A/N: Quick disclaimer, Darla's background inspired by SuperCarlinBrothers' Youtube video theory on her origin. I like that Pixar has antagonists that aren't aware that they're antagonists, and I wanted to give Darla that benefit of ignorance too instead of her killing Giggles and the dentist being like, 'Ah, it was just a goldfish.' Also, rant: The name of the goldfish that Darla shakes to death is Giggles, not Chuckles. Chuckles is the clown from ToyStory3. Bubbles clearly says "Poor Giggles" in the movie. Why is he called Chuckles in all the articles and fanfiction I've seen? And…I think Darla's hair is read…if not, tell me and I'll fix that.
The lines that the ocean's culture tried to draw in bold noticeably began to blur before long. Gill learned, little by little, about bending some rules just enough to benefit in the long run; he learned that as society evolves and new discoveries come to light, rules can and sometimes should be changed; he learned that sometimes, rules must even be broken in certain situations; but most importantly, Gill learned that ocean life couldn't transfer to tank life as nicely as his old school hoped would be possible. The rule about ocean fish never interacting with birds of prey was set to be broken when a certain brown pelican literally came flying in to the lives of the tank gang one day.
Gill's skull home had only one open eye: the eye closer to the window. Usually, he was awoken by the sun around midmorning. Growing up in a cave, he didn't exactly rise with the sun, but he still learned to judge the time of day by its position. Usually, his tank mates would all gather at Peach's end of the tank where the unnatural light was and watch the dentist from there. So when Gill woke earlier than usual, and not to the sun but to their voices far closer than usual, he rose immediately. He floated just out of sight and watched, weary and critically. Why were they all at the window? They all seemed casuall and they were all talking, but they were directing their attention to the windowsill and not the dentist's chair.
And then Gill heard a new voice. "I'm Nigel. I've always been curious about what goes on here. I'm glad you—what was your name again? Bubbles. I'm glad you saw me. Mind if I watch with you all?"
Gill was frozen: A pelican! A pelican sitting right near an open fish tank. He felt like a fishsicle as he continued to observe. Everyone was introduced and Nigel seemed friendly enough…didn't act like he'd swoop down and pluck one of them out of the water.
The tank fish didn't seem to stay weary of him after too long. And soon enough, Nigel was meeting them all right on schedule every day to enjoy Dr. Shermann's work day as much as the fish. Not having the instincts that were so crucial in the wild, the tank fish had no trouble welcoming Nigel with open finns. And Gill found he felt terrified for them, should they ever end up in the wild. Thank Neptune that wasn't a possibility.
Now Gill's trouble came when he woke after Nigel arrived (which meant he couldn't take his time finding a good hiding place to watch the humans). This didn't happen all the time, but Gill was growing more and more grateful for his skills in being discrete. But Nigel, being a hunter by instinct, did spot Gill eventually.
"Hey, you. Black and white stripes."
Gill froze where he was…so close to being concealed by those plants.
"I haven't met you yet. I'm Nigel. What's your name?"
Gill said nothing.
Nigel spoke more gently now. "You're Gill, aren't you? Peach says your from the ocean. I'm not gonna hurt you. I hunt the gray fish and crabs that live in the harbor. I can tell just by your colors as well as your spines that you wouldn't be a fish I'd want to eat."
It took a long time before Gill was comfortable being in Nigel's sight. And even then, he hardly said a word or even made eye contact with the bird. Nigel understood why Gill was behaving this way, of course, and so didn't take offense. But besides those instincts, Gill was also secretly clinging to the identity he had left—the familiar rules he had brought from the ocean. What was he without the ocean? He couldn't betray his roots…but the last thing he wanted to do was to create conflict; he'd done that in the ocean without even trying—why do that willingly here? He had decided that tolerating and keeping the peace was a better alternative to forgetting his youth. Like a bubble-maker or a reflection, detaching, neutrally observing, and not interfering had become a coping mechanism learned from a previous home.
But life had to get just a little more complicated when one little human in particular actually became life-threatening to the fish! Darla was the only human that Gill ever disliked. And even then, underneath all those negative feelings he showed, he secretly pitied her: he knew that if she was aware of what she was doing, there was a possibility that she could change. If Darla had known that she was hurting and scaring the fish by being so rough, then maybe she would have thought twice, and then she would get more positive attention from all of them. Gill couldn't show a soft side, though; better to make everyone else think that he didn't like humans, because then they could never think he would want to be close to them.
The day started out like any other: with the gang gathering near the dentist and Gill moving through the plants to look into the waiting room. There weren't many adolescents today—just juviniles—children, Gill corrected himself—and young adults. The adults were parents, and were preoccupied by watching their young, so Gill wouldn't get any attention from them. That was okay. Gill liked the children. Some of them ran around and played with noisy play things, and some of them sat quietly—some even nervously. One pretty and shy-looking girl played with a miniature fake human that she called "her dolly." One energetic boy was dashing around with a play thing, making funny noises…and nearly knocking other humans over until his mother scolded him. Some children were gathered around the glowing box with moving pictures and were watching some bright flashy something on it. Gill forgot about everything but watching the humans, as usual, until a disinterested-looking human male came through the door and talked to Barbara the receptionist. A little girl came in soon after, on the arm of a stone-faced woman. But although she called the man "daddy," she called the woman "nanny," not "mama." And then, to Gill's surprise, Dr. Shermann emerged from around the wall created by the tank and called out, "Darla! How's my favorite niece?"
Darla's face lit up and she practically flew over to Dr. Shermann. "Uncle Phillip! Guess what I—"
The dad interjected and spoke to Dr. Shermann with a superior manner about what the day would bring, how Darla's nanny would take her to the opera house to watch his rehearsal and then Darla would come back in the afternoon to spend time with her uncle before her dad took her out to dinner.
Darla reached out to tap her father's arm. "Daddy?"
Her father ignored her. "I really am glad that you could take her for awhile today, brother."
"Oh, it's her birthday! Besides, if she's really good for you two, all the more deserving of her birthday present later."
Darla was excited again. "Present? Oh, Uncle Phillip, yay! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She jumped up and down, darted away from her nanny and dad, and then tackled her uncle's legs in a little kid hug.
But at a gesture from the dad, the nanny grabbed her charge and pulled her off the dentist. "Darla, sweetie, calm down and behave."
The dentist's brother left with his niece and her nanny shortly afterword, and Dr. Shermann sighed and went back to his office. On the other side of the glass, Gill was frowning. Poor Darla...why were the other humans treating her like that? All she wanted to do was be excited.
Several hours later, the human families had trickled out of the building and now there was no excitement in the waiting room, so Gill swam back to where the rest of the gang were congregated. And he spotted Nigel disappearing in the direction of the harbor—perfect. Gill thought the pelican very likable, but he just couldn't shake off that predator vs prey dynamic. Stupid ocean rules. He really wanted to like Nigel, too, but it still seemed too difficult.
Gill's tank mates were addressing someone outside the tank wall again, so Gill approached wearily. When he came up next to Peach, though, he realized that there was a goldfish in a small bowl sitting on the counter not too far away from them.
"Who's that?" Gill asked Peach.
Peach smiled broadly at him. "Hey, Gill. This is Giggles. He just came from Fish-O-Rama. But he's a freshwater fish, so I'm not sure why the dentist braught him here." The others always called him the dentist, nothing else.
"Hi, Gill!" Giggles called cheerfully. "I'm happy to get an owner, but they tell me I won't live with all of you. Why is that again?"
"Saltwater," answered Gill. "Water with a different composition."
"Ah," said Giggles before his eyes glazed over. "Sorry. I zone out quite frequently. My memory isn't too bad I think, just my attention span. So, you think I'm moving into a bigger bowl? This space is okay, but just okay. Hey, who's coming in? Oh, it's that guy who baught me! Hi, Guy! What are you doing? Oh. Another bag. I hate these things! Darn, he got me. Now I have to lay around in this cramped thing. If he's taking me back, why bring me home at all. Wait, he's leaving again! Come back, Guy!"
"He'll be back," Bloat reassured. "So, you excited about getting a human?"
"You betcha! I've watched them walk around for so long, and now I get one of my own! I just hope it's one I'll like. Sometimes I wish we could choose our humans instead of the other way around. I mean, I thought that guy was my human, but if I'm in a bag, then probably not, so who is it?"
Bubbles did a flip. "That's the exciting part!"
Giggles blinked. "What were we talking about again? Oh—humans. It's always been my dream to have a human of my very own. My own human to feed me and my own human to watch and just knowing that that human will be my home is absolutely exciting!"
"It can be such a gamble, though," said Gurgle. "But I do admire your optimism."
Dr. Shermann's voice came from the other room. "Well, Barbra, Darla's present is almost ready for her. She'll be here in a few minutes, right?"
"Right, dear. You got the present all wrapped and everything?"
"It's just a goldfish. Just gotta toss it in a box. Besides, it won't be in there long."
"Oh. She loves fish, doesn't she?"
Bubbles piped up again. "Wow, you're a birthday present! That sounds good! You get a little human child too—I heard they love fish! And I bet they'll take extra good care of you if you're a present!"
"Oh I hope so. Maybe it's just my breed, but I am fond of humans."
Gill was secretly super envious: a pet. And the way Giggles talked about having a human…if only Gill could have that…to be part of a family with a human…but some of his tank mates were giving Giggles looks of incredulity and almost-pity. It made Gill wonder how much freer he could feel if he could have been put into a tank with goldfish. A Moorish idol in with a bunch of goldfish…ridiculous.
Dr. Shermann had just placed a box holding Giggles' bag out of sight when the door slammed open with a force that seemed to shake the whole building—it shook the tank gang up, at least. And in bounced Darla, red hair flying around and shout-singing, "It's my birthday! It's my birthday! I'm seven now 'cause it's my birthday!"
Dr. Shermann laughed as Darla rocketed into the room. "How's your birthday been so far, sweetie?"
Darla bounced in place. "It's—been—so—o—o—o—o—fun! Fu—u—u—u—u—un! I—had—a—hu—u—u—ge—ice—cream—cone—and—I—ha-ven't—e—ven—had—cake—yet!"
Whatever ice cream cones and cake were, Gill wondered if Darla needed them at all. All the pent up excitement was exploding now, and Gill felt almost nervous looking at a creature so much larger than him bouncing like that. Thank Neptune she didn't bounce into the tank.
"Well, I hope your daddy's buying you a trampoline," Phillip said, "because that sugar gave you a lot of energy! Have you even gone out and played since last weekend?"
Darla stopped bouncing. "Nah. All three of my friends were having family weekends. With their dads and their moms." Her face had fallen, and she stared through the tank. Bubbles drifted by her, and she smiled briefly.
Dr. Shermann looked kind of sad too. He turned away so Darla couldn't see his forlorn expression. But after a few minutes of a still-figety Darla staring at the fish and tapping on the glass several times in a row (holy shrimp, Gill had never had such a headache), Dr. Shermann spoke up. "You know, I think I have something that will cheer you up!" And he held up Giggles' box, decorated with a bow.
Darla's ear to ear grin was back. "My present!" And she lunged for the box.
"No, no, this is a very delicate present. Sit down here, that's a girl. Now open it gently. That's it."
With surprising tenderness, Darla lifted up the bag. "I could be like my mom!" she whispered. "I could be like my mom and take care of fish, and then maybe dad would let me talk to her more."
"Be careful—remember, the fish is alive like you are."
"And I get to keep him?"
Giggles smiled at Darla. "Hey, you're pretty and you look happy. You'll take care of me, right?" He stared directly at her, and she stared back. "You'll try. I know. That's enough for me. Won't live long, but I'll make it a good life."
"He's yours!" the dentist declared.
But with that realization, Darla seemed to forget her uncle's warning. She shrieked with delight, jumping up and down, and tossed the bag up in the air. At another warning from her uncle, the bag stayed in her hand and she settled onto the huge thing that patients laid in to get treated—a chair. It was a chair.
"Oh…dizzy…kind of dizzy," Giggles panted.
"Now," Dr. Shermann said, "let me get my camera and we'll take your seventh picture." He reached over to a frame sitting nearby and removed the picture from it. "Your sixth picture will go-?"
"In the box at your house with all the other ones, and the seventh picture will stay in the frame no matter what and go there next year when I turn eight, and you'll keep going until there's a box of 17 pictures, and then I'll get the box when I'm all grown up and turn 18, and the 18th picture will go straight into the box," Darla said like she'd rehearsed it (she probably had been doing this for a couple birthdays).
"Very good." And he left the room.
Darla lifted the bag up to her face again and smiled at Giggles.
Giggles smiled back.
Human girl and Goldfish both giggled.
Gill closed his eyes and suppressed a sigh, wondering why he tortured himself like this.
When he opened them, Darla was very gently swinging the bag in her hand. Her feet were tapping on the floor. Pretty soon, bag clenched tightly in hand, Darla was swinging harder and higher and longer. And more. And more.
"She's making me dizzy," Gurgle growned. The others were looking anxiously away, too.
Her uncle came back into the room, camera lense up to his eye. ("Oh, so that's a camera," Peach murmured.) Darla turned, the photo was taken, and then her dad entered the room.
"Darla, love, Daddy's assistant made a mistake. Our reservations are a little earlier than expected. Buuuut—they're at Pizza Planet!"
In a flurry of excitement, the birthday girl and her father took their leave. Not a single human seemed to notice Giggles' position in the bag, but on her way out, Darla swung her present into full view of Peach, Jacques, and Gill. Giggles was lying flat on the crinkly plastic, water all above his belly. Floating…belly up.
Gill felt completely numb as he listened to Peach somberly relay the sad news to the rest of the tank. Debb and Gurgle both burst into sobs. Bubbles' whole body seemed to droop, but he and Bloat only gave heartbroken looks and resigned nods. Nobody ate their fish food that night.
Humans…humans as predators? Why? Gill stared out of the skull's open eye, seeing nothing. The read light from the toy volcano looked like a fiery blur. Everything looked…less. Less vibrant. Less cheerful. Humans were so fun to watch until that afternoon…why did Gill have to see Darla do that?
If the fish of the ocean were wrong about all humans being mindless destroyers, had his tank mates been right to treat humans as a means of survival and a mild source of entertainment? Was Gill's wishful view of humans just…untrue? Maybe Quinny was just an innocent child, and innocent children were always cute…maybe the kinder humans were just too rare…maybe the majority just didn't care about marine creatures…hopefully the destroyers weren't in the majority, but Gill had no idea.
Something pink moved into the red. It was Peach. "Gill? Are you okay? That was a stupid question. Look. I don't know how it is in the ocean, but in tanks and petstores, it's not uncommon for fish to live short lives. Life itself is a gamble, like Gurgle said, so you learn to appreciate what you have and, well, you learn to move on if someone passes."
"In the ocean," Gill replied softly, "there's always the threat of danger. Predators can be mindless and hungry. Prey just fight to survive. The rules are really straightforward there…it's easy to tell what fish are allys and what fish aren't if you know what to look for. But up here…we depend on humans, Peach—or at least we're supposed to." Gill's voice rose. "Why would they hurt us if they're supposed to help us?"
Gill was shaking. Peach reached through the eyehole with one arm and gently draped it over Gill's back. After a minute, she spoke again. "Humans aren't so black and white. Look beyond that symbiotic relationship and it's just…too complex. It's rare to find a human that treats a fish like the dentist treats us, even. We're all really lucky to be here."
"So ocean clear roles and black and white predator and prey rules; above the ocean not so much." Gill leaned into Peach's arm. "Easier said than understood," he said.
Peach nodded and gave Gill a gentle squeeze. Look, just take some time. It's okay. Everyone needs to grieve."
It took a minute for Peach to pull away, considering the suction cup at the end of her arm, but neither fish seemed to notice.
No one bothered Gill for several days, at Peach's request. Gill hardly ate…only the little bits of food that made it close enough to the skull (he was sure that his tank mates were pushing it toward him as they swam past.) Sleep was full of nightmares about humans luring him into their hands before throwing him overboard to Tyranos, who was waiting with a sharp shark tooth and a whole lot of "I told you so." maybe Tyranos had been right to warn Gill about not forgetting where he came from. The ocean was easier to understand, even if he felt restricted there.
Although Gill had indeed been thinking about the ocean every so often, it was only do to clostrophobia, cabin fever, and (especially now after Giggles) a desire to escape fear-instilling, less-than-compassionate humans. Dr. Shermann's patients were always cranky and Gill knew that he was just a pretty thing to glance at there, despite Phillip's endearing treatment of all of them. Juvinile humans just wanted to bang on the glass walls to get a fish's attention or to agrivate Peach, or see Bloat inflate, and more often than not lately, if he was out of the skull, Gill just got a throwaway glance from an older human who murmured "pretty" before getting preoccupied with the real reason they were there. Gill was no longer the center of a human's attention—even for a moment. He supposed the rose-colored glasses would have broken at some point, but that thought didn't make the reality any easier to handle. And they didn't just break. They shattered…because they were crushed by an ignorant little child.
There was hardly any swimming space to think and relax, there wasn't too much expectation or too much to do; Gill began to understand how bordum could become insanity in a dumb old glass box, and his tank mates' strange habits seemed less strange after he understood this. The other fish began to watch the dental procedures even more intently, not unlike the humans in the waiting room focused so hard on that glowing picture box from time to time. Bubbles hardly ever let go of his treasure chest. Bloat and Gurgle's arguments, though infrequent, only ended when Bloat blew up. Debb began to grow closer with her reflection. But Gill had nothing but his thoughts, and those couldn't really distract him or help him cope. And humans just reminded him about Giggles' fate instead of distracting him. So he stayed out of sight.
The other fish had taken notice of Gill's behavior. Noone could understand why he had taken this so hard. To the other tank fish, sudden accidental death by human, though terrifying and devastating, was just one of those dangers of their environment. It was like Gill had never seen death before, the way his apitite had almost completely vanished and the way he brooded in the darker parts of the tank, trying not to be seen.
"You don't know anything about me!"
Debb flinched as she heard Gill's yell pierce the water. She turned around, trying to pinpoint where he was, and she saw Bubbles apprehensively swimming out from the fake plants.
"I told him that he should stop being sad," Bubbles said softly. "I told him that there are plenty of things to be happy about, and being happy is good because it makes being sad harder, but he didn't want to be happy."
Debb glanced at Flo, the fish who gave Debb courage and strength no matter what, and then looked at her friend. "Gill is...uh...well, I think fish from the ocean just...are different from us fish in tanks. I don't know why, but maybe because there are different rules there, the fish are different."
"I've never seen a fish be so scary before. Do you think the ocean makes scary fish?"
"I don't know. Maybe fish there have to be scary because of pre—predantors? Whatever that word was."
"Wonder what those are."
Bloat and Gurgle had glided up. "Predators," Gurgle said. "Creatures who kill and eat other creatures. The creatures who get eaten are the prey. I know only because...well, I just know, okay?"
"Number one unspoken tank rule," Gurgle hissed. "Stories are shared only when their teller is ready."
"I'm sorry, Gurgle."
"Bubbles," Bloat said gently, "We gotta respect Gill. Even if we never know anything about him, we have to make him feel comfortable in this tank. It's not right to let a tank fish feel unwelcome or unwanted. And if that means giving him some space and letting him lead, then so be it."
"Gill needs someone, that's true, but he won't let any of us help," Debb said. "I tried too, Bubbles. Nobody can get through to him. Bloat's right—let him come to us."
Jacques gestured as he floated by. "Look."
The shrimp had a habit of drifting in and out, near and far, and of saying a lot in very few English words (he preferred French, but he learned enough English to get by).
The other fish looked, and saw Peach resting an arm on Gill's side as she spoke reassuringly to him. "Don't worry about Darla. Giggles knew what could happen…it's just common knowledge for tank fish. But we have a really great human. The dentist takes care of us."
Gill's gaze softened as he looked at Peach. "I know. I know that we all got lucky. And I'm grateful. But I can't help my instincts. I'm on alert now."
"Only Peach can break that armor," Gurgle said with a sigh. And everybody knew it. Peach was the closest out of all of them to understanding Gill.