DISCLAIMER: I do not own Naruto or any of the characters. All rights belong to Masashi Kishimoto. I only own my OC's (Original Characters), if any appear. Oh, and this particular fanfic. Thank you.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Take the Long Way Home

O-oh, man...'GULP' So much for not feeling awkward...it's like a mini army of Harunos! Minus the hair, and the uniform, and the forehead, and the eyes...I think I'll stop now.

The group had stopped dead in their tracks, as a bright light had suddenly been turned on above them. The double doors had slammed shut with such force that Ino had been briefly tempted to yell out "It's a trap!" I mean, who would honestly slam a pair of giant doors, unless they were extremely giddy about something? It was like they were saying 'We've got you now! Mwahahahahahahahahaha!' Yeah, cue the evil laughter.

But back to the setting itself. The room seemed almost cylindrical in nature; it was circular, which meant no corners. And it extended far upwards above their heads, like a wide tube. The various members that were present were seated upon pedestal-like chairs attached to oversized desks that they would peer over every few minutes. Was it really that hard to keep track of their subjects below? Ino found that to show a lack of thought, as far as practical planning went.

The walls were a faded shade of blue-grey that seemed to glow pearly white, thanks to that gigantic light bulb above their heads. Ino couldn't even look up at it directly. Her attention didn't reach any farther than the officials above them.

Tsunade was seated in the center, flanked by a brunette and two Demon Hunters who had one Hunter each at their sides. They all carried their own pistols, though Ino took note of the fact that they weren't nearly as eye-catching. Their choices in clothing weren't quite as bizarre as Sakura's own uniform.

To their sides were two ANBU soldiers, clad in the full masks and uniforms-which Ino had been taught of prior to this-unlike Kakashi and his simple Jounin outfit. From the corner of her eye, Ino saw the man give them a brief salute, before nudging Gaara forwards a few steps. Okay, maybe 'shoved' is a better word for it. The redhead was steamed, as he just barely avoided falling flat on his face. Not only was his power on lockdown, but his wrists and ankles had also been bound. He was on something of a leash, if you will. It was tricky shuffling.

Ten people above them. Ten judges.

"Alright, alright...let's get this show started." Tsunade's cheeks were flushed slightly, but her behavior wasn't too questionable. Ino figured that she hadn't gotten smashed early in the a.m, like she'd thought would happen. She was merely buzzed. "The re-licensing of Haruno Sakura, and the, uh...trial of Sabaku no Gaara! Yeah...that's right." Re-licensing? Still, just a buzz...

Sakura gulped audibly, but no one aside from Ino seemed to notice it. She gave a fleeting glance to the pinkette, watching as she began to take a few steps forwards. Ino turned her attention towards the front, feeling her chest tighten and her breathing slow, seeing Sakura bend down on one knee with her head lowered. Tsunade gave a short nod, and cleared her throat.

"Yes, well...we have gathered here to observe the reinstatement of your fellow officer, Class-C rank Demon Hunter Haruno Sakura." She smirked a bit. "Although I think you may be up for a promotion soon...keep your eyes open, kid." To her left, one of the Hunters paled visibly; a male with light colored hair that reached his shoulders, and a bandana with a metal plate over the front on his head. Ino pondered the thought. Class-B Demon Hunter Haruno Sakura...she didn't know if she'd like the sound of that. Only if she'd get to see that status in action every day. She folded her arms across her chest.

Tsunade continued on. "However, at one point, you were stripped of your title, and banished...to Earth, where you were supposed to be quiet and bored. I even sent that guy down t'keep an eye on you!" She nudged a thumb in Kakashi's direction. "I know you had rough beginnings, and I know that you only wanted to help, but damn girl-you were a wreck!" She chuckled softly, shaking her head. Sakura looked up at her, and Ino could see the admiration shining in her green eyes-at least, until she was forced to turn away because of the light. Ino sighed.

"But. I had no idea that the negative demonic population had exploded like this. So many lost souls, and all those attacks-yes, I saw them all. Every last battle of yours. We have our ways. And I also saw something else, something I hadn't expected from exile.

"I saw a Demon Hunter: a truly skilled warrior who knew how to get the job done-and, as time went by, learned how to keep the collateral damage down to a minimum. I saw a woman who stood up to her challenges, and never backed down-although she knew she was doing it in direct violation of my orders. I have to give you props for that spine. Once I saw what was really going on, the rules didn't matter.

"We let Kakashi know that, too. I mean, really." She snorted. "If I'd said so, he would've had you bound and powerless in an instant. But I told him to let you keep going, and in fact to help you out as much as possible." Her amber gaze wandered, this time to drift between Ino and Gaara.

The blonde started to feel antsy. Desperate for a distraction, she looked at Kakashi with a scowl. "You were in contact with them before this? So you knew they were gonna grab us!" Her hissing whisper paired with the expression of frustration and anxiety made for a frightening image. The silver-haired male tried not to shiver. "N-no, you've only got it half-right there. Yes, I was in contact with them, but no, I had no idea about the pickup. They never told me anything about that, so I was just as much in the dark as the rest of you." By the time he finished explaining, his calm demeanor had returned completely.

Ino's eyes narrowed, but she relaxed, returning her focus towards the speaker above. Tsunade was playing with the end of one of her pigtails. She raised an eyebrow at the girl below. "Oh, right. You two. Where do you fit in? Well..." The woman looked at Gaara. "You're a criminal, that's the short and short of it. And you..."

Her eyes were searching Ino, without even twitching. "You...oh, you're special." She grinned broadly. "Yes you are. See, we didn't think that you actually existed. But you do. Just like Konohagakure's a demon cesspool on Earth." She looked a bit sheepish now. "Heh...maybe we should check how things are being recorded 'round here..."

Now Sakura was looking back and forth between Ino and her former mentor with a strange gleam in her eye. "Sensei, are you saying what I think you're trying to imply?" Her green eyes were round and wide. She looked like a pet begging for a treat.

Tsunade gave her a pointed look. "Well, if you'd let me finish, then yes, I will finish my 'implications' and say it already!" Sakura snickered, but soon quieted down to allow Tsunade to resume her story.

"You must remember the famous Battle between the Two frontiers: Heaven and Hell themselves. Light and dark, good and evil, yin and yang." She gave Ino a sympathetic look. "Oh, you wouldn't understand this even if I explained it to you. Such narrow minds you have down there. Let's just say that way back when-starting before you were born-the two sides got thrown out of whack on your planet, sending the two energies into a fighting frenzy. It was a real time of conflict. The backlash was strong enough to reach here. We had to fight to stay stable. There were a lot of shooting stars and fireballs during that time. The defeated: fallen angels and demons alike. And exactly where do you think they fell? Do the math: we're above, you're below." She wagged a finger at the blonde girl.

"That's right-you must've been born on the night of a falling star. The angel sought refuge in the body of a new soul entering the planet-but obviously, it couldn't possess you. Just its energy lingered on...kid, you've been tremendously blessed here." She flashed her the thumbs up. "Thanks for proving the legends right."

Ino was struggling to understand this new information. So she...was she a reincarnation, or just drenched in angel dust? Sakura could see the consternation on her companion's face. Standing up and striding over from her place upon the floor, she draped an arm over Ino's shoulders. "Yeah, I'mma do the rest of the ceremony from here, just like this." She planted a kiss upon the blonde's cheek, and she felt her heart do a loop-de-loop. "Okay?" The pinkette stuck out her tongue with a smirk. "Now, on with the pomp and circumstance!" She swung her other arm into the air, fist clenched.

Tsunade huffed. "Same as always. No real respect for tradition...but meh. I can let it slide today." She winked. "Now, I'm pretty certain that this whole meeting's been riding you worse than a bungee-wedgie, so why don't we just hurry up and get it over with, eh?" She reached out across her table, picking up a pen to begin filling out the necessary paperwork. "And with this...all written out...there we go! All done! With us as your witnesses," and she motioned towards the rest of her group, "you, Haruno Sakura, have been reinstated as a Demon Hunter!"

She leaned over and reached down, holding something small and thin between her fingers. "Here you go. Your license. Don't lose it again, hm?" Sakura extended her arm, collecting the little plastic card and holding it eye-level for examination. Yep...it's definitely my license. I'm back in business, baby!

It was still the same: the glittery sticker that she'd stuck on one side, the frayed lower left corner-thanks, teething demon infant!-and the photograph of her posing with her guns. Most people just liked seeing their faces, all neat and clean. But not her. She wanted anyone who saw her card to know that it belonged to someone who'd dealt it out in a scrap or two. Which was why she'd shown up for her photo looking like someone from a bomb fallout. Ino had to hold back a laugh; if she started, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to stop.

Then, Sakura's elation seemed to fade. Her eyes were cloudy, as she looked at Ino, then the card in her hand. She looked up at Tsunade. "Sensei...am I gonna have to move in after this is over? I mean, back into my old house?"

The woman blinked. "Well yeah, I guess so-unless you wanted to wait until sometime later? I mean, you're gonna have to go there at some point. You don't really have anything to unpack though, so..." She trailed off. "It shouldn't take too long. But yes, you will be moving back to your previous residence."

The pinkette sighed, looking weary. Her emerald eyes lingered on the card in her hand. Then, she looked upwards once more. "Then, with all due respect, I...I can't accept this. I can't stay here."


'BMP-BMP' W-what? Ino was stupefied. Had she heard Sakura right? She'd just gotten her Demon Hunting license back-the thing she'd wanted more than anything, and she was turning it down? When had the world gone bonkers?

Tsunade was puzzled. "Wait...you don't wanna be a Hunter now? What's going on?"

Sakura swallowed hard. "It's not that I don't wanna be a Demon Hunter, I just...I don't wanna do it here." Her voice was so imploring. "This place is my homeland, and I do love it, and my friends, but...to stay here, we'd have to separate." Her voice wavered slightly. "I wanna stay on Earth, and hunt the monsters there...with my Pig." S'not like it'd be so impossible, anyway-now that I'm not banished, I can actually keep in contact with my buddies via communicators. Simple pimple. She looked away then.

Ino had to hug her, just for having the guts to take such a stand, and for being so adorable. You screwball cutie-pie...!

Tsunade was still lost. Perhaps she wasn't as sober as Ino had first pegged her for? "Wait...you wanna stay on Earth? And hunt there? But, I mean, well-"

Kakashi cut her off. Sakura was now looking at him in astonishment. "With all due respect, Hokage-sama, you did say yourself that there was a higher demon population down there than you'd first expected. Why would it be such a stretch to have a Hunter set up, to keep an eye on things?"

"But-teams on missions outside of the kingdom need four people! This way, there'd only be the two of them! I can't authorize that!" Kakashi chuckled. "Well, you've already got your group. You're looking at them." He waved a hand around in a circle, to emphasize his point.

"BWAHAHAHAHAHA!" Tsunade burst out laughing. Kakashi flinched-he wasn't sure if that was better or worse than being chewed out.

"Oh...oh my God! Are you serious?" Tsunade's face was bright red from her earlier fit of giggles. "Not that you're not qualified, but that's just it! You're an ANBU officer, not a Demon Hunter specifically! Your main job is to protect our kingdom, as well as yours truly!" She chuckled softly. "If you leave, then the teams will be uneven."

"And this is a bad thing how?" The blonde woman's eyes narrowed dangerously, as she cast a stony glare in Gaara's direction. Kakashi wanted to slap him silly. Did he want to wind up in prison? He was wrangling a real Golden Ticket here! Gaara simply continued to stare, lower lip jutting out slightly in a defiant pout. Was she affected by more than just alcoholism?

Kakashi cleared his throat loudly. "Well, I'm sure that if you looked through the Jounin ranks, you'd find someone more than suitable to take my place." Tsunade raised a hand, mouth open and ready to protest, but she stopped, realizing that the man did have a valid point. Recruitment trials would be opening up in about a week's time. She could certainly find a replacement. Furiously, she wracked her brain for a new counterargument.

"Ah! But what about him?" She pointed an accusing index finger in the redhead's direction. "He's a criminal! How could you possibly keep him on your team? You can't trust him!"

"What?" Ino had had enough. This woman's logic was driving her batty! She marched forwards, before Sakura or any of the others had a chance to say otherwise. Hands planted on hips, she fixed the Hokage with a stormy gaze.

"No disrespect, ma'am, but I thought you said that you saw every battle we've been involved in! Is that true?" The teen's commanding tone was startling. Tsunade leaned back, eyes wide in astonishment. "I, I-well, umm...yeah, I did?" She gave Ino a meek grin.

"Then you of all people should have seen it for yourself! Gaara worked as part of a team-he followed orders, and helped to save all of our hides! Yes, he has a record! But why can't he work it off?" She spun on her heel dramatically, pointing at the bewildered group behind her. "Make a team of fighters specifically for Konohagakure on Earth! He can be a member, and work off his offenses by taking down evil in the name of the Hokage!"

Now she gestured wildly towards Tsunade. "Think of the honor! The glory being wrought, under your order!" Then she flashed a blindingly charming smile. "Besides, we all work so well together." With that, she made her way back to Sakura, sharing a quick kiss before leaning against her with a satisfied smirk.

Sakura wanted to swing her around and do some mad ballroom dancing. If Demon Hunting didn't pan out, for whatever reason, Ino could surely score a career as a lawyer...or an actress. Yes, she'd stood up to the Hokage, of all people. But, she'd managed to come up with a solution to Gaara's dilemma. Not only that, but it carried over to her and Kakashi's situations as well. And, the most important thing of all:

She'd appealed directly to Tsunade's ego.

After a few more moments of quiet indecision, the busty leader broke into a smile, and pounded her fist upon the tabletop. "Alright, sold! You got yourself an Earth Hunting Force, and some major community service, on his part!" She shook a finger in Gaara's direction. "Be thankful, kid-if it weren't for Miss Angel over there, you would've found yourself rocking out some silver chains in a prison cell!" Gaara didn't say anything, simply choosing to nod slowly in return. His expression was neither happy nor upset. Sakura knew this stance.

As soon as we're outside, he'll start up. If nothing else, he's gonna be grinning so hard...that creepy smile he gets when he's enjoying the bloodlust...but he may start chuckling, too...She shivered, and looked back at Ino beside her, to take her mind off the sinisterly joyful mental image. The blonde was beaming at her, baby blues seeming to swirl and glitter. "So, this is it, huh? We've finally made it..."

"Not quite." Those two words interrupted their discussion-how could Tsunade hear her when her voice was purposefully lowered? She must be listening in! Annoyed, she merely glanced upwards at the smirking leader. "What now?"

"You still need your license." Ino gaped at her. "Don't think I forgot your role in all this." She bent down, apparently sifting through the contents of an unseen drawer on her side of the desk. Pulling out a couple sheets of white paper with neat type, she began scribbling away. "And...here!" She swung her arm down, brandishing the sheets in front of a still speechless Ino. "Sign these!"

Ino stepped forwards again, this time much more timidly. Gingerly, she took the forms in her hand, looking over the content with a keep eye. It's...these are...Her breath seemed to have solidified in her throat-or had the passageway shrunk from the force of the multiple bombshells? These are the forms...for becoming a D-Demon Hunter...! She was trembling violently.

Sakura let out a little whoop of delight. "Oh, yeah! Slam dunk!" She skipped over to where Ino stood, and turned herself around so that her back was facing the teen's front. "Go on-fill those suckers out!" She giggled, and reached up to collect the pen that Tsunade now offered. Ino took the thin instrument, and pressed the sheets firmly against the pinkette's shoulder blades. With slow, deliberate strokes, she filled in each necessary blank and box, until all three forms had been completed. She handed them up to the Hokage in a dreamlike trance.

'BAM' The woman had stamped the last paper. "And, done! You are officially recognized as a licensed Demon Hunter-though you are only D-Rank. But when you come back up for evaluations-don't worry, it's only once a year-you can try for a new level!" Sakura gave her an encouraging smile. "And you'll have me there t'guide you, though I think you're doing just fine on your own." The blonde felt lighter than air.

She was a hero. She was a real, honest-to-God Demon Hunter...not just a convenient sidekick to Sakura-she was doing things! She was important! She was helping others...she had a purpose. She looked up at Tsunade with a new reverence. The woman chuckled. "You can take your picture after the meeting lets out, which is...right now! Oh!" She stood up.

There was a 'DING', and the overhead light began to dim. There was a lot of sighing and shuffling, as the other members arose and stretched, before heading for the doors. Ino realized then that they hadn't done much of anything during the entire course of proceedings, and wondered then if their appearance was only for show. What a cop-out; worried for nothing! No judge, jury, or executioner here...Oh, well. We win!

The Hokage stood in the doorway. She gave a last glance back towards the newly recognized four-member cell. Her eyes lingered on Ino. "You'll get your card in about a day. Then you can go back." She gave a short salute. "Later!"

As she walked away, the sounds of eager female chattering and cheering fading behind her, a final thought lingered on the corners of her mind, causing a small smirk to tug at her lips. They curled up towards the left.

Thanks for reigning her in. I always wondered if she had another half...a better half. Guess I've found it. Take care of each other now...and keep makin' us look good up here. She slipped around a corner.

The doors closed softly as the group left at last, far more quietly than when they'd first arrived. It was a reassuring sign of things to come.


"Ino! Are you almost ready to leave?"

"Yeah, mom! I'll be down in a second!"

It was a fresh new morning in the city of Konohagakure. The sun streamed down over the various buildings and figures, as they set out to complete their daily routines for the day. Cars drove, horns blared, doors opened and closed with each new batch of footfalls that passed through them, and voices mingled in the crisp air of sunup. It was a symphony perfectly attuned to the patterns of modern-day human life.

Nestled among a batch of cream-colored houses was Ino's abode, and at the moment said girl was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, adjusting her hair. The ends of her bangs kept grazing under her right eye, and after a good few years in the same style she couldn't decide if she liked it this way or not. After all the hullaballoo that she'd gone through to reach this point, she figured she was entitled to at least a moment's worth of real teenaged mini-drama. Oh, status quo! I just can't quit you.

Short or long? Falling forwards, or tucked back? She had choices, but no leads on which was the way to go. Maybe I should get a second opinion...Huffing softly with a furrowed brow, the blonde chose to leave her hair concerns be, at least until she was downstairs. Facing the closed bathroom door, she turned the knob and pulled it open.

The sound of a clearing throat made her jump. Whirling to her right, Ino came face-to-face with none other than a smiling Sakura, leaning against the wall. Dressed in that familiar red uniform, she was a sight for sore eyes. Ino returned the expression, before falling back into her previous puzzled pout. The pinkette blinked. Then, she sighed. "Alright, Pig. What is it now?" The teen regarded her with a slow tilt of her head. "Sorry? What?"

"Something's buggin' you. We've been living and goin' together for three months now-I can tell when you've got a heavy mind." She flashed Ino a smug grin, tapping at her temple with her index. "Like a rock." Ino shook her head, blonde ponytail swinging and bobbing behind her. The motion reminded her of her previous questioning in front of the glass. When she looked back at Sakura, it was to regard her with an eye-roll and a grin of her own.

"Sorry to bum you out, but it's no big deal. No dramas. Just some adolescent appearance issues. Vanity." Sakura's eyebrows lifted upwards, as if to say 'oh, really? She was still smiling, though. "Do go on-this, I wanna hear."

"Yeah, well...do you think I should change my hair?" Now Ino was fiddling with the end of her long bangs once again. Her knuckles brushed against the edge of her chin. "I mean, not that I don't like all this, but...maybe it's time for something new?" She glanced back at the pinkette before her hopefully.

Sakura burst out laughing. Ino had no idea how to interpret this. But she allowed the Hunter to wrap an arm around her shoulders, guiding her down the hall and towards the stairs. Sakura's pink locks framed her cheeks as she looked over at her beloved partner-in-crime. She's still got a few things to learn...

"Ino-Pig, why you always gotta want t'be messing with yourself? I mean, you're fine the way you are now!" She coughed. They had reached the top of the landing. "To me, anyways. Yeah. But..."

"Meh." Sakura then leaned in, to give her a sweet peck on the lips. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Nobody else seems to see a need for you to change, so I really don't see why you wanna worry your pretty lil' head over it. We got bigger fish to fry, anyways!" The girl bounded down the stairs, and after a few more seconds of silent contemplation, Ino made her way down as well.

She's right. It's no big deal. To be honest, I like this look. It suits me well. So I think I'm gonna keep it for a little while longer. Satisfied and beaming, the blonde pattered into the kitchen to make breakfast.

Akane was seated at the dining table. A warm mug of coffee was in her hands, but she placed it down to look up as Ino walked in. Her blue eyes no longer bore that haunted gaze, and she was genuinely smiling as she greeted her daughter. Giving her a quick hug, the woman then looked forwards, nodding at her companion in the doorway. "Good morning, Sakura." She returned the greeting with a light wave. "Yo."

Yes. Ino had told her everything. After she'd been brought home from the hospital, discharged a week following her daughter. Well, the Ino-clone, anyway. She'd made sure to introduce Kakashi and Gaara, too. If they hadn't shown up to chase off Kaijuu when he'd first appeared, buying the blonde more time as well as calling 911, well...Ino didn't dwell on the thought very long.

With all that they'd been through; how close she'd come to losing her mother forever, Ino surmised that it wasn't worth keeping this secret life. Maybe from everyone else in the world, yes. But not her mom. Not the person that had brought her into this world; the woman who had birthed her. The woman she had jumped head-first into her own personal Hell to save.

It wasn't like she hadn't been willing to listen, though. Akane had been through her own hellish nightmare, and upon awakening in the hospital had come to the realization that things...they were exceptionally different from what she had seen in her mind's eye years before, as a young girl. This wasn't the life she had planned for, wasn't the life she could have foreseen.

But it was all she had. One shot, to make it count-and she was wasting it away; trapped, at the bottom of a bottle. She had responsibilities. She had obligations. More importantly, she had no happiness. At least, she wouldn't if she kept to this road of self-destruction. How close had she gotten not only to death, but to losing her only child? She'd nearly driven her away.

It was a lot of work, they knew. Aside from keeping Ino's 'extra-curricular activities' on the down-low, along with Sakura's general existence, Ino was also playing the role of guardian, as Akane went through the bitter struggle of severing oneself from the cruel specter of addiction. This was a good day-three months, and so far she'd had not but two slips. Akane had a strong will, when she truly chose to invoke it on a positive level. Sakura could see where her partner had inherited her resilience from.

There were some stumbling blocks, though. Because of the extent of the damage to her insides from the constant boozing, as well as the coma, Akane had to take in the occasional checkup in order to keep an eye on things; make sure the damage didn't become worse in any manner. So far, so good. But she'd been cutting it pretty close. She wasn't that old, but had to take things easy, slower than someone her age necessarily needed to. And she'd shaved off at least a few years from her lifespan.

That was the price of selfishness; of over-indulgence and self-pity. She'd have to make do with what was left. But now that she and Ino were actually communicating like a real parent-and-child team, she had no fears of that falling through.

Akane watched from her seat as Ino rummaged around in the fridge for something to eat. Eggs, fruit, bacon, or...Her blue eyes lingered on a half-full carton of milk, and she licked her lips in anticipation. Today feels like a cereal day. Whole oats, you know? Pulling out the container, she placed in on the counter and closed the fridge door. From there, she proceeded to face the cabinets in search of a suitable bowl. Sakura sat down next to Akane, who was now sipping once more at her mug.

"So, any...'appointments' I should be aware of for the day?" The older woman gave Ino a sly grin. "You guys got any cleanup to take care of?" This was her way of asking, in so many words, whether or not the duo were planning to Hunt.

Ino was now pouring her meal into the bowl, so Sakura decided to answer this one. "Nah, not yet. We haven't sensed anything in about three, four days." She gave Akane a wink. "If anything comes up though, you can be sure we'll drop you a line beforehand. No worries, big mama." The woman rolled her eyes at the moniker, but said nothing in retort. She'd grown used to the pinkette's hangups by this point. After being possessed by a domination-obsessed, soul-sucking demon, things like pink hair, pistols and quirky comments were nowhere near startling enough to faze her.

They didn't notice, but Ino had stopped her actions and was not focusing on the activity between the two females. There was one other thing that Ino had had to reveal to her mother: that she had fallen for her other half in Demon Hunting, and that they were a couple.

Surprisingly enough though, Akane took it well. There were a few ground rules, of course: no sex. That was pretty much it. It was only for a few more months, though-graduation was coming up, as well as Ino's eighteenth birthday. After that...

"It's all up to you, hon. I can complain, but you'll be legal, so my points'll probably be moot." She'd placed a hand on the girl's shoulder then, and Ino remembered looking into her eyes, seeing the encouragement and...admiration?

"You're a good girl, Ino. And a wonderful daughter. I couldn't have asked for a better child." She looked away then. "I'm just ashamed to admit that it took me this long, when you're standing on the brink of adulthood, to finally understand it. I wasn't the greatest mother out there, I'm sure-as the parent, I'm supposed to be the one who sets the example, right? Like mother, like daughter."

Ino heard her sniffle. Her eyes widened. Was the woman crying? "But, I must...also say that, while as much as I can see myself in you...I see far more of a unique young woman sitting before me: a p-person of her own definition. Someone who will blaze her own trails in life, for those courageous enough to follow. And I-you can't even imagine...how proud that makes me-!"

That was where it had ended. Ino hadn't been able to keep from blubbering. She had reached over, to wrap her mother in a bear hug. It had been so long since they'd been close like this...like a parent and child should be. For the first time in a long time, Ino no longer felt the sting of a broken family. She felt renewed, wide awake-reborn. It was like someone had just removed a blindfold and blinders from her eyes. She was seeing the world in a whole new way.

Family. Friends. Love. I...I have them. I really do...Her heart thudded then, and she'd looked up from her mother's shoulder to see Sakura, sitting on Akane's left as cute and patient as could be. Her mouth was a slightly lifted line, but her eyes were far too playful. It made her just as joyous, after learning what happened before, to see the two together again. The wound was healing.

Akane had started dabbing at her eyes with the end of her sweater sleeve. "Well...well, then." She was trying to regain her composure; Ino knew that opening up like she just had was not something easy for her to do. She struggled with the same issue on a daily basis. But thanks to Sakura, she was getting used to it; no longer did it feel so threatening and foreign. And as long as I'm by her side...mom will, too.

Her mother chuckled. Ino was surprised to hear the sound pass her lips. "What's so funny?" She didn't get a chance to really ponder Akane's actions, as she replied. "And, with you two together, I won't have to worry about her getting pregnant."

Oh, boy. Ino had leaned across, to swiftly cup a hand over the pinkette's mouth, before she could get into the subject of how artificial insemination was handled a...bit differently up on their Konohagakure. Save that bridge for the day when they were actually old enough to start considering kids. Hopefully, they'd still be together...

"...no...Ino...Ino-Pig! Hey, wakey-wakey! You're gonna drown your crunchies!"

Sakura's voice brought the girl back to the present sharply. With a hard thud, she'd brought the milk carton back onto the counter. Looking back over at her grinning candy-haired partner and her mother, who bore an amused smile upon her face, Ino let go.

Yeah. I think so.


"So, whatcha wanna do after school, Pig? Maybe buy some more snacks, have another session at the park?"

"No can do, Sakura. Homework, remember?"

"Aw, pistachios! Well, we could always look for a demon and feed it t'them...then you can tell the teachers it got eaten."

"Sakura...wait, did you actually do that as a kid?"

"Um, uhh, I mean-'coughs' What do you mean, 'did I do that as a kid'? I'm not a kid now!"

"But that's...not the point at all-oh, forget it."

The pair were making their way across the busy streets at a good pace. Sakura was invisible to all but Ino, and she stuck close so the blonde wouldn't have to speak as loud. It helped to bring her peace of mind, and Sakura couldn't argue with the logic. It would look weird if people could hear her talking to something that wasn't there, as far as they could see.

As they waited at the second-to-last stoplight before Konoha High came up, a sudden flare of power caught both of their attentions. It was strong, and didn't seem to be in danger of dispelling anytime soon. They looked off to their lefts, towards the direction of the shopping mall. Sakura's jade green eyes locked with Ino's icy blue ones. "You thinking what I'm thinking, Pig?"

"That we can make it to the school in less than five if we do mad sprinting, and get Kakashi to cover for us with his programmable clone jutsu?" Ino's voice was low and husky, but she was grinning eagerly.

"Exactly. Duty calls. I'm sure he'll understand-no, trust me, he will!" Sakura gave her the thumbs-up. "It's an excuse to get outta class, and make a substitute! Like hell he'll put up much of a fuss!" The light changed, and they darted across like lightning.

Who knows? Maybe we'll pick up Red on the way, too..."Got your weapons at the ready?"

"You know I do, Pig. Always locked and loaded." That's what she'd been waiting to hear.

It was going to be a long day.

And Yamanaka Ino wouldn't have wanted it any other way.


A/N: Ta-da! Here we are, the finale! Hope it was satisfying! I admit, it was...a bit twisted, in terms of trying to get everything to fit, but in the end...meh, I'm pretty satisfied with how it turned out. I mean, I at least tried to drop a hint or two earlier on about Ino's angel status, without giving it all away. Sorry if it seems a bit contrived, though. ^^; As they say, practice makes progress, right? I did my best: I have no regrets.

So, Ino and Sakura are together. They're hunting demons on Earth, along with Kakashi and Gaara. Ino and Akane are repairing their broken relationship. Everything's pretty much as normal as it can be.

Probably the one thing I'd have liked would be to spend a little more time on the 'adventures in Konohagakure in space'. Maybe a oneshot is in order...? Or a miniseries? What d'you think?

As always, feedback is welcomed, loved and appreciated. Seriously, MAJOR thank-yous to everyone who put up with all the delays. Two years, yo! Two years! Whew. Thanks again, and I hope you enjoyed the ride! :D