May 2, Yondaime Year 5
Shiranui Yuuichi was just turning the sign on the bakery door to ‘Sorry, we’re closed’ when he saw a lone ninja approaching. She looked maybe fifteen or sixteen, narrow shouldered in her uniform vest, with a smattering of childhood freckles across her nose that hadn’t yet faded.
“You’re in luck, shinobi-san,” Yuuichi said, holding the door for her. “I was just about to go home for the night. What can I get you? I have some azuki manju that I’d be happy to give you for half-price, since it’s the end of the day.”
She looked confused. “Oh, I’m not— Are you Shiranui Yuuichi-san?”
Yuuichi’s smile faded a little. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Shiranui Genma’s father?”
“Yes.” His smile was altogether gone, replaced by a sudden chill.
There’s only one of them, he told himself, and she’s young. They would have sent two—older and in dress uniform—if it was bad.
She took a step forward, squaring her shoulders and standing at attention. “I’m sorry to have to relay that Genma-san was injured on a mission for the village. He’s at the hospital being treated.”
He must have flinched. Something in his face must have given him away, because she softened and looked directly at him. “If you’d like to come with me, I can take you to him.”
“How bad?” Yuuichi asked. His throat was so tight he was surprised he could speak.
It can’t be that bad. If it was bad, they’d have sent someone running, and this girl doesn’t look out of breath.
“I’m so sorry, Shiranui-san, I don’t know his status. I was just asked to notify you and escort you to the hospital.”
Merciful Amida, please don’t take my son.
“Yes,” Yuuichi heard himself answer. “Yes, please. Give me a moment to collect some things.” Belatedly he stepped aside, holding the door. “Please come in the shop where it’s warm. I live just upstairs, it won’t take me long. If you’d like a cup of tea—”
“It’s fine, Shiranui-san,” she said. Her dark eyes were steady and calm. “I don’t mind waiting.”
He ran up the stairs, kicking his shoes off at the door with such haste that one fell partway back down the flight. His stocking feet skidded on the wood floor. He tossed his flour-stained apron over one of the dining chairs, then caught sight of the family shrine.
Calm, Yuuichi, he told himself. Etsuko’s watching over Genma, and you’ve done this dance before. He’s probably fine. He needs you to be the strong one.
It had been years since he’d been stronger than Genma in a physical sense. His baker’s muscles, powerful from lifting heavy sacks of flour and rice and kneading dough, were weak compared to his ninja son’s. And his spirit, too. There were things Genma had seen and done that Yuuichi couldn’t even imagine.
And some that, when he tried, made him heartsick.
But Genma thrived. He loved being a ninja. Loved showing off jutsu for his dad. Loved running so fast he was a shadow-flicker in the trees. Loved leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and standing upside down, feet anchored to the ceiling by invisible threads of chakra.
And he loved the darker sides, too. The parts he didn’t talk about so much. Tactics and strategy, subterfuge and violence. Loved being part of keeping Konoha and Fire Country safe. He loved it enough that the nightmare-making parts of ninja life were worth it. He was stronger than any man Yuuichi knew.
But right now, Genma was hurt. Or worse. He needed his father.
Yuuichi recalled the last time he’d been called to the hospital. And the time before. And the time before that. What would he need to bring this time? A change of clothes for Genma—he ducked into his son’s empty room and retrieved a folded sweatshirt and pair of frayed jeans from the chest of drawers. And underwear. Genma would need something to wear when they let him go home. And maybe socks. Definitely socks, for cold bare feet in a hospital bed.
He’d need a toothbrush and paste if he was staying at the hospital long. And a razor and shaving cream. There was a toothbrush for Genma in the bathroom, but no other toiletries. He’d have to buy some at the convenience mart near the hospital. After he’d seen Genma.
Genma’s hairbrush, with a pair of colorful hair ties wrapped around the handle, caught his eye. He snatched it up, adding it to the pile, then shoved everything into the canvas duffle Genma had bought months—no it was two years ago—when he’d joined ANBU. Genma’d stocked it with all the things he’d thought he might need at the hospital, and that first hospitalization after he’d given it to Yuuichi, it had been very handy.
But somehow, despite the fact there’d been several more hospital trips, Yuuichi could never bring himself to repack it before he needed it again. Packing it felt like bringing bad luck—if he packed it, it meant he’d use it.
He zipped it shut, glancing around the room to make sure there was nothing else Genma might want, then stopped in his own bedroom to grab a novel from the bookshelf—any novel, as long as it was engaging and lengthy. If Genma was awake, Yuuichi could read to him. And if he wasn’t, Yuuichi could distract himself from the mind-numbing boredom and anxiety of waiting for his injured child to recover.
Taking a jacket from the coatrack by the door, he started back down, retrieving his fallen shoe on the way. Back in the bakery, the messenger was sitting patiently at one of the little cafe tables. She stood up when Yuuichi entered.
“I’ll just pack a few buns,” he said, stepping behind the counter. “In case he’s hungry. He loves chestnut paste, but it’s out of season.”
Why was he telling this messenger that? She didn’t care. She was just there to deliver the message to Yuuichi, then deliver Yuuichi to Genma.
“Maybe he’d like custard,” she said, surprising him. “Custard buns are good for when you don’t feel well.”
“So—so they are,” he said. “Thank you.” He filled a paper sack with several options: the custard buns she’d suggested, some red bean buns, a curry bread, and a cheese bread. That ought to be plenty. Then he filled a second sack for the girl and handed it to her.
“You really don’t have to do that, Shiranui-san,” she said, cheeks flushing.
“If Genma needs me to stay with him tomorrow, they’ll go stale. You may as well take them,” Yuuichi told her. That seemed enough to persuade her; she accepted the pastries and stood at the door, waiting while Yuuichi locked up.
It was a quick, silent trip to the hospital. Konoha’s streets were busy with the usual nighttime assortment of foot traffic: last minute shoppers getting ingredients for their evening meals from the stores that stayed open later; diners heading to restaurants and pubs; older citizens in kimono, and younger ones dressed more casually. And everywhere he looked, ninja in uniform—some tiredly returning from missions, some fresh-faced, just heading out. Once or twice he spotted the black and white of an ANBU uniform, but the masked faces weren’t any he recognized.
At the hospital, the girl held the door for him. “I’ll just check with the clerk,” she said. “Please wait here a moment, Shiranui-san.” While she went to confer with whoever was in charge, Yuuichi leaned against a support column, clutching his sack of pastries and Genma’s duffle.
A woman old enough to have been Yuuichi’s grandmother nodded at him from her seat on a low couch and placidly carried on with her knitting. A harried-looking younger man in a stained t-shirt chased a toddler who was trying to climb into a wheelchair. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
Was the child’s mother upstairs in a hospital bed? Would she come home? Or was that a younger version of himself Yuuichi was seeing, left to raise a child alone?
The girl came back. “He’s on the third floor, Shiranui-san. I’ll take you up, if you’re ready.”
He didn’t feel ready, but he nodded and followed her to the elevators. “Did they say anything about how bad—” The words caught in his throat before they could invoke ill fortune. “How he’s doing?”
The girl looked uncomfortable. “Well—” she started.
He braced himself for the worst.
“I don’t really know, they didn’t tell me details, but he’s just in a regular ward. That’s probably a good sign.”
The regular ward. The elevator doors popped open on the tiled corridor of the third floor before Yuuichi could fully dismiss his worst fears, but already they were shredding.
The ward hallway held the usual assortment of hospital equipment awaiting use. A small grove of rolling IV poles clustered in a corner, next to a folded up wheelchair and an empty gurney. A man in a bathrobe shuffled by on the arm of a nurse, looking pleased with himself for having gotten out of bed at all.
Yuuichi’s escort led him as far as the door to ward five. Six slots under the number held hand-written slips with patients’ names. Shiranui Genma was in bed 3-5A. “I hope Genma-san recovers quickly, Shiranui-san,” she said. She stepped back respectfully and bowed.
“Thank you,” Yuuichi said. He bowed back, but his eyes were already on the curtained-off beds. 5A was one of the two nearest the door. He could hear soft voices from further down the row, but from behind the curtain of 5A, there was silence. Cautiously, braced for what he might find, he pulled the curtain aside.
Genma was asleep on his back, tucked into the bed as if he hadn’t moved since he’d landed there, but his cheeks weren’t the dead white of the bed linens. They weren’t quite a healthy color either, but there was a lot to be said for taking what blessings the gods placed in front of you. Genma was sleeping peacefully, with a single IV line and no worrisomely beeping monitors, safe in the heart of Konoha.
Genma didn’t stir.
There was a chair by the bed, and a bedside table with a pitcher and a glass. Yuuichi set the sack of buns on the table, the duffle on the floor, and eased the chair closer to the bed. After a minute, he reached over to hold one of Genma’s hands. The warmth in Genma’s skin was reassuring, even if Genma didn’t grip back.
He sat watching Genma sleep long enough to get bored, and was considering going to look for one of the medical staff, when a white-garbed nurse poked her head around the curtain. She blinked in surprise, and smiled. “You must be Shiranui-san’s father,” she said. “Can I get you anything?”
“Is he— How is he?” Yuuichi asked.
“He’s doing well,” she said. She leaned down to check Genma’s pulse, then produced a vial of bright yellow liquid and a syringe, and drew up a large dose. “Medicine time,” she said, injecting the drug into the IV line. “I’ll make sure Hyuuga-sensei comes by with an update as soon as she’s free. I’m afraid you’re in for a dull visit with your son, though. He’s been flat asleep since I started my shift.”
“I don’t mind,” Yuuichi said, pulling truth over the lie. “I’ve been here before.” He picked up his book and showed it to her. “I’ll just read for a bit, in case he wakes up.”
“Visiting hours end at nine,” she said. “But I won’t kick you out as long as you’re not in the way.”
“Thank you,” he told her. She left, and he settled down with his book—a thriller set in Mangrove Country. An hour later the nurse came back with a paper cup of tea for him. He offered her one of the buns he’d brought for Genma, but she declined.
Two hours later Genma still hadn’t stirred, and Yuuichi had finally convinced himself to stop checking on him every ten minutes. A soft chime announced the end of visiting hours, and the woman at the other bed said goodnight to her recuperating husband and left. Yuuichi ignored it. He’d actually managed to engross himself in the book, and he still hadn’t seen Genma’s doctor. If there was no change by midnight, he told himself, he’d consider going home to sleep for a little while.
The heroine was just about to discover she’d been double-crossed by a drug lord when the bedsheets rustled.
Yuuichi dropped the book.
Genma yawned and rolled over on his side to face Yuuichi. “When did you get here? What time is it?”
“Gen-chan.” Yuuichi’s voice cracked with relief.
Genma smiled sleepily and reached a hand for the bedrail. “It’s okay, Dad, I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine, Genma, you’re in a hospital bed. Do you know how worried I’ve been?”
“I can guess?” Genma offered. He yawned again, and rubbed a hand over his face, pushing his hair back. “How long have I been sleeping?”
“Since before I got here,” Yuuichi said. He checked his watch. “It’s almost ten.”
“I think it was getting close to six when they admitted me,” Genma said. “We got to the hospital around five, but it took a while before they decided I wasn’t going to get to go home.” He shrugged one shoulder. “I was going to come see if you wanted to get sukiyaki, but they decided I needed to cool my heels here for a night”
“Are you hungry?” Yuuichi reached for the sack of pastries. “I brought you some breads. Curry, cheese, red bean…”
Genma’s eyes lit up as sunny as a May morning. “Did you bring any custard ones?”
“Actually, I did,” Yuuichi said. He opened the sack and extracted the requested bun. “Why are they making you stay overnight?”
“I got slightly poisoned,” Genma said with his mouth full. “It messed up my liver and kidneys a little.”
“You what?” The ice water was back in Yuuichi’s veins.
“It’s not a big deal. I’m almost all better already.”
“Did you lose your amulet? Did you forget to take it on your mission? Genma, I’ve told you a hundred times—”
“You have to make an offering before every mission, Genma. It’s important. Look what—”
“I just want you to be safe.” Yuuichi bit his lip. “I can’t pray all the time.”
“Dad.” Genma’s hand closed around Yuuichi’s wrist, warm and solid, calloused and rough. “I’m okay. I shouldn’t have said it like that. But I promise, I’m fine. My teammates took good care of me. I only came to the hospital because my captain insisted.”
Yuuichi wasn’t sure he believed his son, but he wanted to. “Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure,” Genma said. He patted Yuuichi’s arm reassuringly and lay back against the pillows. “I’ll make an offering tomorrow morning, okay? Or as soon as they let me go home.”
“We can go together.”
“Sure,” Genma said easily. “We can go in the evening after you close up shop for the day.”
He sounded so relaxed. So confident. In the seventeen years since Yuuichi had taken Genma to his first Academy class, he’d seen his son injured more times than he could count. Every time, it tore him up. And almost every time, Genma shrugged it off. He’d only seen Genma really rattled a handful of times, and even then, Genma had dived back into ninja life with frightening enthusiasm the moment he was healed.
“Your new captain, the one I met. Na-something—”
“He made you stay for treatment?”
“And the doctor,” Genma agreed.
“Did he offer prayers for your team’s safe return?”
Genma gave him the blank ‘I can’t believe you just said that’ stare that so reminded Yuuichi of Etsuko. “I didn’t ask him.”
“We should get amulets for everyone on your team,” Yuuichi said. “For the young woman I met, and the rookies you told me about, and for Namiashi-san and you. Something from the shrine to Bishamonten.”
“Okay, Dad.” Genma yawned. “We can do that.” He shut his eyes.
“It’s important, Genma.”
“I know, Dad. It’s important.” Genma’s voice was slurred and sleepy. “I’ll be safe.” An uneaten third of a custard bun fell from his hand onto the bedding.
Yuuichi picked it up and set it on table. He smoothed the hair back from Genma’s forehead, just as he had when Genma’d been a child. Genma sighed softly but didn’t open his eyes.
Etsuko had done that, too—fallen asleep practically mid-sentence when she was just home from a mission. She’d loved being a ninja just as much as Genma did now. She’d promised Yuuichi she’d be safe, too…
But he’d loved that wild spark in his wife. That thing that made her—and now Genma—a ninja. He was a moth to their flames. He bent over the bed and pressed a soft kiss to Genma’s hairline, then sat back down with his book to wait for the doctor.
And to say another prayer.
“Thank you, Amida-Buddha, for bringing my boy home safe.”