Chapter Five: Age Ten Branching Out

Almost four months had passed since that awkward meeting with the lord of the Hyuga clan. During those months, as these things tend to go, life moved on. Children followed their mothers in the market. Kids raced each other to the academy. Shinobi were sent on dangerous missions. Naruto consumed ramen at an alarming rate. The sun rose, and both Hinata and Neji were astounded as Sakura quickly became a common fixture in their clan's dynamic. Even the clan elders reluctantly accepted the girl's presences in their lives.

Sakura wasn't aware of anything peculiar happening. To her, she was simply living her life in the company of her friends. She was of course quite pleased that Neji's clan did not attempt to force her out of his life, but she did not think on the matter much further then that.

"Good morning, Hinata-chan." Sakura greeted the shy girl, as she took her seat behind Hinata and next to Shikamaru. When Sakura may be closer to both Neji and Shikamaru than she was with Hinata. There is a certain connection that can only be established between females, and Hinata happened to be Sakura's only female friend.

"Good morning Sakura." The Hyuga greeted back, turning to face the pair. The bond between them certainly went both ways as Sakura filled the crucial role of first friend in the girls life. Furthermore, the fact that Hinata could technically label her casual acquaintance with Shikamaru outside the academy as another friendship, was a bit overwhelming.

"I wonder why Iruka-sensei isn't here yet." Sakura wondered aloud as she amused herself by poking Shikamaru's side. The shame was, Shikamaru really wasn't ticklish at all, no matter how constantly Sakura may try to prove otherwise.

"I-I don't' know." Hinata answered, which was a bit of a novelty. Sakura was used to Neji and Shikamaru generally not answering when she pondered aloud. They tended to just let her mumble to herself and let her sort it out on her own, unless directly asked. In honesty, Sakura much preferred Hinata's willingness to answer. Even if she had yet to master not stuttering while in public places.

Sakura stopped caring why Iruka wasn't there yet. She also stopped her attempts to tickle her Nara fried, allowing him to sleep in peace. "Neji, Shikamaru and I are training after class today. Would you like to come with us Hinata?" Sakura asked with a wide grin and carefully ignoring her friend's muttered 'Troublesome', apparently he wasn't quite asleep yet.

"Oh, do go Hinata. Forehead needs all the help she can get. After all, billboard brow is going up against MY Sasuke-kun tomorrow." Ino called loudly from across the classroom her hand daintily gesturing to her heart. Her loudly expressed opinion also happened to have the added effect of drawing everyone's attention to the mismatched group of three. That is, after their eyes had fleetingly glanced at the blonde.

"Maybe you should get in some extra training too Ino-san." Sakura replied with false politeness. "You are, after all," She mimicked, "going up against Naruto, ne?" Both girls ignored the cry of 'believe it!' as they stared the other down.

Ino looked away first, flipping her hair behind her shoulder in a huff, "Like I need extra training to beat that loser!"

Sakura stood suddenly, anger radiating off of her in waves and Shikamaru actually raised his head from it's place on his arms. However, before Sakura could retaliated against the other girl, either verbally or physically, Shikamaru wasn't sure, Iruka-sensei had entered the classroom, displeased. "That is enough! Find your seats." He ordered looking over the class with a stern eye.

After Sakura had dropped down into her seat, when Ino had returned to her place besides the Uchiha and when the class stopped muttering amongst themselves, Iruka began his lesson. "Today we will be discussing the practicality of various weapons and review the proper care for such weapons. Now, who can tell me-"

"Hey Sakura," Shikamaru whispered once Iruka had turned his back to the class in order to write on the board, "Not that I have anything against Naruto, but why are you so quick to defend him?"

Sakura looked at her friend oddly, not understanding why this had caught his attention of all things. Facing forward, and moving her lips as little as possible and answered, "Two reasons, one he has the will of the ninja, a lot more than the rest of us. Besides that, I believe our dear Hinata might have a soft spot for Naruto."

"And this has nothing to do with Naruto being head over ninja boots in love with you?"

"Not fair!" Sakura hissed, pausing to pretend she was paying attention as Iruka turned to eye them critically. When he turned again she continued her protest but more softly, as to not gain their instructor's attention again. "The only time something isn't too troublesome for you to say, is when you're getting all protective." She whined and when he didn't make any indication of caring in the least, "You are worse than Neji." Sakura accused, turning to actually pay attention to the day's lecture.

Shikamaru only chuckled before returning to his nap.

Hours later, after enduring Iruka-sensei's detailed lecture on the proper method to sharpen one's kunai, Hinata and Sakura entered a small secluded training ground. They entered with Sakura in the lead and loaded extensive enthusiasm, "Hey boys! Hinata-chan and I brought ramen." She called out with an air of great success as the deposited the bag she was carrying onto the ground. The act was repeated by the female Hyuga much more gracefully.

"Thanks." Shikamaru muttered taking out his pork ramen from the bag Hinata had carried. With great reluctance he pulled himself up from his prime cloud watching position into a seated position much more conducive to eating.

"Miso." The pink colored female announced in a goofy voice as she passed it off to the older male.

"Thank you, Sakura." He responded, much too used to his friends odd moods to be suspicious of the meal.

"Absolutely no problem, Neji-kun." She replied, pulling out her own seafood ramen with a grin on her face that let Neji know whatever she had planed which had resulted in her mood, was fast approaching. "So Hinata," she drawled, "what did you think of Naruto's performance today? He's getting better at projectiles. Ne?" Sakura teased, ignoring Neji's raised eyebrow.

"A-ah, y-yes. N-Na-Naruto is getting bet-better." Hinata answered staring deep into her chicken flavored noodles. Sakura laughed lightly, Shikamaru chuckled and Neji almost smiled. "Is it that obvious?" She questioned her friend, horrified.

"Oh Hinata, it's cute, really!" Said female nodded but continued to pout, harboring no ill feelings, until it was time for her to leave.

"Come on Sakura, I'll teach you the switching jutsu we learned last week." Neji offered as his cousin departed, offering a hand to help Sakura up.

"Thanks Neji-kun." She replied, both of them now ignoring the cloud watching Shinobi who made no indication of moving.

"The hand seals are tiger, snake, ram. When you perform the jutsu you don't have to actively control your chakra. However, it is beneficial to have a slow, steady output." Sakura nodded at the instruction and watched as Neji preformed the jutsu effortlessly. There was no question in his motions as to why it was exactly that he had been labeled as top of his class.

Sakura tried only a handful of times before she could execute the jutsu successfully. The credit really went to Shikamaru, whom had suggested a few weeks prior for Neji to watch Sakura with his Byakugan active as she tried. This use of the Byakugan allowed Neji to tell her how to fix her chakra manipulation and output. This technique of study, used between the pair, really was individualistic to Sakura as she had a very acute awareness of her chakra and was easily able to follow her friend's instruction.

As the sun was dipping and Neji moved on to target practice, Sakura continued to practice the switching jutsu. Her goal, the same goal she set each time she learned something new, was to be able to use the technique without thought of her physical movements.

Time passed, as time is known to do. "Time to stop, Sakura." The eldest called without breaking stride in his own exercises.

"Just a few more times. I'm getting faster." She protested.

"Your becoming depleted. Don't be troublesome." Denied.

"Oh alright." Sakura complained, dropping down next to Shikamaru. "You know, it's not fair that you guys always gang up on me. There is no winning against the pair of you." She pouted.

"We wouldn't need to gang up on you if you'd be less troublesome."

"I'm convinced you would be completely bored in life without me." She replied absentmindedly before stretching with a loud yawn. With her eyes shut, she completely failed to notice the pink stain creeping up Shikamaru's neck.

"Neji, maybe you should bring Sakura home. She's exacted."

The Hyuga didn't say anything but had stopped his training none the less and had picked up the female with a nod to Shikamaru, acknowledging that the other boy was entrusting her to his care. Once, he had been annoyed with the shadow user when pinned with that look of his. He would always protect her, she was family and was his like he was hers. Now he understood that others could be concerned for her as well. He would allow that now, without protest. However, the matter would be different on the day that someone questioned his ability to care for her when she needed caring for.

Sakura would have protested being carried. She would have protested needing to be taken care of. She would have yelled that she was not helpless and could find her own way home. Sakura did none of these things however, she was already asleep.