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When The Skies Go Black

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Tenzou wakes up to victory; they tell him they won the war

He comes home to ash and rubble, bodies wrapped in white, hundreds of them, lining up an entire field protected by a temporary sealed barrier. People looking for family trickle in slowly in this field, going through the dead one by one, looking for their loved ones. It’s the single most busy area in what had one been a thriving village.

Tenzou steps into what’s left of Konoha with a collar of fear tight around his throat. This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this, or feels something like this; this isn’t new when what feels a lifetime ago, Pain had near obliterated Konoha from the map. The thick band of despair and guilt around Tenzou’s neck tightens with each step he takes, exactly like back then, his feet as heavy as lead, cold sweat beading around his temples and neck, trickling slowly down the length of his spine.

He did not think he’d go through this kind of walk again, this odd bodily reaction of having adrenaline coursing madly through his veins like poison, his heart drumming in his chest, saliva thickening in his throat, his entire world tilting side ways, nausea inducing, as he walks straight through cracked earth, bypassing relieved tears of joy and anguished grief. Just like when Pain had rained his unmerciful anger at a village full of innocents, Tenzou walks through it all, looking left and right, the blood pumping in his veins going cold as he searches through the masses, trying to find a familiar, beautiful face until daylight turns to twilight, orange bleeding out to dusky purple.

Finding what’s left of his world back then had been quicker. Easier. It had taken minutes. Because back then, Tenzou had known that in case of an emergency, Academy students are to retreat to the stronghold in the mountains. Academy students are to be accompanied by adults and while Iruka has not been there per se, there had been others who knew where he would be, where he may be assisting.

But there is no stronghold here, Konoha’s citizens scattered, displaced in groups.

Finding Iruka now is almost impossible.

The worst part about it is that Tenzou had been too weak to not get captured, had been powerless, a puppet, useless, obsolete, to put a stop to the swarm of clones that rampaged through the destruction. His body had fueled a loss so great, that as he makes another round through the lines of the deceased, hoping he won’t have to stop and identify a family member, Tenzou realizes that this would be his fault. He would have taken the one thing that somehow made him whole, made him of any value other than the weapon he was forged to be, and destroyed it. It might as well have been his hands, when that army of clones was born of his blood, his DNA, everything that made him a living, breathing, man.

There is no one else to blame this time.

No mad man in a black and red cloak, no individual with a thirst for vengeance, no attack on a village, not even a war.

The guilt, this time, doesn’t just sit on Tenzou’s chest the way it had when Pain attacked. This time, it sits on his mind too, deep in his brain, logic and emotion at war. Logic, because he had been outnumbered, outpowered, out-everything. Emotion because he shouldn’t have been, he should have been better, stronger, he’s got the first Hokage’s DNA in his veins, that should have amounted up to fucking something. That should have been more than enough. 

As his feet slows down when he reaches the last body, as he stands there, watching people walk with lanterns, holding them over shadowed faces, Tenzou finds himself caged, trapped in his fear that suffocates him in open air, leaving the after taste of infection and rot permeating into flesh wounds that no longer bleed at the back of his throat. 

He doesn’t have any training for this.

They don’t teach you in ANBU on how to deal with the loss of a loved one. There’s no manual, no guide, not even a little bullet point list on what you should follow should you be experiencing something so asphyxiating that isn’t caused by a jutsu or a wound.

They certainly don’t tell you how to handle something like this during any of the psychiatric-evaluation.

The last time he had looked for Iruka, Tenzou had found him within an hour of entering Konoha, dusty, a little bruised, a little haggard, but whole and alive with an armful of medical supplies. 

Iruka is nowhere to be seen now. Or found. When Tenzou asks, no one can provide him with an answer that he can actually work with. 

This toxic fear becomes his challenge, his own demon to slay as he festers in guilt and the buzz in the back of his head reminding him of how he could have - should have - been better, stronger. It’s a mantra that comes out faster and faster in its repetitiveness, it’s accusation, should have, should have, should have until it turns to a continued buzz in Tenzou’s ears. The thing in him screeches that’s he should have been here, with Iruka, orders be damned when a lot of good that had done. The fear in his body becomes a monster he must slay, screaming like a banshee. It comes before Tenzou’s bravery, his perseverance, crushing logic between gnarly teeth and razor sharp talons. 

Tenzou is powerless to it as he makes his way to the tents.

It’s only there, when his feet slows to a stop in the middle of lit lanterns, the glow of the multiple fires shinobi and civilians have going for the cold night ahead, he realizes that this is the only way he can force his brain to function, to appeal for solutions instead of this circling madness; regroup, strategise.

And although Tenzou’s bones have no more strength, his muscles all out of power, every part of him shutting down as the softest parts of him slowly turns to ash, a part of him, the one thing that still remains functional, the razor sharp weapon, forces him to remain still. Just quiet and long enough to choose how to move forward.

(No, not fight. The good he could see in this world, the good he found, it’s gone.)


*

Someone finds him later, a little close to sunrise, seated on a crate, staring at the pebbles on the ground. Konoha’s soil is devoid of life too, no ants crawling in between the cracks. Someone is speaking, saying something about establishing patrols, setting up a rotational guard duty with the other shinobis, some sort of order. 

Tenzou looks up, finds not one, but two dark eyes looking at him with an expression he can’t seem to find the energy to comprehend.

Or care about.

Kakashi falls quiet all of a sudden, his lips stopping all movement, pausing as something gradually softens in his gaze. It comes slow, like ash dissolving in the wind. 

It’s that look that becomes the crack of lightning in the sky that makes Tenzou blink, snuffing out the embers of whatever light that still struggled to burn somewhere in the center of Tenzou’s chest, throwing him into complete darkness. He stands then, forgetting his fatigue, forgetting the war and destruction, the dead, the wounded, his legs incredibly steady. Ready.

Tenzou balls his hands to fists once then releases it to something deceptively lax.

“Taichou,” Tenzou responds, neutral, expression relaxed, patient, ready to be commanded, ready to get back to work.

No emotion. No past. No future.

There is only the mission.

*

They spend days setting up a boundary wall. 

Days digging up the dead, segregating bodies, setting up bigger temporary camps. 

It drags on forever.

They they start laying upon foundation onto a barren wasteland.

Tenzou doesn’t care.

He channels chakra through his palms, puts foundations for structures deep in the earth. He helps rebuild a bigger, better, stronger world that is not his.

Not anymore, anyway.

*

Displaced citizens of Konoha arrive in batches, temporarily scattered throughout neighboring towns and camps across Fire.Those that arrive first are those with medical and engineering skills, closely followed by those with muscle and not incapacitated by the war.

Their faces all blur to one after a while, their voices all sounding the same.

Konoha start to resemble something that isn’t a mound of nothing nine weeks in.

Tenzou looks at it, acknowledges the effort his fellow shinobi and citizen has put in. What had been nothing now stands something, a show of a strong, united front, where there is no divide, no one higher than the other, where family names, rank and achievements means nothing. It’s compelling effort put forward, and here, in the clouds of dust of construction, of Konaha picking up what’s left of her, is a true, shining moment of pride.

Of peace.

Tenzou recognizes this glorious effort. 

Their forefathers would be proud; this is what they’ve dreamed of achieving, what they all have been fighting for.

And yet…

Tenzou sees it as structures. Ephemeral. Unreal in permanency.

It means nothing to him.

*

Nightfall brings an invisible gust of frost that permeate deeper than the skin. It’s almost microbial, how the cold creeps into one’s bloodstream, a deadly infection that spreads, silently turning one catatonic before they realize what’s happening. Tenzou hasn’t said a word beyond what’s necessary when accepting or clarifying orders. Now, when he’s got people assigned to him, he doesn’t speak unless he has to. ANBU’s force is significantly decreased; they’re the first line of defense, the first to be dispatched ahead of the bulk of their forces. What had been thousands are now only mere hundreds in numbers.

Tenzou has been given the task to run the entire force temporarily. 

It’s hard work, but not impossible. 

He is told to keep up the good work.

They are dressed with whatever they have left on their backs, maskless save for the haunted looks in their eyes after carrying bodies home as high as Konoha’s walls. They’ve been working on the village barrier for the past week, most of their chakra depleted by the end of the day, leaving them scattered around the camp, huddled by the fire, quietly chewing on rations that taste like cinders.

It goes on like this, the campsites getting more packed with each envoy that moves in from the temporary refugee camps beyond Konoha. Each night, they expand wider in number of live bodies, higher in terms of skyline.

Until one night, as Tenzou stares at the crackle of the fire, embers drifting up into the air, Kakashi finds him. 

They separated weeks ago, each assigned with something else. Tenzou forgets how many days it’s been since they had last seen each other.

It doesn’t really matter, either way.

“Did you find him?” Kakashi asks, casual, cool. 

“There are more important things to do,” Tenzou responds, quiet, factual. It’s a response that would be expected of a man like him.

It’s the best answer Tenzou is capable of forming at this point; it’s the only answer he knows how to give.


*

The truth is, Tenzou has entertained the idea that perhaps there will be no body to bury.

The thought sinks like a rock tossed into a placid lake, coming to rest at the bottom center of Tenzou’s mind. 

It sits there like a tumor, immovable, steadily growing until it becomes a part of his mind. His scenery. His reality.

It becomes all of him.

Tenzou makes another round in the village. They’re bigger in number now, more than they were when he had tried to look for Iruka.

He doesn’t find him.


*

Tsunade names Kakashi as Hokage. She also makes it known to the present ANBU force that once the last of the wall is up, the rest of Konoha’s citizens will finally be able to come home. 

It’s a moment of hope for those that remains. Tenzou can see something a little positive gleam in the deadened eyes of his force.

A tentative schedule for a village wide memorial is also set. A tentative date after that for the official Hokage inauguration is set, too.

Tenzou keeps his gaze pinned on Tsunade’s face, the focus only breaking when the Hokage dismisses them. Outside, he waits for Kakashi to pass on his congratulations. Kakashi takes it the way he usually would with such praises. Uninterested, bored, maybe even a little dull. All a front that hides a plethora of uncertainty, maybe even shock, perhaps some insecurity.

Tenzou tells him they’ll be in good hands, that he has faith in his ability. That Tsunade cannot have chosen someone better. 

“I’m a seat warmer for the actual, real Hokage,” Kakashi points out, deadpanned.

“The finest seat warmer there is, then; that’s hard to screw up,” Tenzou answers, neutral, despite the dry humor.

Kakashi is watching him again, eyebrows knitting, something creeping into his dark gaze that Tenzou wishes, in this very moment, he did not know how to read. He did not want pity. 

Tenzou takes that look as his queue to get back to work.

*

Konoha’s lack of drainage doesn’t prepare them for the sudden onset of heavy rains. To minimize damage on whatever structural integrity they have, Tenzou ends up working with ANBU and Jounin with earth affinities in making trenches to drain rainwater off Konoha’s main streets. They work for days, popping one soldier pill after the other, rushing construction the best they can to avoid further damage. 

After a while, Tenzou becomes indifferent to the cold weight down on his back. The wet fabric of his uniform becomes nothing, as he moves block by block, pausing only long enough to catch his breath before channeling chakra again.

It’s a Tuesday when Tenzou pauses mid-way in popping a solider-pill into his mouth, when his attention is suddenly drawn to a familiar summon staring up at him, tail wagging. Tenzou stares at Pakkun, wondering why he’s standing there, by Tenzou’s feet, looking up at him expectantly. 

Tenzou pops the pill into his mouth anyway, swallows past the dryness before asking, “Everything all right?” 

“Follow me,” Pakkun near orders, turning immediately and breaking for a run.

Tenzou sucks in a deep breath, turns to leave orders to continue working with the unit he’s currently working with, before following the summon.

Pakkun leads him to the other end of the village, towards the hospital that is surrounded by the latest escorted civilian envoy from Turtle Island. It’s chaos trying to get everyone registered, with Tenzou pushing past bodies of anxious men, women, children, the injured and other fellow shinobis trying to maintain some sort of order.

He follows Pakkun to the far corner of the massive crowd, where there, under a plastic shelter acting like a pitiful makeshift roof of sorts, obscured only the pouring sheets of rain, stands Kakashi, conversing with a group of shinobis. Tenzou can pick up a few words from his current distance, something about the number of bodies that is currently arriving in wagons, casualties of the severely injured during the journey, how many requires immediate medical attention, if it can be spared. 

As Tenzou draws closer, his feet drags to a slow stop until he remains standing there like a sentinel, the crowd moving around him, transfixed on the person currently conversing with his yet to be inaugurated Hokage. Slender, gaunt, the ponytail replaced with a tight high bun, a bit of dark scruff on his face, fatigue lining his eyes, yet still ever so fucking beautiful. 

Iruka pauses in his report when Kakashi looks away from him, clearly distracted. Iruka lips thin, because Iruka has strong beliefs on good manners and etiquette. He follows Kakashi’s line of sight, a frown on his gods, still attractive face. 

Their eyes meet like this, between sheets of cold rain, water pooling around their boots, the sea of tired, exhausted faces constantly moving them. Iruka, whose lips slack, parting into something breathless. Iruka who turns his entire body to face Tenzou, the color leaving his entire face as Tenzou’s world spins out of control.

Tenzou doesn’t move, doesn’t gravitate towards Iruka who, however small, however seemingly unimportant that no one seems to remember him every time Tenzou had asked, Iruka who is just another star in the spec of the vast universe all around him, remains as bright as ever. People don’t notice him, people don’t recognize him, they don’t part for someone unimportant. They don’t notice Iruka even as he steps away from his commander and future Hokage in a daze without so much of a polite excuse or an apology, manners be fucking damned, as he bumps into the crowd, gets jostled, tossed here and there unmoored, slowly sloughing his way towards Tenzou.

Tenzou, who knows that he was born into this world out of nothing, filled with only a piece of the dark, a hollow place that sits in the middle of his chest  that can never be filled. It’s been there to serve as a reminder that there is no past nor a future, an emptiness that swallows him whole, near impossible to banish if given the time to grow and thrive. This emptiness cannot be dispelled. This is something Tenzou has been trained to endure most of his life until just recently, until Iruka and his tiny little apartment, because Tenzou has been proven wrong. 

It can be filled with all the good, all the sunshine in the world.

It can be filled with a thousand teaspoon sized neutron stars, tiny in its light, never enough to illuminate, but dense in its mass. Its meaning.

Its love.

Iruka opens his mouth, as Tenzou endures the stutter in his chest, of things collapsing inwards, filling that huge, galactical size of a blackhole with specks of light that spinspinspsins until they fade to nothing, sinking into the depths of him greedily. Tenzou stares transfixed until Iruka’s trembling hand shoots forward, wrapping around his.

Heat explodes.  And suddenly, Tenzou is burning, expanding, mouth opening as he lets out a choked incredibly fucking loud stumbling exhale, all that air leaving him in a rush like a punch to the gut just as all the air and the breath of his name leaves Iruka’s lips.

“Tenzou…”

Tenzou’s arms are too full, suddenly too weak, shakingshakingshaking, as he wraps them so tight, too tight, around flesh that is far too delicate, smaller, slighter from hunger, sharp edges of bone poking through the navy uniform. He smells ash, rain, death, rot, fatigue, the remnants of war. Under it all, a traitorous hope, the oh so distant and faint sweet tang of orange, cinnamon, of warmth, and home, clean sheets and a garden long buried in the rubble.

Something burns, for a just a nano-second, small, almost microscopic in size, somewhere around the corners of Tenzou eyes as he stares dead ahead, across the sea of people, face unreadable as he stares at the man who must have sent his summons searching up and down, inquiring and sniffing through the crowds when he, the man who carries the surname of Umino had surrendered to the call of duty. 

Tenzou didn’t even try hard enough. 

No words can ever express the depth of Tenzou’s gratitude, as he holds Iruka in his arms, unwilling to unclench his fingers from flesh that will surely mark. No language can ever express how grateful he is, to a man that surely deserves to be the village’s leader.

Tenzou continues to stare ahead of him, unseeing, as his vision blurs, staying right there as the crowd eventually thins, seconds turning to minutes and longer.

Warm hands, softer hands, wonderful hands cups him by the face, gives him something else to focus on other than keeping still and silent. Iruka who looks up at him with a smile so wide, so relieved, so goddamn beautiful it  makes Tenzou wonder how he had walked through weeks with the sky being pitch black.

Iruka who laughs nervously, messily, openly cries with shuddering relief, and asks, “Did you miss me?”

Tenzou digs inwards, past the jagged razor glass in his chest, the gleaming blades, the bloodied barbwire, the dark, finds a part of him that he had forcibly buried, that part of him that yearned for this, hoped for this. The part of him he suffocated, choked and buried because he does not have a past nor a future.

“Y-yes...” Tenzou chokes, cracking, falling to pieces around the rainwater by their feet. “Yes…”  

With that admission comes shame, bitter and hot, as Tenzou closes his eyes to shield his eyes from the brightness of Iruka's smile, tucking his face into the crook of his neck. He did not try hard enough to find his works, he had given up before he had even truly begun.

In the fall of rain, Tenzou swears, that no matter what, he's never, ever going to make that mistake again.

TBC