The Old Years

Kankuro sat cross-legged on the sun-baked stone, the residual heat making the stone warm even though his alcove had been in the shade for the past two hours, since the sun shifted in the afternoon. This was mostly where he went these days. He would come out here, where the flat, sandy land was a stage, and write his plays.

At nineteen he was already considered a playwright. He'd written numerous plays about the war, all of them successes, some of them about Gaara, dramatizing Godaime Kazekage's struggles, his friendship with Naruto, their mutual defeat of enemies like the last members of the Uchiha clan and the members of Akatsuki. It was good material.

Today he was thinking of writing something a little earlier, maybe equal parts fiction and reality. He flicked his wrists, his puppets acting out what only he could see.

He hadn't missed that Baki had approached on the rocky hillside behind him, watching him.

Still, Sanshuo played Sasori, attempting to kidnap Gaara, and Kurasu played him, as his first puppet always had. They fought, reenacting, but also giving Kankuro some of the satisfaction of wish fulfillment. This Kankuro, here and now, against Sasori back then. What a battle that would have been. They fought over one of Kankuro's newer, slender puppets, playing Gaara for the moment.

Baki landed beside him, jumping down silently. "You still feel guilty about that, don't you?"

Kankuro didn't pause in his private production. He could handle everything with one hand now, with hardly a thought. "Well, yeah. I do. If it hadn't been for me, Gaara wouldn't have died. I know everyone says it was for the best now, but I don't agree. Gaara had Shukaku under control. There was no reason to think Shukaku still needed removal from the village. And Gaara died. I mean, how could that not be bad? And Chiyo-baa died too. That has to be bad. We could have really used her help."

"But you can't blame yourself," Baki said.

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I can," Kankuro said mildly. "I do, every day."

"I know," Baki said. He sat down beside Kankuro and laid a warm, strong hand on Kankuro's shoulder.

Kankuro paused, his puppets faltering. Then, with a flex of his fingers, Kurasu defeated Sasori and picked up Gaara, all the while cloaked in the genjutsu of Kankuro's old fighting uniform. "Here, I can make it better," Kankuro whispered.

"You could make it better in real life if you just tell Gaara how you feel," Baki said.

Kankuro stopped again, his fingers frozen halfway through the next gesture. Kurasu cupped the other puppet's cheek. The ghostly image stood still, paralyzed along with him. Three years ago, a lifetime ago. That Kankuro and that Gaara were dead. Moved on. They'd become other people, older people.

"I can't," Kankuro whispered.

Baki took Kankuro's hand, and the puppets bowed, sagging as their chakra strings went slack. "You can tell him."

Kankuro knew that was a vow of support. This period in time haunted Baki too. Baki would never let him do anything dangerous alone. He twitched a finger, bringing in another new puppet, taller and bulkier. He sculpted the clothes into a likeness of a jonin, wearing a veil.

Together, they went home.