Topic: You're living a fairy tale.

Genre: Fantasy/action/romance
Canon: AU

Rating: PG-13
Length: six chapters
Special Requirements: Put any or all characters inside a familiar story, fairy or otherwise. Any scenario is acceptable, e.g. another school play, a dream, a magical situation ala-Alice in Wonderland, an AU-setting, take your pick.

'the wolf prince'

Once upon a time, in a land far from this one, lived a good king and queen who ruled their kingdom fairly. Though Chapeyne was small, it hosted a wealth of merchants and its people were prosperous. They loved their king and all rejoiced when the Li dynasty's future was assured in the birth of a son.

All but one. The jealous younger brother of the king desired the throne, and in secret plotted to take it. In his ambition he turned to the dark arts, honing his skills as a sorcerer, and for years sowed support among the noble familes. On a dark, dark moonless night, with hardly a whisper of warning, he and his friends took the palace by force. Both king and queen were assassinated, and the young prince – scarcely into his teens – barely escaped with his life. No one ever saw him again, and those who didn't think him dead assumed he'd fled the kingdom in exile.

Only the prince and his uncle knew better.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was three years after the coup that day that the sun rose over the forest, its gold light spilling on the tiny village of Tomoeda and one cabin in particular. The weather was chilly in the mornings, still so early in the season, but the sky was blue and the air fresh. It promised to be a fine day.

Sakura hardly had time to appreciate that, however, before the water had sloshed to the brim of her bucket and she was scurrying back inside her cabin, splashing both water and apologies about in equal quantities.

"Sorry! The tea will be ready soon, I promise. So sorry, just a few moments…" Hurriedly she poured the liquid into the waiting kettle and managed to get a lot of it on the fire as well. A cloud of steam bloomed and she coughed, waving her hand in front of her face. Chin in one hand, her brother watched from the table with a rather wry expression.

"Wouldn't it have been better to boil the water before you started breakfast?"

"I was really busy and I forgot!"

"Really busy running around, anyway."

"You should have woken me earlier," Sakura huffed, spooning potato hash onto their plates.

"I did," came the withering reply. "You ignored me and went back to sleep."

Sakura scowled and chose not to reply. Luckily, her father tasted her cooking at that moment and smiled.

"It's delicious, Sakura, thank you."

"Thank you, Tou-san!" She beamed, and Touya muttered something under his breath that she ignored. "Will you teach today?"

"Yes, we still have some time before spring planting. Before long, though, I'll be going to the city."

Sakura's face fell, and she turned her attention to the kettle to hide it. Schoolteaching might be an honorable profession but it was a risky one, living in the countryside as they did. Farmers depended on their children to help in the fields, and her father had taken to spending months at a time in the capital city, teaching the children of rich familes. The money was good but she missed him terribly, particularly since it meant living alone with her bossy brother.

"And you, Touya? What will you do today?"

"I have work. Robertson hired me to help him repair his old barn today. It will take until evening."

"Wonderful. What about your plans, Sakura?"

"Umm… the mushrooms have begun to sprout, after all that rain. I thought I'd go hunting for some in the forest."

"No, you won't," her brother said without hesitation, his voice absolutely authoritative. Sakura shot him an exasperated look.

"I wasn't asking for your permission, Nii-chan. I wasn't even talking to you."

"I don't care, you're not going. It's not safe."

"You often took me when we were children!"

"A few things have happened in the kingdom since then," Touya pointed out. "Thieves are starting to hide out there in the woods, I heard it from the men. You are not going."

"But I want to. It's going to be a nice day, I don't want to spend it doing chores in the house."

"Tou-san, tell Sakura she's not going into the forest."

"Tou-san, you tell my brother that he can't tell me what to do."

Both children looked at him expectantly, and Fujitaka cleared his throat. "Sakura, I think the water's begun to boil."

"Oh! Sorry."

"I'm sure Touya's right, Sakura, the deep forest is probably not very safe these days. I'd feel better if you didn't go there."

"Thank you," Touya muttered.

"But it can't do any harm to go looking for mushrooms near the edge. I'm sure if she stays close to the village she'll be fine."

Touya looked dismayed, and Sakura perked up. "Thank you, Tou-san! I really will stay close, and make sure to be careful."

"I know you will."

She couldn't resist shooting a smug look at Touya when she poured his tea, and he growled unhappily. But as long as their father was home, his word was final. She really did dread his departure to the city.

- - - - - -

Fujitaka took his leave shortly after breakfast, to spend the day in the village schoolhouse. Touya stomped off in the other direction, throwing a few more 'be careful's over his shoulder before he finally left her in peace. Now very eager to get going, Sakura hurried through the basic chores of cleaning their breakfast dishes and scattering feed among the hens, then collected her basket and a skin of cool water from the well. The sunshine was warm on her face and the spring breeze fresh, and with a tuneless song on her lips she skipped into the woods.

Sakura enjoyed her walks in the forest. No matter what her brother said she felt it was a very nice place, and away from human eyes she could act however she pleased. Her nonsense song grew louder as she danced between the trees, laughing at how the squirrels ran in alarm, and daringly unlaced her shirt collar when she became hot. Eventually she remembered her task, and when she found the creek where she usually gathered mushrooms she began to scout. A few here and there, but if she walked upriver there were bound to be more. Still singing, she did exactly that. Sakura was a sixteen year-old girl who'd lived her entire life in the small confines of her village, carrying about each day as she had the one before. She breathed routine, and had no cause to think anything about this day would be different from the rest.

The simple routine and carefree song died the moment she saw the men. She'd come very close to them unawares, though no doubt they'd heard her coming, and stopped short in her skipping. Once their eyes had met they both stood, first one and then the other, leaning casually against a couple of trees.

"Hello," Sakura said politely, when the quiet had become awkward. They were staring so, and something in their eyes made her nervous. "It's a fine day."

"Is indeed," one of them drawled, and his gaze crawled down her body. Sakura clutched her collecting basket to her chest and averted her eyes, thoroughly uncomfortable now. Her gaze happened to fall upon a few canvas bags just behind his feet, coins spilled onto the grass underneath, and her brother's words flew through her mind. Thieves, hiding in the forest.

Maybe this was a bad idea after all. Sakura took half a step back, some insincere 'excuse me' forming on her tongue, but she was never given the chance to say it. At the motion the closest one bolted forward and closed an iron grip around her wrist, almost yanking her off her feet. Everything in her hands hit the ground and Sakura shrieked. Panicking, she tried without success to pry his hand off her arm but her efforts were futile – he was clearly stronger than she was. He laughed, and the other one laughed too. Almost casually he pulled her closer, and cupped her breast in his right hand.

Too terrified to do anything else, she screamed. He laughed again, and there was a blur of movement to her left. Something large and brown slammed into her attacker, and his laughter turned into a scream more terrified than her own. Released, Sakura stumbled two steps back and fell heavily on her rear. Paralyzed by fright, she watched the thief hit the earth under the weight of an exceptionally large wolf. Again he screamed, hysterically, thrashing and kicking in desperation, but the snarling wolf was too heavy to fight off. Its teeth found the man's throat and the scream died in a thick gurgle.

Stunned and horrified, his partner finally had the presence of mind to grab his sword and take a swing at the wolf. Too quick for him, the predator darted off its victim and circled the man, keeping a wary distance when he swung around to follow. It snarled again and the thief shouted, waving the tip of the blade threateningly to keep it at bay. Again the wolf circled him, forcing the man to keep turning, then again, but still couldn't get close. With a sudden burst of speed it dashed to the side and the thief swung wildly to follow. His blade bit into the trunk of a tree with a solid thunk, and for just a few seconds his weapon was trapped. He hardly had time to realize this before he too hit the ground, and the wolf never gave him time to scream.

Sakura still hadn't moved, huddled on the grass and trembling. Some tiny rational part of her mind knew that she should have run while the wolf was occupied with that thief, but she didn't have the nerve to try and now it was too late. Just five steps away, the wolf raised its head and looked right at her. Blood had stained its muzzle.

Her lungs hurt from not breathing. Would it hurt? Would it be quick? Would they ever find her body? For an age she waited, gaze helplessly locked with the wolf's, expecting death to leap at any second.

It didn't. After what seemed forever, the wolf loped back into the underbrush and disappeared. Sakura blinked at the unexpectedness of it, but still didn't dare breathe. Where did it go? Was it circling around her, preparing to attack from behind? A breeze rustled the tree leaves and her skin prickled; without moving she tried to see everything around her. The forest was silent, save the whispering leaves and the trickle of the creek, and there was no movement.


Still watching?

Get out.

Trying to move without moving, Sakura pushed herself off the grass as slowly as a growing flower. Her muscles protested but she hardly felt the pain, still intent on breathing as little as possible. Legs unfolded to a standing position, and still no attack. She took a small step. No sound, no movement. Another step, then another. Zero reaction.

If she could just walk all the way home as softly as this, it would be okay. Clinging to that hope, Sakura tiptoed back the way she'd come, cringing every time her shoes made a scuffing noise in the dirt. And for many minutes she did well, the absolutely quiet forest relaxing her guard. She was going to make it, she was going to get out of here –

A burst of activity in the bushes scattered her thoughts and Sakura lost her head completely, bolting along the path with the trees of the forest whisking past her. It was only a pair of squirrels chasing one another up the trunk, she knew that, but now that she'd started running she just couldn't stop, didn't dare look back for fear she'd see a giant wolf sprinting behind her. It was close, surely it was close, it would catch her and eat her and they'd never find her…

The trees thinned and her cabin hove into view, like a beckoning haven. Lungs burning, skirt flapping madly, Sakura pounded to the door and slammed it shut behind her. Only then did she collapse to the floor in sobs, exhausted and terrified. And though there was no sign of any wolf through their tiny window, she didn't dare go outside again for the rest of the day.

- - - - - - - - -

By the time afternoon melted into evening, Sakura had decided she wouldn't tell her family what happened. Touya would throw a fit and tell her to never go near the forest again, and even though the thought of those woods terrified her now, the last thing she wanted was for him to know he'd been right. And it would only make her father worry, when he did so much of that already. Resolved, she greeted her family upon their return with an elaborate and well-made stew, and a house full of freshly washed linens. Mushrooms? Oh, couldn't find any. She commented that she would spend the next day working on her garden, and both men seemed satisfied. But that night when she slept, her dreams were haunted by bloodstained muzzles and sharp white teeth.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters

As you can see, this began as a simple challenge response but has grown into something a little too lengthy for that. The story might be trite and a little underdeveloped, compared to any full-length fic, but it's long enough that I thought I'd post it separately instead of with Shrine Work. (Everybody understands that I only had a week to plan and write this, right? Please stop comparing it to my full-length stories!)