Author's Note: Hirohiko is Ariel D's version of Yondaime Kazekage. He is used here with her permission.

Past in its Place

Hirohiko looked at his family album and sighed. When had things gone so wrong? A cliché question, to be sure, but clichés were cliché because they happened too often. And too painfully. He smoothed his thumb over the plastic protecting a photograph of himself, Karura, and Kankuro. Kankuro's second birthday. The cake was larger than his son's head. Oh, if only things stayed that way. Children small, wives alive, and everything simpler. Before he was blamed for a deficit that had begun with the second Kazekage, before children grew older and colder and harder to hug, before Karura was a name on a stone he paid tribute to with flowers.

A tribute he didn't bother to do in person because there was no privacy. People hounded him wherever he went. People who were angry about Gaara's lack of control over Shukaku. People who needed his signature on important documents. People who wanted him to say everything was alright when his life was falling apart and he didn't have anyone to turn to, no Kage to bail him out of his personal life.

Now that Karura was dead, Hirohiko didn't have anyone. To think he'd been a genin once, with a team he could trust and a sensei who cared. That seemed mystifying now. Who would care about him?

He obviously wasn't worth anyone's effort.

Hirohiko didn't know how long he'd sat on the sofa with his head bowed, staring blankly at Karura's face in the photograph of Kankuro's birthday party. He jerked out of his blank introspection when the front door slammed.

"I'm home," Kankuro called.

Hirohiko looked at the two-year-old Kankuro in the picture, suddenly shocked at the sound of his son's deep voice. Matured. Fourteen, for god's sake. Fourteen. Twelve years have passed since I took this picture on delayed exposure? He shook his head.

Kankuro poked his head around the corner, cat-eared hood hanging down around his shoulders instead of up over his spiky hair. "Hey, whatcha doing that's got you so distracted, Dad?" he teased. "Usually, you at least say something when I come…home." He trailed off at his father's expression. His eyes widened when he saw the open album on his father's lap. He'd never caught his father looking at the album. He'd known for a while that his father was looking at it – certain pages of the album were scuffed from the amount of use they got, and some pictures had shifted around, the way it happened when someone took out more than one picture at a time and forgot which order they went in.

At first, when he was little, he wasn't interested in the photo album. It sat underneath the TV in the living room, on the bottom shelf of the entertainment center, always in plain view. But the fat album with its faded pink leather cover hadn't aroused his curiosity.

He'd first become curious when he noticed one day at twelve that the album was ajar; sitting on the shelf crooked. He'd developed a little bit of OCD during the intervening years between eight and twelve, and he'd also finished his ninja training, which made him more observant. At twelve, the idea of family pictures had interested him. He'd taken the album off the shelf, flipping through the pages of photographs with growing fascination. He'd found things he never knew were there. He'd laughed, he'd cried, and he'd spent an immeasurable amount of time just touching old faces.

Luckily, no one else had been home. He would have been pissed if anyone had seen him looking sensitive. Ever since his first teacher at the Academy critiqued him as 'sensitive', Kankuro fought against that image any way he could. Even if that meant acting out in class and beating people up when they teased him. Because he wanted to be the greatest puppet master in the world, and the greatest puppet master in the world did not flunk ninja school for being 'sensitive'.

Anyway, ever since Kankuro started noticing the album shifting on its shelf in accordance with his father's days off from work, he'd known his father must be the one looking at it – and since the album went back before his mother and father had married, back to when his parents were jonin and Yashamaru smiled all the time, it made sense. It was really more his father's album than anyone else's.

But he'd never caught his father looking at it. It was like, a secret. So it peaked Kankuro's interest even more. He'd tried several times to get things just right, so he walked in and it looked casual and he got to see what interested his father so much about the album…Every time, he'd found his father doing something else. Balancing the family budget in the study. Vacuuming the living room again because the maid didn't get it quite right – Kankuro got his OCD from someone, after all – watching TV. Never looking at the damn album Kankuro wanted to catch him at so badly.

And today, there it was, just sprawled open across his father's lap, and Kankuro hadn't even been trying. Goes to show how fate has a way of flipping you off, Kankuro thought. You can't force things to happen until they're good and ready.

Hirohiko took in the way Kankuro froze and felt ashamed. He'd been caught at being sentimental, something a shinobi should never be. His father had told him that a thousand times; never be sentimental, move on, look forward. Karura's death and his preoccupation with it made him supremely ashamed as a result. He couldn't get over it, he couldn't move on, he couldn't look forward. He was stuck. The rest of the village might not know it. His children might not know it. But it was true. And now he'd been caught red-handed with the proof in front of his eldest son.

"Kankuro." Hirohiko swallowed. His voice had come out husky, quiet. Smothered in pain. He tried again, adding a small smile. "Hello. I didn't realize you were home from your mission. How did it go?"

Kankuro shrugged, his eyes still locked on the photo album.

Hirohiko felt defeated. He patted the sofa cushion next to him. "Have a seat."

Kankuro hadn't been expecting to be invited. He had thought by the look on his father's face that he had been in for a reprimand. Logically, he knew he hadn't done anything wrong, but his father might not have seen it that way. His father might have found reasons. Intruding on his father's space, when his father wanted privacy. Not making himself known somehow, even though it had been obvious to him that his father had been lost in his own thoughts.

He perked up immediately at the invitation and came over, sitting down beside his father carefully so that his knee didn't bump the photo album. "Whatcha looking at? Which ones? I've looked at them all, but I never knew which ones interested you the most."

He wanted more than anything for his father to discuss the pictures with him. It would be much needed insight; much needed attention. Kankuro knew his father withdrew so much because Kazekage was a tough job, but still, it hurt his feelings sometimes that he could hardly hold a conversation with his own father.

Hirohiko was startled by Kankuro's abrupt change in demeanor. He's not angry with me? He's not going to give me a speech about getting my head out of my ass and paying more attention to the present?

Kankuro leaned over slightly, looking at the page his father had left the album open to. "Oh, hey…that's my birthday." He smiled and touched the round little face that used to belong to him.

Hirohiko watched Kankuro's dawning pleasure with amazement. No… he realized after a moment. He's not going to reprimand me. He's sentimental, too. "You were two that year," he said softly. A beautiful age. He'd heard parents hated it. He disagreed. At two, one could actually talk to one's child, hold conversations, find out some of the mystery of what was going on in their head. Hirohiko had loved to come home and encourage Kankuro to talk, holding conversations about whatever came into Kankuro's head. He'd found to his amusement it was mostly about cats.

Soon after, they'd gotten three. Hirohiko thought one was a little sparse for a house the size of the Kazekage Mansion. So he'd picked out three rescue cats from the shelter with Karura. They'd made sure the cats were healthy, had all their shots and treatments and paperwork in order. Then they'd brought the cats home to stay.

If Kankuro had talked about cats before, when he got to meet three in close and in person, his babbling consisted purely of elaborate stories about what he and the cats had done that day.

Kankuro noticed how his father lapsed into silence and tried to revive the conversation. "Yes, I know. I can see the candles on the cake." He pointed to the cake. "Look how huge that is. How come you ordered such a huge cake, Dad?"

Hirohiko chuckled, startled by Kankuro's question. "I didn't order it, Son. Your mother made it. And she underestimated the recipe. It produced a four layer cake, not a two layer. She didn't check it properly before she mixed the batter, and she was angry…so I told her to bake the whole thing and give you the biggest cake you'd ever seen."

"Well, it certainly is big," Kankuro said, amused.

Hirohiko nodded. "Mm-hmm…" He wasn't sure where Kankuro was going with this.

"What was I like?" Kankuro asked.

"Like you are now, only smaller," Hirohiko said, teasing his son with a smile.

Kankuro accepted the tease, but he wanted his answers. He gave his father a wry smile. "No, I mean, really."

"Cute," Hirohiko said. Then he re-evaluated his cursory answer. "You were…talkative. Playful. Smart. Funny. And cute. So…just like you are now, only smaller."

Kankuro didn't know what to say. He'd always thought his father… "I don't know," he said out loud. "I always thought you were sad about me or something. Disappointed."

Hirohiko hugged Kankuro tightly. He didn't know what else to do. He was too stunned for words.

Kankuro went still, taken off guard, and then hugged his father back. His father felt small; smaller than Kankuro had thought he was. Bones like a bird; slender. He pulled back self-consciously when he realized he felt his father's ribs. "Dad, are you eating enough?" he blurted.

"I'm not starving myself," Hirohiko said, hiding behind a wry smile. "I eat three meals a day, just like everyone else in this house."

"That's not what I asked," Kankuro said. He looked at his father seriously. "I'm just putting this out there – you're pretty thin."

Hirohiko shrugged uncomfortably. "It's hard to eat when…" When you think that someone should be at the table who isn't, who is never going to be again, that this person is gone, even though they're the person you want to see the most, and you never will, because you killed them with your carelessness and your inability to stand up for yourself.

Kankuro saw his father's gaze drift to the photo album, to the picture of him when he was two. His father's gaze settled on his mom. He knew in an instant his father hadn't realized his eyes had given him away.

He slapped his hand down over the picture. "You need to stop blaming yourself!"

Hirohiko flinched backwards, then registered the words. He looked at Kankuro in shock.

Kankuro was just as shocked at himself. He didn't know where this anger was coming from; but the realization that his father had been hurting himself, punishing himself with pain for years and years in some misguided attempt to bring his mom back to life… "It wasn't your fault, you don't need to hurt yourself anymore," Kankuro said. He gave his father a steely gaze. "You're my father and her son and that means I'm part Mom, too. So I have the power to forgive you for her. So I do. You're forgiven. I forgive you, Dad. I don't want to see you doing this to yourself any longer. You're my dad…and I need you here. Not there."

He tapped the photograph and removed his hand, waiting warily for his father's reaction. He'd never spoken to his father this way. Maybe other adults when he'd lost his temper, but never his father.

Hirohiko felt his eyes fill with tears at the plea. Kankuro's maturity and insight shook him to the core. "Oh, my son. I am so sorry." He folded Kankuro in a close hug. "I am so sorry you had to watch me suffer by my own hand. I never thought anyone was watching who cared. I never realized." I never realized I could hurt you.

Kankuro felt a rush of warmth at his father's understanding. He hugged his father in return, squeezing. "It's okay," he whispered.

Hirohiko was astonished to see Kankuro smiling. "It is? Even though –" – I've ruined everything with my self-pity?

"Well, yeah," Kankuro said. "It's okay if I say it's okay. I'm not going to lie to you."

Hirohiko had to laugh. "No, you certainly do not lie." He cupped his son's cheek affectionately. "You do not lie. You make a clear point of telling the truth."

Kankuro nodded. "Hell yeah. That's my ninja way, jan."

Hirohiko's expression softened. "And I love it. I love your ninja way."

Kankuro glowed, in spite of his attempt to look casual.

"I love everything about you," Hirohiko said. "Everything." He lowered his hand from Kankuro's cheek and squeezed his son's shoulder. "You are everything I could ever want."

Kankuro felt himself getting misty-eyed. He swallowed and said firmly, "You are, too. You are everything I want in a Dad. So don't ever forget it." He looked his father in the eye.

"What happens if I do?" Hirohiko asked softly.

"If you do…" Kankuro hugged his father again. "Then we'll talk until I'm sure you know it again."

"What about Gaara?" Hirohiko asked helplessly. "I messed up his life forever, I failed, and in doing so I failed you and Temari –"

"No," Kankuro said. He frowned. "You didn't do it all by yourself. Any of it. I know the Council was involved in making decisions about Gaara's life. I know they ordered you to kill him and you wouldn't, so they ordered assassins instead. I know that they had a lot to do with Gaara becoming a jinchuuriki in the first place. It's public record; I looked it up a long time ago."

Hirohiko stared at his son, stunned. He's…defending me? Against myself?

"I know you couldn't do anything about it, because you're just one man." Kankuro gestured. "The Council would have to get off their fat asses and do something – hell, the whole village would. You can't be around to make the police patrol the streets properly. You can't make drunk people not drink. You can't make mothers not tell their children to stay away from Gaara. You'd have to kill almost everybody to get it to stop, and the people that were left would hate Gaara just as much; they'd hate silently. That's just as deadly for someone's self-esteem. Gaara's not stupid. He would be able to tell regardless of whether anyone attacked him or not. He says he can look into people's eyes and tell how they're feeling. He'd know. It wouldn't accomplish anything."

Kankuro slumped against the back of the sofa and sighed. "The only person he won't look in the eyes is you, and I don't know why. If he did, he'd see that you're nothing to be afraid of. I can't convince him; he doesn't hate me outright, but he doesn't believe me, either. It's like pulling teeth to get him to talk to me."

Hirohiko squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry. You've been doing my job for me. I should talk to him." You've grown up so fast, and it's my fault. I – He realized he was self-blaming, exactly what Kankuro told him not to do, and tried to swallow it.

Kankuro shook his head. "No! No way. He's already made up his mind he's not gonna listen to you. Otousan, you have to let him figure it out on his own. If you just…" His voice softened, and he gave his father a pleading look. "If you're just you, he'll figure it out. Just…be around more. Please."

Hirohiko hugged his son. It seemed he couldn't get enough of hugging Kankuro, holding him, trying to make up for lost time. Foolishly lost time. "Of course I will. How could I refuse someone that I love so dearly?"

Kankuro didn't know if his father could ever understand how much he'd needed to hear those words. He clung to his father, resting his head on his father's shoulder. "I love you, too." He could hardly get the words out. 'I love you' was a phrase reserved for New Year's. Every year at New Year's, they would have a special meal, and his father would make a toast about how much he loved them all, make a point of saying it, but otherwise…it rarely came out.

Kankuro wondered now if maybe his father just forgot. Grief could do a lot of funny things to people. He'd seen friends grieve over teammates at this point; a lot of death happened in the shinobi world. One of his best friends had even forgotten his birthday. And it had just been because they'd been so busy lying in bed and listening to their favorite music every day after work, consumed with regret about his teammate. They hadn't even been close. It still haunted his friend.

"I can hardly imagine what you've gone through," Kankuro said softly, noting all the sad lines around his father's eyes. "And I'm sorry. And I know you weren't the cause of it. Mom's dying really hurt you, and I know I'm not a replacement. But I love you, and I still want you to love me too and think more about that than about her." He added uncertainly, "Someday." Maybe right away was too much to ask for. But someday, his father ought to be able to do what he wanted.

Hirohiko cradled his son, awed. "That is a wonderful goal to work towards," he told Kankuro gently. "I shall endeavor to do it. Will you help me? If I seem to be staring out into space, will you talk to me? Get my attention and tell me that everything's alright?"

Kankuro nodded, his eyes narrowing decisively. "I'll do it."

"And I will endeavor not to spend all of my days off looking at this photo album," Hirohiko said. He stroked his fingertips lightly over the cover of the album. He'd shut it and set it aside in order to keep Kankuro from being poked by its sharp edges. "These pictures are wonderful, and reminisces have their place. But it is not to be done every day when I could be spending time with my children."

Kankuro was suddenly so choked up he could hardly speak. He nodded. "Yes," he whispered. "Thank you for understanding."

Hirohiko clutched Kankuro to him, rubbed his son's back. "Yes. I do understand. I'll be here. From now on, I will strive to always be here. Not there." Not the past.