Bantam Eden

By: firefly

Note: Very slight AU. Written because there needs to be more Hidan and Ino fics. Not meant to be romantic or shippy in any sense because Hidan is a creepy bastard, not a pedophile. However, you may interpret as you see fit. Inspired by "Bitten by the Tail Fly" by Elbow.

As always, reviews are love.

Bantam Eden

Sunlight blazed across the unshaded footpath wedged between the stalls and stands peppering the market. Nearby, a jounin laughed at the antics of his genin team, momentarily meeting the gaze of the strange man leaning against the side of a stall who smiled languidly in return.

The jounin's gaze lingered for a moment, studying the appearance of the stranger, before he inclined his head in a greeting and continued on with his students.

Hidan narrowed his eyes into an amused squint, waving at the genins who looked curiously back in his direction.

The new, plain black cloak was a comfort in the sweltering weather, light against his frame as he stepped out of the shade and into the light, continuing aimlessly onwards. He'd crumpled his Akatsuki cloak into a ball and shoved it under the motel bed and stowed his scythe in the closet, no longer intending to abide by Kakuzu's ridiculous order to stay indoors.

A week spent in a heavily populated, peaceful village was not conducive to fulfilling the necessary rites for Jashin, a fact he could barely tolerate to begin with. The money-grubbing bastard had another thing coming if he assumed he could prevent the Jashinist from leaving the dirty little motel room for some fresh air.

Kakuzu had chosen Konoha as a rendezvous point for a meeting with his fellow corpse collectors, restricting his partner from travelling the village. The shinobi here were far more vigilant about strangers ever since the encounter with Itachi and Kisame, a fact that didn't slip Hidan's mind as he caught sight of another jounin and slipped back into the shade.

The street vendors hawked the regular wares: food, clothes, pots and pans, pirated movies, tea and ramen. He didn't stop at any of them, mind occupied with contemplating potential sacrifices as people strolled by. The restlessness lingered and he kept walking, heading nowhere in particular as the citizens of Konoha carried on, oblivious.

It was only when he'd crossed a corner that he finally came to a pause, tensing at the sight of a group of chuunin instructors exiting a pub. Jumping onto the roofs was too conspicuous and walking past them too risky. He cursed under his breath as they turned in his direction.

Without reading the sign on the shop ahead of him, he made his way to the door and pushed it open with his shoulder, keeping his gaze on the shinobi until he'd backed into the store.

He ignored the bell that rang over his head, watching the group intently until they'd disappeared from sight. Relieved, he turned around and stilled at the contents of the store.

Potted blooms and bouquets crowded every corner. The potent, intermingled perfumes of the various flowers saturated the air along with the heady odour of dirt, the smell almost overpowering. Wrinkling his nose slightly, he idly glanced around, noticing the front counter devoid of the owner.

Listless, he sauntered up to it, staring disinterestedly at the gardening equipment and books lining the shelves nearby. Grabbing a book, he flipped through it and settled on a random page.

An illustration of a hyacinth took up most of the page, leaving enough room for a small paragraph at the bottom describing the flowers as symbols of sincerity. Hidan made a short, disdainful noise in his throat and dropped the book back on the shelf.

"Stupid pansy shit," he muttered. "Whole fucking village is soft."

He turned his back to the counter, glancing at the clock on the far wall and considering heading back to the motel. As he took a step towards the door, a loud thump of a box hitting the floor resounded from behind him.

"Oh, hi," a girl's voice suddenly said, slightly out of breath. "Can I help you?"

Hidan turned around, stilling at the sight of the girl behind the counter.

She was young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, wearing a cheerful expression and an apron besmirched with dirt. Her fingertips were dark with soil, and her blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail with loose wisps endearingly framing her flushed face.

As she took in his appearance, surprised curiousity merged with the cheeriness in her expression, lasting for only a moment before she smiled again.

"I hope I didn't keep you waiting," she said sheepishly. "I was in the stock room."

As soon as he realized she harboured no suspicion, he returned the smile easily, brows knitting in mock displeasure.

"I was waiting. My family's gonna kick my ass for not getting the wreath in time for the funeral, seriously."

Her eyes immediately widened, an apology forming on her lips when he grinned.

"Kidding. Just got in, actually."

"Oh," she said, visibly relieved before fixing him with her own mock pout. "Don't scare me like that. My dad would kill me if that actually happened."

"'This your dad's shop, then?"

"Both my parents', actually. I just work here part-time." She paused, regarding him curiously. "Are you visiting Konoha?"

He glanced at her over his shoulder, idly toying with the sharp point of a spade. "How'd you guess?"

She gave him a smug look. "Everyone in the village has come here at least once. Where are you visiting from?"

"Here and there," he replied, watching her face for any change at the cryptic response.

She smirked, eyes crinkling slightly at the corners. "On a mission?"

"You can tell? I'm not even wearing a forehead protector."

"Takes a shinobi to know one."

He blinked at that and glanced at her once more. She was svelte in appearance, with well-kept hair and fingers still tender from lack of physical toil. But she had a knowing look in her eyes and it instantly occurred to him to watch his mouth. Warier, he simply turned up the charm.

"I'd never be able to tell, seriously."

She looked mildly offended. "Why not?"

He tossed her a charismatic grin. "Because it's a dirty job. Most don't come out of it looking that pretty."

Her eyes widened fractionally, a reaction she tried to control even as a light blush spread over her face. He took advantage of the moment, turning to face her.

"What's your name, by the way?"

"Ino," she said automatically, flattered by the attention.

"Ino," he repeated, giving into another slow smile. "I'm Hidan."

She returned the smile openly now, completely at ease as she rested her arms on the counter. "Nice to meet you, Hidan-san."

"Just Hidan," he said airily, waving a hand flippantly. "Don't bother with the formal bullshit. I don't."

She blinked before she suddenly realized she hadn't even begun to help him with what he was looking for.

"Ugh, I'm all over the place today." She straightened, dusting her hands. "What were you looking for, by the way?"

"Nothing in particular," he replied, glancing around the shop. "Only…"

She raised an eyebrow, leaning in curiously when he looked at her. On second glance, he found he was far more appreciative of the bright, lucid blue of her eyes and the silky, flaxen strands of hair curving near her cheekbones. He found himself staring at the smooth expanse of skin between the corners of her lips and lower lashes, momentarily forgetting what he wanted to say as his rosary chafed the still-healing wound beneath the cloak; it re-opened again, and at the sensation of blood sliding down his stomach, he pictured the red rivulet running over her creamy complexion, beautiful in its contrast against the blue and pale yellow.

"Red," he said aloud, realizing he'd been silent for nearly five seconds. "Something red."

She gave him a devious grin. "What, are you looking for something to give to a girl?"

He raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think that?"

"Red is the colour of romance, passion, and love," she replied teasingly. "Though I wouldn't recommend going for roses—they're so cliché."

"Nah, not roses," he conceded, gazing meditatively at that pristine spot near her lips again. "I'll know it when I see it. I sorta…need it to match something."

"Oh?" Her interest was piqued. "For a bouquet? What colours did you have in mind?"

"Blue," he answered unhesitatingly. "And yellow."

She looked thoughtful at the admission, tapping her chin as she gazed around at the array of flowers lining the store. "Hmm…those colors don't normally go together, but if you had the right shades…"

"That's the thing," he continued, playing along and feigning helplessness. "I can't find the right fucking red. Everything's too dark or too light. But what I've got in mind? It goes together. Trust me."

Her thoughtful look intensified and he found it to be an endearing look on her, watching her from the corner of his eye as she left the space behind the counter to examine a bucket of day lilies.

"I don't think this is right," she muttered, crouching before the blooms and scrutinizing them. "They have more of an orange tone than red. What do you think?"

"I think I oughta come back tomorrow."

Ino stood up, blinking in surprise when she found him staring at the clock, a hint of irritation visible in his gaze. "My partner is gonna shit a brick if I don't get back to the motel."

"In that case, we're open the same time tomorrow," Ino said, pleased that he meant to return. "Drop by later in the afternoon. We've got fewer customers then. In the mean time, I'll try to find the right flower for you."

"Thanks," he said, heading for the door. "I appreciate it, seriously."

"You're welcome. And, one more thing!"

Hidan paused as the bell jingled, arm holding the door slightly ajar as he glanced back at the front of the store. She looked hopeful.

"Anything you can use to describe the shade of yellow? If I know that, I think I can pin down the rest."

"I'm not really sure, but if I had to choose…" he paused, tone light and amiable. "I guess it'd be something like your hair."

The Falls nin was noticeably calm upon his return to the motel room, a fact Hidan attributed to a satisfactory settlement with the corpse dealers. Kakuzu strode by his partner's sprawled body, stepping over the puddle of blood and ignoring the contemptuous look Hidan threw his way.

"Got what you came for, huh? No wonder you're so damn calm."

"I get what I want," Kakuzu replied indifferently. "But don't consider this an excuse to pester me about leaving early."

Hidan didn't move his gaze from the ceiling, instead raising his arm and watching the blood drip down his forearm.

At the sight of it, the guileless face of the flower shop girl rose in his mind's eye, with her vivid eyes and unsullied skin, completely unsuspecting and unaware of what a lovely little sacrifice she made in his eyes, completely unaware of how he looked at her and thought, with a trace of wistfulness, what a pretty girl, what a perfect girl.

He liked to think Jashin would be inclined to agree.

"Don't worry," he finally said, dropping his arm. "I found something to keep me busy."

"You should've seen the guy that came in yesterday, Sakura."

The girl glanced up from the row of medicinal sprouts she was browsing. "Hm? Why?"

"He was really good-looking. Silver hair, violet eyes. Older than us, maybe twenty or twenty-one, and a real charmer despite the cursing. You should listen to him talk."

Sakura smiled teasingly. "You sure you're not making him up? I don't remember seeing anyone like that around here."

Ino smirked in return. "He's on a mission from another village. Wasn't wearing a forehead protector when he came in, so I have no idea where he's from."

"So what did he want here?"

"Red flowers. I think it's for a girl, but he didn't admit it." Ino shrugged, looking contemplative. "It was a weird combination; red with blue and light yellow."

"That is weird," Sakura agreed, coming up to the counter to pay for her selections. "Those colours don't normally go together, do they?"

"That's what I said," Ino said, ringing up the purchase. "But he's convinced that's what he wants, so I don't plan on giving up till I find the right flower."

"Let me know how it goes," Sakura said, taking her bag and waving. "See you later, Ino."

Ino waved back, waiting till Sakura had walked out the door before she headed back to the stock room to prepare her selections.

Sakura emerged into the bright sunlight, raising a hand to shield her eyes as she headed back towards the hospital. As she neared the turn, a figure in a black cloak caught her eye, emerging from behind the bend in the road and heading in the direction past her.

Hidan kept to the shade of the surrounding buildings, careful to keep discreet as people strode by, immersed in their own meanderings. As he neared the flower shop, he felt the unmistakable sensation of being watched, raising his head to glance in that direction.

A young, pink-haired girl slowly walked in the opposite direction past him, the surprised look on her face giving way to a peculiar expression of amused recognition. He tensed, considering what to do next, when she simply allowed herself a self-satisfied smile and continued onwards, her bag swinging by her side.

Nonplussed, he watched her turn the corner before continuing on to the store.

Ino glanced up when the bell jingled, a bright smile forming on her face when Hidan entered, gaze still trained on the lane behind him.

"Speak of the devil," she said, grinning when he looked at her. "I was just wondering about you."

At the sight of her, he stowed the strange encounter with the pink-haired girl to the back of his mind and gave a short wave, pleased at the genial greeting. It always gave him a bit of a thrill to realize the impact his smile and winsome features had on people, especially women, since the sight of both tended to instantly clear all forms of wariness.

She looked completely unguarded, a fact he could only attribute to the prolonged peace the village was privileged to. They'd grown far too complacent.

"Hey," he greeted, making his way up to the counter. "Hope I didn't keep you waiting."

"Not at all. You're right on time. I picked out a few things I think you might like, but I need your input."

She knelt beneath the counter and withdrew several small pots of variously shaded red flowers. He eyed the blooms amusedly as they were set down one by one, inwardly wondering how Kakuzu would react if he could see him now. It was easy to pretend he was interested and committed to this, he realized, gaze trailing after her as she ducked into the stock room for a moment. Kind of like a game.

Besides, the entire concept of finding the right flower was growing on him. Seeing the beauty in the dramatic contrasts of vermilion petals against the fair skin of her hands made him think it was an aesthetic even Jashin could appreciate.

"There," Ino said breathlessly, placing the last one on the counter. "What do you think?"

With a look of deliberate concentration, he looked at each of the blooms.

Alstroemeria, ranunculus, nasturtium, camellias and zinnias clustered together in an intense array of scarlets and carmines, and as he examined each individual blossom, Ino was puzzled to notice that he glanced back up at her face each time before moving onto the next one.

"You know," he said after a while. "I don't wanna sound picky or anything…"

Ino waved her hands, eyes widening. "No, no, please tell me if you don't think they're right."

"It's the shade thing again." He lifted up one of the flowers, fingers encircling the stem as he eyed the petals critically. "Either they're too dark or too light."

Her brow furrowed in thought, and it amused him greatly to see her thinking so hard about this as she scrutinized the blossoms.

"Could you compare the shade to anything?" she asked.

He paused to consider the question, and as he set the flower back down, he felt a sharp prick. When he raised his hand, a drop of blood glistened at the top of his right ring finger. Ino immediately grew abashed, flustering at the sight of it.

"I'm sorry, I should've warned you," she said apologetically. "Those ones have really sharp thorns."

"No big deal," he said, staring at the red spot. "I've had worse."

As he lifted his finger to his mouth, her eyes widened and she nearly leapt across the counter, reaching over it with both hands to grab his wrist. At his bemused glance, she grimaced apologetically.

"You shouldn't do that. There's a toxin in the thorns, so it could make you sick. Let me take care of it."

He would have laughed if she'd had any idea how unlikely that was, but merely complied and let her rest his arm on the counter as she rummaged through some drawers for a band aid and cleaning solution. As she placed the items on the counter and dipped a cotton swab in the cleaner, he slowly spoke.

"It's this colour."

She looked up, confused by the comment until he gestured to the small spot of blood. An odd look settled into her features and for a moment he wondered if the comment had thrown her off.

"That's…unusual," she said at last, looking up at him. "But I think it's doable."

She gently took hold of his finger, leaning down to clean the prick. "Why that colour, if you don't mind me asking?"

A few strands of blonde hair escaped the lock tucked behind her ear, brushing the backs of his knuckles. He stared at her bowed head, at her tender little fingers encircling his—as if he was made of glass, at the startling sight of blood blooming through the cotton, so close to the fair skin of her face.

His throat suddenly felt very tight, heart clenching at the sudden desire to see the red spread across the smooth, flawless span between her lips and lower lashes.

She carefully aligned the band aid with the prick before applying the adhesive ends to his finger. Another dark spot of blood eventually became visible through the translucent skin of the band aid. She sighed in self-reproach and shook her head, releasing his hand.

"Sorry about that," she repeated with sincere contrition, raising her head, only to pause at the sight of his expression. He looked distracted by something, violet eyes fixed on the spot of blood visible through the band aid. Just as she was about to ask if something was wrong, she caught sight of the rosary that had slipped through the opening in the cloak when he'd leaned forward.

"That's really pretty."

He blinked, startled from his reverie at the sound of her admiring tone. He looked at her, finding her gazing appreciatively at the pendant of his rosary as it dangled in the space between them. Unthinkingly, she automatically reached out and took the pendant in her fingers, tracing the lines of the symbol.

"Is it silver?" she asked.

The tightness in his chest doubled in keenness at the sight of her intrigued expression, at the sight of her eyes reflecting the light of the glinting pendant, and all at once he was overcome with the faultless vision of her draped over the seal with a pool of red blooming beneath her, the colour complimenting the lucid blue and yellow silk, glistening vividly in that space between eyes and lips. And his god, his god praising him, sated despite the lack of previous sacrifices, replete because—dear god—what a pretty girl. What a perfect girl.

"I don't know," he found himself saying, voice smothered. "Maybe."

She made an interested sound in her throat. The clench dissolved into an ache when he realized he couldn't do anything, barred from seizing this perfect opportunity to please Jashin by a thing as flimsy and fucking stupid as protocol. He almost felt compelled to seize his chance anyway, barely reigning in the urge as his nails dug into his palm.

"This is a rosary, right?"

He forced himself to relax, voice returning to its casual lilt.

"Yeah. Is that surprising?"

"Kind of," she admitted with a teasing smirk. "I wouldn't have pegged you as the religious type."

He mirrored the indignation she'd shown when questioned of her shinobi status the day before.

"Why not?"

"Because priests are usually old with no sense of humour."

He merely snickered at the remark, watching her examine the pendant a little longer before she dropped it, straightening to stand. Her expression changed to a meditative one once more as she looked down at the flowers he'd declined.

"The girl you're getting this for must really be something for you to go through all this trouble."

He raised an eyebrow. "There is no girl."

Ino blinked, perplexed. Then her eyes widened suddenly, realization dawning on her when she glanced back at his rosary.

She slapped a hand to her forehead. "Oh my God, is it for a religious thing? I've been going in the completely wrong freakin' direction!"

"Sort of," he admitted, grinning at her reaction. "Maybe I should've mentioned that earlier."

"It's my fault," she muttered. "I assumed they were for a girl."

Behind the counter, his fingers curled inwards and the prick stung poignantly. "It could go either way."

"In that case…" she tapped her chin, then suddenly turned towards a shelf above the register. A well-worn book dropped onto the counter with a heavy thunk and she pushed it towards him.

"This is a catalogue of every flower species in Konoha," she explained. "Honestly, it's not something to be proud of when I can't find what you want myself, but…" she shrugged helplessly. "I'm stumped."

Playing along, he took the book and leaned back against the wall, perusing it as she carried the red flowers back into the stock room. It didn't really matter what flower it was, he thought, flipping through the pages, so long as it gave him an excuse to stay, which was a paradox in itself. He was only making it harder on himself the longer he looked at her, barely able to resist begetting what he really wanted.

The frustration was painful, but then he'd always been a bit of a masochist, finding the sensation of delayed gratification more addictive than actual fulfillment. And she was such a sweet, oblivious little thing, a perfect candidate for what could have been an easy lure and capture, factors that made her all the more desirable.

As he neared the end of the book, a sudden flash of red in the illustrations caught his eye. He flipped back a few pages, finally settling on an image of dark, scarlet blooms with orange coronas. It was with droll sentiment that he realized he was actually curious about what they symbolized.

"Find anything?"

He lowered the book, finding her back behind the counter with an expectant look on her face.

"These." He said, handing her the book.

"Scarlet milkweed?" she said, visibly taken aback. "It's such a common flower. You can find it all over the forest."

"It's the right colour," he said, watching her with a smirk. "Isn't it?"

"I guess," she admitted, cocking her head at the picture. "Are you sure this is it?"

"Unless you've got a better suggestion."

"Don't get me wrong, it's a nice flower, but it's completely off the mark when it comes to symbols."

At his questioning glance, she tapped her book of flower meanings.

"Scarlet milkweed symbolizes deceit."

He almost burst out laughing, masking it at the very last moment by coughing into his sleeve. The irony was fucking ridiculous. It made him wonder if Jashin-sama was playing with him. After taking a moment to reign in the laughter, he reached across the counter and pushed the book of meanings away.

"We don't have to go by the book, do we?"

"Well, no. It's not necessary or anything."

"Good," he said simply, dropping his arm back to his side. "Then we won't."

She nodded, but then looked mildly apologetic, subconsciously twirling a loose wisp of hair around her finger. "It's almost closing time, so I hope you'll be around until tomorrow. I'll have to go pick them for you first thing in the morning."

"No problem," he said breezily, waving a hand. "I'll be here until tomorrow night."

"I can tell you're pretty devoted to getting it, so I'll try my best," she promised, resting her chin in her hands as she watched him head towards the door. "It's a shame you're leaving so early, but I guess it can't be helped."

He stopped, glancing over his shoulder. "Why's that?"

She laughed self-deprecatingly. "I'm kind of a perfectionist when it comes to this stuff. I wish I had more time to find the accents you wanted for the milkweed."

"Don't worry about it," he said, a slow smile flitting across his face as he opened the door. "I'm sure you've got them around here somewhere."

The door opened some time after 1 AM, allowing a dim, sallow light to bleed across the grimy carpet before it closed again with a click.

Hidan, still awake, did not acknowledge his partner as the Falls nin set down his briefcase and removed his disguise.

"We leave tomorrow night," Kakuzu said after a long period of silence, his bed creaking beneath his weight. "I hope it isn't too presumptuous of me to assume you didn't do anything to get us caught."

"Fuck you," Hidan replied bluntly.

There was a moment of silence. As Hidan continued to stare at the ceiling, it suddenly occurred to him that his right hand was in plain sight, along with the band aid wrapped around his ring finger. He didn't bother concealing it, well aware Kakuzu had already seen it.

"For once," Kakuzu finally said, voice low with warning. "I'd like to leave without incident."

"The feeling's mutual, asshole, so don't worry. Nothing's gonna happen."

There was another stretch of silence, and then the bed creaked again as Kakuzu reclined against the mattress. Hidan waited till his breathing slowed, then reached up to tug the band aid off his finger, letting it drop to the floor.

He put the tip of his finger in his mouth, drawing on it until the taste of copper settled on his tongue. Lifting it up, he looked at it; the fingertip glistened with blood in the pale moonlight filtering through the window, throbbing with a dull, stinging sensation.

He pictured her eyes widening at the sight of the wound, recalled her misplaced concern and apologies, wondered if she thought he was mad at her while he imagined how the blood would look smeared across her cheek, and smiled.

What a pretty, perfect, oblivious girl.

The blistering summer heat relented on his final day in the village, the majority of the sky blotted out by thick clusters of cloud. He welcomed the lack of sunlight, far more at ease in the considerably less crowded streets as people stayed indoors, wary of rain.

When he made it to the flower shop, he paused outside the entrance, idly wondering what he would do once inside. Feigning interest in small talk was easy enough, but he'd grown tired of it. It wouldn't be satisfying to leave on a boring, predictable note, and he decided to leave her with an impression she was sure to remember, even if he couldn't actually bring his aspirations about.

This time, Ino was at the counter when he walked in, taking notes on inventory. She glanced up at the bell, instantly breaking into a bright smile.

"You're in luck," she said in a sing-song voice, looking visibly pleased with herself. "Scarlet milkweed is in full bloom at this time of year, so the ones I got? They're prime stuff, even for common flowers."

"Hope it wasn't too much trouble," he said, taking notice of her slightly disheveled appearance.

She made a dismissive sound in her throat, waving a hand. "Please. Being a florist's a cake walk compared to being a chuunin."

He grinned. "So where is it?"

"Oh, in the stock room," she replied, gesturing over her shoulder. "But I still haven't gotten anything for the blue and yellow bits. I've got something in mind, but I guess you should see the milkweed first." She paused. "Do you mind coming into the stock room?"

He made a forward gesture. "Lead the way."

She headed inside and pulled the light chain when he entered after her, shifting a few boxes out of the way as he spared a glance at the endless array of blossoms and buds. Something resembling an enlarged incubator hummed in the corner, casting a pale yellow glow over tender, unopened buds. There were no windows in the room and the walls were bare concrete, dim beneath the lambent glow of the naked bulb.

"They're right over here," she called, beckoning to him from the far end of the room. He recognized the blooms as the exact ones in the book before he even made it to where she was standing, a slow smirk spreading across his face as she proudly presented them in a makeshift bouquet.

"These are it," he said, not missing the pleased grin on her face as he took it from her. "Thanks."

"I've gotta say, you were the first person to request milkweed, of all things," she added, watching him feel a petal between his thumb and forefinger. "What did you want them to symbolize, anyway?"

"You wanna know?"

"Can't help being curious."

He fiddled with his rosary before letting it drop back against the cloak. "Consecration."

Ino blinked, surprised. "Oh. Wow." She paused. "I don't think I've ever come across a flower symbolizing that, actually."

"That's a damn shame, seriously."

She looked at the bouquet contemplatively before gazing around the room. "Well, now I just have to find the accents and you're set."

"You don't have to."

Ino threw him a disbelieving look over her shoulder as she browsed through a tray of buttercups. "No way, I have to find them now. You shouldn't have to compromise."

He took a step forward. "I'm not."

She straightened, turning around to protest until she took notice of his proximity. Momentarily silent, she took an almost imperceptible step backwards, visibly bewildered. "But you said you wanted blue and yellow."

His voice was mild. "You've already got them."

There was a moment of pause. She took another step back when he moved one forward, and her back met with the wall. Her expression gradually changed from surprise to an endearing mix between uncertainty and disconcertment; it was not quite fear, because he hadn't yet given her any reason to be afraid.

Her fingers curled around the metal frame of the shelf next to her. A chuunin was no cause for concern, but she was fully capable of defending herself if the need arose, so he made it a point to try to put her at ease. Which was difficult, he thought inwardly, as her defensive stance sent a predatory thrill of excitement running down his spine.

"Relax," he said, watching her for changes in tenseness. "I just wanna check something."

"Check what?" she asked, voice noticeably quieter, though she relaxed minutely.

His face was guileless as he gestured to the red flowers in his hand. "To see if it matches."

"Matches what?"

"You," he said simply.

She stared at him, visibly lost for words, but gradually the uncertainty left her gaze and she relaxed her grip slightly on the metal frame. Eventually she spoke, sounding genuinely confused. "Why?"

"Because," he said slowly, shifting the bouquet till his free hand hovered over the petals. "This is the closest I can get to the real thing."

Her brow furrowed in bewilderment, morphing to surprise as he began to pluck the orange coronas off the small blooms, letting them rain over their feet.

Ino felt a peculiar sensation in her chest as she watched him do this, heart pounding almost painfully at his intense focus on the blooms. Despite her uncertainty, curious anticipation overtook her concerns, prompting her to relinquish her grip on the shelf. What he was doing was exceptionally bizarre, but harmless, and by the time he was done, the concrete floor was covered in the orange petals.

"This is a really shitty substitute," he continued calmly, browsing through the cluster of milkweed for a choice stem. "But it's better than nothing."

"Substitute for what?" she asked, pulse racing.

He smiled to himself but didn't look up. "For consecration."

Ino began to wonder if he was mildly insane, inwardly unsettled by the fact that she'd detected no inkling of anything out of the ordinary when she'd talked to him the previous two days. Grimly, she also began to recognize the irony in his choice for a flower known for symbolizing deceit, and inwardly, she was almost reluctant to believe it. In the dim light, he was devastatingly handsome, outwardly calm and purposeful, with a face that was far too angelic to suggest otherwise. To think he was anything besides charming and a little eccentric almost seemed…wrong.

A stem snapped and he withdrew a small cluster of the vibrant blooms. He looked at it appraisingly for a few moments before shifting his gaze to her. She stiffened visibly when he reached out, his hand hovering near the side of her head.

"Honestly, I don't really give a shit about flowers," he said languidly.

Goosebumps erupted across her skin as his fingertips descended on the band of her hair tie and gently tugged it through the long, messy ponytail draped over her chest, letting the hair fall back against her shoulder.

"Never thought of them as useful or anything like that."

The heat rose to her face and an uncontrollable shiver ran through her when he brushed the locks loose with his fingers.

"But I guess they come in handy," he said, mostly to himself. "Especially when the colour's right."

He said this with a lock of her hair between his fingers, and as she met his gaze with wide, blue eyes, understanding suddenly dawned on her.

Blue and yellow.

what I've got in mind? It goes together. Trust me.

I guess it'd be something like your hair.

You've already got them.

Knees suddenly weak, she found herself gripping the shelf again as he leaned forward, bracing one hand next to her head and bringing with him the stem of dark red blooms in the other, letting the petals settle against the flushed skin of her cheek. Something in his expression told her he liked what he saw, a slow smile lifting the corners of his lips as she remained motionless.

"Perfect," he said, looking at her in a way that made her feel like he was seeing something else entirely. "Matches perfectly."

She didn't speak, finding her throat tight and feeling her breath hitch at the sensation of the petals brushing downwards, drifting in a curve around her jaw and lips, lingering by the corner of her mouth before trailing upwards and skimming the flushed expanse beneath her lower lashes.

The only sound in the room was of the soft humming issuing from the incubation machine, interspersed erratically with her uneven breathing. Her shoulder blades chafed concrete through the material of her shirt, the sensation lost amidst the caress of petals on skin.

She wondered what he was seeing when he followed the path of the small blooms with a transfixed gaze, intent on accomplishing some secret objective that was utterly lost on her. Whatever it was, he was enthralled by it, and as her lips tried to form words, to ask what he was doing, he suddenly stopped and moved her hair aside to place the stem behind her ear.

A strange, satisfied yet wistful look settled on his face and she lowered her gaze long enough to see him clutch the pendant of his rosary, knuckles white.

"What shitty luck," he suddenly murmured. "That I can't give this to you."

It perturbed her when he spoke, seemingly to someone besides her as he gripped his rosary before letting it go. The beads clinked faintly as he reached up again, and a cold tingle coursed through her as the pad of his thumb smoothed a petal flat against her cheekbone.

He looked at her for an unbearably long time after that, soaking up the sight of her wide eyes and flushed face, the startling disparity between pale skin and red petals. As her uncertainty heightened, so did the undisguised pleasure in his eyes, coming to a peak when she reached up to remove the stem. He abruptly gripped her wrist before she could reach it, pressing forward till the wall pushed against her back and her hand shoved against his chest. The outline of the rosary was tangible against her palm.

"Keep it," he said next to her ear, the sound of his voice eliciting a shudder. "It's a good look for you."

Then he pulled back completely, the sudden withdrawal nearly making her knees give away. Ino gripped the shelf and stared at him, breathless with disbelief as he casually stooped and gathered the rest of the bouquet. She almost recoiled when he reached into his pocket and took her hand, pressing into her palm a ryou bill worth ten times the value of the scarlet milkweed.

"Thanks a lot for this," he said with a grin, waving the bouquet. "I think I'll hang on to it. Any tips to keep it fresh?"

"Burn the stems," she found herself saying, voice faint. "Then put them in lukewarm water."

He made a slow noise of admiration in his throat. "Gotta give you credit for being a sport and so fucking professional."

She merely stared at him, too shocked to speak.

His eyes narrowed into an amused squint and he gave a casual wave, turning his back to her and heading for the door.

"See you around."

She stared after him, unmoving even as she heard the front door close with a jingle and the store fell silent once more. Eventually, she straightened from her slouch against the wall, crushing the discarded orange coronas as she walked listlessly back into the shop.

Lifting her head, she caught her reflection in the mirror she kept next to the calendar. The milkweed stood out violently from the ashen skin of her cheek, resembling a fresh spurt of blood across her cheekbone.

The door suddenly jingled and her father entered, carrying a tray of begonias and catching sight of his daughter facing the mirror.

"Hey, honey," he greeted warmly, pausing momentarily to look at the new accessory tucked behind her ear. "Is that scarlet milkweed?"

When she mustered a nod without looking at him, he gave her an approving smile. "It looks lovely." He headed into the stockroom and a vaguely sick feeling swept over her as his voice carried out into the store.

"Who knew that colour would suit you so well."

If Kakuzu was nonplussed by the sight of his partner meeting him near the village entrance with a bouquet of red flowers, he didn't show it.

It troubled him to see Hidan with a constant smile lingering at the corners of his lips as they left and entered the forest, but he put the thought to the back of his mind an hour later when no one burst through the foliage to intercept them.

The Jashinist was content despite the fact he had six sacrifices he needed to compensate for.

It was difficult to decide what he'd liked more, he found himself wondering. The vision of the pretty, perfect corpse he imagined when he'd tucked the bloom behind her ear, or the actual look she'd given him once he'd pulled away. He didn't know whether to feel guilty for inwardly opting for the latter.

The scarlet milkweed rustled in the breeze and he tucked them into the crook of his arm, deciding he'd find an open flame and water jug as soon as he got the chance.

He had to admit, he'd grown rather fond of them.