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Silver-Haired Stranger

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"Oh, another loss! Too bad!"

The con-artist swipes the pile of gold coins from the table as the nobleman in front of him clutches his head at his loss. The people around him wince. Some of the ladies giggle behind their fans. He waves at people to come closer, building the small crowd of the moderately rich near his little stand. They want some kind of excitement to happen within the well-protected walls, so they come to watch who can win or lose their coins.

Of course, they would always lose, not that they would know. The con man knows the Dai Li guard around this time would turn away from the dirty gambling happening at his food stall for a couple of coins. The number of gullible people in the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se was so much greater than those in the Lower Ring, where the people were more cautious and had little money to throw away for a quick game of skewed chance.

The man scans the crowd and spots a man standing near the edge of the crowd. He's been observing for a couple of rounds. "Who wants to try their luck against me? Place your bet and I'll double it if you pick the cup that holds the stone!" He announces dramatically and strokes his well-groomed mustache as he pretends to think about his next victim. "You there! I can tell you're a lucky one! Come, test your luck." The con whips a finger to point at the man in the back. The crowd parts to see who he has chosen only then is when he gets a reaction from the man. The rice hat tilted to the left and front of his face must be blocking the man's vision.

After a few moments, as if just sensing the crowd's attention on him, the man slightly tilts his hat up to reveal one eye closed behind a long scar and the lower half of his face hidden behind an emerald scarf. The con man grins; it would be even easier to fool only one eye.

"Who, me?" The man points at himself as if not believing the con's declaration. He still steps up towards the cheater's small table to take a look at the three cups laid before him.

"Of course, of course. It's simple after all, anyone can do it. Just choose the cup that has the stone underneath," he lifts the middle one to reveal a small pebble, "and your bet will be matched and doubled by me. What do you say?"

The man thinks, hand place upon where his chin would have been under the thick scarf. Finally, he digs into his pocket to pull up a small pouch with a jingle. The pile of gold coins that land on the table has the scammer nearly salivating. "Would you be able to double that?" the man asks innocently, as if he as a chance of winning.

The scammer chuckles at his question, mustache twitching in amusement. "Quite confident, aren't you? Hope you're as lucky as you think." He places the middle cup back over the pebble and shakes out his hands, hovering them over the cups. "Now, watch carefully…" If there's one thing he's good at, it's sleight of hand. The cups move faster and faster until they're a blur, the pebble moving between the cups in his hands until, eventually, he feels something drop into his lap. He continues to move the cups as if unaware there isn't a pebble under any of the cups until they come to a stop in the same spots the cups started in. "Now then, young man, choose wisely."

The man looks at each of the three cups closely, as if he can discern wish holds the pebble just by staring at them. He taps a finger against his chin before sticking it out towards the middle one. "That one."

"Oh ho! What a choice!" As the con man lifts the cup, he's already starting to reach his other hand towards the pile of gold. "Too bad—"

But the crowd's gasps and cheers stop him from finishing his sentence. There, lying innocently on the table is the pebble. The one that he felt fall into his lap. The con glances down to find the stone missing from where it landed every other time. "How…"

"Oh, I guess today is my lucky day," the man says with a hint of joy (or amusement), eyes curling into happy crescents. The scammer sits dumbly looking at the innocent piece of stone. The man scratches the side of his head with a finger, slightly dislocating his rice hat to reveal silver hair. "Ah, if you wouldn't mind…"

The scammer numbly hands over his pouch of gold coins, a day of work going down the drain. The man who has scammed the scammer nods silently as he takes the pouch and walks away with the rest of the now-satisfied crowd. Even though he's the only one with the rice hat, the con artist immediately loses sight of him.

Kakashi tucks away the hefty pouch into his pocket and wonders if he can finally find some good salt-broiled saury and miso soup with eggplant in this place.


 

Kakashi wakes with a mouthful of sand, which should be impossible because his mask is still firmly in place. It should also be impossible because last time he checked, there wasn't an entire desert in Konoha when Pein attacked and killed him and a whole bunch of other Konoha shinobi. It's another impossibility that he's awake in a desert when he clearly died and was about to have a nice conversation with his dead father. All in all, the current situation that Kakashi is stuck in the middle of a vast desert is not ideal.

He lifts his head from the heated sand and quickly lowers his face mask to cough out the grains. His punctured shoulder and extremely low chakra reserves tell Kakashi he's not dreaming and the fight with Pein really did happen. Except reality is still missing the fact that he should be dead. Akimichi Choji should be on his way to Tsunade and report Pein's abilities so they have a chance of defeating them. Kakashi should still be trapped in the rubble of his failure and surrounded by the bodies of his dead comrades. But all around him is just sand.

Kakashi isn't one to panic, but he gives himself a panic attack by considering if this desert wasteland is actually the result of Pein's attack on Konoha. His village, his family, his pack—

The copy nin sluggishly claws at the sand and starts to crawl up the dune he's lying on. When it gets too steep, he pushes himself to his feet and continues on, because he has to see if this really is all that remains of his home. He falls a couple of times, the loose grains slipping away from under his feet. When he finally arrives at the top, Kakashi looks out across the desert and sees nothing of Konoha. He doesn't even see anything familiar from Suna. The only thing that stands out from the sea of sand and the clear blue sky is an unrecognizable slim tower of stone a good distance away. Kakashi runs a hand over his face. His surroundings do not explain anything about where he is or why he isn't dead.

Kakashi's need for emotional support currently outweighs the risk of chakra exhaustion. He bites into his thumb, a fresh bead of red appearing.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu."

A puff of smoke appears but no dog accompanies it. He almost tries again, needing Pakkun, or any of his pack, but fatigue brings him to his knees. In an uncharacteristic show of emotion, Kakashi slams a fist into the sand, sending grains flying, but his face is carved out of stone, still blank. There is no reason that his ninken wouldn't respond to his call, yet here he is, alone on top of a dune in some mysterious desert.

Survival instincts make Kakashi looks back towards the tower (but does he really want to live in a world without his home?). It would take at least an hour to arrive in his poor state. But a building means civilization and civilization means knowledge of where he is.

It's undignified, but Kakashi scoots down the dune, getting sand in places that isn't at all comfortable. What he would give to have a soldier pill right now, but he didn't have any when confronting Pein. When he reaches the bottom of the dune, Kakashi climbs to his feet, not unlike a corpse and starts his trek towards the tower.

While he's walking, Kakashi doesn't ignore the movement on the sand that's heading towards him. He stops as the cloud of sand trailing behind the object comes closer. He finally sees a sailboat skating over the grains of sand with three people riding on it. There isn't any visible village affiliation on it, marking them as non-shinobis. Kakashi can only hope that they're friendly.

Unfortunately, when the boat pulls in front of Kakashi, cutting off his route, two of the riders jump off and start to shout at him. He stares blankly. Kakashi was pretty sure the Elemental Nations doesn't have any other language other than the one spoken by all of the countries. Yet, the two people wrapped in sand-colored clothes suited for the environment seem to be speaking nonsense.

Another clue that he isn't in the Elemental Nations anymore was the fact that the boat had been casually propelled by a mini sand tornado by the third person still standing on the deck. Kakashi doesn't know of any ninjutsu that did that.

"Yo," he greets with a casual wave of his hand. "You guys have any idea where I am?"

The two men look at each other for a brief moment, before turning back to observe him. Then they start shouting once more.

The final clue that this definitely isn't his home is the fact once the two bandits realize Kakashi isn't responding to their demands, they start to make motions with their hands. He tenses but their hands don't come together to make hand seals. Instead, the bandits raise their hands in sync. Kakashi thinks they're doing some strange dance until he feels the sand shift below him. He looks down to confirm that the sand is, in fact, climbing over his feet and up his legs in small streams.

A small part of Kakashi's mind wonders if Gaara knows about these people who can manipulate sand almost as well as he does.

A larger part reacts to the possibility that he might be suffocated by the sand. Two kunai fly from his hand and dig into the throats of his two attackers. Their scarves tear like paper beneath his blades. It seems that they have never encountered a shinobi like him since both reach towards their bleeding necks before they collapse in the sand and the third on the boat screams in horror. Before he can finish off the third, a wall of sand separates them. Kakashi wonders if he's going to die (again) by being crushed under a wave of sand, but the sand simply collapses in place, showing the boat and its driver already speeding away.

Kakashi places his kunai back into his pouch and approaches the two bodies before him. He rummages through their clothes finding pouches hidden deep in pockets. A small bag holds bronze, silver, and a few gold coins, paper ryō bills nowhere in sight.

He plucks his kunai from their throats and undoes the least bloodstained headwrap from one of the bandits, revealing a scruffy-looking man, face still morphed into an expression of shock. Cutting off the bloodied part still leaves a good amount to cover his silver hair and navy face mask. He cleans off the kunai on the leftover cloth. Kakashi wonders if the people in the tower would accept him dressed up like a bandit, but his green flak jacket in the middle of the desert would bring too much attention. He takes it off and folds it away into one of the spare empty bags from the other bandit. He also puts away his navy long-sleeve. Kakashi also grabs the outer off-white shirt from the bandit and pulls it over the skin-tight tank that connects to his face mask. He hoists the spare bag over his shoulder. At least that would blend him it a bit.

There's also a water pouch and a pouch of a few pieces of salted meat. Kakashi briefly considers if they're poisoned, but the fact that the bandits' unfamiliarity with death makes that unlikely. Still, Kakashi only takes a small bite of the salted meat even though he wants to shove the whole thing down his throat. He continues to walk towards the tall tower, waiting around ten minutes before believing it safe to eat the whole slice. He does the same thing with the water.

The food makes Kakashi feel a bit better but it's reaching noon in the sweltering desert. He doesn't know how Suna shinobi deal with this climate.

When Kakashi finally arrives at the tower, he looks for a door into the building by circling around it. Finding none, he looks upon the spiral design decorating the bricks of the tower. Kakashi spots a window at the very top. At least if there aren't any people within the obviously ancient structure, it would protect him against the burning sun.

Luckily, it doesn't take much chakra to defy gravity. Kakashi carefully gathers his chakra to the soles of his feet and starts the climb up to the open window. It doesn't take long to arrive, allowing Kakashi to crouch upon the window sill to glance inside. He takes off the headwrap irritating his scalp.

Instead of having a floor within, the tower is completely hollow. The walls are lined with golden detailing, leading down into the depths below. He scratches the back of his head. This isn't what he was expecting at all. Kakashi debates the risks of entering the buried building, but the wind whistling at his back makes him turn around to observe the desert. The giant sandstorm on the horizon decides for him.

Kakashi carefully moves down the golden walls and makes sure to brace himself as he lands on the walkway below. The motifs of owls stare down at Kakashi as he turns around. No people come to check the noise of him landing. Behind the arches of owls are hundreds upon hundreds of bookshelves, spanning even more floors below him. As much as Kakashi wants to jump into the books to understand where exactly he's ended up when he should be protecting his village, he slides down the banister nearest to him. Kakashi is just too exhausted. As his eyes finally droop closed, he can hear the faint flapping of wings. Kakashi assumes that in this giant library there must be some birds that end up in here.

Of course, when Kakashi finally falls asleep, he doesn't see the giant mass of black feathers land before him.