If you ever ask him, Kankuro will say he doesn't remember the first time he laid eyes on his Sulfur Cosmos.

Which of course is only partially true. He dreamed about those legs, endless and exposed in an indigo garment that dared call itself a 'skirt', the milky splash of her thighs leading to that supple curve of ass, the arch of the small of her back—that body naked and bent beneath his hands—for months. But he doesn't remember her.

Desert flowers often adorn needle and barbed stalks, deceptively alluring. Beauty with a risk. In that way, he thinks she suits his landscape better. (After all, Comos are native to Suna. So maybe that's why she feels so familiar even the first time he plucks a delicate, blond petal.)

She would have just been a brat back then. An annoyance despite the long, pony-tailed cascade of hair. Despite the storm-sky eyes. But he must have met her at that time, during the first chuunin exam, because he remembers her teammate: the pineapple-haired, shadow punk who tricked his older sister during a match and in the process garnered her affection. (Which is impressive to say the least because he'd never seen Temari show affection for anything past the time she was eight so maybe it's more accurate to say he unwittingly sparked an interest that bloomed into a more delicate sort of feeling with time. It's true that she's grown considerably since then and seems to hold some kind of love-bond for him and Gaara. Probably, her painfully awkward relationship helped in that area—not that he's especially grateful or anything.)

He likes to pretend that he'd never been one to notice the weak, the insufficient—human fodder, which is why he doesn't bother to learn her name, never once asks Temari about her lover's teammate until nearly three years later when she arrives to provide aid to his withering village.

It's ironic, for a byproduct of the ruthlessness they'd been so proud of, the ways they'd embraced as a nation to have done them in. They've truly become the people of the blood sand in every sense of the word. If it didn't hurt to laugh so damn much he wouldn't have to cry.

She's still weak. She'd never make it growing up in a land like this, trying to survive the grit and heat and brutality, but she's here with her pink, lip-sticked smiles and I won't be outdone-s just the same except taller and somehow hotter than before and he doesn't know how to describe it except to say it feels a bit like a waking limb.

Or maybe that tingling is a residual effect of the poison. The one that nearly killed him, would have if not for a Konoha kunochi his brother nearly killed two years prior. A kunochi his brother would have killed if not for a certain blonde. And this blonde, this kunochi doesn't even recognize him in the hospital bed looking so bleach-skinned and feeble, face naked without his customary warpaint.

Her face is blank mask, a tight, schooled expression of professionalism as she caresses healing hands along the planes of his abdomen, the angle and jut of his hips. His nakedness is clinical. Does not affect her.

It's infuriating. And at the same time settles in him a sense of desolation. It's why he cringes onto his feet after she's left and forces his way down the stairs. Ignores the tremor to his hands. He's checking himself out, dammit; he'll show her—he's stronger than this. He's an elite, desert killer and not about to be overlooked by some gap-filler flower easily crumpled under foot. He'll screw her six ways from Sunday and have her begging for more before her mission's through.

He'll be her water in the vase.

Nearly three hours of sweltering and waiting and cursing and waiting later, she steps out of the dilapidated hospital (Suna has long concentrated its efforts on methods of severing skin from bone—breaking bodies not mending them) into the early evening air.

She glides right past him where he leans against the wall for support (but in what's meant to look like an intimidating pose, arms crossed over chest) and he has to call after her, "Hey, wench, obliviousness like that'll get you killed around here."

Her hair whips around as she bodily turns to face him, clutching a set of files to her chest and her eyes widen at the recognition. "You!"

He waits for her to say more, scowls beneath the sweat-smudged face paint and pulls his cat-eared hood lower to shield his eyes. It's embarrassing that he's gone to such efforts, he doesn't really understand it himself—really this goes beyond the motivation for wanting to get laid or even the backlash from the wound to his pride, but he's a little happy that she's recognized him after having gone home to change.

When she doesn't elaborate he pushes off the wall with a gruff, "That all you have to say?"

She shrugs, looking bored, and the setting sun kisses the ground beneath her feet. Wayward rays touch a golden luster across the top of her bared shoulders, distracting.

"It's been a long day," she answers, flatly. "I was going to look for my teammates."

Her words are dismissive, but those hazy, blue eyes are roaming the length of him, noticing the subtle jut of his concealed weapons, his over-sized scrolls, settling on the broad line of his shoulders.

"Che, don't just go walking around without an escort."

The words are out before he can stop them. Before he can even think better of them, but his voice sounds nonchalant enough as he closes the distance between them, and he pretends that she doesn't tense for the barest of moments before she peers up into his face, the corners of her lips curving into the beginning of a grin.

"Sure," she humors him. "You happen to know where either the largest steak buffet or Temari might be?"

It's easy to find excuses to hang around her after that. And when it comes to feigning ignorance or innocence, Ino's the best.

Dinner, the hospital, meetings, anytime he isn't on duty he's by her side. Temari only sometimes shoots him knowing looks but thankfully keeps her abrasive mouth shut.

Yet even though it's been nearly a week, he feels as if he hasn't made any progress at all.

The team from Konoha'll be leaving in a couple days; he's out of time. It makes the barbecued meat sit heavy on his stomach. The alcohol bitter in the back of his throat.

"Why're you chasing after Gaara?" he demands with a huff when what he really wants ask is, Why my baby brother? It feels so unfair that she'd go for the one man from whom he won't try to steal her away. Or rather the one person he can't beat the shit out of for getting in his way. It's painfully obvious and the reason he's been holding himself back since he realized her intentions that second day.

She sets down her chopsticks, delicately, with perfectly manicured nails. Takes a shallow sip of sake. Explains wistfully, "Can you imagine the look on Billboard-brow's face when I tell her I snagged the Kazekage?"

The dark gleam to her eyes is enough to make him hot under his face paint. Only he doesn't want to imagine that with him. His with him. "What the hell are you babbling about, wench?"

"Does it bother you?" she snaps. "Do you feel protective of him? Did you think I wasn't that kind of person?" He doesn't answer, just averts his gaze, and she continues, haughtily, voice growing louder to the point that patrons turn to stare. "Well you're wrong. I'm the worst kind of girl. I'll do anything to get what I deserve."

He knows she's lying. She puts on a pretty show but he's seen through her defenses long ago.

"Yeah." The word hangs in the space between them, tensile. "It bothers me."

For all the wrong reasons. It bothers him because he can't argue with it. He can't say she doesn't deserve him (and God knows Gaara deserves someone in his life) even if he wants to quip and what the fuck about me?

She's following him home, and he doesn't know why, but he hasn't stopped her even though they haven't spoken since the conversation died over dinner.

She's feigning tipsy, leaning on him with her arm hooked through his, and he doesn't pull away. But he isn't sure she's not just toying with him out of spite. Maybe he deserves it, but mostly he just likes the way she fits perfectly against his side.

Inside, she helps herself to another drink while he undresses. He strips the purple warpaint from his face in front of the kitchen sink using water hot enough to scald but the heat beneath his skin stems entirely from the look she gives him as his features are finally revealed. She's watching his motions intently, gaze weighty with want and unspoken implications.

"I'm just using you to get to your brother," she breathes as he knocks her back against the fridge hard enough to bruise.

And he knows, it's her own broken way of admitting her feelings. She doesn't have to tell him I like you, but I'm leaving in a couple days because he understands. And because she's touching him in the way he's wanted her to for years.

He lifts her higher around his hips, hands gripping the underside of her thighs. "It's okay," he grunts. "I'll come visit you."

She rolls her eyes to the side and, once again locking gazes with him, offers a knowing smile.