W is for Whilom
A/N: HOLY SHIT, the time flew by. There's no excuse for not updating for nearly half a year, but I hope you guys can forgive me. It's not over yet! I'm going all the way to Z, baby.
I also apologize for the short length of this chapter. Falling action sucks.
O O O
A raindrop wriggled out from a dark, plump cloud and scurried down through the sky, barely missing the tail feather of a passing bird. Determined, it jackknifed between leaves and branches and vines, hurtling toward the ground. The grass outstretched hungry blades of green, grasped wildly, blindly at its descent, fidgeted with anticipation as the raindrop fell in a straight, true path. It landed on a palm, though, a warm, sudden palm, and it was rolled in said palm, rubbed over fingers, around a thumb, until it was no more.
Sakura dropped her hand to her side and looked up at the cloudy sky. Another raindrop hit her nose, falling full-speed, and yet another spattered on her shoulder. Two fell on her lips and streaked carefully over the curve of them, and then the heavy rain cloud pulled opened with a sigh of thunder. Rain fell in growing sheets, now, a rapid drizzle that forced Sakura back into the small safety and warmth of the cave. The trees and bushes outside murmured their approval of the rain, while the sky above rumbled gently with release.
The earthworms emerged from their homes in the soil, treading out from beneath the layers of grass and laying out, thin, long, writhing bodies soaking up the moisture gluttonously. Mice and other vermin hurried off for refuge, hiding under broad leaves or under the gnarled roots of an old, lifted tree. Raindrops buzzed through the forest, and still the clouds growled in a sated, pleased manner.
"The rain is getting in here," Deidara said, pulling his knees to his chest and watching the curtain of grey fall steadily outside. "And it'll flood soon. We have to go someplace else, yeah." He picked himself up from the damp ground, brushed the dirt from him, and led Sakura outside into the rain.
The rain had been a quick thing, and on the way to one of the neighboring towns—Deidara couldn't say which—it stopped. Abruptly. It was as if Mother Nature had just decided that she was tired of soggy weather and wanted to put an end to it. Not that he minded at all, and he was certain Sakura didn't, either.
The walk was short, and quiet, and neither of them touched until about halfway through the trip. Sakura initiated it, a simple brush of her hand against his once, twice, three times, before Deidara urged her along by hooking his index finger through hers. She took his hand in hers without any further prompting. He felt okay. Everything, really, felt okay.
"It feels like it's over," he said quietly, looking up at the sky, walking slowly, squinting when the sun crawled out from behind a cloud.
"Depends on what you're referring to with 'it,'" she replied, not much louder.
"I don't know. Everything."
She made a noise of acknowledgment, and then turned the subject completely around. "I lost them, you know. All of them." When she stopped talking, the sounds of their footsteps in the grass filled the silence sufficiently. "My friends are gone. There's nothing for me there anymore."
"I figured that." His answer was short, perfunctory, and completely expected. When he glanced at her from the corner of his eye, Sakura was smiling in a melancholy manner that looked, if he really concentrated, something like relief.
It only took another ten minutes for the mood to lighten, and they began to joke and tease with each other, sadness and grievances forgotten for the time being. He was happy to be back to him and Sakura's old SNAFU, especially when she stuck her tongue out at him like that and dared him to chase her to the city edge, inside, and then under a general store's porch, where he drew her up into a kiss that gave the both of them full-body chills. Her back pressed against a wooden pillar, leaning until the wood splintered and groaned, kissing and touching, and whispering until the shop-keep came out and yelled for the both of them to take it elsewhere. Didn't they know there were children around? It was amazing, in retrospect, how bold Sakura had grown.
And so take it elsewhere they did.
The inn was by far one of the nicest they had ever taken residence, in terms of the time they'd spent together in the last almost-half-a-year. It was three stories tall, all polished wood and delicate paintings hanging on sturdy walls. The contrast of the solid, thick walls and the fragile, elegantly brittle decorations made Sakura feel oddly comfortable. She almost felt like she was home, wherever "home" was nowadays.
Deidara dropped a bag near the door, shuffled zombie-like to the four-post bed, and jumped up on top of the mattress so that he could purposefully fall hard against it.
Sakura smiled crookedly. "Don't shuffle. You're not old enough to shuffle."
"You know, it's bad when you have to actually jump just to be able to collapse on your own bed," he mumbled into the pillow, before lifting his head and propping his chin on his folded arms. "Or is that good?"
She let her own bag slip off of her shoulder, shoving it against the wall with a foot, and locked the door. A desk with a number of different pamphlets, blank writing pads, and complimentary pens with motivational sayings inscribed on them leaned heavily against the wall beside her bag. Sakura picked up one of the pens. "'Patience is the heart of perseverance.'"
Deidara scoffed at his pillow. "Is that so," he deadpanned.
"I kind of like these pens. 'Pain walks in hand with growth.' I'm taking this one. I wonder whose quotes these are. It's not cited."
"Sakura, some guy who gets paid 5,000 yen a pop sits in his lonely apartment and makes these up for a living. I could make them up, yeah."
Sakura crawled on the bed beside him, pinching his side and making him squirm. "Humor me."
"'Stay away from girls. They suck.'"
"Oh, now you're just being romantic."
He rolled unceremoniously on top of her, playing every part just the innocent party in this whole situation, and reached leisurely for a chocolate mint on the nightstand. "You know," he admitted, through half of a mouthful of chocolate, "these are really good, yeah." He swallowed and folded the foil wrapper into a ball, arching back and twisting his torso so that he could shoot the trash into a bin at the far end of the room. The wrapper bounced off the rim and rolled under the dresser. "I haven't had chocolate in a long, long time."
"In that case, I'm glad you saved me one," Sakura said, reaching for the second chocolate mint in Deidara's hand, but he unwrapped it quickly and popped it into his mouth.
"Oh, you wanted some? Sorry," he sang, grinning from ear to ear and leaning over her. "Maybe next time."
Sakura kissed him, open-mouthed and hard, pulling Deidara down by his hair. When she pulled back, the chocolate was in her mouth, and she chewed and swallowed, leeching every bit of satisfaction from the moment that she could.
"That's so disgusting. I hope you're enjoying my pre-chewed chocolate mint."
"It's not so disgusting when I've shared a toothbrush with you and your hands anyway. And yes, for the record, I'm enjoying your pre-chewed chocolate mint immensely."
He laughed, and it petered out when he rolled back to his original position at her side, face at her hair and nose pressed to her temple. There was a feeling of relief and long-awaited peace hanging over the both of them, of this Sakura was sure. It was the first time either of them had felt completely calm, their minds finally at rest, in a long, long time. There was still the backdrop of a war behind them, and they weren't out of the woods yet, not entirely, but they were so close that it felt just about like the real thing.
She rolled over to face him, and though his eyes were closed before, he opened them slowly.
"Deidara?" she whispered, though there was no one else to hear her.
He hummed in acknowledgment.
She continued, quiet, much quieter than she had possibly ever spoken in her life, "Do you still want to marry me?"
It took him a moment to answer, and for a split second, Sakura felt cold tendrils of doubt slip over her. But then he nodded almost imperceptibly and smiled. "Yeah."
She, herself, nodded as well, just as faintly, and smiled in return. "Okay."
When he kissed her this time it was slow and deliberate, like he was telling her a fairytale with the way his nose rubbed hers once and his fingers slipped to her arm and then her stomach. The last time she had seen Deidara handle something with so much fondness and tender ardor, he'd been sculpting a very familiar bust.
"When?" she asked, lifting her chin while Deidara made little marks on her neck with his mouth.
"When we find Kisame."
O O O
In the morning, they hitched a ride on a wagon—a wagon owned by the very same shop-keep, who glared at them something terrible and hollered for them to stay seated at all times and keep their hands, feet, and other appendages inside the vehicle at all times—in order to make it in sufficient time to the next town. Deidara didn't want to use his bird at the time, and Sakura didn't protest. At that point, they'd both decided that simplicity was best. And it didn't get any simpler than riding in a rickety old wagon, chewing on straw, while a grumpy old man snapped at them every time they so much as leaned against each other. "Newlyweds," he'd grumble, and then flick the reins, and the horse would speed up and the wagon would jerk and Sakura and Deidara would go tumbling.
This city, when they finally arrived, was significantly larger than any Deidara and Sakura had encountered. It was roughly half the size of Konohagakure—quite a feat for the little villages and towns and colonies out here—and probably twice the people. The sidewalks were paved with smooth cobblestone, worn down over the years so that only a stray pebble stuck out here and there. Stores lined the sidewalks, and hotels, and restaurants, and there was even a gym. In front of each building was a series of benches and shrubbery. On each street corner stood a rigid, lonely streetlamp, not yet lit for the night. The sun, however, was quickly setting.
Deidara looked at the buildings that lined the streets, the people walking by, dressed in expensive clothes and the occasional three-piece business suit.
And then Deidara looked down at his pants, torn in the knees; at his sandals, the soles rubbed down bare; at his shirt, worn ragged with a few gaping holes.
At that moment, Deidara turned to Sakura with her almost-new clothing and cringed. "I look like shit."
Sakura looked surprised for a moment. "You do?"
"You didn't notice?"
She gave him the once-over, tilting her head to the side, and then shrugged. "I guess I just didn't care. You want to buy some new clothes?"
He could feel a man carrying a leather briefcase stare him down as he passed, and that was the last straw. "Yeah. I do, actually." He dug into his pockets and produced a large sum of money, which he split with Sakura. "I'm going to run into one of these stores and buy myself a new outfit, yeah. Do you want to come?"
She pocketed the money and gazed longingly at a café across the street, complete with an outside patio, a newspaper rack, and large green umbrellas covering each table. "If you want me to. I wanted to catch something to eat, though. I haven't eaten for…I don't know, a while."
He shrugged noncommittally. He'd been without her for months at a time, so a few minutes spent out of her presence really wouldn't be such a big deal. "Alright. I'll meet you in that café in a couple minutes, yeah. Do you want me to get you anything?"
"No, I'm okay. Want anything from the café?"
"I'll order when I get there."
It was sort of an awkward conversation, Deidara realized belatedly, and they stood facing each other, rocking on the balls of their feet, for a couple seconds that grew steadily more uncomfortable as time ticked by.
"Well…okay," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess I'll see you in a couple minutes, yeah."
He leaned in to give her a kiss, but he angled his head the same way she did, and when he turned his head the other way she did too, so they ended up knocking noses. It was a painfully inelegant kiss, especially since they were standing in the middle of the street and especially since all of the well-to-do people were staring. When he pulled away their lips made that cliché smacking sound, though, and this somehow made up for everything else.
She whispered "Bye," under her breath and then started walking away, and Deidara strolled casually inside a clothing store nearby.
Women. There were women everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, milling throughout aisles, holding blouses to their torsos and pants to their waists. Soft music was playing from small, unnoticeable speakers in the ceiling, but it was more of background noise, not so much drowned out by as complemented by the clinking of hangers and the gentle chatter of equally gentle female voices.
Did Deidara ever mention that he loved women? Especially homely women. There was something about a woman, fat, skinny, tall, or short that put him in a very restful state of mind. It had been a long time since he'd casually socialized with any other members of the opposite sex besides Sakura. And even then, with her, the circumstances were special.
Even the cashier was a woman. She was older, late thirties or early forties, and she waddled her plump self out from behind the register when Deidara approached. He noticed a golden wedding band on her ring finger, set with a small pink diamond.
"Can I help you with anything today?"
He glanced over the expanse of the store as though he was in some sort of hall of mirrors. There were so many clothes, even in the men's section! It wasn't that he'd never been shopping before, but the Akatsuki organization usually found ways of getting clothes for him. The newfound sense of independence was exhilarating, and at the same time, it calmed him. Things really had gone back to normal, whatever "normal" meant nowadays.
"Yes, I…uh." He didn't quite know what to ask for. Should he be bold and go for khakis and a snazzy sweater? A black turtleneck in the far corner was looking increasingly attractive. Maybe he should just play it safe and buy the customary tunic-and-slacks combo, with a netted undershirt.
Then again, khakis and the black turtleneck would fit him perfect. He could always get the black slacks and the grey quarter-sleeve. They even had shoes! Oh, he needed new shoes. There were some very striking, standard-issue black boots at the top of the "Half Off All New Boots!" display.
"Do you need help with anything?" she asked again, still smiling, still holding her ring like it was a particularly large trophy. He couldn't blame her, though.
"Yes. I was just looking for some new clothes."
"Alright, what did you have in mind? Were you interested in our argyle sweaters? The seasons are changing fast, after all."
There, in the women's section, was a red, ribbed pullover that would look perfect on Sakura. He had to get it.
"Actually, I was thinking of getting a gift for my—uh—fiancé, yeah." It felt nice to say that word. Too nice, in fact. Deidara felt a distinct, pleasant warmth flutter in his chest.
"Do you know her favorite color?"
"Red. That red sweater right over there." He pointed to it from across the store, smiling from ear to ear.
Twenty minutes later, Deidara emerged from the store with a fresh, new, clean outfit on. He'd bought the black slacks, grey quarter-sleeve, and boots for himself, as well as a fluffy, brown down jacket. It was getting cold, and he could afford to splurge…
For Sakura, in a separate, large bag, he'd bought the pullover, which would match the pants she currently had on quite nicely. Who cared if her hair clashed with her shirt? It didn't bother him, so it shouldn't bother anybody else. As for other clothing, she'd gotten a variety of brand new outfits from wherever she'd come from, including new shoes, so he'd bought her a pretty fits-all black dress in lieu of other garments he could have bought. He even included high heels and a black down jacket that he assumed was her size. He was so thoughtful. He should take her out to dinner tonight, light a few candles, find a jewelry store to buy her a ring, and do it right this time.
He shifted the bags more comfortably over his arm, proud of himself and his brand new clothing. He'd done well, considering he hadn't been shopping in a very, very long time.
He made a beeline for the café, a bounce in his step and a tune on his lips, spotting the familiar head of pink hair at a seat near the back entrance. She was laughing, smiling, he realized, as he drew closer, and…
…And who was that man with her?
Deidara instantly felt a bit silly and very unmanly with several shopping bags slung over his arms, as well as confused, instantly angered, though at whom he couldn't tell, and just generally thrown into a very unnerving frame of mind. The change between moods made him feel a huffy lurch of queasiness, but he quickly shook it off. He marched right to the table and dropped the bags right beside Sakura, taking a quiet, calm seat.
"Hi," he said, interrupting Sakura and the stranger's conversation. The man had been speaking, but he looked to Deidara, his words falling short. He looked genuinely taken aback. Deidara could see the recognition in this man's stare, in the expression outlined in faint wrinkles that traced the corners of his lips and the creases around his eyes.
"Deidara," Sakura said around a smile. She angled herself toward him, and her right knee touched his left thigh. For some reason, this action alone enabled Deidara a modicum of composure. He stopped regarding the older man before him as an enemy and instead looked at him as exactly who he was: a stranger. He had a feeling, though, that the shinobi across the table knew quite a deal about him. The Konoha headband gave it away.
"This is an old friend of mine," Sakura continued. "He's from Konoha."
Obviously. Deidara kept his mouth firmly, shut, though, being a little more observant than was probably necessary. The newly introduced Konoha-nin began to smile very faintly and very slowly, with heavy eyelids. The face mask he wore to frame his face didn't do much to hide a few laugh lines. He glanced at Deidara nonchalantly; an unappreciated blasé manner. Deidara could feel his own blood boiling.
Said excessively indifferent man coughed into a fist, though it almost sounded fake. "My name is Yamato." He extended a friendly hand.
Deidara hesitated, and with good reason, he might add, but he finally gave in. The handshake was firm and short, and as masculine as humanly possible. Both partners retreated quickly when it was over, looking relatively put off by the nicety.
He decided to drop the alias, since this Yamato had already heard his real name from Sakura anyway. "Deidara," he replied shortly, if only to be polite. Not wanting to be outdone, he relaxed his shoulders and put on an air that evenly matched Yamato's dispassion.
"It's nice to meet you," Yamato said, in that smooth, genial, baritone voice of his. "I hadn't heard much about you from Sakura from our last meeting, but it seems you're the only topic she can think of since I've sat down." He ended this sentence with a temperate chuckle. A smug chuckle. What a pompous bastard. And to make things worse, Sakura laughed a little bit herself and reached across the table to shove him lightly in the shoulder, with a mock-indignant "Yamato!" Yamato laughed too. Why did he have to sound so damn pleasant?
Sakura removed her knee from its comfortable place against Deidara's thigh so that she could lean her forearms on the table. "Anyway, I was just recapping what's been going on in the past few months. Between Deidara and I, anyway. Where I'd been." She drew shapes on the table with her index fingertip. "I couldn't tell you last time, but I do feel at full liberty to disclose my story now."
That was her coy voice. Sakura was using her coy voice on this suave son-of-a-bitch.
Deidara folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. His eyes never left Yamato.
"Anyway, Yamato," Sakura said, and Deidara hated, despised, absolutely loathed the way his name rolled off of her tongue, "I wanted to talk to you about something, but I wanted to make sure Deidara was here when I did."
Yamato leaned forward as well, folding his arms on the table. "Okay. Go ahead." And Deidara hated the way that Yamato's eyes stayed patiently trained upon Sakura.
"Have you talked to Hinata since you left the Hyuuga compound?" she asked, turning the conversation toward a more solemn road.
"No, I haven't. Is there something wrong?"
She frowned, and from under the table, she took Deidara's hand. Deidara's pride soared. There was no way in hell she couldn't see—feel—the tension between him and Yamato. "No, no, it's just…when you return to Konoha… I can't go back."
Yamato waited patiently for her to continue, not an ounce of sentiment on his face, and Sakura did so while rubbing her thumb over Deidara's knuckles.
"It's taken me a long time to decide, but… Naruto's gone, and Sai is gone, and Kakashi has been gone, and everyone thinks I'm dead anyway. What would my presence be to them? Do you think it would help matters at all?"
"No…" Yamato drawled, looking from Sakura to Deidara and then back again. Deidara tried very, very hard not to smirk. Kisame was always better at smirking anyway. "No, I don't think it would." He finally cracked a trace of a grin. "It could even further complicate the ordeal that Konoha has worked its way into." His voice dropped a little lower. As if the man needed a more seductive tone. "I think that, this time around, Konoha can survive fine without you, Sakura."
Sakura's hand fell lax in Deidara's. "Thank you, Yamato."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to pursue a life elsewhere," he assured, shaking his head and bringing one hand up scratch his jaw, under his faceguard. "I can understand. If anyone deserves it, it's you. Furthermore, as far as I'm concerned, nobody has seen you since your disappearance."
He raised the other hand and bowed his head, and Sakura was silenced.
Deidara squeezed Sakura's hand, limp though it was.
"Don't mention it," he said, moving to stand. "It's the least I can do. I will have to leave you now, though. I was supposed to be out of the city by sundown."
Deidara turned and faced the setting sun. The city was colored light orange and shades of pink-violet. The throngs of people that had once walked the street, carrying their fancy clothes and fancy personas, had dwindled down to an odd teenager or lone middle-aged businessman. He was suddenly awfully proud of his humble upbringing. "Looks like you're running late, yeah."
"I am. It's been wonderful catching up, Sakura." He smiled at Sakura, widely, and the laugh lines showed up again, though they were far more endearing now that Deidara really looked at the guy. "And it was a pleasure meeting you, Deidara." The smile dulled considerably.
"The same," Deidara lied. Sakura stood up, and he followed her.
Yamato held out a hand for Sakura to shake, but she hugged him instead, a move that made Deidara frown and feel the need to roll his eyes, grab Sakura by the wrist, lead her back to a swanky hotel, and make sweet, sweet love with her until she remember just who, exactly, she was in love with. He was secure in the knowledge that they had a steady relationship going on, but could he be blamed if the thought of his fiancé hugging an attractive man from her past bothered him? Especially since she obviously had some sort of deeper connection with him.
Yamato looked awkward with the whole situation, and he hugged Sakura back very, very lightly. "I've loved having you in my company," he admitted, with a very quiet voice, maybe because he wanted to tease Deidara or maybe because he just wanted it to be a quiet confession. They both pulled back with a sighing rustle of clothing. "I'll miss all the years we've spent as a cell, you know."
"Yes. I know," Sakura said with a hollow laugh, and the fact that she was tearing up did not surprise Deidara in the least. He ran his tongue over his teeth impatiently. "I'll never forget those years."
"More are yet to come," Yamato said, sagely and wizened with his alluring voice and dashing good looks. His eyes were creepy, though, all sunk in and dark. That was one strike against him.
"I know," Sakura said, nodding. "I know. And the same to you."
Yamato held out a hand to Deidara after taking a deep, noticeable breath, and for the second time in less than ten minutes, Deidara shook hands with a man that he very deeply disliked.
"Take care of her," he said, sounding suspiciously vague and disgustingly cliché.
"I know," Deidara said, noticing that his hands were slightly larger than Yamato's. Childishness be damned—this was a very satisfying victory to him.
"Would you visit them? For me?" Sakura asked, as Yamato shoved his hands in his pockets. "Naruto, and Sai, and—"
"—All of them," Yamato finished for her. "Of course I will. I'll give them flowers for you and everything."
"Thank you. You know I mean that."
It was a painful goodbye for Sakura, that he could see, but it was a relief for Deidara, as slimy as it made him feel. Yamato had been a momentary threat, whether he was an ex-teacher, an ex-boyfriend, or an ex-friend. Deidara did not enjoy threats.
"Do you think I'll see him again?"
Deidara didn't look at her, and he didn't answer her for a moment. She was crying, this he knew, though she was silent and passive, tears slipping down her face just as noiselessly as she stood there. Yamato could still be seen, walking down the street, hands in his pockets, but he was more of a speck against a brilliant backdrop of oranges and violets and reds than a clear representation of another piece of Sakura's life.
"Only if you want to, yeah." He surprised himself by how softly he spoke. He gave her a few moments to compose herself and gather her thoughts, well after Yamato had disappeared, before he sat down and prompted her to do the same.
Another moment of silence. Deidara sighed contentedly and pulled Sakura's bag into his lap.
"I didn't get a chance to tell you, but you look great," Sakura said, leaning on the table, head on her arms, looking almost bashful. "You sure know how to clean up."
"I could still do with a shower." He pulled the wrapped clothing out of the bag and pushed it in front of her. "This is for you. It's a winter coat, and a sweater, and a dress, and…some high heels."
Sakura pulled the items from the wrapping with an honest look of shock. It was a pleasant shock, though, and when she unwrapped the black dress and held it to her chest, she choked out a sob-tinged laugh. "You didn't have to. Really." She stuttered along a sentence, and the more flabbergasted she became, the wider Deidara smiled. "I mean…where would I wear it to? It's so nice, what if I wrinkled it? And you bought me high heels to match!"
"It's not that big of a deal," he mumbled, feeling a little bashful himself. "I just thought it'd look nice on you. You can where it whenever you want, yeah. I don't care if you wrinkle it or whatever."
She pulled the regular tunic she wore up over her head, revealing an almost see-through white undershirt. The red sweater replaced the tunic, and she stood up the smooth out the creases. Deidara had been right in his choice; the sweater did look good on her, color be damned.
When she sat back down, she moved her chair closer beside him and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. The sentiment said much more than any full-on make-out session ever could, and Deidara felt, for the first time in a long time, butterflies in his stomach. He was engaged to this woman. He'd slept with this woman, shared secrets with this woman, been entrusted with secrets in turn, and if things worked out well in the end, which he was positive they would, he'd be spending his life with her. Normally, the thought would have been repulsive to him, to settle down with anyone, but now…now it didn't seem so bad. He'd had his fair share of the high life, and he'd most certainly lived the low life. A life for him that settled somewhere perfectly in between was now more than overdue.
Deidara ordered them some food, two soups and two salads, and they ate in almost complete silence. It was funny, though, because the silence didn't bother him a bit. It was actually quite comforting. If they'd run out of things to say, that was fine. They'd figure out more of the little details somewhere along the way.