Late September, Sandaime Year 14
Shiranui Yuuichi didn’t hear the knock at the door above the din of the rain on the ceramic tile roof and the screams of his overtired two-year-old.
“I want Mama!” Genma raged. He lay on the floor, thrashing his tiny limbs and wailing the words over and over again, until “Mama” was just a long, drawn out cry of fury. His little face was brick red, his eyes and nose streaming, and there was nothing, nothing Yuuichi could do.
“Mama’s on a mission,” he said helplessly. “She’ll be home tomorrow, Gen-chan. Just take a nap for Papa. Please.”
He could practically hear Etsuko laughing at him. “There’s no reasoning with a toddler, Yuuichi.”
He’d tried every toy, every game, every book, every trick, and every treat he could think of. Even Genma’s favorite stories, Noisy Little Monkey and The Dancing Kettle, had fallen flat. Unfinished jigsaw puzzles and building blocks littered the floor. Half a chestnut-paste bun lay next to a sippy cup of warmed milk, abandoned on the kotatsu. Nothing was working.
Etsuko’s two and three day missions away hadn’t been easy, but Yuuichi’d managed. A week of solo parenthood was something else. Six months in, and he was sorry he’d ever agreed to her resuming full field duty. When she got back, he was renegotiating. Maybe she could work at the Hokage’s office or take that teaching position at the Academy. Anything that meant she’d be home at least once a day.
Genma needed her.
Yuuichi needed her.
“I want Mama!” Genma yowled, choking on his own tears.
The knocking came louder.
“Merciful Kannon, let that be your mother.” Yuuichi slung Genma up over his shoulder like a sack of rice flour and went to open the door.
It wasn’t Etsuko.
Two unfamiliar shinobi stood shoulder to shoulder, wearing identical black rain cloaks over Konoha dress uniforms. A man and a woman. The woman had clan markings on her cheeks, Yuuichi noted distantly. The sound of the rain was oddly loud.
“Shiranui Yuuichi?” the man said.
Yuuichi nodded. Cold wind blew rain across the threshold. Something made Genma stop crying. He twisted to stare at the ninja, huge gold-brown eyes still bright with tears.
“Your wife is Shiranui Etsuko, correct?” the man asked.
Yuuichi nodded. He couldn’t quite feel his hands.
“I’m sorry, may we come in for a moment, Shiranui-san?” the woman said quietly.
“Of course,” Yuuichi heard himself answer. It wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. He stepped back and allowed the ninja to enter.
“Mama?” Genma said uncertainly. The two ninja glanced at one another, then away.
“You have news about my wife?” Yuuichi asked, pulling his son closer. The steel in his voice came from someplace he hadn’t even known existed.
“I’m very sorry to have to deliver this information, Shiranui-san,” the woman said.
Her voice seemed to come from underwater. From the other side of a mountain.
From a mountain that had collapsed.
They held the funerals a week later. Full military honors for Etsuko and her entire squadron. Six Konoha ninja had died in the landslide that buried the village of Tateyama. Six ninja, and nearly three hundred civilians. There was nothing left of the village but rubble and mass graves.
There were no ashes to bury, and the dogtags they gave Yuuichi were replicas—Etsuko’s body hadn’t been found. Perhaps the roiling floodwaters had carried her away to the seaside where she’d dreamed of vacationing.
Genma wore the tags now, over a dark blue kimono two sizes too-large for him.
Kamizuki-san had loaned it to them, a hand-me-down from her own son who’d worn it at his ninja-father’s funeral two years prior. “We service widows have to look out for one another,” Kamizuki-san had told him.
Widow. Widower. The words were so much uglier than wife and husband.
While the Sandaime spoke of the bravery and honor with which Konoha’s loyal soldiers had died trying to save Tateyama from the flood and mudslides, Genma sat remarkably still in Yuuichi’s arms, sucking on the thin sliver of steel that bore his mother’s name and registration number.
The Hokage bowed his head and clapped his hands. A priest from the temple rang a bell and read a sutra. And then, one after another, they called the names on the roll of the dead. A sea of shinobi standing at attention in formal black made a painful backdrop to the families and loved ones in their mourning clothes. One by one, the bereaved stepped forward to place white chrysanthemums in front of the row of black-bordered portraits and gently smoking sticks of incense.
“Kobayashi Akito,” the Sandaime read. A willowy woman in uniform stepped forward, clutching her chrysanthemum like it was the only thing keeping her upright. She walked slowly forward, pausing to salute the Hokage before she knelt to add her flower under one of the portraits. Her knees gave way as she tried to stand back up, and she choked on a sob.
She was still kneeling in front of the portrait when the Hokage’s voice called, “Shiranui Etsuko.”
Yuuichi stood up. He held Genma’s hand and led his son forward. Etsuko’s smiling face, bigger than life, looked down at them from the crepe-draped frame.
“Mama!” Genma said. He waved his chrysanthemum at the photograph, gripping it so tightly the stem bent.
That was when Yuuichi finally cried.