.:.Epilogue.:.

The tunnel - or room, rather - she was in was completely black. She felt nothing, thought nothing. The only thing concerning her was a small white opening further down the tunnel. Her feet willed themselves into action, and she found herself walking towards it at a fast rate.

Then, suddenly, Shikamaru appeared before her, stopping her trek. "Ino," he said softly with a nod.

"Shikamaru!" Ino said with a gasp. "Then that means..." her voice trailed off in thought.

Shikamaru shook his head. "No. You still have a choice. You can choose to continue forward and follow the light, or you can turn back now. I can't tell you what either will do."

"Which did you choose?"

He shook his head again. "I didn't have a choice. I was forced to follow the light."

"W-why were you forced?"

"Because there was no one to tell me otherwise. Now, Ino, you must choose. Do you want to come with me, or do you want to stay with Deidara-kun?"

Tears streamed down her face as all the wonderful memories of she and her lover flashed before her eyes. Was she willing to give that up to be with Shikamaru? "I want to be with Deidara!" She sobbed, needing the blonde male more than Shikamaru, who had never really been her boyfriend in the first place.

Shikamaru nodded his approval and turned his back to her. "Goodbye, Ino. Don't come back anytime soon." He walked into the tunnel, into the light, and it closed shut behind him.

And then she was falling.


Ino opened her eyes slowly, hating the light that seared her retinas. Her vision slowly cleared, and she was able to make out Naruto's figure as he sat beside her, his head buried in her pillow as he cried. Although a deep fatigue controlled her, Ino managed to rest her hand atop Naruto's head, gently ruffling his hair.

Naruto looked up at the touch, tears streaming down his face freely. "I-Ino-hoshi..." he began, stunned.

"Hey, Naruto," she murmured in reply.

"You're alive!" he shouted, jumping to his feet in excitement. Ino winced at the pain in her ears as they rang. "Kami, I thought we lost you." His voice quieted as he gently hugged her. "How are you feeling?" he asked as he backed off her.

Thinking about it, Ino realized that she was pretty comfortable. She repeated this to him, holding her wound in her left hand. "I do feel completely exhausted, though. How long have I been out?"

"Pein-sama and the rest came back early yesterday morning. Sasori-sama and Temari-chan brought the three of you a few hours earlier than that. So I'd say you were out for about twenty-four hours."

"'The three of us'...?" she asked.

"You, Kankuro-kun, and Deidara-kun," Naruto pointed to the bed lying against the far wall. "That's Kankuro-kun." He pointed to the bed to Ino's right - against the right wall - and told her, "And that's Deidara-kun."

Ino looked over at her blonde lover's unmoving body, sorrow wrenching her heart. She could see him breathing carefully, could hear his wheezing. "Did I sound like that?" she murmured, looking back to Naruto.

"Yeah, you did."

"Has he woken up yet?"

Naruto shook his head. "Kankuro-kun hasn't, either. You're the first. But Sasori-sama said they're both in stable conditions and should be fine. He wasn't expecting any of you to wake up before tomorrow."

Ino ignored his last comment, stretching out her right hand as if trying to stroke Deidara's hair.

But he was too far away.

"Naruto, help me." Ino commanded softly as she propped herself up on her elbows, wincing at the shooting pain in her abdomen.

"Hoshi, I don't think you should - "

"Naruto, please! Please, I just want to see him better..." she grunted through gritted teeth as her abdomen scolded her movement.

Naruto, being the person he was, was unable to see her struggling and in pain, and so he wrapped her left arm around her back, helping her to sit upright. She swung her legs over the bed and carefully climbed down off it. Naruto instructed her to wrap her right arm around his shoulders, and so she did.

Ino took a shaky step forward, finding walking easier than she thought it would be. Although exhaustion made her legs feel like jelly, she was able to make it over to Deidara's bed. With Naruto's help, of course.

Deidara looked as peaceful in his sleep. Although his breathing was a little raspy, he still had that peaceful breath of his. "Okay, Naruto, I can stand on my own..." Naruto nodded, letting go.

Ino pulled off Deidara's bandages, revealing the ugly stab wound. "Help me, will you? Hold Deidara up for me."

Naruto had a look of suspicion on his face, but silently obliged.

Carefully, Ino held either side of Deidara's wound and added as much Chakra as she could. She felt her already low energy quickly depleting, but she forced herself to continue.

Her Chakra came to an abrupt halt, and she coughed up some blood. Unable to stand any longer, Ino collapsed onto Deidara's lap. "Hoshi!" Naruto called, but stopped when Deidara laid his hand on her head.

"Ai?" he murmured, slowly sitting upright.

"Umhm," Ino called, looking up to him as best she could.

"You healed me, didn't you?"

"Umhm." Exhaustion was even greater now.

"You didn't need to do that, un."

"If I didn't, then you'd still be sleeping and I'd be freaking out."

Deidara chuckled, stroking her hair. Naruto scooped up her legs and put them onto the bed, so that Ino was resting on it fully. "Arigato," she murmured softly, but found the pain and exhaustion too much to move. She grunted softly with the effort.

"Hoshi?"

"Hn?"

"Can I try to heal you? I can at least give you some of my Chakra...I've got plenty, dattebayo..."

Deidara shot him a glare at the idea of taking off the bandages that covered her chest, but she noticed and said to him, "Come down here, Dei, and hold me up for him." Deidara reluctantly obliged, and Naruto took off the bandages around her stomach. She felt the ones around her breasts slip, and Deidara covered her with his right arm, his left hand on her left shoulder. He was positioned so that, if he spoke, she would hear it first; his mouth was dreadfully close to her left ear.

"Okay," Naruto murmured, "here we go." He placed his hands on either side of the wound and applied his Chakra.

A second later, the stab wound sizzled away, not even leaving a scar. "There!" Naruto shouted happily as he backed off her. "How was that, Ino-hoshi?"

"Perfect," she breathed, studying the place where the wound had been. It was as if she had never been stabbed. And as for the exhaustion - it was gone completely, replaced with a hyperactive rush of energy. "Wow, that's amazing." She made to sit upright fully, but was stopped by Deidara's wary arm, still across her breasts protectively. "Oh, yeah. Naruto, can you go get someone to get our clothes?"

"Oh, yeah! Sasori-sama told me to give them to you if you wake up before he comes in to check on you." He moved over to a rack at the foot of Deidara's bed and grabbed two bundles, handing one to Ino and one to Deidara. "I assumed the one with the bra on top was Hoshi's." The Kyuubi added with a smile.

Ino felt a deep blush cover her cheeks. "Do you mind...?" she murmured.

"Ah, ah." Naruto murmured as he left, closing the door behind him.

"Quickly, un." Deidara instructed as he relinquished his hold on her and tore off the rest of his bandages.

"I know," she replied as she stripped off her own bandages. Her eyes cautiously looked over to Kankuro, but he was still out. Quickly, Ino clipped her bra on, followed by her uniform's shirt and cloak. Sasori had left their pants on.

Once they were fully uniformed again, Naruto knocked on the door and entered.

But it wasn't Naruto who had knocked - it was Sasori. He entered without an invitation, as always, followed by a shouting Naruto. Temari and Sai followed along behind. "I told you, they're - " Naruto was saying, but stopped when he realized that they had finished dressing. "Oh, you're done," he said with a smile, putting his hands behind his head as he always used to.

"Who woke up first?" Sasori asked the two lovers. He sounded tired, as if he had been up since they had returned.

"I did," Ino told him. "Then I healed Deidara, and then Naruto healed me."

"Has Kankuro...?" Temari began, but stopped when she looked over to his seemingly-lifeless body.

"Here, I'll fix that." Ino offered as she walked over to the puppeteer. Temari followed along behind, and excitement in her step. "Can you hold him up for me?" Temari nodded, and Ino proceeded to take the bandages off. Once this was done, she gently held both hands above the wound and applied Chakra. The wound healed faster than it should have, and Ino realized this to be Naruto's Chakra within her.

Kankuro's eyes slowly opened, and he sat upright, moaning. In response, Temari forced a hug with him, tears streaming down her face.

Her work down, Ino returned to Deidara, folding in to his embrace. He kissed her hair, deeply breathed in her scent. Ino closed her eyes in comfort, glad to have survived.

"Hey, Ino-chan," she heard Sai begin, "why's you choose that one? He looks like the type to hide the small size of his penis with a large hairdo."

"What?!" Deidara bellowed, letting her go.

"You hide the size of your shrimpy penis with an oversized hairdo." Sai repeated, sticking his tongue out with a smile. "And you're so defensive because it's true."

"You little - " Ino cut him off with a kiss on the cheek.

"Sai-kun, I love this man. And no, he doesn't have a small penis."

"Thank you," Deidara grunted as he held her again.

"So he has no penis at all?" Sai prodded. "I knew she was a girl. But Ino-chan, I thought you were straight..."

Ino laughed as Deidara fought to keep his hold on her and not on Sai.

Temari and Kankuro approached them then. "Deidara-kun," she began, "are we going to explain everything to Ino-chan now?"

"Hmm?" Ino asked, looking up to Deidara's visible eye. "What is there to tell?" She looked around. Sai, Naruto, Sasori, and Kankuro had gone.

Deidara heaved a heavy sigh and guided her to the bed she had used. Temari took Deidara's, folding her legs and holding her foremost knee with both hands. Deidara began, "Ai...there are some parts to this story that you never knew, un. Parts that Temari-chan played a role in."

Confused and slightly curious, Ino looked over to the Suna kunoichi for enlightenment.

Sighing, Temari began, "Shikamaru and I were never actually together. It was a ploy so that he could be with you, but you would be too scared to get too close with a third party involved. Shikamaru, with the wits he had, was able to detect your depression before it actually hit. He wanted you to be at least a little happy, so he set it up so that you were a cheat object, just so you would experience the thrills of having a man without being able to get too attached. He actually didn't want either of us; he just wanted you to be a little happier.

"Then, through me, he heard of Deidara-kun. He wanted you to be as happy as possible, and so he set you two up to meet."

"That's not possible!" Ino shouted as tears fell. "Tsunade gave my team that mission!"

"But Shikamaru suggested it. With how smart he was, it was easy to convince your Hokage to assign it to your team."

"Of course," Deidara interceded, "I had a role in it, too. I first saw you two years before you 'got together' with Shikamaru, un. All that time I couldn't stop thinking about you.

"Finally, when Temari-chan and her brothers were meeting with Sasori-danna, I happened to mention you, un."

"That's when the plan was created," Temari finished. "I suppose you could say you're here because Deidara-kun was selfish and lust, I was just nice, and Shikamaru cared for you."

"W-wow," Ino stuttered, her fist in front of her mouth.

"His death wasn't planned," Temari promised. "That was a freak accident. Sasori-sama took the body only because he liked Shikamaru's abilities."

"Wow," she murmured again, "I have no idea what to say."

Temari smiled. "I'll leave you two love birds alone now." She hopped off the bed and made to leave.

Her hand was on the doorknob when Ino stopped her. "Wait!"

Temari paused and looked over at her.

"Did you have feelings for Shikamaru?"

Temari ignored the question, opening the door and leaving, closing it behind her.

"Kami," Ino murmured after a moment. The sole reason she hadn't died of depression was that Deidara had fallen in love with her at first sight and that Shikamaru simply cared for her too much.

"Are you mad, un?" Deidara whispered.

"Mad?" Ino repeated, looking over at him. "Why would I be mad? The three of you saved my life." She paused for a moment, considering, "But you are a lusty, selfish bastard."

Deidara laughed, wrapping his arms around her and enveloping her in a kiss. They fell back onto the bed, with Ino on top. After a moment of kissing, Ino backed off and confessed, "I've loved you since the very first day, too...I thought you looked so pretty..."

Deidara laughed again. "Great, I'm pretty, un."

Smiling, Ino continued, "And as I got to know you better, I realized that you were everything I'd ever wanted. In myself. I've always aspired to be a nin as great and artistic as you...Someone who was able to appreciate art to its fullest and speak their mind without holding back. So I guess I've always longed for someone...Just like you."

Deidara returned the smile. "You know, I always dreamed I could be a fighter as good as you. If everything that happened to you were to happen to me, I would crumble to nothing, un. You're strong - I've always seen that. I wanna be just like you, too, un."

They kissed again and Ino laid her head on his chest, her fist close to her mouth, as always. Just underneath her ear, his heart beat diligently.

Definitely human.

BARRIER

The real end! X3 I just couldn't bear killing them off, so I wrote this epilogue. (cue happiness) Now I don't have to cry every time I hear a song that reminds me of this :) And yes, there's gonna be a sequel! w00t!!