October 17, Yondaime Year 1
Sandaime’s funeral takes place on a grey afternoon, a week after the Fox’s rampage through Konoha. Despite the hundreds dead and the destruction wrought, nearly all of the village’s surviving ninja and civilians arrive in mourning black. Yondaime himself stands before the gathered crowd, face carved in lines of sorrow. Enough rubble has been cleared away to make room for the unlit funeral pyre— and the body.
In death, Sandaime’s face is free of the haunted look it has borne for the past three months. The hole in his torso from one of the Fox’s giant claws is covered by a set of Hokage’s robes, gleaming white amidst the charred grey of Konoha. His students, Lady Tsunade and Jiraiya the Toad Hermit, stand like statues on Yondaime-sama’s right, their expressions dark and unreadable.
The space between them where the third Sannin should be is empty.
Katsuko clenches her hands at her sides, staring blindly ahead. Even after three months, even after his sacrifice on the night of the attack, the last thing she wants to do is mourn Sarutobi Hiruzen. Sweat pricks at her temples and runs down her neck; underneath her shirt, the bandages wrapped around her ribs pull. The pain sparks the memory of yellow eyes and the cold, searing agony of the scalpel—
She bites her lip, forces herself to breathe. The village can’t afford her falling apart, not now. Not with so many gone.
The people around her stir, murmuring. Yondaime has taken his place in front of the pyre, facing the crowd. He stands resolute, gaze unwavering; the bruises under his eyes and the pale cast of his skin are the only signs that he, too, has lost almost everything to the Fox. Katsuko remembers Kushina-sama, her laugh and the bright way she and the Fourth looked at each other, and very nearly does succumb to tears.
Yondaime’s voice carries over the crowd. “Jiraiya-sensei told me once that what you don’t know can kill you. Sandaime corrected him. What you do know, he said, can make you willing to die. It took me years to understand what he meant by that. I’m not sure I truly did until I saw an old man, comfortable in retirement, tie his hitai-ate on again and set out to fight a battle he knew he could not win, to buy enough time to save the people he loved.”
The need for redemption could drive a man to walk into the jaws of death itself. Katsuko’s mouth twists as she ducks her head, trying to hide her expression. Do Yondaime and his ANBU feel the same bitterness she does, knowing the real reason Sarutobi chose to face down a demon?
Sandaime had visited Katsuko in the hospital three months ago. He’d sat by her bedside for half-an-hour, unable to bring himself to speak. She remembers thinking that he’d looked very small for a legend, an old and tired man with guilt weighing heavy on his shoulders. Human, and mortal, and fallible.
It hadn’t been enough for her to forgive him then. It still isn’t now.
“Sandaime was a man who loved peace,” the Fourth says. “The world only gave him war.”
She can’t listen anymore. Katsuko closes her eyes and breathes in deep, searches for the quiet place inside herself that keeps her safe and numb. Yondaime’s voice and the silent press of people around her fade into the background; she stands quietly, letting her mind drift, and waits for the funeral to end.