It’s not often Kankuro gets to see her, the flower-shop owner in Konoha, but sometimes she’s in the Hokage’s office, turning in mission details and visiting friends in the spaces between his boring hours watching Gaara negotiate deals. There will be a little flicker of white-blonde hair, a flash of purple (a richer, more vibrant shade than what he can make from desert plants), a high and clear laugh echoing down the halls, and that’s all it takes to make his knees weak.
He coughs and feels cactus spines in his chest. When he breathes, the thorns touch his lungs; when he exhales fully, there’s the painful outline of a cactus leaf, just behind his heart.
Back when he was a child, he heard rumors of a disease–maybe a curse–that plagued the people of Suna for generations on end. Those with love unreturned grew flowers in their chests, cultivating rare and precious plant life in exchange for their own. They laughed, those boys with no worries, over their little snake puppets and made up names; fynbos-hearts, cactus breath, living-stone-lungs, until the village elders scattered their play and brought in the lectures.
To love and grow flowers is honorable, they said. The bodies of the loveless become gardens, become sustenance for the village. From their love we live another day.
It’s not honorable at all, Kankuro thinks, holed up in his ambassadorial quarters and coughing great splatters of blood, picking needles out of his molars. Nothing’s honorable about tasting prickly pear on your tongue all day. The beautiful yellow flowers aren’t a consolation.
“Again?” Ino says. “So who’s the special lady?”
She wraps up the bundle of pansies, tying their delicate paper wrapping off with a length of ribbon. It’s the same she uses every time, but Kankuro can’t remember if he’s ever seen it on any other bouquet that leaves the shop–is it just for him?
That’s too much to hope, he decides. She’s married, after all.
And in any event, thinking about it makes the cactus leaves press against his chest.
“A gentleman never tells his secrets,” he remarks. A hand folds itself into his shirtfront–it looks casual, masculine, relaxed, but the fingertips check for the telltale signs of fruits pressing his skin away from the bottoms of his lungs. “Sorry to disappoint.”
She giggles. It’s a million bells, doves, everything romantic Kankuro can think of. He hopes there’s no blood in his mouth; she’ll notice that, even if the people of Konoha don’t grow plants in their lungs when they can’t have the person they want most. “Not a problem. I shouldn’t be poking around in your personal life, anyway.”
“Speaking of. How’s Sai doing?” Kankuro accepts the bouquet with his free hand, shifts it so that the peak of the paper covers his mouth.
And damnit, Sai is still his friend, unfortunately. He’s got to ask after the man every now and again, even if the way Ino talks about him makes him sick to his stomach, makes his face feel cold and his feet feel heavy.
The shopkeeper looks gracefully at her ledger and enters the figures, tapping her fingers along an old-fashioned abacus to convert his Sunan cash into Konoha’s. “He’s wonderful, as always,” she sighs. Sharp points dig into Kankuro’s jaw. “Just last week he finished a new painting for me; you should have seen the colors, Kankuro. It’s a masterpiece. Really, painters are such geniuses.”
He thinks about a paint set that he tried his hand at months ago, the scrolls of brush control exercises and rolled-up canvases where he attempted to paint the outlines of his hands and the setting sun. It pales in comparison to Sai’s work–maybe Sunan hands are only meant to build, to mimic life rather than add to it. “I’m sure it’s beautiful,” he responds. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m… running late.”
Ino looks after him as he leaves the shop, but not for long. There are, and have always been, more important things for her.
The cactus flowers come to him late at night and early in the morning, when he has time to think about things other than work. He wakes up with yellow flowers, bile-soaked, and thorns on his pillow. Sometimes there’s even entire pads. He learns how to sleep shorter, how to keep from dreaming about Ino.
But in the curve of the dying sun he sees the arch of her eyes, and the delicate feathers of sacred ibises flutter to the ground like her hair dances in the wind. There’s beautiful moments, midday and stolen, when he thinks of her because there’s nothing else comparable that he can think of. His workbench in the city puppetry studio hides a basin where he stores cactus clippings until he can work up the courage to throw them out.
One night he looks down at a rich green pad, dappled red with blood and topped with a somehow-perfect yellow flower. It’s survived, though his throat hasn’t. He knows he won’t be able to eat today, tomorrow, the next day.
But it’s beautiful in its own way, and he hates it for that.
He whistles for a messenger hawk and sends the cactus clipping off in a small clay pot with a note tucked alongside. “Saw it at the market,” he lies. “Thought you might appreciate it.”
“You look more and more gaunt every time I see you,” she says. The cactus sits on her counter right next to the abacus; he almost vomits, and the back of his mouth tastes like acidic pulp. “Is something wrong?”
It takes all his training to not scream. Yes, something’s wrong. I’m growing a plant inside my chest and every time I see you it grows a little bit more, but I can’t stop visiting this shop.
But he’s an actor, and the show must go on, so he smiles that winning smile he inherited from Mom and gently places a hand over his mouth so she won’t see the spines that peek from his throat. “I keep forgetting to eat, that’s all. Busy, busy.”
He passes Sai on the way out the door but can’t bring himself to do more than wave.
There are ribcages buried in the loose sand of the city’s Memorial Greenhouse. Prickly pears, dragon blood trees, proteas and aloes all grow out of human bones. Their leaves lean heavy to the ground with medals and banners and ceremonial drapes, bestowed twice a year by crowds of religious folk. Stems, flowers, stalks are snapped off for poisons and antidotes and food.
What garbage, Kankuro thinks. There’s nothing glamorous about a cactus that breaks through a ribcage.
He points out an empty spot to the curator. She nods her veiled head and makes a mark on her chart. It’s his, free of charge, and thanks for the contribution.
The doctor said there would come a day when the damage is irreversible. He supposes she’s right, because as he sits up, eyes blurry from sleep, he feels his lung collapse onto the leaves of the cactus. The membrane clings to the spiny outline and he gasps as if more air will reinflate it.
He knows better. The puncture wounds won’t heal with the aggressor still in his body. It’s a reminder far worse than the flowers.
Can a shinobi still be a shinobi when he can’t breathe?
Kankuro invests in looser shirts when he looks in the mirror to see the outline of a cactus in his ribs. Spines press through his skin, dive between the ribs and disrupt the muscles of his chest, threatening to bring infection.
He stops recognizing his hands. Whose are they? Whose is this body? Does it belong to a man, or is it a piece of dying hide stretched over a thriving plant?
He always recognizes the colors of Ino. The blue of her eyes in the shallow pool of water in the courtyard. The pale of her hair in the finest sands. The purple of her skirts in the potted plant she sent him: get well soon, signed the Yamanaka family.
Gaara won’t sign off on his missions anymore. There’s a certain pain in his eyes, not quite equal to the one in Kankuro’s, but a rival, that appears when some visitor to his office waxes poetic about the holy duty of the unrequited lovers.
Plants can be grown without dead bodies, he wants to say, but time and tradition are too much to push back against. He’s fought enough social norms.
Besides, Kankuro tells him, it’s too late anyway.
A letter appears every day, delivered by a dutiful hawk.
“How are you?” asks the first one. Signed, Ino and Sai. On the back, a picture of little Inojin playing with a baby shower present, a little mannequin holding a bouquet of wire flowers.
“We’re all worried for you here in Konoha. Get well soon,” proclaims the second. In a corner there’s signs and little pleasantries from flower shop visitors. Sakura, Tenten, Choji. Temari sends her own letters.
He writes his responses, slower and slower, more and more evasive, and leaves them on the window sill for the hawk to return.
The last letter, the one that makes up for years of sleepless nights and open weeping under desert skies, lies abandoned on the desk. Kankuro can’t bring himself to move it to the window.
In the winter, letters from Konoha pile up on a window sill. A hawk flies into town early every morning and flies back out in the evening, claws empty.