. He feels a bit dumb, bothering them with his anxiety problems when they’re trying to get intimate, but. He really needs help dealing with his shit.

“Come with me?” He pleads, giving the men his best puppy-eyed look. Carol tells him all the time he could melt an iceberg with this look. Eric bites his lower lip and seems ready to give in, but apparently Aaron’s made of tougher stuff than all the icebergs in the world, because he immediately shakes his head.

“Time to earn your keep, Jaws,” he says, and it’s clear from the tone that it’s meant as a joke, surely, but it sends a chill down Daryl’s spine and he suddenly feels like an ungrateful bastard. The Institute’s been so good to him. Aaron especially. After Daryl lost that job for the city, Aaron was the one who convinced the Institute’s Council to take him up as a janitor. He then kept giving Daryl more and more random jobs, most of them unrelated to cleaning, making use of Daryl’s intimate knowledge of sharks. He made those jobs part of Daryl’s official training. Because of him, Daryl isn’t listed as a janitor on the payroll anymore. He’s special consultant , like some type of fancy science guy. Damn, his paycheck is allegedly bigger than Paul’s.

So, he’s really in Aaron’s debt and yeah, it is time to earn his keep. So he tells himself, he’s gotta get over it. He can totally go at it alone, he’s capable of being a superb guide. It’s not his first tour, not really, it’s not the first time even though he’s never done it without support before, but it shouldn’t be a total disaster regardless. He knows his shit and he especially knows how to deal with pups. Sophia is a living and breathing testament to that. 

“You’ve got this, Daryl,” Eric assures him gently and, as encouragement, hands him a pastry. It’s got a raw meat filling and Daryl’s pretty sure it’s meant as a dog treat. He eats it all the same because it’s damn tasty.

“I got this, alright,” he says with much more self-confidence than he actually feels. He nods to his friends, leaves them to their stolen moments of intimacy, and heads to the shark tanks to prepare. 

At least if it goes wrong, he probably won’t be kicked out of Alexandria Institute. There are plans to try and get Henry and Lydia to mate when the season comes. For obvious reasons, Daryl’s been pretty instrumental in those plans; he’s the one who noticed there might be something to work with there, and he’s the only one who can really read the hints of interest between the two Great Whites. The subtle changes in their electromagnetic signatures, the shift in Lydia’s body temperature as she starts to get ready for the hormonal influx of the mating season, those are things even the most experienced marine biologists won’t pick up on simply because their bodies aren’t equipped with the right sensors. Daryl’s body is, even though it’s not capable of responding to those signals. And, hell, it’s going to be damn awkward for him, the whole cumbersome process is going to be a giant headache; but he knows how important it is. If the Institute’s scientists can observe the Great White shark mating rituals from up close - for the first time in the history of marine science, too - they might be able to help create better conditions for their reproduction in the natural environment. That in turn may be an incredibly important step towards rebuilding the population of the white sharks, which has been steadily dwindling at least since the eighties. 

Daryl sighs, licks his lips and brushes his hair back with his fingers to make it seem at least a bit more tame. He looks down at himself, at the dark clothes he’s wearing, and he decides he’s presentable enough. It’s time to go.

As he picks up the booklets to be handed to the participants later, he can’t help thinking how, between the tour of the aquarium and the challenge of getting two capricious giant fish to mate, the latter is less likely to end up with him eaten alive.

Chapter Text

Daryl waits at the foyer for his group to gather. Apparently, just like Aaron said, the grand majority of the group are school-age pups guarded closely by their grown-up chaperones. The pups look younger than Sophia by a few years, two or three at most. There are four adults - two males, two females - and one more female who Daryl thinks may be barely out of her pup years, judging by her small size and the way she gravitates towards one of the adult females for emotional support, just like a pup clamoring for the attention of her momma, or a younger sibling.

Observation is allegedly one of Daryl’s stronger suits, even if he can’t always interpret what he sees the right way due to his social ineptitude. Thankfully, Jesus messaged him just a few minutes ago with some details he thought essential about the group, like which of the pups are loud and may get easily distracted (the boy with the red backpack and the twin girls holding hands), how the adults react to jokes and anecdotes (quite well, with the exception of the long-haired, thin woman in the back who just doesn’t seem interested in the tour at all), who is the hottest adult of the group (whatever it means, but it’s apparently one of the male’s who’s got the most soulful sky-blue eyes and the cutest curly hair ever . Jesus’ words. He tends to be very poetic in descriptions of men who grab his attention). 

Daryl introduces himself and gives away the booklets detailing all steps of the tour. The brochures also contain instructions on how to make paper sharks, including fold lines on the last page. It’s part of the campaign to make the tour even more attractive to the public; tourists generate money and money allows the Institute to actually conduct their research. Unfortunately, the government grants and private sponsors aren’t really enough to sustain everything the Institute does for the protection and education on the local and global marine life. In spite of the fact nearly half of the staff are volunteers, despite the burgeoning tourism, the aquarium is almost always in the red. Daryl’s not an expert, but he thinks it’s bullshit. It’s just like that business with the beach cleaning, but worse. Aaron, Professor King, people like Carol and Eric, even Jesus, they all do important shit here. They shouldn’t have to worry about stupid crap like energy and water bills, searching for alternative, cheaper food vendors or producing tons of useless documentation for the entertainment of some sad fucker on in administration. Isn’t it funny how politicians always have money for new cars and shit, but when it comes to protecting the oceans or doing great stuff for science, suddenly there’s no money left at all?

It’s a topic for another day and another audience, though.

“Welcome to the Alexandria Marine Life Research and Preservation Institute’s shark tour,” he announces in what he hopes comes across as an enthusiastic tone. 

“Now, first things first. At one point of the tour, we gonna be walkin' past the divin' tank with a real tough guy livin’ there, so be sure to keep yer hands to yerselves,” he warns the group. It’s customary to say this before the tour begins, though Daryl is the only one who adds an interesting little twist to the warning:  “Ya knock on the glass an’ that guy's gonna break out, jaws open wide. That happen, yer all shark food.”

He winks and the pups actually look excited at the prospect. Most pups he’s met get excited when he mentions the possibility of someone dying to a shark attack, however impossible the attack in question is in real life. Daryl attributes this to the morbid curiosity all humans exhibit when it comes to gruesome deaths. He’s pretty certain that’s why horror movies tend to feature monsters with sharp claws and rows upon rows of teeth. It also explains their popularity with people of all ages.

Daryl lets the group enter ahead of him into the first room of the shark tour. Something smells nice in there. He can’t pinpoint the source or even the kind of scent he’s caught, just that it’s very pleasant. He wonders if maybe he’s hungry again. Huh. Well, he is, he almost always is, but. It’s not that? It’s not food, this new scent. Though it does make him want to bite down on… things. He doesn’t know.

He tries and ignores the smell for now. He has to make a good impression. For Aaron and for politics.

“To yer left's the so called Blue Tank. Name's not 'cause of its color or anythin'. Them scientists around here jus' like to name stuff after random items they see or somethin’. Guess we’re lucky it’s not called something strange, like Table Tank or Notepad Tank, or nothin’ like that, ” he says and the pups all giggle. The little joke’s all the funnier because it's true: there's no reason for the tank to be called what it is other than the whim of whoever named it first. Some names for the tanks make sense. Others, not so much. There is actually a Bookshelf Tank in the part of the aquarium not visited during the tours. It’s mainly used for temporary housing of violent specimens before a decision can be made whether to release them into the wild or try to reintroduce them to the artificial environment. Currently, Carol’s Mako ward, Lizzie, resides in there awaiting judgement day. 

“Blue Tank here's home to many species, but the most interestin’, the one we’re gonna look at closely, is the blacktip reef shark. Y’all can see five of ‘em lil' bastards in there. They’re all young'uns, ‘bout three feet long each. Normally, they get to be twice that length. We gonna move 'em to a big habitat or release ‘em to the ocean when they grow up, though, so they don’t go eatin' one another.”

“They can do that?” A boy asks and his blue eyes go wide like saucers. The visitor’s name tag on his breast pocket reads Carl . He’s got a Shark Lovers pin on his backpack, and Daryl can see one of the local gift shop’s shark plushie keychains attached to the boy’s belt loop.

He smirks a little crookedly, careful not to show teeth. “Yup,” he replies. “Many shark species go 'round eatin' their own. 's just how things are in the deep. No manners whatsoever. But mostly, blacktip reef sharks eat fish or small cephalopods. Like, calamari 'n stuff. Wanna see me feed 'em?”

He sees the pups nod their heads in excitement and he grabs the bucket of fish he had prepared specifically for this occasion just before the tour began. He climbs the ladder to the top of the tank and opens the latch. He checks the watch; it's close enough to the normal feeding time, so he overturns the bucket to throw the chopped up fish into the tank. He closes the latch and climbs back down, then stands to the side as the pups gather in front of the glass to observe the eating sharks. They take photos and Daryl really doesn’t want to end up in any pictures. His eyes catch the light differently than human eyes do, and it shows clearly on photos. He doesn’t want to make anyone suspicious.

“You don't strike me as a typical tour guide,” says one of the adults with the group, a man with bright blue eyes, stubbly cheeks and a friendly, open expression on his face. Daryl guesses he’s the one Jesus dubbed the hottest because, in addition to the blue of his eyes, his hair indeed curls at the nape of his neck. He comes to stand next to Daryl, smiling, and doesn't seem to be particularly interested in the spectacle of bigger fish eating smaller fish.

Daryl frowns. It’s the second time today he’s being approached by a stranger for no particular reason. At least his instincts don’t blare alarm horns about this one, but Daryl’s still a bit suspicious of the man’s motives for bothering him. 

He’s also surprisingly hungry for someone who had such a big breakfast. He’s positively salivating.

He swallows down the excess spit and licks his lips with just the tip of his tongue. “What do I strike you as, then?” He asks, rising an eyebrow and leaning against the wall, attempting to project the aura of indifference in place of the nervousness he’s actually feeling.

The man chuckles. “Well, dunno. Could've been a rock star, maybe, you know, with the long hair, leather vest and tattoos. Or perhaps a biker. Something cool. Certainly not a plain old guide in a scientific place like this.”

“I like it here,” Daryl says, shrugging, not even overly defensive. “Like 'em fish. They ain’t much talkative.”

He expects his curt remark to deter the man from further interaction, but alas, the stranger's not giving up on small talk. He actually laughs at Daryl's somewhat rude response, confirming that he got the hint and immediately chose to ignore it. He holds out a hand expectantly.

“Name’s Rick Grimes,” he introduces himself. The way he smiles, it’s completely different to the rich asshole at the beach. There’s nothing fake in his face. He looks eager and earnest, and there are lines at the corners of his eyes, shallow crinkles, like he smiles and laughs a lot; and when he does, when he smiles right now, it brightens his entire face, goes all the way up to his eyes like he’s genuinely filled with joy.

Regardless, Daryl doesn't offer his own hand. He doesn't touch strangers, even intriguing, happy strangers. He barely touches any of his friends, unless said friends happen to be covered in skin teeth and only breathe underwater. Why is touching each other so important to humans, anyway? They do it all the fucking time. Daryl doesn’t get it.

He doesn’t care if it seems rather ill-mannered of him, he doesn’t shake the man’s hand. He just nods in grudging acknowledgment. “You want somethin', Rick Grimes?” He asks, narrowing his eyes. He really sucks at common pleasantries, everyone always tells him that and they’re right. It’s not for the lack of trying. He’s just out of his depth. Like with most humans, Daryl can't get a read on this man and he doesn't understand his intentions. Body language is extremely important for sharks, but it’s completely different from the way humans wordlessly communicate between each other. Without being able to interpret gestures and looks and things , how is Daryl supposed to act around a stranger who talks to him for no reason at all? 

He’s just here to lead the tour, and he’s pretty sure there’s no interactive sign above his head or anything. This shit never happened when he was helping Eric or Aaron. People are supposed to pay attention to the fish, not to him, for fuck’s sake, he’s not half as interesting as the sharks occupying the water tanks.

Fortunately, he's saved from further awkward attempts at conversation when the sharks finish eating. Obviously the one bucket of fish is not enough to fill their bellies, not even close, but it’s fine, they’ll be fed later. Anyway, most sharks aren’t advanced enough thinkers to be able to tell if it’s feeding time or not. Just like Daryl, they’re all opportunistic eaters. If food is present, they’ll eat. If it’s not, they’re going to swim around and look for it with a single-minded focus easily afforded to fish.

Daryl gathers the group and leads on. The next step of the tour brings them to the low and wide tank with the nurse sharks and moray eels. He doesn't pay much attention to the eels, though, simply mentions they’re there. They're just a space filler, something to make the tanks seem closer to the natural environment. There’s barely anything interesting about eels either way. Plus they're stupid and kind of toxic, as evidenced by Henry getting sick a few days ago when he tried biting one. 

Nurse sharks are marginally less boring, Daryl thinks.

“Ain't my favorites, 'em ugly babies,” he says to his audience. “Nasty lil' biters if ya let 'em. Slow though, can’t do much damage to anything bigger than a herring. They look for prey in the sand and make this weird noise like sucklin' on their mamma's teats. Some says it’s maybe how they got their name, nurse from like, nursery, not like hospital nurses or anythin’. Also heard it's from some old word for cat, though. Ya know, their other name’s cat shark because of 'em whiskers. Makes for one ugly cat, innit?”

“They’re kinda cute,” a girl says, smiling as she presses her face against the tank. She’s wearing subtle metal braces adorned with colorful rubber bands on her teeth. 

“For a girl, maybe,” the boy named Carl tells her, rolling his eyes. “Will we see any badass sharks? With big teeth and stuff? Dad said you’ve got some real huge sharks here.”

“Carl, don’t be rude to Penny, and be patient,” says Rick Grimes. Daryl looks at them both thoughtfully. He’s pretty sure the boy is Rick Grimes’ pup. He can see the family resemblance, though the boy’s eyes aren’t nearly the level of blue his supposed father’s are. It’s a weird thing to notice, shades of blue of some random man’s eyes. Huh. Must be because of Jesus’ description in the text message earlier.

The little girl with braces smiles again, and Carl apologizes to her quickly before looking at Daryl like he’s hoping he won’t have to apologize to him, too.

And Daryl feels gracious. “’s fine. He’s just curious ‘bout them big fish, ain’cha?” He offers the pup a nod. “Yer gonna like the next one, then. C’mon, follow me everyone. There’s someone special y’all gonna meet now.”

The group eagerly follows Daryl to the next room which is one of the most interesting in the entire Oceanarium, as far as the typical tourist is concerned. Three entire walls are made up of the glass of one of the bigger tanks, almost six million gallons. The inside imitates a pirate ship wreckage overgrown with one of the most beautiful coral populations Daryl’s ever seen in an artificial environment, all grown courtesy of Tara Chambler, their resident ocean floor architect. The inhabitants of the tank are varied; the typical coral reef dwellers are abound, of course, hundreds of colorful fish with glimmering scales, and there’s a small family of stingrays living inside the wreck. But the main attraction of the aptly-dubbed Pirate Tank is the oceanic whitetip shark who’s lived there for the last couple of months.

The timing couldn’t be any more perfect. The shark’s swimming right by the front glass wall when the group arrives in front of the tank.

“His name’s Captain Flint,” Daryl introduces. “And he belongs to the meanest species of shark y’all ever gonna meet. Oceanic whitetip. Looks purdy enough, right? See his dorsal fin with ‘em white spots? That how we recognize his species. Is a real opportunistic bastard, the whitetip. Eats anythin’, fish like tuna or mackerel, octopi, sea turtles, birds that ain’t careful enough. Also whale poop,” he adds conspiratorially and smirks, a tiny closed-mouth grimace in the corner of his lips, when the pups make disgusted faces and noises.

He walks up to the platform in front of the glass and continues, “Now y’all wanna know why old Flint’s buddies are considered real bad meanies?” He asks and looks down on the group. The pups all stare at him in anticipation of the sufficiently bloody tale.

“It’s because they tend to follow boats ‘n ships. And when ships sink? Them big bastards ain’t waste no time. Can’t let all that meat escape from under their noses, can they? So they go into this thing called feedin’ frenzy . There‘s an estimate says oceanic whitetip sharks are responsible for the majority of ‘em fatal shark attacks ever happened. Thing is, they ain’t recorded as official shark attacks because they ain’t resultin’ from sharks comin’ close to shores, ‘s why y’all ain’t normally hearin’ about it.”

Daryl isn’t surprised when the pups look up at Captain Flint with a healthy mix of respect, awe and terror. The adults appear to be more shaken and uncomfortable. Too bad. If they wanted something vanilla, they shouldn’t have brought the pups to what’s basically known as the shark place . And well, sharks aren’t exactly fluffy or cute, at least not to most humans that Daryl knows about. They sure can be adorable to him , even when they act all prickly and dumb to upkeep their social hierarchy.

“Did Captain Flint ever eat someone?” Asks a small boy with a blue backpack.

Daryl shakes his head. “Not that we know of, anyway. He‘s quite a young’un, this one, not even five feet long yet when his species typically grow to eight, sometimes even ten feet. He was only caught ‘cause he was injured, probly test bitten by a Great White who then thought he was yucky ‘n left him be. As y’all know, Alexandria Institute doubles as a shark hospital, so Captain Flint was done brought here and liked us well enough to stay some. If y’all look closely, you can see the scars where he got bitten ‘tween the tail and dorsal fin.”

As if on cue, the shark chooses that exact moment to swim close by again and the pups all strain their eyes to see what Daryl’s talking about. He tries to point at where the white gashes from the incident are best visible, but he knows it’s not that easy to spot in the relatively dark water in the tank. He saw the scars from up close when he examined Flint earlier this year, soon after his capture; he’s the one who confirmed the shark was most definitely bitten by a Great White, likely a big female, not as a predation attempt but a simple accident during a feeding frenzy. There must’ve been a whale carcass the sharks met and interacted at. Flint wouldn’t have survived a predatory attack from a female this size, judging by the bite marks.

“Why the name?” Asks the teenage girl accompanying the adults. She’s got big eyes and light hair, and she’s looking at Daryl like she thinks he might be a compatible mate. She doesn’t smell any different than her companions, though, not like the adults who’d expressed their interest in Daryl as a potential mate in the past. It’s possible she isn’t sexually mature yet. She’s doesn’t seem much older than Sophia, and her mannerisms around the others do suggest she’s still considered a pup by her environment. 

It means little. Daryl wouldn’t be interested in biting her even if she were an adult. Whatever type he has, the young fair-haired girl isn’t it.

“Scientists here got ‘emselves a sense of humor,” Daryl says. “Name’s ‘cause of the ship. The Walrus , like in Treasure Island, it’s built offa description in the book. We even buried some booty near the wreck. Ain’t been plannin’ for this guy exactly to live here, but we knews first shark gettin’ into the Pirate Tank ‘s gonna be named Captain Flint.”

“Mister Daryl, are you a scientist too?” A chubby little girl asks, twirling her dark braids. 

Daryl shakes his head, fighting the urge to laugh, because while he thinks the notion he could be a scientist is hilarious, it would be bad if he laughed at a pup’s curiosity. And it really wouldn’t do for anyone to see his teeth bared. “Nah, ain’t nothin’ fancy like that. I‘m just the caretaker. A guy who likes sharks a whole lot.”

Rick Grimes smiles at him when Daryl almost accidentally glances his way. It’s interesting how very blue the man’s eyes appear in the dim light from the aquarium. The color can’t be real, it must be enhanced by the lighting. Human eyes don’t look like that. Like glare patterns on the water surface on a sunny morning, or like the sky in summer, or maybe like a shallow lagoon in tropical waters. Daryl can’t drown in the ocean depths, but he thinks he really could in those eyes. His face becomes unbearably warm at the thought and he quickly averts the man’s gaze, looking away and into the tank. 

Captain Flint swims away, disinterested in further circling this area of the aquarium once he ascertains there’s no food around, so Daryl coughs to clear his throat and leads the group to the next part of the tour.

“Now we gonna go past the divin’ tank. Y’all need to be extra careful, okay? Remember ‘em hands, to keep ‘em to yerselves?” He reminds the group and, once he’s satisfied with their response, he enters the next location, looking back at the pups trailing along behind him. It’s not especially dangerous, in fact, walking through the diving tank room. Obviously, there's no actual threat of the shark inside breaking out through the thick glass and developing the kind of superpowers it would need to survive on dry land long enough to bite anyone. The warning is actually for the benefit of the fish and any potential divers in the tank which is built a tad differently from the other aquariums in that the majority of it is underground, and because of that it carries sound in a more peculiar way. The water in there's dense and muddy, almost nothing is visible from the outside, so many people walking past there before the implementation of the warning part of the tour tended to try to knock on the glass in a stubborn hope to tempt whatever lives there out of its hiding place. 

Problem is, the one living in the tank right now is a mean old bastard. Daryl really doesn't want that guy spooked or, actually, anything other than neutral when a diver might be inside because there would be blood. It would be easier to work around the problem if there was a set diving schedule, but it’s something that changes frequently over the course of the day. Daryl doesn’t think there’s anyone brave or stupid enough to dive with this one just yet, but he’s not taking chances.

The group doesn’t give him any trouble, though. The pups keep their hands neatly pressed against their bodies, careful not to touch the tank filled with murky water, careful not to even stomp too loudly as they pass by. They look inside, craning their necks, but that’s just natural curiosity, a childish hope to see the mythical monster of the deep or something like that. They walk past the tank without incident, following Daryl’s lead and only whispering excitedly every time they think the water moves suspiciously. Nothing does. The monster inside the tank lurks elsewhere, biding its time, waiting .

Chapter Text

The next few steps of the tour are slightly less exciting in the sense that they don’t involve any giant, potentially man-eating species. The group visit the dwarf lantern sharks which glow prettily in their dark and gloomy tank shared also by pale cat sharks, to the contentment of some of the little girls, including the bracer-wearing Penny. Then, the pups observe the feeding of the pygmy sharks and have some fun taking photos with the big tank of manta rays. Next, there are some more shark-less habitats with various eels, catfish, and starfish which Daryl finds rather dull and not even appetizing, but he tries to be enthusiastic about them when he explains their characteristics and answers questions. 

Throughout the majority of the tour, Daryl often catches Rick Grimes watching him with those incredibly blue eyes of his, like Daryl is the most interesting specimen in the entire Oceanarium. The man stops doing it eventually, but not because he’s been caught, he doesn’t seem to mind that Daryl knows what he’s been doing; no, it’s because one of the adult females - Lori, her visitor tag says - finally approaches him with aggressive gesticulation and a possessive body language which indicates she at least considers herself Rick Grimes’ mate, even if there is no visible reciprocation on the man’s part. Daryl doesn’t want to know what their obvious conflict is really about. Fighting humans make him uneasy and besides, this is none of his business. 

Unfortunately, with his superior hearing, he can’t block out the snippets of none-too-hushed, angry conversation that reach him in spite of his effort not to eavesdrop. While Rick Grimes is calm and speaks too softly to be overheard, Daryl catches the woman hiss and snap things like "you could at least pretend to be normal” or “we’re still married, Rick!”, or even “shamelessly eye-fucking him in front of our son”. Especially the latter gives him an urge to run away because he’s pretty sure the woman is talking about him, and that’s. Bad, because in spite of his overall sexual inexperience, Daryl’s not completely stupid and he’s pretty sure he can more or less imagine what eye-fucking means. He doesn’t know if he wants that. It’s… intriguing, and scary, and shameful all at once. Makes him want to flee.

He doesn’t flee, bound to the group by obligation, but he makes sure not to send even a single glance in Rick Grimes’ direction again - even though he mysteriously finds himself wanting to the more he tells himself he shouldn’t.

Instead, he turns to the rest of the group and has them stop in the large round hall arranged sort of like a museum. There’s a display on on prehistoric sharks, including exhibits such as some of the largest well-preserved fossils of a megalodon’s teeth mounted in a steel model of the shark’s jaw. Based on the size of the teeth, there is a mural on the wall depicting what a megalodon theoretically could’ve looked like, and the damn thing is fifty feet long. Even to Daryl who loves sharks with all his heart, the damn picture is all sorts of alarming; it’s no wonder people used to spin stories about leviathans and other sea monsters, if they kept finding seven-inch teeth in their oceans and let their imaginations run wild.

Daryl tells the group about the megalodons, about how for a long time they were considered to be the Great White shark’s ancestors but now scientists are no longer sure, and then he decides it’s time for a short break during which he answers questions about the tour so far. The pups eagerly ask him about anything they can think of, for a chance to earn a shark-shaped magnet with the Institute’s logo on it. Daryl’s got two dozens of them in his pocket specifically for the purpose of encouraging the pups to learn things they’re curious about.

“Do sharks ever sleep?” Penny Blake asks curiously. She’s nice for a politician’s daughter, Daryl decides. She’s polite and easily impressed, and her braces are sort of adorable. She reminds Daryl of Sophia a little bit, but more than that, she’s a tad like a shark pup in how she seems to gnaw at anything that she can bring to her mouth: a pen, a little plastic star keychain, the edge of her origami shark and her own fingers. She always seems to want to bite something. Sort of like Daryl, though his go-to chew toys tend to be his own fingers. He empathizes with the little girl, though. The braces must be as uncomfortable in her mouth as Daryl’s rows of teeth sometimes are. Biting helps him with that, so he supposes it might be the same for her.

He nods with a friendly little smile that Sophia always says looks non-threatening. Which, Daryl hopes, is a good thing when interacting with pups. 

“Dependin’ on the species, some do, in a sense. Like, their brains ain’t provide no impulses an’ all that. Others don’t even do that, their bodies just sorta rest as they swim. Got periods of restful swimmin’ an’ active swimmin’.”

“Do they ever like, stop swimming?” A boy asks. He doesn’t look at Daryl, too busy contemplating a particularly ugly starfish in one of the small side tanks.

Carl Grimes shakes his head, rising his hand to indicate he wants to speak. “I read about that! They need to swim to breathe!” He announces proudly, and then looks at Daryl like he’s expecting praise.

Daryl smiles at the boy, too, and offers him a magnet. “Yer kinda right, but not full on. Again, ‘s dependin’ on species. Most sharks is like you said, needs to be in motion for breathin’, but there’s some that can pump air through their gills. Those don’t need to be swimmin’ all the time. Bullhead sharks or cat sharks are good examples. They can sorta lay down in the sand at the bottom offa sea an’ sleep, though’s not like we sleep. ‘s just their brains bein’ less active.”

Penny asks again, “How much do sharks eat? Because Daddy said sharks are always hungry, and they always eat, but if that’s true, wouldn’t they be round?”

Daryl actually has trouble suppressing a grin of amusement at the question. He explains about opportunistic feeding and how it works with sharks, and adds, “For a Great White shark, they can eats ‘bout three to five percent their body weight a day. Means sixty, seventy pounds easy. So lil’ Miss Penny here, yer like one day’s worth ‘a food,” he teases and the girl giggles.

“I’m not for eating!” She protests coyly. “I’m a predator!” Her r’s are rounded and sound a bit funny due to the braces, but nobody seems to care. The other girls in the group laugh with her, not at her, and it’s real nice to watch how the pups seem to genuinely like each other.

“Yer totally a predator,” Daryl agrees with the little girl. “Humans generally are. ‘s called an apex predator, which means top of the food chain. Sharks are that in the seas, an’ there’s I guess, some lions or somethin’ in the jungles, but top of it all, without anythin’ bigger or smarter eatin’ ‘em, there’s humans who can really eat everythin’.”

The nod along to the explanation, committing the information to their memories. Carl even writes something down in a notebook he carries around. Daryl likes telling stuff to pups like this. Makes him believe he’s not flapping his mouth uselessly. At least they’re going to learn stuff here, commit some of it to memory. Who knows, maybe they’re the next generation of shark scientists in the making. There’s always room for more people who care, Daryl thinks.

The light-haired teenager lifts her hand to ask a question, too. Daryl looks at her expectantly.

“What about killer whales? I know Alexandria Institute is a good facility and doesn’t keep any, but can you tell us something interesting about them?”

Daryl tries hard to suppress the scowl at the mention of orcas. Damn, but he hates those nasty fuckers. Humans love them, pretend like they’re cute and cuddly like some sort of sea pandas and make family movies about them, but the truth is, killer whales are the most cunning, cruel sons of bitches in the oceans wide. Damn big bastards go around hunting down Great Whites for their livers, like the white sharks are floating buffets and not the ocean’s mightiest beasts. Ezekiel had everyone, including Daryl, sit through a documentary about it once, and Daryl still has nightmares about the cute black-and-white toothy bastards that know precisely where to bite to only get the liver and nothing else. Being eaten is one thing, but when something eats your liver and leaves you in the water to die horribly over the course of hours or, even worse, days? It’s fucking scary is what it is. 

He must be less successful hiding his feelings than he’d hoped because the girl’s curious expression quickly turns apologetic, like she realizes she’s offended him somehow. Her name tag reads Beth with a little flower drawn next to the letter h. She’s just a pup, it’s becoming more and more clear, and now she thinks she did something wrong. 

Groaning inwardly at himself, hating to be the reason a pup doubts herself, Daryl offers her a magnet and says in his friendliest tone:

“I could probly tell ya stuff, but why’d you wanna know things ‘bout them creepy bastards? Got us something much better to see. If everyone’s ready?” He looks to the back of the group where the woman named Lori is no longer hissy-shouting at Rick Grimes. When she notices Daryl looking, she schools her face into a forced smile and nods to him, and Daryl nods back, then leads the group towards what he thinks is the best part of the Alexandria Institute’s entire complex.

The final step of the tour, the grand finale, the main attraction of every recent trip into the Oceanarium and, coincidentally, Daryl’s favorite part of the whole event, is the Biter Tank. Daryl lets everyone inside the room built as a tunnel inside the absolutely humongous aquarium, a wide transparent tube surrounded by water from all sides. It’s supposed to make the visitors feel like they’re in the deep among the marine life, but of course it’s nothing alike, not that the humans will ever know unless they try cage diving somewhere up at Cape Cod, and maybe not even then. Still, Daryl likes this place, the way it feels with what looks a little like the ocean all around him.

He likes it even more on the other side of the thick glass, swimming with his friends and pretending he’s not a land-dwelling mammalian abomination, but now’s not the time for that.

“The Great White’s the kinda shark everyone’s always thinkin’ about when sharks are even mentioned. We all seen Jaws, right? Even though mama ‘n papa said it ain't suitable for kids,” he winks at the group and he notes that most of the pups try to hide their smug grins. Carl doesn’t, he grins outright, much to the chagrin of his mother. Rick Grimes, though, seems amused, and Daryl’s still not looking at him, so he doesn’t see the man playfully ruffling Carl’s hair.

“They got ‘emselves some bad reputation, Great Whites. It‘s understandable: they’s one of the two biggest shark species alive today, second only to whale sharks. Females can grow to be ‘s much as twenty, twenty-one feet long and the largest known in history weighed about five thousand pounds. So they’s really, really big, like over three times bigger ‘n me, and with lotsa interaction with humans because of their habitats sorta overlappin’ ours. Fun fact: this reputation‘s mostly undeserved,” Daryl continues.

“You mean to say they don’t really attack humans? The attacks are well documented, though,” Rick Grimes interrupts, though the tone of his voice doesn’t sound like an interruption, more like an invitation to a substantial discussion.

Daryl rolls his eyes. He’s not the right guy to discuss anything scientific, but this topic? Sure, why not. He's an expert after all.

“‘course they attack humans,” he admits easily. “Just like, dunno, grizzly bears, and pumas and whatnot in the woods. It’s wild animals and humans encroach on their territories. Great Whites don’t really eat humans if there’s better alternatives, though. ‘s too lean sorta meat, too hard to hunt. Most of them so called attacks is just accidents, test bites. Nothin’ deliberate about it.”

“What about if one shark develops a taste for human meat?” Rick Grimes asks, frowning. He looks like he’s disappointed, like he was hungry for a bloody story just like the pups are. Or like he’s watched Jaws too many times.

Daryl shakes his head. “Ain’t never happened. Yer probly referrin’ to those rogue shark stories, yea? None of ‘em‘s true. Sure, it ain’t me sayin’ no Great White’s ever eaten humans before, none of that, I ain’t a damn shark apologist or whatever. Sharks eat meat, man, and they’re not some picky gourmet eaters or nothin’. Don’t mean they’s gonna go specifically target humans when there’s just better options all ‘round. Let’s be real, humans ain’t even all that tasty,” he jokes and winks for the benefit of the pups watching the whole exchange.

“Ain’t they,” Rick Grimes says, smirking, and there’s a mischievous glint in his eyes that really can’t be missed. There’s something about his scent… it’s not the exhibition rooms that smell so enticing, Daryl realizes, it’s Rick Grimes. And now that he can identify the source, Daryl can tell what exactly it is he’s picking up on. He can smell a flicker of interest, similar to the arousal he smells on Aaron or Eric when they’re together, or on other humans whenever they see attractive people in various states of undress. But it’s also different. Deeper, somehow. On all those people, the scent is sharp and grates on Daryl’s nerves, deters him, makes him turn away. On Rick Grimes, it’s alluring. It feels blue, like the man’s eyes. Like the shallows of the ocean, or the clear sky on an early summer morning. And like an electric spark on the air in the eve of a thunderstorm, it feels inevitable.

Daryl feels warmth spreading in waves across his cheeks and down his neck and chest. He's blushing. Damn his stupid mammalian blood flow. What even is the point of this particular body reaction? Showing signs of embarrassment only serves to point out a weakness to a potential predator. Why would a species evolve to retain such a nonsensical mechanism? Humans and their dumb, warm-blooded bodies, they wouldn’t survive an hour down in the deep like that. What a pointless thing to do, this blushing business. Daryl decides he’s going to have to learn not to do it anymore.

He shakes his head and attempts to push away all thoughts of the appealing scent of Rick Grimes’ interest. He concentrates once again on the group instead. The pups are making a visible effort not to run around the tube to see the various colorful fish swimming around because they seem to realize Daryl has more things to tell them. But all of the talking can wait, he decides. He thinks maybe it’s time to reward the pups for being so good so far. 

“Don’t panic, everyone, but we’re gonna swim with ‘em sharks,” he warns. He walks up to the glass and taps it in a rapid sequence based loosely on the Morse code. He masks the fact he’s doing it by pressing the panel below where he taps, which sends a feeding signal to the guys upstairs; but it’s the minuscule vibration of the water, not the food being released into the deep that brings Henry and Lydia soaring through the water from opposing sides of the tube, both Great Whites so majestic and magnificent as they swim that Daryl’s eyes become unbearably wet. The sight of the two sharks, nature’s perfect apex predators who come willingly to his side because he taught them to respond to this particular call; the fact that they know he’s here on the other side of the glass, and they’re willing to present themselves before the audience for Daryl’s benefit: it’s enough to make even the toughest man tear up.

Daryl wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands and quickly turns to the group. “The one on yer right’s Lydia,” he introduces, motioning towards the female with his head. “Was brought to us six weeks ago after a fight with another Great White, an alpha female, left her beached an’ injured. Here, she’s established herself as the alpha, the leader. For Great Whites, ‘s almost always the biggest female that’s leader. Ain’t gettin’ more feminist than ‘em sharks,” he jokes, more for the benefit of the adults than the pups who now seem much more interested in the sharks hunting for food than whatever Daryl has to say. He doesn’t even mind. He’s more interested in watching the sharks, too.

The other adult female, name-tagged Maggie, laughs at the joke and says something into the ear of the male she’s been talking to. Her companion - Glenn - groans audibly, but he seems amused as well. Beth giggles. Lori doesn’t react at all; it’s possible she didn’t even catch Daryl’s remark because she seems busy typing something furiously on her phone. Daryl pointedly doesn’t look at Rick Grimes to check if the man liked the joke.

“The handsome dude on yer left’s Henry,” he says, pointing his outstretched hand at the smaller shark. “He got himself captured some two months ago ‘cause he almost choked on a sea turtle. Professor King, our own world-class Great White specialist, was on his boat trackin’ this guy ‘cause he was tagged three years ago and we go followin’ tagged sharks to check up on ‘em from time to time. The Prof done rescued the guy right on the spot. Gots him here to get healthy and all. Now, normally when sharks try to bite more than theys can swallow, tends to be their last supper. Henry here was very lucky we were close enough to help.”

That’s not the whole story, of course. Daryl can’t very much reveal his own involvement in the rescue mission, how he’d jumped into the water and leaped towards the thrashing shark with no hesitation to Ezekiel’s horror, how he had to subdue the shark over twice his size so that the team could use a special crane to remove the tortoise from Henry’s jaws. All the while, the shark kept fighting to keep his prey because for all their awesomeness, Great Whites really aren’t very bright, especially not when it comes to food. Daryl almost got torn in half that day. He has the scars to show for it, dark jagged lines around his midsection, standing out in raised ridges of skin among other scars from long ago. There’s no way he would’ve survived if he was more human. Strangely, in the water, it didn’t hurt at all, like his entire nervous system turned more fish-like under the ocean’s surface. He screamed himself raw and almost snapped his spine thrashing wildly from the pain as soon as they pulled him out, so he was kept underwater for the duration of the healing process. It only took three weeks due to his increased regeneration rate, but there were periods, especially at the beginning, when even he didn’t know if he’d make it. Apparently, his mostly human physiognomy had trouble functioning without the spleen, both kidneys and a big tear in the bowels. Good thing it all grew back and Daryl returned to being functional soon afterwards.

Henry was apologetic about it, later, at least as much as a shark with no capacity for emotional responses could really ever be. Daryl never held a grudge anyway. He got in the way of a Great White’s meal. He knew the risk as he took it, and as such, he was the only one to blame for the result.

He remembers the first time he actually went into the tank to swim with Henry. He wasn’t allowed to. Aaron explicitly forbade it after Daryl expressed the interest to do it as soon as his internal organs were fine and the skin around his midsection started growing back. That was when Daryl really understood how humans tend to become protective over people they dub as friends; somehow, he used to attribute that characteristic to Carol exclusively and thought she was a special case, but as it turned out, while Carol’s got a penchant for treating him like a pup, it’s not a trait exclusive to her. Even still, he decided to go in. He had to: Henry wasn’t eating. He wasn’t doing all that swell in captivity in those initial days.

Daryl sneaked into the aquarium at night. He entered from the cleaning pool, dismantled a part of the safety netting and just went right in. He brought a big chunk of pork with him, dragged the meat around and produced as many splashing noises on the surface as he possibly could before he dived into the deep. Henry wasn’t tempted, but Daryl found him eventually. The shark was weak and almost seemed unhappy, which was very telling for a creature with close to no capacity for advanced feelings. Daryl spent the better part of the night convincing Henry to eat, but didn’t succeed. He also didn’t get bitten, though, so when Jesus found him in the morning, naked and tired after following the shark around for the whole night, Daryl didn’t get into too much trouble. Well, he did have to explain himself to Jesus, though, which wasn’t easy because people don’t tend to react well to what they perceive as monsters living among them. But it worked out. He’s been Jesus’ friend ever since, got his phone number, so he still counts that one as a success.

Aaron begrudgingly let Daryl return to Henry’s tank two nights later when the Great White still refused to feed. It didn’t work then, either, and the situation was starting to look like yet another failed attempt to keep a white shark alive in captivity, so Aaron was really grasping at straws. But Daryl refused to give up. He came back on the next night, too. And then on the night after that. And again, until, on his fifth night with Henry, Daryl finally convinced the stubborn shark to eat the offering of fat meat.

They’ve become good companions since then. Daryl’s got a necklace with some of Henry’s teeth that he pulled out of his wounds when he was recuperating, and he wears it all the time. Eric loves it, says it’s pretty cool. The others call it morbid, though Jesus tried to steal the necklace and wear it to a rock concert once. He made a strange face when Daryl offered to ask Henry for a couple teeth he could make into his own necklace. For some reason, he declined the offer and made sure not to be found too close to the Biter Tank for days. 

Daryl’s trip down the memory lane is suddenly interrupted when Rick Grimes stands entirely too close to him, taking advantage of the fact the pups are thoroughly distracted by the spectacle of two adult Great Whites feeding and showing off their hunting skills. The man’s so close, in fact, that Daryl can feel the heat coming off of his body, warming his own, and he tries not to let it get to him but it’s difficult. From this distance, or the lack thereof, it’s impossible to ignore the subtle and yet overpowering scent of Rick Grimes filling Daryl’s nostrils.

“Quite a sight,” the man says, but his incredibly blue eyes are locked on Daryl, not the inhabitants of the aquarium. He smells so good, so enticing that Daryl wants to lean into Rick Grimes’ space and press his nose into the crook of the man’s neck where the fragrance is undoubtedly stronger. He doesn’t do it, but he wants to. 

It’s a bewildering feeling, something he’s never experienced before, and Daryl’s confused. He thought himself immune to physical attraction after almost thirty years of living without it. Why the fuck is this happening to him now all of a sudden? He never expected to feel like this. Certainly not around a randomly encountered male of a completely different species than his own; but the release of hormones into his bloodstream doesn’t lie, the reaction his body shows to this man’s proximity doesn’t lie. Daryl’s mind might still be fighting this draw, but he knows, reasonably, that it’s a vain effort. It seems like he was right when he wondered about it earlier: he’s like Eric and Aaron. He’s gay. Great. Just what he needed: yet another nonsensical piece in the puzzle of Daryl Dixon.

Rick Grimes clears his throat to draw Daryl’s attention, like he thinks he doesn’t already have every ounce of it just by standing so close.

“So, I hope I’m not reading this whole thing very wrong. I’m no good at such things, I don’t think I’ve dated anyone since high school, really, but… Well. I’ve been looking at you. And I kinda noticed, you’ve been looking back,” he says softly and it’s obvious from his inflection that he hopes for an answer, an acknowledgement, maybe a confirmation of what he’s inferring.

Daryl just hums noncommittally in reply, unwilling to encourage the man because he knows he shouldn’t, but his seemingly indifferent reaction doesn’t seem to deter him at all. Just like before, when Daryl was rude to him on purpose, Rick Grimes stands his ground and continues to look at Daryl like Daryl is the only thing in this room worth his attention. Apparently the man is nothing if not determined.

“Do you wanna go out with me tonight?” He asks, his mouth stretching into a hopeful smile which looks both adorable and irresistible. 

Daryl has an overwhelming desire to bite him or, even better, to be bitten by him; he licks his lips and looks away, shaking his head. “Yer married and I ain’t interested,” he mutters. For the first time in his life, the claim is a lie. He’s pretty sure it’s obvious, too.

Rick Grimes doesn’t address the lie, though, he just chuckles. “I’m almost divorced, there’s just some papers left in need of signing,” he says cheerfully. Indeed, he’s not wearing a ring that most married humans do, but that doesn’t have to mean a thing. 

“And anyway, we could just grab a beer, you and I. As two dudes fascinated by sharks. It doesn’t have to be anything more. Not unless you want it to be.”

And Daryl does something stupid, rash and completely reckless:

He says yes.

Chapter Text

The tour didn’t really have last long after the Biter Tank, though to be honest, Daryl doesn’t really remember what happened between Rick Grimes asking him out and the group leaving the premises to head to their hotel. He’s quite sure he hugged some pups goodbye, and he definitely gave Penny Blake one of Henry’s teeth from his necklace much to the envy of pretty much everyone else. He also thinks he might have forgotten to enthusiastically advertise the summer cage diving tours the Institute has been planning for the past few years, but really, he can’t be blamed for that. He’s having a crisis.

It’s now some thirty-seven minutes past six o’clock, the group’s been gone for almost an hour, and Daryl is reconsidering his life choices. All of them. Carol is looking at him like he’s literally lost his mind and Daryl thinks she might be onto something there. Aaron and Jesus are both busy rummaging through Daryl’s small wardrobe like it’s the chance of their lifetimes, arguing loudly themselves if it’s actually acceptable to wear a simple black t-shirt to a first date or not. Eric, who was dragged in here by his boyfriend’s insistence, is possibly the only non-judgmental face in the crowd currently cooped up in Daryl’s tiny bedroom. Eric’s a good guy. Daryl likes him best. 

Until he speaks, that is, because the words that fall out of his mouth are: “So, Daryl. Just a question, and before you get angry: I’m not being nosy, I’m just trying to help. You do know how sex works between two human males, right?” 

And the truth of the matter is, Daryl doesn’t know. Granted, he doesn’t know a lot about the act of having sex at all, regardless of the species and genders involved, because he was just never interested enough in the topic to bother learning about it. He sort of has an idea of how it works with sharks. He has this very vague concept that there’s a tab A to be inserted into slot B, and he knows there’s a lot of biting involved. Like, so much biting. First to indicate interest, then so that one partner can mount the other and do all that inserting of things into, well, other things. There are lots of scars left afterwards, but it’s not a problem to Daryl, he’s pretty sure it’s natural to live with scars. He’s got plenty already and he doesn’t mind having more if it’s necessary. They show off how tough he is to the potential mate.

“Daryl, no,” Eric says, appalled, and proceeds to elaborate: “I mean, well, you’re not wrong about the insertion, yeah, though that’s only the penetrative aspect of sex and doesn’t really have to be involved unless you care about procreation which won’t happen with two males anyway, so we better not discuss it, please. And biting only really works with sharks. I mean, some people are into biting, but more like, umm, gentle biting? Our nervous systems are more elaborate than fish, so uh, we’d be hurt pretty badly if we did it like you mean. There’s absolutely no reason for human partners to bite each other so hard as to leave scars, anyhow. Sharks only do it because they don’t have any other way to hold on during the intercourse. People have, well, hands, and they’re much less slippery than fish, even than fish with skin teeth. And it’s also relatively easier to do it in a bed than in the ocean.”

“Are we giving the Sex Talk to a dude that’s almost thirty years old? Really?” Jesus asks incredulously, straightening the somewhat crumpled dark grey t-shirt with torn off sleeves he retrieved from Daryl’s pile of clothes. He looks incredibly happy at the turn in the conversation. He’s wearing a grin that’s positively lecherous. His behavior is all very interesting because at the beginning, he used to be pretty closed off and introverted, even more so than Daryl with his complete social ineptitude. Wouldn’t even talk to most people, and those he did talk to, he treated like they were far superior. He got over it, after some time, after he made friends with Aaron. Apparently, learning he’s not the only gay man working for the Institute did wonders for his self confidence.

Well, it’s good, Daryl reckons. He likes Jesus and his perverted sense of humor. He doesn’t even mind the man objectifying him from time to time in a rather sexual manner. It’s all in good fun and he’s pretty confident Jesus would stop as soon as Daryl said it bothered him. 

You aren’t giving anyone a sex talk,” Carol announces, digging a finger into Jesus’ chest, her tone very firm, “our resident expert on shark mating habits is,” she nods towards Eric who blushes, eyes widening in what seems to be a downright panic.

“I’m just an ichthyologist, I’m not sure I’m the right person to-” he protests feebly, like he wasn’t the one who broached the subject in the first place. 

But Carol isn’t convinced, and she’s a formidable woman when she makes up her mind about something. They all know already: there’s no escape for Eric. 

“You’re a marine biologist specializing in shark reproduction who also happens to be gay. I think you’re the only person here who can cover everything Daryl might need to know.”

“Ain’t need no sex talk,” Daryl grumbles half-heartedly, more in an attempt to save Eric the embarrassment than because he really thinks he doesn’t need it. He does. Badly. If he claimed otherwise, he’d just be lying to himself. And that? Is a human vice. One he tries to rid himself of.

Still, for Eric’s sake, he says: “Just goin’ for a beer. Ain’t plannin’ on any sex with nobody.”

“Of course you’re planning to have sex with that guy, Pookie,” Carol assures him, rolling her eyes with an expression like she’s dealing with a particularly stubborn pup. “You’ve been going on about that man’s eyes for thirty minutes straight. You called us all here in a fit of gay panic - your words, not mine, you called it gay panic all by yourself, so don’t you frown at me, mister. And now you’re letting those two choose an outfit for you when you know very well they’re thirsty for any glimpse of your broad and manly physique,” she gives an amused look to Aaron and Paul. The former makes an embarrassed sound and shoots an apologetic glance at his boyfriend. The latter just grins unabashedly.

Carol continues: “And you’re almost drooling at the idea of biting him. Or him biting you. That’s too much information, by the way, sweetie. We don’t need to know your dirty, kinky  fantasies,” she adds with the air of someone who very much wants to know all about it.

“See, to him, that’s not even a fantasy, and it’s definitely not what he’d consider kinky if he knew what the word meant. For all he knows, biting is probably the basics, like, the bare essentials of mating behaviors,” Eric says, nodding to himself thoughtfully. “We’re all agreed that out of all modern day sharks, Daryl’s genetic affinity is closest to the Carcharodon carcharias, as evidenced by the DNA tests we did last year and the tooth comparison, right? Those were fascinating, by the way, I wish I could devote more time to researching the common genes… Maybe find some common ancestors? I mean, surely there must’ve been something in between, evolution doesn’t simply drop a bomb like that in the middle of the ocean- Okay, okay, back to the topic at hand,” he says when he notices Carol’s impatient look. “Um. Well, because of his genetic affinity, I think it’s completely normal for Daryl’s instinctual reaction to sexual attraction to be the urge to bite or be bitten. That’s how Great Whites express their readiness to mate when the season is correct and the females release the mating hormones. An interested male bites a female, then if she bites back, they begin the ritualistic courtship which lasts approximately-”

“Okay, but Daryl doesn’t have a mating season with hormones or anything like that,” Jesus notes. “Believe me, I’ve been trying to hook up with him, I would’ve noticed a mating season. No way I’d let that shit go. I would’ve been down for biting and what-not, too, just so you know.”

“Shut up,” Daryl mutters, feeling himself go warm with embarrassment again. It’s happening a lot today. That’s because they’re sort of treating him like he’s the female in this potential mating scenario. Males don’t release mating hormones. Females do, to attract males and instigate the mating process. Daryl’s positive there’s no homosexuality between sharks. There’s also no heterosexuality, not in how humans see it. It’s just a biological imperative, a drive to reproduce. There’s no concept of sexuality involved in it at all. He doesn’t mention it, though, because it’s not like his friends are new to the subject. They’re all scientists. They know better than he ever could. 

Still, he’s uncomfortable, so he demands: “Stop talkin’ ‘bout me like I’m not here.”

“It’s easier, though,” Eric protests weakly. “I can pretend I’m giving a lecture and it’s less awkward than a literal gay sex talk. Also, I’m trying to find a way to translate the shark ways into, you know, the gay ways. It’s not easy.”

“You’re doing great, love,” Aaron assures him loyally, patting him on the back. Eric gives him a bright, grateful smile. Daryl thinks they’re adorable. Like baby seals.

Huh. His stomach growls. He might be getting hungry again.

Jesus rolls his eyes and sets aside a pair of black ripped jeans from the clothing pile. “Guys, it’s easy. Really. All evidence we’ve gathered suggests the Great Whites aren’t all that unique in how they fuck in comparison to other ovoviviparous shark species. Yeah, so we haven’t seen Great Whites going at it yet, but come on, we’ve all had a close look on their reproductive organs. That’s enough to conclude how it goes, isn’t it? Male mounts female, claspers go into the oviduct through the cloaca, insemination occurs, blah blah, eleven months later a litter of pups emerges. Sexy, I suppose, as far as big fish go. And it’s not that different for humans, only there’s the penis instead of the weird fin thingy, and it doesn’t exactly go into the oviducts directly. Still, you stick it where it fits. With two guys, that’d be the-”

“You know what, I think it’s best to just let Daryl watch some porn,” Eric interrupts hastily, and his face is very red. “Then he can compare if his physiology matches the human body-”

“Y’all know your human bodies, can just check if mine‘s the same,” Daryl supplies helpfully and begins to strip. 

Aaron and Carol both have very similar reactions to the offer: they start shouting for Daryl to stop this sort of behavior immediately, though while Aaron sounds slightly hysterical, Carol sounds mostly like a very stern mother. Eric averts his gaze but is speechless, and he keeps peeking when he thinks Daryl can’t see him. Jesus, on the other hand, looks right at Daryl very pointedly and, smirking, urges him on:

“By all means, I’m totally on board with your hands-on approach.”

The others stare at him and Jesus shrugs. “Oh come on guys! Don’t you tell me you’d mind seeing closely what our shark friend packs down there. We’re all curious about it. Well maybe not Carol, alright, don’t kill me, I get it, you’ve seen enough,” he lifts his hands defensively. “But seriously. Me? I’m having fun here. Like. I’m not sure if I’m more aroused or amused, but it’s very definitely an A-feeling,” he adds with a cheeky grin.

Daryl, shirtless, pauses with his fingers on the button of his jeans. “... ‘s this inappropriate or some shit?” He asks, frowning. He feels he might be missing something. They’ve been talking about sex which is apparently a complicated subject, so isn’t a demonstration easier?

Aaron nods fervently. His face is red and he looks away to the wall, then to Eric, then to the ceiling - anywhere that’s not Daryl’s body on display. He smells interested , and he’s not the only one who does; all three males in the room positively reek of mild or not-so-mild interest, though Aaron is the only one who seems to feel guilty about it. It seems fitting that he’s the one finally saying something, too, since he’s the one who suffers most from Daryl’s shamelessness, every morning outside of the Biter Tank as Daryl changes from the bodysuit into his regular clothes.

He says, “Yes, Daryl, this is inappropriate. People don’t strip in front of everyone just like that. God, where’d you learn your manners?”

“Didn’t,” Daryl mutters and shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t understand all the commotion. This obviously isn’t the first time he’s been at least half-naked in front of multiple people. Carol’s seen him completely naked more times than he can remember, though most of the times she didn’t really volunteer for it and she has been trying to teach him the meaning of modesty; and everyone present here with the notable and sad exception of Jesus had the opportunity to see the majority of Daryl covered in blood, with guts spilling out and some very impressive teeth sticking out of him that time when Henry was rescued. Jesus, on the other hand, was the one who found him swimming naked in Henry’s tank that first time, so he shouldn’t be making a fuss at all. And, well. To Daryl, some skin is no big deal. Humans really have this weird preoccupation with their bodies and with shit like obscuring them with colorful fabrics that make them stand out in their environments. The fabrics admittedly tend to feel nice on the skin, but Daryl thinks they’re pointless. Though he supposes multiple aspects of humanoid anatomy are generally pointless altogether, and the clothes help to keep the squishy hanging bits in line. 

His careless attitude towards nudity might be somewhat connected to the fact he doesn’t feel cold and humidity doesn’t bother him besides making his skin display the same skin-teeth roughness it does when he’s in the water. He remembers the first time Carol touched his wrist when it was raining. She claimed it was like sandpaper. It left her with scratch marks and a habit to check if Daryl’s skin is dry before touching him. 

“I think we should be teaching him how to act on a human date instead, shouldn’t we? I mean, Daryl really shouldn’t put out on the first date anyway,” Aaron decides, shaking his head as he pats Daryl on the arm in a gesture that feels protective. Daryl huffs. He doesn’t need to be protected. His teeth might be feeble in comparison to a Great White’s, but it’s more than enough to keep him safe from any human threat.

“Yeah, but he will put out anyway,” Jesus grumbles, “just look at him, he’s head over heels. What we think he should and shouldn’t do is meaningless at this point.”

“Damn straight,” Daryl informs them. Then, realizing he just as good as told them he was planning to have sex with Rick Grimes tonight - he doesn’t! Though if things happen, if Rick Grimes bites him, he’s certainly not going to refuse - realizing that, he amends, “but I‘s been tellin’ y’all, it‘s just a beer. Not even plannin’ to stay long. Gonna go see if I can get Joe more civilized later tonight.”

“That one’s giving me the creeps,” Carol mutters, shaking her head. She looks worried. “Haven’t seen a bull that mean in years, maybe not since I was in Yucatan with the SRI, and that one was crazy because he was deformed. I wouldn’t set one foot in a tank with that Joe character, not even if you paid me.”

“Someone’s gotta,” Daryl replies with a shrug. He appreciates Carol’s concern, but he doesn’t think it’s particularly warranted. To be honest, he’s kind of looking forward to swimming with Joe in the diving tank. The old bull shark may be a cunning bastard, but that doesn’t make him any less of a magnificent creature. Daryl could learn a lot from him. Maybe he could also teach him to communicate, just like he taught Lydia and Henry. It would definitely help the Institute’s researchers if Joe became less savage and vicious.

Actually, the prospect of swimming with a potentially feral bull shark who probably ate a human or a few in his lifetime is much less terrifying than the beer-not-date with Rick Grimes he stupidly agreed to. He can’t take it back now, though; Daryl doesn’t even have the blue-eyed man’s phone number to cancel on him. If he did, he’d do it. He’d cancel in a heartbeat, and he might regret it later, but he knows it would be better for him in the long run than going. What even possessed him to say yes to Rick Grimes’ invitation? Okay, so the man smelled fantastic and looked at Daryl like he really, really wanted to bite him, and his smile was so pretty, and his voice sounded nice. And his smell. Daryl can’t get over his smell. But then again, that’s no reason to go out with a stranger who doesn’t know his secret. An outsider who can’t find out. Who can’t be trusted. But Daryl wants to bite him, just a little, gently, so his delicate human flesh doesn’t become irreparably damaged. He wants to have Rick Grimes look at him like Daryl is something to be cherished. He wants to have sex for the first time, with Rick Grimes and nobody else. How can he accomplish that if he can’t even really smile at the man? And his friends who are supposed to be looking out for him are encouraging him to go instead of trying to stop him. Like it’s not a risk. Like there’s no chance that in case Rick Grimes found out, Daryl would end up taken by the same people who took Merle away five years ago, to be prodded and poked and gawked at like some sort of anomaly in a top-security military facility. He knows they don’t mean to be dismissive of the risk; they all just seem to have much more faith in Daryl’s ability to seamlessly blend in with humans than he deserves.

Fuck, he realizes, aware that he’s still willing to go and see Rick Grimes despite the looming threat of discovery, I’m screwed

“I can’t do this,” he announces to his audience, and even he can hear the beginnings of panic in his own voice. Can he take somebody with him? It’s just a beer with a relative stranger. Does that mean he can take a friend? Would Aaron go with him? Would Rick Grimes be disappointed if Daryl didn't come alone?

Jesus rolls his eyes and throws a black tank top with the Institute’s logo at him. “Wear this with the ripped jeans, drama queen,” he suggests, ignoring Daryl’s very important dilemma. “It’s gonna show off those delicious shoulders of yours. It’ll drive your pretty man crazy for you, and give us all some wank material, too.”

Aaron punches Jesus on the arm, blushing, while Eric laughs and Carol snorts inelegantly, trying to hide her grin behind a hand. Daryl just frowns and puts on the tank top. He doesn’t know what wank material even is, though he can sort of guess from the reactions. Somehow, though, Jesus being Jesus calms him down. He can do it. He can go have a beer with Rick Grimes, smell him again in a neutral place where his eyes won’t be that blue, and he’ll get over this strange attraction. Because he doesn’t think Rick Grimes will be as alluring outside of the Institute's walls. He’s just a man, like everyone else. There’s no reason for Daryl to want to bite and be bitten by him. He’s never wanted it before.

He’s probably just confused.

He rolls his eyes and reaches for the jeans, then gets an idea of payback which might at least take his mind off of the scary shit it’s been pondering. He smirks, looks Jesus straight in the eye, and takes off the pants he was wearing before slowly pulling on the new pair.

“... holy shit,” Jesus says and actually flushes bright red, eyes wide and lips parted. 

“Pookie, what did I tell you about underwear?” Carol admonishes in an ever-suffering tone of voice, but her face shows she’s still amused, if not more so than before. 

“That I should be wearin’ it?” Daryl remembers. He shrugs, pretending he’s not amused at all. “Ain’t comfy. Dunno why I should bother.”

“This is the best day of my life,” Jesus says to nobody in particular, grinning stupidly. His reaction is way overblown. It’s not like he hasn’t seen Daryl naked before, though the circumstances were different that time. Aaron, who probably realizes this, slaps the undergrad on the arm, and Eric, smiling somewhat weakly, supplies:

“Well, now we had a good hard look and we know Daryl’s probably anatomically compatible with humans.” And then he licks his lips and, in a much lower voice, adds, “Though I wouldn’t mind giving it a bit of a closer glance...”


“Oh, sorry, love. It’s purely scientific interest, I swear! See, from this glimpse, I think the shape might be a bit different, there’s this ridge I noticed, and I do wonder about the texture. Maybe some empirical research-”

Outraged enough to overcome his embarrassment, Aaron interrupts: “Eric Raleigh, you will absolutely not conduct empirical research of any kind on Daryl’s penis, is that clear?”

“I didn’t mean to conduct it without you, baby,” Eric reassures. “Besides, it seems like quite a handful. Of research. To conduct, you know.”

Jesus looks from one to the other, then at Daryl, and licks his lips. “Just saying, if it happens, you guys are not getting rid of me either. This all sounds like important research. Very big, very breakthrough-y. Two guys might not be enough to handle it. You could use an additional hand...”

“You know what, Pookie, you’d better go get that beer with your man,” Carol says, patting Daryl on the back. “Before these three get themselves a lawsuit for sexual harassment. Or worse, before they jump you.”

Daryl rolls his eyes, but he nods, calmer now, less terrified by the prospect of the unknown. He grabs his leather jacket, brushes his fingers through dark strands of his hair, decides he probably looks presentable enough for a simple beer at a bar, and he heads for the door. Before he walks out, he casts a measuring glance at his three male friends, shakes his head, then smirks back at Carol and says in a dismissive tone of voice:

“Bet’cha I could take all three of ‘em easy.”

And he leaves Carol laughing heartily and the men bewildered and spluttering. They shouldn’t have assumed he didn’t understand innuendo at all. He knows some things. He may not be experienced in any sexual matters, may not know much about how sex works between humans, even less when it comes to gay humans… but his brother was Merle fucking Dixon, for fuck’s sake. He knows how to make lousy and lewd that’s what she said jokes.

Chapter Text

Unfortunately, Daryl’s newfound zen and self-confidence vanish completely about five minutes after he leaves his cramped little apartment in the Institute's building complex, just as he passes the front gate to be exact. When he leaves the Institute’s walls, it’s almost always only to go as far as to the beach. He rarely ever goes to the city, and especially not by himself. It’s daunting, really. He can navigate in the deep sea in what humans would dub as complete darkness, but he gets lost on land if there are no stars to go by. He doesn’t like tall buildings and large concrete-filled spaces. And he’s not a social creature, not like humans are. He doesn’t know what to do with himself in places with a lot of people. Moreover, as he soon finds out, he can’t see the ocean from the bar he’s meeting Rick at, which scares him a little because it feels like he’s got nowhere to run. If only he could see, or smell, or even just hear the ocean… but he can’t. 

He has half the mind to go back. He makes himself go inside.

The place isn’t as crowded as he expected thanks to it being a weekday, but Daryl still feels like people are staring at him when he walks in. It’s making him even more nervous. When they look, it means exposure, exposure means you’re dead in the water. A predator can’t be seen before he strikes, his daddy taught him. Taught him with words and with deeds, always, always able to sneak up on him, to strike when Daryl least expected to be hit. For a human, Will Dixon was a tough son of a bitch. Left more scars than any shark Daryl met afterwards, even more than Henry who almost killed him. Some of those scars can’t be seen.

Daryl shakes his head. No use thinking about that, now. He scans the semi-darkness of the bar, wondering briefly why humans enjoy such dark interiors if they can barely see anything inside them. To Daryl, the faint lighting is enough to see clearly and even to differentiate colors. It’s no different from daylight. Eric says the way his eyes are built is another physiological characteristic he shares with Great Whites. It gives him a slight disadvantage of farsightedness, but it’s never been much of a problem. He can see in detail at distances of over fifty feet in exchange, and it’s not like he’s a microbiologist working with lab equipment, or even an avid book reader, or anything.

He does own a pair of glasses, though. He just never wears them where anyone can see.

He recognizes Rick Grimes’ silhouette in one of the booths located to the side of the room. He observes the man for a moment from where he’s invisible to him as of yet. Rick Grimes is alone, nursing a beer and doing something on his phone. He’s wearing a dark gray shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and he’s got a pair of sunglasses sitting on top of his wavy hair. Even from this distance, Daryl can see those incredibly blue eyes, and he realizes their color wasn’t an effect of the lighting conditions in the aquarium after all. He licks his lips, then takes a deep breath and moves.

He approaches the booth and puts on the most self-confident smirk he can manage as he slides into the seat. “Hullo,” he says and mentally kicks himself because, fuck, shoulda come up with somethin’ witty. But he literally couldn’t: those electrifying eyes are on him, just like back in the aquarium when everyone else was looking at the Great Whites, and it makes his damn head spin.

“Oh, hello,” Rick Grimes greets him with a wide and friendly smile. “I’m so glad you’re here. I gotta admit, for a while there I thought you wouldn’t show up,” he says and Daryl thinks his heavily accented voice is incredibly alluring; he could listen to this man talk for hours. 

“Said I’d be here,” he points out, shrugging like he’s indifferent when in fact, he’s anything but. Damn, but it’s too hot in the bar, or rather it’s just him getting all worked up since his body doesn’t exactly feel the changes in temperatures until they go to what’s considered extreme for a typical human. Sighing, Daryl takes off the jacket and folds it, deposits it on the seat deeper in the booth. He looks up and notices the way Rick Grimes’ eyes roam over his shoulders and arms. There’s a hint of longing, a sort of primal hunger in the man’s gaze, and Daryl wonders if Rick Grimes would consider leaving bite marks all over him if he asked. 

The thought makes him blush. Beer. He only came out here to have a beer. He isn’t going to have sex tonight because this is not a date. Even if it was a date, he still wouldn’t have sex tonight, and his damn human friends can take their opinions and shove them wherever.

He orders a beer when a waitress walks by the booth, and he makes an attempt to not look up at Rick Grimes again. The man across from him chuckles, but it doesn’t sound like he’s laughing at Daryl’s social ineptitude: he sounds sheepish, like he’s awkward. Daryl doesn’t get why someone as breathtaking as Rick Grimes would ever need to feel awkward.

“Earlier, in the aquarium,” Rick Grimes says, “I kinda lay it on thick, and I’m sorry. I guess I got too much into my character’s head?”

“Huh? What, yer an actor or something?” Daryl asks, frowning in confusion.

The waitress brings his beer and smiles prettily at both of them, though her gaze lingers on Rick Grimes. It’s difficult to tell one person’s scent from another’s in such a crowded place, but Daryl can bet the young blonde smells of sexual interest. He glares at her, overcome with a possessiveness he didn’t know he was capable of - a possessiveness he is not entitled to, but can’t help displaying - and the woman quickly scoots away.

“Writer,” Rick Grimes says, oblivious to the battle for his attentions that just took place. His smile is just for Daryl, and it makes Daryl feel even warmer inside and out. “I’m actually at the research stage for my new novel, and well, when I’m in a certain mindset, I tend to get too much into my hero’s head sometimes.”

Daryl nods, pretending he can understand or even relate. He’s got no idea how writing shit works, he has no imagination for it, but it makes sense. Still, he has to fight  down the pang of disappointment at the information which comes along with a revelation: “Uh-huh. So yer not real interested in me?”

Rick Grimes laughs softly. Even in the dim lighting, Daryl can see the man is blushing. Good. It’s nice not to be the only one of them doing that for a change, even if Daryl doesn’t quite get why Rick Grimes is reacting this way at all. 

“Oh no, that’s not it. You-you’re very interesting. Uh. Yeah, that’s one word for it,” the man mutters and licks his lips. Daryl looks away because if this is just a beer date and not a date-date, he’s not supposed to stare at the tip of the other man’s tongue as it peeks out to wet the plump lower lip.

Rick Grimes finishes sheepishly, “It’s just that, I normally wouldn’t have asked you out. Wouldn’t have been brave enough.”

Daryl hums in reply, taking a swig of his beer. It’s the cheapest they have and it tastes rather foul. Most things do that aren’t meat; that’s just the way Daryl’s taste buds are designed. He still eats and drinks stuff most humans do, if only to pass as one better. Plus normally, Carol tends to harp on him if he doesn’t ingest enough vitamins, never mind that meat is plenty vitamin-y as far as he’s concerned. While there probably aren’t any vitamins in beer, Daryl supposes he should try not to make a face at the taste either way, if he wants to blend in and look normal in the eyes of Rick Grimes. Apparently, beer is the type of beverage human males typically enjoy a lot. It’s supposed to be a mark of their masculinity, or something. Daryl doesn’t know. He just observed that very often, liking this sort of drink is associated with being manly.

“So, sharks,” Rick Grimes says. He drinks some of his beer, then licks the froth off his lips. Daryl definitely doesn’t follow the movement of his tongue with his eyes because that would go beyond the scope of something a guy does when he’s not on a date. “Now, how does a guy like you get such an unusual interest? You said you’re not a scientist.”

“Watched a lotta National Geographic as a pup,” Daryl retorts, then immediately corrects himself: “As a child.”

“Pup, that’s what baby sharks are called?” Rick Grimes guesses with an incredulous grin, like he’s not sure Daryl’s not making fun of him. “Shark puppy, doesn’t sound all that threatening.”

“They’s like, born with teeth,” Daryl informs earnestly. “Great Whites, but others too. Hatch in mama’s belly, grow big with good nice teeth an’ just eat unfertilized eggs ‘til it’s time to come out, ready to survive on ‘ere own.”

Rick Grimes blinks, then laughs again, and yeah, Daryl likes the sound of his laughter. He’s feeling unreasonably proud of himself for being the cause of it. The corners of the man’s eyes crinkle as he laughs, and there are those lines on his face Daryl noticed earlier, those laughter lines that suggest he’s generally a happy person, and it just makes Daryl want to make him happy even more. He wants to be the reason Rick Grimes is happy. 

He thinks he should have asked his friends for advice about romance instead of the pointless sex talk that didn’t even explain anything because he still wouldn’t know the first thing about what to do in a sexual situation. Maybe Aaron was right, maybe they all should’ve just told him how humans date each other, explicitly . It would’ve been more useful than their vague hints about how sharks mate and how it’s similar or different to the way humans go about it. Dating, that’s a field Daryl, with his non-existent social skills, could really use some guidance in. He can only hope he doesn’t screw it up too badly tonight; he can only hope Rick Grimes will want to see him again in spite of everything.

“So, you’re basically saying, they’re called pups, but they’re really scary toothy monsters from hell?” Rick Grimes jokes. 

Daryl shakes his head, chuckling. “Naw, they’s cute. Tiny, no more ‘n five feet when they’s born. Ain’t real scary.”

“Um, okay, is there a shark you’d actually call scary, though?” Rick Grimes asks, dubious. And, yeah, he has a point. Daryl doesn’t find Henry scary after having almost ended up eviscerated by him. If a twelve-foot Great White whose teeth retrieved from his own abdomen serve him as a necklace doesn’t scare him, he’s pretty sure there’s not a shark in existence that could.

“Probably not,” he eventually agrees.

Rick Grimes laughs softly. “You’re amazing, you know that? How’d you end up working in Alexandria Institute, anyway? Thought it was a purely scientific facility, all professors and doctors and the like.”

“Naw,” Daryl replies, even though he’s very much aware he’s the only employee of the Institute who hasn’t even finished high school. With the exception of a few janitors and the part-time staff in the cafeteria, everyone else has a science degree, even the tank cleaners. Daryl’s the odd man out, but he’s uh, otherwise qualified

He’s also very much aware that he’s blushing yet again , simply because Rick Grimes called him amazing. He hopes he’ll remember the exact timbre of the man’s voice when he said that. He wants to dream about it. He wants to think about it day and night. He wants to do - unspecified, naughty things, while thinking about it.

“You’re not very talkative, are you?” Rick Grimes teases.

Daryl resists the urge to start biting on his fingernails which is a nervous habit he certainly shouldn’t indulge in when in public. “Ain’t never had much interestin’ to say. Not unless it’s ‘bout sharks,” he mutters. He quickly downs the remainder of his beer. 

“I doubt that,” Rick Grimes says. “But for the sake of your self-confidence, let’s talk more about sharks,” he suggests. “I’ve been doing some research… for my book, you see… and I was really hoping for that rogue shark thing to have been real. You completely sure it’s not?”

“Huh,” Daryl replies. “Well. I ain’t met one,” he supplies, “ain’t never seen evidence of one. Not with Great Whites, that’s for sure.  But if yer into the creepy shit, try with oceanic whitetips, their feedin’ frenzy thing’s kinda terrifyin’ and they’s known for targettin’ humans. Shipwrecks and fallen aircraft survivors, mostly. Or bulls, if the story’s not planted on some cruiser ship or stuff. Bull sharks can live in rivers, even upstream, don’t mind sweet waters. Don’t really attack people much, but they could? I guess. There was a story in like, 1916, a series of deadly bites. Most’a them happened in creekwater, so I wouldn’t say’s a Great White, though there were some dudes sayin’ so. Bull’s more likely,” he pauses, suddenly realizing he’s been rambling. But Rick Grimes looks interested, so Daryl adds: “Y’know, we got one we’s sure he killed a human at least once.”

“In the Oceanarium?” Rick Grimes asks, eyes widening. 

Daryl nods. “Divin’ tank,” he says and wonders if he should be telling the man about it. The Institute hasn’t officially released information about the newest resident. Aaron said it’s because they don’t want to get anyone too interested before they can make sure Joe can be socialized at least to the point that cage diving would be possible. Well, it’s not like Rick Grimes can do anything stupid like go there unsupervised to see the shark or something. The aquarium’s security isn’t airtight, true, but visitors aren’t allowed to the shark rooms without someone from the staff present, and nobody in their right mind would let a random dude anywhere near the diving tank even if its resident shark weren’t a crazy bastard. 

“The tank you didn’t want the kids to touch,” Rick Grimes remembers and hums thoughtfully. “Isn’t that a strange decision, though? To keep a killer shark where people dive?”

“We wanna try make him sociable. Gonna work on him later,” Daryl replies. Then follows up quickly with, “Not me of course, I ain’t nobody that important. We gots a pro. Guy’s like a shark tamer thingy. Ain’t afraid of ‘em, so’s they respect him. Got lotsa experience ‘n all.”

“Experience doesn’t always win out against a jaw full of sharp teeth,” Rick Grimes points out. “Especially when the owner of the teeth is in his natural environment.”

Daryl agrees, but he’s still excited about the prospect of interaction with a shark who might be wilfully dangerous. Until now, the sharks he met have always been neutral, and he’s pretty sure none of them ever bit a human on purpose. The bull he’s going to try to interact with, it’s a challenge. Daryl really likes challenges. And he’s got a jaw full of sharp teeth, too, even if his are small and ridiculous; his real advantage lies in the fact his brain is bigger and he thinks quicker than any fish ever could.

He doesn’t say that, though. Instead, he says, “Y’know, dunno if it’s a good idea, that book yer writin’. Sharks been shown as those vicious human-killin’ monsters a long time, when’s it all down to like. Less than a hundred bites a year. Fifty-somethin’ here in the States. Only a handful for the Aussies. And almost none’s ended up with dead victims.”

“You’re worried about a shark panic?” Rick Grimes asks, then motions to the waiter passing by for another beer. The waitress from before is conspicuously absent. 

“There was one after Jaws,” Daryl admits, resisting the urge to gnaw at his lower lip or at the cuticles of his thumbs. “Got lotsa Great Whites killed for nothin’ since the nineties. They’s a vulnerable species now. Y’all so worried yer gonna get eaten, but you sure as hell ain’t gonna stop eatin’ them. Ain’t gonna lie, dunno ‘bout the stats, but guys at the Institute tell me it’s like, over a million killed sharks for every known incident of shark bite, each damn year. And guys at the Institute know their thing, right? So between humans an’ damn killer whales, with the reproduction rates, no Great White’s gonna be left in a few years.”

Rick Grimes frowns, like this information is new to him somehow. If that’s the truth, then he’s not much of a researcher. Or maybe he’s one of those guys who prefer to ignore facts which don’t fit into their theory. He doesn’t seem like the type, but to be honest, Daryl doesn’t know a thing about the man, and he really can’t be relying on scent and hormonal responses in his judgement. Even if that scent drives him crazy.

He wants the man to bite him so much, he can barely stay in his seat. His pants feel tight and his hands feel clammy. He’s been suppressing that relentless urge to bite his own lower lip in fear of showing teeth, but he knows he’s going to need a distraction soon, lest he do something stupid. Rick Grimes makes him stupid.

The man shakes his head, smiles to Daryl, and everything about him is so appealing. Daryl’s instincts are telling him that this man is perfect, that he’s all Daryl needs in a mate, and it’s bullshit because it makes no sense - biologically - for Daryl to want to mate with a man. He should be looking for a woman, a strong one who could bear his pups, he should want to procreate, not to have a man bite him and mount him and do all those pointless things to him that two males could do together. Why desire something that does not result in offspring?... 

Though, Daryl doesn’t even want to sire pups. He likes pups, he loves Sophia and he has fun teaching small humans about sharks; but he’s never wanted his own. He wouldn’t be a good dad, and anyway, any offspring of his would likely end up like him: neither human nor shark. An outsider to either world, always in danger, never belonging. He’s not like his momma. He’s not gonna do that to a helpless pup.

New beers are brought and Rick Grimes says something Daryl doesn’t catch, lost in thought. When the man’s voice registers, Daryl looks up, confused and embarrassed, and Rick Grimes just smiles at him even wider. His human teeth are so non-threatening, blunt and small, and yet Daryl would gladly give his left arm to have them sink into his flesh and break skin. There’s something fundamentally wrong with him.

“I’m sorry,” Rick Grimes says, “I know it’s not like that, I know it’s just having friendly beer and nothing else. But God, you’re adorable.”

Daryl scoffs. “Ain’t,” he argues. “Pups are adorable. Fluffy animals are. Me, I ain’t neither. So don’cha say that.”

“Can’t help it though,” Rick Grimes announces. He might be emboldened by the beer he’s consumed, or maybe by something else entirely. Maybe he can sense the way Daryl’s skin burns for his touch. Maybe he’s as much a predator as a Great White in the depths. 

He says, “You’re pretty and you’re cute, and I haven’t had so much fun talking to someone in, I dunno, years probably. You sure we can’t… you know… make this a date?”

Daryl shakes his head, but there’s not much resistance left in him. He’d like to deny the man because giving in would be dangerous. For both of them. Rick Grimes is delicate, his skin is soft and couldn’t withstand the assault of Daryl’s teeth, which he’s not sure he could stop himself from using; the urge to bite, to mark his territory, to leave a scar, it might be too strong. Daryl doesn’t want to hurt him. Not only because he wants Rick Grimes happy; there’s a practical reason, too: if he harms the man, even by accident, it’s going to get ugly. He might be taken away, his secrets might come out to the wrong people. After what happened with Merle, he knows there are places where creatures like Daryl are prodded and poked, experimented on. He’d rather die than have that happen to him.

“I… gotta go,” he mutters, standing up. “Got shit to do tonight.”

“Daryl,” Rick Grimes says, pleading, but Daryl turns to the exit, attempting to ignore the way that tone makes him want to give in and abandon all of his defenses.

He groans when the man’s hand closes around his wrist, pulling softly, stopping him from leaving. Rick Grimes’ fingers are warm and soft, but calloused, like they’re used to physical work. 

“Please,” he all but whimpers, close to begging, and he hates it. “Don’t make it what it ain’t.”

“Daryl,” Rick Grimes repeats, saying his name like it’s something precious. “You don’t need to be scared of me. I promise, I won’t do anything you don’t want. Just… sit back down, please? Let’s talk some more. About sharks. Or something else if you wanna. Just don’t run away. I’ll stop doing this. I’ll stop making you uncomfortable. Okay?”

Daryl looks down at the floor, wondering why it’s so easy to just let Rick Grimes talk him into staying. He returns to his seat, aware that his face is flushed and that the man’s hand is still touching his skin, warm fingers drawing lazy circles on his wrist. But as soon as Daryl’s sitting down, the hand retreats and Rick Grimes clears his throat.

“So, uh. Tell me more about the Great Whites. You sure seem to know a lot about them,” he suggests in a light tone, and Daryl licks his lips. 

“I’ll have sex with you,” he says softly, almost inaudible over the ambient noises of the bar. 

The words have a slightly different effect than what he expected. Rick Grimes looks startled, his cheeks go pink and his eyes widen, and he blinks, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he responds.

“It’s… it’s not all that I want, though,” he says, then sighs and shakes his head. “God, you’re sorta hard to follow, aren’t you? Daryl,” he looks at him, and he sounds exasperated and fond at the same time as he says Daryl’s name again, like he loves the feel of it on his tongue. “I’m not after you for sex. I like you. I genuinely like you, okay? It’s been a long time since I liked someone so much as a person. And I want to get to know you. Yes, you’re cute, but it’s more than that, to me. More than your looks. You’re interesting. The way you talk about sharks, the passion you have, I mean, seriously, I came here thinking sharks were just mindless killing machines, or worse. You’re changing my mind though. Listening to you, I’m getting interested in the subject. Because it’s something you’re invested in and I want to understand your point of view.”

“... but you don’t wanna have sex with me,” Daryl concludes, and he wills himself to not show that he’s disappointed. 

Rick Grimes shakes his head again. “I do,” he assures, “God knows I do, but it’s not the only thing I want from you. And I don’t necessarily want it right now. Like I said, I’d like to know you first. Who you are, what you like, how to make you laugh, all that. I want to try dating you.”

“Never dated anyone,” Daryl confesses shyly. 

“How’s that possible?” Rick Grimes asks, clearly baffled at the information.

“Never been interested,” Daryl replies with a huff, trying to mask embarrassment with faked irritation. He knew it’s considered a bit weird for humans not to get involved with others romantically, but he never actually thought about how that makes him seem weird. “Ain’t never wanted to have sex neither,” he confesses. Because he’s already weird, so the situation can’t get any worse. “Yer the first, Rick Grimes.”

“Well, fuck,” the man murmurs under his breath, and his entire face darkens with a blush. Daryl wonders if what he just said is bad or something. If he should be ashamed. But he doesn’t feel ashamed. Damn. He should’ve insisted the guys told him about dating after all. He could use that information right now. 

“Do you call everyone by the full name?” Rick Grimes asks, redirecting the subject onto safer waters. Daryl shrugs and licks his lips.

“Because I’d really like it if you could just call me by my first name.”

“Rick?” Daryl mutters softly, testing how the man’s given name sounds on his tongue. He likes it. It’s easy to say. Short, efficient. Pretty.

“Yeah,” Rick Grimes - no, Rick, just Rick, says. “Like that. Full name’s just too formal, nobody ever spoke to me like that.”

“I call people what they wanna be called,” Daryl explains awkwardly. He wonders if there’s one thing in his interactions with people he doesn’t do wrong. He should just dive in the ocean and never resurface. Maybe then he wouldn’t keep making a fool out of himself.

“Then just Rick is fine,” Rick assures him and smiles, the light in his blue, blue eyes illuminating Daryl’s entire world. He’s drowning in the depths of Rick’s warmth, and he’s not sure he wants it to stop. 

“Hey. Do you wanna try this dating thing? With me?”

Daryl nods, feeling more than slightly dazed. “Yeah, okay,” he says, breathless, and coughs once to clear his throat. “Just. Don’t laugh if I do somethin’ stupid, ‘kay? Yer gonna hafta tell me shit. Teach me.”

Rick nods, still smiling - he looks happy, Daryl’s made him happy - and he brushes Daryl’s hand with his fingers, draws little circles right above his wrist joint, presses the soft caress into Daryl’s skin like a promise; and for once, Daryl lets himself be touched.

Chapter Text

About half an hour later, a group of loud-mouthed guys come into the bar, shouting from the entrance that it was one of theirs’ bachelor’s party and they’re going to get this party started. The bar becomes too noisy to continue to talk after that, so Rick suggests a walk on the beach instead. Daryl agrees easily because the crowd is starting to make him nervous again, and he thinks that maybe the vicinity of the ocean might calm him down.

It really doesn’t, though.

Daryl is aware he’s generally considered weird even by the people who’d genuinely say they like him. They talk sometimes, forgetting his superior hearing or just not realizing it’s a thing, and they comment on how he doesn’t laugh in front of others, he doesn’t eat out in public unless there’s only a handful of his closest friends present, he doesn’t even yawn; it’s all in an attempt to hide the teeth from those who shouldn’t see. He bites his fingertips and nails to the point of bleeding if he doesn’t take care to restrain the reflex to do it. He barely blinks because he doesn’t need to, and he shies away from any sort of physical contact. Carol and Sophia are the only people who are allowed to touch him without warning, but even they don’t do it because they know it makes Daryl uncomfortable. It’s both a remainder from the childhood spent in his abusive father’s home, and another attempt to hide his own unhuman nature: while he sweats less than others, he still does sometimes, and his skin takes on the shark-like, sandpaper-rough quality when it’s damp. His skin teeth aren’t as pronounced as in an actual Great White which is why they’re not even detectable when he’s dry, but they’re enough to cause injury when wet. 

Rick doesn’t know any of that, and as it turns out, he’s a truly affectionate man: he wants to touch Daryl all the damn time.

And really, it’s not so bad at first, just a bit weird when Rick’s fingers skim over Daryl’s jacket-clad arm or softly brush against his side as they walk. The street is a bit dark and Daryl understands that with his humanly inferior night vision, Rick probably requires reassurance that Daryl is still present and knows where he is leading them. So he doesn’t mind these small touches through clothes, he’s even proud to be useful to the man he already thinks of as potential mate. He wants to seem strong and impressive to Rick, and guiding him through the night is one of the things he can do to accomplish that.

But then, they find themselves at the beach,and the moonlight is bright tonight, and there’s really no need for Rick to continue to seek Daryl out. Yet, he still does. He talks animatedly and Daryl mostly just listens to the sound of the man’s voice, letting it distract him from the hand gently petting his forearm.

“My first book was sort of a flop,” Rick says, lets out an embarrassed chuckle. “All writing teachers always say to write what you know, but that’s bullshit. I tried, really. Was a cop for a few years, so my first story was ‘bout a small-town cop who got involved in some stuff, things way above his level,” he shrugs. “Got rejected by all but one low-profile publisher and the critics ate me alive. Apparently my self-based character was boring as fuck.”

Daryl blinks. “Yer interestin’ though,” he assures, because it’s true. He’s been fascinated with the way light catches in Rick’s blue eyes and the way his hair curls and with the sparse flecks of gray in his beard, and it’s all just from looking at him right now in the moonlight. He can’t wait to get to know the man better, to learn everything else there is to know about him that he can become just as enraptured with. 

Rick laughs. “Not for readers, seems like. Well, in my next book, I made the character as much unlike me as I could. Made him a real bad-ass, the type to give those great motivational speeches in times of need, an action hero, not afraid to get his hands bloody and all. Handsome, too, a real heartthrob. And I chose a fantasy setting, too, with zombies, only nobody calls them zombies, and- you know, doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t even read that if it wasn’t mine. It’s a second rate horror story at best, but somehow, it’s now gotten famous. Turns out, people don’t like small-town cop drama, but they really want zombies. There’s been talks about film rights, and my publisher’s pressing me for new books to ride this wave of popularity. Am I talking too much?”

Daryl shakes his head. “Nah,” he assures. “Keep tellin’ me shit. I’m good at listenin’.”

It’s actually rather difficult for him to really concentrate on what the man’s talking about, though, to follow the flow of this mostly one-sided conversation, because Rick’s curious, wandering hand can’t seem to rest in one spot for longer than a few seconds. It brushes over Daryl’s arm only to move to Rick’s own as he rubs at his neck or scratches his beard, and Daryl can’t help but follow the movement with his eyes. So he listens to the tone of Rick’s voice instead, barely registering when the subject changes from zombies - whatever they are, really - to an anecdote about Rick’s son Carl, and then to the town in the suburbs of Atlanta Rick used to live in.

“I’m not going back, though, not any time soon,” the man says eventually, “I rented out a house here in Virginia Beach. It’s right by the shore, almost outside of the city boundaries. Thought it’d feel better to write the new shark story from here. You know, where I’m close to actual sharks.”

“Why not Cape Cod, then? Plenty of sharks there,” Daryl asks, and Rick pats him on the shoulder in a friendly manner. The touch is fleeting, but leaves a curious tingling sensation spreading all over Daryl’s arm, like all of the other touches before but not quite; it’s becoming more and more, something, and Daryl has trouble processing the sensory overload it’s causing him. Nobody ever touches him this much, not even Sophia, not since she was really tiny and was only just learning. It’s overwhelming. 

“Oh, funny,” Rick says. “Cape Cod hate their sharks. You should know that, Mister Shark Know-It-All. They’ve been blaming sharks for flopping tourism in the recent years.”

“Stupid,” Daryl mutters. “Look at us. Lotsa tourism ‘round here for them sharks specifically. What else’s so interestin’ ‘bout a beach anyway? People can sunbathe anywhere.”

Rick shakes his head, chuckling, and squeezes Daryl’s forearm lightly. “You said you’re scared a horror book about sharks could cause a shark panic. But what if it made sharks popular instead? I mean, people love to be scared, and your Institute could benefit from the increased revenue-”

“‘s not about money,” Daryl protests, because it’s not. Even though he knows the Institute could use any additional resources, he doesn’t want them to come from a place of fear. The aquarium and their sharks could maybe benefit, like Rick says, but what about the wild sharks out there? People would always continue to kill them, but if there’s a new wave of panic caused by another horror story… It won’t really matter there’s no basis in reality, people will start to feel that mass-slaughter of sharks is justified. 

That’s what happens when an animal isn’t considered cute. Somehow, Daryl hasn't heard of anybody who tries to slaughter all killer whales. Nobody considers writing a horror book about them either, as far as he knows, even though they’re infinitely creepier than the hungriest shark in the deep. 

“I didn’t say it was,” Rick assures. “But money helps when you need to implement protection plans. Campaigns to raise awareness, your Institute’s shark tracking program, rescue missions, it all costs a lot, Daryl. Now if only people realized how interesting sharks are…”

Daryl scoffs. There are different kinds of people who get interested in sharks, but those who go around throwing money at shark-related facilities aren’t the kind Daryl wants near any fish at all. Aaron told him a big name restaurant tycoon came to the Institute one day with an offer to sponsor some research in exchange for pups because young meat tastes better. No deal, of course, but that was one of the less outrageous offers the Institute’s had to come to terms with and learn to ignore. Different oceanic species can be used for various things, after all. The so-called Big Pharma expressed some interest in conducting research multiple times, most recently on the medical use of vitamin oil found in the livers of some shark species. Then of course, there are private collectors who come all the time and inquire about the sharks in the Institute, trying to purchase them and keep them in tiny tanks, in poor conditions, to satisfy their own selfish desire to own something rare, scary and beautiful all at once.

Everyone wants to exploit sharks. That group seems to include Rick Grimes, even if the man is oblivious to the potential harm his eagerness to write about sharks could cause. He doesn’t know better. Maybe doesn’t want to.

“Gotta go home,” Daryl says softly, and licks his lower lip. Rick frowns, looking confused and hurt all at once, and he tries to take Daryl’s hand in his. 

Daryl bats it away. “Stop touchin’ me, man,” he demands, taking a step back. “What the fuck’s wrong with ya? Why’s you gotta touch me all the fuckin’ time?”

Daryl’s… angry, he realizes in that moment when he hears himself all but yell at the man he’s agreed to date just a little while earlier. He’s angry, and he doesn’t even know why. He can feel his heart beating way too fast and he can hear the blood buzzing in his veins, and it feels like he’s being boiled alive, from the inside, making it difficult to think. He’d only been this angry with somebody once in his life, ten years ago, when Ed Peletier tried to kill his wife and Daryl stopped him.

Rick hasn’t done anything wrong, though. There’s absolutely no reason for Daryl to be so angry with him. It’s stupid, it’s irrational, it’s. It's not like him. He’s not being himself, and he doesn’t understand why he’s acting the way he is. 

“Just… let me go, man,” he mumbles, trying to act more subdued, a bit more, well, normal. It doesn't work and he notices his hands are shaking. He just needs space to breathe. He needs time, needs to chill and get himself under some semblance of control. Everything is too much. The smell of the ocean in his nostrils, filling his lungs, and Rick Grimes standing there with his hands, his voice, and his pretty, pretty eyes. It’s too much.

Rick looks at him, his gaze searching, inquisitive, and apparently, he finds the answer he’s looking for because he nods and stands back, doesn’t attempt to touch Daryl again. Slowly, he turns towards the ocean, and his eyes follow the movement of a distant light on the sky: an airplane or a satellite, or a shooting star, something. Without looking back at Daryl, the man speaks, his voice soft and gentle like he’s trying not to spook him and soothe him instead:

“Will I see you again?”

Hesitantly, aware that he couldn’t stay away for too long even if he tried, Daryl nods, then realizes Rick can’t see him from where he's standing. He sighs, then says, “Yeah,” and he doesn’t know what to do next.

He's almost sure he should cut it off while it’s still possible, before he gets too involved, before they both do. He shouldn’t seek Rick out again. He’s acting irrational in the man’s company, his emotions overflow and it’s so damn confusing, for both of them. He's positive now that this strange behavior is his own take on what the mating process is like; presumably, in Great Whites, higher hormone levels in both males and females cause heightened aggression, which in turn results in the mating itself. To a bystander, it may sometimes look like a vicious fight for dominance, maybe even a feeding frenzy with all the brutal biting that goes on before the act itself. This anger, Daryl realizes, is a bit like that. He wants to fight Rick. Hit him. Bite him. Put his hands and his mouth on the man’s body, and- do something, with him, with their bodies, do… things. He’s not exactly sure what, but… something.

He wishes he could ask Merle about it. He regrets he didn’t, when he had that chance. His brother’s experienced, had sex as soon as he was bulky enough to pass for an adult at a bar and buy beer. He remembers now, how sometimes Merle would become louder, angrier, acting like he wanted nothing better than to snap at anyone daring to cross him; how he’d realize something was wrong and say it was time he found a willing broad to get his rocks off with. Daryl wasn’t interested in what it meant back then, he wasn’t interested in sex and its mechanics, but also in the things that accompany the process itself. He never found out and now he can’t because Merle is who-knows-where, unlikely to ever come back. And Daryl doesn’t know how best to proceed. Should he walk away from Rick, never to see him again, or should he go for it, follow his instincts and do- stuff? Some stuff. Sex stuff, whatever that even is.

Fuck, he needs to clear his head. He also needs to find Eric and ask him about this shit that’s happening to him; if anyone could have answers, it’s Eric with his lab equipment and his blood-drawing kit, and his kind face and his lectures. Eric could tell if Daryl is just hormonal. It would explain why he wants Rick to bite him so much. Because, yeah, he still does, even if he doesn’t want the man to touch him all the same. He still wants Rick to hold him down, pin him to the ground and bite him. And he wants to bite back, to taste the man but not his flesh, and he doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t know! It’s so damn complicated-

“I’ll leave you alone now,” Rick says softly. “Ummm. My business card, it’s got my phone number… in case you want to meet. I’ll put it here,” he adds, and Daryl hears the rustling of the man’s clothing as Rick crouches to place a card in the sand. “I’m sorry I offended you-”

“Ya didn’t,” Daryl replies firmly. He licks his lower lip. “‘s not that. I just. Dunno what I’m doin’ here, m’kay? Need time to think.”

“I’ll give you all the time you need,” Rick promises earnestly. “And, Daryl, hey… if I’m being particularly obnoxious about this stuff, you need to tell me, okay? I’ve only ever dated one person and she was my wife for a decade. I don’t really know what I’m doing either.”

For some reason, the admission is so damn funny, Daryl can’t help but laugh. He then makes the mistake of looking at Rick and the face the man makes expresses pure injured pride, like he thinks Daryl’s laughing at his lack of experience or something silly like that; it makes Daryl laugh even harder, that look of incredulous, hurt feelings, and so he laughs, his entire body shaking, his hand covering his mouth - mindful of the teeth even through his mirth. It lasts for a good moment, Daryl laughing and Rick just standing there, staring at him, apparently uncertain whether he should take offense and leave or just join in. He bites down on his lower lip, then apparently decides Daryl’s sudden burst of good humor is a good thing and he smiles tentatively. 

Eventually, Daryl’s laughter dies down, though he can barely stop grinning. He plops down in the sand and reaches back for Rick’s business card. He examines it and chuckles softly when he notes the big, pretentious cursive font. He can’t really read anything but the name, Richard A. Grimes, because the rest of the text is blurry. He doesn’t mind. He’ll copy the phone number later, once he’s back in his apartment with nobody to see him wearing glasses. 

“So yer actually, Richard, huh,” he says, and he realizes that all of a sudden, his entire previous aggression is gone. Whatever’s happening to him, the mood swings are so abrupt, Daryl’s having trouble following himself. He wouldn’t blame Rick if the man decided it’s not worth it to devote his time to someone who’s so obviously insane. 

“Nope, my name’s actually just Rick,” Rick replies and shrugs. “I also don't have a middle name, so the A's just there for the hell of it. My publisher thought Richard sounded more mature, like a real adult fiction writer. I suppose he also wanted to make sure nobody remembered my first book, it was published under my real name. He hoped no-one would make the connection.”

“Did they?” Daryl asks and pats the sand next to where he’s sitting.

Rick sits down next to him, cross-legged, and makes his hands busy with forming a small sandcastle. “Not really,” he admits. “Though, you know what? Not gonna lie, I wish someone did. I’m still fond of that first book. It was more personal, I guess. More, I don’t know, me.”

Daryl hums, then smirks at the man. “Wha’s the title? Maybe I’ll wanna read it. Judge for myself if you’s such a terrible writer.”

Rick chuckles, and it seems the tension between the two of them might be lifting. “This Sorrowful Life,” he says, then smiles somewhat bashfully. “Yeah, the title’s not very reassuring, but I swear, it’s not an awful book. I’m just bad at titles.”

Daryl doesn’t think the title sounds any worse or any better than any other books he’s heard of. At least it makes more sense than Catcher in the Rye. He thinks. It’s hard to say because he hasn’t read the latter. But he thinks he will read Rick’s book. He makes a mental note to ask Carol to buy it for him next time she’s out shopping. 

“I really gotta go now,” he says eventually, looking down at Rick’s sandcastle which has become bigger as they kept sitting next to each other, not close enough to touch, but still close enough for Daryl to be able to feel the warmth radiating off of Rick’s skin. “Should I walk ya home or somethin’?”

“Nah, I think I’ll walk you and get a cab to my place. It’s farther off,” Rick replies. He stands up and offers his hand to Daryl, to help him up.

Daryl grabs it and lets Rick pull him up. Then, when he’s steady on his feet, he makes a split-second decision and entwines his fingers with Rick’s. His intention is to hold the man’s hand briefly, squeeze it maybe, to reassure him that there’s no hard feelings leftover from before. But… it’s just. So nice. Rick’s hand in his, their fingers wrapped together, it feels right. Unlike all previous touches, it doesn’t seem threatening, probably because Daryl instigated it this time; he wonders if it means he’s going to have to take initiative in all of their encounters. He decides he doesn’t mind it, not so much, he just needs to do some research about what he’s supposed to do. Then he can surprise Rick with touches of his own. He can't wait.

Holding hands is a start, and they do it for the whole duration of the walk to the Institute and then a bit longer as they’re waiting for Rick’s taxi to arrive at the gates. They don’t really talk, but it’s fine, too; Daryl likes Rick silent just as much as he likes his voice, and besides, they’ve already talked a lot today. Isn’t there like a limit to the amount of talking people do per each meeting? Nobody ever taught Daryl about it. He’s going to need to investigate this, too. For Rick, he’s willing to make the effort and learn more about human interactions. 

“Call me,” Rick tells him before he boards the cab, and Daryl misses the warmth of his hand immediately after Rick removes it from his grasp. 

“Mhm,” he hums in reply, a non-verbal promise. “Gonna find some good shit for yer new book, then I’m gonna call ya. Since I probly ain’t gonna stop ya writin’ some bullshit horror story ‘bout sharks, guess the least I can do is help make it accurate.”

Rick laughs and nods. “Alright. I swear it won’t be terrible,” he says, and the little crinkles in the corners of his eyes make Daryl want to smile, because they mean joy, they mean Rick is genuinely happy right at this moment. Happy because of him.

So, emboldened by the sight of those adorable laughter lines, Daryl does the only sex-related thing he somewhat knows how to do from what he’s seen in movies and real life and shit: he leans in and briefly presses his lips to Rick’s, closing his eyes and holding his breath.

And then he immediately steps away, apologizes under his breath and literally runs away, without looking back to see Rick’s reaction. He’s still running when he crosses the deserted hallways, heading to the Biter Tank. He needs a swim. Badly. Right the fuck now.

Chapter Text

Henry isn’t around when Daryl dives into the tank, but it seems Lydia has finally given up on the hopeless hunt in the shallow part of the aquarium. She swims to meet Daryl without having to be specifically invited with food, and she pushes her snout right into Daryl’s chest in greeting. Her behavior is not normal for a shark; while gently bumping into obstacles like this is considered a typical investigative maneuver, it’s apparently never been observed as a way of displaying affection in the wild. Sharks in general, and Great Whites especially, aren’t built for affection whatsoever, which might be connected to the fact that their brains allegedly don’t have the capacity for enough emotion to become fond of something.

From his interactions with sharks, especially with Lydia, Daryl knows it’s sort of bullshit. Shark feelings are complex and subtle, and it’s possible they’re imperceptible to humans, but not to him. Affection can be expressed like Lydia does it, and Daryl supposes she saw it in some mammals out there and copied it in regards to the strange mammalian shark swimming in her territory - that creature being Daryl - because she decided it would be more familiar to him. But there are also other ways in which the limited emotional responses can be conveyed between sharks. 

Henry is a good example to study for signs of affection, because there’s no doubt that he considers Daryl something of an equal but also enjoys swimming with him in his own way. He communicates his changing moods through movement of his jaw and tail, in how he sometimes snaps his jaws in Daryl’s direction when he’s annoyed but carefully avoids actually closing his teeth around Daryl’s flesh. His fondness is shown through the things he lets Daryl do around him; he’s displayed amazing patience and acceptance towards everything Daryl’s been attempting to teach him. 

Daryl’s far from anthropomorphizing his Great White friends, he knows they’re nowhere near the human levels of emotional capabilities, they definitely don’t feel or think how he does. They’re much simpler. And, fuck, Daryl wants simpler right now.

Lydia swims alongside him as Daryl glides through the deep. It’s amazing how the electromagnetic receptors on the sides of Daryl’s head and alongside the bridge of his nose can detect even the slightest changes in the shark’s movements. Lydia seems to be livelier today, more energetic than normally at this time of night. She constantly presses her snout into Daryl’s side as they swim and even bares her teeth at him a few times, in a sign Daryl’s taught her to mean content. It’s actually a bit strange that Lydia’s this happy around him. While she definitely likes Daryl’s company, she usually acts a bit less ostentatious about it because she’s the alpha around here after all.

Maybe it’s because they haven’t swam together in a while.

Usually, Daryl doesn’t delve into the further parts of the aquarium, trying to keep his swimming escapades to the area directly below the feeding pool or around it. But tonight, he’s here much earlier than he’d be on a typical night, and it’s actually risky to stay within the same location he usually does: there’s a big chance somebody undesirable might see him. So he directs Lydia towards the deep end of the tank, to the part where the aquarium is connected with the ocean through a large fenced-in gateway.

The Biter Tank is built in a very special way which Daryl thinks must’ve been designed by someone just like him, someone who understands sharks and knows what they need. Besides the tubular corridor running inside of it where the visitors can admire the sharks from, there is no other obstacle for what seems like miles of water. Because it would be incredibly difficult and, unfortunately, even more incredibly expensive to keep up the artificial filtering and saltiness saturation in a tank this size, the architect placed the majority of the tank underwater, built into the shoreline so that at one point, a big chunk of it is actually the ocean itself. It’s a neat little trick which has helped regulate the water temperatures and kept the tank fairly clean. 

The best part about this side of the tank is, it’s not visible from the outside, which means there’s no risk anybody will see Daryl where he’s not supposed to be. He hangs around the fence which emits a low-intensity electromagnetic field that has an additional effect of calming his nerves. It’s nice. He supposes it was also designed this way to make sure the sharks who found themselves at this location wouldn’t try to slam their bodies into the fence to get away. Lydia seems to react to the field just the same as Daryl does, her speed going down a notch as she swims back and forth around Daryl.

This is the perfect place to cool down and examine everything that’s happened today, with Rick.


Daryl has so many thoughts regarding that man, he’s not quite sure he knows where to start. He’s got no prior experiences with sexuality to compare his attraction to Rick to, and it’s in moments like these he wishes, if not Merle, then that his momma was still around. She had two kids; means she at least knew something about how stuff worked. When Daryl was still little, his momma told him how humans ignore their instincts, but their kind couldn’t go long without acknowledging they were different. Maybe she would’ve explained how Daryl’s mating drive was different to that of a human, too. Maybe she would’ve made it easier to love Rick.

Because Daryl loves Rick, without a shred of doubt. With humans, love doesn’t come so easy, but with sharks, well. It’s all about compatibility, and Daryl can literally smell that Rick is a potentially compatible mate for him. Not for the first time, he realizes how biologically, his species makes no sense.

Lydia bumps into his chest with her nose and Daryl pats her on the side, but the Great White doesn’t seem placated with so little attention. She’s all over him; it’s strange, and for a moment Daryl thinks it might all be because she missed him, but… no. No; it’s not that. How could he not have noticed? Her smell, it’s changed. Completely. Of course.

Not happening, big girl , he thinks, backing away from the shark. Lydia follows and Daryl realizes, he’s in a pinch right now. He’s quite a distance away from any available exit, something that seemed such a good thing just a moment ago, but has now turned out to have been a terrible idea. Daryl knows he couldn’t have predicted Lydia’s behavior, but fuck, he still should have. 

Fucking hormones. His own hormonal response to Rick must’ve worked as a catalyst to Lydia’s mating cycle, and since Daryl’s the only male in the immediate vicinity, she’s acting interested in him. And his screwed up physiognomy makes the shark unable to tell that her chosen potential mate isn’t compatible; she knows his merits as a part of this tank, and she wants to pursue him because in her little mind, he’s got the makings of a good partner.

She probably won’t take the inevitable rejection kindly, either; it’s all about instincts, and in sharks, instincts more often than not mean teeth. He needs to make it a quick escape; the closest exit he can think of is a feeding pool in the shallow end, it’s got a hatch he can use just like his usual entry point to the tank. Hopefully, it’s not locked because Daryl’s not sure he’ll have enough time to set the unlock code.

He pats Lydia on the nose, like he’s petting her, and Lydia snaps her jaws at him; Daryl lunges backwards in the last second, evading her teeth which would’ve likely took off an arm or something more. And just like that, it’s on. 

Normally, he would have no chance in a race against a Great White shark. His maximum swimming speed is a fraction of hers, he can go maybe ten miles per hour if he tries really hard; Lydia, on the other hand, is capable of going thirty, maybe more, and her sleek shape is an advantage against the water resistance. Daryl’s got the element of surprise on his side, though, and his bigger brains. And also, he’s smaller, therefore, he’s capable of going where Lydia definitely won’t fit. 

There’s a cave system at the bottom of the tank. It’s not particularly sturdy, it’s just a frail limestone skeleton covered in coral, designed that way to be home to schools of fish and other creatures. Daryl dives in there anyway because the narrow corridors stretch far into the shallows and there’s a mixture of scents there that might throw Lydia off his scent. He doesn’t count on it, but still, cover is cover and it’s slightly easier to evade a shark when the shark can’t see him. His skin is tingling, all hairs standing on edge as he crawls through the artificial caves. He can feel how close Lydia is, just a thin layer of reef between her and her prey - does she think of him as prey, now that she’s forced to chase him? Is he prey, or is he still potential mate even though he hasn’t expressed interest? What she’s doing, stalking him, it’s not typical predatory behavior for a shark; still, Daryl can’t be sure what will happen if she does catch him. 

Fuck, but he’s pretty sure some people would be interested in writing a thesis on the subject, he’s going to have to talk to Jesus about it. 

The corridor ends all of a sudden in a small ravine, and Daryl curses himself mentally for never having investigated the layout of the coral caves. But when he looks around, Lydia isn’t there; frowning, Daryl engages all of his senses, but other than the normal ripples of water against his skin and some distant echoes of movement. And then his sides tingle, and he slowly looks above.

Lydia is magnificent. Even though she’s very young, she’s already one of the biggest Great Whites this far north at fourteen feet and some eight inches. From his position below her, Daryl can see the scarring on her belly where she was bitten by an even bigger shark. She’s got a lovely pattern on her sides, lighter than Henry’s but reaching further down her underside. Her jaws are open, stretched wide to show off the teeth as she hovers above him, almost motionless, awaiting his movement, and it’s the first time in Daryl’s life he’s actually a bit afraid as he comes to the realization:

Lydia is going to kill him.

Thankfully, becoming aware of that spurs him into action. He’s still got the advantage of a bigger brain, and he remembers something Eric said during that useless sex talk earlier today: people have hands and they’re less slippery than fish . What he would normally consider a flaw, his hybrid physiognomy that makes his skin rough when in water, is how he’s going to escape.

Most sharks are one amazing hunters underwater, but they also evolved to possess a skill which helps them catch prey reclining on drifting ice or flying low above the surface. Aaron called it breaching . It’s basically an ability to accelerate their speed going upwards to the surface and lunging high into the air. Great Whites are capable of breaching even ten feet above the surface. Daryl doesn’t know how high he can breach, but it’s fine because he’s not going to do that exactly.

He hasn’t tried doing this before, but it doesn’t matter. He exhales, letting a mass of air bubbles out into the water. It draws Lydia’s attention, like he predicted. She lunges down at him, and Daryl lunges upwards and to the side right at the same time; and as the confused shark snaps her jaws, Daryl grabs onto her dorsal fin and holds on for dear life because, fuck, this is going to be a wild ride. 

As expected, Lydia isn’t extremely happy about the way Daryl’s latched onto her, or maybe she’s all too happy because she thinks it’s part of the mating ritual; either way, she bucks to try and throw him off. Daryl’s got strong arms, though, and strong hands with opposing thumbs. After a brief struggle, he manages to sort of straddle Lydia’s back, and he’d ridden a horse before so he knows the basics, but this? This is like riding a fucking tornado filled with teeth. He’s already bleeding, and Lydia  fights him like she’s possessed, and Daryl tries to sort of use the shark’s frenzied movement to propel them closer to the surface, but it isn’t working-

And then Henry shows up, sending mixed signals of worried-angry-mine, and Daryl lets go of Lydia’s dorsal fin just in time to avoid Henry’s teeth; and all of a sudden, he’s not of any interest to the sharks who begin fighting, play-fighting, mate-fighting, whatever it’s called. Eyes wide, he looks at Lydia as she aims a mean bite at Henry’s side, and yeah, he’s definitely going to have to get out of here, now.

He’s never swam so fast before. 

He reaches the surface in record time, and it must be the adrenaline pumping through him that makes him break the damn lock on the damn hatch in the feeding pool. He curses loudly even as he chokes on air, and he bleeds profusely from almost everywhere. But he’s gotta do something now, something extremely important; without so much as a thought about his state of undress, Daryl gets up to his feet as soon as his lungs start working properly again, and he runs to the living quarters straight to Aaron’s room.

He doesn’t knock, and it’s a mistake because apparently in spite of owning separate rooms, Aaron and Eric sleep in the same bed - though sleep might not be an appropriate label for what they’re doing right now; Daryl stands in the entrance to the room, watching, transfixed and perplexed both at what the two men seem to be doing.

Because it looks like they’re hugging, Aaron sprawled on top of Eric, but they’re also moving their hips rhythmically and breathing heavily, and they’re both making strange sounds like they’re in pain; but the air doesn’t smell like pain at all, it smells like arousal and yes and more. It takes Daryl a moment to understand what they’re doing, and once he does, he’s torn between the urge to flee as far as possible - and the inexplicable desire to watch. Neither Aaron nor Eric seem to have realized he’s there, both of them too immersed in what they’re doing together, and Daryl, almost in spite of himself, takes a step inside the room as quietly as he can, closes the door, locks it and ducks behind the dresser next to the entrance, suddenly fully aware what he’s doing is wrong.

But there’s not turning back now, so Daryl watches from his poorly-chosen hiding spot as the two men in the bed share a long kiss, completely different than what Daryl did with Rick earlier. After a moment, Aaron breaks the kiss, he starts licking all over Eric’s jaw; then he’s murmuring words in his boyfriend’s ear, words nobody else should be able to hear but Daryl can:

“You’re so pretty, baby, love it how your cock’s all wet for me… ‘m gonna take you in my mouth, gonna see if you taste as good as you sound. You’d like that? You want that, baby?”

Eric nods his head eagerly, and he makes a noise Daryl’s never heard anyone make when Aaron slides down his body to settle under the sheets. Daryl isn’t sure what exactly Aaron does down there, but he has an idea when he hears a sort of slurping sound right when Eric’s back arches off the bed and he throws his arms to hold on to the headboard. His moans grow louder as he begins thrusting his hips up gently, and Aaron makes a sound himself, a soft, muffled groan as he moves between Eric’s legs.

Their mixed scents become stronger, thicker, and Eric’s movement becomes sort of jerky and uncoordinated as he whines and repeats Aaron’s name, and then all of a sudden he arches off the bed again, and he calls out lovingly:

“Oh my god, oh my god, yes, yes, ah, there - ah, fuck, Daryl!”

The next few minutes are both chaotic and extremely awkward for all three of them. Caught in the act of watching his two friends doing sex stuff, Daryl doesn’t even try to defend himself when Aaron does an impressive feat of jumping out of bed and punching him in square in the jaw in one fluid motion. Fortunately, Daryl’s skin isn’t very wet anymore, so the punch is more painful for him than for Aaron. He reckons he deserved that, and more. He's actually surprised Aaron didn't try to hurt him more severely for encroaching on his intimate encounter with his mate. Curing into himself, sitting on the floor and trying to make himself look small and unassuming, Daryl gnaws on his lower lip mercilessly, wondering if he's going to be forgiven.

“What the hell were you thinking!” Aaron asks incredulously after a few moments, when both he and Eric are more or less dressed. He doesn’t even seem embarrassed, just angry and disbelieving. 

Eric, on the other hand, is both embarrassed and somewhat compassionate. “He was just curious,” he tries to explain, “he probably didn’t even know he was doing something wrong-”

“I knew,” Daryl protests, then looks away guiltily. “Was curious, though. Sorry,” he adds, apologizing for the seventh time in the last quarter hour. 

Aaron glares at him. “We’re not some, some specimens you can observe to satisfy your curiosity. For fuck’s sake, Daryl, you could’ve just asked, we would’ve given you some porn or something! You didn’t need to sneak into my room-”

“Didn’t sneak,” Daryl says, “didn’t mean to… see, or look, or anythin’, okay? I was just tryin'a find y’all ‘cause Lydia tried to bite me an’ now she’s probably in the last courtin’ stages with Henry, an’ I thought you guys needed to know!”

That changes Aaron's focus and derails his entire narrative. 

“You mean… they’re mating? They’re gonna mate?” He asks, excitement bubbling within him. Daryl nods, and Aaron’s eyes widen. He grabs his phone and runs straight to the door. Before he leaves, he looks back at Daryl with one last glare. “We’re gonna talk about this, fish boy, don’t think you’re off the hook,” he warns, then leans in to give Eric a kiss and heads out. His very heated exclamations to whoever he’s talking to on the phone can be heard in the room for a moment longer even after the door closes behind him.

Then Daryl and Eric are alone.

“Ummm,” Daryl says, averting Eric’s gaze. He knows he did something deplorable, intruding on his friends’ intimate moment together. He feels all the worse for it because Eric’s always been nothing but nice and accommodating to him, always so willing to help with matters related to Daryl’s affiliation with both the human and shark species. So now he's ashamed, but he's willing to endure the man's rightful anger with him.

“I’m not angry,” Eric assures him, sitting down on the bed. “Don’t feel too bad. Aaron was just surprised, he’ll get over it, too.”

“Why ain’cha angry?” Daryl asks, then licks his lips. Damn, his lower lip is bleeding. He must’ve bit it too hard.

“Well,” Eric says. Then chuckles. Then stands up, comes closer to Daryl and puts a reassuring hand on his naked shoulder. “I… sort of liked it? That you watched,” he admits. Daryl’s confusion must be clearly visible on his face, because Eric quickly follows up with an explanation: “Humans are very complex, when it comes to sexuality. We’re generally monogamous, but as you probably noticed, that doesn’t stop us from desiring people outside of our relationships. And, well,” his tone becomes meek, like he’s sheepish. “I’ve been having some… ummm. Fantasies, involving you. Though I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Aaron's had his fair share as well, though he doesn't want to admit it even though it's obvious. You know, it’s kinda impossible not to have fantasies about you. You… you’ve got that, something, I don’t know what, you're just so- Well, anyway. Besides the fact that you startled me, I. Didn’t really mind that you watched.”

He sighs. “I’m bad at explaining this, sorry.”

Daryl shakes his head, indicating Eric isn't to blame for his incomprehension, though he continues frowning as he attempts to process the information. Of course, he knew that many men find him attractive for some reason. Eric and Aaron feeling desire for him is not news, either. But Daryl had no idea humans actually actively fantasized about having sex with somebody even without that somebody being present at all. He imagined the urge to do it was some sort of a biological imperative connected to the cyclical release of hormones which usually happened when around a willing partner, but the way Eric makes it sound, he’s guessing there’s nothing cyclical about it after all. 

“So… D’you wanna have sex all the time?” He asks, inquisitive, and wonders if it works the same for all humans. Because if it does... what does it mean for him? With Rick?

“Maybe not all the time, but often?” Eric replies. He squeezes the edge of the blanket with one hand. He probably doesn't smell how it makes the scent of his recent coupling with Aaron more intense in the air, but Daryl does. He won't say anything about it, though. He's intruded and made it all awkward enough.

“Humans don’t need a mating season or a mating cycle, and we tend to think about sex a lot when we aren’t actively having it. We also have this really bad habit of judging people based on their physical traits, but I suppose that’s actually leftover from when we were more animalistic than we like to think we are nowadays.”

“Then… Rick really wants to have sex with me?” Daryl asks, and smiles when he remembers how the man kept touching him all the time. Yeah. Rick probably thought about having sex with Daryl. For some reason, the idea makes Daryl feel warmer.

“You have no idea how any of this works, do you?” Eric inquires, shaking his head. He pats Daryl arm where he was holding him, and he motions to the lone chair by the small table overflowing with research papers. “Take a seat, Daryl. I’m going to explain sexuality to you. It’s gonna be awful and I’m going to hate it, so you better appreciate it.”

“I do,” Daryl promises, sitting down. 

“Good. I’m gonna want something in return, though. A favor. And you’re gonna deliver, and you’re not going to tell Aaron a word about it, okay?” Eric demands.

And while Daryl doesn’t like keeping secrets, Eric is the only one he can think of who can explain everything to him, so it’s not like he has a choice. He agrees, and Eric makes a determined face, then sits down cross-legged on Aaron’s bed. He sighs, looks up at the ceiling like he's looking for inspiration there, undoubtedly regretting his choice not to go help setting up drone cameras in the Biter Tank or, whatever it was Aaron ran off to do. Finally, he begins his long and winded explanation of human mating practices.

Turns out, it's all damn complicated.

Chapter Text

Daryl learns many new things that Eric claims should’ve been taught to him when he was a pup, though he is very understanding when Daryl explains that he never went to school. He’s also quite patient when explaining basic biological functions pertaining to reproduction, even if he initially stumbles over words such as penis and vagina, not to mention the embarrassment he seems to be battling as he describes the most common signs of male arousal - most of which Daryl experienced around Rick earlier today, by the way. 

Once Eric gets into the right mindset, though, that’s when Daryl’s in trouble.

“Now, sexual satisfaction in males is reached by means of ejaculation, which can be achieved by stimulation to the male sex organs - namely, the penis and the testicles,” Eric says. He’s an academic first and foremost, which means he’s used to talking to - at? - people who have the knowledge to understand his big vocabulary. Daryl thinks he might be too dumb to ever get this. How are human pups capable of comprehending this shit?

“Listen, the whole concept really isn’t that hard,” Eric announces finally, when his academic approach fails. “You grab your dick - that’s slang for the long hanging bit you so kindly labelled it as. Anyway you grab your dick, or his, whichever suits your fancy in the moment, and you stroke it until orgasm. Orgasm means ejaculation… shooting your load? Well, you’ll know it when you feel it. It’s all very simple and efficient. Anything more advanced can wait until you’re familiar enough with what your body enjoys, unless you both feel like experimenting together...”

“‘s all damn complicated,” Daryl decides with a sigh. 

Eric chuckles. “No, it’s not. It only sounds complicated,” he promises. “Now. You mentioned mood swings. Would you like me to perform a blood test to check your hormone levels? If your body works in shark-like ways, then it’d be prudent to keep an eye on how things are.”

Daryl nods, biting his lip. He doesn’t like needles and tests, they remind him of the experiments he’s pretty sure his brother is being subjected to, but he knows he can trust Eric. The last time Eric drew his blood wasn’t that bad. Didn’t hurt, and Eric only took as much blood as he absolutely required for the tests. He was even kind enough to draw blood from Aaron and Carol right afterwards, to run the same exact tests on them in order for Daryl to feel less like an experiment and more like a normal person. Even though he’s not.

They relocate to Eric’s lab space. Walking down the empty hallways is sort of an eerie experience, though Daryl should’ve been used to it by now since he always goes to the Biter Tank at night. Still, tonight, after having been stalked by Lydia as prey, he feels a shiver run down his spine when he thinks about how anything could be hiding in the nooks and corners of the Institute when it’s dark and nobody is there.

“I’m going to clean your skin with alcohol first,” Eric announces. It’s another practice he established for Daryl’s comfort: he warns about every step he’s going to perform out loud before he does it. He also uses it as a way to obtain consent. He doesn’t move forward until he sees Daryl nod or verbally confirm he’s fine with the procedure. 

“Now, I’ll be drawing blood. This might sting a little,” he says, and Daryl bites his poor abused lower lip, nodding his acknowledgement.

It does sting, but it’s nothing Daryl wouldn’t be able to handle, so he doesn’t even make a noise. He watches, vaguely fascinated, as the syringe fills with his blood. Sharks have red blood just like humans, though sharks’ is usually darker because the lower concentration of oxygen in oceanic water makes it so. Daryl’s is typical human-red and smells mostly like iron, with vague traces of other scents. Maybe like so many of his characteristics, it changes features slightly when he’s immersed in saltwater. 

“Y’all need to draw my blood underwater,” he suggests and Eric blinks, but then he hums thoughtfully.

“Yes, that makes sense. But it won’t be needed right now. You experienced the mood swings on land, in your new friend’s company. That means the potential release of hormones is not dependent on the saltwater environment,” he concludes and pulls away the syringe, then taps the tiny puncture wound with a gauze pad. “Here, hold this for a few minutes, press it into the wound. It’ll stop the bleeding.”

He moves to the desk and procures some equipment Daryl doesn’t even know the names of. He continues to narrate everything he does, completely unbothered by the fact that difficult words coupled with Eric’s calm and pleasant voice only serve to make Daryl drowsy. Eventually, Daryl dozes off in the chair.

He is woken up some unknown amount of time later by a gentle tap on the shoulder. He opens his eyes to Eric’s slightly worried smile. 

“It’s been a while since I saw you really sleep,” the man says softly. “You’re motionless when you’re asleep, you know that? You barely even breathe.”

“Sorry,” Daryl mutters. “Uhhh. Got yer results or some shit?”

“Yep,” Eric replies and turns towards the desk where he picks up a few sheets of papers. “You can see for yourself if you like, or I can refer these to you?”

“Y’know I ain’t gonna understand a single line of this crap,” Daryl says, rolling his eyes. “Jus’ say wha’cha gonna say, I’m all ears.”

Eric chuckles at his impatience, but says: “Okay, okay. Your testosterone levels are very high, just like we hypothesized. To be honest, I’ve never seen such levels in mature males. For all intents and purposes, your body is acting like you’ve only just finished going through puberty which, well, sort of matches the maturing rate of the Great White shark. What this means for you is, you’re going to have periods of heightened aggression and possibly a sort of territorial possessiveness. You will very likely experience arousal in situations not related to sexual activities. I’m pretty sure your desire to bite and be bitten is going to persist for some time.”

“Damn,” Daryl groans. 

“Yeah, it’s tough. But the good news is, even unattended, this state will eventually pass,” Eric assures. “In the meantime, as your sort-of doctor, I prescribe a healthy dose of masturbation. Without anyone present. It’s going to take the edge off and calm you down, plus it will help you learn what and how you like in bed.”

“Ya mean strokin’ the dangly bits,” Daryl asks, just to be sure.

Eric rolls his eyes, but confirms that yes, that’s exactly what he means. He also gives Daryl a medical-looking printouts from somewhere, with drawings and illustrations and labels. 

“It’s reference,” he clarifies. “Contains some instruction on how to properly stimulate your, uh, dangly bits. I’d really rather not have you exposed to porn at this time. It tends to be vastly exaggerated and not especially instructive.”

Daryl shrugs, then folds and pockets the printouts. So, what he got out of the whole lecture and examination is the knowledge that his long dangly bit is going to get hard and uncomfortable a lot, especially in Rick’s presence, and it’s normal, and he’s going to want to touch it. He still doesn’t have any idea what even is the point of it.

“Jesus said I should watch porn. Said it’s educational.”

“Jesus says a lot of things,” Eric points out reasonably, “and only about a half of those things make sense. Now. About that favor I wanted to ask you that you’re in no way allowed to tell Aaron about-”

“‘s it sexual?” Daryl asks, cautious. He wouldn’t mind doing something nice of such nature for Eric, but he’s not really happy about keeping secrets from Aaron. 

“No!” Eric exclaims, appalled. “Daryl. I would never ask anything like that of you. Consent! Informed consent is important!”

Daryl shrugs. “‘s consensual if I say yes, though.”

“It’s still not informed when you’ve got no idea what it entails,” Eric mutters. “Anyway, no, it’s not sexual. It’s completely innocent, though now I’m wondering if I should even be asking you at all… You obviously won’t be much help, you don’t know anything about human courting mechanisms and-”

“Try me,” Daryl demands.

Eric looks at him with resolve in his eyes. “I want to propose to Aaron and I need help setting it up so it’s the most unforgettable, perfect proposal in the history of proposals.”

“Propose what?” Daryl asks, and makes sure to blink in a very confused way. He’s actually pretty sure he knows what it’s about, but he feels like fucking with Eric a bit in retaliation for the condescending tone just now.

“Marriage!” Eric snaps. “That’s why I’m saying you’re probably not the best person to ask… But I can’t ask Jesus, he’s a damn gossip, there’s no way he’d keep it a secret. And Carol’s going to be busy with her own upcoming nuptials, and-”

“Okay, okay, I get it, man,” Daryl says, raising his arms defensively. “Also, I’m jus’ screwin’ with ya, I know what propose means. Been watchin’ lotsa rom-com shit with Carol an’ Sophia.”

Eric blinks, like he can’t quite reconcile Daryl’s grumpy persona with the feel-good softness of watching romantic comedies with family. To be completely honest, Daryl never expect to enjoy those evenings, either. But he does. Every Saturday without fail, Carol or Sophia pick a movie and Daryl pretends to hate their choice as they all sit curled up together on the comfy sofa in Carol’s living room. Arguably, the flicks are all the same and follow the same basic formula of girl meets boy, girl wants boy, girl gets boy, but there’s something very nice about having a tradition like that even if it’s so silly. 

Daryl wonders if he’s going to be like the girls from the rom-coms now. He met Rick, he wants Rick. He’s on his way to getting Rick. Will there be a happily ever after? Does life even work that way?

“Anyway. I need you to help me come up with a plan,” Eric says, finally getting over his surprise.

“No problem,” Daryl promises. “Y’all love each other, so’s gonna be easy, right? ‘s not like he’ll gonna go sayin’ no.”

Turns out, it’s not easy at all because Eric really wants it to be perfect. He’s not satisfied with any of the scenarios Daryl comes up with based on the movies he’s seen so far, and in less than half an hour, he’s already shot down all of Daryl’s half-formed ideas.

“It has to be something tailored specifically to him!” Eric insists. “Aaron is very special to me and he deserves a special declaration of love.”

Daryl decides he’s going to have to watch more romantic comedies. For research purposes. He wonders if maybe Eric shouldn’t have hired Jesus for help instead of him, even despite the risk of the man running his mouth. Jesus seems like a guy who knows a lot about romance. He would’ve been much more useful. 

And then, Daryl realizes he has someone he could ask for advice. 

“‘m gonna talk to Rick,” he announces. At Eric’s inquisitive look, he explains, “He’s a writer, gots a lotta imagination. Plus he ain’t gonna gossip ‘cause he don’t even know who Aaron is. Will only have the info I give him so’s he can help me think.”

“Yeah, okay,” Eric agrees. Then he looks at the clock on the wall which shows ten past three. Funny. With all that’s happened tonight, Daryl thought it was even later than that. “Maybe you shouldn’t bother your Rick right now. He’s probably asleep. In fact, we all should be.”

Daryl doesn’t suppose anyone of the Institute’s scientists will be getting much sleep any time soon, what with the recent development in the Biter Tank. Actually, he’s been dying to go check up on the sharks he left in such a hurry; he’s relatively sure they mating process will go without a hitch, but there’s always the possibility that Lydia will reject Henry. That wouldn’t end well. One of them would end up torn apart. 

“Let’s see how the others are dealing with the crisis,” Eric suggests, apparently having spontaneously developed the ability to read Daryl’s mind.

They go. 

There are limited ways in which sharks can be observed in a tank as big as the Biter Tank. It’s theoretically possible to have cameras installed inside, but the high tech cameras that would be required are currently outside of the budget - though the Institute is working on it. There are four cameras inside, recording in infrared because that’s the most surefire way to check up on the inhabitants. Apparently, they’ve been used for the last couple of hours to monitor the part of the aquarium Henry and Lydia are currently in, chasing and circling each other. There must be nothing alarming going on that would indicate Lydia is rejecting her potential mate; if there was, Daryl knows there are some safety measures in place which would be used to try and separate the sharks so that both would survive the incident.

Of course, the infrared recording is not nearly enough to observe a mating ritual which everybody really wants to document really well, as a scientific breakthrough that it is.

For that purpose, there was a pool among the staff to purchase a few remote-controlled deepwater drones mounted with cameras that would record clear images in the oceanic conditions. Daryl even signed away his paychecks from the last three months to help, after asking Carol if she was fine with it. He doesn’t have any need for money anyway, so he sees no point accumulating it if it can be used for something important by the Institute. 

When Eric and Daryl arrive at the correct feeding pool, they find a whole lot of people already there. Aaron, of course, is hovering around the technicians who are preparing the drones for deployment. Jesus and a few other undergrads are accompanying Professor King who looks more excited than Sophia before Christmas. There’s Carol, sleepy and nursing a giant mug of what Daryl can smell to be strong black coffee. A few other faces Daryl knows: lab technician called Rosita, Tara Chambler the architect whose ingenuity probably saved Daryl’s life, and Denise Cloyd who works in the infirmary and is incredibly scared of sharks.

Eric goes to his boyfriend to make sure he doesn’t terrorize the technicians, and Daryl is approached by Carol.

“Heard you had quite an adventure today,” the woman says with a mischievous glint in her eye. She reaches into a pocket in her sweatpants and pulls out a few pieces of candy. She hands them to Daryl. They’re chocolate. He loves chocolate. He pops the candies into his mouth all at once, making a soft happy noise at the sweetness melting on his tongue.

He wonders if Rick likes chocolate. 

“Was this you?” Carol asks, motioning towards the whole gathering with her head.

Daryl nods, feeling somewhat sheepish. “Got hormonal, Lydia picked up on it, made her hormonal. So’s matin’ season now. Eric explained shit to me.”

“I hope he didn’t turn you into a pervert,” Carol jokes. 

“What? No,” Daryl scoffs. “Said I shouldn’t be watchin’ porn. ‘cause it’s crap. Even though Jesus said-”

“Don’t you mind what Jesus said about it,” Carol advises quickly. “That boy has trouble written all across his face. Though… I was certain he would’ve ended up reeling you in, eventually…”

Daryl frowns at that. “Wha’cha mean?”

“He’s been all over you since the beginning,” Carol explains. She chuckles when Daryl blinks, confused. “How didn’t you notice? He was following you around like a duckling. He kept accidentally bumping into you. He gave you his phone number on a napkin, with a heart and everything. Come on, he’s been making you food for the last month if not longer.”

“Two months,” Daryl corrects, then looks towards Jesus, considering. “‘s that courtin’ behavior? Givin’ phone numbers, makin’ food an’ shit?”

“Yes, Daryl,” Carol confirms, sounding somewhat exasperated. “It’s definitely courting behavior. Why did you think Jesus was so eager to see you naked earlier today? Believe me, it’s no scientific interest on his part, that’s for sure.”

But Daryl doesn’t pay any mind to that anymore. “D’ya think Rick likes chocolate?” He asks, wondering if the world wide web has any useful information on making candy. Would candy be considered a good courting gift? Would Rick appreciate it? Maybe like it enough to want to touch Daryl’s dangly bits? 

Just the thought of it makes him blush and renders his pants too tight. 

Carol doesn’t get the chance to answer the question, though, because the technicians announce that the drones are ready for launch. They’re small things, with the cameras mounted they are approximately the size of Daryl’s fist. When turned on, they produce the same familiar energetic field to ward off any curious biters; it would be a shame if such expensive equipment got swallowed by one of the objects it’s supposed to research and the only thing it would record would be the course of a Great White shark’s digestive track.

Apparently, everyone decides the occasion calls for a speech and, because of his unofficial designation as the Institute’s speaker, Aaron gets pushed into doing it. For once, he doesn’t seem to completely hate it; his face is all but split in half in the largest grin Daryl’s ever seen, and there are red patches indicating excitement on his cheeks, and his scent is the happiest Daryl thinks he’s smelled him since they met.

He says, awkward at first and growing bolder as he speaks to his equally overjoyed audience: “The Great White sharks have been on this Earth since long before the concept of time was forged. They’ve roamed the oceans all over the world, they outlasted the biggest, meanest predators to eventually become the apex predator in their environment. Until meeting man, the Great White was the undisputed king of the seas. That changed, however, and over the centuries with our irresponsible actions, we drove them to the state of vulnerability they exist in nowadays. With their reproduction rates too low to make up for specimens lost each year, Great White sharks are on the way towards extinction. The scientific world knows what a disaster it would be, but up until now, we didn’t have the means or the understanding required to perpetuate the rise of a higher population. We didn’t know where, when and how the sharks mate, and because of that, we didn’t know how to ensure they had the perfect environment to do so. That state ends today. With the deployment of these cameras, we at the Alexandria Institute are on our way to the most significant breakthrough in the history of studies conducted on the white shark. For the first time in history, we will observe and document the entire mating cycle of the two Great Whites living in captivity in Alexandria Institute. Ladies and gentlemen… This is our moment!”

As soon as he finishes, Professor King gives the signal and the drones are released through the feeding pool. 

“We’re going to have some biter babies,” Carol says, grinning as she squeezes Daryl’s arm. Daryl nods, forces down his immense urge to smile back. It’s happening. It’s not exactly going according to plan, it’s not really how it was intended to be invoked, but it doesn’t matter what worked as long as something did. Henry and Lydia are going to mate, and their coupling is going to help save sharks all over the world.

And Daryl helped it happen. 

“‘m gonna be an uncle,” he says giddily.

What a long, wonderful night this has been!

Chapter Text

Because there are a few hours left before Daryl is needed for his daily duties, he decides now is a great time to explore the whole touching of dangly bits business Eric suggested he try. He still finds the concept somewhat confusing because he’s not sure how it’s going to be any different than holding his - penis - while pissing. He certainly never felt much in the way of arousal while pissing. When he asked earlier, Eric said that it’s very different because intent apparently matters, too. 

“Try thinking about your man,” he suggested. Then, when Daryl did, he added, “Think what it feels like to be in his presence. When he looks at you, when he smiles at you. When he kisses you…” He trailed off, all dreamy-like, and Daryl realized Eric wasn’t really picturing Rick anymore - if he ever really was.

But the piece of advice doesn’t seem useless regardless of whose kisses Eric was thinking about. Daryl is actually rather glad his friend wasn’t really thinking about kissing Rick. He’s very jealous about Rick. Even thoughts about Rick should only belong to him. Because they’re dating, which means they’re exclusively for each other.

Or something.

“Let’s do this,” Daryl mutters to himself, settling down on his narrow bed. He’s changed into a loose pair of sweatpants, ditching the shirt whatsoever since he reckons he won’t need it. Even the sweats seem unnecessary, so after a second of consideration, he gets rid of them too. That leaves him sprawled completely naked on top of the sheets. 

It’s more awkward than he expected.

He looks down at himself, taking a moment to examine his body. He actually never did this before. He was never curious how and why parts of him worked. It didn’t make him wonder when bits and pieces started changing when he was younger, when hair started growing in places other than his head. He took it as something natural. Merle had hair in places, meant that Daryl would have too. He stares at his chest now, at the light fuzz covering it. Trails a hand through the hair, then stops at the resulting ticklish sensation. A bit lower, though, on his abdomen, there is a thicker, darker trail of hair, coarse and curling, and running his fingers through there is different. Strange. Makes Daryl feel… something. Thirst. He’s thirsty, but even he can tell it’s not water he wants. 

Rick, he thinks, taking Eric’s advice. Immediately, his mind fills with images of the man he met only today… well, technically, it was yesterday. Still, for how short their acquaintance has been so far, it’s astounding how clearly Daryl can picture the wavy dark hair at the nape of the man’s neck, the exact swell of his lips, the precise way the corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. His voice, too, Daryl can recall the timbre and the warm tone, and the way Rick’s vowels became a bit more drawled when he had a bit of alcohol to drink.

I genuinely like you, Rick had said.

And, You’re cute.  

And then, Call me.

So, should he call? It’s so early. Or late, depending on how he looks at it. Rick is probably still asleep. He should be. Humans need their regular sleeping patterns to be healthy and Daryl really wants Rick to be healthy, so he probably shouldn’t call. But Rick said he wanted Daryl to call him. What if Daryl texted him instead? Then Rick can just read the text as soon as he wakes up. Unless he’s got a loud incoming message alert set on his phone. Daryl’s is silent, Sophia helped him set it after the sudden noise interrupted their movie-watching one time too many, but what if Rick’s isn’t? 

… what if in the overall excitement of the night, Daryl’s lost Rick’s business card?

He immediately gets out of bed and finds his jeans from earlier. He rummages through the pockets and curses silently at his own dumbness; the card doesn’t seem to be there. Groaning, Daryl sits heavily on the floor, mood completely soured - and then he notices a small bright rectangle on the floor just under the chair. He picks it up, sees the familiar blurry script and almost sighs out loud in relief. He retrieves his glasses from the bedside table and puts them on to read the number and register it in his phone. 

Once he’s done, he returns to the bed and assumes his previous position on top of the sheets. He dislikes the glasses sitting awkwardly on his face - even though both Carol and Sophia always insist the spectacles make him look distinguished and charming, as if he’d want to be either - but they’re necessary if he wants to text Rick. Which leads him back to his original conundrum: should he text? 

“Fuck it,” he whispers under his breath and opens a new text message. He hesitates: what is he even supposed to start with? But then he settles for the simplest solution and types:


He deliberates on what to add to the greeting. Should he introduce himself or is that too much? When Jesus got his number, his first text to Daryl was a cheerful Hi shark lover, let’s hang out sometime, xoxo - Jesus and a broken image link. Actually, now that he knows Jesus was trying to court him, Daryl can sort of see how the message was probably meant as an initiation of the courting rituals. Whatever the “xoxo” means. 

Should he write “xoxo” to Rick, too?

He spends entirely too much time considering his options, but in the end, he sends the text with only the single word of greeting. He then wastes another ten minutes staring at the screen, two hopes battling for dominance in his mind: one, that Rick isn’t asleep and will write him back immediately and the other, that Rick is asleep and won’t be able to reply until well in the daylight hours. He finally decides the latter must be true and moves to put the phone away when it vibrates with a new text message.

Adjusting the glasses on his nose, Daryl reads the text.

It only says, Hi, stranger, and has the emoticon for the wink face. Daryl knows what emoticons are because Sophia painstakingly explained these things to him. She thought Daryl should know. Daryl thinks it’s not very important, but he’d never disappoint Sophia.

Aint a stranger, he types back and taps send before he thinks too much about it. 

Rick replies quickly this time: Didn’t think you were, darling. What’s up? Why aren’t you asleep? Sharks keeping you busy?

Darling. Rick called him darling. Daryl licks his lips, trying to imagine Rick’s low voice calling him that in person. It makes him warm all over and he realizes, now that he’s aware of his body reacting, that his long dangling bit seems much less dangling than earlier. Eric said it’s supposed to happen when he is aroused, so Daryl isn’t alarmed, just a bit confused because he didn’t think arousal would occur so easily, just from imagining Rick saying something. He blinks and decides to try touching, since that was the point of this exercise to begin with, before he got sidetracked. 

It’s… nice, Daryl supposes. He sort of just wraps his fingers around the shaft and holds it, not much unlike when he needs to piss, but it feels different. More sensitive, or maybe in a different way. He moves his hand up and then down, then again, pulling slightly at the flesh, and suddenly an unexpected spark of pleasure goes through him, making him shudder. 

“Oh,” he says softly and bites down on his lower lip. The phone vibrates again and Daryl looks at the screen to see a new message from Rick.

Fell asleep on me? Sleep well, gorgeous.

“Rick,” Daryl whispers and likes how it sounds in the relative darkness of his room. He also likes how the length in his hand twitches at the idea of Rick calling him gorgeous out loud. Even though he’s not, it doesn’t seem to matter right now because Daryl’s body is reacting in a different manner than usual. He tightens his fingers around the shaft, moves them up and down again, and he hastily types out a reply to Rick’s message:

Nt slepin thrnking of you

-which might not be his best show of eloquence, but he’s improvising, typing one-handed, and it’s not that easy to focus on the phone when there are wonderful things happening between his legs. Like. Why didn’t he know? How could he not have known this? If this feeling, this good, great feeling, is just the beginning, then Daryl isn’t sure he’s ready for anything more because. How will he handle it when it’s Rick’s hand touching him there?

“Fuck,” he whimpers, and his hips move awkwardly upwards, chasing the pull of his hand, and it’s uncoordinated and strange. He almost stops, but then temptation of more pleasure wins out and Daryl tries to put a slow and steady rhythm to the up-and-down movement of his hand. That makes it even better and he has to bite his lip hard to stop new noises from getting out. The phone vibrates once again and Daryl almost drops it; with the corner of his eye he can make out the message, Just thinking?, and he groans because he’s not sure what to reply, if he even can reply, what does he say-

His thumb flicks over the tip of his shaft which is wet for some reason; Daryl doesn’t panic because Eric said sex is always wet and messy, so he supposes this is okay. Anyway, the sensation when the dampness transfers to his hand, then spreads all over the length it’s working, is interesting. Feels even better than before. Smoother, but also a little bit rougher because the skin on Daryl’s fingers reacts to the wetness by showing tooth. Curiously, the dangling bits don’t seem to behave the same way; if Daryl rubbed his wet hands together, the sensation would be like rubbing them each against a dusty concrete wall or something. Rubbing his length isn’t like that. It’s hard in his hand, but silky and nice, and it slides easily into the tight fit of Daryl’s fist. 

The pleasure builds up, Daryl notes absent-mindedly, it doesn’t remain on the same low-pressure level for long. Something inside of Daryl, in his abdomen, grows layers and makes him move his hand faster, tighten his fingers a bit more, bite his lip a little harder. He imagines Rick being there, Rick touching him like this, firm and experienced, Rick biting his lower lip in a way that’s too damn gentle because of his blunt human teeth. Rick holding him down with his strong arms, making Daryl submit to him without the need for a dominating bite; but he would bite, Daryl would ask him to, and Rick would bite him, somewhere it would be visible, somewhere it would be obvious , Rick would- Rick would-

A sound, almost like a moan, tears its way out of Daryl’s throat just as his whole body sort of draws into itself and explodes in a blindingly-white moment of pure bliss. His hand stills in its movement, his eyes fall shut and he forgets to breathe for a moment until he inhales, loud and shaky, and moves his hand away from his softening length. He registers a new scent just as he notices his fingers, as well as his chest and abdomen are damp, splattered with a thick, rapidly cooling liquid. He lifts the hand to examine the substance, spreads it between his thumb and forefinger. It’s sticky and has a sharp smell he doesn’t know what to compare to. Not unpleasant, just sort of new. It makes him curious, so he licks some of it off his fingers and, well. It’s salty, bitter and sour all at the same time, like… like… like something, and it’s not bad, it’s actually kind of. Good. 

Confused as to why his body would produce something like this, Daryl wonders if it would be okay to lick his hand clean. He wants to, but. What if it’s not something that is done? Eric never mentioned this. He said it’s messy, but he didn’t say the mess could be like, edible. He would’ve mentioned it, wouldn’t he? So it’s probably not something that Daryl should be doing… well, at least not with Rick. Fuck, but he’d love to taste Rick. Would Rick’s liquid taste the same? Or better? Probably better. 

Eventually, Daryl wipes his hand on the bed sheets - he’s been meaning to change them for days, anyway - and he picks up the phone he dropped to the floor sometime during his, uh, activities. There’s a new message from Rick.

It says, Still thinking about me?

Smiling, feeling a strange, sated sort of relaxed, Daryl types back, Nah just finished.

He waits a moment for a reply, idly scratching at a dried spot of the strange liquid on his stomach. It’s a little itchy, and there are a few hairs caught in it so it stings when Daryl scrapes at it. He might need to shower to clean himself. He’d rather go swim in the ocean, but Carol says the ocean doesn’t work as well as a hot shower and a bit of a cleaning product. She always buys him one that serves as body wash and shampoo. It’s not so bad, and it lasts him a long time. Since he doesn’t sweat as much as normal humans do, and his sweat doesn’t have the same sharp smell as theirs, he can go longer without bathing. Even Carol says it’s okay. 

Still. He might shower now. Sometimes, hot water is enjoyable. It relaxes muscles and-

The phone vibrates, and Daryl’s train of thought is effectively derailed with Rick’s message: 

God, Daryl, have you any idea what you’re doing to me? Need to see you soon.

Yes, Daryl wants to see him too. He asks, Tomorrow? - and he means later today, but if Rick reads this incorrectly, it doesn’t matter because Daryl can wait. He can be patient. He thinks he still has a lot of exploring to do, anyhow. Later. After he takes a nap.

This time, Rick’s answer comes quick.  I’ll come find you at the Institute as soon as it opens. Is that okay?

Daryl smiles wide and happy, putting his unsettling full set of teeth on display for the empty room. He was worried for a brief moment Rick would’ve wanted to meet in some bar again. This is much better. He writes, Yeah. Bring fried chicken thats fancy date shit yeah? 

Obviously, Daryl’s never been on a fancy date himself. But he’s pretty sure he got it right with the fried chicken. It’s what Merle said. He went on many dates, with many different people, so he obviously knew what it was all about. If there was ever one thing Daryl regretted about not wanting to date people, it was the fried chicken, because he imagines it must taste amazing. Carol claims he could just buy fried chicken for himself, but despite his general disregard for human rules and traditions, Daryl never wanted to break this one. Yeah, so he could just go to a restaurant and order fried chicken. Everyone could. But it’s not the same, surely, eating fried chicken all alone. It must be special when it’s shared by two people on a fancy date. It’s Fancy Date Chicken.

And apparently Rick agrees with him, because he quickly replies with, Sure. I’ll bring fried chicken. Now get some sleep, darling. I’ll be having some damn nice dreams too, thanks to you.

Daryl thinks that maybe he’s never smiled so much in such a short amount of time, before. He sends a quick Good night , then puts the phone under the pillow and looks up at the ceiling, grinning like an idiot. His mouth waters both at the thought of the long-awaited fried chicken and the soft-yet-overwhelming touches Rick is likely to bestow upon him again, and there’s a sort of tingling sensation in his abdomen. Daryl licks his lips, wondering if maybe he could… explore, a little, again, before he has to go take a shower. It would be a waste of water if he became dirty right after just getting clean, wouldn’t it? And he really doesn’t want to waste water. So he can do it one more time now. It’s a decision made purely for the sake of the environment. It’s not because his normally limp, hanging long bit is hardening and going upright again. It’s also not because he wants more of the taste of that thick liquid his body can produce. Or maybe it’s because of all of it. 

Well, whatever the reason, Daryl quickly decides it’s alright to succumb to the temptation. Without further deliberation, he goes right back to exploring - and he makes some really exciting discoveries along the way. He can’t wait to show Rick what he likes. He can’t wait to learn what Rick likes, too.

And he definitely can’t wait to share some fried chicken.

Chapter Text

Daryl Dixon might be very green when it comes to sexual matters, but even he isn’t completely oblivious to somebody attempting to seduce him. 

He thinks so.

Then an inner voice which sounds suspiciously like Carol reminds him: What about Jesus? - and he’s forced to acquiesce that okay, he usually is completely oblivious to seduction attempts directed at him… unless the seducer is Rick Grimes. 

Because Rick’s trying to seduce him, that’s for certain. There’s no other reason he’d be wearing a shirt like that, with three top buttons popped open. He’s got a hairy chest and if that’s not showing off his masculinity, Daryl doesn’t know what it is. Well, other than a damn distraction, for sure. It’s hard to keep his eyes on the man’s face as he talks when Daryl’s gaze keeps being drawn to the dark fuzz peeking out from the neckline of Rick’s shirt. 

It’s the first thing Daryl notices when he meets Rick in the reception area in the Institute: the tan shirt which reveals a lot of chest. Only later does he register that Rick’s brought a giant bucket of fried chicken. 

Yes, he actually managed to somehow miss the presence of food. 

Because Rick’s seduction attempt is working exceptionally well, it seems. Daryl can feel the bits of his body he experimented with earlier become hard again, and his face is warm with a blush, and his fingers twitch for some reason. He licks his lips. It’s a nervous reaction, not a mating response, though judging by the way Rick’s eyes darken when he follows the flicker of Daryl’s tongue, it must’ve been interpreted as the latter. 

“You look nice,” Rick greets him with a smile that seems slightly dazed. 

Daryl doesn’t really look nice, he doesn't think. He hasn’t slept a wink last night, so his eyes are puffy and have dark circles underneath. His hair refused to be tamed after he showered, so it looks wilder than normal. None of his nicer clothes were clean, so he dressed in jeans which only barely fit anymore, and a sleeveless top with the Institute logo. It used to have sleeves, but they were too tight and Daryl’s arms didn’t fit, so he ripped them off. He did that to many of his shirts. Carol said it would’ve been better to buy new ones, but Daryl doesn’t understand why wasting money would ever be preferable if there’s another solution. 

He sort of wishes he listened to her, now. In comparison to Rick, he probably looks like a slob.

But Rick says he looks nice, and he doesn’t smell like he’s lying. He smells like… like he’s intrigued, like he wants to get to know Daryl better, closer. And be brought the fancy chicken. 

Daryl’s stomach growls.

“Ummm,” he says.

Rick chuckles. “So where can we go to eat in peace? I don’t think the receptionist likes me very much.”

Daryl looks over at Jessie Anderson and shrugs. “She don’t like morning shifts,” he explains simply. “But yeah. I thought ya might wanna go to the beach. Institute gots a big stretch of beach for our own use. No trespassers an’ shit.”

“Lead the way,” Rick decides. “Although if I get arrested for trespassing, I’m blaming you.”

Daryl shrugs. “I’ll post yer bail,” he promises, because at least thanks to growing up with Merle, he knows what to expect when somebody is arrested. He’s rewarded with Rick’s laughter, which is the best prize he can imagine save for, maybe, actually getting to bite or be bitten by him. Even though he didn’t mean it as a joke, he doesn’t mind that it was taken as such. Rick takes his hand and walks with him, and Daryl is immediately engrossed in the sensation of the man’s fingers against his skin. He imagines them on other parts of him - more sensitive parts of him, mainly - and a shiver runs down his spine. 

Oh, he’s going to imagine plenty tonight.

When they reach the wide stretch of the beach with a small motorboat dock and a long pier, Daryl leads Rick to the picnic area Carol set up for when the staff want to have a nice lunch break overlooking the ocean, or an outdoor party. There’s a long table, a bench, chairs with cushions and even a pit to make bonfires. 

Rick puts the chicken bucket on the table and sits on the bench, then motions for Daryl to take a seat next to him. Daryl does, and he’s incredibly tempted to wrap himself around the man like some land octopus or, well, whatever; he settles for pressing his leg against Rick’s and letting him hold his hand, for the time being. 

And then he realizes he’s got a problem.

With all of his fancy chicken date ideas, he forgot about a very important thing: he can’t exactly eat in front of Rick. It’s not that he’s shy or anything, none of that. His problem is, with the teeth he has, he sort of doesn’t look very human when he eats. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to hide what he is when he eats. 

There he was, worried about an errant smile that might give him away, biting his lips at the wrong moment. He didn’t think about the damn chicken, at least not from the angle he should have. That’s so dumb. 

“Let’s eat while it’s hot,” Rick suggests and picks a strip of breaded chicken breast from the bucket. Unaware of Daryl’s inner turmoil, he offers the piece of meat to him, lifting it almost to his lips like he’s expecting Daryl to open up and take the bite straight from his hand. A bit like he’s feeding an animal, but on the other hand, Daryl saw couples do that to one another in some of the rom-coms he watched with Sophia and Carol, so he’s not offended. 

Just terrified.

Never before in his life he’d had to pretend to eat like a human. He doesn’t even think he can do that. He doesn’t have molars, his entire jaw is filled with something vaguely reminiscent of incisors, but more fang-shaped and with serrated edges. Carol told him that with sharks, it’s as though even their teeth have teeth, and that’s exactly what Daryl’s teeth are like. And he’s got two rows of them. While he can retract the second, inner row at will in almost any situation, it still pops out on instinct whenever food is involved. 

Some animals salivate when they smell something delicious. Many humans work the same way. Daryl basically grows additional teeth instead. 

Because the possibility of him biting off a hand or at least a few fingers in the best case scenario is decidedly not a romantic one, Daryl does not open his mouth to let Rick feed him. He plucks the piece of meat out of Rick’s grasp with his fingers and turns his head away as he pushes it past his lips. He hides his chewing behind an open hand, trying to be as natural about it as possible. 

It’s damn delicious, fuck. Greasy and spicy, and the meat is soft while the coating is crispy and crunchy and. Amazing. He can see what Merle meant about it being fancy date food. 

Rick looks at him enjoying the chicken and shakes his head with a smile. “You’re so weird,” he says, but the sentiment doesn’t sound like an accusation. In fact, there’s indubitable fondness in Rick’s voice, and Daryl kind of wants to snuggle up to him and nuzzle Rick’s neck with his nose. 

“Yer weird,” he replies in a teasing tone. “Eat,” he demands. 

Rick laughs, and does as he’s told. Daryl eats, too, covering his mouth as he chews, and it’s incredible, but it probably works because Rick doesn’t even mention a disproportionate number of teeth. Actually, neither of them talks about anything while they’re sharing the meal; it’s nice, Daryl thinks. It lets him enjoy the sharp taste and concentrate on hiding his inhuman eating manner, and anyway, being silent with Rick is almost as pleasant as listening to him talk. Like this, it’s possible to simply listen to how the man’s heartbeat harmonizes with the thrum of the waves in the ocean, how relaxed his breathing pattern becomes in Daryl’s company. It relaxes Daryl in turn, the smell of the ocean, the satiated feeling in his stomach, the warmth of Rick next to him. He could stay like this. It almost feels better than swimming.

When the bucket is finally empty, Daryl gives in to the urge and leans slightly into Rick’s personal space. He rests his head on the man’s shoulder and lets out a happy hum. “‘s been an eventful night,” he says, closing his eyes.

Rick chuckles. “I bet, with what you texted me,” he teases. 

Daryl doesn’t know what he means, but it’s definitely not what he means because he didn’t text Rick about the mating. He’s not sure if he should tell him, if it’s not too soon; Carol would warn him against jinxing it or some shit. Then again, Daryl doesn’t believe in superstitions because they don’t ever apply to sharks. And sharks don’t believe in anything, anyway. 

So he says, “Nah, meant that Henry an’ Lydia will be parents.”

Rick frowns, likely because of the barely-familiar names sounding foreign to him right now, and then he obviously remembers. “The sharks,” he says, and Daryl nods. “Your Great Whites are a mated? Ain’t that very rare?”

“Never happened in captivity before,” Daryl replies proudly. “But last night, Henry an’ Lydia started the courtship, so we’s expectin’ some toothy babies in a year or so.”

“That’s amazing,” Rick says, and there’s genuine admiration in his voice. He’s not just faking it for Daryl’s sake. “A bit terrifying,” he admits sheepishly, “but amazing nonetheless. I guess the scientists are all over the place?”

Daryl chuckles. “Don’t think Aaron slept a wink. Professor King’s probably still glued to the monitor. Jesus might be drinkin’ to celebrate, dunno, he’s weird,” he says. “Thing is, everyone’s real excited. ‘s all thanks to,” he pauses. He almost let slip that it’s thanks to Rick, and that would be hard to explain. He can’t tell the man that the sharks are mating because Daryl’s hormones decided to go crazy from his scent. That’s not something a normal person would understand. It’s not even something Daryl understands, most of the time.

“Thanks to what?” Rick asks. He’s too sharp, too attentive. Daryl’s not used to his words being so closely listened to, other than during the group tours. It’s easier when people ignore him.

“Thanks to everyone’s hard work,” Daryl mutters. It’s not a lie. Everybody in the Institute worked their asses off to get the sharks to like each other and to eventually, possibly, see them mate. The fact that what they tried to make happen, happened on its own through a happy accident… well, it’s not important. “‘specially Aaron and the Prof. They’s real dedicated, y’know. Love sharks like nobody else.”

“I think they might have some mighty competition in you,” Rick says, that teasing lilt in his voice again. A hint of laughter, that warm, fond amusement Daryl loves to hear, to be the cause of. It this normal? To become so infatuated with someone after but a couple of days knowing them? Is this how humans always fall in love?

Or is this all because of Daryl’s heightened hormone levels?...

“Wanna kiss ya,” he murmurs, looking somewhat shyly up at Rick. His understanding of romance might be limited to the movies he’s seen so far with the girls; in those movies, everything always goes fast because the plot needs to go from first meetings through falling in love, drama and heartbreak to a happy ending within an hour and a half tops. In real life, he’s sure it’s not supposed to be that fast. Carol and Professor King needed like, months to start dating, then actual years to finally be ready for their happily ever after, and Daryl thinks this is closer to what is the norm for human relationships. 

But he also thinks it feels right, to want Rick like that, and if it feels right then surely it can’t be a bad thing. 

Rick looks at him, his blue eyes filled with the intensity Daryl remembers from when the man was watching him in the aquarium. It makes him uncomfortable - no. No, he realizes, it’s not discomfort at all that he’s experiencing. Now that he knows what it feels like, he can recognize the arousal stirring in his abdomen, the strange, somewhat fluttery sensation which doesn’t go away when he shifts or licks his lips. Rick’s scent changes slightly, becomes sharper, sweeter as his pupils dilate and his hands twitch. 

“I’m not stopping you,” the man says softly, his voice barely above a whisper, almost inaudible as the waves hit the shore. Almost. 

And Daryl leans in, slow but sure as fuck, and presses his lips against Rick’s in a chaste, close-mouthed kiss. It’s awkward, as awkward as their first hurried kiss back then; Daryl forgets to close his eyes and his angle is all wrong, so he bumps his nose on Rick’s cheekbone and probably squishes Rick’s nose at the same time. But Rick doesn’t seem to mind his lack of experience; he cups Daryl’s jaw gently with his warm hand and directs him, shows him how to tilt his head so their lips align better. Daryl’s eyelids fall closed on their own accord, and he sighs noiselessly into the kiss, a silent exhale which parts his lips - and Rick uses the opportunity to lick at the seam between Daryl’s lips, to press his tongue past them, to taste him, and-

Daryl pushes him away. 

“Sorry,” Rick mutters, his cheeks flushed and his expression honestly apologetic. “Got carried away, I- I promised I wouldn’t rush you and now…”

“Just,” Daryl says and licks his lips, shivering at the ghost of Rick’s taste on his tongue. “Got… got real bad cavities,” he lies, “an’. ‘s sorta. Disgustin’, kay? ‘s gonna be better soon, I’m like. Gettin’ appointments for that. But ain’t done yet. So‘s not yer fault, just. The cavities, man. ‘s embarrassin’.”

As far as excuses go, it’s terrible, but Daryl’s had no time - no presence of mind - to think of something better. It draws unnecessary attention to the fact there’s something wrong with his teeth, but at least cavities sound plausible. For a human, that is. Like with almost all shark species known to science, it’s impossible for Daryl to have a cavity. His teeth are covered with fluoride and besides, their enamel contains high amounts of a chemical called fluorapatite. It’s resistant to acids produced by various bacteria. So yeah, he doesn’t get cavities. 

But Rick doesn’t need to know that.

“I see,” Rick says, and nods. He brushes his knuckles over Daryl’s jaw, then plants a little peck in the corner of his mouth. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, darlin’. Cavities happen to everyone,” he shrugs. “But don’t worry. You state the rules, I follow your lead, okay?”

“Mmm,” Daryl hums. 

He’s already wondering how to hide his teeth from Rick to be able to kiss him that way. Do they make prosthetics that could be somehow put over his real teeth? Pulling teeth out wouldn’t work, obviously, new ones would just pop into their place from the inner rows hidden from sight. His jaws are built in a very interesting way, according to Eric who had them x-rayed, with a lot more teeth than should really fit anywhere in there. The first row, the one he can’t retract, is separated by a layer of tightly-knit tendons from another row of teeth underneath: they immediately replace those he loses, because just like sharks, Daryl loses his teeth a lot. And the second, retractable row serves as sort of a backup when the lower front row teeth haven’t grown yet to replace those lost from the upper row. Then there’s also a third and fourth row of so-called tooth buds, behind the retractable row; they don’t grow to the surface unless the teeth in the second row need to be replaced. 

It’s like this conveyor belt in a factory, but with teeth.

Yeah, so how does he hide that?

Shaking his head, he decides to change the subject for now. He asks, “Wanna walk down the shoreline with me? Can show ya some nice shit.” 

Rick agrees, so they take off their shoes and socks which they leave by the picnic table, and Daryl takes Rick by the hand. The stretch of beach that belongs to the Institute isn’t that long, but it has a fence which can be easily scaled from the inside and not so much from the outside; Daryl helps Rick to the other side which gives him a great opportunity to touch Rick’s butt without being accused of any sort of perversion. He easily jumps over the fence on his own, too, and lands gracefully on the sand next to where the other man is standing.

“That was impressive,” Rick comments.

Daryl smirks. “Am sorta strong,” he admits, proud of himself and happy with the praise. “C’mon, I wanna show ya stuff,” he adds, and leads the way.

They walk for over an hour, holding hands and talking about stuff - though it’s mostly Rick talking and Daryl listening. They don’t meet many people along the way because it’s still not the season for beach-goers yet, so there’s nobody there to judge or look twice at their joined hands and the tiny kisses they steal of each other for laughs. Finally, they reach a cove hidden from view of the town by a stretch of great pine trees. There’s a small wooden shack there, overseeing the ocean, and a short pier with a rowboat tied to it. Daryl smiles and shows Rick to the shack.

The man hesitates. “Won’t the owner throw us out?” 

“Ain’t,” Daryl promises. “‘s mine. Built in m’self,” he explains when Rick continues to seem puzzled. 

“Seriously? Wow. This place is beautiful,” Rick says. “You amaze more with each passing minute. How come nobody’s snatched you up yet? How come somebody like you is still single? I mean, obviously I’m not complaining-”

“Told ya, though,” Daryl reminds him. “Never been interested in anyone, ‘fore ya came along.”

“Yeah,” Rick agrees softly, thoughtfully. “Yeah, you told me. It’s just difficult to believe.”

In silence then, the two of them enter the shack. It’s not much, Daryl doesn’t really use it a lot, too comfortable in his apartment in the Institute with the sharks and everything so close. Carol got him most of the stuff that’s in there which he didn’t make himself. There’s a low wooden table and a couch which has seen better days, and a fireplace that serves as the place’s only heat source in the winter, and upstairs there’s a bedroom with basically only a big bed in it. It’s got basic plumbing, Carol organized that, so there’s an actual bathroom, though to be honest, Daryl didn’t have much need for it. Carol insisted, said that actual human beings prefer to use the bathroom instead of taking care of those sorts of physiological needs outside. 

Daryl’s not a barbarian, he knew that. What he meant was that he’s perfectly capable of controlling his metabolism to the highest extent and he only needs the bathroom when he decides it’s fine to need the bathroom. 

Well, now he’s glad Carol got her way because Rick looks even more impressed when he surveys the inside of the small cabin. 

“This is better than the place I’m renting,” he says with a wide grin. “So cozy and nice. Damn, Daryl. You could make a fortune building places like this for rich folks.”

“Ain’t need a fortune,” Daryl replies. “Just wanted somewhere away from people, ‘case I needed to think. Happened once or twice.”

“How are you even real?” Rick asks and laughs when Daryl rolls his eyes. 

They spend some time there, fishing from the pier using the rods Daryl made a few months ago. They don’t really catch anything save for a few plastic bags, but even that doesn’t really sour Daryl’s mood too much. He hates the pollution, of course he does, but when there’s Rick sitting next to him, joyful and carefree, and a little bit handsy - it’s hard to be agitated. 

“I had a great time,” Rick tells him later, after they walked back to the Institute which they had to circle around in order to retrieve their shoes. They haven’t got any fish, but Daryl found a pretty nice shell which he gave Rick, and for which Rick paid back with a series of very sweet kisses on his lips. 

“Me too,” he murmurs. “‘s it always like this? Datin’?”

“I guess,” Rick says, shrugging somewhat helplessly. “I haven’t dated anyone since high school. My wife… my almost ex-wife, I mean, she’s not much for going out unless it’s to an expensive restaurant where people will look at her. Everything was always for show with her,” he sighs. “Not like with you. With you, it’s like nothing else means anything. We went fishing and caught garbage instead, and I think I got sand in my pants, and still it was the best date of my life.”

“Mine too,” Daryl replies, “but I guess I already told ya that. Yer my first after all.”

Rick licks his lips. “I’m not going to kiss you in front of so many people,” he says, because they’re in the city now and don’t have the same freedom as they did back on the beach. “But next time, on our next date, I’m gonna kiss the hell out of you, darlin’, and I don’t care about your cavities. Okay?”

Daryl chuckles, blushing, and sucks his lower lip into his mouth to bite on it without revealing the sharp, serrated tips of his teeth. “Okay,” he breathes. He’s pretty sure he’s going to think about it until he sees Rick again. Possibly while touching himself. Who’s he kidding - he’s definitely going to touch himself a lot thinking about Rick kissing him with tongue.  

But he’s got a problem now, and he has to come up with a solution real fast: how is he going to hide the damn teeth?

Hey Jesus meet me in my room asap its an emergency, he texts his friend. If Jesus can’t help him, he might know of someone who could.

Chapter Text

“No, Daryl, listen- no, I’m telling you,” Jesus says and rolls his eyes. “Daryl. Don’t throw a tantrum, you’re not three, it’s not cute. Come out of there right now.”

Daryl growls from inside his closet, crosses his arms on his chest, and doesn’t come out. He’s not throwing a tantrum. He’s not! He’s just hurt and doesn’t want to talk about it, because Jesus was mean to him and Daryl doesn’t know how to deal with someone being mean. Especially when he doesn’t think he completely deserved it. 

Yeah, so maybe texting the man telling him it was an emergency when the whole damn Institute knew he had a date with Rick - a virtual stranger - that day, was a bit of a mistake. And maybe the timing wasn’t the best, either; he should’ve considered the fact that observation of the mating Great White sharks is incredibly important to somebody who’s about to finish his thesis on Great White shark mating behaviors. But he didn’t.

When Jesus ran into his place, hair in disarray, face worried, he expected to see Daryl hurt in some visible way. He thought Daryl was assaulted, maybe forced to do something he didn’t want to do, and then he thought Daryl killed someone, and then-

Then it turned out none of these were true.

“I need to hide my teeth,” Daryl said in lieu of greeting.

So really, maybe Jesus shouting at him and calling him fucking retarded, Daryl, for fuck’s sake, wasn’t all that baseless, but… well.

Daryl knows, nowadays, that what he went through over the course of the majority of his childhood was abuse. His daddy hated him, plain and simple, and he expressed that in a wide variety of creative ways which included frequent beatings, ambushes when he least expected it and, of course, a lot of yelling about every real and imagined transgression Daryl had ever committed. The physical violence didn’t matter much because due to his heritage Daryl has always been tough as fuck. But the shouting, it did something bad to him, to his psyche; he’s not some wilting flower or anything, but when people raise their voices around him, it triggers bad memories and the only thing Daryl wants to do is hide. 

So he’s hiding. In the closet. Because Jesus shouted at him, which he slowly starts to realize he might’ve deserved. 

But still.

“Okay, okay,” Jesus mutters. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he apologizes. “I sort of dropped everything I was doing for you because I panicked. That doesn’t excuse the yelling and I get that, so please come out so I can make it better, okay?”

Daryl peeks out from inside the closed. “How ya gonna make it better?” He asks suspiciously.

Jesus sighs and licks his lips. “I can start by helping you with your important problem. You said something about your teeth, right?”

“Need ‘em gone,” Daryl replies, and climbs out of the closet. 

“But, why?” Jesus asks, confused. He’s unique in Daryl’s group of friends in that after the initial terrified shock upon seeing them, he decided Daryl’s teeth are the coolest thing ever and he declared he’d exchange his itty-bitty human chompers for shark teeth in a heartbeat. To be perfectly honest, up until the logistics of his relationship with Rick came up, Daryl also appreciated the way his jaws are built. It’s useful. He can eat meat raw or cooked, with bones and without, no problem either way, and-

Oh fuck.

“Do humans eat chicken wings whole?” He asks very, very softly. 

He already knows the answer will be no, but he still has a little bit of hope left. Maybe there’s something in the way the chicken wings are prepared. Maybe the bones are removed and what Daryl remembers crushing between his teeth were actually just the bread crumbs. Please, let it have been bread crumbs.

“Ummm, no,” Jesus says slowly, frowning. “We leave out the bones, obviously. Which isn’t a problem for you, is it? Unless you-” he pauses and looks at Daryl, eyes widening. “Oh God, you didn’t pay attention and ate wings with bones and all in front of your loverboy? Fuuuuck. Tell me at least they weren’t raw.”

“Fried,” Daryl mumbles.

Rick saw him eat chicken with bones. And didn’t say anything. And still wanted to kiss him afterwards. So some people might do it? Like, perhaps some people do eat wings whole, with bones and everything, so it wouldn’t be considered that abnormal. People eat the weirdest things after all. Daryl heard of people eating spiders. Or snakes. Or licorice, for some reason. That’s gotta be weirder than the fried chicken bones. 

Then there’s also the possibility that Rick didn’t notice. He didn’t really look at Daryl much when they were eating, so it’s not that implausible. 

“I guess I gotta check the social media,” Jesus mutters. “If there are any posts about a monster boy in Virginia Beach, I’ll find them.”

“I need ‘em gone,” Daryl decides. “Dunno how, but teeth’s gotta go.”

The problem is, there’s not much that can be done about the teeth after all. There are tooth grinding and polishing procedures which might work if he could find a dentist who would do it for him without asking questions, but that doesn’t sound like something he’d be very lucky to find outside of Hollywood. And he probably could get a prosthetic, but it wouldn’t look natural because it’d have to be placed on top of his natural teeth.

“Honestly, at this point, I think you should just tell him,” Jesus announces after an entire hour goes by without them finding any solution whatsoever. 

“But… y’all keep sayin’ I should be keepin’ it a secret,” Daryl protests. He can’t take his eyes off of a dentist office commercial where they offer reshaping teeth into something sort of like what he has. It looks vaguely terrifying. And definitely painful. Like, even for him. He’s not sure he’s that committed, to be honest.

Who’s he kidding. If he doesn’t find another way, he’s going to ask Carol to get him an appointment. Pain is a small price to pay for being with Rick.

Though… if he could just tell Rick, that would be even better.

“Well, I don’t see how you could keep it a secret from the guy you wanna bang,” Jesus says, tilting his head to the side. “You’re serious about that dude, aren’t you?”

“Dunno wha’cha mean,” Daryl grumbles.

Jesus sighs. “I mean, you want to be with him, not just have sex with him once and forget he exists, yeah?”

“Wanna bite him,” Daryl replies, confused. “Want him to bite me. ‘s that answer yer question?”

“I sincerely don’t know. In sharks? That’d just mean wanting to bang and have pups together. It’s all about the mating season and compatibility. But regardless of the way your jaws are built, you’re not really a shark. For all I know, your kind may mate for life,” Jesus says, shrugging. “That would definitely explain why you aren’t interested in anybody else but your writer. Normally, male sharks engage in competitions to win the female’s interest, but you just fixated on that single man and don’t see anybody else, do you?”

“Ain’t a female,” Daryl protests, huffing. 

Jesus chuckles, though it seems to be completely devoid of humor. “Believe me, I know,” he assures. “I’ve seen enough of you to be sure. Thing is, I talked to Eric briefly, and your behavior really doesn’t match up with male Great Whites either. That means we should be treating you like a separate species - which, well, you are, so that’s fair. That’s the problem, though. We can’t be sure about anything with you because there’s no precedence. Unless you know of others like you who could help?”

Daryl shakes his head. “Only my brother’s still alive, I think,” he mutters, “but he ain’t gonna help. Dunno where he’s at. But… makes sense,” he sighs. “That our kind would mate for life, I mean. Explains why my momma wouldna left my dad. Why she let him,” he trails off.

He remembers, when he was nine years old, when he woke up during the night to the overwhelming smell of blood. Merle wasn’t living with them at that point, wandering who knew where, so it couldn’t have been him killing someone again. Daryl called for momma, but she didn’t come - she usually went wandering the woods at night, so he wasn’t worried. Instead, he tried to find out where the smell came from on his own. He was always light on his feet, he learned to be sneaky thanks to his daddy’s constant attempts to hurt him; he utilized those skills when he went to the kitchen, wondering if maybe momma managed to hunt them down a deer and they’d be eating well over the next few days-

He found her on the kitchen floor, bleeding, still warm, but dead. Her eyes were wide open, glassy, almost surprised, and her face looked so apologetic. 

Daryl’s daddy didn’t beat him that night. No; he handed him a shovel and made him dig a grave behind their shoddy cabin. Daryl did as he was told. He got two broken ribs and a black eye for his troubles, anyway. 

He always thought she could’ve fought him. His momma, she was a shark. She could’ve defended herself easy from a drunk, mean human with a knife. But she didn’t. She let Will Dixon kill her in one of his booze-induced rage attacks, and. She didn’t do anything. There was not a scratch on him. 

If the hypothesis Jesus proposed is true… if those like Daryl mate for life, does that mean they’d rather die than hurt their mate? It’s a somewhat disturbing prospect. Daryl thought about it before, about how some humans tend to mate for life, but he's not completely ignorant: he knows that for their kind, it's a choice to stay loyal to their partners. What he's looking at now is a possibility that he would operate under a biological compulsion to stay faithful and do everything in his power to make his potential mate happy, even at the cost of his own safety and emotional well-being. Daryl isn’t sure he’s ready for this level of commitment to a man he’s only known for a couple of days, even though he already feels he could do anything Rick Grimes asked for even though nobody’s been bitten just yet.

But then again, Merle had sex with multiple different girls. He didn’t seem to be mated to any of them. Wasn’t even fond of them, at all. So maybe Daryl’s overthinking things again. 

“Well anyway, if you’re serious about your man, you should tell him,” Jesus concludes. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to get over that shit. I mean… after I found out, I sort of locked myself up in my room and jumped at every noise, wondering when you’d be coming to eat me, I admit. But then soon enough, I decided I kinda liked the thought of you eating me, if you get my meaning- no, of course you don’t get it,” Jesus rolls his eyes and smiles in fond resignation. “What I’m saying is, you gotta tell him, and then give him space. He’s probably going to freak out at first, but then he’ll get used to the idea that his beau isn’t human and, afterwards, you two are likely going to try to make a lot of shark babies.”

“But we’re both male,” Daryl protests again, even more confused than before.

Jesus chuckles. “Sure you are, we established that already,” he agrees. “But it’s not gonna stop you trying. Believe me, once you discover what sex is like with another person, you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

Daryl doesn’t really doubt that he’s going to like sex a lot once he gets around to doing it with Rick. He’s just not sure if it’s ever going to happen, because what if his teeth prove to be too off-putting? His teeth and his rough skin, and the fact that he’s about as smart as a sponge when it comes to romance. And he might mate for life. Which humans don’t really do. 

“I wanna swim,” Daryl announces.

He pouts when Jesus immediately reminds him he’s banned from the Biter Tank. “Henry might see you as a rival now,” he explains, even though Daryl doesn’t really need the explanation. He’s not stupid. He knows his hormones are a danger to him if any Great Whites sense them. After all, he almost ended up Lydia’s meal not too long ago. But there are other tanks in the Institute and, besides, there’s the whole damn wide ocean he can swim in. There haven’t been any shark sightings near the shoreline in months, so he thinks it’d be relatively safe even for a human to go swimming. And he needs it, to clear his mind. 

“Alright, you go swimming,” Jesus finally acquiesces. “Just give me a second to grab my papers, I’ll go with you. I’ll watch your clothes or something.”

So they go to the same beach where Daryl had the fancy fried chicken with Rick earlier. Jesus is very polite and pretends not to stare when Daryl strips naked. He folds all of Daryl’s clothes and sets them in a neat pile on the bench, then sets up with his laptop to return to the work Daryl selfishly interrupted earlier.

The water is different in the ocean than Daryl’s gotten used to from swimming in the tanks every day. Despite the best efforts of the architects and the staff to simulate the natural marine environment, the tanks are still unquestioningly artificial. It’s basically impossible to simulate the tiny differences in temperature between layers of water on a sunny day, or the bubbles tickling the limbs at the softest pressure into the sand beneath Daryl’s feet. People think even the saltiness of the water is a constant in the ocean, but it’s not. Daryl lowers himself into the shallows from the pier, submerges himself fully and breaths in that first lungful of saltwater. His whole body shudders from the strain of the internal transformation, or whatever it is that happens to him, and he squeezes his eyes shut against the pain before he opens them wide. 

Immediately his additional, inhuman senses are assaulted by the multitude of impulses of life in the oceanic depths; he can feel movement around him, everywhere, and his nose picks up the scents of a million life forms big and small. It’s what freedom feels like, he thinks, and he swims. Giving into his body’s basest urges, he chases a bass, catches it with his mouth and eats it whole, then turns his attention to a curious splash in the distance which turns out to have come from a large turtle. The turtle he lets go without engaging, mostly because he doesn’t have the power in his jaws to bite through the shell, but also a bit because unlike real sharks, he recognizes the harm of eating a specimen of an endangered species. He doesn’t know if this particular turtle is indeed endangered, but he doesn’t want to risk it. 

And anyway, it’s more fun to just swim after it, giving in to his instincts which tell him to stalk after potential prey, circle it, follow it for hours if need be. The turtle recognizes the predator in him and does its best to evade him, and Daryl doesn’t let up, even when he realizes the damn thing is leading him in circles, likely hoping to tire him out. 

It’s not easy to exhaust a shark. After all, they go their entire lives doing nothing but swimming: swimming in their sleep, swimming as they eat, swimming until they die. Constant motion, constant hunt, restless, seemingly tireless. But it’s a myth that sharks don’t get tired. Of course sharks can get tired, eventually, after chasing their prey for hours and hours; they’re living creatures, not machines, and despite their best efforts, sometimes even they are forced to abandon the chase. It’s rarely a problem because the attention span of a shark is comparable to that of a two-year-old human pup. Once its intended dinner gets away, the shark simply turns its interest to the next tasty-smelling thing it spots, and the whole affair begins anew.

That’s how Daryl knows all those stories about sharks purposefully hunting humans - the stories Rick Grimes came to Virginia Beach to pursue - are all bullshit. How could there exist such a beast when, in truth, sharks are far too simple-minded to develop a taste for anything in particular, let alone to actively target it when there are so many easier hunts to be chased in the same waters? Even regardless of the nutritional value of human meat, the focus such a conviction to hunt humans rather than other prey would require simply cannot be perpetrated by a shark’s brain. 

Their brains are tiny in comparison to their overall body mass. Even in their own kingdom, in the ocean where they are considered apex predators, sharks are rather… dumb. 

Daryl isn’t, though. He’s got a human brain and even now, lost in the thrill of the chase, he can make use of it, and that's why his chase takes as long as it does. The turtle gets away, probably relieved and as thankful for its life as a reptile can be, as Daryl finally gives up.

It's not mercy that makes him let the turtle go. Something is wrong in the water, Daryl thinks. He can’t feel cold, but his rough skin is covered in goosebumps as if he were freezing, and the hairs all over his body stand. It’s like a prickle of something, some sort of electric impulse going from his sides through his spine and to his brain, lighting it up, red alert. He can’t see anything, but he senses it, and he doesn’t know what it is, but he knows it’s nothing good. 

A predator, his mind supplies. Something much bigger, much badder than you.

It’s nothing like when he was trying to evade Lydia in the Biter Tank. There was an underlying sense of danger there, yes, and Daryl was aware that death was not a distinct possibility, but rather a very probable outcome of the whole ordeal; but it was nothing compared to the most primal dread he’s feeling now. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt in his life. It’s a little like Will Dixon yelling at him, calling him a freak, stabbing him over and over, but more, striking deeper, and all of a sudden the open waters around him feel oppressive. Like a trap. 

Fuck, he thinks, and swims back. He’s not that far from the shore, he can see the wooden pillars of the pier from where he is, he can sense the water hitting the bottom of the motorboat moored there. He’ll be safe when he’s on the shore. He’ll be fine. He’s just got to swim. That’s what he’s good at, isn’t he, swimming? He’s good at-

Something grabs his leg and Daryl thrashes wildly without looking back. Teeth, or something like teeth, hold him, the smell of his own blood fills his nostrils. Blindly, he bites at whatever it is holding him and it lets go, momentarily surprised. A shape behind him, immense, dark, but it’s not a shark. It’s not a shark, it’s something far, far worse, and he shakes his head and forces himself to swim faster, pushes his body to surpass its own limits because- 

Because if he doesn’t, he’s going to be eaten.

He breaches the water surface like he’s jumping to catch some unsuspecting prey, and he lands heavily on the hard wood of the pier, breathing fast, gulping for air, wondering if he’s having a fucking heart attack in addition to the usual pain of leaving the water. His calf is bleeding and he just knows there’s a chunk missing, and there’s blood in his mouth, and Daryl looks back into the water with his eyes wide open, searching for that immense danger under the surface - but there’s nothing there. Not even a splash out of place. 

“What the hell happened?” Jesus asks. He’s breathless, like he got startled out of his work by Daryl’s sudden resurfacing, like he ran to the pier to assist him.

“I… dunno,” Daryl mutters, frowning, and it’s true. 

He was attacked by something. Something that intended to kill him. The intent to harm him, to devour him, was so strong in that moment, he actually felt it like it was something tangible. It couldn’t have been a shark. It couldn’t have been anything he can identify. That cold, almost calculated intent to kill didn’t belong to anything in the animal kingdom.  Except for-

The blood in his mouth tastes human.

“Come on, I’ll help you get to the infirmary,” Jesus offers and helps Daryl up. He doesn’t even seem to notice Daryl’s nakedness in this moment, likely distracted by the fact there’s a large portion of Daryl’s leg just missing. He covers him up with his own hoodie, though, before they enter the building. There's nobody in the halls, most of the staff busy with the mating Great Whites, and it's probably a blessing because it would be hard to explain why exactly Daryl's leaving a trail of blood all over the floor.

“Sharks?” Denise asks in the infirmary. She has her hands full of gauze and disinfectants even before Jesus can fully haul Daryl inside. 

Daryl sort of wants to roll his eyes and tell them to just give him a bucket of saltwater he can put his leg into, the missing tissue will grow back in no time - but he’s still rattled, his heartbeat is way too fast, and he thinks he might pass out. Pain, it’s not that significant, he’s had worse, he’s lived through his damn father’s abuse, but. That terror, that primal fear he felt in the deep, it’s still there. Still in him. 

Jesus takes it upon himself to reply for him. “Not sharks, but we don’t know what,” he says. “I didn’t see a damn thing. I swear.”

“Why was he swimming naked in the first place?” Denise asks, tone reproachful, and Jesus mumbles something vague in reply. 

Daryl exhales loudly, inhales. Exhales again. Rick. He misses Rick. There’s a foul taste in his mouth, something sour and sickly sweet all at once, blood, but not the sort of blood he likes in beef steaks. He feels like he’s choking, and immediately his throat contracts painfully, and he coughs - and then spits out teeth, and blood, and… something. Something black and rough. Like skin. Hard, treated hide. 

No, plastic. Latex? Something.

“What… what is that?” Denise asks faintly. Daryl has a feeling she doesn’t mean the black material he spit out. The teeth are much more interesting, if he says so himself. 

She doesn’t know about Daryl. Well. She didn’t. Now might be a good time to tell her. He hopes Jesus can handle it. He really can’t. 

He thinks he’s going to black out.

“Daryl,” he hears and cracks an eye open - when did he close it? He can’t remember. But he opens it, and Carol is standing there, looking down on him with worry in her eyes. 

“Is a fuckin’ killer whale in these waters, Carol,” he mutters, then lets out a shuddering breath because suddenly, he understands why he was so terrified. Why he still is. It's like his body knew before his mind caught up, and it makes sense. Instincts. His instincts are never wrong.

“Told y’all orcas ain’t nice,” he adds, remembering the blonde girl with Rick’s group in the aquarium. Beth? Beth. The one who asked about orcas and was so surprised Daryl didn’t want to talk about them. 

Well this is fucking why.

“‘s a damn orca an’ ‘s wanted my liv’r,” he slurs, and Carol says something in reply, caressing his face, and her hands are warm, and Rick’s hands are warm, and Daryl thinks he’s going to tell Rick that he’s a shark. Because he loves Rick, and there’s a killer whale in the ocean, a killer whale with black polyester skin, and Daryl has to protect Rick- he has to-

He sleeps, and he dreams of the immense shape lurking in the depths, waiting for him.

Chapter Text

Daryl wakes up some time on the next day, submerged in the relatively shallow pool on top of one of the emergency tanks used for new rescues. It’s been empty for a while, but the water is well-filtered and Daryl can breathe easy. He sighs, adjusts the pair of uncomfortable swimming trunks he’s dressed in, and examines his leg and is satisfied to see that the calf looks like there was never a chunk missing out of it. Well, for the most part. There’s an obvious scar in the shape of an ellipse, slightly jagged around the edges, and the new skin is a shade lighter because it hasn’t been exposed to sunlight yet. There’s no pain left, though. That is just a scary memory. 

“Ah good, you’re awake,” Jesus says as soon as Daryl swims up to the surface. He’s not who Daryl wants to see, not really; there’s a deep ache of longing and loneliness within his chest as he thinks about Rick. It’s almost like he hasn’t seen the man in weeks when in fact, judging by the level of his hunger, he was unconscious for two to three days at most. It’s not so bad that he should be missing Rick already. 

But damn if he isn’t.

“I’ll call Denise, she needs to clear you before you can leave the water,” Jesus informs him.

Daryl frowns. Now that he thinks about it, he can vaguely remember throwing up some teeth in front of the doctor, so, yeah. The cat’s out of the bag, with her at least. 

“Food?” He asks. He has two priorities now. He wants to eat something, and he needs to see Rick. It surprises him that the desire to see the other man seems to be even stronger than hunger, but then again, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. Rick is… important. Really, really important. And food? Yeah, so he likes to eat a lot, but he doesn’t have to. He’s capable of going for weeks without eating if the situation requires it. He’s not entirely sure he’d be capable of going for weeks without Rick.

“Just texted Carol, she’ll be here shortly,” Jesus announces, looking down at his phone. “She’ll bring you something appropriately raw and bloody.”

Daryl nods, and bites down on his lower lip, chewing it nervously for a second. “Ya got my phone somewhere?” 

Jesus frowns. “This might be the first time you’re actively wanting your phone. Everything alright there?”

“... Rick don’t know what happened,” Daryl explains softly. Damn, he feels so dumb for saying it. Like a lovestruck girl from some rom-com. 

“Ah,” Jesus huffs in acknowledgment, and rolls his eyes. “I’ll get your phone after I tell Denise you’re up and running. Some clothes too, no need to give everyone a show.”

Daryl shrugs, but accepts it. Jesus leaves, and Daryl takes the time he’s alone to swim around a little, wading around the shallow basin to give his muscles a much needed workout. He tries not to think too much about the attack which landed him in this water tank in need of medical attention, but unfortunately, it’s difficult to ignore. The repercussions of what happened are too terrifying to try and pretend it never happened.

He was bitten by something that was an orca, and was not. Black polyester skin, what he spit out along with his teeth… it was a wetsuit, wasn’t it? He’s pretty sure. So whatever it was that tried to eat him - and, fuck, yeah, he’s absolutely certain it wanted to eat him, not just maul him, not just hurt him for the sake of it - whatever that thing was, it was partially human.

Like him.

He always knew, deep down, that he and his family can’t be the only ones out there. There was always bound to be another shark like him in the deep wide oceans, and Daryl may not have expected to run into them, but he was still prepared for it in some capacity. A killer whale, though? This is something he’s not ready to face off against. Especially when in spite of its supposed humanity, the orca seemed to be driven by the same urges its bigger relatives harbor when it comes to actual Great White sharks. 

He’s broken out of the unhappy thoughts when the door opens to allow in some most welcome visitors.

“Hey there, Pookie,” Carol greets him as she enters the room with the emergency tank. “Guess who’s here,” she adds mischievously, and takes a step aside to reveal Sophia walking in behind her. The girl is grinning, and she quickly runs over to sit by the edge of the pool. Daryl gets out of the water enough to let Sophia wrap her arms around him in a quick hug, and he smiles at her laughter about getting wet.

“I missed you, Daryl,” the girl says. “Next time, I’ll be taking you with me. Boston is nice, but it would’ve been nicer with you. We saw the Harvard University, you know? Went inside and everything, they gave us a short tour, and it’s so old and, I don’t know, so distinguished. I could spend the whole day there. No, two days! Ten! A hundred!”

“Yer gonna get bored of it once ya actually get in,” Daryl assures her, fondly amused by her excitement. 

Sophia is only thirteen, but she’s already got her sights set for her future career. She’s planning to get a few biological degrees and expand on some of the Institute’s research into furthering the protection of oceanic ecosystems. She’s got her eyes on a program in Harvard, and Daryl doesn’t doubt that his girl is gonna get in once the time for that arrives, if she’s still into it in a few years.

Because while the direction of her interests makes him insanely proud, he won’t be disappointed if Sophia decides to do something else later in life. He’s rather convinced he’s going to be proud of her just as well. 

“We brought you a steak, by the way,” Carol says, passing Daryl a food container. He shouldn’t be eating in the water, but he doesn’t want to get out yet, not before Denise gives him an all-clear. So he compromises by propping himself against the edge of the pool, careful to keep his lower body submerged. And he devours the steak, because eating is not the right word for how fast he’s finished with the very delightfully uncooked cut of meat. 

“Watching you it is disgusting,” Carol announces. 

Sophia giggles. “I think it’s fascinating,” she says. “It’s like watching sharks feed, but with a human. I wish I had those teeth…”

“Ya wouldna like it,” Daryl informs her drily. He’s not completely over the dislike for his teeth on account of being unable to kiss Rick like he wanted to, just yet. He’s a little less inclined to get them smoothed out now that they probably saved his life, but still.

Jesus returns with Denise who doesn’t look Daryl in the face during the entire time she checks up on his leg. It’s weird. Normally, she never hesitated to have nice little chats with Daryl who she claimed reminded her of her late brother. But now? She’s silent until she finally decides:

“You’re fine, you can go,” and she turns her back on Daryl without another word.

So she’s not as accepting of what he is as Daryl would’ve hoped for. 

“You’ve got to understand, it’s not easy to come to terms with something like that,” Jesus says. “If someone showed you a real fire-breathing dragon, how would you react?”

“Dunno,” Daryl admits gruffly. He hopes Denise will come around eventually, like Jesus did. Like Eric, Aaron, even Ezekiel. It’s so difficult to reveal secrets to people. 

“Let’s go to the amusement park! You promised to take me,” Sophia reminds him as soon as Daryl’s dressed in his casual jeans and a t-shirt, and out the door. 

“Sophia, darling, he’s barely out of recovery. Can’t it wait a while?” Carol admonishes. 

 But Daryl shakes his head. “No, ‘s fine. We can go,” he decides. He’s been looking forward to winning that giant shark plushie at the shooting booth in the amusement park for a few weeks now, just never had the time to drop by. He wants it for Sophia. The stuffed toy is almost as long as the girl is tall, and she could snuggle up to it at night. Maybe it would help with some leftover nightmares she still has sometimes. It could be her own guardian shark.

So they go. Daryl takes the dollar bills Carol hands him for snacks because he knows that she knows he’s going to be very hungry again soon; and Sophia makes sure to take her polaroid camera along. Even though she’s not a little pup anymore, Sophia still likes to hold on to Daryl when they go somewhere together. He’d even be willing to give the girl some piggyback rides, she’s not too heavy for that and he doubts she’s ever going to be; but Sophia doesn’t seem to appreciate the idea. 

She holds onto his arm, though, as they walk to the amusement park.

It’s almost a permanent attraction of this part of Virginia Beach. The park is located almost adjacent to the Institute’s south walls, and the placement is really mutually beneficial. That’s why the amusement park has a lot of shark-related souvenirs and a very nice shark trivia quiz every Thursday throughout the tourist season; and the Institute, on the other hand, offers major discounts at the souvenir shop to visitors who come with the wristband given out to people on entrance to the park. Additionally, the staff from the Institute don’t pay for entry to the amusement park, and it also works the other way around. Of course, it also extends to their families. 

It only takes a flash of Daryl’s Institute ID card for the girl at the entrance to give them the wristbands and let them in. The amusement park is not extremely busy these days, still awaiting its prime popularity period to come in summer, but it’s not entirely desolate either. It’s popular with the locals, actually, due to the low prices and really good food stalls. While in some cities youngsters like to go to malls to spend time, here the amusement park serves as the trending spot to hang out. 

Sophia points at one of the three pendulum rides at the park. It’s very tall and Daryl watches in fascination as the arms of the giant contraption swing up and down in a motion so fast, he almost gives himself a whiplash trying to follow. 

“Ain’t gonna happen,” he says quickly.

Sophia pouts. “You’re no fun,” she accuses, but sighs and chooses another ride. Unfortunately, Daryl knows her too well. He also knows himself. He’s already resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to be taking her to that giant pendulum ride before the day is over.

But first, they ride a twister which has Sophia squealing loudly, and throws Daryl slightly off-balance for a good twenty minutes afterwards. Then they go to a calmer merry-go-round which still spins faster than the typical pup-dedicated attractions should. The long roller-coaster ride they get on after that is Daryl’s favorite so far: the pace might be fast, but the track is very tall with some really steep dips, and goes all the way around the amusement park. Not only do the sudden pressure changes remind Daryl of diving into the deep, but the height of the ride lets him admire the open view of the ocean. For a moment there, he wonders what it would be like to jump into the waves from this height. 

He’s not dumb, he realizes he’d most likely die on impact, but… it almost seems worth it.

“Is it anything like swimming?” Sophia asks curiously later, when the ride is over. 

Daryl shrugs. “Not really,” he replies. “‘s nice too, y’know, goin’ fast an’ so high up. No wonder ya humans always talk ‘bout wantin’ to fly. Me, I prefer swimmin’, but that don’t mean I can’t enjoy a lil’ flyin’ from time to time.”

“So does it mean we’ll be taking the Sledgehammer?” Sophia asks slyly, motioning towards the tall pendulum ride with her head.

Daryl rolls his eyes. “We’ll see,” he mutters. 

Sophia grins, because she knows it for the win it is.

They have a snack from the booth selling fried potatoes in more configurations than Daryl’s ever thought potatoes could be cooked. Daryl’s curly fries are some of the best he’s ever eaten, he’s got to admit, and he easily devours two helpings as well as some of Sophia’s leftovers. It’s easy to eat fries with his mouth closed. They’re soft from the start and don’t require excessive tearing or chewing, so it’s easy to be discreet. 

Unlike fried chicken wings, he thinks worriedly. 

Sometime between the attractions, Daryl remembered to check his phone for any signs of contact from Rick. He didn’t find any. There wasn’t a single text, any missed calls. Nothing. Like it hasn’t been two days since their date. It stung like a damn manta ray, because Daryl hoped Rick would’ve missed him as much as he missed Rick; but then he reminds himself forcefully that Rick wants him to control the pace of this relationship they have. So it's likely that this isn't Rick breaking it off. Maybe he wasn’t so much deterred by Daryl eating chicken wings whole, but instead just didn’t want to pressure him into unwilling contact. 

He can’t read minds, after all: so he’s got no idea that Daryl finds himself needing him as much as he needs to breathe. 

Daryl doesn’t let his missing Rick cast any shadows on his day out with Sophia, though. He leads Sophia to the shooting booth and, with just a few precise shots, to the cheers of the audience that inevitably gathers around the booth, he wins that damn giant shark plush for the girl. The shooting booth clerk - a young woman, possibly younger than Jesus - makes eyes at Daryl, and he can smell her interest which he obviously doesn’t reciprocate. It doesn’t deter her easily and Daryl wonders just what it is that those people like about him when he couldn't be any more disinterested without being downright rude.

“Maybe you could show me how well you can handle other weapons,” she suggests and, well, yeah; Daryl knows very little about flirting, but he knows all about innuendos. 

He can’t help but roll his eyes. “Nope,” he says, and points at the shark on the shelf behind her. “We want that one,” he informs drily.

Sophia grins like a shark, all teeth. That is to say, sharks don’t really grin, but it sure looks like they do from a certain perspective. “I’m gonna name him Daryl,” she announces cheekily. 

“Nah, ya can’t,” Daryl protests. He frowns, looking for a reason good enough to change your mind. “‘s a girl shark,” he decides finally, watching as the woman from the booth carries it over and puts it on the counter. 

Sophia only takes a moment to regain her composure. “Girl, huh,” she repeats. “Well in that case, she’s going to be Darlene,” she rectifies with a smirk that’s just full of mischief. She looks a lot like her mother just now. 

Daryl lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, ya lil’ nightmare,” he agrees. “‘s long as ya don’t go hollerin’ ‘round the place about it,” he mutters under his breath.

“You have such a wonderful bond with your sister,” the young woman from the booth says, trying to insert herself into the conversation.

Daryl blinks, and says: “She ain’t my sister,” just as Sophia supplies:

“Daryl’s not my brother.”

The woman looks at them in confusion and just a little bit of fear - Daryl remembers suddenly that Carol warned him many times to be careful not to be taken for a pervert who likes little girls - and probably realizing the danger, Sophia adds: “He’s my dad,” which is not true as far as blood relations go, but might as well be in any other aspect. 

They apparently look enough alike to make the lie believable enough. The young woman is visibly placated and maybe just a little hesitant when she asks where Sophia’s mother is.

“With her fiance,” Sophia replies with a shrug. “Can we go?” She asks Daryl, tugging on his forearm.

Daryl nods. “Thanks for the shark,” he says to the booth lady, and turns to leave, opening his mouth to ask Sophia where next she wants to go-

And there, among the dispersing crowd of his earlier spectators, he sees Rick Grimes looking at him with those incredible blue eyes of his. 

“Rick,” he whispers breathlessly. Everything inside him sort of shifts, like his entire focus is suddenly on the other man and nothing else in the world exists. How the fuck did he manage to not sense Rick’s presence, to not smell him so near? 

“Daryl,” Rick acknowledges, inclining his head. He doesn’t look like he’s entirely happy with Daryl right now. “You’ve met my son Carl,” he motions to the boy holding his hand. 

Daryl nods, and smiles at the pup. “Howdy, Carl,” he greets. 

“Hello, Mr. Daryl,” Carl replies cheerfully, completely oblivious to the weird mood between the grown-ups. He looks in wonderment at Sophia and, more likely, the giant shark plushie she’s holding. “Wow,” he sighs wistfully. 

Daryl immediately wants to offer winning another shark for the boy this time. But Rick is looking at him strangely. At him and Sophia. Like he’s not liking something about the picture he’s seeing.

Finally, realization dawns on Daryl. Rick heard Sophia. He thinks Sophia is Daryl’s daughter, and if that were true, that would mean Daryl lied to him earlier. Because Daryl said he’s never been with anyone before.

“Y’all ain’t met Sophia yet,” Daryl says, quickly deciding to rectify the situation. “She’s my best friend Carol’s daughter. Been treatin’ her as my own for close to ten years now.”

Bingo. Immediately, the tension leaves Rick’s form and his posture relaxes. Warmth seeps back into those impossibly blue eyes and the man even allows himself to smile. 

“Pleasure to meet you, young lady,” he says, charming and so incredibly beautiful. “I’m Rick Grimes, I write some pretty bad books. And this kiddo is my boy Carl.”

“I like your shark,” Carl speaks up somewhat shyly. 

“Thanks,” Sophia replies and, with a gleeful grin and a sideways look at Daryl, she adds, “Her name’s Darlene.”

And really, Daryl should feel some measure of indignation at the way Rick snickers at the revelation. He should be offended or something. But he’s not. He likes the way Rick’s eyes twinkle with honest amusement, not an inkling of ill-will in his open expression. He likes how Carl laughs, emboldened by his father’s reaction. He likes how Sophia looks so proud of herself for making a very effective joke in front of the new acquaintances. 

He likes how Rick eventually stops laughing and asks, somewhat coy, “Can we join you guys for some rides? To be honest, I have no idea what here’s good. Of course, we wouldn’t wanna impose-”

“Yeah, join us,” Daryl interrupts him. “Hey lil’ guy, ya want a big shark too?”

Carl’s eyes widen, and he nods frantically. Daryl looks to Sophia to make sure she doesn’t mind, and when she confirms that it’s fine, Daryl turns back to the booth, his mind set on winning another giant shark plushie which might get named after him to mock him. He’s surprisingly fine with it. He just wants to win so that Rick can beam at him and maybe touch him, and give him that pretty smile which warms Daryl’s entire body from the inside out. 

He really, really missed Rick.

Chapter Text

Sophia gets on with Carl surprisingly well, considering the age difference between them. Daryl wonders if it might be because the girl always wanted to have siblings. The truth is, Sophia is a little lonely sometimes when neither Daryl nor Carol have a lot of time for her. She feels quite confident in the company of adults, judging by how often she hangs out with Jesus; but she’s more self-conscious among pups her age, and while Daryl himself doesn’t care about social interactions, he knows that it’s considered healthy for a human pup to form meaningful connections with other pups. He worries about Sophia, and he doesn’t like the fact that she’s never had a best friend, or a crush on someone, or a sleepover on a non-school night. Of course, maybe his view of what a thirteen-year-old girl is supposed to act like is biased, since it’s mostly taken out of the romance movies they watched together; but still, there has to be some basis on reality even in chick flicks or nobody would ever take them seriously. 

So when Sophia actually takes to Carl, Daryl can’t help but feel immense relief for more than one reason. It’s not just because Carl is Rick’s pup, and Daryl really needs Sophia to like Rick and everything about him. No: he’s actually simply happy that Sophia talks to someone who’s not at least ten years older.

He watches the pups walk a few steps in front of himself and Rick, both clutching their giant shark plushies as they head towards the next attraction Sophia selected. Carl’s shark is slightly smaller, but has a meaner face which reminds Daryl of Merle for some reason. It’s a good thing the toy is smaller than Sophia’s, because as it is, Rick’s pup himself is barely tall enough to carry it without dragging its tail on the ground. 

“You know you didn’t have to do that,” Rick says, pointing towards the shark in his boy’s arms. 

“‘s fine,” Daryl assures him. “Like shootin’, always been good at it, an’ ‘s nice to make pups happy.”

“What is it about sharks anyway,” Rick wonders out loud, “that makes them so fascinating? For kids, I mean. And for adults, I guess. I mean, I’m just curious, not complaining. After all, I’m about to cash in on that with the next book, right?”

“Pups like monster stories,” Daryl says, shrugging. It’s the truth, even though he doesn’t like the implication that sharks are monsters. Yeah, they’re cold-blooded killers and sometimes, humans fall victims to that. But doesn’t monstrosity require a certain purposefulness for one to be considered a monster? A willingness to commit terrible atrocities? To Daryl, calling sharks monsters is an oversimplification. Like calling wildfire a monster, attributing a sort of willful lust for destruction to it which is actually only inherent in humankind. 

It makes sense for the young ones, to try and explain the world in such simple terms. Not so much for adults, though.

Funnily enough, since they hadn’t started out seeing eye to eye on this matter, right now Rick says basically the same thing. “I think a lot of that misconception about sharks falls to our lack of understanding,” he acknowledges. “We see a big animal with a lot of teeth, and then we see images of it killing other animals, animals which might be considered cute like seals or, you know, more seals. The way sharks eat isn’t pretty, either, is it? It’s violent, bloody. Of course we’re going to cast the predator as the bad guy. And then we learn that predator is capable of killing us, too.”

“I get it,” Daryl mutters. “Ain’t sayin’ nothin’, see, I get how sharks ain’t exactly pet material. Just meant that pups like scary shit, ‘s long as it’s not close enough to actually hurt ‘em. ‘s a good thing we can educate ‘em too.”

“You’re good at educating people,” Rick informs him in a tone that’s more teasing than mocking: nothing mean about it. “Young ones and old ones like me, too.”

“Y’ain’t old,” Daryl protests, chuckling. “Ain’t a speck a gray in yer hair.”

“Well, okay, but I’m definitely not a pup,” Rick agrees. 

Daryl hums but doesn’t say anything, pretending like he has to consider it. He doesn’t know how old Rick is exactly, though he expects them to be close in age. It’s not like it really matters to him all that much. Rick could be twice his age for all he cares, Daryl would still want to bite him and be bitten by him all the same. 

He wonders briefly what Rick would look like at fifty years old or more. If his imagination is to be trusted, well. He’s going to be just as beautiful as he is right now, with his hair gray but still thick and curling, and the laughter lines around his eyes more pronounced, and everything. Daryl hopes he’ll get to see it for himself, regardless of whether the reality matches his vision or not. 

So maybe he’s not as opposed to that mating for life possibility as he thought.

“That one,” Sophia decides with a grin, pointing towards a starfish-themed swing ride which has a big line forming towards it. It’s got pastel-pink starfish-shaped mini-cabins with baby blue benches inside. They’re ugly as fuck and Daryl can’t see the appeal, but apparently it’s a new attraction and everyone wants to try it out. That explains the unusual off-season crowd.

Daryl looks at Rick. “Yer okay with the pup goin’ on it?” He asks worriedly, resisting the urge to chew on his lower lip. Despite its childish coloring, the ride doesn’t look like it was designed with young pups in mind. Daryl’s acutely aware that his parenting style where he’s always so lenient with Sophia and lets her have anything she wants is not considered the best, but Carol’s alright with it as long as Daryl doesn’t try to undermine her authority in any manner. He’s just not sure Rick will be just as accepting; the thing is, maybe Daryl should be stricter, maybe some of the rides he allows Sophia to choose for them aren’t exactly safe or advisable for pups. They do have age restrictions, he notes belatedly. It’s just that the age restrictions don’t apply when the pup’s going with a guardian.

Rick smiles at him, though, immediately assuaging his fears. “Well. With the pup going , yeah, I’m fine with it. I’m a bit worried about myself, to be honest,” he jokes. Or is it a joke? He’s smiling, but his eyes look serious. A little anxious. 

“Could hold yer hand,” Daryl offers softly, so as the pups don’t hear. He’s not going to hide his feelings for Rick from Sophia, he couldn’t even if he wanted to, the girl’s too perceptive for that - but he wouldn’t want to reveal anything to Carl if Rick prefers his son not to know. 

But then: “I’d definitely take you up on that, if it’s technically possible,” Rick replies mischievously. “Unless your little girl has something against it?”

“Nah,” Daryl assures. “She gonna tease me forever, but she ain’t gonna mind, not really.”

“Good,” Rick says. But then he sighs. “Those benches look really small though.”

The queue moves frustratingly slow, though the pace turns out worse for the pups than it is for Daryl who can at least pass the time stealing sidelong admiring glances at Rick when he thinks nobody is looking at him. It’s so amazing, being able to watch the man interact with his son. From his own childhood, Daryl doesn’t have a great frame of reference for father-son relationships, but he can tell that Rick’s definitely a great dad. Carl isn’t nervous or fearful around him, nor withdrawn like Sophia used to be in those early days; he asks questions, curious and bold, and even demands ice cream at some point. 

“Only one scoop, and after the ride,” Rick replies sternly, and the pup’s reaction is to pout. “No pouting! Your mom’s gonna have kittens if I let you eat too much junk. I already agreed to pizza night, didn’t I?”

At that, Carl relents and returns to a conversation with Sophia about some animated movie featuring a talking shark. 

“He stayin’ with you?” Daryl asks a few moments later, when there are only a few people in the line in front of them and Carl and Sophia clutch their toy sharks excitedly. 

“Carl? Only for the weekend,” Rick says, shaking his head. “He’s got school on Monday. I’m sure his mother won’t mind me taking him for the summer once school is over, though. It’ll give her time to spend with her new boyfriend,” he finishes somewhat bitterly. 

Daryl feels a sudden need to comfort him, and he discreetly touches his hand in silent reassurance. He’s awarded with the warmest smile and Rick twines their fingers together, holding his hand shamelessly like he doesn’t care who might look at them. 

When Daryl was much younger and understood even less about the way the world is supposed to work, he was under Merle’s influence for a time. It wasn’t a good thing, he realized later: Merle wasn’t a decent guy. In fact, Merle was the furthest thing from decent. He hated everyone, including Daryl on most days; and obviously, he had a very low opinion on everything he considered unnatural. Funny, that: a dude who’s basically a weird human-shark hybrid going on and on about how human skin colors and sexual proclivities were not natural. Like there’s anything natural at all about rough skin and rows of teeth in a human mouth. Like there’s anything natural about being able to breathe in saltwater. 

But it took a long time for Daryl to call bullshit on what Merle thought and what Merle said. For years he shared his brother’s opinions, calling them his own: that black people ruined America, that gays were trying to take over and destroy traditional family values, that women were made to serve men. He doesn’t think he ever really believed any of that, it was more an attempt to fit in with the crowd his brother ran with, but he’s still ashamed of himself. 

Even though he’s changed so much since then, as evidenced by his friendships with Aaron, Eric and Jesus, he’s still ashamed of having been the kind of person who would’ve sneered and spit on himself and Rick holding hands. 

So he squeezes Rick’s fingers tighter, trying to pretend he doesn’t know he’s blushing. Sophia looks at him, at his and Rick’s joined hands, and smiles knowingly, completely unperturbed; Rick is the one who grins back at the girl, winking at her like she’s just become privy to some great secret. 

Then it’s their turn to get on the giant swing ride, and Rick and Daryl get separated: the bench seats fit two people and of course, the pups need to be paired up with their guardians. Rick sends Daryl a vaguely panicked look and Daryl waves at him, giving him a small smile filled with what reassurance he can offer this way. He really would’ve preferred to be on the ride with Rick, to be able to continue to hold his hand. He’ll have to take a closer look at all the future rides to veto those where they all couldn’t be together.

The ride isn’t even that extreme, honestly, just a fast spinning swing which makes for some centrifugal force and mild pressure changes. Sophia screams throughout the entire duration of the ride, but it’s happy screaming: Daryl knows how to tell. If she was really scared, she’d be cuddling against him, not throwing her hands up and letting the whole world hear her. It’s interesting to watch because Daryl can’t help but marvel at how humans are so illogical sometimes in how they behave. They love to terrify themselves, be it with monster stories or with high-adrenaline rides at amusement parks. Sharks are so much simpler.

Then again, that’s because sharks really don’t have the mental capacity to do things for fun.

“I’m never doing that again,” Rick informs everyone after the ride. He’s pale and vaguely shaky, and Daryl doesn’t even try to resist the urge to hold his hand again. He’s not prepared for the magnitude of Rick’s gratitude: the way the man looks at him, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his lips upturned into that wonderful smile, his hand warm against Daryl’s skin. It’s downright irresistible. 

“Are you my dad’s boyfriend?” Carl asks, squinting up at Daryl, no doubt measuring him up against some sort of mental image of what’s acceptable dating material for one’s parent.

Rick’s the one who replies: “Yes, he is,” he says, and smiles .

Carl looks from Daryl to the toy shark in his arms, then at Sophia, then at Rick and back at Daryl again. He seems to finally come to a conclusion, and nods. “I approve,” he announces resolutely. Then he smiles, too, and it’s so easy to see he’s his father’s son in that smile. He points towards the Ferris’ wheel. “Can we go there now?”

Daryl looks to Rick, who nods. “Sure, lil’ man,” he agrees easily, knowing he has Rick’s blessing.

“Ice-cream first, though,” Sophia reminds them slyly. 

They get ice-cream. Rick relents and lets Carl have two scoops, Sophia gets two as well, Rick takes one. Daryl doesn’t get ice-cream because he’s all too aware he needs to be keeping his teeth hidden, and anyway, he’s not over-fond of cold snacks. Unless he can have them at Carol’s place by the bucketful, half-melted and creamy, as he watches National Geographic on TV. 

He gave some ice-cream to Henry and Lydia once. They didn’t appreciate the flavor, but they didn’t hate the experience. Aaron used it as a focal point of a dissertation he wrote about taste buds of Great White sharks and how their dietary choices are affected by their inability to taste some specific flavors. While Daryl’s own taste buds are more similar to human norm, he also doesn’t actively go after sugary treats.

Except for chocolate of course. He loves chocolate.

“You sure you don’t want some?” Rick asks, pointing towards the ice-cream truck they’ve left behind. 

Daryl shrugs. “‘m fine,” he promises. 

Rick hums thoughtfully. “Would you like to try mine?” He offers. 

His scoop is Belgian Chocolate, and it smells wonderful. Daryl frowns, unsure of how to proceed. On the one hand, yeah, he wants to try Rick’s ice-cream. On the other, how does he do that without revealing the teeth? Again. 

But Rick doesn’t wait for an answer and lifts the scone in Daryl’s face, and left with no choice like that, Daryl sort of just kisses the tip of the ice-cream scoop without opening his mouth too wide. It works, and he then suckles on his lower lip to gather the taste. It’s even sweeter this way, for some reason, especially when Daryl notices Rick staring at his lips. 

“The Ferris’ wheel now!” Carl announces, and heads on to lead the rest of them towards the ride he chose. Rick follows, shaking his head, and Sophia stays a few steps back with Daryl.

“So, mom told me you were sweet on someone,” she says. “I like this guy, he’s nice. A bit old, but you’re old too, so that’s fine. And I guess he’s good looking.”

“Ya gotta point, squirt?” Daryl asks, swatting at Sophia’s hand when the girl tries to poke him. 

“I have point, and that point is, well done,” Sophia replies with a grin. “Though maybe don’t kiss your boyfriend in front of me? You know, same deal as with mom and Zeke. Old people kissing is gross.”

“Yet ya never mind when guys on movies kiss,” Daryl reminds her. 

Sophia rolls her eyes. “People on movies wear make-up so they don’t look old,” she explains patiently like she’s talking to someone particularly slow. “Also, none of them on movies are my parents, so. You know. It’s different.”

Daryl ruffles her hair playfully and laughs when Sophia squeals so loud, Rick and Carl turn back to check up on them. Catching up, Daryl continues to chuckle at Sophia’s indignation as the girl tries unsuccessfully to tame her hair which stick out in all directions from behind her headband. Carl offers to help and pats awkwardly at Sophia’s head, and Rick takes the opportunity to plant a very quick, almost-discreet kiss in the corner of Daryl’s mouth.

“You’re great with kids,” he whispers. Daryl doesn’t have the time to reply, though, because:

“Ewwww! Daryl, what did I tell you!” Sophia protests, making a face.

So the only thing Daryl can do is pick Sophia up by her arm and her leg, and swirl her around so fast she starts scream-laughing as she holds onto her toy shark for dear life. She sways a little on her feet when Daryl sets her down, so he pulls her into a quick hug for support. 

“Doncha get too annoyin’, Soph, or so help me, next time I’m droppin’ ya,” he warns jokingly. 

“Sure,” the girl replies somewhat breathlessly. “Can we go to the Ferris’ wheel now? And can Carl go with me? I want to show him where I live.”

The Ferris’ wheel age restriction happens to be quite low and it turns out Sophia can get on a ride alone with Carl. Unfortunately, the toy sharks have to stay, so Rick and Daryl bravely volunteer to take care of them while the pups have their fun. There’s a wooden table with benches around it nearby and they sit there to wait. Daryl takes a moment to closely examine Sophia’s shark toy, attempting to discern the species it’s supposed to imitate. It looks vaguely white shark-shaped, but the head is too round and the eyes are brown. Daryl doesn’t know if there are any brown-eyed sharks. Orcas can have brown eyes, he thinks; but not sharks. Maybe the toy was made by somebody who’s never met a shark before. Or it’s an orca in disguise. That’s possible, too.

Only after a moment of glaring suspiciously at the toy does he realize Rick’s been conspicuously silent. He looks up at the man and finds that Rick is watching him intently, like he’s trying to figure him out or something. He’s not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing.

“You know,” Rick says, now that he has Daryl’s attention. “I went ahead and searched the Internet for any sort of clues. It wasn’t easy, I’m bad as they come at using the Web, so maybe that’s why I found no results? Or I was looking for the wrong thing.”

“Wha’cha mean?” Daryl asks, frowning. It’s not what he was expecting to hear.

“Your teeth,” Rick says calmly. “I was wondering if it’s a disease or a mutation? Or maybe it’s just something you did to yourself for, you know, the cool factor?”

“You… saw my teeth,” Daryl mutters, and swears under his breath. 

Rick nods. “Well at first I only saw you chewing a chicken leg with bone like it’s pudding,” he amends, “but then I looked closely and yeah. I saw your teeth. They’re pointy, aren’t they?”

“Not exactly,” Daryl replies and sighs. “It ain’t something I done, okay? And it ain’t a disease. But ‘s not the best place to talk ‘bout shit like that.”

“I can come meet you tomorrow night,” Rick offers. “After I drop Carl off to the airport. His grandparents are coming to get him,” he explains.

Daryl nods. “Okay,” he agrees. It’s strange; he’s feels like he should be panicking, but he’s not. He’s strangely peaceful about the fact Rick saw. Maybe it’s because Rick himself doesn’t seem exactly spooked. He appears to be intrigued, if anything. He’s definitely not running away. 

“Just so we’re clear, whatever it is that’s made your teeth like that, I don’t mind,” the man assures quickly. He chuckles. “Though I admit it made me a bit nervous at first. Those bones were hard, man…”

“Ain’t felt that way,” Daryl supplies sheepishly. 

Rick nods and touches his hand. “Anyway, I’m not nervous anymore. I meant what I told Carl. I’ve been mentally calling you my boyfriend since that first date.”

“So for the last like, three days?” Daryl asks - and grins, not as wide as he normally would in front of trusted friends, but still wider than he’d ever dare with a stranger. It shows enough of his teeth that it’s clear they’re not normal, but if Rick wants to examine them closely, he’s going to have to wait until they’re not in public. 

“Shut up,” Rick scoffs playfully and swats him on the shoulder. But then, more seriously, he adds: “I’m going to kiss you now, if it’s okay with you.”

“Don’t gotta ask,” Daryl says firmly.

Rick smiles, and leans in - and kisses him, all soft and gentle, and he doesn’t make any attempt to push his tongue into Daryl’s mouth or anything like that. No, the kiss remains somewhat chaste, lips on lips, with their hands entwined and their thighs touching. Eventually, however, Rick draws back and licks his lips.

“Daaaaaaaaaaad,” Carl whines, approaching, and Daryl didn’t expect the pups to be back so soon. He supposes he should have; the rides aren’t really that long after all.

“I told you, adults are gross,” Sophia tells the boy and reaches for her shark toy. 

Just to spite them, Daryl quickly kisses Rick again, just a peck, really, but apparently enough to weird them out. Then, to make it up to them, he and Rick take the pups to one final ride of their choosing before it’s time to call it a day.

And when they say goodbyes after that, Rick squeezes Daryl’s fingers and leans in to whisper, “Tomorrow, I’ll come by at nine. Will you wait for me?”

Daryl breathes, “Yeah,” and closes his eyes, instinctually awaiting another kiss. Which he doesn’t get, and when he opens his eyes, Rick and Carl are already a few feet away and Sophia is smirking at him. It’s okay though. He only needs to wait a day. 

It’s not like anything bad can happen in one day.

Chapter Text

As it turns out, there are at least a couple of bad things that can happen in one day.

Daryl is woken up at six thirty by a frantic knock on his door. He answers groggily, only to be greeted by a rather scared-looking Carol who says:

“Something’s wrong. With the sharks.”

-to which Daryl quickly pulls on a pair of pants and grabs a t-shirt which he puts on while running. Carol leads him to the feeding pool on the north-eastern end of the family tank which is closest to where Henry and Lydia were seen last. Everyone’s already there: Professor King, solemn and serious, and Aaron, pale and wide-eyed, and Jesus, biting his lips and searching for answers in his tablet, and about a dozen other people who Daryl has no time to greet.

“What’s wrong?” He asks quickly.

“Lydia bit Henry,” Eric explains, “but we think it wasn’t a mating bite. He’s bleeding profusely, and the courting was interrupted-”

“I’m goin’ in,” Daryl says, and looks at Professor King for his assent. 

The man exhales a long breath and nods. “I hate to be asking you to do this,” he says gravely, “but we have no choice. Henry needs immediate medical attention. The bite was unfortunate, his first dorsal fin is almost torn off. It severely incapacitated his ability to swim. He’s going to suffocate if nothing is done.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Daryl assures him. “Got any visual? Need to see the damage.”

Jesus hands him his tablet which displays the video feed from one of the drones. Henry is visible there, floating feebly just above the bottom of the tank, and just like Professor King said, his dorsal fin is mostly gone. Daryl swears under his breath.

“We need Denise, she gotta be on standby,” he says. 

Someone goes to fetch the doctor while the others look at Daryl. He feels weird under the scrutiny, especially when Carol fetches his bodysuit so he can get changed. He’s never been ashamed to get naked in front of people before, but right now, when he’s being stared at, it feels incredibly uncomfortable. At least his friends are there to form a barrier between Daryl and the people who don’t know his secret yet. It’s about to change, he’s sure; there’s no way they can send all these people away without arousing suspicion, and anyway, everyone’s already aware that Daryl’s about to dive with the sharks. 

“Hair’s gonna get in the way,” he mutters, and Jesus hands him a hair tie. Daryl nods thankfully, gets his hair under control and looks very closely at the tablet’s display. The camera doesn’t capture much of the area too well, but he’s quite sure he can see Lydia’s immense silhouette looming in the background. Which means she’s hanging around, and that - that’s a good sign, actually. A sign that it was really an accident, not an attack. So the situation is salvageable and there can still be shark babies in the outcome.

As long as he saves Henry.

“We gonna need a replacement fin,” he announces, “a temporary one will cut it for now. Gotta be a strong material, but flexible, like, like... “

“A swimming flipper,” says Denise Cloyd, approaching. She looks tired and the look she gives Daryl is wary, but she’s there, and Daryl appreciates it all the same. There’s a flurry of movement as two of Professor King’s undergrads run to the souvenir shop to procure a pair of flippers. Daryl thinks Henry’s gonna look ridiculous with his dorsal fin replaced by a piece of flexible plastic with the Alexandria Institute logo printed in the middle, but it’s a good idea all the same. Of the life-saving kind. He says as much to Denise.

“Finding a flipper wasn’t a problem, but getting it to stick will be,” the woman warns. “Will you be able to sew it on?”

“If he don’t thrash much,” Daryl replies, inclining his head in confirmation.

“Then better use epoxy, it’ll work short-term, before we come up with a better solution,” Denise advices, and hands him a can of the adhesive and a fanny pack he can secure at his waist so his limbs are free to move. “It’s already mixed, so you have to work fast. I grabbed it from Tara’s workshop, so you better replace it later, okay?”

Daryl blinks, then remembers that Denise lives with Tara Chambler, the ocean floor architext. They’re mates, if he’s not mistaken. So it makes sense Denise has access to Tara’s stuff. Useful stuff, as it turns out. 

“Thanks,” he mutters. 

Denise rolls her eyes and pats her on the arm. “Just go and save that shark,” she demands, and Daryl promises to do his best. The undergrads return with the flippers and a portable laser cutter they use to cut the flippers into the desired shape. Somebody provides a length of fishing line which Daryl uses to secure the new fin pieces to his sides so they don’t give him trouble, and someone else hands him a knife and a convenient sheath he can fasten around his thigh for easy access. Just in case. He’s pretty sure he won’t need it for protection, but it might be useful if he needs to adjust the size of the flippers.

With one final glance at everyone, he moves into position and finally dives into the pool.

The water tastes and smells very vaguely coppery. The bittersweet tang of blood makes Daryl’s nostrils flare, and he finds that it makes it somewhat easier than usual to readjust to breathing underwater. It also makes him hungry, but it’s just a fleeting thought. There’s movement in the water beneath him, he can feel it in the receptors alongside his spine, and he heads towards where he can detect the impulses. He can sort of sense the drone with the camera observing his descent, but he ignores it because he can’t afford to lose concentration when each minute counts. 

Lydia is patrolling the spot where Henry has sunk. Her great form is magnificent as always, but it doesn’t take a biologist to notice the tension in her muscles, the anxiety she’s exhibiting almost tangible. She’s circling around one location, like she’s stalking prey, but Daryl knows that’s not what she’s doing. She’s on high alert as soon as Daryl draws near, ready to pounce on anything that might threaten her mate. The pheromones in the water are unmistakable, even to someone as ignorant in these matters as Daryl, there’s no doubt that Lydia already considers Henry her mate even though the actual mating act hasn’t happened yet. 

“Easy, girl,” Daryl mutters, and the vibration of his voice in the water is familiar enough to the female shark because immediately, she relaxes and pushes her nose into the welcome embrace of Daryl’s comparatively puny human arms. Like she knows he’s here to help, Lydia seeks comfort in Daryl’s touch, and it’s amazing to have this kind of trust from a beast as powerful and as wondrous as a Great White shark. 

It’s not that Henry completely stopped moving. His whole body is attempting to compensate for the missing dorsal fin that helped him keep afloat, and it’s more-or-less successful. He sort of crawls low above the sandy bottom of the tank, which allows his gills to filter water in a slowed but somehow sufficient attempt to breathe. From up close, Daryl can see that the damage is less severe than they all thought. While the first dorsal fin is badly torn, the base seems okay and it looks like no piece of the fin is missing. From Daryl’s experience, damage like this can heal over time if the shark in question survives. 

Obviously, he’s here to make sure Henry survives. Sewing the fin together would be best, he can see that now, but it’s not something doable down here in the deep, especially not with Henry’s frantic movements he does to keep himself alive. The epoxy glue will have to do. Daryl retrieves the can from the fanny pack and approaches the shark.

He hums a little melody that he’s been using to identify himself to Henry and Lydia since the beginning of their acquaintance. The male shark’s eyes follow him as Daryl circles above and then takes hold of the dorsal fin by the rear tip. The most damage is above the spine, cutting through the anterior margin of the fin and across its side towards the rear. The bite was clearly accidental; if Daryl were to hazard a guess, he’d say Lydia was trying to grab hold of the erogenous area between the two dorsal fins, but she miscalculated and her teeth caught on the fin. She just doesn’t realize her size sometimes, which happens with the largest females of the species sometimes. Daryl remembers a story Professor King told him about a great twenty-foot female rescued off the coast of Bali a few years ago; apparently, the shark misjudged the distances while chasing a colony of fish and got stuck in an underwater cave that proved too tight for her to swim through. 

They’re just not great mathematicians, the sharks.

Carefully, Daryl adjusts the floppy fragment of the fin and then applies a generous scoop of the epoxy glue which he spreads in a thick layer on both sides of the fin, down at the base and up at the tip, steering clear of the damaged tissue. The paste catches nicely on the teeth on the shark’s skin and Daryl quickly retrieves the pieces of flippers. He presses them to the fin on both sides to serve as a sort of cast. 

Here ya go, he thinks. Almost immediately after the makeshift dressing is applied, Henry stops thrashing to fight to keep his body upright. It can’t be comfortable, this emergency patch-up job, but at least it seems to have worked: without any further ado, Henry is able to lift himself off the bottom of the tank and glide slowly in a wide circle. He doesn’t attempt to throw Daryl off as he swims, which is a good thing because Daryl is still pressing the flippers to his fin, waiting for the glue to cure. If he recalls correctly, the marine epoxy requires about two hours to fully cure, so he’s really stuck down here with the sharks for some time.

It’s alright. He missed them over the last couple of days when he wasn’t allowed to swim with them, and anyway, it doesn’t look like Lydia or Henry are very hostile this time. In fact, if he didn’t know they were just in the middle of a mating dance, he wouldn’t have noticed any difference in their behavior from before. 

Safe, he signs to Lydia, making sure to use the one-handed gesture she understands. The shark swims closer and snaps her jaws in a manner which clearly conveys a thank you, just like Daryl taught his shark friends earlier. And then she does something Daryl’s never seen a shark do before, Great White or any other species: she goes hunting and then brings the prey - tuna, which Daryl guesses was dropped down by the team on the surface as soon as they saw the operation succeeded - Lydia brings the big piece of tuna to them and drops it right in front of Henry’s open mouth. 

She feeds him. Defying everything Daryl’s ever known about any shark species, Lydia goes and returns many more times over the course of the next two hours, each time carrying more meat which she then lets Henry have. It’s incredible. Astounding, even, because there’s not supposed to be a nurturing instinct in white sharks. They don’t care for their young after they’re born, they sure as shit don’t form bonds outside of the mating season, and they’re generally considered to be selfish eaters. After all, they don’t consider it tactless to eat each other in some situations. 

But Lydia apparently doesn’t care much about human considerations. 

After a bit more than two hours, Daryl finally releases Henry’s dorsal fin and is relieved to see the makeshift cast stays in place. The solution isn’t permanent, he’s quite sure it won’t even be enough to last the entire recuperation period, but it’s good enough for the time being. Daryl has no doubt Professor King and his staff are already coming up with something better to assist the shark’s healing. Something that won’t restrict his movements like the flippers; it’s clear at first sight that Henry isn’t capable of making sharp turns and swimming at his full speed with his handicap. 

Sorry, Daryl signs at him and the shark blinks at him. He’s neither angry nor confused. He’s just a shark, and he does what sharks do: he bumps his nose against Daryl’s side, and he eats the offerings Lydia brings him from time to time. Then he swims towards Lydia and buries his teeth in her underside. Without paying further mind to Daryl’s presence, he mounts Lydia, fully intent of using the opportunity now that the female doesn’t fight him.

Daryl blinks, and when he registers what’s happening, he rolls his eyes and swims away. Not only would staying feel like intruding, he’s sure the rise in hormone levels will cause hostile actions if he remains within the shark space for too long. After all, his own hormones are triggering, too, so he has to make himself scarce.

The water feels so nice, but Daryl hastily swims towards the feeding pool he started out from. He comes out of the water, assisted by some hands helping him stand as he heaves, his body making the necessary transformation to breathe surface air again. There are voices, familiar and happy-sounding, and many people come pat Daryl on the back, congratulating him on a job well done.

“Got food?” He asks when his throat no longer constricts around gulps of air, and almost everybody laughs in response.

Carol beams up at him. “Sure. There’s a giant breakfast waiting for you,” she says. Professor King, who normally doesn’t let personal matters intersect with his job, has an arm around Carol’s waist, and Daryl thinks they look good together. They also smell good. Some human couples are ill-suited to each other in terms of their smells: their respective scents combine into something unpleasant, sometimes pungent, other times just revolting in a nonspecific manner. But Professor King and Carol, they make a good combination in this aspect. 

“You did something extraordinary for us today,” Professor King tells him. 

“Wasn’t nothin’,” Daryl protests. The job didn’t turn out to be half as dangerous as he expected, and anyway, someone had to have done it. He was just the most natural choice. 

“It was everything,” Aaron says, adamant. He puts a hand on Daryl’s shoulder. “Without you, Henry would’ve died. The Institute owes you for this.”

“Come on, it’s time to feed you,” Carol announces, pulling Daryl along before the atmosphere becomes too awkward for him. As they’re leaving, Professor King is explaining to everyone how the news of what events transpired this morning cannot leave the walls of the Institute. 

It seems that Daryl’s secret is out, and it makes him a little worried.

“Don’t fret,” Carol tells him in the cafeteria, right before she sets a full tray of raw chicken legs in front of him. It looks like a whole day’s supply of meat, but Carol doesn’t seem too bothered when Daryl begins to devour the pieces like a starving shark. 

She smiles, instead. “Nobody is going to say anything,” she assures. “I know you think of the sharks as your friends or family, but those people who saw you today? To them, Lydia and Henry are priceless assets. You saw who was there. Undergraduates who think they’re lucky to be working in the only place in the world which managed to keep Great Whites for an extended period, in good condition. Staff members who devoted their entire careers to the research of white shark mating habits. If you hadn’t gone in the water today, they would’ve lost an irreplaceable resource. Believe me, they won’t go talking to anyone about your surplus teeth.”

Which reminds Daryl, he’s got a date with Rick that evening. He smiles before devouring another piece of chicken. Rick didn’t get scared off by his teeth. He doesn’t understand what Daryl is, not yet, but he’s not terrified. That means there’s a good chance everything between them will work out. After all, Rick didn’t mind holding Daryl’s hand in front of his son for the entire day at the amusement park. 

It’s gotta mean something.

“What are you smiling about?” Carol asks, narrowing her eyes to look at him.

Daryl swallows the meat and replies, “Nothin’,” which is a lie so obvious, normally Carol would never let it slide. 

Today’s not normal, it seems. 

“Okay, keep your secrets,” the woman tells him, then sits down across from him at the table with her own breakfast - waffles with strawberry sauce. “By the way, Sophia approves of your boyfriend,” she adds after she’s had a few mouthfuls of food.

“Good,” Daryl says, and finishes the last chicken leg. 

“Just good? You’re not going to explain how she met him?” Carol inquires with a raised eyebrow.

Daryl licks his fingers, taking a moment to consider if he’s in a sharing mood. Finally, he nods and says, “‘twas a coincidence. He was at the amusement park with his son. We sorta decided to hang out together.”

He tells Carol about the Saturday spent together with Rick and Carl, and he even explains about the date he’s got planned for later today. Through it all, Carol listens, and it’s not difficult to see from her expression that she, too, approves of Daryl’s new relationship.

“You seem so happy when you talk about him,” she explains when Daryl points that out. “If he makes you happy, then I can’t really disapprove, can I?”

They chat for a while longer before Carol decides she’s got some work to do on her paper. Left with a lot of time to do shit, but no shit to actually do right now, Daryl returns to his room and gets dressed, then goes out to town. The plan is to drop by the closest bookstore, buy Rick’s books and go back, which he accomplishes in a timely manner. At least with the second book. The first one, This Sorrowful Life, he finds on the bargain shelf, hidden behind a romance novel and something with a very sparkly cover. It’s a signed copy. Daryl smiles to himself as he pockets it after paying.

On his way back, he meets a vaguely familiar man in front of the Institute. It takes him a moment to remember where he’s seen him before: it’s the well-dressed businessman dude who helped clean up at the beach that one time. He’s still very smartly dressed and he’s wearing sunglasses even though the day is rather cloudy. The smell of his cologne is just as harsh on Daryl’s nose as it was that morning on the beach. The man is talking on the phone, but when he notices Daryl walking past, he acknowledges him with a nod of his head.

Daryl nods back, wondering why the simple gesture towards him made all the hairs on his body stand.

He returns to his apartment and retrieves his glasses before he walks out to the enclosure with the beach that belongs to the Institute. He removes his shoes and rolls up the legs of his jeans so he can put his feet in the water as he sits at the edge of the pier. For a moment, he hesitates, remembering how his last foray into the ocean almost ended, but he supposes the threat here is minor. It’s not so deep that a killer whale could go unnoticed, and the water is clear, so he’ll see if anything suspicious swims towards him. 

With that resolve, Daryl takes out the book - the first one, the more personal one - and he begins to read. 

It’s some time later when he hears voices. He ignores them at first, too immersed in the story to care about background noises, but when they draw nearer, they become impossible to miss. Because he’s on the edge of the jetty, hidden from sight by the docked boat, the talking - arguing? - people don’t see him as they approach. Daryl recognizes the voices easily as Aaron and Jesus, and he frowns because they both smell agitated and sad and scared.

This can’t be about the sharks, right? Everything went great with Henry and Lydia. Somebody would’ve told him otherwise.

A little worried, but with his curiosity picked, Daryl listens in.

Aaron says: “This was a mistake, okay? Just one time, and it won’t have a repeat. It can’t have a repeat. Are we clear?”

“You said you’d wanted me forever, though,” Jesus protests, and Daryl frowns. 

“I was drunk,” Aaron snaps. “I didn’t want you. I probably thought you were Eric. I love Eric. He’s my everything. So let’s just never speak of this again-”

Jesus chuckles bitterly. “You’re a fucking coward, man,” he says. “Sure, tell yourself your lies. Truth is, you cheated on your boyfriend because you’re bored of your vanilla relationship. You said so yourself. Drunk or not, at one point, you said it.”

“Who cares what I said,” Aaron replies. “Paul, this- this thing, what happened between us, you’ve got to forget about it. You’re cool, you’re a good dude, but-”

“But what? You’re not interested?” Jesus asks, and Daryl hears Aaron’s sharp intake of breath before there’s a wet sort of noise followed by a soft, deep moan. A moment later, Jesus mutters, “That’s how not interested you are,” and Daryl can smell it: guilt, regret, overwhelming desire.  

Aaron wants, and he hates that he wants, and- and- what about Eric? Weren’t they mated, weren’t they absolutely devoted to each other? Daryl’s so confused right now, he doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly, he wishes he wasn’t so well-hidden in his spot. Maybe the two wouldn’t be talking like this if they knew they had a witness.

“Don’t worry,” Jesus says after a brief moment of silence. “I won’t tell Eric. He’s my… he’s my friend, though I sure as fuck don’t feel like a good friend right now,” he sighs. “But you’ve got to get a grip, man. Can you tell me right now, with absolute certainty, can you look me in the eye and say you’re never gonna do it again? With me, with someone else, no matter. Can you promise that?”

“I… I don’t know,” Aaron says, and Daryl frowns even harder at the hesitation in the man’s voice. “Fuck, Paul. This isn’t something I wanted, okay? If only you never came along-”

“No, don’t make this out to be my fault,” Jesus warns. “I never asked for this either-”

Daryl doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation, if there is any at all, because all of a sudden, something pulls on his leg. He curses and flails, and the book falls out of his hands into the water, and it startles whatever it is that was holding him into letting go. Daryl gets to his feet and backs away from the edge of the pier, staring into the abyss like he’s expecting something to jump out after him. Nothing does, and the surface looks undisturbed, like there was never anything there to begin with. 

Daryl lets out a long sigh, feeling the tension leaving him in waves. Did he make it up? Was there really something in there, or did a random fish brush against his ankle, triggering his brain into an overblown panic? 

“Fuck this,” he mutters, a pang of regret hitting him at the loss of Rick’s book. He’s going to have to return to that bookshop later. Maybe there were more copies. 

“Daryl?” Aaron calls from some distance away. Ah. Shit. Daryl almost forgot about this part. 

“Are you okay?” Jesus asks, coming closer. He looks very tired, Daryl notes. Much more tired than he was this morning. And he smells tired, too. 

“Dropped a book,” Daryl grumbles, and he looks at Jesus, then at Aaron. “I heard ya,” he announces, because he doesn’t think it’s something he should - or could - hide. “Dunno exactly what’s all been about, but ya guys better get yer shit together.”

“Daryl,” Jesus begins, but Daryl lifts a hand to stop him.

“No explanations,” he says. “From either of ya. Seen ‘nuff chick flicks to know what cheatin’ is, okay? And I know ‘s wrong. So y’all get it sorted out one way or another. Before someone gets hurt.”

He doesn’t wait for their replies before he turns back to leave. He thinks about poor, oblivious Eric who wanted his help proposing to Aaron. It makes him feel awful. He hates that he knows about this, that he’s probably supposed to be keeping it a secret. It’s almost like he’s just as guilty as Aaron and Jesus. It’s so stupid. Humans are so stupid. Why would they ruin a good thing like that? Weren’t Aaron and Eric to be perfect together?

Then it hits him: What if Rick and his wife were perfect together, too? And Daryl’s just like Jesus in this scenario. The reason something good is ruined irrevocably, something so good that it produced an amazing pup like Carl Grimes. Yeah, Rick said their divorce was almost a done deal, but maybe if Daryl didn’t come along, they would’ve found their way back to each other. 

Mood soured, Daryl shuts himself in his tiny apartment and stays there for the entire night. His phone flashes a few times with new text messages, but ignores it, turns around to stare at the wall. His excitement to see Rick from before is completely gone. To be honest, doesn’t think he wants to see Rick ever again. 

So, yeah. Enough bad things can happen in just one day to make it absolutely fucking suck.