Disclaimer: I believe the word "disclaimer" says enough.
Authoress' Notes: Does chapter 483 make anyone else want to cry? Maybe I'm just weird.
So... sorry for how long it took to update. But those of you who are still with me have pretty much figured out how infrequent my updates are. It's not because I don't care about this story - I do. Very much. A chapter for this story requires some inspiration though, even if the content is just filler to get us to the next place, and it requires my full attention - which I can't give very often. School and life conspire to keep me busy.
This is probably one of my fastest updates since I first started this story... and that's sad. It's been almost four years and I only have about 70 000 words to show for it... and improved grammar. The quality of writing in my first chapters makes me cringe - I plan to fix those in the Summer. Anyways, all I can ask is that you stay with me, remain patient, and wait for the updates, because they will come. All moral support is welcome.
If you're interested in bouncing ideas or just chitchatting, PM me.
And now, Of Magic and Chakra begins in 3...2...1...ACTION!
"You are a surprisingly good dancer," Ino complimented through her giggles as Gaara spun her around and then dipped her.
Gaara offered her a small smile and said: "I had a lot of time to kill with the whole not sleeping thing. And I had quite a bit of time to practice some... more embarrassing things at night without anyone seeing what I was doing."
"I'm glad you came as my date tonight," Ino continued, "I was surprised that you said yes."
"Well, I had no reason to say no," he answered her. "I am not opposed to dancing, and I have no problems with you."
"Well, you sure know how to make a girl feel special," Ino joked, smiling still. She had no more than friendly feelings for Gaara when she had asked him to the dance, though now she could see how someone could easily fall for him. He was very handsome, with his red hair falling into his bright eyes, and he was astonishingly kind now. Not to mention that he was already a kage - powerful, intelligent, and young. He could dance too, and was more than able to carry on a conversation. In fact, Ino had to admit that when she envisioned her future, it was a guy with qualities like Gaara's who starred in her dreams.
"I don't think I told you that you look beautiful tonight," he said after a brief silence. Gaara had never considered any of his acquaintances from a romantic perspective. Yes, he had thought the kunoichi from Konoha pretty, but they were just people to him - some of them friends, but nothing more. After this night though, he could start to imagine what it would be like to care for someone like Ino as more than a friend. She was intelligent, though it wasn't something you would immediately notice, and she was creative. She was also beautiful, and despite her somewhat bubbly, airheaded personality, she was a good kunoichi, devoted to her friends and strong because of it. And she could keep up a conversation about anything and everything.
Ino blushed at the compliment and let Gaara spin her again. She was thoroughly enjoying herself, and was only disappointed that if there was in fact a Christmas ball, she would have to wait almost another four months for an opportunity to dress up and act like a normal teenage girl. She hadn't danced only with Gaara this evening. Like Sakura, she had many partners, though Gaara had returned to claim his date's hand at regular intervals.
Ino let her thoughts turn to Sakura then, and suddenly she was sad. Her eyes revealed these emotions to Gaara, who couldn't help but ask her what was wrong.
"Sakura's my best friend, so I worry for her and want her to be happy. But tonight, even though Sakura was surrounded by people, the one she wanted to be with most disappeared," Ino replied honestly to Gaara's questioning. It's not like Sakura's attachment to Sasuke was a secret - though Ino was perhaps one of the few people who knew how deeply her friend's love really ran.
"Oh," Gaara responded, thinking even more highly of Ino, whose own happiness was so affected by her friend's.
"Think of it this way," she continued while they took another turn around the dance floor. "How would you feel if the person you'd loved for years finally invited you somewhere, and then ditched you, essentially showing that he didn't care for you?"
"I guess I can understand that," Gaara answered uncertainly, trying to imagine himself in Sakura's place. But he also had an idea of the wars that waged inside Sasuke's head. Similar thoughts had once run through his own after all. "But maybe he's just scared that caring for her will ultimately bring him and her more harm than good."
"That's stupid!" Ino exclaimed.
"We're talking about Sasuke, Ino. He's not stupid. But consider his past. It's not hard to see why he would avoid her," Gaara replied. "Think about it."
And Ino thought about it. Sasuke had already lost everything he cared about once - could he stand to lose something he cared about again? Would he even let himself care that deeply about someone again? And Itachi was still out there. Sasuke would go after him one day... he would leave Konoha again... he would leave Sakura again. She sighed heavily. "I guess you're right," she admitted before continuing on, "but that doesn't mean that it's hurting Sakura any less. He should just be honest with her instead of running away if he actually does care for her."
Gaara smirked upon hearing Ino's last words. Her back was currently to the door to the garden, but that meant that Gaara could clearly see who was coming in and out. He turned a little, and then dipped her so that she could also see who was coming in the door. Ino was so shocked, she would have fallen if Gaara hadn't been keeping her up.
In the doorway stood Sakura, but she wasn't alone. She was with a tall, dark-haired boy, who could only be Sasuke. And she was holding his hand and smiling beatifically. Sasuke looked uncomfortable, but really that couldn't be helped - he wasn't the public-displays-of-affection type... even if it was something as small as holding hands. Despite his somehow embarrassed, awkward, indifferent, and cold (all at once) look, Ino would swear she still saw a small happiness in his eyes.
"I think Sakura's fine," Gaara told Ino, pulling her back up. "Now relax," he told her spinning her around the floor again.
Ino laughed and began to enjoy herself again - even more so when she saw Sakura tug her unwilling, though now smirking, partner onto the dance floor as well. Her feelings of happiness were acutely linked to her best friend's. She couldn't feel joyful unless her friend also had some happiness in her life.
Gaara saw Ino's eyes light up when she saw a happy Sakura, and he realized somewhere in his mind that it made her look even prettier. He thought it might be nice to be the one to make her light up like that.
"Come on, Shikamaru! You can't be tired yet!" Temari exclaimed.
Shikamaru had valiantly escorted her all evening, dancing with her quite often, though he still had managed to escape from her a few times. Now, he was pleading exhaustion and begging to be allowed to sit down.
"You're going to make me cry," Temari said sadly.
"You're a terrible actress and a terrible liar," Shikamaru replied. "Troublesome," he added under his breath. He had no problems with Temari, but he did not enjoy dancing. He much preferred sitting down. So, he ignored her and went and took a seat at one of the tables.
Temari followed him with a very uncharacteristic pout on her face. "You're mean!" she exclaimed childishly.
"Sure," Shikamaru agreed and put his head down on the table.
"If you're not going to dance with me anymore, the least you can do is pay attention to me," she said in annoyance while she smacked the back of his head.
"Why am I here?" Shikamaru mumbled. "This is so troublesome. I should have faked sick and stayed in bed."
"Oh great. So now you're telling me that you wish you didn't come with me. Way to make a girl feel good about herself," Temari continued chiding the boy - after a comment like his last, she thought he was actually deserving of her irritation.
Shikamaru heaved an enormous sigh before he turned his head to look at Temari. "It's not that I don't want to be here with you. It's just that I'd prefer not to be here in general. This is not what I like," he explained. "Actually, your company has made the night a little less excruciating."
"Better," Temari told him, satisfied by his explanation. "And just for that, you get to sit down until the last dance, at which point you will come find me or I will beat you black and blue."
Shikamaru contemplated Temari while she walked to the dance floor to join Ino, Hinata, TenTen, Sakura, Hermione, and even Luna, who were dancing together to some high energy song, their hair and dresses whirling about them. He had long had a certain respect for the Suna kunoichi, and the fact that she wasn't pushing him to do something he didn't want to do just gave her more points in his book.
Temari, who had to push through a ring of hormonal boys - who had stopped to watch her friends dance - just to reach the girls, thought back on her conversation with Shikamaru. She knew that this was not his thing, and she was impressed with him for lasting so long with very minor complaints. He deserved a break.
Plus, he would come find her for the last dance. That's just the kind of guy he was. He might not like parties and dancing, but he would honor her somewhat violent request.
Luna had left Harry as soon as the dancing began to join Lee on the dance floor. Not that Harry minded terribly. Luna was just a friend, and frankly he wasn't too interested in dancing. Not that he hadn't danced. He had asked Hermione for a dance, as well as Sakura and her friend Ino. At that point, he had about exhausted the girls he would/could ask.
'If only Ginny weren't dating that stupid prick,' he thought, a green monster of jealousy flaring up in him. He forced his thoughts to move on.
He watched as his two best friends danced together again. They looked happy, and Harry was very glad that Ron had managed to get up the guts to ask Hermione. Times weren't going to get any better with Voldemort wreaking havoc on the world - the two deserved every bit of happiness they could find.
Harry sighed. This ball wasn't his thing. He stood up to leave, giving Ron a nod to let his friend know that he was going. Tomorrow, he would finally tell them both about the newest development in his life, but now, it was time for bed. Quidditch tryouts were tomorrow just before lunch, and he had promised Naruto that he would give him flying lessons before that. It would be an early and long morning.
As he walked through the doors, Naruto and Hinata suddenly appeared behind him holding hands - Hinata with a stunningly red blush on her cheeks.
"Going off to bed, Harry?" Naruto asked cheerfully. Harry nodded and Naruto smiled, "Well isn't that the biggest coincidence? Hinata and I are both done for the night. We were going to head back to Gryffindor tower now too."
Harry could see through the lie though. The shinobi had left him alone occasionally during the last week, but only when he was in the castle surrounded by hundreds of other people - and they had probably just had eyes on him that he couldn't see. Right now though, he would probably be the only one, other than the first and second years (who had been sent to bed already), in Gryffindor tower. That wasn't exactly a safe, crowded place.
Harry was actually impressed with how well the shinobi had been keeping tabs on him in the last week. Just now, he had suddenly decided to leave, and someone had come to join him. When he was making an attempt to study in the library, he would see one of them come in and settle down nearby. He was sure that even when the ninjas had all disappeared that afternoon, he was still, somehow, being watched.
Naruto, Hinata, and him walked up to the tower, where they gave the Fat Lady the embarrassing password and then strolled into the common room. Naruto gave Hinata a peck on the lips (which surprised Harry who hadn't thought that the two were a couple) and then followed him upstairs. Harry didn't see Hinata leave the common room and return to the dance to join her friends - they were having a girls' night after all.
When Harry and Naruto reached their room, they both stripped off their dress robes and changed into their pyjamas.
"Hey, Naruto!" Harry called out while both boys climbed into their beds.
"What's up?" Naruto answered eloquently.
"About flying lessons tomorrow. If you're still up for them, we can start at nine in the morning," Harry told the blond.
Naruto looked a little panic stricken, having forgotten all about how he had agreed to take the flying lessons after his one disastrous experience on a broom. But he recovered just as quickly, eager not to be bested by an inanimate object, and said to Harry, "Alright."
The two boys were silent after that. This gave Harry time to think, and finally he got up the courage to ask Naruto one of the questions that had been forming in his head over the last few days.
"Hey, Naruto?" Harry called out again, this time unsurely.
"How did you get rid of that guy... Orochimaru?" Harry asked quietly. He wanted to know how the "ninjas' Voldemort" had been killed. How many people had been involved? How had it been accomplished? One day, much too soon, he felt that he would have to face a similar situation.
"Wow. I haven't thought about that day for a while," Naruto mused, sitting up in his bed. He thought there wouldn't be any harm in telling Harry what so many people in his world knew, so he launched into the story.
"Before I start, Harry," Naruto began, "what you have to understand is that we had some very personal issues with this creep on top of him just being a threat to everyone's safety. To make a long story short, Sasuke went off to join Orochimaru to become more powerful. Meanwhile, the weirdo was planning on taking over Sasuke's body to get Sasuke's power. But the technique required for that was something Orochimaru could only do every three years, and he had done it right before Sasuke had reached him... so he had to wait. And while he waited, he trained Sasuke to be even stronger.
"During that time, Sakura and I both trained to become stronger too, so that we could bring Sasuke home. Eventually, we managed to catch up to Sasuke and Orochimaru right when Orochimaru made his move to try and steal Sasuke's body. Sasuke wasn't exactly going to just let that happen though. But the bastard was so blind to everything except his own goals that he hadn't realized that Sasuke was almost as strong as him. When Orochimaru made his move, Sasuke retaliated. And Sakura and I joined in the fight when we stumbled across it - it was perfect timing really. Anyways, it's hard to describe a battle like the one we fought to someone who doesn't know what a fight between shinobi looks like, but just imagine our little demonstrations before the sorting times, like, a million.
"The final strike was a combined effort. Sasuke charged him from the front, and I got him from behind. Sasuke was badly injured though since he had been fighting on his own for a bit before we showed up, and after the killing blow, he passed out. He probably would have died too if Sakura hadn't worked on healing his injuries right there and then. Afterwards, she passed out from overexertion. We had to wait a day before heading home because I needed Sakura awake - I was too tired to carry both of them. Sasuke was unconscious for two more days after that. I don't think we could have brought him back with us otherwise and then had the chance to convince him to stay - there was a reason he ran away to get power from someone as deceptive and cruel as Orochimaru.
"But that's another story," Naruto stopped himself. He couldn't reveal much more without bringing up things that weren't his to tell.
Harry silently processed what he had just heard. It was just the three of them. Three teenagers, armed not with wands, but real weapons and strange powers, had defeated a killer. But then again, technically only one wizard was needed to defeat Voldemort. It was the problem of finding him, getting past the Death Eaters, and then winning.
"Did he not have any followers?" Harry asked abruptly when the idea of Death Eaters popped into his head.
"Yes and no," Naruto answered. "I mean, when we found him, they were at one of Orochimaru's private bases, so no one else was there, except for his right hand man - who disappeared while we were fighting. We still don't know what happened with him. As for the rest of them, even today we're dealing with small attacks from some of Orochimaru's other followers, but without him, they're not really motivated and very disorganized. We were actually pretty lucky with how everything turned out."
"Oh," Harry mumbled.
"Why do you want to know all of this? Are you worried about that Voldemort guy?" Naruto asked. He was much more aware of how people thought these days. He had grown older and he had matured since his early days out of the Academy.
"Yeah," Harry answered honestly. "Some day we're going to have to fight him. And he has a lot of followers who he'll probably use to shield himself. It doesn't help that he really wants me dead."
"That's why you've got us," Naruto said, flashing Harry a giant smile. "We're going to keep you safe, and we'll find out whatever we can about that stupid guy while we're here. And if it comes down to a fight... well we'll kick some ass!"
Harry couldn't help but grin in light of Naruto's attitude. And he really did feel a little better about the future. If Naruto and his friends could defeat that guy Orochimaru, then maybe him and his friends stood a chance against Voldemort - even with his new powers. After all, they had new allies.
Noise in the stairwell let the two boys know that the dance was already over. Harry glanced at the watch on his wrist and saw that it was already ten after two. Naruto, Hinata, and him must have left the Great Hall just before the last few songs.
"Ah, Lee. Get over it," they heard Kiba say as he pushed the door of their room open.
Lee, Sasuke, Dean, Seamus, Neville, and Ron all filed in right behind him. Lee looked particularly sullen.
"What's the matter with Lee?" Naruto asked.
Kiba flopped down on his bed and burst out laughing. "He just saw something shocking," Kiba replied.
"What did he see?" Naruto asked again, bouncing on his bed. He wanted in on the joke.
"Why don't you ask the broody one over there?" Kiba motioned towards Sasuke, who promptly closed the curtains around his bed.
"What happened? What happened?" Naruto continued his pleading.
Kiba just laughed.
"I don't think he's very happy that Sakura gave Sasuke a kiss on the cheek before running off," Ron answered, taking pity on the excited Naruto.
"What?!" Naruto exclaimed loudly.
"It's okay, Naruto. The youthful Sakura-chan has not chosen me. I will run five hundred laps around the grounds tomorrow to make myself more worthy of her attention," Lee muttered sadly in his dejectedness.
Naruto wasn't really paying much attention to poor Lee. Instead, he had hopped out of his own bed and was presently ripping the curtains away from Sasuke's.
"Go away, dobe," Sasuke muttered, his eyes shut.
"Not until you tell me what happened. Why did Sakura kiss you? Did you finally get up the courage to make a move? There's no way she would have done that if you hadn't done something first!" Naruto continued babbling excitedly.
"Shut up, Naruto," Sasuke grumbled, sounding more pissed off.
"You have to tell me what happened first!"
"Naruto," Sasuke growled, his eyes snapping open.
"I thought we were friends, Sasuke. Best friends. Brothers even," Naruto mumbled sadly, his eyes growing big and tear-filled.
Sasuke was unaffected by Naruto's puppy dog eyes, but Naruto's words reached him. Naruto was in fact Sasuke's best friend, though the Uchiha would almost never say it out loud. Sasuke would probably have told him anyways at some point... just because they were friends and because he knew that it would make Naruto happy to know that both him and Sakura were happy.
But he would not tell Naruto in front of everyone else. Sasuke could practically see Kiba's ears straining to hear them.
"Later," Sasuke finally answered.
Naruto cheered and hopped back into his own bed. "I'll hold you to that, teme. And if you don't tell me, I'll just beat you up until you do!"
Kiba looked crestfallen to be missing out on that bit of gossip, but quickly snapped out of it when Seamus asked him a question: "Hey, Kiba? Where's your dog?"
"Oh. I left him with Hagrid for the night," Kiba explained.
Some more conversation followed, and eventually the boys drifted off to sleep, though Naruto lay awake, knowing Sasuke would probably be awake too. When he heard eight people breathing steadily, he opened the curtains around his bed and headed down to the common room.
Sasuke came down a minute later.
"So," Naruto grinned when Sasuke took the opposite end of the couch that he was seated on.
"So," Sasuke repeated.
"You and Sakura, eh?"
Sasuke managed a nod.
"Finally!" Naruto exclaimed quietly.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Sasuke asked his friend.
"Sasuke, even when we were first genin together you worried about her. These days, you always make sure she's okay. I mean, I stumbled across you holding her hand! You don't hold my hand," Naruto whined at the end, laughing quietly at Sasuke's expense.
Sasuke smacked the back of Naruto's head and Naruto sobered up for a second before dissolving into a fresh round of laughter.
"So, did you kiss her?" he finally asked. "I know Sakura would never have kissed you on the cheek if you hadn't already done something similar."
Sasuke briefly wondered why he had thought telling Naruto any of this would be a good idea - Naruto would tease him about it mercilessly. He also realized that Naruto would find out whether he told the blond or not. Sasuke wasn't holding any illusions that Sakura wouldn't at least tell her best friend what had happened. And Ino did love to gossip.
"Yes," he answered monosyllabically. It seemed like Naruto was waiting for more details. Sasuke sighed. "She was dancing with Malfoy, I got... mad, then she got mad at me and said that I didn't have to pretend to like her, I told her how I felt, told her why I thought we couldn't be together, listened to her tell me why all my reasons didn't make sense, and then I kissed her because she was right and because she still loves me - even after everything I did."
"Yeah, you really don't deserve her," Naruto commented jokingly. And then, realizing Sasuke might actually take his words seriously and come to some more stupid, irrational conclusions, he abruptly changed the topic, not giving Sasuke any time to think on what he had just said. "I kissed someone tonight too!" he said excitedly.
Sasuke snorted. "It better have been Hinata, or Neji will skin you alive. And I'm not going to help you out."
"Of course it was Hinata-chan! She said she would be my girlfriend!" Naruto continued with his happy proclamations.
Sasuke snorted again. "Neji will probably skin you alive anyways."
Naruto looked pensive for a moment before mumbling, "True."
"No way!" Ino squealed loudly.
"Shut up, Ino!" Sakura whispered, clamping her hand down over her friend's mouth. She glanced around the room to see if anyone had woken up to Ino's outburst, and was satisfied when the other four girls slumbered on. "You can't tell anyone else."
"Oh, come on!" Ino whined. "You can't expect me to keep a secret like that to myself."
"I do!" Sakura insisted. "It's going to be tough enough on Sasuke without everyone knowing all the sordid little details. I only told you because you're my best friend."
"But you kissed him on the cheek in front of everyone," Ino pointed out.
"And that's as far as we'll probably ever get in terms of public displays of affection," Sakura answered. "A kiss on the cheek is probably the most he can handle in public - and then only if I'm giving it. I'm not going to push him."
Ino pouted. "You're no fun," she whined some more. And then she got serious. "I'm very happy for you, Sakura. The guy you love cares for you - and he kissed you. Even if you two don't show your affection in public, it doesn't matter as long as you both know where you stand," Ino said very maturely. Then she smirked and added, "And as long as you show your affection in private and tell me all the lewd details."
Sakura smacked Ino's arm playfully and the two dissolved in silent giggles.
"You know, magic kind of rocks. This room is awesome," Ino mumbled when the two had calmed down.
"I completely agree. This afternoon it was the perfect dressing room, and now it's the perfect bedroom," Sakura replied giving the Room of Requirement another once over.
Even in the darkness that enveloped them, Sakura could still see the six beds, much like the ones in their dorm rooms, the open door to the bathroom (with six sinks and six showers), the rich purple carpet, and then the sitting area where her and Ino sat, being the only ones awake. The couches were far enough away from the beds that they didn't wake everyone up with their chatter.
They lapsed into a comfortable silence that was broken when Sakura suddenly spoke.
"So, I think Operation Orange can be put on hold for now seeing as how Naruto kissed Hinata tonight," she mused.
"I forgot about that," Ino commented, "but you're right. Shall we move on to Operation Hyuuga next? That boy needs to become more aware of the world. Particularly females. More particularly TenTen."
"And hopefully he won't want to beat Naruto as badly if he's distracted," Sakura pointed out.
And then the two girls dissolved into a fresh round of giggles. Neji had become overprotective of Hinata slowly but surely after their first chunin exam. Now he was a force to be reckoned with when it came to the young girl's safety and happiness. Naruto would have to deal with him soon since he had miraculously escaped the Hyuuga somehow this evening.
Gaara turned over in his bed, unable to sleep. Ever since Shukaku had been extracted from his body by Akatsuki, the insomnia that had plagued him for his young life had mostly disappeared. But sometimes, like tonight, he just couldn't bring his eyes to close.
Instead, he pulled the curtains from around his bed and glanced around the room to see if anyone else was awake. Satisfied that no one was, he left his bed and strolled into the Slytherin common room. It wasn't exactly his favorite place to be, but seeing as how it was empty, it was actually sort of peaceful.
Just then, he heard footsteps, and turned his head to see the door into the common room opening and someone trying to sneak in. Gaara's eyes narrowed when he caught sight of a white-blond head. He coughed explicitly and watched with satisfaction as Malfoy's shoulders tensed.
"I thought I would be the only one awake at this hour," Gaara said aloud, remembering how Shikamaru had told him to try to get friendlier with the slime ball in front of him. That had been at the beginning of the week. Gaara had not tried in his dislike for Malfoy, but he knew that he should put in the effort. Now seemed as good a time as any.
"I needed to walk and... clear my head," Malfoy answered. Gaara could hear the hesitation in his reply and knew Draco was lying, but he didn't push it.
"I know how that feels," he said instead, trying to make it seem like he was sympathizing.
"Yeah," Malfoy replied eloquently, still standing by the door.
Gaara faked a yawn before standing up. "I think I'm off to bed now," he said, deciding he had put enough effort into trying to be nice to Malfoy for one night.
As he returned to his bed, where he was sure to lie awake for another hour at least, he thought about what he had just seen. Draco Malfoy, wandering back into the Slytherin common room at three in the morning, obviously up to no good. The question was whether he was working for a personal vendetta, or something more sinister.
"Okay, Naruto," Harry said, studying the guy in front of him. Both of them were floating a few feet in the air, Harry on his Firebolt, and Naruto on one of the ancient school brooms.
It had taken them about half an hour to get to this point since the broom Naruto was using just hadn't wanted to come up off the ground for him. When it finally had come up, it had taken a while to teach Naruto to kick off the ground and not fall off the broom as it rose in the air. Finally, after much practice, Naruto could hover a few feet above the ground - as both him and Harry were presently doing.
"I want you to lean forward over the handle just a bit now. The broom should move forward when you do that," Harry continued after he had Naruto's attention.
Naruto did as he was told and abruptly sat back up when the broom started to move forward. It stopped moving as suddenly as it had started.
"This is just so weird," he mumbled, much to Harry's amusement. Naruto could create a ball of swirling energy in his hand, and a flying broom was weird.
"You just need to get used to it," Harry laughed before moving on with his explanation. "Now, if you turn the handle to the left, you'll go left. You turn it towards the right, you go right. Lean forward, you go forward. Tilt it up, you head higher, and tilt it down, you head towards the ground. Essentially, just move the broom in the direction you want to go and that's where you'll head. It takes a while to get used to, but it's not hard if you practice."
"Says you," Naruto mumbled again.
"Just try going somewhere," Harry told the ninja. "You'll never get better if you don't try."
Naruto eventually leaned back over the broom and let himself be carried forward again. After a few seconds, he sat up and came to a stop. Then he leaned forward over the broom again and repeated the process. The next time, he leaned the broom handle to the right and turned around, heading back for Harry, sitting up to bring the broom to a stop before he hit him.
"This isn't actually that hard!" Naruto exclaimed happily. "Take that you stupid broom! No inanimate object gets the best of the future Hokage of Konoha!" He was actually enjoying himself very much, and he hadn't even gone very fast or very high yet. Flying was turning out to be very liberating...and fun.
'Plus,' he thought triumphantly, 'now I know how to do something that Sasuke doesn't.'
"Come on, Naruto. Try it again. Maybe pick up some speed. Then we'll try going up higher," Harry suggested.
Naruto was only too happy to agree.
Sakura turned around to see Neji standing behind her, his hands crossed angrily in front of him. Shikamaru, Shino, and Chouji stood behind him - presumably having followed him from the Ravenclaw dormitory. Apparently, Neji had decided to disregard TenTen's words from the night before.
"And so it begins," Sakura laughed.
"What did you say?" Neji asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Nothing," she said, whistling innocently and turning back to her food, and then, "Hinata, tell your cousin to relax."
Neji finally realized that Hinata was sitting with Sakura, as were Ino, TenTen, and Temari. Neji briefly acknowledged TenTen before turning his gaze to Hinata - who was studying the table top, a blush rising to her cheeks.
"Hinata, can I talk to you?" he asked now. He was planning to have words with Naruto (which meant he was going to beat Naruto to a pulp despite what TenTen had told him), but now that Hinata was here, he saw it as a golden opportunity to talk to her.
"Hinata, come on. We're going to miss the flying lesson," Ino said grabbing the poor girl by the arm and dragging her away from the table and out of the Great Hall, away from Neji.
Neji was a little angry that Ino had taken his cousin away when he wanted to have a serious chat with her, and after a few seconds delay, he made a move to follow them. He found himself unable to move however when a hand closed around his wrist.
"Oh no you don't," Sakura said as she pulled him down into the seat next to her.
TenTen was sitting across from Sakura, and she laughed at Neji's stunned look. The other boys took up seats at the Gryffindor table since it was pretty much empty. Even though it was already ten in the morning, pretty much everyone was still asleep because it was a weekend and because of the late night.
"You're going to listen to me now, Neji. I know I'm younger than you and you're higher ranked than me, but unlike you, I am in control of myself and my emotions right now since I am not an overbearing and protective cousin," Sakura began.
TenTen and Temari both snickered gracelessly.
Sakura ignored them and continued, "Hinata has loved Naruto for forever, and now that she's happy, you are not going to ruin that by trying to help her make smart decisions. Do you understand me?"
Neji stared at her in disbelief. Chouji, Shino, and Shikamaru were trying not to get involved, and continued chewing the food they had piled on their plates, though they were listening as intently as TenTen and Temari to the conversation between the pink-haired kunoichi and Neji.
"What?" Neji spluttered uncharacteristically.
"You heard me. I'm not saying that you can't still be protective of her. You can even threaten Naruto if it makes you feel better. But you are not going to try to keep them apart, and you are not going to overreact - because that will hurt Hinata and totally defeat your purpose," Sakura continued to explain.
Neji just continued to stare.
"Anyways," Sakura said, turning back to TenTen and Temari, "I heard from Kakashi that they want us to have a training session tonight already. Fun, right?"
Neji was processing what Sakura had just said to him. Sure he had known that Hinata had a crush on Naruto - but love? If she loved Naruto, then he just had to accept their relationship, as much as he didn't like the idea of his cousin in a relationship with anybody. And Neji knew Naruto was a good guy and a great ninja - probably a future Hokage of Konoha. He was just concerned for Hinata, as any big brother would be for his little sister when she brought home her first boyfriend.
After a few minutes, Neji tuned back into the conversation going on around him.
"Wanna go watch?" Temari was asking Shikamaru while poking him repeatedly, and annoyingly, on the shoulder.
"What's the point? He always makes a fool of himself. It's nothing new," Shikamaru answered her.
"Come on, Shikamaru. You know it'll be entertaining," Chouji contributed his opinion. "And there's nothing else to do. Unless you want to work on homework or something."
Shikamaru sighed: "Fine. We'll go see Naruto learning to fly around on a broom. How troublesome."
When everyone stood up, Neji realized that they had already finished eating and he had yet to start.
"You'll catch up with us in a bit right, TenTen?" Sakura called over her shoulder as she strolled off with Temari, Shikamaru, Chouji, and Shino.
Neji finally noticed that TenTen was still seated across from him, food still on her plate.
"Of course," she called back, waving goodbye to their friends. "So," she said to Neji when everyone else was gone, "are you feeling like killing Naruto any less after being scolded like a three year old by Sakura?"
"No," Neji answered, though truthfully, he was less inclined to be stern with Naruto - exactly how he had calmed down the night before after TenTen had talked to him.
TenTen laughed. "I'll take that as a yes. Now hurry up and eat - I'm almost done and I want to see Naruto flying on a broom. I can't even believe they have things like that. It's just so weird."
Neji smiled. TenTen knew him too well. Then he put some food on his plate and ate quickly to please her.
Ron woke up with a start, realizing that today he had Quidditch tryouts. He gulped and pulled the curtains away from his bed, looking immediately to Harry's in what had become a routine action.
The curtains around Harry's bed were wide open, and Harry was most definitely already gone. Then something Harry had mentioned to him the day before passed through his head. Right. Harry was probably giving Naruto flying lessons down at the pitch.
Ron yawned and climbed out of bed. That was when he noticed that the curtains around everyone else's beds were pulled open. He glanced at the watch on his wrist and saw that it was already ten forty.
"Shit," he mumbled.
He had to be at the pitch for eleven.
"Has he fallen yet?" Kiba asked excitedly, coming to join the growing group of shinobi in the stands around the Quidditch pitch.
"Sadly, no," Neji replied.
Sakura was about to tell him to be nicer when she saw who had come with Kiba.
She closed her mouth and looked at the ground.
"Where's Lee?" TenTen asked Kiba, who had presumably come from getting his dog from Hagrid's since Akamaru now sat at his feet.
Kiba snickered. "Oh, Lee's running laps around the grounds right now," he answered.
"Why?" Kankurou asked. Him and Gaara had come outside to watch the disaster they assumed Naruto flying would be. So far, Kankurou had been disappointed. Naruto was actually doing pretty well. But Kankurou was still holding out.
"Ask Pinky. Or Broody. Either one should be able to tell you," Kiba continued laughing.
Sakura was still staring determinedly at the ground, hoping it might swallow her up whole. Last night, she had been feeling pretty brave considering everything that had happened. But now, the morning after, she felt pretty embarrassed for kissing Sasuke in public, even if it was only on the cheek. Did he want everyone to know? She could blow the innocent kiss off as a friendly gesture - all that would require was kissing the other boys. Even Temari, TenTen, and Hinata, who had all witnessed her display, had just assumed the kiss meant that things were getting better between the two teammates. The only one who Sakura had told how far they had actually progressed in their relationship in one night was Ino.
She felt someone occupy the space next to her and looked up to see that Sasuke had sat down beside her. She knew a blush was rising on her cheeks, and she quickly turned her head away in embarrassment. There were plenty of free seats - the shinobi had been lounging across three rows in the stands - but Sasuke had come to sit right beside her. That was when she heard Ino join in with Kiba's laughter.
Kiba finally answered Kankurou: "Lee's sort of bummed out that the "youthful Sakura-chan" gave Sasuke a kiss on the cheek last night."
Kankurou laughed while Neji, Chouji, Shikamaru, Gaara, and Shino processed this new piece of information. They hadn't been on the seventh floor headed to the Gryffindor common room (or the Room of Requirement like the girls) to witness the event.
And just like that, all eyes were trained on Sasuke and Sakura, sitting next to each other with barely any space between them.
Sakura was on the verge of jumping from her seat and kissing the nearest male on the cheek to get rid of the staring, when a hand grabbed her own. She looked at it in shock, just like everyone else looked at it. Then she looked up at Sasuke. What she saw in his eyes was enough to convince her that he was okay with everyone knowing. Regardless, she wouldn't make him too uncomfortable.
She settled for resting her head against his shoulder, their hands still entwined.
"So what?" Sasuke said.
This resulted in the girls cheering happily for their friend. The boys were quiet, but they were also happy. They might not have had the same easy and openly caring relationship that the girls had developed, but through mutual respect and an interest in seeing each other survive, they had developed a bond. It was this bond that ran deep through the teens and linked all of their teams together, despite the unlikeliness of their friendship. Even Sasuke, who had run away from home, fit in. They were almost like the pieces of a puzzle - all different, some pieces fitting perfectly with others, others almost fitting together, and others not fitting with each other at all, but still coming together to make a perfect picture.
It was this happy moment that was interrupted by laughter.
"Haha! Teme and Sakura are holding hands! They love each other! Sasuke and Sakura sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G," Naruto started to singsong, floating mere feet above the group of ninja on the broom. Harry was right behind Naruto, and he was looking at the couple with interest as well. As much as Naruto and Hinata had surprised him, this surprised him even more. His first impression of Sasuke had been that he was distant and cold. Apparently, he had misjudged him.
"Naruto, shut up," Sasuke warned.
"Or else what? Are you going to get me? Cause guess what. You can't catch me, you can't catch me," Naruto continued to sing while he pulled away on the broom, zooming up and then down. Unfortunately for Sasuke in this case, Naruto had turned out to be quite decent on the broom after some practice.
"You have to come down sometime," Shino pointed out.
"And when you do, I'm right behind Sasuke," Neji threatened.
Naruto had forgotten about him.
And then Sasuke looked over to Neji and said: "Naruto kissed Hinata."
Neji's angry stare intensified while the boys all stared at the blond in shock...the girls had known, but this was news for the men in their group.
"Hinata! Help!" Naruto cried from the air, cringing from his two glaring friends.
Quidditch tryouts were over. Ron had made the team. And now, he was babbling excitedly about it.
"I thought I was going to miss that fourth penalty," Ron said happily. "Tricky shot from Demelza, did you see, had a bit of spin on it-"
"Yes, yes, you were magnificent," Hermione laughed.
"I was better than that Cormac McLaggen anyway," Ron continued. "Did you see him lumbering off in the wrong direction on his fifth? Looked like he'd been Confunded..."
To Harry's surprise, Hermione started to turn a deep red. He didn't think too much on it. They were already headed towards the castle, and there was something that Harry had to tell them before they went back into Hogwarts.
The shinobi were still outside, some of them trying to convince Lee to stop running around while others watched in amusement as Naruto remained on his broom, circling above Sasuke's and Neji's heads - he hadn't come down at all during the long tryouts Harry had held. Both boys were just waiting for the moment that his feet touched the ground.
Harry knew that if he brought his friends down by the lake, someone would be watching - and maybe listening. But Dumbledore would have known that he would tell Ron and Hermione everything, and the ninjas would just have to accept that too.
"Guys. Before we go inside, I need to tell you something. Let's go down by the lake," Harry said abruptly, spinning on his heel and heading away from the castle.
Ron and Hermione, who had been talking about the Quidditch tryouts still, heard Harry's abrupt words and saw his actions. They shrugged and followed him, eventually settling down next to him by the water.
"What's up, Harry?" Hermione asked.
"There's something I have to tell you," Harry began. And then he explained all about how the people they thought were foreign exchange students were really ninjas who lived isolated from them, essentially in their own world. He told them what he knew about Orochimaru - including the story Naruto had told him - and that Voldemort was apparently gifted with his powers now.
"Bloody hell," Ron breathed when Harry had finished.
"So Dumbledore got these guys involved because of Voldemort's new powers," Hermione mused. "Well that makes sense. It's something we don't know anything about and that they've had first hand experience with. Not to mention that it sort of evens out the playing field - he gets a bit of their magic and we get them."
"It doesn't make it any less weird," Ron mumbled. "Ninjas. Bloody hell."
"Yeah," Harry said, gazing out at the water.
"And they watch you all the time?" Hermione asked, suddenly looking around.
"Yup," Harry answered. "Pretty much. Sometimes I don't see them, but I'm sure they have eyes on me somehow. I'm fairly sure that someone is watching us right now."
"I can't believe those chicks are ninjas," Ron mused, hearing what his friends were saying, but still fixated on the thoughts running through his head. "I mean the guys... that I can understand. Some of them are scary. But those girls... I mean I can sort of see the one in Slytherin being a ninja - but Sakura, Hinata, and Ino?"
"Ron, that's sexist!" Hermione protested. "Don't you remember the first day? Hinata dodged knives thrown at her back, and Sakura held Naruto and Sasuke on her arms without the slightest bit of discomfort. They're more than capable of beating you up I'm sure."
"I guess," Ron muttered, "still... ninjas. It'd be cool to see them fight."
"You want to see us fight?"
Naruto suddenly dropped down in front of them, landing on the water, but not sinking below the surface.
Hermione held her hand over her heart.
"We have a training session tonight. I'm sure it would be okay if you guys came to watch," Naruto continued. "Just ask Shikamaru about it." He finished by calling out loudly, "Shikamaru!"
A few seconds of silence passed, and then...
The blond in front of them jumped off the lake and onto the ground, and then with a wave, he sprinted away as Sasuke and Neji came out of nowhere, chasing after him.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione sat in confusion. What had just happened?
And then Shikamaru was joining them, as if he had always been there. And he probably had.
"So you told them," Shikamaru sighed, looking at Harry. "Troublesome. But Dumbledore told me this would probably happen. I guess it's easier if you two know anyways - we can avoid a lot of questions in the future that way. As for seeing us fight, that's probably a good idea - just in case a real situation arises where we need to protect you in a battle, you should be familiar with how we work. We have a training session tonight. I'll let you know where and when at dinner."
Shikamaru finished his speech, and Ron and Hermione were silent. Someone had been watching and listening to them - just like Harry had explained. But it was surreal to see it for themselves. Finally, Harry spoke the first thing that came to his mind.
"Um, what happened to Naruto's broom," he said, wondering why the energetic ninja had come to the ground voluntarily while the two guys were still chasing him.
"About that," Shikamaru sighed again, "it won't be missed, will it?"
"Not really," Harry answered, wondering where Shikamaru was going with this.
Just then, Temari came over to join Shikamaru, killing herself laughing.
"Oh man. Naruto is toast. Sasuke and Neji are just chasing after him for the sake of not letting him win at this point. I still can't believe that Sasuke sent a fireball at him and burned the broom!" she said through her laughter.
Harry stared at her dumbfounded: "They burnt the broom?"
"The two of them don't like to lose, and as long as Naruto was in the air... well technically he was winning," Temari explained with a grin on her face.
"That's sort of intense," Ron muttered.
And then Sakura was running up to them.
"Which way did they go?" she asked.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione pointed in the opposite direction that Sakura had come, and Sakura groaned. "I'm going to kill them. Naruto and Sasuke know how much I hate it when they fight - even if it is just for fun," she muttered before taking off.
"Fun?" Ron murmured, now a little scared of his new roommates. His comment went unheard over Temari's question.
"So it's okay if Neji fights with Naruto even after you told him off this morning?" Temari called after the girl.
Sakura stopped and turned around. "Hinata, TenTen, or Lee can deal with him. Neji's not my problem anymore."
And then she was off again.
Temari burst into laughter when TenTen came into sight. Her laughter doubled when Harry, Hermione, and Ron immediately pointed TenTen in the same direction as Sakura.
Authoress' Notes: Next chapter probably won't be out until the end of April. I am very sorry for this, but I have a lot of school work in the next six weeks, and then I have exams. After exams, I have four months of Summer, and hopefully updating time.