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By Your Side is Where I Belong

Chapter Text

The Hidden Leaf village was aptly (and annoyingly) named in Zoro's opinion, considering the trouble he was going through to find it. After hours of walking, Zoro finally came upon the entrance. He nodded to the pair of sentries standing guard at the gate.

The two Leaf Ninja sized the sixteen-year-old up; glancing curiously at the teen's green hair and noting the disheveled look about his clothes. One glanced down at Zoro's swords, while the other stepped out to meet him.

"State your business, kid."

The Ninja had a no-nonsense tone, and by the way he had a hand hovering over his weapons pouch, he clearly was prepared for a fight should Zoro be stupid enough to try anything.

Zoro held up his hands in a placating manner, and keeping his expression in a mix of boredom and annoyance, he said, "The name's Roronoa Zoro. I have a delivery from the Bingo Book for the Third Hokage. I'm getting my ID, now."

Zoro retrieved said ID while being well-aware that the Leaf Ninja were watching his every move. If they saw so much as a toothpick, Zoro was sure he'd hit the ground before he could even draw a sword. A part of him was sorely tempted to test his speed, but even though it was rare, Zoro did have his moments of common sense.

As the Leaf Ninja studied his ID, Zoro considered making some annoying conversation just to annoy the Leaf bastards, but alas, he didn't get his chance.

The first man put a finger to his ear and spoke into a personal radio, "We need an escort for some bounty hunter calling himself Roronoa Zoro to the Hokage Tower."

'Some bounty hunter' was probably a lame attempt at an insult, but Zoro couldn't have cared less. The man looked as if he was about to add something else, but was cut off when a Ninja appeared in a swirl of leaves. He wore armor and a dog mask, but what stood out was his gravity-defying silvery-white hair.

"Keep an eye on him," the first Ninja instructed, eyeing Zoro with suspicion.

"Of course," Dog said in an amused-yet-lazy tone. Turning to Zoro, he extended an arm towards the village. "This way, sir."

Zoro scowled at Dog's slight sarcasm, and followed after the masked Ninja.

Dog smiled at Zoro from under his mask as he grabbed Zoro's arm and guided him towards the Hokage tower. "Mah, Zoro-kun, it's been awhile. You look well."

"As well as I could be," Zoro snorted, "Dog."

"Oi, oi, don't be like that, Zoro-kun!" Dog waved his hand in joking admonishment. "I happen to like dogs."

"Sure, Flea-Bag. At least the name fits."

While Zoro may have made fun of the Shinobi for naming themselves after animals, he personally thought it was pretty cool – not that he'd ever say something like that out loud! But if he were to be called after an animal, it'd probably be a shark or a tiger…Tiger-Shark? As Zoro silently contemplated his animal name, he took in the scenery. The hubbub around the pair consisted of the villagers preparing for that evening's festivities.

"Zoro-kun," Dog spoke up, and Zoro glanced at him. "How do you like dango? There's a place on the east end of the village. They also have really good sake. Their specials tonight are going to be really good."

"Alright," Zoro shrugged casually. While dango wasn't necessarily his favorite, it was the mention of sake that convinced him.

They walked in companionable silence, and reached the Hokage tower in a little under half an hour.

Sarutobi Hiruzen hadn't really changed all that much since Zoro had last seen him a year ago; he was still old.

"Hello, Hokage-sama," Dog greeted in a respectful yet casual manner.

"Good morning, Dog." Hiruzen's gaze fell onto the other teen. "It's been awhile, Roronoa-san. Doing well, I hope?"

"As good as I could be, old man." Zoro said with a smirk. "You look like you haven't aged a day pass 50."

A young secretary stood off to the side, giving Zoro wary and disapproving glances. She didn't like how casual the teen was being with the Third, but since her boss didn't seem to mind, she kept silent.

"Heh, you flatter me." Hiruzen then got down to business. "So who have you brought us today?"

"Kirito Hakoda," Zoro replied, pulling out a Sealing Scroll from his travel bag. Zoro pushed a bit of chakra into the scroll, and a man's nearly bisected corpse appeared on the floor of the Third's office.

"He was something of a disappointment," Zoro slightly complained of the former missing-Nin, ignoring the secretary's look of horror and disgust as blood leaked out onto the floor. "I thought he'd be more of challenge. His sword skills didn't push me as far as I'd hoped they would."

Zoro resealed the body and placed the scroll on the Hokage's desk while his secretary quickly left to retrieve Zoro's reward money. She came back a few minutes later with enough ryo that Zoro was sure it would last him nearly seven months – if he stretched it. And stayed within the Elemental Nations. Ryo didn't have any real value anywhere else in East Blue or the Grand Line.

"Thanks for your time, old man." Zoro said, stuffing the money into a pocket of his shirt that was hidden thanks to his haramaki.

"Will you be staying long enough to enjoy the Fire Festival?" Hiruzen asked.

"Yeah, I'll probably stay for a few days." Zoro's casual shrug was accompanied by a yawn. "Or maybe I'll leave tomorrow. Who knows?"

"I can escort Roronoa-san to an inn," Dog volunteered.

"Yes, thank you, Dog." Hiruzen smiled. "I hope the rest of your stay with us is pleasant, Roronoa-san. Please enjoy our festival."

Zoro simply waved, and did his best to hide his annoyance as Dog held his arm to prevent him from getting "lost". It wasn't his fault that the stupid Ninja kept moving the paths and buildings around, dammit!

Dog led Zoro to a cozy-looking inn with Seiko written on a simple wooden sign hanging off of a bar near the roof. Fortunately, the place still had a few rooms available, in spite of nearly every other place being fully booked. Since the village was in the midst of celebrating a festival, traveling merchants more often than not overran Konoha for a few days before moving on. It also helped that Seiko Inn was mostly used predominantly by Ninja.

Stating the obvious, Dog said, "Well, here's Seiko Inn. Their prices are really good and they have a hot bath."

"Hmm, thanks." Zoro nodded. "Where can I get some sake?"

"There are places around; depends on what you want." Dog shrugged, not really caring how early or late a person wanted to start drinking. "Mah, I have to go now." Zoro glared as he could hear the smile in Dog's voice as he added, "Try not to get lost, Marimo-san."

Zoro's face flushed, much to Dog's amusement. Ignoring the sudden nickname Dog had for him, Zoro indignantly shouted, "I don't get lost!"

A few villagers gave Zoro an odd look as he was essentially shouting at air, but they quickly went back to their business when Zoro glared at them.

He entered the inn and was able to get a room and was even able to find it easily enough. Room 2-3 was cozy, just like the outside. Zoro found it odd that he could actually describe anything as being 'cozy'.

Zoro's few possessions remained with him, as he didn't trust leaving his things unsupervised. He made his way (somewhat) easily to the bathhouse behind the inn. Afterwards, Zoro found himself a new outfit. For obvious reasons, the areas where Ninja shopped and the areas where civilians shopped were separated into various sections. Zoro ended up at a Ninja shop, because he knew he would need to buy supplies to maintain his swords. He bought a light-armored gray shirt and dark green pants that also offered some protection and even had pockets for other supplies. The shirt was a little too big for him and he would have to cuff the pants, but he needed clothes that would last him a while. There was no point in buying clothes that he was going to outgrow anyway. He had a thing for bandannas, so a dark green one was added to his list of necessities. He changed into his new clothes in the changing room, and dumped the stuff he no longer needed into a nearby trashcan.

Zoro also bought a few scrolls and ink, along with various other supplies he was sure he would be needing. As he explored the village, he overheard the occasional whisper of a 'demon' and 'fox-child' that the locals seemed to be very fearful of. Perhaps they were having trouble with an infestation or something, but that didn't really explain away why they spoke in hushed whispers, or why they quickly glanced around out of the corners of their eyes before talking. It got Zoro to thinking, but it wasn't exactly something he focused on.

Zoro stopped at a weapons shop to see if they had any decent swords other than the ones he had filched off of his opponents. Unfortunately, none of the swords there really 'spoke' to him. The shopkeeper noticed that Zoro had been perusing near the swords, yet hadn't moved to pick one up or bothered to look at anything else. Hoping to make a sale, the shopkeeper spoke up.

"Looking for something in particular? I can probably order it or even have it custom-made."

Zoro glanced over at the shopkeeper. "How long would either of those things take?"

"Depending on what you order, it could take a month or so. Custom work usually takes a month and half, maybe two at the most."

"Hm," Zoro grunted. "Unfortunately, I can't stick around here that long. I'm looking for someone, so my time isn't exactly free to dawdle around as I please."

Zoro turned to leave, but paused. He turned and faced the obviously disappointed shopkeeper. "You wouldn't happen to have an infestation of demons around here, would you?"

There was something strange in the shopkeeper's expression, and his posture was suddenly stiff. He clearly tried to act like everything was normal, but was doing a very poor job of it. "N-no, w-why do you ask?"

"Just curious," Zoro shrugged, but he had a grin on his face that made the shopkeeper almost think that a demon was currently in his store. "I like seeking out a challenge; and I thought I heard something about fox demons being nearby. The last guy I fought was a bit of a disappointment."

"No!" the shopkeeper was unnecessarily loud as the color drained from his face. "Nothing like that here! Nope, not-at-all!"

"Whatever you say." Zoro replied with a frown.

He left to find a place where he could find some decent sake.

The response was odd, Zoro thought. If they in fact had some sort of infestation, wouldn't the Ninja be able to take care of it? Wouldn't the shopkeeper have mentioned the fact that the village had Ninja at its disposal, and a wandering, bounty hunter-swordsman needn't bother?

Zoro silently cursed as he came upon the same dead-end a fourth time.

He decided to stop by the convenient store for a bit of food. The stores in Konoha were actually pretty nice, and the food they offered was cheap but high enough in quality. Zoro came upon an odd scene when he neared the convenient store.

The clerk was tossing a small blond boy out of the store by his ear. "Get out, you brat!"

"But I didn' even do an'thin'!" the boy shouted indignantly.

"Don't think I don't know what you're up to, you brat!" the clerk yelled. "And stay out!"

The boy glared as the automatic door closed. He grabbed a rock from the ground and seemed to consider throwing it, but instead he let it drop back to the ground. The kid then dejectedly slouched over to a nearby bench and sat down with a huff.

Even from where he stood, Zoro heard the kid's stomach growl. The boy placed a hand on his stomach. Even though the kid was trying to put on a brave face, Zoro was sure that the kid was crying. He noticed a few wrinkled bills in the kid's other fisted hand.

Zoro had to walk passed the kid to enter the store, and upon entering Zoro didn't miss the glare that the clerk was giving him – or at least the glare was probably supposed to be directed towards the kid outside on the bench. The man suddenly smiled and said, "Welcome! Please look around and let me know if you need anything!"

Straight and to the point, Zoro asked, "Why'd you toss that kid out?"

The clerk balked. "He's a little thief! He was coming in here to steal."

"He had money."

"He must have stolen that too!"

The clerk looked really uncomfortable with the conversation.

"Whatever."

Zoro grabbed a few sandwiches, onigiri, some instant ramen, a few bottles of water and a can of beer.

Since Zoro didn't seem the type to even want to engage in any kind of conversation, the clerk silently rang his order up. Zoro paid and loaded up his groceries.

"Have a good day!" the clerk called after Zoro's retreating back. He was silently thankful that the green-haired teen was leaving. The kid had a downright scary glare that appeared to be his normal expression.

Zoro walked up to the bench and was easily ignored by the boy who had busied himself with glaring at his ratty shoes. Wordlessly, Zoro set one of the grocery bags down on the bench next to the kid and left.

Naruto looked understandably shocked. He didn't recognize the teen, and he was sure he would remember if one of the villagers had green hair and three swords. Naruto cautiously opened the bag, and was surprised to find bottles of water, onigiri and few bowls of instant ramen.

' He was nice to me…'

*o*o*o*

By now, the festivities had begun, and the streets were filled with people. Lanterns lit up the larger streets, vendors were calling out to customers, the smell of food permeated the air, and people were dressed in kimono and yukata. Fireworks were going off in different areas every few minutes, but Zoro didn't mind. He was currently in a state of bliss with some local sake. It wasn't overly sweet and had a bitter but pleasant aftertaste. Zoro quietly chuckled to himself. If he hadn't decided to become a swordsman, he probably could have become a wine critic.

Another teen which looked to be a year or two older than him with an over-sized shoulder bag and pants with too many pockets approached Zoro. The other teen wore dark sunglasses and carried a colorful book with two girls on it and had an expression on his face that showed he enjoyed what he was reading and didn't care who else knew it. The bag had a patch lazily sewn onto it that had the kanji Books and Scrolls for sale messily printed on it.

"Well, Marimo-san, you look happy."

"Finally found some decent sake." Zoro replied as he took another swig. He eyed the colorful book with some repulsion. Considering the fact it had an age restriction on the back cover gave Zoro the suspicion that it was smut. "You look happy yourself, Flea-Bag."

"Oh, you have me mistaken for someone else, Marimo-san; I'm a simple traveler selling his wares." the teen smiled, putting the book away in a pocket. "Please, call me Gin."

"Gin," Zoro repeated with a shrug. "So how about we head to this supposedly amazing dango place I heard about? Some flea-bag recommended it to me."

"So you talk about me behind my back to my face… very audacious, aren't you?"

"I've been called worse."

"Well, let's go then."

Kakashi easily directed Zoro towards the restaurant. Zoro didn't really complain about Kakashi holding onto his sleeve, as he had been placated easily enough with alcohol.

The friendship between Zoro and Kakashi was an interesting one. Where Zoro was brash, and more than willing fight; while Kakashi was unruffled and tactical.

No-one in the village could know about their friendship, due to the fact that Zoro was for one, an outsider that wasn't really associated with any one village. According to Zoro's ID, he was from a rural village in Fire Country. If anyone asked, he was just another orphan who had lost his parents to some harsh reality of the world. But Kakashi knew that was a lie. If people knew how much of an outsider he really was, well…Kakashi didn't want to think about what T&I might be willing to do to Zoro. Even though the Konoha Ninja still treated Zoro with some respect, there was still some apprehension involved. Because Zoro wasn't directly allied with Konoha, and in fact associated with other Shinobi villages, it led to some Shinobi not being comfortable with him. They just didn't know what to make of the teen, and this was coming from people who essentially made it their living being able to read others easily.

From what Kakashi knew, Zoro wasn't in anyone's Bingo Book just yet, but they still kept an eye on him. He only went after kenjutsu users, and always turned their bodies in to the village that they originated from. Zoro also went after wanted felons, bandits, and people who targeted the weak and defenseless. He never targeted Ninja if they didn't wield a sword. Even when he would have gotten hundreds if not thousands more in ryo if he had decided to sell the deceased to a rival village. When he had been questioned about why he didn't go for the money, Zoro had various responses along the lines of 'I don't want to be weighed down by money, I'm just trying to survive,' and 'they were from this village, right? Then they deserve to be buried somewhere familiar.'

It was interesting that Zoro had more honor than the people he hunted. Of course, Shinobi had no honor.

If people knew that Kakashi associated with an outsider, both of them possibly risked the chance of being executed. But Kakashi thought rules that disallowed friendships were foolish; he could tell that Zoro was a guy anyone with common sense would want on their side. Plus, he was entertaining. Zoro didn't care for rules that much, and besides – he would happily accept the challenge, but that also meant he would cut down the people who killed Kakashi.

The dango restaurant was pretty busy, and they'd be lucky to get a spot on the floor. But apparently "Gin" already had reservations, and going by the reactions of the staff, he was well-known at this establishment. Zoro didn't question it nor did he care.

A waitress led them to a booth and took their order. Kakashi decided on black tea, while Zoro of course ordered sake. They agreed on a large platter that offered a variety of dango, and while they waited for their food, the two decided to catch up. There was also enough hubbub going on around them that their conversation could be pretty much kept private.

"So, have you changed your mind about-what was his name, Mihawk, and decided to stay in Konoha?" Kakashi asked. He knew the answer, but perhaps Zoro had somehow changed his mind. Konoha certainly could use a man like Zoro, and Kakashi wouldn't have to hide his association with him.

"Nah," Zoro smirked. "I still need to get a bit stronger before I face him…" Zoro looked thoughtful. "I know where he is, but finding him is another matter entirely. The ocean's a huge place."

Kakashi chose not to point out that Zoro had a difficult time finding his way out of a cardboard box. Finding someone as powerful as this Mihawk guy seemed to be was going to be quite the challenge.

"…so once I manage to find someone who'll take me to the next populated island north of the Elemental Nations, I'll continue on until I reach the Grand Line and face Mihawk."

Zoro's eyes glinted as he smirked. "I've heard stories about Seven Swordsmen of the Mist…any idea where I could start looking for those guys? I traveled through Mist for a while on my way to Konoha, but ended up in the desert…"

Kakashi chose to ignore Zoro's indirect admittance that he had gotten lost…again.

"Mah…I don't think you want to go up against those guys," Kakashi seriously warned as he refilled his teacup. "They're pretty damn ruthless. They don't use just any ordinary, everyday swords, and they have powerful Jutsu for backup if you are actually lucky enough to get their swords away from them."

"Then that just means I'll have to get stronger." Zoro replied with a determined glint in his eyes.

Kakashi sighed, and reached into his bag and pulled out various scrolls containing the most basic of Jutsu and shoved them towards Zoro. Technically, he wasn't breaking any laws by sharing what the scrolls contained. At Zoro's questioning glance, Kakashi explained,

"I know you're very limited in what you can do in terms of Jutsu; this is stuff they teach at the academy and even Genin. At least if you're able to combine elements into your swordsmanship like the guys you foolishly want to fight, you at least have a chance of not dying within the first few minutes."

Zoro frowned, reading in between the lines of what Kakashi was saying. I don't want to lose another friend if I can help it.

"Heh, thanks, I'll put 'em to good use." Zoro put the scrolls into his travel bag. He was looking forward to seeing what Kakashi had given him. "So, how're things going with you?"

Kakashi shrugged. "I'm considering giving up the dog mask. Doing so means I can stick closer to home for longer periods of time, and possibly have my own team of students forced on me."

"If the future generation is in your hands no matter what capacity, I worry for us all."

"Rightly so," Kakashi agreed gravely.

Zoro smirked and Kakashi snorted.

For the next hour, Kakashi and Zoro caught up on news around the village and what Zoro had been doing since he had last visited Konoha a little over a year ago.

*o*o*o*

It was late in the evening, and Kakashi had left Zoro to his own devices (at Zoro's slightly irritated insistence. It wasn't his fault that other people kept getting lost and moving stuff around!) But Zoro said he would ask for directions, and Kakashi had to take a few jabs at Zoro's abysmal sense of direction.

"Hmm," Kakashi put a hand to his chin in thought. "The path of life is a confusing one, Zoro-kun. I must say you certainly get lost on it much easier and more frequently than I do."

"I don't get lost, you perverted flea-bag!" Zoro defended.

"'Perverted flea-bag?'" That insult was a stab to his ego, if only a little.

"See you 'round, Gin."

"Don't go killing yourself with a stupid death, Zoro-kun." Kakashi warned in a good-natured tone.

"I'll try not to. Take care of yourself, Flea-bag." Zoro smirked and waved, departing down the street and disappearing into the crowd.

Kakashi held his hand up until he could no longer see the Swordsman. He lowered his hand and stuffed it into his pocket. Kakashi headed the opposite way and made his way towards the inn that "Gin" had checked into. It wouldn't make any sense for someone to check-in, yet never check out. On his way, "Gin" sold a few books to customers. In the morning, "Gin" would leave Konoha, at least for a while. This one persona of many helped Kakashi practice his ability to disguise himself even from those who knew him using practical means.

Kakashi had to chuckle to himself when he was pretty sure he had seen Gai earlier, and his self-proclaimed rival hadn't even known it was him.

*o*o*o*

Zoro randomly turned down another street, and having finished off the last of his third bottle of sake, he was considering turning in for the night. While it had tasted good, Zoro was only slightly buzzed. He wasn't even close to the level of pleasantly drunk he preferred. Now to find a trashcan so he could dispose of the empty bottle… that was when Zoro heard yelling. It was drunk and belligerent, and probably wasn't worth getting involved in. Drunken brawls could be fun, but it was probably best not to get involved in one here…that was kind of disappointing.

Mentally complaining about the unfairness of not being able to get into a brawl, Zoro continued on his way, when he noticed he was passing the loud drunk who was now screaming while holding someone up in the air. But that wasn't what gave Zoro pause. It was the fact that the man was holding a freaking kid up by his shirt collar and it was clear that the man had a tight enough grip that the boy was struggling to breath. The kid's hands uselessly fought back as he tried to pry the man's grip from his collar.

"Stupid Demon! It's your fault my Nozumi died!"

Zoro now glared at the other festival-goers who simply stood by and watched in trepidation and even anger; but their gazes were not directed at the man, but rather the kid. Why wasn't anyone doing anything?! Just because those idiots were happy to stand around doing nothing didn't mean Zoro was.

"Why couldn't you have die-!"

An empty sake jar was thrown against the back of Moritoko's head, shattering on impact, accompanied by an angry shout. He turned to look, but instead of seeing who threw the bottle, he saw a green blur.

Zoro ducked low and rammed the butt of his sword into the man's gut with such force that Moritoko actually flew back and landed in an ungraceful heap a few feet away. He had released his hold on the kid, and Zoro deftly caught the boy mid-air and held him close. Zoro held the kid in such a way that if the stupid drunk retaliated, Zoro would be the first to get hit. He wielded Wado Ichimonji in his other hand and pointed it at Moritoko with a dangerous glare that would have sent any sensible person running.

"What the f*cking hell you bastard, he's a f*cking kid!"

Naruto gazed up at his would-be savior, and his eyes widened upon recognition. The only people who held him like the strange teen was doing was Gramps and Iruka. Naruto gripped the stranger's haramaki in tight fists.

The other festival goers were looking on in shock, while only a few decided it would be better to run and others decided to report the incident to the Uchiha police.

Moritoko slowly stood up, gasping for air and dispensed the contents of his stomach seconds later. He wiped away any residue on his chin with the back of his hand, and looked for the one who attacked him. His eyes fell on the kid holding the little Demon protectively in his arms.

"You have no idea what that brat is!" screamed Moritoko.

A few other villagers now tried to intervene. One man stepped up and placed his hand on Moritoko's shoulder. "Mori-san, let's go."

An older woman looked nervous as she added, "Don't be a fool! Just drop it!"

Moritoko just shoved them off.

Zoro glared dangerously at the villagers. They were willing to step up when a belligerent drunk was screaming at him, but not when someone was beating up on a freaking toddler? Zoro briefly glanced down at the kid who stared up at him with blue eyes. The kid looked somewhat familiar… He was a toddler, right? He was kinda small, so it was hard to tell. Zoro wasn't very good at guessing people's ages anyway…

Zoro sensed something deep within the boy, but he couldn't exactly say what it was. It was dark and terrifying, and anyone with any amount of sense would have dropped the kid right then and there had they felt that dark energy. But Zoro wasn't like other people.

Yelling drew Zoro's attention back to the drunk who decided that he would charge at him. Zoro gave Moritoko a bored look and easily flipped the sword around in his hand so that he could strike his opponent with the back of his blade. To the untrained eye, it simply looked as if Zoro had adjusted his sword to get a better grip.

Zoro easily sidestepped Moritoko's charge and Zoro swung his sword down towards the back of Moritoko's leg. He ignored the screams as the sword struck true and Moritoko's knee gave a sickening crack. Moritoko stumbled and unwittingly made his injury worse as he tried catching himself. The man fell to the ground screaming and rolling back and forth clutching his leg.

That was when a few men with badges and others wearing masks showed up.

A masked man motioned to Moritoko. "Take care of him, Hawk."

Hawk silently nodded and grabbed the aforementioned man by the back of his shirt and disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

"Drop your weapon!" a man ordered, but Zoro glared at them.

He recognized Kakashi, but of course Zoro acted like he had no idea who the other one was behind the mask.

"No way am I giving up my sword." He slightly adjusted so that the boy was facing away from the newcomers. "So you intervene when some fat ass like that gets injured, but not when he's attacking a kid? No way am I gonna surrender to low-life dipsh*ts like that."

"Listen, kid," one of the men spoke up. He had a fan insignia on his shirt and red eyes. "It's best to come down to the station quietly, so put the boy down-"

"Like hell." Zoro spat. His glare made the others hesitate to approach him. There seemed to be something dangerous in the green-haired teen; it was dormant, but still dangerous. "Do any of you even realize or even f*cking care that that drunk bastard was choking this kid? And no-one," Zoro's furious and accusing glare was directed at the other villagers as he spoke, many of them flinching back in response. "No-one cared! No-one did a thing to stop it!" Zoro's tone leaked poisonous sarcasm. "So forgive me if I'm not willing to part with my sword or leave this kid with these low-life, sh*tty excuses for human beings!"

Another ANBU wearing a mask like that of a monkey showing up slightly broke the thick tension in the air. "The Third has ordered me to escort you to Hokage Tower… and to bring the...boy."

Monkey stood by Zoro as he easily sheathed his sword, and then adjusted the kid again so that he could carry him more comfortably. Zoro held the boy in a way that he could still draw his sword. Kakashi quickly came up on Zoro's other side and grabbed his arm. Zoro could feel the tension in Kakashi's grip, but Zoro couldn't place why.

Was it because Zoro had broken another guy's leg? Was it about the kid? That store clerk obviously hadn't wanted the kid in his store. What was it about this kid?

That drunk idiot thought choking the kid was justified while others simply looked in apparent approval. There was also the fact that Zoro thought he had felt something malevolent in the kid, but that didn't matter to him. Swords carried dangerous Curses. Zoro figured that the kid meant people could carry dangerous Curses too.

They walked in tense silence, or at least it was tense for people who weren't Zoro, Kakashi and Naruto. Fugaku had his Sharingan activated, just waiting for Zoro to try something, while Monkey had a kunai openly displayed in his hand. Already, there were people whispering, but they wisely did it out of sight and earshot of the ANBU and head of Uchiha police.

They finally entered the Third's office, and Hiruzen motioned for Zoro to take a seat.

Zoro slowly complied, and as he settled, he studied the others present in the room; an older man and woman, certainly not a couple (or at least, Zoro didn't think so) and another old man who looked as if he had been a burn victim at some point in the past because he was covered in bandages practically from head-to-toe, with only one eye and his mouth exposed. Something about him didn't sit right with Zoro; but the teen couldn't place it. He just knew he held an instant dislike for the guy.

Zoro was introduced to Utatane Koharu, Mitokado Homura, and Shimura Danzo.

"First off, I'd like to thank you for protecting young Naruto, here." Hiruzen smiled fondly at the boy who responded with a grin that showed he was missing a tooth.

"Naruto, huh?" Zoro glanced down at the kid who looked at him upon hearing the teen say his name. "I'm Roronoa Zoro, nice to meet you, kid."

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto! Thanks for beatin' up that guy. It was really cool, ya' know."

"Monkey, please take Naruto home." Hiruzen requested.

When Monkey reached for the boy, he wrapped his arms tightly around Zoro's neck in vice grip and vehemently screamed, "NO! DON' WANNA!"

Zoro cringed at the level of volume next to his ear. Naruto refused to let go and it was clear that Zoro wasn't exactly used to kids because he slightly looked uncomfortable with how Naruto didn't want to leave him. Kids usually avoided him, because he tended to look scary.

"Kid. Kid! NARUTO!" Zoro finally made himself heard above the kid's caterwauling. Naruto looked at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. Naruto's lower lip quivered. A pang of something shot through Zoro's chest at that look. Maybe because kids never gave Zoro that look. Dammit, he was starting to feel sorry for the kid.

"Mah, how about Monkey waits with Naruto-kun in the hall?" Kakashi spoke up. "When you're done in here, Naruto can properly say his goodbyes."

"Sound good?" Zoro asked the still-sniffling Naruto.

Naruto looked as if he were going to break out into tears again, and not wanting to subject his ears to another round of the kid's wails, Zoro thought quickly.

"Listen, I'll make you a deal…" Zoro paused for a moment. He had no idea how to talk to kids. "You know what a deal is, right?"

Naruto nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, I do."

"Alright," Zoro removed one of his earrings and handed it to the kid. "I want you to take good care of this for me, okay? How about this," he glanced at Hiruzen, then back to Naruto. "Go with Monkey-butt there and stand out in the hall. When we're done, you'll give me back my earring, alright?"

Monkey fortunately had a mask to hide his face-fault at Zoro's nickname for him.

Naruto laughed at Monkey's nickname.

"Like a Ninja mission?" Naruto asked with an excited glint in his eyes.

"Of the most important kind," Zoro responded gravely.

Naruto grinned and held the precious earring in a tight fist. "OH BOY! THIS IS AWESOME! MY FIRST MISSION!" Naruto turned to Hiruzen. "Suck on that, Gramps! I'm tot'lly ready for missions!"

"Of course, Naruto." Hiruzen responded, inwardly enjoying Koharu and Homura's displeasure at Naruto's disrespect.

Monkey and Naruto both exited out into the hall, and closed the door behind them. Kakashi casually leaned against the wall to observe. Zoro was one of those people who had the dumbest of lucks, and if anyone could get out of this unscathed, it was Zoro.

"What's this about?" Zoro crossed his arms. Something about this wasn't right.

"This is about the boy," the old woman replied.

Hiruzen held up a hand before she could continue. "Naruto is a special case, Roronoa-san, I'd like to thank you for coming to Naruto's defense."

"What is inside him?" Zoro asked bluntly. "There's no way Naruto is some normal kid."

Kakashi resisted the urge to face-palm.

"That's classified information." Mitokado said in a voice that gave Zoro the impression that the man thought he was being authoritative, but Zoro just found his tone annoying.

"Okay." Zoro shrugged, simply accepting the answer. He scratched his ear with a pinky. His response was obviously not what the old bags were expecting; and they found his attitude annoying and off-putting. But Zoro could put two-and-two together. He suspected that Naruto had that Fox Demon thing in him.

"But I'm curious about something…" Zoro scowled, and something about his expression put those present on edge. "Why was that drunk bastard picking on a kid, and why were those stupid gawkers not doing something about it? Any civilized person would have stepped in, and if I'mwhat counts for civilized in this place, then that's f*cked up."

The old woman scowled at his use of language, but Zoro couldn't have cared less.

"Is Naruto important? I mean, is the kid special?" Zoro asked. "Because it's kinda weird that an apparently homeless brat is garnering this much attention."

So Zoro had caught on, or at least he had an idea of what Naruto's situation was. Kakashi knew that Zoro could be an idiot at times, but he wasn't stupid.

"He is to be Shinobi of Konoha, if that is what you are asking, Roronoa-san." Danzo said.

Zoro hated how his named sounded coming out of the man's mouth. Why was this partially mummified bastard grating on his nerves so much?

"Yeah, sure." Zoro snorted derisively. "If you expect a kid like him to become a Ninja of this village, then don't you think you'd want to keep him on your side?"

Hiruzen slightly narrowed his eyes at Zoro. The teen knew something, he was sure of it. But because he liked Zoro, Hiruzen didn't want to risk calling him out.

Danzo also shared the thought of the boy before knowing more than he let on. Roronoa was probably shrewder then he was leading them to believe.

"Anyway," Zoro continued. "Does Naruto have a family?"

"…He does not," Hiruzen said honestly.

"Brat's too skinny," Zoro muttered. He then focused on the others, again.

"I saw him getting kicked out of a store; that dumbass clerk thought that Naruto was going to steal something, even though the kid had money. You people are doing a real bang-up job of making Naruto want to be a Ninja of Konoha. I wouldn't be surprised nor would I blame him if he ended up being one of those Ninja with a scratch through his headband."

"Now see here-!" Koharu started, but she was cut off by Zoro asking,

"…What's going to happen to Naruto? Does he have anyone to care for him?"

"He does have a caretaker, and although they could be doing a better job on correcting his behavior, the boy is well-taken care of."

"Bullsh*t." Zoro said, glaring at Mitokado.

"I do not appreciate that use of language with me, or in the presence of the Hokage, no less." Mitokado glared disapprovingly, and was annoyed when Zoro was apparently ignoring him.

"How old is he?"

"I don't see how-" Koharu started, but Hiruzen held up a hand.

"Why do you ask?"

"My first thought was that he was a toddler," Zoro shrugged. "Not that I'm an expert, but the kid doesn't seem like a four or five-year-old."

"…He's eight." Hiruzen replied. To say that he was surprised by the glare Zoro was giving them would be an understatement.

"He's eight?! Naruto is way too small and thin for any kid. Whoever's responsible is doing a sh*tty job. Forgive me if I don't buy your bullsh*t, gramps. 'He's important to us, but not important enough to be fed a proper diet, stop idiots from unfairly kicking him out or stop drunk bastards from beating him up.'"

Zoro visibly seethed for a few minutes before quietly saying, "If I were to offer to take him, what would you say?"

"That's impossible." Koharu spoke before her companions could say anything. "Although you have assisted us in the past, you affiliate with other villages even though you haven't allied with them. There's no way we would let Naruto be taken by an outsider such as yourself, Roronoa-san."

That was a dismissal if he ever heard one, and not even an "I'm sorry, but you can't take him" was in her little speech – not that he cared.

"Okay…well, I was just curious." Fugaku watched Zoro's every micro expression and listened to his heartbeat, waiting for something, anything to be amiss. "There's no way I could take some loudmouth brat with me anyway…" Zoro paused thoughtfully. "You know, to be honest…if I didn't have that man to find, I'd probably stick around."

Zoro stood up and started for the door. "I'm leaving. I'll be around a few more days, but I'll try make parting from Naruto as painless as possible."

Fugaku could tell that Zoro was telling the truth, but at the same time, he could see controlled anger rippling underneath the surface, especially when Mitokado said,

"Actually, we'd prefer if you did not associate yourself with the child." Koharu was stern. "It would be for both of your best interests."

"Koharu." Hiruzen was equally stern. "At least let the two say goodbye to one another."

Koharu's scowl deepened, but she relented.

"…Look... I'll just stay the night and leave in the morning." He glared at the old bags. Well, the Third Hokage guy was actually alright, but the others were all pieces of sh*t.

"Wait, I still need a statement-" Fugaku started, but Zoro cut him off with a glare.

"Fine," Zoro huffed as he fished out his ID and held it up for Fugaku to see. "You want a statement? I'll give you one. I, Roronoa Zoro defended a f*cking kid from a drunk moron while everyone else stood around gawking. I'm surprised that they didn't start throwing money, they certainly thought it was entertaining enough. I broke that bastard's leg with my sword, when in reality I wanted to relieve him of his limbs." Zoro glared at the old people while Kakashi resisted face-palming again. "And here, the concern is whether or not I'm a threat and nobody seems to give a single flying f*ck that Naruto was getting strangled. When were you and those masked people planning to show up? When it was most convenient? You all have such great timing."

Zoro took his ID back from Fugaku without asking if he was done with it and stuffed it back into a pocket hidden behind his haramaki. He was furious at these people, but he wasn't going to let his anger get him too carried away. "If I'm such a threat, then Monkey-butt or Flea-bag here can escort me back to Seiko Inn. Hell, even put a watch on me all night if you have to. I'll more than happily be escorted out of this village in the morning. I can't stay anyway. As I've said, there's a man I promised to find, and he's not going to wait around for me to find him."

"You honestly can't think you're leaving?!" Koharu demanded, angry with Zoro's attitude, but was answered with Zoro leaving and slamming the door behind him hard enough to crack the frame. Hiruzen sighed at the damage, but he also sympathized with the teen. Zoro had pretty much voiced Hiruzen's personal opinions on the situation surrounding Naruto.

"Are you just going to let that boy leave?" Koharu demanded, insulted the teen had blatantly disrespected her.

Kakashi slowly opened the door, and it came off the hinges in his hand. "Mah, Roronoa-san certainly doesn't seem to know his own strength."

Kakashi exited the office and carefully placed the now useless door back into place.

"He clearly knows more than he let on." Danzo added. "His being a bounty hunter could only be an elaborate ruse for gaining possession of the Jinchuuriki."

Hiruzen sighed again. "I honestly doubt that. Roronoa has a pretty consistent track record with going after kenjutsu users, bandits, and even the occasional tyrant. Plus, I've heard more than one story about an odd, green-haired kenjutsu user who goes after people who pick on defenseless women and children.

"He's also stated his goal of finding the most powerful kenjutsu user he can. The boy's trying to work his way up in the world. There's also the fact that he's clearly a wanderer."

Hiruzen had observed Zoro's interactions with the villagers before – he clearly had no desire to associate with children, while he wasn't hostile, he wasn't friendly either. According to the ANBU who had also observed Zoro, the boy scowled at anyone and everyone, and on more than one occasion had made children cry when they so much as met each other's gaze.

"We'll do as Roronoa-san suggested: post guards on him." Hiruzen said. "I'll assign a few ANBU to keep an eye on things until Roronoa leaves Konoha."

Danzo figured it wouldn't hurt to post a few of his own agents to watch over the odd swordsman as well.

Homura and Koharu were letting Hiruzen know how much his decision bothered them, but he didn't really seem to care. He was thinking about something else entirely.

"Roronoa referred to Naruto by name. Did any of you realize that? He's only known the boy for a short amount of time, yet he willing to be more personal than those who have known Naruto his entire life, and Naruto seemed unwilling to part with him."

It was unfortunate that Naruto had attached himself to someone who couldn't and wouldn't stick around. Hiruzen sighed yet again, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was feeling his age. "Why do you think Roronoa was angry?"

Before either Homura or Koharu could respond, Monkey burst in through the window – it was a very fortunate thing that there was no glass.

"Hokage-sama!" Monkey bowed as he quickly reported to the village leader. "Eighteen minutes ago, Roronoa Zoro and Uzumaki Naruto disappeared! The other ANBU are currently searching the village and others are keeping watch at every potential exit. Bird and Tiger are currently investigating the Seiko Inn where Dog reported Roronoa to be staying."

"What happened?!" demanded Koharu.

"Well…you see…" Monkey's face flushed underneath his mask. He should commit seppuku for this failure – but that was a bit extreme. "I was escorting Roronoa and Naruto with Dog through the village when it happened…"

*I*I*I*

A very irritated-looking Zoro stalked out of the Hokage's office, and Monkey inwardly winced at the strength Zoro used to slam the door. Cracks appeared on the wooden door and around the frame. Obviously, the teen was much stronger than he looked, Monkey observed. He also didn't like whatever the Hokage and his advisors had said. The ANBU had heard muffled voices that briefly turned into shouting, but since no-one had raised the alarm, it hadn't been cause for concern.

"ZORO!" Naruto shouted exuberantly, and he ran into Zoro who grunted at the impact. Zoro got down on one knee so that he could be level with Naruto, and for a brief second Monkey thought that he saw an odd expression like sadness cross Zoro's face. It lasted for such a short time, that Monkey would have thought that he imagined it. He knew better than to disregard any expressions a person made, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

"You still have my earring, kid?"

"You bet!" Naruto held out his sweaty palm to Zoro.

"Thanks."

Zoro put his earring back in, and at that moment Dog came out of the Hokage's office. Monkey winced when the door came off of its hinges.

With a comment of, "Mah, Roronoa-san certainly doesn't seem to know his own strength," Kakashi placed the door back in its proper, but now useless place.

Naruto was chattering non-stop. "Do you like ramen? Ichiraku's ramen is my favorite. Do you wanna go? How 'bout tomorrow, since it's closed righ'now 'cause of the festival?"

Zoro frowned, unsure of how he should break the news to the kid. "Uh, ramen's really good. Listen, kid…something's come up, so I'll be leaving in the morning."

Naruto's face fell. His expression embodied all of the hurt and disappointment that one kid could muster. "You're leavin'?"

"Yeah, I can't stay, unfortunately…How about we go to that ramen place some other time? My treat."

It wasn't an empty promise if he didn't specify what time.

"OK…but don' think I'm gonna enjoy it."

Naruto's sadness was short-lived apparently, as he was suddenly a chatterbox as they made their way out of the Hokage tower.

"We have to escort Roronoa-san to his hotel now, so you should head back home, Naruto-kun." Kakashi said.

"Aw…" Naruto wilted for a second. Suddenly he brightened. "Can I head back with you? Please, please, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!"

"Sure, why not?" Zoro shrugged. Mostly because he was somewhat annoyed with Naruto's increasing volume as he pleaded with the men.

"YAY!"

Zoro grimaced as Naruto's cheer was much louder than his pleading. The kid certainly had an impressive set of lungs. Monkey scowled from underneath his mask, while Kakashi thoughtfully observed.

"…Mah, it will make their goodbye a bit easier."

Naruto took hold of Zoro's hand, smiling happily. Zoro glanced down in surprise, then looked up to watch where he was going with a look of slight irritation. He didn't dislike kids, but he didn't exactly tolerate them either.

"You're tall." Naruto suddenly said amidst all his chatter. "Can I ride on your shoulders?"

"Huh?" Zoro looked dumbly down at the grinning boy. Since when did kids actually like him? Pay attention to one lonely kid and suddenly they're behind you whenever you turn around…that was kind of sad, actually.

Zoro scowled, and at first Naruto thought he had said something wrong, but then a pair of strong hands lifted him up and he was placed on Zoro's shoulders. "If you tell me to neigh, giddy-up or any of that nonsense, I'm going to drop you."

"Okay!"

Naruto grinned. He hoped that he would be as tall as Zoro one day.

Zoro felt Kakashi's hand on his arm, but it felt tense. Zoro glanced at him from his peripheral vision, wondering what his deal was.

Monkey walked stoically beside them.

Although it was fairly late, there was a flurry of activity around them. There was still a decent-sized crowd; with there being enough people still awake as if it were the middle of the day. At that moment, fireworks went off, lighting up the night sky.

At that same moment, a boy named Kiba was lighting up a bundle of firecrackers under a stall while his friend Shino looked on warily.

"I do not think this is a good idea, Kiba-kun. Why? Because it could incite panic. What if it starts a fire? People could get hurt. What then?"

"Don't be such a tightwad, Shino!" Kiba harshly whispered.

He either ignored or didn't hear Shino mutter, "I'm not a tightwad. Why? I'm simply being practical."

"Besides, I got this idea from Naruto. He's an idiot, but he's a funny guy so it'll be fine."

Shino sighed as he decided not to argue with Kiba's weak reasoning or lack thereof. He watched as Kiba tossed the small roll of firecrackers under the stall where it was well-hidden from Human eyes. Kiba ran, with Shino close behind to various other stalls weaving in-between the crowd and repeated the process.

A minute or two went by, when suddenly there was a loud popping noise from one of the stalls. The two people manning the stall started yelling. Various people lurched in surprise, looking for the origin of the popping and yelling. But when the firecrackers went off at the other stalls, it incited panic, just as Shino said it would.

People were rushing back and forth, and Monkey knew that he and Dog would have to work on crowd control. Plus, in their panic various people risked tripping and getting trampled.

"I'll go high, you go low!" Monkey shouted out.

If Monkey had been aware of Zoro's tendency to wander, he would have told Kakashi to stay with Zoro. But Kakashi had formulated a ridiculous plan that he had no idea whether or not it would work. So he simply let go of Zoro's arm to help Monkey with crowd control.

8oo8oo8

In Zoro's mind, he questioned why Kakashi was getting himself lost. There were people running every direction, so Zoro decided pick one that seemed like the best option and head that way too. Except he found himself at the same dead-end three times. Zoro continued to wander, trying to find Seiko Inn, but he was getting further and further away from it. Seiko Inn was in the North District, and Zoro was on top of a tall building in the West District.

"Damn, they keep moving the buildings around…" Zoro muttered.

To Naruto, this was a grand adventure.

Zoro continued walking "up" because logically, that was where North was located on a map. So perhaps he had to walk around this building here so he could get to higher ground and find Seiko Inn. Zoro walked until he suddenly stopped. Something wasn't right…

"How the hell did the village get over there?!" Zoro demanded. He slightly grimaced as a softly snoring Naruto drooled into his hair.

Zoro was about to head for the village again to try and find Seiko Inn, when he felt a familiar presence appear behind him.

"Marimo-san, this is a pleasant night to be out walking, no?"

Zoro whipped around to face Kakashi who had removed his dog mask, and fortunately Naruto wasn't thrown off. He was only slightly jostled, and the boy simply shifted in his sleep before resuming snoring.

"The hell, Kakashi? You went and got yourself lost, and now Konoha is over there!"

Kakashi smiled; the only reason Zoro could tell was because his visible eye crinkled at the edges. The Copy-Nin glanced up at the full moon, his mood turner somber. "It's a beautiful night, is it not, Zoro-kun?"

The mood change was enough to cause Zoro to quirk his eyebrow at the man. "Uh, Kakashi?"

Kakashi knew that what he was about to do was committing high treason. If anyone from Konoha found out what he had done, and what he was planning to do, he would more than definitely be executed. Hell, he probably would be following in his father's footsteps…

"I have a selfish request to make of you, Zoro-kun."

Zoro said nothing, waiting for Kakashi to continue.

"Please, take Naruto-kun with you."

Zoro blinked, trying to process what Kakashi had just said. Then Zoro just about yelled, "WHAT THE HELL?! WHY?!"

"Huh?" Naruto sleepily muttered, but he stayed asleep.

Kakashi quickly shushed Zoro, then explained, "It's complicated, but…" Kakashi's expression, or at least his eye, looked regretful. "You see, Naruto-kun was the son of my former sensei. Minato-sensei and his wife Kushina-san were like second parents to me. They even declared me to be Naruto's 'official' older brother." Kakashi pulled out an old photo from his pack and handed it to Zoro.

Zoro thought that Kakashi looked more serious as a child than he did as an adult. He also had two visible eyes at the time the picture was taken. He stood in between a smiling blond man who was ruffling an irritated-looking Kakashi's hair, and a clearly pregnant red-haired woman who had one hand on Kakashi's shoulder, while with the other she gave a 'victory' sign. Even looking at them from a photo, they really seemed like nice people.

"They were killed eight years ago, when the Kyuubi attacked Konoha. It's rather complicated, but both Minato-sensei and Kushina-san died saving Konoha and sealing the Kyuubi into Naruto."

"I thought that I felt something…that's why all those people were…" Zoro scowled. "Bastards. Wait, if you were supposed to be his older brother, why aren't you taking care of him?"

Kakashi truly looked regretful as he stared at the ground between his feet. "It is one of my biggest regrets…after losing my sensei and Kushina-san, I couldn't bring myself to care for Naruto. How could I? I was barely functioning as it was. Hell, I'm still just barely managing to hold it together at times."

Zoro didn't know what to say; it was clearly a topic that made Kakashi uncomfortable. "What about the other clans? Couldn't they have taken him?"

"There were those who really wanted to, but others argued against it."

It had all come down to politics. While a good portion of powerful and influential clans stepped up to care for Naruto, the clans couldn't agree on who should take him. They had argued about how he should be raised and who should raise him. It would have been one thing if Naruto had simply been one of those orphaned by the attack, but the fact that he was a Jinchuuriki made things all the more difficult. Finally, it was decided that no-one would be taking the baby.

Of course, that brought up the question of why civilians couldn't take Naruto. Zoro scowled even more when he learned that while the Fourth had wanted people to see Naruto as a hero who saved the village; but the villagers only saw Naruto as the monster. It got so bad, the Third made a law against even speaking about what Naruto was. But obviously, the law hadn't helped Naruto. People; civilians, didn't want a monster in their home, so Naruto's chances of getting adopted had dwindled down to pretty much zero.

In Zoro's opinion, he wouldn't even have told civilians about what Naruto was. When his master had introduced him to Jutsu and Seals, he couldn't even wrap his head around them. But through careful study and practice, he had come to learn and even master basic to mid-level Sealing techniques. Sealing away a dead body was one thing, but Sealing away something alive and as powerful as the Kyuubi – well, Zoro had assume that it was powerful, given the aura he had felt along with the way people feared the kid – Sealing living things was advanced. It was like graduating from using wooden swords for techniques and mastering a real sword. But civilians had no reason to learn about even the most basic of Sealing techniques when Ninja were around to do it.

"So I leave with the kid, then what?" Zoro questioned.

Kakashi could do nothing but shrug. "Naruto will have a happier life with someone who is able to care for him…plus, if the world really is as big and incredible as you say it is, he should get the chance to enjoy it, right?"

"…I suppose…" Zoro frowned. "But isn't the kid supposed to be a great Ninja of Konoha or something?"

"Well, yes. Since he hasn't gotten his headband yet, he can't be labeled as a missing Nin. I'm not asking that you raise him with the expectation of returning and being loyal to Konoha, but I don't want him to hate it either. Let him make his own decisions. And here," Kakashi handed Zoro another bag, one that was filled with a few more scrolls and supplies. "That should last you both for long while."

Zoro stared down at the contents of the bag. "You sure about this, Kakashi?"

"…Yes."

"You don't sound convinced. Should I worry?"

"Not about me, no." Kakashi handed Zoro the photograph, "Keep this…Naruto has the right to know who his parents are. Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina. They both were incredibly strong and respected among their peers."

Zoro sighed heavily. "Got it. I'll take care of the kid."

There was barking and howling in the distance, and Kakashi recognized the sounds of the Inuzuka Clan tracking down their prey.

Zoro shifted Naruto a bit so that he could throw the second bag over his shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Flea-Bag."

"You too, Marimo-san. Good luck."

Zoro turned to leave – well, more like he started heading for the village again, but then he suddenly turned left into the trees and came out on the right (?!) side of the path ahead. It briefly made Kakashi wonder if Zoro had some sort of dormant Kekkei Genkai that he wasn't even aware of which caused him to somehow teleport around. Zoro constantly insisted that the people around him were the ones getting lost; that the paths and buildings were moving. Perhaps in Zoro's perception, they somehow were. That would probably explain some things, but not much.

Kakashi then decided to circle the perimeter of Konoha while thinking up a legitimate explanation for the major sh*t storm he had a hand in causing while coming out alive and in one piece at the end of it.

As Zoro navigated his way through the surrounding forest, he couldn't help but think, * 'If I ever come back here, you better still be alive, Kakashi.'*

*o*o*o*o*

No matter how they looked at it, it didn't make sense! Tsume stared at the fifth dead-end alley Kuromaru had led her to for a third time. The Inuzuka Clan prided themselves on tracking people down, but this guy, some random outsider had somehow thrown the Nin-Dog's senses completely off. Every member of her Clan was having a similar problem. Either the scent ended or it backtracked or it crossed over the other – Gah!

Tsume punched a hole in a nearby fence. Screw property damage!

Finally, someone called her over the radio to tell her that they had tracked Roronoa's scent outside the village. Tsume and Kuromaru quickly headed over to the location where her nephew and his Nin-Dog had caught the scent. A few more her Clan members showed up to search, along with members of the Hyuuga and Aburame Clans.

They equally were thrown off. This guy constantly backtracked and at one point, the Ninja were completely shocked to find that Roronoa had apparently returned to the village, and wandered around the Forest of Death before heading east.

Hana and her companions, the Three Haimaru Brothers were on the trail before it suddenly seemed like Roronoa backtracked yet again! This guy was clearly an expert. Hana and the Three Brothers tracked the scent heading west, for a few miles before it seemed like it simply cut off. It was like Roronoa had simply disappeared. They searched for any sign of how Roronoa could have disappeared, but there was nothing. Not even a trail for them to pick up again.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon as the Ninja returned home, failing their mission. Konoha's Jinchuuriki was gone.

*o*o*o*o*o*

Elsewhere…

Zoro had just climbed a mountain. It wasn't that impressive of a feat as it was a small one, but it certainly confused the hell out of Zoro. He couldn't remember climbing a mountain, or how he had gotten there.

"How did I end up here?"

He knew that he needed to head west, but that was easier said than done. He had asked for directions from an a few people in a traveling caravan, and Zoro was beginning to think that they gave him wrong directions (they didn't) or maybe they were the ones who were lost (they weren't). In any case, Zoro would have to find his way to Suna eventually.

There was a large tree right by that he and Naruto could rest in, and in the morning, Zoro would figure things out. Might as well sleep.