Alone in the darkness, in a ramshackle roots shed near an equally ramshackle cabin on the edge of the woods, a young girl curled into a ball and shivered. In the course of a day her world had turned upside down: she had dined with a king and then assaulted him, forced to help him in his quest to catch the wolf, dragged the wolf into this very shed, and watched him transform into a human. Now the boy was gone, with a final warning to stay here and that strange declaration.
I'm going to take back my kingdom.
Sakura was just a girl, who'd never so much as left her home village, who'd never known more than the daily routine of menial peasantry. She was tired, frightened, pushed beyond the limits of any normal female. Perhaps she really had done her part, perhaps she ought to stay put. But then, if she was the type to obey orders without question, she might never have ventured into the woods and met that wolf in the first place.
So she left the roots shed. Outside it was much easier to see, thanks to the rising moon and the hundreds of stars sprinkled across the night summer sky. Silently she crept away from the doorway, seeing nothing, and peeped around the corner of the chicken coop. Right away she spotted the king, empty crossbow dangling from one hand while he searched unsuccessfully for a soldier.
"Captain? Captain! Confound it, what's going on -"
He cut himself short quite abruptly, shocked disbelief plain on his features from even Sakura's vantage point. Leaning a little further around the corner she could see what he saw: the one who called himself Syaoran. The sword he carried loosely in one hand, point down, unimportant for the moment. Sakura almost quailed at the hard glare in his eyes.
A breeze rustled the leaves. Other than that, there was no sound for many long moments.
"Well," the king finally murmured in low tones. "What a surprise this is. Syaoran… you have returned to your old self."
"But only the kiss of a girl who truly loves you could have broken my spell."
Syaoran raised his eyebrows. "Really?"
Understanding filtered into the king's expression, and he nodded. "Oh… I see. Who would have ever guessed?"
"Not you, evidently." The king hadn't moved but Syaoran had meandered a few steps closer, that sword still dangling ominously. "How long has it been?"
"Just over three years. I have run the kingdom quite smoothly since inheriting the throne -"
"You did not inherit the throne," Syaoran snarled. "You stole it. You murdered my parents – betrayed your own brother. You took the palace by force, you drove me into the woods and took even my body from me. And tonight you pay for all of it, uncle."
Desperately Sakura tried to make sense of the words exchanged, struggling to put it all into place. Throne? Palace? How could it belong to anyone but the king? He'd always been- well, no, her father had explained it to her. A few years ago one Li had replaced another on the throne. Three years ago, to be more correct. The first king and his wife died, and also there had been a prince that disappeared. The child of the Lis named… Syaoran.
"Merciful gods," she whispered, and sank to her knees on the earth. All this time…
The king eyed the fallen prince and his sword with a calculating air, before drawing his own.
"Your words are strong, nephew. But it has been three long years, and a wolf fights with fang and claw. Has your famous skill with the blade waned?"
Syaoran's sword snapped upright, moonlight flashing on its surface.
"Guess we'll find out."
Each of them took one small prepatory step to the right, testing. And then Syaoran attacked, hard, sprinting with a speed and suddenness that made her gasp. The king evaded it and blocked the next attack neatly, a jarring clang of metal on metal carrying through the night. Swiftly he counterattacked, his form arguing long years of practice, driving a series of short and sharp thrusts and forcing Syaoran back. At last the prince forced his blade aside and whirled, the sword whipping around in a near-complete circle to meet the king's ribs.
He only just managed to block it, that time.
They parted, breathing heavier and glaring harder. Now it was the king that attacked first, jabbing his swordpoint perilously close to Syaoran's face and missing only because the prince jumped backwards. Again he attacked and the blades clashed in a sharp staccato, every attack faster than the last until Sakura could hardly distinguish one move from another. It all came to a jarring halt when Syaoran blocked the king's downward sweep, bracing his blade just above his head, but the king was taller and pressing his advantage of strength. Syaoran kicked him hard in the chest, and the king was pushed so far off balance that he nearly fell.
Silence again, save for the breathing. Sakura wondered why Syaoran did not pursue this opening and attack again, until she saw how he too was fighting for breath, holding a hand to his side. Blood had started to seep through his thin shirt, and she remembered how the wolf had been injured.
"Your strength has begun to ebb, nephew," the king taunted. "You've fought too often today, or do you even remember it?"
"I remember," Syaoran assured him. "I remember everything."
"Was it horrible, watching your kingdom through a lowly wolf's eyes? Were you so desperate you even sought the company of a peasant girl -"
Syaoran snarled again and attacked, driving the king back with the sheer savagery of his thrusts. He hurried to parry and block, regained his footing and dared a jab at Syaoran's chest, only to have it swept clear so the counterstroke could slice open his neck. He barely evaded it, and Sakura could see the bright red when he put his hand over his throat and drew it away. Syaoran's breathing was extremely labored now, watching him pant she could feel every agonized breath as if it were her own.
The two opponents hung back for a moment, recovering.
"Be careful, nephew," the king spat, no longer sounding quite as confident. "Instead of playing these games I might decide to simply curse you again."
"Go ahead," Syaoran dared. "I'll rip your throat out with my own teeth if I have to. But you will not survive this night."
"I was going to say the same thing to you!" With the last word the king lunged forward, ready to stab, and Syaoran sidestepped him with a mere heartbeat to spare. Sword scraped along sword and the king twisted expertly, locking his muscles and pushing the blade back down toward Syaoran's face. For a long moment the two did nothing but push against each other in a stalemate cross. From her vantage point of the ground, it was Sakura who saw the false king draw a dagger from his belt.
Did Syaoran return to his true human body unaffected after all? Did living so many years as a wild predator leave its permanent mark? Sakura would never know for certain, but at her shriek the young prince moved faster than she'd ever seen a man move. He dropped to the ground just beyond the sharp edge, bringing his legs straight up and neatly kicking the dagger out of the king's hand. In the next second he'd rolled backwards and onto his feet, barely in time to block another sweep. It was weak defense and the king exploited it, twisting his sword around Syaoran's like a serpent of steel and then jerking. The prince's sword flew some distance and Sakura's heart stopped, but the prince didn't. Without even blinking, before the king could even reverse his stroke, Syaoran bent over double and swiveled all his body into the motion. His heel struck the king on the head and caused him to stumble back, blinking. Carried by his circular momentum the prince attacked again in the same way; as if in a blur Sakura saw him sweep something off the ground.
Again the king suffered another blow to the head, groggily raised his sword, and Syaoran shot his arm straight into the center of the king's chest. Instantly he froze, horrified astonishment stark upon his face. Across his shirt, a dark stain bloomed from the dagger that had been planted there.
Syaoran only paused enough to draw another breath, and stepped back to deliver a hard kick right into the protruding hilt. It drove the dagger in so deep that no more blade was visible, and sent the defeated king right back onto the dirt. The large body hit the earth with a dull thud that made her cringe, and even from here she could see he no longer breathed. The black eyes that had intimidated her so now stared lifelessly up into the night sky.
Syaoran almost collapsed to the ground himself, dropping to hands and knees and panting for oxygen. But it seemed he couldn't bear to rest, not just yet, and crawled to the side of his treacherous uncle. When his fingers touched the neck and confirmed the man was truly dead, he bowed his head.
Then he raised it to the moon and howled, an eerie howl full of fight and of triumph. The sound raised goosebumps on Sakura's skin and checked her tentative attempt to stand; fascinated, she stared at the boy voicing the cry of a wolf. If she'd had any doubts that the two were the same, this erased them for good.
It was many heartbeats after the noise had faded away that Sakura finally nerved herself to approach him, one timid step at a time. She was still two paces away when he noticed her presence and stood, staring at her with an unreadable look in his eyes. They were so intense, she had to swallow.
"What is your name?"
His voice was low-pitched and even, his gaze direct. Surprised, she had to fumble for the simple answer. "S-Sakura. Sakura Kinomoto."
"Sakura," he repeated, softly, never looking away. Uncertainly she nodded.
"And… you- you're the prince. Aren't you?"
"That's right." At last he broke his gaze, shooting a contemptuous look at the body by his feet. "I am the prince, and now that my uncle is dead the crown returns to its rightful heir. From this day forward I assume rule of Chapeyne."
Sakura was not exactly sure what to say to that, but he was not finished.
"You are only a peasant girl. And I cannot begin my reign with a commoner by my side."
His words struck Sakura like the knife to his uncle's chest; stunned, she felt tears pricking her eyes and tried to force them back. He was the prince, of course, and just because she had saved him from his enchantment did not mean she had a place in his future. She hardly knew why she was so upset anyway, she'd only just met him…
A touch on her hand surprised her into looking up, and she found he now held it between them. There was still a touch of awe in his eyes when he watched his own fingers curl around her hand, as if he couldn't quite believe he'd been freed. Then he raised his eyes to meet Sakura's again.
"Become my princess?"
Doubly stunned, Sakura gaped. His grip on her hand tightened. "I knew I wanted you from the moment I saw you, in the woods with those bandits. And you were so brave to seek me out, kind to me even though you did not know my true nature. You are the girl I want. Come with me to my palace, and stay with me always."
Come to the palace – become a princess? The enormity of it all swept over Sakura and she cast a reflexive glance back to her cabin: the only home she'd ever known. She was only a peasant girl…
After what seemed years of silence out there the rope around Touya's wrists finally snapped, and he scrambled to his feet. Frantic to know what happened to his sister he lunged at the open doorway, but froze at the sight he beheld. A dead king lay sprawled on the ground, and beside him stood a strange boy and his sister. Touya would never know why he didn't open his mouth to call her name, the moment he spotted her, but he didn't. The silence was too expectant. As if trapped in it, he could only watch as Sakura met his gaze silently. She seemed confused.
"I love you," Syaoran added, and Sakura's eyes flew from her brother to him. Desperate need burned in his eyes, those eyes that she knew so well even if she had only just met the man behind them. Somehow, she'd loved him for a long time.
"Yes." The word came soft as the breeze blowing past them, a simple whisper that would change her life. He drew her closer, tipped up her chin, and kissed her.
And they lived happily ever after.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - The End - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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Disclaimer: I do not own these characters.
Peacewish: And at last we're done with that little aside, that response to a Tsukimine challenge that took merely –
Li: Three and a half months!
Peacewish: Yes, thank you, Li. I was going to say that.
Li: It was supposed to take two weeks…
Peacewish: But I was busy! Moving from Thailand to America, for one thing. And then back at home it was traveling across Texas to reunite with friends and family, two weddings and a funeral, a graduation, a computer down with a virus –
Sakura: Shh, there there. No need to hyperventilate. Nobody's blaming you for anything.
Li: Speak for yourself. She turned me into a wolf. How trite and cliched can you get?
Peacewish: But it was a fairy tale challenge, Li-kun! Fairy tales are by definition trite and cliched, that's why they're so much fun. The challenge was to take one of the classics and rewrite it with you lot.
Sakura: So the fairy tale you chose was…?
Peacewish: The Frog Prince, or what I could remember of it, anyway. I have a problem recollecting fairy tales that haven't been made into a major feature movie by Disney. All I could recall was that a prince had been turned into a frog, and a girl's kiss turned him back. But when's the last time you saw a frog kick anyone's ass? I changed it to wolf for the action element.
Li: (suspiciously) It had nothing to with my name? Really?
Peacewish: Um, of course not! I'd be a hack fanfic writer if I stooped to such levels! Oh, by the way, there's been some popular support for the continuation of that Biker! Li fic I wrote for a Shrine challenge some while back.
Peacewish: Nah, not too much. There was a vague hint there from Touya in the first chapter that the kingdom had become more dangerous since the new king took over, which implies he wasn't doing a very good job of running the place. But I never went into detail just why or how. We'll just go with a basic 'government sucks eggs' and call it a day.
Li: Thank goodness.
Peacewish: I would like to address a number of the reviews, which complained this story wasn't up to my usual standards and a disappointment. Um… you're right?
Sakura: She was so candid.
Peacewish: Look at the facts, guys, and you're sure to see why. This was a challenge. It wasn't meant to take more than a couple of weeks, which meant I had a mere day to organize my thoughts and get started. A day. When I started Wild Flower, I spent three months scribbling character biographies, plotting the story arcs, and making notes on the setting. You can't even compare a story like that to this one. Frivolous fluff, and nothing more. I didn't even bother to name my original characters, just sketched out a basic plot and went with it.
Gorrell: We all know the king was really me though, right?
Li: You're dead, shut up.
Peacewish: So, in a way, I was really flattered by those reviews because I'm glad my readers have really high standards for me. But I can't be so pressured by expectations that every story has to be weighed against the last, because I'm afraid then I'll get too intimidated to even start one. I need to know I've at least got the freedom to write silly little fairy tales like this and enjoy doing it. I did enjoy this tale, by the way, and I'm glad others did too.
Sakura: Lots of screen time for me, anyway.
Peacewish: Don't get used to that. Now that this is and Coffee Girl are out of the way, I'm instituting a ban on new fics until I get a job.
Li: (chokes and hits the ground)
Peacewish: Glad to know you're taking it well, Li. Excuse me if I'm just a little cynical that you're more worried about your precious action scenes than my ability to feed and clothe myself.
Li: YOU CAN'T QUIT!
Peacewish: Oh, do shut up. I'm still doing challenges and I've got Tomoeda Drama to deal with, so I have rather a lot on my plate. NO, I have not forgotten any of those fics I've hinted at and that everyone has repeatedly asked about, but it just doesn't seem like a wise time to distract myself. I need a job! If I could get paid for writing fanfic, that would be awesome, but Clamp would probably have an issue with it and I don't really see myself buying a house on the earnings anyway. So, yeah. Until I procure myself a job and move out and just generally become a self-sufficient individual in the free market – that's it. See you all when that happens.