A note: This, "The First Hour at the Carnival" and "Dragoneyes" are a three-part attempt to put some okayish buffer stories in between my really old, somewhat cringey high school works and the upcoming pieces that I really care about. "The First Hour at the Carnival" is by far my favorite of them.

This was inspired by that one YoukaiYume fanart of pirate queen Sakura rescuing mershark Kakashi. Meant to just be just a basic fun, swashbucklin' adventure piece with a hint of merman crushing on pirate woman. Tone, dialogue and atmosphere heavily influenced by the book "The Lies of Locke Lamora," which would be a generic "clever street urchin makes it big in a fantasy city" book if it wasn't so goddamn funny. In the book, thieves and other underground scoundrels refer to each other as "All the Right People."

The slug markets were mostly mummery but the fish markets were never fake. The creatures on display at a real fish market were unquestionably, uncomfortably real. They attracted citizens from the innocents towns nearby, businessmen from everywhere, lovers of exotic cuisine and pets, and hiding among that mixed crowd was all the Right People, who brought the real money with them on invisible strings and credit lines. The fish attracted the people attracted the money attracted a seafaring woman named Sakura Haruno. She sailed to the market to look for the Right People and their victims. Not to kill them, probably, but definitely to complicate their lives.

The fish market was a yearly to-do on the main continent, usually in the Fire Province because they were ritzy as fuck in the urban areas over there and the money flowed especially strongly through the bustling market towns of Konoha and Suna. Sakura, a native raised with a middling to modest amount of ritz, was happy to return. She was on the deck watching through her scope to catch a view of the incoming market. It rose from a dot on the horizon to a fuzzy bubble down the shore to a three-mile wide zoo on the long beach. It was made up of people in a massive range of colors and fashions walking around a haphazard map of glass-and-metal enclosures filled with water and monsters. Before the setup teams had begun dragging the cages from ships onto random spots on the shore, they'd stuck the traditional spike from an urchin whale shark into the sand to mark the center of the space: a thirty-foot-long spine plucked from an aged male who had probably been eaten by well-paying customers at this point.

She needed a scope to see close-up views of the place but Sasuke did not. He was something of a fish market freak, too, but a bird rather than a fish, and his rare quality was not that he was an endangered, dangerous or delicious species, but that he could see far away when he wanted. It strained his eyes, though, so his spying prowess was not used frequently. The two of them were looking at the oncoming shore in two halves: Sasuke looked at the glass boxes holding the monsters of the sea, Sakura looked at the people walking around them.

"I see a row of greenboards," he told her.

"I don't care," she told him.

"Downhill from the inn. There's a long glass case for an ink bloater. Its hide is blue."

"I bet we'll see Zabuza walking down that aisle sometime," Sakura remarked airily. "Since he's so damn insistent on chopping them up himself. Or maybe he's sunken to catching them for other buyers now. There's no one wearing his colors that I can see."

"I've been looking, too. Nothing for the men of the Mist."

"Gato is here somewhere. When I find him, I'm going to punch a hole in his wallet and his guts."


"I disagree."

Knock-knock went the wooden wall not far below them. Naruto was catching their attention from a lower deck by banging something on another thing, which was not uncommon. "Sakura-chan! We just got a bird from the shore, from Kiba! He says there's some new species this year! And Suigetsu's there! And there's a mermaid on the main grounds, literally a mermaid!"

"There's literally no reason for you to still be in your sleeping clothes at this time of the morning," Sakura called back down to her sloppily dressed friend.

Naruto raised his arms and his smile. "I was up till four last night. I just woke up, my shift just started. Can't have a break in like three straight days, you're killin' me, Sakura-chan!"

"You can have yellow oyster at the market for free, is what you can have, you dense walnut, once you get dressed." The captain returned his smile as always and turned back to the important sights. Naruto and the other hands dressing and arming and relaying plans to each other was no matter to her now. The matter was of money this time, as for every fish market. The matter was what scumbag bitch to take it from, and where she would plant the earnings.

It could go to the fever-eating tonics, to the arthritis medicines, to the salves that ate infection from animal bites like lifting fog. Sakura had experiments and amounts drawn for a solution that might fade cataracts and remove the need for a surgery and for a handful of other things besides, but ingredients for any of these were expensive and in short supply no matter what corner of what continent she searched. The last ten or so years of her life she'd done away with most of her guilt for taking the funds for her research as she did. Drinking and cats and patients who walked cheerily back to their lives from a hospital bed made her accept it. Naruto and Sasuke helped.

Today, Sasuke also helped. He was squinting a little just now. "I see Ei's men."

"But not Ei? Where are you looking?"

"Near the east side of things. They're all staring at a Topeye octopus. The box is wider than it is tall and the water in it's pretty dark, if you can find that."

"Yes, I see them. I see Cee. Haha. Well. They'll be after what we are as well. And. Ah. I spy Danzo. From home."

And they watched Danzo for the majority of the remaining trip, who behaved as though he were aware of the espionage, such as it were, and stared nonchalantly at all the remarkable sea creatures on display and not once at the approaching ships. The Red Blossom was one of half a dozen ships in the Shiori Bay creeping close enough to lay anchor, and several dozen more eyes were also peering curiously at the market, and some of these watchers had eyes for Danzo. Sakura and Sasuke watched Danzo feign interest in orange octopi that could unlock doors and understand math, two-headed seals and baby urchin whale sharks that fired sad little volleys of spines at the glass walls encasing them.

Sakura lost her view of Danzo for a while to watch the baby sharks and their upset expressions and twitchy dorsal fins. She glanced a little further left at giant turtles and remained caught on that sight till the hands dropped anchor.

Naruto would be accompanying her to shore, certainly, as would Sasuke and Lee. They'd meet up with Kiba on the shore soon. She dropped into the landing boat first and took the first oar for herself. Lee attempted to take it from her, once, as his rigid morals demanded, and then stopped. He and Naruto and Tenten took the other three while Sasuke sat serenely on the middle bench.

They rowed. Strangers and the odd acquaintance were in small rowboats nearby, from the nearby galleons. Onoki, who was probably six hundred years old or something like that, was rowed by a team of growling men and women from the tiny Stone continent. Deidara and Sasori, fugitives, thieves and artists, had a team of men rowing while they lazed on a bench, and a dozen others rowed madly to get to shore first and see this year's devilish fish and hunt their preferred color of coin and prey.

The Red Blossom crew members were not the first to reach the visitors' docks, but that was fine. If some idiot thought it was a race and speed mattered most, their shithead behavior left the real clues and real prey to the men and women of decency. And Sakura was quite a decent woman. Naruto hopped out of the rowboat first and lent her his hand to help her out because she was a decent woman, and also his captain.

Sakura, telling herself that she was an extremely decent woman and surely in the running for being one of the top ten most decent people walking around this festival of con artists and godawful fish odors, led her crew towards the festivities like a decent woman of the sea ought. She walked with confidence and a hard step with a hard, unforgiving boot at the end of it. She had some of her lovely pink hair pinned back as was her fashion these days, held with a ruby pin and her eyes and lashes just slightly painted. She had a captain's thin, easily-maneuverable suit, pink coattails and a heavy saber that could cut shark heads and men's heads and had some experience with each type. She followed the crowd towards the most popular attractions on the beach, and her men followed her.

The artist pair docked just before them and stayed out of the Blossom crew's way. Men and women of plain colors and clothes veered their heads to gawk at her strange hair. Men and women of seafaring color and clothing looked as well, and then looked away. Between the variations of stares, most folk who saw them coming stayed out of their path and so they made good progress across the docks.

"Seek out the food tents for all classes and prices," Sakura was saying while a pair of strangers speed-walked to avoid her space. "Once I know them all, I will seek Gato's first and avoid it. There are other men I'd like to see first."

"Are these men who'll keep quiet about your visit?" Lee asked.

"Yes, they will be."

"I imagine this group doesn't include Yagura."

Yagura soured her easy smile and she looked sullenly on one of the glass cases holding two giant white turtles, around which many young ladies had gathered. They were beautiful things with vibrant pink eyes and roving pupils within. "No. But you misremember our last meeting if you think he's worth seeking out." That stopped his line of questioning, but the truth was that none of the crew properly remembered the last encounter with Yagura, and he might well find her first.

They stayed together in a growing, waving crowd. Once the docks were out of sight, the crowd had a wider mix. Visitors from ships in the bay mixed with townsfolk and travelers and businessmen and a lot of weird clothes. Sakura pushed past two men in top hats and off-duty firemen holding two kittens each and Sasuke made a show of steering her away. The nearest cage was the corner specimen in an aisle of creatures gathered from islands in the south, unaffiliated with any of the continents, and most of them were fish with giant eyes.

"Don't think I don't see you scratchin' your ass Naruto, my eyes see ALL," said Tenten in a fishy voice.

"Yeah, I wonder what he's actually seeing," Naruto added as he passed the glass box. "I wonder if he can see." The fish inside had eyes bigger than her fist and a teeny circular mouth that portrayed an expression that was shocked to his smelly core by whatever he was seeing. The two boxes beyond this one had fish with four eyes each.

"My eyes see double-all," Naruto whispered. "I'm a Yorio Island fish and I need two pairs of glasses that aren't covered by my insurance."

No one was laughing. Even strangers in proximity to Naruto's impressions were ignoring him. He jerked back slightly in surprise and watched each stranger in turn, but they were all facing the main drag of the market, trying to get one aisle over. Naruto was the last of Sakura's crew to look where the collective's eyes were going, but he understood the appeal once he got there. Two aisles over was a cleared area of sand with makeshift wooden fences keeping the masses back from a platform the height of a man. On this platform sat a rectangular glass case filled with clear water, and in this water floated something that fit eerily the centuries-old frame of a mermaid. Surely, it was one.

It was half-man and half-fish as every story about them ever said. A man's naked torso faded into a fish's long tail, but it was no fair, voluptuous maiden with a shimmering tail, but a scar-stricken, muscled male occupying one half and a pale grey shark's tail taking up the other. It caught their eyes and stopped the operation of their brains for a good few moments as pirate and villager and lawyer and farmer all collectively tried to parse the sight of it. The fish market always had strange creatures, spiny things and terribly massive things and man-eating things. They never had things that looked like men.

The man's face was a handsome face and it frowned. It actually knew how to frown. Sakura was already pushing past the crowd of strangers to take a place as close to the wooden fence as possible to get a closer look at that frown, at the creature making a human expression. It pulled at her, and she pulled at Sasuke, dragging his powers of examination with him. The man-shark in the tank floated almost horizontally, rising up slightly so that his torso was above his tail, and then back, and then he moved around in the water and thrashed his tail to turn his body and look the opposite direction. His eyes roved not with curiosity but with distaste. And coloring all of his movements and his fantastic human expressions was an air of exhaustion.

Sakura had reached the fence and she had an uncomfortable grip on Sasuke's soft arm. He grabbed at her wrist and slapped at her and she eventually let go, as she had entirely lost interest in grabbing or touching Sasuke or anything else. Her hand was on a fencepost and she hardly felt the wood. Men with mugs of ale they hadn't yet touched were pushing into her back and it mattered little to her just then.

What mattered was Gato, who held her money and Konoha's money and lives, and if this creature before her wasn't his, then he wanted it. Unquestionably. He would take it from whoever had brought it. Brought him, because its body made it unmistakably male, whatever he was.

He was not an urchin shark. He was not a tentacled monstrosity. He was not a devilfish from beneath Arctic ice. But God, was was he? What secret sea had he been stolen from? He had a man's face and a shark's movement and swimming patterns but her mind framed him as a caged man and not a caged creature. Not a pitiable turtle in a glass box but a kidnapped man. Somewhere there might be a wife and shark pups with a father who might as well be dead. Men like Gato would cut his human body open and eat him. Eat him. Sakura took in a breath and realized with an uncomfortable start that she'd been holding it, or not breathing at all.

"Kiba said so," Naruto whispered in her ear.

"Kiba says a lot of foolish things," she said, though she didn't mean to whisper. "I want to get closer to it. I want to be sure it's not a man in a suit and it's no prank."

"You can see right where his skin stops and the shark skin starts. That thing's as real as we are."

She did see. It was not a man's body stuck into or wrapped around a shark prop. Human skin blended to shark skin and there were no bumps in the tail that spoke of legs pushing against fabric or other cringeworthy stage tricks. But of course, if the fakers were not cringeworthy, she would never notice. The man looked over the heads of all his admirers and watched the nearby sea. Sakura watched him and thought of all the watering mouths that must be pointed his way. There were at least a hundred gathered here just now, and surely some must want to cut slices of his rump for supper and others to explore his half-man body for highly experimental sex, and others that might be inclined to either one. Fish markets did attract a few fish fuckers.

"I don't think I'd enjoy eating him," Naruto added. "Wouldn't want to. My God, what if he can talk?"

What if, indeed. That addition to the fantasy would attract even more buyers. He might not be purchased as food, but he might be purchased as a pet. Perhaps that thought was just a little too ugly. A fat, scrunched-up man like Gato whipping a naked man-thing till he did watersport tricks for him made her want to wring the fucker's neck even more than usual. Men like Danzo or Onoki or Orochimaru picking him up and doing what they pleased, to this creature that was so close to a man, bothered her.

"You're looking at him like he's a sad kitten," Sasuke said in a tone most befitting a disappointed father. "He's not going to get eaten, he'll be taken for a pet. Someone will pay something extravagant and stupid to buy him a fancy saltwater tank in their garden."

"I, too, was thinking it would be uncomfortably close to cannibalism if a mayor bought him and gave him to his chef," Lee remarked.

"I was thinking about throwing him back in the sea," the captain said airily.

"What? Why?"

"Mm, can't help but see him as a man in a way. He may have a sharky wife and shark pups with no husband putting fishfood on the table. Even if he can't speak, he's got a better brain than your average fish." As she spoke, the man averted his eyes from the sea at last and cast cautious, studying looks at the crowd around and below him. He had structures like fins instead of human ears and the left one of these was slowly twitching and waving in the water. He busied himself with pushing his hands through his white hair and did not look at the two men climbing the steps up to his platform. With a squint, Sakura and surely many other buyers and onlookers noticed that the creature had eyes of two separate colors, and the strange red one was decorated above and below with an almost perfectly vertical scar.

Naruto was whispering in her ear that the fish man had been in some fights, it seemed, when the first of the two men on the platform started talking. The first one was Raiga.

"Oh my god," Sakura groaned. She thought about taking one of the mugs the men behind her were holding and throwing it. She could just make that throw.

"Who's that?" Lee whispered.

"A nobody who thinks he's hot shit," Sakura quickly hissed over whatever Naruto's answer was going to be. "Can't believe he even still exists. Who authorized him to even show up here?"

"I know, right? I'm suing."

"—greatest catch from any sea on this earth!" Raiga was saying. He'd combed his hair and tied it neatly and worn dignitary dress robes from Kiri that were entirely undeserved. "Call it what you will, a fish, a man, a new brand of devilfish, but it's a fuckin' mermaid if I ever saw one!" Raiga jabbed one fist on the glass case and the occupant looked at the back of his head, frowning and probably hating. Yes, the mermaid definitely hated him, or at least hated the sound of his voice. "We chased this son of a bitch from the bottom edge of the ice caps to the middle tropic for five weeks. He can survive any temperature, any storm, and almost any weapon. He may have bested other men before, but that day the fucker lost big time."

The crowd around them was cheering for Raiga's accomplishment. Men and women clapped and waved mugs and kerchiefs and tailored flags at him. Sakura eyed the second man on the platform, who stood stock-still. A hefty, safe sum could be placed on the bet that he or some other hidden or dead man was the one who actually had achieved that accomplishment.

"He's a creature unlike any other. Fast and smart as hell. He cuts through nets and if you throw a harpoon, he'll throw it back! He swims like a devilfish and fights like a man. He's God's greatest gift to the sea, I say, a gift I received and now he is mine to give, to whoever rightly pleases me the most."

Here Raiga paused because he caught sight of Sakura in the very front of the crowd where she had been the entire time. He paused and made a face a sour lemon could have similarly inspired, and she smiled gaily back up at him. He did not return the lady's favor. He pointedly looked away at a portion of onlookers that did not include pink-haired women. The merman's head lifted and moved to observe whatever Raiga had turned away from, and he looked directly at her. With the black-and-red eyes bright as flags, it could not be mistaken. The creature was observing her, perhaps because her hair color was interesting and rare underwater, perhaps because he had great interest in what made his captor cower.

'Are you looking for resources...A...means of escape?' Sakura thought. Even in her mind, the words were slow to form. Her breath was slow to come in. The greatest amount of her attention was focused on the man's eyes and shape and movement. A shark, a man, human muscle and leathery shark skin and a brain that supplied him a human's emotions. What did he think of this, of these people, of the fate of wherever his home and family was? She could give those last things back to him, and take what she needed of this place at the very same time.

Raiga talked about the creature being a ward of Kiri's state until rightly purchased, and if a suitable offer wasn't given, the creature would be donated to Kiri's governor and take his place as a national treasure.

"So everybody whose brains have switched places with their ass should make an offer so Kiri can kill them their families a lot quicker and have more breathing room for counting their waterfalls of money." Sasuke grumbled.

One of the mug-holding men by Sakura bumped Sasuke with his elbow and knocked him into Lee's side. "They're gonna stop hiding it one day and just say out loud 'so we can kill your families faster!'"

If he hadn't been occupied and made friends with the bearded, be-mugged fellow, Sakura would have tapped his hand to let him know there were plans to be made elsewhere in a quiet place. As it was, Sasuke was just barely too far away and much too distracted to receive the message. Sakura mulled over the growing idea on her own.

She made a different gesture to Lee, disguised as an enthused audience member's wave. She felt him still on her opposite side as she told him New plan, discuss elsewhere.

"Ma'am, I must say I'm starved after the last leg of the trip this morning!" he almost barked, but his body language was casual enough. "I could go start searching the food tents if you'd prefer to stay here."

"No, you're right, Lee, we should all head out and find some lunch somewhere," she called back with a giggle. Raiga and the merman watched her make a slightly exaggerated smile and wink. She and the Blossom crew took separate paths through the crowd away from the main attraction aisle. Each one was heading in a different direction, each one looking for a particular flavor of lunch. Each crewman knew hours in advance what lunch to seek out, where vendors would be spread at the market to buy new clothes and drop old clothes, where Kiba and Neji and Ino were stationed to relieve them in the case of followers or Kiri spies on their trail, and where Sakura would rejoin them to relay the final plan after sundown.

Most of the lunch patrolling these aisles and stalls would be new hires given that Sakura and Naruto had pushed a lot of the previous lunch into the sea a few months back, but they were plenty prepared in case Gato or any other rich scumbag de jour happened to have achieved competence in the past season. Also, lunch was their preferred word for Gato's money-hungry, slave-driving mercenaries, and Sakura in particular was looking forward to sitting on their bodies when she sat down to eat her real lunch.

The night was not young but had aged well, and under some beautiful, cloud-filtered moonlight, Sakura's sword was briefly stuck in a pile of sand like a makeshift Excelsior. She had a little laugh upon pulling it out. The explosion had worked all too well, and Deidara and Sasori left the fish market with bags full of black clay that was very valuable to those sad artististic types. Her ears were ringing and the lining pockets of her tunic bulged with gold slivers, making the escape run heavier and a bit more zigzagging than usual, but it was enough. She had a hefty amount of seconds to spare by the time the security team and a handful of nearby onlookers came running to see why the tropical seasons food tent had blown up.

Sakura, who had taken The Distraction upon herself, was a quarter mile away and hidden behind two other tents when the first guard was able to get a good look around. Now she ran, feeling cool wind on her bare arms and a delightful thrill all across her insides. This part was almost always Naruto's job, but the measurements had to be more precise than usual tonight, as she had no interest in murdering any bypassing civilian tourists. Her murdering interests were vested in Gato, but she'd had to settle for the poor thug he'd chosen for a money camel instead. There was always next time to castrate the ugly bitch.

She ran more. She ran past one of the many parties heating up the other food tents, past the pony riding tent and the most inland aisle of the fish specimens. From here, the tents faded out, and she was running past drunkards and glass cases full of sea creatures. She ran past the Topeye octopus, who followed her for the length of its case, and a Disgusting Barrelfish and an empty case where a beech seahorse had been before it had been filleted and eaten earlier that day. She ran through the aisles. She ran past the giant urchin shark spike in the sand. She ran to the main square, nearly unguarded, only two men left who hadn't been strangled by Naruto or Neji.

One of them saw her coming, and he had a spear pointed at her. He tried to shout, "Thief! Thief! Backup, resistance, backup!" but got about three syllables into that and the became language-less dribbles when she leaped forward, knocked his spear the side with one hand and socked him in his soft, soft gut with the other. He fell forward with an accompanying gurgling noise. She helped him the rest of the way graciously by grabbing the front of his tunic and heaving him behind her. The man tumbled once, twice, and settled somewhere she didn't see. The second guardsman just ran, but Naruto was waiting for him and gave him similar treatment.

All of this took place under the confused gaze of the merman just above them. His tank nor the platform on it had not moved, letting the world know that its owner didn't see fit to move the priceless, literally irreplaceable prize to somewhere safe, but rather guard it with twenty-year-old mercenary recruits who might have killed somebody once on accident in a tavern. It was resoundingly wonderful news, or terrible, and they were not staying long enough to be proven wrong. Kiba and the transport cart were coming.

Naruto sped over to Sakura and slapped his hands onto her sides, and dragged them up and down. Sakura held her arms out to be more easily felt up. "Dammit, dammit! Where'd you hide it? Did you get anything at all?"

"Around my back, moron! The cloth is tighter, it doesn't jangle. Hurry up!"

Making moronic, hurried noises now, Naruto whipped around behind her and pulled open the false seams, revealing pockets of gold slivers. "Oh, baby, baby. Look at it."

"Look at it later," Sakura muttered. Her arms had returned almost to their regular places at her side, but she was too tense to relax them fully. Though Lee and Ino were moving around her, pulling bodies across sand and hauling a ladder, she stood still, for the merman was looking at her. She had hoped he would. The weight of her cash prize relieved from her, she was ready to approach him. He seemed ready for her as well.

Surrounded by a new sea of glass cases and glass coffins for creatures that might be a type of brethren to him, he had endured the stares and salivating of hundreds of men today, and he looked weary for it. He looked like a human, yet again, and now he looked tense with anticipation. He hand one hand almost flat against the glass, his body almost horizontal in the water tank. His tail waved at the slow speed of a roving shark without hunger. His face looked like it was only just containing a scream.

Sakura ascended the seven steps up the wooden platform. She had pulled a piece of paper from inside her sleeve and was unfolding it while keeping eye contact with the man. Or the creature. She gave him a last breath of space by halting at the top of the platform and letting him take a long look at her. He took the opportunity, like a man would, to look her up and down and examine all the strange and alien things he saw. Things like clothes, and her strange hair, and a face that did not desire him for a meal or an amusement. She hoped like a young girl hoped, that he had a man's mind and heart to read these things. It would be seconds before she really found out. Her heart was too damn loud and staccato at the moment.

His lips parted when she came close. What would he say, if he could talk? Thank you, who are you, what do you want, go away, did you bring food, I would eat you alive if I could. All of those things sounded likelyish.

"Hello," said Sakura. Her crewmates were watching, wide-eyed and quiet. There was laughter coming from half a mile inland, some crackling fire, quiet water lapping at the beach. Might as well have been dead silent. The merman stared at her and her friends stared at her and lord only knows which of them actually believed the false calm she was shakily wearing.

This time she said, more clearly, "Hello, stranger. I wish you could understand me. I hope you'll read my tone if nothing else. Look here," and she lifted the paper and held it close to the glass. On it was one of her sketches. She had no talent for drawing animals, but the meaning was clear. A picture made up of several panels of him, spiky-haired and spiky-finned, in a tank, and leaping out of the tank, and then leaping into the sea while colored figures of herself and her crewmen, with hair and clothing colors to easily identify them, big him farewell while standing on a beach. "You see? That's you, there. You. You." She pointed at him and smiled. Maybe he'd try to mimic it like a parrot would. He didn't mimic it.

He eyed the paper, eyes traveling from one action-packed panel to read the full scene the next at least twice. The fingers of his left hand traced the shape of himself, and one of the figures that was her. "You understand me? This is what I'm here for. We're going to put you out to sea again. You can take yourself home. Go home. Out there, and be free again." She pointed towards the beach and the anchored ships and all the free sea. He glanced that way, once, and then returned his eyes to her. Now his human expression said something like fascination or wonder.

'What a beautiful face,' she thought in some amount of wonder herself. 'He's scarred and strong and not one ounce a fool. Why aren't you just a regular man, you gorgeous thing? I'd hire you. I'd kiss that beautiful face.' Nobody had to know that she was thinking such things about a fish, not till she was the right amount of drunk in front of the right people, and maybe at that point it could be funny. Not funny right now.

She had one more funny idea, and just enough giddiness in her to try it once before returning to the real business of the night's operation. She lowered the picture and folded it away. "Can you understand? Do you know any human language? Or maybe Raiga is the first human tongue you had to hear aloud. Ugh, you have my sympathy." She watched the shark tail wave a little stronger, once, twice, and his torso curled to the side just a little. Contemplative, or maybe that's just a thing he did when he floated. She lifted her hand, showed him two fingers. "Here. We'll do it simply. This is the number two. What number comes after two? Do you know?"

He looked upset now. From below the platform Naruto stage-whispered, "Did you just insult a mermaid? It's not his fault he can't do math!" Behind him the transport cart was coming, pulled by four horses Kiba had found lying around in someone's stable.

The merman tapped on the glass with his knuckles and it drew Sakura's attention back to him. His forehead was just slightly pushed forward, communicating seriousness, if he was thinking like a man, of course. Maybe it was just the floating thing again. Then he rapped his knuckles against the glass, a little slowed by the water, three times.

Around the mermaid's tank was a pirate crew with a collectively dropped jaw. "Did he just?"

Sakura held up her fingers again. The merman held up three and pressed his fingertips against the glass near hers.

"Ho. Ly. SHIT."

"He does math!"

Sakura's grin was massive. She could not stop herself from laughing. "Humor me again, you beautiful thing. What's two plus four?" She gave him no finger signal this time, instead letting her hands rest on her hips. She waited. Outside of her vision, Kiba had backed the cart up close to the platform and a bit of the water in the tank he'd brought sloshed into the sand. Nobody actually noticed. The merman held up five fingers, and one finger on the opposite hand. He smirked.


"Shut it, Naruto!"

"Sorry to patronize you," Sakura laughed again. "I had no baseline for how someone like you thinks, or if they would think at all. Your home is full of strange monsters." Here she paused, because he nodded, or inclined his head at her, while he smiled. She gave the expression right back to him and leaned against the glass a little. "Tell me, you have a name? I should have told you mine first. I apologize, I associate with a rude crowd and they've influenced me terribly. I'm Sakura."

His mouth moved in the shape of her name, and two tiny bubbles floated up. He'd spoken her name, not only mouthed it. She pressed. "Do you not want me to know it? I won't ask again if you don't want to share."

This time he shook his head, like a man would, again. The guy acted like a regular man. He certainly didn't belong in this literal zoo and overwrought fish convention. Sakura watched him bubble something up into the water that was two or three syllables long. She read the syllable "shi" on his lips at the end of it. Then he looked away from her at the pile of downed guards tied up in the sand and grinned at them. He bared little fangs at them as he grinned. Most of his teeth were human-shaped but for the front incisors, tiny tearing teeth, and slightly lengthened canines.

It reminded the captain of something that the last few minutes' revelations had totally blacked out of her mind. She held out a hand down at Lee, waiting by Kiba's cart. "Salmon," she said curtly, and he tossed up a dead fish at his dear captain. She caught the slightly slimy thing and held it up towards "Shi," who raised his brows and the curves of his mouth upon seeing it. "Strong and meaty for you. It was caught four hours ago, I hope it's fresh enough for your taste."

Shi was delighted. He lowered both hands from the glass and waited to be gifted with the food. Sakura obliged him. Naruto leaned up on his toes from below the platform to hand her an empty storage box and she lifted it up one-handed. Once she'd settled it quietly on the floor she took one high step up to stand on it, nearly a meter higher than she'd been before. Her head rose above the merman's and she looked through the snow-white bangs to the strange eyes.

"Should you try anything displeasing, our new friendship is finished. And your being taken to be the Kiri governor's pet will be your own business to deal with."

"Mmmmm," is what she heard from within the tank. Not a single bubble rose out from his mouth, but the gills upon his neck opened and closed once.

She went ahead with the risk. And for all the risk she was taking, all she was doing was climbing onto a box while holding a dead fish. She jumped from the box onto the top of the ten-foot tank and heard noises of rushing water from him following her movements The top of the tank was pure steel and triple-latched, but she had a fine grip and fine pliers in her pants pockets. She fished out the tool and held it in her stronger hand, gripped the first lock loop, and crushed the plier handles in her grip.

The crew jolted at an alarm horn sounding from the security tents half a mile inland. Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura saw torches being lit, and torches moving. Horse hooves and creaky wheels moving on sand, and above all, highly distressed guardsmen. Below, Ino tore off the cover tarp from the transport cart and revealed the open-topped glass case that Kiba had also found just lying around. She and the others could see firelight appearing from beyond their captain's crouched form on the tank.

"You need help? I'm thinking you need help!" Ino called up.

Naruto leaped up the platform steps in two agitated hops. He nearly barreled into the tank and the merman floated dumbly in the tank while gaping at him. "We've got one minute, Sakura, one!"

"I've got the second one," she shouted. "I won't look up, who's coming?"

There were scuffles of her crewmen scrambling on the sand to jump onto the cart. Naruto put a hand over his eyes and squinted. "It's not—oh, wait, it's Yagura."

Yagura, one of the Right People, but an extravagant annoyance at this moment, the goddamn, tiny little string bean man. "Then I guess he's mad after all," Sakura said in between hard breaths.

Underneath her and out of her sight, the merman was rising up as much as he could in his tank to see the coming threat. The tank was not perfectly full, and his head came up out of the water. Naruto gawked at the sight. "Hey, he—! He's sticking his head up into the air at the stop. Oh, sorry, hey, you, can you breathe like that? You okay?" But by the end of Naruto's shout, his head had moved positions, from the south wall of the tank to the metal sheet covering the top. He waited.

Sakura's hand cramped and she let loose a shout as the final lock snapped off. The broken piece was flung away into the sand somewhere. She threw the pliers into the general direction of Kiba and the cart and clutched the latch handle that she'd exposed from the sheet. She pushed. A sea salt smell came first, and then the face of the merman and his dripping hair. He did not do anything displeasing at all.

The captain reached a hand towards him. "Let's go, you. Take a long breath and hold it once you come up out of the water. Take my hand."

He did. He lifted it out of the water and sloshed her hand and right arm and clasped his grip into hers. The lucky creature certainly did not have pruny fingers. She lifted him by that arm and once he was close, she clapped the other arm around his back. One of her fingers sunk slightly into a stray scar that had the texture of serrated teeth. Sakura felt a long flash of embarrassment for having made really shitty calculations about how much the merman would weigh. He weighed a lot.

Now she could see the security teams coming in their excessively dressed carriages and the alarm horns that were blatantly unnecessary by this point. She was caught between measuring how many seconds she had before they were within crossbow range, and gathering the merman into her arms to pull him entirely out of the tank. Once she saw his tail fully free out of the door latch, she tried to stand and good god, it was hard. The merman put one of his arms around her shoulder and seemed afraid of falling. Much of the water from his body weight was soaking into the front of her clothes and dripping loudly. It was dripping on top of the salmon that she'd meant to give him to eat before she got him out.

They were atop the tank together and might well have painted Good Target Practice in cursive across their asses. "Get ready to shove the top onto that thing, I'm jumping on it after he's in!"

Twenty-odd feet below, Kiba and Naruto shouted affirmation. Ino shouted when one of the spears struck hard into the wood platform and was only a small angle away from skewering her leg. Sakura positioned herself with one leg behind her and one steadying her in front.

"It won't be the softest landing, but we'll keep you wet, don't worry!" she told him. And he mouthed something at her, and it made a noise, but for all the powers of understanding and science that she'd absorbed since birth she could not describe the sound. It almost froze her, so she focused on action instead. She gripped the rump of his shark half and pushed his human torso half slightly away, and threw him.

The men coming up behind the platform, who could not see the escape cart, saw her do it. An assortment of overlaid screams came when she seemingly threw the sea nation's treasure onto the sand to bruise or waste or die. High screeches of the desperate ones who'd already paid something, harder brute voices of those who'd be paid to beat her bones into meal once they got to her, women's screams and a wagon wheel suddenly breaking and a horse whinnying in adamant terror. The absurd chorus was drowned out briefly by the merman's body hitting water again. About two-thirds of him was safely in the tank while the end of his tail thwacked against the edge. Lee reached over from beside the tank to tuck it into the water for him.

As Lee tended to his tail, the merman was already twisting in the closet-like little tank to look for Sakura again. She had already jumped from the tank and was on the platform instead, putting at least a layer of glass in between her and the crossbows.

"If it's that fucking pink hairdying bitch again I'm feeding you to the sharks!"

"Shoot them now shoot them now shoot damn you useless shoot—"

Lee had slapped on a makeshift steel plate to top their glass case and secured it with two chains fastened to the edges of the cart. He retreated towards the front again as he'd been instructed, and Sakura gave him an extra three seconds to move out of her way before she jumped, too. It was a ten-foot-fall, bruise-worthy, but her body clattered on the wobbling steel plate like a sack of rat bones. "Move it! Move it!"

Kiba was already whipping the horses and the cart was moving. He set them at an immediate gallop directed them away from the main aisle, towards the clothing vendor aisle. "Lunch" members who had thought to cut them off in the main drag shouted and spat their displeasure at this turn of events. Two teams of pursuers were just cut off from view as the first of the clothing stalls passed the Blossom crew by.

Sakura was grunting through the blooming pulse of pain on her chest and thighs from the impact and reaching for her own crossbow. Naruto shoved it closer to her reach. "Thanks!" she told him, but he might not have heard. He was clambering onto the steel top that she'd just slid off of, and took to shouting directions at Kiba. Sakura stood up to the sight of the glass case, eye-to-eye with the merman again and keeping balance with one of the chains that secured it to the bottom of the cart. She looped one arm around this chain and leaned into the glass.

Another cart zoomed into their aisle. Some nondescript motherfucker with a bandana on his head and his face was driving, another one was standing up and aiming at them. A couple others were in the wagon behind the driver, also aiming. Sakura aimed her first shot not far from the feet of their horse, but the beast either did not notice the attack or wasn't swayed.

"Try that shit again, bitch! Try it!" shouted the driver.

She tried again. She went for the driver's cock but missed and hit his leg. He tossed the reins from one hand and screeched and backhanded his friend, which apparently hurt him very much. The ones in the back took closer aim at her, and she ducked for her life.

Shyewww-PRRK went their abolts, or so it seemed. It was the sound of rushing through the air and hitting the glass case. The arrows were stuck in the glass and water was spurting rudely out of three holes in the rear side.

"You need to do better than that," she yelled back at them. She came around the side of the glass again, leaned against it again. She shot twice more, and then a third time, only to aim true all of once and make a meaningless hit into the wood of the wagon.

The pursuers, one of them surely a Suna man, was shouting at her through the wheel clattering and horses' wheezing that his grandmother's sagging crotch could aim better than that, and after this Sakura detached herself from the standoffish sniper experience of crossbow fighting and started following her heart's natural calling of throwing heavy objects instead. She threw the crossbow first. Unfortunately, it hit the ass of a horse, which bucked and was extremely distressed at the undeserved assault. The Suna-and-Kiri pursuer wagon started veering and had to be corrected time and again by the now one-handed grip of the driver. She threw her pliers next, which hit somebody in the pursuer wagon in the face.

The entire crew leaned ferociously to the left as Kiba demanded of the horses a hard right turn. The merman's head knocked against the glass and a "Rrggnnn" noise came from him, and then a "HnnngngGGG!" when the glass case started leaning way too much. Sakura yelped and shoved her hands against it, pushing, pushing.

Naruto, still atop it, rolled to the other side to push his weight there, and between the two of them the tank settled rightly on its bottom again. But it had also taken two more arrows. The merman was bracing his hands on both sides of the glass and his gills were doing a mermaid equivalent of hyperventilating.

Sakura grabbed the chain for balance and leaned outward, over the edge of their escape cart. "You're putting a lot of holes in your governor's merchandise, you morons!"

"Puttin' holes in the fish for the governor's kebab dinner, you hairdying slut!"

"It's not dyed! Screw off and rot!" She coiled up for this next throw, and Naruto shot two bolts at the cart to give her time to aim. One of the Kiri men coiled up, too, and rolled off the cart into a tuxedo vendor's stall with a bolt in his belly.

By the time he'd hit the stall, Sakura was able to throw a hammer that she'd found lying around at a wicker basket stall they were just passing. Her aim was controlled this time, and she controlled it such that it was neither too high nor too low but a fine middle ground. She struck near the middle of a fifteen-foot display of chair and table models, which came tumbling down into the middle of the makeshift sand street.

The driver's one-handed grip did not help. When he saw an avalanche of pristine garden furniture leaning his way, he tried to lash the reins in the opposite direction and avoid the debris. But that one lash of his hand was ineffectual and beneath the horses' notice. They galloped forward and didn't react to the falling objects till it was too late. The rear-right one reared up and yanked the progress of the others, and in three more beautiful seconds, the whole wagon had been struck by curve-backed chairs and reclining seats. Two horses were almost knocked on their side, the wagon was knocked fully onto its side as the horses resisted and pulled away from the attack. A blanket of sand and dust rose up and blurred the view of the pursuers, and another turn into a different vendor aisle removed the view of them entirely.

The landscape now massively improved with the Kiri for-hires removed from their tail, the crew could stand to attend to matters besides shooting and ducking. They would hit the docks in seconds, and the carriage would just be able to make it to the point where they'd stashed a nondescript boat. The Red Blossom was in view now, uncomfortably close in the bay, and Sasuke surely had eyes on them by now. Sakura slapped adhesive around the arrow that had made the largest hole in the merman's glass and Ino pulled a mirror to signal to Sasuke on the faraway deck.

"Nobody else is coming!" Kiba called back.

"Not yet, and that worries me," Sakura said. "If they're not nearby, they will be. We'll move as fast as we can and avoid them if possible. Sasuke's ready to call the masts."

The merman shifted in his tank and shifted himself upward, head and shoulders out of the water. The sea was coming closer and closer. Only a half a dozen or so tents were in the way. He shifted again seconds later when those distractions were behind them at last, and only a stretch of bare beach was between them and the sea.

"Nearly there!" Sakura told him, tapping on the glass. "You ready?" He met her eyes and grinned and showed fangs, but he couldn't stand to look at her for too long. He switched back and forth between the sea and her, the sea and her, and finally remained fixated on the sea. His gills were closed now.

Sakura started to unhook the chains holding the glass case upright and stable and motioned for Naruto to take the other one. By the time she got hers undone, the ground beneath them was clattering. They were on the docks and so, so close.

A godly BOOOOM sounded from the sea ahead of them, and then crashed like a collapsing house somewhere past all the tents and exhibits. She recognized the sound before she could put a name to it. The Red Blossom fired on the fish market. Or at least near it.

"Sasuke had better have an excuse the devil would buy," Naruto growled.

The merman was tapping for her attention but she ignored him for the moment. Beyond all the tents, all exhibits and hopefully all visitors, sand and dirt mixed together had shot upward into the sky, dirtying the view of the clouds and stars, and blurring them when it all started to fall.

"Was someone about to fire on the Blossom?" she asked aloud. "That has to be it. I don't know from where, though. The hills are too far back for worthy cannon fire."

"Not for Yagura's cannons. Or Zabuza's," Ino said sharply. "And Zabuza wouldn't even have to be paid to fire over a civilian festival like this."

Well, Zabuza wasn't opposed to fire on people for free anyway. But that in particular is not what drew her girlish grin. "Then Sasuke saw them preparing for a shot and stopped them before they could do it. The cad! He says he's not a pirate." After this, she reached for her chain and heaved at it with three long pulls till it was gone, and tossed it away. It landed on a stretch of dock behind them and one end of it began falling into the water. "There's the spot! Let's get ready to heave. Hey, Shi, we're gonna let you out right there." She pointed and he followed its direction exactly. His fingers were squeaking on the glass.

Naruto's head appeared from around the side of the tank. "What'd you call him? Shee? Is he a she?"

"No, I asked him his name when he was still in the other tank," she replied. Kiba had stopped the horses next to a stretch of five meters or so where no one had placed any boat. "And he said, well, I only really got the end of it. Hey there, would you say your name again for me? I would love to know it."

His tail sailed by her face and he came up to her level again. This time he had no hands on the glass. Sakura watched his mouth while he said something, something that was three syllables long. Ah-eh-shee.

Having to ask a third time was embarrassing, but, oh, there was nothing else for it. "I'm sorry, I can't understand you. The shi on the end is all I'm sure about—"

For the next attempt he came closer to the glass, to her face so that she could see the differing shapes of his teeth. His gills opened but there were no bubbles. "Am—I, I am—" Kiba and Ino were out of the driver's seats and were moving to stand by the back of the cart, and they stopped mid-step.

He struggled with the words, with letting them out as more than an exhale . The crew waited for him. Eventually it came, after "I" and "am" and the smile of a free man: "Kakashi."

They absorbed it. Naruto was overcome with something, and couldn't help but laugh and grin like the boy he used to be. Sakura leaned a hand on the edge of the glass case for some sort of support. She laughed, too. "Kakashi? Kakashi. I'm glad we happened to meet. Ready?" This was directed at all of them.

They moved into position behind her and around her. Kakashi took in the view of the Blossom crew's hands upon the glass, all pushing for him. They all heaved. They all tried to not be distracted by the second cannonball they heard landing behind the market site. The top of the case was leaning away and water was spilling out. Almost there. And then there.

After all of ten seconds, their efforts tipped the case over and their guest was prepared for its fall. His hands pushed against the top edges of the glass and he heaved himself forward. Kakashi sailed easily into the sea and his tail thwacked the surface before it disappeared under there, too.

"Godspeed to him," Sakura sighed. "I suppose it'd be too much to ask to have had time to give him that snack. But he should have no trouble catching his own dinner now."

Naruto eyed the tents and the exhibits not far up the beach. "Yeah, we'd best row back. Whoever got shot at is probably gonna want a strong word with us very soon."

"I'll smooth out this problem with Yagura some other time. I have treatments to buy. I'll row front section, everyone." She pivoted on one heel and walked around to detach the stolen horses. Lee quickly followed, but the others remained standing and shifting their weight on one foot as though an awkward question remained fouling the air at their party.

Sakura noticed their stillness and stopped between horses to turn and stare at them collectively. "What? Speak."

Naruto did first. "Is that it? He's gone?" He paused, his jaw slightly agape. "That was a fucking mermaid."

"Mershark," Sakura said, grinning. "Yes, I know. And yes, that's it. He's got a long way to go to get home, and I'm not going to keep him. He's probably had his fill of men for the rest of his life. I would have liked to try to talk to him more, who knows what I could learn about whatever life he has, and the things he sees, but," she paused, and they waited, and her searching for an excuse was indeed a foul sort of awkward. "But, well, I wanted to free him and that's that. It's done. I already know more about mersharks than probably anybody else in the world."

"You could write a book!" Lee suggested joyfully.

"I could write a pamphlet."

"I'd read your pamphlet, Sakura-chan."

"Thanks, Naruto. And you know, if you wrote a pamphlet about ramen noodles, I'd read it, too. And edit it pro bono."

The five of them left the confused horses to find their own way back along the docks, and walked further out to their own inconspicuous rowboat. Lee attempted to take Sakura's rowing position off her hands, as expected, but she refused him and set him in the seat behind her, where he could still take a large brunt of the work that he for some reason wanted. The others settled in. Kiba pushed them off.

With much of the night visitors distracted by having been fired on, or near, and with no one around to fire back at them, the crew had an easy trip into the bay where the Red Blossom itself and the newly trigger-happy freak Sasuke Uchiha waited for them. The other ships of her size waiting in the bay were not reacting to their passage or bothering the ship that had fired the first and only hits. Either Deidara and Sasori had put in a good word for them among the other seafaring visitors before they'd sailed off, or the others had chosen not to butt into her business. Either one was a pleasing thought. Sakura was foolishly absorbed in the satisfaction of a plan perfectly executed when the boat was rocked.

Kakashi's head appeared just above the edge of the boat and his hands gripped it. It leaned a little towards him from the pull of his weight. Water dripped heavily from his hair and his arms.

"Hello again," Sakura said, pulling old brass knuckles off of her best hand. She hid them from Kakashi's view, but he was not looking at her hands anyway. "Aren't you due back home now? What's wrong?"

Both his hands were gripping the boat, holding himself a little out of the water, and his gills were closed up. He'd been out of water longer than five seconds before this and been unaffected, but now he was doing it on purpose. Sakura stopped just into her question of, "Are you all right? Are you not able to sw—" at the point when Kakashi loosed one arm from the boat edge and offered his hand to her.

Kiba said, "Um," and his arms weakly dipped his row back into the water. Sakura, similarly, did not know what to do with her hands exactly. She was about to reach out and give it a hearty squeeze, bid him farewell and all, but that might be assuming a little too much about his knowledge and experience of men.

She tried something less stupid, hopefully. "I'm not sure what you're offering, but I know I've already got your gratitude. You understand our tongue pretty well, so you should know you don't need to do anything in return. Just meeting you was enough."

This appeared to put Kakashi in some distress.

"Kakashi, what's wrong? Do you not have strength to keep swimming? In the worst case, if you can't make it back to where you want to go, we could tow you." She grinned despite herself. The Red Blossom sailing along with a limp mershark in a net beside them. Drinking game-worthy. "Nod your head if the answer is yes, and shake your head if no. Can you swim all right?" He nodded twice, easily. "Okay. Then what do you want?"

He leaned forward a little and opened his mouth, gills closing even tighter like clenched fists. "You, you. Yyyyouuu."

Imagining the dead fish she'd offered him and not given him, Sakura replied, "What about me? I don't fulfill promises of food? I apologize for that."

Kakashi, not imagining that, frowned and did not say or otherwise vocally express anything more. His hand drew backward and he broke eye contact and lowered his head. By the end of the retreating motion, he was back to balancing his torso above the boat with both hands, and looking down at them.

When Naruto shoved a little leather bag of burnt salmon chips into her hands, Sakura thanked him with a hard nod and held it under Kakashi's nose. He watched her again, looking a bit down this time rather than straight ahead at her.

"Take this, for energy. Don't eat the bag, though, you'll have stomach pains." And she kept her hand out.

Quietly, Kakashi made a humming noise that sounded like a delighted musical note. He lifted his left hand to take the bag, and did, closing over Sakura's fingers. She pulled hers out from his grip, and he hummed again. Then he upturned the bag and his head and dropped several of the meat bits into his mouth. Not a second later, he pushed off the boat with one hand and dropped into the sea for the second time.

Ino and Kiba leaned over the side to watch him go, as did Sakura, but she started rowing even as she looked for him. "There, now he'll be bursting with energy. He'll make it for sure."

"I wonder if he jumps like a dolphin does," Lee mused.

"I wonder if he sleeps," Naruto added.

"Why, dolphins do! But sharks, ah, they're sleepless!"

"Poor things!"

They made it to the ship with no fanfare and no other ridiculous meetings with sea creatures. Sasuke was there at the deck waiting for them when the rowboat was latched and hauled up again.

Sakura confronted him. She leaned on the wide edge of the ship and pushed into his personal space. "Tell me. Dear Sasuke. Why you fired upon the exotic fish convention tonight."

She mused that he might be sweating, having feared this conversation with her, but his look was stalwart and disappointed-father-like as always. "Zabuza had a group coming for you—"

"I set you in charge of one important task while I was gone, Sasuke. I gave you one job and you went to war while I was gone."

"No, I kept them at their home base—"

"You could have killed some innocent idiot people, is what almost happened," she said, and she stood taller and his posture bowed to her. "And maybe it did. If someone comes after me for townsfolk hit by your fire, the chase from the law will go on indefinitely. You will have no more immunity with us."

"Gato was there after all," he said, a little too loudly, and she stopped her assault. His stoicism was cracking. He talked through it. "The cannonball shot made him scared enough to gather all his men to himself in case ground troops were coming. But I aimed it way beyond the fish market. I aimed it by a lake. Nobody was there. I'm sure." He waited for her comment or understanding, received nothing, and went on. "One team found you and there was some sort of wagon race, as I saw, but I kept the worst of it away from you."

"I know you did. And I...am mostly grateful. We succeeded thanks to that forward thinking." She conceded that point to the lost boy with a nod. "I hope your aim and your sight were true as usual. If there was a mistake, you'll be belowdecks with most of your body in the water, you know that, right?"

"I do."

"Great. Thanks for your work tonight, head to bed. You can sleep in."

"Thanks. Goodnight. Bye." And he speed-walked mightily away. Naruto followed him, his laughter getting louder even as they walked farther away. The sound of sails lowering and catching fresh wind eventually smothered them. Sakura turned around to watch them bulge out with their promise of speed. Neji was manning one of the ropes, and Tenten another. Both of them regarded her with a respectful nod once they noticed her gaze on them. That established, she turned around again to watch the sea and the eventual shrinking of the beach and the market as they moved away. But the first thing she saw was a flash of pale grey in the water, not moonlight, but alive.

Down there in the water was Kakashi again. She didn't see the bag of salmon snacks she and Naruto had given him, they could be just out of sight under the surface, but it hardly mattered. He had appeared a second time when not required, staring most meaningfully at her. It was just darling.

"You looking to join my crew, sharky? It's almost as though you've no appointments elsewhere to get to, or, you know, anything better to do right now."

One edge of his mouth curved up, and she judged it as some appreciation of her joke. "Come along if you like. We're heading south. We may cross the usual salmon migration in a few weeks. I can get you that meal I promised, and it'd be even fresher."

"Hmmm," he said, or sang, or something. It was a nice sound. Then: "Would. Like to ccccome. Sssaa. Sakuraaa."

God, what a beautiful thing he was. Didn't deserve the trouble brought upon him by Raiga, or the life-threatening stress by her. And he deserved better than street vendor snack food, too. But for now he deserved some stretching and free swimming, stretching his body now that he could. And she deserved the opposite: no stretching, no swimming, just a damn good sleep and a bath. She had some reading to do, but again, after the sleep.

"Good night, mershark," she called down. He waggled one hand at her, like a child's wave, and turned away from her to sink under the surface yet again. She watched the wild waving of his tail, and how the dorsal fin cut the water before it was consumed by it. That was pretty neat. The whole evening could be classified as pretty damn neat. And the most valuable trip to the Fire province fish market she'd ever made.

The oppressive fish smell was gone now, leaving the purer sea salt and fresh air to her attention. She took these in. She thought about sharks. She also thought about salmon.

I wrote this in a weekend! It was mostly an exercise to practice writing as much as I could in a rare free weekend. I feel that Sakura's character was mostly sacrificed to fit the adventure-y tone, but that's okay. I added a little implied history with Yagura bearing a grudge and Sasuke being the crew's pet or weird stepchild and having unexplained magical eye powers, but adding more worthwhile bonding/shipping moments between Sakura and Kakashi was just difficult in between the high-speed rescue operation and I just didn't care that much. My investment in this whole thing was like 5.5 outta 10 and I don't even like mermaids. Adding "shark" and "Kakashi" into the idea made it just appealing enough.

Mershark Kakashi would really like pirate Sakura to be his mermaid wife but the request was lost in translation and now he's going to be following her ship around. Tragic.

Thank you for reading! I really encourage writing critique. Tell me how much this weak adventure fic with exactly one rice grain of KakaSaku in it rocked or sucked and tell me WHY.