March 2, Sandaime Year 24, six years before the Kyuubi
There are only a handful of mourners at the funeral, and they are outnumbered by an unruly mob at the crematory gates. Families of the other dead, who are glad to see Konoha’s notorious traitor burned to ash, and offended he’s afforded even this last dignity. The widow wears formal black with a shroud pulled over her hair, hiding her face in shadow. The son’s face is masked, too, but he stands at his mother’s side with fierce eyes. Unwarranted sun gleams off his hair, the same shade of near-white as his late father’s.
A priest mumbles his way through a sutra for the dead, comforting no one. The casket is closed, a simple, dark wood, without ornament. It rests on the rollers that will take it into the oven, but Kousuke doubts even Fire Country’s hottest flames will be able to burn the stain of shame from Sakumo’s bones.
He takes a deep breath and tries not to think about the body of his friend sliced through the belly in ritual suicide and decaying inside that wooden box. There are at least two hundred dead souls — already burned with their ashes already interred — sitting in judgment at this funeral, waiting for the smoke to rise.
A breeze ripples late blossoming plums on the hill behind the crematorium, tearing a few pinkish petals free to drift onto the dark gravel of the crematory yard. At the son’s other side, his young teacher stands straight-backed and golden-haired. His eyes are just as fierce, red-rimmed against pale skin. He drops a hand to the son’s slim shoulder, but the boy shrugs it away.
Kousuke had never really known Sakumo’s family. And Sakumo had never known his. They hadn’t needed to. But on several missions last year, they’d each carried letters for the other’s families, to be opened in the event of their deaths. He wonders if Sakumo’s widow has found the letter to Kousuke’s wife in her husband’s effects. If he should retrieve Sakumo’s letter, tucked into a scroll case with a few other important papers. If the kinder thing would be to deliver the letter, or destroy it.
Jiraiya is here. And, surprisingly, Orochimaru. Two of the three Sannin stand to bear witness to Sakumo’s end. Jiraiya is dry-eyed, a solid wall of a man with an unreadable blankness on his tattooed face. Surprisingly, it is Orochimaru, a man Kousuke has always found cold and distant, who looks like he’s been weeping.
The priest drones on, voice rising and falling in a cadence too familiar to the assembled mourners. The only difference between this funeral and the countless shinobi funerals that have come before it is the scarcity of attendance. The conspicuous absence of the Hokage or any of the village council.
Another breezy gust sends smoke from the braziers full of incense dancing towards the mourners. Sakumo’s son’s nose wrinkles under his mask, and he shifts from one foot to the other. His mother drops a hand this time, stilling the boy. There is more reprimand than comfort in the gesture.
Finally, the priest finishes the sutra. He chimes a small bell, ringing it in a slow, steady rhythm, like a dying heartbeat. Someone from the crematorium turns a crank, and the coffin rolls into the cavernous mouth of the furnace. There’s a faint roar as the flames are turned up.
Kousuke holds his breath as the coffin disappears through the oven doors. They slide down behind it, dull steel embossed with Konoha’s leaf and a pattern of cherry blossoms. Sakumo and he had shared a bottle of sake at the end of a mission under the blooming cherries nearly a year ago; this year’s flowers are still furled tight in their buds.
He looks up to stop the tears that want to blur his vision. White smoke drifting from the crematory chimney turns to black, and from outside the gates, there’s a ragged cheer. That’s when his eyes spill over. When someone here inside the gates chokes back a sob.
Kousuke knows without looking it’s not the widow. Not the child.
When he has control of himself again, the priest is conferring with the widow. Jiraiya steps in to form a small, protective huddle with his former pupil, putting a hand on the blond’s shoulder. For a moment, it looks like the younger man will break. His chest heaves, and his pale skin reddens, but then Sakumo’s son reaches up to tug on his hand, and he pulls himself together.
Orochimaru stands a few steps back. Dark hair hangs over his face the way Sakumo’s widow’s shroud had hidden hers. His shoulders shake once, and he snaps a sharp turn and vanishes, leaving a swirl of crumbling leaves in his wake.
There’s no reason to stay. It will be an hour, maybe more, before Sakumo’s body will be consumed. Before Sakumo’s widow and son will pick blackened bones out of grey ash and transfer them to the burial urn. If they do. Surely they will see this funeral through to the end, having come so far.
But the bone-picking is for the family alone, a final ritual before the urn itself can be buried. Kousuke wonders where the grave will be. Perhaps on the Hatake clan’s estate.
The only things he knows for sure is that Hatake Sakumo’s name will never grace the Heroes’ Stone, and those angry picketers at this farce of a funeral will never be satisfied.
There’s no reason to stay, but it takes until Sakumo’s wife turns her head, notices him standing there, for Kousuke to realize he should go. He bows to her, low and deep. When he straightens, the son is looking at him too, grey eyes as piercing as Sakumo’s were.
He salutes the boy, and leaves before his own tears betray him.