Oasis, Chapter 6: Three's a Crowd
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
When Deidara's feet had begun to feel too big for his shoes, he knew they'd been walking a very long while. The afternoon sun drew moisture from his back, and the heated friction made the long jacket he wore feel uncomfortably snug against his skin. With only the thinning grasses and hardly any trees to speak of, there was nothing standing in the way of the elements. He wiped his brow with a palm, grimacing at the taste of salt and grime upon the small lips there. The knuckles of his other hand kneaded invisible clay, and the fruitless movement only made him more restless. Perhaps sacrificing that dragon had not been his brightest idea, in retrospect. At the very least, he could have salvaged a handful or two of clay.
"So, what's with you?" he asked Kimimaro, who maintained a respectable distance several feet to the right.
"I mean, what's your deal? Why're you so gloomy and weird? You'd think it's the end of the world or something, yeah."
Between them, Ino cast Deidara a warning glance, which he ignored. Trudging through an endless sea of wasit-high grass without so much as an Infected squirrel in sight, Deidara was not about to abide this silent death march any longer.
"It is the end of the world," Kimimaro said in a doomsday vampire kind of way that Deidara thought suited him way too well.
Deidara clenched the fist that had been busy molding the clay he wished he had. "You really are an asshole."
Not even a little effort, huh? He's worse than Sasori was.
Kimimaro had nothing to say to that, and the silence was deafening until Ino decided to intervene, as she always did.
"You know, I actually wanted to ask how you even made that dragon back there," Ino said, leaning forward just enough to catch Deidara's eye. "Seems like a big feat for one person."
Deidara smirked, previous annoyance forgotten. "Maybe for any other person, but not for me. What kinda artist would I be if I couldn't even make proper mediums?"
There was a pause as Ino processed this new information. "So it's not the sculpture itself, but the explosion it makes. That's your art?"
The smirk widened into a proper grin. "Aren't you sharp."
"What kind of a lunatic thinks an explosion is art?" Kimimaro said, his eyes still icy despite the sweltering heat.
Deidara's good mood left him with Ino's tired sigh. "Hey, you got somethin' to say about my style? Like you're some great artist yourself, yeah."
"I don't need to be an artist to understand something so basic. All bombs do is destroy. Art is creation."
"That so?" Never one to pass up an opportunity to educate others in the highest expression of beauty, Deidara felt his blood boil from something other than the hot sun. "See, that's how I know you're full of shit. You don't know the first thing about art."
"And I suppose you're going to illuminate me."
"If you insist. You think destruction isn't art, but it's the epitome of art in action. Real art doesn't sit still and wait for those Infected to bring the show, it is the show. You think I'm not creating anything? Destruction is creation! The explosion is art, just like Ino said. At least one of you's got an appreciation for culture, yeah."
Kimimaro waved him off. "Just as I thought."
"You disguise mass arson as 'art' because you're avoiding the hard truth—that it's just another execution. It's an illusion, but it keeps you from going off the deep end completely."
"How 'bout I give you a front row demonstration of my brand of sanity?" Deidara brandished a fist at Kimimaro as if to prove his valor.
Ino closed a firm hand around Deidara's wrist.
"You're falling into his trap. Just let it go. I'm not letting you two fight in this condition."
The voice in his head sounded at once faraway and close, like an echo through a tunnel. It was such an odd experience that he didn't react to her cautionary touch. Ino held his gaze momentarily before releasing him. The ghostly echo dissipated as well, and silence reigned once more.
So she was a mind reader. Okay. He'd seen creepier in his day. As long as Kimimaro wasn't immortal like Hidan, they'd have no problems. Then again, Hidan was long gone, done in by some punks from Konoha. Deidara wondered how the Jashinist would have taken to this world and decided Hidan would have found it just as bleak. Deidara was never a particularly religious person, but he could understand the fervor of a zealot in converting the unbelievers to his god. Better than most, perhaps.
But someone like Kimimaro, he suspected, was above all that. He was as godless as they came, if Deidara had to take a guess. At least Sasori had had vision and purpose to fill the empty shell he paraded around playing at human. This kid seemed to have no higher ideals of which to speak, simply putting one foot in front of the other toward some unknown and uncaring destination, perhaps as uninterested in death as he clearly was in life. Either Kimimaro had never had the good fortune to stumble upon his own incarnation of art, or he'd lost it somewhere along the way.
Finding out, Deidara decided, would be a less boring way to pass the time. If they were the only three people left, he supposed he ought to make the best of his private audience. He wasn't letting them go so easily.
"Why are you laughing?"
Ino's question drew Deidara out of his thoughts, and he realized that he was chuckling to himself. Sasori used to tell him how inconceivable a thing inadvertent laughter was. A sign of mania, he'd said, not of some deep-seated intellectual prowess. They disagreed on most things.
"Just plotting and scheming, y'know, the usual."
There was that unreadable look Deidara was fast associating with Ino. His earlier assessment of her rang in his memory like a bell tolling for trouble ahead—she was smart, and she picked up on things she had no business noticing. It reminded Deidara that he knew next to nothing of his new companions, and they nothing of him. At least, he assumed the latter to be the case since no one had made any self-righteous proclamations of honor and heroism in the name of slaying the last Akatsuki or some bullshit.
His lack of notoriety was depressing, but in this case Deidara counted it as something of a blessing. If it turned out that either Ino or Kimimaro was a ninja from one of the former Hidden Villages with some shred of a conscience still intact, things could get a little awkward.
"Speaking of plotting," Ino said, interrupting his thoughts once more. "What are you going to do about your clay? You're out, right?"
Kimimaro spared them a glance, suddenly interested in this conversation. "Yeah, what good are you to us without it?"
"Listen man, I make the art, not the other way around," Deidara said. "And if you have to know, I don't need the clay to fight. I just prefer it, yeah."
"So where can we get more?" Ino asked. "Can you make it?"
Deidara frowned. "Not exactly. There's a mine in Earth Country with natural deposits. I'd hafta go there."
"Why don't you just use another medium, like rocks or kunai," Kimimaro said, as though this solution were obvious.
"Because my chakra's explosive. I can't infuse it in just any old thing. It's gotta be the clay or nothin', yeah."
"Sounds like you just want to blow more things up instead of prioritizing our survival."
"How far is this mine?" Ino asked, ignoring Kimimaro's baiting.
Deidara considered punching Kimimaro but refrained. Ino wouldn't be happy about it, he could tell, and he wasn't at full capacity. No sense in starting something he couldn't finish. "From Grass Country…maybe a two-week journey on foot."
"What?" Deidara said.
Kimimaro pointed ahead. "That's Nasu, the capital of the Land of Vegetables. We're nearing the border."
Deidara squinted at the horizon, and sure enough he could make out the unnatural, looming shapes of manmade buildings in the distance shimmering with heat. The sea of coarse grass bled yellow up ahead with wildflowers. Deidara had been to the Land of Vegetables once before on Akatsuki business.
"Like flying over sunshine," he'd told Sasori as they'd soared over the endless gold below.
Sasori, who'd violently disdained flowers and all they represented, had not been impressed, to say the least. "Like flying over a sea of death in slow motion."
Right now, Deidara wasn't sure which of them was right. He and his new companions could be walking to their doom and not even know it.
"You've been here before?" Ino asked Kimimaro.
"…A few times. It's a civilian settlement, so shinobi rarely venture out here."
"Unless they have business with the black market underground, yeah," Deidara said.
He got no response, and he wondered whose silence was more telling—Ino's or Kimimaro's.
The plot thickens.
"We can recover there," Kimimaro said with an air of finality.
"And maybe get some new clothes," Ino said, indicating her soiled shirtfront with obvious disgust.
"And beds," Deidara added for good measure. "I'm sick of sleeping on the ground."
With a spring in their steps now that they had a new, realizable goal in mind, the three companions closed in on the beacon of civilization perhaps not entirely forgotten.
Buildings taller than any Ino had ever seen stretched skyward, reaching for an invisible heaven she didn't think existed. Pausing a moment to admire their race frozen in time, she wondered at the feats of man. How could the same people that defied gravity with their vision of progress fall to the Infection? Doubt dug its rancid claws into her, and she rubbed her arms for warmth despite the heat of the late afternoon. Screams rang in her ears, and she nearly turned around expecting to see Hinata, blood welling in those pretty, pale eyes as the rest of her pretty, pale body was ripped to shreds by too many Infected.
A hand on Ino's shoulder made her jump.
"Whoa, hey, you okay?" Deidara asked, giving her a weird look.
Ino swallowed, suppressing the horrible memory and nodding. "Fine, just thinking."
"Ino, do a scan. I'd rather not have any surprise guests today," Kimimaro said, brushing by them.
"Yeah," Ino said, initiating the familiar technique. After a few moments, she opened her eyes. "There's no one here."
It was comforting and miserable. Maybe they really were the only ones left if even a city as sprawling as this was just a ghost town now.
"Good. We need shelter and food. And new clothes," Kimimaro said, already taking off down what appeared to be the main street leading to downtown.
"Food first, yeah," Deidara said, falling into step.
"I guess I'm the only one who would prefer a shower first," Ino said, shaking her head.
"Speak for yourself," Deidara said. "Blood's a good color on me."
Despite herself, Ino had to laugh. "Well, if it looks good on you, then it looks good on me, too," she said, winking.
It was Deidara's turn to chuckle. "I won't argue with that, yeah. Can't say the same for Vampire Bill over there."
Ino laughed again, and Deidara smiled just a little. She had a nice laugh.
Kimimaro, of course, did not rise to the bait. But Ino didn't mind. In the end, they decided to chow down on granola bars until they could clean up and procure proper food. Ino was delighted to be clean again, of course, and Deidara was delighted at the prospect of home cooking.
"I'm going to look for rooms that aren't trashed," Kimimaro said when they reconvened in the lobby of a hotel where they'd taken their showers and changed into the last spare clothing they had—pajamas for Ino. "You two find food."
"Don't you wanna get some new clothes? You've gone through more shirts than Infected since I've known you," Ino said, smiling a little.
Kimimaro held her gaze for a moment, and Ino suddenly wondered what he was thinking. She had an idea, since it was what she'd been trying to avoid dwelling on for the past couple of days, but so far nothing had come of it. Ino was patient, and when he was ready to give her some answers, she'd be ready with questions.
"…Just get me whatever. You can guess my size by now, I'm sure." He turned toward the key rack and began gathering the ones still there.
Deidara snorted, but Kimimaro ignored him and disappeared up the stairs. "I'd say that was his way of being intimate, but I'm pretty sure the only thing that guy's ever been intimate with is his left hand."
Ino rolled her eyes. "Don't be crass. Kimimaro's not like that."
Deidara followed her outside the hotel, which was a good twenty stories tall and in the middle of downtown. "He's a dude and a shinobi. We'd marry our left hands if we could since there aren't usually better prospects in our line of work, yeah."
She wanted to fight the grin but decided not to—why bother? Deidara was funny when he wanted to be, and laughing a little at Kimimaro's expense wasn't the worst crime she'd ever committed. "Thanks. Now I won't be able to look at him the same way again."
"Shouldn't be looking at him at all, if you ask me. He's just like a guy I used to know, all pretty-faced and heartless. Real lady-killer, but like, literally, yeah."
They made their way down the deserted main street, weathered stone buildings looming over them. For a place hailed as a farming capital of the continent, there was nothing natural or picturesque about this place. It was all glass, stone, and steel, so different from the dwellings she'd grew up with. Ino had always wanted to visit the civilian settlements when she was younger, excited about new environments and cultures, not to mention the exotic clothing and foods that surely filled them. But not like this. Not when she felt the need to tiptoe through what she imagined was once a bustling metropolis filled with life and laughter. It didn't even smell like a city. There was nothing but dust, a relic of something that once was great but no longer.
"Hey, over here," Deidara said, ducking into a store without waiting.
"Wait up!" Ino called, following after him. Inside was something that made her jaw drop. The largest and most diverse selection of clothing, everything from swimsuits to ball gowns filled the spacious interior. Stairs in the back suggested another level above with even more wares. For the life of her, Ino could not move.
"Hello?" Deidara waved a hand in front of her face, the tongue on his palm waggling at her.
"Oh shit!" Ino brought a hand to her mouth, not having expected something quite like that. "Is that a mouth on your hand?"
Deidara frowned and looked at his hand, as though he didn't even realize it himself. "Yeah. That's how I make my magic."
Well, I suppose we've all got our quirks.
"You comin' or what? And you better not take all night. I'm hungry, yeah," Deidara said, walking deeper into the store.
She smiled. "I guess I definitely can't argue with your perfect marriage to your left hand anymore."
Deidara burst out laughing from his spot halfway up the stairs, and Ino felt a true smile give way to her own giggles. She'd missed this. It felt so good to hear the sound of another person's laughter.
Kimimaro was relieved to be rid of his traveling companions for the time being. While he wanted to keep them close, he couldn't deny that it was sometimes hard to think and reflect with them around. Considering all the major changes that had taken place recently, he was long overdue for alone time.
Most of the rooms on the lower floors were trashed, as to be expected, and he didn't want to bother with the doors for which he didn't have keys. Breaking down the door seemed uncivil somehow, and the idea of sleeping without at least a door between Deidara and himself was appalling.
Old blood chunky with what he suspected was brain matter smeared the walls of the fifth floor hallway. Kimimaro quietly decided not to bother with the lower floors at all and start from the top. The twentieth floor was just one big room, although he could not imagine the use of such large quarters. But the interior was clean and untouched. A grand king-size bed sat overlooking a view of the city, which was magnificent if he was being honest. Looking down at the street below, he wondered where Ino and Deidara had gotten to and if Ino was serious about having a flair for cooking. They'd find out soon enough, so there was no point in thinking about it.
A door led to a separate bedroom with a smaller queen-size bed, also untouched. The marble bathroom was grander than any Kimimaro had ever used before, and he had to take a minute to examine the different travel-size bottles provided by the hotel, wondering what on earth the difference between hand lotion and body lotion could be. He suspected Ino would have more insight into this part of the room and left it at that.
Thoughts of his blonde companion made him frown. She was waiting for him to come forward, he figured. There'd been a couple of opportunities for her to broach the subject of his Cursed Seal of Earth on the road when they had a moment alone. She could communicate telepathically, so she could have chosen a moment even in broad daylight to raise the issue. But she'd refrained thus far, and as much as Kimimaro didn't want to admit it, he appreciated her patience as he tried to gather his thoughts and figure out what to say to her.
Kimimaro prodded the king-size bed with a tentative hand, suspecting it to be too soft for his tastes. He needed Ino, that much was more than obvious at this point, and she needed him. Deidara was still a matter of debate, and Kimimaro knew he could have made a last-ditch effort in the event that the mad bomber hadn't shown up when he did back at the burning field. But that was neither here nor there. Deidara was with them now, and if he crossed them Kimimaro had already decided he would personally address the issue.
What Ino thought was what bothered him the most despite his best efforts. As the light of day slowly slipped away and left the room to shadows, Kimimaro wondered about it all. What did she think about his clear association with Orochimaru? Would he have to explain everything now? Did he even have the words to do so? He wasn't sure, but he knew putting it off for much longer would only lead to a confrontation, and he needed her cooperation.
For now, though, he had more pressing matters to deal with, like how they were going to resolve three people with two beds. There was no way he was giving up a bed for Deidara, but he didn't think Deidara would do so for him, either. And that left Ino, who most certainly would not sleep on the couch without a fight.
It's the end of the world and I'm worrying about this.
Kimimaro rubbed his temples to ease an oncoming headache.
"So? What do you think?"
"I think you look menacing with that wooden spoon in your hand, yeah."
Ino rolled her eyes but put the spoon back in the pot. Dinner was nothing too special—turkey stew she'd convinced the boys to wait for if they wanted something better than dehydrated fruit and jerky for once. The hotel's kitchen had survived the Infected, it seemed, and Ino had quite the arsenal of cookware at her disposal. Delighted to be doing something she liked, something normal, she got lost in the process and didn't even realize the time slipping by until Kimimaro had to tell her to hurry up.
"It's good," Kimimaro said, looking up from his bowl only briefly in between bites.
Ino didn't fight the smug smile at his approval. "Just good?"
"This is fucking awesome," Deidara said, lifting his own bowl to his mouth to finish off the broth. "I'll take more, yeah."
Ino just laughed. "Great, and you can feel free to help me clean up after, you know."
Tomorrow she wanted to do something a little more complicated, she decided. Ino was a good cook, better than the other girls in her year had been, and she liked it. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cooked anything properly since the outbreak, and tonight felt like an accomplishment more meaningful than any number of Infected she took out. Just seeing their faces light up in anticipation of the food she prepared was enough.
"We'll rest here for a while," Kimimaro announced as they made their way back upstairs to what Ino had informed his was the penthouse room. "Ino, you can cook again while we're here."
She smirked. It was the most she'd get out of him, most likely, but it was enough. "Sure."
"Now that's what I'm talking about, yeah," Deidara said once they stepped into the room and Kimimaro closed the door behind them. Kicking off his shoes, Deidara went to the king-size bed and was about to flop down on it when a firm hand yanked him back.
"Your bed is through there," Kimimaro said, indicating the open door to the smaller bedroom.
Deidara pulled his hand away and took advantage of the couple inches in height he had over Kimimaro. "What's wrong with this bed, hm? You got some kinda claim over it?"
Ino was not in the mood to spoil the good atmosphere they'd developed over dinner, however tenuous. Reaching for both their wrists, she waited until she had everyone's attention.
"There are two beds, so it's the same thing anyway," she said. "Come on, guys, don't fight over something like this."
"Where're you gonna sleep? The floor?" Deidara asked.
"Ino will sleep here," Kimimaro said, prying her fingers away from his hand and moving to the opposite side of the wide bed.
She thought he was kidding for a moment until she remembered that Kimimaro was not the type to joke about anything at all. It was no big deal—they'd shared a bed before without a fuss—but the way he said it as though his word was law threw her. Deidara shot her a knowing look that said 'I told you so'.
"Well, don't let me interrupt, yeah," Deidara said, slipping out of Ino's grip and heading for the other bedroom. "And watch out for that left hand."
Ino thought about telling him off but decided it wasn't worth it. Instead, once she was alone with Kimimaro she put her hands on her hips. "Wanna tell me what that's all about?"
"You wouldn't have agreed to sleep on the floor."
He was so guileless that she couldn't even think of what to say to that. So she just sighed and trudged to the bathroom. He wouldn't explain something he found useless, anyway, and she knew there was nothing to read into. Not with Kimimaro.
Under the sheets with only the slim light of the moon to keep them company, Ino and Kimimaro lay still and silent in the lavish bed with two bodies worth of space between them. Her body ached for proper rest but her mind was having none of it. It was another one of those situations in which they were alone, a perfect opportunity to broach the issues filling her with doubt about him and this partnership and their survival, but she didn't know where to begin.
So you used to work for Konoha's public enemy number one?
Right. That would go over so well. Perhaps a different approach then, since Kimimaro seemed unwilling to say anything even though Ino knew he was awake.
"You know," she said softly, "your illness may be curable."
Silence stretched for a long time, and Ino thought for sure he would not respond or worse, react with hostility like the last time she'd mentioned it.
"...Why do you say that?"
She turned her head to look at him, but through the gloom it was hard to make out the expression on his face. "When I eased your cough after we fought Hidan, I got a look at your lungs. I'm not the most stellar medic in the world, but I think there's something I could do."
"I won't indulge your false hope."
He sounded tired, as though this was something he'd had to recite over and over. She wondered if that was the case, and it made her inexplicably sad.
"I'm not a great medic, but I'm pretty good with botany. What you have is a little different from what I've seen before so I can't guarantee it'll work, but it's worth a shot. I can make you a medicine that should help."
It was a physical struggle not to invade his thoughts right then. She'd gotten the uncanny feeling he was waiting for death, marching to the ends of the earth in search of it like that night when they'd first met, and she didn't know if he would be happy about this news. But Ino had had enough time to think about what she'd learned examining him, and she was certain there must be something she could do for him. There was no sense in not trying, but it depended on Kimimaro.
"I told you to forget about all this," he said.
"I know. But I can't just watch as you slowly die right in front of me without even putting up a fight."
Kimimaro sighed and turned his head to face her through the darkness. "Not even Yakushi Kabuto was able to cure me in the end."
That name said so much. Ino felt her heart rate speed up just thinking about the twisted medic she'd met long ago during the Chuunin exams. He was Orochimaru's right-hand man, and this new information only confirmed what she'd suspected—Kimimaro had once been associated with the snake Sannin. Common sense and old habits told her that sleeping with the enemy was a bad move, but he didn't lash out like the last time she'd intruded on his secrets. What did that mean? Did he trust her?
"Give me one good reason to trust him."
"For the same reasons I've decided to trust you."
Did she trust him, truly? What choice did she have? If Kimimaro and Deidara were all that was left of this broken world, how could she stand by and let them slip away? The thought of being alone again with only the terrors of the night to keep her company was the worst fate imaginable.
Slowly, so that he could pull away if he wanted to, Ino scooted across the bed and reached for Kimimaro's hand. His skin was cold to the touch, so she pressed his hand between both her palms, entwining their fingers. All the while he didn't so much as twitch.
"I don't give up very easily," she said.
She thought he would push her away for invading his personal space like this, but he didn't. There were still so many questions left unanswered—why he'd worked with Orochimaru and Kabuto; why he was sick to begin with; how and why he'd escaped Sound. But they had all the time in the world. If they were the only ones left, she would ensure that no number of Infected came between them and Deidara.
And Deidara. We're three.
For the second time that day, Ino was unable to stop a real smile from spreading across her face even as he turned his head away. "Goodnight, Kimimaro."
She didn't let go of his hand all night.