The years were passing faster than Naruto would have imagined.

His training with Jiraiya was going splendidly…well, as splendidly as anything could go with a man who continually stole his frog wallet... ran off to peer at bathing beauties... or pouted until his pupil used the Sexy No Jutsu.

Naruto's skills were increasing. His stamina had improved. He had hit a growth spurt, and his voice had changed. That, and his thirst for pranks had returned with a vengeance.

When the perverted sennin would leave… telling him in no uncertain terms to pour over the forbidden scrolls and practice the lessons inked on the stack of parchments…the rebellious young genin would find his way to a nearby town or village, intent on having a little fun.

"Ha! What's wrong with that?" Naruto chuckled. "As long as I don't get caught."

One night, or so the gossips would later claim, a beautiful woman called at the local temple, intent on seeing the village priest. Worrying at the fox fur ruff of her fancy coat, tears in her eyes, she asked him to come keep watch over a deathbed. All night long the holy man read the prayers, never wavering in his solemn task. But, when the first rays of the morning sun appeared, what do you think happened? The priest looked around in surprise. Instead of a house, he found himself deep in a lonely wood, reading prayers over a tree stump! It was merely a coincidence that the same priest had loudly scolded a young ninja who had bumped into him while running for the last available stool at the soba parlor.

Jiraiya was not the only teacher that Naruto was learning from. On certain mornings, while his master snored loudly, his hands clutching the latest girlie magazine, the young Leaf shinobi would sneak away into a dark cave in the hills, intent on rather risky instruction. He had struck a deal with Kyubi. The boy continually look for ways to give the demon a bit more freedom, certain he was smart enough to keep the great fox in check. Nine Tails, in turn, began sharing more than just chakra. The inner Naruto… something he would never admit to having, especially to Sakura…rubbed his hands in glee with each new bit of 'fox magic' that he seemingly coaxed from a beast that would gladly eat him.

"Naturally, it's due to his my cleverness and suave persuasive nature." Naruto grinned. Part of him wasn't so self-deluded; but, it didn't matter, since there was no way that the Kyuubi could get free. If Yondaime had left a potential flaw, Tsunade or Jiraiya would have seen to it later. Right?

Naruto thought about stories he had heard about kitsune. As far as he knew, they were creatures of legend. They were merely tales to tell young men who are all too eager to chase after any pretty woman they stumble upon. It never hurt to put the fear of evil consequences into the heart of the restless and hot-blooded. Just the same, the abilities that storytellers gave the trickster foxes, Kyuubi called his very own. Those, and then some.

In the stories, a kitsune's illusions bordered on reality. Whatever one of the more powerful fox women created in her mind would appear as real as anything found in nature or built by men. A kitsune can create people, creatures, and objects, which can't be distinguished from actual things. Naruto could do something similar, with the help of his special 'friend.'

A fox demon, greater than 1000 years old judging by the presence of the nine majestic tails, could do much more than any kitsune of legend. If Kyuubi shared even a smidgen of his power, Naruto would be a force to be reckoned with. But, the great fox demon was a jealous guardian, stingy in his power. However, when its need for death and destruction peaked, it would settle for the petty mischief and harmless tricks performed through its human proxy. It was better than nothing. And if the foolish boy ever let his new gifts blind him to the danger he was dealing with, who knows what opportunity might arise?

"I'm getting pretty good," Naruto bragged to himself. He had become a slight bit egotistical lately, giving the skills he had learned from his two teachers. Smiling, he thought about another small victory.

An important and pompous townsman had been returning from a neighboring town when he met an old friend. That acquaintance invited him to stop by his domicile for the night. The self important man climbed naked into a sumptuous hot bath which his friend has prepared for him, a great satisfied smile on his lips. Before he knew it, the room was filled with a terrible smell. Instead of bath water, he found he was sitting in slimy mud, filled with rotten leaves, sticks, and human waste! Naked, surrounded by a crowd of aghast passersby and scandalized town council men, he realized that he was up to his waist in the filth issuing forth from a broken sewer main. A small carved wooden fox lay on the ground nearby, a brazen admittance that Naruto dared anyone to connect to his mischief. The poor victim had once taken the last bowl of noodles at a certain young ninja's favorite ramen den, laughing as he shoved that young man out of his way.

Naruto sighed, feeling a twinge of guilt. It really wasn't right to abuse his talents, especially those that his sensei didn't even know about. But, such opportunities served as a safety valve of sorts, giving him a way to blow off some steam. Jiraiya was a much harder task master than Naruto ever would have guessed. Sure, he was passing on wisdom and secrets at a prodigious rate, but the weight on Naruto's shoulders was so great at times, that he dreamed about running off into the would to become a hermit, his dreams of Hokage long forgotten. Not wanting to become another Jiraiya, he quickly erased such thoughts from his head each time they appeared.

"I don't just look out for me," Naruto said to no one in particular, trying to justify his actions.

Yet another time, a wine merchant set out one day to sell his wares, the envy of distillers and fermenters for miles around. That same man had sent his dogs after Jiraiya one evening, when the drunken sennin had made a pass at the man's eldest daughter. One of those dogs had made it a point to get overly friendly with Naruto's leg. Walking along the road with his wine jugs on his back, the merchant met a very wealthy traveler, a man of great riches and boundless thirst. The man bought all of the wine, and in return, over-paying with a bounty of gold coins, presented in a splendid sequined purse fashioned like a fox. But, when the wine merchant later opened that purse on his own, what did he find? Twigs, leaves, and a rather disoriented moth. Those, and a drawing of his naked daughter sketched at the ladies' hot spring.

Over time, Naruto's tricks had grown more and more complicated. On a number of occasions, he had needed to escape before being caught. At those times, another one of Nine-Tail's talents often came in handy. The demon could create small pockets in reality, folding space and time to suit its needs. As a result, Naruto found himself able to turn a hole under a floorboard into a small estate if need be, or to turn a small field into a kingdom unseen by human eyes. To his great joy, he discovered that days could pass in such wondrous realms, while only hours had passed in the real world. Squirreled away with forbidden scrolls and a seemingly endless supply of instant noodles, his education passed much quicker than anyone might have expected.

Unaware of the godlike skills that his pupil had been given, Jiraiya had christened Naruto a genius. The brilliant boy might one day exceed the capabilities of the Fourth! That statement that only served to swell Naruto's head, almost to reckless levels. More and more, he had toyed around with other new abilities, sometimes to the detriment of his more mundane studies. The ability of 'seduction,' a kind of mind control, was commonly attributed to the kitsune of myth. By using their tail or tails in a swaying manner, or by meeting the gaze of a victim, the kitsune was said to be capable of taking over his or her mind. While under the control of the kitsune, the targeted individual sees, thinks, and lives in a world designed by the tricky beast, all inside the poor victim's mind. The target is controlled until the feisty fox spirit or some other capable individual breaks the apparent spell. Sporting tails of Kyuubi's construction, Naruto found ways to satisfy his never-ending desire for sweets, squid-on-a stick, and ridiculous night hats.

"Such skills might well prove useful in battle as well," Naruto mumbled, annoyed by the sing of his conscience. The only problem was the capricious nature of Kyuubi. There was no telling when the great hairball might pull the rug out from under his feet!

Kyuubi could also share the power of possession, imparting an ability that closely mimicked the talents used by Ino and her father. But, Naruto was not very adept with that skill yet. Likewise, he had only begun learning how to create foxfire. By rubbing his borrowed tails together, he could bring forth lightning or fire. So far, he had only managed to singe his trousers.

"At least I can do it. Granny Tsunade and Ero-sennin can't!" Thoughts like that often had Naruto puffing out his chest and strutting down the street, leaving bemused onlookers to wonder whether or not the young man was touched in the head. He was doing that now, marching down the village street just as the morning mists were starting to dissipate. T busy thinking about the powers he wanted to play with, he literally ran into someone he hadn't seen for a long while. "Hey! Watch where you're going, you…" His mouth fell open.


Hinata's shy voice had Naruto's eyes snapping open with an almost audible sound. "Hinata?" Naruto did a double take. "Is that really you, Hinata?" It was, but not as he remembered her. She was taller. Her face had grown much less plain. In fact, Naruto had reason enough to stand with his jaw frozen open. She was cute. Really cute. Really really cute.Naruto had started noticing such things. More and more each day.

Chuckling evilly, Kyuubi used its chakra to tweak the host body's hormonal responses, reveling in the chaos and confusion it threatened to cause. Naruto's staring continued long enough to make Hinata blush.

"Yes." Hinata answered. She had spent weeks gathering up the courage to come to this village, with hopes that she could actually speak with Naruto. She had gone over the plan in her dreams on many a night. She always seemed much braver the. Now, her knees felt a little weak.

"Ummm..." Naruto swallowed, fighting against Kyuubi's physiologic mischief.. Forcing himself to look around him, he caught sight of other women. They were dressed far less conservatively than Hinata was, displaying attributes that the shorter girl likely did not have hidden under that ubiquitous heavy coat of hers. That might make it easier to tlak with his fellow ninja. "Long time no see. No doubt you came looking for me, needing some more inspiration. Ah hah hah haaa."

Hinata blushed again, rubbing her finger tips together. "I… it was…yes." She tried to steady herself. "I've been training very hard, Naruto-kun. My memories of you are inspiring, even though you haven't been in our village for a while. I have accomplished many things since you've been gone."

"Really? I'm afraid I have some bad news..." The young man put his hands behind his head, fighting the sudden unbidden urge to flex his muscles. "I'm no longer a proud failure."

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata's eyes went incredibly large. She bit her lip. "You no longer have the confidence to get up from your defeats?"

Naruto shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. "Nope. Far from it. I'm no longer a failure!" He grinned. "I'm much closer to becoming Hokage."

"Oh." Hinata clasped her hands together. Why did she feel like she was about to swoon?

"But, you probably realized that was going to happen. You noticed my talents long before anyone else." Naruto peered at Hinata's face, wondering how anyone could blush that much. "Are you overheated or something? It is warm out. Why don't you take off that coat. It looks too small for you, any way."

"Oh. OK." Hinata swallowed. What would Naruto's reaction be? She slipped out of her coat.

Naruto froze. A small bead of drool formed at the corner of one lip.

"Naruto-kun? Is something wrong?" Hinata felt a surge of vindication, moments before her heart began fluttering like a trapped bird. Her blossoming instincts and her long time habits were at war with each other.

Naruto blinked rapidly, unable to speak or move any other muscle. Hinata had grown noticeably in more than just height. Suddenly, that fact was very important to him. Important, and strangely disabling.

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata felt her face grow warmer and warmer. But, she clenched one fist and bit her lip for the briefest of moments. She forced herself to stand where she was, despite the irrational urge to run away and hide.

Naruto tried to look up at a hawk circling overhead. His eyes wouldn't move. He tried to close his eyes. No such luck. Words echoed off the corners of his mind, as he told himself it was only Hinata. 'Now if it were Sakura...' That thought hung limp and useless as well.

Pink-haired girls were so yesterday.

The Nine-tailed fox was growing bored. The amusement value of the situation was spent. The host body was so discombobulated, that things had started growing annoyingly dark, almost as dark as it had been when Naruto teetered on the edge of death thanks to Kabuto's chakra-disrupting attack. Naruto jumped, feeling as if he had been goosed by a bolt of lightning. His voice and voluntary actions returned.

"Yes. Hinata. I bet you feel more large... I mean comfortable. You're certainly much more rounded... I mean well-rounded." Naruto bit his tongue, hard. There was a tangy taste of blood. Deep inside, a sepulchral voice chuckled as a caged vulpine form closed its great eyes. "Ummm... no doubt you are an accomplished ninja now."

"I think so. Kurenai sensai has said as much too. Even my cousin has admitted that I have grown more skilled." Hinata felt a warmth spread through her. It was a surge of confidence, something she never had before Naruto cheered her on during the middle ninja exams. "I have become especially good at transforming." In honor of a certain young man, she had spent countless hours on her own trying to master skills that seemed to come so naturally to that important person.

"Really? Sounds like you are still the kind of person I can like!" The words had come spontaneously, with no hidden purpose. Nevertheless, Naruto somehow felt as if he had suddenly found his foot poised above the waiting jaws of a bear trap. Hinata's mouth dropped open. To cover his feeling of embarrassment, Naruto rushed ever onward. "Of course, I have been training hard too! I doubt that you could have become as adept at transforming as me!"

Hinata felt somewhat piqued. It was a new feeling for her, and she wasn't certain how she should react. Part of her felt mortified, ready to sink into packed soil beneath her feet, if only she could fade from view. Another part felt somewhat perturbed. Yes, Naruto had noticed her. However, he sounded as if he was intent on selling her short, just as many people had done before him. She had stood up to Neiji. She would stand up to Naruto. "I bet I have." Hinata tugged at her hair a moment, before setting her jaw. "I think I can defeat you in a contest of transforming."

"What?" Naruto smiled. "Nice joke, Hinata!"

Hinata's eyes sparkled mischievously for a moment. "I can remember your skills before you were a genin, Naruto-kun. You were a bit... challenged... at the time." She was amazed at her own audacity. She was surprised to find that she enjoyed it.

Naruto began coughing, feeling as if he had come close to swallowing his tongue. "Huh? You fell for my act? I was always joking back then." He tried to sound sincere, but failed miserably. He had been pretty lame at one time. "Any way, we all know that the boys develope much quicker than the girls ... in uhhh..." Naruto swallowed, distracted by Hinata's figure again. "In our jutsus. I don't see the need for any contest. I wouldn't want to hurt your feelings." He took of his forehead protector... Fogged it with his breath... And then began polishing it to an admirable sheen.

"Oh. I see. I understand, Naruto-kun." Hinata shook her head. "We'll keep it our little secret. I promise I won't tell anyone. It probably won't change my opinion of you, Naruto-kun." Hinata had been a good student in many ways. She had studied the interaction between various male and female chuunins and jounins that she had worked with during training sessions and missions. Knowledge is the most deadly weapon of all. All she needed was the strength and courage to see things through.

"Hinata?" Naruto looked puzzled. Tying the protector back in place, he raised an eyebrow.

"I won't tell anyone that you were afraid." Hinata blinked repeatedly, and then fluffed her hair. "Actually, you've made me feel strong again, Naruto-kun. Just knowing that I am better than you fills me with a great deal of confidence.Thank you."

Naruto frowned. He swallowed a number of angry responses, knowing they would make him seem foolish and weak. Well, why not have a contest? If the girl was looking for trouble, why not give her some? "Hmmppff! Try and do someone a favor, and this is how they thank you." Naruto crossed his arms over his chest, then stuck his chin in the air. "Let's do your contest, then. Not because I have anything to prove, of course!" Naruto grinned, then winked. "It's just that I don't want you to get over confident. You might stop learning that way."

"Oh. Thank you, Naruto-kun!" Hinata fought back the impulse to laugh. "I'm still sort of shy. Would you mind if we found an isolated area in the hills or forest? Maybe we could bring a picnic lunch?" Hinata didn't need to say any more. The thought of food was even strong enough to overwhelm the surge of hormones within Naruto. Before Hinata knew it, the object of her affections had grabbed her hand... pulled her from one food vendor to the next... and made a bee-line for his favor patch of meadow.

The meal went well, with each sharing stories from the past couple of years. "Excuse me," Naruto warbled happily after an unintentional belch. He laughed at the look on Hinata's face. "That was a fine lunch."

"Ummm, yes. I should pay my share." Hinata bowed her head some, holding out a handful of coins and paper money.

"No. My treat. It's the least I can do, seeing how I'm going to kick your butt in the contest." Naruto folded his fingers together, and then stretched his muscle. "So, what's the contest?" He spoke with the utmost confidence. There was no doubt that his chakra reserve was many fold greater than that Hinata. But, that was not the cause of his bravado. He had learned the skill of shape-shifting from Nine Tails. In the stories, a kitsune could transform into anything found in nature… trees, forests, rocks, water, or other people

Naruto could transform at will, for long periods of time, without tapping into his own limited supply of chakra. He was still at proportionate risk in whatever form he took, but that only meant that he had to be on top of his game. It wouldn't be cheating. He would merely be making use of the resources at hand, something a ninja was expected to do.

"Y-Y-You want to kick me in the..." Hinata put her hands protectively on her shapely posterior. Coyness didn't come naturally, but she was up for the challenge.

"Ummm... uhhh..." Naruto closed his lids tightly, and counted to ten. He wasn't some perverted sennin after all!

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata bowed her head, then crossed her arms in front of her body, standing in a falsely dejected pose. There was no way that Naruto could have seen the look in her eyes.

"It's just a figure... of speech. Ha ha hah! It's much too nice to kick..." Naruto had the urge to slap his forehead. "I mean you are much too nice to kick."

"Oh. I'm relieved." Hinata straightened up. She managed to keep from grinning.

"Good. So, how do you want to do this?" Naruto scratched the fuzz on his chin. "Should we have a bet?" Naruto raised one eyebrow.

"OK. We can bet. I don't mind." Hinata blushed. She thought for a moment, and decided what she wanted. At least she thought that was what she wanted. Why not shoot for the stars?

"Well, if I win... I mean when I win... I want all the ramen I can eat for a day!" Naruto rubbed his hands together. "What do you want to compete for?"

"Ummm...I..." Hinata exerted every iota of willpower she had. He gaze had settled upon a rather large tree, and she felt a compulsion to run and shield behind it. Damn! She still had so much work to do. Old habits die hard. "I'll tell you if I win..."

"Huh?" Naruto shook his head. "Is this some kind of trick? No way! You could ask for the Hokage necklace or something like that. I'm no fool..."

"No... I mean... not that. I'm just too shy to say I..." Hinata swallowed, and then squared her shoulders. "But, if you're afraid I might beat you..."

"W-H-A-T-?" It was as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water on Naruto. He bunched his shoulders, then sputtered. "There... is... absolutely... no... way... I... can... lose..." He shook one fist at Hinata, and then stopped, feeling foolish. "Fine. Whatever you want."

"Promise?" Hinata held her breath.

"Yes. That's my Ninja's Way." Naruto smiled, then straightened his forehead protector. "Mmmm. R-a-a-a-amen..." For a moment, he felt sorry for Hinata. He was taking advantage of her. But, she should have known better. And, he did love noodles. "So. What are the rules?"

"We'll do animals," Hinata responded. "One after another, taking turns. We'll stop when someone has a clear advantage."

"OK. What kind of advantage?" Naruto tried to stop the furious mental gears that moved his thoughts. Nonchalantly, he attempted to shake off any and all vestiges of hesitation.

"Uh, whatever..." His advantage would make itself clear soon enough. When Hinata lay panting on her hands and knees exhausted, that out to be a sure enough sign of victory. Coughing abruptly, he felt his face grow warm as he pictured Hinata doing just that.

"You first," Hinata said with a small wave of her hand.

"Piece of cake!" Naruto smiled. His thoughts wandered down deep within him. 'OK bastard fox, let's do this. The better I eat, the better I feel. The better I feel, the better you feel.' Naruto made a little bow, did a quick somersault, and in the wink of an eye, turned into a mundane every day fox. He chuckled to himself. It was appropriate. Hinata didn't know the significance, but he did. It took every ounce of control not to embellish the look with nine small tails. Sitting on his haunch, he gave his opponent a vulpine thumbs up sign.

"Not bad," said Hinata. Making the appropriate seals with her hands, she turned into a fox.

"Hmmppff." Naruto licked his fur. "I'm bigger. And, I didn't need hand seals."

"Yes, Hinata said. "But I'm cuter. least I think so..." Her face froze, as her fingers dug mercilessly into her palms. What would his response be to that blatant remark?

"Uh huh..." Naruto coughed, as if trying to dislodge a hairball. "I mean... damn." Without saying another word, he transformed into a frog. That too had a certain significance to him. He breathed a secret breath of relief. Had he ended up a tadpole by mistake, he would have thrown himself into a great chasm again, but let himself hit bottom! Plop, Plop, Plop. He hopped happily around the small glen. For a moment, he had visions of Jiraiya accidentally summoning him while he was in this form. Wouldn't that be a hoot!

Soon enough, Hinata had followed suit.

"Hah! I bet I cut a much more dashing figure as a frog," Naruto bragged. "Besides, you have two overly large bumps!" He turned a critical eye towards the Hinata frog. "You're supposed to be a frog, not a toad."

"I'm a girl," Hinata said, turning an un-froglike shade of pink. "I'm supposed to have those bumps. Uhhh...I..."

Caught off guard, Naruto transformed again abruptly, rather than follow through on that rather distracting thought. He changed himself into a snake. Oh great. What an inspired choice! He silently cursed himself, remembering all too well it was like being in the belly of a gigantic serpent. He felt a moment of great sadness, thinking that Sasuke might well be capable of summoning such beast, given that he had essentially apprenticed himself to old Giant Tongue. The three years that Jiraiya had mentioned were almost up. What would happen to his erstwhile friend? It didn't matter. Sasuke was a traitor. He had gone over to the enemy. Sssssss Sssssss. He slithered through the grass. Picking his serpentine body off of the ground, he stared at a disgusted looking Hinata. Yes! if she refused to go snake, he would consider that her admission of defeat.

Hinata glowered at the Naruto snake for a moment, and then moved her hands swiftly and confidently. She too became a snake.

"Not bad... for a girl." Naruto tried to laugh, but only sounded like the air rushing out of one of the balls he had practiced rasengan on those years ago. "But, something's wrong, I think. It looks like you have too many curves!"

"That'ssss becaussssse I'm a girl ssssssnake." Hinata frowned a reptilian frown, then reshaped her tongue. "I'm sssssupposssssed to have more curvessssss. Right?"

"Uh. OK. Fine. You don't need to get all huffy or something." Once again, Naruto had no choice but to concede Hinata's point. It was a good thing she wasn't overly observant. He was sweating up a storm. A snake shouldn't be doing that. Time to change again.

There was a small whirlwind of feathers. When it cleared, Naruto could be seen up on a tree branch, hopping on small feet, resplendent in the plumage of a colorful finch. In a moment of mischief, he flipped out a dropping, nearly hitting Hinata's boot.

"It's good to see that you stay in character when you transform." Hinata tried not to blush. But, she couldn't help herself. For some reason, she had a vivid memory of how Naruto had once defeated her teammate Kiba. "Maybe I should buy you a bag of seeds instead of ramen."

Naruto chattered something rather rude in birdspeak. It was a good thing he waited until after that to find a human tongue. "Ramen ramen ramen. Ramenramenramenramenramen!" He had gone a bit too deep in. He made it a point to purge all birdlike tendencies from his psyche.

Hinata crooked her finger. Naruto came very close to flying on down. Damn that girl!

"Nice little bird," Hinata cooed. "Little... bird..." She hid a smile behind her hand.

With an exploding puff of feathers, an irate Naruto appeared on a branch too thin to hold his weight. A loud and resounding crash followed his plunge earthward.

"Hmmm. I choose not to view that as a defeat on your part, Naruto-kun. I'm quite certain you could have held that form a bit longer." Hinata felt triumphant. Even if she lost the contest, she had certainly scored her share of points.

"Of course. Your turn!" Naruto spoke in a very annoyed tone of voice. Clenching his teeth, he tried to convince himself that it was just a game. Just a game with a one time dark, gloomy, shy, dark weird girl!

For a moment, Hinata cringed, loosing her feeling of ebulience. Then, looking over at her opponent again, she worked up a smile and pointed. "You missed a few. Tsk. tsk tsk. Boys..." A number of feathers still protruded from Naruto's neck. He yanked them out, tossed them to the ground, then trampled on them. "Uhhh... the tail too..." Hinata bit her lip. She was joking! She felt like doing more.

"HUH?" Naruto reached behind himself. There was nothing there.

"Oh. Must have had something in my eye. Pardon me please, Naruto-kun." Hinata chirped, before turning herself into a bird.

"Ha! I win!" Naruto sounded over eager to have the contest over. He stuck out his tongue as he looked down at the Hinata bird standing on the meadow floor. It was very well shaped, but remarkably drab in color. "My bird was much more colorful."

Hinata let fly with a raucous series of cheeps, squawks, and squeaks. "Chirp, Chirp, Chirrup..." Her voice changed over to human. "Female birds are not supposed to be as colorful as the males. No wonder Sakura says you're an idiot! Ooops..." That last bit slipped out, shocking the two of them.

"Uhhh... Yes… of course. I knew that. I almost had you there. If you had changed your color, I would have won!" Naruto congratulated himself on a good save. The Hinata bird blew an avian raspberry. "What was that?" Naruto wrinkled up his nose.

Hinata turned back to human, a perturbed look on her face. Naruto stared at her for a moment, not remembering ever seeing Hinata anything like that. For a moment, he found himself admiring her new spunk.

"Hope you don't keep any birdlike qualities when I beat you," Naruto quipped.

"Wh-Wh-What?" Hinata was caught off guard.

"Cheap. Cheap. Cheap." Naruto grinned at Hinata, who couldn't help but grin back.

Hinata's eyes lit up. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't get the words out. Even though she had been about to joke again, she was still too worried that Naruto might take the comment the wrong way. "What?" Naruto asked, curious.

Hinata shook her head.

"H-m-m-m-m. And I thought you might be the kind of person I might like." It was his turn to feel his tongue grow heavy. He had come perilously close top saying 'the kind of girl he might like.' He didn't like girls yet. Well, not really. Right?

"I was going to say that even a short time as a bird seemed to improve your wits." The words came out in a tremendous rush. Suddenly mortified, Hinata looked at Naruto out of the corner of her eye. She hoped that he wouldn't darken up like a thundercloud or go all sour on her.

"Sure. Takes one to know one, right!" Naruto smiled.

Hinata blushed. "Right." She nodded her head, suddenly feeling somewhat dizzy. Dizzy and giddy. Why?

"Ummm... Hinata... your tail..." Naruto had a serious face.

Squeaking like a mouse, Hinata reached around behind her. He had fooled her. She should have known better than that. The same damn trick! Get a grip, girl.

"You're learning, Hinata. But, you're still not in my league." Naruto struck one of his confident poses, and Hinata couldn't help but smile, her mind drifting back to the practice fields on the morning of the third stage of the chuunin exams. "OK. Back to work."

The sound of Hinata's inarticulate response gave Naruto his choice of the next transformation. He grew a different kind of tail, along with whiskers and perky round ears. He shrunk down to appropriate size, an energetic little field mouse.

Hinata had a sudden flash of insight. She went bird again. This time, she became a huge and fierce looking eagle. Hopping, she took to the wing, the curious and somewhat concerned mouse following her course. When she turned back and dove towards the ground, Naruto knew an uncontrollable moment of fear. Eek ee eeeek. He couldn't transform back to human. What was going on? He could move either, despite the fact that he had spied a large hole in a nearby tree. What was wrong? Deep within him, there rose a chorus of great chuckles. Kyuubi was amused. The young human was long overdue this comeuppance. The Naruto mouse giuped frantically, as the Hinata eagle settled to the ground, its talons wrapped gingerly around the squirming rodent.

"Looks like I won the contest," Hinata's voice said. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"Eeek eek eeeeeeee-e-e-e-e-e-k!"

Hinata didn't need to know mouse speak to interpret that. She opened her razor sharp beak and leaned down towards the small furry Naruto. Soon enough, the mouse began nodding its head in assent.

"OK. That was fun." Hinata was in human form again.

A dyspeptic looking Naruto transformed soon thereafter. "Dirty... rotten... tricky..."

Hinata blushed, but felt somehow felt free and emancipated again, just as she had after her losing battle with her cousin. But, it was more than just a win.

Even though he might not admit it to himself, Naruto realized that there was an undercurrent of respect and admiration in the words that he automatically began to grumble. "Well, you win. I will honor my word. It's my Ninja way." Naruto began grinning again. "You were great, Hinata. You got me. You got me good."

Hinata began blushing yet again. She was working hard to gather up the courage to ask for her winnings. She knew what she wanted. Or, what she thought she wanted. Well, if not at that very moment or on that given day, then soon enough in the future.

Could she do it? Was there any way to get herself to say what she wanted so desperately to say?

"So, what do you want? Dinner? A new coat? Some nice healing cream?" Naruto jingled his money purse. Whew! That damn Ero-sennin had left him enough coinage to buy Hinata something nice in honor of her victory.

"N-N-No..." Hinata began wringing her hands together.

"What then?" Naruto cocked his head, wondering why Hinata had reverted to her earliest behavior. For some reason, she couldn't meet his eyes any more.

"U-m-m-m..." Hinata felt faint. She was so close. If only someone else could say the words for her. She felt so timid, just like a mouse. She saw an image of a mouse with white eyes, feeling a touch of disappointment and self-loathing. But, something burned deep within her. The image changed. It was still a mouse, but a mouse with whisker-like scars instead of true whiskers. Soon, the mouse in her imagination began squeaking 'It's my Ninja Way. My Ninja Way. My Ninja way.' It grew a wild tuft of yellow hair on its head. She grinned, despite her fear. Gathering up her courage, Hinata pictured an eagle's talons grasping the mouse. Yes, she could do this. She could. "You promised, Naruto-kun? Whatever I ask?" Hinata swallowed hard, but kept her chin up and her eyes on Naruto's.

"Yeh! Of course. You know me. I promised." Naruto flicked his hand, as if it was no big deal. That sealed things, in a manner of speaking.

Feeling a spark of annoyance at Naruto's gesture, Hinata rubbed her hands together. She happened upon a less threatening way of putting things. "Ino has a boyfriend. Ten Ten has a boyfriend. Sakura is still pining after Sasuke, or else she could choose from any number of suitors." Hinata smiled. Poor Lee! He was pining away over the pink-haired girl. "Kurenai sensai... Anko... Shizune... they all have boyfriends. Shikamura sees Temari whenever the sand siblings stop by. Otherwise, Ino keeps trying to sink her claws into him." Hinata found herself tensing up, feelings of melancholy beginning to nip at her heals. "Even Moegi has a boy chasing after her."

"So?" Reverting to his uber-dense ways, Naruto still didn't see where things were going.

"Ummm...I…" Hinata bit her lip. The look she turned on Naruto should have clued him in. It didn't. "I don't have a boyfriend."

"That's because you're so shy. You need to lighten up some, Hinata. And..." Naruto's eyes went exceedingly large. "Hey… Hinata... you're not saying..."

"Yes." Hinata said.

"But..." Naruto looked like a fly hopelessly stuck in a spider's web.

"It's your Ninja Way," Hinata said, running her hand through her silken mane.