Title: The Scarlet Carapace
Chapter 01: Hijacked
Summary: "A ghost wolf," Sakura says helpfully. "He's a dispossessed king who wants our help to regain his throne." Mission-fic. Kakashi, Sakura.
Notes: Written for the Kakasaku Community's Give Me Some Sugar chat on the DW branch. Oroburos69's prompt was: "A wolf, a ninja, and a medic walk into a bar…" This is part 1 of a projected 4.
A wolf, a ninja, and a medic walk into a bar and the barmaid stares because while the ninja-a tall man with silver hair and a face mask-is imposing, and the medic-a pink-haired woman in a grimy Konoha hospital uniform-is scowling formidably, it's clear that the wolf is in charge.
She wonders how that happened.
It happens like this:
"Kakashi," Sakura says, keeping her voice level through monumental effort, "we're walking in circles."
Kakashi ignores her. Again.
Sakura feels her temper rising and squashes it ruthlessly as she watches Kakashi keep walking without ever acknowledging the fact that she's stopped moving or that she's said anything. They're not due to meet the caravan they're escorting from Ame for another week, so if he wants to walk in circles for a bit, she supposes that's fine but it's… really odd. Even for him.
The forest around them is quiet but for the rustling of leaves in the wind and the soft twittering of birds and other animals. She runs one hand along the bark of the tree she stands under, feeling the mark she'd scored with a kunai into it earlier, back when she'd originally thought they were going around in circles maybe-sorta-accidentally.
Kakashi is out of the sight now and Sakura crosses her arms over her chest. She's not particularly worried, more annoyed, and she can feel his chakra signature (warm and strong) like a pulse against her skin and so she's content, though maybe that's the wrong word, to wait under her tree and see if he comes back again.
Like clockwork, he does.
This time, having ample opportunity to watch him come, she notices the way his eye has gone slightly droopy and lowered. Glassy.
Sakura chews on her lower lip and considers the odds that this is an enemy genjutsu. If it is, she thinks, she can't figure out what's the point. It hasn't affected her perceptions, after all, and there's nothing and no one attacking Kakashi.
He's just... walking in wide circles, in a forest. With her as his witness.
As he disappears out of her sight again, Sakura leans back against the tree, looks up at the wide, inviting branches, and sighs. This would be a lot easier, she decides, if she could just knock him out and cart him, like a sack of potatoes, back to Konoha.
But if it is a genjutsu, or even worse and there's something wrong with his mind, then she knows she can't do that. It could damage him permanently and while she's tempted to punch him hard, right now, just for the aggravation he's causing her, she doesn't want him dead or, well, broken.
The next time he comes sauntering back into her view, she steps out in front of him. He doesn't even slow as he keeps walking and she's absolutely certain that he can't see her because, even back when she'd been younger and he'd been too busy being devoted to Sasuke and dealing with Naruto when Naruto made him take notice, and so he'd never had any time for her, he wouldn't have ignored her like this.
She grabs his left forearm and uses her strength, the strength that Tsunade-shishou has taught her to bring out at will, and makes him stop. He keeps trying to keep going, heedless of the bruises he's getting. With one hand, she holds him there, with the other, she swiftly rolls up his sleeve, exposing a pale arm, and presses her fingers to it while focusing her chakra and thinking kai.
There's a flash, like a wildfire bound and chained, and before Sakura can even come up with a suitable curse, she's sent flying through the air, like she's nothing more than a child's plaything.
She's surrounded by trees and it's only the matter of when she'll hit one rather than if she'll do so. Sakura reflects that if she'd been a Genin, or even an over-confident Chuunin, then she would have been knocked out by the blow, instead of very momentarily stunned, and would have been unable to recover enough to keep from smashing headlong into a tree or five.
But Sakura is a Jounin and has been for three years and she's tougher than she looks, tougher than most people, except for those who really matter, believe and so when she's sent flying, she manages to turn it into a spin and rolls through the air, controlling her speed rather than being controlled by it and lands lightly on the side of a tree whose trunk is wider than her arms can reach around.
Her eyes are narrowed now because the fact that a kai can't get through whatever has got Kakashi (and now she knows that something has got him and it's not just all in her head that he's being weirder than normal) means that she's got trouble to figure out how to solve.
She's worried, sort of, but more for Kakashi and what the… whatever… it is might be doing to him than she is for her own ability to solve the mystery.
With a thrust of her muscles and on silent feet she flings herself up into the branches and begins creeping back towards where Kakashi has been walking in circles. She damps down her chakra so that it doesn't give her away-just in case whatever she's facing can sense chakra-and runs through her options.
Sakura doesn't feel any chakra in the woods except for hers and Kakashi's but after the response to her elementary kaishe's not inclined to trust what her senses are telling her. When in doubt, she thinks, remembering her lessons, act as if you're in enemy territory and they're far, far more dangerous than you are.
Which, if she follows the unhappy thought logically, means that whatever she's facing is likely way stronger than she is-or, she acknowledges, perhaps just more subtle.
She's not particularly subtle, though she's like a silk thread in comparison to Naruto's blundering about like a brick. Kakashi remains the most subtle member of Team 7-however fragmented and broken it is-and she bites her lip and wonders how easily he got taken over.
And when, she thinks, peering down at him as he walks in his circle. When did the enemy get to him?
To her dismay, Sakura finds that even after reviewing the day, she's not sure.
Once they're on the road, they don't tend to talk much. It's too dangerous, no matter that they're both Jounin, to be so distracted.
She wishes, now, that they hadn't been quite so careful. Sakura suspects that their precautions-and their silence-are what keep her from being able to pin down when Kakashi had been compromised.
She can't do anything rash now. She doesn't dare. That's why she stays up in the safety of the tree, hidden by the leaves, and watches as he walks and walks. He doesn't stop, not once through the long hours that she waits, as darkness falls around them in twilit curtains and the sounds of the woods change as the nocturnal animals awaken and the rest hide to sleep and survive.
Sakura nibbles on her lower lip, a habit she's picked up from Ino, and examines their situation for the umpteenth time. The fact that he's been walking for hours on end doesn't bother her. Not when she knows for a fact that he can run for dayson end, with only minimal breaks. The walking is an easy pace, compared to that, and isn't something to worry about.
More worrying is that, the only thing she keeps coming back to is that, to get him away from here, she thinks she might haveto knock him out. She doesn't want to do that. Too risky.
She searches, again, for another presence and feels nothing but Kakashi and herself.
Sakura tumbles out of the tree, entirely silent, and lands on equally silent feet. She straightens up, stretching because she's a little stiff after a few hours up in a tree without even the breath of a reason to move.
And, she thinks wryly, there's not much in here that she's been able to sense that could take her out. If whomever has taken over Kakashi is watching her, then perhaps they'll take the bait and attack hernow since they clearly hadn't done anything to her while she'd waited and watched and thought up in her perch.
Nothing does and Sakura scowls.
There's nothing in the area that she'd spotted earlier that is different. It's tempting to pretend it could be an allergic reaction to something in the woods but, really, what sort of allergy produces results like Kakashi's symptoms as well as fling her away like a paper-weight doll when she tries to break him free? So it can't be an allergy, however comforting that idea would have been if it had been at all plausible.
She tells herself to stop being ridiculous and to figure out a way to rescue Kakashi even though she doesn't know what she's rescuing him from.
Sakura makes her way through the trees, still silent despite the dark that leaves her nearly blind, and makes her way towards Kakashi. He's still walking. If she concentrates, she can follow his progress by feeling his chakra.
Because she hasn't tried it yet, the next time he comes along, she walks the full circle with him, keeping her senses ready and wary to see if she can notice anything along the way that would give her an idea of what's going on.
Nothing does, of course.
As they reach the start (or what she has decided to say is the start) of the circle, Sakura steps out of his path and plants her hands on her hips.
Knocking him out is looking like the better option more and more.
She's pretty sure she can do that and then keep him out of it until she gets him home, to a mind specialist, who can look him over and decide what's actually wrong with him.
Sakura knows she can touch him, after all, so long as she doesn't use her chakra. It's tempting to try and drug him asleep, because that would cause him less damage physically but, well, Sakura doesn't really want to try stabbing a needle into him and the idea of using a contact soporific or spray in the dark doesn't appeal to her.
With the way her day is going, she would wind up drugging herself as well and Sakura can think of a great number of things she would rather be doing than that.
Basically, she thinks, everything else.
But before that, because that's definitely the last straw in dealing with this, she uncrosses her arms and mulls over how ridiculous she's willing to feel. There's one more thing she hasn't tried.
She sighs and tells herself to get over feeling silly and to just get on with it. Sometimes, she thinks, the most obvious thing to do is the solution. It could be the case here.
"Excuse me," she says, her voice feeling shockingly loud in the gloom of dusk despite it being hardly more than a whisper, "but this is sort of a pain. Couldn't you just, like, tell us what you want?"
Silence answers her and she doesn't say anything else because while she's been dealing with the silence all day, this feelslike a different silence.
Like it's actually listening and thinking about what she said. Expectation prickles along her skin.
Kakashi stops walking. He stands two feet away from her like a particularly attractive statue and Sakura holds her breath because, for all she knows, whatever has Kakashi will make him attack her and that won't be anything but messy for either of them.
At least, she consoles herself, something is happening.
And then the wolf, giant and coming up to her shoulders, melts out of the darkness. She can tell it's a wolf because it glows a pale, back-lit blue that makes her skin look ghostly.
Sakura grits her teeth and tries to remember if she's heard stories about this.
She never pays attention to myths and legends. She can't remember.
Looking at the wolf, Sakura thinks that if they get out of here alive, she's going to start paying more attention.
::Follow me. ::
She does, because arguing with a ghost seems futile. Kakashi does because the wolf has control of him.
Come to think of it, maybe that's why she follows too. She can't leave Kakashi alone.
They walk for what seems like hours but in all honesty, despite the fact that she's trying to keep track of where they are and how far they've come, Sakura isn't sure and doesn't know. It's eerie.
She hasn't seen another animal since the wolf joined them.
The only comfort she can take is the fact that all around her, around Kakashi who still has done nothing but walk like mindless puppet, she can still hear birds rustling through leaves overhead and rodents doing the same on the ground.
But they keep their distance.
Sakura doesn't blame them. If it was possible, she'd do the same.
The wolf, the longer she looks at him, the less distinct he seems to her. She still can't make out details. He's too big to be real. He glows and aside from the two words at the start of their walk, he's been entirely silent.
Creepy, she decides, and wishes that Ino was with her. Ino always has liked ghost stories better, gotten a vicarious thrill out of being scared out of her mind. Or Naruto, who wouldn't think to be scared at all because they'd win no matter what it was, no matter how little it made sense to believe they could. Sakura prefers things to be rational, logica-
"Why is the moon floating in a valley?" she asks, her voice coming out a little strangled, as they come to dip in the path as it abruptly opens up beneath them and the view for miles and miles is nothing but trees sloping down and down. The valley is a deep one and… there's something that looks like the moon hovering, skimming, just over the very tops of the trees.
Close enough to touch, if she climbs a tree.
The very thought makes her shudder.
The wolf's amusement washes over her, a heavy sensation of thick fur brushing her skin and a deep laugh in her mind.
::It isn't the moon.::
"Um," Sakura says, "it looks an awful lot like it. Are you sure-?" The wolf flicks one ear at her and she flushes. "Right. Stupid question. What is it then?"
Because that makes somuch sense, she thinks and doesn't say. Who was it that said she had no sense of self-perseveration? No tact? "Okay," Sakura says instead, "so you want us to go into your home?"
She's sure she's come up with worse plans at some point. The fact that she can't think of any means nothing. Really.
The wolf ignores her internal flailing-if he even knows about it, and from the continued sense of amusement from him, she thinks he does-and turns to keep walking. Kakashi follows him.
Sakura grinds her teeth, stares harder at the moon (what is it, if it's not a moon?) and then stomps after them. She's caught between a rock and a hard place, knows it, and hates it.
When she gets out of this, she promises herself, she's going to read and memorize every legend, myth and fable she can get her hands on. Just so this doesn't happen again.
Sakura ignores the small part of her that points out reasonably that this might not be covered in any of the above and then what would she do?
Keep going, she tells the doubting bit of herself, because there's really no other choice.
The walk towards the moon (that apparently isn't the moon but Sakura's been watching the sky now and she hasn't seen the real moon at all and so what else could it be?) is one that's filled with silence on her part, silence on Kakashi's part, and continued amusement on the wolf's part.
She really wants to snap at him and point out that if he wants them to do something for him then laughing at them is probably not the way to go about it right before asking but his jaws could break her in two and Kakashi is still under his mind control and that thought irks her every time she thinks about it.
Which means she dwells on it more and that's just annoying.
"What is your home," she says, rather than brood some more, "if it's not a moon? It looks dreadfully like one."
The wolf doesn't answer her, just keeps walking, and does so for long enough that she's gone back to gnawing on her insides with impatience and the need to keep her cool, before he finally says anything.
::It's an entrance.::
"Oh, well, that totally clears it up," Sakura snaps, the words slipping out before she can shut her mouth.
To her relief, he seems to find this, too, funny. ::You'll see,:: he says, and keeps moving.
Sakura wonders if there's a special class or something that he's taken to be so irritating. It must be, she decides, a boy thing. All the boys in her life have managed to make her feel like ripping out her hair at one point or another.
The only difference is, this time, he's not one of her boys. He's a stranger and, well, he's not even human.
She tries to decide if it's horrible for her to find that that makes a difference but figures that the fact that he's a glowing, over-sized wolf who has the power to destroy her and Kakashi easily gives her some leeway for being judgmental.
"Are you going to free Kakashi?" she asks, keeping pace easily. There's no need to worry about her footing when the wolf gives off enough light to see by. "I mean, whatever you want us to do, wouldn't it be easier if both of us were awake and able to function fully?"
The wolf ignores her.
Sakura narrows her eyes and tries to decide if she'd have any luck at all in murdering him and fleeing. Maybe she could grab Kakashi and get the hell out of here before the wolf caught them.
Maybe it had only a certain area of influence and couldn't, wouldn't, be able to get past the borders of it. Maybe she could reach the borders before he reached them.
There are too many maybes. Sakura gives up her thoughts of running away and returns to contemplating murder.
How does someone kill a ghost anyway?
This thought, and the resulting lack of answers, leaves her out-of-sorts and yet mentally occupied all the way until-
She looks up and the moon is right in front of them. Glowing with light that she's always heard was reflected from the sun but that's making less and less sense now (because none of this makes sense since she's landed in bizarro-land) and looking more ominous than a moon really ought.
"Great," she says unenthusiastically. She still hasn't figured out how to kill a ghost and run.
There's no door.
"Stupid question," Sakura says, "but how are we getting in?" She's pretty sure, after all, that she's a lot more solid than the ghost is and can't phase through things, if that's how he gets around.
The wolf tilts his head to the sky and gives a long, mournful howl.
A silvery ladder drops from the moon and dangles in front of her. As she stares at it, Kakashi begins climbing it. The wolf looks at her expectantly.
I want to go home, she thinks, and climbs after. Or at least, for something to make sense.
Sakura doesn't think that's too much to ask but, apparently, the world disagrees with her.
"I have a headache," Sakura says.
The wolf looks at her. Kakashi doesn't. He just keeps staring blankly at nothing and it disturbs Sakura that she's getting used to that.
She shifts and stretches, leaning back and looking up. The sky looks huge without the moon in it (since they're on it which will never stop being weird) and the stars sparkle brightly against the black backdrop.
"Okay," she says, "so you seriously want us to help you gain your throne back?"
The wolf nods.
"Um," Sakura says, "I don't know if anyone's told you this, but I don't think your kingdom even exists anymore and also you're a ghost wolf and wouldn't that make it hard to rule?"
By this point, several hours after she'd climbed a ladder to the moon, she's pretty sure the wolf is not going to eat her and that he's taken control of Kakashi more for leverage than any real desire to hurt him either. This means that she's more willing to speak her mind.
It's also probably because she's tired but Sakura doesn't trust the wolf enough to ask if she can take a nap.
::That will not be a problem.:: The wolf stands and paces around, his huge feet leaving paw prints in the moon dust.
"... how can that possibly not be a problem?"
The wolf's tongue lolls out in a silent laugh. ::My kingdom is populated by those like me. ::
Sakura considers that and doesn't like what she comes up with. "I'm really not sure," she says, after throttling the urge to make comments about what a horrible idea the fact that there's a whole kingdom of glowing animals capable of possessing people and who might live on the moon out there, "that we're going to be any help. I mean, maybe if you gave Kakashi his mind back. Then we'd both be able to help you though I don't see how. We're sort of... solid... to go to any sort of ghost kingdom."
Unless he makes them become ghosts and Sakura would… rather not. She's pretty sure Kakashi would agree that no, that's not something they want.
::I will have your vow to help me before releasing the man.::
From the tone of the wolf's voice, Sakura can tell he's not going to budge on that one. At this point, she's not sure that even if they were both free that they'd be able to exactly get away, so it's not really hard for her to evaluate her options and shrug.
"I guess we can help you," she says, "though before I make a promise, I'd really like to know how."
Because dying still doesn't sound like a good idea to her and that's the only way she knows how to make a ghost.
The wolf stops pacing and looks down at her. She'd be more indignant but the fact is he's standing and huge and she's sitting and so it's more a position thing than an intimidation tactic. ::I need you to retrieve the Scarlet Carapace. It's physical, so you will be able to touch it.::
"Um." Sakura looks at him. "What does an animal's shell have to do with your kingdom?"
::It is a depository of power and an entryway into the other realm.::
That doesn't really sound like something she wants to pick up, in all honesty. Sakura is pretty sure, however, that the wolf doesn't care about a little detail like that and so she grits her teeth over those complaints. It could be worse, she tells herself. It really could be.
At least she doesn't have to become a ghost...
"Wait," Sakura says, "does this mean you were exiled? You need to get back into your realm?" Was he really an evilwolf who'd been banished for his misdeeds against the proper rulers?
::My throne was usurped. I am not 'evil'.:: The wolf sounds grumpy and she forces herself to stop thinking about the ways he could have been kicked out his kingdom.
"Sorry," she says, even though she's a little cranky at him for reading her mind again. "Um, does this mean if we help you that we're going to become targets for whomever you kick out of your kingdom? Because they'll have to know that you got help from someone if you can't get this Scarlet Carapace by yourself."
::I will not banish anyone,:: the wolf promises. ::I will kill them.::
Sakura mulls over that, casting glances at the wolf (who has resumed his pacing) as she thinks and eventually she sighs. Really, there's no way out of it.
"Do you think," she says, "that it'd be a smart idea if I asked 'what's in it for us?'"
"Alrighty then." Sakura closes her eyes, wonders if anyone is looking for her and Kakashi since they've gone missing, and makes her decision. "We'll help you. Can you please release Kakashi now? And maybe... go away... long enough for me to explain this all to him...?"
"Out of sight," she clarifies. "Because he's probably not going to be happy and I would really hate for you to squash him like a bug just because he's disoriented and hasn't seen sense."
Not that there was any sense in this strange adventure but Sakura was almost getting used to that. Not, she thinks, that she's really had any choice in the matter.
She has the funny feeling that the wolf is laughing at her again. ::All right,:: he says and turns to go. ::I will release the man once I've... hidden myself from sight.::
Despite herself, Sakura smiles. "That'd be great, thanks."
The wolf disappears, loping through moon dust until he's gone entirely. His footsteps disappear about fifteen feet from where she's sitting. Sakura holds her breath as Kakashi's eye goes from frighteningly blank to normal and then to shocked as he lurches to his feet and tries to orient himself.
"Hi," Sakura says, once he's managed calm down enough to spot her.
"Sakura," he says, "what's going on? Where are we?"
"On the moon," she says, knowing it sounds ridiculous, "and you might as well sit down. This explanation is going to take a while."
He looks politely incredulous, like he's not sure he's really awake now. Sakura pats the space beside her. "Sit," she repeats, "because we need to cover this before our... new client... gets impatient with our waffling about."
"Our new client?" Kakashi is suspicious and wary and she doesn't blame him one bit.
"A ghost wolf," she says helpfully. "He's a dispossessed king who wants our help to regain his throne."
"Are you sure," Kakashi says, once she winds down her explanation, "that you ought to have agreed to help him?"
Sakura just looks at him. "I could have left you an empty shell, I suppose. Completely under the control of a ghost and all that implies."
"...Point," he concedes. "I do appreciate that I'm back to normal. But Sakura, you have no idea how far we might have to travel to help him, or how long it's going to take us to do so, and we can't even explain this because no one would believe it. The moment we open our mouths, our explanation is going to look like it's full of holes. Big, leaky ones."
Sakura chews on that. "I know," she says, "but there really wasn't anything else I could do. I can't kill a ghost and arguing with him while he had your mind under his control seemed like a bad idea. He could have squashed you like a melon and even with that, I don't know if I'd be able to do anything against him in revenge."
She contemplates that.
"Except, of course, refuse to help him. Which would probably have seen me going the way of a crushed melon if he was feeling peevish."
"So we're stuck." Far from sounding distressed, Kakashi sounds intrigued. Sakura supposes that the oddness of the situation is getting to him.
It's certainly got to her after all.
Kakashi considers that carefully and flexes his wrists absently. "Did he say what sort of carapace we're after?" he asks. "Are we looking for something large or something small?"
Er. Sakura blinks at him. "I didn't ask," she confesses. "I was more concerned with getting you free."
He looks touched at her priorities. She thinks. It's still hard to tell with the mask but his visible eye is a little softer. "Well," he says, getting to his feet, "I guess we've made our bed, so we'll have to lay in it. Where is His Majesty anyway?"
"I told him to go away," she explains, "so that you wouldn't attack on sight and end up like a melon."
Kakashi does not argue that her speculation is exactly what would have happened. That tells her that she's right on the money and was perfectly justified in her actions.
"Can you call him back?" Kakashi asks, looking over the barren landscape-it's full of craters and dust and there's a sparkle not twenty feet away to indicate the ladder that leads back to earth-speculatively.
Sakura figures that he's smart enough to know that making a break for it will definitely wind up with a grumpy ghost king on their case. The ladder, with the promise of sweet escape, is just a tease.
"I think he'll come when he's ready," she says. "He was pulling some mind tricks earlier." Kakashi raises one eyebrow at her and she shrugs. "Mind reading," Sakura clarifies, "not just possession."
Kakashi digests that. "Was he a Yamanaka in a past life?"
"Um," Sakura says, "I don't think so. I don't think he was ever human, though that's just a feeling of mine and therefore entirely fallible. Though Ino's family would find it funny if they could come back as ghostly animal royalty."
They're both silent for a few seconds.
"I'm going to pretend," Kakashi says eventually, "that this conversation never happened."
"Oh, good," Sakura says, relieved. "That's probably for the best."
::Have you finished your discussions?:: Without waiting for an answer, the ghost wolf appears.
Kakashi sits back down. Hard.
Sakura bites her lip and tries not to laugh at him. "We have," she says, while Kakashi stares. "Though we did have a few questions about our… job."
The wolf settles himself in the dust, moving not a speck of it, and stares at the both of them. There's a regal air about him, Sakura thinks, before telling the part of herself that likes trashy books to shut up about seeing virtues where there are none.
After all, she reminds herself, they still don't know why he his throne was stolen. And he's still a giant ghost wolf that's given her no option to refuse to help him.
::Ask your questions.::His voice promises no answers.
Sakura glances at Kakashi to see if he wants to take the lead but he's still trying to come to grips with the whole… wolf thing. She swallows hard. "What-What sort of carapace would we be looking for?"
The wolf's tongue lolls out. ::A scarlet one.::
She narrows her eyes at the wolf while Kakashi just drops his face into his hands and rubs wearily at his temples. "Yes," she says, with the sort of patience working in a hospital has given her. It means she can talk without wanting to scream. Even her thoughts are neatly laid out, just in case he feels like reading them again. "We got that. But what animal? How big is it? Will we have to kill something to get their carapace?"
The ghost wolf tilts his head thoughtfully. ::I don't know,:: he muses. ::I hadn't even thought of that.:: The wolf pins them with a speculative glance. ::Your sort would consider that relatively important information?::
He says that, Sakura thinks, like it's not to him. Despite the fact that he needs it rather badly.
At least, she amends, that's by her own estimation that he does. Maybe it's… different… for ghostly, kingly wolves.
She's struck with a thought. "Excuse me," she says, "but does that mean that the carapace will look differently to us than to you?"
::It might,:: the wolf says slowly. ::It might.::
Sakura resists the urge to moan.
"Right," she says, "do you at least know where we're supposed to start looking?"
The wolf nods.
Sakura tells herself that's a good thing. "Okay," she says, planting her hands on her hips. "Will you know it when you see it?"
He nods again.
Progress, Sakura thinks wearily. Hurrah.
"So," she says, mustering a smile that feels sickly, "how about we get ourselves closer to where we're supposed to be?"
Let me know what you think! Thanks for reading!