This was written for Caitiy's Once Upon A Time: Fairytale Challenge. The object was to take a traditional fairytale and adapt it to the Naruto universe.
My tale adapted: The Swineherd by Hans Christian Anderson
The Music Peddler
Kakashi stared up at the large arch covering the gate to Konoha. It had been five years since he'd stood beneath it and he breathed in deep. He stopped, already expecting the approaching guards. After all, they couldn't just let anyone who wasn't a leaf shinobi waltz in. He already had his papers in hand, declaring his ex-nin status. Once they saw the name and the scar, though, they'd recognize him and he'd have no trouble getting in.
It had been five years, but still he hadn't expected to return so soon.
The fourth Ninja War had lasted a long, gruesome three years. In the end it was that that was the final straw and did him in. Victory was finally secured, the rebuilding of Konoha was moving along at a steady progress, and suddenly he was more tired than he'd ever been.
After a lifetime of fighting and turmoil he was burnt out – not least because of what had been revealed about Madara – and he'd simply needed a change of pace and a chance to atone. He'd been a killer his whole life, a good one too, and he'd known that was necessary to keep the peace. In a way he was proud of what he'd done, of how he'd supported his village, but he'd seen too much destruction. He wanted to promote life now, not end it, and he knew he couldn't do that as the infamous Copy-Nin.
He felt a twinge of regret that he was leaving when everyone was still recovering from the war, but that would be happening for years to come. Besides, a new generation of leaders had grown out of the ranks during the fighting, so he knew he wasn't really needed.
The only ones he really was sorry to leave were Sakura and Naruto. He trusted both of them in the care of Tsunade, but it was still hard to say goodbye. Naruto had, of course, been the key to ending the war, but his indomitable spirit was somewhat dampened as an after effect. He would need time to recover but he was already going on and on about being hokage again, about showing the world what a host was really capable of – as if he and the eight-tails hadn't shown that during the last months of the war.
Tsunade was subtly grooming him for the position. The elders didn't much approve but they wouldn't be around forever. Besides, Naruto had a way of wearing a person down until they couldn't help but give in to him. It was one of his better qualities and something that would be invaluable as a hokage.
Sakura, now she was a different story altogether. During the war she'd been almost sequestered, the elders worried about the effects of letting her into the midst of battle. Of course her emotional attachment to Sasuke had been in question, then there was the fact that someone might try to abduct her just because she would be the best threat anyone could use against Naruto. Everyone knew he fought for those he loved.
She'd shown spirit though. Of course at first she'd grumbled and railed about the unfairness of it, of how she wanted to be able to prove herself, but when it was clear her situation wasn't going to change she made the best of it. She threw herself into her medicine and had grown by leaps and bounds. It was amazing what she'd been able to accomplish in the last three years and she was already something of a medical phenomenon. He was sure he'd only hear great things about her in the coming years.
Still, leaving was something he just had to do. He had to atone and make peace in his own way, and he knew it lay outside the gates of Konoha. So it had been with both a lightness of spirit and a heaviness of heart that he'd handed over his headband, filled out the appropriate paperwork, and shouldered the small pack that held the few possessions he actually cared about.
He traveled for what felt like ages, never staying in any one place for too long, until he came to Bird Country. It was small, nestled as it was between Wind Country and Earth Country, and had few resources. Its militia was poorly informed and their organization was even worse; no one showed even the slightest spark of recognition upon meeting him. But worst of all, it had been caught in the middle of the war, taking the brunt of the force aimed at larger enemies.
It had been decimated. Seeing it, he could understand how Nagato had grown into the monster he'd become.
Here, he thought, here he could finally do some good. Their militia was something of a joke since they didn't dare to compete with the neighboring superpowers lest one of them take offense and decide to show the small country what true might was. Mostly they were for maintaining the law and protecting against the many roaming wild animals. He could teach these villages good defense instead of tactical killing without his reputation getting in the way and those in power trying to fashion him into a weapon.
He didn't want power either – he'd had tastes of it and it had sat sour in his mouth. Once he found a town to live in, he simply wanted to help those in charge funnel their resources more efficiently and show them they didn't have to live in fear. And since Bird Country didn't border on Fire, he didn't have to worry that his defensive work could one day undermine a mission from leaf, nor that he'd be recognized and called out by any roving shinobi.
As it was, he wasn't sure he'd ever expected to go back to Konoha. He had no definitive plans for the future so he hadn't necessarily expected to stay away either, but five years was a long period of time after which to make a reappearance. But he'd promised to help this village as much as he could, and he'd come to realize that one of their biggest obstacles was that their medical knowledge was sorely lacking.
Before arriving there he'd thought Suna backward, what with the trouble they'd had saving the Kazekage's older brother. Even considering Sakura's giftedness in her field, he'd never expected a fifteen year old would've been able to whip up an antidote Suna's top medics couldn't pull together.
Still, Bird Country was a full step behind even them.
Their simple, daily village medicine was pathetic and their medics and medic-nin only knew the most basic ways to do any healing with chakra, and he'd already shown them everything he knew on the subject – which thankfully was more than the average shinobi, considering the enviable luck of having both a sharingan and a skilled medic on his team back in Konoha.
Now though, as his papers were processed and he walked back into the city, he wasn't sure what to expect. He'd heard rumors abut Sakura over the years; just because he'd left didn't mean he didn't keep tabs on what was going on in Konohagakure. She'd done great things in the medical field and become one of the top researchers in all the five countries. She'd been making great achievements even when he left though, so with her tenacity he was unsurprised by this turn of events.
No, what troubled him were the reports of her unwillingness to cooperate with any outside requests for assistance. The rumors varied widely, as rumors do, as to why and how she denied the requests, but most of them carried the same underlying current – that she was completely unsympathetic to anything outside her own lab.
As the stories had gotten to be more and more frequent he'd known he'd have to take a trip back soon anyhow, to see for himself what was going on and, if there was any truth to the rumor, what had happened to her. So the timing was fortuitous, in its own way. Somehow he knew that nothing was going to be easy from this point on though.
The reception he received was even icier than what he'd expected. There was no friendly banter or solicitous inquiries, just professional courtesy and a businesswoman's smile.
"Nice to see you Kakashi." She added no honorific to match the brusque tone. "How long has it been now, about five years?"
"So," she said, folding her hands on her desk, "what is it you want from me?"
"What makes you think I want something?" he replied, eyeing her critically. There was something different about her, about her demeanor, that he suspected had little to do with her merely growing older.
"You're gone for years with no correspondence – at least not that I know of. And instead of heading to the pub to find out what was new in town or searching out one of our old friends to catch up with, you came straight to me – during office hours no less. Sorry that I'm less than convinced that's all merely coincidental."
"Couldn't you be one of the old friends I want to catch up with?" he asked casually, feeling her out.
She leaned back in her chair and eyed him coolly from across the desk. "You were once my teacher, then my team leader – a leader I saw very little of during the wars, might I remind you – and then you were gone. We were on good enough terms for comrades but we were never friends."
She sighed heavily, the movement of it seeming to reach inside her and pull something substantial out, leaving her drained. It was that tiredness, Kakashi realized, that made her seem so different, and with the way she wore it around herself like a cloak, he gathered it wasn't simply the result of a week's poor sleep.
"So tell me, Kakashi, what it is you want."
"I need your help."
She snorted, a mirthless little laugh that made him wonder who this stranger was. "Yes, I know that much," she said in clipped tones that made him wonder how often she got such a request. "Care to be a little more specific?"
"The village I've settled in desperately needs medical help. They were decimated by the war and are now even further behind the times." He didn't bother to extrapolate any further. He could already see from the apathetic, shuttered look on her face that it would be nothing more than a waste of time.
"I see. And what do you offer that could induce me to consider your request?"
Kakashi's mood soured. "How about the gratitude of all those whose lives would be saved? The thanks of an entire village and those surrounding that could learn from their advances?"
With an inelegant one-shoulder shrug she managed to give him the impression she was yawning at him. "That's it?" she asked, his respect for her dipping lower than he'd ever thought possible.
"As I said, they were decimated by the war. Five years is enough to rebuild their homes but not an entire economy."
As if she could sense his anger she looked more closely at him, something unfathomable flashing in her eyes.
"Listen, Kakashi. Many places were decimated by the war, this village included, and as of this moment we are the most medically advanced society around. I get requests almost daily for assistance from this town or that lord. Foreign emissaries are now a regular fixture around here. My skills are in high demand and, believe it or not, our economy is still struggling as well. We can't afford for me to be prancing around from place to place, especially for free. Pro bono is all well and good but not for someone in my position."
He realized then that it was all business to her; there was nothing personal about healing anymore.
"'We'?" he repeated. "When did you start speaking for a collective?"
"When my skills were finally represented by people who appreciated them."
Kakashi stood abruptly, his chair squealing loudly against the floor. "I can see we're done here."
She gave him that strange, shuttered look again, the one he couldn't decipher. "Did you expect you'd be a special case because of our mutual past?"
The slight sneer in her words was what clinched it for him. Despite his best attempts to suppress it, to reason out that something must've caused this change in her, he couldn't hold back the disappointment and disgust that welled up at her cavalier attitude.
"No, of course not," he said coolly, bowing his head in deference to her new status. "And yes, I'd say we are done here. I think I'll take your suggestion and visit some of the local pubs and some old friends before leaving."
Her shoulders tightened but he was beyond caring at that moment. He strode toward the door, only staying himself from flinging it open by sheer force of will, when her voice called out to him again, making him pause on the threshold.
"You should visit the main receptionist downstairs. We have quite the collection of medical scrolls transcribed for sale now. With your experience I'm sure you'll find them useful."
He nodded briefly in acknowledgement and then he was gone.
Sakura watched him walk away with a mixture of resigned anger and bitter disappointment. She'd hoped that he, at least, would be different. Apparently he wasn't.
Kakashi was determined, and when he was determined few things could stop him. He was going to figure out what had happened to Sakura, would make her face her own pride and stubbornness.
She valued herself so highly she couldn't be bothered to stoop so low as to heal the teeming masses, just the powerful elite that seemed to have the pulse on what made her tick. Well, they'd just see about that. Besides, with how proud she'd been of her skills when she first learned, he wondered if she could truly be happy like this. Then again a person could change a lot in five years.
Plus, if he could figure out what had turned her so in the first place he might be able to get the help for his village after all.
So after 'Kakashi' left the main gate he returned as a peddler, small push-cart and all. His disguise was perfect. One of the most useful aspects of wearing a mask was that almost no one recognized him without it – least of all Sakura. He'd utilized it for many undercover missions where the Copy-nin might otherwise be recognized but he hadn't expected to use it back home.
Now he wore the head wrap that was so typical of Wind and Bird Countries, conveniently covering his hair, then tied a piece of cloth across the top half of his face, hiding his eyes and the long scar that cut down his cheek. Fortunately the cloth was light enough to see through. He knew the village well enough that he'd be able to manoeuvre adequately blindly, but he didn't relish the idea of crashing into any vendor's stalls.
He staked himself in the forest on the outskirts of training ground seventeen. It had been Sakura's favorite as long as he'd known her and, despite how she might've grown and changed, habit was hard to break. He chuckled to himself as his hand itched to reach for his nonexistent Icha Icha so he could go lounge in one of his favorite trees. If five years and plenty of distance couldn't break his traditions then it would hold true for her as well.
Still, he didn't know how long it would take before she finally showed up there, so he occupied his time trying to seem true to his disguise. He traipsed through the market a few times but only for short spurts, as he didn't want to possibly miss his quarry. Mostly he worked on his pots – those things he was relying on to draw Sakura to him.
They were one of Bird Country's specialties, these musical novelties. They reflected their surroundings, some playing traditional folk tunes, others with haunting melodies, yet still others that mimicked the calls of particular bird species. They were also created in all forms, from boxes to pots, rattles to birds, and most intriguing of all they functioned solely as their physical object; there was no musical mechanism of any kind in them. The music was bound to them somehow, in a way that was similar to chakra manipulation but not quite.
He'd only had the opportunity to learn how to create the simplest, most basic form possible. His sharingan had always been a tremendous asset to him, but copying jutsu was nothing compared to trying to pick up the intricacies of artistry. In jutsu, one shinobi's tiger sign was the same as anyone else's, so all he had to memorize was the sequence, the subtleties of the pattern and timing. When creating something, he could copy the hand movements of his teacher, but there was something about the pressure, the intrinsic feeling of the thing, that could never be mimicked, only learned.
He'd been curious enough to want to learn, but that had been far from his primary objective in the town so precious little of his time went to it. As such he was able to make pots for carrying water, storing items, all the daily little things that went along with such a mundane item – he was simply able to make it sing.
During his time in Konoha he'd never come across one before, something he was sure hadn't changed given the effect the war had had on every place, country, and village, so he was counting on the newness of it to draw Sakura in. She might have closed off, but he'd hardly met anyone with such a curious streak, and he was sure she wouldn't have been able to bury it entirely.
Plus, maybe he could sell a couple in the marketplace and have enough money to take some medical supplies back to Bird Country with him.
Even so, it was six days before she finally came. But as she approach her head swiveled to the left and the right, trying to locate the source of the music. When her gaze locked on the pot she made a beeline toward him – even if somewhat cautious and suspicious. Still, he knew from the look on her face that he had her caught.
Sakura walked up to the peddler with no little amount of reserve, interest and annoyance warring for dominance. Yes, her quiet break from the hectic pace of the lab was gone, as were her few brief moments of peaceful solitude, but rarely did she come across anything anymore that sparked her curiosity. She'd had entirely too many visitors for that. So when she'd walked close enough to see the source of the melody – a simple, unadorned pot – and that it was empty no less, her eyebrows shot to her hairline.
"What is that?" she asked suspiciously, pointing to the item. It wouldn't be the first time anyone had tried to fool her either.
The peddler turned his head in her direction, allowing her to see the binding across his eyes for the first time, at which point she dropped her hand sheepishly. He just shrugged, a small, inscrutable smile playing on his lips. "What does it look like?"
She wondered if he asked just to be obnoxious or if he was both blind and stupid, thus unaware of just what, precisely, he sold. It wouldn't be the first time someone had pushed a disabled family member out the door with instructions simply not to return until everything had been sold.
"Well, it looks like a musical pot."
He beamed at her. "And that it is. I knew you were an intelligent woman from the moment I sensed you approach."
She rolled her eyes at his empty, merchant's flattery.
"But how is that possible? There's no mechanism I can see. Is it built underneath?" she prodded, already picking it up to look.
"Be careful with that," he said calmly. "You break it, you bought it."
Sakura ran her hands over the piece, turning it every which way to examine it, and found nothing. "How…?"
"The music is fused into the pottery itself."
"Really? Is it chakra based? How do you do it?"
"Trade secret, of course," he told her with that enigmatic little smile of his. "Even if you know, though, it can take years to master. I admit I was a bit slow in learning but this is still the only item I can regularly make successfully."
"You made this?" she gaped as he confirmed it, looking at him anew. She never would've suspected such talent lay under all those…well they weren't really rags, but the overlapping mish-mash of textures tended toward that appearance. She supposed mostly that it was the contrast; Konoha residents tended to wear bright colors, as did the majority of the traveling merchants. She'd never given thought to whether that was their normal garb or if they simply changed their dress to fit the location.
So this man with his earth tones, messy head wrap, and especially the fraying cloth covering his eyes, seemed incongruous, almost as if he didn't seek attention. She glanced back at the pot. With wares like those he wouldn't really have to though.
"Oh, it's not for sale."
"What?" she screeched. Had he told her about how special it was just to sucker her by pulling it out of her grasp? "But you're a peddler, aren't you? What's the point of showing things you're not willing to sell?"
"If you'll recall, we're not at market. Is it so inconceivable that I'd choose to enjoy my own creation during my lunch?"
True to his word, she glanced down and saw the remains of said lunch on the ground by his feet. That didn't change things though; she still wanted it and she'd gotten used to getting her way the last couple years.
"What'll it take to get you to sell it to me?" She could threaten him with banishment from the hidden village – it was a dire enough consequence for any merchant. She could do it too; she was the elders' pet, after all. Still, she preferred to leave that – or other coercions – as a last resort. Many people were much more amenable when they thought they still had some control in the situation.
"I don't sell, I barter."
Her blood chilled and her face turned to stone. Of course that was what he wanted; it was what they all wanted. When would she just learn her lesson already and realize the elders were right – no one would ever want anything from her beyond medical services. Even they themselves weren't any different.
"I take it you know who I am?" she said coldly.
"I recognize your voice from the marketplace – your chakra too. You didn't bother to mask it."
Hiding or disguising your chakra signature is the first thing most shinobi try to truly master. It blows the cover on a mission, especially any of the stealth or undercover varieties, if you're outed because the wrong person recognizes your chakra. For that reason it's also mandatory for anyone attempting to join ANBU to be beyond proficient in doing so. And in order to avoid any slip ups out in the field, most shinobi make the habit of doing it constantly, even while in town or surrounded by friends.
From this, Kakashi was easily able to infer, "Don't leave town much?"
Sakura balled her fists. "So let me guess – you'll give me the pot in exchange for taking a look at your eyes," she said, a dry brittleness dripping from every word.
He laughed. The man actually had the gall to laugh at her.
"Tell me," she interjected, "does your pot still play when broken?"
"Depends on how large the pieces are. Sometimes, if you're lucky, different sections of the song are stuck to different shards. Then you can even arrange them into a different order, though I don't suggest it – the result is usually quite atrocious."
He paused for a bit, watching her from behind his thin veil of fabric as she seethed, probably deciding whether or not to smash the pottery to bits.
"And no," he stated finally, "I have no desire for you to look at my eyes." That was true enough at least.
"It's not all that bad, you know. My other senses have adjusted wonderfully and you'd be surprised how wonderful the world sounds when you're not looking at it in expectation, or how good a fresh pomegranate can smell and taste when you're not blinded by the same expectation.
"Though I must confess, if you were able to give my eyes back to me fully I might be tempted. What happened to them occurred years ago, though, and I'm given to understand timing is quite important in the world of healing."
"Yes, it is," she said dumbly. Her face was locked in an open expression of shock and awe, something he knew she would hide if she knew he could see her, but he found the confusion and vulnerability of it somewhat encouraging, even if somewhat disappointing at the same time. The Sakura he'd known would've been the one encouraging her patient with such words, not surprised when someone dared to be so optimistic.
"So, what do you want then?" she asked finally.
He swallowed hard. He couldn't have just sold it to her, because then he'd just be another merchant. He had to make an impression on her. He'd thought long and hard about what to request of her instead, and the idea still sat slightly uncomfortably in his gut. But it was the only thing he could think of that would work feasibly in this situation.
"A kiss," he stated baldly.
"What?" she demanded and, as he'd suspected, though there was some amusement in her voice it was easily drowned out by the disgust. He was a 'stranger', after all, and one she could see little of at that. "You want me to kiss you? You mean like a full kiss? On the lips?"
"Whatever do you mean? We just met!" he declared, acting thoroughly scandalized. "I meant a kiss on the cheek or something else of the sort, something innocuous. Really, women these days."
"In fact, I think the price has just risen to ten kisses for daring to impugn my honor."
She snorted. "You do realize what you said makes absolutely no logical sense, right?"
His lips twitched. "An old man is allowed his quirks."
Suddenly she was studying him intently and he forced himself to stay calm, even while he wondered if she'd just managed to discern something about him through his disguise. Maybe he shouldn't have tried to throw his age.
"You don't look all that old," she stated finally. Only his neck, hands, and the bottom half of his face were visible, but conveniently enough the former two were the best indicators of age. The only thing that might be better would be seeing his eyes and how the skin around them creased, but somehow she doubted he was about to show her that.
He sighed a little. "The road has its ways of making us age before our time."
"Yes," she agreed softly, "it certainly does."
They sat in contemplative silence a few moments, the mood soured, before Sakura visibly shook herself and broke the peace.
"So, the pot for ten kisses, is it?"
He was slightly surprised she didn't call him on how he'd raised his 'price' but simply confirmed, "It's a deal then?"
She nodded once then, remembering he couldn't see, she sat herself down right in front of him. He forestalled her as she reached for him though.
"Just a minute. Don't you even want to know the name of the man you're about to kiss? Or is a lowly peddler too far beneath your notice for you to care?"
She inhaled sharply, not least of all because she hadn't thought to ask him his name. With a curious mixture of defiance and chagrin – he was just a peddler after all, one she'd probably never see again to boot – she answered, "Yes, and no, respectively. Please, what is your name?"
"Yoshi." He'd carefully chosen the name as it was common in almost all prefectures, but not so prevalent as to raise suspicion.
"Very well then, Yoshi," she put special emphasis on the name, "your hands please?"
She looked at them, turning them over and examining them much the way she had his pot. She rubbed her thumb across one very prominent callus. "Looks like you're a hard worker. Perhaps making music is harder than I originally thought. Well then, in appreciation for the things these hands are able to create…"
She brought his hands up to her lips and carefully kissed each fingertip. Kakashi's heart lurched somewhat unexpectedly at the tenderness of the gesture. She placed his hands in his lap before releasing them, then grabbed her pot and stood.
"Let me ask you a question," he said, gratified when she simply looked at him expectantly instead of leaving now that she had what she wanted. "Why were you so upset by the idea of bartering for your healing abilities?"
Cradling the pot she looked over her shoulder, back toward the hospital, and sighed lightly. "Break's over. Ask me again next time."
As she walked away Kakashi smiled to himself. His plan had worked; she would be back.
He hadn't expected her to come back anytime soon so he spent his time playing with the other techniques he'd learned to see if there was something else he could create to tempt Sakura with. When she showed up only two days after their initial meeting, though, it made him wonder what she sought in a peddler that she wasn't getting elsewhere. Was he a way for her to feel better about herself? Or simply someone with no expectations?
However she simply walked right up and sat down against his tree, not saying a word but trusting his senses to pick up her identity. He let her have her quiet for a few moments, quietly reveling in his victory, when he broached the subject.
"You think you can answer my question now?"
She didn't respond right away but he was content to occupy himself while waiting for her answer. He knew she was mulling over her options of which way to respond to it. He was sure she had more than one reason for getting her back up about it.
After a few minutes, she finally said, "Everybody wants something for nothing."
He nodded slowly. "True enough. Though if we're going off the current example, of trading your skills for mine, does that mean you think my musical items worth nothing?"
"Of course not, but even the time you put into them is nothing compared to the time I'd have to put into healing your eyes. There would be research, treatments, therapies, and that's only if it's a basic problem. Anything more intricate would require even more energy. People just seem to think that I just snap my fingers, push some healing chakra into you for a few minutes, and suddenly you'll be healed of whatever malady ails you. Then on top of it maybe I could also heal your sister, your grandma, and even your dog. It shouldn't take long, right?
"Besides, I'm sure you know how it is. It's not like you'd just give away your wares, either."
Kakashi smiled. "Well, I did just agree to trade one away for a couple kisses."
"So does that mean you'd consider my kiss to be the 'nothing' in the equation?" She spoke in a severe tone, but from the corner of his eye he could see her lips twitching into the first semblance of a smile he'd seen her wear since his return.
He couldn't help it. He laughed alongside her.
"My turn now."
"Ah, another trade is it?" he joked.
"Of course. Nothing's for free, remember?"
"Even as a medic?"
Her eyes shuttered. "Especially as a medic."
Well, they'd have to come to that eventually, but Kakashi knew better than to push right then. "I see. Well then, ask away."
She relaxed again, her shoulders dropping. "Since I'm not allowed to know the secret to how you make these things musical, tell me how you learned."
So he told her all about how his travels through Bird Country, how he'd been a wanderer until he'd found himself settling in a particular village that had seemingly adopted him. Their industries were based on the surrounding environment and that's where they got most of their designs and songs. He learned a little bit from the many artisans around, but seeing as he didn't live in town permanently, it was slow going.
He left the silence hanging, hoping she would show some kind of interest for something outside of her little sphere of safety and influence. Just when she'd given up hope she spoke. It wasn't quite what he'd been angling for, but he could still make it work.
"These are amazing though. If this is one of the main industries in the country, then why haven't I seen them before?"
"Bird Country is small and nestled between two super-powers, so there was no way it could hope to compete in the shinobi world. Instead it took a different path, with most of its economy based on its hunters and artisans. The hunters sell their skills to clients, the same way shinobi do, or at least can sell their game for a profit. The artisans are the ones who stay in the village permanently so they're the backbone of daily life. When things go sour, they're the ones who have to put aside their craft in order to step up where things are needed."
"The war?" Sakura asked tentatively.
"Yes, the war. Even before that things had been hard. Merchants rarely came through since the locals didn't have enough funds to buy what they were selling, so they consequently also had little opportunity to distribute their own creations. But since the war things are far worse. The economy took a hard hit in even the big countries, as they were funding most of the fighting, but the little countries caught between took the brunt of the damage. Now they hunt just to feed themselves and the other industries have dwindled tremendously. After all, even if they had the time to invest in making their musical products, they're novelties. Who would buy them when most every economy is suffering, even still after five years of rebuilding, when they're really nothing more than an extravagance?"
"I would," she said softly.
"Yes, well I suspect that, with your position and power, you're much better off than most people around."
She bristled at that, even if it was true. "And what's wrong with that? I work hard for what I have, to get to where I'm at. It hasn't been easy, not in the slightest, and it's not like I'm loitering around and being negligent with it. Every day I make advances toward goals never achieved by anyone else."
"There's nothing wrong with that," he said congenially, almost patronizingly to her ears.
"Obviously you're of a different mind, so tell me."
"Are you sure you want me to?" he hedged. He hadn't expected her to be quite that open to the idea.
"Believe me, it won't be anything I haven't heard before, so you may as well tell me so I can know what you really think of me."
He mulled that over a moment. "It's that I can't help wonder why you still insist on keeping your talent locked up in that research tower of yours. Yes, you gave me one answer about why you were uncomfortable with sharing your healing abilities, but I sincerely doubt that's all there is to it. It's such a wonderful talent, something few people share at the skill level you're capable of, yet you still funnel it all into researching poisons and toxins instead of curing people of their problems.
"It just seems something of a waste to me. In Bird Country we're having an epidemic and the infant mortality rate has just shot up to about 20%. None of our healers have any idea what is causing it and someone with even a portion of your talent would be indispensible there. So it just makes me wonder why you feel more comfortable doing the one rather than the other."
She sighed heavily. "For what it's worth I'm sorry. About the epidemic," she elaborated when she sensed his confusion. "And it's not like I don't help with things like that. Researching toxins and poisons helps reveal those agents that will work against them, as well, and those are turned into new medicines to improve things far beyond the scope of battle."
"But you still don't leave your lab," Kakashi pointed out.
She huffed irritably. "Because you know what happens when I do? Everybody wants something. Everybody. Just recently I even had an old friend come to visit."
Kakashi suddenly felt uncomfortable.
"He didn't ask anything about me, about how I'd been or what I'd been doing in the years since we'd seen each other, he just asked for his favor and left."
Yup, definitely uncomfortable. It's not like that had been his intention though; he'd just wanted to get business out of the way first and then they'd be able to catch up later. After all, if she'd agreed to his request they'd have plenty of time on the journey back to Bird Country. Then after the way she'd reacted he'd thought she wished him gone. He never would've guessed she'd wished for him to show his concern.
"It's always like that, anyhow. I'm the sum of my skills, and if I do something free for one person then everyone else expects the same treatment, and then I'm run over with angry complaints when I don't fulfill their every demand."
He sympathized; how could he not. Perhaps he shouldn't have put business first. But still, it hadn't always been like that with her and he couldn't see how her circumstances would've changed to where she had trouble telling people yes and no and doing what she could for those she had it in her power to help. Now, with the icy wall she'd built up around herself it was hard to think she could care about what anyone thought of her, and he wouldn't have believed it if it had come from anyone but her directly. So while he sympathized, he couldn't pity her for a trap of her own making.
He studied her carefully. "Is that why you're telling me all this?"
She looked up at him, startled. "What do you mean?"
"Is it because I had no interest in your healing abilities, or because you know I'll be leaving soon and whatever you say goes with me?"
Standing with a muffled scream, she brushed herself off as she mumbled, "I don't know why I even bother."
"You're upset by my honesty?" he asked. "Weren't you the one who said I couldn't have anything to say you hadn't heard before? Or is it that you're protected from certain truths by hiding yourself away as well?"
She glared at him, fire in her gaze. "You know what, we're done here."
She stomped away, leaving Kakashi wondering whether he'd done the right thing. She'd become proud and withdrawn and just seemed so unhappy. He didn't even care about whether he could bring her around to considering his proposition – well he still cared about it but it wasn't his primary objective. He was concerned, wondering why she'd let herself become that way, and could only hope his unwillingness to tiptoe around her or pamper her sensitivities would come to help her in the end. Because otherwise he very well might just be making a bastard out of himself.
He didn't see her again for more than a week and became concerned that he'd offended her to the point where she wasn't going to bother with the novelty of her little peddler friend anymore. She was certainly busy enough, he knew.
Deciding some reconnaissance was in order, he waited until late at night when he was sure she'd be home, and snuck off to see what he could discover from her movements. He shook his head when he realized her apartments were even connected to the hospital – she really didn't have to deal with anybody from the outside world if she didn't want to.
Creeping his way along one of the many trees planted outside the hospital to give it a more 'homey' feeling, he planted himself outside her bedroom window, which was open to let in the crisp night air. He stopped dead when he caught sight of her.
She was lying on the floor, playing with stopping and starting the music in the pot, a strange, wistful smile pulling at her features.
Slowly, so as not to disturb the swaying of the tree and the rustling of its leaves, he crept backward and slipped away.
When she came looking for him two days after his late night visit he was waiting for her, new gift in hand. She was smiling as she strode up to him, an inner spark to her, a bit of defiance, that had been missing from her step since they'd reunited. It made him wonder what had happened during her time away from him.
First things first though. Her eyes were locked on the item he held in his hands and he had to fight down a grin. He wasn't about to risk her losing interest; he'd have to hold that at the very least if he was to follow through with his plan.
"What is that?" she asked by way of greeting.
"Oh, just something else I thought you might like."
She stared at it a long moment before turning away and sitting down against the tree he shared, but he saw her peeking from the corners of her eyes. "Yeah, what is it?" she asked in what she hoped was a disinterested tone.
In answer he merely leaned over and deposited the item in her lap. Sakura stared down at it in wonder and slight confusion. It was a bird. Granted, it was a lovely, well made rendition of a little songbird, but it was just a piece of pottery. It wasn't doing anything the least bit interested and she confessed herself disappointed.
"It's a bird," she stated blandly.
Kakashi just smiled and shook his head. "Stroke your finger over its head."
She did so and the bird burst into song, one of the most bittersweet melodies she'd ever heard, and her heart swelled at the sound. Its little beak even moved with each note it sang and she marveled at such craftsmanship.
"Did you make…?"
"No." He pointed to his eyes. "I'm not quite that talented. It was a gift from a friend back at my village, something of a good luck charm," and that was something he would definitely need a lot of as the day progressed.
"It's lovely," she breathed, cradling the thing carefully in her hand. "But why are you showing it to me?"
"Because I think you could use it. It seems you see very little of the outside world so this will bring some of it to you."
She let the veiled barb slide, choosing to see the gesture simply for what it was. "So, how much does this one cost?" she asked drily.
"Well, it was a gift. And you can see the exquisite craftsmanship, so I'd say… a hundred kisses."
Sakura just laughed. "Careful or you might start me thinking you're nothing but a letch."
"What's to say I'm not?"
"Then I suppose I'm just going to have to hold you very, very still."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow at that, realized that was a ridiculous thing to do, and chuckled instead. "No bargaining? You're giving in, just like that?"
She shrugged. "I suppose I'm not much of a haggler."
Kakashi snorted. Sakura had always loved a good fight, so either she was more comfortable around him than he'd imagined, something very strange had happened over the last week and a half, or she thought the bird was worth much more than he asked. If everything went right, hopefully he'd find out.
"All right then," she said, moving to sit in front of him again. She touched his chin and he pulled back, startled.
"What are you doing?"
"My, aren't we jumpy." She smiled at him though. She could only think of two reasons for his reaction. Either he was uncomfortable with people touching his face, especially trying to look at his eyes, or he'd thought she'd truly been about to kiss him. To the former, that was something she could understand – especially given a certain old teacher of hers. If the latter – well it wasn't something she'd be averse to, she was unreasonably uncomfortable around him after all, but she would want to see his face first. She didn't care about his appearance – she gathered he was likely heavily scarred from whatever had caused him to lose his sight and, working in the medical field, that hardly gave her pause – but she didn't want to kiss someone she couldn't put a face to.
"Now don't be silly. Weren't you the one who first brought up the idea of a kiss on the cheek? Well, kisses, given this case."
"All hundred of them?"
"Yes," she declared, grasping his chin firmly and turning his head to the side. "And you're keeping count."
She leaned in, her lips delicately brushing his cheek, then pulled back and eyed him skeptically. "Out loud," she told him.
He cleared his throat. "Ah, yes. One."
She leaned in again and kissed the exact same spot, a bit more pressure behind it, and her eyes fluttered close. Kakashi wondered how she was able to hit the same spot every time without being able to see. By the time they were at about forty the feeling of her lips was ingrained so deeply in the sensory memory of his skin that he knew, without a doubt, that anytime anything brushed against that bit of cheek he would always remember this sensation.
It took Kakashi a minute to realize she was talking to him. "Yes?"
Her lips quirked in an entirely too female smile as she told him, "You stopped counting."
"Of course. Um, what number were we on again?"
Her eyes glinted in amusement. "Fifty-two."
When they finally reached the hundred mark he couldn't be sure, but he thought that Sakura was slow in pulling away. It made him regret even more what was going to have to happen today. And things had just been getting so interesting.
She looked so happy, or at least pleased with herself, but he couldn't delay any longer. He had to get back to his friends in Bird Country eventually. They were all depending on him.
Well, he could delay it a few minutes, at least. "What kept you away so long? You seem…different."
"Keeping track of my movements now, eh? Or did you just miss me?" she asked cheekily.
"It pays to keep track of my best customer," he said, watching as she deflated slightly. "And, maybe just a bit of the other as well," he admitted.
She smirked up at him. "And don't you forget it. As for my absence?" She shrugged again. "The elders like to keep tabs on me as well. They didn't like the fact I was spending so much time with…" She trailed off, searching for the right word.
"Me?" He guessed.
"Why's that? Because I'm a peddler?"
"In a way..." she hedged.
Then it dawned on him. "Ah, it's because I travel, I have foreign ideas, and I could lure you away from them. They wouldn't like it if their prize medic went missing."
She snorted. "You have no idea."
"Really?" he asked quickly, too quickly, but she didn't notice. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
She thought about it a moment and then figured, why not. "They make their opinions very clear about where they would like me to stay. Still, there are always valuable alliances on the table and they let me know, very clearly, which they would allow me to accept and which are unimaginable. Even then I think those are just grudging allowances though. They really just want me to stay here. I know that for sure."
"Why?" he prompted when she didn't seem like she was going to go any further on her own.
"There was another 'old friend', I guess you could say. During the war, though, he wasn't exactly playing for the same side."
Ah, Kakashi thought. That narrowed it down to one.
"Some time after the war he was captured and brought back and given the option of being accepted back within the city if he did a certain number of things. One of those was to marry me."
Kakashi sucked in a breath. "The elders?"
"And you turned him down?"
She laughed. "I never had the opportunity to. I didn't even find out about it until much later. He wanted no part of us, didn't even want to come back, so it was somewhat pointless."
Kakashi was quiet a moment. "Would you have turned him down if he'd asked?"
Sakura shrugged as if it didn't matter, and as he watched her there, suddenly so comfortable in her own skin, he wondered if maybe it truly didn't. "I'd like to think so, but you just never know until the opportunity is presented. We did have quite the past, after all. Mostly, I think I regret not getting the chance to turn him down and see the look on the smug bastard's face."
They laughed together, elapsing into companionable silence as they watched the wind flutter through the leaves above them.
"You never did answer my question from last time, you know. Is this a regular habit of yours to avoid questions by leaving?"
To his surprise she just leaned back again the tree again – her shoulder almost bumping his. "Not usually. You ask hard questions sometimes. And in answer – I guess both your guesses have a bit of truth to them. I like that you don't make demands of me and it's both a relief and a bit sad that you'll be leaving soon."
The last admission made Kakashi's stomach drop even further but he knew he had to push on. "Let me ask you another question then – what's so wrong with people wanting your help?"
She huffed irritably. "Haven't we been through this already? People always want something for nothing. They're all just like the elders, but at least those two don't pretend to be something they're not. I'm a tool, that's it, even if a very expensive and valuable one. I'm a tool to everyone else but they try to hide it behind friendship or other nonsense."
"You think friendship is nonsense?" he asked, shocked. This was certainly a new development.
"For the most part I think it's a bunch of rubbish. You can be friends until someone suddenly has power and then they're just out to use you, like everyone else."
"You mean they wanted you to heal them?" he asked, fishing for what the problem was.
"Yes! Every time we hung out it was always 'take some time to look at this wound or that'. I mean, we're shinobi, so there's always some problem or another. As I said, I've already accepted the fact I'm meant to be a tool, it was just painful when they pretended it was more than that."
"And you know it wasn't 'more than that' because?"
She grumbled irritably. "I just told you – they were always harassing me to do something for them. I was never just Sakura, always 'the girl who heals'."
Kakashi rolled his eyes. He understood getting defensive but this was just absurd. "You were friends with the Yamanaka girl, yes?"
She shot him a sharp glance. "How did you know that?"
He tapped his ear. "You would walk together in the marketplace. I can still hear, remember? And the Yamanaka girl has a very distinct voice."
She laughed. "You can say that again."
"And her family owns a flower shop?"
"Yes," she affirmed, suddenly hesitant about where this was going.
"So if you faced a flower emergency and suddenly needed twenty bouquets by tomorrow, wouldn't you expect her to help you out?"
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"All relationships are about give and take. Yes, they wanted your services, but you're also the best, so why shouldn't they take advantage of it? Friends help each other out. Maybe you didn't need their particular talents as often but that didn't mean they'd be unwilling to lend you aid if you needed it. Perhaps some of them were just leeching off of you but do you really pretend to believe that every single person you've known since childhood suddenly cares nothing about you but for your skills?"
"Hey, what do you know! You didn't see how they'd react when I told them no. You didn't see how it was the first thing that would come out of their mouths at any gathering."
"So you punish them by hiding yourself away from everyone? Set some boundaries with them – the ones who agree are your friends and those who don't aren't. It sounds to me like you're just using it as an excuse to seclude yourself and remain in your lab. There you don't have to deal with people, with the messy daily life of healing people, of the heart wrenching sadness when a patient doesn't pull through. It sounds to me like you're simply afraid of living."
"You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, I think I do. Your responses are already conditioned. You already know I care about you, right?"
She crossed her arms angrily and looked away.
"Right?" he prompted.
"If I told you I fell last night and hurt my ankle would you be willing to take a look or would I automatically be lumped in with those who only wanted to use you, despite that our entire relationship up to this point has been based on anything but medicine?"
She didn't answer.
"There are plenty of people who knew you before you ever decided to become a medic. Why do you now automatically assume the worst of them? It sounds to me like you're simply afraid."
"Afraid?" she snapped. "I'm a shinobi. We don't do fear."
"Oh yes, we do. It's what keeps us alive." She didn't catch his wording so he plunged on. "You look like you're stagnating; something has to change. I don't know what it is, what it is you need, but whatever it is it's not what you're doing right now."
Finally, the fact he'd just lumped himself in with shinobi dawned on her and she spun to stare at him. "Who are you?"
He pulled off the lengths of cloth covering his face and hair. Despite never having seen most of his face, she recognized him instantly.
"Kakashi?" she breathed shakily. "You? What, why?" She gazed up at his sad eyes, at the censure she saw therein, and found herself lost for words.
"I was never out to use you, Sakura, as I'm sure is the case for plenty of others as well. You assuming the worst of me is quite disappointing, actually. What I told you about the medical situation in Bird Country was true and I merely sought help from a friend, thinking she'd want to do something about it. You liked to help those in need, and most especially would be interested in finding out what caused an epidemic, if for no other reason than to keep it from becoming a pandemic. I was prepared to accept a negative, as I knew you might have other obligations, but I'd never expected…this," he said finally, waving his hand at her.
"You need to figure out what you really want, Sakura." He rose to his feet, brushing himself off. "I really hope you find what you need soon. As for me, it's clear I'm not getting what I need through this venue, so I'll just be stopping by the hospital for a few things before I head out again."
Sakura was shaking now, innumerable emotions colliding within her. "You really think you have any right to lecture me like this?"
He sighed so heavily his shoulders sagged. "I'm not lecturing, I'm trying to help a friend find her path. If you choose not to listen, that's your own prerogative."
"What? You!" She broke off when he looked at her again, the disappointment in his eyes cutting her to the core. "You really think so little of me right now?"
He shook his head. "It doesn't matter what I think." He nodded toward the bird sitting forgotten by her side. "It really was a gift so I hope you get some enjoyment from it."
Sakura fought the urge to hurl it at his back as he walked away. Instead she picked it up and stared blindly at it as she fought to find her center in a world suddenly turned upside down.
Kakashi grumbled under his breath. It was a shame that his aversion to hospitals had come back to bite him in such a way. He only knew a few medics aside from Sakura, and those he did know could only show him things he'd already picked up from her years before.
With nothing else to do he took to the markets. Since Sakura had seemed so taken with his musical items, he'd created a few more of the pots and sold them for what he could in the next couple days. She wouldn't have the only one in these parts anymore, but that hardly mattered. Besides, she still had the bird.
Then he took all his money to the hospital, buying all the vaccines and medications he could. He even bought a few of the surprisingly cheap medical scrolls, in the hopes that studying them back in Bird Country would reveal a few secrets and basic practices that would help out. While in the hospital he was able to copy a couple more jutsu, though he had to ask the medics performing them exactly what they were for, which aroused suspicion. It didn't much matter to him, though, since he was on his way out of town at that point.
It had taken him a month to travel to Konoha, but he'd rambled and wandered, more reluctant to return home and make his request of Sakura than he'd been able to admit to himself. Now he was resolved to get these medicines back as soon as possible and he made the journey in a week and a half.
He was greeted back warmly, even though he felt something of a failure himself. Still, the texts were working out better than he'd ever imagined. The Bird medics could only understand what was going on in half of them, as they were written in medical jargon they'd never heard before, so it was up to Kakashi to decipher them in a usable way. He found he rather liked setting up his own classes, experimenting with creating new things that focused on healing rather than killing. It was…refreshing.
After a couple days of study though he realized something unusual about the scrolls; they were all in the same neat, tidy script, despite the fact they were obviously all transcribed by hand. It gave him pause, made him wonder what lowly grunt had been assigned the tedious task but was dedicated enough to not do it sloppily just to get it over with. Something about it tickled on the edge of his mind and finally it hit him that he recognized the handwriting. It was Sakura's.
His heart clenched at the sudden mental image he was provided. He'd always thought there was no way she could truly be conducting experiments well into the night every single day, and had considered she might do something else with her time. Now he could see her clearly, hunched over her desk during her lunch break or after everyone else had gone home, transcribing text after text to be sold for a pittance. After all, if she didn't have to pay someone else to do it then she could sell them for less.
Even when she mimed at uncaring something managed to slip through the cracks with her. He chuckled darkly to himself, the revelation doing nothing to make him feel better about how things had turned out. Instead, he buried himself in the work, hoping to forget all about that uncomfortable sojourn into Konoha, the things he'd done and the things he'd discovered, and pushed himself to ascertain things beyond what the scrolls taught. Someone had created all those other techniques one way or another, and if he couldn't learn them from someone else then he tendered the hope that he could recreate at least some of them. It was better than not trying at all.
Three months passed as he poured over the scrolls, deciphering, tweaking, teaching, experimenting, and he prided himself that his town was healthier than ever. Not by much, but it was something, and that something was everything to him. One of the medics had even saved a woman giving birth just the previous night because of what she'd learned in one of the scrolls he'd brought from Konoha. Things were changing, even if slowly, and he had to believe in that.
He sat out in one of the glades, pausing when a shadow fell across the scroll he was studying. He'd already had a kunai in hand five minutes prior, not recognizing the chakra signal, but the slow, steady pace with which the intruder approached, mixed with the calmness of the chakra signals, indicated the approaching person wasn't there for a fight. He'd already met multiple people from nearby villages who'd heard of his town's medical advances, so it was no surprise to him.
Still, once a shinobi always a shinobi, so it was with a keen alertness he turned. "What can I do for you?" he asked calmly, gaze raking over the person who was covered nearly head to toe but for her eyes. He'd recognize those eyes anywhere.
"I-I heard you're looking for experienced medics," she said, her nerves playing havoc on the evenness of her tone.
Kakashi sheathed the kunai smoothly and took a step toward her, the smile that lit up his face burning brilliantly even through the cloth of his mask. Still, she wasn't sure where she stood with him just yet. That smile could mean he was just glad for her services, not necessarily that he was happy to see her. After all, they hadn't exactly parted on the best of terms.
She hesitated, almost took a half-step back, then her backbone straightened and her eyes blazed as she looked at him.
He smiled. "We appreciate anything we can get." He took another step and reached for the wrappings around her face, tugging it down. "What took you so long?"
She glared. "You're really going to ask me that? Well how about the fact that I didn't know which blasted village you were staying in. Do you have any idea how many towns there are in this country?"
He chuckled at her irritation.
"Plus the elders weren't exactly thrilled with my decision to leave."
That gave him pause. "Did they give you trouble?"
She huffed. "Like you wouldn't believe. Oh, and as of right now, you are looking at one ex-shinobi. Hope that doesn't bother you."
His eyebrows dipped with concern. "Why? What happened?"
"They might've been okay if I was leaving for one of their alliances, but they gain nothing from this and tried everything they could think of to dissuade me. Finally they just resorted to threats and said they would cut all ties with me if I left. I took them up on the offer."
"But you love Konoha."
"So do you. Besides, Naruto and Tsunade are just biding their time. As soon as they have the upper hand I'll be welcome back with open arms." She shrugged. "I'm in no rush to return though."
Clasping her hands behind her back she looked around, her gaze landing on the scrolls he had spread out on the ground. "It seems I have my work cut out for me."
He laughed lightly and bent to pick up his paperwork – he could get to it later. For now he had to show her around.
Her words stopped him in his tracks though. "This isn't free, I hope you know."
Kakashi sighed and stood back up, hands tucked in his pockets. "Of course not. So tell me, what could I hope to pay for the services of teaching these people how to save lives?"
She took a deep breath, pulled up to her full height, and said succinctly, "A kiss."
"A kiss?" he repeated, smiling so softly under his mask that she missed it entirely.
"Yes. Well, a kiss for a day's work, I mean."
He chuckled. "And how long will this bargain last?"
She tried to shrug nonchalantly but was entirely too high strung to pull it off. "A while, at least."
"Only a while?"
"I don't plan on staying here permanently, you know."
"Oh, you don't." Kakashi's heart sank. "How long then?"
"I'm not sure. It'll depend on how far behind this place really is. There are so many other places to visit, I mean."
He paused, stared her in the eyes to gauge her intention. "You mean to travel and teach medicine in these 'other places'?" he guessed.
"Yes. A certain someone told me I could make better use of my talents and I figure this is a good place to start."
He nodded once, giving her no idea of what was going on inside his head.
"Well then, may I continue?" he asked
"Oh, yes, of course," she stuttered, knowing she was already turning red.
When he reached for her, cradled her jaw, and leaned down to press his lips against hers, she froze completely. When he didn't instantly pull back she loosened marginally, then finally relaxed into the kiss. After all, this was her bargain and she darn well planned on enjoying it.
Still, her body was traitorous, and before she even realized it her hands were reaching for him. She hesitated, this was just a bargain after all, it didn't necessarily mean anything to him, then tried to stealthily pull her hands back, hoping he hadn't noticed. Luck wasn't with her though, as he grabbed her hands as he broke the kiss, pulling them up to eye level to look at them.
She cringed, already pulling away from him, when she felt a kiss on her left palm, followed by her right. She stared at him in wondrous amazement, at what her treacherous heart hoped could only speak of acceptance with such a parallel to their first ten kisses. He saw her expression and smirked down at her.
"You're awestruck already? I haven't even kissed you thoroughly yet."
"Thoroughly…?" She rolled the word around in her mouth, liking the way it felt, though it was nothing in comparison to the feeling of his lips coming down on hers once again.
And this time, neither of them planned on letting go.