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Wish I Could Be

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Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.

“Once, long ago, our Kingdom was not like it is today. Of course we still lived here in Atlantica, but merfolk also loved to visit the realm far up, away above the waves.” Uncle Joshua pointed upwards, and all the younglings’ eyes turned to follow his finger.

Pausing as he swam past, Castiel smiled as he leaned on the doorway of the crèche, listening in as Joshua continued, his voice reverent as his time-worn fins rippled gently.

“Up there, they don’t have tails like us, oh no—they walk about on two stumpy arms, like this.” He placed his elbows against the scales of his tail, waving them about to make the young ones giggle. “They call them ‘legs’, and they cannot swim well, but they walk, and run, and dance on the hard ground. And that, my younglings, is why merfolk loved to watch them. When each mer turned sixteen, we were allowed to journey to the surface and observe the world of humans—their bright towns and wonderful inventions—only from the shore, of course. We cannot breathe the air like they do, just as they drown and sink beneath the ocean. Only their dead bones can visit our fair city.”

A few of the gathered younglings gasped, while one said a slow “whoa.” Every eye was wide, even though Castiel was sure most of them had heard this story before. He’d lost count of how many times he’d heard it himself—it was one of his favorites.

Joshua nodded as he completed his dramatic pause, and went on. “This is a story of one such young mermaid, who was the youngest daughter of the king. She had the most beautiful voice anyone had ever heard. When she visited the surface after her sixteenth birthday, she saw there a handsome human prince, sailing on one of the humans’ great ships. She couldn’t help but fall in love with him.”

This twist drew mixed reactions from the group—some sighed wistfully, while others curled a lip and flattened their fins in displeasure.

A voice from beside Castiel distracted him from the story.

“Hey, Castiel, there you are. I’ve been looking for you all over! Come on, or we’ll be in eel-shit.” Gabriel grabbed Castiel’s hand, his long, pale hair drifting in the water as he abruptly tried to pull Castiel away from the crèche door. When Castiel barely moved, Gabriel frowned.

Castiel had to admit it was good to be larger and more solidly built than his older brother—it meant he could no longer push him around like he did when they were younglings themselves. He turned to look back towards Joshua, to see the old man glancing in their direction. Castiel smiled at him, and with a little wave, swam back a little to join Gabriel.

His brother eyed him, a smirk on his lips. “Still listening to the old man’s stories, huh Castiel?”

Castiel flared his fins as they swam through the halls of their home cavern. “He was telling the story of the princess who visited the surface. You used to love that one, too.”

Gabriel just snorted a short laugh.

Castiel rolled his eyes. He didn’t need to hear the rest of the story to know it didn’t end well—the princess had made a deal with the Sea Witch to turn her into a human, but she had to give up her voice, and couldn’t convince the prince to marry her, so the first rays of the bright star turned her to sea foam as the prince married another.

It didn’t matter—the first part of the story was what Castiel loved to hear. The stories of that world above the waves—the cities, forests, and mountains that apparently looked so different to those on the ocean floor. Joshua was old enough that he had been up there and seen it, before it was decreed that contact between humans and merfolk was forbidden. The elder mer was a trove of stories of times gone by, and Castiel loved to hear him speak about the cities and creatures in that other realm. Gabriel had shared that fascination for many years. Now, though, they were both older, and less inclined to share their daydreams with each other.

The main atrium at the home cavern’s entrance was bustling with activity as they swam through, merfolk hurrying back and forth as they went about their day. Many of them bowed their heads to the two princes as they swam past, but they couldn’t stop to chat. Gabriel had been right—they were running late for their fishing rotation.

Princes they may be, but they were both still expected to join the fisherfolk to help provide for their people. Naomi, the king’s right hand, insisted that they be involved in all aspects of life in the kingdom, a fact that Castiel knew Gabriel resented.

“I still can’t believe that old blowfish makes us do this," Gabriel complained as they swam out of the cavern and into the open water. "Why do we need to know about every single thing? Michael's gonna be lumped with the crown, not us!”

“I know,” Castiel agreed, “but at least it’s better than sitting through some boring trade report with Zachariah.”

Gabriel snorted a laugh, and agreed.

Castiel kept it to himself that there was another reason he didn’t complain when Naomi made them visit the fishing grounds.

Fish Scene divider

It wasn’t until much later, after he’d turned in his catch to the merfolk collecting the fish, that he was able to swim up, up, to the surface himself.

He'd only meant to go up there for a look at the sky. It almost overwhelmed him, with its wide-blue and puffy-white. The movement of the air—wind, he was sure Joshua had told him it was called, felt strange on his skin, and the sounds up here were different to his ears—harsher, louder.

Up here, though, he felt the thrill of going against Naomi's wishes. He knew he was supposed to be a good prince, follow his siblings to become whatever the colony required—emissaries to other kingdoms perhaps, or even command merfolk in battle to protect Atlantica, if it came to it.

What Castiel couldn’t admit to anyone, even to Gabriel, was that he had doubts.

He didn’t want to be tied to the kingdom. He wanted to know, more than anything, what the world was like far away from home. At least by coming to the surface in secret, he could feel that sense of exploration before he had to return to the monotony of his life.

He couldn’t stay above the surface for long, but could happily spend a long while peeking just his eyes out of the water to look around. While the sun sparkling on the water sometimes hurt him, today he didn't mind because there was something there he had never seen before.

A boat bobbed on the swell.

He'd seen them before on the surface above the fishing grounds, far off and unthreatening, but this one was further away from land than they usually traveled. Castiel swam carefully, curiosity compelling him forward.

The boat had nets trailing behind—it must be a fishing boat. The merfolk used grass-woven nets now and then in certain schooling seasons, but he wondered how the concept would work from above the surface.

He stopped still when he realized there was something moving on the boat—people. Floating a little closer, he could faintly hear them calling to each other above the roar of the swell.

Rope lines dangled from a long, wooden arm that extended out from the boat and over the water. Castiel dropped beneath the surface again to investigate, swimming down to where the ropes stretched down, almost to the ocean floor, where a school of herring darted about.

Castiel smiled to himself in vindication—he'd told Naomi over and over that the Atlantican merfolk should fish these warm waters. The fish were schooling here every time he came, and the extra light from the bright star would make net coordination easy.

Except that today, the sea floor was not stable. It rose in a few spots, spooking the herring so that they darted around nervously. No, it was the ropes moving, Castiel saw, as a clanking groan from the ship above the surface sounded. The ropes pulled the edges of a huge net upwards off the ocean floor, coming up underneath Castiel. With a powerful flick of his tail he powered upwards and away from the ropes to avoid getting caught himself, but the herring weren’t so lucky, caught panicking, roiling against the net as it rose upwards to the surface.

Castiel swam upwards again, letting his head break the surface.

The boat’s arm was still out over the water, taut ropes extending into the sea. Humans on the boat were hauling, but there was one leaning over the edge of the boat, something in his hand. He dropped it into the water, and Castiel saw a fingerling dart away under the surface from the splash.

The man’s eyes rose and met Castiel’s, widening. They both froze, looking at each other in surprise, before the frantic fish pushed the net against Castiel’s tailfin and he startled, diving back beneath the surface.

He’d been seen! He hurried away, breathing fast and trying to force the thought of bright green eyes from his mind.

Fish Scene divider

The Impala rocked gently on the swell, fishing nets trailing in the water. A stiff wind blew across small white caps, and Dean's face was splashed with spray now and then as he leaned on the railing by the prow, his eyes scanning the surface ahead.

He was happy they’d decided to go further out than usual today—the fishing was awesome, and his baby was loaded down with plenty of herring to take back to the market. He leaned back, gripping the railing in his hands, enjoying the sun on his face for a few moments as they prepared to haul in the latest catch.

A movement at his side made him turn—Sam had joined him, leaning his tall frame down to rest his elbows on the rail.

“Nicer than last week, huh?” Sam said, his floppy hair blowing about his face.

Dean grunted in agreement. The last trip they’d made had caught the end of the spring rains, which meant high seas and cold, driving rain. This was like paradise compared to that hellscape.

Still, the sun didn’t always make everything better. He eyed his brother. “How about you? Doing better?”

Sam shrugged, his face impassive. “Still rather not be here, but whatever.”

Dean rubbed at his bearded chin. He was never sure what to say to his brother when he was like this. Storms still brought up bad memories for them both, but it was worse for Sam. Dean just tried to keep things as normal as he could and hoped that things would get better for his little brother one day.

“Dean? You up, brother?”

Dean sighed as Benny called down from the stern. Time to haul up already? He reached up his arms in a long stretch. They had already brought up three catches on this three-day trip, and as the sun started to lower towards mid-afternoon, this would be their last before heading back into port.

He clapped Sam on the shoulder, murmuring "Let's get 'er done" as they both headed to their positions. As he waited for the rest of the crew, he idly picked up a bucket of cleaning water from the deck, tipping it over the side. A tiny herring fingerling jumped for freedom in the bright stream, and Dean’s gaze followed it down to the surface, scales flashing in the sun. To his left, the net seethed with fish, their fins chopping the surface in their panic. A movement caught Dean's eye on the outside of the net. He looked closer. Were there fish escaping? He would have to check the nets for tears again—and it would mean a late night tonight mending them if it had happened again.

There it was again, definitely the edge of a fin. There had been dolphins around earlier, swimming along with them while they were under sail. Perhaps it was just one of them trying to score dinner.

But then… Dean moved away from the pulley rope to stare over the railing. A face was looking up at him with wide eyes, arms outstretched on the surface. The person gaped for a moment in horror, then dived back under the surface.

Dean let out a held breath in a whoosh and sprang forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the man in the water. He couldn't see anything beneath the surface now, disturbed as it was by the fish struggling in the net.

Dean turned to Garth, frantic for a moment. “Did you see that? There was someone there!”

Garth joined him at the railing, searching the water. A moment later he shook his head and turned away. “I can't see anyone. Little too much sun for you today, eh Dean?” Garth slapped Dean's shoulder, quirking a grin at Dean as he turned back to the rope.

Dean scanned the water again. He was sure he hadn't imagined it, but there was no one in the water now…or if there was, he was long gone under the swell. He stepped back, confused. He'd seen a flash of a fin as the man had disappeared.

He'd heard tales of merfolk in these waters. More than one person had claimed to have seen fish-tailed people swimming with dolphins or rescuing people swept overboard out to sea. But there was one thing those stories all had in common—they were all told by drunks or lunatics.

Dean was wrenched out of his disturbing thoughts by Benny's call to hold fast. Benny and Garth held their line steady while Dean and the others drew the purser line closed, then he put his back into helping to haul the bulging net out of the water, putting thoughts of merfolk out of his mind.