Sakura does not realize until a good three months into the school year that she’s not the only one who sees something in Naruto. Hinata Hyuuga sits beside her, radiating timidity and a weird, worshipful sensation that feels like a cross between love and admiration, as she’s watching the boys’ matches. It’s Naruto’s turn, and he’s doing semi-passably.
“N-Naruto’s really c-cool, isn’t he?” Oh. She’s in love with him.
Sakura winces as Naruto messes up and gets kicked for his pains, then turns her head to stare at Hinata. “Yeah, he is. But I’m going to be honest. He’s in love with me, and I’m not going to give him to you.”
Surprisingly, Hinata doesn’t look too upset about this. She just nods, eyes fixed on Naruto. “Y-Yeah, I know. I just want to b-be like him. I’m engaged to K-Kiba.”
She blinks. “Kiba Inuzuka? Really?”
“Y-Yeah. The Inuzuka are m-matriarchal, so our parents arranged it when I was still clan heir, b-because he wouldn’t have any problem with a woman being in charge instead of him. B-But, after my s-sister became heir instead, they changed it so I’ll be m-marrying into the Inuzuka clan instead.”
“Huh. Does he know? Because I haven’t ever seen him hang around with you.”
Hinata doesn’t cringe, doesn’t take her eyes off of Naruto, but radiates a feeling of overwhelming embarrassment. “H-He knows. B-But I’m not brave like m-most Inuzuka women, s-so I don’t think he w-wants to spend time with me until he h-has to.”
Now Sakura feels like the worst kind of bully. It never occurred to her that a kid from a clan’s head family would be bullied for not living up to expectations. She hasn’t seen the other kids try to pick on her much, so it’s either done out of sight, or it’s the adults in her clan making her feel worthless. Hinata’s meek and terribly kind, but she’s never struck Sakura as a coward. It must be terrible to be as kind as Hinata and be expected to become a kunoichi. Particularly given how shy she is. Sakura remembers how hellish being shy and bullied was before Ino came along.
They watch as Naruto’s match ends in defeat and he slumps off the field.
“Hey, want to study with Naruto and me after school? Ino might be there too.” Sakura offers on impulse, remembering her and Ino’s talk about rescuing bullied peers.
Hinata’s head jerks around, and she stares at Sakura with her colorless eyes. “Uh. Well…”
Sakura winces as she realizes what the problem might be. “You don’t have to tell your parents that Naruto will be there.”
“N-No! It’s n-not that! I just- Um. Do you mean it? I mean, I l-like Naruto and you- Um.”
“Naruto needs more friends.” Sakura says firmly. Because for one, this is obviously the only way to get Hinata to agree, and for two, Hinata obviously has no plans to try to steal Naruto’s affection, and for three, Hinata obviously needs friends to look out for her. Even as a former clan heir, she is in a position of enough power that she should never feel this bad about herself. “And I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t mean it.”
“Well th-then, I would be happy to study w-with you and N-Naruto.” Hinata says, smiling shyly.
Oh yeah, whoever thinks this girl is a coward needs their eyes checked. Or maybe their brains. Sakura can just tell that she’ll be a good friend, and Ino will love her. Naruto will be thrilled to have another friend, even one as quiet as Hinata.
The addition of Hinata to their study group makes it better, larger. Not just with the obvious. Hinata is a delight when she can actually bring herself to say something, and she’s smart, too. Moreover, she blooms under Ino’s and Naruto’s attention. Something Sakura might be jealous of if she couldn’t feel Hinata’s overwhelming gratefulness and unassuming nature. But it’s not long before Kiba ambles over one day and joins them, parking himself near Hinata with a faint, but obviously protective posture.
Kiba treats Naruto like an idiot. But only until the first few times Ino smacks him (and Akamaru for good measure) and Hinata glares at him in silence. He ignores Sasuke, who ignores him back, and only gives Shino sideways glances, pretending that he’s not unnerved when Shino simply stares back. Once they’ve got that settled, Kiba still takes a couple weeks to relax, practically hovering over Hinata, who obviously doesn’t know what to think of it.
Sakura knows why. He’s afraid they’re just going to hurt her.
What she doesn’t know is why he pretends he’s not in love with Hinata. It doesn’t seem like a very Inuzuka thing to do, really. It seems more like a Hyuuga thing to her.
The tension lasts until the first time they decide to practice together after studying. Kiba hangs back until Naruto hollers, “Hinata, bring your boyfriend and hurry up!”
“O-Okay!” She replies, and snags Kiba’s elbow to tow him along.
He doesn’t resist, looking baffled and pleased. After a few awkward moments, he dives headlong into practicing with them. Afterwards, he’s visibly relaxed and even chats amiably with Naruto. And as if Kiba relaxing is a cue, Shikamaru and Chouji wander in, supposedly for food, and join the group casually.
Given that Shikamaru feels as sharply interested as he looks bored and half asleep, Sakura’s pretty sure there’s nothing casual about it. But she doesn’t mind. There’s nothing mean about Chouji, and Shikamaru’s only sharp tongued if provoked.
Ino looks them askance a few times, but doesn’t really seem to care, and Sakura’s pretty sure that Shino’s mildly entertained by all of them.
Sakura was unsure and uneasy, only a few days before she’d invited Hinata, when Ino originally dragged Sasuke in by the ear, looking sulky and insulted, and Shino had ambled in after them. But they’d been civil enough.
And it isn’t hard to sit at least one person away from Sasuke, who is actually a bit less hard to be around when Ino is in his vicinity, because he’s too busy being worried about her reactions to focus on being angsty. Other than the part where he’s weirdly jealous of Naruto. She can’t for the life of her figure that one out. There’s no reason for it. Naruto’s poor, Sasuke’s not. Much as she adores Naruto, she’s aware that he’s not terribly bright about most things, including school, and Sasuke’s at the top of their class. The jealousy intensifies when Naruto interacts with either her or Hinata, and that’s just plain odd, because it’s terribly obvious that Sasuke has zero interest in either of them. Maybe he’s one of those weirdos who just can’t stand it if any girl is looking at another guy? That seems pretty shallow for someone as intensely angsty as Sasuke, but Sakura is beginning to think it might be true. She can’t think of another explanation, even if that one doesn’t quite fit. And the only reason she thinks it might not fit is because Sasuke’s jealousy also spikes if Naruto finally wraps his head around some classwork or jutsu and suddenly improves. Which really, really does not make sense to her, because Sasuke usually gets it well before Naruto does.
It’s so obvious that even Naruto gets a little jealous and a lot competitive when it comes to keeping up with Sasuke. If it didn’t push him to try harder, Sakura’s pretty sure she’d end up throwing her hands up in utter disgust at the pair of them.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, one day Shino corrects a problem that Sasuke and Shikamaru have both somehow gotten wrong. Sasuke just grunts. But Shikamaru looks faintly offended and somehow that turns into a three way argument with Ino yelling, Shino being quietly logical, and Shikamaru still slouching and sounding lazy, but he’s actually sitting up all the way instead of half asleep on the table and his voice has a sharp edge to it. She’s not actually sure who wins that one, because she and Hinata share glances and turn to helping Kiba (who gets it quickly) and Chouji (who doesn’t) with the same problem, while Naruto is too busy laughing at the three way argument to even pay attention, and they all get kicked out of the restaurant for being noisy.
Then Iruka sensei assigns them all extra credit jutsus or something similar. Everyone gets different ones. It’s odd, because Iruka sensei isn’t really the type to assign extra credit work. He likes everyone to make it on their own merits with the same stuff, so they have an even playing field. But only the nine of them got the extra credit work. Both Shikamaru and Sasuke mention it and Shino hums in agreement.
Sakura gets tree walking, Ino gets chakra sensing, Shikamaru gets storing chakra for later use, Naruto gets a basic sticky-trap seal to learn, Chouji gets an acceleration technique, Sasuke gets a volume enhancing jutsu (which Sakura is pretty sure is a hint to talk), Hinata gets a jutsu that makes her seem more intimidating, Kiba gets a basic seal to learn that when activated confuses the target’s senses, and Shino gets a jutsu that makes him hard to notice. Basically things that suit them perfectly, enhancing skills they already have or making up for glaring weaknesses.
“Sakura! Sakura! What did you get?” Naruto asks, leaning over her shoulder. “This seal thing looks pretty simple!”
“It is simple.” She tells him absently without even looking, because anything Naruto thinks is simple is probably something a four year old could learn without help. “I got tree walking.”
“That’s so cool! Teach me too!”
“Uh-” She’s not entirely sure he’s capable of it, to be honest. It takes chakra control that is far beyond anything she’s ever seen him do.
Shikamaru surprises her by saying, “That’s actually not a bad idea. We should all learn each other’s jutsus. These are basic techniques after all, and we’ll be put into teams at some point. In a team, you never know what will be useful.”
“Yeah! That would be awesome!” Naruto agrees.
Sasuke hunches his shoulders slightly. “Hn.”
Ino leans into him, making him flinch. “Don’t be like that. Shika’s right. It’s a great idea. Everyone learn theirs first, then pass it to the next person to learn.”
“I get dibs on Hinata’s.” Kiba says promptly.
“I-I would like to l-learn Sasuke’s next.” Hinata adds shyly.
“I get Sakura’s!” Naruto proclaims, as if anyone had any doubt about it.
“I would like to try Kiba’s next, if it’s all the same to you.” Shino puts in.
“Can I learn your sticky trap next, Naruto?”
It doesn’t take long to work out a rotation of who gets what to learn in which order, and they all set to learning. Sakura has to wonder, though, if Iruka Sensei knows that they study together and that they’d share these. Because while each of them are perfect for the individual they were given to, they’re also things that will benefit any of them. It’s possible he just decided to give it to the top people in the class and included Naruto and Chouji because they hang out with Sakura and Shikamaru respectively, but that doesn’t really explain Kiba. He’s smart, but not that smart, and while he is friendly to Chouji because they sit next to each other, they don’t normally hang out. No, she’s pretty sure Iruka Sensei knows and is rewarding them for actually taking studying seriously.