Fair's fair.


His movements were jerky, automatic, hardly their usual robust standards. Items were picked up, considered and then either discarded or stuffed into the mission bag in front of him.

Surprisingly, he didn't take the things he'd thought he would. Before becoming a genin he'd believed that he'd never be able to live without these little knickknacks and reminders of a life he now no longer wanted anything to do with.

One thing he refused to leave behind, no matter how much of a reminder it was, was the slightly inflated green frog that served as his keeper of money. Besides, it was the only one he had and it was darn useful, even if it was slightly empty right now thanks to that stupid pervert.

Satisfied that he'd assessed everything inside the little apartment he snapped the bag closed and swung it onto his shoulders, shifting it slightly so that he could find a comfortable position. There was only one thing left to do. Reaching next to him he picked up the blue material with the shiny metal plate attached to the middle. Reaching into his pouch he pulled out a sharpened kunai, raising it above the metal plate he paused, hesitated for the first time since reaching his decision. This was the one gift he treasured above everything else in his life, protected it like he would protect a precious person.

After all it had been a gift from his precious person. The first one to acknowledge his existence, really see him.

But then those words, said by that very same precious person burned through his mind once again and the kunai slashed before they'd even faded. Now instead of just a spiral leaf engraved into the metal plate, a straight and sure slash ran through it, deeper even than the leaf. It seemed fitting that way. That his pain caused by his village would be deeper than his loyalties to it.

The headband was tied tightly in place, slashed leaf proudly displayed for all who might see it, which at this late hour none would. His eyes landed on a bright orange outfit, hanging with three others in the slightly open closet. No, not even that would come with him. He owned other clothes, he just didn't wear them as often. For more reasons than others had ever bothered to decipher, to care about enough to ask.

With a nod of determined approval he swept his gaze over the surrounding area one last time before leaving out the door and closing it behind him with a soft click.

There would be no one to stop him, no one begging him not to go so he did not hurry. He wouldn't even be truly missed until two days from now. If he wasn't at training tomorrow, no one would know because he'd be training alone. As it was he'd just been released from the hospital.

He hadn't waited to see if those he'd fought so ferociously for had made it, had been healed. His heart had been in too much pain. Instead he'd pretended to be asleep when anyone came to see him and was far better at it than most would have thought.

No, he wouldn't be missed. No one had even come to catch him in his lie of being asleep. They'd all been far too busy congratulating him.

The only reason he'd be missed at all is because they'd be wondering why the hell he hadn't been in trouble yet and they always got nervous if nothing happened for two days. Even then, it was only nervous. No one would actually check on him till five days of inactivity had passed. He knew, knew it all too well. He'd tested those boundaries, just to see who'd come, if they'd come at all.

Standing at the wide open gates, he stopped for a moment to take one last deep breath. After this there was no going back. Well technically he had to get to the Land of Fire's border before there was truly no going back but he'd made up his mind once and for all with the slash of his headband. He knew better than anyone what that slash would mean.

He never went back on his word so there was no going back now.

"I swear, on my Ninja way. You will never reach your dreams. I'll be there to stop you every time you try." He whispered, no one around to hear him but himself. But he felt he needed to say this all the same, needed to promise it to someone, even if that was only himself. "Because you stole mine from me."

Then he disappeared into the darkness, hiding his tracks far better than anyone would ever give him credit for, which was half the reason he was leaving in the first place.

Kakashi was still trying to wrap his head around the sight in front of him. The place looked like a hurricane had gone through it, yet at the same time it was an organised kind of chaos. Things weren't thrown across the room and sprawled on the floor in odd positions. No, things were neatly placed out of place. Like their owner had been looking for something and these items simply were not it.

That however was not what troubled the jonin-sensei. If there was one thing that sent off warning bells in his head it was the orange. Those nightmare inducing, eyeball burning orange outfits hanging in the closet. All four of them. Kakashi knew that the owner of said orange outfits only had four of them. He'd checked just to appease his own curiosity as to whether the boy wore the same clothes every day. He hadn't. He just had several of the same kind.

He winced when he realised he didn't even know how long it had been since the place had been abandoned and by the looks of things, that it had been.

"Sensei? Is he in there?" A worried voice asked from behind him.

Kakashi backed out of the place, a pale look on his face. He didn't know why but he felt like he'd lost something, something special. It was completely silly. He wasn't even supposed to be here at all. He'd come because he'd wanted to get rid of a certain pink haired student and her emo obsession. Apparently said emo obsession was in search of the once brightly clad teammate so that they could spar. Something about never getting a chance to see who was stronger in the chunin exams and perhaps something about settling a score.

"No. He's not." Kakashi whispered.

That mission he was supposed to go on would have to wait.

"Come on, we have to go to the Hokage, now." Kakashi had grown uncharacteristically serious.

Not even Sasuke protested with the usual glare. The two genin were forced to try desperately to keep up with the near frantic pace their sensei set in his haste to get to the Hokage tower. Not even bothering with the door the silver haired jonin went straight to the window. The office itself was in complete disarray, the new Hokage still trying to get everything in order.

"Kakashi! What are you doing here? I gave you a mission." Tsunade immediately barked in anger. "I know you haven't finished it yet since I just gave it to you."

"We have a bigger problem. Naruto's gone and by the looks of things . . . he left willingly." Kakashi reported much to the shock of his two teammates huffing slightly behind him. "But I can't be sure just exactly how long it's been."


"Naruto's gone and by the looks–" Kakashi began to repeat but Tsunade cut him off with a glare.

"Shizune! Get in here!" The black haired assistant squeaked in the other room before quickly hurrying into the Hokage's office with a quick yes mam.

"Get all the available genin in my office now!" Tsunade barked and Shizune didn't even stick around long enough to utter a Hai. "Kakashi. You are now the team leader of the Naruto Retrieval Team. This is a mission you can't afford to fail. You know the consequences if you do."

"Hn what makes that loser so special?" Sasuke drawled and suddenly found himself on the receiving end of some heavy killer intent.

Kakashi interrupted before the Hokage could maim the last Uchiha. "Because, despite what you think of the loud blonde idiot, in the wrong hands Naruto becomes a dangerous weapon, capable of destroying the Leaf Village, any hidden Village."

"Why would he leave?" Sakura's voice was very quiet, confused. She had never thought anything like this to come from her annoying teammate. If there was one thing she respected him for it was his infallible loyalty to the village.

"Never mind why. We have bigger problems than just the other hidden villages stumbling upon him. Don't forget about the Akatsuki." A new voice added gravely as the owner of the voice stepped through the same window as Kakashi had just moments ago.

"Jiraiya." Tsunade greeted stiffly.

"So Kakashi, not only do you have to not fail this mission for the sake of the village, but you have to complete this mission for Naruto's sake as well." Jiraiya summed up, causing the jonin to slump slightly under the pressure.

"I'll do my best but I'm not working with the best." Kakashi replied and reminded, his tone dark.

Naruto hid high in the trees, suppressing his chakra and not moving a muscle. Below him the familiar shock of silver hair announced the presence of his former sensei. He refused to think of the man as his sensei now. After all rogue ninja did not have sensei. One thing he came to the conclusion of. His appearance would need to change more than his clothes.

"Naruto, where are you." Kakashi sighed, his head hanging down instead of looking up to the clouds and as a consequence, missing the slight flash of a person moving at a high speed to another branch.

The Naruto Retrieval Team had been fool proof in their planning. Kakashi had been satisfied that they would be able to find the missing blonde teammate before he even made it to the boarder, no matter when he had left since there were only so many days he could have been missing in the first place. Shikamaru had concluded that Naruto had been travelling for two and a half days now. He was sure of that.

However, despite their planning and all their best efforts they'd failed and no one was even sure how. This was Naruto after all.

Neji, Sasuke and Hinata had proved useless with their blood limits, surprising the owners more than the rest of the team. Not even Kiba and Akamaru had managed to pick up a scent. Because of this Kiba was adamant that Naruto was either still in the village or he'd simply disappeared in a puff of smoke. Shino was silently agreeing with him because his bugs couldn't find anything either.

"So who wants to tell Tsunade that we've failed?" Kakashi asked.

"I suggest we draw sticks." Neji suggested and no one had anything better to offer.

No one wanted to go home but it had been a whole week now and they'd still found nothing. Not even the ANBU backup had found anything.

Just where had Naruto gone and why could no one find him?

Chapter 1 *roughly four years later*

"I can't believe we got another boring mission." Konohamaru pouted.

"Just shut up and be thankful that you have one at all." Ebisu-sensei scolded. It was an age old argument, one that was quickly becoming old. Secretly he had to agree with the teen. Yes these missions were boring and yes he'd have liked something a little higher up in rank but these kinds of missions were all that was left.

Those teams usually scooped up and completed missions before the other Shinobi even got a chance to know about them. There weren't anything higher than D-rank and the boring C-rank left. So Konohamaru should know better than to complain. It wasn't like they could do anything about it in the first place.

"I know! I know! But I still don't see why we have to look for a stupid teapot! That's not a mission. That's an insult to ninja!" Konohamaru yelled, his voice betraying the true extent of his emotions. He was truly upset that the only missions they ever got were akin to being messengers or delivery ninja. He believed that it wasn't a true test of a ninja's skills and he was right. At this rate none of the newer teams would ever progress.

Ebisu was actually contemplating brining the matter up with the Hokage.

"The only cool part about this entire mission is that it's miles and miles and miles away from Konoha. If it hadn't been for this mission I'd think we'd never leave the village. It's a good thing this darn teapot was so far." Moegi muttered.

Ebisu sighed. When Moegi was starting to agree with Konohamaru the situation was getting dire. They had to find that teapot and fast. Ebisu was now decided. He and the Hokage were going to have a heart to heart.

"You know, if my calculations are correct, the next shop should be the one we're looking for. It's the eleventh teashop in the whole city out of thirteen." Udon announced with a sniff that made his teammates cringe.

It better be. This whole hunting for a teapot that likely didn't exist was dead boring. Soon Konohamaru was going to lose his patience and start something and naturally Udon and Moegi would follow, completely ignoring Ebisu. He hated it when that happened because he was always expected to explain to the Hokage why he couldn't control his team. Ebisu couldn't very well tell the Hokage to try teaching the brat Konohamaru herself. He was too proud to do that. Instead he had to endure the brat, who had replaced his usual green blue scarf with something a little more irritating. Bright florescent orange. He'd also gone from being slightly like the now missing Shinobi, to being exactly like the missing Shinobi.

How was one poor sensei supposed to keep up with that?

Walking into the antique teashop the four Shinobi were careful not to bump over any of the displays in the cramped little shop. Once again the three genin waited around while Ebisu spoke to the aging shopkeeper who shook their head and muttered the same thing that they'd heard all week. They'd neither seen nor heard of the teapot that the four Shinobi were hunting for.

"That's it!" Konohamaru exploded as they exited the shop. "I'm thirsty and Ebisu-sensei is buying us drinks." He proclaimed before promptly marching into an establishment across the road before the spluttering sensei could stop him.

"Wait!" Ebisu called hurrying to catch up to his genin team. They ignored him as always and went right on in. Oh no . . .

"Hay, grandpa! I want a soda." Konohamaru demanded loudly when he walked right up to the bar. He either hadn't noticed the room's occupants or he was ignoring them. Udon and Moegi sure had and were currently sticking very close to each other as they followed Konohamaru. All the people in the little restaurant of sorts looked like they'd be more than happy to kill the genin just to hear them scream and they looked like they could, no matter that they were ninja. Something about them said that they could either way. Almost all of them had some sort of weapon.

"You know kid, you're awfully small to be making such loud mouth demands." The old man behind the counter commented, looking at Konohamaru through one squinted eye. His other eye appeared to be missing, leaving nothing more than an empty socket covered by an eyelid.

"I'm not a kid! I'm a ninja, believe it!" Konohamaru replied hotly. The thirteen year old did not take well to being called young, even though he really was.

"A ninja are you? Heh, how honoured I feel. What brings you three to my humble little restaurant?"

"Nothing. They were just leaving." Ebisu stated forcefully, grabbing Konohamaru's scarf and dragging the spluttering boy back towards the door only to find it blocked by a panting human mountain.

Ebisu looked the guy up and down, his glasses sliding off his nose to show eyes so wide you could see the whites all round.

"Wow, his mom sure made him eat all his vegetables." Moegi muttered much to Udon's agreement.

The statement caused the human behemoth to look at them, his face turning to a scowl. "So there's more of you Leave shits in here eh? I thought I lost you. No matter, there's nowhere for you to run in here." He growled with a sadistic gleam in his feral eyes.

"No see here sir, you've got this all wrong–" Ebisu's little speech never got finished, a large meaty fist seemed to dislike his lectures as much as his genin did since it soundly clocked him one, sending him straight into the wall with a loud crack.

"Sensei!" Udon and Moegi yelled together.

"Oh man how embarrassing." Konohamaru whined, "That's supposed to be out sensei?"

"So who's next? I think the loud mouth punk perhaps." The giant focused his gaze on the stunned Konohamaru. As loud as he was, he wasn't stupid. He knew when he'd met his match and while he didn't respect his sensei, he did respect the man's rank. He was a Special Jonin and if one punch was enough to knock him out then what chance did he, a lowly genin with no true experience, have against this guy?

A large hand grabbed his bright orange scarf and lifted him from the floor, bringing Konohamaru up to eye level. A sense of déjà vu swept over Konohamaru as a similar situation flashed through his mind, on that featured a painted face and a scary red head. Only in that situation a certain loud mouthed blonde had been there to help. He didn't have that same luxury this time.

"Konohamaru!" Moegi gasped in fear and concern, "Let him go!" but she was too scared to actually move.

"Put me down ugly! I'm not a toy." Konohamaru yelled with more bravado than what he was feeling.

He couldn't yell his outrage again as a large hand smacked him across the face. His vision swam as that one casual slap to his face very nearly was enough to make him pass out.

"What was that brat? I'm afraid I can't hear you?" The behemoth mocked shaking the dazed boy like a doll.

"Udon! Do something!" Moegi squeaked, hands close to her mouth as she watched in horror.

"M-me? What do you want me to do?" Udon stuttered and he was right. They didn't actually know any jutsus other than the Sexy Jutsu and the Academy standard jutsus.

Their brief and hardly private exchange was met with rowdy laughter from the other people in the little bar. Ebisu groaned some but otherwise he was still out for the count. Ironically the ridiculous sensei was their only hope and here he was sleeping on the job.

"You know, I'm not really opposed to killing a kid or two . . . but I do dislike torturing them." A quiet voice stated from the shadows but the other people stopped laughing immediately. Apparently this person garnered some sort of respect in this place. Moegi and Udon turned their gazes to his shadowy corner with a slight sense of hope. Perhaps this stranger would be their saviour.

"I'm not going down without a fight." Konohamaru chose that moment to recollect his bearings. His small hands come together in a seal that the two genin recognised and paled.

"Sexy no jutsu!" Konohamaru yelled.

A large puff of smoke obscured their view for a moment, hardly dispersing, only moving out the way to reveal the curvy brunet that was Konohamaru's version of the perfect woman. She blew a kiss at the stunned giant man and giggled before puffing back into the form of Konohamaru and yelling. "RUN. Tactical retreat! Tactical retreat!"

He was making a mad dash to the door when he was jerked to a halt as someone grabbed a hold of his longer than average scarf. Konohamaru knew he had to either ditch the scarf or lose his chance at escape but he just couldn't bring himself to ditch the bright orange reminder.

"Now where you going in such a hurry. That was quite the show you put on there kid." A voice leered at him.

"Lemme go you pervert!"

The door banged open and the bartender decided that too much was happening way to fast. How was a one-eyed old man supposed to keep up?

"There you are! Did you think you could get away from me?" A one arrogant Sasuke Uchiha yelled pointing a finger at the large growling man from earlier.

Everyone in the room froze, except for Konohamaru who was kicking a struggling with all his might. Sasuke's distraction was all he needed to break free. Instead of running for the door he ran to Ebisu shaking the older Shinobi. "Come on you closet pervert. You gotta wake up and get me outta here! I'm too young to die! I still need to become Hokage." Ebisu just groaned but didn't wake up.

Turning back to see what was happening Konohamaru took note that Udon and Moegi had very discreetly shuffled their way to an out of the way place in the shadows. Sasuke had now been joined by his other teammates, Kakashi Hatake and Sakura Haruno completing the highly reputed and feared but incomplete Team 7.

Instead of cowering in fear the large man began to laugh. Wiping tears from his eyes he looked at the determined Leaf ninja before stating "You lose. This is a trap."

With those words the doors slammed shut and a seal glowed into activation. The entire building was enclosed in a barrier. There was no escaping it till the barrier was broken and with the crowded occupants all having similar looks of glee on their faces there wasn't going to be time to dismantle the barrier for a while yet.

"Sakura, stay out of the way and protect Ebisu and his team." Kakashi stated in a low cautious voice.

"Nah. You stick with your team. I got the brats." A cheerful voice said from the back. It was the same voice that had interrupted earlier. Only this time he moved out of the shadows and into view.

"I'm not part of this little set up. The phrase, wrong place in the wrong time comes to mind." He continued placing a hand on Moegi and Udon's shoulder so that he could steer them towards Konohamaru.

Nothing of his face could be seen since he wore a mask, just like Kakashi's and a pair of shades covered his eyes reminding them of an Aburame. A large, deep hood covered his head, casting his features into shadows, only further adding to the difficulty of seeing his features. That hoodie was a royal blue in colour while his pants were the standard baggy Shinobi kind, blacker than a shadow and also slightly thicker in material. Perhaps denim which was a really expensive material. His shoes were like Shinobi sandals only they were a deep brown and completely closed with neither openings by the toes or the heels.

"How do we know we can trust you?" Sasuke demanded.

"If I wanted to kill them, they'd be dead already. While this is hardly insurance, it's also a fact. Besides it's a waste of energy." The mysterious person answered. So far they couldn't even tell if he was a Shinobi. He did have a tanto and weapons pouches but any civilian could look the part of a Shinobi. The difference was in the chakra and the fighting skills.

The decision was taken out of their hands when Team 7 was suddenly attacked from all sides. All they could do was trust this stranger to do what he said he would and protect the four other Leaf Shinobi who were not supposed to be there.

"Who are you?" Konohamaru asked as the stranger got closer, practically carrying the other two genin out of the fight.

"Nobody. But I do like that jutsu of yours. Creative." The stranger replied in a cheerful tone, ducking a kunai at the same time.

The stranger ignored the sounds of battle around him as he checked on the genin sensei. Ebisu appeared to be completely fine other than a concussion. He was probably going to have a major headache for a while.

For the most part the five of them were ignored as the rest of the room, who turned out to be disguised missing nin and rouge ninja, were focused more on Team 7. "Man, just look at them go." Konohamaru sighed, obvious envy and respect in his tone. And indeed they were impressive. However the enclosed spaces were taking its toll. They couldn't use any jutsu, only taijutsu and close combat with kunai and shuriken.

"Forget about them. Start worrying about yourself." A voice snarled from their right. One of the ninja had taken advantage of Team 7's distraction and chosen to go after the other genin. A Leaf Shinobi was still a Leaf Shinobi. He had no qualms either way. As long as he got to take some of them down then he was happy.

However he was blocked by the stranger that had interfered. No matter. They had all agreed to spare him with nothing more than a few broken bones but now he was as good as one of them and therefore as good as dead.

That plan was cut short prematurely, literally. Blood pooled on the floor as it wept from the ninja's slit throat. Ebisu's genin team gaped in open mouthed shock at the lifeless ninja on the floor and the one standing above him. They hadn't even seen him move! He had to be a ninja but where did his loyalties lie?

"I suggest you lot step it up a pace. At this rate they're going to win." The unknown Shinobi said loudly towards the battling Team 7. He received a snarl from Sasuke in reply. These ninja weren't particularly powerful. They were just plentiful and apparently specialised in short distance, no jutsu combat.

Without realising it Sakura found herself backed into a corner, unable to build up the momentum she needed to get a really good punch in. Her attacks were based on heavy hitting, coming at you straight on. She was the medic. It was her job to dodge as Tsunade had drilled into her. Yet she didn't only know how to fight using that strength, no she knew other methods, she just wasn't skilled in them as much.

Which was why she found that she couldn't stop the three attacks coming straight for her. She could stop one, maybe two but not all three and they were all aimed for lethal points. Both Kakashi and Sasuke were too busy to even find her, much less help her. She was on her own. Thinking quickly Sakura chose the two that were most likely to kill her immediately was went to aim for those first.

. . . but she found that she didn't need to block anything as gloved hands slammed onto the wall on either side of her head, enclosing her, protecting her. Shaded eyes were on her face as that mysterious ninja who'd proclaimed responsibility for Ebisu's team took all three attacks in the back.

"Need to keep up there Hotstuff. You're going to die if you don't step it up a level or two." His tone was clearly amused and those words were all the warning she got before the Shinobi disappeared in a puff of smoke, her three attackers lying on the floor, their own blood quickly pooling around them.

A shadow clone huh. She hadn't seen one of those in years.

Looking across the room she saw that the Shinobi was engaged on the other side, doing as he'd said and protecting the three genin and their unconscious sensei. His speed was unreal! He was literally playing with his opponents. Messing around with them before delivering a swift death via a slit throat.

She didn't have a lot of time to admire the almost assassin like precision of the unknown ninja. More enemies quickly replaced the ones he had killed. Just how many were there? There was no way this place could've held that many ninja in it. They had to end sometime.

"Multi shadow clone jutsu." The yell was enough to make Team 7 freeze. The room was suddenly over run by copies of the mysterious ninja. Soon Kakashi, Sasuke and Sakura found themselves staring at the blank eyes of the now dead ninja.

"I got tired of them summoning more of the others into the room." The mysterious nin explained with a shrug, stepping over the bodies so that he could get to the door.

"Who are you?" Sasuke demanded.

"Nobody." Came the immediate and frosty reply. In an instant he'd switched from a happy go lucky, glad to help ninja to an extremely cold and impatient one. They had to be careful.

"Do you serve a village?" Kakashi asked, his tone light but his stance on guard as he watched this unknown ninja study the barrier seal on the door. He already know how to break it but he wanted to see what this one would do.

"No." The tone was just as pleasant as before he was asked who he was. So that was a non-touchable topic. "I travel around a lot. Gotta say though. It's been a while since I've seen Konoha ninja."

Sakura moved to check on the genin and found that not even a drop of blood had landed on them. Their sensei even had signs of beginner level healing. She glanced at the ninja still studying the door. Was he an amateur medic? Perhaps his travels prevented him from fully devoting himself to the study. She herself knew that it took a hell of a lot of practise.

"Do you have a name?" Sasuke asked, well sneered, "Or do you prefer Nobody?"

His question didn't even get an answer. Instead one chakra coated hand slammed against the centre of the seal causing the barrier to ripple. That wasn't what Kakashi would have done but effective nonetheless. He's simply overloaded the seal with more chakra than what it had been programmed to hold since the person who's placed it there probably didn't have all that much chakra. The barrier disappeared and the mysterious ninja opened the door.

He stopped for a moment to look back at Konohamaru and said "That teapot you're looking for is in the very last store at the end of this city. Don't bother looking in the others. Try not to break it ne, it's the only one in existence." Then he was walking away.

"Well that was odd but I'm not complaining." Sakura sighed brushing her hair away from her face.

"I still want to know who the hell he is." Sasuke growled.

"Either way we should start heading back. Our mission is now complete." Kakashi noted before pulling out a familiar orange book.

"Sensei, have you seen this?" Udon asked coming over to the table that Ebisu and Moegi were already seated at. They'd rented two rooms for the night since Ebisu still had a headache after Sakura healed his concussion. All three genin had been strangely quiet but Ebisu hadn't thought anything odd by it. After all they'd just witnessed a massacre.

Ebisu himself felt more foolish than he'd ever felt in his entire life. He's been knocked out, leaving his genin completely defenceless in an unknown city with a bunch of questionable individuals who had turned out to be rogue ninja out for Konoha blood. Worse yet, Team 7 had seen it all and had had to bail them out. His only comfort was the fact that Team 7 had been bailed out by a single unknown Shinobi.

Udon was now waving a piece of paper at his sensei, demanding his attention and Ebisu took the offered paper. Scrawled across it rather hastily were the words: Heading back to Konoha on my own. I need to train more. I'll never catch up to Team 7 looking for a stupid teapot. Konohamaru. P.S. I hope you're feeling better when you read this Ebisu-sensei. Take it easy, you hit your head really hard.

They'd found the teapot exactly where the unknown Shinobi had said it would be and Moegi treated it like it was a diamond. No one complained because if that thing broke there went their whole mission.

"I'm going to kill him." Ebisu growled getting to his feet. "Get your things, we're leaving." He added over his shoulder to the two unsure genin who nodded and raced off to get there things. Ebisu was mentally kicking himself. How hadn't ne noticed the lack of a person in Konohamaru's bed? Oh, right been trying to be nice by sneaking out without waking them. How had Konohamaru snuck past him? His head injury had made him far more tired than usual, that's how.

With a sigh he paid their bill and stood outside waiting for the remainder of his team. The pace back home was going to be hellish so that they could catch the little bastard. It would be good training for Udon and Moegi who really needed to work on their stamina.

The three Shinobi set out immediately, Moegi still careful of the teapot she had designated to carry the way home.

Sasuke paused on his tree branch, cocking his head to the side. He held up a hand to signal to his teammates to stop which they did so immediately. They each took turns being team leader and this mission was his turn. It had been a long time since Kakashi had been the undisputed leader of Team 7 and he personally didn't mind. Tsunade however, wasn't informed of this little arrangement.

Mission reports were always doctors so that the rolls on the paper were not what the rolls on the mission had been. They actually wrote those reports together, huddled over Kakashi's small table and joking about the way they were writing it all the while being extremely careful. After all they had to be truthful since lying was an offence yet they had to be secretive if they wanted to continue doing missions their way.

If the chunin that checked their reports though it was strange that Kakashi had such varying leadership tactics they never said anything. They probably thought it was normal for the jonin.

Now they were waiting, since Sasuke had clearly sensed something. Kakashi let him have the role of leader, not stepping in even though he'd already sensed the problem himself. He was surprised at Sasuke's reaction time. He was getting quicker and quicker.

A harried looking Ebisu burst through the trees, not at all being cautious about his path. He didn't check for traps or ambushes first and didn't bother to hide his presence very well either. What kind of a Shinobi was he?

"Oh, Team 7. Didn't think we'd catch up to you." Ebisu stated, his tone conveying his bland enthusiasm at seeing Team 7 twice in as many days. They did not get along. In fact there were a select few, a special select few that could stand to be around Team 7 longer than was necessary. They were . . . . . something else.

"We weren't really in a hurry." Sakura replied noticing the two genin struggling to catch up to them, panting heavily. "How are you feeling today? You look a bit . . . dishevelled."

"Lose something?" Sasuke droned, his eyes trained on the two approaching genin.

"Me? Oh I'm perfectly alright, thank-you. It's a certain genin that's not going to be fine as soon as I catch up to him. In fact after I'm done killing him I'll be more than fine, I'll be perfect cause then all my troubles will dissolve into wherever I hide his body." Ebisu's crackle sounded a little on the insane side causing Kakashi to raise an eyebrow. Unfortunately he knew the feeling.

"You haven't by any chance seen Konohamaru, have you?" Udon panted as he landed on a branch. The poor boy looked ready to faint. Konohamaru must have really pissed Ebisu off to make him forget about his students' lack of chakra at their current age. It looked like he'd been pushing them for a while already and hard.

"No. We haven't." Kakashi answered which only seemed to anger Ebisu more.

"When I get a hold of him, he's so dead." Ebisu promised under his breath.

"What did he do?" Sasuke drawled.

In reply Ebisu shoved a piece of paper practically up his nose causing him to glare at the Shinobi. He snatched the paper away from Ebisu if only to get it out of such close proximity to his face. When he read the words however, he frowned.

"That's not right. If what's written on here is true then we should have encountered the genin a while back, unless you guys somehow managed to miss him with your reckless pace." Sasuke commented while doing the mental calculations. "Unless the loser just got lost."

"Knowing Konohamaru he probably did." Moegi muttered.

Kakashi sighed before scratching the side of his head, "Well do you have anything that's his?" he asked to which the genin and their sensei shook their heads. They wouldn't have thought they'd need something of their fellow genin teammate's so that they could track him should he decide to run off.

"Then we have two choices, fan out and look for him which could take forever and is a waste of my time, or we could head back to Konoha and see if he somehow managed to bypass us and get there first." Sasuke concluded, his voice showing his enthusiasm, or lack of when it came to the first option and his doubtfulness of the second option being plausible.

After a brief moment of consideration and discussion it was decided that they'd head back to Konoha since that was apparently where Konohamaru was headed in the first place. Team 7 had raised questions and pointed out scenarios that pointed to a possible kidnapping but Team Ebisu was adamant that Konohamaru left of his own accord.

So with the thought of home in mind the two teams left for Konoha, Team Ebisu at a thankfully slower pace and Team 7 at a faster one.

Finding the other Shinobi's trail had been easier than he'd thought. He wondered if that was because he wasn't trying to hid it or because he wasn't as skilled as Konohamaru had originally thought? He hoped it was the first otherwise this was a waste of time and he would get into trouble for nothing.

He wasn't stupid, no matter how much he pretended he was. He knew that what he was doing was practically called desertion and he could be labelled a mission nin for it but he also know that they'd incorrectly assume he was stupid, like he wanted them to believe and that he'd gotten lost on the way back.

. . . but right now he had other things in mind. He had a goal and nothing was going to stop him from achieving that goal. If the Hokage would allow him to progress as a Ninja then he'd find someone who would. He'd find a teacher that would help him achieve his goal, not ignore it like Tsunade did. He didn't bother honouring her with a title. She didn't deserve it.

So with these thoughts in mind, he stuck to the trees, following, watching. The ninja from the day before was walking along the road, not at all concerned about attacks or just too deep in thought to look out for any. Konohamaru wondered if he'd be successful in an attack. Probably not and not the best first impression he'd made so he stuck to the branches.

He was so engrossed in his task that he didn't sense the other ninja in the tress till it was too late. Too late as in one of them covered his mouth and dragged him backwards. Just because his mouth was covered didn't mean he was going to go quietly.

Konohamaru kicked and struggled to get out the grasp of the ninja who held him. He wasn't a friend and was most likely going to kill Konohamaru if he didn't so something about it.

Taking an opportunity Konohamaru bit down on the hand over his mouth causing the ninja to let him go and curse. Konohamaru didn't waste time. He made a chakra infused dash towards the last place he'd seen the mysterious Shinobi. He'd protected Konohamaru and his team once, would he do it again?

Breaking through the trees Konohamaru fell to the floor and ungracefully landed on his butt with an oaf. Looking up he saw that the other Shinobi was already engaged in battle, fighting off the ninja with an ease that frustrated the enemy.

A set of arms grabbed Konohamaru from behind and the genin immediately began struggling. "Hay, calm down. It's me." A disgruntled yet familiar voice scolded.

Konohamaru immediately stopped struggling. "You shouldn't be here." The clone of the mysterious Shinobi stated as he took Konohamaru away from the immediate battle.

"I wanted to find you." Konohamaru replied with a pout.

"Great, you found me. Now what?" The clone's voice had a distinctly mocking tone to it.

Konohamaru hesitated before he answered. He wasn't sure how. This had all seems so much easier in his head.

For a brief moment rejection entered his mind but he pushed it away, refusing to even consider it a possibility.

He was saved from immediately answering by the arrival of more enemies. Konohamaru had never been so indirectly attacked before in his life! Yet this was the life of a true ninja, not the baby missions they kept getting.

He wisely stayed out of the way as he watched a clone fight just as well as the original would, even taking hits that would normally dispel a normal Shadow clone. He was fast. So fast sometimes that Konohamaru couldn't even see him move but something had happened so he had to assume that he did. He didn't even use a single jutsu.

Konohamaru knew the battle was over when the original burst into their small clearing and killed the last of the enemy while his clone finished with his opponent before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

"So, what do you want?"

"I want you to teach me." Konohamaru stated as bravely as he could. He knew that this ninja didn't have to protect him. He also knew that this ninja could easily demand payment in return for having protected him twice. Most ninja didn't go out of their way for nothing.

"No." The answer was immediate, without thought nor consideration.

"Why?" Konohamaru childishly demanded.

"I don't have time to teach pipsqueak wanabe ninja. In case you haven't noticed I'm not exactly the safest person to hang around with. You should just go home kid, while you still have one that wants you."

"Please, I need to get stronger so that I can reach my goal and I can't do that in Konoha." He knew he sounded desperate and childish but he didn't care. He needed this ninja to teach him.

"Heh, I thought Konoha was producing top class ninja at the moment. What makes you any different? I'm sure if you have a little patience then the progress will start to show." The unknown ninja was now waving his hand dismissively, almost turning around so that he could leave.

"It's complicated. Back home, only four teams are acknowledged while the rest of us are ignored. They're called the Rookie 9 and Team Guy. All the training efforts are focused on those four teams. All the missions go to them as well. I've been a genin for nearly two years now and I only know the Academy jutsus and the jutsu I used at the bar yesterday. I've never been on a mission higher than a D-rank. My sensei, Ebisu, he tries but we never get time to do any real training because they keep giving us these lame D-rank missions that take up all our time, like looking for a non-existent teapot." Konohamaru's explained in a rush, his anger at his situation leaking into his voice as he clenched his fists.

"I don't know why but it's like they've forgotten that other teams need to progress too. Without those four teams Konoha will fall. It's weak and lazy and no one seems to notice or care. But I do." Konohamaru's voice changed to depressed, soft.

"You know kid, telling me that is akin to telling me village secrets. I could use the information you just gave me to bring down your entire village."

Konohamaru's head jerked up so quickly his almost damaged something, his expression the very definition of horror. "Don't worry though. I've no interest in Konoha. However if what you say is true then Konoha has changed from the village I knew it to be." The relief at these words were all too visible on the young genin's face.

"It is different. Ever since he disappeared, things have changed. That's why I want you to teach me. If I go back to the village I'll never get strong enough to achieve my goal." Konohamaru murmured sadly. He knew that if his grandfather were still alive he'd weep in despair at the state of his beloved Village. One the outside they were still as powerful as ever, but on the inside they were falling apart and it was only a matter of time before someone else figured it out. Konohamaru had to be strong for that. He had to defend his village.

"Your goals ne? What are your goals, to become the strongest ninja?" There was that mocking tone again. Konohamaru squared his shoulders and looked the unknown ninja straight in the eye, his gaze determined. "To get strong so that I can protect those precious to me so that what happened to my brother never happens to anyone else, and so that I can find my brother."

His statement was met with silent consideration as his words were analysed. Konohamaru almost held his breath as he waited for an answer. "Tell me something kid, what will you do if, when you return to Konoha, they won't accept you back? Right now, you can still redeem yourself, say you got lost and the most you'll get is a slap on the wrist."

"No. I won't give up now. I'm not going back on my word. If they won't let me come back, then I will find my brother first and protect Konoha second, even if they don't know that I am." Konohamaru replied without hesitation. This seemed to be the answer that was desired. A tension that had been building without Konohamaru realising it suddenly lifted.

"When you're not calling me sensei, you can call me Nin. It's short for Ninja. I'm not giving you my real name and I'm not babysitting you forever kid. I'll train you for six months and exactly six months. It's up to you how much you learn in that time. I just hope for your sake that your village doesn't send Hunter Nins to find you because that means they consider you a missing nin."

They were almost to the village now and they'd seen no sign that Konohamaru had even stopped to camp for the night. He couldn't have gone straight through. It would have been impossible since the city they had gone to was a week's worth of travelling from Konoha. The brat wouldn't have been able to pull it off.

Sasuke frowned when he considered the possibility that they'd misjudged in their decision not to go look for Konohamaru in the city. It was too late now. The trail he'd taken would no longer be traceable. Team 7 didn't voice their opinions out loud since Team Ebisu were happily making plans of what to do when they found the boy and they seemed to be in two minds about it. Those plans ranged from squeezing the life out of him with the power of a relieved hug or to simply squeeze the life out of him with the power of throttling hands.

Sasuke was leaning towards the latter while Sakura was leaning towards the first. The boy's disappearance was troublesome, to say the least. How could one genin get so hopelessly lost? Surely he could ask for directions?

When the gates to the Village came into view Team Ebisu got more vocal while Team 7 grew more sombre. Kakashi dashed ahead, speaking quietly to Kotetsu and Izumo who's happy greeting died only to be resurrected as grim seriousness. Both looked at each other as their eyes glazed over in thoughtfulness. Then both shook their heads.

Team Ebisu and the remainder of Team 7 landed next to Kakashi who sighed and turned to them, "Looks like we're going to go see the Hokage."

Team 7 were ordered to go back to the city and fins Konohamaru. The three inwardly groaned but didn't say a word of protest. The Hokage was far too furious. They did feel sorry for Ebisu. The poor special Jonin got reamed. When he tried to splutter out that he'd been injured the Hokage only threatened him with demotion. Eventually the poor spluttering Shinobi wisely shut up while Tsunade had her way with him.

Needless to say, Team 7 knew that going back to the city would be useless. It had taken a week to get to Konoha and it would take another week maybe half if they really pushed it to reach the city again. By the time they got there, any trail left by the genin would be cold and they'd have to search the hard way.

Now if Konohamaru had done what Kakashi suspected he had, then he knew they'd never find the boy unless he chose to let them find him. But orders were orders. Before they left Kakashi paid a visit to the Torture and Interrogation Head, Ibiki. He wanted to know what the man knew about a certain unknown Shinobi with no loyalties to any village. After visiting Ibiki he deterred to find Jiraiya, who after Naruto's disappearance, remained in Konoha. Between Tsunade and Jiraiya they both made decisions were the village was concerned and basically ran the place together.

Every Shinobi in Konoha knew that an order from Jiraiya was the equivalent to an order from the Hokage and as such anything he wanted he got.

Trusting in the two Shinobi's skills to uncover anything on the lone ninja, Team 7 headed back to the city in what they knew was essentially a wild goose chase. Konohamaru was not going to be found.