Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.


It is the smell that wakes her. It smells like danger. But so quiet. She reaches under her pillow and grips the knife there. A gift from her grandmother. "Never let your guard down," she had said.

Slide out of bed into the sandals. Keep silent. Pull the topcoat on. The ground is cold. Mother? Grandmother? There are shadows among the images of the people she knows. And fear. Where did the fear come from? Is this her fear or someone else's?

Something is not right here. They must know by now. She runs to the next tent chamber and shakes her brother. Kocchan, I'm sleeping. A scream. Not in her head this time. More shaking. "Wake up!" Someone dying. Someone she knew. The pain is too much. Her brother rises, sees the look, the knife. He is up and armed.

The clan is waking, but there is dying and confusion. So many shadows now. Mother! The thought echoes. Her brother pushes her down, under his cot. Father is dead, his last thought about them. Kodora, run! Her mother's last thought. Panic. The shadows are in the room. Hr brother strikes, but he is so small. His body collapses. She sees his blood.

So many shadows in the camp. They are so fast. She runs. Away from the dying. Run faster. You are too slow. The sandals fly off. Too slow. Her bare feet on the cold dirt. Too slow. One on her right. Grabs her wrist. She slashes. A scream. She slashes again. It falls dead.

A shadow on her left. A flash of a blade. "Don't kill her, idiot!" A new shadow in front. Large. It lifts her up by the neck. "What's your name?" This shadow will hurt her. It shakes her, strangles her. Grandmother! She can't be dead, too. Where is her presence? "Your name, girl?" Menace. Looking straight into its eyes. Its face is dark.

"Kodora."

A little shadow nods. Makes a note in a scroll. She swings the knife up. Cuts into the dark. A yell and blood. "Little Bitch." The shadow drops her. Hits her hard. She had never been hit like that. Things spin. More dying.

There is a cage. They force her inside. Her friends, her cousins are there. Scared. Only the girls. The rest are dead.

Chapter 7 - Konoha Revisited

Kodora's eyes snapped open, and she sucked a deep breath. A dream, she told herself. The sky was dark. She lay still for a moment, trying to remember where she was. It was like this every time. She always had to concentrate to remember where she was when she woke up. Hi no Kuni. Hatake Kakashi. Headed to Konoha.

Now she knew. Unfortunately, she would not be able to sleep again tonight. She looked over at Kakashi, who was having no problems with nightmares. The fire was completely cold. Her eye itched when she thought about him. However, while in Hitaigi it was easy for her to read the state of his sleep. Her stirring had brought him into a shallow doze. After time, he would slip into a deeper slumber. It would be hard to sneak away from such a ninja, even while he slept.

- - -

Kakashi roused at the first light of the dawn. The sun would be up soon. He recalled the aborted conversation with Kodora from last night. Though he had managed to discover more about her, he had ended up with more questions. Then, she had gotten angry and lashed out. For a ninja, she was moody, more than the average kunoichi. During their sparring, she had remained calm and unreadable, but otherwise, she acted more like Naruto.

One thing was certain. She was gone.

Somehow, she had disappeared without waking him, quite an accomplishment, but one that left him disconcerted. He looked around the campsite for signs, and noticed a small pile of nuts, berries, shoots, and some kind of peeled root that he could not identify. She had gotten up, foraged for breakfast, and even left him some food. It was considerate, but where was she now?

It was a good thing that he was a tracking expert. He followed her trail through the trees, to the point where the forest thinned out and the ground sloped gently to a small, spring-fed lake. Metallic scarab beetles took flight as he disturbed their leaves. Remaining concealed in the shadows of the woods, Kakashi looked out over the lake, spying the woman on the far side. She rose out of the water like a naiad, exposed to her lower back, facing away from him. Her long, brown hair was wet and plastered to her body. Spread out atop the large granite boulders on the shore were her clothes, catching the first sunrays of the morning. He understood now, she had left to clean up.

He was relieved that she had not simply run away. That saved him the trouble of having to track her down and take her to Konoha by force. On the far side of lake, Kodora stiffened. She hugged herself across the chest and turned her head to the side. Had she sensed him watching? Kakashi shook his head. He had not been intentionally peeping, but it certainly did look suspicious. It was probably best to withdraw quietly back to camp.

Shortly after he finished the small, bucolic breakfast, Kodora returned to the campsite. Her hair was wrapped back up in a knot at the base of her skull, but, not fully dry, it was darker than its normal shade. She had her pack on, ready to go.

"Good morning," she greeted. The cold water of the lake had refreshed her, and she was willing to forget the verbal confrontation from the night before.

"Morning," he replied lazily. He was ready to go as well.

It was almost noon when they reached Konoha. The land through which the two shinobi traveled had gradually revealed signs of settlement. A farmhouse popped up here and there, with verdant rice paddies stretched out in the sun. Eventually, they had connected with the main road to the village. No longer jumping through the treetops, they walked along this dusty trail, nodding to the occasional traveler passing by.

Finally, after climbing one last gentle acclivity, after over fourteen years, Kodora beheld the massive entrance gates of Konohagakure. The tall green doors were wide open, presenting the word "AN" painted in giant red letters. It was simultaneously a welcoming sight and an intimidating sight. Konoha was a dangerous beast. Respect it, and it will leave you in peace. Threaten it, and it will snap your neck without remorse.

Konoha had changed, noted Kodora. She gazed up at Mount Hokage. The last time she had stood at these gates, only three stony faces overlooked the village. Since that time, Kakashi's former sensei had become Hokage and had died in service to his people. Seeing the face of Yondaime carved into the cliff for the first time, Kodora was struck still as vivid memories of the past surfaced unbidden.

"Come on, Kodora. Let's go." Kakashi interrupted her personal reverie. Not without trepidation, Kodora followed him through the gates.

- - -

Sandaime's office was a clutter of unfinished paperwork with a sophisticated scent of tobacco permeating the air. Standing impassively in front of his desk were two ninja, facing the situation from completely different perspectives.

"Thank you, Kakashi. Would you please wait outside?" requested Sandaime. The jounin vacated as instructed, closing the door behind him.

Sandaime inhaled deeply from him pipe as he scrutinized the kunoichi. The sickly ten-year-old girl had survived to adulthood, grown almost as tall as Kurenai and apparently pursuing the path of the shinobi along the way. At present, she kept her thoughts to herself, as her jaded expression revealed that she was neither afraid nor intimidated. She had grown into an attractive enough young woman, but with a slender, athletic build instead of the sensual curves that spoke of femininity. And, her equipment was quite utilitarian—no high heels, no jewelry, no makeup, no colorful clothing. The only thing that Sandaime could find that hinted at girlish vanity was her long hair, although she wore it wrapped up tight.

"Kodora, it has been a long time since you visited us. I am pleased to see that you are doing well," stated the Hokage respectfully.

"Thank you. And I am pleased to see that you are also doing well, Hokage-sama, and that Konoha is prospering in these peaceful times," she responded graciously.

The smoothness of her words was not lost on the Hokage. He had wanted to gather his own empirical impressions of the tabiyaku-nin before discussing her with Kakashi. However, at the moment, he had business to discuss with her, and so he dropped the ossified formality. "You are probably wondering why I summoned you here."

"I won't deny my curiosity."

"Then, I will get to the point. Konoha is requesting your assistance to apprehend a wanted criminal."

"A criminal?" she asked, uneasiness building in her gut.

"A criminal that has alluded capture for many years—the human trafficker, Sanchou."

Something dark flashed across her face at the mention of the name. She quickly regained her dispassionate poise, but the reaction did not go unnoticed by Sandaime, although, it was less of a response than he had expected.

"Since you left Konoha, we have arrested no less than six men, who, in every case, have claimed to be Sanchou. They had even had their appearances altered to match the description that you gave us. Our intelligence contacts and even associates of Sanchou truly believed that these men where indeed the notorious criminal. However, under interrogation, each of these men broke down and confessed that they were merely body doubles and not the real Sanchou, a truth supported by the fact that Sanchou's enterprise continued to operate uninterrupted after each arrest."

"For the past two years, we have known the general area were Sanchou is operating, but, considering our difficultly in capturing the right man, I've refrained from sending a team and risking more lives. Your reappearance, though, presents us with a unique opportunity, since you are the one person alive who is confirmed to have seen Sanchou's face.

"I would like you to accompany a team of ANBU to Sanchou's base. With your positive identification, we will be certain to detain the correct man this time. Konoha would be grateful for your cooperation in this matter, Kodora. With Sanchou in our custody, the information that we will extract may allow us to bring down the entire human trafficking network in this area."

Kodora's gaze shifted to the ground as she digested the information the Hokage had just imparted. Sanchou. A name she never wanted to hear again. "Hokage-sama. As you probably expect, I have an intense desire to see such a man as Sanchou brought to justice for his heinous crimes. But more than that, I also have to consider my own protection."

"The ANBU will protect you during the mission," assured Sandaime.

"Not that kind of protection—I'm talking about protection of my identity. Since leaving Konoha, I have never disclosed to anyone the nature of my kekkei genkai nor my clan. My relationship with Sanchou is intertwined with these things, and I do not see how I can support your ANBU in this mission without revealing the facts of my past to the team. With all due respect, Sandaime-sama, I am sure Konoha's ANBU are trustworthy, but I simply refuse to discuss it with them," she stated adamantly.

"I see…" said the Hokage as he took another drag on his pipe.

"Despite that, I believe that Sanchou should not be allowed to operate freely. I am not a shinobi without resources. If you give me the intelligence you have on Sanchou, I will personally apprehend him and deliver him to Konoha."

Can you do that Kodora? Can you face that man and let him live? "A solo mission is never recommended, and this mission will be dangerous."

"I am aware of that, and I accept the risks."

"Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible of me to send a ninja, even one not under my command, alone on such a hazardous mission. Perhaps I can offer you a compromise. I believe that the elite jounin, Hatake Kakashi, is already aware of your history with Sanchou as well as your kekkei genkai. If I assign this mission to him, instead of an ANBU team, would that be acceptable to you? You will only need to identify Sanchou to Kakashi, and Kakashi will signal the ANBU to support the arrest."

Kodora weighed the options. Clearly, Sandaime was not going to let her do this alone, and she could give no logical reason to refuse Kakashi's help. It was either this, or let Sanchou run free. She looked across the desk at the legendary ninja and nodded her assent.

"Good, good. Then I will dismiss you for now and inform Kakashi of his mission. You have permission to remain in the village until you depart. Thank you for your assistance, Kodora. Please ask Kakashi to come in on your way out."

She let the practiced stoicism go, and smiled unexpectedly at the Hokage. She had fond memories of the kindness of the man, and she wanted to leave him with a friendly association. "It's the least I can do, Hokage-sama," she said before she turned and exited the office.

The Third Hokage bit thoughtfully on the wooden end of his pipe as he watched her leave. It was ironic how things turned out sometimes, how people could change so much, yet remain exactly the same.

After a minute, Kakashi had taken Kodora's place in front of the Hokage. Hands shoved in his pockets, he looked as unexcited as ever.

"So, Kakashi, what do you think about our young kunoichi friend?" inquired Sandaime, puffing on his pipe.

"From what I observed, she has chuunin-level skills."

"Then you saw her fight?"

"Yeah, some. Her speed and stamina are high, but her strength is poor. She concentrates on taijutsu, understandably, but I also witnessed her use some D-Rank ninjutsu earlier. She wasn't using her kekkei genkai at the time."

Sandaime recalled what he read in her file. "Hmm. From what she explained before, she shouldn't be able to perform ninjutsu at all without using her kekkei genkai. She said that her natural chakra couldn't be molded to complete those kinds of techniques, even basic ones."

"Yes, that's what I thought, too. She admitted to using the ninjutsu, but she wouldn't say how. I can only conclude that she's hiding something."

"Mm…yes it appears so. Did you see her use her kekkei genkai at all?"

"Yeah, twice, but not in any useful way. I have yet to see how that kekkei genkai could provide her any advantage in battle. It seems to be mostly an involuntary reaction, and not a pleasant one at that. However, she did let the name slip, 'Hitaigi'. Have you ever heard of it?"

The term was not in his lexicon. "Hmm…no, I can't say that I have," admitted the Hokage.

"Me either. And another thing, she's proven to be rather clever. I think we need to be careful with her," warned the jounin.

"Do you think she is a threat to Konoha?"

"As near as I can tell, no—she doesn't seem to have much motivation about anything. But I just can't fit the woman to the reputation. There's something else going on here."

"Then, it pleases me to give you another opportunity to find out, Kakashi."

"Eh?"

"I'm sending you on a mission with her."

- - -

The Copy Ninja had taken the assignment in stride, but it was actually a strange situation. He and his sensei had discovered Kodora about thirteen and a half years ago as part of an operation to locate Sanchou. Now, he was after the same man again, a powerful man who reportedly kept his face hooded and used body doubles judiciously to evade capture. And he was to escort the girl as a witness, who, by all reason, should want Sanchou dead. In addition, Sandaime-sama had requested that he gather more information about his charge, as a sensible precaution. He should not be going on a mission like this alone. The fact that the ANBU would be trailing them was no comfort.

Finally, he located the strange kunoichi. After her conference with Sandaime, she had his approbation to stay in Konoha, but the place where Kakashi found her surprised him. She was at the Yondaime Hokage memorial, kneeling in front of the large golden flame with her head down and her eyes closed. In front of the plaque, she had laid a single white carnation. Paying respects? thought Kakashi. He had come to arrange for their departure, but finding her like this, he couldn't interrupt. Instead, he watched her silently from a distance.

The scene was rather touching, and Kakashi realized that his sensei had made an impact in her life that she probably would never forget. And, Minato tended to make lasting impressions on everyone he encountered. And though, since he met her again, she had been aloof and even inimical, she had probably never forgotten him either. Wandering from place to place, not quite fitting in, of course she was cautious with others. For someone like her, trust was probably difficult. That, he could relate to. Perhaps he would learn more about her if he stopped prodding for a while and gave her a chance to explain herself on her own time.

She remained there, motionless, and, after a while, Kakashi left her in peace. He could catch up later.

In front of the monument, where no one could see, Kodora smiled after the other ninja slipped away.

- - -

Later in the day, it was not Kakashi who found Kodora, but the other way around. He was lounging on the rooftop of the local playhouse, quietly enjoying an erotic tale of courtly love from Icha Icha Paradise, when she dropped in by his feet. Annoyingly enough, he had not sensed her coming. She seemed to have some talent in this area.

"Good afternoon, Kakashi-san," she said cheerily as she waved at him.

"Hey," he replied placidly.

"I had a terribly interesting conversation with Sandaime-sama this morning."

"So did I. He even assigned me another mission." Kakashi continued to read.

"Yes. It looks like you get the exciting job of keeping me from harm, or out of trouble—whatever Hokage-sama intends."

"Are you going to make this mission more challenging?" he asked, only half-joking.

She grinned innocently. "I do have a knack for finding trouble."

"Mm. Something to look forward to. Well then, we leave tomorrow at dawn. Meet me at the front gate. You can spend the rest of day gathering supplies you might need. And pick up some rations this time."

"How do I know what supplies to bring, if I don't know where we're going?"

She had a point, but Kakashi was wary of giving her too much information at first. He knew her history with the man they sought, and he also knew she was used to working alone. With a dry thump, he closed his book and looked her in the eyes. "If I tell you where we're going, you won't try to take care of this on your own, will you?"

She laughed. "Lay off the suspicion for while, huh? If I ran off like that, you'd just track me down anyway. I'm not going anywhere."

"Ok, then. We're going to Kawa no Kuni."

"Kawa no Kuni? Good, that's not very far. And I'm not wanted there, either."

He was amused by her concern. "Neither am I, so that makes our lives easier."

"All right. Until tomorrow, Kakashi-san." The kunoichi vanished.

After a moment, Kakashi realized that she hadn't even used Shunshin no Jutsu to disappear. Instead of ninjutsu, she simply used her natural speed to give the appearance of the technique. This is going to be interesting, he thought to himself before returning to the antics in his favorite book.


Terms

Kawa no Kuni (川の国) is the River Country. This country is the location of the hidden Akatsuki base where Teams Gai and Kakashi confront Sasori and Deidara.


Next chapter, the pair sets out for Kawa no Kuni!