“The first step is the one you believe in.
The second might be profound.”
-“I’ll Follow You”, Shinedown
In an ancient chamber only recently exposed to the sun,
four three ninja stand quietly. In this place, in the Dead Wastes, this would normally mean that the whole world held its breath and silence reigned. But now, the three boys are surrounded by the susurrus of life going about its own business. Rain falls, bugs scurry, leaves rustle, and if you’re listening very closely you might imagine you could hear the very plants growing where none had before.
Kankurō runs one hand along an arm that still tingles with the phantom sensation of not being there. He swallows the dryness in his mouth, and tries to get used to being a person again. But he is not alone, and so he cannot help but watch the
enemies allies friends? in this cavernous place with him. There is a hole in the ceiling through which rain is falling, but it is too far away for the Leaf to pretend that this is the cause of the wetness on their faces.
Shameful, murmurs a lifetime of culture and training.
Kankurō thinks about what he’d just seen. What he’d just been. He remembers losing his arm, and he remembers his death shining in red-and-black eyes. But he also remembers trust, and light, and purpose. He remembers a thousand fleeting impressions, carefully kept away from him so that he would not melt away into nothing.
Kankurō knows that any version of Gaara will only be what Sand makes of him. He does not know why he knows this, but he knows it to his bones, and he thinks of his brother. He thinks of the steady climb from monster to human that started in Leaf. Started with a suddenness that still, years later, leaves him feeling—
Kankurō feels like his body is a puppet, and he’s only just started learning to control it, but Kankurō has years of experience controlling puppets, so he carefully, carefully, tosses a rock onto the bare ground before the Leaf nin. Perhaps his brother would have been better off if Sand were allowed to cry. Kankurō thinks he might be dissociating.
The soft thump of a stone hitting bare earth startles Sai more than it should with a
n enemy … Kankurō still free and unbound before him. He reaches up and rubs at one of his eyes. It could be a subtle threat, he soothes years of training that he knows now his partner never approved of. The truth is … he aches. His eyes, his body, his heart.
His eyes cut across to Sasuke, who looks like he’s about to collapse. Sai steps forward and picks up the rock Kankurō had dropped before them. (Wasn’t the floor a seal before—) Examining it doesn’t tell him much. Even to his eyes, even when he briefly pushes them to their highest level, plain stone appears only as plain stone.
He turns and hands it to Sasuke, who performs a similar examination, but Sai can’t read anything of Sasuke’s conclusions on his face. Technically, he’s still the leader of a mission to gain intel.
Maybe he should do something.
The stone is smooth beneath his fingers. Sasuke wonders if it means anything. He nods at Kankurō, and stows it in a belt pouch. For a long moment, he thinks. And then he starts to snicker. That turns into a wheezing, desperate laughter too quickly, and he has to grab several techniques his mother taught him to calm down and present his business face to the world.
“Hikaku, she said we’d need the ‘specifically nonspecific Senju relic excuse.’” He jerks his thumb at the rain and plant life they can see through the hole. “She was expecting to leave all this plant life lying around for us to explain the whole time.”
His cousin’s face settles from blank to … well, still blank, but it looks better. He turns to explain to Kankurō, “Our real mission was to gather intel. From her, not from Sand.”
"We,” Kankurō coughs, “we kind of suspected the mission was a forgery.”
Sasuke nods, “I figured. But it wasn’t, strictly speaking, untrue.”
“Technically correct,” Hikaku murmurs.
“She was … detained trying to enter Konoha. And we helped her escape, although we technically have a mission to get intelligence from her by accompanying her as she left, so I have no idea what her status was. And there was a lot of it. It’s going to,” Sasuke pauses to pick his words carefully, “We’re going to have a lot of work to do to fix the problems her intel revealed. It would be inconvenient for Leaf if everything that happened here spread too widely.”
Kankurō snorts. “You mean you don’t want me to blab. Don’t worry, this is definitely classified way above anyone at the patrol station can deal with. I’m taking this right to the Kazekage.” He fixes Sasuke with a grim, serious look, like he’s expecting Sasuke to object.
But Sasuke remembers watching him come back to life, and tell Shikako to kill him, if she wanted him to hurt Sand. When he’d been dead only moments before. He understands.
He shares, “Kankurō, I can’t promise much, but if everything goes well … I expect you to receive a message absolving Gaara from … four years ago. You know the one. It’s part of the intel we got, but I can’t necessarily … I never believed he’d done it. Not after Naruto trusted him.”
A deep breath.
“Let’s all go home. I’ll see you next mission, Kankurō?”
“Yeah. Lemme walk you to the border.”