Title: The Scarlet Carapace
Chapter 04: Freed
Rating: T
Words: 4,377
Summary: "Our client is a ghost wolf," Sakura says. "He's a dispossessed king who wants our help to regain his throne." Mission-fic. Kakashi, Sakura.
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, or any characters from it.
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 4 of 4.

Kakashi's plan is elegant in its simplicity, Sakura admits. He's taken the cross-dressing (though he'd removed the bows from his person) and then taken it a bit further and had them split up. There is even less chance of them being recognized if they aren't together. To confuse the issue more, they would enter the village from different directions, both of them with their chakra suppressed and the wolf doing whatever he needed to do to hide.

The wolf hadn't liked it but, Sakura finds herself supremely uncaring of how the wolf felt. The wolf didn't like much if he hadn't been the one to think about it.

She supposes that was because, as royalty, he was used to being the one in control. Quite literally. Sakura is certain he's the evil king and if he isn't, she pities the citizens of the dream world right now. What could be worse?

In any case, because it was the plan, she's strolled into town nonchalantly, all by herself, just like Kakashi had told her, as if she was just a simple traveller looking for work-her travel-worn disguise helping with that-and slowly made her way through the village.

The village makes her skin crawl.

The town is creepy, Sakura decides, and it's mostly creepy because it's so ordinary that it might as well have 'hi, we're normal' stamped on the walls and hanging on signs around the citizen's necks. It's too ordinary, she tells herself, and tries to decide if that's just her mood or if it's actually a feeling she should pay attention to. It's sad, she thinks, that she can't decide either way. It's a measure of everything that's happened in the last week and change.

She tugs at her cap and tries not to look for Kakashi and wonders if he's still wearing his dress. Sakura suspects that he ditched it as soon as he could and wonders if she ought to do the same. It's a bit hot to be wearing two outfits, even though it's cold outside, and Sakura mulls over that, because it's a stupid and inconsequential thing to muse about and that's preferable to thinking about anything important at the moment when all she wants to do is just slink out of the village and pretend the whole mission was a failure.

But there's no way it would be, she sighs to herself, because if they fail here, the wolf would just drag them to the next village (if they convinced him that the carapace wasn't here) or he'd make them search again.

Tyranny, she thinks. How fitting for a ghost wolf king who needs to regain his throne. Not for the first time, she wonders just how he lost it. It's just as likely that the people who took it from him were the good ones.

That's troubling, she concedes, walking past a bar with a longing glance, because she doesn't want to have them be responsible for placing an entire kingdom in danger due to the fact that they're helping to place the king back on his throne.

But, as the wolf has proven, he doesn't care about their choices and has no problems taking away their ability to choose until they pick what he feels is the right option.

Sakura knows that, if she really wants to, she can just keep walking and leave the village while the wolf is on the other side of it and make her escape that way. She might even get a good head start-enough that she could get home.

But that would leave Kakashi up the creek without a paddle and she's loathe to do that-which is also a choice.

Sakura contemplates that.

Staying is probably the best choice, if only because she wouldn't put it past the wolf to come after her, take her mind from her, and never give it back. And what would happen to Kakashi is that scenario?

It matters, but there's nothing she can do about it right here and now, so close to the carapace that the wolf has sent her and Kakashi on ahead without sticking close to them, and giving up now would help no one, not even herself.

And she's a kunoichi, a Jounin, of Konoha. She can't give up now.

Sakura forces herself to pick up her pace, keeping it to a fast walk, that's not too out of place with the locals, and extends her senses. Even though she's in Tsukuba, all she can feel are the civilian signatures. Over in the west she can vaguely sense Kakashi, only because she's familiar with his signature, and she smiles slightly as she damps her chakra down further.

They don't know if the dragon can feel it but it's best not to take chances. Even through, she grumbles to herself, this is one big gamble.

Sakura pauses, kneeling down as if to get a rock out of her shoe, as she thinks about that. Maybe they're going about this the wrong way. Instead of being systematic about it, she thinks, where would she place something that would be the last spot someone would look because it was too obvious? What if the Guardian was gambling on that?

She gazes around the village, tilting her head up to spot the taller buildings. The watch towers, she thinks, and guesses those are what the dragon is curled around.

Which would mean...

She spots the tall roof of a building that has to be the temple.

They've been idiots, she thinks. Where else would a symbol of power, even if it's a living symbol, be other than a place where people go to worship symbols of power and faith?

She gauges how far she is from the temple and compares it to what she knows of Kakashi's location. She'll get there before he will. That's something that's small but pleasing at the same time.

Sakura gets moving.

The temple is imposing and bulkier than similar temples closer to Konoha. She supposes that it's because this temple is in a colder clime and so it needs to be proof against the cold. That's nicely logical, so Sakura approves.

She is perched up on a roof of a nearby shop, cloaked in genjutsu, a very mild-powered one, and studies the temple curiously. There's no way, she thinks, for her to get blueprints of the place.

She has no idea if there's enemies inside, especially if there's anything like the dragon which she still doesn't think there's a way to beat. Running headlong into that would be bad.

At the same time, Sakura is pretty sure that headlong is the only way this is going to be solved. She's close enough to the temple now that she can feel... something. It makes her bones ache, though logic tells her that might just be the cold, and she feels almost feverish despite not being so.

There's something in the temple.

But is it the carapace or something else? She doesn't want to get the attention of anything supernatural that she doesn't have to. Not after the week she's had. No way in hell.

She sighs. Of course, now that she's come this far, it's 'yes way in hell' despite her own feelings.

And the fact that 'no way in hell' sounds way snappier.

Getting inside the temple is child's play, which is disturbing. She's pretty sure there ought to be more security hereabouts but if there is, she can't find it. Sakura knows that the awful, thrumming power that she feels has to be the carapace's owner (unless it's a guard but she's pretending that's not a possibility—or another creepy supernatural, which she's also nothing thinking about) and she flattens her chakra down even more, just in case, and slinks through ornate-for-the-area hallways and studies doors and statues that have been coated with gold gilt at some point. It's peeling off, slowly, and it looks sad up close for all that it had looked grand enough from a distance.

There's not a single person in the building.

It makes the hair on the back of her neck rise and only the fact that she can feel Kakashi, like a whisper of silk against her chakra, for he's as subdued as she is, that gives her courage. She's a Jounin of Konoha, not a ghost hunter, and right here and now she thinks that the other profession would have better luck with... whatever is going on.

She nearly jumps out of her skin when a hand falls lightly on her shoulder.

"Easy," Kakashi murmurs as she tries to calm herself and convince herself that punching him because he'd startled her wouldn't be the best use of their situation.

"What do you think?" she asks, peering down the hallway that had so distracted her that he'd been able to slip up behind her.

The hallway looks like most of the others. Hard wood floors, torches in sconces, and at the far end, a gilded-gold door.

But power creeps down the hallway, like a shiver, like a ruffled cloak reaching out to strangle her, and Sakura shivers as Kakashi peers down the hallway himself. Whatever the power is, it isn't chakra. That bothers her. What sort of energy was there that wasn't chakra?

Plenty, she thinks, but that's not the point. There's not many power sources that something alive, biologically, can use.

Kakashi looks grim. "There's no other way into the room," he says, "short of breaking through a wall. I checked before coming here."

"The door would be better," Sakura says, "if only so we can use the walls as an escape route."

Kakashi's eye crinkles with amusement as he studies the door and her in equal measure. "Now, now," he says, "we're not supposed to cause mass property damage here."

Reluctantly, Sakura finds herself grinning, just a little. "One wall doesn't count as a great deal of damage," she points out. "Depending on the circumstances, that wouldn't even qualify for an insurance claim due to acts of ninja."

Well, it wouldn't.

Kakashi's laugh is warm and low. "Point," he agrees. "Still, try not to do too much damage. The villagers don't know anything is going on. Let's leave them in the dark."

"Got it," she says, tightening her gloves. "You ready?"

"Let's knock," Kakashi says and while she gapes at his back he saunters down the hallway and opens the door without ceremony. Without even a knock and she promises herself that she's going to strangle him when they get out of this because, just, seriously what a jerk.

She's after him in a flash as he slips into the room and heads right. She does the same but heads left, one of them on each side of the door. The light in the room is dim and scarlet and it takes her eyes a second to focus.

When she's able to scan the room, part of her wishes she wasn't able to do so. It reeks and it's the reek of old, dead flesh and dried blood. There's no bodies in the room, thank goodness, but she can tell that at one point, there had been.

There's a pedestal at the end of the room, as wide as her arms can reach around, and coming as tall as her shoulders. On the pedestal is...

A monster, she thinks, staring at it. One with a scarlet carapace. Sakura tries to figure out if it's foamy, drooling mouth full of spindly pincers is the most disgusting part of it or the fact that it's too big for the pedestal it rests on and it's many, many legs click and clatter against the sides of the pedestal as they dangle there, twitching, is worse. It has eyestalks (she counts three) and there's a putrid ooze sliding from the carapace. It's chewing on something that looks suspiciously like an arm and Sakura decides she's not going to look at that any further.

Oh god, she thinks, that's disgusting.

On the bright side, she thinks immediately after, she's got no problems killing this. It would be helping humanity to get rid of something so gross.

Though it's worrisome the fact that pure power is pounding against her senses as she stands there. Not chakra, but power made tangible nonetheless. Sakura narrows her eyes.

Kakashi shifts and the... thing... notices them.

The energy in the room turns abruptly, turning suffocating and heavy and she feels like they're going to die just standing where they are when the wolf steps through the door.

His skin glows like pale moonlight and his power is a paltry thing in the face of the monster but it's enough shake her out of her horrified reverie. From the way that Kakashi's feet move (all she can see of him with the wolf in her way) he's doing the same thing as she is.

"So," Sakura says, trying to inject confidence into her voice with limited success. "We kill it?"

"I like that plan," Kakashi says. "Greatly."


The monster, however, doesn't seem to agree with them about what makes this plan so good. (Funny that, when they are talking about its demise.) The eyestalks swing around to peer at them, at the situation, and then, before Sakura can move, before Kakashi can move, it flings itself up and through the ceiling.

::After it!::

Kakashi is the first out the hole in the ceiling, but she is right on his heels, the wolf on hers. They can see the monster scuttling faster than it should have been able to over the rooftops of the village and making for the mountains.

They follow.

"Shouldn't you be distracting the dragon?" Sakura asks as they race after the monster.

::I've sent it home,:: the wolf says. ::Much easier than fighting it, but I needed to make a few preparations that I hadn't had the time to do last time we faced it.::

"...Does that mean you've dropped that horrid thing in the middle of another innocent village?" Evil king, Sakura thinks, definitely.

::Stop that,:: the wolf says. ::Don't you know better by now? The dragon's normal habitat is far from civilization. I sent it to where it had lived before.::

Sakura nods, knowing that there's no way for her to prove it and so being forced to accept it at face-value. Besides, all things considered, even if he is an evil king, Sakura knows she's going to finish helping him. She doesn't have a choice. "Do you know," she asks, "how we're supposed to kill that thing?"

Kakashi is listening too, she can tell by the way the set of his shoulders changes. "Does it have weaknesses?" Kakashi asks.

Weaknesses would be helpful!

::Every living thing has weaknesses,:: the wolf scoffs, ::as do most unliving things as well.::

"Okay," Sakura says as they leave the village behind them. The scarlet shell of the monster making it easy to see where it is scuttling ahead of them. They're gaining on it. "But what are the weaknesses, please?"

Kakashi shakes his head and she suspects that he's hiding a smile. She resists the urge to tell him that he's hiding it poorly.

The wolf is silent for a moment as they scramble over rocks and dodge trees and make their way higher and higher up the mountain. Sakura can feel the exertions in her body, not enough to make her tired, not hardly, but enough to know that this is the sort of trip that a civilian wouldn't ever dare to talk at this sort of pace.

::Aim for the stomach,:: he says, ::and the eyes are fragile too. Under no circumstances damage the actual carapace.::

"Because you need it?" Kakashi tosses back over his shoulder. "Or because it would end in horrible, dreadful agony for us?"

::Both. But the second one is something that would likely have a more immediate impact on yourselves so pay more attention to that, if you wish.::

"Gee, thanks," Sakura says sarcastically.

The amount of time it takes them to corner the stupid thing is ridiculous, Sakura thinks, that she could have spent doing about a million more useful things and that's really not fair. So, as revenge, she refuses to dwell on it. Instead she palms a kunai and casts a sidelong glance at Kakashi who is looking as dubious as he ever does. "Ready?" she asks him. "Aim for the weak spots."

And try not to think about how gross the thing is.

Kakashi's eye curves, like he's guessing what she's thinking, and she figures he's probably got her nailed pretty much. "Ready," he echoes. "Let's go."

It might have been the sort of fight that epic poetry was written about but, in all honesty, what Sakura remembers most about it is the way everything reeks and how the monster turns out to be intelligent and defensive of the weak points the wolf had pointed out how it could blow fire.

(She has to stop at one point, to heal her arm, while the wolf covers for her. At another point, she has to stop to heal Kakashi, whose face caught on fire.)

In the end, what takes down the monster is attributed more to luck than to skill in Sakura's mind and tired and weary, she stands over the monster as it begins dissolving, leaving nothing but its carapace and copious amounts of... well... goo.

"Um," Sakura says, looking at the carapace and inwardly cringing. "Do I seriously have to pick it up?"

"Am I going to have repeat that talk about creepy crawlies we had back when you were twelve?" Kakashi calls, from where he's clambered up to keep a look out.

She can't help but resentfully notice that he's made sure that there's no way he'll have to be the one to pick it up.

The wolf looks sheepish. ::I cannot,:: he says, ::as I lack the necessary appendages in order to do so.::

The carapace is, well, scarlet. It's also half her size, quite literally, and is oozing pink... goo and long, thin filaments that are clear and seem to twitch as they slip away from the carapace. She cringes.

It doesn't look remotely powerful.

It just looks gross.

"So," she says, aiming to sound conversational and not really caring when her tone comes out a little south of that goal, "why aren't you ready to go yet?" She pauses and contemplates that. "Don't tell me you've got another goal for us?"

"What?" Kakashi's horrified yelp is perhaps the least macho she's ever heard from him, but it's comforting that he feels the same way. He comes tumbling down the mountain side. "We're doing what?"

He looks at her like she's agreed to do something stupid again. Sakura makes a face back at him.

"I didn't agree to anything," Sakura tells him loftily and, in order to maybe hurry this along so that the wolf will let them go sooner, she steels herself, wishes her gloves were proper ones that covered her fingers entirely, and picks up the carapace.

It's as gross as she's feared and Sakura swallows hard as stuff plops to the ground with sickening splats. Big, tough ninja, she reminds herself. You can do this!

Which is ridiculous she thinks, because yes, she can do it, but that doesn't mean she's got to like it and most assuredly, she doesn't.

::Just one more thing,:: the wolf says, ::and I doubt you'll have problems with it.::

"That's what you said about the white dragon," Kakashi points out.

::It only took you two tries,:: the wolf replies and Sakura hates that they're arguing about this when she's holding the most disgusting thing ever.

"I hate to interrupt," she says, though that's a total lie, "but what am I supposed to do with this?" Her tone makes it clear that if they don't give her an answer stat that she's going to take it to mean she can fling it at them.

She turns and Kakashi grimaces as he looks at the inner side of the carapace. Sakura refuses to look. She's pretty sure it's fleshy and disgusting and it's hard enough holding it without seeing precisely what her hands are touching. The wolf, in contrast, looks coolly unbothered.

But then, she grumbles, he was the one that saw things differently. He sees power in this thing. She... really didn't. The choking sense of power has died since the monster did.

::Bring it here,:: the wolf tells her. ::Then place it on my back.::

"That's disgusting," Sakura says, even as she moves to obey him. It's tempting to ask him why he didn't just grab it himself but that's her temper speaking because, well, he doesn't have hands and so picking anything like this up would be difficult and grabbing it with his mouth wouldn't have left him able to stick it on his back. "Are you sure?"

His eyes, like the rest of him, are ghostly. For a moment, though, it feels like he's looming over them and then she blinks and he's just watching her like normal, if more than a touch of weary exasperation in his gaze. And voice. ::Yes, I'm sure. I need this in order to go home.::

"It's still gross," she mutters and Kakashi murmurs an agreement with her.

::That too.::

It's the humour more than anything else in the wolf's voice that has her lifting the carapace up and carefully placing it on his back. Sakura lets it go and it sits there, making him look ridiculous, like he's a strange combination of wolf and bug and not suiting either of them, and then the carapace begins to glow.

She steps back, holding her hands up to shield herself and grimaces when she sees her hands are pink with goo and the clear filaments are clinging to her skin.

Kakashi has his hitae-ite pushed up so he can see what's going on, though she doesn't know what good it'll do when they haven't had a single break when it comes to there being chakra involved. None of this took chakra. It's sort of disgusting, she thinks, how useless they've felt because of that.

The carapace pulses and then pulses again and again in time, she thinks, with the wolf's heart. The wolf tilts his head back towards the sky and howls, sounding triumphant and powerful and more than a little scary.

Not that she'll admit that.

His entire body flickers, like he's stuck his paw into an electrical socket, which is a mental image she's never, would never, have thought about before today and then his shadowy, ghostly form begins to expand.

"That's it," Sakura says to Kakashi, who has come up behind her. "I'm going. There's a stream a mile back, right?"

He doesn't take his eyes from the wolf, but he nods.

"Excellent," she says, "I'm going to go clean myself up. When he's done... whatever it is he's doing, come and find me. I am so over this mission."

Kakashi nods and Sakura forms at quick seal and disappears in a swirl of leaves and smoke.

Kakashi watches and he waits and he thinks that maybe he should have gone and joined Sakura at the stream but it's almost fitting, somehow, that someone be here to witness the... rebirth, he supposes... of a king.

Not that he blames Sakura for wanting to clean up.

The wolf ignores him and Kakashi leans against the rock walls and waits.

The wolf is taller now, twice his height, and before where he had been see-through and disturbing because of that, now Kakashi thinks he's more disturbing because he isn't see through. He looks more regal, Kakashi supposes, though there's not a whole lot to dispute that when the wolf is so very oversized.

Then light flares and Kakashi is forced to close his eyes as even through his eyelids the world goes sharp-edged with red and white.

::Where has Sakura gone?::

Kakashi blinks and stares at the wolf who stares at him, their faces on the same level. "Gaah," he says, inching away from the face that's far too close to his for comfort. "She went to clean up. The carapace was..."

He shrugs.

::All right,:: the wolf says, ::come with me.::

Kakashi's eyes narrow. "Why?"

::Because I told you to.::

It's tempting to argue but when the wolf turns and heads in the direction of the stream, Kakashi follows. He's gone this far, he thinks, there's no point in trying to get out of doing what the wolf wants now.

Or, well, trying to get out of it.

"What are we doing next?" Kakashi asks.

::Sakura asked at the start what you would get out of helping me,:: the wolf replies, ::and there's something I think that we all need before I begin to make my way home.::

Kakashi raises an eyebrow. "What's that?" He can think of several things he needs, starting with a long nap and a bath and working his way up.

He still has no idea what they're going to tell Tsunade. Maybe the wolf will give them a good excuse.

::I could come with you,:: the wolf muses, ::and tell her what happened myself…::

Kakashi laughs, the sound strained to his ears. "I think I can safely speak for both of us when I say that would be very much appreciated if you would." If nothing else, Kakashi thinks, it would prove they haven't gone mad.

::I'll consider it.::

"Okay," Kakashi says conversationally. "But what are we going to do now?"

::Let Sakura finish her bath, head back to Tsukuba,:: the wolf says, ::and then…::

A wolf, a ninja, and a medic walk into a bar…