Wednesdays like this were absolutely the worst. Autumn was bad enough, what with the summer annuals dying out and the steady tedium that came with arranging another bouquet of mums, but add on the low traffic of the midweek, and you had a recipe for zero customers. Which wasn’t awful usually, it meant less work technically, but when a social butterfly like Ino was behind the counter, silent, autumnal shifts were a Sisyphean hell. Taking out a brick of floral foam, Ino walked to the back room of the store to soak it, a mindless task that will kill seconds at most. However, when the muted chime of the store’s bell signaled the arrival of a customer, Ino tossed the foam to the floor and skipped out of the back room, a lilted greeting spilling from her mouth before even rounding the corner.
“Hi! Welcome to the Yamanaka Flower Shop, are you looking for anything special?” She was smiling so hard her eyes were closed, which meant she couldn’t recognize the customer until hearing his voice.
“Yes. I think I am.”
Hm. Gruff. Quiet. Breathy. Hints of awkwardness lurking beneath the deadpan…
Ino knew who that was!
Her eyes shot open, and she threw her hands into the air. “Lord Kazekage! What a wonderful surprise!”
And indeed it was – for several reasons. First, dealing with someone she knew was always better for Ino than dealing with a stranger. She was charismatic as hell, but she had a knack for suckering her friends into better, more expensive packages. On top of that, having any customer was a respite from respite at this point, and a high end customer like the Kazekage would probably make up for the dearth of other shoppers. After all, Kages had to be rolling in dough, right? And Gaara was from a dynasty, so that was even more money!
Ino smiled politely at the Cashykage… er, Kazepayday –
“A wonderful surprise for me as well,” the Kazecheckbook replied with what Ino could assume was a smile. Hard to tell given his face had all the expression of a porcelain doll – and the complexion to match. “I knew your family owned a flower shop in the village, but I didn’t think I’d be fortunate enough to deal with you specifically.”
At this, Ino folded her hands above her heart. “How flattering for the Kazekage to remember little details about me!” She doted earnestly. “If you’re trying to charm your way into a discount, it’s working.”
Gaara breathed a bit harder through his nose – a laugh, Ino hoped. “Don’t worry, I won’t leverage our friendship. And I wouldn’t even know where to begin when it comes to charm.” An errant pansy caught his attention as he spoke, drawing his pale fingers to toy with the gossamer petals like a siren to a sailor. Seeing Gaara interact with the flora reminded Ino that this was, unfortunately, not a social visit.
“So, what brings you to our village, let alone our flower shop? Nothing crazy going on is there? Another war? Change of leadership? Marriage?” Ino found it almost effortless to pry while conducting business, while the target of her prodding was thrown off kilter by the attention.
“A simple meeting with the Hokage is all. No wars or resignations on the horizon. And no marriages either, at least that’s been the consensus whenever I’m updated.”
Aha. Ino got exactly what she wanted.
“Whenever you’re updated, huh? So that means you’ve been discussing it. Whose marriage? Yours? Kankuro’s? What am I saying, if anything it’s time for Temari to pop the question. And I say Temari because obviously she’ll be the one to do it. I mean, it’s gotta be her and Shikamaru. You’re single, according to the latest gossip, and no offense but your brother and Kiba are cut from the same cloth; I don’t think they could even spell marriage. Though with Kiba that’s more of an intelligence issue than it is a commitment issue.” The blonde leaned forward on the counter, grinning at the Kazekage. “Did you know he once asked me how to spell mustard? He didn’t know which vowel was the right one, and he wasn’t asking about the ‘a.’”
She leaned back, the proxemic equivalent of a mic drop to which Gaara could only react with stupefied unease. Social interactions were a challenge for him to begin with, and talking to Ino was like setting the difficulty to Expert.
He chanced a response. “I see.” Even though he didn’t. “Remind me not to request him for any condiment related missions. The debrief would be rife with misspellings…” The trailing off of his voice was a symptom of awkwardness, but it succeeded as an invitation for Ino to laugh.
“Oh, please. Don’t even bother saying ‘condiment’ in front of him, he’s immature enough to find the word hysterical.” The counter briefly blocked Ino from Gaara’s view as she squatted down, popping back up with an elegant vase in one hand and a handful of baby’s-breaths in the other. “So what’s Temari’s favorite color? If we’re sending them an engagement gift, I can promise you that Shikamaru cares nothing for flowers.”
A vase? Baby’s-breaths? Engagement? Shikamaru?
“Ino.” The Kazekage hadn’t had his thoughts fly this fast since the Shukaku had free reign. “Temari and Shikamaru are not engaged. As I told you, there is no special occasion for this visit. A simple meeting to discuss the odds and ends of our villages after the war is all this is.”
The words were like beige paint and khakis to Ino, who tossed the baby’s-breaths to the counter unceremoniously – they had buckets full of them. The vase, however, she was careful to set on the ground beside her.
“What do you need flowers for, then?” A funeral would be the next best option in terms of drama, but Ino kept those thoughts to herself.
Too preoccupied with theorizing why the Kazekage would enter her little shop, Ino missed the faint bashfulness in his face before he composed himself to answer. “I have an interest in gardening and agriculture. I was thinking of picking up something for my office.”
Ino raised a questioning brow, which dissolved into a smirk like a lynx.
This was much better than a funeral.
“You like gardening?”
It was a line of questioning Gaara was accustomed to, and so he began going through the script that having such a hobby necessitated.
“Growing up in the desert, I think most people are fascinated by flora. You almost must consider my upbringing –”
“That’s so cute!” Ino adlibbed, derailing Gaara’s script entirely. “So you just came by to look at flowers for yourself?”
The warmth of her smile invited a response, but years of embarrassment taught Gaara to proceed with… trepidation. “…Yes…” He trepidated. “Perhaps I could even inquire your opinion on what flowers would thrive in Suna.”
Despite the lack of a joke in Gaara’s reply, Ino was tilting her head back and borderline cackling. When the fit subsided, she looked back at the Kazekage, wiping a tear from her eye. Whether it was a genuine gesture or pantomimed dramatics, Gaara couldn’t say.
“Oh, Gaara.” There was still an abundance of mirth in her voice. “Anyone in the village will tell you: you never have to inquire for my opinion.”
Somehow, Gaara was sure that was true.
Ino continued, a sterner expression taking over her features. “Anyway, you plan on bringing this arrangement back to Suna, right?” Well, Gaara had mentioned purchasing a flower, but he nodded anyway. “So this arrangement,” Ino reiterated, “is probably gonna be a lot of foliage plants. I’d suggest succulents, but you know how those are.” She said it like she was talking about an old, mutual friend, so Gaara was all the more surprised that, yes, he did know how those are.
In lieu of giving Gaara a verbal catalog, Ino maneuvered out from behind the counter, inviting Gaara to follow her with the wag of a finger.
“Now, I’m not sure what exactly you already have in your office, so if we start with a neutral base, when we add the actual flowers they’ll be more of an accent than a focal point, so it won't clash with any other plants.” She moved to another corner of the store, Gaara following like a child gripping his mom’s skirt so he doesn’t lose her in a crowd. “What’s your longest season?” Ino whirled around to snap out the question.
Gaara paused to consider. “We have long –”
“Actually, it doesn’t matter.” Ino whirled right back around. “Because…” she dragged the word as she flounced to a mass of green. “This is candytuft.”
Gaara, well versed in plant life, resisted the urge to tell her ‘obviously,’ and instead let her continue.
“I promise it’s more than just this greenery, it’s just that it blooms in spring. But, when it isn’t in bloom, you’ll still have the leaves. Plus, you see how there’s a bit of height to the stalks? Well, these haven’t fully come in yet, but this particular candytuft blooms a second time in the fall.”
Now that Gaara didn’t know.
“If you want something a bit more zesty,” Ino continued her pitch, “I can get you some perennial geranium too, because those last until winter sometimes.”
Gaara narrowed his eyes at Ino while the corner of his mouth tugged maybe a centimeter upwards, the most movement Ino had seen from his face in… her lifetime.
“A perennial geranium surviving until winter?” Another nose exhale. “Let’s not talk absurd, Ino.”
Whatever reply Ino had was interrupted by the bell above the door, and the subsequent ‘hello’ of another customer. He was a young enough guy, still older than Gaara, though that wasn’t difficult to accomplish. His eyes darted between the flowers on display before they landed on Gaara, which is when they widened to the size of gongs.
“Lord Kazekage!” The customer choked out. “It’s an honor to meet you. I – I hope I’m not interrupting!”
Gaara merely shook his head “It’s quite alright. This is a social visit for me, so you may shop as you please.”
The man didn’t seem convinced, but whatever rush he was in outweighed his etiquette. “Right, well… thank you.” He approached the counter, which Gaara hadn’t noticed Ino retreat behind. “I um… I need a bouquet.”
“You’re definitely in the right place!” Gaara noticed Ino’s smile was just a bit more forced than it had been when she greeted him, and he took immense pride in that difference. “What’s the occasion?”
“The occasion… uh, let's see...” It wasn’t a difficult question, but you’d think the man was trying to find the end to pi. “It’s… I don’t know. I need something pretty.”
“Sorry, sir, but I’m not for sale.” Ino’s laugh swept the room like the perfume of flowers, and was Gaara more romantically inclined he may have been susceptible to developing a crush. “But seriously,” Ino continued, “do you have anything more to work with? A favorite color, maybe?” The forced upward shift at the end of her sentence was suspicious to Gaara, but the other man didn’t comment on it.
Instead, he snapped back “Yellow!” like he’d just won bingo.
“Yellow. Mhm.” Ino seemed to savor in the sound of her m’s, another sign to Gaara that this transaction had an undercurrent to which only Ino was privy. “Well, we have some premade arrangements outside, and one of them has some touches of yellow in it. They’re 500 ryo each, so if you just pay here I’ll trust you to take one without bringing it back in for me to check.”
“Thanks, that’s perfect.” The man fumbled for ryo, placing it on the counter before scurrying out the door.
Ino, Gaara observed, was a terrific saleswoman. Personable, knowledgeable, and smart enough to use the man’s rush to get him to literally throw money at her. Gaara watched as the man snagged just one bouquet, bits of yellow peeking out from the wrappings, before he vanished into a crowd of people. When he was gone from view, there was a loud sigh from behind Gaara, who turned to see Ino rolling her eyes.
“Really, how tacky.”
Tacky? Was the man a bit curt? Maybe, but tacky seemed far off. Gaara was missing something. Something social, and that was always enough to snag his interest.
This was a teachable moment, he told himself.
“Tacky?” He repeated his question, this time out loud. “How so?”
Ino smiled like a cat at a barrel of fish. “Well, I don’t know that guy personally, but I know about him. His wife, Emiko, works at the restaurant that Sakura and I go to every second Thursday of the month to catch up. It’s really nice, they have this udon dish with low sodium soy sauce, but it doesn’t have that gross, healthy aftertaste. Plus it’s half priced appetizers after 10pm on Fridays. Anyway.” She swatted away the tangent, and Gaara was grateful for the visual cue to pay attention again. “Emiko has worked there for as long as Sakura and I have been going, so we know a bit about her personal life through chatting, and one thing I know about her is that her husband, Jiro, has a scar in the shape of a 3 on his cheek from a mission in Kirigakure.”
Now that she mentioned it, Gaara had noticed something on the man’s cheek, but he thought it was just a trick of the light.
“So that was Jiro?”
Ino nodded with an accusatory ‘Mmhmmmm’ before continuing. “And now one time Emiko sat down with Sakura and I because she had time off for some family event and so we invited her to eat with us and she said yeah but she couldn’t stay the whole time because – well, it doesn’t really matter, but the point is she got drinks with us, right?” Gaara nodded without even thinking about it. “Well, she had a little bit too much to drink and starts spilling her guts about Jiro. Apparently,” Ino leaned in a bit closer, and Gaara, compelled by some cosmic power, leaned in as well. “Her and Jiro haven’t slept in the same bed for two. Whole. Years.” The kunoichi paused for dramatic effect, leaning back a bit to get a better view of Gaara’s reaction.
Of course, Gaara wasn’t the best audience when it came to appearing engaged, but whether or not people were interested never stopped Ino before, so she proceeded. “But that’s not all. Two years ago, Jiro asked for a divorce.”
Gaara was savvy enough to know that this was big information, and so he gave Ino a verbal ‘really?’ to let her know he was listening.
And… he suddenly wondered… why was he listening? However, Ino wouldn’t let him wonder for too long before picking up where she left off. “Emiko begged him to stay with her. Her exact words to Sakura and me were that she told him she could not continue life without him in it. Now, I don’t know what possessed him to do it, but he stayed, and obviously their marriage is still on the rocks because there really isn’t any recovering from that.”
“Would Emiko be upset to know you were telling all of this to the Kazekage?” Gaara suddenly chimed in, his moral compass pointing due ‘this seems wrong.’
Ino’s compass, however, was purely decorative. “Well she isn’t gonna find out, is she? Besides, maybe I can get your opinion on the situation, because as her friend, I don’t know how to proceed. I mean, I think she’s crazy for staying with him, but she’s really invested in their marriage so I can’t just tell her to end things, can I?”
Ah, so Ino was venting to get some advice. That made more sense to Gaara. “It is certainly a tough situation.” He began but never got to finish.
“And you don’t know the half of it!” Ino suckered him right back in. “Get this: a few months before Jiro asked for a divorce, Emiko found out he’d been seeing another woman for five months. Five. Months.”
Infidelity… Gaara had to consider how this would affect the advice he gave Ino.
“So this man has been cheating on her for almost half a year and she’s groveling at his feet, begging him to stay!”
An important thought crossed Gaara’s mind.
“Is this Jiro still in relations with the other woman?”
Of course, there wasn’t a simple answer to follow. “You’re not gonna believe this, Gaara. So Emiko said that she made Jiro break it off with the woman, but as Sakura and I are listening to this woman spill her guts she lets slip who the mistress is.” A pause, fit for a drumroll. “Homi Ebina.” Ino grabbed the end of her ponytail and lifted it up, presenting it to Gaara. “The girl that cuts my hair!”
Hm. Ino knew both women personally. This complicated things even further…
Gaara would simply have to listen to the rest of the story to find out what to tell Ino.
“You are close with Homi, then?”
“No, not really.” Ino finally got to putting the baby’s-breaths back under the counter. “She’s fairly new, but I have to go to her ‘cuz my old stylist retired. Homi’s good though, she never goes shorter than I want. Anyway…” the word was becoming a catchphrase forthe day. “I’m thinking ‘oh gosh I can’t let Emiko know that I know this girl her husband is cheating on her with.’ So Sakura and I comfort her and I keep my mouth shut and then the dinner fizzled out really.”
Finally, Gaara thought, I have all the information. I can give Ino my assessment of –
“And this is where things get complicated.”
THIS is where things get complicated?! Gaara had had enough socialization for a month! How was there more to this story!
“Emiko just got promoted to manager, and Sakura and I were congratulating her and asked her how she was gonna celebrate, and all she said was that she wanted to get dinner with her husband and that she hopes he buys her flowers.”
“Convenient for you.” It slipped out, really. Gaara didn’t even know he was thinking it, let alone saying it.
“I know right!” Ino persisted, unperturbed. “She knows I have a flower shop, so I was like, don’t worry, if he comes to buy you flowers, I’ll give him a discount.”
This no doubt brought them to present day, and then the end of the story. Gaara was sure of that.
“I see. It’s certainly a tricky situation.” It was a general sentiment, but it was really all Gaara was capable of. Socialization with Ino felt like a minefield of tangents, and no matter where he set his foot he was setting off some explosion of gossip.
“I know. It's so crazy, you probably think I’m making this all up.” Ino shook her head, but when her eyes fell on the clock above the door, she suddenly blanched. “Oh my gosh, Gaara! You totally have a meeting, don’t you?”
The Kazekage turned to check the clock as well, sighing as he realized it was getting late, but not late enough to worry. “Yes. Thank you for reminding me. I have about fifteen minutes, but I should be on my way, regardless.”
How unfortunate, Gaara thought, that I don’t have time to offer Ino my advice.
“Alright, well it was nice catching up with you.” It was sincere, and Gaara could somehow tell. “Want me to get you that bouquet we talked about?”
Oh right! Gaara had almost forgotten why he’d come here in the first place. But… he’d have to get it wrapped and then he couldn’t just bring it to the meeting…
“You can consider the order placed, but I’ll have to have Temari come by tomorrow to pick it up. Sorry for the trouble.”
“No trouble at all!” She scribbled away on a notepad. Gaara, genuinely in good spirits from the interaction, was still feeling generous.
“Ino, would you mind if I grabbed one of the bouquets from outside? I want to bring a gift to Lord Hokage.”
“That’s a great idea!” Ino obviously agreed. “Just leave the 500 ryo on the counter, I trust you won’t steal anything.” She sauntered into the back room with a laugh, and Gaara heard the sound of running water. He shoved his hands in his pockets, fishing for the money when a thought occurred to him.
“Yeah.” She replied, overestimating the sound of the faucet and yelling louder than she needed to.
“You said the bouquet is 500 ryo?”
Hm… well that didn’t add up.
“Jiro also purchased a premade bouquet, but he paid 500 ryo as well. I assumed you gave him a discount.” The water turned off, and Ino came into view, resting against the door frame. She grinned in reply, and for whatever reason, Gaara found his browns raising, and more words tumbling out of his traitorous mouth. “Well? Did he get the discount?”
“No. He. Did. Not.”
A shocking development if ever there was one.
“And your reason for not giving him the discount?” This time, he was the one to initiate the leaning in, which Ino mimicked eagerly.
“Because I told Emiko I’d give him the discount if he bought flowers for her. But…” Ino looked over Gaara’s shoulder, checking that the coast was clear. “Now, this is all speculation, so it stays between us, right?” Gaara nodded. “So, last week was my old stylist’s retirement party and naturally I was there, along with Homi and some other clients and stylists. We’re all drinking and having a good time, but I notice that Homi is just having water. Not too suspicious, but it’s weird; she’s a young girl, I assumed she’d be drinking. Later in the evening, Yachi, who owns the salon, gives everyone a glass of champagne and makes a toast, and I kept my eyes on Homi the whole time. When we all took our drinks, she poured hers out into the house plants.”
“Why would she do that?” And why was Gaara asking?
“I had a theory. And so, I help myself to the hors d’oeuvres and get a plate of crackers and soft cheese. That’s important. I go over to Homi and I’m like, ‘ugh I totally didn’t realize that this is brie, I can’t stand soft cheese. Do you want it instead?’ and she was like ‘no thanks, I don’t do soft cheese.’ Which like, I obviously said that for the sake of my plan, but who the fuck is genuinely like ‘oh I don’t like soft cheese?’”
Nobody. Gaara could think of nobody that was genuinely like ‘oh I don’t like soft cheese.’
“But I had to be extra sure.” Ino went on. “And so I’m talking with Homi and I say ‘hey, some girls and I are going to go to this new sushi place that opened up and you’re welcome to come.’ And, of course, she was like ‘I’m not a big sushi person.’ And I mean, if that doesn't prove my theory, I don't know what does.”
Gaara was… frankly he was speechless. This was Jonin levels of espionage, and Ino was doing it out of nosiness. It was a wonder she didn’t use her ninjutsu to drag more information out of anyone.
“To recap:” Ino snapped Gaara out of his bewilderment, “no alcohol, no soft cheese, and no raw fish. That has pregnancy written all over it.”
Gaara had to admit, it was rather damning evidence, but still…
“If I recall correctly… you said that Emiko told Jiro to end things with Homi. Do you think they’ve maintained their relationship behind Emiko’s back?”
If they were capable of doing it once, they could certainly do it again, but Gaara wanted Ino to confirm his suspicions.
And confirm them she did.
“Now again, I’m only speculating, so you didn’t hear any of this from me. But last time I got my hair cut, Homi was wearing this gorgeous dress. It had an A-line skirt to it with a sweetheart neckline, super cutesy. I mean, a little dressy for work, but she always does that. Anyway, I complimented her on it and she was like ‘thanks, I had to get it because it was the last one in this color, and this is my absolute favorite color.'” Here it was. The final piece of the puzzle falling into place. “Guess what color the dress was.”
Gaara leveled Ino with a deadpan stare, gazing at her with eyes that had seen countless lives snuffed out, most by his own hands. His voice was dark and brooding as he finally answered her.
The question permeated the air for a few moments, like a blanket of iron weighing on Gaara. If he was right about this, then…
“It was yellow.”
“And let me tell you:” Ino added, “Emiko’s favorite color is red. Yellow is not even her second favorite color.”
Well, there was no denying it now. Gaara closed his eyes and shook his head. Jiro got Homi pregnant after telling Emiko he was done seeing her, and now he was getting his baby mama flowers instead of congratulating his wife on her promotion. The absolute nerve. Gaara opened his eyes to find Ino matching his exhausted expression.
She read his mind. “I know, right?” And once again, her eyes zeroed in on the clock. “Dammit! I am so sorry, I keep distracting you! Go, go, go!” She came out from behind the counter to literally start pushing Gaara out the door. He shuffled along with the shoves, making it easier for Ino to move him. “You are going to be so late if you don’t leave now.” She got the door open and the Kazekage stepped outside, turning around to see Ino standing in the doorway. She pointed to his right. “Remember to get a bouquet and don’t even think about paying for it. It’s on the house.” Much like when he first entered the shop, Gaara was struck silent by the floral whirlwind that was Ino Yamanaka. She did a "shoo shoo" gesture with her hands, which was somehow effective in making Gaara move, and as he finally got the sense to grab some flowers and start walking, offering a friendly wave goodbye, he heard Ino call from behind him.
“And don’t worry! Tomorrow, I’ll have your order ready for Temari! She can come by whenever!”
Gaara couldn’t help but smile. He checked the bouquet he’d taken, finally inspecting it now that he had the calm and the time. His eyes fell on a bright yellow petunia, and he let out a heavy sigh.
The next day, Gaara was walking through the streets of Konoha alongside Temari. The two were discussing the events of yesterday’s meeting, Temari’s hands occupied with a to-go bowl of ramen while Gaara had his filled with the bouquet Temari picked up for him. It had what Gaara knew to be a generous amount of flowers in it, and Ino had even thrown in some seeds in case the bouquet didn’t make the trip. The gesture brought a smile to Gaara’s face, but it was interrupted when Temari nudged his shoulder and motioned with her head.
“Looks like you’re not the only one here with a thing for flowers.”
Gaara followed her gesture to a man walking by. The man, Gaara noticed with a scowl, had a scar the shape of the number 3 on his cheek, and when Gaara looked down he noticed the bouquet in his hands… the red bouquet. Gaara shook his head, and just couldn’t help himself.