She who waits.

"That's what Shino called me." Hinata sighed. Looking up at the clouds, she envied their carefree existence. Sure, they had no one to love and admire. But, they also didn't have to worry about having their dreams fade away, or having their hopes wither away.

It was as good a nickname as any, the white-eyed girl admitted. She had overheard her two male teammates talking about her, speaking in a way that boys will speak. It did seem that she had spent a lot of time waiting for something. She wasn't certain what it might be. She had always assumed that it was Naruto.

Our little white-eyed mouse.

Kiba had called her that. While he had joked with Shino about her improvements as a shinobi, he had clearly been amused by her shyness and lack of social skills. When he went on to discuss the other kunoichi in embarrassing detail, her name didn't come up again in similar context. She should be happy about that, right? Didn't it mean that Kiba and Shino were showing respect for a team member?

"No." Hinata sighed. She rubbed her fingers together, and then clenched her teeth, forcing her to stop the childish mannerism. "That's not why." She was very much aware that she had been developing physically, getting more and more of a mature woman's figure as the months rolled past. Looking critically in the mirror, she had also wondered if her chuunin outfit made her look chunky, but doubted if anyone else would really care. But, while she may have kept up with the other girls in that way, her actions around boys lagged far behind.

A beautiful flower slow to blossom.

"She was probably being kind." Hinata thought back to Kurenai's words. Her sensei had preached patience, and a message of hope. Some girls bloomed earlier than others. That might sound nice, but it offered scant comfort for her. She was an avid gardener. Because of that, she knew that a good number of flowers shriveled up on the bush.

Should she have hope? Or, should she be realistic? There really wasn't anything she could do in any case, right? She couldn't change who she was. She couldn't do it for her father, who had desperately wanted her to be the Heir. No. Someone would have to care about her for who she was. Before that could happen, someone would have to take notice of her. Who would bother? Why would they want to?

"I can't give up." Hinata clasped her hands tightly together. That would stop the finger wriggling. "He never gives up." There was no question who the 'he' was. "It's our Ninja Way."

Naruto. Her thoughts turned him more and more those days. Why? Was it because she somehow got the feeling that someone else was going to win his heart? Was she trying to squeeze in as many hopes and dreams as she could, while she could? It was kind of silly. No, it was sad. She had made him a big part of her life, and he didn't know that. He didn't have a single clue. If he did, he had never acted on it. Which would be worse, his never knowing, or his knowing and not caring?

Still, she had to wonder: was Naruto someone she admired, or someone she had a crush on? Maybe the two things had blurred together so much, that she couldn't tell them apart anymore. She and the village's noisiest ninja had been very similar, at the Academy. They had both shown a lot of courage at the first chuunin exams, in their own fashion. But, after that, Naruto's abilities and opportunities had shy-rocketed. She, on the other hand, kept to the slow plodding path, improving a bit every day, but never standing out.

"Sakura is more like him." Hinata sighed. The pink-haired medical ninja was training under one of the Legendary Sannin, just the way Naruto once had, and Uchiha Sasuke still did. "She will be something special." Did that mean the other girl was better suited for Naruto? Maybe. They did have a very strong bond. Not just with one another, but also with the teammate that had forsaken the village in a personal quest to grow stronger. But, Jiraiya and the Hokage had never gotten together. Maybe two powerful personalities couldn't mix. Should she take comfort in that? Uzumaki Naruto was a strong wind, as personalities went. Hyuuga Hinaa was a small flame. Would someone like him snuff out someone like her?

You're someone I can like.

Naruto had said that before leaving the village. He had meant it as a mark of respect and admiration, maybe even friendship. How could there be any true romantic overtones, at a time like that? At their age! At least he hadn't said she was someone he could never take an interest in. Then again, before complimenting her, he had called her a shy, dark weirdo. Had that really changed? Would anyone give her an honest answer, if she asked?

"I should…" Hinata couldn't finish the sentence. She wanted to say 'I should make it a point to talk to Naruto.' Part of her did want to. As it was, she hadn't been partnered with him on any missions since his return. Neji had gone on one, along with the remainder of his team. Other people had been added to Team Seven, to fill things out on occasion. While she had dreamed about going out on an assignment with him, that dream had yet to become reality.

The first time she had caught sight of him after his sojourn… when he had come across Shino, Kiba, and Akamaru for the first time in a long while… she had stood quivering behind a corner. She haf not been ready to talk with him yet. She almost passed out. That couldn't have left a very good impression. If she did something like that again, he would probably shrug her off as some strange girl not worth his notice.

If only she could bring herself to make a promise! She always tried to keep whatever pledge she made to herself. The words just wouldn't come out. Looking at her watch, she knew it was time to head to the training fields. She wanted to get their early, to have a little time to get into the right frame of mind, before the boisterous Kiba and sharp-witted Shino showed up. She would also need to steel herself, getting ready for Akamaru's greeting.

Maybe it was because she was thinking about Naruto. Maybe she simply wanted to perfect a new technique. Whatever the reason, Hinata started off working on her Shugohakke Rokujūyon Shō , the Guardian Eight Divination Signs, Sixty-Four Palms of the Hand. She had startled her father, coming up with that. Neji had been complimentary, too. But, except for an imaginary adventure she had mused about while sitting under a cherry tree, she had never had a chance to tell Naruto about the technique, much less show it to him.

Just how strong had Naruto gotten in his absence? She had heard some rumors lately, after his missions against Akatsuki and Orochimaru. No doubt he had eclipsed her, in part due to the demon sealed within him. Making a face, she remembered how hard it had been to accept that fact, after she accidentally heard Lee and Neji discussing the once forbidden topic. At first, she had wanted the world to vanish, having a difficult time dealing with the truth. The Hyuuga clan had been hit hard by the Kyuubi, and mention of the monster had been a punishable offense when she was younger. Her feelings held true, however. Naruto was Jinchuriiki, not Bijuu.

"At least I passed the chuunin exams." Hinata managed a small smile. The fact of the matter was that Naruto remained the only member of their close-knit group who had not become a chuunin. It wasn't his fault, since he was busy with the Frog Hermit's tutelage. No. There was no reason for him to be ashamed, whatsoever. Still, it was something she could tease him about… if she was someone who could do something like that. She wasn't. She wished that she was. He would probably prefer a girl with some spunk and shimmer to her, not a quiet, dull kunoichi.

"Look who's here!" It was Kiba's booming voice. He had spotted her. Wonderful! Why did he have to show up early, too? "It's our favorite little mouse." Great. He was back on that kick again. Maybe she should be glad. If he came up with something new, it might be far worse.

"Do you think she was waiting for us?" Shino strode along next to Kiba. It was hard to see his face at a distance, shielded as it was by the darkness within the recesses of his deep cowl. "Or do you think she was hoping someone else showed up?"

"ARFFF ARFFF." Akamaru's bark echoed across the tree-lined filed, causing a distant covey of quail to take to the wing. Much as Neji still did, Hinata immediately used her Byakugan, trying to judge the number of birds in flight. The distance was too great. There were too many trees in the way.

"You're probably right," Kiba said, rubbing the top of Akamaru's massive head. "But, we know he couldn't have shown up. Hinata's still conscious!"

"That might be the reason our team was not selected to join with his," Shino offered, knowing that there was more likely a different reason. "A fainting shinobi would not prove to be much use."

"Unless the enemy kept tripping over her!" Kiba chuckled, joined by his canine companion. "Or stopped to check her out." He winked at Shino, knowing the subject matter would embarrass Hinata. "She has filled out more since last week, I think."

Hinata blushed. She could feel her face grow warm. Kiba was a lot like a brother, in good ways and in bad. Sakura. Ino. Ten Ten. They were all very adept at putting him in his place. Of course, that simply made him harass them more and more. She wished she had their gift for standing up for themselves. Was it anger? Is that what she lacked? She just wasn't an angry person, despite everything that had happened in her life. Well, it wasn't just that. A lot of people might still wonder if she was too passive to be a ninja.

"It sounds like someone wants to take a few laps around Konoha again," Kurenai remarked, showing up at the tail end of the teasing. "Maybe this time with Akamaru on his back." That had Kiba making a face, and Akamaru smiling the doggy equivalent of a shit-eating grin. "I really don't think those kind of comments do anything good for team morale, do you?"

"No," Kiba said, not looking very convinced. "Shino started it." Wisely, Shino chose not to take any notice of that comment.

Hinata was grateful for the jounin's support. But, once again, she felt somewhat small and insignificant, having a need for someone else to step in and put a stop to things. In her fantasies, she would use Kaiten to put the boys in their place. She could never bring herself to do that in the here and now. While Kurenai brow-beat Kiba and Shino, telling them what their assignment was for the afternoon, Hinata looked down at her figure.

If Naruto was like other boys, she might be able to catch his attention if she wore something revealing. How could she ever do that? If her father caught her dressed in anything even the tiniest bit risque, he would fly off the handle, spouting something about womanly behavior and the honor of the Hyuuga clan. If Hanabi ever caught sight of such a fashion gamble, would quickly make sure that everyone knew about it.

She didn't have to worry about that kind of thing, though. She was not an exhibitionist. She shouldn't take pride in that fact. She was also a coward. There was no way that she could wear the slightly bold outfits that some of the other girls wore on their time off. Why? There was no reason to be ashamed of her body. Was it because she was afraid that someone might actually respond? Maybe. Being shy was one thing. Being timid was even worse. She was way beyond timid.

No, female allure was out. If she wanted to attract Naruto's attention some day, she would need something else. If they never shared a mission together, and she couldn't impress him with her improvement as shinobi, what other avenues were open to her? Cooking? Possibly. She loved to putter away in the kitchen, and Naruto loved to eat. The only thing she liked better was gardening; but, how would that ever make a difference?

"Hinata!" Kurenai called from across the field. Hinata hadn't realized everyone had wandered that far away. "If you're done daydreaming, would you like to join the rest of us in practice? I'm describing everyone's role…"

Hinata blushed again. That was really embarrassing. Kiba and Shino wouldn't say a thing. They wouldn't have too. Kiba would smirk at her, and Shino would raise one eyebrow in that knowing way of his.

After doing her part in practice, she had some time left before needing to return home. There were no family lessons scheduled for that evening. It wasn't one of the nights that the cooks would allow her to cook supper. It might be nice to see what kind of blossoms were in season at Ino's family's flower shop. There might be some new imported spices at the grocers. Maybe she could take a peak at kimonos, too. No doubt there would be another stuffy Hyuuga ceremony some time in the not too distant future.

Sakura, Ino, and Ten Ten were all off on the same mission as Naruto. It might have been nice to wander around town with them. She rarely had a lot to say, but was glad to listen in on the other conversations. Sometimes, that made her feel like a hanger-on. Was she? No. She was a friend. That didn't mean she had to say something, if she had nothing to say. Sighing, she wished she did have something worth talking about. Not just something. Someone.

Walking past one fancy clothier shop, she stopped. The manikins were all dolled up with fancy swim wear, including a number of skimpy bikinis. For a very brief moment, she pictured herself wearing something like that. Taking things even further, she imagined herself running along a beach, playfully splashing Naruto. Eyes closed, she conjured up a vision of a large waterfall at night, with him sharing a tender and intimate moment together with her. Did other girls fantasize like this? Was she a hopeless romantic?

"Only in my dreams." Hinata sighed again. She might as well fantasize about a star falling from the heavens, turning into a jeweled tiara when it landed at her feet. If she fainted when Naruto say her in her dreary and drab work clothes, what might she do if he saw any amount of skin? She shuddered.

"Want to model one for us?" That had Hinata jumping, after making a small mouse-like squeak. It was Kiba again! Shino and Kurenai were with him. No doubt they wanted to spend free time in town, too. "How about that one?" He pointed at one made out of fishnet. Something like that shouldn't be put on display where children might see it! "Maybe it comes in orange and black…" There was no doubt what that last remark alluded to.

"If you do," Shino put in. "I will model a thong." That comment left Kiba choking. Akamaru lay down, putting his paws over his eyes. Kurenai pursed her lips, thinking yet again that Shino was a big question mark in so many ways. It never made sense to take him at face value.

"Don't. Not now. Not ever." Kiba shook his head. "I don't even want to think about that!" He looked down at his furry comrade. "Look what you did to Akamaru!" After that, the two boys and Kurenai went on ahead. After a few moments, Hinata followed in their wake, starting off in the direction of the family estate. She watched as her mentor headed over to talk with Asuma, Kakashi, and Gai. That meant that the teams had returned. And that. That. It.

That meant Naruto should be back, too. He might even be somewhere nearby. Hinata began to sweat a little bit. Her stomach felt kind of queasy. Her pulse rate began climbing. She forgot where she was headed.

There he was!

There was no mistaking that jumpsuit. She froze. A pigeon flying past might stop to take a breather, figuring she was a statue. He was looking at her. There was no doubt about it. What was he thinking? Was he going to come over and speak to her? What should she do?

Hinata saw Naruto shrug, as if he was perplexed by her actions. No, as if he was puzzled by her inaction. That was bad. That was very very bad. That certainly wasn't the kind of impression she wanted to give. Just the same, she couldn't move, not even when he waved and headed on his way.

As she watched, a small forlorn feeling growing inside of her, Hinata saw Naruto make a pained face and clasp a hand to his side. He was hurt! He must have been injured during the fighting. He stumbled slightly, making it a point to keep a strong hold on something. What? She caught a glimpse of something yellow.

"Naruto-kun!" She called out automatically, concerned for Naruto's welfare. He might need help! Not caring that she might look somewhat foolish, running through the milling throng of craftsmen, students, and shinobi, the worried girl ran to his side. He was carrying a pot. The pot held a flower. It was Tricyrtis ishiiana, the Weeping Toad Lily, a very difficult plant to find. Somehow, that name seemed appropriate at the moment, given Naruto's penchant for frogs. Her next words burst forth on their own: "I'll carry the flower for you…" The ice had been broken.

Naruto's face closed up, but not from pain. "No!" He hugged the flower pot tightly to him, his fierce facial features caused Hinata to take a step back by reflex. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No." The word came out a great deal less harshly that time. His faced changed, and he looked sorry for his reaction. "It's OK. It's not too heavy. I'm fine, really."

"Oh." Hinata eyed Naruto's condition. He looked anything but fine. The way he held his body was bad enough; but, there was something more. The look in his eyes. He was haunted by something. What? She made a momentous decision. At least, it was momentous for her. She decided to walk with Naruto to the Medical Center to make certain he didn't collapse on the way there. On the way, she was the first to speak this time. "Did… did the mission go well…" It wasn't easy, making conversation. But, her confidence grew a tiny bit, after she managed to ask that in a smooth even voice. She had to learn to walk before she could run, figuratively speaking.

"I really don't want to talk about it!" Naruto's snapped. Hinata realized that she had struck a nerve of sorts. She bit her lip, wondering if she should cut her losses and keep her mouth shut. This wasn't like Naruto. Something horrendous must have happened. "Sorry. It was rough…" Naruto squared his shoulders, waving one hand in absentminded fashion. "We won. We did what we were sent to do. Most of us came back OK."

"I'm glad." Hinata rubbed her fingers together in that classic manner of hers, unaware that her old habit had returned. That had sounded really inane. Lame, even. But, she was just being honest. She found herself wanting to talk more to him, but had no idea what to say. He didn't hate her for some reason, did he? Why would he? Swallowing hard, she spoke again. "Who is the flower for?"

She immediately regretted that question. He might just answer! What if it was for a girl? She had a good idea how she might feel, if he said 'Sakura,' or mouthed the name of someone else. That would be terrible. But, it was probably better to know the truth. And even if he did mention some other girl's name, people can change their mind. Right? Eityer way, truisms wouldn't ease the pain. Why pretend they would. The short moment of silence felt like an eternity.

"No one." Naruto turned slightly away from Hinata. "Well... it's for me… it's a long story..." Those words had Hinata feeling a strong surge of relief. She might be hopeless; but, at least she still had hope.

"It's beautiful," Hinata blurted out. It was. The small yellow flower was exquisite, perfect in every way. Something did not need to be big and bold to be beautiful. Kurenai had told her that numerous times, back before she hit her growth spurt. Staring at Naruto, she finally realized just how much he had grown. Once, she had been taller than him.

Naruto didn't reply right away. He looked down at the small flower. Very much aware of his every facial expression, Hinata felt a sense of sympathy well up inside her when his eyes filled with tears. Why was he feeling so much sorrow and pain? His hurting had her feeling helpless again. How could she offer any comfort, if she didn't speak up? Would it even make any difference, if he didn't see her as someone noteworthy? Look, he clenched his hand. So much pain. Why can't I help?

"Yes." Naruto glanced directly at Hinata. There was a fleeting moment, during which he had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were reminiscing about someone or something. "I'll tell you about it some time."

"…" Hinata froze. Was that a promise? Naruto always kept his word. Was he saying that he would tell her about the flower, and why it seemed to be so important to him? After a few moments, she took a deep breath, not realizing that she had stopped breathing. Her eyes went very wide, and her lower lip trembled slightly. Was this 'the moment' that her father always spoke about, when a person's life stood at the crossroads of possibility? I. Have. To. Say. Something. Experiencing a flashback, she remembered facing Neji in the chuunin exams. That had been a crossroads moment. Spurred on by Naruto, she had taken a big step. He was right there in front of her. But this was something very different. Why. Can't. I. Do. This.

"Yeh… well…" Naruto shrugged. He was obviously thinking about the way Hinata was behaving. Was he curious? Amused? Or might he be disappointed? Irritated? Maybe even disgusted! This opportunity was going to vanish like a mirage. The unexpected gift was going to turn to ashes in her mouth, because she was a slave to her habits. "I should get going…" He started walking again. Hinata reached one hand out, before bringing it back to her side.

The two shinobi were silent after that. Hinata felt her old urge to run and hide resurface, feeling the weight of disappointment bearing down on her with every step. But, she would make certain that Naruto made it to the Hospital OK. She could do that much for him. She would do that for any one of her friends.

Naruto stopped at the foot of the stairway leading into the Hospital. He looked at Hinata again, a play of conflicting emotions crossing his cheeks. She got the impression that he had arrived at a decision of some sort. "Hey… Hinata…" He put one hand behind his head in that usual fashion of his and winced. That must have been a sharp pain. "Would you… I mean…" He pursed his lips. He looked down at the flower. "Would you like this?" He held the pot out in front of him.

"Wh-… Wh-… What?" The offer caught Hinata off guard. She blinked rapidly, wondering if she had heard him right. "The flower? Me?" It was almost like she had been transported to another dimension. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears. The flower seemed to glow with an unearthly light. He was offering it to her? Why? Did it matter? No! He. Was. Giving. Something. To. Her. Not to someone else. Her.

"Do you see any other Hinata?" Naruto made a face. Some of his usual cheerful irascibility had returned. Normally, Hinata would be glad to see that. Now, she was a little too dumbfounded. "It's just a flower… you like flowers, don't you?" That was the perfect time to say 'yes,' or 'I love flowers.' Her mind abuzz, she was in no state to chide herself. "You have to promise to take good care of it."

"I will." Saying those two words took tremendous effort. But, her success gave her the strength to take the next step. Hinata reached out and took the pot. She hadn't felt this fortunate when she was handed her Leaf forehead protector or when she was issued her chuunin vest. "I promise." She looked down at the flower. Before she knew it, a few tears fell and moistened the soil clinging to the potted roots. "Forever." With that word, she was saying that she would always care about him… always hope that he could come to see how she felt… and wish for him feel the same way in return. But, there was no way that he could know that.

"Huh?" Naruto frowned. That didn't faze Hinata. Nothing could, at that moment. She felt a tiny connection to him, not caring how fleeting it might be. Naturally, her daydreams and nightly fantasies would make a lot more out of things than were intended. There was nothing wrong with that. But, now was not the time to start! "OK. Whatever."

Hinata managed to mumble a few harmless inanities, a shy smile spreading across her face. If Naruto wanted to talk about the necessity of good hygiene on long missions, or the way his outfit chafed after a long march, she wouldn't mind. If he wanted to regale her with his favorite hundred Ramen toppings, or chose to ramble on about his newest jutsus, she would stand enraptured. It would all sound like poetry to her.

Needing to have his injuries checked out, and to receive any necessary treatment, Naruto said his farewell, and went inside to the triage area. Hinata stood poised at the foot of the flight of stone stairs, oblivious to anything but the flower she held. If Ino and Ten Ten hadn't walked over to her and told her that she had been standing like that for a while, she might have been there until the stars came out.

"Naruto gave that to you?" Ino looked over at ten Ten after that. The two girls exchanged glances. "He wouldn't let anyone carry it for him." She smiled, telling herself to mention that fact to one particular pink-haired medical ninja.

"I wonder why." Ten Ten looked over at the flower, and then at Hinata's face. She couldn't help but grin. The reason didn't matter. The effect of Naruto's action was rather obvious. He probably didn't have feelings for Hinata; but, who can say what the future might bring. At the very least, Hinata deserved moments like this. They all did. Being shinobi brought more problems than perks. Being kunoichi was harder yet, even though no one spoke of such matters.

"Maybe Sakura will know." Ino's eyes sparkled. "Right, Hinata?"

"Ummm…" Hinata realized that she had heard the words, but hadn't really been paying much attention. "Yes… of course…" She blushed when the other two girls looked at her and chuckled. Only then, she made it a point to look at them more closely, hoping that they didn't show any signs of injury. Naruto wasn't the only one coming back from the perilous assignment.

Hinata made her way home swiftly, soon after that. She remembered carrying one of her cousin's newborn baby. She had been very gentle. She gave the same kind of care and consideration to the lily cradled in her arms. The flower was drooping slightly. The pot wasn't a very good container, after all. Looking at it critically, she tried to figure what it might have been once. That wasn't important. The poor thing needed water. It needed a to be planted..

Passing through the gate to her home, she hurried over to her special private garden, one that the family retainers were not allowed to tend. The mean and women who toiled in the yard, the estate gardens, and the small adjacent vineyard were tireless workers. They did a very good job, and she always remembered to thank them when she could, bringing out cool drinks and snacks when she was able. But, they were nowhere as knowledgeable as she was. They might pull up the wrong plants by mistake, thinking them weeds. One of them might trample something they shouldn't, or use the wrong fertilizer mixture.

Kneeling down on the ground, she felt the day's stress leech out of her. This was her private kingdom. It was a small seclude part of the property where she could come to be alone, or work her way through her thoughts uninterrupted. It was also the place where she had planted another important flower, years ago. Iris siberica. 'Flight of Butterflies.' A delicate and beauty plant, sporting numerous small flowers with mid blue-violet standards and white-blue veined falls. She had planted that after returning from her mother's funeral.

For other people, that one particular flower might be a sign of sadness, or loss. Not for her. Instead, Hinata chose to remember the wonderful person that her mother was, holding the memories of her kindness and love close to her. Even when she had been expelled from her home by a disappointed father, she had carried those things close to her heart. Nothing could take that from her. Named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, the iris was supposed to symbolize 'hope'.

"There should always be hope," Hinata said softly, as she began to dig a hole in the soft and cultivated soil. She didn't say 'Even for someone like me,' but the thought did cross her mind. She would view the lily that Naruto gave her as a sign of hope too, even though that type of flower was more commonly associated with 'purity.' She blushed, as she finished with her digging. In one ancient and proud nation, the lily was understood to mean 'forever in love'.

When the flower was safely planted and watered, Hinata made her way inside. She promised that she would take good care of the plant entrusted to her, and kept that oath. The lily grew strong and true, and she gathered its seeds, split it at the roots, and made a number of cuttings from it. In two years time, she had a small patch of delightful yellow flowers.

The years had not been as kind to her romantic dreams and notions. Growing stronger every day as a ninja, she never saw the same level of success with her personal life. But, she never gave up hope. One day, tending her small garden, she wished that Naruto could see what she had done. While he had long since gotten over the terrible events he had taken part in, he still might take joy in what he saw.

"He should see this," she said, bending over to sniff her flowers. "I could bring him here." Should. Could. If she ever had children, those would make the perfect names! 'Should'. 'Could'. 'Hope'. And, 'Maybe Some Day'. Why did things have to be that way? She closed her eyes and narrowed her focus back to the garden. She had done a good job, there. Naruto had entrusted her with something, and she had followed through, proving his trust well-placed. It would be nice for him to see that. "I promise."

There. She had said it. She had done it. A promise. There was no backing out now. Of course, if she hid within her shadow again, she could stretch things out forever. "Today. At least, I should make mention of it to him today." She hesitated, finding it hard to repeat that word. Suddenly, for some strange reason, it felt as if the whole world was looking in on her. "Promise."

This shouldn't be so hard. She had spoken more frequently to Naruto over the past couple of years. They had shared missions together. Her propensity for fainting and near-fainting had decreased exponentially. But, she had never found the courage to speak about her feelings for him. There had been no lucky happenstance that did the work for her.

She found him at his favorite Ramen den. He was regaling the rapt customers with his latest exploits, keeping the exaggeration to a minimum this time. Like a fish in water, he was clearly in his element. Hinata hesitated for a while, caught up in the stories. She couldn't bring herself to interrupt him. Finally, when he stopped to attack his food again, she made her move.

"Ummm…" Great. That's a splendid way to start things off! "Naruto-kun…" Hinata had waited until Naruto ran down, and the hungry audience descended upon their noodles like locust on a lush harvest. She couldn't help but grin shyly, when he looked up, a string of noodles draped over his chin.

"Huh?" Naruto made a loud slurping sound, and turned to give the cook a thumbs up gesture. The twelfth bowl was as good as the first had been. "Hey. Hinata. What's up?" He actually paused, chopsticks poised over the steaming meal. "Want to join me?" He slammed an overstuffed frog purse on the table top. "My treat!"

"That…" Hinata wondered how he could be so cheerful all of the time. This was certainly a stark contrast to his behavior on the day he had given her the lily. "That would be nice…" It would be too easy, to sit down… eat… and then lose every ounce of courage she had dredged up. "Could we do it… could we do it another time…" She looked down at a tall wobbly stack of empty bowls. How could he eat all that? Maybe he wouldn't mind her interrupting his feast.

"Sure… fine… no problem…" Naruto looked at Hinata… down at his noodles… and up at her again. His hand twitched. "Did someone send you to find me?"

There it was. That said a lot. He didn't expect her to be there for her own purposes. That was no reason to quit, however. Quite the opposite! It was now or never. "No. I came looking for you." She was an adult in the eyes of the law, and in the estimation of her friends. Her father was reserving judgment, keeping things from being unanimous. That didn't matter. What mattered was how she viewed her self. That, and being true to her vision. Theres's…" No time to hesitate. "There is something…" You can do it. You're almost there. "There is something special that I would like you to see."

"Go for it, young man." One of the elderly regulars gave Naruto a V-sign. He had to pry his arthritic fingers apart to do so. "When a girl says something like that… you know what it means…" He chuckled after that, causing a bunch of his cronies to join in.

Hinata went as stiff as a board. Naruto, for all of his recent maturity, fared little better. He began choking on a long strand of Ramen he had sucked up. When his ears turned red, Hinata actually felt a moment of satisfaction rather than embarrassment. Maybe she wasn't the only person in Konoha who wasn't wordly for her age.

"That…" Naruto made a face at the old man. "That's none of your business…" He slammed a hand on the table, causing the bowls to topple over. One ran a short distant on its rim, before covering the toes on Hinata's sandal. "She's not that kind of girl." His coming to her defense that way had Hinata feeling warm all over. It was silly, but she couldn't help it.

"It's nothing like that." Hinata shook her head. She swallowed hard when the young girls in the shop all put their heads together and started whispering. "I think you would really like to see it…"

"OK." Naruto tossed out a few coins and stood up with a flourish. "It's getting kind of stuffy in here, anyway." He strode out of the shop like a prince leaving his court. "So… what is it…"

"I would like to keep it a surprise." Hinata reached out and grabbed his sleeve. He had started off at a jaunty pace, choosing some direction at random. That was so like him! "It's… it's this way… at my house…"

"Surprise?" Naruto stopped, and rubbed his chin. A suspicious look crossed his face. "This isn't some kind of trick… is it…"

"No." Hinata fought the urge to blurt out the truth, or grow encyclopedic in her reassurances. He could show a little patience. And a little faith! "It's not a trick. You'll see."

When they found themselves in the tidy lawn of the Hyuuga estate, Naruto stopped to chat with Neji. That had Hinata tapping her foot in uncharacteristic fashion, something that didn't escape her cousin's notice. Smoothly, with a transient grin, Neji excused himself rather abruptly.

"It's over here," Hinata said, taking Naruto's sleeve again without realizing she had done so. "In my private garden." She felt tingly all over. That didn't mean she was about to pass out, did it? "I think you'll remember it."

"Huh?" Naruto waved his arm. "What would I have to remember here?" He had not made the connection yet. That was not surprising.

"You… you had come back from a mission… hurt…" Hinata stopped in front of her garden, close enough to him to block his view for the moment. She trembled some, standing that close to him. "You were carrying something… you gave it to me…" She stepped to the left, and then to the right, as Naruto tried to look past her. Finally, after he had created a number of Bunshin to tell him what there was to see, Hinata stepped aside.

"That flower!" Recognition hit Naruto like a bolt from the blue. "It's that flower…" His mind flew back to the fateful day. He remembered how he had felt. He remembered what he had done.

"Yes…" Hinata kept her eyes glued to his face. This moment had touched him some way. She was certain of that. He didn't just brush things off, or ask why she had wasted his time. "I took good care of it…" She almost felt cheap, as if she were fishing for compliments. No. She had a right to be proud. She had taken wonderful care of the flower.

"You sure did…" Naruto's voice came out softly. He didn't try to laugh things off, or use a joke to cover his feelings. He stood there a few moments, wondering what emotions he should be experiencing. That raid had been two years ago. But, there was still a touch of sorrow there. Seeing the flower… no, the flowers… brought that feeling to the surface. But, he was not overwhelmed by it this time. While the feeling wasn't an old friend, it was also not an enemy. "Thank you."

"Here…" Hinata had saved the broken piece of pottery that Naruto had used as the original pot. She had removed the first flower from its place in the garden, and put it back just the way she had received it.

"You want me to have it?" Naruto asked. "I… well… maybe that's not such a good idea…" He had tried to keep a small plant once. His efforts had ended up in botanical disaster. "You did such a good job… I know it will be safe here…" He looked down at the flower, and then over at Hinata. The look in his eyes was indecipherable. A long pause of silence followed. Reaching down, he snapped one of the blossoms off of the lily.

"…" Hinata wondered what Naruto was going to do. Was he going to save that flower?

"You know…" Naruto looked down at his feet. A notion had crossed his mind, and he was uncomfortable with it. First of all, he had no idea where the idea had come from. That was scant comfort. Second of all, it just wasn't the kind of thing that Uzumaki Naruto did. He coughed to clear his throat. He better get it over with. He wasn't some kind of coward. Whether it was agood idea or not, he needed to follow through. It was his Ninja Way. "Ummm…" Grrr-rr-r. He tugged at one ear. That was her kind of noise.

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata felt very much aware of her surroundings. They were standing alongside the wall of the house with the most windows. What would her father think, if she saw him standing there with a boy? Not just any boy! The boy with the Nine-Tailed demon sealed behind his navel. What would Hanabi do?

"Well…" Naruto held his hand up. "I was just curious how you might look…" He reached out and placed the flower behind one of Hinata's ears. He stared at her for a moment, before frowning and folding his arms against his chest. "It looks alright, I guess."

Hinata stood stunned. She felt the same way that she had, back when Naruto gifted her with the pot and the lily. Just what was he thinking? What was he feeling? What should she be feeling? What did it all mean, if it meant anything at all?

The two stood quietly for a bit longer, before Naruto put his hand behind his neck and looked up at the sky. "Yeh. Well. I guess I should get back to my dinner." That was the kind of statement that usually ended special moments.

"Yes," Hinata said, feeling a touch of sadness. She looked down at the iris. It was almost as if her mother spoke through her: "I think… I think I might like some noodles too…" That was a miracle in its own right. What would Naruto say now?

"You're on!" He pointed his finger at Hinata. His usual posture returned. This was safer ground. This was something he was familiar with.

Hinata put her hand on the blossom nestled against her hair. She whispered a short word of thanks.

FINIS

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BTW: Tricyrtis ishiiana, the Weeping Toad Lily, is an actual plant.