A/N

This story uses near verbatim, a number of Japanese Folk Tales. Minor changes were made here and there, otherwise they are identical to Tales that can be found on the internet.

They are used for stories the characters tell, not as any clever writing on my part.

And for those of you who take offense at ideas being recycled, or feel that tales are boring?

This story isn't for you.

Sorry…

x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

Naruto looked up at the sun.

The fiery orb blazed on, unaware of his scrutiny, or of the huge rivulets of sweat that ran down from his body.

His clothing stripped off and laying in a crumpled heap, the young genin practiced only in a pair of shorts, grunting and swearing as he worked to conquer new jutsus, or improve his control of ones he had already learned.

Day in day out he worked like this, determined to be stronger. When the perverted old hermit ran down for more drink, or stopped by one of the social clubs, Naruto felt a sense of freedom, but also struggled with feelings of loneliness.

It was difficult being away from his home village.

He had lost track of how many months it had been since he had seen one of his friends. It was probably about a year and a half since he last stepped foot inside the great gate of Konoha. His trips back had become shorter and shorter, and far less frequent.

"Gotta do…." He worked a series of hand seals. "What I…." He gathered his chakra together, using it to hold together a huge amount of dirt and soil. "GOTTA DO!!! " Lifting up the massive chunk of earth, he brought it down to bury Jiraiya's favorite folding chair.

The damned Sennin often sat in that chair, cool tall glass in his hand, calling out insults or words of encouragement as Naruto lost pound after pound of perspiration.

Not any more….

Toweling off, the young shinobi walked over to his water bucket.

"Shit! I am the world's biggest dumbass!!!" He had forgotten to refill it from the stream after his morning session. Now he would have to walk all of the way back down the freaking hill.

And that meant he would have to walk all the way back up afterwards.

"R-Really, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto shook his head, certain he must have heard a voice.

That had sounded a lot like….

"Hinata!" Naruto rubbed his eyes. There was a girl standing there.

And, it was Hinata.

She'd grown some. In nice curvy ways. Oh, and she looked to be taller too. There was a large bag in her hands. Her robes were light and festive, not the type of thing one would wear on a mission.

Hinata bowed, then placed the bag close to Naruto.

"What are you doing here?!" Naruto blurted out, happy to see someone familiar, but instantly aware of his limited clothing.

"I was in this village. I had errands to run. I thought to see you. I brought food and drink." Hinata blushed, staring at Naruto longer than was proper.

Naruto noticed, then sought some way to cover his discomfort.

Some things never change.

"Great. Watch this, Hinata. I've been training really hard. I doubt many of our buddies can do this!" He held up one finger. "Isshi Resshin…… One-fingered Earthquake……" He brought the finger down to the ground.

Hinata stood quietly.

Nothing happened.

"I did it yesterday! Damn. I really did." Naruto gathered his chakra and tried again, tapping the ground. Still, no enormous split in the earth before him.

He tried again and again with no better luck.

"I suppose I have been training too much today," Naruto said, feeling a little sheepish.

"I see," Hinata said smiling. "Are you thirsty?"

Naruto's eyes bulged, looking at the stopper-topped jug of water the young woman carried.

"Hinata, you're beautiful!!!" He almost stumbled, hearing what those words sounded like. "I mean…." He put one hand behind his head and looked at the ground. "You know…."

Hinata blushed. She knew what he had meant.

But, the words still made her happy.

If only she could get him to say the same thing for her own sake….

The two of them chose one of the few shady spots in the wide clearing. Before she sat, Hinata glanced around the area, noting pulverized rocks; huge disruptions in the earth and soil; charred remnants of trees; and such.

She also noticed what appeared to be a man-made pond. Smiling, she saw a number of ducks slow their flight and land on the water.

"You've certainly been training hard, Naruto-kun," Hinata said at one point.

"You bet! Morning day and night! Jutsu…… jutsu…… jutsu……" Naruto raised one eyebrow, then looked towards the lemon-flavored cakes that Hinata had selected. She handed him one, touching his hand briefly.

"Don't you do anything fun, Naruto-kun?" Hinata folded her hands in her lap, then fought to keep from twiddling her fingers.

"Yeh…." Naruto nodded his head, crumbs spraying out over his sweaty legs. "Practice!"

He wrinkled his nose a moment. Hinata? Asking about someone doing fun things?

Hinata frowned. Naruto saw that, then sighed.

"Well…… I have reason to train so hard, Hinata. I didn't really want to leave the vilage…… but…." He wiped his brow with one of the nice cloth napkins Hinata had provided. He shrugged.

"Everybody needs some rest sometimes, Naruto-kun." Hinata refilled his glass. "I wish you were back in the…." She bit her lip, then blushed. After coughing primly behind her hand, she closed her eyes and smiled as a welcome breeze caressed her face.

"But…." Naruto looked away.

He had just realized where he had been staring.

"You lean back and relax a bit. I feel like telling a story." Hinata said.

"Huh? I don't have time for that kind of stuff, Hinata!" Naruto stuck out his lower lip.

"Really?" Hinata sighed. She unwrapped her next bowl. It held ramen. "If you're too busy… I'm sorry… I didn't mean to be an inconvenience…."

"Hinata, you're----" Naruto clenched his fists. He had almost said it again.

It was getting too damn easy.

Then, he remembered the bowl. His mouth filling up with saliva, he swallowed before telling Hinata he would be glad to listen.

"Ha… Ha. Hah… even a great ninja such as myself needs to eat now and then…."

Hinata smiled.

Amazing what a bowl of noodles could do….

Picking up a grasshopper as it wandered past, Hinata looked cross-eyed as it jumped and landed on her nose. Naruto swallowed his noodles fast, then pointed at her, laughing. Hinata put her hands on her hips, which made him laugh even harder.

Naruto blew, making the grasshopper leap away.

Hinata blushed, seeing Naruto smile. Shaking her head, she couldn't keep a shy grin off of her face. As Naruto pulled up a long frond of grass and started sucking on it, she started her story, shaking her head when he offered her one too.

"Many years ago there lived on the then barren plain a a warrior by the name of Yamato. He was a giant in stature, and lived in a hut with his wife and children.

One day Yamato received a visit from an old shinobi, who said to him: "Honorable warrior, I am afraid you never train any longer."

Yamato replied: "If you had a wife and a large family to keep, you would never have time to train. There are better things to do. There is much work."

This remark made the old shinobi angry, and the he gave the other ninja a vivid description of the horror of being a warrior unfit to be part of the village forces. Such lurid details of shame and dishonor were not to Yamato's liking, and he accordingly promised the shinobi that in future he would train.

"Work and train," said the priest as he took his departure.

Unfortunately Yamato did nothing but train. He practiced all day long and refused to do any work, so that his rice crops withered and his wife and family starved. Yamato's wife, who had hitherto never said a harsh or bitter word to her husband, now became extremely angry, and, pointing to the poor thin bodies of her children, she exclaimed: "Rise, Yamato, take up your ax and do something more helpful to us all than the mere mumbling of prayers!"

Yamato was so utterly amazed at what his wife had said that it was some time before he could think of a fitting reply. When he did so his words came hot and strong to the ears of his poor, much-wronged wife.

"Woman," said he, "the Village comes first. You are an impertinent creature to speak to me so, and I will have nothing more to do with you!" Yamato snatched up his ax and, without looking round to say farewell, he left the hut, strode out of the wood, and climbed up Fujiyama, where a mist hid him from sight."

"Huh! That guy had a problem!" Naruto took a moment to run through a progression of seals, wanting to make certain he had the pattern down pat. "What?"

Hinata had been watching his hands. She shook her head and frowned.

"Naruto-kun…… do you…… well……." Hinata had to cough to keep speaking. "Do you think you will be married some day?"

"Urk-k-k…." Naruto began choking on nothing in particular. "I don't… well… that's a good story, Hinata. Is there a reason you want to keep me waiting?" He folded his arms over his chest.

That had Hinata noticing his muscles, then looking away.

"I…… no…… sorry, Naruto-kun." She blushed and continued with the tale.

"When Yamato had seated himself upon the mountain he heard a soft rustling sound, and immediately afterward saw a fox dart into a thicket. Now Yamato deemed it extremely lucky to see a fox, and, forgetting his prayers, he sprang up, and ran hither and thither in the hope of again finding this sharp-nosed little creature."

"Naruto-kun…… are you OK…… do you have a cramp?" Hinata had watched as Naruto's leg shot out, knocking over a bowl of apricots.

"N-N-No……" Naruto cursed his reaction under his breath. The mention of a fox caught him off guard.

Lucky???

Shit!

"I…… I have my medicinal cream….. If you need me to rub some on……." Hinata's leg twitched that time, when she realized exactly what she had offered. The bowl of kumquats suffered the same fate.

"Huh?!!" Naruto swallowed hard.

"Oh… I meant… you could use the cream, if you like." Hinata felt the urge to fan herself. It would be a good way to bring her temperature down, and to hide her face.

After that, she resumed her story-telling.

"He was about to give up the chase when, coming to an open space in a wood, he saw two ladies sitting down by a brook playing go. The woodsman was so completely fascinated that he could do nothing but sit down and watch them. There was no sound except the soft click of pieces on the board and the song of the running brook.

The ladies took no notice of Yamato, for they seemed to be playing a strange game that had no end, a game that entirely absorbed their attention. Yamato could not keep his eyes off these fair women. He watched their long black hair and the little quick hands that shot out now and again from their big silk sleeves in order to move the pieces.

After he had been sitting there for three hundred years, though to him it was but a summer's afternoon, he saw that one of the players had made a false move. "Wrong, most lovely lady!" he exclaimed excitedly. In a moment these women turned into foxes and ran away.

"Figures," Naruto snorted.

What?" Hinata asked.

"Oh… I mean……" he was not about to explain why the thought of foxes causing someone trouble had him piqued. "Women!"

"I see," Hinata said, her eyes twinkling.

When Yamato attempted to pursue them he found to his horror that his limbs were terribly stiff, that his hair was very long, and that his beard touched the ground. He discovered, moreover, that the handle of his ax, though made of the hardest wood, had crumbled away into a little heap of dust.

After many painful efforts Yamato was able to stand on his feet and proceed very slowly toward his little home. When he reached the spot he was surprised to see no hut, and, perceiving a very old woman, he said: "Good lady, I am amazed to find that my little home has disappeared. I went away this afternoon, and now in the evening it has vanished!"

The old woman, who believed that a madman was addressing her, inquired his name. When she was told, she exclaimed: "Bah! You must indeed be mad! Yamato lived three hundred years ago! He went away one day, and he never came back again."

"Three hundred years!" murmured Yamato. "It cannot be possible. Where are my dear wife and children?"

"Buried!" hissed the old woman, "and, if what you say is true, you children's children too. The Gods have prolonged your miserable life in punishment for having neglected your wife and little children."

Big tears ran down Yamato's withered cheeks as he said in a husky voice: "I have lost my manhood. I have trained when my dear ones starved and needed the labor of my once strong hands. Old woman, remember my last words: "If you train, work too!"

We do not know how long the poor but repentant Yamato lived after he returned from his strange adventures. His white spirit is still said to haunt Fujiyama when the moon shines brightly."

"Poor guy!" Naruto said.

"Yes," Hinata agreed. "And his poor family. There are a number of people in the Hyuuga clan that seem to live heir lives that way, at times. It makes me very sad to see it. Neji was that way, until Ten Ten….."

"Ten Ten what?" Naruto asked. "Did she kick his ass or something?"

"Ummm…… in a manner of speaking……" Hinata twiddled her fingers. "Ten Ten is now Neji's girlfriend." Hinata took a deep breath, but couldn't keep her next words from coming out in a rush. "DoyouhaveagirlfriendNaruto?"

"Hinata?" Naruto stopped using a long sliver of wood as a tooth pick.

"Oh…… never mind….. it's…… it's…… nothing." Hinata looked away.

Naruto looked up at the clouds, then sighed.

"No," he said.

He had been able to make out her words.

Hinata sat quietly for a moment, hands twitching ever so slightly.

"Well… the warrior in the story learned an important lesson. One needs to work at things besides training. And…." Hinata stopped, having trouble being assertive. "One needs time for play, too!"

"Uh huh." Naruto scratched his head. He wasn't a dunce. Being around Jiraiya, he had practiced logic and structured-thinking as well as jutsus. "I see your point exactly."

"You do?" Hinata smiled. She had heard how hard that Naruto trained. She was worried about him.

"Yeh. Sure. But, I have a story for you now." Naruto smiled. He was not one to be swayed by a pretty face… a nice spread of food… and a clever story.

Did he say 'pretty face'?

Oh.

Naruto poured Hinata another glass of water, hen began his tale.

"Once there was a boy who loved to draw. His name was Joji.

Joji grew up on a farm with lots of brothers and sisters. The others were a big help to their father and mother. But not Joji!

He did nothing for hours but draw in the dirt with a stick. And what Joji drew was just one thing.

Cats.

Cats, cats, and more cats. Small cats, big cats, thin cats, fat cats. Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats."

Something had made Naruto come close to saying 'foxes' instead of 'cats.'

He stopped a moment, scratching his chin. Could that have been Kyuubi? No.

How could it have been?

Was his secret weighing heavy on him? Maybe. But, he couldn't afford to share it with anyone who didn't already know.

"Joji," his father told him, "you must stop drawing all those cats! How will you ever be a farmer?"

"I'm sorry, Father. I'll try to stop."

And he did try. But whenever Joji saw one of the farm cats go by, he forgot about his chores and drew another cat.

"Joji will never make a farmer," said the farmer sadly to his wife.

"Maybe he could be a priest," she told him. "Why don't you take him to the temple?"

So the farmer brought Joji to the priest at the village temple. The priest said, "I will gladly teach him."

From then on, Joji lived at the temple. The priest gave him lessons in reading and writing. Joji had his own box of writing tools, with a brush and an ink stick and a stone.

Joji loved to make the ink. He poured water in the hollow of the stone. He dipped the ink stick in the water. Then he rubbed the stick on the stone. And there was the ink for his brush!

Now, the other students worked hard at their writing. But not Joji! With his brush and rice paper, he did nothing for hours but draw. And what Joji drew was just one thing.

Cats.

Cats, cats, and more cats. Small cats, big cats, thin cats, fat cats. Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats.

"He certainly had a one track mind," Hinata mentioned.

This story could serve her purpose, too. There must be more to it, unless Naruto was showing that he agreed with her.

Naruto pursed his lips, but kept quiet.

"Oh! Sorry! Please continue, Naruto-kun…."

"Joji," the priest told him, "you must stop drawing all those cats! How will you ever be a priest?"

"I'm sorry, honorable sir. I'll try to stop."

And he did try. But whenever Joji saw one of the temple cats go by, he forgot about his writing and drew another cat.

That was bad enough. Then Joji started drawing on the folding screens of the temple. Soon there were cats on all the rice-paper panels. They were everywhere!

"Joji, you'll never make a priest," the priest told him sadly. "You'll just have to go home."

Joji went to his room and packed his things. But he was afraid to go home. He knew his father would be angry.

Then he remembered another temple in a village nearby. "Maybe I can stay with the priest there."

Joji started out walking. It was already night when he got to the other village.

He climbed the steps to the temple and knocked. There was no answer. He opened the heavy door. It was all dark inside.

"That's strange," said Joji. "Why isn't anyone here?"

He lit a lamp by the door. Then he saw something that made him clap. All around the big room were folding screens with empty rice-paper panels.

Joji got out his writing box and made some ink. Then he dipped in his brush and started to draw. And what Joji drew was just one thing.

Cats.

Cats, cats, and more cats. Small cats, big cats, thin cats, fat cats. Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats.

The screen he drew on last was almost as long as the room. Joji covered it with one gigantic cat—the biggest and most beautiful cat he had ever drawn.

Now Joji was tired. He started to lie down. But something about the big room bothered him.

"I'll find someplace smaller."

He found a cozy closet and settled inside. Then he slid shut the panel door and went to sleep.

Late that night, Joji awoke in fright.

"RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR"

Naruto's sudden growling had Hinata jumping. She spilled the fruit juice she had been pouring. The look she turned on Naruto had him blanching, then smiling, then laughing.

"Naruto-kun!"

Hinata's indignation had Naruto laughing even louder.

"I'm s-s-s-s-sorry, Hinata…. B-b-b-but…… I've never… s-s-s-s-seen you look like th-th-th-that…."

Hinata made a 'Hmmmpppfff' noise, and that set Naruto off even worse.

Finally, she began to grin. Watching Naruto's reaction, she couldn't help but smile.

"You were telling a story, I believe, Naruto-kun."

Naruto did a small half bow from the waist.

"RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR"

He stopped, seeing if Hinata would react again. She didn't. Her fingers began tapping on one knee.

Naruto made a 'what's wrong' expression and got back to his narrative.

"It sounded like a large, fierce animal in the temple! Now he knew why no one was there. He wished he wasn't there either!

He heard the thing sniff around the big room. It halted right in front of the closet. Then all at once . . .

YOWL-L-L-L

There was a sound of struggling, and a roar of surprise and pain. Then a huge thud that shook the floor.

Then a soft padding sound. Then silence.

Joji lay trembling in the dark. He stayed there for hours, afraid to look out of the closet.

At last, daylight showed at the edge of the door. Joji carefully slid the door open and peered out.

In the middle of the room lay a monster rat—a rat as big as a cow! It lay dead, as if something had smashed it to the floor.

Joji looked around the room. No one and nothing else was there—just the screens with the cats. Then Joji looked again at the one gigantic cat.

"Didn't I draw the head to the left and the tail to the right?"

Yes, he was sure of it. But now the cat faced the other way—as if it had come down off the screen and then gone back up.

"The cat!" said Joji. His eyes grew wide. Then he pressed his palms together and bowed to the screen.

Hinata's eye grew wide too.

She realized that she had been chewing on one of her fingers. Looking up, she also realized that Naruto had seen that as well. She hid both hands behind her back.

Naruto grinned, then ran his hand through his hair.

"That's not good for your teeth, you know?"

Hinata blushed, then held her head up, not wanting to seem too meek or emotional.

Naruto continued.

"Thank you, honorable cat. You have saved me. For as long as I live, no one will stop me from drawing cats."

When the villagers learned that the monster rat was dead, Joji became a hero. The village priest let him live in the temple as long as he liked.

But Joji did not become a priest. And he did not become a farmer. He became an artist. A great artist. An artist honored through all the country. An artist who drew just one thing.

Cats!"

"That was a very nice story, Naruto-kun. I never would have guessed that you would be one to tell stories like that." Hinata offered Naruto some cookies. "I… I… I baked these…."

Naruto bit into one.

"Wow! I never would have guessed that you could done something so well….." Naruto wanted to slap himself in the forehead. He had to make up for that asinine remark some how, and fast. "Or would have grown-up to look so…." he couldn't get the words out.

He didn't need to.

His blushing told Hinata everything she needed to know.

Coughing, Naruto stood up.

"I take it you saw the moral behind my story." Naruto didn't know the real moral, but didn't care. The story fit his needs. "If you want to become good at something, you need to focus on that thing." He walked to stand next to the pond.

"But…." Hinata watched as Naruto worked more seals.

"I don't do big cats. But, if there was a giant rat nibbling on your ear, a dragon might do just as well!" He manipulated the water into the shape of a large dragon, then sent a torrential blast headed straight for Hinata.

By reflex, Hinata stood, preparing Kaiten.

With a wave of his hand, Naruto demonstrated amazing mastery, splitting the dragon shape into two separate streams of water, each missing Hinata by a wide mark. A small bit of spray moistened her hair and clothing.

"Nice, huh!" Naruto chuckled, seeing Hinata's face. "But if water isn't your thing…." He worked more hand seals and performed Katon Karyuu Endan, Fire Dragon Flame Blast. The dragon-shaped stream of fire sent the poor ducks skyward, their tail feathers charred ever so slightly.

Hinata just stared.

She had had no idea just how strong Naruto had become. It looked as if all of his hard work had paid off. That last jutsu was jounin level, but would be impossible for all but the most powerful.

"And, I've worked on teaching myself some things." There was a building sound, like a flock of birds that grew ever larger. Soon, it sounded as if the whole area was covered with birds.

Hinata shook, seeing Naruto. His hand glowed with visible chakra! No, not just his hand, but his entire arm. An orange glow spiraled around him, then disappeared along with everything else.

"I've made some improvements. It might prove useful some day." Naruto smirked. He'd love to find Sasuke and show him. Kakshi too, since his old mentor had taught the Uchiha brat how to perform Chidori, but hadn't shown Naruto how.

His uber-Chidori was something a bit more powerful. It wouldn't be wise for anyone without a demon fox's chakra to try it.

"You've grown very strong, Naruto-kun." Hinata spoke very quietly. In part, she thought about her own skills. She had worked very hard, and had been grateful that both Neji and her father deemed to teach her.

But she did not approach Naruto's skill level at all.

She also wondered if the Naruto she saw now was anything like the boy she had spent so much time watching. Did he still have a good heart, or had he grown arrogant with his new found abilities?

"Yes," Naruto said strutting.

"I guess you must have some reason. I hope it hasn't changed you too much. If you are happy walking this path, then I…… I…… I shouldn't complain…." Hinata looked down at her hands.

"Hinata?" Naruto's smile vanished. "You OK? Got a belly ache or something?"

"It's nothing, Naruto-kun." She took a dish out of her bag. It sat in a larger bowl of ice. "I have some ice cream, if you like. We should eat it now, before it all melts."

"Ice cream? ICE CREAM?" Naruto was back at her side in a flash. "Anybody ever tell you that you rock, Hinata?" Naruto accepted a huge chunk of pink ice cream and a spoon. "Well, you do!"

As she too sat and ate, Hinata started another story.

"Once upon a time there lived a stonecutter, who went every day to a great rock in the side of a big mountain and cut out slabs for gravestones or for houses. He understood very well the kinds of stones wanted for the different purposes, and as he was a careful workman he had plenty of customers.

For a long time he was quite happy and contented, and asked for nothing better than what he had.

Now in the mountain dwelt a spirit which now and then appeared to men, and helped them in many ways to become rich and prosperous. The stonecutter, however, had never seen this spirit, and only shook his head, with an unbelieving air, when anyone spoke of it. But a time was coming when he learned to change his opinion.

One day the stonecutter carried a gravestone to the house of a rich man, and saw there all sorts of beautiful things, of which he had never even dreamed. Suddenly his daily work seemed to grow harder and heavier, and he said to himself: "Oh, if only I were a rich man, and could sleep in a bed with silken curtains and golden tassels, how happy I should be!"

And a voice answered him: "Your wish is heard; a rich man you shall be!"

"Wow! Lucky guy. I wish a spirit dwelled up in these mountains." Naruto stood up, spread his arms, then spoke in a loud voice.

"Oh, if only I was the strongest shinobi in all the lands, how happy I should be!"

Hinata sighed. She shook her head, then continued.

"At the sound of the voice the stonecutter looked around, but could see nobody. He thought it was all his fancy, and picked up his tools and went home, for he did not feel inclined to do any more work that day. But when he reached the little house where he lived, he stood still with amazement, for instead of his wooden hut was a stately palace filled with splendid furniture, and most splendid of all was the bed, in every respect like the one he had envied. He was nearly beside himself with joy, and in his new life the old one was soon forgotten.

It was now the beginning of summer, and each day the sun blazed more fiercely. One morning the heat was so great that the stonecutter could scarcely breathe, and he determined he would stop at home till the evening.

He was rather dull, for he had never learned how to amuse himself, and was peeping through the closed blinds to see what was going on in the street, when a little carriage passed by, drawn by servants dressed in blue and silver. In the carriage sat a prince, and over his head a golden umbrella was held, to protect him from the sun's rays.

"Oh, if I were only a prince!" said the stonecutter to himself, as the carriage vanished around the corner. "Oh, if I were only a prince, and could go in such a carriage and have a golden umbrella held over me, how happy I should be!"

Naruto laughed. He stood again.

"Oh…… and spirit…… it goes without saying…… I want to be Hokage, too!" he looked over at Hinata and smiled. "Spirits! So undependable."

Hinata looked at Naruto, then glanced back down at the blanket they had been sitting on, then back up at Naruto.

Naruto narrowed his eyes, pulled at one ear, they finally caught on.

He sat.

Hinata began speaking again.

And a prince he was. Before his carriage rode one company of men and another behind it; servants dressed in scarlet and gold bore him along, the coveted umbrella was held over his head, everything his heart could desire was his.

But yet it was not enough. He looked around still for something to wish for, and when he saw that in spite of the water he poured on the grass the rays of the sun scorched it, and that in spite of the umbrella held over his head each day his face grew browner and browner, he cried in his anger: "The sun is mightier than I; oh, if I were only the sun!"

And the mountain spirit answered: "Your wish is heard; the sun you shall be."

And the sun he was, and felt himself proud in his power. He shot his beams above and below, on earth and in heaven; he burnt up the grass in the fields and scorched the faces of princes as well as of poorer folk. but in a short time he began to grow tired of his might, for there seemed nothing left for him to do.

Discontent once more filled his soul, and when a cloud covered his face, and hid the earth from him, he cried in his anger: "Does the cloud hold captive my rays, and is it mightier than I? Oh, that I were a cloud, and mightier than any!"

And the mountain spirit answered: "Your wish is heard; a cloud you shall be!"

And a cloud he was, and lay between the sun and the earth. He caught the sun's beams and held them, and to his joy the earth grew green again and flowers blossomed. But that was not enough for him, and for days and week he poured forth rain till the rivers overflowed their banks, and the crops of rice stood in water. Towns and villages were destroyed by the power of the rain, only the great rock on the mountainside remained unmoved. The cloud was amazed at the sight, and cried in wonder: "Is the rock, then, mightier than I? Oh, if I were only the rock!"

That dude really ought to make up his mind, you know? Oh. Sorry. Good story. Why'd you stop?" Naruto looked away from Hinata's face.

"And the mountain spirit answered; "Your wish is heard; the rock you shall be!"

And the rock he was, and gloried in his power. Proudly he stood, and neither the heat of the sun nor the force of the rain could move him. "This is better than all!" he said to himself. But one day he heard a strange noise at his feet, and when he looked down to see what it could be, he saw a stonecutter driving tools into his surface. Even while he looked a trembling feeling ran all through him, and a great block broke off and fell upon the ground. Then he cried in his wrath: "Is a mere child of earth mightier than a rock? Oh, if I were only a man!"

And the mountain spirit answered: "Your wish is heard. A man once more you shall be!"

And a man he was, and in the sweat of his brow he toiled again at his trade of stone cutting. His bed was hard and his food scanty, but he had learned to be satisfied with it, and did not long to be something or somebody else. And as he never asked for things he did not have, or desired to be greater and mightier than other people, he was happy at last, and never again heard the voice of the mountain spirit."

Naruto sat rubbing his palm with his other hand.

He looked thoughtful, but for only a second. He had chosen this path, though there really hadn't been any choice. If his sensei did not think it was the right thing to do, no force in the world could have made the Sennin buy into it all. It wasn't as if the perverted old hermit was looking for a side kick.

Naruto admitted the truth to himself. He was never satisfied with any level of proficiency he attained. When had he ever been? And, with Akatsuki about to come after him in earnest, there was little time to waste.

Still….

Enough thinking. Thinking was over rated, no matter what Ero-Sennin and Old Lady Tsunade said.

"Hey! Hinata!"

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata had seen the thoughtful look in Naruto's eyes. She knew that nothing she said would change him, but was glad to see that he didn't seem to simply enjoy power for power's sake.

She'd give anything to know his reason for training with one of the Legendary Sennin. It could be a result of the admiration he had gained from Jiraiya and the Hokage, after he had helped bring Tsunade back to Kohoha. It might even be because Jiraiya saw some of himself in Naruto.

But, she was certain there was something more. Something very important.

"You said you were on an errand. So, what is it?" Naruto speared a piece of pear on a kunei and began eating.

"I'm not at liberty to say, Naruto-kun." That was true. "I'm here on the Hokage's orders." That was also true. "I wish I could tell you." That was only partially true.

"Huh?" Naruto screwed his face up. "Is this some kind of womanly conspiracy or something?"

"Uh… N-N-No…." Hinata frowned when her ice cream slid off of her spoon. "I am not allowed to divulge the nature of my mission. The clothes are part of it, but…." She would leave it at that, with an air of mystery.

"Yeh? Nice clothes, too." Naruto scowled. He shouldn't be focusing on things like that. "Some kind of undercover duty, I guess. Hope you haven't been training as one of the seductresses…."

This time Hinata dropped her spoon altogether.

"NARUTO-KUN!"

"Well…… I didn't say I thought you would choose that kind of work…." He coughed. "But, you look good enough for that…."

"Oh!" Hinata put her hand over her mouth. She felt her face warming.

Tsunade had indeed sent her to this village. She had wanted someone to check on Naruto, not content to merely take Jiraiya's word on things. It had been no accident that the Hokage chose her…… Hinata was certain of that. She was grateful, but hated to think that she had been so obvious.

Then again, Hinata was the only one out of the girls who was not dating, even though a number of shinobi of different ages had begin to take notice of her.

Naruto began laughing.

"What is so funny, Naruto-kun?" Hinata twiddled her fingers for a moment. She had sounded somewhat petulant there.

"N-N-Nothing…." Naruto fought for breath. "It's just that you look even redder than that perverted hermit does, when he returns from drinking all night. Your face almost looks l-l-like an a-a-apple."

Hinata frowned.

"Here, let me polish it for you." Naruto picked up one of the napkins.

"Naruto-kun!" Hinata shook her finger at him. That only sent him into another paroxysm of mirth.

Naruto chuckled. Ok… OK… don't give me that Byakugan look, Hinata." he shook his head, them became more serious. "I understood the moral to your story. Let's see how smart you are. I have another one too."

As Hinata's eyes softened, Naruto began.

"Long ago in Japan, there were three children with a very special fan. But these children were no ordinary children. They were Tengu children, and as all Tengus did, they had very long noses.

When they waved the fan over their noses, their noses would either shrink or grow longer than they already were."

Naruto stopped to consider Hinata's nose. He opened his mouth, and quite deliberately said "Never mind!"

Hinata reached up to feel her nose, then clenched one fist when she realized what she had done.

Keeping a straight face, Naruto continues, his eyes filled with amusement.

"Now although the children didn't know it, the whole time they were fanning away, they were being watched.

Watched by a sly badger.

Badgers in that land could turn themselves into anything they want. And when the badger saw what fun the children were having with the magic fan, he decided to take it for himself. So the covetous creature transformed himself into a girl with a plate of bean-jam buns, which all Tengu children were fond of.

Thinking nothing of it, they dropped the fan and happily ate a bun. But there were three children and four buns. So the tricky badger suggested that the children close their eyes and hold their breath. Whoever could hold their breath with their eyes closed the longest would get the last bean-jam bun."

Naruto grinned, then pointed.

Hinata had brought along bean-jam buns.

"Is there something about Hyuuga ancestry that you want to tell me about, Hinata?" Naruto cocked his head.

"Naruto-kun?"

"Doe you feel a need to fly south in the winter? Scratch up worms when no one is watching? Have feathers somewhere under your robes?" He was making a play on the fact that Tengu were birdlike demons.

Hinata pulled her robes tighter to her. Her mouth became as straight and as thin as a razor.

"Me neither!" Naruto grabbed a handful of the buns, making them disappear one after another.

Hinata couldn't help but grin.

Just wait until Tsunade got a detailed report of her mission!

Naruto looked at the crumbs adhering to his sweat, shrugged, and continued.

The children thought this was a fair idea, so they each took a deep breath and closed their eyes.

The second the eyes of all three children were closed, the badger hurried over to the fan, picked it up and ran out of the house, set to have his own kind of fun.

The badger came across a temple with a beautiful girl sitting inside. The girl was the daughter of the richest man in Japan.

The badger waved his fan over the girl's petite nose until it grew very long. Then he ran away.

The father was devastated!

His beautiful daughter now looked like a dreadful tengu.

The father called upon the doctors of Japan. They thought that if the princess ate thistledown, sea urchins and cabbage, it would cure her nose. So the princess ate thistledown, sea urchins and cabbage. She ate them until she could eat no more. But it didn't affect her nose at all. The father called on a witch. The witch suggested that the girl sprinkle pepper on her nose and then she could sneeze it back to normal size. The girl sprinkled pepper all over her nose and she sneezed. She sneezed and sneezed and sneezed. But nothing happened to her nose. The father yelled and sprinkled pepper on the witch. And she left, sneezing. The father sent for the thinkers of Japan. They thought that if she tied her nose in knots or bows it would look smaller.

The father was in the depths of despair. Out of desperation he said,"I will give my daughter and half my fortune to anyone who can shrink my daughter's nose."

The badger stalked into the room and introduced himself as a nose shrinker. And with a few quick waves of the fan, the girl's nose was small again.

The wedding festivities were held immediately. The badger couldn't believe his luck! A beautiful wife that also happened to be rich. When he was snoring soundly, the tengu children crept in and took their fan They waved it over the badger's nose until the nose grew through the clouds.

Two workers were building a bridge in heaven. When they saw the badger's nose stop growing beside them, they decided it was the perfect pole for their bridge and hoisted it up.

And that sneaky badger was never seen again."

When he was finished, Naruto looked over at Hinata, who had begun putting away empty plates and dishes.

"So, Hinata…… what was the moral?"

Hinata thought a moment.

"Take what you deserve and only what you deserve. Work hard for reward in life. The badger took the credit for what the tengu children's fan did and he got what he deserved."

"That's right. You're pretty smart…." Naruto's words had Hinata smiling. "For a girl!" She bit her lip.

Naruto stood up again, looked over at the blanket, then scratched his head. Watching Hinata for a moment, he started helping her put things away.

That had Hinata turning a surprised and grateful gaze on him.

"I have to work hard, Hinata. Real hard. There is little time for anything else. I won't get to be Hokage by good looks alone." He struck a pose. "And, I won't become the strongest ninja by just talking as much as I used to."

He wished he could talk about Akatsuki, but that was a forbidden topic with his younger peers. It wasn't that Jiraiya suspected that any of them might be spies, or could be turned by bribes and threats, but it didn't hurt to keep the number of people knowing to a minimum.

Naruto stopped talking for a moment, struck by one fact in particular.

It was really easy for him to talk with Hinata. And, he had actually been enjoying himself.

"I understand, Naruto-kun. But, you won't be able to be Hokage, if you kill yourself by working to hard." The look in Hinata's eyes was undecipherable for Naruto. "And, remember, getting what you deserve can be both good and bad."

Naruto frowned.

What did Hinata mean by that? What bad things could happen from too much work?

Was she saying that he was somehow less of a person than the rest of her friends?

"That was a very nice meal, Hinata. Thank you. But, I feel like I'm stiffening up a bit. I really should get back to practice. I'm going to work on Kokuangyo no Jutsu next, then Mokudon Hijutsu Jukai Koudan or Yomi no Shoutaku." Naruto shook his head.

That was rude, after everything Hinata had done.

But, he hadn't merely been trying to brush off her comments.

For some reason, he had felt like bragging to her.

Why?

He wasn't prone to doing that much these days….

"Oh. I'm sorry if I've overstayed my welcome, Naruto-kun." There was an obvious catch in Hinata's voice. It left her mortified, and Naruto thoughtful. "I will get out of your way."

"Well…… uh…… you don't need to be in a hurry, Hinata…… unless…… uh…… you want to. If you don't have to do your errand right now…… I…… well…… I wouldn't mind some company while I practice." Naruto rubbed the back of his neck.

"OK," Hinata said, smiling.

Why had Naruto acted like that? Was he merely very lonely? That shouldn't be any surprise.

Or, did he actually like having her around?

No.

There was no way she was going to get her hopes up, only to find out that she had been wrong.

"I'll stay a bit more, Naruto-kun. You've been very kind." The thought of kindness reminded Hinata of another story.

Her eyebrows raised. A certain prophecy in that tale had her swallowing hard. It would be rather forward of her to tell the tale for that purpose, but she doubted that Naruto would catch on.

Unless she wanted him to….

"Ha. If anyone has been kind, it's been you. People like you are rare, Hinata. You deserve to have good things happen to you." Naruto began stretching exercises, intending to exert his body, not just his willpower and chakra control.

He would be surprised if any of his friends could match him at Taijutsu now. That, or Genjutsu and Ninjutsu.

"Would you… ummm… like to hear another story while you stretch, Naruto-kun?" Hinata hoped that he wouldn't say 'no.'

"Sure. Go for it! Do you want to do some stretching too, Hinata?" Naruto laughed, seeing the look on his companion's face. There he was again, teasing Hinata.

Hinata blushed. Being around Jiraiya was certainly having an effect on Naruto! She would be certain to tell the Hokage that, though she had no doubt that Tsunade was well aware of the fact.

She didn't bother answering. Instead, she launched into her tale.

"A god by the name of Ohkuninushi had many brothers, all of whom abdicated the ownership of their lands, leaving them to Ohkuninushi.

The reason for this is was simple. They all wanted to propose marriage to a princess named Yagami in Inaba.

So, one day they all went to Inaba together with Ohkuninushi as their valet, carrying their heavy baggage.

As they reached Keta Point, they found a rabbit stripped of all its fur, lying on the beach. Seeing it, the brothers said to the naked rabbit, "All you have to do is to take a dip in the sea and lie down on the top of the high hill, exposing yourself to the wind."

The rabbit followed their instruction. As the salt water dried up, its skin was exposed to the wind and began to crack.

The rabbit threw itself on the ground crying in pain.

Ohkuninushi was the last to see the rabbit. He asked, "Why are you crying like that?"

The rabbit answered; "I lived in Oki Island and long wanted to come to this mainland, but had no means. So, I decided to trick the sharks in the ocean, telling them, 'Let us see which of us are more numerous. Bring all of your clan, and line up from this island to Keta Point. I will count your number by stepping on each of your backs.' The sharks complied, and lined up. I counted their number as I walked over them. Just as I was about to jump off the back of the shark closest to the shore, I announced, 'I have tricked you!' Hardly had I said this when the shark at the end of the row caught me and stripped me naked.

I was crying, bemoaning my plight, when many men passed by. They said to me, 'Bathe in the sea-water, then lie down in the wind.' I did as I was told, and my skin dried up and cracked."

On hearing the rabbit's story, Ohkuninushi said to the rabbit, "Go to the mouth of the river right away. Wash yourself thoroughly with fresh water. Take pollen from the cattail, sprinkle it about, and roll about in it. Then your skin will be restored."

The rabbit did as it was told and was cured. This is the story of the white rabbit of Inaba, still referred to as the Rabbit god. For indeed, the rabbit was indeed a god, and the act of kindness had touched his heart.

The rabbit said to Ohkuninushi, "Not one of your brothers will win Princess Yagami as his wife. Although you now have the humble role of baggage-carrier, you will be the one to win the princess."

Hinata took a drank of water after she finished, then walked the pitcher over to Naruto.

"So, was there a moral to that tale, or was that just part of some epic?" Naruto fought the urge to pour the rest of the water over his head.

"Ummm… well… not really. Unless you like to believe that kindness can bring about ones greatest dreams." Hinata stared at Naruto, longer than she realized.

"Is the sun bothering you Hinata? You've been just standing their, looking at nothing in particular." Naruto handed her back the pitcher, then put his hand on her forehead. "Better be careful, you don't want to end up all naked and hurting like that rabbit. Uh…… I mean……"

Hinata fumbled the pitcher, almost dropping it.

"It's nice that you worry about me, Naruto" Hinata said, surprised by her boldness. "Who knows what your kindness might bring you." She felt like she would die from embarrassment, but she had to add one part. "Maybe you will win the hand of a clan chief's daughter some day."

"Huh?" Naruto had not made the connection.

Hinata was actually relieved. She had been too brazen, and had been left feeling like she must be the most desperate girl in all of Konoha.

"Well, I need to head out now, Naruto-kun. I have to be back in the village before things get dark." Hinata said her good byes, as did Naruto.

As Hinata walked down the rocky path, Naruto called out.

"Oh, and Hinata! You didn't have any success! You won't stop me from training so hard!"

Hinata turned to face him. She fluffed her hair a bit, then waved.

"That wasn't my goal, Naruto-kun. I just wanted to talk to you, and to hear you talk to me." She smiled. "I had hoped to see you, and wanted to know if you would like seeing me."

"WHAT????"

"I'll see you again, some time."

Hinata headed on her way.