Sarada may only be four years old, but even she can tell that there is something going on with her parents.
There is a lot of activity in the house.
Papa gets a lot of visits from Uncle Naruto and Uncle Kakashi, poring over scrolls and polishing his weapons. Mama is in the kitchen more often, making food or mending clothes. Whenever she does that, Papa goes away for a few days. Sarada is usually sad about that, but he always returns with a sweet or a present for her, and then everything goes back to normal for a while.
Except this time, there is something off about the whole thing. Mama’s smiles are wrong and her eyes troubled; Papa is quieter than usual and when Sarada looks into his eyes, she feels like crying.
One night, her parents tuck her into bed, and Papa holds onto Sarada much longer than he usually does. Something about this makes her afraid, and she bursts into tears. Papa pulls away, and Mama asks her what’s wrong, but Sarada can’t explain. She doesn’t know enough words yet.
She just holds tightly to Papa’s hand and lets Mama stroke her hair until she falls asleep.
Except her dreams don’t leave her alone. In them, a giant black shadow gobbles Papa up, leaving Mama crying until it devours her too.
Sarada screams until she wakes herself up.
The lights in her room flick on and Mama and Papa rush in. If she wasn’t so scared, Sarada would think Papa looks funny, carrying a sword and standing in the tomato-sushi jammies she and Mama got him for his birthday.
Upon seeing that there is no one in the room, her parents relax incrementally. Papa puts down the sword, and then they are both kneeling and sitting on her bed beside her.
“Sweetheart, what’s the matter?” Mama asks, lifting her into her lap. Sarada buries her face in her shoulder. “Did you have a nightmare?” Still blubbering, Sarada nods into her neck. “What was it about?”
Sarada shivers in reply, and it takes a little more of Mama rubbing circles on her back before she trusts herself to speak.
“Papa went away,” she whispers.
She feels Mama turn her head toward Papa, and then nudges Sarada with her cheek.
“Papa goes away all the time on missions,” she tells her gently. “He always come back.”
“Not this time,” Sarada replies, still trembling. “The shadow eated him.”
“It had sharp teeths and yellow eyes and…and…and Papa tried to fighted it, but it eated him!” Sarada’s voice becomes steadily more distraught with every word, and by the second half of her sentences it’s more garbled sob than anything else.
Mama goes tense beneath her and over her shoulder, Papa’s mouth firms into a line. He is watching Mama with a look she doesn’t understand, and then Mama squeezes her comfortingly.
“Sweetheart, there’s no monster like that. If there was, Papa would have gotten rid of it.”
Sarada pulls away a little to look at her mother. “Really?”
She knows Papa is really strong.
There is such honesty there that Sarada’s fear falters for a moment. If Papa can get rid of that scary monster, then it’s alright.
“Papa’s going away,” she tells her mother solemnly, still worried. “Mama and Sarada stay.”
“That’s right, my darling.”
“Who will make the monsters go away if Papa’s not here?”
“Your mother,” Papa says right away, and though he sounds as sure as Mama was, Sarada isn’t convinced.
“Mama goes to hop-sick-all,” she reminds him.
Mama has an important job and makes people not be sick anymore, so she can’t always be home. Papa is the one who stays with her, and when he’s away, she goes to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Or to Auntie Ino.
But she doesn’t think any of them are as strong as Mama and Papa. A monster would eat them for sure.
Papa looks pensive, and then stands up. “One moment.”
He disappears from the room, and Sarada exchanges confused glances with her mother. They hear him enter the hall closet, and the sound rummaging. Then footsteps returning to Sarada’s room. Sarada crawls off of Mama’s lap and back onto her bed.
When Papa returns, he holds something bright green in his hands—a dinosaur plushie.
“Oh!” Mama exclaims, a smile tugging at her mouth. “What a good idea! There you go, Sarada, Dino-chan will protect you.”
Sarada shoots her mother a disbelieving look, because really?
“Dino-chan is a toy,” she informs her with as careful enunciation as she can manage, and an air of superiority she’s seen Papa use on Uncle Naruto all the time. “He can’t.”
Mama’s mouth twitches, but she continues to look earnest. “Sure he can. See, he’s a ninja-toy. They’re special.”
Sarada looks suspiciously at Papa, but he nods in solemn agreement that has her revisiting her knowledge on the matter. Papa isn’t like Mama. He doesn’t have a magicknation and never tells big stories, so maybe it’s the truth.
“Dino-chan used to protect Papa when he was little, too,” Mama goes on, and now Sarada looks goggle-eyed.
Again, Papa nods. “I had him until I was a genin.”
Shock! Amazement! Papa needed someone to protect him too?
“And Papa’s big brother,” Mama adds. “Isn’t that right, darling? You told me Itachi had him first.”
“Aa. My parents gave it to him before I was born.”
Sarada stares at the plushie with new respect, because Dino-chan knew Grandmother and Grandfather and Uncle? She never knew that.
“Why was he put away?” she wants to know. If Dino-chan was supposed to protect her father, why did they put him in the hall closet?
“I did not need protecting anymore.”
“You leaved him all alone?”
“No,” Mama says. “I kept him. When Papa…went away for a while, I found Dino-chan and brought him home. And he…protected me until Papa came back.”
“Mama needed tekshun?” Sarada gasps, because the idea would never have occurred to her. Mama broke their house when Sarada was littler, and that’s why they had to move to the new apartment. “But you’re the strongest!”
“Even the strongest people need protection sometimes,” Papa tells her gravely, and Sarada nods, because that makes sense.
Then she frowns. “But Papa goes away lots. Alone. No Dino-chan.”
And they’re back to where they were before. Her parents look stuck for a moment, like they don’t know what to say, and then Mama brightens and says, “But he has Lord Garuda, and he can fly him away from trouble all the time. And Lord Aoda, too.”
Sarada remembers the giant eagle that sometimes sits outside of their apartment conferring with her father. He used to come in the apartment, but she once pulled out one of his feathers on accident, and he yelled really loud. It was a little scary, so maybe he might scare away the monsters. And she doesn’t know who Lord Aoda is, but if he’s big and scary too, maybe Papa will be safe.
“Okay,” she says at last, satisfied, and accepts Dino-chan. “Papa’s going away tomorrow?”
This time there is no question how upset her parents look, and how badly they hide it.
“Yes,” Papa says. “For a while.”
“How many days?”
“This many?” She holds up her hands and flashes ten fingers.
“I don’t know. I hope not.” Then he leans forward suddenly and hugs her tight. She can’t see his face, and his voice doesn’t sound right, and she starts to feel like crying again. Then he says, “No matter where I am in the world, I love you and I am proud of you. You are the bravest person in the world.”
Sarada scoffs at that, because Papa’s being silly. She’s not brave at all. But she hugs him back with all her might, because something inside her says it’s important that she do that.
When they separate, he tells her quietly, “Now it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
Sarada doesn’t argue, because her eyes are getting tired, and she does have Dino-chan…but she’s still scared.
“Wanna sleep with Mama and Papa,” she tells them, and they exchange a glance.
“Of course, sweetheart,” Mama says gently. “I’ll just…go make some room.”
She kisses her head and hurries out, and Papa holds her blanket out of the way to help her to her feet. She pauses, considering, and then reaches up to him. “Carry me?”
He hasn’t carried her around since she was littler, but tonight he smiles and says, “Alright.”
“Dino-chan too,” she reminds him, and he agrees with ease.