"I'm ready to leave," Iruka looked uncomfortable with two people hanging off him. Raiden was tied to Iruka's back while the lighter Susumu was in a princess carry. "Are you sure you don't want to leave together?"
"You should get them to safety," said Takuma, tightening the bandage around his shoulder wound. "I'll catch my breath for a second before starting out myself."
In truth, he felt pissed beyond words and wanted some time alone to calm himself down. Iruka was his team leader, who was leaving him alone in a foreign country whose shinobi had just betrayed them. On top of that, he was being asked to travel across two countries alone. He didn't want to see Iruka's face any longer in case he blew up at the chunin.
"… I understand," Iruka said quietly, "but don't stay here for long. We don't know when someone might come here looking."
"Yes, sir," Takuma went quiet and didn't look at Iruka.
"Get home safely, Takuma," Iruka said, and moments later, he disappeared into the woods.
Takuma, leaning against the tree, looked up at the sky that had grown dark. The overcast clouds blocked the stars from view. At no point since receiving the mission had Takuma thought it would go the way it had gone— he lost Yumiko and Dai, the two people he liked working with— he lost two friends. He bitterly questioned whether they would be alive if Takuma hadn't recommended them to Iruka.
After staring at the sky, Takuma stood up with a groan. He was thankful to Taro's father for recommending the first aid course— without it, he would be in a much worse condition than he was in right now, which wasn't good, but anything was better than the worst. He walked to the backpack he had thrown away during the fight and took the hand ax from it to chop the nearest trees down for lumber. He gathered all the materials he needed to start multiple fires before heading to the dead bodies of his comrades lying around the clearing.
'—A shinobi's body holds the village's secret that our enemies can use against us. We can't allow them to get our secrets for they can endanger us—'
One of Maruboshi's many teachings echoed in Takuma's mind as he dragged Yumiko, Dai, Aya, and Yuko's bodies into a line before stripping their bodies of gear and then redressing them in the plain clothes they had changed into the moment they had exited the Land of Fire. Yumiko's and Dai's wouldn't hold many secrets, but Yuko and Aya had secrets pertaining to the Onikuma and Izuno clans.
He didn't care about any of that. They were shinobi who had lost their lives for the village— they needed the best funerals he could provide them.
Takuma made four pyres from the wood he had chopped and laid the bodies of his friends and comrades on them before lighting them up on fire one by one. Takuma didn't know if they preferred to be buried or cremated— in the field, the only option was to be cremated to leave no evidence behind.
"I'm sorry… I'm so sorry," tears streamed out of Takuma's eyes as he lit fires on Dai and Yumiko's pyres. He recommended them to Iruka, but when the time came where he should've been protecting them, he was floundering on the field in panic like a pathetic loser. If only he had been prepared, he could've saved them, and they would've been alive.
"Please forgive me…." He didn't particularly like Yuko and Aya, but that didn't mean they had to die. They were young shinobi who didn't deserve to die like this— he had seen how excited they had been the entire time since they had left the village. The memories of the two having fun in the Shiyuka village flashed through his mind as he bowed his head in shame. Why did he have to fight with them?
Takuma dropped to his knees and prayed to the guardian of the forest to guide their souls safely to the afterlife so they could attain the peace they deserved.
Takuma didn't care if the fire and smoke from the funeral pyres attracted attention; he refused to have their funerals simultaneously as the Hidden Frost shinobi who had killed them. Only after the fires had died down did Takuma turn to his dead enemies. Despite his disgust and hate for them, Takuma gave the Hidden Frost shinobi the same treatment because they deserved basic human decency.
Soldiers didn't start wars. Takuma knew the Hidden Frost shinobi were only following orders, but it didn't matter— they had murdered his friends. Takuma lit their pyres on fire and briefly prayed for their souls before going through their gear.
The information they were supposed to obtain, if it existed in the scrolls, had been burnt to a crisp. He wanted to see if there was anything of importance he could find among their belongings. Unfortunately for Takuma, except for the map to the meeting place, he couldn't find anything of importance—
Takuma stared at the two kunai in his hands. They had come from the two Hidden Frost chunin shinobi, one from each— but as Takuma looked at the two kunai, they were different— one had a leaner blade while the other had a longer grip. He looked at the other kunai in the weapon packs and found that there were indeed two distinct types of kunai— the first type belonged to one of the chunin while the second type belonged to the other chunin.
Weapons like kunai were an essential part of a shinobi's life. They were so important that they needed to be forged exactly to a template dimension and weight. The blacksmiths forged so many of them that no matter where you went in the country, you'd find the same kunai everywhere without any discrepancies.
However, every country had its own way of forging its weapons. His own kunai were different from both types in front of him. Hidden Frost must've their own specifications— but it was beyond strange that they had two different types as shinobi liked their tools to be uniform.
Takuma searched the genin's weapons and found the same— two types of kunai. He then went beyond comparing the shuriken and the other gear… there were two distinct types of everything.
"What is happening—"
A chill rose up Takuma's spine as a thought passed through his mind.
Every country had its own way of forging its weapons.
"They're not from the Hidden Frost," Takuma muttered to himself. He swallowed the saliva as the conclusion shaped inside his brain. He looked at the gear— one chunin and three genin had the first type of gear while the other chunin and other three genin had the second type of gear.
One team wasn't from the Hidden Frost.
He recalled the genin he had pried away from Yuko, who had tried to say something to him before silencing himself. Another thought passed through Takuma's mind—
'What if the Hidden Frost hadn't betrayed them… What if this was someone else… What was the information Hidden Frost was trying to share?'
Takuma didn't have the answer to any of those questions.
Iruka sat on a bed in a medical ward of a border post on the Land of Fire-Land of Hot Waters border. He hadn't ever felt this exhausted in his life̦— the last sleep was already over two days ago. His Chunin Exam hadn't been this tough on his mind and body. The day and a half straight of sprinting with two bodies while his own body was injured were one of the toughest ordeals. It didn't help that he smuggled himself across the Land of Frost border to avoid any contact with Hidden Frost.
And yet, despite all that, his mind disallowed sleep no matter how much his body demanded it. The long, arduous travel without treatment had put Raiden and Susumu in a critical condition for which they were being treated by the iryo-nin… and Iruka's heart couldn't stop worrying about how Takuma was faring alone in foreign lands.
He sighed heavily into his hands covering his face only for the faces of Yumiko, Dai, Aya, and Yuko to flash behind his eyelids. He had lost four genin in a C-rank mission which rarely had any deaths.
"No, no... no… why…"
His body contorted from the inside thinking about the mission, and he couldn't think about anything else. All he wanted was for his mind to stop going there, but it was all he could think about.
Iruka tiredly looked up at the head iryo-nin of the border post. He had been treating Raiden from the moment they had stumbled into the camp.
"How are they?" asked Iruka.
"Aburame Susumu has been stabilized, but we can't do anything about the insects feeding on his chakra…. We were able to neutralize the poison in Shimura Raiden's body" — Iruka felt a wave of relief pass through him — "unfortunately, he wasn't able to survive the damage already done to his body… Chunin Shimura Raiden had passed away. I'm sorry…"
Iruka felt his mind go blank at the sudden news. Had he been too slow? Was that why Raiden failed to survive— because he wasn't able to bring him to treatment fast enough? That one thought now plagued Iruka's mind.
"We have already called for the Aburame clan for their help; they'll be here as soon as possible. We're in the process of contacting the Shimura clan to inform them about Chunin Raiden," said the iryo-nin.
Whatever said after didn't filter into Iruka's mind as he continued to fall into the tragedy he had been served. He didn't notice when the head iryo-nin left him. If Takuma didn't return safely, Iruka would've lost six people and salt on the wounds, the information they were sent to retrieve was absent.
He had failed worse than anyone could on a mission.
For the first time in very long, Takuma didn't enjoy sleeping outside in nature under the open sky. The Land of Frost's cold hurt his wounds— he could take the pain and discomfort during the day spent running, but he didn't appreciate it when it messed with his sleep at night. Nothing had made him appreciate Sango's medical care after every fight and their personal session than the days he had spent without healing as he traveled secretly through the Land of Frost.
'Just one more day,' Takuma thought.
Illegally crossing borders wasn't hard. Any type of border patrol could only cover so much ground, leaving many unprotected spots where people could cross in-and-out of countries. The real problem was surviving harsh undeveloped terrain that sat on the borders and reaching the nearest settlement only for them to reject shelter to the immigrants. He didn't have that problem. Takuma had the gear and experience to sleep outside every night, enough rations to feed multiple shinobi, and he could ground much faster than any civilian, even with his injured body.
He had already crossed out of the Land of Frost into the Land of Hot Waters, and in the morning, he would skip the first line of border towns with shinobi presence and rest at one of the towns at a comfortable distance from the border. While he was 'safe' in the Land of Hot Waters, Takuma didn't want to meet any shinobi in his current condition.
Takuma snuggled into his sleeping bag with painful groans and closed his eyes to get some sleep….
A few hours later, Takuma snapped his eyes with his body drenched in sweat. His labored breathing couldn't beat out the sound of his rushing heart in his ears. He started at the cloudy sky through the insect net and saw the beautiful moon, whereas a few moments ago, he was dreaming of Yumiko and Dai's smiling faces that quickly turned lifeless and bloodied. They didn't say anything— they were dead after all— but they simply stared at him with their dull eyes as though judging him for being alive.
After drinking some water, Takuma went to sleep again… only to wake up to the same images.
Takuma looked to the side at the fire that burned slowly, providing him with some much-needed warmth. He stared at the fire for a moment before reaching into his pouch for a joint that he lit on the embers.
Takuma didn't know when he closed his eyes, but somewhere while blowing smoke at the moon, sleep overtook him— and this time, they didn't visit him in his dreams… because he didn't dream at all.
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