When Uzumaki Naruto became Hokage at the age of twenty-five, the alliance between the Sand and the Leaf strengthened tenfold, and the citizens of both Hidden Villages couldn't be any happier. It boosted the economy, what with open trade between Konoha and Suna. But what really served as the strongest bond between the two villages were the Kazekage and the Hokage themselves.
That friendship was what led Yamanaka Ino to the predicament sitting in front of her right now.
Gaara blinked at her from across the table before averting his gaze from her face. He started examining something at the far wall behind Ino's right shoulder.
Sitting on one of the low wooden chairs arranged around the table of the meeting room of the Kazekage tower, Ino fingered the blank mission description files she had brought along with her, wanting nothing more than to have the floor open up and swallow her whole. Yes, she will kill Naruto after this. The Leaf will have to deal without a Hokage until they found a new one. The idiot Uzumaki, as much as Ino respected him, had sent her to Suna on a mission. Or rather, on a "personal favor", as Naruto had lovingly labelled it.
Oh, and hadn't that conversation gone pleasantly well ?
"A personal favor?" Ino said sceptically, raising an eyebrow at Naruto who was conveniently trying to act busy by flipping through the papers piled on his desk that had obviously accumulated because he had been slacking off.
"Yes, Ino. A personal favor. It's Gaara," Naruto said as he dug into the stack of folders to his left while grumbling something to himself. When it looked like he couldn't find what he was looking for, he took a deep breath and looked over to where Ino was standing impatiently before him. "He wanted a refined female representative who would be available for a month or so."
"Refined female representative?" If Naruto was thinking he could flatter her into submission, he had another thing coming.
Naruto, as usual being quite surprisingly sensitive to the feelings of the people around him, gestured at Ino. "I'm not kidding. That's what he requested."
Ino was not moved. "Send Hinata."
Naruto looked uneasy.
Ino narrowed her eyes at him. "You don't want her to go. You're letting your feelings – "
"She doesn't handle solo missions well. You know her as well as I do."
"Oh, that's such a convenient excuse not to send your girlfriend on a mission for ten days."
Naruto threw his hands up in the air. "That's not true! I just don't want to send anyone less. This is Suna. You've been there many times with Shikamaru. You're perfect for the job!"
Ino looked back at Naruto, warding away the migraine threatening to take over. After a few seconds, she decided that she might as well hear him out. "Fine. What's the job?"
Naruto's face lit up happily. "So you'll go?"
"I don't know. That depends. Is this a D-rank mission? Because I don't want to go on a C-rank or higher if you're sending me off alone for a month."
"Because C-rank missions and higher lasting over a week or more are really A-rank or S-rank missions in disguise. I've learned from experience." She sniffed in annoyance and glared at Naruto accusingly.
"I already apologized for that seven times, and your fingernails grew back eventually. Right?"
Ino's cheek muscles twitched.
Naruto swallowed. "I did! I even sent you flowers when you were in the hospital for two weeks!" When he saw she was not the least bit amused by his words, he sighed and gestured at her pleadingly. "Okay, okay. I'll tell you honestly, I couldn't rank the mission."
All the more suspicious. "And why ever can't you?" Ino hissed.
Naruto ducked his head pathetically. "Because Gaara didn't explain to me why he needed a refined female representative."
Ino turned on her heel and headed for the door. "Good bye."
"Wait!" Naruto screamed, and he was already out of his seat and blocking the door with his body desperately. "You can't walk away from me when we're in the middle of a mission briefing!"
Ino took a deep breath, an attempt to keep her temper at bay. She waited ten seconds before saying, "It isn't necessary to brief me on this mission because you don't even know what the mission is. I don't care. I'm not going. Now get out of my way."
"Look, he's willing to pay twice as much as we earn for one S. It means he's desperate. You can't turn your back on a desperate man, can you?"
Ino pursed her lips. It wasn't as if she was picky when it came to missions assigned to her, but she – as well as the rest of their batch – had been caught up in so many predicaments because Naruto always thought that they were like him, who was practically a human chakra generator with legs. Honestly, the man had a bad habit of underestimating missions and overestimating his subordinates. Because of this, their batch had, at each, an average of three and a half times nearly getting killed and barely escaping with their lives in the span of four years of Naruto's reign. Of course, everyone knew that Naruto was just too nice to say no to anyone who asked for their services. And Ino just couldn't put her foot down firmly when Naruto had dangled in front of her nose a week's worth paid leave if she said yes.
Ino snapped back into reality when she found Gaara yawning at her.
Ino blinked, deciding that she would have to ignore the fact that the Kazekage did not look the least bit desperate as Naruto had said he was.
Gaara yawned again, his dark-rimmed eyes closing slightly before he absentmindedly rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand. Finally, his eyes met hers.
Ino sat up straighter on her seat, then waited a few minutes, expecting for him to say something. His eyes always made her uncomfortable. For the past years, since Shikamaru had started taking quite an interest on the Kazekage's older sister, he had dragged her along many times to Suna. Gaara had ever since been a man of very little words. This did not mean, however, that he was rude to her. In fact, she had spent one time with him when he had asked her advice about the possibility of raising medical herbs in the desert. He had seldom talked, and when he did, it was only to ask a question. He had taken notes diligently, and although he did not contribute much on the conversation, Ino doubted he wasn't listening. There was always the interest in those green eyes of his, though Ino thought them to always be lacking of sleep.
When Ino had asked Naruto about Gaara's health, the Hokage had joked about his friend's sleeping habit.
"He seldom sleeps. A habit hard to break, even without the tailed beast. Bags. Under his eyes. Terrible."
Gaara lost interest in looking at Ino at some point and he started examining his fingernails. Ino took this opportunity to examine him more. Gaara had grown taller over the years, probably just as tall as Naruto, and that was saying a lot; Naruto had grown. The blood-red hair on top of his head was still the same disheveled mop with bits and pieces sticking up in many different directions. It was as if he had been pulling on it before he came to see her. She had feared this person a decade or so ago. He was just so… uncontrollable.
Ino frowned. It was her clan's kekkei genkai to read deep into the human subconscious. Many times she had found herself not needing to use her skill to see through a person, and from experience she could tell them who they were with just a glance. Gaara, however, was a blank sheet of paper. Those green, glassy eyes were flat, absolutely no depth. Even his body language was unreadable. All she could tell was that he was stiff and uncomfortable.
And tired. He looked very tired.
Ino swallowed loudly. Thinking that the Kazekage had had a long night, she thought that perhaps it would be better if she left for a while and let him compose himself. She opened her mouth to speak, but immediately closed it when she heard the door to the meeting room open noisily. Temari, looking immaculately hassled, staggered inside the room with a bundle of… many purple clothes in her arms. Ino couldn't help but sigh in relief at the sight of a familiar face.
Temari closed the door with her knee and turned to the two of them, looking flustered. "Ah, sorry for taking so long." She hurried over to the table and deposited everything she had in her arms onto the table between Ino and Gaara. "So I got everything you might need for the next month." When Temari saw the puzzled look on Ino's face, she added, "There's more outside."
Ino stared at Temari questioningly. "Excuse me?"
Temari laughed and she tried very hard to tuck loose strands of her blond hair into one of the four ponytails she had. "Don't worry. I heard from Shikamaru that you like purple so I personally made sure you get what you'd want. Of course I had to throw in a few black, lacy lingerie here and there – "
"What?" Ino snapped, absolutely unsure if Temari was high on something or is simply just kidding her.
"Lingerie," Temari said matter-of-factually, eyes unblinking as she returned Ino's shocked stare.
Ino did not even realize she had stood up from her chair. "I don't think I'm getting the flow of this conversation. Why on earth would you get me black underwear?" She had brought her own change of clothes enough for a few days … And none of them had black underwear in them… Naruto did not say anything about freaking lacy black underwear!
Temari looked at Ino before turning to Gaara. "You didn't tell her," she said in disbelief. "Gaara, I thought we already talked about this, that you would be the one to tell her about – "
"I know," Gaara suddenly spoke, and Ino was instantly taken aback. She had heard him address his village many times in the past, but why was it that it sounded so different when there were only three of them inside a deserted meeting room? His voice was deep, like thunder from a distance. It was very intimidating, really. Especially when he spoke while standing up. He was tall, about two heads taller than she was. He was missing the gourd he always had strapped to his back, and Ino didn't know if she was grateful for it or not.
Temari, who was obviously used to her brother, rolled her eyes and said, "Well? You have to remember that this was your idea to begin with."
Gaara's jaw tightened even more, a small vertical line forming between the place above his eyes where his eyebrows were supposed to be, and Ino watched him touch the side of his forehead where his red tattoo was. "I was supposed to tell her… before you walked in."
Ino kept a snort in. That was obviously a lie. Gaara did not even come close to saying 'boo' to her earlier. The way Temari rolled her eyes again said that she thought so, too.
"Well, if that's the case, then I'm sorry I got in your way." Temari crossed her arms over her chest. "Tell her, then. Go on."
Gaara looked torn between attacking Temari and running away. Ino was surprised he managed to look like a brick wall while doing so. He shot a tiny glance at Ino from under those dark, hooded eyes of his, and at that one moment Ino thought she saw something sparkle in them.
Ino squared her shoulders, thinking that perhaps it would speed things up if she, too, started initiating the conversation. "I'm listening, Kazekage-sama. Whatever it may be, these are my orders from the Hokage, and I'll do everything in my power to help." Besides, they were paying an incredible amount of money for her to do this, whatever it was.
Gaara, for a split-second, looked like he had relaxed a bit. The tension around his eyes and the slight raise of his shoulders disappeared, and he was now looking back at her straight in the eye. He opened his mouth –
And the door opened with it. Kankurou stepped in unceremoniously, three boxes, one on top of the other, in his arms completely obscuring his face. "Gaara and Ino are living together for a mere freaking month. Why do we need all this stuff? It's not like they're moving in together forever, right?" He turned the boxes to the side to see where he was going, then realized then and there that there were three sets of eyes trained on him. He smiled uncertainly. "Oh, crap."
Ino blinked at Kankurou, then at Temari, then finally at Gaara. "Err… what?"
Kankurou dropped the boxes on the floor then sighed, crouching on the ground and running a hand through his messy black hair. "So I'd guess you still haven't…?"
"You said something very, very disturbing just now," Ino said to the puppet master.
Temari shook her head in resignation. "Well, someone had to say it sooner than later."
Ino bared her teeth at her, feeling terribly betrayed. "What is this about me and Gaara living together?" she demanded.
Gaara cleared his throat loudly.
Ino whirled towards him, the indignation suddenly replaced by consciousness that Gaara had approached her, and was now towering over her as he looked down at her with, once again, a blank stare. From her vantage point she could make out the strong contour of his jaw, the tall nose, the prominent forehead marked with that tattoo. She backed away from him out of instinct, like a kicked puppy, but she did not turn her gaze away from him. "What is going on here, Kazekage-sama?"
Gaara did not move… or blink… as he examined her intently. Again it frightened Ino that she could not tell what he was thinking. He was just… there. Eying her. Looking so very tired.
Ino swallowed hard before willing herself to face him properly. "Did you call me here to live with you, Kazekage-sama? Is this a part of the mission?"
Gaara nodded silently. He did not even hesitate, which unnerved Ino even more, though she appreciated his blunt honesty. But here came the real question.
Temari sighed in relief. "Now that we have that out of the way… Will you do it?" she asked Ino.
"Why?" Ino asked again.
Kankurou looked pretty relieved himself. "Well, I guess that's all there is to it. No need to get too excited about this. Let's have tea."
"Won't you tell me why I have to do this?" Ino demanded when she noticed the sand siblings were ignoring her. It was enough that Naruto had sent her here knowing zero, but now her clients were keeping a secret from her as well. "It's not like I'm going to say no if you let me in on this. You are paying us, after all. But wouldn't you think it would be more efficient for me to actually know the reason behind this?"
Temari and Kankurou were both looking at her, then at Gaara. They seem to be thinking it between themselves if it would be better to trust Gaara to tell her about the truth behind the mission.
"Later," Gaara said. "I'll tell you later."
His actual first coherent sentence, finally. Ino bit the insides of her cheeks and could not do anything else but nod. "All right. I guess." She swiped her bangs away from her face and patted her cheeks with her palms; she didn't even know she had started sweating, and when. "Uh… so… Should I go get my things?" she asked uncertainly, her eyes darting to the rucksack she had brought from Konoha, containing her clothes and other feminine goods. No black, lacy underwear in there. No. None of those.
Gaara nodded stiffly and he moved to leave the meeting room.
Ino's mouth dropped open, flabbergasted. "W-w-wait! Are we going? Now?"
Gaara looked over his shoulder. Ino could only see half of his face. "Come home with me tonight," he said.
That invitation sounded so wrong in so many different levels. Ino sighed. "All right. Let me get my things." She busied herself with her rucksack.
"So, I'll just have these boxes hauled to your place later, Gaara," Kankurou said.
Ino was on him in a second. "That won't be necessary."
"Are you sure? Because these panties are – "
"No, thank you," Ino said between gritted teeth before slinging her rucksack over her shoulder and scuttling over to the waiting Gaara.
The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds too long before Gaara finally turned away and went through the door.
Ino faced Temari questioningly. The older woman shrugged her shoulders as if saying, "Don't ask me, ask him."
"Are you coming?" came Gaara's monotonous voice from outside the meeting room.
"Ah…" Ino hesitated and Temari jerked her head towards the direction Gaara had left. "Yes, I'm coming." She went after Gaara in a hurry.
To be honest, it didn't even cross Ino's mind that Gaara had a house. She had always been led to think that he was living inside the Kazekage tower. Forever. Now that she thought about it, it would only be normal for him to have a house of his own. The fact also brought a sense of relief; at least the mission Naruto had sent her didn't have anything to do with dangerous stuff, like, say, national security. Or terrorists. Or invasions. Or any other… dangerous stuff…
Ino looked around her as Gaara led the way through the twisting and turning halls of the Kazekage tower. Every time she came with Shikamaru to visit the Sand, their route was always confined to several places – namely anywhere Temari might be. The inside of the tower, however, was unknown to her, and she knew that if Gaara had not been with her then, she would have gotten lost in the labyrinth of halls for days.
She let out a gasp when she felt someone gently tug at her rucksack. She looked up and was surprised to see Gaara had fallen into step with her and was now pulling at her belongings.
"I had it checked before I entered the village, Kazekage-sama," Ino said somehow getting a bit defensive. He can't possibly be suggesting that she had smuggled something dangerous to the Sand?
Gaara shook his head. "I'll carry this."
Ino's jaw nearly dropped in disbelief. She snatched her rucksack from his grasp. "It's all right. It's not that heavy, Kazekage-sama."
The man peered down at her. "Gaara."
"Call me Gaara."
Ino blurted out the first thing that came into mind. "Why?"
"It's my name."
"Of course it is," Ino muttered, a bit uneasy herself.
"It really is," Gaara said reproachfully.
Ino blinked. "I know, sir. I believed you when you said it. But I couldn't possibly. That would be rude."
"Call me Gaara," he insisted, and with the strength Ino forgot he had, yanked her rucksack from her and swung it over his own shoulders. He resumed walking without another pause.
Ino gaped at his back incredulously. "Wait up!" She dashed after him, his long legs were surprisingly very fast. Ino had always imagined him on a cloud of sand, floating his way here and there wherever he pleased, and so seeing him walking on his own was alarming. Although, it was hard to deny that Gaara in motion was quite a sight to behold. He was lithe for his height, and although he looked well coordinated despite the long limbs, he had a certain… swagger… to his walk, like swaying to a certain music only he could hear. He would nod at anyone he passed by in the hallway, politely saying a greeting and once in a while stopping to exchange carefully selected words to what appeared to be carefully selected people. Ino trailed silently behind him, bowing her head to those people as they went on their way. They looked back at her with either pure interest, or rude curiosity. Some would smile. Some would go so far as shake her hand. She didn't understand any of it.
Ino didn't notice Gaara stopping in his tracks and she suddenly bumped her nose into his shoulder. "Sorry," she muttered, rubbing her nose tenderly. She looked up to see they were standing a few feet from a wide open door leading out into a broad clearing. There was not a speck of sand in sight. The brick-layered clearing looked like it was made for public use, like festivals.
Ino guessed this was the heart of the village proper, situated right behind the Kazekage tower. She could make out the alleys formed by the neatly lined clay houses, all dome-shaped and looking like tiny ant hills arranged around the clearing.
"It's not far from here," Gaara informed her as he looked out of the exit.
Ino could sense he was hesitating. "Is something wrong?"
Gaara looked down at her, and his eyes darted from her face to her bare shoulders. Ino self-consciously raised her hands to rub them. Perhaps she should have worn a different attire? Since Naruto had not specifically told her what she was supposed to be in this mission, she had opted to wear her usual purple tank top and skirt. Did Gaara think she was dressed inappropriately? Well, that was most certainly not her fault! If they had told her in the first place, then –
Her train of thought was interrupted when Gaara set her rucksack by his feet, removed the robe draped around his shoulders and gently wrapped it around her. The material was light and airy, and for some reason it smelled like what came close to cinnamon mixed with an unknown odor Ino could only guess to be Gaara's natural scent.
"Noon-day sun can burn your skin," he explained suddenly as he picked up the rucksack and let it dangle at his side.
Ino looked down at herself. The robe was too big, and she hitched it higher over her ankles. Did Gaara forget that she had to travel through the desert to get here? She had her own robes buried in her rucksack, but to avoid any longer conversations that she knew Gaara would not be willing to entertain, she settled with saying a feeble "thank you," instead.
She followed Gaara through the deserted clearing, making sure she caught up with his long strides. "It's kind of lonely here. I thought that this was some sort of gathering place."
"It is," Gaara said shortly. He did not elaborate more, and Ino bit her lip in frustration. She had come here under the Hokage's orders, and she knew her place when it came to this person, but was a conversation too much to ask? Honestly, here he was, leading her back to his house, and he wouldn't even say a word unless she asked him.
Ino squared her shoulders and willed herself to be a bit more patient and try a different approach. Falling in step with the man, she said, "Naruto says hello, by the way. He wants me to hand a scroll to you. It's in my rucksack."
Gaara nodded. "Thank you. I'll read it later."
"And Lee says he looks forward to your sparring session next month. He's away on a mission right now. He left a day before I did and he wanted me to pass the message to you."
Gaara paused, then looked down at Ino. "You speak with Rock Lee?"
Ino nodded. "Yes. Is that a bad thing?"
"No," Gaara said, and he returned his eyes in front of him. "We're here."
Ino stopped walking when Gaara paused right in front of a small bungalow house made of rock and clay. Just like the rest of the houses in the Sand, it had a round, dome-shaped roof. The wide garden windows at the front were clean and bare, as well as the front yard, which had but a few weeds popping out here and there from under rocks and a few small boulders. For someone who had been surrounded by flowers all her life, the sight made Ino's heart hurt. It was a shame to have such a lovely little house capable of bearing more than just rocks and weeds being neglected like this.
"Are you coming?" came Gaara's voice.
Ino jumped. She had been so intent on the fairly wide garden in the front that she hadn't noticed Gaara had walked up at the house and was now holding the door open for her. She raised her robes over her knees and hurried over to where he was waiting. She stepped out of the sun.
And into one of the barest houses she had ever been in all her life.
The place was spacious, with dark-cream-colored walls. The garden windows she saw from the outside were situated at the eastern wall. The space near that wall was what Ino could have called a living room, where there was an ugly brown floor mat on the floor and on top of it was a huge wooden center table Ino would have guessed to be made of yew. And against the bare northern wall was an equally ugly sofa. The kitchen was peeking behind the door next to it, and there was another door that was left closed on the western side of the room.
And that was practically it.
"Kaze – uhm… Gaara?" she asked.
Gaara was now depositing her rucksack on the sofa. He turned to her. "Hn?"
"You haven't been living here long, have you?"
"Ten years, I think."
Ino's eyes widened involuntarily and she tried to look for signs of those ten years he was talking about. There were no picture frames or anything of the like hanging on those walls. There were no books or scrolls in the built-in shelves near the windows. The only thing that came close to Gaara's personal belongings was a single withered potted plant hiding at the small space between the wall and the sofa.
Ino gestured at the place, genuinely at a loss for words. "Wow… well… " She nodded weakly at the man who was watching her as she surveyed the house. "At least it's easy to clean. No furniture to sweep under or around… " That was the only positive thing she could offer.
Gaara didn't seem to mind. "Use anything as you like." He pointed vaguely somewhere to his right. "The bathroom is over there. The kitchen is over there."
"Of course. Thank you." She stood in place, rocking on the balls of her feet. Then what? She looked over to the direction of the kitchen. "Uhm, should we have some tea?"
Gaara nodded immediately. "Yes, thank you."
Ino nearly blanched at him. Was she missing something here? This was Gaara's house, and she was the guest, was she not? And here the man seemed to have implied that she had to get the tea ready. Dragging in a long, steady breath before releasing it slowly, she took off Gaara's coat and draped it over the sofa on the way to the kitchen. If it came down to this, then she might as well. "Okay then. You must have had a tiring day. I'll get the tea and prepare our lunch while I'm at it."
The kitchen was a lot more spacious than the living room. A suspiciously large refrigerator was wedged in the corner. Ino was surprised to find out Gaara had one, given he was living alone and didn't even have a television in his common room. Aside from the lovely wooden dining table in the center of the room, the other thing that caught Ino's attention was the quaint little sink with white marble tiles and built-in cabinets overhead, the window near it overlooking the back yard, which was as bare as the front. She could see the lawn of the nearest neighbor with lush desert ferns and wolf berry plants and aloe Vera. Oh well. There was no point in complaining. Just because she liked flowers and greens did not mean everyone had to. She set herself to making a meal instead.
Of course, there was this very, very tiny problem. Ino realized this the moment she opened the cupboard overhead.
"Yes?" Gaara asked as he stepped into the kitchen and started looking around curiously. It was as if it was his first time to step into this part of his residence. He looked so out of place in the whiteness of the beautifully tiled floor, with his head of dark red hair barely brushing the door frame.
"You don't have anything in your cupboard," she pointed our flatly, reaching further into the cabinet just to make sure. "Where are your tea leaves?"
Gaara stared at her owlishly. "I haven't bought any."
Ino withdrew her hand from the cabinet weakly. "You mean you ran out of stock?"
"No. I haven't bought tea. Ever."
Ino rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably. Well, that settled it in a nutshell. "Okay then, why don't we just skip the tea, and make some lunch?" She headed for the huge refrigerator at the other side of the room and warily opened the door. A gust of frozen air wafted out, and when Ino looked in, there was nothing in there but a few wet towels on a plate.
"There's nothing in here, either," Ino said, disappointed.
Gaara shifted in his weight from one foot to the other. He looked really uneasy. "Close the door. Save electricity."
Ino did as she was told. "It would save more electricity if we just unplugged it, since there's nothing in it to begin with."
Gaara did not look too happy with her remark, but he did not say anything.
"How do you eat?" Ino asked him, honestly wanting to know the answer. Gaara had claimed that he'd been living in this house for over ten years, yet there were no furniture and no food.
"Temari," Gaara said simply.
"But there are times when Temari's out on ambassador duty in Konoha. What do you do then?"
Gaara silently pointed at the far side of the kitchen where Ino caught sight of a slightly large cardboard box. She knew what they were without even having to look up close. "Supplements?"
"Food supplements," Gaara corrected.
Ino was horrified. "Gaara, if you don't eat right, one of these days you'll die of hunger."
Gaara was alarmed. "When?" he asked.
Not quite the reaction Ino was looking for, but close enough. "When? Well... Someday. If you don't eat properly." Ino clapped her hands together. "Let's go grocery shopping then."
This time, Gaara evidently took step away from her. "Do I have to go?"
"Yes, you have to come with me. I don't know where anything is, and I don't want to get lost." Looks like things are not going to be as easy as she thought. Perhaps a terrorist attack would have been a better mission for her. "It won't take long, and you can tell me what you want to eat while we're at it. All right?"
It took several minutes before Gaara came to a decision, and the two of them agreed to go run to the market place and stock up on food.
It was amazing how Gaara could look out of place anywhere he went that was not the Kazekage tower. The people in the market looked just as uneasy to see him as much as he was to be there in their presence.
"You haven't been here before, have you?" Ino asked as she picked out a sturdy-looking basket from one of the stalls and paid for it. "The civilians all look like they've seen a ghost."
Gaara looked left, then right at the crowd that split into two when they started walking. "They're looking at me," he said.
"Yes, they are. But then can you blame them? You've hardly stepped out of your tower, let alone the city proper. Don't worry about it. Oh, look. They have tomatoes." She stopped in front of a stall and plucked a tomato with her free hand. She turned just in time to see Gaara scowl down at the thing as she dropped a couple of them into her basket.
Does he hate tomatoes? Ino wondered. He didn't voice out his opinion, so just in case, Ino started to randomly pick up a certain fruit or vegetable and got a variety of reactions from the man.
Onions, a shrug. Potatoes, a nod. Carrots, a small smile. Eggplants, a frown.
It was interesting to see such colorful expressions on his usually stoic, serious and tired face, especially when she had taken him to a stall of fresh herbs for cooking.
"Look at these," Ino started as she picked up a small bundle of fresh Dill. "We could buy them today and we could pickle some vegetables with them tonight."
Gaara peered down at the plant. "What is it?"
"It's Dill. Haven't you seen anyone use these before?"
He shook his head. "They're fresh… We don't use fresh herbs much."
Ino nodded in understanding as she broke off a stem of the herb and held it up under Gaara's nose. "Dill loses its flavor fast when dried. They're commonly used for soups and pickles, you know. For aroma. Try to get a sniff of it."
Gaara tentatively lowered his chin and sniffed the stem quickly. He seemed to like what he smelled, because he took it from her hand and continued to wave it under his nose like a child.
Ino took a jar each of dried rose hip and hibiscus. "You don't mind fruity tea, do you? I adore them."
Gaara abandoned the Dill stem into Ino's basket and gingerly took the hibiscus jar from her. "I don't mind." He opened the cap of the jar and sniffed at those, too. His tense shoulders relaxed a bit and he stuck his nose deeper into the jar.
"You like that scent," Ino mused as she took another jar of the favored herb and deposited them into her basket.
"They smell nice," he admitted as he screwed the cap back on and placed it inside Ino's basket. He then took the basket from her. "I'll carry it."
Ino rolled her eyes but did not bother to argue, because she knew that it would be futile. She let him look around the market place a bit, since he had started to ignore the eyes of the civilians ogling him. He looked like a very eager butterfly, fluttering from one stall to another, pointing at colorful fruits and looking over his shoulder at Ino, as if to ask, "Do these taste good?"
Patiently, Ino waited until he got his fill, and they set back to return to his little empty house. Shopping had been interesting enough, because Ino got to see the Gaara she had never seen before. Cooking had been another story altogether. She had asked Gaara to help her chop the vegetables, Gaara said another pleasant surprise.
"I haven't done that before," he said.
Sheesh. The man was the youngest Kazekage ever in history. He could crush enemies without lifting a finger, and here he tells her he had never even once sliced a vegetable. Ino handed him the cabbage head. "Here. You don't need a knife for this. Just shred these then wash them, and put them into another bowl."
He followed obediently. Now making him chop the tomatoes had been harder.
"I'll chop the onions instead," he offered.
Ino bit her lip uncertainly. "Onions make your eyes water, though."
Gaara shrugged. "Better than tomatoes." And he started away with the onions, once in a while sniffing loudly and wiping his eyes with his sleeve. He didn't complain even once.
Ino's eyes nearly popped out when she saw the evenly sliced onions Gaara had done. It was like he used a slicer. She patted him lightly on the shoulder. "You're a natural."
Gaara stared at the spot where Ino patted him, then said, "My eyes hurt."
"It's all right now, thank you. You can go rest in the living room and – " And what? Watch TV? "And rest," Ino finished lamely.
Gaara nodded and did as he was told. Ino stared at the door where he had disappeared into and let out a small whistle through her teeth. Who would have thought that the strongest shinobi in the Sand would be so awkward in his own home? Ino did not quite understand it, but somehow, she found that fact endearing. She rummaged under the sink and found a new set of – unused – pots and pans. In no time, she had the water boiling for the soup and another pot for boiling rice. Since the only thing available in the market were eggs and a bit of trout (maybe tomorrow, she will have to wake up early and go to the market in the morning to score some meat) she decided to just fry the fish and make some omelets.
She thought about Gaara and her mission while she worked, and although she had been trained to never question her authorities, her curiosity was nagging at her. Was there any specific reason why Gaara needed her here? Aside from, well, cook him food because he can't cook? She wished he had told her everything earlier, then she wouldn't have to worry about it.
After a few more minutes the spacious and hardly used kitchen was filled with the smells Ino was familiar with at her home back in Konoha. This must have wafted back into the living room, because Gaara came sneaking back into the kitchen as he sniffed the air around him.
"Something smells nice," he said as he positioned himself behind Ino, as if afraid to come any nearer and be in the way.
"It must be the onion soup. Remember the Dill we bought earlier? I put it in there. Want to taste?" Ino offered, and used her wooden spoon to scoop a bit of the soup. Jokingly, she turned to Gaara and said, "Say ahhh!"
She nearly stumbled backward to see Gaara actually open his mouth and lean forward expectantly. She had been kidding about feeding him. She had expected him to stare at the spoon suspiciously, because he had looked at any food presented in front of him that way. But here he was, waiting to be spoon-fed.
"Hurry up," Gaara muttered, and he opened his mouth again.
Ino jumped, spilled a bit of the soup on the floor, then nodded. "It's a bit hot so be careful." She brought the wooden spoon to his waiting mouth and Gaara took a tentative sip of the soup. "How do you like it?"
Gaara nodded. "Delicious."
"Really? You like it?"
Gaara gave her a small nod.
Ino felt her pride flare a bit. The Kazekage actually likes her cooking. Well, at least she wasn't going to have any problems for the month feeding him. As she transferred the rice, fish and the omelets on separate plates (Gaara had so many unused plates!), she arranged the table for two and they were seated in no time. Ino laid a generous serving of rice and a huge piece of omelet on his plate.
Gaara poked at the omelet with his chopsticks, then he grimaced. "There are tomatoes in there."
Ino lowered her own chopsticks and said, "They're good for you."
Gaara shook his head. "But they're tomatoes." As if that explained everything.
Ino pointed at his plate. "I worked really hard on that dish." she said gently. She was so used to the men in her life to wolf down whatever was laid before them that having to force Gaara to eat was a whole new different experience. "Please eat."
Looking very unhappy and forced into a corner, Gaara nodded. "Thank you for the food." And he started to dig in. Ino watched him as he ate. She smiled when he made sure to eat plenty of rice when he put a few tomatoes into his mouth. He didn't look like he was enjoying himself, but he ate every single food on his plate.
"See? It wasn't so bad," Ino told him as she poured him some tea and collected the empty plate from him.
"I held my breath," Gaara said sadly.
Ino laughed. "Was my cooking really that bad?" she asked jokingly.
Gaara fidgeted in his seat. "It was delicious."
Ino felt a bit accomplished. Gaara had eaten every single bite, even if it was obvious he didn't like tomatoes. "Thank you. You can just relax in the living room, and I'll wash up here."
Again, like a good boy, Gaara did as he was told. And again, Ino wondered how such a violent man many years back could be this docile. She supposed Naruto was the only one who could understand the man fully. Ino wished he would tell her the reason behind these arrangements so that she could get it all out of the way. She had that in her mind as she hummed to herself while doing the dishes. When everything was washed and left to dry in the rack, she wiped her hand on a towel hanging by the sink and made her way to the living room where Gaara would be.
She was surprised to see Temari and Kankurou standing in the living room. By the door were the boxes Kankurou had brought to the meeting room earlier. On top of those boxes were the purple clothes Temari had collected for her. She hoped to god they didn't bring any of that black underwear.
"You really took him grocery shopping?" Kankurou suddenly blurted out when he saw her come in.
Ino nodded. "There wasn't anything in the kitchen. I'm actually very surprised that Gaara's been living here for ten years. You can barely call it a home."
"I like it that way," Gaara said.
Temari gestured at her younger brother. "He spends more time in his office than at home. He sleeps on his documents."
"If he sleeps at all," Kankurou added.
Ino pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. "The kitchen's well furnished, though. And the utensils are complete, if not brand new."
Temari groaned loudly. She turned to Gaara. "You haven't told her yet, have you."
Gaara lowered his chin to his chest and didn't say anything.
"She has to know, Gaara," Temari said, then turned to Ino. "Those things in the kitchen are actually gifts from the elders."
Ino tilted her head to the side. "Gifts for what?"
Temari harrumphed in frustration. "Gaara, if you don't want to tell her, we can do it for you. Now hand it over." The older girl held out her hand to her brother.
Gaara shook his head. "No. I'll do it." He stood up from the couch and went straight for Ino.
Ino stood straighter. Here it was! He was going to tell her what she had to do.
"Ino," Gaara started. It was probably the first time he had called her by name.
"Yes, Gaara?" Ino asked. She saw Temari and Kankurou look at each other, Kankurou mouthing silently, "Did she just call him by name?"
"Shut up," Temari mouthed back.
"Your left hand," Gaara said softly.
Ino looked down at her left hand questioningly. "This? What about it?" She gasped when Gaara suddenly took it into his own hand, dug into the pocket of his trousers and took out a very lovely ring with a blue diamond the size of a small peanut. That beautiful ring was slipped into her ring finger so fast she didn't even know how to react.
"Before you say anything, let me explain," Gaara said. Ino didn't have any qualms with that; she didn't know what to say to begin with. And he still wasn't letting go of her hand!
She nodded anyway.
Gaara took a deep breath, then said, "Tomorrow night, representatives from all over the Wind Country will arrive, and will be staying here for a month."
Ino nodded. That was easy enough to understand.
Gaara continued. "They will be bringing all their eligible daughters with them for me to choose a bride."
Ino nodded again. Well, Gaara was way past his marrying age. It seemed natural that he'd do so.
"The elders of the Sand want me to marry before the year ends. They've been very restless about it for the last several months. But I don't want to – ."
"You don't want to get married?" Ino asked flatly. She did not like where the conversation was going.
At her interruption, Gaara looked away. "I don't want a wife who I don't know."
"What? So you want me to play as your wife? I don't see if that would make a difference," Ino blurted out incredulously.
"I want you to pose as my fiancée. Just for a month. Until the representatives leave me alone," Gaara explained hastily.
Ino stared at him dubiously. "Will they leave you alone? I mean, a fiancée popping out of the blue just when they're coming over to visit is too… obvious!"
Gaara was a bit taken aback, and as if the courage he had earned to speak was lost once again.
Temari spoke up in his behalf. "Actually, when the elders started suggesting he should be thinking of marriage, he… uhh… sort of already laid out that plan about being engaged to a Konoha kunoichi."
Ino felt the world start spinning around her. She turned to the older woman. "You mean you told them that we were engaged without my consent?"
"It didn't necessarily have to be you!" Temari said hurriedly. "It was just a lie to keep the elders from dragging Gaara off to an arrangement he didn't want to be in. It actually bought us a few months, but now they're getting really suspicious, and I don't blame them. They think that he's lying and they arranged to have different women from the Wind to come and present themselves to the Kazekage. In the end, we had to ask Naruto for help, and he was more than willing to send a kunoichi to aid us."
"And you're paying us twice as much for this?" Ino asked.
"From my own account, yes," Gaara mumbled incoherently. He was now busy looking down at Ino's hand which was still clamped in his.
Ino could still not believe it. The plan was too farfetched, if anything, too desperate. "Look, Gaara. I can pretend to be your fiancée for a month, because it's my job and I'm paid to do so, but after that one month, when all the representatives have gone home, then what? You'd be free from them while I'm here, but at the end of thirty days, you'd still be wifeless and the elders won't be happy. Why don't you just get married for real?"
Gaara stared at her. "To whom? You?"
Ino felt her face burst into flames. "Wha - ? Nu - ! What? No! No, not me! To one of them! Those women coming tomorrow! Arranged marriages aren't as bad as you think. Almost all prominent shinobi families are married that way, and many of them are successful."
Gaara looked down, this time he let go of her hand and let his arms dangle at his sides. "I don't want to."
Ino was at a loss for words. She knew that Gaara was hiding something from her; he had been hiding many things from her from the moment they met in the meeting room. And as she looked at him as he tried very hard to meet her eye, she could only sigh and say, "It's not like I have a choice. I'll do it, Gaara. But whatever happens after this month is over is all up to you. You understand that, right?"
He nodded weakly, and Ino could feel the tension leave his shoulders as he finally raised his face to meet hers. "Thank you."
That was the signal that everything was fine, and Temari and Kankurou let out deep, relieved breathes. Ino wondered if it was really that big a deal for them and Gaara that she had said yes.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Gaara said.
Ino looked over at him. "Yes?"
"The elders want to meet you today."
Ino blinked at him, then laughed. "Sorry. For a second there I thought you said the elders want to meet me today."
Gaara did not laugh one bit.
Ino felt sick.