Done for the kakasaku community's AU fic contest on lj. I started nine days late, so let's hope that I can finish by the deadline. Doozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
A/N: For those of you unfamiliar with mermaid lore, selkies (from Irish/Scottish lore) are seals that can shed their skins to become humans and put them on to become seals again.
Inspired by The Little Mermaid from Disney, the story of the same name from Hans-Christen Andersen, and The Sea Princess and the Sea Witch from A Treasury of Mermaids: Mermaid Tales from Around the World by Shirley Climo. Dedicated to my friend Debbie who helped me find the book from my childhood, and the public library system that has fed my mermaid addiction for years and has allowed me to binge once more.
Disclaimer: Do Not Own Naruto.
"So wait, you humans don't eat your catch and instead sell it to people who've never worked a day in their life and live far away for small metal circles?"
Kakashi glanced down at the seal—mermaid. Mermaid because today was that one special day of the year when she changed back from a seal into a mermaid—and looked up sighing. He had spent the entire afternoon trying to explain to his female companion the reason why it was important for the men in the village to catch fish. Though she now understood the basic reason, he wished the social and economical reasons behind the fishing industry had stuck because it made him sound a lot more cynical and snide as her teacher when she put it that way. (He was a much nicer guy. Really!) However, too exhausted to deal with another three hours of questioning from the spitfire marine maiden, Kakashi just sighed tiredly and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Something like that."
In response, his companion vaulted off the back of the rock she had been sunning on into the water and once surfacing, jetted the salty liquid from her mouth and languidly backstroked in the nature-made shelter of the tide pool. "I don't understand you guys. Back home, we ate what we caught and traded shells and other items for things we couldn't get ourselves. Humans are strange creatures," she mused aloud.
"You're one to talk, Sakura," Kakashi muttered softly into his hand, ignoring the heated glare aimed at his face. "I'm only being honest," he said in exasperation as he rubbed the back of his neck agitatedly. "Explain it to me once more. How are you a mermaid that got turned into a selkie?"
Sakura eyed him critically, annoyance swimming in her bright beryl-green eyes as the setting sun set her pink hair afire, making her seem like those temperamental fire goddesses he heard about from islands far away. Soon however, like always, those feelings melted away and she set about telling the story of how she became…this, starting from the top as her lids lowered and her mind swam in her memories, oblivious as Kakashi followed along to the story he'd memorized by heart and never tired of hearing.
"I was born to Lord Dan and Lady Tsunade in the South-Middle Ocean not far from here," she always began, waves of emotion crashing behind the reflecting pools of her eyes as she remembered her childhood—of happier times. She was the only child to the king and queen of a prosperous undersea kingdom. Because of her pink hair and green eyes, she was named after her mother's favorite flower when Tsunade had stayed in the Sea of Japan where she met her husband, and was lavished with presents and the love of her parents. However, her birth-father had suddenly come down with a blood-illness that poisoned him from the inside-out. No one could do anything for him, not even her mother who was a healer renowned throughout the seven seas. They watched him wither away as he continued to love them until the very end. A cloud shrouded the kingdom for two years until her mother remarried a family friend, Lord Jiraiya.
She grew up under the care of her governess, Shizune, who was also her mother's lady-in-waiting. Growing up, she often snuck out of lessons to explore the areas surrounding the castle or play with her friends because she hated studying. However, Shizune bribed her into coming back to the study sessions by promising to exchange lessons in healing magic and music for math and history. By the time she was kidnapped, she was proficient in the healing arts and knew over fifty songs.
Now, once in a while, her mother treated her to a trip to the surface—your human world—where they would spend the day walking on the shore and exploring. Back then, this was normal since all merpeople could change into human form and they had to practice walking on two "legs" in order to walk among humans, usually when they were young as to not draw suspicion from the land-dwelling humans. Sakura would look forward to these trips the most because not only was she able to spend time with her mother alone, she was also able to eat her favorite food: apples.
It was on one of these trips that Sakura had been snatched. Trips to the surface usually took place within the boundaries of the South-Middle Ocean, but as they were preparing to return to their kingdom, a sea-sorceress named Anko conjured a storm, tearing the two apart. From what she remembered from stories from Shizune, Anko was the student of Orochimaru, a powerful sorcerer who was defeated and killed in battle by her father, Dan. Half of it was supposedly because Orochimaru craved power; the other half, because he had been in love with her mother. After the death of her master, Anko had sworn vengeance on the Royal Family and the trip had been the perfect opportunity to enact her revenge. As the storm raged, her mother was flung back to the kingdom while she was flung here to a small fishing village on the European coast.
She was twenty-six when that happened. To put her age equivalent to a human—because merpeople aged differently than humans—she had been 13. Once here, Anko enchanted her to live as a seal in the cove where the witch lived, only regaining her mermaid form for twenty-four hours on the day of the Harvest Moon. Any effort to escape beyond the scraggly reef that bordered the open ocean would conjure a strong storm that would be too treacherous to brave and throw her back into the cove.
And so, she was trapped in the body of a seal, doomed to swim the same area of water over and over again. She would spend the rest of her days sitting behind the cropping of worn-rocks that sheltered the calm waters of a quaint tide pool large enough for her to stay in; she would never wander the shore in her human form again; she would never sing again; she would never see her parents again.
"Instead, cursed to live as a seal by a small fishing village on the European coast," she would finish, same as always.
The rest of the story was something they always left unsaid because they both knew what happened. After the shock wore off, Sakura was struck with the full brunt of her circumstances. Not wishing to live a life without music or seeing her family again, she decided she would rather waste away and refused to eat, even as the passing fishing boats prodded her with their oars offering squid and small children from the village offered her the vegetables from their plates (of course those times, she felt more like a convenient trash receptacle than a creature in need).
Finally, she felt the last tendrils of life pulling away at her body and let herself wash ashore, determined to die there when she smelled something familiar. It was sweet and heavenly and in her lucid state, she followed the scent, pulling her malnourished body along the sand until she smelt it right above her nose. Opening her eyes, right above her head was her treasure: a bright, shiny red apple held in the hand of an old one-eyed man.
The two stared at each other for a minute, not quite sure how to take the sudden turn of events as the seal stared at the one-eyed man and the man stared at the seal. Kakashi had only recently moved to the fishing village at the time. Having spent the greater half of the day discussing necessities with the mayor and avoiding new neighbor greetings, Kakashi had slipped down to the beach by the village to organize his thoughts and recover from the day. Not having eaten since entering the village a little after dawn on the cart of a friendly merchant, Kakashi reached into his traveling sack and retrieved from his pack an apple that he had picked up the day before when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a seal. Judging from its gaunt figure and lackluster light-grey coat, he figured the thing was just hungry. Unsure of whether seals actually ate fruit—would the stupid thing die if he gave it an apple?—he figured if it would make the animal go away, he could part with an apple, and tossed it a few feet away. Watching the seal follow after it like a dog watching a thrown stick, he waited until he saw the animal start to bite into the fruit before taking another one out. However, as soon as he took out the second apple, the seal was hopping back towards him.
That day, all nine apples went to the little seal he met. Looking at his rucksack in dismay—nothing. Not even a cracker to nibble on—he turned his saddened, defeated gaze to the seal who lay sated on its back, a smile seeming to pull at its whiskered lips. He was half-tempted to snarl at the pinniped, poke it with a stick—something to let the seal know that it had just robbed him of his only food source for the day. However, the seal was looking a lot better than when he had found it. Its stomach was rounder (though that was probably from the nine apples it just ate) and its fur seemed to have gained back some of its luster.
"Alright, you can keep the apples," he told the seal. After all, he wouldn't have enjoyed eating a meal if it meant letting a starving animal die in front of him, and who knew? Maybe it impressed some deity into rewarding him with a meal later. "I'll just try finding something else to eat tonight, even if I was hoping not to speak to those new neighbors of mine until three days from now," he said rubbing his hand over the seal's belly affectionately, letting his fingers glide over the black spots in its smooth silver fur.
At the touch, the seal suddenly sat up and ran close to the rocks of the tide pool, its eyes suddenly wary. Suddenly, it occurred to Kakashi that the seal might not have been used to human contact though it was brazen enough to come this close to shore and stare at him.
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Kakashi waited until the creature relaxed and watched as it inched further towards him. It seemed curious of his smell now, not that he was surprised. He had spent much of his life living deeper in the woods and didn't carry the smell of saltwater and fish on him. Keeping his body still, Kakashi lifted his right hand up slowly to just above the seal's head height. Back when he was a child, he would often do this to his dogs to measure their personality, as well as their trust in him. Curious to whether it would scamper away or let his hand rest on its head, he watched as the seal prodded the palm of his hand with its nose before landing back in the sand.
"Than-k Yo-u," it bellowed, stunning Kakashi into pause. After all, the seal had just talked…right?
"I should go find something to eat. I'm so hungry, I'm hallucinating," Kakashi muttered to himself as he bade the seal a fond farewell and picked his stuff up to head back into the village. He expected to never see the seal again after that day, but was not disappointed when he saw it the next day and the day after. The seal would watch at he cast his net and threw a line behind it into the water. Sometimes, it would go back into the water to cool off, but it never left his side and seemed to knowingly avoid the nets. The day after he met the seal yielded no catch, nor did the second day. However, Kakashi still treated the seal to one of the apples he carried in his sack after finding an apple grove a little way down the beach before going home, having unofficially tasked himself with keeping the seal healthy until it was strong enough to leave the cove.
On the third day after meeting the seal, Kakashi had set his nets out like usual and had been waiting on the edge of the tide-pool with his new companion—he couldn't afford a boat, so he fished from shore—but rushed home when he realized he'd forgotten something. When he came back, his nets were bursting with fish as the seal stood sentinel over his catch. Walking dazedly, Kakashi watched as the seal collected his catch and dragged it into shallower water. Spitting the ends of the net out to place a flipper on them so the catch wouldn't escape, it stared up at him with its large dark eyes and seemed to almost smile at him.
"Tha-nnk YO-uu!" it barked up at him from his feet, and that was the last thing Kakashi heard before he promptly fainted into the sand.
Once he woke up and convinced himself that he wasn't crazy and the seal was talking to him, he listened to the seal's tale of how it came to be here—the first time he heard Sakura's story—but in hindsight, it made sense how the seal could eat nine apples without dying and maneuver his fishing net. Peering closer into her eyes, Kakashi could even see flecks of green on the outside of her dark irises. (And if any cynicism and skepticism lingered after that, they were wiped away when she turned into a mermaid on the day of the harvest moon.)
Since that day, Sakura never left his side—something to do with merpeople always repaying a debt. Really, she was probably just lonely, poor thing—and the two became fixtures of the beach. Because he saved her life, however, Sakura was determined to pay it back in full within her limited ability. Because she still had the ability to talk to fish, she made sure he always had full nets, which he repeatedly turned down, asking for only average numbers since he was unable to dissuade her from paying him back. When she asked why—"wouldn't you like full nets so you can eat a lot?"—Kakashi had to explain to her that by catching that much fish, not only did it damage the ecosystem since too many fish were being taken out, but flooding the market would cause the value of the catch to decrease, which lead to their many discussions of human society in all its dimensions. Though discussions on economics always seemed to go in the same circles, Kakashi didn't mind since he got to hear Sakura's voice get stronger as she used it more in conversation. Furthermore, he enjoyed the level of conversation between them as they debated the merits of their various differences in culture.
They didn't talk all the time. Sometimes, they would sit on the beach and the only sounds would be the waves crashing, the gulls cawing, and the munching, crunching sound of apples. In fact, the duo had gained a reputation and as such, there were unspoken rules enacted in their fishing village because of it. Kakashi was now the sole caretaker of the seal, the beach was Kakashi's fishing grounds, and the apple grove belonged (unofficially) to Kakashi—not that he much enjoyed apples anymore. After eating three years of eating them with Sakura, he'd grown rather sick of them. Sakura seemed to tire of them also, only forcing down the fruit because it reminded her of her mother. But on days when he had to leave the beach to venture into the capital (a three-day journey) to check the market prices on fish and restock his supplies, he always picked a bunch of apples and left them next to her on the rock to enjoy in his absence, and each time, she would be still on the rock waiting for him, the apples untouched until he returned and they could share the fruit together.
She would lose weight on the days he wasn't there. Though he had told the village children to feed the seal for him and picked enough spare apples to last beyond the trip duration, Sakura seemed to only take one from the children a day just to humor them before she waddled off back onto the rock and waited for his return by the apple pile.
It seemed that Sakura didn't talk to anyone during the time he was gone either. Though a part of him was glad that her voice, as clear and pure as a ringing bell and soft as the waning hiss of ocean spray, was his alone to enjoy, it pained him to see her so dejected and lonely. She shot down every suggestion he gave, saying the sardines were too chatty, the gulls too repetitive, and no one else would ever believe that a seal could talk. And even if they did, they might not be as kind and understanding as Kakashi (something he apologized later for suggesting).
Once, he suggested that she sing her sorrows away. It was the day of the Harvest Moon, and he was leaving on his trip the next day (he never scheduled his trips on the day of the harvest moon). By now, he knew Sakura was purposefully not eating when he was gone due to loneliness, and having heard that mermaids had lovely singing voices and loved music, figured there was no harm in suggesting it.
At the mention of music, something long forgotten seemed to awaken inside of Sakura. Her face suddenly glowed with joy and excitement and dragging Kakashi onto the rocks surrounding the tide pool, she drew in breath and summoned her voice to her throat.
She had been so excited to sing, to hear her voice again and not a bark, to reclaim another link to her home beyond the ocean's horizon and hear the songs she used to know by heart word for word…
So imagine her surprise when out of her mouth came not a song as lovely as a siren, but a sharp, hoarse bark like that of a seal.
Sakura, flustered, tried to dismiss it as nothing—that singing wasn't the most important thing in the world—that at least she could be a mermaid again once a year—but Kakashi had seen it. He'd see the hope on her face—the bright belief that she could own another part of her soul again—only to be wiped away by a hoarse seal bark, replaced for a brief second of horror and despair. He tried to tell her it was a fluke—that it was only because she hadn't used her voice in so long—but the damage had been done, and Sakura, with a wistful look in her eye, vowed never to sing again.
Fast-forward to the present, where Sakura was sixteen and Kakashi was about to turn thirty, and Kakashi could see that look was once again in her eye. Every harvest moon, it was like this. When she became a mermaid; when she looked out at the sea. He could tell that she was thinking of her old family and how they were doing—if they were still trying to find her—if they even remembered her.
She continued to stare out at the sea as the sun set further on the horizon, the first stars of the evening appearing in the sky. The light sparkling off the water's surface reflected in her eyes, as dazzling as any king's crown, as the setting sun dyed her hair a warm orange. If he listened close enough, Kakashi could make out a few bars of a song struggling to fight past Sakura's iron grip on her emotions.
The tide began to come in steadily. If it was anywhere else, the tide would've probably been up to his hip, but the cove seemed to buffer the moon's power in that aspect. He'd heard that the village never flooded despite its proximity to shore, and briefly, Kakashi wondered if the sea witch's magic protected this place as well as it cursed the young mermaid. Just then, something washed up from the water, brushing against his toe.
"A shell," he said picking up the small object and holding it between them. Her tail flapping against the rock languidly, Sakura took it from between his fingers and held it for inspection, smilingly fondly at the small item.
"Scallop shell. We used this as currency sometimes because it helps bone health. A few more and you could trade pretty nicely with this," Sakura commented as she turned the shell over and over under her gaze.
Kakashi chuckled and withdrew a few metal coins from his pocket. "That's why we work so hard to get these small metal circles," he said continuing their talk on economics, "Believe it or not, but we can trade pretty nicely with these."
Sakura, skeptical, raised a brow challengingly. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Oh…I don't know. Maybe this?" he said as he pulled a familiar bright red object from nowhere. Sakura's eyes widened to the size of saucers.
"An apple? But I thought you said these were out of season!" Sakura exclaimed cradling the fruit gently.
"They are around here—they'll be available later in the year—but they were available in the capital," he explained before ruffling her hair affectionately, "See? Those small metal circles aren't so useless after all."
And with that, Kakashi bid farewell to Sakura for the night, walking through the small forest path from the beach to the sleepy little fishing village on the European shore.