Sneaking into a town wasn't tricky for Takuma. He scaled a wall, dipped into alleyways, and stayed in the shadows. A walk around the town found him in the less affluent part of the town at a distance from the main districts, a place much like where his home was situated in the Hidden Leaf.
He glanced at the "hotel" sign as he entered the three-storied building that hadn't seen maintenance in many cycles, something reflected by the interior. The floorboards creaked under his feet, the furniture setup in the tiny lobby was grimy, and the front counter was an old desk with scratches and dirty stains on the wood.
The woman sitting behind the reception read a woman's magazine with a cover as absurd as her over-the-top makeup and hairdo. She glanced at Takuma when he knocked on the countertop, giving him a look over. Takuma wore a fresh set of clothes that hid his bandaged wounds, but all of that was covered by a hooded travel cloak.
"Room for the night," said Takuma, modulating his voice to be a smidge fuller, "with water in the bathroom."
She pointed to the crooked board hanging on the wall with room prices that had been crossed out and written over multiple times. Takuma chose the cheapest room and put down some paper bills on the countertop, revealing his bandaged hand.
"We don't take that," the woman pointed at the Land of Frost currency that Takuma had put out.
Takuma stared at the woman, and a silence fell between them before the woman sighed in annoyance and took the foreign currency. "It'll cost more," she said pointedly, and Takuma gave her what she asked him. Only after that did she take a key off the wall key hanger and toss it on the counter.
Takuma took the key and went to his room on the second floor. The room ended before it could start and had the basic of basics in the form of a double bed, a dingy cupboard, a small study table with an old chair, and a less than pleasant bathroom.
First thing first, Takuma checked the entire room. He tested the door locks to see if the inside bolt was intact, checked the cupboards and side tables, lifted the bed for bed bugs, cleaned out the bathroom, and finished testing the integrity of the window grate— which was weak enough for Takuma to kick out in case he needed to make an emergency exit.
He locked the door, reinforced it with nylon wire, and immediately jumped into the bathroom. His injuries weren't severe, but they weren't shallow enough to be left alone. The only reason he had stopped at the town was to retreat his injuries to prevent infections. He planned to stay here for the day before starting the second leg of his journey back home.
Takuma took out the length of gauze that he had stuffed in the deep-deep hole in his hip with a long groan. He bathed, properly irrigated the wound with water treated with a few drops of iodine because he wasn't sure about the water quality in the town, and then redressed the wound while smoking another joint to help dull the pain. After repeating the process a couple more times, he ate his rations and drank plenty of water before crashing on the bed for a couple hours of rest.
A poor bed was better than an outdoor sleeping bag, and by the time Takuma woke up, he had overslept for several hours. The sun was already up. He looked at the clock in his room, and his checkout time was in two hours— not wasting any more time, he got dressed and was out of his room before the minute could move quarter way across the circle.
The woman was behind the counter again, her hairdo as ridiculous as yesterday. He wordlessly handed her the key and walked out when she acknowledged him. Takuma felt her eyes on him as he exited the building but ignored it.
However, it seemed that the gaze spelled trouble. Just when Takuma walked out of the block, a trio of men approached him.
"Hey man, where you from?" asked one of them.
Takuma ignored them and turned into an alleyway.
"That's rude, oye," said the second man.
"Yeah, what's with the hurry? We only wants to talk to you," the third man smiled as he cracked his knuckle.
The trio followed Takuma into the alleyway, where he was waiting for them. They weren't allowed anything but to scream, which were stifled almost immediately. Takuma walked out of the alleyway a few moments later, leaving behind the battered trio to be found later that day by the time Takuma had already left.
Takuma didn't pursue the matter with the hotel and left the town. Every minute spent away from the Hidden Leaf made him feel sicker.
He just wanted to get home.
"The Hidden Frost betrayed and launched an attack during the exchange," said the tokubetsu jonin in charge of Iruka, who solemnly nodded. "You lost four genin in that attack. Unfortunately, Chunin Shimura Raiden died at the border post due to his injuries. Genin Aburame Susumu is out of danger… But you left one genin— Genin Takuma— as you rushed to get Shimura and Aburame back to the country."
"… Yes, sir," said Iruka.
"Even if we assume Genin Takuma can return home, less than half of the team made it back on a C-rank mission. Even if it was a multi-ranked mission, it doesn't change that it was a C-rank mission— and you even failed to get back the information… This is difficult, Chunin Iruka."
"… Yes, sir."
Iruka had no words. The facts were as follows: the mission had failed, and they had lost shinobi— and even though it wasn't his fault, this mission would cause difficulties between the Hidden Leaf and the Hidden Frost, and in some ways, he would have to suffer the brunt of it. And they might have faced an equal number of opponents and had 'won,' but to lose a chunin and four genin was unacceptable. They were from the Hidden Leaf, one of the five great shinobi villages, while the opposition was the minor village of Hidden Frost— this type of loss was a slight to their reputation.
There was no silver lining to this mission. Iruka wasn't even allowed to wait at the border post so he could wait for the Takuma and was forced back to the Hidden Leaf only to be put in a room with T&I personnel who were put in charge of the aftermath of the situation.
Iruka knew the reason why a tokubetsu jonin was put in charge. Raiden was from the Shimura clan, an important chunin who had the potential to be a jonin in the future, who had now died on a C-rank mission. They were looking for foul play. It didn't help that Izuno and Onikuma clan members had died, and an Aburame had come close to death— on a C-rank mission. Shinobi didn't die on C-rank missions.
"Did you recognize any of the Hidden Frost shinobi?"
Iruka shook his head.
A bingo book was thrown on the table. "Try again," said the investigator, with a stare that wouldn't take no for an answer.
"Tell me about Genin Takuma," the invigilator asked as Iruka looked over the bingo book with Hidden Frost profiles.
Iruka looked up from the book and furrowed deeply. "What do you mean?"
"You left him behind? He agreed to that?"
"He had no choice in the matter… He followed the orders I gave him," said Iruka bitterly.
"And he must be bitter about it," the investigator looked at a file. "To be left behind on his first mission outside the country…. Do you think he'd defect because of that?"
"I mean, he doesn't have any family here. And to be left behind right after being in a fight for his life, there must be some anger because of that— amplified as he's alone in a land with no friends…. I have seen men defect for much less. Do you think he'll defect?"
"Takuma won't defect," said Iruka with disgust. "He's a shinobi who the Leaf should be proud of. He will be back home soon."
"If you say so," the investigator shrugged. "He'll be back… if he's alive, that is…."
Iruka bit the inside of his cheek and returned his gaze to the bingo book.
The door to the interrogation room opened, and a genin peered inside, "Genin Takuma has crossed the border and is now getting treated at the Deguchi border post."
The investigator turned to Iruka and smiled, "Looks like you were right. Very well then, let's get our boy back home…."
Takuma breathed a sigh of relief as his feet touched the familiar pavements of the streets he had walked so many times. He looked behind at the inner-city gates behind him and the weight weighing his heart down ever since the ambush lifted. He closed his eyes and breathed out a sigh of relief.
He was back home.
"Come on, let's get a move on."
Takuma looked back at the two genin who had escorted him from the Deguchi border post to the Leaf village.
'Escorted,' Takuma clicked his tongue— more like detainers.
They had stuck to him like glue ever since he had appeared at the border post. His reception at the border post had been warm and respectful— a chunin iryo-nin had treated his injuries— he hadn't been treated that well since Enomoto— and they had made him feel as comfortable as possible. But then the order from Hidden Leaf came— he was to return to the village as soon as possible. Takuma had been more than happy to oblige; there was nothing more he wanted but to return home.
However, he was told that two genin would accompany him back to the village. Upon asking, he was told they were escorts because he had just been healed. Takuma found it strange, but he graciously accepted their offer. But the entire time on the road, his two 'escorts' tried to subtly control his actions.
"Where should we go?" asked Takuma.
"Err, to the," one of the genin took out a slip of paper, "the T&I Force headquarters…."
"And where's that?" asked Takuma. He had got them talking during their travel and knew for a fact that neither had been to the Leaf village— even now, their eyes were darting from place to place like country bumpkins in the big city for the first time.
"… W-We don't know," their voice grew smaller at the end.
Takuma sighed. He knew they were following orders, but it pissed him off regardless.
"Come, follow me," Takuma sighed, and he led them to the T&I Force headquarters situated in one the most protected regions inside the village, for which they had to go through two layers of security.
When they finally reached the headquarters, Takuma was allowed inside while his escorts were stopped at the door. He was sat down in a small interrogation room.
"Genin Takuma," a shinobi entered the room soon after. "I'm Tokubetsu Jonin Shiroma. I just have some routine questions about the Hidden Frost mission."
Shiroma sat down across from Takuma and set down some files on the table; the topmost one had Takuma's name on it. Takuma looked up from the file to Shiroma, who was now staring at him silently. Takuma stared back— and a silence settled in the room.
"How was the journey back home?" asked Shiroma.
"Lonely," replied Takuma.
"Yes, you were ordered by Chunin Iruka to return home alone. You must've been hurt by that order, Takuma. To be left behind by your team leader— must've been tough."
"It's not my place to question orders, sir," answered Takuma calmly. "Chunin Iruka did what he felt was the best for the team. I simply followed the orders."
"But to leave someone who hasn't been out of the village, much less out of the country… was that wise?"
"Chunin Iruka's decision to go ahead and get Chunin Raiden and Genin Susumu the help they needed showcased his trust in my ability to handle myself in tough situations. I'm flattered if nothing else," Takuma said. He knew what the investigator was trying to fish for, but he wasn't going to give it to him.
Shiroma hummed. "Can you tell me about the mission? Start from the beginning and narrate your recollections of the events. Don't leave anything out."
Takuma gave his account. He told him everything except for a few things. First of all, he omitted the conflict with Raiden's team. And as they arrived at the meetup with Hidden Frost, Shiroma interrupted him and asked,
"Don't you find it strange that the Hidden Frost betrayed us? They've been our allies for a very long time— why so suddenly?"
Takuma said, "I found it strange, yes. And I also think that things weren't as simple as they seemed on the surface," saying that Takuma began unpacking weapons on the surprisingly large table. Shiroma was surprised by Takuma's action, but he didn't seem worried. Why would he? A tokubetsu jonin had no reason to be worried of a genin.
"What am I looking at?" asked Shiroma.
There was a row each of kunai, shuriken, senbon, explosive tags, smoke bombs, and a single short sword. The numerous weapons covered the entire table.
"Do you notice the difference between these weapons? This here is a kunai I purchased from the supply," Takuma pointed at the first kunai, "then there's this one that I picked up from one of the Hidden Frost shinobi," he pointed to the kunai with a thinner blade, "and this one here is from another shinobi," which had a longer grip. "Do you notice how each set is different? Of course, we would expect our kunai to differ from Hidden Frost's— but why would Hidden Frost shinobi have kunai different from each other on them? And it's not just the kunai. Everything on this table is of three different types. One of them is mine, and thus from the Hidden Leaf, while the other two are from the Hidden Frost…."
Shiroma looked up from the table to Takuma. His previous carefree expression of observation he had pointed at Takuma was nowhere to be seen— it had been replaced with something that showed that he was hanging off every word that Takuma said with a hint of alarm in his eyes.
"Sir… it's either that Hidden Frost has changed the designs of all of their official weapons recently, which is unlikely based on how I found them— Or one of the teams that we fought wasn't Hidden Frost and were only disguised as them." Takuma probably had never held someone's attention as firmly as he did at the moment,
"I'm sure we have samples of weapons from other villages lying around somewhere in our archives, and if we compare them with these… we will know the third party's identity."
Note: All the chapters will eventually be posted on public forums.